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Daily Meditations

Spirituality from Below (Part I)

February 6th, 2019

The spirituality bequeathed to us by the moralizing theology of modern times works from the top down. It presents high ideals that we are supposed to translate into reality. Typical ideals include selflessness, self-control, continuous amiability, selfless love, freedom from anger, and mastery of sexual desire. Spirituality from above surely has some positive meaning for young people, since it challenges them and tests their powers. It prompts them to grow up and out of themselves and to strive for goals. But it also tries to leap above and beyond our own reality. We identify so intensely with our ideals that we repress our own weak points and limits because they clash with the ideal. That leads to inner division, which makes us sick. This is often manifested by the conflict in us between the ideal and the reality. We can’t admit that we don’t measure up to the ideal, and so we project our failure onto others. We become hardened against them.

It’s really amazing that very pious men and women can often react quite brutally, for example, when a theologian voices an opinion different from theirs. For example, in one diocese an art exhibit on the topic “Mary the Human Being” was organized not long ago by a diocesan office, which led to the bishop’s being subjected to brutal, even filthy attacks. But brutality is often repressed sexuality. Such people imagine they are defending the cause of piety; in fact they are behaving with impious militancy. Such representatives of spirituality from above don’t even notice that their arguments are hitting below the belt.

The desert fathers teach us spirituality from below. They show us that we have to begin with ourselves and our passions. The way to God, for the desert fathers, always passes through self-knowledge. Evagrius Ponticus puts it this way: “If you want to know God, learn to know yourself first!” Without self-knowledge we are always in danger of having our ideas of God turn into mere projections. There are also pious individuals who take flight from their own reality into religion. They aren’t transformed by their prayer and piety; they simply use it to lift themselves over others, to confirm their own infallibility.

In the desert fathers we meet an entirely different form of piety. The goals here are, above all, sincerity and authenticity. But this leads to affectionate understanding for all those who are not on the same path. Poimen, a tried and tested ancient father, once showed a great theologian the path to spirituality from below. The famous theologian wanted to engage Poimen in discussions about spiritual life and heavenly things, such as the Trinity. But Poimen just listened to him without saying a word. Stirred to anger, the theologian was about to walk out. Poimen’s companion protested: “Father, this great man came here on account of you; he enjoys immense prestige back where he lives. Why haven’t you spoken with him?” The old man replied: “He dwells on the heights and speaks of heavenly things; but I belong in the lower regions and speak of earthly things. If he had spoken about the passions of the soul, I would certainly have answered him. But when he talks about what is spiritual, I don’t understand it.”

The theologian was operating out of a spirituality from above. He spoke immediately about God and spiritual things. For Poimen the spiritual way began with the passions of the soul. These first have to be observed and struggled with. Only then will we understand something about God. For Poimen dealing with the passions was the path to God.

The theologian’s encounter with Poimen ended with his disciple telling the irritated guest: “The old man does not speak readily about Scripture, but when someone speaks with him about the passions of the soul, he gives an answer.” The guest thought for a while and went to him and said: “What should I do when the passions of the soul start overpowering me?” The old man gladly acknowledged him and said: “Now you’ve come the right way; open your mouth for these things, and I shall fill it with good.” But the other found this very useful and said, “Truly, this is the right way!” And with gratitude to God he returned to his country, because he had been found worthy to meet with such a saint. Once they were talking about the passions of the soul, their conversation became sincere. They touched one another’s hearts, and together they got into the subject of God, whom they suddenly felt in their midst, before their eyes, the goal of their path.

~Taken from Anselm Gruen, Heaven Begins Within You: Wisdom from the Desert Fathers