Sunday, February 15, 2009

Colonising the undiscovered country of self


I am reading Prayer: Living With God by Simon Tugwell. It is for a book group that meets after Monday Mass at the Oratory. This is my first attempt at a book group since the Bush-Kerry election when my then-book-group buddies got into a whole "Bush is Hitler"paranoia and I had to leave. Hopefully this will go better.

I'm sort of a junkie for books on prayer. Prayer is, after all, a primary activity of my vocation. This one has what I have come to think of as the modern advantage -- it is written in full consciousness of the successes of modern psychology in mapping out and understanding the human psyche.

For most of the two millenia of Christianity, saints working as spiritual directors were the primary discoverers of the ins and outs of human emotions and personality order/disorder. But their knowledge was largely intuitive and experiential -- few of them tried to lay out a comprehensive theory of human psychology, and those attempts that were made focused on the supernatural rather than the natural. I am thinking now of St. Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle.

I find contemporary efforts to bring the insights of psychology into the study of the spiritual life exciting. Chester Michael is one author that comes to mind. I always grab his book Arise: A Christian Psychology of Love when I see it. It's a book I give away regularly and folks who read usually report back positively. (Msgr. Michael is now retired, but keeps his hand in with spiritual direction and maintains a web site and a non-profit organization, The Open Door. I hope to get to one of his retreats this year. )

But I digress. As always. I am loving Fr. Tugwell's book so far. His opening paragraph quite won my heart with its wry description of me... and you... and anyone who tries to love God "with all my mind, all my heart, and all my soul." :

Forgetfulness is the root of all evil. - An unknown Egyptian monk. In our relationship with God, one of the main problems is that half the time we just forget about it. We may have the most beautiful and edifying thoughts during our morning prayers, and whole new vistas of Christian life may from time to time open out before us, but yet when it actually comes to the practical crunch, it just seems to slip right out of our minds. And at the end of the day we kick ourselves for having been just as unforgiving, uninspiring, unregenerate, as ever.
Then he talks about habits of virtue, and ways the medieval theologians devised for building these up.

In fact, it is interesting that in the past Christians used the Bible in a way not unlike one of the procedures used by modern psychiatrists. One way of finding out what a person is really like, is to shoot words at him, and tell him to reply with the first word that comes into his head; such random associations of words, uncontrolled by deliberate thought or reflection, can tell an expert a lot about what a person really is, because it undercuts or bypasses all the normal ways in which we present ourselves, and does not allow us to don a pleasing mask to show ourselves as we would like to be, as we would want to be thought to be, maybe even think we are.
He talks about doing word associations when reading the Bible, which is a method that group lectio divina employs in my parish, and maybe yours. It's a popular way of doing the old divine reading these days.

And what's the benefit to reading the Bible for its associations, reading it as we read poetry, for its ability to slice into our deeper selves?

After all, God's word is addressed to us as we really are, not as we like to present ourselves; he speaks to our heart, not to our mask. It is not only that little bit of us which we have, as it were, colonised and made subject to our control, that is involved in the Christian enterprise: it is the whole man.
I had to stop when I came to this part and run off and get my Bible and do some lectio divina.

It is not only that little bit of us which we have, as it were, colonised and made subject to our control, that is involved in the Christian enterprise: it is the whole man.

I like that! Thank you, Fr. Tugwell! I think I'll keep reading your book.

1 comment:

Sr Margaret Kerry fsp said...

Tugwell's books are my favorite on Prayer. Thanks for the reminders!