At Bloom this past weekend (click the link if you missed it), we laid out another indispensable foundation for spiritual formation, in addition to the three already laid last week (Trinity, union, and theosis or “ever-increasing participation in the divine life”). The Apostle Paul captured it perfectly in 2 Corinthians 3 when he said:
18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
He later clarifies his comments in chapter 4 when he says:
4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God…6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.
Fascinating. We “contemplate” the glory of God (which, Paul tells us, is revealed in the face of Christ) and so are transformed INTO that which we are looking at… that is, we are “transformed into His image”, He who is Himself the perfect “image of God”. The ancients would have said that “contemplation leads to union” with God. That is to say, as the human heart is turned away from self (we are broken, cracked images after all) and to God in Christ (the true Image), we begin to take on the character and likeness of that which we look at. To gaze at Him is to be transformed by Him… into something that looks like Him. We become true reflections – “sons” of God – in THE Son, Jesus Christ. And all of this happens… simply by gazing. The great Catholic theologian Hans urs von Balthasar put it like this:
After a mother has smiled at her child for many days and weeks, she finally receives her child’s smile in response. She has awakened love in the heart of her child…God interprets himself to man as love in the same way: he radiates love, which kindles the light of love in the heart of man…just as no child can be awakened to love without being loved, so too no human heart can come to an understanding of God without the free gift of his grace, in the image of his Son. (Love is Credible, 76)
Or as the great Spanish poet St. John of the Cross put it:
…only look this way now as once before: your gaze leaves me with lovelier features where it plays. (The Spiritual Canticle)
To behold God is to undergo a fundamental alteration on the level of our beings. And to look away from God is simply to peter off into non-existence. No wonder the first commandment reads (literally, in Hebrew):
There shall not be for you other elohims before my face. (Ex 20:3)
That is to say: DON’T STOP LOOKING AT ME! When the gaze of the soul is directed at God, we come alive. When the gaze of the soul is directed at anything else, we die. It’s just that simple. To experience union with God, which is the goal of the Christian life, indeed the goal of all human life, we first must learn to lift up our eyes to God as he comes to us in the person of Christ, the True Man, the True God… the very “image of God”.
This is challenging for a number of reasons. It is challenging first I think because we don’t naturally DO this. Our natural bent is to live as though God doesn’t exist, as though his claims on our lives were not all-encompassing, totalizing claims. But even if we do determine in our souls to run after God, it becomes challenging for yet another reason – we’re capable of making idols out of just about anything. Let me explain.
When I was a kid, I learned to embrace the devotional life because most of the people I was surrounded by did it, and did it well. So I did it. And learned to love it. As I grew older, I made many interesting discoveries… I learned to “branch out” vis a vis the devotional life, by embracing spiritual practices and routines the ancients used to embrace. The Daily Hours, Lectio Divina, Silence, Fasting, etc etc. Later on I learned that one could encounter the Divine beyond the devotional life. I could find Him in art and music and good food and drink and good friends… and even more, I could encounter Him by interacting with the poor, as he promises to be found there.
But it is just there that the temptation lies – mistaking the vehicle for the destination. The One whom we seek is God. More specifically, it is God’s very Self-Expression, his Word, the Son. My experience has been that it is quite easy to love prayer for prayer’s sake… and lose track of Jesus. We get lost in the mechanics of a deeply “spiritual” devotional time, and forget the point. Similarly, I hear people say, “Oh I just love worship”, and I think, “be careful with that.” Or I’ll hear people say, “I find God when I make art”, and I think, “Great… but be careful that you don’t make an idol out of your art.” It’s just all to easy to mistake the finite for the Infinite. In so doing, we drift away from Life.
C.S. Lewis, in his classic work “The Great Divorce”, records this conversation between a famous artist allowed to make a journey into heaven and one of the spirits in heaven:
“Why, if you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country,” said the spirit. “But that’s just how a real artist is interested in the country,” replied the ghost. “No. You’re forgetting,” said the spirit. “That was not how you began. Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about the light.” “Oh that’s ages ago,” said the ghost. “One grows out of that. Of course, you haven’t seen my later works. One becomes more and more interested in paint for its own sake.”
“One does indeed. I also have had to recover from that. It was all a snare. Ink and catgut and paint were necessary down there, but they were also dangerous stimulants. Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from the love of the thing he tells, to love of telling it till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him.” (79-80)
I love being a pastor in Denver. It is progressive in the most beautiful sense. That there are so many young people in this city asking thoughtful questions about their faith and showing deeper eagerness to engage in the mission of God and unearth fresh forms of faith fills my soul with constant joy.
But here’s something I know – in this city, we are constantly in danger of making an idol out of “spirituality”. We’ll make idols out of ancient prayer and social action and beautiful liturgies… and in all of this forget WHY we do it in the first place.
It occurs to me that Christians, at their best, don’t practice “spirituality”. Buddhists do that. Christians worship Jesus. And that is what makes them Christians. When they stop worshiping Jesus, all they’re left with is the fumes of a bland, nondescript “spirituality.”
I hope desperately for my congregation that they would love Jesus more than anything. If they (and you) do, they’ll get all the rest thrown in – art, music, ancient prayer, engagement with the poor, social action, worship, etc. If they (and you, and me) don’t, we’ll lose it all. For He, Jesus, is “the radiance of the glory of God”. What God emanates is His Son. To engage with Him, and so come alive in Him, is irreducibly a matter of falling in love with the person of Jesus. There is no Christianity without this.