Do Rules Help Us Change?

One of the most challenging things about the spiritual life is progression. How do we change? What’s the key to transformation? How do we make and embrace rhythms that will foster the kind of growth we desire (or at least claim to desire). This is a problem for those who explicitly identify as religious and count themselves as members of religious communities and institutions. It’s also a problem for those who would identify as spiritual but not religious. Whether it’s body image and weight issues, general health, overcoming co-dependent tendencies or dealing with deleterious habits, the problem is the same: how do I embrace what I know is good for me, but hard, without being consumed by resentment or just becoming plain exhausted?

Rules tend to not work very well. The problem is that the deepest transformations in our lives come from the inside out, not the other way around. We are creatures of desire and unless we desire the thing that is good for us we’re not likely to pursue it in any deep sustained fashion. You can make a law that prohibits theft or embezzlement, and it might stop someone from stealing, but the avarice or sense of entitlement that create the motivation to steal in the first place remain impervious to legislation. Hence Augustine’s famous prayer: “Lord command what you will and give me the grace to will what you command.”

This passage in Frank Lake’s  Clinincal Theology is instructive here:

When a man becomes related to the law by effort, instead of to the Lawgiver by affiance, related to the ethical demand but trying to satisfy it, instead of to God by trusting the satisfaction of Christ, related to the standards by discipline instead of to the Person by discipleship, he frequently ends up in depression. This is because the law of the Spirit of Life is not to be found in the law of self-effort, self-discipline, or will-power. The spirit of joy is the fruit of a life in loving relationships on the human level, and ultimately with Christ Jesus on the divine. In His concern for the truth of eternity, the Holy Spirit must withdraw Himself and His endowments from the man whose life is centered in regulations, especially religious regulations. Depression, and aridity as one of its cardinal symptoms, is a direct effect of disobedience to God’s law of life through-interpersonal-contact with His creatures.




Do You Like Surprises?

Most of us hate surprises, at least where relationships are concerned. We think we like them, but we don’t. We walk into situations with co-workers, family members, friends, spouses and we think we know how it will go. Actually if we’re honest we “know” how it will go. They will be deceptive, obsessive, narcissistic, compulsive, detached, you name it. Of course we know they have their moments. We’ve seen them be truthful, dispassionate, unassuming, restrained, engaged. Those are the options: the devil we know and the angel we hope appears. How often to we make space for someone to surprise us?

Now realistically the way of the world that we all find ourselves in day after day doesn’t often leave room for surprise. Many, perhaps most days if we’re honest, make us feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. It’s realistic to assume things will be as they have been, that nothing much changes in this world. And yet we pack in to see a film like Les Miserables, which is all about spontaneous change that cannot be programmed, orchestrated or anticipated. Somehow something comes in, seeming from the outside in, and changes everything. True the moments seem fleeting, but are they so rare as to seem mythical. No. Les Miserables seems fantastic, but we don’t consider it a fantasy. It’s the precipice we all want nuzzle up to, hoping not only that we’ll fall into it, but that its mystical gravitational pull will draw us into its being, changing ours.

The problem is that you get an experience like this and you do one of two things: fight or flight. You either fight to remake the world into this surprising reality or you flee from the world in an escapist fashion, seeking life-giving surprises in a fantasy world removed from the gritty recidivist patterns of the reality in which we feel trapped.

The freedom comes in a Latin phrase (what doesn’t?): simul justus et peccator. We are both right, or justified (justus) and bent, broken and problematic (or in the word of the old time religion: sinful). We need something that allows us to see ourselves as human, which equates to flawed, finite,  in short fallen from the oasis of our highest aspirations, and also unconditionally loved. We need a reality to break in that helps us re-imagine what can possibly be and who possibly can be what, but one that is realistic. It comes with the realization that the mysterious reality that surprises us despite ourselves is in our midst, and yet ahead of us. It comes, yet can’t be caught or contained, only received. It’s already here, yet it’s not yet here. And it always leaves us satisfied and wanting, scared and assured.


What We All Want?

There is a reason self-awareness escapes us all. True moments of insight into ourselves, normally the cloud of unknowing, are rare. We want to get a sense of the whole that we are, not to be confused with who we hope to be or who we  try to convince ourselves we are.  But the prerequisite of such insight is a fundamental posture of gratitude, which can only come as a result of an overpowering experience of acceptance that reverberates so deeply in our proverbial bones that the calcified deposits and shards that grind and cut us in our most sensitive spots are shaken loose and made manifest before us. In the absence of this kind of acceptance, we’re constrained  to fragmentation, disintegration, covering up, deceiving and hiding, with some occasional successful attempts at diversion thrown in, rare as they may be. It all adds up to continual exasperation, followed by dreaded expiration.

The Church’s Role In Suffering And Longing

In The Idolatry of God, Pete Rollins suggests that we have an insatiable longing, restlessness and uncertainty, all stemming from the emergence of the self in the infancy stage. The mistake the church makes is legitimizing the quest for the end of this restlessness, rather than seeing it as the womb of the Spirit. Rollins wants to articulate an understanding of salvation that takes place in the very place of our unknowing and dissatisfaction.

