Excerpt from Becoming Human: Core Teachings of Jesus (2005 Cowley Publications)
Technology and our modern economy have brought us many very good things: the ability to travel easily and be in touch with places and friends far and wide; a high standard of living, education and medical care; many more choices in every sphere of life; ready access to almost unlimited information and communication; wider possibilities for self-development; freedom from oppressive moral restraints and prejudices of the past; and constant exposure to all of the wonderfully enriching cultures and perspectives from around the world.
But along with these advances has come an increasingly complex environment. We’re bewildered by moral choices that seem ever more gray and uncertain, such as those presented by genetic science or new forms of familial and partnered relationships. We’re faced with a fast pace of living all around us that sucks us into its vortex - running from commitment to recreation to responsibility to entertainment so quickly that we wear ourselves out. Problems that have always vexed the world - hunger, poverty, disease, war, crime, pollution - now have become so complicated and dangerous that solutions seem impossible. We’re working harder, more in debt, making ourselves fat and unhealthy, becoming ever more dependent upon mood-altering drugs, and all the while sensing that the world around us is spinning out of control.
We know that a spiritual life helps us to cope with the complexity of our lives. Meditation and prayer relieve stress, religious community provides support, traditional teachings provide moral guidance. But a spiritual life also promises something more radical, in the true sense of the word: that is, going to the root, the core. Spirituality offers the possibility that we can actually become free from the destructive energy of a stressed-out life. Spirituality promises a kind of simplicity in the midst of our complex world.
We long for spiritual calm in the middle of the storm, for a humble, human existence that is grounded, sane, and real. We wonder whether we will ever be able to create or return to a pace of living that is more natural. Remembering our childhood, a vacation, retreat, or even just imagining a more ideal time and place, we wonder how things ever got so crazy, and whether it is even possible to change what we have become accustomed to.
My generation tried to make this return to sanity of lifestyle in a back-to-the-land movement in the late 1960’s and early ‘70’s. Thousands of us raised our own vegetables, baked our own bread and made our own music, shopped in thrift stores, worked part-time (if at all), and tried to become as self-sufficient as possible. We dropped out of the world of consumerism and stressful jobs. We strove to be counter-cultural, so that we might undo a pattern of living that a Navajo friend of mine described by saying “White people have all the watches, but Indians have all the time.”
But for most of us, dropping out is not the answer. Trying to become an anti-technological Luddite in the midst of our world as it is today is not only difficult, but it can be a simplistic and artificial response. I really don’t think that, for most of us, the answer to our complex lives lies in rejecting the world and taking on a utopian lifestyle. Most of us will continue to pay a mortgage, drive a car, work with telephones and computers, and have to deal with all the difficulties and joys of modern life.
I believe that the spiritual answer to the stressful and destructive complexity of our world is more subtle, and is both external and internal. It has to do both with our consciousness and the way we live.
First, our perspective from within needs to change. We have to find an inner simplicity, a way of slowing down and humbling our consciousness so that we are more integrated and awake. We must learn how to become more present to and happy with the simple and concrete things of life: the weather, our food, our breath, the moment at hand. If we can be less mentally caught up in the busyness and imagined importance of what we are doing, we can simply go through our day, doing what we have to do, but remaining present and simple as we do everything.
This is what Jesus could have intended when called a child forward and said to his disciples Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3). Listen to what he is saying: you will never enter the divine dimension unless you change and become like a child. But what does this mean?
We know that it doesn’t mean that we become childish, that we return to innocence where there are no problems, no responsibilities. We are to be in the world, engaged with its concerns as people of faith. St. Paul spoke of becoming spiritually mature, where he put aside childish things (1 Corinthians 13:11). Becoming like a child may mean rather that we reclaim a certain openness to the moment, a playful sense of appreciation and wonder. It certainly means that we have a humble frame of mind which seeks and finds contentment in the small things. And it means that we develop the capacity to leave behind those things that are we don’t really have to carry into every moment: our responsibilities, worries, and ambitions.
