Category Archives: God

Was the Greatest Spirituality Book of All Time Written 120 Years Ago?

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Christopher Jolly via unsplash.com

This story originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, April 2017.

Every few years there’s a spirituality book that captures the imagination of the public and becomes a big bestseller. Think The Secret by Rhonda Byrne or A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, or before that, you may remember The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield from the early-90’s or even Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach from the early-70’s.

Well, once upon a time there was a spirituality book that was even bigger than those classics. It came out all the way back in 1897 and since it’s now 120 years old, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of it. It’s called In Tune with the Infinite by Ralph Waldo Trine and it’s considered by some to be the greatest spiritual book of all time.

in-tune-with-the-infinite-ralph-waldo-trineA pioneer in the era’s New Thought Movement, Trine wrote over a dozen books, but it was this one that caught fire with the public and went on to sell over 2 million copies. Just how popular was In Tune with the Infinite? I actually have a worn dustcover from the 1909 edition and here’s what the publisher says on it:

It has become a world classic in its line. One traveler writes that he has come across a man reading it sitting on the banks of the Yukon; another that he finds it in the shops and even the little railway stations in Burmah and Ceylon. An American reviewer has said: “For one to say that he has never head of ‘In Tune with the Infinite’ is similar to saying that he has never heard of the Constitution of the United States.”

For a book that achieved such worldwide popularity, it’s main message was relatively simple: God is within us at all times and accessible by us at all times. By realizing that we have this presence inside us, and by getting “in tune” with this infinite and divine source of love and guidance, our lives and world can be changed for the better. Trine writes it’s up to us:

You and I have the power, the power within us, to open or close ourselves to this divine inflow exactly as we choose. This we have through the power of mind, through the operation of thought.

I’ve included 11 of my favorite passages below, adding category headings. I’ve also done some light editing, updating verbiage that was dated or awkward, shortening some of Trine’s writings to avoid redundancy and, where possible, making the language gender neutral. Before you begin, here’s a sample from the book’s prelude that talks to just how important our mindset is:

The optimist is right. The pessimist is right. The one differs from the other as the light from the dark. Yet both are right. Each is right from their own particular point of view, and this point of view is the determining factor in the life of each. It determines whether you have a life of power or of impotence, of peace or pain, of success or failure.

Once you read the passages below, I’m sure you’ll get the gist of Trine’s powerful message. Read them slowly and you may agree that much of what he writes has the ring of truth, even today.

#1. What I Call God.

The great central fact of the universe is that the Spirit of Infinite Life and Power is behind all. It animates all, manifests itself in and through all…it is creating, working, ruling through the agency of great immutable laws and forces that run through all the universe that surrounds us on every side.

Every act of our everyday lives is governed by these same great laws and forces…this Spirit of Infinite Life and Power that is behind all is what I call God.

God, then, is this Infinite Spirit which fills all the universe with Himself alone, so that all is from Him and in Him, and there is nothing that is outside. In Him we live and move and have our being. He is the life of our life, our very life itself.

#2. Find Your Center.

Find your center and live in it. Surrender it to no person, to no thing. In the degree that you do this, you will find yourself growing stronger and stronger in it….and how can one find your center? By realizing your oneness with the Infinite Power, and by living continually in this realization.

#3. Wash Your Windows.

If the windows of your soul are dirty and streaked, covered with matter foreign to them, then the world as you look out of them will be dirty and streaked and out of order…go wash your windows, and instead of longing for some other world you will discover the wonderful beauties of this world. If you don’t find transcendent beauties on every hand here, the chances are that you will never find them anywhere.

#4. Recognize, Listen, Obey.

When we come into the recognition of our own true selves, to the realization of the oneness of our life with the Infinite Life, when we open ourselves to this divine inflow, the voice of intuition, the voice of the soul, the voice of God speaks clearly.

When we recognize, listen to, and obey it, it speaks ever more clearly, until there comes the time when it is unerring, absolutely unerring, in its guidance.

With a mind at peace, and with a heart going out in love to all, go into the quiet of your own interior self, holding the thought I am one with the Infinite Spirit of Life, the life of my life.

#5. Love.

Tell me how much one loves and I will tell you how much they have seen of God. Tell me how much they love and I will tell you how much they live with God. Live only in the thought of love for all and you will draw love to you from all. Live in the thought of malice or hatred, and malice and hatred will come back to you.

#6. Know Yourself.

There is no better way to help yourself than to know yourself. Become aware of the powers that are lying dormant within your own soul…for it is through your own soul that the voice of God speaks to you. This is the interior guide. This is the light that lights every person that comes into the world. This is conscience. This is intuition. This is the voice of the higher self, the voice of the soul, the voice of God.

#7. Do Little to Do Much.

