A note from Carl: Friends, I am currently writing a manuscript that I am calling Meditations on the Christian Mysteries. I’ve identified fifty-two key themes, wisdom teachings, and mystical principles of the Christian tradition — and each month, I take one of those themes and I wrote a meditation based on it. I’m well over halfway done — in fact, the meditation I’m sharing with you here is #37. I publish these meditations, as I write them, on my Patreon page, but once in a while I like to share them with everyone, like I am doing this month.
I hope you enjoy this meditation — and to learn more about my Meditations on the Christian Mysteries project, please read the note at the end of this post.
Meditations on the Christian Mysteries, #37. The Fruit of the Holy Spirit
When I was a child, my mother sat me down one day and told me that I needed to learn the basics of the Christian faith. She rattled off what I needed to know: the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, The Ten Commandments, and the Beatitudes. I wasn’t very old — maybe only five or six — and while so many years later I can still vividly remember that conversation (probably because I had no idea what any of those things she mentioned were), I’m afraid I don’t remember the actual process of learning any of these elements of the faith. At the time my family and I did not attend a church, and I suppose my mother was worried about my spiritual well-being. As it turned out, we did not find our way into church until I was in the sixth grade, where the school’s ecology club (of which I was the president) was co-sponsored by a teacher who happened to be a Lutheran pastor’s wife. My mom, having been raised a Lutheran, prevailed upon my dad to take me to church, and off we went. When we joined the church six months later, my dad had to be baptized — while mom made sure that each of us boys got sprinkled, my father apparently had not received even that most basic of Christian initiations.
After more than a half century later, I can look back at my mother’s program for childhood catechesis, and while I think just memorizing a creed and a few Bible verses is hardly the key to spiritual formation, I’m even more struck by what was missing in mom’s list: the fruit of the spirit, from Galatians 5. Indeed, I don’t recall the Lutherans — at least during my adolescence — ever really placing much emphasis on Saint Paul’s list of nine essential marks of the Spirit’s work in the life of the believer. It wasn’t until I fell in with charismatic Christians during my high school years, that the following passage was pointed out to me.
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. — Galatians 5:22-23
You notice it begins “by contrast” — in the three preceding verses, Paul wags his finger at the bad behavior that he ascribes to “the flesh,” ranging from carousing and drunkenness to sorcery and idolatry, with (of course) fornication lead the pack. In a fit of dualistic pique, Paul dourly warns his readers “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” While I understand that any community needs to set and enforce boundaries, I do think Paul’s tone is rather more judgmental than what would be useful, at least in our day. I reminded of the Quaker adage, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” And, indeed, as soon as Paul stops cursing the dark and lights his own candle, his language becomes both more poetic and far more inspiring: he notes that there “no law” against the fruit of the Spirit — in other words, part of the deal of calibrating our lives to the leading of the Spirit in our hearts is that we are invited into a place of radical, existential, freedom.
In other words, when our lives are marked by love, joy, peace, and all the rest (we’ll take a closer look in just a minute), then we are in a place where it’s not so important whether or not we have followed all “the rules.” What this means, looking at the backstory of my own family, is that memorizing the creed or the Our Father or the Beatitudes, while certainly a nice thing to do, is really not as important as allowing the Spirit to plant the seeds in one’s heart that will bear this kind of fruit.
Indeed, even my father’s baptism is less important than his willingness to allow the Spirit to shape in him the fruit of love, joy, peace, etc.
Let me clarify: just like I believe in the importance of healthy boundaries, I also believe that rituals like the Sacraments of Initiation carry meaningful and important spiritual blessings into our lives, blessings that sometimes we might not receive any other way. So in making this point, I am not so much trying to diminish the importance of “the rules” (sacramental or otherwise), as I am pointing out how much infinitely more important the Spirit’s unbounded and un-quantifiable work in our hearts must be — infinitely more important than the already-sublime importance of Baptism and the Eucharist and the “law”!
So let’s take a journey through the fruits, one by one, to briefly reflect on why there merit such praise from Paul — and such attention from us. I’ll take them in reverse order.
