Spirituality as Purging Beauty

The question this lays in front of Christians is this – do we wanted to be shaped by a consumerist style of beauty of the world or by God’s Wabi-sabi style of purging beauty? To appreciate this sparse spiritual beauty one has to step away from one’s frenzied narcissistic time into deep time which is the realm that God operates in slowly, patiently, Wabi-sabi style, removing all that is non-essential, charging us with a new Christ-like character, created through purging beauty!

Disclaimer: This is my 3rd and final reflection on my road trip to the Grand Canyon last May. Special thanks my friend, mentor and cheerleader, Doug for lending me one of his cars to take on this trip. The first post was on deep time, the second one was on renouncing frenzied time.

Wabi-sabi, the Japanese art style, is one where art follows the way of the natural world. When a tea cup is made wabi-sabi style, hot water is poured into the cup, over many days in some cases, to have its color change gradually. Then some parts of the cup is chipped off, presumably to give it a unique character! It takes a deeply intuitive eye to be drawn to such beauty. When I was at the Grand Canyon, created over hundred of millions of years, by erosion from the forces of water and wind, I couldn’t help but realize that at the Grand Canyon, God had engineered the forces of nature to play some wabi-sabi.

Opposite of the Wabi-sabi style is the western consumerist style, which is being adopted all over the world today. In the consumerist style of decoration things are beautified often by addition. The consumerist style is a way of seeing beauty in plenty, whether it be adding notes to a chord, color to canvas or cosmetic lather on skin. The wabi-sabi style of beauty is one of seeing beauty in the purging.

When I went to the Grand Canyon this Summer, I wasn’t quite prepared for the stunning beauty of a purged landscape. I couldn’t quite grasp the idea of how something can becomes so beautiful because it had purged off stuff through millions of years of sculpting erosion. The purged beauty of this landscape was such a paradigm shift to my consumerist sensibilities of beauty. My eyes were being re-trained to appreciate a new form of beauty… purged beauty!

I am not alone in appreciating this purged beauty. The Desert Father and Mothers, who are the founders of the monastic movement that kept Christianity alive through the medieval times knew how to appreciate this beauty by removal. Like Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, the desert fathers and mothers spent much of their lives communing with God in the desert, allowing their spirituality to be shaped by the sparse landscape, devoid of the distractions of the world.

These Saints stood for the principle that when the excess trappings of life are removed, this purging makes space for a new kind of deep spiritual beauty that the consumerist world can never grasp. This counter-cultural beauty was their way of witness to their Roman world; it worked! In our world our excessive consumerist sensibilities have caused us to be unable to appreciate the beauty of purged simplicity because to seeing beauty in the very process of loosing things goes against our survival instincts.

The purging process of beautifying the Grand Canyon attests to one key aspect of the way God makes His children beautiful. Grand Canyon became beautiful Wabi-Sabi style – by taking stuff out, not adding stuff to it in the consumerist style. Jesus in the Gospels often talks about self-denial (Matt 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23) which the purging beauty of the Wabi-sabi style aligns with. In fact, the Desert Fathers and Mothers followed Jesus’ way of self-denying desert spirituality – sometimes to a fault! Their counter-cultural work bore great fruit that we still read and talk about them.

Appreciation for a simplistic beauty brings a key question – do we wanted to be shaped by the world’s consumerist style of beauty or by God’s Wabi-sabi style of purging beauty? To appreciate this sparse spiritual beauty one has to step away from one’s frenzied narcissistic time into deep time which is the realm that God operates in slowly, patiently, Wabi-sabi style, removing all that is non-essential, charging us with a new Christ-like character, created through purging beauty!

On Why Solitude is so Difficult! Solitude as Sabbath

For people living in culture of compulsive productivity, solitude is so difficult because it is as unproductive as is Sabbath. The way of out of such compulsivity is to treat the practice of solitude as Sabbath. Sabbath rest is where we learn to rest in God’s presence. Augustine said, “we are restless until we find our rest in Thee(God).” We come to experience true freedom in resting in the presence of Christ instead of being addicted to our compulsion to productivity. Spiritual practice of silent solitude helps us to learn to trust in the God’s provision and rest Christ’s love instead of being addicted to our need for productivity. 

To jump on the bandwagon of cyber candidness I have to confess that the past few weeks I have not has my weekly spiritual practice of solitude. I have been wondering why I haven’t been making time for spiritual solitude. I realize that the reason is: I am addicted to Productivity

The past few weeks, I have allowed myself to get spread too thin doing too many projects ranging from church planting planning to mapping out book plan outlines to working on Star Wars vlogs, all for the sake of the Gospel of course! But it meant that I was in a productivity binge owing to which I kept postponing my solitude time weeks on end.

