Random Thoughts On That Spiritual Journey Called Going On To Perfection In Love In This Life
Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow Of Death, I shall fear now Evil. Thy Rod and Thy Staff, they comfort me. – Psalm 23:4
Here on this site, I’ve been trying not only contrition, but real and honest humility as I reassess so much of what I’ve written and said that has hurt others as we try to move the United Methodist Church forward. On my other site, I’ve been dealing with another aspect of what I feel is a newer, deeper spiritual journey. Specifically, I’ve set all I thought I knew and believed about evil to one side, and begun considering the real possibility of spiritual evil, and the implications that has for all of us. My latest post led me to spend a day considering the writings and actions of mass murderer Joseph Duncan. The result was frightening in its implications. It was also emotionally difficult just to spend a day trying to understand something as horrific as child rape and mass murder. Confronting the internal workings of the mind of such a person left me exhausted and confused. If he was willing to call what was happening to him “demonic”, and to be detailed as to the implications of “the demons taking over”, it becomes difficult to gainsay it, particularly when seeing the work of these demons handicraft visited on an innocent family.
Each of these are part of what I think of when I consider John Wesley’s doctrine of Christian Perfection. For me, such perfection in love must needs lead a person not only through the dawning light of humility and self-reflection; it also leads a person to places that are far more dark and frightening, and spiritually dangerous, than one might have experienced before. The great spiritual writers, from the ancient anchorite St. Anthony through Hildegard of Bingen to the Spanish mystics St. Teresa of Avila,St. John of the Cross, and St. Ignatius Loyola all experienced the horrors of what St. John called “the dark night of the soul”. This is so much more than just doubt and fear. St. Anthony, Martin Luther, and Teresa all had personal encounters with Lucifer (Luther famously reached in to his cell toiler and flung his own feces to send Old Hob back to the pit). Part of my own need to take this part of this journey is to figure out, exactly, what constitutes real, spiritual, evil as opposed to its no less horrifying but mundane relative, human and social evil that is understandable through other means like psychology, sociology, and history.
That journey, however, is more properly reserved for “Reflections On”. Here it is enough to say that this journey is far more difficult than I had imagined, even though I understood it would be very rough going. Which, of course, begs the question, “Why?”
The only answer I can give is that I feel called to do so. Reading and reflecting upon John Wesley’s famous pamphlet, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, makes it clear this is all part of what Wesley called “sanctification”. In modern, Freudian, terminology, it is a process of stripping away the Ego, without allowing the Id freedom to move and breathe without guidance from the Superego. Indeed, part of this process also involves facing the elements of the Id and renouncing any hold they have. Except, of course, this psychological explanation hardly does the spiritual nature justice.
Far more than stripping the ego, this is what St. Paul called kenosis in Phillipians. It is answering the call to self-emptying that is the call all Christians must answer in some manner. “Have this mind that was in Christ Jesus” St. Paul wrote, reminding the church in Phillipi that to be a follower of Christ calls for so much more than ritual, prayer, and service. It calls each of us and all of us to become conformed to Christ. The reward of this kenotic identification is that our thoughts and actions will all flow from the Divine Love that is the Holy Spirit, in our lives individually and collectively. Getting from here to there, however, is a long process. Not only does it involve introspection and silent reflection and prayer. It involves public acknowledgment of one’s own failures and sins, seeking forgiveness and counsel on how to move forward with the command “go and sin no more” ringing in our ears.
So humility is a most important part of it all. Real humility, which includes confession of all the false humility with which one has covered oneself. Wesley is very clear: It is from love alone our thoughts and actions should flow. This is so hard, considering the ingrained habit of judging others rather than ourselves.
The other part that I’m reflecting upon elsewhere, is part of this journey because clarity about the reality of evil, the depths of depravity of which humans are capable and the roots of that depravity possibly lying outside human agency or control – how is it possible to be wholly sanctified unless one is willing to venture as far in to the darkness as possible to know the alternative that always lies before us? So it’s all important. It’s all the result of the demands of the Christian life. It’s about the promise of Christian perfection in love, living wholly submitted to God’s presence in our thoughts, our words, and our actions. And through it all it’s important to remember the words of Psalm 23, that this isn’t “my” journey, something I’m doing on my own. Whatever difficulties, fears, even perhaps spiritual threats lie in store for me, I am not now nor ever alone.
On to perfection in love in this life? I have no idea. To try, however, is necessary.