Now is my way clear, now the meaning plain; Temptation shall not come in this kind again. The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason. T.S. Eliot Murder in the Cathedral

The readings for the 13th Sunday in the season after Pentecost are particularly rich. In the second track O.T. reading from the book of Joshua, Joshua now an elderly man presents the option for the people; they can either follow the God their ancestors worshipped before they entered the Land of Canaan or they can adopt the Gods of their Amorite neighbors. But, they must choose according to what they are willing to do. He tells them that: as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. The people respond: therefore we also will serve the Lord for he is our God. 

The Gospel continues with working it’s way through John 6. Jesus has been speaking about himself as the bread from heaven before moving onto more graphic imagery in which he exhorts his listeners to accept that unless they eat his flesh and drink his blood they cannot have eternal life. In my last two posts, Bread and The Seed of an Idea I explored both of these metaphors in the context of Eucharistic worship.

To choose or not to choose, that is the question

Relationship with God seems always to involve a choice. To be in relationship with God is hard. Despite their affirmations, the Israelites discover over and over again that serving the Lord requires more from them than they are prepared to give. Jesus is not about to win followers through tailoring a seductive and inspiring message. Consequently, in 6:66 John tells us that: because of [his message] many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 

This seems to cost Jesus something. He seems resolute in his message but not exactly unperturbed, left unshaken by its consequences. We can sense him taking a deep breath as taking his courage in his hands he asks the twelve – his core group: Do you also wish to go away? Peter speaking on behalf of the twelve says Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. Phew!

Picture this scene. Place yourself in it. Do you not hear the catch in Jesus’ throat as he puts himself on the line with those who mean most to him. We can see the tears in Peter’s and the other disciples eyes as they acknowledge that for them there is simply, nowhere else to go, no one else to go to, for this is where their hearts have led them. They make a choice.

Although subsequent events reveal that neither the Israelites nor the twelve are ready to accept all the consequences of their choice, their choice places a marker in the ground, a place from which to at least struggle to stand firm. Standing firm is what Paul or a writer steeped in Paul’s thought exhorts the Ephesians to do through the imagery of donning the armor of God.

Choosing and then standing firm is less of a once-and-for-all resolute stand and more of a repetitive cycle of wandering and returning. From time to time, we will be knocked off our marker by what The Book of Common Prayer refers to as changes and chances of transitory life. Sometimes, we will willingly, though misguidedly wander from our marker – the imprint of our choice on the ground. Yet, having made the choice, we have a marker in the ground to which we are able to repetitively return.

Jesus, like his great forerunner Joshua, remains resolutely on-message. He recognises that the consequence will likely be that people will turn away because the message isn’t to their liking, or because it’s too costly for them to bear.  I, on the other hand, want to present a convincing image of Christian faith in a world where to choose to be a disciple of Jesus is increasingly countercultural and seemingly non-credible for the majority. The pressure to make the message credible is great.

For me, the treason to do the right deed for the wrong reason is all too real a temptation. Unlike Jesus, who refuses, I am tempted to do the right deed, i.e. win new adherents and attract new people to the parish, but for the wrong reason, i.e. a desire to be successful in my work of building strong Christian community. I want to ease the anxiety of choosing by presenting the choice as credible. The question which present itself every week in sermon preparation is this: does being credible require tailoring the message for the ears of the listeners? Most of the time I think it does. Yet, a closer reading of Jesus ministry shows that this is a temptation he resolutely resists.

This exploration is making me uncomfortably aware that I have a strong need to make the Christian faith a credible choice within the context of a highly educated and intellectually sophisticated community. After all, is this not why they called me to be their rector? Yet, I am also aware that credibility is not the standard Jesus used in constructing his message. Paradoxically, the power of Jesus’ message lies in its challenge to what in any given society is regarded as credible.

What faced the Israelites over and over again was that the pagan religions who’s Gods represented every aspect of human domestic-agrarian-warrior culture were more credible than the overarching and emotionally remote deity Yahweh. The crowds flocked to Jesus because they wanted to hear a credible message that proclaimed liberation from hunger, poverty, and oppression. They fell away because the message they heard was not a credible vehicle for realizing their aspirations.

In Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral, Thomas A Becket, Henry II’s hand picked man in the end refuses to tailor the gospel to fit the King’s needs. Four barons take it upon themselves to rid the King of his troublesome priest, murdering the archbishop on the altar steps in Canterbury Cathedral.

Down the generations little changes, it seems. What is the message we choose to hear, I wonder?  The disciples of Jesus found themselves in what often struck them as a non-credible place. It was a place of the heart, that made little sense to the mind. Having chosen, they arrived at a place where they became acutely aware that they could choose to be nowhere other and to be with not one else. If you take the courage to choose the gospel, then you find you have little choice. In a society captive to the illusion of power through choice, the option of faith seems non-credible.

Today, so many exhibit the signs of spiritual hunger. The food we are in search of is the food of faith, faith lived through community. The dilemma remains that faith only comes after we take the courage to believe. This might seem to many, incredible.

A Really Big Caricature

The seed of an idea

Scott Hoezee in his weekly blog The Lectionary Gospel refers to an incident in The River by the Southern Gothic author Flannery O’Connor in which a child drowns while trying to baptize himself in a river. O’Connor was heavily criticized for this depiction that seems to many grotesque. She responded by reminding us that within the symbolism of baptism is the notion of dying to the old self and being reborn in Christ. She noted that:

In the land of the nearly blind, you need to draw really big caricatures.

The text

Last week in a piece entitled Bread  I asked the question: do we at St Martin’s come Sunday by Sunday with a real expectation of eating the bread from heaven?

The bread from heaven is the a phrase Jesus uses in his conversation with the crowd following the feeding of the 5000 in John 6. We’ve spent the last two weeks making our way in bite-sized chunks through this chapter.

This week’s gospel section opens at verse 51 where Jesus, again likens himself to the living bread that came down from heaven. We see that the debate with the crowds is now heating up, initially sparked by Jesus’ question: are you coming to see the signs of God or for a free meal? They don’t like his referring to himself as the bread from heaven. They know this man and because they know his family background the crowd objects when Jesus attributes to himself a phrase they associate with Moses and the feeding of their ancestors in the wilderness of Sinai. Such attribution amounts to a human confiscation of God’s qualities – in other words, blasphemy.

Not being a man to over explain himself in an attempt to avoid an argument, Jesus now ratchets up the level of tension by abandoning the historically significant and metaphorically rich bread from heaven image, an image that is already getting him into trouble with the crowd. Instead, he offers them a really big caricature: his very flesh and blood:

Very truly I tell you. Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you … for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 

The power of big caricature

As with our instinctive reaction to Flannery O’Connor’s story of the boy drowning himself in a baptism seemingly gone tragically wrong, Jesus offers an image to his hearers, which for them, is truly grotesque.

It’s grotesque on two levels. Firstly, it’s cannibalistic, and secondly, it’s blasphemous. The first reaction is the instinctive repulsion human beings feel when confronted by cannibalism. The second reaction is the equally strong and socially programmed reaction of human beings to an assault upon cherished religious images and beliefs.

In the land of the nearly blind, you need to draw really big caricatures!

Intuitively, I draw back from really big caricatures. They offend my need for reasonableness. We live in a political world where reasonable debate has been replaced by grotesque caricature and incendiary sound-bite.

If you are Episcopalian, chances are you have come to the Episcopal Church attracted to the reasonableness and moderation of its Anglican ethos. Anglican ethos has a tendency to smooth over the bumpy caricatures of more extreme and less reasonable forms of Christianity with a spirit of balanced and gentle moderation. Yet, it has to be noted that our great strength at the same time is always in danger of degenerating into a kind of nothingness that is so vanilla that no one can take offense at it. If you never make any demand of people then no one ever has to say no, and we can all happily jog along in the land of the nearly blind. 

Revelation is never reasonable

The fact is that the message of Jesus is not reasonable – it is revelatory. Jesus is not trying to convince his hearers of rightness based on the reasonableness of his worldview. In that sense, he’s not very Episcopalian. Jesus’s priority is to shock us out of our cultural and religious insularities in order to catch a glimpse of things from the perspective of a self-giving God. Jesus reveals God giving [his] life to the life of the world. How better to do this than to present an image of religious participation as the ingestion of his flesh and blood, with no apology for the inevitable cannibalistic overtones.