Those who are truly awake to the real powers within are those who seem to be doing so little, yet who in reality are doing so much. They seem to be doing so little because they are working with higher agencies, and yet are doing so much because of this very fact. They do their work on the higher plane. They keep so completely their connection with the Infinite Power that It does the work for them and they are relieved of the responsibility. They are the care-less people. They are careless because it is the Infinite Power that is working through them, and with this Infinite Power they are simply co-operating.

#8. Seeing the Good in All.

The moment we recognize ourselves as one with (the Infinite) we become so filled with love that we see only the good in all. And when we realize that we are all one with this Infinite Spirit, then we realize that in a sense we are all one with each other…wherever we go, whenever we come in contact with our fellow man, we are able to recognize the God within. We thus look only for the good, and we find it. It always pays.

#9. The Law of Prosperity.

This is the law: When apparent adversity comes, be not cast down by it, but make the best of it, and always look forward for better things, for more prosperous conditions. To hold yourself in this attitude of mind is to set into operation subtle, silent, and irresistible forces that sooner or later will actualize in material form that which is today merely an idea. But ideas have power, and ideas, when rightly planted and rightly tended, are the seeds that actualize material conditions.

#10. All Can Obtain It.

No human soul need be without it. When we turn our face in the right direction it comes as simply and as naturally as the flower blooms and the winds blow. It is not to be bought with money or with price. It is a condition waiting simply to be realized, by rich and by poor, by king and by peasant, by master and by servant the world over. All are equal heirs to it.

#11. Bring Joy Everywhere You Go.

Carry with you an inspiration and continually shed a benediction wherever you go; so that your friends and all people will say, your coming brings peace and joy into our homes; as you pass along the street, tired, and weary, and even sin-sick men will feel a certain divine touch that will awaken new desires and a new life in them; that will make the very horse, as you pass him, turn his head with a strange, half-human, longing look. Such are the subtle powers of the human soul when it makes itself translucent to the Divine.

Norman Vincent Peale’s 7 life-changing words—and why some call them blasphemous.

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Norman Vincent Peale, via Wikimedia Commons

Norman Vincent Peale may be best known as the author of The Power of Positive Thinking. First published in 1952, the book went on to sell 5 million copies and is still a Top-10 “religion & spirituality” book at Amazon today. It was one of 41 books Peale wrote during a distinguished life that included receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award of the US, in 1984.

More than a writer, Peale was also an ordained minister. He served as head of the Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan for over 50 years and preached there well into his 80s. During his tenure, the church grew from a few hundred to over 5,000 congregants and is still active today.

Now if you have ever read the work of Norman Vincent Peale, his positive aphorisms seem innocent enough. After all, who can disagree with sayings like this:

Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy.

Empty pockets never held anyone back. Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that.

If you have zest and enthusiasm you attract zest and enthusiasm. Life does give back in kind.

Yet, despite his success as both an author and preacher, there were many in the Christian community who saw his “power of positive thinking” as downright dangerous, even cultish. For instance, consider these harsh opinions of Peale that came from three fellow religious leaders in the 1950s.

“This new cult is dangerous. Anything which corrupts the gospel hurts Christianity. And it hurts people too. It helps them to feel good while they are evading the real issues of life.” ~ Reinhold Neibuhr, Professor of Applied Christianity, Union Theological Seminary

“It has sort of a drug effect on people to be told they need not worry. They keep coming back for more. It is an escape from reality.” A. Powell Davies, pastor of All Souls’ Unitarian Church, Washington D.C.

“There is nothing humble or pious in the view this cult takes of God. God becomes sort of a master psychiatrist who will help you get out of your difficulties. The formulas and the constant reiteration of such themes as “You and God can do anything” are very nearly blasphemous.” ~Liston Pope, Dean of Yale Divinity School

To Pope’s point, Peale believed there was a simple 7-word combination that had the power to cause a dramatic and positive impact on your life. He claimed that it helped many people he knew and all you had to do was silently repeat these words throughout the day. As retold by John Templeton, this “formula for success” had the power to “erase failure, increase strength, eliminate fear and overcome self-doubt.” The words are:

I can do all things through God.

These seven words sum up Peale’s belief that all things were possible if we went about out lives with a positive attitude and recognized there was a higher power that could help us along the way. Yet, it was statements like this that ran (and still run) contrary to the beliefs of many in the religious community.

While Peale was a Christian, he believed that Jesus Christ wasn’t the only pathway to God and that no religion had a monopoly on our ability to connect with God. Take this statement from Peale that was first published in his Plus: The Magazine of Positive Thinking:

Who is God? Some theological being? He is so much greater than theology. God is vitality. God is life. God is energy. As you breathe God in, as you visualize His energy, you will be reenergized!

Or this thought he shared with the talk show host Phil Donahue:

It’s not necessary to be born again. You have your way to God. I have mine. I found eternal peace in a Shinto shrine…I’ve been to Shinto shrines and God is everywhere…Christ is one of the ways! God is everywhere.

