". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

In Search of Spirituality

The quest for "spirituality" has become something of a pop culture phenomenon, with contemporary gurus like Eckhart Tolle and Deepak "Magical Thinking" Chopra constantly hawking their sure-fire plans for achieving it. The common definition of spirituality these days seems to hearken back to the Transcendentals of the 19th century, signifying the seeking of a higher plane of existence, a rising above the day-to-day "grind." The phrases "power of positive thinking" and "mind over matter" come to mind. I think it's indicative of the emptiness felt by many today that the pursuit of spirituality has become such a huge and profitable industry. People are looking for meaning, and it would appear that a lot of them think they can find it by watching Oprah.

I can relate to the search for meaning. When I was in high school I had my own flirtation with the "Frogpondians" (as Edgar Allan Poe pejoratively termed them), copying long passages from Emerson and Thoreau in spiral-bound notebooks and reading them over and over again. I perused the books and publications of Unity Ministries, which were a presence in our house for a while. (Here's their statement of belief, a "path for spiritual living" that asserts, among other things, that Jesus is the great example of the "Christ" that is within us all, that the "essential nature" of human beings is good, and that the more we awaken to that nature the more we will be able to live out our "divine potential" in our daily lives.)

That sort of thinking appealed to me when I was young and dumb (this is not a slap at you, my dear children; you are much smarter than I was at your age). But the older I get the more clearly I see the idiocy of it. Because the older I get, the more I am able to look back on my life and see the sin that stains it. Each year that passes just results in adding new items to the stack of stupid things I have done. Each year that passes drives home with greater clarity the decay of the flesh, as I realize now at 44 that I have crested the hill and am on the way down. I have looked as good as I am ever going to look, had the best eyesight that I'm ever going to have, played the piano as well as I'm ever going to play it, and enjoyed the highest level of mental and physical ability that I will ever enjoy. And Oprah and her buddies want me to get "better"? The very thought makes me tired.

So I guess that's why I am finding so much to embrace in a book that I am reading right now entitled Grace Upon Grace--Spirituality for Today, by John W. Kleinig, a Lutheran pastor and theologian. Rev. Kleinig's definition of spirituality is different from today's popular usage that spirituality is something we need to work and progress at. Instead, Rev. Kleinig suggests the opposite: Christian spirituality has to do not with seeking, but with receiving. He calls it "receptive spirituality" and describes it as "the ordinary life of faith in which we receive Baptism, attend the Divine Service, participate in the Holy Supper, read the Scriptures, pray for ourselves and others, resist temptation, and work with Jesus in our given location here on earth." And although we like to imagine that life of faith as something we grow and progress in, Rev. Kleinig suggests a different view (emphasis mine):

"We all, quite understandably, long for some evidence of spiritual development and improvement, for some clear proof that we are on the right track as disciples of Christ. . . . Yet this progressive understanding of the spiritual life is not backed up by my experience and by the teaching of the New Testament. There is progress in the spiritual life, but it is a kind of reverse or paradoxical progress, our baptismal progress out of our old selves and into Christ. . . . " (p. 32)

Reverse progress? Now there's a concept I can relate to. Rev. Kleinig continues:

"God deals with us in a strange way as we travel on our course here on earth. Little by little he strips us down until we are left with nothing except our bare, fragile human soul, a soul that relies on Him utterly for its existence. Then He strips us of our soul in death. He takes away everything that we have in order to give us everything that he has in store for us. His purpose in this gradual demolition of us is to give Himself ever more fully to us and to bless us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ (Ephesians 1:3). He brings us through the darkness of dying and death with Jesus to usher us completely into the light of His radiant face" (35).

Reading this I am reminded of another passage, this one in The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis, which I have been reading out loud with my children. In case you're not familiar with the book, the speaker, Screwtape, is a senior demon giving advice to a junior one on how to win a soul for their boss, the Devil:

"My dear Wormwood,

The most alarming thing in your last account of the patient is that he is making none of those confident resolutions which marked his original conversion. No more lavish promises of perpetual virtue, I gather; not even the expectation of an endowment of 'grace' for life, but only a hope for the daily and hourly pittance to meet the daily and hourly temptation. This is very bad.

"I see only one thing to do at the moment. Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is specially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, 'By jove! I'm being humble', and almost immediately pride--pride at his own humility--will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt--and so on, through as many stages as you please."

Last month saw the release of the motion picture The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald story of the same name. I have not seen the movie nor read the story, but I would like to do both. The movie is receiving quite positive reviews, and the premise sounds fascinating: when he is born, Benjamin Button is inexplicably an old man. As his life progresses, he "ages" in reverse, dying when he finally reaches infancy.

There is a saying that as people age they tend to become either more hellish or more heavenly. I am sorry to say that for the past few years I have felt that I am falling into the first category much more than the second. It is a feeling that doesn't bode well for my chances in the spiritual growth department. On the other hand, as I daily get closer to the end of my earthly life, whenever that may be, perhaps something good can come of the sense that I am regressing rather than progressing. If it can serve to continue reminding me of my utter and infant-like dependence upon the Father and my hopelessness and helplessness without a Saviour, then it is a good thing. If spiritual growth is a matter not of getting stronger but instead of fading away, of allowing myself to decrease--kind of like Alice's Cheshire Cat--so that Christ can increase, then maybe this weakening mind and body are blessing me more than I will ever know.


Elephantschild said...

Amen, dear friend. Beautifully said, and precious comfort, too.

atara said...

I don't think I can watch that movie. It kinda creeps me out, but I'm sure the sentiment of it is good. Where do you find these great Lutheran books? Do they apply to ELCA? I would love our women's group to do a Lutheran book!!!!

Cheryl said...

Atara, I have the good fortune to live with a professional church worker, so I am usually swimming in these types of books, and every once in a while I actually find time to read one. Our church also stocks a small bookstore with recommended reading, and I read blogs and talk to other Lutherans and get suggestions that way, too. I'm not sure of one certain place I could send you to for suggestions. Can any of my readers help?

And by all means, an ELCA member could read Kleinig's book (and others). Good theology is good theology! It is trans-denominational in my opinion!

Elephantschild said...

Atara - your local library system will have many or most of CS Lewis' works. Start with The Screwtape Letters or The Great Divorce, if you want to get into his theological writings. Otherwise, start with the Chronicles of Narnia.

Some other ones that are good: The Spirituality of the Cross, by Gene Edward Veith. I just finished Christ Have Mercy: How to Put Your Faith In Action by Matthew Harrison, which would work well for a book club or Bible study.

There are lots others, too!

Barbara Frank said...

What a lovely post, Cheryl. You touch on some things I've been ruminating on lately, so I appreciate what you've written.

Atara, there's a free study guide for this book at:


Kathy said...

Thanks, Cheryl. I don't have much time to check in on the blog scene, but I'm glad I did today. Susan had a reference to this post, and after a particularly difficult week, this was really uplifting. So thank you! Hope to see you again in this, oh too busy, lifetime!