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The Spiritual Life: Some Questions and Difficulties

    There are certain questions and difficulties which turn up again and again in relation to the spiritual life. Of these, one of the most fundamental concerns the Nature of God, and the way in which men should think of Him; and in particular, whether Christians can properly use the word Reality and other terms of an impersonal and philosophic sort as synonyms for God. I think that they can and should do so. In religion, where familiar words so easily lose their full meaning for us, it is often valuable to use other words, though they cannot indeed express the full truth, emphasise other aspects of our great spiritual inheritance. St. Augustine surely answers this question when he says, �God is the only Reality, and we are only real in so far as we are in His order and He in us.� St. Augustine was a great Christian. Nothing could exceed the fervour of his personal communion with God. Yet it is the impersonal revelation of a Power and Beauty �never new, yet never old,� which evokes his greatest outbursts of adoring joy. The truth is we must use both personal and impersonal language if our fragmentary knowledge of the richness of God�s Being is to be expressed; and a reminder of this fact is often a help to those for whom the personal language of religion has become conventional and unreal.

    This leads to the next question of importance, which also involves our view of the Nature of God. When we consider the evil, injustice, and misery existing in the world, how can we claim that the ultimate Reality at the heart of the universe is a Spirit of peace, harmony, and infinite love? What evidence can we bring to Support such a belief? and how can we adore a God whose creation is marred by cruelty, suffering and sin?

    This is, of course, the problem of evil; the crucial problem for all realistic religion. It is no use to dodge this issue, and still less use to pretend that the Church has a solution of the problem up her sleeve. I would rather say with Baron von H�gel. that Christian spirituality does not explain evil and suffering, which remain a mystery beyond the reach of the human mind, but does show us how to deal with them. It insists that something has gone wrong, and badly wrong, with the world. That world as we know it does not look like the work of the loving Father whom the Gospels call us to worship; but rather, like the work of selfish and undisciplined children who have been given wonderful material and a measure of freedom, and not used that freedom well. Yet we see in this muddled world a constant struggle for Truth, Goodness, Perfection; and all those who give themselves to that struggle�the struggle for the redemption of the world from greed, cruelty, injustice, selfish desire and their results�find themselves supported and reinforced by a spiritual power which enhances life, strengthens will, and purifies character. And they come to recognise more and more in that power the action of God. These facts are as real as the other facts, which distress and puzzle us; the apparent cruelty, injustice and futility of life. We have to account somehow for the existence of gentleness, purity, self-sacrifice, holiness, love; and how can we account for them, unless they are attributes of Reality?

    Christianity shows us in the most august of all examples the violence of the clash between evil and the Holiness of God. It insists that the redemption of the world, defeating the evil that has infected it by the health-giving power of love�bringing in the Kingdom of God�is a spiritual task, in which we are all required to play a part. Once we realise this, we can accept�even though we cannot understand�the paradox that the world as we know it contains much that is evil; and yet, that its Creator is the one supreme Source and Object of the love that will triumph in the end.

    Such a view of our vocation as this brings with it another fundamental question. How are we to know, or find out, what the Will of God is? I do not think that any general answer can be given to this. In clear moral and political issues, we must surely judge and act by the great truths and demands of Christianity; and if we have the courage to do this, then, as we act, more and more we shall perceive the direction of the Will. That choice, cause, or action, which is least tainted by self-interest, which makes for the increase of happiness�health�beauty�peace�cleanses and harmonises life, must always be in accordance with the Will of the Spirit which is drawing life towards perfection. The difficulty comes when there is a conflict of loyalties, or a choice between two apparent gods. At such points many people feel unaware of any guidance, unable to discern or understand the signals of God; not because the signals are not given, but because the mind is too troubled, clouded and hurried to receive them. �He who is in a hurry,� said St. Vincent de Paul, �delays the things of God.� But when those who are at least attempting to live the life of the Spirit, and have consequently become more or less sensitive to its movements, are confronted by perplexing choices, and seem to themselves to have no clear light, they will often become aware, if they will wait in quietness, of a subtle yet insistent pressure in favour of the path which they should take. The early Friends were accustomed to trust implicitly in indications of this kind, and were usually justified. Where there is no such pressure, then our conduct should be decided by charity and common sense; qualities which are given to us by God in order that they may be used.

