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The Container and the Contents

Growing in Christ: Week 1

The Container and the Contents
Monday, March 18, 2019

Theologically and objectively speaking, we are created in union with God from the beginning (e.g., Ephesians 1:3-9). But it is hard for us to believe or experience this without a healthy ego and boundaries. Thus, the first part of the spiritual journey is about externals, formulas, superficial emotions, flags and badges, rituals, Bible quotes, and special clothing, all of which largely substitute for an authentic spiritual experience (see Matthew 23:13-32). Yes, it is largely style and sentiment instead of real substance, but it is probably necessary—as long as we don’t devote our entire life to it. This familiar motto, which Pope John XXIII commended, is apt: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” [1] That is second-half-of-life, hard-won wisdom.

In the first half of our lives, we have no container for such content as true love or charity, no wineskins that are prepared to hold such utterly intoxicating wine. Authentic God experience always “burns” you, yet does not destroy you, just as the burning bush revealed to Moses (see Exodus 3:2-3). Most of us are not prepared for such burning, nor even told to expect it. By definition, authentic God experience is always “too much”! It consoles our True Self only after it has devastated our false self.

Early-stage religion is primarily preparing you for the immense gift of this burning, the inner experience of God, as though creating a proper stable into which the Christ can be born. Unfortunately, most people get so preoccupied with their stable, and whether their stable is better than other stables, or whether their stable is the only “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” stable, that they never get to the birth of God in the soul.

As a priest for over four decades, I find that much of the spiritual and pastoral work of churches is often ineffective at real transformation of consciousness. As a spiritual director, I find that people facing important issues of social injustice, divorce, failure, gender identity, an inner life of prayer, or a radical reading of the Gospel are usually bored and limited by the typical Sunday church agenda. And these are good people! But they keep on doing what Bill Plotkin calls their survival dance because no one has told them about their sacred dance. [2] In short, Christianity has not helped many people do the age-appropriate tasks of both halves of life.

Most churches just keep doing the first half of life over and over again. Young people are made to think that the container is all there is and all they should expect, that believing a few doctrines or performing some rituals is all religion is about. The would-be maturing believer is not challenged to adult faith or service to the world, much less mystical union. Everyone ends up in a muddled middle, where “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” as poet William Butler Yeats put it. [3] I am convinced that much of our pastoral and practical confusion has emerged because we need to clarify the real differences, the needs, and the somewhat conflicting challenges of the two halves of our own lives.

References:
[1] See Pope John Paul XXIII, Ad Petri Cathedram (To the Chair of Peter), Encyclical on Truth, Unity and Peace, In a Spirit of Charity (June 29, 1959), paragraph 72. See https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-xxiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_j-xxiii_enc_29061959_ad-petri.html.

[2] Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche (New World Library: 2003), 84-85.

[3] William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming,” The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, ed. Richard Finneran (Scribner: 1996), 187.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey-Bass: 2011), 12-15.

Image credit: The Artist’s Garden at Eragny (detail), by Camille Pissarro, 1898, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: In the second half of life, you start to understand that life is not only about doing; it’s about being. —Richard Rohr

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