Frank Lake, a British psychiatrist writing in the 1960’s, expresses a similar notion:

The nature of the help God gives through His Church is to make what cannot be removed, creatively bearable. Paul’s thorn of weakness in the flesh remained. Resting in the power of God, he could glory in his infirmity. It is natural, and it is, I think, spiritually desirable, that we should at first strive and pray, as Paul did, to have our weakness and negativities removed. But the utmost of personal effort and of professional skill may disappoint our hopes in this direction. What then? There are no lectures in the medical course to inform the doctor of that paradoxical movement of the spirit which can turn decisively away from the evidently vain hope of a cure, to a courageous bearing, and more, to a creative using of the pain and loss that cannot be cured. There is a strength which is made perfect in weakness. Without the prior weakness this particular endowment of strength could never be experienced. Medical practice must extend itself to prevent the outward man from perishing. Pastoral practice, recognizing a certain inevitability of failure in this entirely laudable object, extends itself to ensure that the inward man is concurrently renewed from day to day.

The natural man in us tends to reject the paradox that mental pain and spiritual joy can exist together in us, without diminishing either the agony of the one or the glory of the other. The whole personality may be afflicted by a sense of weakness, emptiness, and pointlessness, without diminishing in the least our spiritual power and effectiveness. This is possible because Christ is alive to re-enact the mystery of his suffering and glory in us. So far as our own subjective feelings are concerned, any inner-directed questioning of our basic human state may produce the same dismal answer as before; the cupboard is bare. While we regard our humanity as a container which ought to have something good in it when we look inside, we miss the whole point of the paradox. We are not meant to be self-contained, but channels of the life and energies of God Himself. From this point of view our wisdom is to let the bottom be knocked out of our humanity, which will ruin it as a container at the same time as it turns it into a satisfactory channel.

-Frank Lake, Clinical Theology

The Development of Self and the Origin of Loss and Longing

I’ve just begun reading Pete Rollins’ The Idolatry of God. In the first chapter Rollins, borrowing a bit from Lacan, explains how early human development plays into a perennial sense of longing and need for security that categorically shapes the human condition.

This important point in human development was named “the mirror phase” by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and is generally estimated to start between the ages of six to eighteen months. While the process is gradual, it is around this time that the infant begins to identify as existing in separation from her surroundings and slowly begins to experience herself as an individual.

The time before this awakening can be described as a type of prehistory, for it is the time before language, before self-consciousness, before the sense of “I.” It is only as the infant begins to enter selfhood that her history really begins, a history that cannot articulate what came before it, yet which remains indelibly marked by it.

One of the fundamental experiences that arises from this second birth is a profound and disturbing sense of loss, for as soon as we experience our inner world, we encounter for the first time an outer world. As we develop a sense of our internal space, we are confronted with another one, a space existing beyond the borders of our flesh. Before the formation of our inner world, there is no sense of “me” and thus no notion of “you.” There is no near and no far; no inside and, therefore, no outside; no barriers that would separate me from everything beyond the threshold of my skin. Before the advent of selfhood, the infant’s body exists in a type of equilibrium with the environment, being impacted by it but not standing in contrast to it.

All this changes as the child gains a sense of selfhood, for at this point, the world is experienced as “out there.” With the advent of the “I,” there is an experience of that which is “not I.” The sense of selfhood is marked indelibly with the sense of separation.

This means that one of our most basic and primal experiences of the world involves a sense of loss, for when we feel separated from something we assume that there was something we once had. The interesting thing to note, however, is that this sense of loss is actually an illusion, for we never actually lost anything. Why? Because there was no “me” before this experience of separation. Before the experience of loss there was no self to have enjoyed the union that we sense has been ripped away from us. The very birth of our subjectivity then signals a sense of losing something that we never had in the first place.

This primordial experience of separation means nothing less than the experience of a gap, a feeling that there is some gulf between us and that which we have “lost.” In light of this we can read the scriptural saying “For we brought nothing into the world” quite literally, as meaning that we enter the world with one thing in our possession: nothingness itself (i.e., a sense of some space separating us from the world we inhabit).

The gap this separation creates is what causes this deep and abiding sense of incompleteness in us all. Rollins then goes on to suggestively connect this sense of incompleteness and the way we attempt to address with with Paul’s concept of the Law:

An important distinction needs to be made at this point between objects that we seek because we feel (whether rightly or wrongly) that they will improve our life in some way and objects that we believe will fill the gap we experience at the very core of our existence. For example, one person may wish to make money in order to look after her family or gain some extra comfort, while someone else might pursue money in a way that suggests they think that wealth will provide them with ultimate meaning.

There is a very simple but vital mechanism that transforms an object from being something we would like to something we believe would make us whole: a prohibition. Whenever something we would like is refused to us in some way, this refusal causes us to want the object even more.

We can see this happening in a very transparent way while watching children play. We might imagine a child wanting to play with a toy he sees but is denied access to by a parent. By this act of prohibition, the child’s normal desire for the object is transformed into something much more potent. He is likely to invest that toy with a significance not merited by the toy itself.

This prohibition was called “the Law” by the Apostle Paul. He understood that the prohibition of the Law does not cause one to renounce an object but rather fuels a self-destructive drive for it.