Let me introduce you to a therapist named John Calvin. Get ready – this Reformation icon is about to tell you that you can relax – that we’re all plagued with divided hearts and in need of integrity, but that much of the time we’re barely crawling along toward progress. Listen:
I insist not that the life of the Christian shall breathe nothing but the perfect Gospel, though this is to be desired, and ought to be attempted. I insist not so strictly on evangelical perfection, as to refuse to acknowledge as a Christian any man who has not attained it. In this way all would be excluded from the Church, since there is no man who is not far removed from this perfection, while many, who have made but little progress, would be undeservedly rejected. What then? Let us set this before our eye as the end at which we ought constantly to aim. Let it be regarded as the goal towards which we are to run. For you cannot divide the matter with God, undertaking part of what his word enjoins, and omitting part at pleasure. For, in the first place, God uniformly recommends integrity as the principal part of his worship, meaning by integrity real singleness of mind, devoid of gloss and fiction, and to this is opposed a double mind; as if it had been said, that the spiritual commencement of a good life is when the internal affections are sincerely devoted to God, in the cultivation of holiness and justice. But seeing that, in this earthly prison of the body, no man is supplied with strength sufficient to hasten in his course with due alacrity, while the greater number are so oppressed with weakness, that hesitating, and halting, and even crawling on the ground, they make little progress, let every one of us go as far as his humble ability enables him, and prosecute the journey once begun. No one will travel so badly as not daily to make some degree of progress. This, therefore, let us never cease to do, that we may daily advance in the way of the Lord; and let us not despair because of the slender measure of success. How little soever the success may correspond with our wish, our labour is not lost when to-day is better than yesterday, provided with true singleness of mind we keep our aim, and aspire to the goal, not speaking flattering things to ourselves, nor indulging our vices, but making it our constant endeavour to become better, until we attain to goodness itself. If during the whole course of our life we seek and follow, we shall at length attain it, when relieved from the infirmity of flesh we are admitted to full fellowship with God. – John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion
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I used to read this great quote to my Master of Divinity students in a Christian spirituality course I taught at a seminary. Seminary students are some of the most tightly wound, internally tormented people around. They can never do enough to please Jesus. Most of the time for these students, a Calvin quote brought to mind how inadequate their theology was, or how tough it would be to pass an ordination exam. It was always a comfort to them to hear from the pen of Calvin, himself, that progress on the road to the New Eden is hard, really hard…like crawling…
It’s at this point on the New Exodus road that we’re all expecting the grand finale – the tips for emerging from the wilderness unscathed, the principles for living continually close to the heart of Jesus. But I’m about to tell you a secret.
There is no secret. No secret message. No secret recipe. No hidden prayer tucked away in a remote portion of Scripture. No 7 steps. In fact, Calvin’s message is that a real and accurate assessment of yourself might actually be the freedom you need to get Home.
The poet Robert Browning once wrote: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/or what’s a heaven for?”
Most of our lives, if we’d admit it, are a grasping. Whether our grasp extends to wealth or reputation, transcendence in a bottle or in sex, we’re all in the business of grasping. Calvin’s point is this: the grasping leads to futility, and futility is an opportunity for us to recognize the truth – that we’re a mess, and that even the best attempt to grasp control will end in even more futility.
Craig Barnes says it well: “The way of the Cross never takes us away from the limitations and hunger that are characteristic of all humanity. It simply leads us back to the world with the strange message that our limited humanity is the mark of our need for God. It is enough. It is a great reason for hope.”
Our wilderness leads to dependence. It humbles us. It doesn’t make us super-saints. It doesn’t make us spiritual giants. Emerging from the wilderness, we’re not marked by halos. We’re marked by a thorn in our side, a limp, a weakness that is a testimony to Christ’s strength.
I spent the better portion of my days after seminary trying to achieve sainthood. I had discovered the mystics during a summer in England, and was hooked. I am still hooked. I was especially drawn into contemplative spirituality. It seemed as if the Carmelite mystics like St. John and St. Teresa, or the mysterious unknown author of the Cloud of Unknowing, or Brother Lawrence lived in perpetual ‘mystic sweet communion.’ And so I tried to grasp this communion, too. I walked labyrinths and lit candles and created quiet spaces, and did my best to manufacture the mystical.
But “union” doesn’t come in a bottle.
I’ve quoted this from C.S. Lewis before, but it bears repeating: “All joy emphasizes our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire. Our best havings are wantings.” Spiritual union and communion, itself, will disappoint. Our best havings are wantings, our best graspings will be mere reachings. And each will bring a kind of grief.
I’m not a spiritual giant, yet.
Good for you. Neither am I. Welcome to the way of Jesus. And as Calvin said, “Let every one of us go as far as his humble ability enables him.” We continue to crawl along, ever reaching…
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How have you tried to “grasp” spirituality? What books, programs, rituals, or principles have you tried to use to manufacture spiritual union and communion?
Re-read Browning’s quote. What is this “reaching” he speaks of?
How do you relate to my own journey?