Spiritual work

I am reading a book called Christian Proficiency, by Martin Thornton, from the 50s. It is a book about prayer, particularly from an Anglican perspective. Our priest gave it to me when I asked for something that would explain Episcopalianism to me.

The first chapter is titled “‘Proficiency’ in Christian Tradition.”

Thornton begins by arguing that the idea of proficiency has a long history in the church tradition, as analogies of the Christian life to sport, farming, industry, and the military have long been familiar. He also explains that the word “ascetic” actually refers to “the technique and doctrine of prayer,” even though for many of us the connotation is of extreme simplicity and rejection of worldly things (1). And so, yes, there is / can be skills development, training, technique involved in the work of Christian living.

The following paragraph is somewhat reactionary. Thornton complains that Jesus has been over-sentimentalized, and that while we recognize the fullness of his humanity and appreciate his gentleness and love, “these mean nothing without the stern, disciplined duty which led to Gethsemane, the Passion, and the Cross: this was his work” (1, emphasis in the original). My response to this reactionary statement is also reactionary, I’m sure; I don’t buy into this separation of love and work, as if love is a soft and sentimental thing and that everything gentle, attentive, and caring is quite worthless unless accompanied by Work, some strong action, always stern, firm, perhaps oppositional.

No; love IS work. The work of listening well, of being fully present relationally, of caring about needs and feelings and desires and suffering, this is important and worthy work, and while it can be and has been over-sentimentalized, we need not go too far and dismiss it as a mere luxury or extra. Much healing, much growth, can occur through supportive listening and attentive presence. That, and if God has been relational within the Trinity and if that is the foundation for our own relationality, then living relationally is important work indeed even aside from any quantifiable “results.”

That said, though, I imagine Thornton is mainly wanting to remind us that there is more to Jesus than a sentimental image of softness and love, and that “the word ‘disciple’ is of the same root as the word ‘discipline'” (1). (Interestingly, I’ve seen that statement reversed — proponents of non-punitive parenting reminding us that discipline does not equal spanking or punishment, but involves training / guidance / teaching in a relational setting.)

Thornton briefly touches on three institutions that he considers evidence of his point. First, he argues that the Sermon on the Mount reads more like “a technical lecture than a moral homily” (2). I’m not entirely sure what he means. My understanding of the Sermon on the Mount is, I suppose, a Reformed one — Jesus is showing how impossible it is to perfectly keep the law, by showing just how far and deep and wide the commandments reach. It is possible to phrase or interpret them in such a way as to make them quite doable, but that’s working with the letter to avoid the spirit. A “technical lecture,” I think, would be a list of instructions, with the expectation that the instructions can be followed. A “moral homily” — does my Reformed interpretation fit that description? A sermon making a point about morality? I’m not sure.

Second, Thornton says that the Eucharist — Communion, the Lord’s Supper — was instituted with the simple command “do this,” without much else. But Jesus did offer explanation — he explained that the bread represented his body to be broken for them, and that the cup was the new covenant in his blood, and that the repeating of the supper would be to remember this sacrifice by. A simple, brief explanation — but no, the supper was not instituted merely with a command.

Finally he mentions the Lord’s prayer, especially its efficiency. He does also mention that it is sublime as well as full of consolation — so I must be careful not to overreact. And yet, efficiency does seem like a cold word when we’re talking about a relationship. (Perhaps “elegance,” in the mathematical sense — simple and beautiful — would be a better choice.) But Thornton says we are talking about work (although yes, relationship takes work)… and yes, generally I agree that it is good to work efficiently. Unless you’re a child.

The child has a deep love and need for purposeful work. He works, however, not as an adult for completion of a job, but for the sake of an activity itself. It is this activity which enables him to accomplish his most important goal: the development of himself – his mental, physical, and psychological powers.

I wonder if Thornton would agree that the most important goal is the development of the person — which in church terms we usually call “sanctification.” I have a hunch that when he talks about efficiency in prayer, he’s not really talking about getting prayer done quickly so we can go do other things — he’s not really talking about getting prayer “out of the way.” I’ll keep reading and find out!

Thornton goes on, after describing the efficiency of monastic Rule, to acknowledge that we have the tendency to swing the pendulum too far as we react against things. He reminds us that devotion is a good thing, but that it is not mere emotion or sentimentality or experience-seeking, nor can it really exist apart from discipline. He argues that the discipline comes first, “because although devotion may incite us to prayer, only ascetic can tell us how to do it” (3).

And then he talks about the danger of getting these two items in the wrong order. I’m not sure I agree about that danger… I do agree that we need both, which is his main point. But — I think that the rational mind is overly privileged in the church, or in some branches of it. Our reason really is just as fallible as our emotions — just as susceptible to influence from our circumstances, internal and external, and our beliefs and values and personal histories and cultural contexts. And our emotions have much to tell us that is worth listening to. I appreciate the mindfulness idea that our wise mind is the one that listens to the emotional mind and the rational mind equally, and then decides, well, wisely.

The next paragraph is rather beautiful. He talks about how we admire those who finish a race or stay at their post despite an injury, but we seem to think one’s emotions and mood must be lined up properly in order to do prayer and worship the right way. We have raised “sincerity” to too high a pedestal, in that sense. Or, “when a man under intense temptation struggles, falls, confesses; struggles, falls, confesses, over and over again without despair, then [we tend to think] he is a ‘hypocrite'” (3). We really do that a lot — have our own rules about how long it should take to get over some loss or tragedy or suffering, that sort of thing. Our own list of accepted outward signs of real and authentic faithful living.

Thornton concludes by saying that Christians can and should learn to do their spiritual work regardless of their enthusiasm or fervor or lack thereof, and that spiritual work done well is just as good and effective with or without that enthusiasm or fervor. I can appreciate that. In the PCA church we belonged to in Virginia, our pastor or his assistant would almost always begin the worship service by reminding us that even if we were distracted, thinking about our lunch plans or our to-do lists, whatever might be hindering our full presence at worship, Jesus worships perfectly on our behalf, and accepts and welcomes us as we are — we don’t have to get our act together before worshiping. How much more affirming and supportive is such a beginning — how much more likely to take the charge out of our guilty distraction, how much more likely to help us enter more fully into worship, than an admonition to just stop being distracted and remember how fearfully awesome God is and be very sure to render his worship properly. The one turns our attention to Jesus — the other turns our attention to anxious effort.

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One thought on “Spiritual work

  1. Pingback: “Proficiency” and doctrine | Becoming Three

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