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The Portable Pastor: Books as Spiritual Tools

Soul Making
Journeying to the Desert with Alan Jones
A Book Review by The Rev. Dr. Brooks Ramsey

Love is a process. No soul is ever complete. There is an unfinished quality about human beings that includes both the tragic and glorious dimensions of human experience. The realization of these truths led Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, to seek guidance at a desert monastery located between Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt. The monastery of St. Macarius continues in modern times the traditions of the ancient monastic orders of early Christianity. Through desert spirituality, Jones found a way to rejuvenate his spirit and discover again the meaning of soul. His book Soul Making is an expression of some of the truths that allowed him to continue his spiritual pilgrimage, and at the same time recognize his full humanity.

The desert way is both threatening and fulfilling. On the one hand it demands silence, waiting and temptation. It is not easy to let the silence speak. On the other hand, there is hope. For Jones, that hope is based on the possibility of revelation, conversation and transformation. Revelation means a new way of seeing things. Even the physical experience of the desert contributes to revelation. Conversation with our inner self and with those who are on a similar pilgrimage makes possible new understandings about life. Finally, there is always the possibility that such an experience will lead to transformation.

The primary gift of the monastery was hospitality. The seeker was welcomed without any requirement that others know who he was or what he had done. With no questions asked, three things were provided -food, shelter and companionship. The monastery's commitment to hospitality was based upon the possibility that it might be entertaining an "Angel unaware." During Jones' visit, there was never any attempt to indoctrinate him. Their belief was that faith is not a product of indoctrination from the outside; it comes from the Spirit of God bursting out from inside us.

The work of the heart involves questioning and wondering. Three words sum up the desert method of spiritual enlightenment-Look, Weep, Live. Looking means seeing things in a new way with a challenge to change. It means seeing things with openness and detachment-not trying to change things, but allowing everything to speak to us. The goal is self-discovery. The desert way teaches that we either contemplate or exploit. Jones came to realize that there are some blocks to letting things speak to us. The first is perfectionism-not allowing ourselves to be human. The second block is the wrong kind of ambition-the need to win, to come out on top. The third is vindictiveness-the desire to triumph over the other. Jones calls these forms of religious neurosis, "Terrorist Spirituality." To him they represent the vices of religious people: high principles and self -righteous vindictiveness, and are at the heart of many threats to harmony in our world today.

The drive to be perfect is to be God-like. But the relevant question is, what God?
To some people, God can be the source of vindictiveness. To others, God is the expression of love and unconditional acceptance. To overcome our neurosis, the desert way encourages us to keep ourselves open to MYSTERY. The psychotherapist Carl Jung said, "Being in touch with the truly numinous releases us from pathology."

Weeping is the second step in desert spirituality. Jones speaks of the "gift of tears." To him they are the agents of resurrection and transformation. Sooner or later we have to face the issues of misfortune, pain and death. These issues lie at the heart of religion. It is true that to have a good cry has a cathartic effect, but the tears of the desert way are more than that. They are not the tears of rage, self-pity or frustration. They are tears that put us in touch with the pain of God. Entering into that experience introduces us to grace. It is precisely at the point where we have been wounded that the presence of God penetrates our hearts. God is felt in places too deep for words. God is felt in pain, sorrow and contradiction. The monks of the desert use the Greek word penthos, which means "puncturing." It is God's word that pierces the heart, cuts to the quick, but also raises us from the dead. Jones affirms that the puncturing of our heart delivers us from a false sense of who we are and also provides us with the shock necessary for us to be who we ought to be. With that, our tears become the tears of truth; insight breaks in, and our souls are flooded with new life. Then we are ready for the third facet of spirituality-Living.

To live is to live in love. Love always comes to us as a gift. Jones, using a poem by Anne Sexton, creates the image of our playing cards with God, where God always holds five aces. Card players know that is absurd-there are not five aces in the deck. But God always moves beyond the normal and trumps us with divine love. The closing words of the poem express that joyous absurdity:

Dearest dealer, I with my royal straight flush
love you so for your wild card
that untamable, eternal, gut-driven ha-ha
and lucky love.

To be devoted to the God of the Normal is to miss the joy of living in grace. The normal is defined by custom and fashion. The normal is an enemy to love, because love is unpredictable. Love crosses boundaries and always leads us into a deeper experience of freedom, spontaneity and grace.

Jones fills his book with many illustrations from literature and psychology, but his most effective offering is the sharing of his own experience as a desert pilgrim. He becomes a most attractive guide for his readers to join in his journey.

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