“Behold, the kingdom of God is within you,” Jesus tells us. (Luke 17:21) Many of the Church Fathers echo and expand this theme.
St. Augustine writes at the end of the 4th century, “But you [God] were more inward than my own inwardness.” (Confessions 3.6.11)
Or in the 7th century, St. Isaac the Syrian writes,
“Enter eagerly into the treasure house that is within you, and you will see the things that are in heaven, for there is but one single entry to them both. The ladder that leads to the Kingdom is hidden within your soul… Dive into yourself and in your soul and you will discover the stairs by which to ascend.”
This metaphor of interiority, of finding God within, does not describe the physical place where God dwells (as if you could point to God on a CAT-scan) as much as it seeks to describe a mode of being. When we live “outside ourselves, ” we are focusing on exterior things like pleasures, praise, worldly success, or creating a certain image for others to see. Christ calls us instead to put aside our anxieties and exterior cares, to know our true selves and at the same time, to live for Him alone.
What does it mean, ultimately, that God has told us to seek Him within ourselves? Surely, at its core, it also means that we need not go out to Him: God has already come to us. It means that He loves us first. “We love Him because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) All of us are loved by God, but the interior man truly knows it. He is enabled to live authentically precisely because he knows that he is loved by God and does not need to seek love elsewhere. He does not need to conform to some exterior model. He does not need to earn love or approval. No, he is loved, purely and simply, boundlessly and unconditionally by the God who created him in love.
In The Cloud of Unknowing, an English medieval spiritual classic, we are offered further insight into this distinction between the interior and exterior modes of being. In his discussion of this work, author Denys Turner explains: we are warned against the spiritual danger posed by thinking of the interior in a quasi-physical way. The person who does this is still living exteriorly. “Those who seek ‘interiority’ only to translate it into mental acts of experienced inwardness become entrapped in a vicious circle…the consequences for their devotional and ascetical practice are therefore deformative of that true interiority which transcends imagination…Such people are likely to drive themselves mad by spiritual means.” (Turner, The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism, p. 206-7)
It is a false spiritual practice when we seek to artificially keep our minds turned inwards. The Cloud of Unknowing teaches us instead that, “The inner self is free, free from the dualism between ‘inner’ and outer itself… The more we seek our own ground in the ground of God, the greater is the power of psychic integration in all the capacities of our persons.” (Ibid., p. 208-209) In other words, the inner self is not so much inner as whole.
Interiority is a useful metaphor, but ultimately it falls short, just as all our language when we attempt to describe God falls short. This is what is meant by the term “unknowing”. God is greater than any created thing and cannot be known in the same way that we know any thing. We can only “unknow” him, through love. But love for the transcendent God must also be transcendent. The Cloud Author warns against the danger of emotionalistic pieties that seek to cultivate love artificially and inflame the emotions. These fall short of the transcendent love for God and can be at best a distraction, but at worst a “kind of strenuousness of spirit which was as psychologically as it was spiritually damaging.” (Ibid, p. 203)
So many negatives! We are to “unknow” God. We are warned how not to seek Him, how not to desire Him. Does the author of The Cloud of Unknowing offer us any positive advice? Yes. He describes what he calls contemplation. In medieval spiritual literature, contemplation does not mean sitting and thinking deeply about God, but refers to the experience of union with God, the direct awareness of the love and presence of God, the direct knowledge of God through love.
Over time, “the devotional practice to which he attaches most importance, the practice of reflecting on one’s own sinfulness, will proceed from a maudlin, guilt-ridden picking over of one’s many faults one by one to the unified understanding of ‘sin congealed in a lump’ which is, he says, our sense of ‘self’. Progress in the meditative practices leads to a simplification and ultimately to the simplest of prayers, expressive of the disciple’s total and immediate dependence upon God. This is a permanent task, ‘the whiles thou livest in this wretched life.'” (Ibid., p. 198)
“Contemplation is pure grace, a flash of brilliant darkness which intrudes upon the normal, everyday practice of the ordinary, everyday means of reading, meditation and prayer. Contemplation is not, therefore, a ‘practice’ at all, for it is a grace; nor is it a grace that the disciple can count upon as any kind of permanent condition…The ‘ordinary’ means are the whole of what the disciple can do and that whole which he can do consists in nothing but the patient desire that God will do the rest…” (Ibid. p. 198) And this direct knowledge of God through love occurs when, by grace, the disciple finds himself standing in the darkness of the “cloud of unknowing” and can “launch out on to the uncharted and unchartable seas of the knowing of love.” (Ibid. p. 199)
It is this knowledge of God through love that heals the gulf between our inner and outer selves, that leads us to become whole and free. This knowing (or unknowing) of the transcendent God, by a love that is beyond description, is the Kingdom of Heaven within that Christ directs us to and the treasure house that St. Isaac speaks of.