I think it is the first proof of a stable mind to be able to pause and spend time with oneself. But now make sure that reading many authors and every kind of book-roll does not represent a kind of unsettled drifting. You should linger over and feed yourself upon a few chosen intellects if you want to take in anything that will stay faithfully in your mind. The man who is everywhere is nowhere. When men spend their life in traveling around, they have many hosts but no real friendships. The same thing must happen to those who do not devote themselves intimately to any one intellect but take in everything at speed and in haste. Food that is evacuated as soon as it is consumed gives no benefit and does not add strength to the body. Nothing delays healing as much as a constant change of remedies. A wound on which medications are tied out does not knit into a scar. A seedling that is constantly transplanted does not build up strength. Indeed, nothing is so beneficial that it can do good on the run; hence a great number of books slackens the mind. So, since you cannot read as much as you possess, it is enough to have the amount you can read. . .When you have surveyed many writing, choose one idea to digest that day.
Seneca lived from 1 BC to 65 AD, a Stoic philosopher who lived during the Roman Imperial Period. Born in Spain and educated in Rome, this man was highly involved in politics. He served as a tutor to an adolescent Nero and later became a close advisor when Nero ascended the throne. Prior to service in Nero’s court, Seneca was exiled after being accused of adultery with the Emperor Caligula’s sister. His life ended in forced suicide, after he was found complicit in a plot to assassinate Nero.
The quote above, found in one of his philosophical letters, made me think of the oft cited self-description of John Wesley, who called himself “a man of one book.” Wesley referred to the Scriptures. He was a student of the Bible, first and foremost.
But Wesley read other books. This is evident through his sermons, journals, and other works. But Wesley read these other books through the lens of the Scriptures. He read widely, but routinely returned to Scripture. His interaction with other minds was done in consult with his familiarity with the mind of God, as it has been revealed through the canon of the Bible.
Seneca’s advice also made me think of Cal Newport, who’s commendation of the deep life and slow productivity aligns well with Seneca’s prescribed benefits of association with select intellects, key writings, and the contemplation of “one idea to digest that day.”
‘There’s no book so bad,’ said the young graduate, ‘that there isn’t something good in it.’
‘About that there is no doubt,’ Don Quixote replied, ‘but it often happens that men who have deservedly achieved and won fame by their writings lose it completely or find it diminished in part as soon as they publish them.’
‘The reason for that,’ said Sanson, ‘is that printed works are read at leisure and their defects are easily spotted, and the more famous the author the more closely they’re scrutinized. Men renowned for their genius–great poets, illustrious historians–are usually envied by those whose pleasure and pastime is to pass judgment on what others have written, without every having published anything themselves.’
‘That is not surprising,’ said Don Quixote, ‘because there are many theologians who cannot preach, yet are experts at identifying the faults and the excesses of those who can.’
Miguel de Cervantes, The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha
The cross itself, in short, stands at the center of the Christian message, the Christian story, and the Christian life and mission. It has lost none of its revolutionary and transformative power down through the centuries. The cross is where the great story of God and creation, focused on the strange story of God and Israel and then focused still more sharply on the personal story of God and Jesus, came into terrible but life-giving clarity. The crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth was a one-off event, the one on behalf of the many, the one moment in history on behalf of all others through which sins are forgiven, the powers robbed of their power, and humans redeemed to take their place as worshippers and stewards, celebrating the powerful victory of God in his Messiah and so gaining the Spirit’s power to make his kingdom effective in the world.
N. T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, p. 416
Recently, I learned that one of the most prominent leaders in an important segment of Christian life ‘blew up,’ became uncontrollably angry, when someone questioned him about the quality of his work. This was embarrassing, but it is accepted (if not acceptable) behavior; and in this case, it was the one who was questioning him who was chastised. That is in fact a familiar patter in both Christian and nonChristian ‘power structures.’ But what are we to say about the spiritual formation of that leader? Has something been omitted? Or is he really the best we can do?
[ . . . ]
The sad thing when a leader (or any individual) ‘fails’ is not just what he or she did, but the heart and life and whole person who is revealed by the act. What is sad is who these leaders have been all along, what their inner life has been like, and no doubt also how they have suffered during all the years before they ‘did it’ or were found out. What kind of persons have they been, and what, really, has been their relation to God?
Real spiritual need and change, as we have emphasized, is on the inside, in the hidden area of the life that God sees and that we cannot even see in ourselves without his help. Indeed, in the early stages of spiritual development we could not endure seeing our inner life as it really is. The possibility of denial and self-deception is something God has made accessible to us, in part to protect us until we begin to seek him. Like the face of the mythical Medusa, our true condition away from God would turn us to stone if we ever fully confronted it. It would drive us mad. He has to help us come to terms with it in ways that will not destroy us outright.
Without the gentle though rigorous process of inner transformation, initiated and sustained by the graceful presence of God in our world and in our soul, the change of personality and life clearly announced and spelled out in the Bible, and explained and illustrated throughout Christian history, is impossible. We not only admit it, but also insist upon it. But on the other hand, the result of the effort to change our behavior without inner transformation is precisely what we see in the current shallowness of Western Christianity that is so widely lamented in the notorious failures of Christian leaders.
Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart, p. 79
Simultaneously terrifying and freeing, the only way to come nearer to wholeness, healing, and conformity to Christ is by asking the Spirit of God to assist us in plumbing the depths of our own souls, reveal to us the truth about what is there, and to guide us as we seek to put off the old self and to put on the new self, a person made radiant in Christ.
I’ve thought about Willard’s analysis, quoted above, often, as I’ve long wanted the person I am on the outside to correspond to the person I am on the inside, and the person I am on the inside to become more fully cast in the image and likeness of Christ. In other words, I have wanted to be a person of integrity.
I have also wanted to be a person of depth.
Willard writes, “Real spiritual need and change, as we have emphasized, is on the inside, in the hidden area of the life that God sees and that we cannot even see in ourselves without his help.” The transformation we most need is brought from the outside, in, then put on display from the inside, out. It is shared work, and it is firstly God’s work. And it only seems possible when by grace and through grace we yield ourselves to grace, expressing to God our deep longing for union and communion, humbly asking that God would make us whole, heal us, make us well.
The individual disciples must have indelibly imprinted upon their souls the reality of this wonderful person who walked among us and suffered a cruel death to enable each of us to have life in God. It should become something that is never beyond the margins of their consciousness. . . . No one can have an adequate view of the heart and purposes of the God of the universe who does not understand that he permitted his son to die on the cross to reach out to all people, even people who hated him. That is who God is. . . . It is God looking at me from the cross with compassion and providing for me, with never-failing readiness to take my hand and walk on through life from wherever I may find myself at the time.
To meditate is to think. And yet successful meditation is much more than reasoning or thinking. It is much more than “affections,” much more than a series of prepared “acts” which one goes through. In meditative prayer, one thinks and speaks not only with his mind and lips, but in a certain sense with his whole being. Prayer is then not just a formula of words, or a series of desires springing up in the heart–it is the orientation of our whole body, mind and spirit to God in silence, attention, and adoration. All good meditative prayer is a conversion of our entire self to God.
Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, p. 48
As someone from a tradition that stresses the necessity and importance of conversion, maybe we could use more meditative prayer.
Maturing in our life of faith brings us to a sense of God’s grace. As we realize how vast the resources of energy of God are in our everyday lives, we find that we don’t have to carry the weight of the world’s sins on our shoulders, that our moral sweat isn’t going to make the critical difference in history, but that the difference has already been made by Christ’s blood.