God is a source of energy! God can be found in a non-Christian religion! God is everywhere! Blasphemy say the critics! Yet, I find it all very refreshing. It takes the concept of God beyond the rigid dogma of religion and positions this higher power as a powerful force in our everyday lives–one that’s available not to a select few, but to everyone. And what’s wrong with that?

This post previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, May 24, 2016.

The Mystics Who Discovered God’s Hiding Place.

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St. Julian of Norwich, via Evelyn Simak

At some point in time, how many of us haven’t wondered if God really exists? We may have even echoed the voices of those who have asked God to show us a sign, any sign, that he or she is real—that our prayers aren’t going out into an empty void, that our faith isn’t a sign of some deeply ingrained ignorance.

Yet, history shows that there are those who have made this connection to a greater force, who claim to have not only sensed the presence of God, but who have felt the Divine within themselves, permeating their entire being. They are often labeled mystics and they have been around since the advent of religion.

Mysticism is defined as the knowledge of God that comes from a direct experience of God. So this knowledge is not learned from years of study or by following a specific religious protocol. It is an experience that is felt deeply and convincingly within, sometimes unexpectedly, a vision of something that is far outside the normal experiences of life.

I recently came across a now out-of-print book titled Mysticism, A Study and an Anthology by F.C. Happold, who points out that mystical experiences are common to all religions and that what stands out is not so much the differences in these experiences but their similarities.

In a prologue titled The Timeless Moment, Happold writes of several modern-day mystics he has studied and how through these supernatural experiences the mystic finds “an illumination and certainty which can rarely, if ever, be reached by the rational consciousness.” Two common themes emerge:

  1. A discovery of the unity of all things, or what Happold calls “a consciousness of the oneness of everything, a vision of the One in the All and the All in the One.” It is evidenced by the testimony here: A great peace came over me, I was conscious of a lovely, unexplainable pattern in the whole texture of things, a pattern of which everyone and everything was a part; and weaving the pattern was a Power; and that Power was what we faintly call Love.
  2. The realization that the God we are looking for, and call out to in our times of need, is found within us. Here’s another testimonial via Happold: The room was filled by a Presence, which in a strange way was both about me and within me, like light or warmth. I was overwhelmingly possessed by someone who was not myself, and yet I felt I was more myself than I had ever been before…overall was a deep sense of peace and security and certainty.

The great bulk of Happold’s tome is devoted to the Christian mystics. He highlights over a dozen, spanning both several centuries and several countries. And what again stands out are the similarities of these experiences. I have cherry-picked a few of my favorite writers and passages below:

The French abbot St. Bernard of Clairvaux: My curiosity took me to my lowest depth to look for Him, nevertheless, He was found still deeper…he had passed into my inmost parts. Only by the movement of my heart did I recognize his presence.

The philosopher Meister Eckhart (referring to the soul as the feminine “she”): She plunges into the bottomless well of the divine nature and becomes so one with God that she herself would say that she is God…where God is, there is the soul and where the soul is, there is God.

The reclusive nun Julian of Norwich: God is nearer to us than our own Soul; for He is (the) Ground in whom our Soul stands…Our Soul is kindly rooted in God in endless love.

The former-parish priest John of Ruysbroeck: Grace flows from within, and not from without; for God is more inward to us than we are to ourselves. God works in us from within outwards…not from without.

All these different mystics, separated by time and place, in the days before religious texts were widely circulated, come to conclusions that sound surprisingly alike: We are made in the image of God and when we go looking for God, we find what we seek within. It is a stirring call to arms for all of us who seek God in our daily lives—the realization that we should pause each day to locate and engage with the Divine within.

I’ll close with one more passage, from the English priest William Law and a book he wrote in the 1700s titled The Spirit of Prayer. Law believed in what he calls an “indwelling presence” and that heaven is “as near to our souls as this world is to our bodies.” What follows are his lightly edited words (replacing Law’s “thys”, “thous” and “wilts” with modern-day language):

You see, hear and feel nothing of God, because you seek Him outside yourself. You look for Him in books, in the church and outward exercises, but you will not find him until you have found him in your heart. God is already within you, living, stirring, calling, knocking at the door. Look for him in your heart and you will never search in vain, for he lives there.

This story originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, August 25, 2015.

A Priest and an Atheist Walk into a Bar. (A Story about Faith.)

Andrew Marx/freeimages.com

Andrew Marx/ freeimages.com

What is the nature of faith? Why do some of us believe that there is a God that watches over us and impacts our lives, while others believe we are alone in the world and left to our own devices?

These are questions I have been pondering since I wrote my last Patheos story on “The Third Man” phenomena. In a nutshell, it was about how certain people in life-threatening situations detect a “presence” around them that they perceive as a guardian angel. I received a few reader comments questioning this assertion, some siding with neuroscientists who believe the effect is not supernatural, but is a function of the brain.

