But the children struggled together within Rebekah; and she said, ‘If it is so, why then I am this way?’ So she went to inquire of the Lord.
– Genesis 25:22
In my previous reflection I argued that God alone is the true pray-er and that this “ground step” (i.e. before the first step) of spirituality is to learn to recognize, feel, and rest in the current of God’s always-already-happening prayer. I ended by saying that our more traditional understanding of prayer can be then re-imagined and re-purposed in light of the current of God’s prayer. Namely, our more conventional sense and practice of prayer can be seen as (where valid) a creative, skillful participation with and response to the current of God’s prayer.
In this light, I want to look at a specific form of prayer that has been forgotten in Western spiritual practice: inquiry. I want to explore what inquiry is and how it can be held as a creative, skillful participation with and response to the current of God’s always-already prayer.
Inquiry as a spiritual practice is likely better known (if at all) nowadays through Eastern spiritual traditions like Zen Buddhism or Vedanta Hinduism. Inquiry as a spiritual art form or practice is therefore typically understood to be a form of meditation and not prayer and hence often thought to be incompatible with biblical theology and spirituality. This perspective, however, is misguided. Inquiry does have long standing roots in Christian tradition, as a practice native to the tradition itself. While Eastern traditions certainly have a strong history and practice of inquiry they do not hold a monopoly on it either.
Inquiry in a specifically Jesus-inspired frame is a kind of prayer.
Inquiry involves asking a question over and over again until it begins to chew at one’s being. This question is not a question with a specific answer, but rather a question meant to evoke an inquiring mind and heart. The inquiry question is not one with a factual answer associated with it. It’s not a question like “what’s the number that comes next in the sequence of 10, 20, 30, 40…?”
The inquiry question, instead, forces us beyond our normal, rational mind. It doesn’t have any simple answer, and hence calls us into a fundamentally curious or questioning state of being.
A question like: “Who am I?”
The use of inquiry as a spiritual practice in the Western spiritual traditions goes all the way back to Jesus (if not rabbis before him) who taught in parables – riddles, koan-like narratives that force a profound confusion on the mind and heart of the listener. The listener must then struggle and wrestle with the question.
The inquiry begins to work the person from the inside out. True inquiry starts to turn their guts inside out. It starts burning from within.
“Who is my neighbor?”
When we approach prayer as a conversation with God, we assume our normal sense of self. We simply assume we know who and what we are as human beings. And from that assumed position, from that assumed self-sense, then we pray or do whatever it is we do in life – work, read, relate to others, etc. If we imagine prayer to be a conversation with God we assume we know who we are in the conversation and are interested in who God might be.
Inquiry, however, puts forward a question from within us that then turns around mid-air and circles back onto the self itself. The question loops back on us the questioner, forcing us to examine our own sense of selfhood.
“Who is the one asking the question?”
“Who do I think I am?”
It’s this self-looping quality of inquiry that is vitally necessary for us. It is as if our eyes (metaphorically speaking) are pulled out of our heads and then turn around to look back on ourselves.
Inquiry begins to undercut our normal sense of self at its root, at the most primal point of assumption – the deep place where we fix our sense of self. From that fixed sense of self the world and others and even God are set in relation to that self.
As the trans-Christian realizer Bernadette Roberts has pointed out, a personal God can only exist in relation to a personal self. The personal God is the God that a personal (human) self can be experience. The conventional human personality creates a limitation and God can be only be experienced within the bounds of that limitation.
(By the way, she came to this realization by incorporating inquiry into her own path.)
Inquiry, as a form of prayer, opens up the possibility of deconstructing the conventional sense of self and thereby opens up the possibility for a realization of God beyond our normal categories of self and personhood.
In practice, inquiry uses the self to begin to deconstruct or undercut the self itself. Inquiry releases deep fixations and assumptions of who and what we think we are, who and what we think others are, who and who and what we think God is, and who or what we think the world is.
Inquiry invites us into a space of radical unknowing. We begin to feel and “know” the state of unknowing.
This state of unknowing begins to work on us. It begins to permeate us and change us.
We relate to the world as thinking we are some inner being with an outer world. Inquiry throws into question whether there is such a thing as inner or outer.
