Seeing God’s face everywhere
by John Wijngaards
People often look for God in the wrong place. They start anywhere but with themselves. Reflecting on the wisdom of the Sufi masters, the director of the Housetop centre for communications asserts that God can be known directly.
Evelyn Waugh is credited with the remark that he learned as much about England from travelling abroad as from staying at home; and not just by observing English tourists in the Sistine Chapel discussing the latest cricket scores. At times we need the challenge of the unknown if we are to discover the familiar. The same applies to our search for prayer. We will benefit from looking across our Christian fence, from doing some lateral thinking.
Ibn ‘Ata’illah, a thirteenth-century Sufi. recorded this prayer in his Kitab-al-Hikam: “My God’ when did you become so absent that you are in need of proof to give evidence of you? When did you become so distant that it is created things that lead us to you?” For this spiritual seer, God was more “real” than his creatures. It was God who proved them, not they God.
In our present-day world this would seem an incredible claim. Secular society has banned God so effectively from the workshop and the market-place, from our scientific world view, from marriage and family life, that we can easily pass a whole day without giving him a thought. Theologians have aided and abetted this privatisation of God by playing with such absurd notions as that of ‘ God is dead ‘.
Would it not be bordering on the naive to claim that God is unmistakably evident, there for all to see? And yet Ibn ‘Ata’illah’s insight might well offer medicine to our coarsened sensitivity. Is it a coincidence that he lived at the time when Thomas Aguinas constructed his five”1ogical proofs” for the existence of God?
There is a kind of knowledge, the Sufi master tells us, that transcends academic learning: it cannot be described in books. It grows by perception of a sort that defies rational concepts. It is a living knowledge. made up of lived experiences and pursuing vital concerns. Through it, he says. God can be known clearly and directly.
Is he speaking of mystical visions or unusual states of mind? No. For him, such states create emotional imbalance; they are not a safe guide for the knower. In the words of Kalabadhi: “Truth comes after states of ecstasy and takes its place . . . When truth comes. ecstasy is dethroned.” Profound religious feelings may enthuse in an earlier stage. Knowledge of God is not based on them.
To enable us to comprehend the kind of knowledge Ibn ‘Ata’illah is talking about, a small digression may be in order. For a number of years I was involved, in different parts of the world, in what could be described as personnel management of priests. I visited them, helped them to assess their work and life, counselled them, gave courses. mediated transfers and new appointments. The experience left me with an abiding sense of admiration for the sound judgment and goodwill of the Church’s infantry. But I also made a curious observation. Their success or failure as spiritual leaders almost universally depended on one quality: whether they could ‘get on” with people or not. Social background, intellectual acumen. organising skill, even piety or virtue dwindled into nothingness compared to their ability to relate to people in a positive way. How, I asked myself, can we learn this skill?
Some people pick it up at an early age. others never seem to acquire it. It calls for shrewd perception. empathy. common sense and diplomacy. but transcends all of these. It rests on a person’s sixth sense, an inner eye” as Ron Dawkins called it recently in a television series, so that the adept can correctly guess” another person’s feelings and sensitivities; can anticipate expectations and needs. Here, indeed. we have a kind of knowledge that is superior to academic learning; a social skill acquired from experience, not from textbooks. And I began to wonder if our seminary education with its scholastic background and its stress on academic formation really serves its purpose. Could it be that the children of this world, the slick operators. demagogues and commercial manipulators. have outwitted us again-this time in the art of dealing with people? Could it be that so much Christian charity and readiness to serve bears no fruit because it has not heen planted on the natural soil of empathy for people?
What has all this to do with the knowledge of God? A great deal. For a tendency to relate to people through stereotypes and concepts affects also the way we relate to God. Like every person we meet, but infinitely more so. God is unique. We can only properly know him hy building up an experience of him based on day-to-day encounters. We cannot see him with our bodily eyes. any more than we can see the mind and heart of other people. But we can know him distinctly and directly by what he does. We know him not in categories but as a person. bv his actions.
