AN EXCERPT FROM "BEHOLD THE SPIRIT" by Alan Watts

{In 1947, when this book was written - Mr. Watts was an Episcopal Chaplain at Northwestern University.}


In the midst of the soul's dark night of despair at the frustration of eros, there dawns the agape of God - the realization that although the soul is powerless to attain union with God, God out of unchangeable and infinite love has given union with himself to the soul.

The meaning of the Incarnation, therefore, is simply that we do not have to attain union with God. Man does not have to climb to the infinite and become God, because, out of love, the infinite God descends to the finite and becomes man. Despite man's refusal of God, despite his pride, his fear, his helpless and hopeless involvement in the vicious circle of sin, God's nature remains unalterably love - the agape which consists in giving oneself wholly and without reservation to the beloved. Therefore the eternal Word, the Logos, becomes flesh, making our nature his nature; he assumes our limitations, suffers our pains and dies our death. More than this, he bears the burden of our sins: that is, he remains in union with us even though we-crucify him and spit on him; he continues to dwell within us and to offer, or sacrifice, our lives to God even though we commit every imaginable form of depravity. In short, God has wedded himself to humanity, has united his divine essence with our inmost being "for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health" for all eternity, even though we elect to be damned.

If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, thou are there also.

All that remains for us to do is to say, "Yes - Amen" to this tremendous fact, and this is still within the power of our fallen nature. Our motive for saying it, however perverted by pride and fear, makes not the least difference, because the fact is the fact: we have been given union with God whether we like it or not, want it or not, know it or not. Our flesh has become his flesh, and we cannot jump out of our own skins. And once we realize the futility of our pride, that we can neither ascend to God nor, by reason of pride, prevent his descent to us, the proud core of egoism is simply dissolved - overwhelmed by God's love. The function of Christian morality and spirituality is not to earn or deserve this gift of eternal life, but rather to appreciate and express it. The saint is holy not to attain union with God, but to give thanks for it. For this union is not, as in pantheism, a necessary and automatic and inherent fact of our being; it is an entirely free, spontaneous and unnecessary gift of the living and loving God, since the heart of Being is not law and mechanism but life. Hell consists not in being deprived of union, but in willful failure to appreciate it; in a state of soul so perverse that the love and the gift of union are so repulsive that they appear not as the light of glory but as a terrible and consuming fire. The flames of hell are, in fact, the inescapable love of God.**

This truth of our given union with God is precisely the "good news," the Gospel, of Christianity, however much it may have been weakened and obscured through theological timidity and obscurity in the passage of time. "As many as received (i.e., accepted) him," says St. John in the prologue to his Gospel, "to them gave he authority to be the children (or, sons) of God." The phrase son or child of God does not mean creature of God but one who is of the same nature as God, in St. Peter's words, "partakers of the divine nature".

**{This is the clear implication of St. Catherine of Cenoa's eschatological doctrine. See von Hiigel's Mystical Element of Religion. London, 1927, vol. I, pp. 281-294. But me below, pp. 243-244.}

But we have to return to this point: the Reality which we term union with God simply Is, whether we realize it or not, whether we are doing something about it or nothing about it. Any attempt to grasp it, by action or by inaction, suggests that it is not absolutely present. The moment we look for union with God, we imply that we do not already have it, and this is true even when we look for it by not looking.

Like unto space it knows no boundaries;

Yet it is right here with us ever retaining its serenity and fulness;

It is only when you seek it that you lose.

You cannot take hold of it, nor can you get rid of it;

While you can do neither, it goes on its own way;

You remain silent and it speaks; you speak and it is silent

The great gate of charity is wide open with no obstructions whatever before it.

The focal point of Reality is now - this present moment, this elusive image of eternity, so small that it has no temporal length and yet so long that we can never escape from it. Here in this present moment life is most lively; here alone do we really exist. The past is dead; the future as yet is not. The moment assumes a hundred different forms - moments of pleasure, moments of pain, moments of elation, moments of depression, moments of quiet, moments of agitation; but it will not stay, it cannot be grasped, in any of its forms. This moment is our life, but the more we try to hold it, the faster it slips away. We look for it and cannot find it because it is too small to see, too slippery to hold, and yet this is where we are given union with God. If we do not discover it in this moment, we shall never discover it.

O all ye who thirst! Know that you have not far to seek for the fountain of living waters; it springs close to you in the present moment. ... The present moment is the manifestation of the Name of God and the coming of his Kingdom.

But while we cannot grasp the moment, arresting that flow of life which we call time, there remains the fact that we cannot get away from it. It seems, as we cling to it, to slip away, but what slips away is only its outward form. In reality it stays with us. However hard we may fight to retain the past or to hurry on into the future, we cannot get out of the present moment. The more we try to hold it, the more we fail to perceive that it holds us. The moment always carries us in its embrace, and wherever we go or whatever we do, it cannot be escaped. To understand this is simplicity itself.

And here is the perfect analogy of our union with God -- a reality which possesses and holds us as surely and as presently as the moment, a reality which in some sense is this moment. For the moment is not its forms; it is not space; it is not time; it is infinitesimal and thus infinite; it is Reality, Being, the eternal presence of God. In this moment we live and move and have our being, and nowhere else. What we have to realize, therefore, it is not the getting of union with God, but not being able to get away from it. It is in, it is this Eternal Now, wherein God so lovingly holds us.