We live in very strange times. Since the recent US presidential election and the wobbly markets impacting our economy, stress, anxiety, and uncertainty seem to mark the general milieu. There is a great sense of distrust in our midst that expresses itself either in reserved caution or outright resistance. When I speak to people of the Omega Center and its mission of exploring love at the heart of the cosmos, one of the first questions raised is, “what’s love got to do with it?” My brief response is, “everything”: we are born out of love, we exist in love and we are created for the fullness of love.
But let’s focus on our present milieu. What I find today among many people is an interior loneliness and emptiness. We are working longer hours, sleeping less, exercising little, and rarely finding enough time to simply relax—a type of existential self-loathing. Loneliness abounds—not the type of loneliness where you simply do not have enough friends—but a much deeper loneliness, a “black hole” loneliness, where no matter how many new material things you have or however many compliments you receive, it is simply not enough to satisfy the insatiable ego. It is the agony of perpetual want without really knowing what we want. This kind of deep loneliness expresses itself in a cultural freneticism—starting projects or conversations but never really completing them; flittering from one idea to the next, as if nothing can take root in rich soil because there is no inner soil to plant seeds of new life.
And maybe that is what I see today—a crisis of interiority. We have lost interest in the life of the soul and the things of the heart. We seek outside ourselves what can only be found within ourselves. Computer technology plays a significant role in this new technoskeletal existence. We are not simply addicted to our devices; we are existentially dependent on them. They do not only help make life easier; they make life tolerable. No matter where I go, humans are cyberextended in their cell phones, notebooks, tablets, and computers. We have become the silicon species.
Nicholar Carr, in his book The Shallows, offers some interesting insights on human nature and technology. Our ability to meld with the tools of our own inventions distinguishes us as a species. Boundaries between internal and external, body and instrument, are blurred as we form tight bonds with our tools. We create our tools and in turn our tools create us. As we merge with our tools they become extensions of ourselves and in turn we become extensions of our tools. The more we use tools, the more we are shaped to their forms and functions. Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan wrote that our tools end up “numbing” whatever part of our body they “amplify.” When we extend some part of ourselves artificially, we also distance ourselves from the amplified part and its natural functions. For example, when we are behind the wheel of a car, we can go a far greater distance than we could on foot, but we lose the walker’s intimate connection to the land and to the local people. The numbing effect of technology is not a new idea. The ancient psalmist expressed this idea long ago when he wrote:
Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them.
As Carr writes, “the price we pay to assume technology’s power is alienation.” This is especially true of our computer technologies in which the tools of mind amplify and in turn numb the most intimate, most human of our natural capacities–those for relationship, passion, freedom, memory, and emotion. We are more connected than ever before and yet we are more lonely and dissociated from one another. Alienation is an inevitable by-product of the use of technology. Whenever we use a tool to exert greater control over the outside world, we change our relationship with that world. To quote Carr: “We build houses and sew Gore-Tex jackets because we want to be alienated from the wind and the rain and the cold. . . .Nature isn’t our enemy, but neither is it our friend. . . an honest appraisal of any new technology requires a sensitivity to what’s lost as well as what’s gained. We shouldn’t allow the glories of technology to blind our inner watchdog to the possibility that we’ve numbed an essential part of our self.” And the essential part of our self we have become most alienated from is our soul.
This past semester I introduced my undergraduate students to the theory and practice of contemplation. They had never heard of contemplation nor did they know anything about meditation or centering prayer, but they were drawn to contemplation like fish discovering water for the first time. A third of the students devoted their final project to some aspect of contemplative prayer or integrating contemplation into college life. The magnetic attraction of young adults to contemplation signifies a deep hole left by the absence of religion from the larger framework of cultural life. God has not gone away but there has been something like a quarantine of divinity not simply due to religious substitutes such as consumerism and technology but a control of God by institutional religions as well.
Yet all world religions bear some type of path to oneness or unity with divinity. Contemplation is the ancient path of seeking God through the inner work of silence, solitude, attention, and prayer. Thomas Merton said that the only way I can know God is if I know myself, and if I know myself, I shall know God. God and the soul go together because the way to God is through the soul and the way to the soul is inward, through prayer and contemplation. In a culture that is driven by the insatiable urge for more stuff, more money, more pleasure, more things, contemplation is a radical call to inner emptiness and stillness. When we lose our capacity for inner peace and patience we are left only with the worship of the instantly visible, the immediately possessed, the vapors of material highs and technological thrills. Thus we are left with the barrenness of the instantly forgotten.
The inner life is a deep relationship with One who is completely part of myself yet completely other than myself. Saint Augustine said that God is closer to me than I am to myself. Merton realized this truth at the bustling corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets in downtown Louisville: “At the center of our being is a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lies, 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 within us.” The Carmelite philosopher Edith Stein also discovered the profound depth of being in God when she wrote “I do not exist of myself, and of myself I am nothing. Every moment I stand before nothingness, so that every moment I must be dowered anew with being. . . this nothinged being of mine, this frail received being, is being. . .it thirsts not only for endless continuation of its being but for full possession of being.” Contemplation is awakening to this deep divine center at the core of life, as the French philosopher Simone Weil wrote: “Whoever says ‘I’ lies.”
Christmas is not simply the birth of God in a manger; it our birth as well. We are to become new persons with new minds and hearts for a new world. But if the only new thing we know is wrapped in a box with paper that can be crumbled up and thrown away in an instant, then we are destined for the old, the dead, the past where God does not live. We are bequeathing to future generations a dead and lifeless world because we insist on creating this world out of things and not out of soul. Christmas reminds us that we are created for life but we must choose life: “I have set before you life and death, choose life” (Dt. 30:15). How do we choose life? We must slow down, listen in silence to our breathing, our beating hearts, stop the chatter in our heads, wait patiently, pray from the heart. When we do so, even for a brief moment, we realize that the seeds of all we desire are already within us. God, the creator of heaven and earth, is already there waiting to born again. This new birth of God is not a past event but a future happening. God wants to become something new in us but we must trust God sufficiently to engage this new birth. Life lives on the cusp of the new, and the only real newness of life comes from within.
Sure our world is fragile, economically wobbly, politically polarized, racially contentious but it does not have to be this way. We create the world and the world creates us. We must find a new world within our souls. To do so we must invert our priorities: we are constantly searching without but God is dwelling within. The only way to know this source of new life is in silence and stillness. God is seeking to do new things, to create a new world, for the old world is passing away and something new, never seen before, is about to appear. If we live from the inner life of the soul, from the place of the heart, we shall be prepared for this new world. It is already happening. I have seen it with my own eyes and I believe.