So what do we at St Martin’s think we are doing Sunday by Sunday? Do we really come expecting to eat the bread of heaven? Possibly, when understood as tasteful metaphor. Do we come with and intention of consuming the flesh and blood of Christ? Unlikely, not even if understood as a less attractive metaphor.

I believe that most of us attend compelled by an inarticulate desire for what Anglicanism traditionally has referred to as the awe and wonder of worship, or the beauty of holiness. What does this mean, and what might it look like?

In the land of the blind

In 1979, The Rev. Bruce Reed published his book The Dynamics of Religion. Reed was an example of that great English tradition of a priest deeply involved with a sociological and psychological engagement with wider society. An American focus might be: how does church serve an individual? The English focus finds expression more in the question: how is society served by the existence and practice of the Church?

Drawing from Durkheim as well as Freud, Reed described the process of worship in terms of oscillation. Psychologically, oscillation describes a movement between rational and non-rational states of awareness. Reed understood the non-rational not as irrational, but akin to dream or even psychospiritual states where the boundaries of time and space and individual identity, are in constant flux. Sociologically, oscillation describes the process of movement between individual and collective aspects of experience. Reed noted that a primary function of worship is to focus and then manage the process of oscillation in both senses.

Put most succinctly oscillation is the process of energetic renewal. Psychologically, we arrive at worship clothed in our right minds in order to experience without interruption to rational functioning the irrigation of deeper currents of energy. Interestingly, charismatic worship most clearly exemplifies a process, which for non-charismatic Christians operates mostly at an unconscious level. Charismatic worship allows for a more dramatic oscillation where the influx of the deeper currents of energy for a time, overwhelm the rational state of the worshiper. Charismatic forms of worship meet the needs of communities where the day-to-day experience of suffering rooted in the experience of poverty, racism, and other forms of discrimination, is more intense.

Similarly, in our relationship between our individual and our collective identities, we are empowered individually through our participation in communal or collective rites of passage, in order for our lives to become better shaped by a deeper and more energetic connection with the common good.

Eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ is a psychotic idea. What I mean by this is that to eat human flesh and drink human blood requires a serious alteration of rational consciousness. For example, the Maori of New Zealand practiced ritualistic cannibalism prior to European arrival. They consumed human flesh within a context of religious ritual. The Maori ate the flesh of their enemies only in the highly ritualized context of warfare where cannibalism expressed spiritual domination over one’s mortal enemies through ingesting their flesh.

The interplay within and between – getting to the nub

Jesus did not literally offer his flesh and blood. No one ate Jesus and he did not intend for anyone to do so. He was employing psychotic- non-rational imagery – a really big caricature – as a revelatory device to show that through him, God is doing a new thing. God, through Jesus, is entering into the very heart of created life as an expression of love for the world. Jesus embodies this love through the events of the cross and resurrection. The really big caricature of eating his flesh and drinking his blood is his way of driving home the message that nothing short of complete incorporation of God in the form of physical ingestion will satisfy our spiritual hunger.

I cannot overemphasize two points here:

  1. Communion, i.e. participation in God’s self-giving is not an individualized, esoteric, spiritualized phenomenon according to Jesus. Communion with God requires ingesting real food – bread and wine transformed by collective memory and future hope into the flesh and blood of the Savior. This is the psycho-spiritual event of Eucharist.
  2. Eucharist is also a community event, properly understood when we realize that no one individual can celebrate Eucharist alone. Through the ritual of Eucharist we are incorporated into a communal meal at which it is as a community we take God into ourselves, thus satisfying our need to recharge our individual batteries from the our communal charging station. This is the socio-spiritual event of Eucharist.

Psychospritually, the ritual of Eucharist weaves a complex interplay between the ideas of physical and spiritual hunger, spiritual and physical food. In both cases, ingesting is the way to satisfying our need of God. Sociospiritually, the ritual of Eucharist draws us as individuals into an experience of the communal, an entity greater than the sum total of its parts, also referred to a the Body of Christ. Eating and drinking is the most powerful expression of social solidarity. Consuming the bread of heaven is the most effective way of ensuring that there is enough bread of the world to feed the hungry.  

