Saturday, May 4, 2013

"The Way of the Warrior"

Derek's most recent post, "Behind Liturgical Spirituality," has helped me think again about indirection as one of the keys to the spiritual life - and something important has just fallen into place for me.  His post is part of his work on Prayer Book spirituality, and this particular piece is called "Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing."  It's kind of an introduction to what the Prayer Book (and liturgical spirituality in general) is up to - especially in terms of its practices, and their effect on "mature faith."

I've been chewing over the apparent contradiction between "grace" and "work" for at least 3 or 4 years now, mainly because I came into contact with Reformation - specifically Lutheran - ideas.   As I mentioned at Derek's, it seems to me that the tension between these two things is somehow at the heart of Christian faith (and perhaps at the heart of other faiths, too, although I don't know any others in much depth).  It seems clear to me that both are integral to the living-out of faith - but I haven't been able to make much sense of this thus far.

There is also the problem of self-righteousness; how can we avoid it, if "sanctification" is the goal of the life of faith?  Well, emphasizing grace is one way; it's the recognition that we do not (and cannot)  earn or deserve what God freely bestows.  But a contradiction arises: it seems at that point that work becomes, of necessity, anathema.

It's always seemed totally clear to me that, certainly,"grace" is at the heart of the A.A. experience; the First Step, "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable," is another way of saying "We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves" (AKA, "There is no health in us").

But most of the rest of the Steps most certainly involve work!  Steps 4-9 are "action steps," by means of which "we clear away the wreckage of the past."   We are asked to do all kinds of things:  take a personal inventory, confess our faults to another, pray for help, and make amends.
  • Step 10 is this:  "Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it."   A "work" step, most definitely.
  • Step 11:  "Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out" - clearly a mix of "grace" and "work" in itself!  
  • Step 12:  "Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs." Again, "grace" and "work" together.

For a long time, I've had a hunch that there was an indirect method at work here, at the heart of it all - that the life of faith wasn't something that could be sought after for itselfThis was straightforwardly true in my own case; nobody ends up in A.A. because they want to become holy, or because they're seeking enlightenment!  We're there to stay alive; all the rest is an undeserved gift.  And the way to stay alive, it turns out, is by following a set of practices that focus primarily on one's own faults and character defects - and it seems the "undeserved gift" of faith also follows from this.

It seems true to me now that faith may always be about putting aside one's own ideas and trusting in a process - a process that does its work by the same kind of indirect means that happens in A.A.  So at the end, the life of faith is, indeed, always a gift bestowed; it can't be grasped after or worked for directly.  It's clear, for instance, that nobody can begin loving their neighbor (let alone their enemies!) on command -or even because they want to.  And who can actually attain any of "Faith, hope, and love"?

A.A. shows, though, via the 12 Steps, that we can indeed do something:  we can look to our own faults and defects.  We can't "strive for spiritual success," or keep track of "progress," or even "seek  enlightenment."   None of that is actually possible; it can't be done.   That's what's fallen into place for me.  "Sanctification" isn't a goal; it's a description of what happens to people when they learn how to deal directly with failure - and accept it as a normal part of living, with equanimity.

We can't at any time "measure our progress in the spiritual life" - because there is nothing to measure; we aren't directly seeking "the spiritual life."   Instead, we seek out our own flaws and character defects; instead, we're keeping a running track of failure.   That, of course, is what Confession actually is and does - and I suspect this is exactly why it's one of the Church's sacraments.   "Repent and return to the Lord" is certainly one of the central Biblical themes as well; it's there from start to finish.    John the Baptist preached it, and so did Jesus: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

Moses the Black makes makes the process itself even clearer:  "A monk must die to his neighbor and never judge him at all in any way whatsoever" and "If you are occupied with your own faults, you have no time to see those of your neighbor."    Surprisingly, the important part of this statement isn't the "don't judge" part; it's the being "occupied with your own faults" part!   (Of course, Jesus had a little something to say about that, too:  "Judge not, lest ye be judged.")

In other words:  getting (and staying) hip to and aware of our own defects is the very thing that makes "spiritual progress" possible.  (I think perhaps "prayer without ceasing" could also do the trick - but that, too, is impossible for most of us.)   This is the Christian sleight-of-hand; we really can't "measure our own spiritual progress" - and we shouldn't try to.  The key is to keep in mind - as Moses the Black says - where we have gone wrong.  And therein, too, lies humility.

A.A. notes that humility is at the center of its program; it had to be, because it believed that "the alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot" and also that "ego deflation at depth" was an alcoholic's only real chance at survival.  Humility, though, can't be attained or achieved, either; it can only be bestowed - see Step 7 for more on this - or else learned, via failure.  (Per the latter:  Step 10 puts it this way:  "Someone who knew what he was talking about once remarked that pain was the touchstone of all spiritual progress.")

Christianity simply picked up on all this and systematized it.   (I will be interested to investigate other faiths to see how they look at this!)

So, why "The Way of the Warrior"?   Well, obviously, because Worf understands his own destiny - and his own struggle - that way.  When a compatriot asked him, "Against whom do you test yourself?  Against what enemy do you charge into battle?", he answered:
"My brother, it is you who does not see; you look for battles in the wrong place.  The true test of a warrior is not without; it is within.  Here, here [pointing to his own chest] is where we meet the challenge.  It is the weaknesses in here a warrior must overcome."

(I've been watching old TV shows on Netflix lately.  And doesn't this describe the "Way of the Jedi," too, BTW?  Interesting that popular culture picks this up as a central theme, romanticizing it for modern audiences.  Is it actually coming from bushido, I wonder?   Why is this?   How did that happen?  And why do modern audiences find it romantic - and then totally ignore it?  I guess that's something for the next post.)

In any case:  if we are looking to give people a challenge:  here's one....

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