What We Need for Union with God

Recently I posted this quote from Fr. Thomas Keating on Facebook:

If you’re curious about the source of this quote, it is found on page 71 of Open Mind, Open Heart.

In response, one reader posted this question as a comment:

Carl, what, in practice, does divine union actually mean? Surely we’ll be totally at one with God only in the next life?

It’s a fair question, especially for anyone who has been taught that there is a terrible chasm that separates us from God (such teaching typically blames human sinfulness for this separation). I think the idea that we are existentially alienated from God is bad theology, but it’s certainly a common notion, especially in the institutional church.

Here’s how I initially replied to the question.

“In him we live and move and have our being” — isn’t that union with God? Paul doesn’t quote this line to suggest it only applies to eternity, but rather as a present reality.

Put another way: God is omnipresent, which means God is everywhere. But if God is, in fact, everywhere, then God is in every cell of your body, right here and right now. You cannot escape God. God is not elsewhere.

The question of Divine Union is not “Can we attain it?” because it has already been given — even to the most reprehensible sinner. The real question is, “Can we learn to truly know it?” and maybe even more important, “Can we conduct our lives in a manner worthy of it?”

But it occurs to me that this is truly an important question, so I decided to explore it in a bit more detail here on my blog.

Where Does the Notion of “Separation from God” Come From?

The idea that we are somehow separate from God probably stems from Isaiah 59:2, which says that our sins have “separated” us from God. II Thessalonians 1:9 also suggests that those who reject God will be separated from God from all eternity — but that is a threat for the future, not a comment on current reality. So we’ll just consider Isaiah’s words. And Isaiah makes very clear, in 59:1, that “the Lord’s hand is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear.” So any “separation” between us and God is not God’s doing, but our own. Which begs the question: if God has not separated from us, are we truly separate, or does it just feel that way?

The Hebrew word in Isaiah 59:2 that gets translated as “separation” (or “barrier” in some versions) is  בֵּין (bayin) which has the sense of an “interval” or a “space between.” So the separation is not an insurmountable barrier, but rather a spaciousness that, presumably, God allows in order for us to come to our senses regarding our misdeeds.

What it makes me think of is how, in marriage, sometimes (like right after a fight) the two spouses might need some time apart. Time to think, to calm down, to relax, to reflect on what caused the fight and then what could be done to resolve the conflict.

Here’s the important point: they are still married, even while they are apart. “The two shall become one flesh” — even when there is a space between them, because of a conflict that is not yet resolved.

Our relationship with God works in a similar way, although with the added felicity of God’s perfection. We are one with God, even when we human beings reject that divine union, either explicitly (by making unloving choices) or implicitly (by ignoring or forgetting God’s unitive presence in our lives). So… we have a job to do, in order to restore what has been lost on our part. 

That’s the blessing here: God never loses God’s union with us. So even while we think or feel that we are separated from God, that is only a misperception on our parts, a consequence of our own spiritual blindness. But we are always invited back into the light of divine grace and divine union.

It’s interesting to look at the original context of what Fr. Keating wrote:

Some people experience a preview of divine union, lose it for a period of time, then have to climb back to it. God can start you off at any point in the spiritual life. If you get a headstart, you have to go back and fill in the gaps. Don’t think that some people are lucky because they have visions when they are five or six years old. These people still have to go through the struggle to dismantle the emotional programs of early childhood. These programs are only temporarily put to sleep by the divine action. One great advantage for such persons, however, is that they know by experience what is missing in their lives and that nothing less than God can ever satisfy them. It is a mistake, however, to envy or admire someone else’s path. You must be convinced that you have everything you need to reach divine union. The reason any expectation is a hindrance is that it is a form of clinging, hence comes from the desire to control.1Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel (p. 71). Emphasis mine.

So we can see the context in which Fr. Keating is talking: he’s addressing the question of someone who feels envious of someone else — perhaps a mystic like Hildegard of Bingen — who enjoyed consoling experiences of divine presence from an early age. Fr. Keating points out that everyone is different, but even those who have mystical experiences still have to do the long slow hard work of gradually letting go of all our inner woundedness that keeps us feeling alienated from God (and that also fuels our unloving behavior).

But then he insists: we must be convinced we have everything we need to reach divine union. We don’t need special visions or mystical experiences. We don’t need some sort of spiritual superpower that is only available to the select few. Everyone lives and moves and have their being in God, so that means everyone has union with God — right here and right now.

Reaching What is Already There

But what do we need to “reach” it? Back to my questions: “Can we learn to truly know it?” and “Can we conduct our lives in a manner worthy of it?” We already have everything we need to say “Yes” to both of these questions. And the “how” of that yes stems from the same spiritual act: repentance.

Remember, repentance, in Greek, is metanoia, a word that literally means “after the mind” or “after consciousness.” We have to move beyond ordinary consciousness in order to repent, which is to say, in order to recognize God’s presence in our lives and to amend our lives in a manner that is worthy of that presence.

You see, my first question is a challenge to embrace contemplation: to learn to truly know we have divine union requires adopting a life grounded in contemplative prayer. And my second question is a challenge to embody compassion: to live in a manner worthy of divine union means to live a life grounded in love and mercy, rather than in hostility and fear.

Both contemplation and compassion emerge from the higher consciousness that repentance calls us to (remember, repentance is not just feeling sorry for your sins. That, actually, is contrition. Repentance is embracing the higher mind/heart that makes contrition and amendment of life possible).

But then how do I repent? If that’s your question, I would invite you to pray every day, with at least some of that prayer including contemplative silence. And I would invite you to honestly acknowledge the ways you make choices in your life that are contrary to love. If you faithfully do both of these things, God will lead you into metanoia — into the higher heart/mind that recognizes Divine Union has been our free gift all along.

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.