We tell half the story of the journey to God (the better half) when we speak of listening to the Spirit’s sweet voice, of becoming more aware of the Father’s gentle presence and the Son’s loving companionship. In quiet tones appropriate to the chapel, we discover the mystery of inner transformation that continues as we commune with the Trinity.
Only recently, in the past ten or fifteen years, has my soul been awakened to even the possibility of resting in the Father’s grace as an actual experience, of living every day in the company of Jesus as a felt reality, of sensing the Spirit’s rhythm within me that moves me to pray this and say that, or to say nothing and be quiet. With those possibilities now alive in my vision, I find myself tempted to think of the spiritual journey in entirely too pleasant a fashion. And the evangelical culture in which I live sometimes encourages me to expect excitement and satisfaction and visible growth in maturity as reliable companions.
Perhaps others who, like me, feel new to the staggering possibility of experiencing God’s presence are tempted to view the Christian life as nothing more than catching the aroma of fresh-baked apple pie on the windowsill of the farmhouse, drawing us away from the field of labor to the pleasures of the family kitchen. The key phrase is “nothing more than,”
for indeed the exact nature of the journey is toward indescribable delight. But there’s more to it than sweet enticement.
Anglican worshipers on Ash Wednesday pray “Create and make in me a new and contrite heart.” Contrite is the translation of a Latin word that means to crush or pulverize. They pray for a pulverized heart in order that “worthily lamenting [their] sins, and acknowledging [their] wretchedness,” they may receive “perfect remission and forgiveness.” On other days, the Book of Common Prayer invites them to call themselves “miserable offenders” and to see the burden of their sins as “intolerable.”
C.S. Lewis suggests that “miserable” may not mean feeling miserable, but rather that a miserable person is a proper object of pity. If you know my wife will die tomorrow but I don’t, I may at the same time be quite happy and a legitimate object of pity, a “miserable” person. Though I may not see the disaster ahead toward which my wretchedness is steadily carrying me, the weight of my sin may be intolerable, unbearable, a weight that may not now feel heavy but if not removed, will crush me in the end. Better to be crushed now, to know the agony of a pulverized heart, and discover a new freedom to dance.
The other half of the story needs also to be told. God means to detach me from everything but himself. But if I don’t know myself fully (does anybody?), I may think that I prefer to work in the field, digging my broken cisterns and building my cities and lighting my way. So his Spirit must wrench me away from all that I think gives me life as he entices me to the kitchen, where I discover that’s where I’ve always wanted to be.
The journey’s complete story, then, includes mortification and vivification, crucifixion and resurrection, putting off and putting on. It’s a journey of detachment from all that claims my heart besides Jesus and of growing attachment to the mother of all pies, to the only source of sweetness that grows sweeter with every bite.
We may foolishly prefer the fields of self-sufficiency, but the Spirit will go to any length to draw us toward the kitchen, and sometimes it hurts for a while. God’s pursuit is relentless. Dark nights come in cycles, often without a discernible trigger. And the pain may seem more severe each time. But our confidence is this: God is a God of joy. In his tender wisdom, he knows he must take us lower to raise us higher. The appetite that can enjoy him must become stronger, and that may require that we experience the ultimate emptiness of every other pleasure along the way.
The nature of the journey is to become intoxicated with God. But getting there may include seasons with little joy. If we keep in mind the end of the journey, we’ll be more inclined to tell the whole story.