In the center of the castle of Brahman, our own body, there is a small shrine in the form of a lotus flower, and within can be found a small space. We should find who dwells there, and we should want to know that person. The little space within the heart is as great as this vast universe. The heavens and the earth are there, and the sun, and the moon, and the stars; fire and lightening and winds are there; and all that now is and all that is now: for the whole universe is in him and he dwells within our heart.
The opening words are from the Upanishads of the Hindu tradition. Written between 800-200 BCE these are actually some of the more recent Hindu scriptures! It is important, I think, to locate the “small space” … within the castle of Brahman in the body. In Western Christianity we have often located divinity outside of ourselves…and certainly outside of the body. Yet it is in the body, I think, that we are most in need of this divine presence…it is in times of profound need that we call upon the all-pervading presence to comfort us and to give us strength. We need to know that God is with us…that we are protected by this spirit that is not dependent on the storms of life…but stands strong in those moments…through fires and floods, through sickness and suffering.
And, according to the ancient Hindu scriptures, this small space contains the whole universe! The heavens and the earth, the sun and the moon and the stars, fire, and air… all is contained within this small space. It is, as these scriptures point out, a place where one whom we should want to know dwells. A place we can go to in those quiet moments…a place where we can experience a tryst with the divine. Howard Thurman wrote of this place as the inward sea:
There is in every person an inward sea, and in that sea there is an island and on that island there is an altar and standing guard before that altar is the “angel with the flaming sword.” Nothing can get by that angel to be placed upon that altar unless it has the mark of your inner authority. Nothing passes “the angel with the flaming sword” to be placed upon your altar unless it be a part of “the fluid area of your consent.” This is your crucial link with the Eternal.
I like Thurman’s vision of the angel with the flaming sword…it is the area of our inner authority… “the fluid area of our consent”. It is a protection of our human dignity…our individual sacred personality and our authority over our own life…our ability to choose the way we respond to life’s vicissitudes…life’s dark moments.
Many poets and philosophers have written of this darkness…this “dark night of the soul” … a time when we are meant to practice silence and contemplation…a time when we are meant to get to know that “person” in the small space within. This can be a horrible place of darkness, as described by Hildegard of Bingen:
The dark membrane contained also a dark fire of such horror that I was unable to perceive it properly. The horror buffeted the dark membrane with a massive impact of sounds and storms and sharp stones great and small.
But sheltered by the “angel with the flaming sword it is here that we are told that we even find light!” Meister Eckhart put it this way:
Truly, it is in darkness that one finds the light, so when we are in sorrow, then this light is nearest of all to us.
This is a powerfully hopeful thought…that within the darkness, there is light…if we “dare the dark” we may be able to find light!
I thought about this during the week when I met with people who are presumably nearing the end of their lives. They are truly in a dark place…often with no family or friends to comfort them. Many are searching for some bit of light in order to go on. And my first instinct is to bring them something…a book, a puzzle, a snack…something from the outside to distract them from their reality. Although this can help at least temporarily, I think what many people need is permission to go within…to access their own inner authority. This is a place where the whole universe is present…but it is dark. Consider for a moment that cosmologists tell us that the universe is made up of 97% dark matter…97% mystery, for we know so little about this dark matter…in the same way we know so little about the depths of the soul…the “person” in the small space within. Eckhart continues his consideration of the darkness. He writes:
A human being has so many skins inside, covering the depths of the heart. We know so many things, but we don't know ourselves! Why, thirty or forty skins or hides, as thick and hard as an ox's or bear's, cover the soul. Go into your own ground and learn to know yourself there.
Thirty or forty skins cover this dark matter…this soul. No wonder it is so difficult to penetrate. This can take a lot of effort, yet if we are constantly looking outside ourselves for this divinity, then we may never find it. Eckhart says to “go into your own ground and learn to know yourself there”. This is some good advice I think, and all the way from the 13th century! But we have been continually reminded of this truth. From the Upanishads, through Eckhart and Hildegard, to Black Elk who said:
The heart is a sanctuary at the center of which there is a little space, wherein the Great Spirit dwells, and this is the Eye. This is the Eye of the Great Spirit by which he sees all things, and through which we see him.
We are all human beings, and we are one. We all have access to this little space within…to the Great Spirit of life to guide us…to shed light on our darkness…to know a bit of the nature of the darkness, yet Eckhart continues…
The mystery of the darkness of the eternal Godhead is unknown and never was known and never will be known. God dwells therein, unknown to the Godself.
You mean the darkness will never be known? It is the nature of what Eckhart calls “the godhead” to be unknown to us humans, yet we still strive…we still enter into this small space in order to learn more about ourselves and about the nature of life and meaning of existence. This is the place of nothingness of the void. Thomas Merton spent a lot of time contemplating this nothingness. He wrote:
My love is darkness!
Only in the Void are all ways one:
Only in the night are all the lost found.
In my ending is my meaning.
The deepest night is clear as the day! Clarity can come from contemplating this nothingness…this void. The lost are found…the meaning is found.
That is the hope of this time of darkness. The hope for new life…new hope…life’s answer to nothingness and death. As we read in the consideration of the Madonna and Child in Christianity last week…
The Madonna and Child conception suggests that the growing edge of human life, the hope of every generation, is in the birth of the child. The stirring of the child in the womb is the perennial sign of man's attack on bigotry, blindness, prejudice, greed, hate, and all the host of diseases that make of man's life a nightmare and a holocaust.
So, if the stirring of the child in the womb is life’s answer to this darkness…the darkness of bigotry, blindness, greed and hate...if that is what this time of year is about…waiting for this birth…then the waiting may be worth it! It may be worth contemplating the darkness of the womb and of our own souls in order to find that hope…in order to find the God within…the Eye of the Great Spirit through which we are able to see all things…the place of peace. May we linger there.