Meditation is perhaps the most effective way of developing this capacity. In sitting quietly, we learn how to slow down our mind and be present through our senses. We learn about those persistent habits of emotions and thoughts that tend to grip our consciousness, and we learn how to extricate ourselves from their control over us. For those who are not inclined towards a still, contemplative practice of prayer, a simple, open heart can be developed through focused activity such as practicing a musical instrument or taking walks outdoors.
But whatever we do in order to find this inner simplicity, it has become even more necessary in our modern age than it was in Jesus’ own time. We will not, in fact, enter that quality of life Jesus called the kingdom of heaven without becoming more like a child: by slowing down, waking up, and experiencing life less mentally and stressfully than we normally do.
The other part of becoming more simple is external. It has to do with the everyday choices we make about how to live. We can choose to be less driven by our consumer culture and less submissive to the frantic pace of life that surrounds us. But doing so means that we will have to become counter-cultural to some extent; we’ll have to be intentionally uncooperative with the forces that push us all along.
We really don’t have to do as much as most of us do. We can politely decline some of the social invitations and other demands on our time, and devote more of our time to gardening or reading. We can spend less money on - and time shopping for - clothes, gadgets, decorations, and other products that seem to promise stimulation and fulfillment, but which only, in reality, deplete and diminish us. We must also learn to say no to the illusion of satisfaction that will be supposedly found in activity and consumption, and look for our fulfillment in smaller and more humble things. This is truly counter-cultural, and the intentional choice for it must be made every day.
It is important to remember that Jesus said “unless you change and become like children,” not “unless you are like a child…” Internal and external simplicity are things that come only through a process of change and becoming. We can’t just decide today that we will henceforth be simple, humble, and free. It is not easy to learn simplicity. We must first discover our attachments, our fears and ambitions in order to understand what keeps us enslaved. Only then can we really feel satisfied with a simpler, slower, more humble lifestyle. Only then can we feel fulfilled by just sitting still, appreciating the world as it is.
Thus the spiritual life is a process of subtraction more than addition. Rather than seeing religion only as an accumulation of various practices and virtues, it is also a matter of dropping those things that ultimately don’t satisfy, and just being open in a simple way, gambling that this vulnerability will not disappoint us. On faith we must bank on the possibility that God will provide for us all that we need, that life itself - as it is - will not only feed us, but clothe us in glory. Learning that we can trust in this possibility, we become more simple, more like children in this respect, more like birds and lilies.
Most of us have some idea of the sort of person we feel called to become. We would like to be more loving, happy, authentic and free. St. Paul spoke of these and other qualities as fruits of the Spirit. Rejecting the notion that we can build ourselves up into good people merely by our own efforts alone (the law, salvation by works), he recognized that the real qualities of character that mark a Christian are God-given. They are fruits of a human tree that is firmly planted in God’s soil.
Jesus spoke about developing the same kinds of qualities of character, but when doing so he usually used the term the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom, for Jesus, was a quality of life, given by the Spirit, in which we find ourselves more compassionate, joyful, just, and free. And yet, even though these qualities of the kingdom are clearly God-given fruits of a life of faith, we do have some part in developing them.
One of our God-given gifts is also human effort, where we work diligently to become the kind of people we feel called to be. But how do we employ our efforts in a way that will not end up as just another doomed attempt at self-improvement? How do we move into that quality of life Jesus described as the kingdom of God, so that we participate in the process, and yet we also allow God to bring about the fruit that we, on our own, cannot produce?
Clearly we must take an active role in the tending the garden of our souls. But what is that role, if not to make ourselves into better people? Well first, like a gardener, we choose a location that the plant will like, not too much sun, not too much shade. Then we dig up the soil and add in fertilizer. We plant the seed. We water it as needed, anticipating its needs, not waiting for it to be parched. And later we must weed out the foreign growth that is around the plant so that it has room to flourish. It’s not that complicated. We must pay attention, tend its needs, and let nature take its course. It is the same with the work of the Spirit. We must pay attention, tend the needs of the Spirit within us, and let grace take its course.
