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A Spiritual life
by Tony Grant
I invite you to turn in your Bibles to the letter to the Ephesians chapter 1 and follow along as I read verses 18-23. "Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches." (RV2:29).
18 The eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints,
19 And what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power,
20 Which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places,
21 Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come:
22 And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church,
23 Which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
What is It?
Today is the first Sabbath in Lent. Lent is a period in which we are supposed to concentrate on developing our spiritual life. I realize that some folks say that you should give up something for Lent. But the reason that you should give up something material is so that you can concentrate on something spiritual. With that in mind then, it seems appropriate to ask, What is a spiritual life?
First of all, the phrase "a Spiritual Life" is a dangerously ambiguous term; that means different things to different people. Someone might say, "A spiritual life is the life of my own inside." That is an awkward way of putting it, but it is kind of a gut reaction to the question. My spiritual life is something that is going on somewhere inside me. Or again, someone else might say a spiritual life is something very holy, very difficult and very odd, that is not for ordinary people.
But both of these answers--one saying that the spiritual life is something that is for me and about me, and the other saying that the spiritual life is not for mefocus too much on ME. They need a larger view. Any spiritual attitud that focuses attention on ourselves, and puts the human creature with its small ideas and adventures in the center of things is both dangerous and absurd. So our task is to get away from petty notions, and make a determined effort to see our situation within that great spiritual landscape which Paul calls in Ephesians 1:18 "the riches of our glorious inheritance in the saints."
What happens with most of us is that we spend our lives looking at life through a microscope--focusing on the little things that happen to me, focusing on my qualities, desires, interests and difficulties. This microscopic outlook blurs everything else. We need a wide-angle lens view of life that sees ourselves as part of an environment that includes all of creation, and also the creator.
Creation and creator are united in a dance that moves toward an ultimate goal of perfection and splendor. The creator is not only the cause everything that is, but the goal of everything that is. Thus, our lives are not real, not complete, until they are based on a certain conscious correspondence with the God that operates in and around and above the universe. Our lives are not real until they become that which they are meant to be--tools and channels of the Will of God.
Every time we say the Lords Prayer, we acknowledge that the Will and the Kingdom of God are the greatest of all realities, that is, if we grasp the implications of the prayer, and mean what we say. But when it comes to spiritual reality, many people are like deaf people at a concert. They study the program carefully and believe every statement made in it. They speak respectfully of the quality of the music, but only hear a phrase now and again. Thus, the spiritually deaf have no notion at all of the mighty symphony that fills the universe, to which our lives are destined to make their tiny contribution, and which is the self-expression of Eternal God.
Hints of a Spiritual World
Many things in our normal experience imply the existence of a spiritual world.
I. Consider the power of prayer. Prayer is acknowledged by almost all people of all religions as a way of appealing to a power beyond ourselves. Human religions may not agree on much. Human beings may not agree on much. We agree on prayer. Prayer works, though we do not know how it works. Again and again, prayer is discredited by our popular psychologies, and again and again prayer returns to its proper place in human life. Many of our prayers are crude, na´ve, and selfish, but even those kinds of prayers often contain a life-changing power.
II. Or again, if we study the history of the great religious revivals, we seem to see a force from beyond breaking into our ordinary conception of things. For example, "The Great Awakening" began around 1726 in colonial America and lasted about 50 years. The Great Awakening was the most far-reaching and transforming movement in eighteenth century American religious life. Not everything about The Great Awakening was admirable. It contained a large dose of ignorance, and equally large doses of intolerance and interdenominational rivalry, but for all that, lives were changed, a whole society was altered, because the Holy Spirit swept through the colonies with mighty power.
III. Or again, consider the effect of the beauty of nature on us. A view from a mountain summit, or of a Bradford Pear tree in full bloom, or of some other great scene suddenly impacts us at a deeper level, and reminds us of a beauty behind all that natural beauty.
