One of the things about Christianity I found frustrating during a particular time when I was looking for things to be frustrated by was a certain lack of specificity. We’re invited to take up our cross and walk. To pray without ceasing. To be wise as serpents. To be image-bearers. Um, ok.
But what does any of that mean? Much of it is either metaphor or abstract language. People seemed to repeat the phrases often enough within a religious community to act like they knew what they meant. The ambiguity can also create an over-dependence on leadership figures who claim, implicitly or explicitly, to have it all figured out. One of these oft-repeated concepts, by way of example, is that of grace.
In the context I grew up in, a verse from Ephesians was emphasized, that we are “saved by grace through faith.” This would even be used to differentiate our correct evangelical understanding from those misguided “works righteousness” types. The college I attended described itself as a “grace-filled community.” Friends of mine passed around a copy of Phil Yancey’s “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” Bono even gave a copy to Oasis’s Noel Gallagher, don’t you know.
The thing is, we hear abstract concepts like this filtered through our personal and culturally conditioned interpretive lenses. Even the term Christianity is filtered through our conditioning once it hits the ear. For some, it means the only way, truth, and life. For others, it’s an oppressive, Eurocentric, patriarchal form of hegemony and control. For others still, an antiquated and stale, if quaint, relic of the past. Once something becomes pure concept, our relationship to it is pretty static. We can take this concept of grace and use it to point out where others aren’t behaving how we think they should. It can become a form of social control. You can do that with a concept. It’s tougher to do with the experience of grace itself.
There’s an interpretive gap between language and the lived experience. In the case of the Christian source book, throw in a foreign culture, numerous layers of translation, and a time gap of two millennia between the writing and the reading, and things get even stickier. This interpretive gap accounts for much of Christian publishing. It’s an attempt to understand, interpret, and apply an ancient text in a modern context. And what you get is a wide range of interpretation and application.
One of the aspects of the contemplative path I find so helpful is that, in its essence, it is more focused on this kind of practical application from the outset. Yes, they also use metaphor, light and dark, flame and spark, as well as abstract concepts, self, ego, awakening, wholeness, and so on. But the teachings are always intended to provide a framework for practical exercises, which are at the heart of the matter, so to speak.
The benefits of these exercises unfold over time and we realize gradually how what we’ve been practicing affects us in our day to day life. It’s a process of discovery. Just as religion without love is an empty husk, contemplative reading and teaching without practice keeps our understanding shallow and superficial.
Now, since so many people are drawn first to the teaching or a particular writer that resonates with them, still sitting as if on the outside of the circle trying to listen more closely, the reading and teaching are what most of us are exposed to first, sometimes for years. But if it never moves beyond that into committed practice, and I would argue, supportive community, it’s like admiring a cookbook with beautiful pictures, but never eating.
One of the exercises from the contemplative traditions, for example, is non-judgmental self-observation. I came to this exercise years after practicing Centering Prayer regularly. What I found is that the daily sessions of noticing thoughts letting them bubble up and pass on was like training for this other practice of inner awareness throughout the day.
The practice is to turn some amount of attention inward even as we remain attentive and alert to what’s happening around us, simultaneously. What I saw wasn’t particularly flattering a lot of the time, but I knew that already. Pettiness, lust, egocentrism, bursts of anger, and what some teachers call negative imagination, turning over resentments and conducting inner arguments. All of which drains us of our energy and robs us of inner peace.
At first not much changes, but then you start recognizing the patterns. And you start to recognize when you were in a state of negative unconscious reaction to a situation vs. aware enough to choose how to respond.
I try to trace what the stressors are and why they affect me. The mystics teach behind literally any sense of being upset is some kind of attachment keeping us from true freedom. Stress becomes like a clue as to what we haven’t let go of yet.
Strangely, what I find when I do this diligently is an experience of grace. Greater patience, greater understanding, an inner expansiveness. And when it’s not there, I recognize it and try to examine why. I’ve noticed, for example, less than eight hours of sleep, at least one cup of coffee, and a combination of three different stressors at the same time leads to my worst behavior, and is when I’m most prone to anger.
Turns out, making a habit of becoming more conscious of our own faults also automatically makes us more patient and compassionate with others, too. Obviously, teaching and knowledge is vital. It’s how the practices get passed on. It gives structure and shape to our understanding, guides, propels, deepens, and extends the path into new areas. But teaching in and of itself is not what shapes and changes us. What matters more is the quality of consciousness out of which the teaching arises, and our degree of openness to being changed by it.
What a difference, then, for the practice to be central, and for any of the preaching to emerge from that practice. It’s the difference from having the idea of grace, or even wielding grace to define my in-group, to the very experience of a deepening grace within. Truth then, becomes that which feeds and fuels this deepening experience, rather than that which fits within my abstract theological framework.
For many of us, a teaching communicated in language and concepts is the height of our spiritual input. But as the mystics put it, no idea or teaching is the thing itself. It’s just a finger pointing to the moon. The teaching is not enough. As we continue down this path, the labels of “Protestant,” “Catholic” or “faith and works” or “grace,” the endless definitions and in-group shaping becomes secondary, and far less important than the expansiveness taking hold within.