God is the greatest question


John O'Donohue

John O’Donohue

God is the most passionate presence in the universe. … there is not a stitch of utilitarianism or functionalism in God. … God surges and flows and is wild. 

This aspect of God’s vitality has been lost for so long with­in the tradition. … Aristotle’s idea of God as unmoved mover seemed to protect the transcendence of God by putting him safely beyond all change.

The danger of such a concept is that it deadens the deity. God is not a dead answer. God is the greatest question in the universe, a question that has kept itself free of banal answers. This is where all fundamentalists and sects get lost. They convert the passion, wildness and danger of God as a question into a clichéd answer ….

John O’Donohue, ‘Fire: At Home at the Hearth of Spirit’, in: The Four Elements: Reflections on Nature

Tsimtsum and the coming into being of the other

Scan0001Henri Nouwen, in The Wounder Healer, quotes James Hillman, who talks about the Jewish mystical doctrine of Tsimtsum, noting that

God as omnipresent and omnipotent was everywhere. He filled the universe with his Being. How then could the creation come about? … God had to create by withdrawal; He created the not-Him, the other, by self-concentration … On the human level, withdrawal of myself aids the other to come into being.

Nouwen elaborates:

when we have found the anchor places for our lives in our own center, we can be free to let others enter into the space created for them and allow them to dance their own dance, sing their own song and speak their own language without fear. Then our presence is no longer threatening and demanding but inviting and liberating.

More and more

I move more slowly than I used to because I don’t want to miss anything.
I find more and more beauty and meaning in everyday, average moments that I would have missed before.
I need fewer answers because I see more.
I find more people more fascinating than ever because I’m more and more used to being surprised by the mystery that a human being is.
I’ve discovered more and more events are less about the events themselves and more about me being open to whatever it is that’s going on just below the surface

Once again this is from Rob Bell’s What We Talk about When We Talk about God.


The challenge for all of us is:

to become more and more the kind of people who are aware of the divine presence, attuned to the ruach [the spirit of God], present to the depths of each and every moment, seeing God in more and more and more people, places, and events, each and every day.


what our experiences of God do at the most primal level of consciousness is jolt us into the affirmation that whatever this is, it matters. This person, place, event, gesture, attitude, action, piece of art, parcel of land, heart, word, moment – it matters.

Thus Rob Bell, What We Talk about When We Talk about God. This, indeed, is the way to live, yet as Bell rightly notes, it is a challenge for us, who so often live in the past or the future rather than in the present moment.


In Living without Enemies: Being Present in the Midst of Violence, Samuel Wells and Marcia A. Owen talk about the importance of silence, the silence of listening, the silence of being present, the silence of solidarity, the ministry of silence. When confronted with the pain of others, ‘we want to speak’, they admit, ‘because we don’t want to feel, and we speak to stop people from feeling’. Yet silence is so important because it says:

I am not going to tell you I’m too busy. I am not going to make light of your struggles. I am not going to tell you something more interesting actually happened to me. I am not going to say, ‘I know,’ when you’re exploring a feeling for the first time. I am not going to change the subject when you bring up something that’s hard to hear. … You can trust me to listen. You can trust me to withhold my personal investment for another time and another place. You can trust me to be alert to the ways of God, however strange the story you tell.

Secret places inside this violent world

Time for some more of Rumi’s poetry, again in the translation of Coleman Barks, from Bridge to the Soul: Journeys into the Music and Silence of the Heart.

I am sure I have said this before, but Rumi has been an amazing discovery for me. There is profound spiritual insight in the words of this Sufi master, and there is so much here that speaks to me at such a deep level. Some of it puts into words my own recent journey in ways that I could never have managed myself. Other parts express some of my deepest hopes and longings. And then there are many wonderful insights about God, love, friendship etc.

If only more people would read Rumi’s poetry. It would open their eyes to quite a different side of Islam. But then, he apparently is the most widely read poet in America today. There is still hope then …

We must die to become true human beings.

From gardens to the gardener,
from grieving to a wedding feast.

We tremble like leaves about to let go.
There is no avoiding pain,
or feeling exiled, or the taste of dust.

I can truly relate to those reflections on dying, grieving, letting go, experiencing pain and the taste of dust.

When someone feels jealous,
I am inside the hurt and the need to possess.

When anyone is sick,
I feel feverish and dizzy.

This I find comforting: that God is inside the hurt of those who need to possess others. And that he is inside our sickness.

For the grace of the presence, be grateful.

Imagination cannot contain the absolute.
These poems are elusive
because the presence is.

‘Imagination cannot contain the absolute’. Quite. No point to even try!

No more holding back. Be reckless.
Tell your love to everybody.

Stand up. The prostrating
part of prayer is over.

the beloved is absence
as well as this fullness.

I love that attitude to praying and loving God.

Be a helpful friend,
and you will become a green tree
with always new fruit,
always deeper journeys into love.

Worth aspiring to …

Learned theologians do not teach love.
Love is nothing but gladness and kindness.

When you see a scowling face,
it is not a lover’s.

Rumi really does understand true love.

Lovers find secret places
inside this violent world
where they make transactions
with beauty.

Reason says, Nonsense.
I have walked and measured the walls here.
There are no places like that.

Love says, There are.

Lovers feel a truth inside themselves
that rational people keep denying.

This is just brilliant stuff, so true and so well expressed. Secret places in a violent world where you make transactions with beauty – that’s truly wonderful and how I wish to live.