IV. And again, any mature person looking back on their own past life, will recognize factors in that life, that cannot be attributed to heredity, environment, or mere chance. The meeting that proved decisive, the path unexpectedly opened, the other path closed, the thing we felt compelled to say, the letter we felt compelled to write--It is as if a hidden directive power were working through circumstances; pressing us in a certain direction, and molding us to a certain design.
All this, of course, is inexplicable from the materialistic standpoint. All of this implies that beneath the surface of life, unsuspected spiritual forces condition and control our lives. Most of the time we ignore the evidence for this whole realm of experience, just because it is all so hidden and interior; and because we are so busy responding to obvious and outward things. But no psychology that fails to take account of this spiritual realm can claim to be complete. When we take this other realm of experience seriously, we realize that we have spiritual capacities; and that therefore life in its fullness must involve not only our visible and ever-changing environment, but also with our invisible and unchanging environment: This invisible and unchanging environment is the Lord God, in whom we live and move and have our being. The significance, the greatness of humankind, consists in our ability to live and move in God. The meaning of our life is bound up in whether we live and move in God.
To Want, To Have, To Do
When we begin to realize this spiritual truth; then our everyday lives are enriched beyond measure.
Most people mostly spend their lives conjugating three verbs:
Or to put it another way,
They do all this on the material, political, social, emotional, intellectual-even on the religious--plane. They are in a state of perpetual unrest and anxiety and turmoil, yet they do nothing of any ultimate significance. None of the verbs that we conjugate with our lives have any ultimate significance, except so far as they are transcended by and included in, the fundamental verb,
Being, not wanting, having and doing, is the essence of a spiritual life.
When we give up to want, to have, to do, and focus on, to be, we widen our horizons so that, our personal ups and downs are seen as small and transitory experiences within a vast, spiritual world. Our live then appears to us something like a cottage high on a mountainside. The cottage is small and rustic and thoroughly unimpressive, but it gains significance from the greatness of the sky above it and the background of the everlasting hills. Even so, we gain significance not from what we are, but from the God in whose will we have our being. Our whole life--both spiritual and practical --is meaningful only to the extent that our lives are in God.
Yet, we must add that the practical life of most people is not very meaningful. The everyday life of most people is like an impressive fur coat with no one inside it. One sees many of these coats occupying positions of great responsibility. Hans Christian Andersen's story of the king with no clothes told one truth about human nature; but this is the opposite story. It is the story of the clothes with no king. That is life without a spiritual outlook. The people of our time are helpless, distracted, and rebellious, unable to interpret what is happening, and full of apprehension about what is to come, largely because they have microscopic attitudes that have no place for God, others, or even the creation itself.
A Social Life
We should say what the spiritual life is not. The spiritual life is not just the cultivation of my own soul. It is not just poking about my inside with some sort of psychological flashlight. Even though in its earlier stages, as we develop a spiritual outlook, it does involve dealing with ourselves, and dealing drastically with ourselves.. A spiritual point of view does require personal effort and personal choice; however, it is also intensely social, for it is a life shared with other souls.
EP1:23 says that the church is the body of Christ, and that body lives fully only when it lives in Christ. We live fully not when we are in Christ, by ourselves, but when we are in Christ in the church, that is with other believers. Dante says that when a soul ceases to say Mine, and says Ours, it makes the transition from the narrow, constricted, individual life to the free, personal, spiritual life; in which all believers are linked together in one single response to God. Only when we recognize this spiritual truth of the community of faith, and act on it, do we fully take our proper place in the body of Christ;
What is life?
What is physical life? Physcial life is the give and take between the living creature and its environment. Life is breathing, feeding, growing, changing. Spiritual life is the give and take between the human soul and the Infinite soul. The soul, to be alive, feeds upon God and grows towards perfect union with God, and responds to Gods attraction and subtle pressure. That growth and that response may seem to us like a journey, in which by various paths, we are drawn almost in spite of ourselves to the real end of our being. We are drawn to the place where we are ordained to be. Our journey toward that place is partly of our own doing based on our own choices, but it is more of Gods doing, Gods leading and guiding.
