With some of the fasting I’ve done this Lent (and in the previous few months), one of the things I’ve noticed is that, as my appetites quiet, my heart becomes lively, joyful, and far more attentive and aware to what’s happening around me (as opposed to my more or less “normal” state, which is simply trying to figure out how to satisfy my various cravings).
The Christian ascetic tradition aims at precisely this–the stilling and quieting of our “natural” appetites and passions so that a new awareness of the Spirit can emerge. Thus we are trained to “live by the Spirit” rather than living by our peculiar and ever-changing wants, needs, and desires.
When I was a kid I heard a lot about this. “Are you walking in the Spirit or walking in the flesh?” was the way it was usually put. So often was this asked that I grew weary of any formulations to this effect.
But there is no escaping that, at its most basic, the idea is DEEPLY Pauline, perhaps even, I would argue, Johannine. Paul claims that in baptism our “ego” has been set aside (I’m mashing together thoughts from Galatians and Romans here). “Co-crucified-with-Christ” is the phrase he would use. And the result ist hat a new foundational identity–the living Christ–has been given it. The actualization of this reality, however, is not automatic: we must learn not to live not out of the ego, but “out of” the infinite resources of the living Christ, who is reigning in us through the Spirit of God.
Likewise, John has Jesus saying that he does nothing either FROM himself or FOR himself, but rather he does everything FROM the Father’s infinite resources and FOR the Father’s purposes. Compelling thoughts. The “setting aside” of the ego so that a new mode of being–the Risen Christ operating through the agency of the Holy Spirit to the glory of God–can emerge.
There is a danger here, though, in my experience, and it is the old danger of taking genuine Christianity and replacing it with a destructive dualistic, gnostic spirituality, where our “selves”–our unique loves, passions, wants, desires, makeup, history, voice, personality–is simply and utterly obliterated, and a new, far more “spiritual” existence emerges. I think we’ve run into these people before–high-browed, superficially righteous, an air of sanctimoniousness, holier-than-thou’s who seem to walk on another plane of spirituality.
I don’t hear the New Testament, Paul and John in particular, advocating that. The doctrine of the Incarnation forecloses that possibility to us. Genuine Christian spirituality is always rooted in dirt–the peculiarities of lived existence: this place, this moment, these parents, these experiences, this personality. The Creator of our material, lived existence, never ceases being the one who looks at it all and calls it “good.”
No–rather I think the New Testament advocates a view in which my SELF–who I am, what I love, how I’ve been formed–is not DONE AWAY with per se, but is “set aside”, “decentered”, and then “re-centered” (I’m indebted to Miroslav Volf for this idea) on the person of the Risen Christ. Galatians 2:20 leaves no doubt. The energy of the Risen Christ lights up my personality, and actually makes it brighter, better, and more coherent than it ever would have been living from its own resources. I just can’t live from “Andrew”; I must live “from” or “out of” Christ.
Life lived out of the “ego”, life lived with “Andrew” as the center and foundation of his own existence seems to me to leave only two possibilities: either promotion, or protection. Either I must continue to promote the needs, wants, desires, antagonisms, etc, of this particular “self”; OR, when I feel those things under threat, I must protect myself against those who would cut me off from the fulfillment of those desires. Either way, genuine love is impossible. But “Andrew” is set aside, decentered, recentered… then that is all unnecessary. I can live from Christ, the “man for others.”
If I am making sense of all of this rightly, then the choice that is before me always is “Will you live from the Crucified-and-Resurrected One, or will you live from the smallness of your ego–its needs, wants, desires; its fears, failures, and hostilities?” One existence is beautiful, sensitive to the needs and pains of others, and expansive. The other is small, ugly, and self-contained.
Live Christ. Live from the Spirit.
Spiritual discipline aims at this reality–the growth of Christ into the whole of my personality; a cultivated awareness of the Spirit who is over me, around me, in me–a new platform for being.
But it is more than that. It is also, and perhaps more importantly, a habituation in the normal warp and woof of life. It is not just about the private disciplines of prayer, silence, etc. It is about the “public” discipline of learning to “walk in the Spirit”, a learning to LIVE with a deep God-awareness. “I always do what I see my Father in heaven doing.”
“Aware.” I keep using that word. A watching. An alertedness. God is in this place, but this time I am aware of it. Deeply aware of it.
How will I begin to live this?
Perhaps the secret is as simple as rising every morning, and each moment, saying “I take up my cross”–literally, I embrace again, this day, this moment, in this situation, the setting aside of “Andrew” as the principle of his own existence. “Andrew” for the most part anyhow is a confused jumble of impulses and motives. But Christ–he knows no confusion of motive. He is all love. In him and from him I live and move and have my being, and find that as my personality is increasingly situated on him, habituated INTO him, it turns round, and round, and round, till it comes right.