So first we must create a hospitable environment, a way of life that will be conducive to the Spirit’s growth. This involves choices about such things as how busy we let ourselves become, how much and what kind of food or drink we consume, physical exercise, and how we handle stress. A proper environment for the Spirit includes what kind of input we allow from the world of consumerism and information and entertainment all around us. It involves choices about how you spend your time, your pace of living, and the surroundings in your workplace and your home. Depending upon your personality, you may need an atmosphere of simplicity and quiet, or you may need stimulation and creative engagement with people and activity. But the first step is to sustain a healthy environment that is conducive to the Spirit’s life in us. And this is not a one-time decision that sets the proper environment in place; it has to be chosen every day.
Then we need to plant a seed. What is that seed? It is the kernel of hope we carry within us. It is the seed of our intention and our desire for a godly life. This is the potential that God has given us, and which we must plant every day. As Jesus said, all we need is a small bit, no bigger than a mustard seed, and the kingdom of God, the Spirit, will grow it into a large bush. Again, this is a daily choice: to hold before God our intention to be available for the work of the Spirit, to listen, and to respond as best we can. This intention, this daily planting of the seed is important, for it sets the tone and begins the process every day.
We must then dig in manure, that is, the real stuff of life: our dark side, our spiritual failure, our lack of control, our annoyingly habitual faults. We tend to think that we’re supposed to get rid of these things and then present ourselves as proper and pure before God, but the Spirit needs us to be real. The manure of our lives should not be hidden from God; it should be dug into our souls so that their nutrients can help produce needed growth.
While we may think of these things as “negative,” “ungodly,” or “shameful,” they are the very things that provide spiritual nutrients for growth. Why? Because they make us humble, human, humus, of the earth; they teach us to be dependent upon God, to know that we are always beginners. If we are honest about ourselves, if we admit our shortcomings and our resistance, if we dig these things into our spiritual life, the soil will be much richer and earthier than if it is only nourished with sweet piety and affected goodness.
Then we must water with prayer and worship and study and reflection. For each of us, this means different things. For some, it is the daily office, reading through the assigned psalms and lessons from scripture. For others, it is a quiet cup of coffee in the garden, a walk with the dog, an AA meeting, a book, an occasional retreat, or regular silent meditation. We don’t have to be able to feel the results of doing this every day, any more than we have to have a special experience when we water the roses. We just have to water the seed of our intention. And we have to water it frequently, in anticipation of the Spirit’s needs, not waiting until we are spiritually parched and withered up.
And finally we must weed out foreign objects from time to time, so that there is room for the Spirit to grow. This is the work of repentance, of turning away from what is harmful to and in competition with the work of the Spirit in us. Actions have consequences, and when we discover that we’ve done things that violate the Spirit of Christ within, they take up room, they take up energy. And so we must do some weeding. The point here isn’t to expect ourselves to be entirely free of weeds forever, and then feel ashamed and disappointed when we discover the little buggers shooting up again. Just weed again, that’s all, tomorrow and the next day, and the day after that.
What can we expect will happen if we engage in this kind of spiritual gardening? When we set out to grow a garden, we know what kind of flower and fruit the seeds will produce. We have faith that the little dry seeds we plant and the preparation of the ground and the watering and all the rest will result in tomatoes or lettuce or corn.
Similarly, we know the fruits of the Spirit. They are entirely predictable: wisdom, love, patience, kindness, love, generosity, self-control. Do you have faith that if you provide a healthy environment for the Spirit to grow in your life, if you plant your desire for God and water it with prayer regularly, if you root out those things that crowd the growth of the Spirit, that the Spirit herself will produce entirely predictable fruit, and that you don’t have to? What a relief this is when we really understand it!
For we can then concentrate on the humble work that we can do: soul gardening. And we can allow the Spirit to do the work that she does: producing spiritual fruit.