Crucible

Webster’s Dictionary defines the word “crucible as: “a place or situation in which concentrated forces interact to cause or influence change or development.” Crucible is a fitting synonym for the Holy Tradition. It is a stable container in which transformation can and does occur. Other definitions include the details of heat, wilderness, wild animals, fear, going beyond the edge, etc.

My thoughts turn to the exodus wanderings of the Hebrews in the heat of the Sinai desert for 40 years. The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days. The passage from St. Luke’s gospel account in which Jesus says:

I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished! (Luke 12.49-50)

Or, yet again, the passage from St. Paul’s epistles in which he says:

Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3.12-15).

Our life of discipleship involves deliberately placing ourselves in a crucible in order that that which we desire most – transformation – can occur. It includes the heat of the desert – the wilderness – challenge in a variety of forms. Crucibles always have an exit sign. We can opt out in a variety of ways. I happen to believe that that is part of the crucible’s terrible power. It invites unceasingly rather than compelling or forcing. It is, therefore, a transformation we choose (“choose this day…” [Joshua 24]).

How does this happen? It issues forth from the realization, after much self-effort (noble attempts though they be) we realize that we are incapable of changing ourselves. We realize that it is not a matter of not exerting effort but of a different kind of effort that is synonymous with yielding and letting go and co-operation within a larger environment of effort – God’s effort. Our effort, first and foremost, is redefined and re-created. It is “in-breathed” within this crucible with the effort of God.

The transformation is inner and outer in its operation. That is to say, it is about who we are and what we do outwardly and who we are and what we do inwardly. It is a matter of physicality and spirituality. It is incarnational. Transformation involves not only a simultaneous material and spiritual operation but the union of the two. In reality, God is not accomplishing two purposes, one material and the other spiritual, but one action that is incarnational in nature and transformational in character.

This brings me to the point of offering you a reflection I came across recently that dates from 2007, by Rob Des Cotes, director of Imago Dei (take time to visit the website here). In this reflection you will find the reiteration of some of the themes I have just mentioned, in much more eloquent and reflective form. (Rob’s writing never fails to stir me deeply and engender an encounter with the Lord. Bravo, Rob!!) I hope you are as blessed by what follows as was back when I first read it.

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The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.      Mat. 26:41
It is a dismayingly common experience, having finally settled down to pray, to find that you are not able to do so.  The mind seems to suddenly become more active than usual with a thousand concerns, all unrelated to our goal of prayer.  Why is this?  Is there any hope that we can ever adapt to the Spirit of stillness and become what prayer requires of us?  The late psychiatrist and spiritual director Gerald May thought so, and in his book, Addiction and Grace, offered a physiological explanation of what takes place within us as we set out to pray.

Over the course of our lives, each one of us has established what our bodies understand as their “normal” inner disposition—a  particular equilibrium that it strives to maintain.  Even if the “normal” that we live with is an uncomfortable one, it is the one that we have become habituated to and any attempt to alter this inner state is going to be met with physiological resistance.  We are, in a sense, “addicted” to whatever constitutes our norm.  As Gerald May puts it, “I am attached to whatever makes things normal to me.  And I don’t let that normality change without a struggle.”  He identifies the struggle involved in any attempt to transform our norms as similar to that of someone withdrawing from an addiction—in this case, an addiction to self.

For many modern spiritual pilgrims, the simple matter of taking time for daily prayer can become a battle of will excruciatingly reminiscent of that encountered in chemical addiction.  Issues of control and willpower, surrender and defeat all rage within the drama of a true spiritual warfare. Increasing numbers of us are discovering that we would rather stay the same than experience the real discomfort that becoming peaceful produces in us.

Prayer, by its very nature, encourages an altered state of reference within us.  It seeks to establish a new norm.  We should not underestimate the withdrawal process that such transformation entails.  We have, after all, spent years establishing a “norm” for ourselves, apart from God.  As Gerald Mays puts it,

Mediating all the stimuli they receive, the cells of our brains are continually seeking equilibrium, developing patterns of adaptation that constitute what is normal.  Thus the more we become accustomed to seeking spiritual satisfaction through things other than God, the more abnormal and stressful it becomes to look to God directly for these.

This logic particularly applies to the “ab-normal” demands that the practice of prayer places on our physiology.  It also explains why, at least initially, our bodies register this sudden change of inner state as discomfort.  Since we are addicted to a much more active inner life, we naturally have trouble letting go of it as we attempt to enter a state of prayer.  As Gerald May notes,

 If a person takes a vacation or tries to settle down to pray, the sudden removal of external stress immediately causes the body to generate less stress chemicals.  The neurons, having been adapted to high levels of stress chemicals, now react as if something were wrong.  They send signals, ironically, of stress to the rest of the body, trying to get things going again.

Prayer is a catalyst for transformation and, for this reason alone, we should anticipate that this will imply a struggle between the flesh and the spirit.  Adapting to change will inevitably mean going through the stress of withdrawal from our old
normality, until our new one is established.  We are people in transition.
Rob Des Cotes, May 31st, 2007  

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