The Primordial State

“it is made apparent how being that truly understands itself grasps at the same time that in being itself it does not belong to itself; that it only comes to itself by moving away from itself and finding its way back as relatedness to its true primordial state.” ( Joseph Ratzinger, 1968.)

In the beginning was the Word.
The Word was with God.
The Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
Through Him all things came to be.
Not one thing had its being but through Him.
All that came to be had life in him
That life was the light of the world
A light that shines in the dark
A light the darkness could not comprehend.

First, know the kingdom of God.
Take up your cross. Lose yourself.  (Luke 9:23-25)

You must put on the new self. (Eph 4:23-24)

You have clothed yourself in Christ and there are no more distinctions. (Gal 3:27-28)

A single body by the power of a single Spirit; we have all been given drink at a single source, the one Spirit. (1 Cor 12:13)

Out of his infinite glory, may he give you the power through his Spirit for the hidden self to grow strong, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith, and then, planted in love and built on love, you will have the strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth; until, knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond all knowledge, you are filled with the utter fullness of God.

Glory to him whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.    (Eph 3:16-21)


This stream of meditations begins with a scene from Matthew: “Don’t worry about your life and what you are to eat, nor about your body and how you are to clothe it. Surely life means more than food, and the body more than clothing.”(Mt 6:25-34)

It is the way of the ancient tradition to ‘live into’ the gospel scenes. In practice, a reciprocal movement occurs whereby we allow ourselves to be incorporated in the scene and the scene becomes incorporated in us.

The gentle imagery of this scene is destined to culminate in the powerful imagery of the Easter season. The annual cycle brings us to this period each year when we are invited to focus with particular intensity on the movement toward the cross. Each year we encounter aspects of the spirit that are often unique, according to our development, and can be quite challenging, depending on our willingness to be challenged.

Three scenes in particular, are brought into focus this Easter.

“They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem; Jesus was walking on ahead of them; they were in a daze, and those who followed were apprehensive.” (Mk 10:32)

Jesus was walking into danger. They wanted him to save himself. Peter had already remonstrated with him, only to be rebuked, ‘Get behind me, Satan!

In reflecting on this scene, it becomes apparent, in wanting Jesus to save himself, they were, in effect, wanting him to adopt the experience of a self, other than God, and share in our self-cherishing. He refused. (‘Before Abraham was, I am.’)

He continued, quite deliberately, to walk into danger. However, as he walked towards the cross we are presented with two scenes in particular, in which Jesus does appear to engage with an experience of a self, other than God.

In the scene at Gethsemane we observe Jesus engaged with an experience of a self, and then surrender it. “A sudden fear came over him and great distress. And he said to them ‘My soul is sorrowful to the point of death.’ And going on a little further he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, this hour might pass him by.” ‘Father!’ he said ‘Everything is possible for you. Take this cup away from me. But let it be as you, not I, would have it.’ Then some time later, a radical self-abandonment is displayed with the words: ‘The hour has come. Get up. Let us go.’

In the scene at Gethsemane we have no trouble identifying with the first part of the movement as Jesus recoils at the horror that confronts him: ‘Take this cup away from me’. However, we are unlikely to identify so readily with the following statement: ‘But let it be as you, not I would have it.’ We can well imagine how desperately our self-cherishing would have persisted in this situation, as it does in most situations. Then we are confronted with an acceptance; a self-abandonment that is total: ‘The hour has come. Get up. Let us go.’

The second scene is on Golgotha. We observe the experience of a self in the desolation of abandonment: ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’  Then the ensuing selflessness of acceptance, ‘It is accomplished’, followed by the final act of self abandonment, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’  We encounter the utter extremes of abandonment in this final scene on the cross.

These are powerful scenes in which to participate. It is the way of the ancient tradition to ‘live into’ the scenes as, often, comprehension will be a matter for experience.

Perhaps, in the end, it is only through experience that we can truly comprehend: it is self-abandonment which joins us to him.  ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross daily’.