In the land of the nearly blind, this requires drawing a really big caricature!


 Individual Remembering

As a child, I remember buying bread at the grocery. I remember it came as whole loaves, either white or brown. That’s all I remember about bread until at some point imagesa third option became available – sliced. The arrival of a slicing machine in the grocery meant that in our house bread now came presliced in a plastic wrapper.

A common saying in both New Zealand and the UK is: it’s the best thing since sliced bread! Maybe it’s a saying used by Americans as well. Being a denizen of all three cultures, it’s increasingly difficult for me to keep straight in which of the three cultures a certain aphorism originates. The saying means: wow, this [thing, situation] is a wonderful invention. I remember sliced bread as the staple of my childhood, for bread was not the specialty item to be savored and delighted over that those of us living in Providence find at Seven Stars Bakery. images-1Bread was bread, white or brown, sliced or not, used as toast or to make a sandwich or a bread pudding –a great favorite of visits to my maternal grandmother.

I also remember a time when the eating of bread had little down side. The purity of the grain and the metabolism of youth allowed me to consume bread without regard to quantity or consequence. This is alas, is no longer so. The processed nature of much wheat used in making bread is making bread toxic and I now strictly monitor my wheat intake. The slowing of my body’s metabolism also means that bread is now a source of unwanted carbs, and unwanted carbs are the enemy of my aging male waste line.

Bread is the staple food in all cultures where wheat is the staple grain. Bread is the staple food, the fruit of nature’s bounty. Wheat growing societies dependence on bread as the staple food has led such societies to view Bread is also a symbol of divine generosity – an embodiment of God’s care and concern for human beings. Our own religious memory contains countless instances and references to bread as a sign of God’s presence, God’s communication with and involvement in human affairs.

Collective remembering

We read of the prophet Elijah (1Kings:19) at a point of despair retiring under a solitary broom tree to await the welcomed release of death only to be awoken to find God’s gift of bread, baked on stones heated by the merciless sun as a both a means not only of physical sustenance but also as a sign of God’s promise of a future. The feeding of the Israelites (Exodus 16) with manna (a form of flaky bread) in the wilderness has become the archetypal bread story. It’s ecimages-6ho sounds throughout the scriptural record where bread becomes a sign of divine deliverance at times of crisis and a promise for the future. This story finds a strong resonance in ministry of Jesus, who feeds 5000 with two loaves; again bread used not only as a real material expression of God’s care and concern but an action that has a huge symbolic significance, the meaning of which Jesus begins to unfold.

We continue in the 6th chapter of John’s gospel with Jesus following his feeding of the 5000, expanding on his theology of bread. The crowds flock in increasing numbers to hear Jesus, drawn as he suggests not simply by the signs and wonders he performs but by the promise of a full stomach; the satisfying their physical hunger. We recall that hunger was the commonplace experience for the masses of displaced peasantry that flocked to hear Jesus. 1st Century Palestine was undergoing a commercialization of agricultural production with land being increasingly vested in powerful landowners who like the powerful in our own time were intent on the monopolizing of resources. Independent peasant farmers were being displaced and turned into itinerant day laborers, a story as old as time, and one alarmingly familiar to us as we view with a sense of increasing helplessness the trajectory of economic developments in our own day.

Jesus challenges the crowds to consider what it is they have come expecting. If it’s to be fed then that’s important but only a temporary fix. He pushes them beyond the familiarity of their boundaried imaginations and they don’t like it. They begin to challenge his presenting himself as the bread come down from heaven. Jesus is telling them he is the manna of God, which is much more than physical bread that temporarily satiates hunger. As God’s living bread, Jesus offers them the spiritual nourishment of transformation. If Jesus had read Maslow he would have realized that it is a tall order telling people about spiritual nourishment, whose bellies need filling.

I don’t imagine that Jesus as unsympathetic to the crowds drawn to him by the promise of a free meal. Yet, his purpose seems to be to lay out a much larger perspective, within which satisfying physical needs has a place, but cannot be the ultimate end goal. As human beings, we need spiritual nourishment that enables transformation, as well.

