Wade looking at the Indian Ocean along
Plettenberg Bay, South Africa, last summer. (crg)
On a recent visit with my family of origin, I heard the usual stories rolled out by my older siblings, putting me in my proper place as the “baby of the family.” One sibling surprised me by a new take on an old story. Being the youngest, I sat in the front seat of our old Hudson with our parents on a cross-country drive, apparently considered a privileged position by my sister and brother. At one point, given my vantage point, I saw a body of water and turned to them in the back seat, exclaiming excitedly, “Hey kids! Look at the too-lah! Look at the too-lah!” We long ago decided that “too-lah” must have come from the word “toilet,” then my only frame of reference for a body of water.
On this telling, however, one of my siblings added the word “condescendingly”—that I had “condescendingly” turned to them to announce this wonder. Miffed, I replied, “How can a toddler be condescending?” My other sibling had a different interpretation, that I was simply imitating the tone my parents took to convey something exciting to us kids.
This story came to me as I am currently reading The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross. A bookmark not many pages in reminds me I’ve tried to read it before. In the past I’ve made the common mistake of understanding “dark night” as simply a period of suffering externally imposed, but, at the same time, it is a spiritual practice detaching ourselves from anything that is not God (including moving beyond our mental images of God “to the state of the progressives”), while welcoming God’s transforming love of our souls. At least, that’s one way of putting it.
One by one and day by day, as I read the sins or “imperfections” that may come with the spiritual life, I am realizing that I am guilty of each one of them. The first listed is pride, how the contemplative novice may be so excited by what she or he is learning that they prematurely become spiritual teachers rather than doers. That very nearly silenced me as a writer of these “progressive Christian reflections,” much as reading and writing about Zen Masters in recent years almost nudged me to enter their silence.
I realized that my readers may be enduring what my siblings did when I was a child, hearing, “Hey kids! Look at the too-lah! Look at the too-lah!” I get so excited by what I’m learning, if not always practicing, that I want to write about it.
I overheard a monk acerbically say of spiritual author Henri Nouwen, “I wish he would stop writing about wanting to pray and just pray!” In his book, Reaching Out, Henri offered a kind of defense, which I’ve quoted before:
I found some consolation and encouragement in the words of one of the most stern ascetics, the seventh-century John of the Ladder, who lived for forty years a solitary life at Mount Sinai. In his chapter on discernment, step 26 of his spiritual ladder, he writes: “If some are still dominated by their former bad habits, and yet can teach by mere words, let them teach…For perhaps, being put to shame by their own words, they will eventually begin to practice what they teach.”
A half century ago I visited a progressive Baptist congregation whose pastor offered a good job description of his work. Along with other ministerial responsibilities, he was given time to explore theology and spirituality on behalf of the congregation and share those insights from the pulpit.
So, even if I may not have the exact word for God or the exact words or best practices for the spiritual life, I can still lean over the front seat of the Hudson and shout excitedly to all of you, “Hey kids! Look at the too-lah! Look at the too-lah!”
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