”Yes”. we might think with our western bend to externalise. we meet him in nature, in society. in the universe.” But this is not the principal. nor the first. way. Rather, we know God bv what he does in us. Sheikh Ahmad Al-‘Alawi, who lived in Algeria at the beginning of this century. put it like this: Whoever seeks God through another than himself will never attain unto God.” It is by becoming aware of the spiritual forces in ourselves that we come to know him experientially. Again. no high mystical flights are envisioned here. We are speaking of the waves we can all detect on the lake of our inner self: our search for meaning, our sense of wonder, our feelings of responsibility. and our hunger for love.
In his recent Tablet article. Teach Me to Pray”. William Barry offered a gem of pastoral advice when he suggested we should ask people to speak of their own spiritual experiences. It is in those that people will discover their knowledge of God. It may be of interest. and serve as a confirmation, to note that Sufi masters followed the same practice. Sheikh Al’Alawi taught his disciples: ‘Do not abandon your soul nor oppose it. Go along with it and search it for what is in it.” And again:
The person who has learned to know God in his soul, returns to it. anxious to yield to its desires.”
The moment we become aware directly of God’s working in us. an interesting shift in our perception can take place. We begin to realise that this Person we are in touch with, the One who causes our search. our wonder, our love, is powerfully present behind everything in our visible world. Again, it is not unlike our “knowleage”of people. Once we grasp their internal motivations, we can suddenly see these strongly reflected in everything they do. Knowing the invisible Person throws light
on his actions. We begin to understand how it is God who explains creation and not the other way about. None has expressed this better than Al-Ghazzali, that eminent Sufi guide who taught in Iran during the 1lth century.
‘Those endowed with this Insight”. he tells us in Mishkat al Anwar. never see a single object without seeing God along with it. It may be that some go further and can say: ‘I never see a single object without first seeing God.’ For some only see objects through and in God. while others first see objects and then see God in and through those objects.” Such a “seeing” can happen to many people but they must be made aware of what they are seeing.
Lamp and flame
I remember talking to a very committed Catholic who said she was going through a crisis in her faith and her life of prayer. ‘The images of God as Creator. Father, Judge have become empty”, she confided to me. .’I hang on to the moment of enlightenment I had years ago during a retreat. It’s the last trace of my contact with God.” It had never crossed her mind that so much of her own personality-her passionate love of truth. her deep concern about justice for all. her wrestling with oppressive images of God-was itself a reflection of God working in her, responding to her. Suddenly her whole perspective changed. “I never dared to think God could be so personally and deeply involved with me”, she said. it’s overwhelming.”
Mv dependence on classical Sufi texts in these reflections will not, I hope. create the impression that I advocate Sufism as a substitute for our Christian faith. Moreover, there are today spurious syncretistic teachers who appropriate the title ”Sufi” whom I would in no way recommend as guides to seekers after the spiritual life. But what is important to acknowledge is that experience of prayer is not a Christian prerogative. The full revelation of God’s love and the sacramental presence of Christ are, indeed, precious gifts. But the fundamentals of prayer. openness to God. discovery of his presence in ourselves and in the world. are treasures of human experience we share with other spiritual men and women. It is something to recall. perhaps. as we prepare to respond to Pope John Paul’s request that the Year of World Peace be supported bv prayer all over the globe by adherents of all religions.
It may be appropriate for me to conclude with my own free rendering of the Light Verse (Koran 24,35). a text that has inspired Sufis throughout the centuries. God is like the flame.we are the oil lamp. Light radiates from the centre outwards, transfusing the oil. shining through the glass container and illuminating our niche. God is the light of heaven and earth. His light may be compared to a niche holding a lamp: the lamp is encased in glass. the glass shines like a twinkling star. Its sacred oil . . . is luminous though the fire itself does not touch it. Thus we see his light in layer upon layer.’
Published inThe Tablet 11th October 1986