Glory to God in the Highest

It may be hard to believe from what I said yesterday, but I am actually feeling quite hopeful again today. This, I am hoping, is one of the benefits of sharing these reflections with you on a blog. When I am writing for academic purposes, too much of the day-to-day experience of learning about prayer is subsumed into an overarching, polished argument. Under such circumstances, it is easy to forget the days on which hope seemed impossible, just as on those hopeless days, it is difficult to remember reasons for joy.

What is it that gives me hope today that I could not remember yesterday? Well, it isn't just that I am rested after yesterday's practice because I actually woke up feeling just as angry with myself as I had been when I went to sleep last night. Nor is it that I started to recall the strong actions I made in yesterday's bouts, despite the final scores. I could remember those at the time, but they did not offset the sense of frustration and lack of control over the final result. Nor is it that I woke up resolved to work harder, no matter what the cost. That is a Self 1 response and still about trying to be in control. In part, it helped that I wrote to one of my friends with whom I have shared many of the same anxieties about creativity and the martial arts over the years, but even knowing that there is another person who understands what I am experiencing does not ultimately take away the anger. It is all too easy simply to redirect the anger against those who are trying to help.

No, what gave me hope was nothing that I did strictly speaking for myself. Rather, I went to church. Now, I know what some of you may be thinking. Surely, you may say, going to church is just as much about yourself as any of the other things that you mentioned. Don't you go in order to feel good about yourself--that you go to church, that you are a responsible member of your community, that others can see you there, that it is what your mother would like you to be doing, that you can have the satisfaction of fulfilling your duty to God? Perhaps, although in my immediate community, going to church is not what it was when I was growing up. There is very little (if any) social stigma against those who do not attend; rather, it is more usual for those of us who are there simply to feel lucky to have such a community still in our midst. We cannot take it for granted that there are that many others in the neighborhood who are likewise willing to give their Sunday mornings to God.

Was it, then, that this Sunday the sermon and the prayers of the people encouraged us to remember all those who have died in the last two months in the earthquakes, cyclones and floods that have devastated China, Myanmar and the American mid-west? It would be disingenuous to pretend that I did not at this point reflect on the difference between troubles wholly of one's own making (ambition, desire for prestige and success, wishing to learn or create something new) and those cataclysms that fall on humanity at large. But, then, even in my most Selfish moments, I am aware that my struggles in fencing or writing are only problems of life, not death; I have only the normal human experience with grief (my mother-in-law's death when my son was only 3-months-old; my father's death three years ago; both sudden and at relatively young ages, but of natural causes), nothing to match the experiences of those whose loved ones have died in accidents, natural disasters, torture or war. My father saw more of this side of death in his work as a trauma surgeon, including serving in Thailand during the Vietnam war. I have only images from books and films.

The proper response--or, perhaps more accurately, the expected one--to such comparisons is to be grateful to God for the blessings one has received; and yet, in context, even such thanksgiving may seem self-serving and not a little vicious. Do we imagine that we somehow deserve the comfort that we enjoy and others lack? Certainly, many parodies of Christians praying for God to send them earthly (if not also spiritual) success would seem to suggest that we do. And yet, it is true that anything we (and here I mean all of humanity, not just Christians) enjoy in the way of food, shelter, clothing, employment, toys, health, and time to engage in such activities as writing or fencing is ultimately a gift of God. What is vicious is to assume even for a moment that we have somehow earned them, any more than we have earned the air that we breathe or the earth that we live on.

Now, you may think that reflections such as these are exactly the kind to catapult Self 1 (who, as we remember, not only hates making mistakes, but is terrified at losing control) into an even more desperate attempt at somehow "fixing" things with God: making promises to amend if only God will help her if not with her footwork and attacks, then at the very least with her psychological control. And perhaps she might have (as she used to in her youth) if she had not gone to church. But the wonderful thing about going to church--and thus the reason for my present feelings of hope--is that, ultimately, going to church, that is, worshiping with the community of the faithful, is not about me or, indeed, any of the people gathered together on the day. Rather, it is about offering praises to God.*

Why should this realization be an occasion for hope?

