Where should we be casting our eyes? Upward, downward, or just on the road that we’re walking? Well, there are different kinds of spiritualities: spiritualities of the Ascent, Spiritualities of the Descent and Spiritualities of Maintenance, and each is important.
Spiritualities of the Ascent are spiritualities that invite us to strive always for what’s higher, for what’s more noble, for what stretches us and takes us (figuratively) upward beyond the moral and spiritual ruts within which we habitually find ourselves. They tell us that we can be more, that we can transcend the ordinary and break through the old ceilings that have until now constituted our horizon. They tell us that if we stretch ourselves enough we will be able to walk on water, be great saints, be enflamed with the Spirit and experience already the deep joys of God’s Kingdom. These spiritualities tell us that sanctity lies in the ascent and that we should be habitually stretching ourselves towards higher goals.
These spiritualities have a secular counterpart, and that is what we often hear from academics who are forever challenging those graduating to dream big dreams, to reach for the stars.
There’s a lot to be said for this kind of invitation. Much of the Gospels is exactly that kind of a challenge: keep your eyes trained upward; think with your big mind; feel with your big heart; imagine yourself as God’s child and mirror that greatness; let Jesus’s teachings stretch you; let Jesus’s spirit fill you; and let high ideals enlarge you.
But the Gospels also invite us to a Spirituality of the Descent. They tell us to make friends with the desert, the Cross, with ashes, with self-renunciation, with humiliation, with our shadow, and with death itself. They tell us that we grow not just by moving upward but also by descending downward. We grow too by letting the desert work us over, by renouncing cherished dreams and accepting the Cross, by letting the humiliations that befall us deepen our character, by having the courage to face our own deep chaos, and by making peace with our mortality. These spiritualities tell us that sometimes our task, spiritual and psychological, is not to raise our eyes to the heavens, but to look down upon the earth, to sit in the ashes of loneliness and humiliation, to stare down the restless desert inside us and to make peace with our human limits and our mortality.
There aren’t a lot of secular counterparts to this spirituality (though you do see this in what’s best in psychology and anthropology). The challenge of the descent is not one you will often hear from a teacher.
But there is yet another genre of spiritualities, a very important kind, namely, Spiritualities of Maintenance. These spiritualities invite us to proper self-care, to factor in that the journey of discipleship is a marathon, not a sprint, and so to take heed of our limits. We aren’t all spiritual athletes. Tiredness, depression, loneliness and fragile health (mental or physical) can, if we are not careful with ourselves, break us.
These spiritualities invite us to be cautious about both an over-enthusiastic ascent and a naïve descent. They tell us that dullness, boredom and ennui will meet us along the road, and we should have a glass of wine when necessary and let our weariness dictate that on a given night it might be healthier for us spiritually to watch a mindless sitcom or a sporting event than spend that time watching a religious programme.
They also tell us to respect the fact that, given our mental fragility at times, there are descents that we should stay away from. They don’t deny that we need to push ourselves to new heights and that we need to have the courage, at times, to face the chaos and desert inside us; but they caution that we must also take into account what we can handle at a given time in our lives and what we can’t handle just then.
Good spiritualities don’t put you on a universal conveyor belt, the same road for everyone, but take into account what you need to do to maintain your energy and sanity on a marathon journey.
Spiritualities of Maintenance have a secular counterpart, and we can learn things here from our culture’s stress on maintaining one’s physical health through proper exercise, diet and health habits. Sometimes in our culture this becomes one-sided and obsessive, but it is still something for spiritualities to learn from: namely, that the task in life isn’t just to grow and courageously face your shadow and mortality. Sometimes, many times, the more urgent task is simply to stay healthy, sane and buoyant.
Different spiritualities stress one or the other of these: the ascent, the descent, or (less commonly) maintenance, but a good spirituality will stress all three. Train your eyes upward, don’t forget to look downward, and keep your feet planted firmly on the ground.