On the Coming of Learned Ignorance

Apologies again for it being about a month since my last post.  A number of folks wrote in to ask whether I was keeping the site alive or not.  The answer is I intend to and now that I am done with school believe I will have more time to.

I do have to confess to some trepidation around returning to blogging here.  Any of my more public (or less personal) blogging now goes on over at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen.  That experience continues to be a very rewarding one for me.  More rewarding as part of a group than it ever was here in a solo effort (on politics, social commentary, etc.).

To set the stage, a long quotation from Evelyn Underhill’s text Practical Mysticism (a sort of digest version of her classic Mysticism).

Hitherto, all that you have attained has been—or at least has seemed to you—the direct result of your own hard work. A difficult self-discipline, the slowly achieved control of your vagrant thoughts and desires, the steady daily practice of recollection, a diligent pushing out of your consciousness from the superficial to the fundamental, an unselfish loving attention; all this has been rewarded by the gradual broadening and deepening of your perceptions, by an initiation into the movements of a larger life. You have been a knocker, a seeker, an asker: have beat upon the Cloud of Unknowing “with a sharp dart of longing love.” A perpetual effort of the will has characterised your inner development. Your contemplation, in fact, as the specialists would say, has been “active,” not “infused.”

But now, having achieved an awareness—obscure and indescribable indeed, yet actual—of the enfolding presence of Reality, under those two forms which the theologians call the “immanence” and the “transcendence” of the Divine, a change is to take place in the relation between your finite human spirit and the Infinite Life in which at last it knows itself to dwell. All that will now come to you—and much perhaps will come—will happen as it seems without effort on your own part: though really it will be the direct result of that long stress and discipline which has gone before, and has made it possible for you to feel the subtle contact of deeper realities. It will depend also on the steady continuance—often perhaps through long periods of darkness and boredom—of that poise to which you have been trained: the stretching-out of the loving and surrendered will into the dimness and silence, the continued trustful habitation of the soul in the atmosphere of the Essential World. You are like a traveller arrived in a new country. The journey has been a long one; and the hardships and obstacles involved in it, the effort, the perpetual conscious pressing forward, have at last come to seem the chief features of your inner life. Now, with their cessation, you feel curiously lost; as if the chief object of your existence had been taken away. No need to push on any further: yet, though there is no more that you can do of yourself, there is much that may and must be done to you. The place that you have come to seems strange and bewildering, for it lies far beyond the horizons of human thought. There are no familiar landmarks, nothing on which you can lay hold. You “wander to and fro,” as the mystics say, “in this fathomless ground”; surrounded by silence and darkness, struggling to breathe this rarefied air. Like those who go to live in new latitudes, you must become acclimatised. Your state, then, should now be wisely passive; in order that the great influences which surround you may take and adjust your spirit, that the unaccustomed light, which now seems to you a darkness, may clarify your eyes, and that you may be transformed from a visitor into an inhabitant of that supernal Country which St. Augustine described as “no mere vision, but a home.”

You are therefore to let yourself go; to cease all conscious, anxious striving and pushing. Finding yourself in this place of darkness and quietude, this “Night of the Spirit,” as St. John of the Cross has called it, you are to dwell there meekly; asking nothing, seeking nothing, but with your doors flung wide open towards God. And as you do thus, there will come to you an ever clearer certitude that this darkness enveils the goal for which you have been seeking from the first; the final Reality with which you are destined to unite, the perfect satisfaction of your most ardent and most sacred desires. It is there, but you cannot by your efforts reach it. This realisation of your own complete impotence, of the resistance which the Transcendent—long sought and faithfully served—now seems to offer to your busy outgoing will and love, your ardour, your deliberate self-donation, is at once the most painful and most essential phase in the training of the human soul. It brings you into that state of passive suffering which is to complete the decentralisation of your character, test the purity of your love, and perfect your education in humility.

In the classic depiction of the Christian spiritual journey, this is the third and final phase:  union (of spirits).   The first two stages being purification and illumination.  It is the difference St. Teresa of Avila says between watering your own garden via an aqueduct and a deluge from the heavens soaking the garden.  It is the transition in St. Teresa’s mystical cartography from the Sixth to the Seventh Mansion.

