Perspectives on Practical Spirituality, continued

 

The New Testament continues where the Old Testament leaves off, but with an important difference.  At the end of the Old Testament, we find the prophets calling the nation of Israel back to God.  The New Testament (particularly clear in the gospels of St Matthew and St John) starts off with a bold change in roles: God Himself is all of a sudden amongst humans.  Immanuel, God with us.  The Annunciation has overtones strongly reminiscent of Genesis 1.  Then, God breathed into mud, and mankind was born.  Now He breathes into mankind and his Son is born.  He calls us again, but this time as a shepherd amongst his sheep.  It is exactly in this kenosis (emptying of self) that Jesus is "made perfect" and given the Name that is above all names (Phil. 2:9).  And, as in the Old Testament, Christ continues calling us by new names (Rev. 2:17) to a new identity (2 Cor. 5:17).  His Name is a banner over us, giving us identity, security and authority.  His Name confirms that we have a home, a place where we belong.  When his Spirit is breathed into the disciples at Pentecost, they are comforted.  God is in them, and they in Him.

 

In contemplative spirituality, we refer back to the roots of our spirituality, the Person with whom we stand in relationship, both our Creator and Redeemer.  It requires us to empty ourselves of desires that attach to our name - our image and destiny in our own eyes and in the eyes of others - and to allow God to speak his Name over us.  In this "speaking", we will be orientated by the truth, order, meaning and beauty of his creation and revelation.

 

As we enter upon relationships, we enter into a world of continual creative activity.  Ideally, there is never a dull moment, never a moment without awe and amazement at hitherto unimagined depths.  Contemplation is the process of surveying the unexpected joys in wordless and Wordly wonder.  "Wordless", because contemplation glimpses the essence behind the name, however briefly.  "Wordly", because Jesus is the "Name above all names".  To be contemplative requires us to stand still, possibly the single most difficult thing to do in our distraction-hungry culture.  Here we are orientated, looking towards God and finding our spiritual bearings.  Silence and stillness do not come naturally to fallen and broken humans.  They require discipline and practice, the building of an inner structure.  In this, we are enabled by the grace of God, to call forward elements of truth, order, meaning and beauty out of the formless emptiness that characterises our self-centred lives.  Our tendency as bent and broken humans is to shy away from discipline, to dissipate into insubstantial shapelessness.  What we call "the curse on Adam" actually prevents us from dissipating, since it forces us to work diligently and responsibly, against our fallen desire to be lazy.  As such, it is a blessing thinly veiled.  So even the broken natural world forces us to at least some form of discipline if we want to survive. 

 

Fantasy (as exemplified in daydreaming or wishful thinking) is the one enemy of contemplative spirituality.  In the narrow sense in which I use it, it is self-originating and requires no effort on our behalf.  It resembles contemplation in its physical inaction.  In our inner fantasy, however, the fabric of the universe becomes as flexible as our whims - in fact, the reality of creation becomes a stumbling block to the self-glorifying fantasy.  Since the world of fantasy becomes one where self has ultimate power, it is clear how the authority of God is not welcome here.  In fantasy lies the root of occultism.  The proud soul cannot accept the God of "Israel" - to "rule with God", and not alone.  We should, however not confuse fantasy with imagination.  And neither am I here referring to fantasy as a literary art form, like The Lord of the Rings.  Imagination is the creative result of contemplation - it has its roots firmly embedded in creation and God's revelation in creation.  To be truly original, we need to get back to our Origin.  Fantasy, as I define it, flees from this Origin.

 

The other enemy of contemplative spirituality is legalism.  It resembles contemplation in its discipline.  Legalism is more subtly ego-centric, and stifles creativity by fixing boundaries and defining cause-and-effect relationships according to human perception.  Strict adherence to certain rituals and patterns of behaviour are associated with appeasing the deity, whose personality becomes irrelevant.  In legalism lie the roots of magic and idolatry.  The austerity of legalism cannot cope with the God of "Isaac" - the God of laughter.  Legalism should not be confused with discipline.  Discipline, properly understood, liberates us for creative service.  Legalism, however, kills creativity.

 

As disparate as these two temptations may look, they share the emphasis on the self.  Both result in dull, colourless and dispirited rituals - be they occult rituals, magical rites, enslaving entertainment or bureaucratic laws.  The "law written upon the heart" is the freedom that Jesus brings, a yoke that is easy, yet still recognisably, essentially yoke.

 

In Jewish tradition, the creative / contemplative relationship is strengthened by their celebrations.  These are the natural responses of souls who have seen the beauty of God's love manifested in history.  All of these celebrations are associated with God's calling (naming) of his people Israel.  God commands festivals that have the nature of both a fast and a feast.  We tend to separate fasting from feasting, as though they have no common ground.  It might come as a surprise to hear that these are actually two sides of the same coin, and that elements of both are in all the Jewish festivals.  The fasting element is the breathing in.  It consists of "separation and preparation", the withdrawing from the normal course of daily activities.  Fasting is an outward symbol of the inner separation and consecration to the Lord.  The feasting is our breathing out.  It contains the elements of "restoration and celebration", a time of renewed relationships and joyous revelling in a God-given life.

 

We, too, need to learn the value of celebration if we want to discover the peace of Christ.  At heart, this means identifying periods where we voluntarily forego certain activities with the express purpose of dedicating those activities to God.  We tend to associate fasting only with going without food and / or water, but fasting is much more than this.  Fasting is not a device to guarantee God's answer to our prayers, or that we will get "closer to God".  The spiritual power of fasting lies not in our apparent ability to transcend human appetites, and definitely does not imply that these appetites are unspiritual.  No, the spiritual power lies in the prioritising which fasting brings about.  If we have dedicated our hunger and thirst to God, that natural impulse - pointing to a physical need - is redirected.  It is called out of the void to become a clear witness to God's provision.  Whenever we are hungry or thirsty again, our first impulse is not the satisfaction of the appetite, but gratitude to God, from whom ultimate contentment comes.  Our relationship with God is strengthened in this way by our discipline to put all things under his Lordship.

 

Making a law out of fasting, for example, would miss the point.  If we fast because it is required of us, the fast redirects us to the law, and not to God.  Every time our stomach grumbles, we refrain from eating because it is the law, and not because we wish to serve God.  We start trusting in our ability to keep the law, instead of seeing the very act of fasting as a visible manifestation of God's invisible grace and enabling.

 

In the final analysis, Holy Communion is the pivotal fast-feast of the Christian.  Like the Jewish festivals, it has its roots firmly in an historical event.  And it has a clear separation-preparation-restoration-celebration pattern (this also goes for the other sacraments).  We separate ourselves from our normal daily activities to get together for this feast.  We prepare and examine our hearts prayerfully.  We restore relationships by asking forgiveness and forgiving.  And we celebrate the salvation mystery with joy and sorrow.  We need to take this pattern with us from the feast.  We need to see and celebrate every aspect of our lives, all our (often mundane) tasks, as witnesses to God's love.  It is this orientation that speaks to us in our confusion.  As we live lives of awe and wonder, we will discover a pattern of being strengthened and strengthening others which is a source of true joy.  And as we offer our bodies as living sacrifices - the logical consequence of our awe. - we are engaging in true worship.

 

Author Frank Muller can be reached at franko@pixie.co.za

 

 

 

The Big Picture

HOME

Lent 1999 page 14