Saint Teresa of Ávila, one of the greatest of Christian mystics, understood clearly that the height of mystical spirituality, at least for Christians, must be grounded in the humble humanity of Jesus Christ. In chapter 22 of her Autobiography, she writes,
I see clearly… that if we are to please God, and if He is to give us His great graces, everything must pass through the hands of His most Sacred Humanity, in whom His Majesty said that He is well pleased. I know this by repeated experience: our Lord has told it me. I have seen clearly that this is the door by which we are to enter, if we would have His supreme Majesty reveal to us His great secrets. So, then, I would have your reverence seek no other way, even if you were arrived at the highest contemplation. This way is safe. Our Lord is He by whom all good things come to us; He will teach you. Consider His life; that is the best example.
This is all too easy for contemplatives to forget. We can get so caught up in cultivating silence, and entraining the Jesus prayer or some other prayer word to our breath, and learning to let go of distracting thoughts and unruly passions, that — if we aren’t careful — our prayer can become self-absorbed, narcissistic. It’s all about me: my breath, my posture, my silence, my recitation of the Jesus prayer or prayer word…
So Teresa’s humble advice is a healthy corrective for the danger of getting too, well, disembodied in our contemplative practice. By keeping our focus on Jesus — not “the cosmic Christ,” but the human Jesus — we keep our prayer, our contemplation, grounded in reality and in truth.
Because of this, I think it’s important for both aspiring and seasoned practitioners of contemplative prayer to stay intentional about keeping a healthy devotion to Jesus, the human Jesus as encountered in the Gospels. And with this in mind, I’d like to recommend a new book that I think does a wonderful, if imperfect, job at helping us encounter the humanity of Christ — by inviting us to meditate on questions he posed to his disciples and others, as recounted in the Gospel narratives.
25 Life-Changing Questions from The Gospels, by Allan F. Wright, invites the reader to discover who Jesus is — and how Jesus can make a difference in your life — by reflecting on a series of questions that come from the mouth of Christ himself. These questions, drawn from all four Gospels, come from a variety of settings in the Lord’s life — his interacting with his followers, debating with his critics, and conversing with those who come to him for healing.
Some of these questions are well-known to anyone familiar with the Gospel story, for example “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15), which Jesus poses to his followers at a decisive moment in his ministry; but others are perhaps less renowned (but still deserving of our attention), as in his blunt request to the two blind men who came to him for a cure: “What do you want me to do for you?” (Matthew 20:32).
Wright, a Catholic educator and evangelist, organizes these twenty-five questions in a formative sequence, leading the reader from basic spiritual considerations (“What are you looking for?”) to the implications of truly encountering Christ (“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ but do not do what I command?”) leading to the life-changing consequences of such an encounter (“Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?”). Each question is explored in a short (6-8 page) chapter, making this a useful book for daily reflection. I used it this past Advent for my daily Advent reading, and found it both rich and inspiring.
The book has its flaws. The vision of spirituality presented here is clearly more activist than contemplative: militaristic metaphors such as battling or struggling pop up again and again, which seem counterintuitive for a contemplative, who seeks radical surrender. The author seems to be very much invested in encouraging his readers to do something, whether that is to make a commitment to Jesus, make a moral or ethical change to their lives, or even just resolve to read the Bible more frequently.
Even more troubling, for me at least, is the zealous tone that Wright sometimes adopts. Perhaps I’m projecting: having grown up in the American south, I’m a bit allergic to evangelists who seem to push their particular way of following Jesus a bit too aggressively, and once in a while my spidey-sense would tingle as I read passages like this:
Life is full of complexity and uncertainty, and Jesus asks us to trust in him for everything. In your discernment of who Jesus is and what he asks, will you trust in him? Or will you trust in yourself, your good looks, your money, or your connections in order to just get through life? Will you continue sitting on the fence?
I see where he’s coming from and I agree that following Jesus ultimately involves a radical choice. But I know too many people who have been spiritually abused by Christians using this kind of language. I just think there are gentler and more compassionate ways to make the same point. It makes more sense to celebrate the truth, goodness and beauty inherent in Christ (and in his words, including his questions), and then let the Holy Spirit do the heavy lifting of converting peoples’ hearts. But again, maybe this is just my projection.
Despite these caveats, this is still a book I would recommend to anyone who already recognizes that they want Jesus to be the Lord of their Life. Because where I think this book excels is not in convincing the unconvinced, but in helping those who are convinced get to know Jesus better. Which brings me back to St. Teresa: Christian contemplatives need to anchor our spirituality in Christ, and this book is a great way to get to know Christ better — and not just knowing about Christ, but actually allowing Christ to encounter us, through the sometimes penetrating questions he asks of us.
I’ll finish by revealing my favorite of the questions explored in this book: “Why do you harbor evil thoughts?” (Matthew 9:4). Jesus poses this rather snarky query to his critics who accuse him of blasphemy because he forgives the sins of a man he heals.
Once again, Wright gets lost in seeing this in a competitive way — he casts it in terms of fighting the evil within — but I think the question has a powerful contemplative invitation: the truth is, we all experience unhealthy, sinful, and evil thoughts, dancing across our consciousness like a continual kaleidoscope of temptation. It’s part of the (fallen) human condition. Jesus’s question, when we face it for ourselves, is a beautiful invitation to simply let go of those thoughts, to choose non-attachment as a way to lessen their hold on us.
Which, of course, allows for the spacious grace of contemplative silence to be more a part of our ongoing awareness. The problem is not having evil thoughts (we all do), but we are invited to avoid harboring them. Letting go of such phenomena (what the Desert Fathers and Mothers called logismoi) is an important step to accessing the peace that passes all understanding.