9. Self-control. Traditionally this was translated as “Temperance,” and perhaps that word has fallen out of favor because of its association with opposition to the consumption of alcohol (“Temperance Leagues” being all the rage in the nineteenth century). But temperance is more than just teetotaling, it implies moderation and discipline as essential qualities for a good character. A psychology at my university once told me “Everything in moderation, including moderation!” — implying that once in a while, we even need to indulge in our indulgences, if for no other reason than to learn why moderation makes the most sense for a sustainable lifestyle. Paul, fresh from shaming drunkards and carousers, is pointing out that for most of us, learning a disciplined or temperate way of life is probably something where we have to let the Spirit of God take the lead.
8. Gentleness. I continue to be amazed — and saddened — by how easy for so many people to engage in aggressive or hostile behavior — not only toward others, but even toward themselves. We don’t know how to be gentle with our spouse, our children, our colleagues and co-workers, our neighbors and friends and extended family. So when it comes to people who vote differently than we do, or who we see as threatening to our cultural or social identity: forget it! So Paul is raising a pretty high bar here: be tender, be delicate, be gentle. Treat others with the kind of light, non-aggressive courtesy and compassion that we hope to receive — not only from one another, but especially from God. In other words: you are created in the image and likeness of God, so start acting like it!
7. Faithfulness. The Greek word Paul uses here, πίστις (pistis) carries not only the sense of fidelity, but also trust and commitment and reliability. It’s perhaps related to the Benedictine value of stability — a settled, steadfast bond that remains sustainable and resilient over time. It is a recognition that saying “yes” to something or someone has ramifications that flow through space and time, and being willing to live in accordance with the boundaries that this “yes” entails. It’s not a cage, but rather a stage: a foundation for living a life of intentionality, freedom, and joyful love (fruits that appear higher on this list). Faithfulness is the recognition that love is something deeper than whatever we choose, or feel, in any given place or moment. It’s bigger than that: faithfulness is how the Spirit enlarges our hearts so that we can take in that bigness.
6. Generosity. If faithfulness is the embodiment of stability and steadfastness, then generosity is the embodiment of flexibility and flow. This is the Spirit-value that recognizes the essential impermanence of all things save for God, and that as we live in this impermenance, we are invited to share freely and lavishly with others: to share our resources, our gifts, our talents, our time, our very selves. Marriages founder when there is a lack of generosity; communities turn in on themselves and eventually run the risk of rotting out from within. Generosity understands that diversity and sharing and non-attachment make both individuals and communities stronger. It’s the spirit that fueled the movie It’s a Wonderful Life — George Bailey was the avatar of generosity, while bitter old Mr. Potter incarnated the lack of generosity. It’s the Spirit who can help us all be a bit more like George Bailey.
5. Kindness. Interestingly, my Greek dictionary defines both the words that get translated here as “generosity” and “kindness” as goodness. Kindness, of course, implies relatedness: think of one’s kindred — but it also echoes back and circles round to gentleness. It carries the connotations of benevolence, mildness, and of course, mercy. Kindness does not generate profit or uphold boundaries, but it does foster connection and warmth and is conducive to intimacy. It is, in short, one of the qualities that makes life worth living. It is the unmerited capacity to simply be good and nice and friendly to others, whether the “other” is a stranger in need, or someone close to you that can easily drive you up the wall. In either case, kindness is not always an intuitive response, hence our need for the Spirit to cultivate it within us.
4. Patience. I’m reminded of the playful bumper sticker: “Be patient with me, God isn’t finished with me yet!” Every single one of us could place that message on our cars. We are all works in progress, unfinished masterpieces of God’s creativity and love; but because we are unfinished, we are not always graceful or excellent or skillful. We let one another down. We make mistakes. We fail to meet deadlines. Patience is a kind of social lubricant that allow the future to be imperfect because of a profound trust, or hope, in a better future. I am saddened when I read people online — including some people I admire — who criticize hope. I get where they’re coming from: hope, at its worst, can be a kind of opiate that leeches away our energy and resolve to make things better now. But that’s not Godly hope, that’s an infernal counterfeit of true hope, which does the precise opposite of the counterfeit version: true hope inspires action in the present, out of trust in the future, but because it is an action grounded in patience, it is shaped by love as much as by urgency, be peace as much as by challenge, by love as much as by need. Patience is not the failure to act, but rather the understanding that any act, no matter how important, is always just one moment in time, and that this moment must always remain subject to the grace of eternity.
