Sunday, September 12, 2004

The spiritual is not an object, but a process - "Spir Dev &Gospel Narratives 1" by John Shea

Have you ever heard of John Shea, Roman Catholic priest, professor, and storyteller? Among others, he published the books "Stories of God." and "Stories of Faith." I attended the first lecture ten days ago in the course quoted in the title of this post. He skipped this past Wednesday, and I'll resume attending his lectures this week. I was very deeply touched by his first lecture, as he sat in simplicity on a chair before the class and just spoke, using stories at times to help us make some remarkable connections.

An internal echo of recognition resounded within me at the Professor’s statement that “we can never see the spiritual dimension; it is not an object, but a process.” Instantly, these words gathered together all I’ve ever heard and experienced about how important it is for the person on the spiritual journey not to be preoccupied by their own progress or even faith walk, nor by our experience of God. We are to attend to the divine Guest rather than to how we feel in his presence; just as we are to attend to our neighbor more than to how we feel about him or her. We are not to entirely ignore our experience; on the contrary, awareness of what we experience allows us to be and to relate to others in truth. It is healthy periodically to take note of where we are on the journey, to take stock of our condition, and to be aware of our relationship with God – as we do on retreat or during a sabbatical experience such as the one I have just begun – so that this realization can in turn elevate us with gratitude to the Lord and bring us back filled with gratitude to the company, intercourse and service of community and society.

The phrase “transcendent interiority” he quoted from Van Kaam clarifies the ineffable quality of the spiritual dimension as a living process, and the realization that the soul, which is created capable of and intended for communion with both God and other human beings in the Spirit, transcends our soul’s earthly ability to be aware of itself. The journey to true encounter with others – who are different and outside of myself – is most fully realized by a true encounter with the Living God, who is completely Other than me and beyond me, which in turn begins with the journey inwards beyond what I know and control about myself. There is within each of us a transcendent interiority, which is our own spirit that by its nature is capable of knowing the One who is the Transcendent Being beyond all knowing.

This knowing is not that with which our mind continually busies itself. Many have taught that the mind can hinder the spiritual dimension of our lives, that it tends to draw all things to itself, and all I know about what has been said and written about this can and has left the impression that the mind is more trouble than it is useful. On the other hand, we also know and believe, as St. Ambrose said, that our faith seeks understanding, and in this it is the mind which engages our soul in its search. The Professor calls
the mind, antechamber of the psyche, the gatekeeper of the soul. The mind is the key player in opening the soul to Spirit, where it can drink deeply “from the well of the Spirit and bring back spirit into the world.” Conversely, a closed mind causes a hard heart, “frozen, cut off, stuck in ideas closed to life.”

Again, it rang true and I found it so enlightening to hear that “the mind clings to ideas that keep it from life…. Sometimes we cling so much to what we think is the truth that when truth comes knocking we refuse to open the door. The mind does this without our permission.” I’ve never heard it put so strongly or clearly that “the mind” - that is, the mind without love, without the guidance and wisdom of the Spirit - tends to remain closed and narrow, lulls us to sleep to miss life and encounter with the Living God and our neighbor. “It only becomes ‘my mind’ once I love it from deeper within and soften it with spirit I receive” and functions in my awareness.

That sheds so much light on the Gospels “as spiritual wisdom that can open the mind to Spirit and then … release spirit into the world.” I’ve always been amazed at Jesus preaching or denouncing, but leaving everyone free to draw their own conclusions and act upon them. Appealing to their minds, he preached that they might open themselves through the wisdom He offered to the source of Spirit, and wasted no time “going after what was wrong…. We don’t occasionally repent; we are repentance, because our mind is in a constant state of needing to be changed.” When the heart softens the mind and it opens up to wisdom, it allows us to go in and drink from the wellspring of Spirit Jesus said wells up to eternal life within those who worship in spirit and truth. We must cling to the Gospel, to wisdom.

So far these impressions are formed in abstract language, and it probably reads as pretty dry, well, in many ways it is. As I continue to relate what's happening in this course, it will become more practical and concrete, and I'm really excited about the possibilities. The point of this course is to try to learn how to preach and teach the Gospels in the same way Jesus did, that is, to invite the mind to open the soul up to the Spirit. To be continued.

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