Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Armchair Contemplatives

Mount Shasta photo by Bill Buchanan.
Bill and Ruth are regular readers of this blog.

At the end of Book One of The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross, I wrote, “I don’t like his God.” What I felt is that his God is incredibly demanding, and I found myself yearning for the homeliness of Evelyn Underhill’s God in her two-level House of the Soul.

But then it occurred to me that Juan de la Cruz’s book could be compared to a manual on how to climb Mt. Everest. To do that requires demanding training, sacrifice and investment. It’s not God who’s “demanding,” any more than it is Mt. Everest that’s demanding. What’s demanding are efforts to scale seeming insurmountable heights.

I’d rather see Mt. Everest from a distance than from the top. I guess the same goes for my preferences of seeing God. Ninety-nine+ percent of the Hebrews saw Mt. Sinai from the plain. Only Moses ascended to commune with Yahweh, sovereign of the universe.* And we have his testimony of what God calls us to be and do, along with the testimonies of all the prophetic mystics of every age, of every faith and culture.

With many of you, I am content to remain an armchair contemplative. I am grateful for the stories and writings of saints, contemplatives, mystics, and spiritual authors. The spiritual horizons they offer inform and inspire our own spiritual quests. “Success” is not my spiritual objective; in fact, I don’t consider success a spiritual objective, period.

I’ve written elsewhere that a sense of “having arrived” is when we may be in the most spiritual danger. John of the Cross understood this; he warns that such folk judge others as the boastful Pharisee contrasting himself with the Publican sinner. John writes that it may be best that God not free such people from their imperfections, despite their petitions, lest they “wax haughtier in their pride.”

So I guess I should thank God for my imperfections!

John of the Cross is the first to admit that the purgation of dark nights, first of the senses and second of the intellect, does not “earn” God’s companionship. Rather it allows God’s ever-present, unyielding love to touch us, to infuse our souls.

As I move into Book Two of Dark Night, however, I resist John’s supposition that he is sufficiently purged as well as his original premise of purging the sensual and the intellectual.

Moses first encountered I AM in a lowly desert shrub that was burning and yet unconsumed. Jacob physically wrestled with God in the middle of the night. Ruth embraced Yahweh in her fidelity to Naomi. Elijah heard God in a “sound of gentle stillness.” Hannah’s fervent prayers to get pregnant were answered. God blessed Solomon with wisdom at his request. Jewish faith has been traditioned in teaching and chavrusa, debating the meaning of sacred texts in small groups or partnerships.

Mary experienced birth pangs to give rise to a refreshing renewal of the faith of Abraham and Sarah. Jesus prayed in lonely places and was sought out for his healing touch and compassionate wisdom. The Christian story is that God has been embodied in Jesus himself, whose Spirit inspires and empowers his followers. And Christians believe themselves to be members of the Body of Christ, which cannot say to the head or the hand, the intellect or the senses, “I have no need of you.”

John of the Cross’s spirituality appears to be, to me at least, more a product of Hellenistic dualism than of the Bible. Though his concept of letting go of all that is not God is admirable, I myself find everything good is of God.

Four decades ago, an elderly gay Roman Catholic priest visited the congregation I was serving and joined us for brunch afterward. He told us he first learned of God as a child on his grandmother’s knee, and though he grew up learning and studying a harsher and more demanding God, he now, in retirement, was welcoming a gentler understanding of a “grandmother God.”


*Moses was accompanied part way by others and further by Joshua but only Moses entered Yahweh’s cloud at the summit as described in Exodus 24.

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Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. Photo used by permission.

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