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The Metaphor of Ground

ISS Reports


A paper given at a seminar held by the Institute for Spiritual Studies on the 21st November, 2015

Delivered by The Rev'd Dr Sarah Bachelard, Honorary Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University.

Session 1

I want to begin with a couple of qualifying remarks. The first is to do with the promised theme of this seminar. Bishop Graeme asked me about this time last year to participate in the Institute of Spirituality program and to send through an abstract of what I might talk about. Re-reading this promissory note more recently, I was struck by how ambitious it is (a year out, all things still seem possible) — and conscious that what I'll offer here is exploratory and provisional, and not at all a comprehensive survey of the rich history of the metaphor of ground in the Christian (let alone any other) spiritual tradition.

What I really want to talk about today is prayer — and the significance of the vocation of prayer, particularly contemplative prayer, in our contemporary context. The metaphor of 'ground' is one I find myself drawing on in my own experience of prayer. For me, it's a way of expressing what life given over to prayer often feels like. At the same time, this metaphor is also used by various writers to speak of 'God', to speak of the self, and of the self in relation to God. So it has a very wide range, and I've been wanting to reflect some more about these ways of speaking and how they connect to, and perhaps illuminate, each other and our practice.

So in this first part of our time together I want to open up some of this terrain, and invite your reflections and conversation in response. We then have a break for morning tea and bookshop. After the break, we'll have an opportunity to practise a short period of contemplative prayer, or meditation. Then I want to share something about the contemplative vocation and its significance in our time for both the church and the world, and again to spend some time reflecting together about that. My hope is that in our conversation and shared wondering, we'll all be led a little deeper in our understanding and our journeying with God.

So, let us turn now to the metaphor of ground which, as I've been thinking about it, we can explore from at least three angles.

Ground as Experience

I'll start with what I've noticed about my own use of the metaphor of ground as a way of describing a certain kind of experience. The experience is of being grounded. I don't mean this so much in a 'I've found my centre' or 'I feel my feet are on the ground' kind of way. It's more a sense of being laid flat out on the ground — in fact, 'flattened', prostrate, pressed to the ground captures it better. The poet Rilke has a poem called 'The Man Watching' which seems to express the same kind of experience:

What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the old testament;

Whoever was beaten by this angel

went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
That kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: By being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

Defeat is another word I've used to describe this experience of being flattened on the ground — but it's a 'good' defeat ... It feels as though it's connected to being more fully in contact with what's real, and so to a deepening truthfulness in me. It resonates with those lines in the poem about going 'away proud and strengthened and great from that harsh hand'. It's like being emptied out of all that's not essential. I'm always glad and in some sense relieved to be brought to ground in this kind of way ... even if the process of getting there has been painful and full of resistance on my part.

Like Rilke, I've come to interpret this experience as in some way connected to divine encounter. It's what happens when I'm open to God, opened by God, it seems. But what makes me think that? How do I know this experience of being grounded, flattened, is an expereience of, or somehow connected to, God? To paraphrase John Main, how do I know it's God, and not just a form of indigestion?

There's a significant literature which is rightly suspicious of too quickly identifying certain subjective or psychological states with the presence of 'God' — as if we know what God is going to 'feel' like. As a corollary of this, the great teachers of prayer insist that 'prayer is not about cultivating certain states of consciousness'.[1] The reason for this is that if we are focused on cultivating a particular subjective experience of what we think God feels like — a state of peace, for example, or a state of feeling flattened — if this becomes the object of focus, then what we're focusing on is not God, but ourselves. It's a dead end in prayer.

So the question of experience in the spiritual life is a subtle thing. Here's how the tradition suggests we relate to particular experiences we have in prayer and associate with God.