But what does it really come down to? Faith. You either have it or you don’t, and I recently came across an anecdote that cleverly illustrates the issue. It comes the late-author David Foster Wallace in a commencement speech he gave titled This is Water. In it, Foster Wallace tells the tale of two men chatting in a bar, and their different takes on the role God plays in our lives. I’ve paraphrased the story below:

There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. While they’re old friends, they have very different ideas on God—one is a priest and the other is an atheist. They begin arguing about the existence of God.

The atheist says, “Look, it’s not like I haven’t given God a chance. I even tried the prayer thing. It didn’t work.”

The priest asks with some incredulity, “Did you really pray? When did this happen?”

“Just last month,” replies the atheist. “I got caught away from the camp in a terrible blizzard. I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing. It was 50 below, and so I prayed. I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m going to die if you don’t help me’.”

The priest looks at the atheist with a puzzled expression and exclaims, “Well then you must believe in God now. After all, here you are, alive!”

The atheist rolls his eyes and says, “No way, that’s not how it happened. A couple of Eskimos came wandering by and they showed me the way back to camp.”

The same story. Two different perspectives. The priest sees the man’s rescue as an act of divine intervention, while the atheist sees it as sheer happenstance, his own good fortune. Is one point-of-view correct and the other misguided? Or is it possible they both men are correct and that God’s existence is dependent on our belief—if you’re a non-believer, God ceases to exist?

I turned to my spiritual mentor, the late businessman-turned-philosopher John Templeton, for guidance on this issue and found a passage in one of his books that may provide an answer. Templeton believes that spirituality is a personal issue, based on “the unique divine experiences of the individual believer.” He wonders if there isn’t a reason why some believe in a higher power:

Can a person’s consciousness become activated through spiritual practices such as prayer? And can this activation in a person’s consciousness generate greater expressions of spirituality? Could this be what some people describe as “living the spiritual life,” rather than being “religious”?

Perhaps faith is not something we are born with, but something we activate by engaging in practices like prayer and meditation. And those who do these activities on a regular basis find that they are better able to connect with something greater than themselves, a life force that many identify as God.

The atheist did not believe it, but perhaps prayer was the key to his survival in the Alaskan wilderness. Yet, if Templeton’s adage is true, he would need to continue his practice of prayer to make his sense of faith come to life, to become fully receptive to the idea that his encounter with his rescuers on that night was more than just a stroke of good luck.

This story previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, July 29, 2015.

A Look at Non-Stop Prayer—and a Very Doable Alternative.

prayer-150x150I’ve always been fascinated by the simple edict found at in the New Testament to “Pray without ceasing”. Perhaps because, I have several times come across people and religious groups that take this proclamation quite literally.

A few years ago, I read about a group of young Christian men, who began praying in their local church, morning, noon and night. They stopped only for food and bathroom breaks. As I recall, they had troubled pasts and were hoping their non-stop petitioning would make Jesus a constant presence in their lives, a companion in their every activity. I can find no trace of the story now but I imagine that after a few weeks, one-by-one, they grew weary of their endeavor and returned to the secular world with varying degrees of success.

Taking a slightly easier route to fulfilling Thessalonians 5:17 is the Salvation Army. At this moment, in locations around the globe, “Salvationists” are engaging in a year of “Boundless Prayer” that extends through July, 2015. The site informs us that it is a “24/7/365” effort that basically moves “from one territory to another” with the goal of getting “the whole world praying”1.

Looking at the Army’s calendar it appears each territory commits about a week to the cause. For instance, there is currently a non-stop prayer-athon happening in Iceland. It appears to be more of a tag-team approach, whereby prayer happens in small groups working in shifts, with replacements coming in as needed to keep the invocations going without pause.

So is it really possible to engage in non-stop prayer? I know from vast experience that it can be tough to focus on meditating, or engage in centering prayer, for a solid 20-minute stretch. But praying hour after hour, day after day?

Well, according to one Christian site, it’s not that difficult. There is an online group called “Got Questions Ministries” that talks to ceaseless praying and makes it sound relatively easy. It does this by linking prayer to each breath we take. According to their Web site:

For Christians, prayer should be like breathing. You do not have to think to breathe because the atmosphere exerts pressure on your lungs and essentially forces you to breathe. The fact is that every believer must be continually in the presence of God, constantly breathing in His truths.

For those of us who believe this is a little too much prayer, it may be easier to follow the lead of the yogini Sara Courter. On her blog Body Karma, Courter makes the notion of on-going prayer sound a lot more doable by advising us to find triggers throughout the day that remind us to give a quick blessing.

For instance, Courter mentions passing through a doorway or stopping at a traffic light as possible prayer cues. I would also suggest passing along a silent blessing with each new human encounter you have, or, if you’re a coffee or tea drinker, saying a prayer at the start of each new cup.

The cues make it easier to remember to quickly pray or give a blessing and can be worked into our everyday lives, as opposed to ceaseless praying where prayer is our life.

