Alanis Morissette, Gregory of Nyssa,
and the Bats of Austin, Texas
God as a Harmony of Harmonies
Beyond Us and Within Us
We are like the bats in Austin, Texas. Within us at every moment of our lives, beginning at birth, there is an imprint of the mother to whom we return after we feed. In process theology we speak of this imprint as God’s initial aim within us.
Please understand: the initial aim is indeed God inside of us, inwardly felt as magnet, an object of desire. If we are bat pups on our way home, we feel it as a longing for our mother. Importantly, this longing is simultaneously our mother's desire, too. The mother desires us and we desire the mother. Both desires are contained within the initial aim. Our longing for God is God's longing for us.
Always we are called by this aim, beckoned into whatever form of satisfaction is possible for us. We are beckoned to live, to live well, and to live better. Here better does not mean that we accrue more material suggestions; instead it means that we accept and live into a sense of adventure, open to novelty and surprise.
It is at this third level that we begin to discover and enjoy our incompleteness. We realize that we would not even want to be complete, if completeness meant static perfection in which there is no more surprise. We seek and need to be open-ended, moving beyond even the forms of wellness that we have most cherished in the past. We need to live with roots and wings. It is when begin to accept our wings, that we discover the joy of being incomplete.
How long will we be incomplete? Maybe forever, even in any life to come. Maybe the longing for completeness is part of the completeness, and we really wouldn’t want to have it any other way. Maybe there is no finish line, and that's a really good thing.
At least this is how some process theologians see things. The mystics of Islam -- the Sufis -- often make the same point. There is as much love in the longing for God as in the enjoyment of God's presence. We ought never to give up on longing, as if we hope it will end sometime. Always there is more to God than our lives contain.
In process theology life is an ongoing process of becoming, inward and outward, in which we are always on the way toward a Beauty that can never be contained but is nevertheless felt. Some of this Beauty can be found in the smile of the world around us, but it is more than that. Some of it can be found in the poignancy of our relations with others, but it is more than that, too. In Adventures of Ideas Whitehead speaks of this Beauty as a Harmony of Harmonies in which we are always already unfolded and says that, when we have a sense of it, we enjoy a sense of peace even amid the tragedies of life. This Beauty is God as the very Life of the universe, albeit with self-consciousness and agency of a divine kind. God is the womb of the universe with a life of her own.
We could speak of God as a Circle of Life in whose heart we live and move and have our being, but we would need to remember that even the Circle has an opening of sorts. It is a spiral that is always expanding into something new, filled with creativity. The process philosopher Charles Hartshorne speaks of the Harmony of Harmonies as a kind of love that is always surpassing itself: self-surpassing love.
We can never enclose this Beauty within a mental box and make it our own. That would make it an object among objects, an abstract and lifeless absolute. Its infinity is of a different and more vibrant order, but filled with grace and an acceptance of all things finite and fallible.
When the pup returns to the mother, they share food and there is a kind of intimacy. But then another day comes, and the adventure continues, with its periodic homecomings, perhaps at ever-deepening levels. But some day the pup will die and so will the mother. The Harmony of Harmonies by whose heart they are embraced never dies. It is a cave of its own kind, but without walls.
We can rest in this cave for a while, and we can also hope that, in some mysterious way, it might become, for us and all living beings, a final resting place. But there is much beauty in the restlessness, too. Rowan Williams puts it so well: “[This journey into God] is a journey into infinity – not an abstract ‘absoluteness’ but an infinity of what Gregory simply calls ‘goodness’, an infinite resource of mercy, help and delight. And because of its limitless nature, this journey is always marked by desire, by hope and longing, never coming to possess or control its object.”
This suggests that, if there is a final resting place, we can hope that there is some adventure there, too. Perhaps the final resting place isn't so final after all. Perhaps it is an immersion in the ongoing spiral of life, the creative advance into novelty, in a peace that is always becoming new. Never-ending journey is another name for everlasting life. Even in heaven there must be incompleteness. There can be no everlasting joy, unless we are forever incomplete.
