The Tao Becomes Flesh: Seeking Divinity in the Dark

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The “Christ Temple” at Tao Fung Shan retreat center.

Logos and the Light

Probably the most memorable passage from my youth about God, Jesus, and the nature of reality was from John 1:1-5, 14:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Image result for logos word made fleshWord was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it….The Word came flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.”

Christmas scenes accompany these memories along with the glorious refrains of Handel’s Messiah, “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed….And all flesh shall see it together.”

Indeed, this was and is the great ChristianRelated image mystery of the Incarnation – that the fullness of the eternal Godhead came into human form in Jesus, the template for Christianity’s cosmovision in which matter and spirit each surrender their particularity for an eternal flowing in and out of form. Some elegant intelligence brings light and grace and truth to the world. Later in the same Gospel of John, this Word became flesh in Jesus states, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). I wanted that abundant life!

But what is this “Word” that became flesh? From my adolescent years, I remember that the Greek word for “Word” was “logos,” which sounded a lot like logic. Here’s a common understanding of the term that matches the sense Screen Shot 2019-02-16 at 9.40.03 AMI internalized in my youth: “Logos is an important term in Western philosophy, rhetoric, and religion. It is a Greek word meaning “a ground,” “a plea,” “an opinion,” “an expectation,” “word,” “speech,” “account,” “to reason,” but it became a technical term in philosophy beginning with Heraclitus (ca. 535-475 BC), who used the term for a principle of order and knowledge.”[1]

Image result for god divine architectWhat became flesh, then, was the ultimate ordering principle of the universe, and it involves commonsensical expressions of communication that we experience every day: knowledge, speech, and reasoning. This matched my image of God as a rational and benevolent architect who provided a blueprint for both the world writ large as well as my own particular life. The Word reminded me of reading the book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament where God spoke clearly, rationally, and (sometimes) with evident compassion about what it meant to be part of God’s Chosen People.

So kind-hearted Rationality, Logic, and Order became flesh; clarity, light, brilliance, and order were all correlated with my understanding of God, the Universe, and myself. “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

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Enter the Dark

Yet in my middle adult years, something was definitely amiss. Dante’s beginning of the Divine Comedy spoke for me, “In the middle of our life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood.” While there was an abundance of rich intellectual exploration and service work, at the same time some nameless existential drift left a persistent, if dull, ache of deepening disappointment.

Then in my mid-40’s I met Cynthia Bourgeault and began wading into the Wisdom Tradition, which called my rational worldview into question. One of the cardinal assumptions of the Tradition is that relying primarily on the mind center is the definition of “being asleep!” Waking up means to engage in “three-centered awareness,” body, mind, and heart all cooperating as centers of intelligences. In fact, the biggest hindrance to a balanced consciousness is overreliance on the mental faculty. Indeed, everywhere I looked in World Religions that I was beginning to teach, I found the same message: Hindus, Buddhists, Sufis, African tribal groups and indigenous peoples were all in agreement that dominance of rational thought was the problem, not the solution. The world’s religions contain a veritable storehouse of methods to address this issue: chanting, pilgrimages, rosary beads, meditation, labyrinth walking, conscious eating, etc. The list goes on and on.

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What really brought it home for me, however, was joining Cynthia in her preferred practice, Centering Prayer. The main teaching is that when you sit down to do your practice and become aware of a thought, let it go. Her four R’s say it simply:

“Resist no thought

 Retain no thought

 React to no thought

 Return to the sacred word.”[2]

Self-emptying is most needed, then, at the level of rational perception: let go of thoughts!

Cynthia provided a whole new, counter-rational approach to prayer by introducing me to the terms cataphatic and apophatic:

Cathaphatic prayer…is prayer that makes use of what theologians call our ‘faculties.’ It engages our reason, memory, imagination, feelings, and will….They are the wonderful tools we have been given to make our way in this world and to experience it richly from the perspective of being a unique person with unique gifts to share and a unique relationship with God. Cataphatic prayer corresponds to…’ordinary awareness.’ It emerges out of and reinforces that unique sense of egoic selfhood. Cataphatic prayer is most of what we are about in church…’talking to God.’

Apophatic prayer, by contrast, is prayer that does not make use of the faculties; in other words, it bypasses our capacities for reason, imagination, visualization, emotion, and memory. From the perspective of our faculties, this somewhat amorphous state may feel like emptiness or nothingness….It, too, makes use of faculties, but ones that are much more subtle than we’re used to and which are normally blocked by overreliance on our more usual mental and affective processing modes. These more subtle faculties of perception have been known in Christian tradition as the “spiritual senses….” Learning to work with them is somewhat equivalent to learning to see in the dark….” Only when the radically apophatic nature of Centering Prayer is recognized does it become possible to relax and really allow the prayer to unfold its deepest treasures.”[3]

Cynthia’s colleague Richard Rohr summarizes helpfully here:

“Alongside all our knowing, accompanying every bit of our knowing, must be the humble ‘knowing that we do not know.’ That’s why the great tradition of prayer is balanced by both kataphatic knowing, through images and words, and apophatic knowing, through silence, images, and beyond words. Apophatic knowing is the empty space around the words, allowing God to fill in all the gaps in an “unspeakable” way. Strangely enough, this unknowing is a new kind of understanding. We have a word for it: faith, a kind of knowing that doesn’t need to know and yet doesn’t dismiss knowledge either; a kind of knowing that doesn’t need to hold everything itself because, at a deeper level, it knows it is being held.”[4]

Now I came to understand that absence, silence, unknowing, emptiness, and darkness were all aspects of another legitimate, and maybe even necessary, path. It still boggles the mind. And maybe that’s the point. These things do not make rational sense. We wait for those extra-rational moments when something speaks to us.