Bread the life of heaven and the life of the world

Bread is the fundamental element in Christian community. Christian community, to be Christian must be concerned with the need for real bread to feed the hungry. Give us this day our daily breadextends bread as a metaphor for all of life’s basic needs: something to eat, somewhere to live, and someone to love and be loved by. Christian community is also concerned with the bread from heaven that feeds our spiritual hunger.

Every Sunday and in some communities more frequently than that, Jesus’ gift of the bread from heaven that feeds the life of the world is renewed in time and space in the celebration of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the central aspect of Christian worship. At the Eucharist real bread, the staple of life becomes the bread from heaven that feeds our spiritual hunger.

The celebration of the Eucharist must bear certain characteristics according to one of America’s greatest lay theologians of the 20th Century, William Stringfellow.images-5

In an essay entitled Liturgy as Political Action1 Stringfellow outlines three basic characteristics for liturgy that roots it in the integrity of the gospel. Let me apply some of Stringfellow’s thinking about liturgy more specifically to my task in hand.

Transcending categories of time

The Eucharist is where the Biblical story of creation is recalled and rehearsed in the full knowledge of the world’s redemption by Christ. In a modern world enthralled by the concepts of time travel and parallel multidimensional connections across time, the Eucharist, as action forges a conduit between past and future allowing the energies of the past and the promises of the future to flow into the present, i.e. into present time and the particularity of place.

This drama – dramatic action requires the full participation of all the people to prevent it becoming simply a spectacle to be observed. As Stringfellow puts it:

As a transcendent event, the [Eucharist] collects all that has already happened in this world from the beginning of time and prophesies all that is to come until the end of time. But the [Eucharist] is also a contemporary event, involving these particular persons gathered in this specific place and in this peculiar way.

In other words, the Eucharist is here and now and its effects are real in the here and now. It becomes for us a way of focusing our attention on our connections within the community – past and present, and between the community and rest of the world around it. [It] is the normative and conclusive ethical commitment of the Christian people to the world2

The Eucharist celebrates not only God’s gift of Godself in Christ as the bread from heaven given for the life of the world, it also expresses the involvement of the Christian community in the life of the everyday world through the acts of service and witness, i.e. real bread, necessary for real people as staple of life.

Eucharist is the central act of worship in the historicl3 tradition of Christianity of which the Episcopal Church as a Church of the Anglican Tradition is a part. This summer at St Martin’s we are deepening our understanding of Eucharist, which for many of us becomes rather routine and devoid of impact, cocooned within the familiar recitations on Sunday mornings. Eucharist becomes merely a matter of doing what we do without any real connection to the why. For the months of July and August, we are exploring Eucharist in instructional format at the different time of  5.30pm on Sunday evenings. In this format, the familiar cadences of the Prayer Book give way to reveal the skeleton of actions that undergirds Eucharist as one whole action.

Returning to an expansive vision

Since the 1979 revision of the Book of Common Prayer, we have sought to overcome the legacy of the arid argument as to whether at the Eucharist the bread becomes Christ’s real body or remains just bread. Today we transcend the controversy particular and peculiar to the 16th century by reconnecting to a larger and more encompassing vision of sacramental action and sacramental authority.

Our current science fiction fascination with time and anomalies of time fuelled by the real physics of Quantum observation opens a way to revisit the historic concepts of anamnesis, i.e. the remembrance of things past made effective again through action in the present. Like the crowds that came to hear Jesus, what are our expectations as members of a community whose central action in the world is the celebration of Eucharist?

St Paul offered two tests for measuring our spiritual vitality. Can we allow ourselves to be part of community -something greater than ourselves, and can we engage with our individual calling through which we can make our distinctive contribution, bringing our skills, passion, and resources to the building up of the community?

For so many of us our membership of the community of faith has become perfunctory and at times can mean little more to us than belonging by habit to a club or association. This is not always our fault. It can be just the way life is at times. Yet, no matter how exuberant or lackluster we feel about church, I have yet to meet a person who is not spiritually hungry for something more.