First, don't take the over seriously. They may be an effect, but they aren't the point of prayer. As Benedictine David Foster writes, 'The danger is always that the experience becomes an end in itself, something that has its own significance. Having a certain kind of experience can even confer a certain staus (being a "contemplative" or a "mystic" ) over the have-nots.'[2] The danger is also that, having read certain accounts of 'experience', we try to conjure it up for ourselves — imagining ourselves into an experience of the living flame of God or the dark night of the soul or of union with God, or whatever it happens to be. This, as Thomas Merton points out vigorously, is 'an egocentric and spiritually blind manipulation of images and concepts', because 'there is all the difference in the world between the fruits of genuine religious experience, a pure gift of God, and the results of mere imagination.'[3]

What authenticates encounter with God is not particular subjective experiences, but the more fundamental, existential process of the self being changed by encounter with a reality it never masters or fully encompasses. Merton distinguishes between so-called 'spiritual' experiences which the ego-ic self seeks to possess and, on the other hand, the awareness of being transformed by a process which leads to the unmasking and loosening of the hold of just this self-centred and self-sufficient ego-ic self. Theologian Jurgen Moltmann has said: 'The experience of God is always a suffering of the God who is Other, and the experience of fundamental change in the relationship to that Other.' Experience of God is not something we have or contain. It befalls us as a reconfiguration of self, a coming to be sourced elsewhere.

Practically speaking, this means that in prayer our attention is never to be focused on particular experiences we are or are not having, but on that which draws us out of our self-preoccupation, beyond ourselves. That is why contemplative prayer is a practice where we very intentionally turn our attention away from ourselves, our thoughts, images, and feeling states, and turn towards the Other who is beyond all of that. David Foster describes it as 'the paradoxical experience of being drawn into something that seems empty, where we find ourselves addressed, but by a blank that, nevertheless, seems to be the essential and ultimate thing.'[4]

Having said all this, there is of course a rich literature in the Christian spiritual tradition — not to mention in poetry like Rilke's — in which encounter with, or experience of, God is described in experiential metaphors, and this includes metaphors of heat, flame and light, as well as ground, abyss and union. Thomas Merton remarks, 'what is beyond experience has to be mediated, in some way, and interpreted in the ordinary language of human thought' before it can be reflected upon by the person having the experience and communicated to others.[5]

And this suggests that the metaphors and images by which people are compelled to describe their encounter with God in prayer aren't completely arbitrary. And if this is so, then maybe they're worth exploring. We aren't aiming to have any particular experiences; nevertheless, the experience we have, and the language we use of it, can be fruitfully engaged in our theological reflection about the nature of God, the nature of the self and the way in which God and self are related. So, with this in mind, I want to say something about the use of 'ground' as a metaphor for both God and the self.

Ground as a Metaphor for God and Self

A theologian for whom the notion of 'ground' was a 'master metaphor' for articulating the human relationship with God was the 13th century Dominican, Meister Eckhart. In fact, according to one historian of Christian spirituality, Eckhart's use of the German word 'grunt' was a breakthrough to a new way of presenting a direct encounter with God.[6]

In the spiritual literature of the late Middle Ages, there were various Latin terms that referred to the 'innermost of the soul' — that part of the self which was said to be in the image of God, the place where God comes into the soul. 'Grunt' was a vernacular word from Middle High German which could be used of this dimension of the self. But (unlike the Latin terms for the soul) 'grunt' could also be used to indicate the hidden depths of God.[7] So what's important for Eckhart about this metaphor is the way it allows him to speak of God and the soul in terms of identity. 'God's ground and my ground is the same ground', he said.[8] Similar expresssions can be found in some of the women mystics of about the same period.

This way of putting things was controversial (to say the least) — and for historians and theologians it still gives rise to a great deal of technical discussion. The 'problem' is whether Eckhart is to be understood as implying that God and human beings have the same essence; or at least that within human beings there is a part of us which is God, eternal and uncreated. 'God's ground and my ground is the same ground'. If so, this is an understanding Christian orthodoxy would deem as wrongly blurring the distinction between creature and Creator, and our need for transformation by grace.