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The Tao in the Christ Temple

I am beginning to co-lead a spiritual retreat at the captivating Tao Fung Shan retreat center in Shatin when the pastor of the center invites us into the sanctuary of this one-of-kind “Christ Temple.” The outside is stunning, built in traditional Chinese temple architecture, boldly employing blue, red, and white colors characteristic of the genre’s design. We sit in the middle of the sanctuary, taking in the rich matrix of Chinese Buddhist forms with Christian content, considering that this blended sacred space on a hilltop above Shatin was intended to attract itinerant Buddhist monks wandering in southern China in the 1930’s to dialogue with Christians.

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We glance upwards at the characters written banner-like across the upper beams. Employing my Chinese skills as best I could, I slowly make out, “The Word became flesh.”

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Read from right to left: “Tao” “becomes” “meat” “body.”

But this was not the John 1 of my childhood! “Related imageThe Word” was not “logos” – rationality, clarity, and brilliance.  Rather, “the Word” in Chinese was “Tao!” “The Tao became flesh.” The Tao – the subtle, ever-present, mysterious, lowest-point-seeking energy that suffuses the universe – became flesh! Listen to this sense of the Tao in a few excerpts from the Tao Te Ching:

“The Tao that can be named is not the Tao”

“Each breath we take is a rebirth.
Even our last breath
will bring something new.
We cannot exhaust
the energy of the Tao”

“It contains within itself
unchanging tranquility and solitude.
It is present wherever we turn
and provides inexhaustible compassion to all beings.
Thus it may be considered
the Mother of the Universe.
It has no name, but if we have to refer to it
we call it Tao.

It can also be called The Great Mystery
from which we come, in which we live,
and to which we return.”

The signboard states boldly: The Tao – the source of all, mysterious, all-pervasive, and subtle…THAT became flesh!


Read from right to left: “meat” “body.”

The word for flesh is a common one Image result for meat in chinese characterfor meat in Hong Kong markets. Pork, beef, lamb, and chicken all include the “yuk” (sound in Cantonese) character. In fact, the character looks like a leg of an animal hanging on a meat rack that advertise its products in Hong Kong shops.

Glancing upwards, the juxtaposition stuns me. The wooden banner framing the sanctuary claims that this most fundamental, sublime and enticing concept – a Mysterious Dark Universal Force – became skin and sinew and tissue and muscle, so graphically displayed in these Chinese pictographs. The wonder of the radical Christian claim that Divine Energy is housed in the temple of human physicality. Can it be?

The Tao became FLESH…this is the wonder that I think John wanted us to feel.whatsapp image 2019-01-29 at 10.41.30 am

Exploring the Dark Side

Some weeks later now, I ponder: is theImage result for yin-yang religious life Related imagemore about light, revelation and reason, or about darkness, mystery, and subtlety? Logos or Tao? I keep thinking of that Tao character. Can it be?

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I am left with much uncertainty. But I am certain that “the Tao became flesh” is speaking to me powerfully at this point in my life in a way that “logos” does not. The logos of my youth provided what I needed at that time, but as I became older, I seemed to need darkness, mystery, and subtlety. Just as 95% of our lives appear governed by the subconscious and 96% of the universe is composed of undetectable dark energy and dark matter, somehow my spiritual life needs to be in touch with that which is dark and mysterious and perhaps unknowable in order to prosper.

Writer Clark Strand comments about the value of Image result for clark stranddarkness in a strikingly insightful comment in the NY Times about the winter solstice: “[We have] forgotten what darkness was for. In times past people took to their beds at nightfall, but not merely to sleep. They touched one another, told stories and, with so much night to work with, woke in the middle of it to a darkness so luxurious it teased visions from the mind and divine visitations that helped to guide their course through life.”

Something in my present moment wants toImage result for via negativa matthew fox venture into the dark – to seek for “visions” and “divine visitations” it seems. Matthew Fox calls this the “via negativa,” the path of negation towards transformation.

Strand continues: “Look up in the sky on a starry night…and you will see that there is a lot of darkness in the universe. There is so much of it, in fact, that it simply has to be the foundation of all that is. The stars are an anomaly in the face of it, the planets an accident. Is it evil or indifferent? I don’t think so. Our lives begin in the womb and end in the tomb. It’s dark on either side.”

Richard Rohr agrees that darkness gets us toImage result for Falling Upwards: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life the elemental, “God hides, and is found, precisely in the depths of everything, even and maybe especially in the deep fathoming of our fallings and failures. Sin is to stay on the surface of even holy things….If we go to the depths of anything, we will begin to know upon something substantial, “real,” and with a timeless quality to it. We will move from the starter kit of “belief” to an actual inner knowing. This is most especially true if we have ever (1) loved deeply, (2) accompanied someone through the mystery of dying, (3) or stood in genuine life-changing awe before mystery, time, or beauty” (95).[5]

I come back to the deep and the true – love, death, beauty, awe, mystery – and see they are all part of the Tao. I am left with fascination that this Force – all-pervasive, zepher-like, subtly effervescent – not only became flesh in Jesus, but perhaps can be embodied in me!

Maybe this is what Christmas and the incarnation of Jesus reveals and celebrates: the Great Mystery of the Universe coming into form in both light and darkness – over and over and over again.

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[1] “Logos” entry in Audiopedia

[2] Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, pp. 34-35.

[3] Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, pp. 31-33.

[4] Rohr, “Knowing and Not-Knowing,” January 14, 2015.

[5] Richard Rohr, Falling Upwards: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, p. 95

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Tao Paths

This very helpful diagram is taken from a blog site called “tracts of revolution.” This entry from October 27, 2015 is called “Paths of Reality” and describes in sophisticated language ideas I am proposing in my writing here.


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About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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