Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Spiritual Disciplines and the Risky Art of Cave Diving

So where has "Ol' Chris" been coming from lately? What makes him tick these days? Indulge me a side-trip or three while I research my next project "Connecting the Dots"

The Spiritual Disciplines: The Risky Art of Cave Diving

Richard Foster opens his book, Celebration of Discipline, this way: "Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people."

Much of what I see today is superficiality, i.e., lives lived on the surface. Lives lived in numb habit, survival mode, fearfulness, knee-jerk reactionism. We fear losing control, and so we are especially fearful of the unknown. To live a "deeper life" is to explore the unknown depths of the self, as well as the "other". It is to risk your life in order to make a beautiful discovery. Most of us are terrified to do this. Why?

I'm told that cave diving (scuba exploration of underwater caves and caverns) is a beautiful, transformative and deeply fulfilling practice. It is also one of  the most dangerous forms of diving. A diver can get stuck in a narrow passageway, break an air line, get lost, run out of air--any of which could mean certain death. But without a willingness to take that risk, most of us will remain forever unaware of this enchanting world beneath us. Divers who have taken the risk will keep on taking it, because the experience is the epitome of diving--what being a diver is all about: peace, stillness, beauty, a return to the watery "womb" of life.

Transformation, and not just rote belief, is needed in the Christian life, because transformation is what enables us to keep perspective, truth and balance. It's one thing to "believe" a set of tenets; it is quite another to change (be transformed). Without transformation as it is understood in the classical sense, we are not aware of our selves. The untransformed self (the unyielded ego?) is easily capable of virulent misunderstanding, contention, impatience, projection (unconscious assignation of one's own hang-ups onto others), abuse, isolation, intolerance, exclusion, division--all the things we never saw Jesus do, and all the things we did see the religious authorities do.

Transformation is required if we are to become and to act like the sacrificial and life-giving Body of Christ in the world. But it is risky. To be changed means to risk dying to self. And we don't naturally look for opportunities to die. But Jesus said this is the way it must be if we want to be His disciples. So how does one get "transformed"? More on the "how" in a moment. But first, let me try to explain a phenomenon.

Many conservative Christians are suspicious of this word "transformation". They fear, perhaps, that objective "right doctrine" will be supplanted by a more subjective "gnosis" (not an intrinsically bad word by definition, but a totally loaded term for the orthodox) in those who seek transformation in the classical sense.  Others fear that progressive heterodoxy (anathema to conservatives) may find a good growth medium in the spiritual world of transformation. "If I let go enough to go deeper and search the inner workings of my heart (to the exclusion of my mind, some surmise), I might get lost, become unable to breathe, and even die spiritually."  "Transformation", however, in the classical sense means moving from a self-centered, narcissistic orientation to a healthy, self-aware Christ-likeness. It sounds counter-intuitive to say that "going inward" and achieving greater  "self-awareness" can lead to deeper appreciation of the "Other" and a resultant growing into the character and nature of Christ. "Self-indulgent navel-gazing" we used to call it. But aren't the greater things worth a letting-go of our earlier securities? Didn't you ever yearn to take the training wheels off your bicycle while they were holding you upright? While they were on you could totter sideways, never getting the knack of true balance and gliding forward simultaneously. While hanging onto the "training wheels" of law and doctrine, we may never find balance and abundant life--at least not the kind Jesus wants us to experience--not the kind He embodied. So fear of losing control is a big obstacle for many when it comes to "going deeper" spiritually.

But these days more and more conservative Christians are discovering the "Ancient Paths" of the contemplative life--paths for deeper life-transformation than mere doctrinal purity and theological correctness alone can provide. Hang in there with me. I know this is tough. I'm talking about discovering the Love behind the Law. The Law is good, but it cannot save. What is there  beyond the training wheels? Under the surface of the sea?

