Saturday, October 16, 2010
A Balancing Act
Hanging Rock in Sequoia National Park is perched on the edge of a several-thousand-foot slide into the valley below. Though I had absolutely no desire to be photographed sitting atop this rocket-ship to hell, I'm sure that others, younger and more dare-devilish than I, have done it plenty of times (I can easily see my sister Gretchen, for example, poised one-legged with both arms over her head on the downward end of this granite missile). My reticence was automatic; other people's impulsiveness is equally so. Most of us, it seems, approach our lives in ways so habitual that others can readily predict what we will do.
Which is probably fine (our predictable responses characterize us and make us "knowable," after all), except when it comes to the spiritual life. For it seems to me that when we sign up to follow Christ, we are signing away the comforting privilege of doing what comes naturally. We are agreeing to leave behind our knee-jerk responses to what feels safe and secure, easy and pleasurable, or even thrilling and stimulating in order to be led into new and disturbing territory wherein we no longer call the shots.
Does this mean we must give up who we are? Become mindless automatons? Many people resist Christianity because they are afraid of losing their own unique selves, their power to initiate action in their own way, all for the doubtful privilege of becoming passive followers.
But this is our modern sensibility talking. The desert fathers understood the spiritual life far differently; they viewed it as a delicate balancing act between nature and grace under truly precarious circumstances. God was with them, but so was the devil; they could not afford to trust in their own habitual responses, as familiar and natural as these might feel, but must instead hold themselves poised in prayer, arms raised high in supplication: absolutely vulnerable, absolutely secure.