The problem with ‘channeling’ God

The problem with God—and even God’s friends will admit this—is God’s elusiveness. Just when you think that you’ve had a solid experience of God—like Abraham, watching the flame pass through his sacrifice, or the disciples, seeing the Lord Jesus transfigured—God disappears. God so thoroughly absconds that one can’t help but to wonder if God was ever there. Small wonder that some folk, some good Christians, invest time and effort, trying to channel God into something reliable.

The English writer, and ardent Anglican, Charles Williams was a good example. He was a member of the Inklings, an informal, and deeply Christian, discussion society, composed, in large measure, of Oxford dons. Like so many of his fellow thinkers and friends, C.S. Lewis among them, Williams loved the Church of England. But in addition to her liturgies, he was also fascinated by the occult, particularly the teachings of Arthur Waite, who created the Tarot cards that still bear his name and founded the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. “Named after the principal symbol of Rosicrucianism, a cross with a white rose, symbolizing the way of Jesus Christ with occult wisdom at its center.”

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Williams was fascinated by the secret rites of the group, “stitched together from Catholic, Egyptian, and Rosicrucian threads.” Philip and Carol Zaleski record in The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings (2015) that Williams

purchased, from clothier Spencer & Co., the Fellowship’s robe for beginners, black with white silk collar, and he memorized the words and movements of the complex rites. Adopting the esoteric name of Frater Qui Sitit Veniat (The Brother Who Thirsts, Let Him Come), he rose in quick succession through the sacramental grades from “Adeptus Minor” to “Adeptus Exemptus” to the “Portal of the Fourth Order,” and finally to the “Ceremony of Consecration on the Threshold of Sacred Mystery.” During the last rite, which entailed a high priest “seated on his throne in the East between the pillars of the Temple” and a priestess “whose wand is crowned with Lilies,” acolytes were exhorted to “be ye transmuted therefore from dead stones into Living Philosophical stones, shining on everlasting hills, radiant on the Mount of GOD” ( 230-31).

 

All of this seems downright silly to those on the outside, but that’s also true of even very good things, like the liturgy of the church, or the baptism of a baby, or the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Many of his fellow Inklings thought as much about Williams’s occult interests, but try to sympathize with his desire to see God, to experience God. The problem with God is God’s elusiveness. Why can’t we channel God when and where we want? Is it so wrong to want to see what Abraham and the disciples saw?

Not at all. Even if we cannot articulate it, we were created with the longing to look upon the face of God. Yet God’s transcendence, God’s mystery, means that God can’t be conjured. No words or rituals capture God, not even those most Catholic. Many Christians, who never dabble with the occult, nonetheless want God to be channeled through their devotions, but God isn’t a mysterious object to be cajoled or collared. One could call God a mysterious person, provided one understands the terrible strain put upon both noun and adjective. God is a mystery like no other; a person like no other.

And, oddly enough, though we search for this utter mystery in the extraordinary and the unrepeatable, God empties God's self into mundane repetition. One might say that the mystery of God is too large, too loving, too lenient to be confined to the extraordinary and the unique. God is there is the movement of the wind, in sunrise and sunset, in the words read—typically, not all that well—each Sunday in church.

While we rout for a ritual that would capture God, God empties himself into the rites of the church. God so fully saturates these rituals that we can fail to see God, even when look directly upon him. When the priest raises the broken host, just before holy Communion, and says, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world, blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb,” all hear and see, but not everyone listens. Not everyone perceives.

The notion that Mass is “as good as it gets” with God, seems downright dull. Surely there exists a greater ingenuity, insight and imagination than that which the liturgy of the church offers. A fellow Inkling of Charles Williams didn’t think so. A Catholic, he came back to the same dull liturgy every day; the same rite of confession each week. When his son told him that he was going through a crisis of faith he wrote back, urging more frequent attendance at Mass, adding, “Choose a snuffling or gabbling priest or a proud and vulgar friar, and a church full of the usual bourgeois crowd.” For him, it was the presence of Christ that counted, not his courtiers. But perhaps he was an unimaginative sort, who didn’t mind missing God by eschewing the occult for the ordinary. He was a writer as well. Yes, it’s just too bad J.R.R. Tolkien wasn’t as imaginative as Charles Williams.

