Elements of A Contemplative Reformation, Essay #2: A Tale of Two Postures, Grasping and Self-Emptying

The Call to a Contemplative Reformation, Essay #2

 

A Tale of Two Postures

Grasping and Self-Emptying in Parish Ministry

Stuart Higginbotham

 

O God who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.[1]

 

This essay follows my reflection on the challenges within parish ministry when it comes to delving more deeply into what I understand as a “contemplative reformation” within the institutional church.[2]  Being a parish priest, I feel my vocation centers on being embedded within a community, listening to how the Spirit is inviting us to grow and be transformed as we “grow into the full stature of Christ.”[3]

I continue to ask the same questions I asked in the previous essay:

How do we approach this contemplative embodiment within such a parish context?  What questions must we ask?  What risks are we called to take?  What language and images can we employ?  What tensions must we engage in order to invite the gathered community to delve more deeply into the presence of God through contemplative prayer and study so that, through this transformative experience, we more robustly embody the compassionate and culturally transcendent wisdom of Christ in the world around us?

Others of my colleagues around the world are approaching this invitation to contemplative practice and formation from various angles, informed by their experiences, studies, and vocations.  I wish to continue discerning how such a “contemplative reformation” is possible within the wider, dare I say, institutional Church because I believe it is essential that we open ourselves in this way to the Spirit’s movement among us and within us.  A reformation is, indeed, afoot.

Whereas the last essay focused on the broad outline of what a contemplative posture might look like within a parish community, this reflection focuses more on a shift in images and theological language that I think is vital if we are to engage in such a contemplative reformation.  We need both to increase our theological proficiency and engage in more intentional practices of prayer in order to have more substantive conversations in our communities.

I have only been a parish priest for a decade, but that time has afforded me a certain experience through which I have noticed trends within the larger Church.  I continue to be frustrated by the labels that we impose on ourselves and one another: fundamental, progressive, conservative, liberal, etc.  To be honest, any time I hear language such as this I disconnect from the conversation, because I know within my own spiritual heart that my own identity is much more complex and nuanced.  Some may understand me as being “progressive” in a great many things, but particular theological opinions may well fall within the “conservative” camp, especially, for example, with abortion.  While such language might be a helpful shorthand in an “ecclesial speed dating” sort of way, it impedes the vulnerable, formative work we desire in a needed contemplative reformation.

While recently reading Beverly Lanzetta’s book Radical Wisdom, I noted how what she noticed as essential in Teresa of Avila’s spiritual development is essential in our own lives as well.  Lanzetta’s work to make us aware of the danger of these rigid categories—and the hope possible in an engagement of the experience of women—should be required reading.  She writes of St. Teresa:

Learning to see the world through the lens of the mystical and becoming fluent in its language were essential to her maturity and empowerment.  No less true for our times, we require education in the divine pedagogy and benefit from access to the alphabet and vocabulary of the spirit.[4]

The image of an “alphabet and vocabulary of the spirit” captures my heart and inspires me to concentrate my own faculties in a prayerful effort to help my own community—even as I continue to ground myself.  We are, of course, speaking of both pedagogy and mystagogy.

In terms of such an “alphabet and vocabulary,” I wish to explore a particular relationship between two poles or focus points within communities that I believe warrant a deeper reflection.  I recently put out a question to colleagues: if we see the crucial role of kenosis, or self-emptying, described in Philippians as a foundational element of Christian practice, what would its opposite be as seen in the texts themselves?  If, as St. Paul states, we are called to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” our embodied life must follow the pattern of Jesus’ own life, recognizing that he

. . . emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to the

point of death—

even death on a cross (Philippians 2:7-8).

These verses are essential in understanding the contemplative tradition within Christianity.  Given this importance, I was curious what examples of their opposite would be within our Scriptures.

Several colleagues wrote back with ideas, with a few of them agreeing with my initial opinion that pride must be the opposite of this self-emptying posture.  Pride, seen as the root sin for many, must be the antithesis of the contemplative dimension of kenosis.  I soon received an email from two colleagues that offered another possibility: greed.[5]  After much reflection, I agree that the posture of greed is the antithesis of the call of kenosis within contemplative Christianity, with the dynamic of hoarding and craving—avarice—seen in how we resist the call to empty ourselves.

