Consciousness is something of a constant in our lives (even when we sleep there is a level of consciousness). We do not think about it very often – since it is simply our awareness of the world outside (as well as the world inside). It is not what we are a
ware of – it is the awareness itself. Our attention is usually focused on the object of our awareness rather than the process. But the process reveals a great deal.
One striking aspect of consciousness is its ecstatic nature (it “goes out of itself”). It is an intentional reaching outside of the self towards what we perceive (and beyond). Consciousness is not merely passive, simply receiving information with no processing. Were that the case we would only be aware of jumbled colors and sensations. But, barring some illness or distress, we see things, not just colors. I am told by my artist friends that this constant resolution of sight into objects often interferes with the artistic pro
cess – for the artist must primarily see color, shape and such things without immediately translating them into meaningful objects.
But this going out of ourselves towards what we see and experience is a form of communion, a reaching towards (and even beyond) our experience. What we see, within our consciousness is not simply the facts before us – we see meaning and relationship whether resolved into understanding or not.
Sometimes this resolution is distorted. I have recently been reading a book my wife suggested, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. The medical case from which the book takes its title is one in which a brain tumor distorts a man’s perception. Leaving the doctor’s examination room he reached for his hat – but was in fact trying to put his wife’s head on his own instead! But even though his interpretation was distorted – it was still present. The ecstatic drive to render meaning was incorrect but not absent.
That same drive reaches beyond what we perceive. It stretches beyond the horizon of the universe itself seeking to comprehend everything before it, even comprehension itself.
This deep inherent part of our nature is also manifest in the motion of our lives. Our nature is never quite at rest. It extends itself. Though we disagree about the destination, every life is in motion. Some despair of the journey, but the journey does not cease.
St. Paul speaks of this ecstasy of comprehension: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known” (1Co 13:12 NKJ). And also:
…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phi 3:10-14 NKJ).
“To lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me….to know as I am known.” The reciprocity of communion in these verses goes to the heart of consciousness itself. The believer recognizes that consciousness is reciprocal – what we seek to know already knows us. David Bentley Hart offers this observation:
The mind has some sort of awareness— some “fore-grasp”— of truth, one that apprises it constantly of the incompleteness of what it already understands, or of the contingency of what it believes. And what the mind seeks in attempting to discover the truth is a kind of delight, a kind of fulfillment that can supersede the momentary disappointments or frustrations that the search for truth brings. (The Experience of God, p. 247).
This ecstatic search bears witness to a fundamental human instinct – there is something transcendent that can be known, something greater, beyond what we see that makes perception and interpretation possible. The smallest resolution (“this is a tree, this is a cloud”) is already an act of faith: I can comprehend.
And the smallest act of comprehension is an acknowledgement of God (no matter how it is denied), the Comprehension in whom we live and move and have our being.