spirituality

Starting the Spiritual Life

The more that I engage with the sayings of the desert wisdom the more I come to see how little I really know about the Christian spiritual life. For instance, I struggle with anger and I try really hard to say the right things. I do not want to offend my neighbor and I do not want to say things that do harm. Of course I fail at this, but I still feel that the “ideal Christian” would never say anything hurtful. And then I read this:

They said of Abbot Pambo that in the very hour when he departed this life he said to the holy men who stood by him: From the time I came to this place in the desert, and built me a cell, and dwelt here, I do not remember eating bread that was not earned by the work of my own hands, nor do I remember saying anything for which I was sorry even until this hour. And thus I go to the Lord as one who has not even made a beginning in the service of God. - The Wisdom of the Desert by Thomas Merton

Pambo thought, right up to the point of his death, that self-sufficiency and not being a drain on anyone (by avoiding bread he did not make) was virtuous. He thought that never saying anything he was sorry for was a saintly. And then, right at the point of his death, he saw that this “ideal” way of living was in fact not the way of God at all. Receiving hospitality and seeking reconciliation are the very beginning steps of one in the service of God.

annie-spratt-9VpI3gQ1iUo-unsplash.jpg

It is faithful to seek reconciliation. It is not faithful to keep so quite as to never offend or to think all that you say is without flaw. It is faithful to receive the work of others. The deficient one is someone who has never asked for help.

I am reminded once again that American values are not Christian values. The pious self-sufficient individual might think they are at the pinnacle of heaven, but Pambo says they have not even begun to walk the mountain.

How Do We Treat The Demons?

Over the past couple of years I have found a new life by reading and studying the wisdom of the desert Abbas and Ammas. There are many stories and "words" in this wisdom and I am not the first to explore this vast landscape. Through my studies I have come to see there is at least one thing that distinguishes that desert Abba/Amma from the student. And it is in how they each relate the the demons. 

The Torment of Saint Anthony - Michelangelo Buonarroti -  Kimbell Art   Notice how early in his life, Anthony might have prayed for the destruction of the demons as they pulled at him...

The Torment of Saint Anthony - Michelangelo Buonarroti - Kimbell Art

Notice how early in his life, Anthony might have prayed for the destruction of the demons as they pulled at him...

The Temptations of Saint Anthony - BOSCH, HIERONYMUS  Museo Nacional del Prado  ©   By the end of his life, Anthony learned to co-exist with the demons.

The Temptations of Saint Anthony - BOSCH, HIERONYMUS Museo Nacional del Prado©

By the end of his life, Anthony learned to co-exist with the demons.

Demons was a word to describe the different temptations these early hermits encountered. The demons tempted them to eat, drink, fornicate, wander, etc. There were as many demons as there were people who were tempted to abandon their quest of Love for God and all. 

Beginners would do, perhaps as we all might do, seek for ways to banish the demon. It makes sense that if you see a demon that you would want to banish and destroy it. Beginners would soon discover that the demons were too powerful to defeat. 

The more seasoned monks turned from trying to defeat the demons to tolerate them. It was a fact of life that temptations would come and it was a matter of keeping their rule of life that one could tolerate the existence of the demon. This is a significant turn in the life of the monk as they moved from desiring the death and destruction of the temptation to learning to keep it at bay.

However, the Abbas/Ammas took the next step. They did not tolerate the temptations they learned that the temptations were the way to love. That to disengage with the temptation or to even work for its destruction meant that the monk never experienced the Grace of God. 

This three fold movement - destruction, tolerance, embracing - requires a deep dedication and devotion to love even the most vile and evil. This does not mean the Abbas/Ammas delighted and let the temptation/demons do as they pleased. Abbas/Ammas fought with the demons all the time. It was in the fighting with the demons that the teachers came to see what the demons have to teach each of us. 

There are temptations in your life. There are people and forces in your life you may even call demonic or evil. And to be sure, there is evil in the world. There is evil in the world that is to be confronted - slavery, hate, enslavement, war, etc. These early monks were talking less about social evils as much as they were talking about the evils that come into our hearts. The desert wisdom is not clear on what to do in the face of injustice, Jesus had much to say about that. The desert wisdom is much more directive on what to do in the face of the demon of the soul. Do we desire it dead? Tolerate it's existence? Or can we cohabitate with it?

