A Forgotten Key to Spiritual Growth

A strange idea has been confronting me recently, from all sorts of unexpected places. It first happened when I read Thomas Dubay’s Fire Within: St Theresa of Avila, St John of the Cross, and the Gospel on Prayer. Father Dubay is a Carmelite priest and renowned spiritual director. He has an enormously helpful chapter in the book entitled ‘Conditions for Growth’. The book is worth buying simply for this chapter. He names some fairly obvious conditions for growing in prayer: purification (sinning less), solitude, sincere devotion, etc. But listen to how he unpacks an unexpected condition:

The principal virtue which must be practised by those who pray is humility. What I have come to understand is this is the whole groundwork of prayer… Nothing matters more than humility. St Theresa

Fr. Dubay:

Hence, the beginner at prayer will do far better to look to the question of pride in its manifold manifestations than to entertain grandiose ideas about jumping to advanced stages… Not any concept of humility, however, will do. Prayer is intertwined with reality… One of the acid tests for humility and thus also of prayer growth is obedience to human superiors. Proclaiming that one is “listening to the Spirit” rather than to the visible representatives Jesus in His Church can conveniently camouflage what is really a refusal to obey. It is surprising how otherwise intelligent people can convince themselves that they are listening to the Spirit when it is obvious to others that they are doing nothing other than baptizing their own personal insights and inclinations… This arrogance kills prayer at the root.

Theresa again:

There is no path which leads more quickly to the highest perfection than that of obedience.

Ah, I said. Roman Catholic. Authoritarian. “Authority” reminds me of some negative experiences I had at charismatic churches who use it as an excuse for power plays and lording over each other.

Well, the next book I picked up was Andy Stanley’s The Principle of the Path. I know, not serious spiritual literature. Although they are good people, usually don’t pay much attention to American megachurch pastors. But I was pleasantly surprised by the practical wisdom contained in this little gem. That is, until I came to chapter 6. It is on submission. Submission? Not a word I was expecting. Stanley writes the following:

Now I realise that submission is not your favourite word. It’s not mine either… Choosing the right path begins with submission, not information. Not even direction. Submission. Specifically, submission to the One who knows where each path leads, as well as where it doesn’t lead… It is tempting to think that information alone is enough. You have your own illustrations to prove that it is not. Generally speaking, information is not our problem. There’s plenty of that. Independence is our problem. And the solution to independence is the dreaded S word: submission. When you and I get ahead of God – by thinking we can do just fine without his direction or by relying solely on conventional wisdom – things don’t go so well. The problem, of course, is that sometimes it takes years, some of our best years, to discover that we have made a mistake.

Ok, I thought, he’s a pastor. He needs people to listen to him, so preaching about submission would be a good way to get the flock to do what he wants. But then I read Donald Miller, specifically To Own a Dragon: Thoughts on Growing Up without a Father. Although I am usually suspicious of the soft-n-fluffy emergent types, I’ll read anything Miller writes. Recently, he came under heavy criticism in American Evangelical circles for admitting that he doesn’t like going to church. So he’s not exactly Roman Catholic, and he’s not the pastor-type either. I really enjoyed the book until I read the title of chapter 6. Authority: The Thing About Choppy Air. He tells of how he grew up to resent authority.

As I grew older, the condition got worse. I organized my life so I didn’t have to submit to anybody, and even found myself getting angry with any man who wanted to impose rules. And when you grow up in a church, there are a million men who want to impose rules. Throw a rock and you hit a guy looking down his nose at someone who isn’t “acting right”

He then tells of how he would tune in on the pilot’s radio frequency on his armrest radio on the flight from Chicago to Portland:

It turns out most of the transmissions are about weather and whether or not the plane is heading for choppy air. The pilot would radio to a plane that was en route an hour or so ahead of us and get a report on what kind of turbulence they were experiencing; then, he would turn and radio the plane that had just taken off in Chicago to explain what sort of air we were flying through at that moment… It occurred to me… how much this was like life. I know it sounds simple, but at the time, it came as a revelation. I could see it clearly, the fact that in life there are people being born, just as others are passing away. And all the way through, the guys who are twenty years ahead are teaching the guys twenty years behind what kind of weather they will be encountering at what stage of life they happen to be living in. And I couldn’t help but wonder if, perhaps, my distrust of authority was costing me something.

I started thinking about the wisdom that is handed down when we have authority figures in our lives. We learn a trade by submitting to authority, we learn a work ethic by submitting to authority, we gain an academic life by submitting to authority… A guy like me, then, who has a resistance to authority, is begging to be useless…

When I made the connection between pilots taking off and landing, passing back information, and the span of life, an older man passing wisdom to a younger man, I wondered who I was receiving wisdom from. I couldn’t think of one person. Not one. I immediately assumed this was because men in authority didn’t like me. But I was getting too old to still believe that… I realized, however, there is not a secret meeting of men who weren’t teaching me the confidential handshake. Men are just men, and half of them are scared and wondering whether they are doing life right anyway…

I’ve learned to avoid authority figures who aren’t submitting to anybody themselves. What good is the wisdom of a man who has nobody speaking into his life? And I’ve found that if you sit down with a man you trust and respect and explain to him you never learned about some area of your life, girls or money, cars or computers, you would be amazed at how honoured they are to help. They practically pour out their lives, for heaven’s sake.

The thing about obedience is not just that we get useful information from others to make good decisions. It’s more than that. Not doing what you want can be a liberating experience. This is one of the best kept secrets of the monastic traditions. First you realise it is survivable. Some people don’t think it is. And then you realise that that little bit that died inside of you, that thing you held on to for your happiness, has instead made room for something magnificent:

God.

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