On one of the most satisfying nights at college, I did nothing but sit on a porch with two close friends. The three of us (Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish) followed our weekly routine of gathering over beer and cigars either to bash Hegel, scratch our heads over Heidegger, praise Meister Eckhart, or talk about some spiritual topic from our respective traditions. This particular night, one of us noted that the contrast between the noise from the packed football stadium down the street and our current conversation confirmed that we were the biggest dorks on campus. The Orthodox girl replied, “Nah, these are just the finer things.”
Six months later, in the middle of a 40-mile ultra-marathon, with the next aid station seven miles away and my water bottle drained, I wasn’t as comfortable as I’d been on the porch. A 90-degree day supersaturated by sun and South Carolina’s infamous humidity made the shade of the trees hardly helpful. Salt from evaporated sweat was stinging my eyes by the time I finally made it over to fill up my bottle with a mix of water and HEED (a revolting powder-based energy drink that contains everything a dehydrated body wants except flavor). After snagging some salt-covered baked-potato chunks and peanut-butter smeared orange slices, I finished the race and downed three sloppy joes, which to this day I consider the most disgusting sandwich man has ever invented. The thought of beer and cigars would have made me sick, and I certainly wasn’t in the mood for chatting about Heidegger’s Being and Time.
One doesn’t normally worry about getting the proper amounts of potassium, salt, carbohydrates, and the like. Yet deprived of these nutrients, the body seeks out what it truly needs, regardless of the taste. Once satisfied on a basic level, one can move on to more enjoyable goods.
A soul too needs to be fed with simple truths in order to enjoy the greater spiritual fruits. The necessities of the spiritual life give us a basis for enjoying God’s presence all the more. When our souls are depleted, either by neglect or overshooting our current ability, we may even have to take unpalatable remedies: a reminder that we aren’t the center of the universe, or that we need to be forgiving and loving to all we encounter, or just that God is ready to forgive us and we simply need to repent. We can’t expect to achieve greater heights if we feel like we’ve transcended the fundamental principles of living the faith. It’s no use being enraptured by St. Catherine’s Dialogues if we don’t experience the same love that fuels such writing.
A runner learns to listen to his body. He can’t tell himself he’s fine knowing a stress fracture is coming if he doesn’t slow down, stretch, or ice his muscles. And one who constantly listens to the Lord in prayer can’t lie to himself and say he constantly lives in perfect conformity to Truth. The runner can’t avoid rest, and the saint can’t avoid confession.
It isn’t wrong to seek the heights of the spiritual life, but sometimes God stops us and reminds us that he alone provides true joy and peace: not by our personal efforts and creativity, but by his grace. It may feel like a dry spot when these little acts of humility have to be practiced, but these moments paradoxically provide the greatest growth. What seems so basic actually lifts one higher. When our souls are exhausted, we should seek the basic nutrients of the faith, the simpler truths, in order to enjoy the deeper insights, the higher joys, the finer things.
Image: Stout and Cigars by Cara and Louie, beerpaintings.blogspot