Among the desert fathers one finds this story: “Abbot Lot went to see Abbot Joseph and said: `Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of bad thoughts: now what more should I do?’ The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like lamps of fire. He said: `Why not become all flame?'”
Indeed, why not? There probably isn’t a better challenge that might be addressed to any of us. Abbot Lot describes us pretty well, we “keep our little rule”. We are what classical spiritual writers describe as “proficient” in the spiritual life, beyond initial conversion, staunch and solid in grace. We’re essentially good, prayerful, honest, decent, dutiful, generous, moral, and sincere persons.
But the operative word here is “essentially”. We are these things essentially, though not radically. Like Abbot Lot, we’re good, generous, prayerful, and honest “according as we are able”, though that isn’t quite true either. Deep down we know that we’re capable of more, that God is inviting us to more. but that we are fixated at a certain level of mediocrity. Simply put, there are still too many compensations, addictions, and accommodations to comfort in our lives. As well, there is the fear of moving beyond what disrupts our lives. We live faith, hope, and charity, to a point, and there was a time when that point was enough, was what God was asking of us. Now, however, we sense a deeper call and know that we are being asked to let go of many of the things, both good and bad, to which we are clinging for comfort and stability.
We reach a point in the spiritual life, and it is precisely at that point where we have attained a certain proficiency in goodness, generosity, and fidelity, where God invites us to make a more radical “leap of faith”, beyond our comfort and stability. Like everything else that comes from God, this is precisely an invitation, a beckoning, not a threat. What concretely does this mean?
Let me offer a simple, rather graphic, example: Several years ago, while preaching a priests’ retreat, I was approached by a group of young priests who asked me to join their faith-support group for an evening of prayer and sharing. During the course of the evening, they shared with me the origin and intent of their group. The priest who founded the group put it this way: “We were good priests before we formed this group. Essentially we did the right things, were generous ministers, lived in an basic sincerity and honesty, and were respected. But we compensated too much too. We drank too much, ate too much, fantasized about sex too much, complained too much, felt too-sorry for ourselves, and had too many compensations – from masturbation to drinking too much expensive scotch. One day, I simply said, `Enough! If I’m going to be a priest, why not be a more radical one!’ But I knew that I couldn’t do it alone. So I talked to two priest friends and that’s how our group started. We meet at least once a week, sometimes twice. That’s a lot of time, but it’s worth it. It’s been four years since we started and we have more sobriety now in everything. Life is more demanding, but also more fulfilling. I’m happy in a way I’ve never been before.”
He, and his group, had moved beyond their “little rule”, taken the leap of faith, become pure flame. This is precisely what Jesus asks of the rich young man in the gospels, the one who turns him down and “goes away sad.” Notice how the gospels describe this young man, precisely as a person who is proficient in the spiritual life – essentially very good, decent, honest, generous, faithful, but also as experiencing a deeper call, a clear invitation, a dissatisfaction with the level of his own generosity: “What still is lacking for me?” That’s also our question.
The poet, Goethe, in a poem entitled, THE HOLY LONGING, describes how, at a certain point in the spiritual journey, one is handed the invitation to become “insane for the light”. What is this insanity?
Jesus names it as the invitation to give up everything and follow him more radically, Kierkegaard calls it “the leap of faith”, John of the Cross sees it as the willingness to enter the “dark night of the spirit”, and the Desert Fathers call it “leaving our little rule so as to become pure flame!”
Whatever the name, the idea is this: Eventually we reach a point in the spiritual life where, precisely because we are proficient at being good and decent, we are invited, like the rich young man in the gospels, to give up our most-cherished comforts and securities and plunge into the unknown in a radically new way.