Unfolding, defined…

Today, I’m branching out a little bit…I’ve had the opportunity to read Dr. David G. Benner’s book, Spirituality and the Awakening Self (2012) as a participant in the Patheos Book Club.  In return for receiving a copy of the book, I’ve agreed to share my impressions of the work and to let Patheos include a link to my thoughts.   To those who have not found my blog before, welcome.  And now, my humble thoughts on Dr. Benner’s latest volume.

For most of my life, I have struggled with the ideas of spiritual formation, change, transformation, awakening, and mysticism — I struggled with these concepts and their place in my life and  in any life lived in human society, long before I understood the words and their many and varied meanings, long before I understood their implications for my life and the lives of those around me.  I’ve bounced from the mystical life to the intellectual to the secular and back to the mystical again in my search, always dissatisfied…always looking for the via media, the middle way, the connection between the extremes, the place where we humans, even we consciously-questing humans, toil and fail and change and…well, I think you get the picture. 

One thing we all know:  change is hard.  It doesn’t matter what kind of change…learning to live without that afternoon cupcake, adding a morning walk to our routine, or learning to faithfully commit to a spiritual practice or a spiritual community…or all of the above.  Change is hard.  And, as Dr. Brenner points out, true transformation is even harder.

But not impossible. Not if you release the dichotomy between the secular and the sacred and embrace the whole…

Dr. Brenner never really says that, but that is my summary of his book:  To be a fully-integrated human being is to be a person who embraces the adaptations and changes that are life, the growth and cycles of body, mind and spirit.  A fully-integrated person welcomes the changing relationship among self (in both the psychological and the spiritual definitions of that word) and the world and the spirit.  Then, and only then, is lasting transformation possible.  And, only by embracing transformation can we truly give life to the journey that is before us (our return to God that is the human journey through incarnation).

Transformation is not simply change.  Nor is it reducible to maturation or self-improvement toward wholeness.  It is an unfolding of the self that moves us toward being at one within our self and with God.

Christians affirm that everything that exists is being held this very moment in Christ, and that everything that exists is being made new in Christ.  These mystical truths may be beyond our comprehension, but they are not beyond our potential experience. (xiv)

The point is to listen, because life gets in the way.  Listening can be supported by learning from the mystics.  No, not by going to live in a cave, but by incorporating the lessons of mysticism with the secular disciplines of psychology and philosophy and what they have to teach us about our own humanity.  This is the task Dr. Benner tackles in this book, and I believe he does a good job…combining his vast experience as a clinical psychologist with the experience of his own intense life of faith.  The book contains a variety of very engaging academic studies about faith practice and the relationship of spirituality to our more human parts. 

Yet, if we focus on transformation, unfolding, change…what about the ultimate goal of a life of faith?  What about being?  If we talk about the role of mysticism in transformation, what about the ultimate quest of the mystic — being one with the One?   A focus on transformation itself is, as is so typically Western European, a focus on movement instead of being.

I must confess, however, that I am most likely the wrong audience for this book.  While I agree with the premise, I am not a person to be approached through the left side of my brain, with facts and charts and studies.  But as I approach a more serious, academic study of spiritual formation and its dynamics myself, I do understand that this is useful and important information when you are offering spiritual direction and support to another who most likely will not have the same experience of the mystical that you, the director, might have.

I am always grateful for someone who can bring a level of verbal description to something that is for me completely experiential and instinctive.  But, my true evaluation of  a book when all is said and done is…did it inspire me and move me along my own journey of transformation?  I would have to say that Spirituality and the Awakining Self did not.  But even for the more mystical among us, it does provide some good tools and some well-crafted language we can use to speak to the rest of the world.







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