I decided to break the streak and go sit at Herman park meditating and praying, resting quietly in the presence of the Spirit of Christ. It occurred to me that the principle behind solitude is really same as the principle behind Sabbath. The principle behind Sabbath is one of learning to trust God. Sabbath was instituted as an exercise of faith – that one can have a zero productivity day trusting that God will provide. 

 

Opposite of this Sabbath trust in God’s providence is modernity’s compulsive productivity mindset. As a kid I used to be told repeatedly, “you can’t go to heaven in a rocking chair,” meaning one has to be hard working productive individuals to be loved by God. Apparently productivity is not merely the domain of economics, even religion has fallen down to worship the god of modernity: productivity improvements! 

Sabbath is instituted as the second of the 10 commandments because it is the counterpoise of this compulsion to productivity. The spiritual practice of solitude, even as unproductive as it seems to the modern eyes, is precisely the disciple that helps us not worship the counterfeit God of productivity at all costs. 

I sometimes hear people say how much they love solitude because it helps them relax and rest up so that they can hit the ground running and be super productive at work. This type of reasoning completely misses the point of Sabbath which is that we are commanded to be unproductive so that know what it means to rest in a state of consciousness of truly trusting in God’s provision. 

For people living in culture of compulsive productivity, solitude is so difficult because it is as unproductive as is Sabbath. The way of out of such compulsivity is to treat the practice of solitude as Sabbath. Sabbath rest is where we learn to rest in God’s presence. Augustine said, “we are restless until we find our rest in Thee(God).” We come to experience true freedom in resting in the presence of Christ instead of being addicted to our compulsion to productivity. Spiritual practice of silent solitude helps us to learn to trust in the God’s provision and rest Christ’s love instead of being addicted to our need for productivity. 

Examen Prayer – An Discovery of Deep Desires

The Examen prayer is done at the end of each day, as a way of reviewing the day to see how our spirit and desires were moved through the day. It is a way of prayerfully asking a series of questions that help us be attuned to the presence of Christ’s spirit and discover our deep desires.

I find the Examen prayer to be a great way of discovering my deepest desires. The Examen prayer is something that has been used in monastic setups for centuries. Recently, With the popularization of Christian spiritual practices among Evangelicals, the Examen prayer has come into vogue. And I am excited! 

The Examen prayer was started by St. Ignatius as a way of examination of consciousness. I am adding a little bit of a twist to the practice in order to frame it as a way of discovering our deep desires which I believe aligns with the spirit of what St. Ignatius was getting at. 

The Examen prayer is done at the end of each day, as a way of reviewing the day to see how our spirit and desires were moved through the day. It is a way of prayerfully asking a series of questions that help us be attuned to the presence of Christ’s spirit and discover our deep desires.

Prayerfully submit to God and ask for His help in order to spiritually ponder the following questions.
1. When did I feel most loved today?
2. When did I feel least loved today?
3. When was I most aware of God’s presence today?
4. When was I least aware of God’s presence today?
5. What desires for future really captivated me today? Did my desires comport with my love for God and love for neighbor?
Pray for God to strengthen you to face the next day.

This exercise, when done daily over a period of time helps achieved the following
1. Greater self-awareness – just knowing the different influences on your life.
2. Greater sensitivity to God’s presence, in the form of the Spirit of Christ in our lives. The Spirit of Christ is always with us – our awareness of it goes up or down based on what we are paying attention to at a given time. 
3. Discovery of deep desires: This exercise helps us to see how our desires move based on events of the day. For example, a deep desire to quit your job may have strongly moved you during the day. Then, at the end of the day, you do the examen prayer and you will remember that the moment when you felt least loved was when your co-worker was mean. Then you may realize that your desire to quit your job came our of the anxiety of dealing with a mean co-worker. So it may not have been God’s voice speaking to you prodding you to quit. Rather, it may have just been your own anxiety sowing the desire to quit. (Of course, it is possible God is speaking to you through your anxiety… if the trend is consistent over a period of time then it has to be taken seriously). You will discover some desires come up within you when you are in a state of spiritual tranquility* – these are the desires you want to pay attention to. Pay attention to how your desires move when your sensitivities are greatly attuned to God’s presence in you – these are likely to be your deepest desires. For example, for me when I am prayerful the desire to write to bring glory to God and love neighbor is kindled in me. The desires that God has placed in you and the ones which get kindled when your spirit rests tranquilly in the presence of the Spirit of Christ.