Genesis 15: 5-12, 17-18  Philippians 3: 17-4:1  Luke 9: 28b-36

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Bruce Snowden
2 years 8 months ago
Yes, God is certainly illusive but thankfully not aloof. The fact that we have the OT/NT where God talks a lot about himself and relationships people should have with him and one another, validates I think, my assertion that God is not “aloof.” We have his word for it and that word is “Faith.” Faith is the microscope of the soul wherein with head bowed prayerfully, one sees the ordinarily unseeable and says “I get it!” Or if the gaze is upward, Faith becomes a telescope of the soul and in prayerful wonder and awe whispers, “Wow! My Daddy did this!” Then suddenly the soul’s microscope and telescope, go dark, but not broken. See too, with profound respect to the Almighty God who still spins universes off his fingertips in his ongoing, unfinished creation and Who according to Paul likes to be called “Abba” once so translated by a Palestinian Dad to the late Auxiliary Bishop of NY, Patrick V. Ahearn, as “Daddy, is playful I suggest! What do I mean? I mean God seems to like playing the child’s game, ”Hide and Seek,” wherein he hides while we seek, or we hide while he seeks. This particularly clear in Jesus’ Sacraments, in Water and Oil of Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Orders, Anointing of the Sick, in Bread and Wine, of Eucharist in Commitment and Reconciliation in Matrimony and Penance. Faith the Celebrant! The Paschal Mystery of which the Passion of Jesus is intrinsic, saturates the illusiveness of God. Exactly what Jesus said during the throes of the Cross we say searching for the God we thought we securely gripped, only to discover that he had melted away like butter in a warm hand, leaving a useless smudge. Then the words, “My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?” echoing. So often a relationship with the illusive God is punctuated by question from start to finish – “God, where are You? God, where are You? God, Where are You?” Then suddenly as in a trance of apparent hopeless expectancy, He shows up! Without doubt you know it! He is as refreshing as the fragrance of newly cut grass, the scent of the Lord permeating just briefly. But it is enough! Thank you God for being elusive. Without it I’d be spiritually lazy, showing once again, that, “For those who love God all things (not some things) work together (not separately) unto good!”
Beth Cioffoletti
2 years 8 months ago
I've been sort of wrestling/dancing with this all my life. Perhaps it was my Catholic upbringing that made me God-obsessed, I don't know. It seems to be the fundamental tension at the core of most everyone, whether they admit it or not. I've fled from "Church" for years at a time, knowing that whatever was happening there was not good for my soul, and then returned only to leave again. I don't know about Mass being "as good as it gets". While I've been bored to tears by Mass, I've also been moved to wonder by very slow, 2+ hour celebrations by monks. As long as there is some sense of an "awakening" going on, no matter how subtle (the more subtle, the better) I will trust it. Obvious and ordinary, like what is right before us, yet we could not see. So it's kind of a mixed bag for me, this dance. I've learned to live with my uncertainty & unknowing, because the one thing that has never left me is the hunger at the center of my soul. And though I've learned not to trust an "answer", I do think that Francis is on to something with his focus on Mercy.
William Rydberg
2 years 8 months ago
Once again, no direct connection between readings and article in my opinion. We RESPOND to God. As for his view that I understand he liked to call "co-inherence" (although his definition does not meet the definition described in Patristics).". It appears that the idea died with him. Books and books have been written about Victorian upper class fixations at the time, Based upon your comments, this fellow was one of many. If he was a Catholic, I am sure that his Confessor would have prudently warned him. But he wasn't Catholic. Don't know where you got the impression that he was a Roman Catholic convert? Memorial of Blesseds Jacinta and Francisco Marto...
Sandi Sinor
2 years 8 months ago
I would like to ask the author what he means by using the word "illusive"[having the nature of an illusion] in this essay. From the context, it seems as if "elusive" may be a better choice. ...The problem with God—and even God’s friends will admit this—is God’s illusiveness. Just when you think that you’ve had a solid experience of God—like Abraham, watching the flame pass through his sacrifice, or the disciples, seeing the Lord Jesus transfigured—God disappears. God so thoroughly absconds that one can’t help but to wonder if God was ever there..."Is one wondering if God was ever there because it's hard to "keep hold" of God? Or because there was no God there at all, - God is an illusion. God is mystery, but not illusion. Every time limited and fallible human minds think that they have grasped God, understand God, something reminds them that they don't. The certainty disappears. Thinking that human beings can ever grasp God, have certainty about who God is, what God is, is the illusion, not God. But, "full"l understanding of God eludes us. It always will - because we are human. I assume the author does not believe that God is an illusion. So, if the choice of "illusive" is intentional, could he explain a bit more?"Anything elusive is hard to get a hold of. It eludes you..... Something illusive, on the other hand, is not real, even if it seems to be " (vocabulary.com)
Sandi Sinor
2 years 8 months ago
I see that the use of "illusive" was apparently not what was meant. A typo perhaps. Thank you for correcting the essay. No further explanation of what you meant by using "illusive" needed!
Tom Poelker
2 years 8 months ago
