Tuning of the Heart
This summer Cassidy and I frequently engaged in spirited discussions. One of the many topics we debated was the difference between secular pursuits and spiritual disciplines. We started with rather different viewpoints.
Last Spring Cassidy had studied the life and works of St. Francis of Assisi, who pursued a life of voluntary poverty. Desiring to find satisfaction in God alone, St. Francis gave up many earthly pleasures. One of the ways Francis did this was by wearing a scratchy shirt that was worse than the poorest man’s tunic. He believed devotion to God was accomplished through prayer, meditation, solitude, and the study of the Scriptures.
I, on the other hand, had just taken a class entitled Devotional Poets, which greatly influenced my thinking. We studied Christian poets such as John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins. In their poetry they reveled in the delightful things God had created. Instead of denying themselves pleasure, they dove in head first, feeling God’s good favor as they enjoyed his creation. To them weeding a garden could be considered a spiritual discipline just as much as prayer.
These two viewpoints are hard for me to reconcile. Growing up, the version of Christianity often presented to me was an odd blend of both. To foster a relationship with God, I was encouraged to pray and read my Bible. However I couldn’t be reading and praying the whole day, so for the majority of your day you did whatever, so long as you weren’t breaking the rules.
I came into this summer hoping to turn that idea on its head, by viewing every good pursuit as spiritually edifying. For some reason I thought this would be rather easy.
However, I soon learned that working and playing soon turns into selfishness if the heart is not properly situated. I believe there is a certain level of rightness anytime we enjoy God’s creation, whether we recognize the creator or not. Thus an unbeliever is also giving glory to God if they play football excellently, even if they don’t realize it. Nevertheless, we are missing God’s highest purpose for mankind when we try to separate the experience from the Creator.
Sometimes I found myself doing this as I explored the beauty of Glen Canyon. A sunset remained just that, a sunset, and its only purpose became in my selfish mind to make me feel its beauty. This not only took God completely out of the picture, but also the enjoyment as well. This is something both Christians and non-Christians recognize: a self-centered lifestyle does not deliver on its promises.
A month ago I read book called The Blue Bear by Lynn Schooler. This haunting and emotional book follows the journey of the author, who leads the lonely life of a wilderness guide in the Alaskan wilderness. Schooler experiences the majesty of hump-backed whales feeding mere feet away from his boat, grizzlies snatching salmon out of glacier-fed waters, and twenty foot seas that nearly send him to the bottom of the ocean.
However, at the end of the book, when nature takes away the most precious people in his life, he does not take solace in all the things he has experienced, but rather in the grand circle of life which he views as bigger and more important than any of his experiences or pleasures. The larger framework is the only thing keeping him from despair. This is a naturalist worldview, but it does highlight the fact that man can only find satisfaction outside of himself. It has to come from something bigger, something more important than the individual.
This is what Cassidy, and his ascetic arguments, taught me this summer. Prayer, silence, solitude, and mediation help focus the mind on the things of God. A closer look at the life of Gerard Manley Hopkins—a poet who reveled in the pleasures of the earth—reveals that he spent a great amount of time on the spiritual disciplines. Yet he also realized that God was also present in nature.
God has given us many things to enjoy, but our sinful hearts make idols of them so easily. Let us not fall either trap of shunning the world and pleasure, or selfishly pursuing nature.
A properly tuned heart harmonizes with the melody of Creation.
THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; 5
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; 10
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
-Gerard Manley Hopkins