As you keep doing the Examen prayer over a period of time. You will begin to notice patters – you will begin to see that when you are anxious your desires move in one way (quitting the job in the example above) then when you are in a state of spiritual rest/consolation your desires moved in a different way (writing to glorify God in the example above). Seeing consistency in these patterns will help you to parse through the desires that arise out of fear or compulsion in order to truly discover what your deepest, God created, desire is.

*Spiritual Tranquility – I will need to do a different post on the topic of spiritual tranquility.

Labyrinthine Renunciation of Frenzied Time

Renunciation of the the desire for compulsive control is going to be a long process of accepting the grace of God. The control monster, deep in my psyche, pulling me into frenzied time zone. Killing the control minotaur is about giving up the compulsive pursuit of immediate happiness in the frenzied time zone to live in the deep time in appreciation of God’s grace, no matter what life throws my way.

In Greek Mythology Theseus slays the Minotaur by braving through to the center of the labyrinth. This monster slaying myth is a timeless because it speaks to fact that everyone had a monster hidden deep in their psyche needing to be destroyed. It is a form of a original sin that needs to be sanctified by the grace of God.  

On the second day of my week long road trip at Alburquerque, NM I got tuned into my own inner monster, anxiety! The prior night I was coming down with cold. I also overslept. I knew I needed to workout in order to get juices flowing in my muscles, some dopamine in my system. That set me later than I had originally planned to leave. I was frustrated with myself because delays prevent me from being able to see all the places I could see on this week long road trip. 

That morning I went to the Franciscan friar Richard Rohr’s Christian meditation center, Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) at Alburquerque, NM. I wanted to visit his center before heading to the Grand Canyon because Rohr’s work aligns with the theme of journeying deep time for this road trip (explained in my first blog post here). The CAC was closed for lunch when I got there. While waiting at the CAC, browsing on my phone, I realize that I had missed a rare opportunity to take a sun rise hot air balloon tour of Alburqueque because I had miss planned the trip. At this point my latent anxiety was turning to self blame.

I decided to to take a walk at the contemplative labyrinth (picture above). As I was walking through the circles, my mind focused on at the little wood chips that carpeted the ground and the smooth stones creating the circular pathway. In the first few seconds of slowly walking, time slowed down. My gloom had lifted like fog clearing out bringing a rays of golden sun shine. I left the old anxiety ridden world entered a new world. The problem with the old world is that when anxiety increases time speeds up, entrapping the psyche in self-absorption. In the old world the frenzied monkey-mind keeps me thinking about the same thing over and over again, self-blame on an infinite loop; no exit. Walking slowly through the labyrinthine pathway, as time slowed down, my psyche transcended my self incriminating self-absorption stepping into the world of God’s grace. The Labyrinth is a place which helped me get out of my self-blame clearing my mind freeing me up to mediate on the free Grace of God. The rest of the way to the center, I was meditating on the gift of my union with Christ. 

When I got to the center of the labyrinth, I saw something strange. There was a large wooden cross on the ground around which other pilgrims had left some souvenirs. Some had left pennies, others quarters, some beautiful stone jewelry. First I thought, “Wow! How superstitious can people be? Is this a way of getting their prayers or petitions answered? Some form of arm twisting God?” Then as I pondered this more, I realized that the action of the pilgrims could be interpreted as a symbolism for self-renunciation.

When one gets to the center of the labyrinth, one gets to the center of the self. It is the place of the symbolic self.It is the place of the killing of the monster within. It is the place of self denial. Self-renunciation is the starting point of sanctification (Matt 16:24). For me my self-renunciation had to take the form of giving up my attempt to control my schedule. My road-trip-goal in attempting to control my schedule is to maximize the possibility of my happiness by consuming the best experiences, visiting places. In renouncing my compulsive control of my harried plans, I embrace the present in all it strange simplicity, living in deep time by the grace of God in union with Christ.

As a ritual of my own renunciation, I left a quarter at the foot of the cross in the center of the Labyrinth. The process of renunciation of the the desire for compulsive control is going to be a long requiring dependence on the grace of God. The control monster, deep in my psyche, pulls me into frenzied time zone of hyper-productivity where the monkey mind attempts to incriminate me for not being able to get the most productive happiness. Killing the control Minotaur is about giving up the pursuit of happiness in frenzied time in to order live in the contentment of deep time appreciating God’s grace, embracing whatever life throws my way. This road trip is an attempt at getting a taste of what it means to renounce the anxious living in frenzied time by apprehending the present moment in union with Christ, living in deep time. 

Pilgrimage into Deep Time!

Just like Pink Floyd has concept albums. Mine is going to be a concept road trip. The theme for my trip is going to be experiences of deep time, I will keep posting anything I am moved to write about as a result of contemplative excursions into Deep Time! 