Bread, the bread from heaven, which satisfies our spiritual hunger (John 6:35, 41-51) in the celebration of the Eucharist brings the nature of Christian community into sharper focus. Is our community a place where we can expect to eat the bread of heaven? Is St Martin’s a place where we can begin to distinguish between our emotional wants and moods and our spiritual needs? It can be only if we invest ourselves in its life.

Much of what we long for is not more happiness, but a more vital sense of purpose and connection beyond ourselves. We find that what we need as a community of seekers journeying together is to become a community where transformation is an expectation in everyday experience. We long not only for personal transformation; we also long to become transformed as a community, fit to carry out the mission of the being Christ’s body in the world.

The Book of Common Prayer tells us that the mission of the Church is to pray, worship, proclaim the Gospel, and promote justice, peace, and love (Pg 854BCP). Through whom does the Church carry out its mission? The Church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members, i.e. you and me gathered to celebrate and receive the bread from heaven.

William Stringfellow again: Eucharist is not any ritual such as the rituals of the Masons or any other secret society. It uses ordinary things that are the staples of life in the world –

bread, wine, water, cloth, money, color, music, words, or whatever else is readily at hand.

Using the ordinary things at hand to celebrate and make present the extraordinary gifts of God is a political event. By political event Stringfellow clearly has an event in mind that challenges and changes things.

The very example of salvation, it is the festival of life that foretells the fulfillment and maturity of all of life for all of time and in this time. The liturgy is social action because it is the characteristic style of life for human beings in this world. 4


[1] A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow (1994) Ed by Bill Wylie Kellermann. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

[2] The History of the Liturgy Pp 124-5

[3] Catholic and Apostolic

[4] Pp 125-6

Spiritual Maturity


Cork is a wonderful material, a natural product of the Quercus suba or cork oak tree. I remember in the house I grew up in, there was a cook floor in the Wtree-360dining and sitting rooms made from large squares of cork arranged in an alternating pattern of honey and coffee coloured tiles. Because the ultraviolet rays of the sun are so intense in New Zealand, after a while the contrasts faded and every so often the floors needed sanding to restore them to the colours of the original pattern. It was a very 1960’s look. Cork tile floors are ubiquitous with the great movement in design called Mid-century Modern, a style common around the Pacific Rim but which seems not to have made much inroad into New England; a style I note, that is once again the rage in design magazines like CB2.

You don’t see cork as much as you once did. Even its last great bastion, the wine cork, seems to be on its way out. More often than not wine bottles are now sealed with the easy to open screw-top, or something, which interestingly we still refer to as a plastic cork. It’s ironic how cork now refers to a function, i.e. sealing or stopping, rather than the material of the seal or stopper itself.

Cork was for centuries prized for its buoyancy making it an essential material in the traditional fishing industries. Even here, or maybe especially here, cork has now largely been replaced. Fishing buoys made from cork are now hard to find. Universally, buoys are now made from a material I call polystyrene, which translate for Americans as Styrofoam.

My cork reverie was evoked by the passage in Ephesians 4:14-16 that speaks of being tossed to and fro, an image for me of the action of swimming in the surf, of being helplessly carried upward and downward, forward and backward, propelled by the action of the waves. 

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. 

This passage offers two intriguing contrasts.

1. Being anchored

The first contrast is between corks and buoys, whether the latter are made from the material cork or not. In the image of being tossed to and fro, in my mind’s eye I picture the contrast between the image of a cork bobbing up and down on the surface of the water, at the mercy of the ebb and flow of the currents, and that of the buoy rising and falling with the action of the waves but firmly anchored in one place.

Am I a cork or a buoy? Do I feel like a cork or a buoy? Are these even different questions? As I explored last week in the Illusoriness of Reality, these are different questions to the extent that feelings are not always an accurate indication of what is real. Yet, feeling states are what we have ready, conscious access to, so I guess there are times when I feel more or less cork-like. Yet, feelings are no indication of spiritual maturity.

There is an important distinction between spiritual and emotional states. Optimism, or pessimism, happy or sad, these are emotional states. They are not accurate indicators of spiritual vitality, because each is a reflection of circumstances in the external world. Things go well and we feel happy and optimistic. Things are tough and we feel sad and pessimistic.

