“I was born into this world with a tortured sensitivity. For long I have puzzled over the causes of my psychological anguish.” Thus writes Ruth Burrows, the British Carmelite, in the opening lines of her autobiography, “Before the Living God.” Reading her autobiography and her spiritual writings has been, for me, a very consoling experience. Here is a lady of tortured sensitivity, of near pathological complexity, a person who has struggled through years of anguish to arrive eventually at the single-mindedness that constitutes Christian sanctity. Reading her story gave me hope. If a person of her temperament can achieve single-mindedness, there is hope for the rest of us. Her story also sparked other reflections:
Soren Kierkegaard once wrote that to be a saint is “to will one thing.” He is correct, but that makes sanctity a difficult task for those of us who, by nature and temperament, are complex and sensitive. Christian sanctity lies in single-mindedness. Unfortunately, that tends to be identified with non-complexity. Books on spirituality, past and present, tend to present an ideal which is simplistic and alienating for many people. The impression is given that to be spiritual is to be uncomplex, not restless, not torn by deep conflicts, contradictions, yearnings, doubts and erotic lures so that faith, commitment and single-mindedness become a painful heroism. We see this clearly, for instance, in most books on the lives of the saints.
Many times when I have finished reading or hearing about the life of a saint, or someone else that is being held up to me as a model to imitate, I find myself asking: Didn’t this person have any struggles? Were they never torn by complexity and doubt? Did they never have romantic heartaches and earthly pulls which made their choices for God and service pained and tearful? Did they never succumb to self-pity and believe Kazantzakis’ words that “virtue sits completely alone on top of a desolate ledge. Through her mind pass all the forbidden pleasures which she has never tasted – and she weeps”? (N. Kazantzakis, St. Francis, Page 139)
French phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, once explained that he was an atheist because ambiguity is the fundamental phenomenological fact within existence and belief in God denies one this experience. That is a sophisticated way of saying: “Life is too complex to fit into the simplistic schemae of spirituality.” Most of us have never read Merleau-Ponty, but most of us have felt the resistance he talks about. Like his, our hearts, too, resist an ideal that seems too simplistic to incorporate our full experience. Spirituality says it is simple while everything inside of us screams that it is complex.
We need saints for the complex, saints who start their stories like Ruth Burrows and then chronicle how a complex, tortured and divided heart can eventually come to “will one thing.” Looking into the spectrum of contemporary Christian spirituality, I see examples of writers who are trying to do this: Ruth Burrows, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Jim Wallis, among others. None of these present themselves as an ideal to emulate, but their writings give hope to those of us who are complex and struggling because at the heart of their message is their own struggle to bring a divided heart to a single-mindedness in Christ. In their words, I find consolation and new hope. Thus, for example, Burrows writes:
“I was left, it seems, struggling with the misery of my temperament and yet, thanks in a great part to a loving home, gradually choosing to do right. Inevitably, I would seek to escape from the drab misery of my life as I experienced it by living in a world of fantasy, and yet I was made to realize the falsity of this activity and renounce it. No one instructed me in this. No one understood me enough to counsel me…
“I have spoken of the strong romantic elements in my nature. It is true that this can lead to unreality but it can likewise lead to truth. In my case, it was a profound dissatisfaction with life. I was looking beyond and above, waiting for the secret door to open, waiting for the beloved to appear and transform my life. I tended to approach life with intense expectancy, wanting to extract from it the last ounce of sweetness, only to be bitterly disappointed, finding it insipid if not downright sour…
“I have known doubt, tearing anxiety to a frightful degree. For nearly 30 years, I have groped in darkness.” (Before the Living God, Page 3 and 31)
Nouwen writes of his struggles:
“Indeed, how divided my heart has been and still is! I want to love God, but also to make a career. I want to be a good Christian, but also to have my successes as a teacher, preacher or speaker. I want to be a saint, but also enjoy the sensations of the sinner. I want to be close to Christ but also popular and liked by many people. No wonder that living becomes a tiring enterprise.” (The Gensee Diary, Page 59)
“I crave personal attention and affection. The life in a parish suddenly strikes me as cool, mechanical and routine. I desire friendship, a moment of personal attention, a little interest in my individual experiences…The fact that my feelings are so general and touch practically everything I see, hear and do, shows I am dealing with a genuine depression…”(H. Nouwen, I Gracious!, Page 131)
For those of us with a tortured complexity, words like these bring comfort and challenge, for they show both the ideal of Christian spirituality – to will one thing – and the struggles of the complex heart in trying to do that.