Within the texts themselves, we find two important descriptions of greed: philargyria and pleonexia.  Both of these point toward that posture of covetousness, and there are many scriptural attestations to their danger.  Philargyria is used only once:  For the love of money (philargyria) is the root of all kinds of evil…(I Timothy 6:10).  Pleonexia, on the other hand, is used ten times within the texts, among them being:

For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice (pleonexia), envy, slander, pride, folly.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person (Mark 7:21-23).

And [Jesus] said to them, “Take care!  Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions (Luke 12:15).

So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead of you, and arrange in advance for this bountiful gift that you have promised, so that it may be ready as a voluntary gift and not as an extortion (pleonexia) (2 Corinthians 9:5).

Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (pleonexia) (which is idolatry) (Colossians 3:5).

It is quite clear that both the Gospel accounts and the epistle writers see greed as a dire spiritual threat—and a constant temptation—within the Christian life.  We are to remain constantly vigilant against the pressures of this urge both to covet and to hoard.  Further, the writer of Colossians makes the clear assertion that greed is, itself, a form of idolatry which places a self-fixated avarice before one’s proper orientation toward and dependence upon God.

I spent a few weeks reflecting on this dynamic within the texts, and I soon began to notice a deeper, connecting thread to the life of parish communities.  Here is where I began to see an “alphabet and vocabulary of the spirit.”  This tension between the poles of kenosis and philargyria  and pleonexia ripples throughout the life of individuals and entire spiritual communities because it describes two distinct postures in our Christian practice: the postures of grasping and yielding.  And it is here that I think we can delve more deeply in our reflection on what a contemplative reformation might look like within our lives and communities.

          As I said earlier, I no longer find the language of fundamentalist, progressive, conservative, or liberal effective in my own ministry as a parish priest.  These days, I am seeking to engage in conversations through the lens of this dynamic tension between grasping and yielding.  I have a sneaking suspicion that these particular images can open the door to much more profound conversations in our world today—if we’re willing to be vulnerable and engage with one another.

These two images offer us helpful categories or windows through which we can view the world and reflect theologically on much of the tension we are experiencing.  The tension between the postures of grasping and yielding can be seen throughout every Christian denomination—and, indeed in every life.  What do these look like when they are embodied within communities?  Perhaps a story about my childhood might illustrate.

I grew up in a very “conservative,” rural Baptist environment in Southeastern Arkansas.  The very air was saturated with the social assumptions rooted in a specific theological perspective focused primarily on individual responsibility as embodied in a moment of decision and a personal salvation.  My closest friends were all from this theological school as well, and we were suspicious even of the Methodists, because they “sprinkled their babies” and that failed to meet the requirement of a personal decision and the responsibility to make a choice for Christ.  There were Catholics in my small town as well—including, surprisingly, two nuns—but they were most definitely not to be trusted since they “worshipped Mary” and were obviously beyond all hope.

Even though I was raised with this pronounced theological flavor, for some reason, I suspected at an early age that I was only seeing a sliver of what was possible.  Call me a young theological anarchist if you’d like, but I was resistant.  This resistance blossomed when I was eight years old and decided to stay up on Christmas Eve after my parents had gone to sleep.  I have no idea why I felt the urge to do this, but I waited until close to midnight, grabbed my blanket, and snuck into the living room.  I turned on the television with the volume just loud enough to hear, wrapped myself in my blanket, and flipped through a few channels.  I felt very brave, thwarting my parents’ expectations.

To my shock, I flipped to a channel that was showing some kind of worship service.  There were men in strange and colorful robes, candles everywhere, a small bowl on a chain that smoked as they swung it back and forth, and music unlike anything I had ever heard.  I was transfixed, wondering what this was.  I had, of course, stumbled upon Midnight Mass from the Vatican with Pope John Paul II.  As I sat there wrapped in my blanket, a series of feelings came over me that are strong to this day.  At first, I was naturally suspicious; however, quickly my suspicion gave way to confusion, having no idea what this strange sight was.  Next, after I had watched this beautiful service for a while, I felt strangely resentful that my family had kept this secret from me!  These folks on television were praying in a way I never knew was possible.  Above all, I felt curious, and this curiosity has remained with me for my entire life.