The good thing about this approach is there’s no planning needed, unlike a life where ceaseless prayer becomes your raison d’être. And it’s a task that, with a little practice, can easily be mastered. In Courter’s (lightly edited) words:

If you wake up one day and decide to start blessing every doorway you pass through, or deciding to say a prayer of gratitude at every red light you hit during your commute…it will take an adjustment period. But, in time, the act will become an art. The new habit awkwardness will steady into skillful execution. There will be a grace and fluidity about it, because you will have become it. No longer will you have to think before blessing each doorway, no longer will there be an “oh yeah,” before giving thanks at a stoplight.

And, best of all, you can start engaging in this practice today.

This post originally appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, February 2, 2015.

Does God have a plan for your life? Ralph Waldo Emerson has a compelling answer.

Path of Life, Christopher Michel, San Francisco, USA

Path of Life, Christopher Michel, San Francisco, USA

God’s plan for your life isn’t a map you see all at once, but a scroll unrolled a little at a time, requiring faith. ~Rick Warren, pastor and author

In Christian circles, it’s common to believe that God has a plan for your life. It’s an idea called predestination (aka religious determinism) and, as hinted at by the quote above, it basically means that all the events in your life have been predetermined by God. To back up this claim, the following Biblical passage is frequently cited:

For I know the plans I have for you,” declared the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” ~Jeremiah 29:11

Now this may be comforting to some, but for a lot us this idea has a couple of issues. Problem one: What about free will? Don’t I get a say in what happens in my life? Problem two: How do I know what my plan is? Do I need to live my life on autopilot waiting for my plan to reveal itself?

Well, there are answers to these questions and they come from the person who I believe is our all-time greatest American spiritual philosopher: Ralph Waldo Emerson. It should be noted here that Emerson is a former Unitarian minister who left his post at age 29, as he could no longer live abide by the church’s rigid dogma. So his ideas are not solely Biblically-based. (See more on Emerson’s spiritual philosophy here.)

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson was convinced we all had a preordained path in life, but also thought that you and I play a vital role in calling the shots. According to noted Emerson scholar Richard Gelhard, RWE believed in a “subtle order of divinity which lay beneath and behind the manifest world.” This meant that “human beings don’t have power…the universe does; it is full of power; flowing, waiting and accessible.

Yet Emerson also believed that “an individual who understands the laws of power can move into its flowing and allow it to wield its instruments.” In other words, by engaging with the flow of life, we can tap into this power source and use it to help guide us down the proper path.

In an essay titled Spiritual Laws, Emerson wrote that there was “guidance for each of us” that could help us “hear the right word”. He believed this higher power was self-evident if we stayed alert to our surroundings:

A little consideration of what takes place around us every day would show us that a higher power than that of our will regulates events; that our painful labors are unnecessary and fruitless; that only in our easy, simple, spontaneous action are we strong, and by contenting ourselves with obedience we become divine.

In another passage from the same essay, Emerson more passionately states his belief in a higher power that can comfort and guide us:

A believing love will relieve us of a vast load of care. O my brothers, God exists. There is a soul at the center of nature and over the will of every man…it has so infused its strong attachment into nature that we prosper when we accept its advice.

Like Emerson, another noted American spiritual philosopher, Ram Dass, also has a belief in the power of intuition to guide us. In this passage from his book Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita, Ram Dass instructs us to use this inner sense of direction to our advantage:

Begin paying more attention to the inner voice of our intuition, because that’s the clue to what we should be doing. We start to listen to the tiny, intuitive whisper that the Quakers call “the still small voice within”.

My take is that Emerson’s ideas ring true: there is a personal plan for each of us to follow. If we listen to our intuition and the divine guidance we can find within, we can steer ourselves in the right direction. To help us, signposts, clues and coincidences appear along the way to verify we are on the correct life path or to help point us to a new one.

Of course, there is still free will, so you can always choose to make decisions that are strictly based on your own brain power and whims. But for me, it’s a little more comforting to know that assistance is available when and if you want it.

This post previously appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, January 14, 2015.

Finding Meaning in the Silence of God.

James P. Carse

James P. Carse

Some books and authors try to define the nature of God and Lord knows I have tried this futile exercise myself. But in reality I believe God is undefinable, beyond our ability to be adequately explained. Albert Einstein may have described this best when he was asked to provide “the ultimate explanation of the world”. His response to this unanswerable question:

“I can not tell you in words, but I can play it on the violin.”

The words that resonate with me most on the nature of God come from writers who know they cannot define this great mystery. So they don’t give us the answers as much as they get us to ask the right questions, helping us shape our own personal concept of God, a vision of the Divine that is uniquely our own.

One writer of this ilk is James P. Carse, the former Director of Religious Studies at New York University, where he taught for over 30 years. Now retired, he wrote several books on God and religion that have fascinated me as much as they have baffled me. His arguments are often deeply intellectual, just beyond my reach, but he often makes points that get me scrambling for a pencil so I can underline them for future reference.