Here I find my academic self is suddenly anxious and wants to start peppering this blogpost with footnotes, for who am I to say what the majority of Christians, never mind the majority of religiously-active Americans think about the purpose of going to church or, indeed, having a spiritual life in the first place? Many may already agree with me. But from my own experience, not to mention my reading in such popular magazines as Yoga Journal, it is hard not to believe that this--that the purpose of the spiritual life is to offer praises to God--is a truth largely lost sight of in our eagerness to perfect our spiritual selves through our usual exercises in meditation and prayer. To be sure, the whole purpose of yoga (to take but one example from my own practice) is to still the mind so as to enable it to escape from the restlessness of the desires binding it to the material world, surely a practice calculated to achieve exactly that focus Gallwey describes as the way to discover Self 2's "zone". The problem, at least as I see it, is that even as we learn to free ourselves from the distractions of the "ego-mind", we are still ultimately focused on ourselves, our potential for liberation and the spiritual enlightenment that our practice may bring. Not to put too fine a point on it, in our quest for spiritual perfection, we have lost sight of God.

I am not, I realize, here necessarily saying anything terribly startling or new. We live in a secular age, not to mention an age of anxious religious pluralism. It is socially much safer to talk about spiritual growth than it is about worshiping God for the very simple reason that "spirituality" requires only a belief in the non-material capacities of the human person (admittedly a stretch for some), whereas worshiping God requires at a minimum a willingness to allow the existence of some mystery beyond the capacities of the human mind. It requires us, in other words, to think about something other than ourselves. This is not the time (although, perhaps later, it may be the place) to address all of the anxieties such a position undoubtedly excites about orthodoxy, rationality, intellectual freedom and the relative access that, as fallible human beings, we have to truth. The leap here is the much more modest one of humility in the face of the unknown. Even Gallwey notes that there is no way, pace Self 1, to guarantee on any given day, indeed, at any given moment, that one will be able to still the Self 1-mind sufficiently to allow Self 2 to play in the "zone": "it comes as a gift...not a gift you can demand of yourself, but one you can ask for" (p. 99). The problem is truly to humble oneself before the possibility that Self 1--our rational, calculating, planning, secret-hungry self--may not have all the answers.

Does this mean that in worshiping God we are somehow singing praises to our Self 2 whom we have mistaken for God? Possibly, but only if we do not collapse the source of our inspiration into the biological substrate of our minds. Perhaps more accurately, when we talk about being able to act beyond our conscious abilities when we surrender to Self 2, what we are actually doing is opening ourselves--as, indeed, many spiritual traditions have affirmed--to a power literally beyond ourselves: the Muses, for example, or the Holy Spirit. How does one achieve such a state of openness? Not, as should already be clear, by willing it, for Self 1 can only go so far. It comes, as Gallwey says, albeit without the spiritual overtones, as a gift; not one that we deserve nor one that we can earn, but simply as such, a gift, the only catch being that we must be humble enough to allow it to come. Remember the seven deadly (fencing) sins? Is it any wonder that the topmost is Pride? Think about it: what does it take to be willing to sing praises to God, simply to praise, not expecting anything in return? If you feel yourself balking at the thought and saying something along the lines of "Why should I praise God? What has He ever given me? And besides, He's probably imaginary, only a projection of my mind or [if you have read Feuerbach] my species consciousness," then you are experiencing pride, not to mention ignoring the fact that you are alive and, therefore, gifted enough even to be making such excuses.

We all have our favorite sins, and I am quite ready to admit that pride is one of mine.** Self 1 wants to be perfect, to have all the answers, to be always in control. Even as I write this post, she is resisting saying anything that would seem to relinquish her insight to God. But the truth is, nothing I have said here actually belongs to me, for if it did, I could not have said it; I would have been too frightened to try. I asked yesterday how it would ever be possible to convince Self 1 that she was safe. In church, like Dorothy--or Luther***, I realized the answer has been there for me all along. I need only trust in God. Because, after all, it is not about me; it is about surrendering myself to praise, bless and glorify Him.

*In case you're wondering what we were singing, we actually had some visitors leading us in some of their own awe-inspiring arrangements. Listen here.
**Yes, this is a trap. See Evagrius on vainglory.
***On Christian Liberty (1520), trans. W.A. Lambert: "So when the soul firmly trusts God's promises, it regards him as truthful and righteous. Nothing more excellent than this can be ascribed to God. The very highest worship of God is this: that we ascribe to him truthfulness, righteousness, and whatever else should be ascribed to one who is trusted."

Comments

  1. Hey, we've been called a lot of things (most often "too loud"), but I don't think anyone's ever referred to us as awe-inspiring before. Thanks for making my day!

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