Fifty years ago in April 1967, David Oman McKay (1873-1970), the ninth president of the LDS Church, gave a talk in the priesthood session of General Conference that was unique. It was entitled “Consciousness of God: Supreme Goal of Life.” At the age of 93, just three years before his passing, President McKay was in deteriorating health, which is why he may have asked his son, Robert R. McKay, to read his talk for him.
This talk was unique because it is one of the only times the president of the LDS Church has directly spoken about consciousness and its relationship to God, including how practices such as meditation can lead us into God’s presence. No other talk given from the pulpit in General Conference has addressed these topics in this way that I have found. I believe this talk was inspired, and speaks towards a truth that is not often discussed in the Church, or taught by its leadership. In other words, I believe McKay acted and spoke as a genuine prophet on this spring evening in 1967, in tune with the “spirit of prophecy,” which I interpret as a state of mind that is in communion with God. I will give a commentary on his talk.
He began his talk by expressing his deep appreciation for his “beloved associates,” which I think he extended to all the members of the Church. He used the word “beloved” to refer to them, which also happens to be the meaning of his first name, David, in Hebrew. It is also the word used by God to describe his Son, Christ, in the New Testament, as well as for people who feel this deep sense of Love. We are the “Beloved,” who are loved, and who share that love, which is God’s Love. McKay felt this love towards others that was “akin to the love we have for our families.” He felt that unity was generated by this Love.
The Inner Wrestle with God
He began to speak about our relationship to God, and of the need for a close relationship, saying:
“The greatest battle of life is fought within the silent chambers of your own soul.”
He put this statement in quotations. The original author of it seems to be unknown. This is a profound saying. The “greatest battle” of life? The thing that we will struggle with the most? The thing that may occupy our greatest time and attention and resources? Whatever this thing is, it is fought within, it is an inner struggle, it is a wrestling with our own self. It happens in the “silent” chambers of our own soul. In silence. Stillness. This battle does not have many explosions and bangs. It doesn’t have yelling and screaming. It’s a silent battle. In quietude, in solitude.
We wrestle with ourselves in order to know our place in the world, why we exist. This recalls Jacob’s wrestling with “a man” in Genesis 32. Elsewhere it is said he was wrestling “an angel,” or even “God.” I perceive that it was an inner battle that Jacob had in this story. Jacob fought this great fight within. He wrestled God within himself. And when he was done he received a new name, “Israel,” meaning something like “wrestling with God,” or “God wrestles,” or “God rules/struggles.” He also said that through this wrestling he had “seen God face to face.” He even called the place where this happened “Peniel/Penuel,” meaning “face of God.” Saint Augustine once wrote:
Zion is interpreted contemplation. What is contemplation? For we shall contemplate God face to face.
[See my post about contemplation.]
Like Jacob, it is a fight within ourselves that unveils God. Why? I think it is because our ego must step out of the way. Our ego is what fights God, the self that we think we are, even the knowledge and identity that we think we have. This comes into direct conflict with God and Reality. When our ego surrenders that fight, God is revealed in glory. We see God’s face in our own, our true face, and we are forever changed as a result. We realize a new identity, we are transfigured, which is why sometimes a new name is taken. We no longer identify with that ego self we thought we were, but something far greater. This is the “great battle” in the silent chamber of our soul, even in our mind and consciousness.
Praying in our Inner Chamber
McKay’s statement also recalls Jesus’s teaching: “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly” (Matthew 6:6). The closet referred to is perhaps our own soul, our mind. That is where we go to commune with God. Another translation of this scripture might be:
Instead, when you commune, go into the silent chamber of your mind and soul, and shut out all external distractions. There you contemplate your Source, which dwells in that hidden inward Holy of Holies. And your Source, which perceives the Truth inwardly, will restore and renew you outwardly. (Matthew 6:6 BHT)
We come to know God within our own mind, in this silent chamber of our own soul.
Consciousness of God
President McKay seemed to agree, as he continued to quote:
“Consciousness of God is the highest achievement in human experience and is the supreme goal of human life. This is true religion. It is a mental, spiritual experience of the highest order.”