The journey may involve us doing things that we never thought we could do and never wanted to do.
St. Paul did not want to be an apostle to the Gentiles. He wanted to be a clever and appreciated young Jewish scholar, and he kicked against the pricks.
St. Ambrose and St. Augustine did not want to be overworked and worried bishops. Nothing was farther from their intention. But that is exactly what they became.
St. Francis Xavier's preference was for an ordered scholarly life. But at a few hours' notice, he was sent out to be the Apostle of the Indies and never returned to Europe again.
John Calvin also wanted to be a scholar. He wanted to spend all his time in his study writing commentaries on the Bible and other theological papers. However, passing through Geneva one night, God called him there to the active life of the pastorate, and accepting that call Calvin found a spiritual power that he never would have had otherwise.
Here is the point: We often find a power beyond ourselves deciding the direction of our lives. Yet accepting this direction does not lead to frustration, but to the highest kind of achievement.
All In All
Ephesians 1:23 speaks of Christ as the one who "fills all in all." To say that Christ fills all in all is to say that He is the reality and controlling factor of every situation. To say that Christ fills all in all is to say that His glory and creative purpose is all that exists. Therefore, any distinction between the spiritual life and the practical life is false. We cannot divide them. One affects the other all the time: for we are creatures with both physical and spiritual senses. We are amphibians. As amphibians live both in the air and in the water, so we live both in the physical and the spiritual, and the two are so mingled that there is no separation between them, and one is not greater than the other. The Bible does not teach that our spiritual side is more important than our physical side, rather the Bible points toward the ultimate glorification of both physical and spiritual in Christ who is all in all. Thus the Bible does not say that the end of the universe is a new heaven, but a new heaven and a new earth.
What then is a spiritual life? A spiritual life is centered upon God: A spiritual life is soaked through and through by a sense of the reality of God. A spiritual life is given to the great movement of the will of God.
St. John of the Cross, in a famous and beautiful poem, described the beginning of the journey of his soul to God:
In an obscure night
Fevered by Love's anxiety
O hapless, happy plight
I went, none seeing me,
Forth from my house, where all things quiet be."
His soul was living in the darkness of night, but motivated by love, St. John went forth from "my house" to that place "where all things quiet be." He went forth from himself to the quietness of God. Having reached the conviction that God is All, he found that tumult, strain, conflict, anxiety fade gently away, simply because they seem so unimportant.
To say that God is all is to say that God alone matters. Ultimately it is to say that God alone is. As long as we are living an unspiritual life, we seem to think that everything else is important but God. The spiritual point of view is that nothing is important but God.
Escalators and Staircases
In conclusion, we recognize that we are all unique individuals. We have different genes, We are the products of different environments. Thus, each of us has a unique spiritual life. One of the greatest mistakes religious people make is that they try to cut everyone to the same pattern, and they say if you have not had MY experience, you are not saved. Well, of course, you have not had my experience, just as I have not had yours. One of the exciting things about life in the spirit is that God works with each us in our uniqueness to bring us to him that in the end we might all glorify God together.
Again, because we are all different, some people find the process easier than others. Some people seem to go up to God as if by an escalator. They may take a step or two on their own account, but it all seems so easy for them. For most of us, however, our progress to God is more like trying to climb a steep flight of stairs and we are not in very good shape. Thus, it seems like we are making little or no progress in our spiritual lives. Actually none of this really matters. It does not matter how fast or slow we think we are going along our spiritual pathway. What matters is the conviction that we are moving towards God, and that in our journey we are accompanied by God and supported by God. Since our desire is that Gods Will be done, this great desire can gradually swallow up all our small, self-centered desires. When that happens life, both the inner life of the soul and the outer life of the body, becomes one single act of worship of the Christ who is all in all. Amen.
Source: The Spiritual Life by Evelyn Underhill
Ch I The Spiritual Life p15-40
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 03/12/01