Sunday, 19 February 2012

Spiritual growth: response to a sermon

I'd nearly forgotten how rarely Fr Robert preaches anymore, until he did today. I realised that I was no longer accustomed to seeing him in the pulpit, as I had to repeat 'Forget he looks like Richard Nixon. Forget he looks like Richard Nixon...' several times early on.

My ears pricked as he quoted JH Newman: "Growth is the only evidence of life."

Good start, I thought.

And so it was as he mentioned physical, intellectual and emotional growth and came to spiritual growth. I settled in. Then he said the one thing that distracted me from the rest of his sermon (not a direct quote):

If we stop growing spiritually, it is due to laziness or lack of education.

I baulked, but I waited.


That was when I moved from listening fully to listening with one ear as I took that statement apart and thought about how I wanted to discuss or blog it. Why?

Because, Fr Robert, I'm going to have to disagree.

As mentioned at the beginning of the sermon, growth is the only evidence of life. That means that living things, left to their own devices, all other things being equal/provided (food, favourable soil, friendly habitat, water, etc.), will grow. It has no choice - it simply is. Thus, if something living - including a spiritual/emotional/intellectual life - stops growing, it isn't out of lack of aegis (laziness, and I'll mention that having a deeper cause) or lack of academic information. It is out of profound injury or lack of nurture.

It IS true that people can be lazy, but garden variety laziness - e.g., I can't be bothered to do the dishes right now - which is usually overcome naturally, because it is part of a natural cycle - does not prevent growth. It may even be part of the need to rest. Persistent laziness, like its shadow, persistent busyness, is often rooted in a sense of fear, avoidance and overwhelm. For example, when I'd fallen behind on turning in my supervision forms at the place where I volunteer, 'laziness' took over because I WAS so far behind, it seemed impossible to catch up: it was a combination of all 3. In more serious cases, it is often indicative of depression.

Laziness isn't the underlying sin we take it to be - and often what looks like laziness is the gathering of resources before right action. We live in a world that believes in do, do, do and sees not acting as laziness. Nothing could be further from the truth.

So what does prevent growth? Emotional and spiritual injury through abuse, neglect, bullying, emotional disconnection, having to live in an environment where one has to hide in any variety of ways - so many things that create 'black holes' within us - those places so desperate for love (we often mistake approval for this), security and the nurture that we didn't receive as a child that they can never be filled. They turn us into 'hungry ghosts', defined in Wikipedia as beings who are driven by intense emotional needs in an animalistic way.

These holes bind us to them, they paralyse us. They prevent us from doing anything but frantically trying to fill them and stop the pain and emptiness they generate: we chase what we perceive to be love - especially those who cannot offer it, or those who abuse us as we were abused growing up; we chase approval through worldly success; we chase inanimate objects such as money, thinking that they will never betray us, and if we get enough they will fill that hole and it will be over.

But the thing about hungry ghosts is this: whilst they have wide open mouths and bellies bloated from malnutrition, they have very thin necks. Whatever goes into the mouth can never make it past the impossibly thin neck, so it can never nourish.

If it is bad for us, it cannot be expelled. If it is genuine love, genuine nurturing, genuine care, we cannot take it in. I recently had this exchange with a friend that demonstrates that:

P: You know you're very much loved by a good number of people, don't you?

Me: I grew up feeling unloved; much as I love my friends, and I feel THAT keenly, I very rarely feel love coming back at me. I sense need easily, but unconditional love not so much. It's lovely to know that I'm loved, even if I have a hard time feeling it. Thank you.

That is MY hungry ghost: I rarely feel loved, held. So I chase it - but I can't take too much of it (thin neck), so I chase it in those who can't love me profligately, passionately, fully. I take the little I'm given because it is what I can bear.

That's changing, the neck is widening, but it takes time and is still hard.

As Fr Robert said, the cause of the spiritual life's failure to thrive is sin - emotional abuse, neglect, bullying, anything that makes someone less a person. We're all guilty of some shade of that.

But I would take issue with his statement that sin is at the root of the lack of growth. If one just pulls up sin, it's like pulling up what you can see of a weed - it might be gone for a while, but another will soon grow in its place. You need to pull sin up by the root.

And that root is fear.

Fear is what drives people to sin:

Avarice: I'm afraid I'll never have enough/there's not enough to go round.
Envy: I'm afraid that what I have/who I am isn't good enough, but if I have that, maybe I will be.
Gluttony: I'm afraid there won't be enough, I have to have as much as possible now.
Lust: "I'm afraid I won't be loved."
Pride: "I'm afraid I'm not enough, so I have to tell people that I'm more. I can't ask for help/admit I can't do it/don't know."
Sloth: Cf. above "I'm afraid it's too much/I'll fail."
Wrath: "I'm afraid of being hurt/the pain underneath this/the pain that might come, it's easier to be angry than face that." "I'm afraid I won't get justice, so I must get it myself."

