Spiritual Exercises--Not!

It's a bit of a shocker, really. I don't believe in them anymore. Spiritual exercises, that is. Not that they don't work as advertised over the past several (oh, let's count) millennia; they do. It's just that I no longer think they're necessary other than as tricks to get the mind to do something that it was perfectly capable of doing all along. It's Katie's fault, of course, for introducing me to the Work. But she's right: everything is exactly as it should be, and that's all one needs to know.

All those postures and breathing exercises in yoga--distracting. All those exercises to get oneself to pay better attention--wearing. All those prayers and disciplines and structures--beside the point. I know, I sound like Meister Eckhart or some New Age guru, but it's true. Here I've been, all my life, searching for that magic key, and I had it in my pocket all along. There was nothing to find, except reality, which has always been here and always will be. All I needed to do was stop telling myself that there was something wrong.

I'm really not sure what to do with this insight, except stand in the park with my puppy on her leash and smile at the sunshine.
All those years I've spent--wasted--worrying about whether I was spending them well, thinking that I needed to be doing something other than what I happened to be doing right then, when all along I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing, being myself as God made me. Oh, I can still feel the anxiety; somehow, I haven't had quite the breakthrough that Katie describes herself having. But it's there, the peace, the truth, the knowledge of grace, just there, behind the thought that something should be anything other than it is. All I have to do is question the thought.

I wish that I could find the words to describe how liberating this questioning has been for me. I've been trying, but I still feel like I am missing being able to say what it's like. Do you remember the feeling of having finished your last final and having the whole summer before you to do with what you liked? It's like that, only better, every day open to whatever comes. I can't say that I have entirely made peace with my anxiety about not making something of myself (as my Dad might put it), but I am so much better off than I was a few months ago, not to mention for the better part of my life, I can't tell you.

The one thing that is troubling me--and, to be fair, it's kind of a big thing--is how to reconcile this insight with my theology. So, you see, here I've been, beating myself over the head (sometimes literally) about what a terrible person I am, telling myself how wrong everything that I do always is and has been, how I can't pray, don't believe in God, wish I could have some mystical experience to prove to myself that God exists but know that no experience can do that, thinking that spiritual insight was something that one could achieve (I know, I know, but it's a temptation, isn't it?) if only one studied hard enough.

I wanted, in other words, to be able to buy grace.

Oh, not with money, but with exercises--just as Meister Eckhart and every spiritual teacher worth his or her salt warned that I could never do. Even more embarrassing, there was (as I am sure you already realize) nothing to buy. In Christian terms (see how well Christianity answers these questions?), because God already purchased grace for us by sacrificing Himself. Or, if you don't like the Anselmian language, because God loves us so much, He has given us grace as a gift.

The thing is, I'm not sure that I need even this language any more to convince myself that everything is, indeed, exactly as it should be because it is, after all, what God wills. Why exactly did God have to die on the cross simply in order to get us to open our eyes to the truth that (as Katie puts it) reality is always kind or (as John puts it) God is love? Perhaps to show us that even dying the worst death we can imagine is nothing to be afraid of because, indeed, God is kind even in death. But what about all that stuff about suffering for our sins if, in truth, the only suffering we experience is in arguing with reality? Sin, from this perspective, is simply being out of synch with God. As, I suppose, it simply is.

See? This is where I'm struggling. It all seems so, well, inefficient. Becoming incarnate, suffering, dying, just to prove that everything is exactly as it should be? Katie seems to have figured that out all by herself. Of course, by her own account, she suffered terribly from (in her words) "depression, rage, self-loathing, and constant thoughts of suicide" for something like ten years, the last two more or less confined to her bedroom, so maybe the suffering was necessary. Or maybe not. The question is, does it have to be when, if truth be told, we are all actually born happy, that is, with the capacity to perceive that we are loved. Why, then, do we all seem to end up fighting it, wrapped in sin?

But I was supposed to be talking about spiritual exercises and about how unnecessary they are as soon as we stop arguing with reality. As long as we are arguing, they're really just band-aids or, worse, crutches, convincing us that there is something we can actually do other than be ourselves. And why, after all, is it so easy for us to fall into this trap of ever more elaborate activity? How do we manage to tell ourselves the story about how hard it all is when in truth, it--reality--is the easiest thing in the world to perceive? Because, of course, it is the world: amazing, just as it is.


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