For our purposes, I'm going to avoid this technical discussion. What I want to highlight in Eckhart's use of this metaphor is the mainstream contemplative understanding of the possibility of union between human beings and God. We are creatures who can receive God's life in ours such as to become like God — and so love like God, see as God sees, and so on. On Rowan Williams' reading, for example, Meister Eckhart is making a serious statement 'of the idea that the soul is capable of simple receptivity to God and that in grace it does indeed take on the shape of that which it contemplates.'[9]

It's also part of this mainstream contemplative understanding that not only are we 'capable' of such union, but it's what we most deeply long for, it's what we're created for. What is deepest in ourselves (our ground) is seeking to be united to, grounded in God — or, as Augustine so famously expressed it, 'our souls are restless till they find their rest in you'. And this is God's longing too. According to Julian of Norwich: 'As the ground of our being ... Christ desires that we take "our place and our dwelling" ... in his ground.'[10]

Thomas Merton writes in this same tradition. He speaks of the 'ground of our being' in terms of 'the heart', which he considers 'the root and source of all one's own inner truth.'[11] This 'deepest psychological ground of one's personality', he says, 'the inner sanctuary where self-awareness goes beyond analytical reflection ... [is what] opens out into metaphysical and theological confrontation with [God]'. Interestingly, Merton goes on to play with the metaphor of ground — describing God as 'the Abyss of [one who is] unknown yet present — one who is "more intimate to us than we are to ourselves".'[12] The ground of our being opens into the groundless ground, the Abyss, that is God.

Why should we take seriously this way of imagining human life and our relationship with God? What authenticates this kind of picture? Well — it seems to me that one way we can respond to that question is by attending to the practice of prayer that's connected to this semantic field. Metaphors offer ways to imagine and interpret our experience. Their truthfulness, their adequacy and their limitations show up by what they make available for our living. So let me turn now to how the metaphor of ground shapes the practice of contemplative prayer.

Ground as Practice

Contemplative prayer is essentially to do with radical openness, radical availability for God. Looked at from a certain angle, it involves a kind of passivity. We speak of waiting on God, of practising receptivity to God. We give up our demands, thoughts, and agenda so as simply to be present and let God be God. Yet this practice of receptivity and availability is itself a kind of activity — it involves intentionality and awareness, and the 'work' required to be present. This 'work' of seeking to be wholly present to God is often described through the imagery of 'ground' and 'grounding'. Merton, for example, says that we must begin in prayer by sinking 'into a deep awareness of the ground of our identity before God and in God'.[13]

In the first instance, this involves realising what obscures or keeps us from our ground. For Merton, this means recognizing the extent to which our 'external, everyday self' is 'a mask and a fabrication ...'. It's a 'false' rather than 'our true self'. In a different language, the 5th century teacher of monastic prayer, John Cassian, says something very similar. The condition of prayer (he says) is humility (notice the root of that word — 'humus', 'ground') and simplicity. You can't truly pray if you're not willing to be there, as yourself, undivided, undefended, naked in the sight of God. What blocks authentic humility and simplicity, what keeps us from our 'ground' or our 'true self', are habits of thought and behaviour which leave us stuck in illusion and self-alienation. Cassian mentions such things as avarice, gluttony and pride, ambition, attachment to status and the approval of other; he talks about anger, envy, worry, gloominess, distractedness, and nostalgia.

The fundamental problem with these habits is that they are how I try to create and sustain an identity of my own, an identity that's separate and disconnected from the true ground of my being. They're how I defend or assert myself over against others by trying to be better, have more, stay safe, or secure love and attention on my terms.

The more we acknowledge and cease to indulge these ways of being, however, the more we penetrate (in Merton's words) 'the innermost ground of my life'.[14] What's potentially misleading about the metaphor of ground here is that it seems very solid, very substance-like. As if there's a deep place within us we have to find, uncover and stand on, if we are to pray. But the paradoxical truth is that our essential self, our most stable 'ground', is encountered through 'the realization of our nothingness'.[15] This is what is called 'poverty of spirit'.

'Poverty of spirit' isn't a self-denigrating or self-loathing sense of being worthless; it's simply realizing that I do not and cannot make, sustain or transform myself. The more I realize this, the more I accept my dependency and fragility, and receive my life as a gift; as I cease clinging to and protecting an illusory identity of my own, the more open I become to the gift and the giver of my life. This openness, which can feel like a kind of suspension over nothing, is paradoxically my only secure ground and is also the truth of myself.

John Main speaks of the self-entrustment this calls for as 'casting out into the depth of God as the ground of being and allowing ourselves to fall back into our source.'[16] And he says: 'Faith is, fundamentally, the experience of our being grounded in God, rooted in [God] with absolute sureness and with a confidence that is always deepening because the depths of God can never be measured.'[17] In this vision, to be rooted in the ground of our being involves us being open to continuous deepening ourselves, immersed in a process of what the Benedictine tradition describes as continuous conversion.

