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Between Heaven and Earth – Br. Nicholas Bartoli

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Br. Nicholas BartoliMark 4.26–34

We all have within us a deep desire, something we yearn for, something we long to experience or attain. The object of this desire takes many forms, and for some people it becomes identified with a search to experience something beyond themselves, something transcendent. We can find spiritual seekers of this sort in all religions, and also among those who could be described as spiritual, but not religious. This yearning for something transpersonal is also the impetus of many new age practices or the many systems of thought that hold out the promise of inner transformation or enlightenment.

All this heaven-directed seeking certainly can make for an interesting journey through life, and, at its best, could provide opportunities for personal growth and spiritual fulfillment. On the other hand, an urgent striving toward something higher or transcendent carries with it a significant risk. In 1984, psychologist John Welwood coined the term “spiritual bypass” to describe the use of a variety of religious or spiritual beliefs and practices in order to avoid painful emotions or situations in life. In other words, we have a tendency to prematurely believe we’ve arrived in heaven at the expense of not being nourished by what we still need to learn and experience here on earth.

The seed in the first parable today while resting in the ground, sprouts and grows, producing grain. We’re told “the earth produces of itself” without any help from the person who scattered the seed. And then the tiny mustard seed, sown upon the ground, grows into a tall tree with branches reaching toward the heavens. In both cases, we’re invited to draw our attention downward, toward the earth, the ground that makes all this growth possible.

Maximus the Confessor, a 7th century monk and mystic, wrote a good description of spiritual bypass over 1,000 years ago. It reads: “Tie the leg of a sparrow to the ground, and no matter how hard it tries to fly, it will be fastened to the earth. In the same way, if your intellect tries to fly up to the mystical knowledge of heavenly realities but has not yet been freed of obsessive passions, it will remain tied fast to the earth.” Maximus seems to be implying here that not only is it unwise to try to fly too soon, but that attending to our earthly nature is actually a critical part of any heavenly aspiration, and so in a way the distinction between things of the earth and things of heaven just isn’t very helpful.

A few nights ago I was gazing out at the flowering dogwood standing in our cloister garden, still draped in small Christmas lights. The fresh-fallen snow surrounding the base of the trunk reflected the soft glow of this light, and it looked as if the tree was drinking this light as nourishment from the ground. I imagined that within the tree, hidden from view, the light was being slowly drawn upward toward the high branches, ultimately bearing those small, bright fruits. It made me wonder if the difference between above and below might be a little exaggerated, and whether in truth, above and below meet somewhere within.

So perhaps, if we aspire toward the transcendent or heavenly the wisest thing to do would be to simply wait, and just patiently be present for the seeds lying within the ground of our own being. That might mean encountering painful parts of ourselves, but as John’s Gospel reminds us a grain of wheat must first fall into the ground and die, before it can bear fruit. It may also help to remember that being enlightened by Christ, or having a transcendent experience of God, is not a goal to be attained, after which we can ignore our earthly selves. It’s a process, a process that likely never ends.

And this is actually very good news, because it means that our own resurrection can begin now, and continues every moment we center our lives in Christ and surrender to God’s will. It means that the way of the incarnation of Jesus is a continual balance between transfiguration within the ground of our earthly existence and transcendence within God’s heavenly Kingdom.  Conveniently, we’re reminded of this every time we pray as our Savior Christ has taught us: Our Father, may your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.

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1 Comment

  1. Karen Bird on February 6, 2015 at 08:52

    Nicholas,
    Thank you for your words of wisdom. I have often wondered why the new age focus on transcendance can be so tiresome. Your focus on the process and patience has helped me see that these are really the key disciplines rather than some state of nirvana.
    Karen

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