Wisdom from an Existential Jewish Mystic

I don’t think Mr. Hogg would have been employed in the first place had his predecessor not suddenly dropped dead on his way to school. Mr. Hogg was what was called in those days a ‘hippy’ and would not, in the normal way of things have been accepted as a suitable candidate to teach English to the sixth form. He always wore a pair of filthy denim trousers, a multi-coloured shirt, a grubby old duffel coat and sandals even when it was snowing. When he was not delivering brilliant lectures on English literature he was to be found in the library reading existential philosophy. We idolised him. I even took to reading Martin Buber, the man he continually quoted in class. He lent me Martin Buber’s I and Thou which I wrestled with for weeks before throwing in the towel. I gave up trying to become an existential philosopher and decided to look like one instead, like the other boys in the class who fell under the spell of the remarkable Mr. Hogg.  Unfortunately for all of us the board of governors failed to fall under the same spell and he was dismissed at the end of the term.

The Way of Man by Martin Buber

 Several years later I came across a little book by Martin Buber in a second-hand bookshop called The Way of Man. I read it from cover to cover on the bus home. As an Orthodox Jew steeped in the rabbinical tradition, Martin Buber had chosen to detail the essence of his existential philosophy in stories so that even I was able to understand what I was unable to understand before. One of his stories told of a carpenter from Lublin, who had a dream in which he saw a vast treasure of immense value that he was given to understand was meant for him if he could only find it. Immediately he gathered the tools of his trade together in an old carpetbag and set out in search of what he had seen in that dream. After searching in vain through five continents he returned home tired and exhausted and flung his tools down on the ground before the hearth he had left forty years before. The floorboards gave way under their weight to reveal the treasure he had seen in that dream a generation before.

The ‘Infinitely Distant’ has Chosen to Become the  ‘Infinitely Near’

The Kingdom of God is within, and we search in vain if we search for His Presence anywhere other than where we are now, and search in any other place than deep down within us. It is here that the One who is the ‘Infinitely Distant’ has chosen to become the  ‘Infinitely Near’. After God had revealed Himself to Moses in the Burning Bush and given him the law on Sinai, He told him to pitch another tent for He would now dwell among the people and travel with them. In this tent or tabernacle, as it was called, there was placed a large ornate oblong box called the Ark of the Covenant in which the ten commandments were kept written on stone tablets. At either end of the Ark, there were the two golden Cherubim facing each other. God’s mystical presence on earth was believed to dwell at an indivisible point in space equidistant between the two Cherubim.

The Mysterious Presence the Shekinah

This mystical presence was called the Shekinah from the Hebrew word meaning to pitch a tent. The Ark had handles on it so that God could travel with His people and even accompany them into battle, for with God on their side who could defeat them? After they arrived in the Promised Land and the Temple was built, the Ark was placed at the far end inside the ‘Holy of Holies’. This now became the holiest place on earth where God’s Presence dwelt behind a huge veil that separated it from the rest of the Sanctuary. When in the prologue to his Gospel St John writes, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us,” he originally used the word Shekinah so the most accurate translation of these words would be, “The word was made flesh and he pitched his tent amongst us.”

When Jesus was finally glorified upon the Cross, the temple veil was rent in two. The message was simple. The Presence of God on earth was no longer to be found in the Holy of Holies in a man-made temple but in the temple of Christ’s own body and the bodies of every man and woman who freely choose to receive Him. This is why Jesus Himself said that the Kingdom of God is within you, as it is within Him, and why St. Paul said that our very bodies are now the temples of the Holy Spirit.

Funnily enough, it took a Jewish philosopher who rejected Jesus to help me realise one of the most profound truths that He ever taught. It made me realise too that this sublime truth was not just a great mystery for me to marvel at but also a mystery that I must enter into. For the first time in my life, I began to set aside daily quality space and time for prayer because I knew that I needed to turn within and learn to savour in silence this mysterious presence. It was here that I came to realise as never before that we are all called not just to share in the life of Christ but also to share in his sacred and sacrificial action.

 Into the Infinite Vortex of Life and Loving

When we have exercised our priesthood at Mass by offering all we have tried to do for God since we last took part in the Sacred Mysteries, He always returns our generosity with love without measure. It is His otherworldly love that draws us ever more deeply into the very life of Christ as He is now, risen and glorified. However, the ultimate meaning of this ‘Holy Communion’ can only be fully appreciated by realising that it leads us, not just to share in the life of the Risen Christ, but into His very action, into His pure and perfect love of His Father. In other words, we are drawn up into the infinite vortex of life and love that endlessly reaches out from the Son and into the Father and from the Father into the Son. It is into this Trinity of everlasting life and love that Jesus came to invite us. This is the home for which we were created and for which we yearn the more we experience ‘the love that surpasses all understanding’ reaching out to embrace us. However, this profound giving and receiving that is the heart and soul of the sacred mysteries will soon degenerate into a dry and barren formalism unless what is celebrated there is practised again and again each day of our lives. The morning offering can be one of the most effective reminders to consecrate each moment of each day to the relentless giving and receiving that enables us to be drawn ever more deeply into the life of The Three in One.

The Love that brings us to ‘At-one-ment’

 When we have offered up the forthcoming day we need to pause for a few moments further to pray for the profound union that only God can give to those who open themselves to receive Him. This love will not only bring us to ‘at-one-ment’ with Him but with our true self, that is otherwise broken and fragmented and separated by selfishness from those around us.

I have stopped going on the pilgrimages that meant so much to me in the past. Time is short, so why should I waste any more time looking without for what I can only find within. I am not trying to suggest that we should not seek out special places to help us come closer to God, but they are only special places because they create the best possible environment for us to savour the One who has ‘pitched His tent’ within us and who travels with us wherever we go. I found such a place for myself ten years ago in a remote Benedictine monastery in Spain. The Abbot was an Englishman who explained to me how the vow of stability taken by the monks helps them to search for the Presence within that so often eludes spiritual butterflies who find it difficult to settle anywhere for long. He did not recognise me, why should he? But I recognised him.  I could not see what he was wearing beneath his habit but I would not mind betting it was the same old denim trousers and the multi-coloured shirt. He was certainly wearing the same sandals. When I asked him if he was called after St. Martin of Tours, he said no, he had called himself after another Martin whose memory was not celebrated in the Christian calendar!

David Torkington’s latest book Wisdom from the Christian Mystics is now available on Amazon.com

He has also just produced Prayer made Simple, published by The Catholic Truth Society.