Sunday, August 02, 2015

Overcoming the Disordering Power of Misplaced Desire

Monroe County

Richard Foster's Longing for God: Seven Paths of Christian Devotion (along with Gayle Beebe) contains twenty-six short chapters on important figures in the history of Christian spirituality. Want some spiritual depth outside of the Scriptures? Begin here.

Recently I read the chapter on Augustine (354-450). Back in the 1970s I read Augustine's Confessions. Foster says if we listen to Augustine we come to know, among other things, "the disordering power of misplaced desire." (26) Augustine understood the depth of our human condition. He wrote of our estrangement from God due to our succumbing to three temptations: "the love of power, the pervasiveness of lust and our inability to find contentment." (27) These three temptations keep our hearts in a turbulent mess. We are reminded it was Augustine who wrote that, because God made us for himself, our hearts are restless until they rest in him. Centuries later Nouwen prayed, Augustine-like, asking God if the restless seas in his heart would ever settle down.

Augustine's answer was this: "When we are unable to rise above our own self-love, we manufacture all kinds of diversions in an attempt to find a happiness that endures. But eventually we realize that nothing in this life provides the happiness and joy that come from God alone.... Our only hope for enduring happiness is to discover the enduring restlessness of our spirit." (29)

Did Augustine know self-love? Yes. This is oneof his "confessions." "Desperately longing for genuine love, Augustine wrote, "I polluted... the stream of friendship with the foulness of lust, and clouded its purity with the dark hell of illicit desire." That kind of Davidic Psalm 51 heart forms the foundation of genuine repentance that leads to real, lasting change. Without this, nothing changes. David provides the earlier model; Augustine arrives in the fourth century and echoes it. This kind of thing is needed big-time today. Largely, it has been lost.

I love Augustine's spiritual valuing of the human intellect. Reason has been given us by God. Made in God's image, we are rational beings. this is not to be devalued. We need not choose between the false dichotomy of experience vs. reason, as if reasoning is not also experiential, as if the heart does not also have its rationale. "Augustine teaches that we must move beyond a simple experience of God to a structured understanding of him.... Most teaching today seeks to recover a vitality in the Christian life by emphasizing the love of God without equally stressing the need for knowledge of God." (29) This lack of knowledge of God eventually leads to a lack of love for God.

Foster and Beebe do an excellent job capturing the heart of these spiritual masters, many of whom were quite ordinary people who found extraordinary life and experience as they dwelt deep in the presence of God.