Spirituality from Below (Part II)
The following remark has been attributed to Anthony: “If you see that a young man is striving for heaven with his own will, grasp his feet and drag him down; for it will do him no good.”
It makes no sense for young people to meditate too early on, to take the path to mysticism too soon. First they have to come to terms with their own reality. They have to take a good look at their passions and struggle with them. Only then can they head off on the inner path; only then can they attach their hearts completely to God. Today there are many people who have become fascinated too soon with spiritual paths. They think they can take these paths while skipping the difficult path of self-knowledge, the encounter with their own shadow side.
The monks warn us about spirituality that seeks to take heaven by storm: it can easily share the fate of Icarus, who made waxen wings and then plummeted when he came too close to the sun: they didn’t support him. Some call the path taken by such high-flyers “spiritual bypassing.” There’s a serious risk of our using meditation to avoid the problems that we actually have to solve, such as repressed sexuality, hidden aggression, and anxiety. So when young people voice overly pious thoughts, I always try to have them look at the other side of things: concrete everyday life, work, school, study. I don’t reject or ridicule pious thoughts and paths; that’s not for me to do. And there’s much sincere longing in their piety. But it’s important that their piety keep its feet on the ground, that it penetrates their everyday life and work.
St. Benedict describes this spirituality from below in the chapter of his Rule on humilitas. He takes Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28) as an image for our way to God. The paradox of our spiritual path consists in the fact that we ascend to God by descending into our own reality. That is how Benedict understands Jesus’ saying, “He who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11, 18:14).
By descending into our earth-boundedness (humility is derived from humus, or soil) we come into contact with heaven, with God. When we find the courage to climb down into our own passions, they lead us up to God. This sort of humility was prized by the monastic fathers because it is the lower path to God, the path that leads through one’s own reality to the true God. The heaven stormers encounter only their own images of God, their own projections.
Isaac of Nineveh likewise used the image of Jacob’s ladder as an image for the ascent to God through descent: “Strive to enter the treasure chamber that is within you; that way you will see the heavenly treasure. For the former and the latter are one and the same. By entering in you will see both. The ladder to the kingdom of heaven is hidden in your soul. Dive away from sin into yourself, and then you will find steps on which you can climb up.”
We have to plunge through sin into our deepest foundation. Then we’ll be able to climb up to God from all the way down. The ascent to God corresponds to a primordial longing of humanity. Plato’s philosophy revolves precisely around this human ascent to God in the spirit. The church fathers see in Jesus Christ, who first descended into hell before ascending into heaven (see Eph. 4:9), another model for our ascent to God. Like Jesus we first have to go down into our humanity before going up to God together with him.
Only the humble, who are prepared to accept their humus, their earth-bound condition, their humanity, their shadow, will experience the real God. Thus we keep hearing the monks praise humility. Humility is the path to God, and it is the clearest sign that we have gotten in line with God. Mother Theodora says: “Neither asceticism nor vigils, nor any laborious effort leads to salvation, only sincere humility. . . . Look how humility conquers the demons!” And the devil who tangles with Makarios has to confess: “You are superior to me in one thing only.” “And what is that?” Makarios asked. He answered: “Your humility. That is why I can’t make any headway against you.” And Poimen says: “Humans need humility and the fear of God, like the breath that issues from their nostrils.”
~Anselm Gruen, Heaven Begins Within You: Wisdom from the Desert Fathers