I quickly discovered that my family did not share my curiosity.  They remained steadfast in their focus on a degree of certainty:  certainty in their theological beliefs, certainty in their identity in a community marked by a true interpretation of a literal understanding of the Bible, and certainty in their individual salvation.  They were certain.  I was curious, and my curiosity was threatening.

In my experience, the tension between these two perspectives of certainty and curiosity connects directly with the two poles of grasping and yielding.  In my life now, I resonate so deeply with words such as these, penned by St. John of the Cross and translated by Raimon Panikkar:

When you stop at anything

you lose your thrust toward the all.

 

For to come altogether to the all

you must altogether leave all.

 

And when you come to hold it all

you must hold it desiring nothing.

 

For if you desire to have something at all

you have not your pure treasure in God.[6]

 Such language of release connects with my own yearning to rest in God’s presence that, somehow, evokes an understanding of an otherness in God that is a balm for me in the midst of anxiety and frustration.  I find it easy to enter into spaces of vulnerability (most of the time), but I recognize that many people do not.

The dynamic between curiosity and certainty has marked my own spiritual development perhaps more than any other, and I believe this tension is rooted in these two postures of grasping and yielding, which, in turn, embody themselves in expressions of philargyria/pleonexia and kenosis.  Might there be two broad spheres for us to explore, with one sphere being that of curiosity embodied in a posture of yielding, of kenosis, and another sphere of certainty embodied in a posture of grasping, of philargyria/pleonexia?  Might this language and imagery enable more of what Beverly Lanzetta desires with an “alphabet and vocabulary of the spirit?”  What would happen to our conversations if we grounded in our relationships in this contemplative dimension rather than these categories of “liberal” and “conservative?”

Lest anyone think there is broad judgment or a categorization of particular denominations into one sphere or the other, I want to make clear that this tension is evident within every life and every denomination.  For example, some may feel that there are denominations that are, on the whole, marked by a posture of grasping, with a high concern for certainty.  Perhaps this is true; however, I see the tension playing out in many ways.  For example, even though some may hold that The Episcopal Church would readily exemplify a posture of yielding and curiosity, there are plenty of examples of a posture of grasping and a fixation on certainty.  I need only think back to a recent Evensong service when I mistakenly censed the altar during the Nunc dimittis rather than the Magnificat and received notes informing me that I had strayed from the dignified liturgical form and needed to correct this error before we offered another service.  There is a concern for liturgical certainty that shapes the life of the community, with some believing strongly that a proper dignity in worship is vitally important.  I wholeheartedly agree that the dignity of our worship is essential both for our own lives and the honor due God; however, I also see how a posture of grasping can easily take hold so that we begin to view other denominations as lacking in dignity and therefore sophistication.  Our judgment of them leads us to view them as inferior, and this is unfortunate.  So, one can say that there are spaces within all our lives where the tension between grasping and yielding is laid bare for all to see.  And, doesn’t it make for an interesting conversation to frame liturgical differences in terms of grasping and yielding?

As well, we should recognize that our individual identities hold this tension to varying degrees.  In my own times of meditation, what grasping tendencies do I hold?  What am I clinging to?  How am I resisting this call to yield to God’s guidance?  Reflecting on my own life is one thing.  When we encourage self-emptying and yielding, we must be mindful of the particular struggles and pain of every minority group within our community.  Such an encouragement toward self-emptying must take into account the pronounced persistence of patriarchy and privilege.  As a white man, I must be mindful of the pastoral dimension within my community of my encouragement for people to yield.  In many cases, what is more pastoral and honest is affirmation and certainty when it comes to the experience of women and minorities, a certainty of their value and dignity as human beings created by God and worthy of both God’s love and their equal place in the community.  Put another way, the more of the following boxes one can check in one’s own life—male, white, straight, educated, wealthy, etc.—perhaps the more one is called to yield in one’s practice of faith and in daily life.  Kenosis is foundational for all of us, yet we must dare to engage the pastoral dimension of each person’s life and spiritual development.  A brief and painful story lays bare my own experience.

Last year, my dear friend, colleague, and overall partner-in-crime and ministry Cynthia Park and I went to breakfast at a beloved locale in town.  We walked down the buffet line, me following her.  When we got to the register and poured our cups of coffee, Cynthia paid for her breakfast, leaving me to pay for mine.  The lady looked at me, smiled, and said, “Are you a pastor?”  “Yes,” I said, immediately turning and catching Cynthia’s eye as she turned back toward our conversation.  “Since you’re a pastor, breakfast is on us.”

