Midway upon the journey of our life, I awoke to find myself in a strange place, listless, and lost. I turned and cried out, “Where is my cookie?”
Sanctification is sweet, but also disorienting.
It is a kind of unmooring: the cutting of ties and the loosing of old cables. There is a spiritual landscape of our interior life, secret inner threads which make up the invisible geography of our hearts. These cords and that which to which they are bound constitute our inner world and influence how we navigate life.
This spiritual geography, easily overlooked, make up part of an inner kingdom with which we must become familiar if we are to become free–if we are to become, as Dante describes it, more sweetly bound to God (Paradiso 14).
Assuredly, we have stubbed our toes upon features of this kingdom too many times to count. In such moments, we are confronted with its solidity and can most easily take stock of its features.
For instance, when we become enraged, simply because someone forgot to include us in an email, or when a minor house repair triggers shame and anxiety, or when someone disagrees with us and we lose our minds, these disproportionate reactions are clues to the kind of spiritual attachments we have formed within.
Another good moment to take stock of our ties is upon waking. What is it that is racing through our minds and why? What is it that gets us moving? What minor challenges seem to threaten us to our core, swallow up our placidity in a cloud of buzzing confusion and noise?
Such are the true landmarks of the soul, the spiritual bonds of the heart.
Now, for me, there was an age when what I was perhaps most tied to was the hope that nobody would laugh at me. It was enough then to be unremarkable, even unnoticed. That thread held tight for quite some a time.
There were ages which followed when to be noticed was everything, or to be noticed by him or her. In fact, most of my life has been and often still is an oscillation between one thread and another: bonds of fear and desire; flights from failure and shame; headlong flings with success or approval.
But I do remember a certain day, years ago, when I was studying for the GRE’s. My leg violently reciprocating like a purposeless piston, I scourged myself with the whip of anxiety: Study! Go! Faster!
But something something in me became loosed and I addressed myself, my attitudes in a surprising new way.. It dawned on me, I am doing this to myself, and I am free to stop. I was under no obligation to tyrannize myself with anxiety or the threats of failure. Anxiety did me no favors, made me no faster, and certainly made my mind no sharper. Grace was applied as I practiced this new discipline.
Within a few years, I even stopped washing the dishes as if I were a mechanic at a NASCAR pitstop. I began to sever some of those old cords of anxiety.
Another turning point occurred in graduate school, when there was no longer anyone to report my grades to. In college, I worried about graduate school. But I was in graduate school now; there was no one left!
Donkeys have their carrots and sticks. I have my whips and cookies.
As some of these bonds were surrendered (sometimes severed or torn from me, other times just removed a distance), I began to feel like a lover who had lost his beloved, even forgotten her name or where she lived. I might walk the street, but I had nowhere to go–no door to knock upon. I wasn’t sure why I was even walking. I was without compass or map.
How desperately I have I sought one thing or fled from another. How desperately and secretly I even manufactured these objects. All along, in this idol factory, I have manufactured carrots and sticks, or cookies and whips, that I might not be lost, that I might move. After all, what else moves a man and gets him to do what he needs to except fear or reward as I conceived of them? What is a man without such motives?
Such is life. One replaces the old girl with the new one, the cookie with a carrot, lust for greed, approval for pride, grades for accolades, etc.
Thus, upon the pilgrim’s way we are confronted with a choice, we can either do what we have done all life long (and merely calls it by a new name, perhaps with greater spiritual malice or in deeper error and delusion), or we can begin to wait upon God. This is at the heart of ascetism and perhaps associated with spiritual poverty, sorrow, and purity. But the negative work of asceticism exists only that we may experience and desire the positive good. The beatitudes are all connected with beatitude! The house is swept only so that a guest may dwell within its walls.
But truly, it must be swept. Spring clean must be done again and again.
For all these reasons, sanctification can be like wandering in an abandoned city. Our self-knowledge is a journey through an interior ghost town, something like the village in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.
Particular Application for the Student
With this in mind, I want to address one such cord of discontent. Grades and peer approval are two enormous carrots (or sticks) that we students must intentionally cut. They are drugs which so numb our senses that we can no longer trace the real geography of the inner kingdom.