WeCroak app and the desert wisdom

Hoping for a better year is rooted in our clinging to life. And while life is good, when we cling to life we fear death. When we fear death then we are not living the Christian life. Christian spirituality is, at its core, about embracing death. Not in a macabre or violent way, but in a way the trusts that death is not the last word. Embracing death removes any fear we have of death and when the fear of death is removed then power of death is gone - because the only power we give death is fear. 

There is a little app on my phone that I have been living with for a few weeks now called WeCroak. I came across this app in a wonderful little write up in the Atlantic and I cannot recommend this app or the Atlantic article enough. The only thing the app does is remind you at five random times in the day that you are going to die. In fact the message looks like this:

https://www.inlander.com/spokane/searching-for-the-meaning-of-death-theres-an-app-for-that/Content?oid=7382589

https://www.inlander.com/spokane/searching-for-the-meaning-of-death-theres-an-app-for-that/Content?oid=7382589

While the creator of this app was inspired by the practice of reflecting on death in Budhaism called Maransati the centrality of death is present in many traditions. Jesus talked about picking up your cross and the desert wisdom placed death at the center of many teachings. For instance here is this clever little story:

 "They told the story of a hermit who was dying in Scetis. The brothers stood round his bed, clothed him, and began to weep. But he opened his eyes and began to laugh; this happened three times. So the brothers asked him, "Abba, why are you laughing when we are weeping?" He told them, "I laughed the first time because you fear death; I laughed the second time because you are not ready for death; I laughed the third time because I am passing from labor to rest, and yet you weep." As he said this, he closed his eyes and died."

In the coming year, may you let go of clinging to life so that you may embrace death - even just a little bit. I know it is scary, however it is when we let go and trust that death is not the last word we experience resurrection. 

At least that is the Gospel.

Like Parenting, Christianity is Less Carpenter; More Gardener

A few weeks ago Hidden Brain had a wonderful little episode titled Kinder-Gardening. You can listen to the episode to the right if you would like.

If you have not heard this episode, it focuses on two competing metaphors for being a parent: a carpenter and a gardener. Where most of the books parents are encouraged to read and much of the conversation about how to raise children are influenced by the parent as carpenter metaphor, it stands to reason that for most of human history it is the parent as gardener metaphor that has guided us. 

The key difference in these metaphors, as you can imagine, is the locus of control. If a carpenter does the proper work they will get the proper product. The carpenter is a metaphor of control and is the dominate metaphor for living in the United States. Those of us in the United States have a false sense of control in our lives that it is almost laughable at how fragile we are when we are only slightly out of control. Just watch many Americans stand in a line or have to wait for the server to bring the menu, you can see frustration boil over because the lack of control is maddening (I know this all too well myself!).

Photo by  Igor Ovsyannykov  on  Unsplash

The dominance of the carpenter metaphor bleeds into parenting to the point that society believes that raising children is like building a table. Just look at the most popular books on parenting. The carpenter parent metaphor is booming business. However, for anyone who has raised a child you know that there is so much that you cannot control that it is almost laughable to think that anyone could build the proper child to being with! Thus the metaphor of parenting as gardener may be more helpful.

Just as you cannot control the weather, birds dropping odd seeds and bugs eating your fruits, so too you cannot control much of a child: their DNA, their likes and dislikes, their strengths and weaknesses, their friends, etc. Parenting today feels like having to unlearn the carpenter and learn the skill set of the gardener. 

Which leads me to Jesus. 

Jesus was raised by a carpenter and yet the vast majority of his parables use gardening imagery. In fact, other than the parable of the foolish builder in Matthew 7 and again in Luke 6, I could not think of any parable that connected to carpentry. 

It is interesting to me that even Jesus had to unlearn the carpenter and learn the skill of the gardener so to teach God's children how to live. 

Perhaps the invitation is to put down the hammer and pick up the shovel.