God’s Filing Cabinet

The X-Files

When I was growing up, I was taught to understand the daily Christian life as “walking by the Spirit” (cf. Gal. 5:16).  What that meant until perhaps ten years ago (and still means at times of high stress and low coping) was that there was some exactly right plan in God’s head, and I was anxiously trying not to fail it.

Things which aren’t psychologically healthy are never spiritually healthy.

They’re not theologically accurate either: that vision of God and God’s plan had nothing to do with Jesus or the Spirit of Jesus Christ (as the Holy Spirit is repeatedly named in Scripture).

Thomas Merton puts this all so well (from “Renunciation and Contemplation,” quoted in Fr. Albert Haase, Swimming in the Sun, pp. 123-124):

“Your vocation isn’t something that’s in a filing cabinet in Heaven that is kept secret from you and then sort of whipped out at the Last Judgment and [God says], ‘You missed, buddy! You didn’t guess right.’ But your vocation, or anything in life, is an invitation on the part of God which you’re not supposed to guess and you’re not supposed to figure out. It’s something you work out by free response.”

I still think “walk by the Spirit” is a decent, short description of the daily Christian life. But now I want to offer a bigger picture: “walk by the Spirit” when the Spirit is experienced through the whole Biblical canon; in community with other Christians, living and dead (the Tradition); via the Sacraments; and in lived experience, both my personal experience and in connection with the larger human experience.

Joyfully.

Contemplation and Walking by the Spirit

And so asking how to realize the true self is much like facing a large field covered with snow that has not yet been walked on and asking, “Where is the path?” The answer is to walk across it and there will be a path. One cannot find out how to realize the true self and then set out to reach the clearly visualized goal. Rather, one must walk on in faith and as one goes on, the goal appears–not before, nor within, nor beyond us, but it does appear.

James Finley, Merton’s Palace of Nowhere

When I was young, I was taught that the center of the Christian life was to “walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16), a verse which was interpreted to mean that the Christian life is to learn the voice of the Spirit and then to obey. The problem: in the most-of-the-time when God isn’t speaking, then what do you do? One answer: do nothing.

Since then I have learned that the Christian tradition has developed precise language for this. The dynamic of waiting and only waiting I experienced then and which I tend toward now is what the Christian tradition has named Quietism, and the pole opposite Quietism is Activism. Both poles are problematic, Quietism being disembodied and solitary (and therefore anti-) Christianity and Activism being Peter cutting off Malchus’ ear at the arrest of Jesus.

The contemplative life springs from the conviction that there is a way to be grounded in God and to navigate between those two poles. Yes, we do work out our own salvation, but we never forget that we do so with fear and trembling.