Those are by no means exhaustive - it is, of course, more complex than that, but I hope the point is clear. In discussing a real-life example earlier with a Saffa friend, he made the point that the great sin of apartheid came about because 'SA whites were very, very afraid.' That is brought home by one of the best songs ever written:

I knew a man who lived in fear
It was huge, it was angry it was drawing near
Behind his house, a secret place
was the shadow of the demon he could never face
He built a wall of steel and flame
And men with guns to keep it tame
Then standing back he made it plain
that the nightmare would never ever rise again
But the fear the fire and the guns remained

Perhaps personalizing it by generating our own 'I'm afraid that...' will help us move forward - and grow.

But how? So we know we're afraid and what we're afraid of? How does it help us grow? Self-awareness is the first step to emotional and spiritual growth - and to collapsing that black hole. Knowing what is true is the first step to everything.

The next step is to love it: and if it is too hard to love a black hole, let us use Donald Kalsched's imagery and love the child left behind, the child frozen in the trauma that tries to draw us back to it, tries to protect us from it again, but can only do so as the 3,5, 6 year old he/she is. That little one has done far too much for far too long, more than any child should have to do (as we probably did in real life). The time has come for us to hold it, to love it through its tantrums, its tears, its rage at us for abandoning it.

Once we can begin to love ourselves, it's time to move outwards and do so in relationship: first, in trusting God, next in loving others the way we are beginning to truly love ourselves: unconditionally. How do we do that? We hold them - figuratively and sometimes, literally. I have many friends with black holes because I have such black holes. And I have learned to hold them, sometimes imagining my arms around a younger them as they huddle silently and miserably against me or even as they flail and lash out against me. I will be there, lovingly, firmly (if necessary) and holding the space so they can find their truth, because that is what love is - so beautifully summed up in these words of Meg Murry in A Wrinkle in Time when she is desperate to save her brother:

I love you. Charles Wallace, you are my darling and my dear and the light of my life and the treasure of my heart. I love you. I love you. I love you.

And sometimes, that is what is most needed as they rage, weep, hide. I love you. I love you. I love you. And because of that, you are the treasure of my heart. You may know it, but one day, if you hear it enough, you'll feel it - even if it's just a little.

In addition to the nourishment that love provides, as we love others, we provide a safe, nurturing environment to grow spiritually: we need to be able to share our fears, our doubts, our thoughts with others who will listen, accept and respond lovingly, even as they disagree. Once we can provide that for ourselves, we can begin to provide it for others - and God can begin to use us to be His healing hands on Earth.

After all: There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment.

Love has no torment. That does not mean we are free from suffering, for loss will come, pain will come, difficulty will come. But that is not torment, which takes these things and twists them - and us - out of all recognition. Torment belongs to fear.

Here is the beginning of the end of sin, the Holy Spirit melting the frozen, and the return to spiritual growth - because where we are spiritually can now interact with love, community and experience, allowing it to meet new challenges to deepen and mature. After all, growth needs resistance.

And for most of us, some of those challenges are found in risk, in being vulnerable - for me, not saying to P, 'I'm ok,' but opening up to tell him what was really going on for me, was a huge risk, which one can see from the brief snippet I posted above.

It garnered the following response, in part:

P: Thanks so much for letting me in, for talking. You *are* loved - by me, and by many others...I'm your friend. What am I going to do? I'll always be here when you need me.

Exactly. What am I going to do? I'll always be here when you need me. For those of you who really need that but can't reach for it right now, hear it one more time and know it for the simple truth. When you can reach out, I'll come to meet you. That's a promise.

In that moment, I felt very loved indeed. And I could have sworn I felt my emotional and spiritual lives poke their heads out of love's rich soil.


Anonymous said...

All the stuff about sin does it shows we are not on the right track. But He doesn't mind that, because for me He cares we get back on the right road, change, grow, love and forgive.

CEAD said...

I love you.


dianne said...

Wow, some brilliant and beautiful thoughts here. Thanks for sharing so candidly. I think I'll have to read this a few more times to let it sink in. I've often thought about the connection between fear and the original fall from grace, and also that "perfect love casts out fear" but you kind of connected them here so well. As well as shedding some light on the whole idea of spiritual growth.