Eyes That Can See In a World of Shadows

“At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely. I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of Heaven is everywhere.”

– Thomas Merton

I love the way Thomas Merton describes this little point of nothingness which shines with the brightness of a sun. Only poetic words like these can dare approach profound truths. Turn to this small spark of poverty and of God within you and you will not go astray. This interior poverty, this poverty of the spirit is true seeing. It is the light which shows us the truth. Once your eyes are opened you cannot help but see and everything changes. Yet, the world will not have changed, and God will not have changed, only you will have changed. And the people in your life will still see the same world you have left behind. Plato described this in his famous allegory of the cave in his book The Republic.

There is a cave and in it there are people living who are chained to a wall. They have their backs to a fire and a flat wall in front of them. Images pass between them and the fire and leave shadows on the walls for the people to see. These people have always lived their lives this way and can imagine nothing beyond a world of shadows. Yet, one day, one person is released from their chains and wanders out into the sunlight. It blinds them at first but their eyes adjust and they see the real world in the light of the sun for the first time in their lives. They didn’t even know this world existed. They return to the cave to tell their friends and are met with disbelief and scorn. They have no way of understanding what has been seen. The people of the cave know only the shadows and there is no room in their imagination for anything else.

We live in a world of shadows and we arrogantly assume it is the end all and be all of existence. We get so caught up in the shadows that we never stop to wonder what is casting them. We accept our chains and find meaning in an illusion. Of course, reality is much more intricate and beautiful than a wall of shadows, but so is Heaven more beautiful than the sun. Yet, for those who have never glimpsed Heaven the is no objective proof that it exists.

The problem with an insistence on objective proof is that it discounts the limitations of objectivity. It can only work within the confines of the world of shadows. If you know nothing of the outside world then you are by definition not objective. You take your subjective experience and give it objective status. We all do it, it is part of being human. We all rely on subjective experience and there is a completely unique version of reality inside each our minds. We do not see the world the way it is, we see only the shadows cast upon the wall before us. Those who have experienced the light of the sun, the divine light, know it to be real, even more real than we are.

If you try it another way, take a moment to imagine a new colour you’ve never seen. Really give it some effort, try to see it in your mind. You can see red, you can see blue, you can see a colour without a name but it’s really just a mix of a couple other things – it’s an orangey-brown or something. But you can’t imagine a brand new colour, you simply can’t do it. The mind cannot understand what it has not experienced and you cannot know the light of God until your eyes have been opened. When this happens, you will never be able to look at the world of shadows in the same way. You will be disinterested and bored with it and those you used to enjoy it with will not understand what you now see.

Since the Age of Enlightenment, the western world has fully embraced a sort of scientific rationalism, not only in examining the physical world (to which it is well suited) but also to religion. Religion cannot be understood objectively and this is why we have so many atheists. The modern mind has grown up knowing objectively that the scientific method works. The proof is all around you, we all have super computers connected to an international communications network with more information on it than any person could ever know sitting in our pockets. Science has proven itself and we trust it, it has earned its place in society.

Unfortunately, we have concluded that since the scientific mind has had such success understanding the physical world that we can use it to understand the spiritual world as well. This is why religion has been fading in the west. We have been trying to use the rational mind to understand the super rational and it has failed. This failure is often perceived as proof that religion is bogus superstition. This is all a grave misunderstanding. If may speak in a parable:

A journalist comes to a carpenter and asks her how to build a chair. Before she begins speaking, he tells her that he prefers a pen and paper to hammer and nails because that is what he is familiar with and it’s helped him in the past. She proceeds to tell him that he cannot build a chair with pen and paper, but he doesn’t listen. He tries to build the chair anyway but gets nowhere and gives up dissatisfied. In his anger he accuses the carpenter of being incompetent and calls her a fraud.

Too often, instead of humbling ourselves and engaging with the mystical tradition we come prepared with answers that have worked in other parts of our lives. We bring the rational mind that we inherit from our culture. The rational mind serves us well when we are building cities, doing the dishes, or organising our schedules but we get discouraged when it cannot find God. The only problem is that the tools are not transferable! It’s not because pen and paper have no use, it is because you can’t do every job with the same tools. We must use the tools that mystics use if we wish to find God, for they are the experts. We can look for God with our rational minds all day long but we will never build a chair.

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