O Holy Fools

"God is the silence into which we talk": A conversation with a modern mystic

Chuck Lofy has spent his life studying spirituality by means of scriptures, depth psychology, mythology, literature, and the arts. A Jesuit for 16 years, the 74-year-old Lofy recently retired from a career as a business consultant and is now preparing to lead his first spirituality seminars, which start next month. Over a cup of coffee last week, Lofy sat down in the modest south Minneapolis home he shares with his wife, Mary, to talk about all things spiritual.

City Pages:I want to know your story, and about your development as a spiritual person, but I want to work backward. I want to think about right now. Everyone claims to have the answers these days. The great debate is religion, and what version of god is the right one. We have holy wars, and even with so-called alternative spirituality, we have more and more healers selling their answers. Yet I sense that you don't think you have the answers.

Chuck Lofy: That's for sure. The thing I liked about two of my favorite thinkers--Karl Rahner, whom I studied under for four years at Innsbruck, and who is widely regarded as one of the 20th century's greatest religious thinkers, and Carl Jung--is that they never had the answers. They were never afraid to say, "I don't know" and "What do you think?"

CP:What do you make of what's going on right now? It's a strange moment in time.

Lofy: I'll tell you where I come from on it. Jung came up with the idea of a complex: a mother complex, a father complex, a sex complex, a god complex. And what he meant by that is that there are fundamental archetypal urges within the human psyche that we always have to deal with. We have to deal with mother, father, god. And if that energy isn't clear, if it isn't clean and based on personal experience, it becomes very complex. It becomes entangled.

So a complex is stuff that triggers a lot of energy and gets people all screwed up. And in their getting screwed up, they take fundamental positions. In our time, the god complex has really flared up. I find that in preparing for the seminar: If you bring up the word "god," or "spirituality," or "sacrament," it just triggers something in people and they say, "Stay away from that." It's loaded.

What I've learned is that any kind of an experience of god can be ineffable. The great experiences that we have in our life--for example, when we experience silence at the end of a symphony when no one breathes for 30 seconds--you can try to go home and talk about that or write about it in a column, but the names don't meet the experience. If we detach ourselves from the experience and all we're doing is using words like "god" and "spirituality," they come out as dogmas, monolithic: "My way is the right way" and "My god is not your god. "And they become beliefs and a machine that takes over.

So in this work that I'm doing, I'm trying to get people to think, "What are your fundamental experiences of vitality?" "When are you most alive?"

CP:It's difficult to blame others for not knowing what makes us tick when all we have is words to describe our deepest loves, our deepest fears, what makes us feel most alive. We're going to get it wrong a lot of the time, because these are difficult things to articulate, even for the individual to him- or herself. So how anyone can be expected to have a handle on another's soul is sort of a ludicrous proposition.

Lofy: The greatest talk I ever heard in terms of theology was by Karl Rahner. He was leading a workshop, and there were seven sections he was going to talk to us about, and he decided to talk about the painting that was above the chapel wall. But there were only six objects: Jesus on the cross, Mary, Margaret, St. Ignatius, St. Thomas, and somebody else. And we were saying, "What's he going to talk about for number seven?"

When he got to number seven, he talked about the horizon. He said, "Now that's god." God is the horizon; it's the context in which we see things. And then he used the word greifen, which in German means to grasp, to grab hold of, and begreifen, which means to comprehend, and then he invented the phrase die Unbegreiflichkeit Gottes, which is "the incomprehensibility of god": If you think you've got god, you don't have god. It's god beyond the god. It's the horizon.

[Joseph] Campbell always said, "God is above all categories of thought, good or bad or light or dark," and Rahner would always talk about das Geheimnis, the "mystery that is god," or "words out into silence." That is, god is the silence into which we talk.

CP:Into which we be, too. That silence, that noiseless quiet, is when we're most with god. Or when you're most with yourself; yourself as god.

Lofy: Exactly. And that's enlightenment in Eastern [philosophy]: yourself as god. Thinking about that silence, and what's going on with dogma now, there's the commandment, "Thou Shalt Not Use the Name of the Lord Thy God in Vain." I've always thought that that's a metaphysical statement. In the sense that, if you're going to use the name of god, it's always going to be in vain, because god doesn't have a name.

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