Navigating Through Distorted Spirituality
Imaginative Visions: Part Seven
There are many quality churches and effective spiritual leaders. But some churches distort spiritual work. Some appeal to popular taste to create cash flow or feed egos. Some give the devil space to do his work. A number of churches become downright comical or absurd (and this can actually increase attendance). We also endure self-absorbed spiritual leaders. We see spiritual leaders lacking wholeness, but constantly “help” others in order to avoid addressing their own spiritual condition or problems. We observe leaders who have mastered spiritual language, but with little substance in their own life. And we discover some spiritual leaders are ignorant and confused. They possess an inconsistent set of values rivaling Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice.
“Mr. Collins was not a sensible man, and the deficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education or society; the greatest part of his life having been spent under the guidance of an illiterate and miserly father; and though he belonged to one of the universities, he had merely kept the necessary terms, without forming at it any useful acquaintance. The subjection in which his father had brought him up had given him originally great humility of manner; but it was now a good deal counteracted by the self-conceit of a weak head, living in retirement, and the consequential feelings of early and unexpected prosperity. . . . mingling with a very good opinion of himself, of his authority as a clergyman, and his right as a rector, made him altogether a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility.” (Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen. Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.)
How do we navigate through the absurd, the incompetent, the evil, the outrageous, the lying, the manipulation, and the demonic in spiritual circles? Some situations become so toxic we have to leave those institutions. And, of course, we should oppose and report all forms of abuse and illegal behavior. But separation isn’t the answer to every problem. We don’t typically find ourselves in either/or situations. While most quality institutions and spiritual guides support our search for spiritual health and godliness, evil may still be at work. Manipulation occurs. The incompetent may control decisions. And the self-righteous with their “clean and well-lit prison of one idea”* shame the rest of the community with their “holiness”. Sometimes the demonic seems godly because “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” And the parable “‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’” The parable warns us against impulsivity “for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.”
Teresa presents a hypothetical situation to help us navigate distorted spirituality: What if the devil were to show us a “living image of the Lord”?
Her principle is simple. You reverence the true “image of God” regardless of the source. Teresa says, “As a very learned man said, the devil is a great painter and that if the devil were to show him a living image of the Lord, he wouldn’t be grieved but allow the image to awaken his devotion, and that he would thereby wage war on the devil with that evil one’s own wickedness. Even though a painter may be a very poor one, a person shouldn’t on that account fail to reverence the image he makes if it is a painting of our every Good.”
We begin by honoring God. To reverence the true image of God will always wage war on evil regardless of the source of that image. We may have little direct control over leaders, institutions, or the work of the devil. But we can engage God and have a powerful influence.
Some vocal Christians reject everything not meeting their holiness standards (or opinions). They expect only pure vessels and perfect institutions. Teresa says, “That learned man was strongly opposed to the advice some gave about making the fig (an irreverent gesture) when seeing a vision, for he used to say that wherever we see a painting of our King we must reverence it. And I see that he is right, because even here below, a similar action would be regretted: If a person knew that before a portrait of himself another whom he loved manifested such contempt, he would be unhappy about the act. Well, how much greater reason is there always to have respect for any crucifix or portrait we see of our Emperor? Although I have written of this elsewhere, I am glad to write of it here, for I saw that a person went about in distress when ordered to use this remedy. I don’t know who invented a thing that could so torment a person who wasn’t able to do anything else than obey, if the confessor gave her this counsel, because she thought she would go astray if she didn’t obey. My counsel is that even though a confessor gives you such advice, you should humbly tell him this reason and not accept his counsel. The good reasons given me by that learned man I found very acceptable.
Seeking absolute clarity in the spiritual life and fearfully separating from everything else is at best immature, but more than likely undermining Kingdom of God. We fear the devil and then we do the devil’s work.
All scripture references are from the New Revised Standard Version. NRSV Harper Bibles (2011-11-22). NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 59043-59045). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
For this post I used a translation of The Interior Castle by Kieran Kavanaugh O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez O.C.D., ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies: Washington D.C. Kindle Edition.