(by Jennifer Kavanagh)
We have such a hungry need to know.
All the emphasis of modern life is on the rational acquisition of factual knowledge. Ignorance, not knowing, is uncomfortable; we feel it puts us at a disadvantage. But even on subjects where we feel secure, our certainties are continually challenged: by the limitations of the current state of knowledge, the subjective nature of experience, and the fluid quality of the material world.
We also seem to think that we know what is going to happen.
We confidently make plans and continue blindly according to our expectations, however often unexpected occurrences dash our preconceptions. Whether we see these intervening life events as caused by chance, destiny, an interventionist God or the working of the universe, there’s no denying that they occur.
To know is not a simple act.
In other languages there are separate words to differentiate knowledge of facts from the deeper experience of acquaintance with a person or a place. But can we say that we actually know anyone else? Even our life partner? Do we know ourselves? If we don’t know those whom we encounter with our minds and senses, nor ourselves with whom we live all the time, how can we expect to know something beyond ourselves?
How can we know God?
Beyond those aspects of the world about which we assume knowledge, there is a dimension of life to which rational explanation doesn’t apply. This is the world of religious experience. The strange fact, as William James explained in his ground-breaking 1902 book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is that the most profound of such experiences do themselves bear an intrinsic quality of knowing: they are “noetic”. This is not the knowing limited to facts and practicalities, but a knowing that encompasses the entire being.
Only when we let go of the need to know in a cognitive sense are we able to access this kind of knowing.
If we set aside our rational priorities, and trust our experience and inner rather than outward certainty, we may discover a different, intuitive, quality. As we move into the realm of the heart and open it, as we give ourselves over to a place of ultimate vulnerability and trust, we find ourselves in a state from which that deeper knowing arises.
But we can go further.
The word “unknowing” is primarily familiar to us from the anonymous Christian fourteenth-century text, The Cloud of Unknowing, What the author asks us to do is not just to acknowledge our ignorance, but actively to “un-know”: stripping ourselves of all our sensory experience, even any previous experience or concept of God, even the awareness of our own existence, under what he calls “a Cloud of Forgetting”. Only when the heart and will are focused entirely on a desire for God will transformation be possible. As he says, “By love he can be caught and held, but by thinking never.”
Few of us will attain a continuous contemplative state, but we may catch an occasional glimpse.
Our only responsibility is to be ready and willing to open ourselves to what might come. In our busy, preoccupied lives, there needs to enter a pause, a breath, a more spacious consciousness. We need to move beyond the small world of personal preoccupation and be willing to connect to the life-force and the mystery of the universe. We need to spend time away from our habitual actions and the tyranny of our thinking mind. In celebration, in awe, in joy at what is, we are stilled. If a glimpse, an insight, occurs, that’s a bonus. We can’t make it happen but in that wordless space, there might form a sense of presence.
Not knowing is at the centre of spiritual life.
It is only by creating a space in which anything can happen that we allow God to speak, allow the unpredictable Spirit to bring us gifts beyond our imaginings.. “God”, says Abhishiktanada, “dwells only where man steps back to give him room”.
Meet the Author: Jennifer Kavanagh worked in publishing for nearly thirty years, the last fourteen as an independent literary agent. Since becoming a Quaker in 1995, and selling her business a couple of years later, she has run a community centre in London’s East End, worked with street homeless people and refugees, set up a microcredit programme in London, and worked as a research associate for the Prison Reform Trust. She currently sets up microcredit programmes in Africa and facilitates conflict resolution workshops for Alternatives to Violence (AVP), both in prison and in the community. Jennifer is also now engaged in her own writing. She has had six books of her own published, and has edited one, including her first novel, The Emancipation of B that will be published by Roundfire in February 2015.