How do you know?

“What do you know?” Who hasn’t uttered this frequent throw-away line in our everyday discourse. Not so usual would be to say “How do you know?” And yet, this could be a more important question in the deeper moments of our lives. Proper Americans would probably prefer “How do you do?” But my recent experiences put the question about knowing to the forefront.

Two recent events brought the force of this question to my attention. The first was a Roundtable Worship that Sylvia led recently here in Waynesville. About 20 of us gathered at our round table for our monthly gathering. She placed seven pieces of art on easels and tables nearby that expressed her long engagement with various forms of a Green Cross symbol that could re-imagine the central symbol of Christianity.

"Green Cross," by Sylvia Johnson Everett
“Green Cross,” by Sylvia Johnson Everett

Instead of our usual liturgy, we each took a small votive candle in one hand and a piece of bread “for our journey” as we went to each image in turn. If one image especially spoke to us, we left our candle there. If not, we returned with it to the table, where we had a refreshing cup of juice and reflected on what we had encountered.

We then had a circle conversation about this experience and our struggle with the cross symbol. It arose to prominence as the central Christian image with the vision of the cross as a sword that supposedly came to Emperor Constantine in AD 312 and bade him “In this sign you will conquer.” 

Soaked in blood ever since, it has remained our central image, though the meaning of its sacrificial context has often changed. Protestants removed the bloody body to speak of the empty cross as a sign of resurrection. Sylvia wanted to probe ways it could be green, a source of life, a reclaimed and resplendent tree at the beginning and end of creation. For all of us, it remains a potent but problematic symbol.

As we spoke and listened, many of us realized that some people “know” things through the images they see, while others “know” through the words they hear and see in print. Dancers know through the movement of their bodies. Lovers know through touches that are deeper then words.

And so we can explore all the ways of knowing that our senses exhibit. Not to be aware of How We Know is to miss the depths and mysteries of the Ultimate which is even beyond all our ways of knowing, even though revealing the Holy Source through these tangible means.

A week later, at the Lake Junaluska Peace Conference, we similarly invited people to “know the Heart of God” in many ways—through words printed, spoken, and sung; through silence; through images; through music and movement. Even as word of the brutal massacres in Paris and Beirut came to us, we worked deeper into what these media could do to connect us to the Source of our Peace.

Even with words, some people know their meaning through their chanting and singing, others through exploring the logic of the words or even their spellings and histories. Others find word meanings primarily in stories. Some listen to all words while others listen only to words in the agreed-upon “sacred” texts.

With our guest calligrapher, Haji Noor Deen, from China, we got a sense of how the sheer imagery of words and characters conveys their meanings. Exploring the iconography of the Eastern Church with Anna Danylevich, we got a taste (another sense!) of how a particular art form for the eyes opens up windows onto mysteries that cannot be grasped by other means.

As I worked my way more deeply into this multi-sensory pattern of knowing I was also aware of the way people who are working toward a peaceable world at the interface of these religious traditions, almost invariably find a pathway to the other traditions through their mystical branches, whether the Hasidic strands of Judaism, Christian mystics from St. John to Thomas Merton, or the Sufis of Islam.

In going beyond the words that convey laws, examples, and exclusionary practices, mystics open us onto a new field, as Rumi would say, where we can begin to construct new relationships that break with our past divisions even as they honor the Spirit animating them. How this mystical sense of unity can finally build new practices of peace becomes the primary challenge before us.

As I experienced this manifold knowing I was also aware that the three traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (such bare categories!) probed all of these sensory avenues, though each seems to give a little different weight to one or another of  them.

Maybe, in knowing through all of them we can come to our fuller senses about this mysterious Heart of God that wills creativity, life, and love.