The Practice of Presence

The starting point for this practice is where we are now: here, now. We allow ourselves to be present to the immediate existential situation. Nothing else needs to be postulated. No ideas or beliefs are required. Everything is open to the light of experience.

“Know thyself” is an injunction that brings us back to the present moment; the experience of a self. To postulate anything more allows for escape. We can get quite lost in ideologies and devotions; they allow us to hide from the present moment. The experience of a self is the one essential. We need nothing else. We need concern ourselves with nothing other than what we know beyond all doubt: our own existence.

The author of ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ gives us the following practice. Focus on the experience of a self. The experience of a self as a whole, not on any attribute of the self. Take any and all attributes of the self and roll them up all together in a lump. Experience all attributes as one single lump of self: the experience of a self – out of which all other attributes arise.

This is the practice. We search for the experience of self at its most fundamental level and develop familiarity with this simple process of experiencing a self – at its most essential.

The second step is to take the experience of a self, the ‘lump of self’, and set it aside. We set our gaze beyond it. This is prayer. A simple orientation away from self toward the incomprehensible. The practice of presence gives way to the prayer of Presence – and our life becomes an oscillation between the two.

Through practice we soon come to see the author’s meaning in the observation that ‘sin is nothing other than the self ‘. Sin being that which separates us from God. Consequently, St John of the Cross writes:
‘Reveal Your presence,
And may the vision of Your beauty be my death.’

This particular expression of the practice has been given us by an Englishman of the 14th century. An anonymous Englishman best known for the treatise ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’. He was a man who was concerned with nothing other than practice. Practice is experience. We begin where we are, the experience of the present; the experience of a self. Attentive to this experience of a self, we watch it. Throughout daily life we keep returning our awareness to this experience of a self. It is under scrutiny.

Joseph Ratzinger makes an important point when he states that conversion needs to go on all through the day, every day. Conversion is a matter of practice. Conversion of our attention, our awareness, all through the day, every day, from the outward running mind and senses, back to the source.

The source is the self. Awareness is returned to the self, the experience of a self. However, we can go further – to the source of the experience of a self. We enter the realm of prayer when the juxtaposition of the experience of a self on the true Self comes to our awareness.

To return to Joseph Ratzinger, we find he uses terms such as ‘primordial being’ and ‘ground of being’ in reference to God the Father. As the author of ‘The Cloud’ clarifies, God is our being, the true Self, the source of the everyday experience of a self. The practice of Presence is the experience of ourselves as we actually are. God is our being. Any experience of a self other than this needs to be abandoned. This is Christian prayer, simplicity itself. Which is to say, no artifice, no constructions or projections, no cleverness or innovation;  just the simple, universal, surrender of the self into the Self.

Forgetting all, my quest
ended, I stayed lost to myself at last.
all ceased: my face was pressed
upon my Love, at rest,
with all my cares among the lillies cast.
– St John of the Cross


The Ascent of Mount Carmel

This sublime knowledge can be received only by a person who has arrived at union with God, for it is itself that very union. It consists in a certain touch of the divinity produced in the soul, and thus it is God himself who is experienced and tasted there. This knowledge tastes of the divine essence and eternal life.

Manifestly, in this high state of union God does not communicate himself to the soul through the disguise of any image or likeness, but directly: the pure and naked essence of God with the pure and naked essence of the soul.

  • St John of The Cross

Dark Night

So dark the night! At rest
and hushed my house, I went with no one knowing
upon a lover’s quest
– Ah, the sheer grace! – so blessed,
my eager heart with love aflame and glowing.

In darkness, hid from sight
I went by secret ladder safe and sure
– Ah, grace of sheer delight! –
so softly veiled by night,
hushed now my house, in darkness and secure.

Hidden in that glad night,
regarding nothing as I stole away,
no-one to see my flight,
no other guide or light
save one that in my heart burned bright as day.

Surer than the noon day sun,
guiding me from the start this radiant light
led me to that dear One,
waiting for me, well-known,
somewhere apart where no-one came in sight.

Dark of the night my guide,
fairer by far than dawn when stars grow dim!
Night that has unified
the Lover and the Bride,
transforming the Beloved into him.

