The real question, John [of the Cross] suggests, is about what you are really after: Do you want ‘spirituality’, mystical experience, inner peace, or do you want God? If you want God, then you must be prepared to let go all, absolutely all, substitute satisfactions, intellectual and emotional. You must recognize that God is so unlike whatever can be thought or pictured that, when you have got beyond the stage of self-indulgent religiosity, there will be nothing you can securely know or feel. You face a blank: and any attempt to avoid that or shy away from it is a return to playing comfortable religious games. The dark night is God’s attack on religion. If you genuinely desire union with the unspeakable love of God, then you must be prepared to have your own religious world shattered. If you think devotional practices, theological insights, even charitable actions give you some sort of purchase on God, you are still playing games. On the other hand, if you can face and accept and even rejoice in the experience of darkness, if you accept God is more than an idea which keeps your religion or philosophy or politics tidy – then you may find a way back to religion, philosophy or politics, to an engagement with them that is more creative because you are more aware of the oddity, the uncontrollable quality of the truth at the heart of all things. This is what ‘detachment’ means – not being ‘above the battle’, but being involved in such a way that you can honestly confront whatever comes to you without fear of the unknown; it is a kind of readiness for the unexpected, if that is not too much of a paradox.
The true disciple is an expectant person, always taking it for granted that there is something about to break through from the master, something about to burst through the ordinary and uncover a new light on the landscape. The master is going to speak or show something; reality is going to open up when you’re in the master’s company and so your awareness (as has often been said by people writing about contemplative prayer) is a little bit like that of a bird-watcher, the experienced bird-watcher, who is sitting still, poised, alert, not tense or fussy, knowing that this is the kind of place where something extraordinary suddenly bursts into view.
I’ve always rather liked that image of prayer as bird-watching. You sit very still because something is liable to burst into view, and sometimes of course it means a long day sitting in the rain with nothing very much happening, and I suspect that most of us know that a lot of our experience of prayer is precisely that. But the odd occasions when you do see what T. S. Eliot called ‘the kingfisher’s wing flashing light to light’ make it all worthwhile. And I think that living in expectancy – living in awareness, your eyes sufficiently open and your mind sufficiently both slack and attentive to see that when it happens – has a great deal to do with discipleship, indeed with discipleship as the gospels present it to us. Interesting (isn’t it?) that in the gospels the disciples don’t just listen, they’re expected to look as well. They’re people who are picking up clues all the way through.