Listenings: Entering Into the Mystery (1)

The Mystery about which we are speaking could be impenetrable.  Either by its complexity, or even by God’s design.   The Mystery could lie on the other side of a high wall with a sign on it: “No Trespassing.”

But this is not God’s way.  God has placed a doorway into the Mystery.  We are invited to enter into it; into God.  The result is an I-Thou relationship—Person to person—Reality to reality—Life to life.

Evelyn Underhill identifies two universal means for walking through the door:  mortification and prayer.  We will look at mortification in the next postings.

It’s not a word that immediately attracts us.  At first glance, it may conjure up notions of extremism.  You may come from traditions where mortification was largely defined by physical acts of deprivation or even suffering.  But in the history of Christian spirituality, it is the right word—even though it may need some “cleaning up” in order for us to use it.

It simply means “killing the roots of self love; pride and possessiveness, anger and violence, ambition and greed in all their disguises, however respectable those disguises may.” (pp. 59-60)

We speak often about this here at Oboedire.  We put it this way:  there can only be one Center.  That Center is God—God alone.  The Fall (and its resulting consequences and manifestations) is essentially trying to make the ego that center, rather than God.  Or in some cases, a “mild dose of religion” may convince us that we can have both God and ourselves at that Center.

But such is not the case, and Evelyn Underhill has hit the nail on the head.  We must simultaneously attend to God and to the false self that wants to de-throne or co-throne with God.  John the Baptist described it, “He must increase, and I must decrease” (John 3:30)

Spiritual formation is the lifelong process of allowing grace to realize both things in us.  Today, we are looking at the necessary abandonment of the false self—which is mortification.  Underhill goes on, “Indeed, wherever we find people whose spiritual life is robust and creative, we find that in one way or another this transformation has been effected and the price has been paid.” (p.60)

In many ways, our age finds mortification much more difficult than prayer.  Perhaps it has always been so.  We want to “have God” without giving up much. But in the Christian pattern, emptying precedes filling, because our lives are too full of our “selves” and all the stuff that the false self wants to drag into the spiritual house with it.  The pattern is dying before rising—Friday before Sunday.  There is no other way into the Mystery.


About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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