Fr. Klein has some good observations about the use of the occult to seek power to control God, put God into restricted channels. Unfortunately, he falls into the ex opere operato trap which excuses priests from doing liturgy well and equates members of the liturgical assembly with those at private prayer. Not denying any of the theological teachings about sanctifying grace flowing from sacraments, it remains to be said that liturgy is communal prayer and intended for the building up of the Christian community whose members must live in love in a world that lives in competition. This sort of actual grace flowing from communal support and sharing of the Scriptures is about transforming the world, not just personal salvation. It calls for ministers who strive to reach people, to make a difference through their manner of leading prayer, not just in the administration of an institution or in private counseling. It is the liturgy where the Church is strengthened as a community, something more basic to Christianity than meditation or personal spiritualities, some of which seem to be very close to the efforts of the occult to channel power or enlightenment [Gnosticism?] for oneself rather than participate in the community which is Christianity. People do have a right to expect to get more than invisible grace out of communal prayer, particularly a sense of a supportive community. This means that priests need to do more than just "read the service" and put some personal effort into preparation, projection, eye contact, enunciation, meaningful and fluent gestures. Unfortunately, this article leaves the impression that all of the benefits of the Christian community are invisible and beyond control. God is beyond human control, but there is also the dimension of rituals having effects in the present, being relevant to the situation, the immediate culture, the strivings of members to find practical solutions to living in the reign of God in a world which thinks that harming others is okay if it is "just business" or "just politics". We are supposed to be making the effort to make the kingdom of God as real on earth as it is in heaven. Fr. Klein seems to be advising us to leave everything in the invisible, ethereal, unfathomable realm of God instead of expecting the liturgy to be practical communal support for the effort to live the faith instead of just profess it.
Sandi Sinor
2 years 8 months ago
Christian meditation such as Centering Prayer, especially for those who participate in a small group who are spiritual companions, often provides far more community than does attendance at weekly mass, with hundreds of strangers. I have seen regular practice of CP, supported by a small group, transform hearts and souls. It has nothing to do with the occult, nor does it have to do with Gnosticism or "channeling" God for oneself. Real community seems to be a very rare thing in most parishes today. It matters not if the priest makes eye contact or enunciates clearly. Most Catholic parishes, at least in suburban areas, are very, very large. They often have thousands of members. Creating "real" community is almost impossible in today's large Catholic parishes, especially during mass. Perhaps a return to the model of the early church, where the "liturgy" took place in small house churches where people gathered to hear the word, and share the bread and wine at a table together, no priests necessary, would restore some sense of christian community.
Beth Cioffoletti
2 years 8 months ago
Me too, Sandi (I've seen community happen in small Centering Prayer groups). I have been left cold by some suburban parish Masses, where the priest "performs" and the people in the pews make no eye contact whatsoever. Talk about superstition. In the early 70s, just after Vatican2, I remember Mass sitting around on the floor in the lobby of my dormitory (of Catholic college, Univ. of Dayton). We read the Gospel and talked about it. We broke the bread ourselves and passed it around. Life and liturgy were connected in a way that felt real to me. Then those kinds of Masses disappeared and we went back to the old way, and other than in certain situations (funerals, weddings, monastic retreats), I've never been able to go back or fit in.
Sandi Sinor
2 years 8 months ago
Beth, I understand your experience as it parallels mine. There are two masses that I remember clearly, two where I felt a true sense of community and true sense of eucharist. One was in a home, there was a priest presiding, but the liturgy was much as you describe about your dorm liturgies, incuding breaking and passing real bread instead of a flattened wafer. The other mass wason a beach, in a campground, again with a priest, and again, with a real sense of community, a dozen people gathered around, passing the bread during communion. I am in my 60s, and have attended thousands of masses. I remember only those two - because they are the only two that felt like real community, that felt connected to my life. I stopped going to Catholic mass some years ago, especially on Sundays. I do go occasionally, with family. There are a couple of small chapels that I sometimes go to during weekdays, with maybe 12 people there. But it is CP that is my real spiritual community. I keep up with the local parishes, and if there is a program or group that sounds interesting I go (for example, a local parish is doing a six week study of one of Richard Rohr's books). I make small donations to the parish that is hosting so that I don't feel like a total deadbeat! ;) I tell the group leader that I am not a parishoner and have always been welcomed anyway. I think the only way to survive in today's mega-parishes is to find a small group within the parish that is of interest. The GIRM (and its predecessors) has destroyed any real meaning the mass might have held for many of us. I just read of a new book by a sacramental theologian that sounds interesting. There is a review at NCR online. "Twice removed: Why our sacraments often don't connect with real life." http://ncronline.org/news/spirituality/twice-removed-why-our-sacraments-often-dont-connect-real-life Peace to you, Beth! .
Beth Cioffoletti
2 years 8 months ago
We are definitely on the same page, Sandi. Thank you for responding. Besides finding the Centering Prayer groups, I have also been loosely connected to what I called "the UnderGround Church" these last few decades: the nonviolence and Peace & Justice Groups (Pace et Bene, Pax Christi, Catholic Workers). Interesting that there have been so many great Catholic writers and teachers to hold us outliers together during this time - Merton, Richard Rohr, Joan Chittister, Dan Berrigan. And now ... Francis. How can I not be Catholic? Yet I still can't find a Church to go to and am beginning to wonder if that is not part of the plan.

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