Spiritual discernment has traditionally made a distinction between consolation and desolation. These are spiritual states that contradict, rather than reflect feeling states tied to external perception. For instance, things appear to going well for us. We seem to have all we could desire, and in the midst of our optimism we feel hollow and empty. This is the spiritual state of desolation and it alerts us to the illusory mistake of identifying spiritual vitality with material or emotional happiness. Correspondingly, consolation galvanizes us during tough times. When we face up against the large uncertainties of life, the seeming impossibilities that loom large before us, we experience a certainty of purpose and direction anchored by a palpable – felt but not seen – trust in God.

Spiritual states have an objective quality, i.e. an expression of something in us that is greater than we are, whereas emotional states are highly subjective, i.e. resulting only from inside ourselves. Yet, it seems both spiritual and emotional states involve maturing.Returning to my metaphor of the cork and buoy, the key spiritual question is: am I a cork cast adrift and vulnerable to the unpredictability of tide and wind, or am I a buoy, firmly anchored to the ocean floor with a cord strong and elastic enough to ride the turbulent current and hold-fast into the prevailing wind?

2.Growing up

In exploring this question I note the second contrast that Paul –whether it is actually the historical Paul or a later disciple imbued with his spirituality makes in the Ephesians passage between spiritual immaturity, the state associated with being a child and maturity.

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro …. [But] we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ …

Here’s a nice theological question: does the soul grow up, i.e. does it grow and mature with the passage of life? Theologically, the soul has been seen as immutable or unchanging. This is somewhat the position held by transpersonal psychologies such as Psychosynthesis, which see the soul as a higher center of supraconsciousness, independent from, but contributing to our emotional development. The soul may be unchanging, but spiritual maturity, rather like emotional maturity is constantly forming.

Different languages

The theologian James Fowler, while not the only one to do so, has developed a schematic of spiritual maturity across psycho-spiritual formational stages, which he links with those of increasing emotional development. This is not the place to go into an analysis of his six stages of spiritual formation so visit to explore further.

Without access to a modern psychology of psycho-spiritual formation, Paul and those speaking Paul’s message to a later generation had two core measures for individual spiritual maturity.

The first is a measure of a healthy capacity to participate in community and to strengthen the sinews that link individuals into a whole, i.e. a maturity that supports unity. The second is a measure of participation in one’s individual call. Spiritual maturity manifests differently in each of us according our discernment and acceptance of our calling, our vocation.

If the first measure of spiritual maturity is the capacity to participate in something greater than one’s self, the second measure is of a capacity to contribute our difference, something very individual to one’s self, to the building up of the greater whole. Paul often uses the metaphor of the human body to speak of this; one body, yet different organs. Ephesians takes up this metaphor and presents a process for building up the body through the promise of spiritual maturity.

Ephesians speaks of spiritual maturity, of growing up, in the language of:

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

Fowler’s sixth stage of formation offers us a modern language for the spiritual maturation Ephesians speaks of. Spiritual maturity, while exhibiting a number of different characteristics is the capacity to treat any person with compassion, accepting them as a part of the same universal community, according to the Christ-centered principles of love, tolerance, and inclusive justice.

One image I easily have for myself is that like a cork tossed about, I feel vulnerable, at times child-like and ill equipped in the face of shifting opinions and conflicting worldviews. In the face of this turbulence, my overriding anxiety is to please, to fit in, to be included by making myself acceptable. This is an image of being adrift in a sea of fearful feelings. It’s an image for spiritual immaturity.

An alternative image is that like a buoy I ride the turbulent surface of living in the world with courage knowing that I ride the surface tempest anchored by a cord that is strong and elastic enough to hold me fast to God’s promise for me to grow into the full stature of Christ. Here, I am not afraid to express my difference and to tolerate if not embrace other’s difference as we grow together. This is an image of spiritual maturity in action. This is Christ’s promise and God’s gift.

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 

Spiritual maturity is demonstrated in our ability to discern and take up our calling, and to realize that we do not do so not in isolation, but in the company of one another. Together we use our individual gifts to built the body, helping rather than hindering one another as together we mature into the full statue of Christ.

Blog at

Up ↑