In my last blog I suggested that physical and psychological well-being are dependent on knowing presence at deep enough levels that we no longer require sensory verification. Only very young children need to be able to physically see their parents to know their presence. Older children learn to carry parental presence with them in ways that allows them to know presence even in the face of apparent absence. But the same thing is true in terms of spiritual health and maturity. In the sixteenth century, St. John of the Cross anticipated the insights of twentieth century developmental psychology when he described the process of spiritual maturation as involving the same cultivation of trust that comes through the softening of reliance on the senses.
Just as the infant must learn to trust the presence of the caretaker even in increasingly lengthening periods of apparent absence, so too must the person who seeks to come to a point of stable knowing of Divine presence. This is what St. John of the Cross means by the dark night of the senses. Deep knowing only emerges when we release shallow, more superficial knowing. In all aspects of human development, this involves moving beyond what we can know through our senses to what we can know intuitively and subjectively. Just as the stable knowing of the presence of loved ones even in their physical absence is characteristic of mature psychological development so too the stable knowing of Divine Presence is characteristic of mature spiritual development. This knowing is what Christian mystics describe as union with God, a union that is based on knowing presence even in the midst of apparent absence.
Spiritual health is no less dependent on knowing loving presence than physical and psychological health. There is, in fact, no substitute for this encounter with loving presence. No amount of belief or faithfulness in spiritual practices will ever be sufficient to support us on the journey from our false center in our small egoic self to the our true ground in the Spirit of the One who is our source and destiny.
In fact, perhaps we can think of the core of the human spiritual quest as the pursuit of experiential knowing of the Transcendent. This is the presence that underlies and is mediated through encounters with more immanent expressions of presence. In this journey we must first deeply know the presence of others and the world if we are to know the Transcendent Presence that lies behind them. This is the truth of the Incarnation. God may transcend materiality but has chosen to reveal the God-self in and through physical and material presence. The Word that was God came to us in human form. Logos was en-fleshed so that we could know Divine Presence.
Adapted from my forthcoming book Presence and Encounter
(Brazos Press – September, 2014) ©Dr. David G. Benner
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