    Next, we are obliged to face the question as to how the demand of modern psychology for complete self-expression, as the condition of a full and healthy personal life, can be reconciled with the discipline, choice and sacrifice which are essential to a spiritual life; and with this the allegation made by many psychologists that the special experiences of such a spiritual life may be dismissed as disguised wish-fulfilments. In the first place, the complete expression of everything of which we are capable�the whole psychological zoo living within us, as well as the embryonic beginnings of artist, statesman or saint�means chaos, not character. We must select in order to achieve; can only develop some faculties at the expense of others. This is just as true for the man of action or of science as it is for the man of religion. But where this discipline is consciously accepted for a purpose greater than ourselves, it will result in a far greater strength and harmony, a far more real personality, than the policy of so-called self-expression. As to the attempt to discredit the spiritual life as a form of wish-fulfilment, this has to meet the plain fact that the real life of the Spirit has little to do with emotional enjoyments, even of the loftiest kind. Indeed, it offers few attractions to the natural man; nor does it set out to satisfy his personal desires. The career to which it calls him is one that he would seldom have chosen for himself. It proceeds by way of much discipline and renunciation, often of many sufferings, to a total abandonment to God�s purpose which leaves no opening even for the most subtle expressions of self-love.

    I come now to the many people who, greatly desiring the life of communion with God, find no opportunity for attention to Him in an existence which often lacks privacy, and is conditioned by ceaseless household duties, exacting professional responsibilities or long hours of work. The great spiritual teachers, who are not nearly so aloof from normal life as those who do not read them suppose, have often dealt with this situation; which is not new, though it seems to press with peculiar weight upon ourselves. They all make the same answer: that what is asked of us is not necessarily a great deal of time devoted to what we regard as spiritual things, but the constant offering of our wills to God, so that the Practical duties which fill most of our days can become Part of His order and be given spiritual worth. So P�re Grou, whose writings are among the best and most Practical guides to the spiritual life that we possess, says, �We are always praying, when we are doing our duty and turning it into work for God.� He adds that among the things which we should regard as spiritual in this sense are our household or professional work, the social duties of our station, friendly visits, kind actions and small courtesies, and also necessary recreation of body and of mind; so long as we link all these by intention with God and the great movement of His Will.

    So those who wonder where they are to begin, might begin here; by trying to give spiritual quality to every detail of their everyday lives, whether those lives are filled with a constant succession of home duties, or form part of the great systems of organised industry or public service, or are devoted to intellectual or artistic ends. The same lesson is taught by George Herbert�s poem:�

    �Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
    Makes that and the action fine���
    and, in a way that brings it home very vividly to modern minds, by a beautiful letter of Baron von H�gel, which is printed on page fifty-eight of his �Letters to a Niece.� This describes how even such a practical activity as packing can be given eternal worth. I do not suggest that this readjustment, this new attitude, can be achieved merely by wishing for it. Nothing which is worth having is as easy as that. It means discipline of thought and of feeling, a more careful use of such leisure as we have; and filling our minds with ideas that point the right way, instead of suggestions which distract us from God and spiritual things. It must also mean some time, even though this may be a very short time, given, and given definitely, to communion with Him; and perseverance in this practice, even though at first we seem to get nothing from it. There are few lives in which there is no pause through the day. We must use even the few minutes that we have in this way, and let the spirit of these few minutes spread through the busy hours. This will also involve expelling from our life those thoughts and acts which are inconsistent with these times of communion. For unless we are prepared to make this the centre of our life, setting the standard to which all the rest must conform, we need not hope for results. We cannot begin the day by a real act of communion with the Author of peace and Lover of concord, and then go on to read a bloodthirsty newspaper at breakfast.

    It is this constant correlation between inward and outward that really matters; and this has always been the difficulty for human beings, because there are two natures in us, pulling different ways, and their reconciliation is a long and arduous task. Many people seem to think that the spiritual life necessarily requires a definite and exacting plan of study. It does not. But it does require a definite plan of life; and courage in sticking to the plan, not merely for days or weeks, but for years. New mental and emotional habits must be formed, all our interests re-arranged in new proportion round a new centre. This is something which cannot be hurried; but, unless we take it seriously, can be infinitely delayed. Many people suggest by their behaviour that God is of far less importance than their bath, morning paper, or early cup of tea. The life of co-operation with Him must begin with a full and practical acceptance of the truth that God alone matters; and that He, the Perfect, always desires perfection. Then it will inevitably press us to begin working for perfection; first in our own characters and actions, next in our homes, surroundings, profession and country. We must be prepared for the fact that even on small and personal levels this will cost a good deal; frequently thwarting our own inclinations and demanding real sacrifice.

    Here the further question of the relation of spiritual life to public life and politics comes in. It must mean, for all who take it seriously, judging public issues from the angle of eternity, never from that of national self-interest or expediency; backing our conviction, as against party or prejudice, rejecting compromise, and voting only for those who adopt this disinterested point of view. Did we act thus, slowly but surely a body of opinion�a spiritual party, if you like�might be formed; and in the long run make its influence felt in the State. But such a programme demands much faith, hope and charity; and courage too.

    Evelyn Underhill