The practice of contemplative prayer is simply about learning to remain in this ground, present to the truth of our own poverty and so open to the fulness of God. It's an intentional practice of 'poverty of Spirit', which we engage through disciplined silence and the laying aside of all our thoughts.

So let me begin to summarise some of this.

I've touched on some of the ways the metaphor of ground has been appealed to in the Christian tradition to talk about God, the self and the self in relation to God. This usage expresses a felt sense that what is deepest and most true in human beings is congruent with and open to God — who, as the 'ground of our being', is conceived as the source and sustainer of our lives. In Meister Eckhart and the broader contemplative tradition, this language of ground — used of both God and human beings — expresses the possibility, the promise of union such that, in Jesus' words, 'they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, so that they may become completely one' (John 17:22-23). This language of union, of one-ness, speaks of the possibility that the energy and resource of the divine life becomes the energy and resource from which I live.

I've been suggesting that this metaphor isn't simply an abstract theological notion, but significantly shapes the practice of Christian contemplative prayer. Prayer is said to involve sinking to, penetrating my own ground, and then remaining there where my ground opens into God. And this happens through a process of realizing where we are stuck in illusion, seeking to be self-sufficient and (if you like) resting on a 'false floor'. It happens as we let go attachment to this false resting place, entrusting ourselves to the grace which draws us beyond ourselves. Laurence Freeman has said: 'If we want to understand poverty of spirit we have to accept it as the reaching of the boundaries of our being and our capacity, and finding we are unable to go further by ourselves.'[18]

As I said at the beginning, what authenticates this contemplative practice and prayer is not that we have particular religious experiences, but that we are changed. Rowan Williams writes: 'Eckhart insists that union with God is not primarily a special kind of religious experience. The end of the life of grace is to find God in every experience and activity, to be "everywhere at home".'[19] And he goes on: 'Poverty of spirit ... means complete renunciation of reliance on consoling and meaningful experiences in prayer. All that matters is the faithfulness of love, will, desire, intention to the naked reality of God, faithfulness which takes us to the heart of God's silence, and at the same time frees [God's] life to work in us.'[20]

If this is really happening, it issues in love, compassion, the capacity to forgive, be merciful ... to trust and so on .... And it's the way it connects to this lived experience of transformation which makes this way of picturing the relationship between God and the self so fruitful and enduring in the Christian tradition.


Closing Poem: But the silence in the mind

But the silence in the mind
is when we live best, within
listening distance of the silence
we call God. This is the deep
calling to deep of the psalm-
writer, the bottomless ocean
we launch the armada of
our thoughts on, never arriving.

It is a presence, then,
whose margins are our margins;
that calls us out over our
own fathoms. What to do
but draw a little nearer to
such ubiquity by remaining still?

R.S. Thomas


  1. Dom David Foster, Contemplative Prayer: a new framework (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), p.9.
  2. Foster, Contemplative Prayer, p.11.
  3. Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), p.109.
  4. Foster, Contemplative Prayer, p.5.
  5. Merton, Contemplative Prayer, pp.106-107.
  6. Bernard McGinn, The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart: The Man from whom God Hid Nothing (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2001), p.38.
  7. McGinn, The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart, p.41.
  8. McGinn, The Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart, p.38.
  9. Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to Saint John of the Cross, second revised edition (Cambridge, MA: Crowley Publications, 1991), p.142.
  10. Kerrie Hide, 'Salvation as Oneing: Julian of Norwich', unpublished paper.
  11. Merton, Contemplative Prayer, p.22.
  12. Merton, Contemplative Prayer, p.38.
  13. Merton, Contemplative Prayer, p.87.
  14. Merton, Contemplative Prayer, p.84.
  15. Merton, Contemplative Prayer, p.86.
  16. John Main, Monastery Without Walls: The Spiritual Letters of John Main (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2006), p.80.
  17. Main, Monastery Without Walls, p.79.
  18. Laurence Freeman, Light Within ...
  19. Williams, Wound of Knowledge, p.144.
  20. Williams, Wound of Knowledge, p.145.

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