3. Peace. Many of us, even if we are not in recovery, find meaning in the famous prayer by Reinhold Neibuhr: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It’s a great roadmap for a conscious life, but I do think there is one subtle flaw in the prayer: it seems to suggest that serenity — that is to say, peace — is only a passive thing, only relevant when we are faced with circumstances beyond our control. But I believe the fruit of the Spirit offers us peace in the midst of courage and wisdom as well. May we find the serene courage to act intentionally and gracefully; and may we be blessed by a wisdom so steeped in deep peace that our discernment truly is Spirit-breathed. For the Spirit who offers us peace does not want to give us peace only in a piecemeal fashion: true peace can take root in our hearts even when we must act with speed and insistence and care. Such, peace, of course, is the “peace that passes all understanding” — a fruit of God’s Spirit.
2. Joy. My book Eternal Heart is structured around my belief that the mystical life leads us to joy, and furthermore that the path to joy is marked by gifts already given to us in our hearts. This I believe. But I also recognize how elusive joy seems to be in the lives of so many people. For so many of us, life seems to be burdened by sorrow, grief, suffering, anger, doubt, and even despair. How can we repair the broken places in our lives so that joy may more fully and sustainably flow in our hearts? I don’t know that there is an easy answer to that question; certainly the answer will differ for each one of us. But I do believe that if we try to cultivate all of the fruit of the Spirit — beginning, like I did, with the more prosaic ones like discipline or gentleness or faithfulness — that in doing so, we create the space in our hearts for the action and movement of the Spirit, that will eventually lead us to joy. There is a lightness to joy that is related to delight: “take delight in the Lord and you will receive the desire of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). It’s helpful to remember that the Greek word for joy is χαρά (chara), which in turn is related to the word for grace, χάρις (charis) — both imply “gift,” for joy, like grace, is ultimately a gift we receive more than a skill we achieve. May we open our hearts to receive the gift that the Spirit wishes so generously to give.
1. Love. And finally we come to the Greek word ἀγάπη (agápē), which of course is love in its fullest and most exalted sense, not the refracted colors of the rainbow of human love (friendship, eros, charity, and so forth), but the pure unprismed light of Divine Love, the love that by its very nature finds fulfillment in giving itself away. Here I am only reminded that, as the first letter of St. John repeatedly reminds us, “God is love” — God is agápē; agápē is God. This fruit is the ultimate fruit of the Spirit’s presence in our lives: the Spirit gives us Her very self, for we are created in the image and likeness of agápē, therefore it is our calling and destiny to embody this self-giving love. May the Spirit bring this to fruition in all our hearts and lives!
So, to finish this meditation: what does that all this have to do with contemplation? While we may associate contemplation with silence and stillness, it is important to remember that silence and stillness are simply the pause between breaths: we inhale, we are still, we exhale, we are silent. The fruit of the spirit are related to contemplation in the same manner as respiration is related to silence and stillness. They need and complete each other. Without the pause, we can never transition from breathing in to breathing out and back again. Without respiration, there is no life to sit in silence and stillness. Likewise, the fruit of the Spirit is a map for the God-infused life, a life that we open ourselves to through the practice of humble contemplation. Contemplation does not in itself yield the fruit of the Spirit, but rather it is the gesture of consent that invites the Spirit in, yielding to the Spirit’s agency and action in our lives.
The above post is part of an on-going work in progress called Meditations on the Christian Mysteries. As I write these monthly meditations, I first share them with the friends of this blog who make a monthly pledge to support it through Patreon. Patreon is a crowdfunding website specifically designed to support artists of all kinds: visual artists, writers, musicians, video producers, and other creative professionals. People can make a monthly pledge at any amount (the recommended minimum is $5, but it’s okay to pledge even less than that) to support the artist of their choice. Thanks to the miracle of crowdfunding, all those gifts combine to help artists keep on creating the art/writing/music that their supporters love.
Part of the fun of Patreon is that the artists are encouraged to share news, works-in-progress, or other “behind the scenes” updates with their patrons. So I try to post something regularly to Patreon, usually once or twice a month. Often I include one of these meditations. Of course, the plan is, once all the meditations are written, to publish them in book form, so everyone will have access to them eventually. But the patrons get a “first look” — which is really important to me as a writer, since they can provide feedback to let me know what is working (and what isn’t) with my work-in-progress.
I have other projects in mind, of course. So once this one is completed (probably sometime next year), I’ll launch another work-in-progress, where patrons will get a first look while the project is being written.
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