Posted on: March 20th, 2018 Intimacy & the Priority of the Heart

Surprising though it may sound to some readers, I feel like, over the past six months, I have had something of a personal revolution. It is a revolution of the heart, in more ways than one.

About six months ago I was exposed to a couple of lectures by an Episcopal priest and church historian named Ashley Null. Null’s area of expertise is the theology of Thomas Cranmer, including the latter’s late medieval influences (such as Richard Rolle, Erasmus, and Lady Margaret Beaufort). Null points out that during this time in the history of England, waves of Gospel revival were washing up onto the shores of England.

Folks during this time were rediscovering not just Scripture, but how to savor Scripture. How to let the Scripture seep into the soul and to provide comfort, healing, peace, even deep spiritual pleasure. How to let the Scriptures be, for us, “comfortable words.”

It is in this context, Null points out, that Cranmer came to embrace and to promulgate a maxim which apparently originated with that disciple of Martin Luther, Phillip Melanchthon. The maxim is this: “What the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.” What the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.

How did this maxim prompt a “revolution of the heart” in my own life? Somehow, I feel that God used it—together with several other things happening in my life at around the same time—to allow me to experience intimacy with God. All I can say is that I began to experience intimacy with God in a new way, right about the same time that I had this “discovery.”

You see, despite many years of struggle to gain clarity on such matters, not until a few months ago did I really understand the priority of the heart, and why it matters for the Christian life. Recently I have been putting it like this: God wants to satisfy our desires. God wants to satisfy our desires, not through food or sex or strong drink or entertainment or vacations. God wants to satisfy the desires of our heart, rather, through intimate communion with him.

It is the strangest thing. Strange both in its simplicity and at times in its evasiveness. It is strange that I did not really “get” this until the ripe old age of 45!

I have noticed two primary qualities which are connected to this newfound intimacy with God. The first is that, based on my experience, I can say that intimacy with God is almost the same thing as intimacy with myself. I have been reminded of the words of St. Augustine, that God is “closer to me than I am to myself” (interior intimo meo, see Confessions III.6.11). Somehow, over the past few months, as I have been spending time with God in a new way, I have also been spending time with myself in a new way.

The second quality which has accompanied this newfound intimacy is the return of childlike wonder. The experience of a childlike enjoyment of “mundane” reality, of simply existing, or being embodied, or breathing. Simply being a creature of God, always in relationship with God, is the absolute antithesis to boredom.

“What the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies” shows us the priority of the heart over the will and the mind. This is how God made us. We are fashioned for intimate communion with him. That the world, the flesh, and the devil conspire to thwart and ruin this intimacy is a painful near-tragedy. And yet, greater is he who is in us than he who is in the world.

For you and for me, intimacy awaits.

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Posted on: January 27th, 2015 Running Zen (Self-forgetfulness)

Please. I’m not one of those mealy-mouthed new agey types.

However, I do think that long distance running is (or can be) zen. It can be “done zen” or “performed zen.” Notice that here, as in the title of this blog post, “zen” is an adverb (though it can also be a noun or an adjective).

How so? I’ve been pondering this, actually, for about a year. When I ran my first (and most recent) marathon, I realized during about the 20-mile mark, when I was tempted to “give up” and stop running on that unusually warm & humid Texas February day, that I was free to continue running.

You see, early in my adult running career, I realized that I was free to stop running. As one whose distance running is a form of meditation or contemplation, I realized, in the spirit of Fr. Thomas Keating who describes contemplation as a “mental vacation,” that the worst thing I could do was to put pressure on myself to continue to meditate / run. (Yes, for me running and meditation are the same.) There is no shame, I realized, in setting out for a 10 mile run and then “quitting” at the 3-, 5-, 7-, or whatever-mile mark.

I wanted my running to be a kind of rest, a kind of exploration, a kind of play. To stifle that by a kind of exertion of my will power did not seem to promote the kind of contemplativeness I was seeking to cultivate. Hence, I exulted in my “freedom to quit.” If I felt like walking home for the second half of my run, I did it, and I sought to make that walking time, too, a time of prayer.

