Running, Sermons I Don't Get to Preach

A Spiritual Anthropology – running with the work of E. Underhill


Tomorrow is the feast of Evelyn Underhill, whose works on Mysticism, beginning with a book with that very title marked a movement that reached deeply into a revival of sorts whose fruits included everything from the healing movements of the Sanford’s and through them to the Other Side of Silence by Morton Kelsey and so on to Renovare and various reclamations of spiritual disciplines. She situated the “spirituality movement” that she called mysticism in deeply historical roots, mirroring the much later work of Matthew Fox, though avoiding his ultimate materialism and sensuality as spirituality that keeps him always fondling heresy and scandal.

These works, along with more mainstream works by Merton and Nouwen, Foster and lately Willard, O’Murchu, Shea, Rolheiser, Chittister, all have fed this deep question that is held in my mind by the previously mentioned Kelsey and Walter Wink:

What does it mean to be a person born from above or of the spirit? This language that Jesus uses while mentoring Nicodemus haunts the anthropology on the tip of my tongue. Who are we in Christ? may be a more conventional way to ask it, but I think that keeps the question in language of soteriology or even christology.

In the Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard says that it is no more a surprise that we cannot find God in space than it is that we can’t find Dallas Willard in his brain or his heart. The spiritual self is not physical, it is something else. Not to say that no one has tried. A friend brought back his biggest challenge to my anthropology in the work edited by Nancy Murphy and Warren Brown and H. N. Maloney called Whatever Happened to the Soul? Scientific and Theological Portraits of Human Nature (1998). This work posited a non-dualistic view of humanity that denied the soul, or at least any concept of the soul that I would recognize at a party. On the other hand, I have become suspicious of the work of theologians reclaiming the language of the soul precisely because I wonder what agenda they are slipping into the ambiguity of soul-language.

But then what can we say? Who are we? On a completely different theological channel that every author mentioned was a book I read in third grade at the Tupelo Library called Pueblo Taoism. Now, I cannot find record of the book online (not even with Google!) but I can recall its cover and the key ideas three decades later.

Two things stick with me: you cannot do what you cannot see yourself doing, and you cannot see what you cannot conceive. To take the second first. You simply do not see what you cannot hold in your mind. It repeated the story (in my memory) of the native people in the American Islands who simply didn’t see Columbus’ ships in the water. But the story that blew my mind and has deeply affected me and perhaps sowed the first seed of this blog was the story of the Hopi people who ran RAN from northern Arizona and New Mexico to the coast of California without resting, a distance over 400 miles.

The author makes the point that we cannot conceive of running a hundred miles, so we cannot do it, even if our bodies are capable. That idea set me running to exhaustion to see if I could. I always had a knack for running, but I was not a skill player at anything. I couldn’t flip a BMX or skateboard or consistently hit a fifteen-foot jumpshot. In third grade or now. But I could run, and I could began to imagine running a hundred miles at a time. I found my limits, sure, but I also know that many of those limits are mental, emotional, psychological, spiritual. Physically, if I am well-hydrated and fed, I can leap over a wall, as David said in the Psalms.

The spiritual self is not the same as the physical self, though it inhabits it, is related to it, surrounds and suffuses it. Like God to the cosmos, according to Willard. But God is not limited to the world as we conceive it. That is only logical. Creator cannot be trapped by the creation. But are we trapped by our physical being?

Can the physical self limit the spiritual self? It can certainly express it and be shaped by it. Who hasn’t heard of dying of a broken heart? Who hasn’t seen the physical degradation of the person caught in webs of oppression, sin, addiction, or even grief? I have known grief that kept me from getting out of bed. I have mustered up the strength to work during incredible physical pain, even injury.

But what is the source of this “spirit” and what else could we call it?

Let’s assume a couple of things that I think should be pondered at greater length elsewhere. One. There is a “spiritual” or non-physical component to all of life, especially in the life and consciousness of the human being. We are God-breathed in a unique way according to our creation stories in Genesis. Male and female, or one in adam, the first creature made of red earth (adam) and breathed into by the stooping God of creation. And made to bear the image of God, to be to the creation as God would be if God were present. Like God. Creative, caretakers, stewards, with dominion of the earth, also known as responsibility.

We are dirt and divinity. Our created nature is both of this wondrous, God-loved, beautiful cosmos. We are of the stuff of the Horsehead nebula and the ribboning folds of the slot canyons of the desert. And AND we are carriers of the breath of God, spiritual by creation. Made to be with God and to do God’s work.

That’s pretty amazing. And that is all of us who are human beings. Now, we squander that, sell it, exploit it, destroy it, degrade it, drug it, waste it, and more. But that does not undo that original purpose.

We always talk about the Fall of Humanity, but we rarely say what we fell from. We fell from our true purpose as being like God in the flesh of the world, stewards of life, co-creators, and companions to each other: helpers. Our spirit, God-breath, is part of that essential human giftedness to do that work.

Have you ever been in the presence of those doing that kind of work? There is a humanness that is so precious, delightful, basic. It’s why we go to zoos and delight in the birth of animals in captivity, or saving a species. This is what we are made for. Gardens and bonsai trees, organic farming, raising pets.

Now all of these things can get weird, right? We might idolize our dogs or cats as people or worse, but I think we see the return to eden in these relationships.

I need the wilderness like I need water and food. I don’t pretend that it is enough to shape my soul and do the work of restoring God’s rule in the earth. But a good run in a wild place will restore my spirit from aridity as surely as a beach does my wife’s. We are a creature of this creation, but we are not of this place only.

We must be reborn as spiritual people into our birthright as people of the Holy Spirit, of Jesus’ Abba, who are children of the living God. We submit our little breath to the breathing that spoke the cosmos into being, and in that we find our due home.

To return after so long to Underhill. We seek God in spirit, mysticism, seeking a return to union with God, or breath to Breathing in my words. We seek out the stories, songs, and lives of those who have returned to God in the saints and living stones of the church. We follow their teachings and practice, not as an end to itself, and not as some self-help project, though we will find ourselves made whole and at peace eventually, as we return to our due home.

The language of union with God has often troubled the faithful Christian who holds dear the sovereignty, dignity, grandeur, and holiness of God and realizes that we are not those things. How can such creatures as us be one with our Creator? I think this is where language of the Holy Spirit and breath can help us conceive of such a return, not because we are worthy or holy ourselves, but because God, in Christ, as re-union-ed us to himself in an act of Grace so great we can only sing and praise such a thing.

But O, what sorrow comes with such a revelation! Because we cannot escape our potential beauty, we can neither escape our failure! I have shed so many tears over my brokenness, not in sorrow for myself alone but because I can see some glimpse of what can have done in me and through me. What wonders I have failed to see!

But here is the thing. God has made his rule available to us. It is as close as our breathing. We have to submit our breath to him, and God will breathe in us. That is awesome in deed.

Evelyn Underhill gives us a beautiful hand-drawn map drawing, as many should point out on the work of Fenelon and Guyon and others, of course. And just because Jung colored on the map doesn’t make it any less useful, but rather added depth, so to speak.

And just because there is a map doesn’t mean you have to go where it shows. You have to trust God’s breathing in you, the Holy Spirit will guide you along the narrow paths of Jesus’ teachings, and you will run far beyond your imagination.

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