Ive recently finished another quarter at ATS and I have no classes until October so I hope to be writing more here between now and then. This quarter I took the senior seminar in spiritual formation. This class consisted of discussion, reading four modern spiritual classics, some reflective writing on those books, and a project. My project was to design and lead a mens retreat inspired by the spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. Five other guys from the Friday morning mens group and I spent a weekend at Salt Fork State Park and had some very good discussion, prayer, meditation and fellowship. I enjoyed it very much and the other guys seemed to like it too. I couldnt have asked for a better group. For about three years now, Ive had the great blessing of meeting with this group of men for study and prayer. Theyve been a tremendous encouragement and help to me.
I enjoyed the books we read for the seminar very much: The Spiritual Life (Evelyn Underhill), Jesus and the Disinherited (Howard Thurman), In the Name of Jesus (Henri Nouwen) and A Testament of Devotion (Thomas Kelly). They are all great books but, if I had to pick one, I think I appreciated Kellys book the most. At the beginning of a brief discussion about the inevitability of suffering in life and the necessity of being prepared for it, Kelly asked the reader to ponder this paradox in religious experience: Nothing matters; everything matters. … It is a key of entrance into suffering. He who knows only one-half of the paradox can never enter that door of mystery and survive (p. 40). Kelly goes on to write more on the subject of suffering, but never really tries to explain the meaning of the paradox.
Im not much of a mystic. My spiritual sense seems pretty dull most of the time. But as I thought about what this paradox might mean I remembered something that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said in The Gulag Archipelago about people who were arrested in the U.S.S.R and sent to forced labor camps. He noticed a difference among those who clung at any cost to the hope of release and a return to their former lives and those who, from the outset, knew that they were going to prison no matter how much they cooperated with the authorities. The former group told their captors anything they wanted to hear, whether it was true or not, implicating friends, neighbors and family in crimes against the state. They compromised their integrity and sold their souls in the hope that they would be released in return. When, more often then not, they were sent to prison instead they suffered a great deal, lost what was left of their humanity, often continuing their compromises by spying on fellow prisoners in exchange for more lenient treatment. Those in the latter group, who realized that cooperation would make no difference and that their fate was out of their hands, let go of any attachment to their former way of living. They entered a time of unavoidable suffering with the conviction that nothing matters as far as their old life is concerned. The power that such detachment gave them enabled them to hold on to the only thing that the authorities could not take away from them: their integrity. These people tended to be better survivors in the prison camps because they maintained their identity, their pride and humanity even in inhumane circumstances. Compared to the others who had nothing left, they had everything; everything that matters.
I think this sort of detachment must be a clue to the paradox mentioned by Kelly. Who we are is everything. What we have amounts to nothing eventually. If we are prone to compromise our character, who we are (or who we want to be) for the sake of what we have or what we want, we will have nothing left when we eventually lose all that we have. This, I think, is the essence of Jesus saying: For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? (Luke 9:24-25 ESV).