A Testament of Devotion: The Light Within, Part II

From the book:

There is a way of ordering our mental life on more than one level at once.  On one level we may be thinking, discussing, seeing, calculating, meeting all the demands of external affairs.  But deep within, behind the scenes, at a profounder level, we may also be in prayer and adoration, song and worship and a gentle receptiveness to divine breathings.

The secular world of today values and cultivates only the first level, assured that there is where the real business of mankind is done, and scorns, or smiles in tolerant amusement, at the cultivation of the second level–a luxury enterprise, a vestige of superstition, an occupation for special temperaments.  But in a deeply religious culture men know that this deep level of prayer and of divine attendance is the most important thing in the world.  It is at this deep level that the real business of life is determined. [p. 9]

His comments on the values of “the secular world of today” are striking–so often we look back at the 1930’s as a time of devoted faithfulness to which we need to return.  Kelly didn’t find those years particularly spiritual.

Later on, he explains that the “first level” matters of the external world are brought into the inner “second level” and viewed in the light of Christ:

Facts remain facts, when brought into the Presence in the deeper level, but their value, their significance, is wholly realigned.  Much apparent wheat becomes utter chaff, and some chaff becomes wheat.  Imposing powers?  They are out of the Life and must crumble.  Lost causes?  If God be for them, who can be against them?  Rationally plausible futures?  They are weakened or certified in the dynamic Life and Light.  Tragic suffering?  Already He is there, and we actively move, in His tenderness, toward the sufferers.  Hopeless debauchees?  These are children of God, his concern and ours….For faith and hope and love for all things are engendered in the soul, as we practice their submission and our own to the Light Within, as we humbly see all things, even darkly and as through a glass, yet through the eye of God. [p. 10]

As they say in my line of work, “That’ll preach!”  Our attitude is not determined by outward circumstance.  If Jesus is Lord, there is no hopeless situation, no lost cause, nothing so broken that it cannot be repaired.  To say this is not to deny the reality of our situation, it is to begin to believe what reality truly is.  Those fearsome powers will crumble.  Babylon has already been judged, and the dirge for her fall is being sung.  The most lost person is deeply loved by God, and we are called to love them as well.

A word on tragic suffering:  Often the presence of enormous pain in the Earth is used as evidence for the prosecution when God is put on trial.  We want a life with no suffering, and we think that a God who really loved us would give that to us.  The apologists have made a good case that suffering is a necessary consequence of free will.  (If God won’t overturn my free will in order to keep me from getting drunk and driving, then some suffering must come.)  But I think it may be that if we were looking from God’s perspective, we would consider trials and thorns a feature, not a flaw.  Imagine what prayer would sound like if we got the painless life we think we want:

God, we are grateful for another year with no tears, for another year with no challenges and no pain.  There was no need for us to comfort one another, because no one was sorrowful.  There was no need for us to bear one another’s burdens, because they all slipped away on their own accord.  There was no need for us to sacrifice our things, because none among us were poor.  It was another year when we needed no wisdom because there were no problems to answer.  For another twelve months we have not grown, because nothing has stretched us.  We could live out our lives weak in faith and dim in sight, because you shielded us from all harm.

God seems to want something different from us.  Kelly’s response to suffering is spot on: “Already he is there, and we actively move, in His tenderness, toward the sufferers.”  The light of God shines through not when pain is absent, but when his people are present.

When we first begin to cultivate the inner life, Kelly says, we will find ourselves moving back and forth between attention to our external and internal realities.  But over time we begin to move toward the simultaneous attention to both realms.

The first signs of simultaneity are given when at the moment of recovery from a period of forgetting there is a certain sense that we have not completely forgotten Him.  It is as though we are only coming back into a state of vividness which had endured in dim and tenuous form throughout….The currents of His love have been flowing, but whereas we had been drifting in him, now we swim. [p. 11-12]

Kelly makes it clear that while we must choose to move toward the inner life, our progress in this life is wholly dependent on the initiative of God.  He may leave us in the alternating state for his own reasons, or give us the gift of simultaneity.  This reminds me, as Kelly often does, of Teresa of Avila.  It is a common theme among the mystics that we are called to the contemplative life, but progress into the steadfast peace of God is a divine gift that we cannot earn or merit, only graciously receive.  Teresa herself spoke of a long period (eighteen months, I think), during which she had an intense awareness of the presence of Christ, as though he were visibly beside her.  That time ended, never to return, but it was an act of divine grace she remembered with gratitude.

Kelly’s description of the deepest levels of inner life:

We are with Him, held in His Tenderness, quickened into quietness and peace, children in Paradise before the Fall, walking with Him in the garden in the heat as well as the cool of the day.  Here is not ecstasy but serenity, unshakableness, firmness of life-orientation.  We are become what [George] Fox calls “established men.” [p. 15]

This is exactly the sort of thing that most surprised me when I started reading mystics, although it wouldn’t have if I had known anything at all about mystical orientation.  I had a shallow notion that mysticism was about turning off your mind so you could go about in some kind of detached ecstatic state–prayer as marijuana for the soul.  Instead, the whole point of the inner life is to be intimately connected to the life of God so that you think more clearly (and faithfully), live in the deepest reality, and maintain a serene firmness.  “Established” is a great word for it.  It’s not a head-in-the-clouds drifting at all, rather the cultivation of deep roots in the firm soil of God’s love.  The inner light heightens your experience of reality; it never diminishes it.

This brings to mind a minor pet peeve of mine.  I understand why people who lead communion meditations sometimes say something like “leave all your worldly cares and concerns outside as we focus on the cross and gather around the table of God.”  But if the cross and table don’t help me to see my cares more clearly for what they are, give me wisdom to know what to do and the strength to do it, then they aren’t doing what they are supposed to do.  People who speak this way apparently believe that the realm of faith doesn’t converge with the realm of this world, but every page of scripture seems to me to declare that they do.  The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof–and he still cares about what we are doing within it.

Who, by the way, are the “established men?”

They are housewives and hand workers, plumbers and teachers, learned and unlettered, black and white, poor and perchance even rich.  They exist, and happy is the church that contains them.

You know some of these folks, and so do I.  They may be rare, but there are always some around.  That is a hopeful thought!

How do we get started on this inner life?

In the early weeks, we begin with simple, whispered words.  Formulate them spontaneously, “Thine only. Thine only.”  Or seize upon a fragment of the Psalms: “so panteth my soul after Thee, O God.”  Repeat them inwardly, over and over again.  For the conscious cooperation of the surface level is needed at first, before prayer sinks into the second level as habitual divine orientation. [p. 16]

I’m still getting a lot of mileage out of  the Jesus PrayerLord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. There aren’t many situations where that one doesn’t apply.  I once fell asleep while reciting that prayer and when I woke up it was the first thing I said.  It was a remarkable experience to literally wake up praying.

Another short prayer possibility comes from Anne Lamott.  She writes that most prayers come down to either “Help me! Help me!” or “Thank you!  Thank you!”  Those both sound good to me.

Kelly writes that over time we may discover that the words are no longer necessary, because we have “entered the attitude of the soul which you meant the words to express.”  But if that attitude starts to slip, we can always go back to reciting the words that took us there.

A final word of encouragement:

And we have our firsthand assurance that He who began a good work in us, as in Timothy, can establish us in Him, can transform intermittancy and alternation into simultaneity and continuity. [p. 19]

Amen!

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