Sunday, July 3, 2011

"Going Strong Toward the Top"

"...Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me...For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:29-30)

How can one take this seriously in view of view of what St. Paul says in the Epistle to the Romans (7:15-24)?  "...I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?...

How can the yoke be easy and the burden light when you and I stuggle every day, sometimes every hour, with the difficulty of choosing the right thing to do? Paul's articulation of the problem in Romans highlights the fragmentation, the disorientation, the lack of wholeness within which are all results of the selfishness so characteristic of human beings. The movie Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan of the Apes, which I saw many years ago, still stands out in my memory. It depicts how there's a side to each of us, as with Greystoke, which is ordered and genteel, and another side that's wild and crazy. It's one of the beauties and yet terrors of our Christian existence that God challenges us to deal with these two sides of ourselves and of others. Haven't we all, at one time or another, cried out: "What's the answer? Why am I like this?", echoing Paul's lament: "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from the body of this death?Again and again, it seems, you and I are eventually led back to the same solution as Paul: the utterly undeserved gift of mercy of a loving God, shown tangibly in the person, life, and teaching of Jesus.

Personally, I find that whenever the wild, disordered "me" tries, and often succeeds, to take over my life, invariably one or all of three things goes missing. When my life is reaching this point, three questions come to mind: Am I reading? Am I praying? Am I giving?

There's no way to mature spiritually or to know God, others, and ourselves unless we continually feed our minds and spirits: with God's Word, above all, but also with the wisdom and insight of others over the centuries. Lectio divina or spiritual reading has been a recognized principle of spiritual practice from Jesus' time on to the present. We need only look through the Gospels to realize how well Jesus grasped and utilized the Hebrew Scriptures. The same is true for St. Paul. Or we can look at the lives of the early desert ammas and abbas, many of whom committed the whole Psalter to memory! All of the great spiritual masters, down to the present, are in accord with emphasizing that when we fail to feed the spirit, we inevitably end up "running on empty". It's continuously amazing how many, both lay people and clergy, go, week after week, year after year, with little more spiritual sustenance than the readings from the Sunday or perhaps an occasional weekday liturgy, and, possibly, the weekly sermon or an occasional book, provide. That's a pretty sparse spiritual diet! It's also inexcusable, given all that's available today, in terms of versions of the Scriptures, commentaries, dictionaries, and countless books and writings on every aspect of Christian life.

The Book of Common Prayer (p. 856) gives a succinct description of prayer:
"Q.  What is prayer?
 A.  Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.

 Q.  What is Christian Prayer?
 A.  Christian prayer is response to God the Father, through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

 Q.  What prayer did Christ teach us?
 A.  Our Lord gave us the example of prayer known as the Lord's Prayer.

 Q.  What are the principal kinds of prayer?
 A.  The principal kinds of prayer are adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, oblation, intercession, and

Prayer, rooted in the feeding of our minds/spirits through Scripture and other sources, is really the key to enabling us to deal with the disordered side of ourselves. Paul says that the norm or law of the Spirit's presence is the way we can ascertain whether or not we're living in Jesus. If we are, then the signs of that are clear: "If the Spirit...dwells in you, the One who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies..." (Romans 8:11) "...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control..." (Galatians 5:22) We belong to Jesus to the extent that we share in his life through the grace of the Spirit of love. That being-in-touch, that responding to God in Christ, is prayer.

Many folks still think of prayer as a sort of lever with which they can bargain with or "force" God to come their way. I remember reading this piece written in 1984 by Fr. Conner Lynn, of the Diocese of Stockton: "...Prayer doesn't change God's changes our mind. We ask to become instruments for whatever eventually happens. The weekly Eucharist on Sunday is meaningful only in the context of daily prayer. Everyone should have a Rule of Life. Daily prayer should be part of this rule. One prayer each, morning and evening, is the minimum. It is important to pray with the Church -- at home, every day. One's house is the 'basic unit' of 'the Church'."

In Romans 8 Paul reminds us that it's really the Holy Spirit who assists us to pray. He speaks of groaning "inwardly...for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words...", or as the literal Greek puts it, "...[with] sighs/groans which can't be spoken or uttered". The Father, who searches our hearts, knows what the Spirit is asking for us in prayer, "because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God." Perhaps few others articulate this as well as does Julian of Norwich, in whose Revelations Christ says: "I am the ground of your praying: first, it is my will that you have something, and next I make you to want it, and afterwards I cause you to pray for it. If you pray for it, how, then, could i be that you would not get what you ask for?...Praying is a true, gracious, lasting intention of the soul one-ed and made fast to the will of our Lord by the sweet, secret working of the Holy Spirit."

Feeding our minds and spirits and praying are fruitless unless this they lead us to give of ourselves, to to outside ourselves, for others. It's hard to be selfish in paying attention to our neighbor's needs if you're genuinely responding to the Spirit's presence within. That doesn't mean, however, that you'll always find such responding to others' needs convenient, comfortable, or pleasant, or that you'll no longer be tempted to side-step it. It does mean that the Spirit within will enable us, despite our inward groaning and griping, to actually respond. "We know that in everything, God works for good with those who love God..."

In the early 1920's George Leigh-Mallory led several British expeditions to Mt. Everest, which were unsuccessful in reaching the summit. When asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, Mallory famously answered: "Because it's there!" On the last try, in June, 1924, he and his fellow climbers were confident that they'd reach the summit. They came closer to the top than any group had previously gone, eventually it became clear to most of them that they couldn't go further. At this point, Mallory said: "I shall, I must, go on. I don't have to come back." Mallory and his climbing partner, Andrew "Sandy" Irvine, last seen within a few hundred meters of the summit, indeed didn't come back. In his biography the surviving climbers said of Mallory: "When last seen he was going strong toward the top."

Paul assures us that, aided by the Spirit, if we continually nurture our minds with Scripture and with the ongoing insights of others, if we allow ourselves to belong more completely to Jesus, and if we accept the sweet yoke of his service, allowing ourselves to be fitted to it, then we, too, when last seen, will be "going strong toward the top."

No comments: