1. Root Encounter

See beyond our limited world



Hebrews 11, 27 makes a remarkable statement about Moses. It says Moses achieved great things because of an unusual gift: eyes that could see what cannot be seen. “As seeing him (God) who is invisible” (RSV); “As if by the very sight of him (God) who is invisible” (Knox); “Like a man who could see the Invisible” (JB); “As though he saw the invisible God” (TEV). In this paradoxical statement the Bible offers one of the best definitions of a spiritual person.

When a child is born, its eyes are open. The same rays of light that give vision to adults fall on its retina. But the child cannot see. It observes a disordered tangle of lines and colours. It needs months before it can perceive gaps, judge distances, distinguish objects, and recognise their relative position in space. Ordinary seeing has to be learned in a painstaking process.

There are further dimensions of seeing that can only be acquired by effort and experience. One of these is ‘seeing with empathy’. Suppose we observe a young lady leaving a shop every day at about 5 pm and running in a particular direction along the pavement. Although we may witness this regularly, we remain outsiders to the event because we do not know the why or wherefore. If we were to find out that the lady is a young widow who has a small daughter in a nursery school half a mile down the road; that after finishing her work at 5 pm she hurries to the school to take charge of her child, afraid that it might come to harm if left to itself – then, all of a sudden, we start seeing the event with new eyes. We notice the mother’s love and anxiety for her child; we understand her fear of losing her job and feel something of the pressure of lonely responsibility that rests on her shoulders. We are now seeing with human depth, with empathy. Small traits of her behaviour, which would otherwise have escaped our attention now have a new meaning for us. Some people never learn to see in this way. They are not open to the ‘disclosures’ that make us see the inner life of other people.

Religious people have learned to recognise ‘disclosures’ of a different kind. They perceive in what happens around them an unexpectedly new dimension; an existential, metaphysical dimension; a dimension related to the most important questions of life. A religious person who watches children play in a park radiating joy and vitality, may well ‘see’ in this happy scene a manifestation of such mysteries as the will to live, the search for individual fulfilment, participation of time-bound events in an eternal reality. His eyes see beyond the apparent semblance of things. Like Moses, he may see what is invisible. This kind of ‘seeing’ also needs to be learned (I. T. RAMSEY – Religious Language, SCM Press, London 1957. pp. 18 – 26).

In my writing I hope to show how we may gradually develop our potential for such a vision. It is, of course. not an ability that can be acquired from books. Real progress will only come about through a personal discovery of the transcending dimension, a discovery that is successively strengthened by an ever-growing sensitivity. However, information and suggestions such as are contained in this chapter, may help us to make the discovery or to deepen its impact.

Reality beyond objects

To help us acquire the new attitude it pays to read the books of Romano Guardini. This great spiritual writer of our own times has put in modern language what religious people of all ages have asserted: that we are blind if we don’t see the other-worldly aspects inherent in all reality. Guardini works this out in a coherent view. (See: R. GUARDINI – Die Sinne und die religiöse Erkenntnis, Werkbund-Verlag, Würzburg 1950. See also: Von heiligen Zeichen, Grënewald, Mainz 1953; Wunder und Zeichen, Werkbund-Verlag, Wurzburg 1959).

All things are windows as well as objects. This means that, apart from whatever physical reality they are, they point to another reality beyond themselves according to their limited, physical nature; they are symbols because they possess a meaning over and above their own physical being. A flag is not just a piece of cloth with colours on it (its physical nature), it symbolises at the same time the independence of a nation, thus going far beyond its physical nature. When we see a flag, we take in at one glance both the physical reality and the symbolic value it stands for. In the same way, an unspoilt and liberated view of things shows us both their physical entities and the dimension they point to as symbols.

We might also put it in this way: all things have a recognisable borderline aspect. They carry their own limitedness in themselves. By their own nature they are seen to depend on the source of being. They have an in-built polarisation towards purposes outside themselves.

Think of a spider in its web for example. Catching its prey requires a complicated and elaborate plan. The spider chooses an appropriate place, hangs out a superb net, covers it with a sticky substance and knows how to entangle its victim once it gets caught. What is remarkable is not only the astuteness of the plan itself, which exceeds the spider’s own capabilities, but the fact that there is a plan at all. We live in a world in which planning is an essential part.

Or consider the mathematical precision of the web itself. We find patterns that recur throughout the universe, expressing fundamental properties of matter in space that can be verified on the scale of the molecule as well as of giant galaxies. An exciting description of this is provided by P. S. STEVENS in Patterns in Nature (Peregrine Books, Aylesbury 1976). Again, we may see in the spider’s web an expression of the universal laws of matter and the questions which this raises.

I know that scientists will rightly answer here that the spider’s behaviour can be explained by inborn instructions acquired through evolution, but such a reply misses the point. While looking at the spider in its web, we perceive fundamental realities of our existence which cannot be explained either by this spider itself, or by all spiders taken together, or by the mere chain of evolution, or by the whole cosmos. Because even in the whole process we meet, once again, the ‘borderline’ experience of aspects pointing to the beyond. Why are we a universe that can produce spiders that make webs?

In this way, Guardini says, things are windows to what is invisible. They are stepping-stones on our way to transcendence. Or, inversely, they may be considered as lamps radiating eternal values or rather apertures through which the eternal becomes transparent. A mighty storm, for instance, may lead us from an appreciation of brute force to an acknowledgment of force as such. The fierce cyclone that uproots trees and ravages the countryside may become the aperture through which we get a glimpse of what power means, including the power that must be at the very root of being.