McKay put this in quotations too. The source of this quote seems to be an article titled “Freedoms Foundation,” by Reverend Carlton J. Williams (1891-1974), Pastor Emeritus of The Old Stone Church, Rockton, Illinois, published on July 1, 1962. The original reads slightly different:
Consciousness of God is the highest achievement in human experience, and is, I firmly believe, the supreme goal of human life. This is true religion. It is not creed or dogma or churchism. It is a mental-spiritual experience of the highest order.
Reverend Williams’ article was about how faith in religion, a “lofty idealism,” allows a people to achieve freedom. Here, McKay uses the quote to illustrate just how close our relationship may come to God. It happens within our consciousness, which is where we achieve the “consciousness of God,” in that “silent chamber.” We don’t just become conscious of God, we achieve God’s consciousness, even God’s mind within our own. President McKay used this as the title of his talk, framing the whole of his discussion around this divine consciousness, and how we go about achieving it. It is achieving this state of divine consciousness that is the “supreme goal of human life.” If it is the highest goal of being human, it seems that we should speak of it more often.
This state of consciousness is “true religion.” It’s unfortunate that McKay left out one sentence from Williams, that this is “not creed or dogma or churchism.” Being a reverend and pastor of a church himself, that must have been hard for Williams to say, and McKay did not follow. But I believe the original statement is valid, that “true religion” really does not have to do with creeds, dogmas, or churches. True religion is knowing God, knowing the Ultimate, knowing one’s Source, and this is an experience that is “mental-spiritual.” The churches, if they are doing their job well, help guide people towards that experience of knowing God that happens in our mind and consciousness.
Elsewhere in Williams article he notes, “Religion is man living in harmony with himself, with his highest self.” True religion then might be said to be achieving divine consciousness, and by so doing arriving at one’s highest self, one’s true Self, and this is the pinnacle of harmony, peace, and rest. It is God’s peace and God’s rest. We come into harmony with God.
McKay then goes on to say that there is a need for more “spirituality” in the Church, “meditation and communion” with God. He encourages the leaders of the Church to provide more opportunities for silent reverence, for communing with God. He says that our outside thoughts about such things as business, or feelings such as our hatreds, enmities, and jealousies can stifle this communion. In other words, our thoughts can get in the way and be a distraction in true communion.
The Church’s Neglect of Meditation
Then McKay notes the value of “meditation,” and how the Church has generally neglected this:
I think we pay too little attention to the value of meditation, a principle of devotion. In our worship there are two elements: One is spiritual communion arising from our own meditation; the other, instruction from others, particularly from those who have authority to guide and instruct us. Of the two, the more profitable introspectively is meditation.
This is quite a statement. McKay is saying that meditation is better worship than being taught by religious authorities. I think we must always remember this. No matter what someone else might teach us, how wise our teachers, leaders, guides, or authorities might be, the greatest lessons and spiritual benefit will come from our own spiritual communion and meditation. For that is where we come to know God directly, for ourselves, in ourselves. Jesus said that this is life eternal (John 17:3).
What is Meditation?
McKay continues by giving some definitions as to what meditation is:
Meditation is the language of the soul. It is defined as “a form of private devotion or spiritual exercise, consisting in deep, continued reflection on some religious theme.” Meditation is a form of prayer. We can say prayers without having any spiritual response.
I think McKay found the quoted definition in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, the unabridged edition from 1966. Here is the full definition from that dictionary:
- a spoken or written discourse treated in a contemplative manner and intended to express its author’s reflection or esp. when religious to guide others in contemplation
- a private devotion or spiritual exercise consisting in deep continued reflection on a religious theme…
- the act of meditating: steady or close consecutive reflection: continued application of the mind.
This is a Western conception of meditation, and it seems may have been written prior to many Eastern understanding spreading to the West. Christian contemplation does often have a religious theme or phrase, a kind of “mantra,” that is continually repeated or “reflected” in consciousness, but meditation is more than this. As President McKay suggested, it is a form of prayer or communion, in which the language is often silence.
Today Merriam-Webster defines the verb meditate as:
1: to engage in contemplation or reflection
2: to engage in mental exercise (such as concentration on one’s breathing or repetition of a mantra) for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness
And contemplation is defined first as:
1. a: concentration on spiritual things as a form of private devotion
b: a state of mystical awareness of God’s being
These are better definitions. Through concentrated meditation in one’s mind and consciousness, we commune with God. We reach a state of heightened spiritual awareness, and can even become aware of God directly, in union with God. Contemplation has traditionally been understood as the activity one engages in to “see God,” to have the Beatific vision. I think this may have been part of what McKay was getting at in his talk, as will be seen as we continue.
