We need to give up something. We can’t try to layer wisdom on top of confusion. The spiritual path is about what we give up, not what we get. We seem to always want to get something––spiritual insights or experiences––as a kind of commodity. But don’t these wisdom traditions teach us that, in essence, there’s nothing to get? We need to give up what obscures the abiding wisdom and the abiding reality that is already there.
I ran into an interview with the Buddhist teacher Tim Olmstead recently that played right into my hand for what I wanted to teach on this weekend. He and the interviewer are discussing spirituality and the spread of spiritual practice in the West. He is talking about Buddhism, but if I were to slip in the word “Christianity” or “Christian” or really just about any religious tradition, it absolutely applies to us as well. In other words, this is some universal wisdom.
He is discussing how for an historical religious figure like the Buddha (and I was thinking too immediately of saints such as Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola or, especially, Antony of the Desert), their turn to the spiritual life begins with a certain dissatisfaction with every day life, what the Hindus and Buddhists call samsara, the endless round of birth and death to which we feel tethered. I don’t mean reincarnation when I use this phrase. What I mean by it is the hamster wheel that many people feel trapped on––death and taxes, “working for the weekend”––asking themselves, “Is there something more to life?” If religion simply becomes just another self-identifier, another cultural conditioner, another societal expectation, and if we don’t let it challenge us out of our complacency we may never experience its power. And its power is the power to transform us.
If we look at the life of Jesus or the Buddha, or the lives of the great saints or great enlightened people throughout history, we see people who were willing to give everything up, people who were willing to endure tremendous hardship to find out what more there is to life. And it is that kind of dedication and bravery that the spiritual life is founded on. And so Tim Olmstead says, “… if we approach [the spiritual life] on the basis of what is comfortable for us––what we like, what we don’t like, what fits into our lives conveniently without having to give anything up––that may be some kind of path, but I’m not sure it reflects the example” of the lives of these great saints. And, further, he says, “I wonder if it will bear fruit.”
That’s when he is asked: Do you think sacrifice is critical? And he answers, “We need to give up something. We can’t have it all.” And why can’t we have it all? I think he gives a beautiful answer. Because, “We can’t try to layer wisdom on top of confusion.” There’s a phrase that I first heard in Italy at a formation conference––
spogliamento progressivo. It sounds so nice in Italian, but it means a “progressive stripping.” We find out along the way that the spiritual life is not about accumulating anything. It’s a progressive stripping away of things. Why? Because, “We can’t try to layer wisdom on top of confusion.” We need to progressively strip away the confusion, the falsity, the false security.
In the course of our lives, largely through no fault of our own, we accumulate layer upon layer of persona, of role-playing, or societal and cultural expectations, that may or may not have anything to do with the spiritual life or the Gospel or authentic holiness or the path to it, not to mention the psychological baggage we load up. And our real self––who St. Paul says is hidden with Christ in God––is quite often buried beneath all those layers, layers of confusion. And we can’t build wisdom on top of confusion. It’s like trying to build a house on a landslide. We need to build on bedrock, and the bedrock is our real self hidden in God, but often also hidden underneath layers of false persona.
Tim Olmstead says, “We seem to always want to get something––spiritual insights or experiences––as a kind of commodity… But don’t the wisdom traditions teach us that, in essence, there’s nothing to get?” Instead, what we need to give up is “what obscures the abiding wisdom and the abiding reality that is already there.” This is an essentially optimistic teaching, really, that there’s nothing to get. And it’s very much in keeping with Christian moral theology as I understand it, because we believe that grace builds on nature, just as St. Paul taught that “My inner self agrees with the Law of God,” which merely hearkens back to the late prophets of Judaism who taught that the new covenant is the one written on the heart. Our real self, our inner being is somehow already in union with God, if for no other reason then by the fact of our Baptism and the sacramental life of the church, through which the love of God continues to be poured into our hearts. What we need to do is give up all our possessions, as Jesus teaches. But those possessions may not be so much things, stuff, riches. Our possessions are for the most part our masks, our prestige, our opinions about the world and how it should run, and our opinions about ourselves, our safety nets of security and social position, all the things we cling to so as not to stand naked and vulnerable but real, authentic, before God, each other or the universe. Our real self is hidden under there somewhere.
I don’t think it’s either practical or advisable nor in keeping with Jesus’ essential teaching to expect householders––spouses and parents and folks living and working in the world––to live lives of poverty, chastity and obedience in the same way that religious––monks and nuns and priests––are called to (not that we always live up to those vows very well either). After all Jesus didn’t send everyone out with no extra tunic and no sandals and no walking stick, poor and homeless; he only sent his apostles out that way. But every one of us––every one of you––is challenged by those vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, what we call the evangelical councils, to ask what they mean for you. So you might ask yourself, “What is my form of poverty, of living simply so as to strip away some of the things that are not necessary but may be distracting us from the work of love and the demands of the spiritual life? What does chastity mean to me? How am I rightly ordering my relationships and keeping my mind (and my computer screen) pure? What is the way of life I have chosen and committed myself to, and am I being obedient to its demands?” Renunciation is built of mundane stuff: day to day fidelity to our daily lives and our real selves.
If we are really going to embark on the spiritual life, Jesus teaches in the Gospel we heard today, we had better know what it entails, what demands it is going to make on us, otherwise we are going to get caught like someone building a tower who didn’t sit down and count the cost, or like someone marching into battle who underestimated the strength of the enemy. And the cost is this:
We can’t try to layer wisdom on top of confusion...
The spiritual path is about what we give up, not what we get,
because in essence, there’s nothing to get.
We need to give up whatever obscures the abiding wisdom and the abiding reality that is already there…
our real selves hidden with Christ in God.