Whatever exists is the image of an idea, not only because we grasp it as an idea but because the idea itself was there first. Things are individual forms of universal values They are mirrors reflecting transcendent realities. When we see a cat looking after its kittens we are actually looking at love as such. The love of the cat may be limited and instinctual; yet it points to the reality of love as such, linking it up with human love and referring somehow to the mystery that love exists at all. If the concern of the mother cat has any value – and who would deny this? – we are touching the value and existence of love as such, also of the extra-temporal Love that must somehow be at the root of being.

What we should learn is that discovering these wider dimensions in things is not just the adding of theoretical reflections. It is also a question of a different way of seeing. Just as when we look at the face of a person we know and see sorrow or happiness, and not merely the skin or his face, so when we watch the spider we see in it pointers to realities beyond.

Paul stated, “Ever since God created the world, his invisible qualities, both his eternal power and his divine nature, have been clearly seen; they are perceived in the things that God has made” (Romans 1, 20). Paul did not say that God’s invisible qualities were deduced by reasoning; he said that they were seen. He stated that they are perceived in the things that God has made. Neither our intellectual, nor our religious seeing can be separated from the way we look on things. The human eye is more than a mechanical camera. It is an instrument of perception for the whole person. Or, to put it in Guardini’s words, “The roots of our eyes lie in our heart . . . Ultimately our eye sees from within the depth of our heart.”

How can we develop this wider and deeper perception?

Mystics offer the following advice. “Love silence”, they say. “Develop your sense of wonder. See beyond objects. Immerse yourself in being. Seek your deepest Image.” And this is what their suggestions mean in simple terms.

Make sure that you have moments of silence every day. At times these moments may come naturally. At times you have to create them, to make room for them. Take a stroll in a park. Sit on the grass in your back garden. Curl up before a winter’s fire. Wherever it is, or during whatever time of the day, switch off noise both inside and outside of yourself, as far as you can. Just be quiet and enjoy, savour, the beauty of silence. It will become your favourite music.

Elected Silence, sing to me
and beat upon my whorled ear.
Pipe me to pastures still and be
the music that I care to hear. (Gerard Manley Hopkins )

In the beginning you may feel uncomfortable. The noise of the day, unresolved feelings, hopes and worries assault you. Do not panic. Just let them ebb away. If you simply practice tso-wang, “sitting in silence” (see chapter two), your mind will become still and clear. You will love the sensation. You are preparing yourself for states of deeper awareness.

Having drunk of silence, open your mind to wonder. Begin to notice how beautiful created things are; and how complex, how mysterious. Never hurry when you look at things in this way. Take your time while you observe and admire every detail. Think of Chuang Tzu at Pu river studying a turtle. Select something from your own surroundings. Notice its features. Remember, perhaps, new knowledge about it that you have learned in scientific reports. Take it in. Digest it. Allow yourself to be surprised.

After having acquired some practice in thus being “spellbound”, turn your attention to people. Watch a particular person. Try to understand him or her. Abstain from making moral judgements but notice what a marvel every human person is; however small or however old. The time will come that you will want to reach out to deeper mysteries.

Become aware of the fact that everything you notice has the quality of being a window. You have to learn to see beyond objects. Perhaps you may want to start with trees. Remember the Chinese stories about them (chapter three). Observe a tree’s dynamic energy; the strength of its stem, the tenderness of its leaves. See with your mental eye how Tao expresses itself in all those ways. Don’t look only at tall, majestic, perfect trees. Observe trees that are gnarled, twisted, bent; with branches lopped off and scars on their bark. Become aware of the same life force irrepressibly popping up in a myriad forms.

Turn your attention to other things; to plants, animals, people. What can you learn from them about the One, about the Ultimate Reality in which they all share? You will feel a longing to belong more closely; to be a conscious part of its overwhelming power, of

—the one interior life
in which all beings live with God,
themselves are God, existing in the mighty whole,
as indistinguishable as the cloudless East
at noon is from the cloudless West,
when all the hemisphere is one cerulean blue. (William Wordsworth)

The time for you has then come to plunge even deeper into the secrets of nature. For this you have to let yourself go. Being aware of the unspeakable Reality surrounding you, immerse yourself in its being. Think of the image of water, so aptly described by the Chinese masters (chapter four). Admire the flow of the One in all things. Feel how it flows in yourself. Enjoy the thrill. Be happy to be part of it; even when it swirls and eddies mysteriously in ways you had not expected.

Don’t say, don’t say there is no water.
That fountain is there among its scalloped
green and grey stones.
It is still there and always there
with its quiet song and strange power to spring in us,
up and out through the rock. (Denise Levertov)

Understanding the flow in nature, make up your mind to respect it. Decide to act according to the principle of wu wei “non-doing” (as Lao Tzu called it). It will give you a mastery of things by not going against the grain. You will not break your body but listen to what it is saying to you. You will not weary yourself doing things at the wrong time in the wrong way. You have discovered the dance of nature and will want to remain in step with its music.

Who sets the tune? Who is the Lord of the Dance? Whoever he or she is, realize you can know the Person from yourself. You are made in that Person’s Image. Your individuality hangs in that person; flows outwards from that Person. The more you probe your deepest self, the more you have an inkling of what he or she must be like. That ultimate Reality, the One, must at least be able to know, to love, to communicate, as you can. The only difference, you will realize, is that he or she can do so more overwhelmingly and completely than you.

Recognizing the Person will give new dimensions to your inner experience. Your silence will never be lonely. Your wonder can become a conversation. Seeing beyond objects you start discerning a Face. Your trust of nature, your harmony with its ways, turns into an act of loving surrender. Your respect for yourself begins to engender a longing for ever closer intimacy with the Beyond within you.

Text by John Wijngaards, first published by Catholic Enquiry Centre London in 1984.
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