Toward the beginning of his book The Silence of God, Meditations on Prayer, Carse asks several questions that most people who consider themselves spiritual would love to know the answers to: Are prayers really answered? How is it possible that we could persuade God to give us what we want? Does God not already know what we want anyway?

Carse then proceeds to not really answer these questions, for the answers are truly unknowable. (As the title of his book suggests, God is silent.) But he does point us in the direction of the answers, allowing us to reach our own conclusions. It should be noted here that the silence of God does not sit well with Carse, who for years looked for proof of God, a sign from above that never materialized. In his words:

What I have experienced, and experienced repeatedly, is the silence of God. For many years, this was a distressing matter for me. I did not consider it an experience, but the absence of an experience.

Yet, in time, Carse comes to see the positive spiritual value of God’s silence. He writes that “in an encounter with divine reality we do not hear a voice but acquire a voice, and the voice we acquire is our own”. My personal take on this is that God enters our being and speaks through our own heart, so that our own voice echoes the voice of God.

There are many passages in The Silence of God that resonate with me and below I share a few of these nuggets of wisdom from Carse. I have lightly edited his words and strung them together in a loose narrative:

  • The silence of God is everywhere.
  • It is not a silence into which God has disappeared, but a silence in which God is most remarkably present.
  • God comes to us first as a listener, not a speaker. There is not a conceivable human setting in which God is not present, listening.
  • God does not come when we call. God is there, then we call.
  • We must move toward God from the heart, then God will respond. God will first wait until we do what it is possible for us to do within ourselves even if that action is exceedingly modest in scope.
  • The simplest point is that if you do speak from the heart, God listens.
  • God does not respond to us; we respond to God. God is already silent, and does not become silent when we speak.
  • To speak from the heart is to ask and to receive at the same time. Whomever you speak to from your heart you receive in your heart. You will have God in your heart—in the very act of asking.
  • It is not theology or philosophy, but only your heart that will lead you to God.

In another of his books, a series of true-life stories titled Breakfast at the Viceroy, The Mysticism of Ordinary Experience, Carse tells the story of a seeker of God from the Sufi tradition. It may well sum up his experience, as well as the experience of all of us who seek the presence of the Divine:

After a lifetime of seeking God he looked carefully and saw that he was not the seeker but the sought. In reality he was not a seeker at all; he was in flight from God. Only when he acknowledged this could he see that God was pursuing him.

This post originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, December 1, 2014.

Moving away from formal religion—toward a one-to-one relationship with God.

The_Creation_Michelangelo-150x150The problem is that we have lost religion—in the deep meaning of the word. We have formal religions that contain the seeds of genuine religiousness, but they are weakened by…fundamentalism, moralism, empty ritual, misunderstood teachings and general irrelevancy. ~Thomas Moore

Are you one of the millions worldwide who classify themselves as “spiritual but not religious”? I count myself among that group and if you’re like me, at one point in your life you were part of an organized religion. You may have attended church or religious services on a regular basis, but abandoned this practice because you just didn’t get much out of it.

Yet, the spiritual world still calls you. You have a yearning to connect with something greater than yourself. So you fill that need with a hodgepodge of spiritually-related activities. You pray and/or meditate. You read spirituality books. You take yoga, engage in mindful exercise or go outdoors to find a spiritual connection with nature.

You’re creating your own one-to-one relationship with God, a religion of your own.

One person who knows where the spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNR) are coming from is Care of the Soul author Thomas Moore. He has written a groundbreaking new book that gives valuable instruction on how we can create and enrich our own spiritual practice. In A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World, he talks about a future where we “move away from being a follower to being a creator of religion.”

Moore reminds us that we can just as easily discover the divine outside the church as inside it. In this new spiritual world, we look to formal religions for insight, but create and follow our own path.

We can, in fact, create a personal religion rooted in the practices and rituals of our own everyday lives. On this path, we treat “the natural world and everyday activities as sacred.” We sense the divine in nature, through the appreciation of art and music, by feeling “our soul stir at family gatherings and visits home, in deep friendships and romantic relationships.”

If you’re one of those of us on the SBNR path, Moore stresses that “the discovery or creation of religion of your own, is not an option. It’s a necessary step in your spiritual unfolding.” It is, in fact, a calling, a part of our essence that we cannot ignore if we want to achieve true spiritual fulfillment.

As members of the SBNR community, the key is to deepen and further enrich our spiritual practice—to move beyond paying lip-service to the “spiritual but not religious” designation and place ourselves squarely on a path of spiritual growth and development. Developing a real one-to-one relationship with God only works with our real intention and commitment to make it work.

The good news is we are not starting with a blank slate. No matter the limitations of your current practice, there is room for growth and we “don’t have to rely entirely on our originality” to enrich our spiritual pursuits. Moore instructs us that:

Language, ideas, techniques, methods and rituals are there to be borrowed. We can learn from many different traditions how to meditate, how to honor special days…how to go on a pilgrimage, how to pray, how to fast and abstain…how to forgive and heal and offer gratitude.

