Like a dog chasing a car, those who fervently seek God don’t always give much thought to what might happen if they actually succeed in their efforts. For most, the pursuit is everything. They are fueled by fantasies of what it might be like to find union with God. But in the meantime there are prayers and prostrations, penances to perform and rites of purification. Starting with the Desert Fathers in the fourth century, Christians began practicing forms of religious asceticism that were all but indistinguishable from masochism. St. Anthony shut himself away in a tomb, where he tangled with the devil. St. Simeon Stylites was so named because he lived on top of a pillar for 37 years, fasting and praying. Medieval ascetics favored hair shirts and self-flagellation to mortify the flesh. But Christians at least have the consolation of living happily ever after in the hereafter, whereas Buddhists and Hindus face many lifetimes of spiritual toil.
Those who report back from the front lines of the quest for God are prone to statements that can be confounding, to say the least. For starters, here is what the Indian mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh had to say: “Do not ask whether God exists; ask whether you exist.” The ninth-century Sufi master Al-Bistami spoke of the “annihilation” of the self, insisting, “There is nothing in this robe I am wearing except Allah.” The thirteenth-century German theologian Meister Eckart, wrote, “I do not find God outside myself nor conceive him excepting as my own and in me.” Similarly, St. Catherine of Genoa, who ministered to the poor and the sick as a laywoman during the fifteenth century, said that “my I is God, nor is any other self known to me except my God.”
There is a common thread to these pronouncements that goes by the name of autotheism, the identification of oneself with God. Needless to say, such sentiments tend to attract the scrutiny of religious authorities, who are rightly concerned that their prayers and practices might be bypassed. Pope John XXII condemned as heretical Meister Eckart’s statement, “We shall all be transformed totally into God and changed into him.” Perhaps fortuitously, Eckart died before the Inquisition could pursue the matter to its conclusion. Less fortunate was the tenth-century Sufi mystic al-Hallaj, who said, “I am Truth,” sometimes translated as “I am God.” Al-Hallaj was imprisoned, tortured and executed, his body burned afterward. Then there was Jesus of Nazareth, who was denounced as a blasphemer for saying, “I and the Father are one.” He managed to talk his way out of being stoned to death on the spot but was eventually crucified on charges of having proclaimed himself king of the Jews.
How do seekers who set out to annihilate the self wind up embracing what appears at first to be the most extreme form of self-aggrandizement? The apparent contradiction disappears as soon as we ask what remains after the self is annihilated. We are obviously not speaking here of a literal annihilation, in which case the issue would be moot. There is still a living, breathing being present. But if it’s not the person I fondly think of as me, then who is it? What we don’t realize until it happens is that the self that is annihilated is, among other things, the self that seeks God. And once the seeker has disappeared, so too does the object of his or her striving. Not that God has disappeared – quite the opposite, in fact. What has disappeared is the seeker’s sense that God exists apart from oneself, always tantalizingly beyond reach. Once the otherness of God has disappeared, there is nothing other than God.