A Shared Hunger

Our quest has a long history. For centuries Christian men and women have desired a deeper walk with God. The desert hermits of Egypt in the second and third centuries went to extreme measures in their pursuit of God. Some secluded themselves for years in caves. Others, known as stylites, lived long periods perched on tall poles. Can you imagine? Have you met any pole-sitters recently? They believed that withdrawal from a decadent society could propel them into divine intimacy. They too wanted to know God and change their world. But the hot deserts, lonely caves, and strange locations generally failed to yield the secrets of the deeper Christian life. The harsh environment by itself could not deepen the heart of a person.

For two thousand years various Christian mystics and devout believers have advocated a range of pathways to a deeper relationship with God. They shared our hunger for the holy.

Benedict of Nursia, one of the early spiritual pioneers, established a monastery and wrote his Rule to guide fellow monks to the heart of God. He insisted on seriousness, obedience, and humility as the three pillars for intimacy with the Lord. The spiritual life should not be treated lightly. Centuries later Bernard of Clairvaux found himself transfixed and transformed by the love of Christ. He preferred passion instead of rigid discipline and taught that Christian maturity emerges from an encounter with divine love. What contrasting pathways.

Julian of Norwich wrote of her deepest yearning, to share the afflictions of Christ. She believed the via dolorosa ("the way of suffering") would usher in mystical union. At about the same time, Catherine of Sienna used the metaphor of a bridge to describe the Christian journey. These women shared the same heart but very different approaches.

St. John of the Cross struggled to reconcile God's nearness with his own feelings of spiritual dryness. His Dark Night of the Soul explored the purging work of God in our lives. Simultaneously, Teresa of Avila addressed the deeper Christian life through her book The Interior Castle, in which she compared the journey of faith with entering more and more privileged courts within a castle. St. John explained spiritual formation in terms of testing, while Teresa described it in terms of privilege.

Shortly thereafter, the Catholic Church confiscated and burned the writings of Madam Guyon because she proposed "praying the Scriptures" and encouraged the common people to listen to the Lord. Her suggestion could have put the clergy out of business! A century later, and across the English Channel, John Wesley believed spiritual awakening sprung from Bible study, and he strongly urged folk to immerse themselves in the Word.

At the turn of the twentieth century (1906), Pentecostalism erupted from Azusa Street in Los Angeles. This movement framed the deeper Christian life in terms of ecstatic experience and sensitivity to the Spirit of God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred at Flossenburg Concentration Camp at the end of World War II, decried cheap grace and urged his readers to a radical commitment to Christ and the Christian community. We cannot be one with God and only half-hearted about Christ or the body of Christ.

Twenty years later Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, wrote prolifically, calling Christians to contemplative prayer and social engagement. And Henri Nouwen, who died in 1996, became a surrogate spiritual director for countless thousands of believers through his writings. In them, he insisted that intimacy with God emerges from belovedness and brokenness.

If we summarize these saints of the past, we develop quite a catalog of possible pathways. We draw nearer to God through:

  • Seriousness, obedience, and humility
  • Spiritual disciplines of silence, solitude, fasting, study, and more
  • Encountering the love of God
  • Sharing the sufferings of Christ
  • Crossing metaphorical bridges and entering metaphorical castles
  • Enduring the purging work of God in our lives
  • Praying the Scriptures
  • Studying the Scriptures
  • Spiritual gifts and revivalism
  • Devotion to the body of Christ
  • Meditative prayer and social engagement
  • Belovedness and brokenness

Assessing the Options