existential contingency

This imperfect state of incompleteness, isolation and separation from the goal is the basic source of our existential anguish – anguish that arises not because of our existence but because of our separated existence. Hence the anguish running through the writings of the mystics and reflected in the cry of St. John of the Cross: “Where have you hidden, Beloved, and left me moaning?” Here the mystic is separated from the beloved whom he has inchoately experienced; and he longs for completion, for union, for the goal. If this means death, joyfully will he die – “finish your work, my Lover, break the last thread, wound me, make me whole!” Clearly the anguish is that of separation and incompleteness at the level of existence. One can experience one’s incompleteness emotionally or economically or culturally or sexually; and all this is painful. But how terrible to experience it at the deepest level of all, that of existence! For all these other sorrows are partial experiences of one root experience of existential contingency.

With the English author it is mainly in Privy Counselling that the notion of separation with all its suffering is stressed. At the beginning of his treatise he makes a statement that echoes through the whole work: “He is your being and in Him you are what you are.” And he keeps stressing that the great suffering and illusion of ours is our failure to experience that God is our being. Rather do we experience our being apart from God. The whole aim of his direction is to lead us to the experience that “he is your being and in him you are what you are.” It is not in isolation, not in separation from the totality that we find our true self; but only in God. The knowledge and feeling of any self other than this must be destroyed.

This leads to the inexorable law that the incomplete self must die in order that the true self may rise.

In this context we understand the author’s relentless assertion that the thought and feeling of self must be annihilated. Yet this annihilation is less terrible because it is the work of love: “For this is the way of all real love. Lovers strip themselves of anything theirs to gain the other. They want to be enveloped by the other forever in the full and final forgetting of self. This is the work of love that no one understands but the person who feels it. This is what our Lord is trying to teach us when he says, “If any want to come after me, let them abandon themselves.” It’s as if he is saying: “Strip yourself of your self if you really want to be clothed in me, the long and flowing robe of everlasting love.”

Johnston, William. (1973)  Introduction: The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counselling.  NY. Image Books. Doubleday.


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