Elul: Hide and Seek for Contemplatives - (August 2009)

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A religious “contemplative” is someone who is engaged in an intimate relationship with G-d.

That relationship becomes the main activity, motivation, and even occupation of such a person. For a Jewish Contemplative the relationship is lived out through the activities of devekut (a conscious attempt to be passionately attentive to the Presence of G-d), tefillah (liturgical prayer), hegyon ha-lev (a meditative and prayerful study of sacred texts) and hitbodedut (a dialogue of informal prayer in solitude).

When one considers that the “object” of the contemplative’s desire is ultimately unknowable, inexplicable, intangible and utterly beyond human description or comprehension it might well seem rather odd to describe a contemplative life-style as a “relationship”.

Yet that is how I experience it and it is the way the vast majority of Jewish contemplatives and mystics have experienced it since biblical times. In the Bible, we are told that the G-d of Israel is our Father, our King, and even our Lover or Marital Partner. In the daily experience of prayer that is how it can feel even though we know we are talking similes and metaphors to describe the indescribable.

Biblically, G-d is the One who insists that “If you seek me with all your heart I will let you find Me” (Jeremiah 29:14).

David reminds us: “If you seek Him, He will be found by you, but if you forsake Him, He will reject you forever” (I Chronicles 28:9).

If we truly experienced the feeling of “rejection forever” that David spoke of, the chances are that many of us would give up the search to find G-d. This does not mean to say that contemplatives always, or even often, feel “close” to Him. Our way is more often than not a case of believing that the sun is there even when it doesn’t shine.

As David reminds us, there are many times when G-d “hides” Himself because of our faults. In playing “Hide and Seek for Contemplatives”, there are times when we simply can’t be bothered looking for G-d, and times when we do not wish to be found ourselves. Times when we push G-d away like spiteful children losing a game, and times when when we try to hide Him in a mental cupboard out of embarrassment or shame. This can sometimes be due to remorse about things we have done or said or thought ourselves. Sometimes it can be because we have chickened-out in a political, social,or theological world in which it is unfashionable to admit that we want to know G-d intimately.

G-d sometimes seems very close to us and we rejoice. But even when we feel we are doing our best, there can be a strong sense of His distance or absence.

Sometimes He hides from us in a sort of dance, in a sort of game, in a sort of lesson, in a sort of method we don’t really understand, and sometimes struggle against. It can go on for years like that. The absence of any sensation that G-d might be within hailing distance is a common and recurring state in the life of most full-time contemplatives. This is not punishment, cruelty, or the Divine toying with us like puppets. But it may be a refining test-situation. It may be a positive tool which ultimately helps us to see more of G-d and less of ourselves in the contemplative process. It can remind us, to paraphrase a wonderful Carthusian saying, that a contemplative is engaged with “the G-d of consolations and not the consolations of G-d”.

If we consider the Isaiah 50 text which heads this article, it may even be allowing us to share some part of the Divine perspective.

We must also realise that our relationship can be intimate but our attention span is severely limited, and though we may describe the contemplative life as being a relationship, it can never be a relationship between equals.

Yes, He will let us find Him...but we cannot make Him stay.

Yes, He will wrestle with us for a time, but at dawn He will be gone.

Yes, we may sense His Presence for a moment,
but we cannot dwell in that moment for long and live.

Maybe Rebbe Nachman of Breslov came the closest to describing the situation we are in. (My interpretation of the following symbols is not the Breslover one, and it is not as complex or as kabbalistic an interpretation as R.Nachman himself may have intended.) He speaks of a “Spring” and a “Heart” which are in love but are separated by space and each located on the summit of a mountain. When the “Heart” leaves its summit and runs to try to reach the Spring it feels anguish because, in the valley, it can no longer have an uninterrupted view of the Beloved on the opposite summit. So the intimacy of their love is expressed in periods of eternal gazing and unfulfilled longing....or bursts of rushing to achieve a union despite an almost total loss of vision. It is a view which captures the paradox that the contemplative is in a passionate relationship with an immanent G-d, while simultaneously knowing the otherness of G-d and the chasm produced by His transcendence.

Spring and Heart illustration
(1994 Shabbos Prayer book)

Each year Jews enter into a period of deep reflection and prayer which begins with the month of Elul. In Aramaic, "elul" means "search".

The month of Elul leads into the “Ten Days”, a period of confession, self analysis, and charitable giving at the end of which the Jew seeks forgiveness and the union of “atonement” with G-d on Yom Kippur. Almost without pause, this segues into another festival, that of Sukkot during which we declare our trust in the protecting cloud of G-d’s Presence.

For many Jews this period is the time of year when they become their most active in both prayer and in self examination. For those who live out the festival calendar profoundly, there is a sense that one should “seek G-d while He may be found” with the month of Elul being an annual “retreat-time” par excellence. For such people the Ten Days of Awe can be extraordinarily charged and numinous. This can even be the case for contemplatives who have an intense prayer regimen all year round.

For many Jews, the season provides an uncomfortable (but somehow also welcomed) opportunity to take stock and it gives them a formally sanctioned encouragement to engage in a more intense prayer-life than may be thought appropriate or even possible at other times.

But the High Holidays period can sometimes be a sort of one-off binge which does not truly connect with the time preceding and following it. There is also the risk that our confessions can become rather pathetic exercises in perfectionism unless we remember that we are also confessing in the plural for “kol Yisrael”.

The month of Elul and the Ten Days, are a time when the game of hide and seek is liturgically intensified. In a sense, G-d was/is there all along and we create the liturgy to highlight that.

The long haul of the penitential period which opens with Elul, and which closes at the end of Yom Kippur can be a cathartic experience, but it is not magic. Neilah is best seen as being a part of a continuing journey rather than as a triumphal destination. A contemplative also knows that time is really an illusion. Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow are simultaneous in G-d: The still point of musaf Yom Kippur can be like a small flame inside the soul which burns all year round as a memory and a reference point.

In this way of seeing things, though G-d has concealed Himself, His presence is not altogether withdrawn but there is a sense in which this kind of “hiding” is for our own good. We are reminded that Moses saw the “back” and not the “face” of G-d and that Elijah covered his face with a mantle: both prophets experiencing the event thus shielded for their own protection. The times in which we are in the “cleft of the rock” are rare events, and the obscuring cloud is actually our friend:

“For He will hide me in His Tabernacle on the day of distress,
He will conceal me in the shelter of His tent.
Upon a rock He will lift me.”
(Psalm 27:5)

We are given the Penitential/Holiday season as a chance to double up our half-hearted efforts to find G-d. Its message is really that He is more present in the world if we make Him so. But that is also a description of what a Jewish Contemplative is trying to do in every moment and not just once a year, or even once a week.

Potentially,every moment can be "the time when He might let us find Him".

But it sometimes involves us seeing in the dark. It sometimes involves us standing still in order to see that He is right next to us. It may involve the ability to survive on the manna of hope when faith is all but lost. It certainly involves patience and determination. And in this game of Hide and Seek, whether we are playing it during Elul, during the High Holidays or on a normal weekday- it is the energy and consistency with which we make the search that counts: for we are told we can find Him..... but only if we search with all our heart. Nothing less will do. It requires total commitment.