Entering the Presence of God
Next is perhaps the most wise statement from all of President McKay’s talk:
Meditation is one of the most secret, most sacred doors through which we pass into the presence of the Lord. Jesus set the example for us.
How often do members of the LDS Church turn to meditation in order to enter the “presence of the Lord”? How often is this taught in the Church today? This seems to be mostly forgotten, or else it is kept so “secret” that many are not aware of it.
Jesus Meditated to Commune with God
McKay noted that none other than Jesus himself set the example of meditation being how we may enter God’s presence. McKay stressed this through giving many examples from the New Testament, including:
- Soon after Jesus was baptized he went into the wilderness, to the Mount of Temptation, where it is said that he fasted for forty days alone. A later addition to McKay’s talk notes that he liked to think of this place as the “mount of meditation.” McKay says that Jesus communed and contemplated there in solitude. One particularly salient event that happened there was the casting out of Satan. I perceive that the entire activity of meditation might be thought of as “casting out Satan.” We are engaged in bringing our mind to silence, in letting go of our thoughts, in surrendering our own egoic ideas and perceptions, in putting off the “natural man” or “enemy to God” that is in all of us (Mosiah 3:19), so that we may become aware of God’s mind. For God cannot be revealed where the “natural man” remains, and that includes all the carnal thoughts that often stream through our minds (D&C 67:12).
- Before Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount, he was in solitude, “in communion.”
- After a particular Sabbath, after having been a guest of Peter, he also was found alone, in solitude.
- And again, after feeding the 5000, he went into the mountains alone for solitude.
What was Jesus doing? McKay emphasized again:
Our prayers are often very discursive. We talk a lot, even in our so-called “silent prayers.” We are talking mentally, with our thoughts. We give thanks for things, and we ask for things. Very seldom do we learn to pray with a silent mind, letting go of all of the thoughts of the “carnal mind” so that God’s Presence may be revealed in us. This is a deeper form of prayer, of meditation, of contemplation. This is where we come to “know God,” in consciousness. When our consciousness becomes attuned to God’s consciousness, then God is unveiled. That is when we pass through the doors and enter the Lord’s Presence.
McKay notes that during the administration of the sacrament is a good time for such meditation. That may be one of the only times in standard Church services where such a meditation could happen. But I perceive that there is very good reason that Jesus went into solitude, to be alone by himself, to pray and commune with God, and recommended we do the same. I don’t perceive that God will be revealed to someone in meditation during the middle of a sacrament meeting, at least not in fullness. There are too many distractions. We should go into our closets, figuratively and more literally, in order to commune with God in privacy, in silence, in stillness.
Knowing God in Communion
Never forget that great events have happened in this Church because of such communion, and because of the responsiveness of the soul to the inspiration of the Almighty.
I think we have forgotten, in many ways, that the First Vision happened while Joseph was engaged in deep prayer. I perceive that God may always be revealed through such deep prayer, communion, meditation, contemplation. We can only be responsive to God if we first get out of our own way, and this is done in such meditation. I perceive that Joseph’s prayer led not only to the quieting of his egoic thoughts and mind, but a full blown ego death in his consciousness.
I perceive that the parts of Joseph’s brain that maintained his ego turned off, shut down, went quiet temporarily. Perhaps because of the deep mental anguish he was suffering for the eternal welfare of his soul, his psychological self “died” during that prayer. At first this was perceived as a very black darkness, a kind of deep despair and hell, a dark night of the soul, even destruction of his perceived “self,” but eventually he passed through this, and that’s when God appeared in a Light that was brighter than the sun, in his mind and consciousness. Several accounts say that his “mind was caught away” into the heavenly vision that he perceived. This is a pattern that has been repeated often throughout history when people have encountered the Divine.
We may have First Visions too
McKay continues by saying that he has had this type of experience, and that we may too:
I know it is real! You will find that when these most inspirational moments come to you, you are alone with yourself and your God. They come to you probably when you are facing a great trial, when a wall is across your pathway and it seems that you are facing an insurmountable obstacle, or when your heart is heavy because of some tragedy in your life. I repeat, the greatest comfort that can come to us in this life is to sense the realization of communion with God.