There on my flowered breast
that none but he might ever own or keep,
he stayed, sinking to rest,
and softly I caressed
my Love while cedars gently fanned his sleep.

Breeze from the turret blew
ruffling his hair. Then with his tranquil hand
wounding my neck, I knew
nothing: my senses flew
at touch of peace too deep to understand.

Forgetting all, my quest
ended, I stayed lost to myself at last.
All ceased: my face was pressed
upon my Love, at rest,
with all my cares among the lilies cast.

  • St Juan de la Cruz  (tr. Marjorie Flowers)


Beyond All

I went into an unknown land
unknowing, stayed there knowing naught,
beyond the power of human thought.

I know not where I entered in
but when I found that I was there,
not knowing how, not knowing where,
strange things I heard, so deep within,
far greater than I could declare.
So there I stayed still knowing naught,
Far, far beyond all human thought.

Peace and transcendent holiness:
knowledge so perfect came unsought,
in deepest solitude was taught
to me in ways I can’t express
the narrow path to life, no less,
leaving me speechless, good for naught,
beyond all power of human thought.

There I remain absorbed, apart,
lost to myself and borne away
to strange realms- where, I cannot say-
of ecstasy, wherein the heart
of flesh has nothing more to say,
my soul enriched, reduced to naught
by knowledge past all human thought.

He who is taken up so high
cuts free from self, and all he knew
before is gone and lost from view
as worthless now. He knows not why
his knowledge rises constantly
but he remains as knowing naught,
far, far beyond all human thought.

As higher still the soul takes flight
all understanding fades away:
how can the cloud that’s dark as night
make night more radiant than the day?
The one who understands this sight
stops there, his senses brought to naught
by knowledge past all human thought.

To know unknowing is so strange,
so overwhelming. No wise man
by disputation ever can
refute it, for his utmost range
of understanding cannot scan
this unknown knowledge, darkly taught,
beyond the power of human thought.

So lofty is it, so sublime,
no human power of learning may
possess it, none can ever say
‘I have it now’. No-one can climb
so high. But he who comes to say
No to his self-hood, knowing naught,
always transcends all human thought.

You wish to learn its origin?
It is a sudden subtle touch
of God’s own being, deep within
the soul, and understood as such:
his mercy reaching out so much –
this great gift leaves one knowing naught,
and far beyond all human thought.

  • St John Of The Cross  (tr. Marjorie Flowers)


Listen To The Silence

The contemplative soul does not meddle with exterior attachments or human respect, but it communes inwardly with God, alone and detached, and with delightful tranquility, for the knowledge of God is received in divine silence.

  • St John of the Cross

Perhaps you know of Pascal’s cry as he stared at the stars that shone to the limits of the universe. He was seized by the great silence of a winter night aglow with the brightness of the stars and exclaimed:  The eternal silence of the infinite spaces fills me with dread!

God is eternal silence; God dwells in silence.

The works of God are marked with silence. It is in the silence of prayer and retreat, in the silence of the desert and the forest, that great souls receive their message from God. Recall how Saint Bernard enriched the whole of Europe with silent monasteries. In order to describe the beauty of silence, he used to say: The oak trees of the forest have been my masters of prayer. Silence is the great master. It speaks to the human heart. Silence is not an empty void; God dwells therein.

Whoever embraces silence, welcomes God and whoever relishes silence, hears God speak. Silence is the echo of God’s eternity.

Are you seeking to find God? Then listen to the silence; immerse yourself in silence.

The soul must not be a public square, where there is always a crowd of gossipers or of persons recalled from the past with their tales of suffering and rebuke. Such types, seething at their imagined foes and smarting in their own self-love, are seriously at fault. There should be nothing like that among us. Silence should penetrate deep within us and occupy every area of our inner home. Thus is our soul transformed into a sanctuary of prayer and recollection.

When we meet one day in heaven, we should be filled with joy that we have done everything asked of us. We should have given the Lord, not lip service, but lives of humble, habitual, and complete silence. Amen.

  • Pere Jacques.   Listen to the Silence.  ICS publications.