-- Jay McDaniel
See also The Beauty of Imperfection by Patricia Adams Farmer
Life in God as a Never-Ending Journey
We are fired into life with a madness that comes from the gods and which would have us believe that we can have a great love, perpetuate our own seed, and contemplate the divine. -- Plato
Ronald Rolheiser begins his book Holy Longing with these words attributed to the great philosopher Plato: “We are fired into life with a madness that comes from the gods and which would have us believe that we can have a great love, perpetuate our own seed, and contemplate the divine.” There is at the core of every human being, according to Rolheiser, this desire, hunger, or passion that Plato calls “madness.” This dis-ease drives everything we do. This restlessness fuels our search for love, underlies our pull towards that which is beautiful, and forms an “unquenchable fire” in us.
It is a longing deep within each and every one of us. Sometimes we see this desire or passion as sinful. And it certainly can lead us to do things that aren’t helpful or constructive; sometimes it can even lead us to do things that are downright bad or sinful. But this hunger itself is not sinful. In fact, according to Plato it comes from beyond ourselves, from the gods that fired us into life. In the Christian tradition, it is St. Augustine that comes closest to describing the origin of this longing: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
The search for God that is inherent in human nature is a type of imprinting that takes place the moment we are created. In Austin, Texas, there is a colony of mostly pregnant Mexican free-tailed bats that migrate north every spring to give birth to their pups. The narrow but deep crevices in the Congress Avenue Bridge in downtown Austin make the perfect nesting ground for these bats. Each evening at dusk up to one and half million bats leave the underside of the bridge in search of food, and it’s an incredible sight to see—lasting more than thirty minutes and forming a dark stripe in the evening sky as far as you can see. But what is absolutely amazing to me is that, using smell and sound, these mother bats are able to find their own pups when they return. Out of one and a half million bats, the mother knows her own child and the pup knows his or her mother when found by her--there is something deep within both the mother and the pup that draws them to one another.
In the same way, the restlessness within us is both our desire for God and God’s desire for us. This is the beauty of our incompleteness--it derives from the very thing we seek, placed within us by a God who never ceases to long for us. In other words, the emptiness we feel is really the presence within us of the very thing we lack, and it is beautiful in its own right. Far from being something to overcome, it is to be celebrated, danced, laughed, cried, shared, and embraced. Maybe not just on this side of eternity, but always and everywhere.
In Life of Moses, the great fourth century bishop Gregory of Nyssa interprets Moses’ ascent of Mt. Sinai as an allegory for the soul’s never-ending ascent into the life of God. And while the ascent is described in finite, bodily language, the soul’s journey into God is infinite--there is no finish line, no ultimate arrival. Rowan Williams describes it this way: “[This journey into God] is a journey into infinity – not an abstract ‘absoluteness’ but an infinity of what Gregory simply calls ‘goodness’, an infinite resource of mercy, help and delight. And because of its limitless nature, this journey is always marked by desire, by hope and longing, never coming to possess or control its object.” The ecstasy of this never-ending journey ever more deeply into the life of God is none other than a fourth century mystic’s depiction of what Alanis Morissette calls “the rapture of being forever incomplete.”
What Gregory knew and Alanis Morissette learns is that incompleteness is not synonymous with imperfection; instead, our incompleteness belongs to our very essence as human beings. And when we embrace this restlessness as evidence of our connection to a loving Presence infinitely larger than ourselves, we begin to experience that emptiness within us as the promise of plenitude. Our fear turns to trust, our restlessness coexists with deep peace, our false self dissolves into authenticity, our deep longing becomes the place where we know God most fully. We give up frantic dashes to false finish lines and simply rest in the rapture of being forever incomplete.
-- Reverend Teri Daily
 I owe the thoughts in these first two paragraphs to Ronald Rolheiser, Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality (New York: Doubleday, 1999).
 R. Williams, The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St John of
the Cross (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1990) 65.