Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Finger Pointing at the Moon

A friend recently told of an extended journey to India where he met a Hindu holy man along the way. In conversation the holy man spoke of a finger pointing at the moon to reference all the things of religion that are supposed to indicate or direct us to an experience of God. I've subsequently discovered the saying in Buddhist thought, but it doesn't matter where the saying comes from. More importantly I'd suggest the finger pointing to the moon is:
  • the dogmas and doctrines of religion
  • the organization of the religions
  • the clerical castes of religion and
  • the things of hierarchy
  • all the permissions/dispensations/rubrics and canons of religion
  • the things we call traditions - especially those we claim can never to be changed
  • calendars, liturgies: My religion is true - hence yours is not
  • all the ways I claim my religion is the most ancient and  observant and from God
  • all the ways I make the claim - my way is the sure way to salvation. I might suggest that more than a few people who claim to know  the way to salvation don't even know what salvation means.

This is the pointing finger - it's not the moon. The moon is the often subtle, personal, contemplative experience of God. The trouble starts when we lock-down on the pointed finger and miss the moon. 

A graffiti-ed wall announces: I'm pointing at the moon and you're looking at my finger. Truth be told, many people are content with the pointing-finger-religious-life. Perhaps lacking an experience of God's nearness themselves, priests often (I'll boldly say usually) don't even mention the experience of God as a possibility - it's easier to view religion as pointing finger. An experience of God will require of us that we bend over to remove our inner shoes. God can be messy, unruly, un-settling and troublesome. "Christ, you have come to disturb us," Dostoevsky wrote. 

I lived in Assisi (Italy) for three months on a short sabbatical some years ago. On an autumn day  I walked up Mount Subasio (1300 metres above sea level) where Saint Francis and some of his fellows would go to retire from Assisi's agitation and  noise. There are caves there - really slivers in the boulders - where the saint and his friends would pray.

I set out before sunrise, just as the shops were opening. In a green-grocer I bought a bottle of water, some strawberries, a little loaf of bread and an red apple streaked with pink and soft yellow. I ate everything except the apple along the ascending, hair-pinned road. Upon my summit arrival I arranged to offer Mass, checked out the view of the valley below, sat quietly in the chapels (some of which were underground) and walked the wooded paths that connected the caves. 

Happy for the day I began the descent, intending to be back in Assisi before dark. Along the way I took out the apple which with the first bite created a kind fragrant cloud or atmosphere around my head. And then there was the realization that I was tasting something that was not only new or simply different, but a not-to-be-repeated taste that was from somewhere else. I savored every bit, even eating the core. The next day I went back to the grocer and bought two more of these apples which now tasted like all the other apples I'd eaten in my life. 

"You'd really opened yourself up" some monastic sisters told me when I related the story. "That's contemplative living" my priest-spiritual director said.

I'll offer a few thoughts about this kind of experience:
  • We don't summon-up God. An experience of God isn't about finding the right prayer-technique or posture. God isn't tied to a string of beads.
  • Our culture is in a deep coma - find ways of waking up and getting free of the cultural addictions to food and entertainment.
  • Instead of cursing them - go with distractions and requests that take us away from what we're doing. God might be waiting there.
  • God has become one of us in the face of Christ: a personal experience of God may well occur in our human encounters, especially those where we are making some gift of ourselves - or receiving others into our lives. 
  • Silence matters more than our culture can presently imagine or tolerate. Most of us waste precious time each day listening to someone else trying to sell us something. 
  • Observe yourself and tell it like it is about yourself: I'm pointing to the moon and you're looking at my finger.


  1. We need to turn the finger towards ourselves. Then we can understand.

  2. Well, that's one way of using the phrase "point a finger" - looking at at ourselves and our own weakness and mistaken-ness - instead of pointing the finger at everyone else. But here this post is about all the ways we THINK we've had an experience of God - but have not. Instead, we've locked onto the religious pointers and indicators, but they are not the real thing - the experience of God's kind and life-changing nearness - which is imaged in "the moon." It's all a lovely poetry of course - but poetic images are needed to share something of the inexpressible.

  3. I understand what you are saying here. And I cherish those "God experiences" when they come to me. I feel blessed to say that they do happen occasionally. We have to be open to feeling and truly experiencing God's presence in our lives. Even in the bite of the most delicious apple, or the smile of our baby when he is content, or in the selfless kindness that others may show to us. Open your mind and your heart and you will feel that God is already there.

  4. But shouldn't the priests point us to a closer relationship to God? And to help us find our path to salvation without all the rhetoric?

    1. To answer your question: Yes! But there will be no renewal of our Church until there is a renewal of the clergy. I listened to the preacher from the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC today as he spoke at the Memorial Service of the nine parishioners who were murdered on Wednesday. What a gift this Church made to us today - see if you can find the sermon on Youtube. If I were a teacher of homiletics in a seminary we would go to an African American church to listen and I'd have a black preacher come in teach us the essentials. The Catholic clergy are not proclaiming Jesus. We give history lessons, sexual moral lessons, lives of the saints, Mary's virtues and devotions. my favorite pope speaks - but we're not proclaiming Jesus and that's why Catholics are hemorrhaging from our churches in many places.

  5. I love these posts. Words to live by. Always making us think of our role in this world which will get us to the next.

  6. The preacher's sermon in Charleston was so great to hear. He gave me a sense of hope and relief. Your post today is a really good read, a good lesson. Thanks.