The reason why I love Pink Floyd is because their albums are, what is called, concept albums. They pick a concept/theme they want to explore and all the songs in the album are a progressive exploration of that theme. (For example, The Dark Side of the Moon is about man’s unconscious dark side taking over his sanity. A Brick on the Wall is about life experiences becoming a form of isolation from other people.)

Having completed my adventure through my completion of M.Div., looking forward to the next adventure of fostering a community of Christ-like spiritual vitality (aka Church Planting), I wanted to go on a sort of a road trip. Special thanks to one of my best well wishers, Doug and Karen Meikle, who very generously offered me one of their cars for this trip – so that way I did not have to choose between taking a rental car or riding my motorcycle (that latter option would have been disastrous!).

Being a Floydian, I needed a theme for my road trip. Initially, I thought it would be Mountains, Lakes and Trees – the point being that I have never seen the reflection of a huge mountain on a large lake at its foot. I figured I will take a trip to Colorado. As I was thinking about this more, I was listening to the Fransciscan friar, Richard Rohr talk on the podcast On Being. Rohr talked about living in “deep time” – living in deep time is about contemplative living where one is not merely passing time moment by moment but one is aware of the deeper connecting of the dots, when eternity invades the present.

Moment by moment way of living life is a way of attempting to define time as a means of getting what one wants – a rather narcissistic apprehension of time, I might opine. Living in “deep time” is giving up the compulsive control of time as a personal commodity and resting in the union with Christ. (To be fair, I am not sure that Rohr would describe “deep time” the way just did now… I took his terms and defined it the way it makes sense to me. My sense based on the podcast is that Rohr wouldn’t bring in the union with Christ part into this deep time concept.). The essential component of this is to be able to live in time by the way of resting in union with Christ. After all the Spirit of Christ is always with us. It is just that our awareness of His presence in us keeps fluctuating because our inner faculties of apprehending the presence of Christ is often dulled. 

As I was pondering this, I reckoned that Richard Rohr’s contemplative retreat center is in Albuquerque, NM. Just then it occurred to me that perhaps I needed to make this road trip into a pilgrimage of sorts living into deep time. I decided that I will go to Rohr’s retreat center and then to the Grand Canyon… experience its arid beauty the way the Desert Fathers went into the arid desert furnaces as a way of purifying their souls. This purification of their hearts, away from the distractions, they hoped would sensitivities their jades faculties to be present to the presence of the Spirit of Christ. 

 

For me going to the Grand Canyon as pilgrimage of living into Deep Time (in union with Christ) means the following I am not going to allow myself to be bothered by any compulsive need to 1) be productive or 2) fill up my itinerary to the brim or 3) attempt to control my time to consume all experiences I can get when I am here. Instead, I am going to have a contemplative mindset which means 1) I allow myself to rest in the deep union with Christ. 2) I am going to read the writings of Christ-loving monks and meditate on it through the day allowing it to seep into my consciousness. 3) I am going to stop often and take a long loving look at the beautiful creation of God and enjoy His handiwork. 

Just as I have made the list above, I realized that I am already failing on a number of counts there. The human predicament is to keep getting sucked into superficial time of compulsive productivity. I am typing this, sitting at Albuquerque, NM. I am excited to visit Richard Rohr’s contemplative retreat and then making my way to the Grand Canyon.

Just like Pink Floyd has concept albums. Mine is going to be a concept road trip. The theme for my trip is going to a pilgrimage into deep time, I will keep posting anything I am moved to write about as a result of contemplative excursions into Deep Time! 

Disclaimer: I appreciate Father Rohr’s contributions as a incisive critique of modernity and Evangelicalism’s hyper-rationalism. However, I do not espouse with all of Rohr’s theological musings, especially his Christology (which probably is a topic for another post). 

Deep Spiritual Roots of Silence

Trees are spiritual because they have deep roots, roots that are unseen but their strength comes from their deep roots. Just like the trees, the deep roots of my own spirituality are not seen outside but it is those deep roots that strengthen me. The trees are also a place where many living things find their abode. . Christ is the one in whom I find my adobe and rest in. If I am deeply rooted in Christ, and grow out of Christ, then I will become an extension of Christ’s love that points people to the rest in Christ. The tree is a deeply mysterious being which reflects God’s nurturing and life giving side. So being among big trees in the evening was to be mystic presence of God.

Below is my account of a 6 hour spiritual discipline of silence that I followed from 5pm till 11 pm at the Memorial Park in Houston. I choose that place, because trees move my spirit to a place of wonderment about God. Trees are a place of deep life and consequently deep spirituality. Just like God showed His presence to David by the stars in the sky, for me, God manifests His presence to me by the trees. Perhaps, it shouldn’t surprise me that Treebeard (the guardian of all Trees) is my favorite character in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (of course no surprise either in that Tolkien channeled himself into Treebeard!). 

