Monday, June 15, 2009

The spiritual life is so simple

The spiritual life is so simple. For instance, Micah sums it like this: what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" (6:8). Jesus also has a nice summery of the spiritual life (Matt. 22.40). So does St. Paul (1 Corinthians 13:13).

Lately, I've felt that I have not much else to learn about the spiritual life as far as mental learning, not because I know so much but because there isn't all that much to know. It seems, though maybe I'm exaggerating and maybe I'm wrong, that you need to "know" just enough to "do" and "be" in love, which mostly is to "know" the truth about a few key lies about the false self.

The spiritual life is so simple you would think it ought to be easy.

But its not.

Below I've pasted an excerpt from Thomas Merton's New Seeds of Contemplation which details one such instance where something so simple is so difficult: Merton speaks about the spiritual value of living with people (New Directions 1961, pp. 191, 192, edited for gender neutrality).

In my life, the friction of living with my wife and my children could be invaluable to spiritual growth. I know this! I have known this from the beginning! But so many times I act or feel as if my wife and children--and in-laws!--were distractions from "spirituality," from reading, writing, prayer or silence.

Gracefully, I do not always do this: often I realize in the moment the value of the grinding and am content to be present to it. Praise God for this. But when I live in the fragmentation between what I know and how I live or feel, I demonstrate the gulf between the simplicity of the spiritual life and the easiness thereof. But here's the passage:

Very few are sanctified in isolation. Very few become perfect in absolute solitude.
. . . Living with other people and learning to lose ourselves in the understandings of their weakness and deficiencies can help us become true contemplatives. For there is no better means of getting rid of the rigidity and harshness and coarseness of our ingrained egoism, which is the one insuperable obstacle to the infused light and action of the Spirit of God.
. . . Even the courageous acceptance of interior trials in utter solitude cannot altogether compensate for the work of purification accomplished in us by patience and humility in loving other people and sympathizing with their most unreasonable needs and demands.
. . . There is always a danger that hermits will only dry up and solidify in their own eccentricity. Living out of touch with other people they tend to lose that deep sense of spiritual realities, which only pure love can give.
. . . Do you think the way to sanctity is to lock yourself up with prayers and your books and the meditations that please and interest your mind, to protect yourself with many walls, against people you consider stupid? Do you think the way to contemplation is found in the refusal of activities and works which are necessary for the good of others but which happen to bore and distract you? Do you imagine that you will discover God by winding yourself up in a cocoon of spiritual and aesthetic pleasures, instead of renouncing all your tastes and desires and ambitions and satisfactions for the love of Christ, Who will not even live within you if you cannot find Him in other people?

We pray together that God will help us to be aware of what we know and to do those simple but hard things which are required of us by love.


living stones said...

Paul, your Micah quote is a strong one, and I've always liked how it is active--" do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly...." But we all know how hard it is to live out. Our comtemplative way, accepting God's presence and action within us moment by moment, enables us to "gracefully" connect with the people(and events)he has put in our lives. Merton echoes part of this when he says Christ will not even live within you if you cannot find Him in other people. But God is in no hurry; he gives us lots of practice exercising humility and love.
Thanks for sharing all this. I like how you put all this together.

RC said...

Paul, thank you for this insightful reflection and for sharing the profound excerpt from Thomas Merton. Very powerful, very true, very real. Thomas Keating says of Centering Prayer that the practice is actually Centering Prayer and daily life. I am grateful to share community with those who are practicing "for real" in these ways!

Daniel said...

Paul, thank you for your honesty. It is not unlike me to treat others or circumstances as a "distraction from" my spiritual growth, rather than an "invaluable" part. Your prayer sums it up well: "that God will help us to be aware of what we know," in the moment of response to these circumstances.

John Orzechowski said...

Paul, Thanks for your reminder that the spiritual life is "so simple," though it's not easy. It's possible to lose the beautiful simplicity of it in all our intellectual reflection (perhaps especially at a divinity school). I also enjoyed the Merton quotation.

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