One could possibly dismiss this incident if we weren’t both Episcopal priests dressed entirely the same in black with clerical collars in full view.  I hesitatingly accepted her offer and went to join Cynthia at the table.  I am embarrassed to this day because I accepted the offer and got a free meal while my female colleague was not acknowledged and paid for hers.  If I am honest, I realize that I grasped my own vocational identity while Cynthia was forced to yield hers to social expectations.  There are many ways I could have responded to this awkward encounter, the most obvious being to pay for my own meal!  Yet, I grasped my identity and accepted the privileged position I had been given.

Even recognizing the complexities and nuances of the conversation, I believe framing the conversation with these two spheres of greed and self-emptying, of grasping and yielding, of certainty and curiosity is important, because we must reflect more deeply as a people the spiritual dangers of “greed.”  When we speak of greed, of philargyria and pleonexia, we are talking about the impulse within us to crave more than we need.  We are speaking of a misplaced desire, of a warped dissatisfaction in which we are tempted to fixate on grasping at control and power.  We easily objectify and oppress our fellow human beings and place ourselves at the center of attention and devotion.  This is why such a reflection is essential in our conversations about a contemplative reformation.  We are speaking of the spiritual reorientation of an entire community.  The pericope from Colossians is vitally important:

Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (pleonexia) (which is idolatry) (Colossians 3:5).

Thus, at the root of this entire reflection lies the impulse we have toward idolatry.  The deeper truth and problem of greed is not that we want more material possessions; rather, the problem is that we are ungrateful for the lives we have; we reject our dependence upon God’s grace; we construct systems of competition that are zero-sum; we live out of scarcity and fear; we deny our interdependence with one another and all creation; we crave certainty of our own pride of place within the larger community; and we begin to see anyone different from ourselves as a threat to this small, constructed self.  We place our own grasped opinions and assumptions before all other considerations.  We become the idols that we offer devotion to, and we fixate on maintaining social systems that support our assumptions, our anxiety, and our fear.  This is tribalism, with a sinful fixation on certainty and grasping.

Into this swirl of the small-self’s fixation on grasping and greed, the hymn from Philippians challenges our hearts to open to a more expansive vision of grace:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interest, but to the interests of others (Philippians 2:1-4).

It is humility—an authentic understanding of our humanity—that makes possible a deeper engagement within community.  It is humility that enables us to reframe the conversation away from the loaded categories of fundamentalist, progressive, conservative, liberal—monikers which prevent dialogue and relationship far more than they provide a short-hand for understanding—and be brought into a space of vulnerability and holy community.  It is humility that enables the fostering of a contemplative reformation within a spiritual community.

Imagine how profound a conversation would be if we could wonder with another, “What do I feel I need to grasp onto?” “What about this grasping makes me feel safe?” “Recognizing this anxiety, what would it be like to yield to the Spirit’s promise of trust, relationship, and grace?”  In this day and time, a posture of yielding feels like the most absurd thing imaginable.  There is so much to be anxious about, yet it may just be that a contemplative reformation grounded in this posture of yielding might be the graceful space that begins to heal us all.  Perhaps Rilke says it best:

I live my life in widening circles

that reach out across the world.

I may not complete this last one

but I give myself to it.

 

I circle around God, around that primordial tower.

I’ve been circling for thousands of years

and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,

a storm, or a great song?[7]

 

[1] The Book of Common Prayer, the collect for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day, 214.

[2] That essay is titled “A Call to a Contemplative Reformation” and can be found at https://contemplativereformation.wordpress.com/2017/09/15/a-call-to-a-contemplative-reformation-the-essay/.  I will be forever grateful for Tilden Edwards and his careful eye and watchful heart.  My conversations with him have helped shape me into the priest I am today.

[3] Book of Common Prayer, 302.

[4] Beverly J. Lanzetta, Radical Wisdom: A Feminist Mystical Theology (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2005), 27.

[5] My deepest appreciation for Martha Bolinger and Laurence Freeman, OSB, who helped me reflect more deeply on the dynamic of greed as opposed to self-emptying.

[6] Raimon Panikkar, “The Way Not to Hinder the All,” in Blessed Simplicity, (New York: Seabury Press, 1982), 32.

[7] Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), 45.

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