So now back to the "how". How does one transform or change? What do you think of when you hear the phrase "spiritual discipline"? Heck, for me the word "discipline" sounds like "law", or "rule", concepts from which I naturally recoil. The disciplines of which most of us western Christians are aware--meditation (a little, not alot), prayer, fasting and study--are just another set of training wheels. We evangelicals have always said, "Have your quiet times, study the Word, pray with one another, and if you come up against a really tough obstacle, try fasting." Guess what? This regimen hasn't led to a whole lot of transformation.  It can't. We like to say that it's society's fault. We should stop blaming society and culture and look squarely at ourselves as Christians. As Pete Scazarro stated it (I'm paraphrasing now) in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, what we have offered parishioners in the way of church, small group fellowship, Bible Study and preaching have not been enough If they had been, we wouldn't see identical divorce rates, for example, within, as well as outside of, our congregations. We wouldn't be just as addicted in church as we are out in the world. We wouldn't see worse division within the Faith than we see outside of it. We would be different than we show ourselves to be. But we're not. We aren't, for the most part, transformed.

I want to soar, float and glide! Don't you? But in order to do so, we must take the risk and try the deeper things. What are they? What are these transformative disciplines? I'll explore them more deeply in another post, but for now, let's get them down on paper: Simplicity (some call this poverty): living from the "Divine Center" on the inside that flows into a detatched, and therefore more free, way of life. Silence (some call this solitude): regular withdrawing from noise and pace of life for long enough periods of time for our true and inner voices to rise up and drift away to be replaced with the whisperings of the Spirit of God. Humility (this includes stability, obedience/submission, listening and mutual submission): A lived-out posture of laying down one's life for his friends. Service: Not just glorious mission work (important as that is) but especially the unseen, even small acts, done regularly and gleefully, because we know that we are doing them unto Jesus. Have you ever been so joyful inside as when you have done a secret, random act of kindness for a stranger?

I feel quite strongly that these disciplines can bring transformation to our souls. They have to, because they look and smell like Jesus. When we commit ourselves to these spiritual disciplines, we find that we have given more control of our lives to God. So we don't have to fight and contend for control when we feel like we're losing it--or just plain losing, for that matter. If someone is saying something that I don't agree with, I can remain humble and love. Let God do the "winning" or "losing"'s His game. What is submitting, for example, if it's to someone with whom I agree all the time? God likes to test our submission by asking us if we're willing to submit to people whose doctrine is different, or even incorrect (as I have received it). I don't even have to trust them, don't you see? It is truly freeing to trust God by submitting to them. There's a secret here.

Anyone care to go cave-diving with me? There's something better waiting for us underneath the surface of this crazy, whacked-out life.


  1. Fr. Charlie told me more than once that the baby whale who wants to stay at the surface with it's mama will never reach great depths and is more likely to be harpooned.

  2. Jesus was big on the inner life. He encouraged the leading religious teachers of his day to clean the "inside" of their cup. One cannot clean what he/she will not look and therefore, cannot see.

  3. Well said, Anonymous. We are terrified to look inside, especially when it is so much easier to lay what is in us onto others and THEN try to destroy it. It is encouraging that we get hints in scripture and early church lore that some religious leaders of His day DID take Jesus up on the interior life. Lord, save us ALL from our blindness! Give us the poverty of soul that will force us to go in!

  4. May I also offer a "practical" example of the value and necessity of going deeper? You are sitting in your favorite chair in your house and notice a crack in the ceiling. You don't do anything immediately, it is small, hardly visible to anyone but yourself. It gets bigger, now it looks like the hint of water damage. Now you have a choice. Do a quick fix and try to spackle and paint or investigate where the leak is coming from and repair the source of the problem. Who could argue the necessity of going to the source for answers which heal our souls? Just sound advice to me; do the extra steps needed to restore what is broken.

  5. I agree with your words, but I can't help but point out a risk that that most can't perceive "from the surface." Those of us who do "dive deep", either from choice or necessity, do so with little instruction and less safety net - at least in modern Western culture. And if we are fortunate enough to be transformed by our experiences below, without being destroyed by them, when we attempt to surface again we too often find ourselves cast violently on the shores of a worldview and lifestyle that has no place for us anymore and cannot understand why we will not (that we cannot) conform. It sadly seems that any attempt to lead a Christ-like life in today's world leads to exactly the kind of treatment that Christ himself received - though we are rarely crucified (at least, not literally), even where we find affection there is often little understanding or respect. What is the solution to this dilemma? I have no idea; I merely point it out in fair warning to those who would swim deep - the risks do not always end with the dive.
    Love always, Tif