But then (before my first marathon) my inner world took another turn: I discovered the joy of working the Twelve Steps. One of the key emphases of this spiritual tradition of lived, practical wisdom is that one’s own will-power is not the answer. It is not the answer to overcoming addiction. It is not the answer to finding deep freedom. It is not the answer to becoming happy or satisfied.

Now, this breakthrough served to confirm my previous embrace of the “freedom to quit.” But (in the context of the rest of steps and the culture of the Twelve Step community)  it also served to drive deep into my being an additional “lesson” which I had assented to intellectually but perhaps not embraced holistically: the humility of self-forgetfulness.

Not only is reliance on my own will power a death knell, but so also is one’s obsession with (or even consciousness of) self.

“How do I look?”

“How am I doing?”

“Do people like me?”

“Am I succeeding?”

So much of personal happiness is learning to wean oneself off of such habits.

And so it is that, when I was running my first (and most recent) marathon, and I desperately wanted to quit, I was cognizant of my “freedom to quit.” But then I immediately had another, instinctual realization. If I was free to quit, then I was also free to keep going.

Put it another way. One might assume that if a runner has true humility then she will not allow herself to quit. That would be soft; that would be self indulgent.

My “first breakthrough” was that this assumption is false, and that, actually, that kind of self-reliance is arrogant and self-centered, relying as it does on the strength of one’s own will power. Thus, the truly self-actualized, spiritual person / runner will paradoxically embrace her freedom to quit.

I still believe this, but what I realized in my “second breakthrough” was that sometimes when one quits, this, too is a form of self-obsession 0r self-consciousness. If I totally forget myself, then continuing to run (mile 10, mile 12, mile 22, etc.) is just as “available” an option, just as live-giving an option, as is quitting the run.

True, there is no shame in quitting. But, just as truly, there is no bondage in continuing to run. Once my self is transcended (this takes place moment by moment, nanosecond by nanosecond), at one level it does not matter if I quit or continue.

Hence I might as well continue.

This is a little window into my psychological experience of running. And this is why I say that running is, or can be, zen.

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Posted on: June 25th, 2014 Mysticism & Temperament

There is a common assumption that mystics are born, not made. That they just appear in the the world with a certain calm, peaceful kind of temperament or natural disposition. As if the main ingredient in learning to tap into the deep wells of reality is a naturally tranquil life of the soul.

Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. I am convinced that the best mystics are the temperamentally addicted, afflicted, bi-polar, anxious, ADD, and vicious.

For starters, take the Buddha. Did he live a life of smooth tranquility prior to enlightenment? On the contrary, his story bears witness to the kind of turmoil that (necessarily?) precedes true spiritual peace: exclusion, isolation, fear, doubt, struggle.

Exhibit B: St. Bernard of Clairveaux. In his introduction the life of Bernard, Jean LeClerq emphasizes that Bernard’s temperament was competitive, vindictive, arrogant (due to his profound giftedness), and harsh. Yet, in the crucible of his many years of ascetic experience, his egotistical self gave way, and was transormed into to something sweet and beautiful … something strangely unique with its own distinct and savory flavor, as only a true saint of the Church can be. For Bernard, writes LeClerq, misery called unto mercy.

Finally, consider Thomas Merton, and the story he narrates in his autobiographical The Seven Story Mountain. Anyone who has read it will know that Merton was an arrogant, lustful, self-centered prick … by nature. But over time, and with many struggles, God transformed him into the kind of man who could write mystical prayers and passages like the world has never known. And who could tell the story of his transformation — the good, the bad, and the ugly — with honesty and humility.

So, what kind of person makes a good mystic? What kind of person, more than anyone else, ought to begin the practice of meditation? Not the calm. Not the serene. Not the self-controlled. On the contrary, show me a mystic who has plumbed the mysterious depths, and I will show you someone whom, almost certainly, was previously an unvirtuous ball of filth and fear who could barely make it through the day.

Real spiritual peace never comes easy. True mystics have had to “fight for it.” And that is very good news.

 

 

 

 

 

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