I spent years practicing what one spiritual writer called “spiritual bypassing.” In looking for a quick spiritual fix, I would bypass or simply ignore want was going on in my soul. I lived on the surface, in my head, dependent on my thoughts and feelings, while dealing superficial with what was going on at the center. My walk with God was not based on reality but rather my image of a spiritual man. I was trying to be good, while on the inside I was living like a “brute” spiritually. “When my heart was grieved, and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was like a brute before you” (Ps 73:21-22). I lived in spiritual flight from my weaknesses, shame and sin.
It is natural to want to stay on the surface. We are familiar with our own thoughts and experience. They give us some control and understanding of our journey. Richard Rohr observes that men, “move comfortably in the outer world of things with their heads, which is used as their control tower.” This is only an illusion of the real. Only God who sees things as they really are can show us true reality. Paul reminds us that, “the reality…is found in Christ” (Col 2:17), not our projections. A vital transition on the spiritual journey is the transition men make when they begin to define themselves from the center rather then the circumference, or the surface of things. Men can get trapped in the comfort zone of their small egos, thinking they understand objective reality.
The Desert Fathers, who gave us such vivid descriptions of the life of the soul, insisted that before we can ascend to God, we must first descend into our souls, that is our real life. Saint Anthony said, “The way to ascend to God is to descend into our own reality.” They saw the story of Jacob’s ladder in Gen 28 as embodying this spiritual truth. “He [Jacob] had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (v 12). We may resist the descent for fear of facing our untamed passions and desires. They can not be harnessed to fit our image of a spiritual man.
I am learning not to resist, but rather descend into my soul to encounter the good and the bad. Jesus waits at the center. The Desert Fathers counsel us to “climb down into our passions.” They tell us, “Dive away from sin into yourself and then you will find steps on which you can climb up.” In other words, you can’t bypass your soul life. I still have difficulty accepting that God is closer to me than my own thoughts. His presence is incomprehensible. Incredibly, this also means that if I commit a sin, I sin in God, for He sees and knows all. That is very freeing and liberating. For me it has meant that I can accept my sinful behavior, while desiring to be more like Jesus. I don’t have to hide and live in shame. I am totally known by God, yet loved unconditionally.
So my advise men – don’t be afraid of the inner journey. Remember descent comes before ascent. Jesus tells us, “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matt 23:12). Henri Nouwen calls this “downward mobility.” I am learning to taste that the Lord is good, while still dealing with the darkness within.