Inquiry stands in contrast to our more normal mode of being, where there is a constant whirl of meaning-making in us that takes all new information coming in and codes it according to our pre-existent schemas and maps. In so doing we filter out incredible amounts of information and experience. We begin to identify ourselves with the maps and believe the maps are perfectly accurate depictions of the world rather than perspectives or thoughts or interpretations of life.
Inquiry as a spiritual art form goes underneath all these maps and schemas of interpretation and begins to surface them into conscious awareness. Whereas before these maps were existing unconsciously, now they are coming into sight.
Inquiry goes down into the depths of our being and hauls up whatever it catches in its nets, bringing the creatures from the deep to the surface.
Needless to say, this is not always a super-pleasant experience! Sometimes pockets of intense happiness and pleasure are brought forward. Other times pockets of grief, prejudice, deep wounding, and habitual self-centeredness come forward (these being less pleasurable, to put it mildly).
There was a 13th century Christian realizer and mystic by the name of Hadewicjh of Brabant. I consider her to an absolute genius of the spiritual life, though sadly she is largely forgotten and neglected.
Hadewijch practiced a very deep form of inquiry.
In one of writings she states:
With regard to all my acts, I constantly wished to know, and kept thinking of it, and repeated ceaselessly: ‘What is Love? And who is Love?‘ I spent two years in this occupation. (Hadewijch, Vision 2: Experience of Pentecost, boldface mine)
Here’s Hadewijch’s inquiry: What or Who is Love?
This question of course is not one with a simple rational declaration or objective answer. Each time we ask the inquiring question it for a moment stops our normal calculating, rote mind and self-sense. It creates a momentary gap in our consciousness. For a brief window of time, everything is still. We simply observe or look into that stillness with this question on our hearts.
As a religious woman of course Hadewijch could have easily answered her own question Who is Love? by answering, ‘Well of course God. Because God is Love.” But then her inquiry would simply be “Who or What is God?”
Again: a moment of humble silence in the face of mystery.
We don’t know the answer as to who or what Love Is. In fact we don’t know who or what anything is. We know elements about things but we never know what the thing itself is. We don’t know what IS is, itself. (What Meister Eckhart called Is-ness).
We don’t know what or who Love is. We don’t know the Isness of Love. Inquiry brings this recognition into real-time consciousness. It surfaces all the parts of us that are convinced we really do know who we are, what life is, what Love or God really is. When in truth we do not know what anything is.
The fidelity necessary to undertake inquiry is why I believe it to be a prayer form, one I think we should revive.
Inquiry is a prayer because we are showing our love for God by being willing to have these aspects of our being surface, and being willing to have them surrendered into God. What arises in the inquiry becomes the form of our offering to God, even when that offering is aspects of our self-centeredness. Inquiry is a profoundly humbling path. It reveals to us the depths of our conditioning, how deeply conditioned we are in opposition to the Law of Love.
What Hadewijch’s specific inquiry has in its favor is that it draws a deep feeling layer of our being forward. By inquiring ‘who or what is Love?’, we begin to almost feel the inquiry. It becomes less and less a mental thought process and more and more a deep, bodily-felt process. The inquiry begins arising not simply from the head/mind but as if it were arising from the root, the belly, rising up through the heart and then to the head.
Inquiry is a depth-charge into one’s being. Therefore it’s important that it be one practice in a healthy ecology of practice. It’s very powerful, but it’s highly concentrated as well. It needs to be balanced with practices that support our bodies, our emotions, our shadows and so on. Inquiry is only meant to do one thing. That one thing is a very deep, very powerful, very important thing but it is only one thing, one aspect of our being and one aspect of an integrated spiritual life.
As I said in the first piece, the originating space is God’s prayer. From that position, when we feel the call, we can – as a relative participation in the process – begin to inquire. What arises in the inquiry is then surrendered into the current of God’s prayer. When it’s no longer needed, the inquiry itself ceases and we return simply to the current. Whenever the inquiry is needed at a later time, it will surface once more, only to again return to the abyss of Love from which it sprung.
Chris Dierkes is a long time student and practitioner of the Christ-consciousness mystical path. After receiving his MDiv., Chris worked in parish ministry for three years (Anglican Church of Canada) and now maintains a private practice in interspiritual soul work. In addition Chris has studied energy healing, intuitive arts, and shamanic practice. He writes frequently on subjects of spirituality in the contemporary world. He lives in Vancouver with his wife Chloe and their daughter Sage. You can check out his writing and practice here.