Among the spiritual activities Moore recommends is reading and studying classic spiritual texts, which might include teachings as diverse as the Bible to the wisdom teachings of Native Americans. He also calls out the Lectio Divina practice of the Benedictine monks, which involves four simple acts: read, meditate, pray, and contemplate.

Moore also places great importance on the use of sacraments in your practice, which he defines “as an outward sign signifying inward grace.” He calls out the example of Thoreau at Walden Pond and how he had his own set of “sacraments.” Thoreau saw acts as simple as taking a bath or rising early as connecting him with “the gods.”

The fact is, with the right intention, virtually every daily activity can be seen as a way to connect with the Divine. Moore even mentions one of my favorite soul-enriching activities: sipping a cup of coffee in the early morning hours, in quiet contemplation. The potential activities that can help you experience this connection are as endless as your imagination. Moore writes of the following historical examples:

Emerson lectured, Thoreau built a cabin and wrote a diary, Dickinson wrote poems, Kevin Kelly arranges flowers, Simone Dinnerstein plays Bach, you make gardens, I sturdy and write books. Just as we each may have a religion of our own, we may also have our own rituals and narratives and express our intuitions in ways that are most comfortable to us.

It’s all about staying “in tune with the rhythms of nature and the pulse of your life”. In following your own path, you discover, sometimes through trial and error, what activities work best for you. In time, you create a spiritual practice that is true to you, removing the veil of religion, until nothing separates you from God.

This post previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, July 30, 2014.

You already know how to talk to God. Here’s how to listen.

listeningLet us be silent, and we may hear the whispers of the Gods. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

What do devotees of the Bhagavad Gita, Evangelical Christians and this humble blogger have in common? We all believe in the power of a direct and personal relationship with God.

For me, this personal relationship means that I start most mornings with a specific ritual. After rolling (or some days, hobbling) out of bed, I flick on the coffeemaker and begin stretching, followed by a cup of coffee, a 5-minute meditation session, more coffee and a three or four-mile run.

It’s at different points during this morning routine that I find and connect with the essence of God within. It literally gives me a feeling of warmth and love inside and gets me ready for the day ahead, hopefully to spread the compassion and good vibes I feel to everyone I encounter. Oh—and to borrow a phrase from a colleague, I have a conversation with God.

Now, this is not a traditional conversation, as it’s usually wordless and involves a lot more listening than talking. I simply ask for guidance in whatever single area of my life most needs it most. And while this may sound kooky to those less spiritually-inclined, I’m practicing a tradition that has been around for some time (see John 10:27) and recommended by some of the leading spiritual lights of our age.

One regular conversationalist with God was Ralph Trine, an early New Thought Movement leader. Trine believed there was a “divine inflow” that we all could tap into for guidance and advice on any life matter. In his great, forgotten classic In Tune with the Infinite, which early last century sold over two million copies, Trine wrote:

It is through your own soul that the voice of God speaks to you. This is the interior guide.

More recently, the modern-day poet and wise man Ivon Prefontaine explained it this way:

Regardless of faith and even when we do not have it, there still exists a source deep within each of us that when we touch it and let it speak to us is able to guide us in wonderful and amazing ways.

Perhaps our greatest American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, also believed there was a source of guidance available to us all called the “divine soul.” Emerson had his own way of communicating with this source, which he referred to as “lowly listening” (more on that later):

There is a soul at the center of nature and over the will of every man…we prosper when we accept its advice…we need only obey. There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word.

When it comes to talking and listening to God, I’ve distilled my personal process down to three steps—but by no means do I want to make this sound easy. It probably took me a decade or so to perfect the first step. Step two came much faster, as did step three though I know this can be a tricky one for a lot of people. Here goes:

1. Go to a place where you can quiet the mind and be still.

Unless you walk around in a perpetual state of Zen, this is a necessary first step. And as a Patheos reader, you probably already have a good idea what technique for quieting the mind works best for you. (If not, try this one.)

For me, I’m best able to quiet my mind by focusing on my breathing via meditation or by taking a brisk run along the river that lines my neighborhood. But there are many other ways to get there, as well. As Douglas Block points out in his book Listening to Your Inner Voice:

You can achieve this stillness through any process that relaxes you and slows down your thoughts—meditation, visualization, long walks, exercise, driving on a country road.

2. Engage in what Ralph Waldo Emerson refers to as “lowly listening.”

It’s pretty much what it sounds like. Once in a relaxed state, put your concern out to God. Then, while not trying too hard, “listen” within. Scholar and author Richard Geldard, who has written two books on Emerson’s philosophy, explains what happens during this lowly listening phase:

Solitude, stillness, reflection, judgement and understanding all come together to guide us.