Trees point to deep spiritual truths. They have deep roots, roots that are unseen but their strength comes from their deep roots. Just like the trees, the deep roots of my own Christ-centered spirituality are not seen outside but it is those deep roots that strengthen me. The trees are also a place where many living things find their abode. . Christ is the one in whom I find my adobe and rest in. If I am deeply rooted in Christ, and grow out of Christ, then I will become an extension of Christ’s love that points people to the rest in Christ. The tree is a deeply mysterious being which reflects God’s nurturing and life giving side. So being among big trees in the evening was to be mystic presence of God.

As always being alone and silent, my anxieties came up. I did not want to get stuck in my state of anxiety and so walked around looking, deeply looking, and meditating on the tree. There was this one tree which was so exquisitely beautiful – its dark branches that had fractal precision were like a painting of God across the light sky. Looking at the tree, carefully observing how the branches were shaped by God’s providence and design, I was drawn out of my self-absorption. Below is a picture of that tree.
 

 I was walking among the trees looking at them I found myself moving from a state of self-absorption to a place of self-transcendence. I sat at a bench and looked at the trees. I took more picture of the dark ominous spiritual beings. As I was there, I did not know when it started but I realized that I was actually singing the song, “Spirit of the living God fall afresh on me…” Somehow even before my conscious mind was aware of it, my sub-conscious mind was reveling in the presence of God in that spiritual space. 

After a while, as it got darker, I realized that I could see the moon above. I lay on the bench to look up at the moon. Dark clouds came between me and the moon but still the light of the moon couldn’t be dimmed off completely. I could see the moonlight form designs in the beautifully shaped clouds. I was reminded about how brilliant God’s design was. I kept watching the moon and the clouds back and forth, I don’t know for how long. 

Then I went back to watching trees and taking pictures of trees which looked interesting… Then after a while as I was sitting on the bench looking at the trees, my body started swaying gently the way it usually does when I am in deep prayer, filled with the Spirit of God. I enjoyed being in God’s presence there. I felt like I did not want to leave that spiritual place, it was like the mountain top transfiguration experience that the disciples did not want to leave. 

Of course, I had to come back to the real world. But there was an interesting difference. As I was back in the “real world”, the real world was now different because I was carrying with me the presence of God with me. Because of God’s presence being with me, everything I did where it was going to the gym or reading a book, it was now different – I was living out of a much deeper place in my soul, centered in Christ. The spiritual roots that I had had gone deeper into the soil of my being and was drawing it sweet nourishment from the deep source of God’s presence deep in me and that is what made the world come alive in a new way.

Who is a Christian Mystic?

The one who is tuned to this deep presence of Christ in the subconscious self is the Christian mystic. The mystic does not have to be cloistered within the halls of the monastery. For the mystic the whole world is a monastery. For the Christian mystic the whole world is sacramentally held together by the Word of God (Heb 1:3) and God’s presence is manifest through it.

A friend asked me today how I define a “mystic”. Having spent the last few weeks reading a bunch of patristic and medieval mystics from St. Cassian to Julian of Norwich, I figured I could venture a definition. 

I define a Christian mystic is one who values the power of the subconscious self enough to want to give credence to the subconscious and celebrate the union with Christ in one’s subconscious self. 

Now, the aforementioned definition of the mystic needs some unpacking. The subconscious self is the “inner man” that needs to be strengthened which the Bible talks about in Ephesians 3:16. It is also the seat of the creativity, desires and anxieties which in Jungian psychology would be called the unconscious. The mystic realizes the centrality of the subconscious to the identity of the self and so takes time to care for the subconscious self.

Now, what does the phrase “celebrate union with Christ in one’s subconscious self” mean? The Gospel of John highlights on the Logos aspect of Christ and the mystical union the Christian has with Christ, especially in chapters 14-17. Romans 8:26 discusses the Spirit groaning from within in a language that is beyond the reckoning of the conscious mind, which is a key manifestation of the union with Christ. A mystic is one who is attuned to this. When 1 Thess 5:17 says pray continually, it is the subconscious self revels in the presence of God always, even as the conscious self is doing about its daily activities.

The one who is tuned to this deep presence of Christ in the subconscious self is the Christian mystic. The mystic does not have to be cloistered within the halls of the monastery. For the mystic the whole world is a monastery. For the Christian mystic the whole world is sacramentally held together by the Word of God (Heb 1:3) and God’s presence is manifest through it.