Ancient Spirituality for a Postmodern World

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Ancient Spirituality for a Postmodern World
Centuries of Holiness: Ancient Spirituality Refracted for a Postmodern Age

In the tradition of ancient writings on spirituality, Richard Valantasis patterns his book after works called “centuries.” A “century” consists of one-hundred independent short essays on spiritual formation. All the essays are unified by their form and trajectory. The form involves beginning with an ancient practice and then reshaping it for a postmodern world. The trajectory is our own personal divinization – an admittedly “troublesome term intended to articulate the capacity of every person to become holy, godlike, attuned to God, and united to the divine in every aspect of being” (14). In this way the wisdom of the past is made available in a new idiom and for a new time. In his words, “The ancient tradition is refracted; that is, it is passed through the prism of the postmodern context” (25).

Following is a short summary of Valantasis’ vision for spiritual formation:

God is not “a distant and imperial God” (17) but an ever-present reality “waiting to be discovered” (19). Life is sanctified when “seekers bring the reality of God to mind throughout the day” (35). This occurs not only in faithful moments but also on occasions of sin. “Even though the seeker has sinned, or is about to sin, or even engages in sinful activity on a regular basis, still God does not go away” (35).

Valantasis invites us to sanctification by beginning with one simple step, that is, interrupting our day with prayer: “The normal routine of the day ought to be interrupted for a period of prayer and meditation. This does not need to be a lengthy session but simply a brief variant that interrupts the normal flow of the day. This will become like the grain of sand in the oyster, which eventually produces the pearl” (37). He encourages us continue this practice, no matter how difficult it may become: “It must remain an irritant, an interruption, in order to be effective” (37). This is the first step in learning to make space for God.

This practice should be pursued from within “a community of people who also seek divinization” (37). Why? “A community of seekers challenges the boundaries of individual lives and forces upon the seeker the experience that everyone is connected to every other person. Just as a person begins to pursue divinization by interrupting the patterns of the day for prayer and meditation, the seeker must also interrupt the perceived isolation of one person from another” (37).

The spiritual seeker “understands the individual, isolated person of the West to be at best an illusion and at worst a delusion” (111). We are all connected. This exposes the tragedy and travesty of sin: “Life lived as though the divine were not present and active creates the illusion that a person is isolated from others and from the world. It creates the illusion of distinction and individualism divorced from relationship with the wider world; hence, it creates literally a selfish orientation” (149).

Indeed, the very essence of sin is exposed as a fundamental denial of the divine presence in individuals, societies, and the physical universe. “Sin occurs when the seeker chooses to live, act, think, and respond as though the divine is not fully present and operative. Sin is acting outside the presence and activity of the incarnate divine” (165-166). This is a futile, self-deceptive, and self-destructive orientation:

But is it possible to act as though the divine were not incarnate and present? In fact it is not. Sin lives according to a fantasy that is not real, a pretension that denies the reality of the foundation. Sin operates as a lie that posits that the divine is not present and active, that the person may live outside the basic premise that the divine indwells the person, that society is in fact neutral to the divine agency, and that the physical universe exists outside the divine impulse. In a sense, sin creates the opposite and problematic imaginary to that which leads toward divinization. (166)

As a person in union with God through the incarnation of Christ “the Christian understands that there is a special mission of manifesting the divine life in the arena of worldly existence” (39) – a world “groaning to manifest the presence of the divine” (40). Our task, then, is clear: “to remember that God exists and that God is present in the course of daily living… in every event of the day… There is no place in which God is absent; there is nothing that happens that is separate from the presence of God. To remember God, then, is simply to recognize that God is present and active in all that is done” (47). The awareness that God is always active – in the individual, community, and universe – brings the seeker great joy.

Even experiences such as death can contribute to our divinization. Here Valantasis is worth quoting at length:

Because humans are mortal and subject to death, death concentrates their efforts to live the life chosen intently, intensely, and deliberately. Death forces the seeker to think about concentrating on the important and valuable aspects of life. Because life is short, even if one lives a long time, seekers concentrate their efforts on the central things, not dithering away time on useless and worthless efforts and endeavors. Death both concentrates and frames living.
The Ash Wednesday service reminds mortals that they are dust and to dust they shall return. Human mortality need not be something morbid, but a reminder that the time allotted ought to be lived deliberately. Lenten practice encourages acts of mercy, reading of Scripture, meditation, special devotion, and special acts of self-denial. These central Lenten practices function primarily not to limit or to shrink the self, although that may be important to some, but to concentrate effort on important things, and to remember that humans have a short time to live and that they must, therefore, live it well. (77)

Thus, “Holy living and holy dying are thus deeply connected. To live well directs the person to die well, while death intensifies the richness of living” (79).

We should regularly examine ourselves in order to assess our progress. This is sometimes difficult – even painful – but is necessary for spiritual growth. “Without honest self-examination and self-evaluation, progress is difficult, because no basis exists to function as the starting point toward achieving the eschatological goal. Fantasies about one’s real self, noble as they might be, do not assist the person in real growth. In fact they become a major hindrance” (106). We need not fear self-examination, but must remember that God is with us even in our failures.

Along the way we must battle “inordinate” desires that are not oriented toward the end of divinization. Temptations possess an educative function: “It directs the seeking person and the seeking community to the points of vulnerability, to the weak points of divinization” (175).

The awareness that God is always present sheds new light on our encounters with others – especially those radically different from us. “The divine presents itself in every creature, event, person, and circumstance within the universe; therefore the encounter with difference becomes an encounter with the various manifestations of the divine. To put this in another way, the encounter with difference presents an opportunity for new revelations of the divine” (121).

Through long-term habits of holiness the seasoned spiritual seeker becomes transparent. This does not mean the seeker disappears. Instead, the seekers’ “transparency comes from the unity of purpose and being that derives from years of faithful attendance to the divine presence in themselves, others, and the world around them” (215). The goal is that of spiritual marriage, “when the divine energy becomes all in all within the person fully conformed to the interior divine presence” (221).

Everything culminates in the final restoration of all things. This is the ultimate end. God will achieve it. Nothing can stop it. This is the source of our hope:

Nothing ultimately has the capability of exorcising that divine presence or thwarting the divine impulse toward restoration. The mystery is that it succeeds even in failure, it grows even in stagnation, it emerges even when progress is not evident. In the end, God will be all in all, and every element of this universe and every other universe will be gathered into the divinity that has called it into being. In this, we all may find our hope. (226)

Valantasis presents a beautiful and compelling vision of the Christian life. My sole criticism is that I think he occasionally undervalues the ancient tradition and overstates the prominence of postmodernity. On occasion he quickly jettisons the ancient tradition because he assumes it has no relevance to the postmodern. I don’t believe this gives enough credit to the ancient ways. I also believe it capitulates so much to postmodern thinking that its potential for cultural captivity is heightened. However, this is a minor quibble. All in all, Valantasis’ vision is profoundly glorious – a great addition to those seeking a deep and rigorous spirituality.

Quotes excerpted from Centuries Of Holiness: Ancient Spirituality For A Postmodern Age by Richard Valantasis
© Richard J. Vincent, 2007

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