I too know it is real. These moments have happened to me when I was alone with myself and God, in communion and meditation, even after facing great trials and struggles in my life. And it has truly been the greatest comfort to me in my entire life. The realization that may come is the Comforter. It is salvation. It is liberation. Joy and Love, beyond words.
McKay relates an experience of his father wherein he had a direct experience of God, and realized he should testify that Joseph Smith was a prophet. Through my own direct experiences of God, I too know that Joseph was a genuine prophet, that he had prophetic experiences of the Divine, even attaining the “spirit of prophecy,” which again, I perceive is a state of mind in consciousness when one is in direct communion with the Divine. That doesn’t mean he always was in such communion, that he acted perfectly, or was without fault. But I do perceive he communed with God, even as we may commune. I know that many others have also had such communion throughout history, and throughout the world, and we should not discount these. McKay notes:
These secret prayers, these conscientious moments in meditation, these yearnings of the soul to reach out to feel the presence of God—such is your privilege and mine!
Did you know that you may also have a First Vision type of experience, that you may come to know God “face to face,” even as Joseph did? Even as Moses did? Even as St. Augustine said we may in contemplation, in meditation, in prayer? This is not often taught so explicitly in the Church, so I appreciate that President McKay emphasized it here. I know it is our privilege also. I perceive the entirety of the Gospel, from the beginning to the end, every jot and tittle, is pointing us towards this one mental-spiritual experience, even to “know God” “face to face.” The veil is pierced when our egos fall away, and God is revealed in glory to our minds, in our consciousness, as our consciousness. This is what is meant by becoming at-one with God. This is what is meant by taking upon ourselves Christ’s name, and recognizing that name by which we are all called (Alma 5:38-39). Our mind becomes one in God’s consciousness, and we perceive as God perceives, realizing that God lives in us, even as the foundation of our being. We perceive God’s image in our countenance, and we find that it is engraved there, and it has always been engraved there (Alma 5:14, 19). In this moment, all truth that we have known is brought together in one great whole in our consciousness, and we understand with such purity that it is beyond all the words that could ever be expressed by the human mind. And when people try to express it, they use many different terms and metaphors for it. It is a universal phenomenon, known by many throughout the world and throughout history.
The Qualities of Communion
McKay goes on to speak of reverence, and how this is deep respect mingled with love. I can attest that my experiences have been when I was in the deepest feelings of reverence and love, Love so deep that I knew not where the bottom was.
He continues, again referring to the Church buildings, and how we may commune and meditate there. But I again feel that the deepest and most profound meditation and communion, the fullest expression of that wrestling God in the silent chamber of our souls, will come in solitude.
Then he talks about language, and keeping it clean. Language is often a reflection of our ego. If we are to transcend ego, then watching how our ego uses language is a good exercise.
The Gospel Oneness
McKay said that he felt deeply stirred by the gospel, and that it had the potential to do much good if we stayed in tune with the Spirit. I believe that is a key, and one of the primary ways that we do that is in meditation, contemplation, communion, even direct experience of the Presence of God, in attaining divine consciousness, the consciousness of God. If we lose that connection with Divinity, if we cease to have First Vision experiences, if the mystical vision of God is lost, then the good that the gospel could do may also be lost (Proverbs 29:18).
There is deep truth in the eternal perennial gospel, even truth that saves, liberates, awakens, enlightens, and this truth is always and forever unveiled in its fullness through direct personal experience of the consciousness of God. That’s where the gospel is experienced in its entirety and we realize just how universal it is. That is where we may come to know our oneness in God, in at-one-ment consciousness, as McKay quoted,
Be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine. (D&C 38:27)
President McKay finished his talk:
I pray we may have the strength so to live that we may merit divine guidance and inspiration; that through worship, meditation, communion, and reverence we may sense the reality of being able to have a close relationship with our Father in heaven. I bear you my testimony that it is real; that we can commune with our Heavenly Father.
I also know that it is real, in my own experience. We can commune with God, the Source of our Being, and come to know this Ultimate Being in ourselves, as ourselves, in that silent chamber of our mind and heart.