My wife, Laurel, and I recently celebrated our 56th (I think it was) anniversary. Our children and grandchildren, thankfully, made it possible for us to do it. The event gave me occasion to revisit, in my own mind, a conversation that Laurel and I have had over the years about our own spiritualities. I’ve thought a lot about conjugal spirituality and even written about it (“Images of an Ordinary Conjugal Spirituality,” Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality [fall 2020], 20:2, 231-249). But I haven’t yet told the whole truth, at least in public. This is what I propose to do here, with the following idiosyncratic spiritual reflections, as an encouragement for you to revisit the dynamics of your own spirituality and to see what you can see, afresh.
Somewhere in the midst of our long, beautiful, and, on occasion, stressful married life, Laurel and I started to compare notes about our own spiritual lives. I don’t recall which one of us came up with the image, but this, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, is it. Spiritually, she’s more like an avocado and I’m more like an onion (!).
She has a solid spiritual center, pretty much summed up by the words so frequently attributed to John Wesley that she learned in Sunday School: “Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, to all the souls you can, in every place you can, at all the times you can, with all the zeal you can, as long as ever you can.” Constantly embracing the good – that’s the heart of the matter, for her.
I perceive myself as having a number of inner spiritual layers, onion-like, but with nothing at the core of my being. Do I think that my innermost self is nothingness? Yes. That thought may sound strange, but I’m inspired by it, as I often recall the traditional Christian teaching that God creates the world out of nothing (ex nihilo). Nothingness, in that sense, is this world’s Divine Milieu. Hence I welcome the confluence of inwardness and nothingness.
While I certainly affirm those words about doing good, then, I experience my inmost self as fragmented and unstable and centerless, rather than as integrated and solid to the core. I’m very much attuned to Luther’s words on his deathbed: “We are all beggars.” I also resonate with Luther, in a different key: when asked what he would do if the world were coming to an end, he replied, memorably, “I would plant an apple tree.” Miserable sinner that I am, I love to plant trees, in spite of it all.
A vignette. Early in our marriage, Laurel found herself swept up by presidential campaign of George McGovern. She was driven inwardly to embrace that political good – McGovern’s dedication to social justice. So she went door to door in Precinct G in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and singlehandedly – so it seemed to me at the time – delivered that precinct for the candidate who was then to lose so resoundingly across the country. While I cheered for her every step of the way as she did her thing, I found myself in a different place.
In those days, I was intensely engaged at my desk in research about the theology of nature and about how, in particular, a whole class of mostly well-off Americans had come so to idolize nature, especially the wilderness, that they had forgotten about the needs of the poor in our cities. Laurel was the solid activist, then, and I was more or less the solitary page-turner, often not really knowing what I was doing.
For sure, I don’t want to push the avocado and onion analogy too far. Laurel and I have had many days, beginning already back then, when each one of us has felt like the other, in this respect. Thus, from the start, she has been an engaged, but solitary reader of mystery novels, while, back then, I was becoming something of a Sixties activist, a habit that I have tried to cultivate ever since. For us, it never has been just avocado or onion, doing good or losing oneself in thought. But I think that the analogy is revealing and, I hope, instructive as a way of thinking about what the spiritual life can be for followers of Jesus.
That’s the point, actually. I have come to realize over the years – sometimes it has taken me a while to discover the obvious – that the challenge of following Jesus is what the spiritual life for people like Laurel and me is most fundamentally about: not so much about our interiority, but first and foremost about our discipleship.
And more. Instructed by Laurel’s activism and becoming increasingly aware of my own introspective habits over the years, I have come to believe that following Jesus has two dimensions: what we are called to do and what we are called to see. I want to illustrate this point here, by highlighting the theological discipleship of two of my faith heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Joseph Sittler.
Bonhoeffer is currently the better known of the two. I myself frequently allude to his widely read – if not always well-followed – book, The Cost of Discipleship. There Bonhoeffer lifts up the Sermon on the Mount as the bedrock of Christian identity. And, of course, Bonhoeffer’s life story, especially his death while participating in the plot to assassinate Hitler, is rightly and widely celebrated.
For Sittler, I think, a very good place to begin is the volume Evocations of Grace: Writings on Ecology, Theology, and Ethics (ed. Steven Bouma-Prediger and Peter Bakken). Sittler is perhaps best known for his celebrations of Jesus as “the cosmic Christ,” as the One in whom all things in our universe are held together: the vast world of universal nature as well as the particularities of human history here on planet Earth, and especially the very particular witness of the Church (see Colossians 1:15ff.). Early in his life, for example, spurred on by that kind of cosmic vision, Sittler wrote a passionate essay of lament that also celebrated his love for Lake Michigan, which at that time was being polluted beyond belief.
With Bonhoeffer and Sittler in mind, then, let me take you to church, with this question. Who is this Christ whom we worship every Sunday? Answer: the One announced in the Sermon on the Mount and the One proclaimed by the cosmic witness of the Letter to the Colossians: the One whom the Holy Scriptures bid us to take up our crosses and to follow and the One whom the same Scriptures also invite us to celebrate in thought, word, and deed as the Lord and Savior of “all things,” the Mediator of cosmic salvation. This duplex Jesus, if I may put it that way, is the divine-human Servant who creates and sustains our duplex spiritualities, active or reflective, solid-cored or lightly layered.
This, then, is my invitation to anyone who will listen. Do or see – so that you can do and see. Inspired by teachers like Bonhoeffer and Sittler, aspire spiritually to be an earth-bound Disciple or a cosmic Dreamer; and then discover that, instructed by the Scriptures, you can be both, to one degree or another. To that end, you might even want to think of yourself primarily according to the image of an avocado or primarily according to the image of an onion, at any given time. This analogy doesn’t sound very profound, I know, but it has worked for Laurel and for me for a long time, and I recommend it.