Now this blog (and my practice which united at various points, interpenetrating and informing each other) over the years was mainly about the missing fourth stage (that is no stage) the so-called Nondual or better in its native Christian language Indistinct Union.

That phase of inquiry opened up a few  years back into a deep inundation in that state. I don’t really like to talk in this manner because the subject-object formation of our grammar forms us into a notion of a separate self attaining ownership or mastery of some state.  Like an acquisition.  Some achievement. When the reality of Indistinct Union is utter lack of achievement, the end of attaining anything.  It’s in some ways a kosmic joke. It took me years to not see it as a bad, cruel joke frankly, but that only speaks to how much egoism I held (and still do) in wanting to be capital E Enlightened.

So while some would see the path as normally going purification, illumination, union, and indistinct union, the last mode is actually always already the case and therefore can be sunk into (or happen upon you) at any phase of the journey.

But (and here I hate saying it this way but here goes) my journey (ugh) did not follow this pattern.  If I would categorize it–and to do is folly but hey I’m this far in what the hell–it was purification, illumination, and then indistinct union.  The union largely skipped (or short-circuited depending on your pov).

What has occurred in the time since I last wrote is  that the spiritual process, after a kind of hiatus (largely repressed through seminary [mal]formation), is picking back up at the missing piece.  Or I should say (and here an ‘I’ matters) that is what I feel I am being called towards.  Whether I choose to accept the invitation and undergo it is a different question.

The bundle of fear from my last post that remained unnamed and un-understood, un-cognized was opened to me during Holy Week.  It was the fear of undergoing the process towards union.

The ego in Indistinct Union is not actually purified/transformed.  It is no relative but rather Absolute.  Realize or realize not, there is no try (there).  One simply experiences beyond a self.  But that realization is only capable through a self:   a body-soul-mind construct.  The self in this case is often referred to as a vehicle.  Therefore the vehicle (and I lack a better metaphor though I’m not entirely happy with this one) should be in proper shape (“at-tuned”).

The ego in union is crucified.  In indistinct union it simply disappears (“ascends” in Christian symbolism).  It is the crucifixion that brings so much fear within me.  As Underhill’s quotation makes clear, the process of undergoing union is to enter into total darkness.  A darkness that is luminous in Dionysius’ language.  A darkness that is the ardor of sacntified love (in John of the Cross), a unknowing of a Cloud within which God and the soul unite (under an unknowing cloud).

Learned Ignorance Nicholas of Cusa called it. (Docta Ignorantia–click here for a pdf of the work).  I am must become doctored in ignorance.  But learned ignorance.  Not that I will forget how to do my job, where I live, make sense of the world around me.  But rather to dis-identify/objectify all of that and fundamentaly not know–the essence of anything.

All of the metaphors regarding union are that–metaphors. Rains from heaven, luminosity in darkness, a Cloud of Divine Unkonwing, Mystical Marriage, The Coincidence of Opposites (also from Cusa), a night of burning ecstasy.  The metaphors are cataphatic atempts to express (and give praise to/for) the apophatic.

The way into that process is learned ignornace and its twin, abandonment to the will of God in the Sacrament of the Present Momen (another metaphor for union)t.  I actually know the way (or maybe the way knows me).  But it is so taxing and difficult to maintain.  And yet actually it isn’t.  It actually is too simple and too close which is why it is so hard.

One practices learned ignorance (“detachment from/non-identification with”) all one’s own knowledge, emotions, and reactions during the time of normal working/waking life.  Detaching via learned ignornace frees the self to attach to and seek the will of God.  Rather than identifying with the mechanically caused world  of events and perceptions–this slow world–the aspirant seeks to unite to the Cause of All (called for this reason Causal in Vedanta terminology).

The same is true for times of meditation or prayer. it tends to deepen there but it can just as easily be times of total boredom, nothingness for long (seemingly unending periods).

But ultimately what this is all about is the purging of everything that is not God from the self.  The illumination-stage mystic has many experiences, many subtle understandings but is not yet totally converted. Is not yet totally surrendered.  To surrender is to lose power and control.  This is what my self fears the most and why I have run terrified from this space for so long.

The union-stage mystic must learn about Providence in de Caussade’s language.  About The Cause/Sustainer of this all.  A fearful asymmetry there lies ahead.