Emerson discussed the process of lowly listening is in one of a series of essays titled Spiritual Laws. He wrote:

Place yourself in the middle of the stream of power and wisdom which flows into you as life, place yourself in the full center of that flood, then you are without effort impelled to truth, to right, and a perfect contentment.

The key is listening. As author Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee points out in his thought-provoking book Prayer of the Heart in Christian and Sufi Mysticism
:

Learning to pray is learning to listen. Within the heart we learn to wait with patience for God’s words, which may come even when we have not asked.

3. Separate the word of God from the voice of the ego.

A friend once told me that she hears lots of words in her head, the problem is figuring which are the right ones. And maybe that’s the hard part. But once you’re able to tune in to the “soul at the center of nature” as Emerson calls it, you’ll find there’s a single, authentic voice there.

When I say voice, it doesn’t always come through in words (though it can), but usually in the form of a deep-seeded intuition. One moment you’re questioning the correct next step at work, at home, in love or in your life. The next moment (or day) you know the answer with some certainty.

The one important part is learning to separate the false voice of the ego with the true voice of the soul and God. Vaughan-Lee advises that
:

Such listening requires both attentiveness and discrimination, as it is not always easy to discriminate between the voice of the ego and the voice of our Beloved. But there is a distinct difference: the words of the ego and mind belong to duality; the words of the heart carry the imprint of oneness. In the heart there is no argument, no you and me, just an unfolding oneness.

What’s the importance of this morning conversation with God? I believe it’s invaluable and can help ready you for the day ahead or even help you find solace in the middle or end of the day. Again, in the words of Ralph Trine:

The little time spent in the quiet each day, alone with one’s God,that we may make and keep our connection with the Infinite source—our source and our life—will be a boon to any life. It will prove, if we are faithful, to be the most priceless possession that we have.

This story appeared May 1, 2014, on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos.

Proof of God’s Presence on Earth?

gods_handWhile I don’t always see eye-to-eye with my fellow Patheos blogger David French, I was especially intrigued by a recent column he wrote titled “Yes, There is Evidence That God Exists.

Fully expecting it to be chock-full of Biblical quotes, French instead told a compelling personal story about how he was once diagnosed with an incurable disease. After months of unsuccessful treatment, a friend called one day to tell him that during a prayer session the Lord “told me you were healed”. French was highly skeptical, but sure enough the next morning he was feeling better and within days all traces of his illness and its symptoms had disappeared.

I also have a story to tell about evidence that God exists—and it is also based on a true personal story. It is a story so freaky and haunting that I told no one about it for seven years, a silence I broke a few weeks ago for the first time.

I live in a small town on the Jersey Shore where I run on a regular basis. Seven summers ago my young daughter had just learned to ride her bike and would sometimes accompany me on my morning jog. Since she was new to the bike and was still learning the rules of the road, I kept a close eye on her, warning her when to stop and to keep out of the way of oncoming traffic.

Then, one morning she got away from me.

We were coming up a short hill at the top of which we would be making a left turn onto what passes for the main street in town. There is a wide shoulder there, so normally you can make the left and be far clear of any oncoming traffic. Only on this day, there was a large moving truck parked on the shoulder.

Coming up the hill, my daughter had a sudden burst of energy and raced ahead of me. Even though I yelled for her to stop, she pedaled onward making the left turn as she usually did until she was out of sight behind the moving truck. A split-second later a car driven by an elderly man passed by at a high rate of speed in the very lane of traffic she was now in.

I sprinted the next few steps to see beyond the moving truck, terrified of what I might find, my heart now jumping out of my chest. I could not imagine how she could have avoided being hit by the speeding car. But there she was, sitting on her bike, a few feet onto the road, her head turned toward me. She was fine. But what she said next shook me to my core: “Am I dead?”

I gave her a hug, told her no, and we headed home. I was so shaken by the event that I told no one, not even my wife. I had a few sleepless nights after that, wondering just what had happened. Had she found a sliver of space between the moving truck and oncoming car and avoided being hit? Still, even if that was the case, it does not explain her question to me. “Am I dead?”

Several years have passed and my daughter is now a teenager. A couple of weeks ago, I told her about this event—it was the first time I had mentioned it to anybody since that day. She had absolutely no recollection of any of it, not the near-miss or the question she had posed to me, but I can tell you for sure that it happened.

Over the years, I have tried to come up with theories as to what happened that day. One is the Many Worlds Theory that posits that reality is a “many-branched tree” where every possible outcome of an event happens. In one universe, my daughter is struck by the car. But mercifully in the world I am aware of, she came through unscathed though she had some inkling of this alternate reality—explaining why she had asked me that haunting question.

Still I wonder, on that day, at that moment, had the Divine interceded here on earth, saving one life and preventing the ruination of my own? Is this not a sign of the sacred in our midst? If this is not a sign of God making his presence known, than what is?

This post originally appeared under a slightly different title at Wake Up Call,  my column at the faith site Patheos, August 28, 2013.