The Myths of the Spiritual Life
The five-hour drive from Glasgow to the Isle of Iona, off the western coast of Scotland, is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful trips you will ever experience. Iona is, for me, a spiritual place. It feels like you are standing on the edge of the world, alone with your spirit before the Spirit, in nature’s great monastery where buildings are only a part of the cloister.
Many retreat to Iona for spiritual rejuvenation. But spirituality does not require a place as much as a state of mind, one where there is – in the ancient Celtic sense – an “inner attentiveness to God” alone. This is easier said than done, even among pilgrims to Iona. Drawn to the famed Celtic crosses, I went into a small museum behind the abbey to see some of the original carvings. Opening the door, a light immediately tripped on, along with a woman’s shrieking voice: “No! No! Oh, da*n you!”
(Nice to see you, too.)
She then apologized and explained that she had been waiting for the automated lights to turn off so that she could take a flash picture, and my entrance had tripped them back on. She apologized, realizing that she had cursed me over a picture of a cross.
But we all fall into that pit, don’t we? We are not very much like Jesus and often have no idea how to be. We try to capture His life like a photo, only to have our actions spew forth obscenities through our failures.
Why is there such a disconnect?
Partly because of the myths we believe about the life we are trying to live. I am reminded of the last stanza of the 8th century “Deer’s Cry,” more popularly known as St. Patrick’s Breastplate, perhaps the greatest of all Celtic hymns:
Christ with me, Christ before me; Christ behind me, Christ in me; Christ under me, Christ over me; Christ to the right of me, Christ to the left of me; Christ in lying down, Christ in sitting, Christ in rising up; Christ in the heart of everyone that thinks of me; Christ in the mouth of everyone that speaks to me; Christ in every eye that sees me; Christ in every ear that hears me.
Isn’t this what we long for?
So let’s clear away the barriers, particularly the myths that permeate our thoughts and our actions about having a spiritual life:
- The instantaneous myth: The first misunderstanding about the nature of the spiritual life is that spirituality happens, instantly, at the moment you enter into a relationship with God. That there is an immediate, substantive, in-depth miraculous change in habits, attitudes and character. The truth is that this is only the beginning of the development of that relationship. It isn’t something that just happens—it’s something you are intentional about.
- The time myth: The second myth is that true spirituality is merely a by-product of time on earth. The truth is that being a Christian does not automatically translate into becoming Christ-like. Someone who has been a Christian for five years will not necessarily have five years’ worth of spiritual maturity. The heart of Christian spirituality is to be like Jesus. And to be like Jesus you need to train. You do things Jesus did in order to live like Jesus lived.
- The transformation myth: This is perhaps the greatest myth of all—that to become spiritual, you have to first be spiritual. No! It’s when you come to God that you begin the process of transformation. The biblical order of events is to come as you are, receive God’s gift of a personal relationship and then enter into the transformation process. And even then, it will often be a process of three steps forward, two steps back. Remember that God is in the soul-making business. He does promise to transform you!
This is the message laden throughout what is arguably the best-known Celtic prayer set to music, one that millions have sung without knowing of its origin. The 8th century prayer was composed in Old Irish and began:
Rob tum o bhoile,
a Comdi cride.
Ni ni nech aile,
acht ri secht nime…
It was then offered in a metrical, poetic version and set to a traditional tune. I am sure that you can sing it with me:
Be thou my vision,
O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me,
Save that Thou art.
Thou my best thought,
by day or by night;
Waking or sleeping,
Thy presence, my light.
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, A Traveler’s Guide to the Kingdom.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.