Saturday, July 9, 2016

Spiritual Growth Versus

One of the thoughts that haunts me is that spirituality is the "against everything else." This is not an easy thing to explain - and far harder still to live.

What do I mean? Start with the forgetting of self, all the Gospel passages that talk about this.

To most this would simply seem a way to live the Two Commandments - love of God above all others and love of neighbour as yourself. It is a way, thus, of humility, knowing God is above and knowing your neighbour is just as important as you are.

1. Knowing the Truth

But is it just a knowing?

I think that knowing cannot be knowing without the constant doing.

As I have said in previous posts, acknowledging things is basically nothing, at least the level of acknowledgment we are used to.

Let us compare the degree of awareness associated with the saints with that of every day people. What differentiates the two? The latter is constantly being reminded about who is and what he believes and needs to do. I do not think the former is like that. It is not just that the saint believes in objectively better things, he is far more conscious of these things. Let's take any example. A politician needs to be reminded about his party's platform. A environmentalist needs to constantly reflect on the choices he is making - "Is this what environmentalists do?" he asks himself. "What do we think about vaccines? Oh yeah."

The saint, I imagine (not here speaking from experience), does not need these kinds of deliberate refreshers. There are more than a few reasons for this, but you will really have to get into the writings of the mystics if you want to understand this. A few reasons for his single-mindedness are: 1) he is illuminated by a special grace, 2) his life is simple, 3) he has done the hard work of forming virtuous habits.

There are no short-cuts and nothing can be exchange for 1-3. Of course, we have no control over (1). The third is for most of us the result of a whole life's struggle. Let me say a bit more about (2), since that is kind of where my thoughts are leading me, because it is the simplest concept of the three.

2. Simplicity is / is not Humility

In itself simplicity is non-moral, not, of course, according to how the Catholic tradition understands it, but according to the most general sense of the word, a sense that would include fung shui, and a life free from worry (which, for instance, wealth can bring). It is in itself about deeds, not attitudes. The Catholic tradition understands it as primarily an attitude from which deeds flow.

It is a value. It is not about freeing from yourself from obligation by whatever means. It is about setting yourself up so that you may more easily attend to what truly matters - God. It draws its moral value from its end, the reason why it is undertaken. To simplify your life for sake of your health is a good thing, and therefore a moral choice. But lowering your blood pressure is not as high an end as single-minded love of God, but it is still very good. It is amazing to notice how often human goods and divine goods go hand-in-hand.

But not always. I think there are two levels here. The first one is the one where human and divine goods go together. I think there is a higher level where the divine goods come at the expense of the human goods, but simply because of original sin (with Adam before the Fall they would not have). I don't want to speak of these as absolutes, but as general characteristics.

At the first level: marriage and family is healthy. Loving bonds rather than exploitative relationships.

At the second: the real dying to self of celibacy, isolation, voluntary poverty, lost experiences and opportunities.

Obviously, both can be experienced in marriage, for instance, but they are distinguished by a choice, I believe. It is a scary choice.

Simplicity is about getting rid of excess and distractions. It is, I think, a necessary first step to humility.

3. The Choice

We have all generally chosen against things like drunkenness and fornication, abusing others, etc. This is good, but it is far off from being where God is really calling us. Most of the things we have given up, since they are 'first level' things are actually immediately beneficial to us.

How much time do we spend on ourselves: defending our own rights, expressing our side of things, rewarding ourselves in the ways we like? The world has this side figured out. But it is a false perspective, because it is incomplete. In marriage (I like this example because I am married), you can either go through it defending your rights, compromising so you get your stuff too, or you are a saint. Some of you might not like my 'or' here. Can you not except that Christ is calling you to die to yourself?

St. Paul and the spiritual writers all granted that there was a worldly way and a spiritual way. These were opposed. They did not see how they were not opposed. Don't suppose that you are so clever to have figured out how you can have both at the same time.

Being forgotten. Oblivion.

At a time when we are all dialectical materialists by default (not really spiritual at all, but spiritual insofar as it produces concrete results in the world), we think of the Christian life as one that always, in so many words, pays off. Priests see it paying off because their hard choice for celibacy produced material security, meaningful employment, and social respect. But are any of us different? (This is an a fortiori argument.) But how would a priest feel who have really made a mess of his celibacy, of his parish, can't preach for beans? His life is no less precious to God, but to most of us it is less precious.

We would not love ourselves, were we such a priest. And yet this inability to love ourselves and others as failures shows how spiritually impoverished we really are: our failures show it less than our ability to love people who fail - ourselves and others. Most of us (me!!!) are not this advanced. And, it's probably even harder to love ourselves as failures than it is to love others who fail.

But neither should be of any consequence to us. Sin should be hated, but not the sinner, even when that is ourselves. I should not be of any consequence to myself. But boy am I ever! I love myself so much that I am mortified when I fail, when I am not successful, stellar.

You want to be the favorite parent, or at least well-loved by your children. but are you loved for the right reasons?

You want to be successful at work. At school. Esteemed in your neighborhood, parish, etc.

In Conclusion: Why?

It is never any good talking about 'Christian things you should do' when we do not explain why.

The why is the most important part but also the hardest to give an account of.

I have already said that the higher level of Christian life cannot be justified by things like health and utilitarianism. The life of Christ cannot be defended in those ways. He died a horrible and preventable death.

The higher life is Christological and theological: it is an imitation of Christ and it is one lived out of consciousness of God's sovereignty, that God is real and nothing else is. The Stoics said we should live a hard life because it is hard and manly to do so and that the life lived away from pleasure has access to wisdom. We do so because we do what Christ did (the dumbing-down for us of the divine life) and because of our awareness of God. How should a dog live before its master, how does a fish live with water?

This is the great unknown. It is an unfamiliar kind of life. It is a life lived away from concern, it is time away from others, it is mind away from others, it is body away from pleasures and stimulants, it is mind away from politics, news, conversation. Certainly, we can only get there by steps, but I think this is the character of these steps - they are steps away from others. It is not undertaken because one doesn't like people, but whether one likes them or not.

If the idea of it doesn't frighten you, I cannot help but conclude you either do not understand what I am trying to say or do not think that what I am describing is necessary or even good.

None of the great mystics assumed that their kind of life would be widely acclaimed.

In the end, the spiritual life is life away from life.


  1. "Certainly, we can only get there by steps, but I think this is the character of these steps - they are steps away from others. It is not undertaken because one doesn't like people, but whether one likes them or not."
    In particular, there is death. That's the definitive step, "the flight of the alone to the alone," whether you are the one dying or you're watching someone die, and however one goes about it. But prior to death, I imagine it helps to prod you along if you *don't* like people... How could separation be possible without dislike at some level?

  2. How true. Our restless hearts are unsatisfied hearts. People are a part of what cannot satisfy us.

    Have we turned Christianity into mere philanthropy? How might we square these two things?

  3. Christianity becomes philanthropy, and the state assumes all philanthropic functions, cradle to grave. That's really what 'assisted dying' is about - we should never be on our own, alone, that would be scary, so the state is there to care for you, even in death making sure that right up to the last minute you are not alone, reliant upon God alone (provided we resolutely ignore whatever happens after death).