In my last post I asked, “What is one to do once one realizes that one is a scoundrel?” In answering that question I drew from the story of the woman caught in adultery, brought to Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees who sought to test him. After ridding her of her accusers, Jesus told the woman, “Go your way and sin no more.” This is what we are to do once we realize that we are “scoundrels.” Yet this is easier said than done. Aspiring to saintliness is no mean feat, per the story of the Desert Father, with which I ended that last post:
Despite his significant efforts toward saintliness, a monk kept falling into sin. In his distress, the
monk went to seek advice from an elder. After listening to the monk reveal his struggles, the elder
explained that this is the nature of the spiritual life. Said the elder, “I fall down. I get up. I fall down.
I get up. I fall down... I get up.”
We should take solace that one of the Desert Fathers - someone who had dedicated his entire life to a life lived in the Spirit - can describe the spiritual life as the experience of falling down, getting up, falling down, getting up, falling down… and getting up again. Yet, too many of us scoundrels interpret our spiritual failures as evidence that we are unfit for the spiritual life. So, after we’ve fallen a few times, we don’t bother getting up again, abandoning the spiritual life to which we once aspired.
This intense negative self-evaluation applies to most everyone. If you don’t believe me, take a moment and go stand in front of a mirror. Gazing at your own image gazing back at you, tell yourself, with heartfelt sincerity, “I love you!” Go ahead. I’ll wait… …That wasn’t easy, was it?!
It is very difficult to overcome the scoundrel within. As a Spiritual Director, this is often one of the first obstacles I must help people negotiate on their spiritual journeys. I can’t emphasize enough how important this work is because if that tape of negative self-evaluation is always playing in the egoic background, it will undermine one’s attempt to realize one’s essential nature.
Given this, I sometimes ask people to work with the following quotation, from Carl Jung:
“The acceptance of oneself is the essence of the whole moral problem and the epitome of a whole
outlook on life. That I feed the hungry, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of
Christ - all these are undoubtedly great virtues. What I do unto the least of my brethren, that I do unto
Christ. But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all the beggars,
the most impudent of all the offenders, the very enemy himself - that these are within me, and that I
myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness - that I myself am the enemy who must be
loved – what then? As a rule, the Christian's attitude is then reversed; there is no longer any question
of love or long-suffering; we say to the brother within us,"Raca," and condemn and rage against
ourselves. We hide it from the world; we refuse to admit ever having met this least among the lowly
in ourselves.” – from “Memories, Dreams, Reflections”
Jung is spot on! “The acceptance of oneself is the essence of the whole moral problem and the epitome of a whole outlook on life.” Though we be scoundrels, we are not to blame (also covered in my last post). Though we be scoundrels, we remain worthy. We remain worthy of receiving from ourselves our own love and compassion. Understanding this… embodying this… living this… is necessary if one is to negotiate this obstacle on the spiritual path.
If we negotiate this obstacle on the spiritual path, we are far more likely to get up again each time we fall down. And fall down we will! There are other obstacles on the spiritual path with which we will struggle and in that struggling, we will sometimes fail. Luckily, the spiritual journey is not a sprint we lose if we fall down. We are long distance-runners, till the end of our days…
We live in an age of immediate gratification. It takes minimal effort on our part to get our needs met: the push of a button, the flip of a switch, a simple voice command (he says, as he “writes” this blog post with voice transcription technology). In lockstep with this age of immediate gratification goes our approach to the spiritual journey. We expect it to take minimal effort on our part for the spiritual journey to bear fruit: read a book, go to church, do a yoga pose. Nothing could be further from the truth!
Just like long-distance runners, people on the spiritual journey require “strict training.” Such training is necessary to build the spiritual competencies (e.g., spiritual knowledge, self-observation, attention management… behavior modification) and endurance necessary for a spiritual journey to bear fruit. With this in mind, I encourage you to adopt some of the following forms of “training” as regular (daily) practices on your spiritual journey: reading and contemplating sacred texts, meditation, mantra/chant, silence, psychological introspection, Lectio Divina (Here’s a good primer.), and acts of charity (karma yoga).
The spiritual journey, my friends, requires more than the mental appropriation of spiritual ideas. Think about this, then hit your spiritual gym!