Let me resort to one last set of illustrations. When I would try to shoot baskets back in those early years when getting the ball as high as the net was an accomplishment, I was very inconsistent. I used to wonder if scoring had something to do with what I felt in my belly, or how I curled my toes, or if I placed my thumb on a certain line of the basketball.
In other words, I had no grasp of the true causes and principles of basketball. It was a mystery I tried to cure through a kind of superstition. Again, it is like a man who happens to sneeze just as it begins to rain and from then on, he insists that sneezing makes it rain.
Life is a mystery which I have tried to manage through superstition. Only, instead of wearing unwashed lucky socks I thought, if only I get Sam’s approval I will be happy, or When I get married… or when I am a doctor…If I get an A in Logic…life will be good.
Sometimes, it seemed I managed to accomplish these goals, and sometimes they really seemed to make life work.
Sometimes, I would make the shot, but I could never be consistent enough. But neither success nor the pleasure of success was certain or enduring. The path of happiness and blessing was elusive. I wandered about in the wood of error.
But there will come a time when all these illusions will be torn from us. There is a day coming, no matter the accolades or accomplishments with which we have clothed ourselves, that we will discover they are truly ashes in our mouths. They will burn up in the fire of God’s judgment and we will be left clothed only with that which endures.
Even now, in God’s mercy, we time and again find that He will hide the cookie from us. God’s mercy cuts the cord, looses the bond, and sets the captive free. But freedom is a strange place to live for those more comfortable as slaves.
How often I think I am ready for freedom when what I am really asking for is a more refined slavery!
Cicero summed up one version of the pseudo-liberty in his De Officiis:
Some, too, have taken up their abode in the country, engrossed in the care of their own property. Their design is the same as that of kings, to lack nothing, to obey no one, to enjoy liberty, the essence of which is to live as one pleases.From: Selections from the Writings of Cicero Translated by E. S. Shuckburgh
When God hides the cookie, when he cuts the cord, he calls us to seek that which truly satisfies, to find new motivations and better ends. He does not merely overwhelm are hearts with a love for the good, that we might choose to walk by faith, to live in hope of his promises, and not as cheapy bought bondsmen. We have been bought with a price!
Nevertheless, praise be to God! There are things which truly satisfy! There are true causes of happiness, and we are not without means of knowing and seeking them. Though we might feel lost, we are not without map or compass.
Of course, the chief and perfect cause, the guide and the goal of happiness is Jesus Christ. But to spell this out again, he made us, not just to receive him, but to live by his life. Human life is both something received and enacted!
He redeems us. He saves us. But what is it to save a man? It is to save the whole man for God. He saves us not just from sin, but that we might live unto God and delight in that life. Eric Liddell delighted to run for God. He ran a more glorious race than that held at any Olympic.
The way of worldly bonds is one of bondage and death. But, to bound to Christ is to be set upon a new course, to know a way which leads to life.
To follow upon his path, to walk with him, we must begin to love him and love what he loves. Thus he instructs us, in part by making our interior landscape known. Doing so, he calls us to remove that which we ought not to love (and to seek his grace that it might be removed). This is a necessary half of navigating by the Spirit, inseparable from seeking the Good.
But as I have said, this new way can feel strange. It is not the familial landscape marked by impending deadlines, demanding public opinion, or sweet and tasty cookies. It is marked subtler but more certain spiritual appeals, by deeper and more abiding pleasures, by an awareness of true evil, danger, and damnation, and, yet, also infinitely greater confidence and rest.
Only when the bright light of the sun sets do the glorious stars become visible, as Dante tells readers in Paradiso 20. So too, only when the appeals of the world are quieted, do we begin to discern the real landmarks of our pilgrimage.
Such marks the dawning of the true Day in our souls. It is as a morning after long illness, when wasting disease has passed, and strength first to pour in from some lovely but unknown source. That Source is in you, if you are His. But you must learn to drink. And he will teach you.
The guest stands at your door. It is not enough to sweep your house. You must invite him in. Withdraw from the noises and bright lights, from the overwhelming flavors and sounds of the world, and let your spiritual senses grow sharp. He will season his sacrifice with salt and you will not be left without sweet joy.