Spiritual paunch-busting….

I keep fairly fit on a diet of slow running and yoga, but I’ve noticed to my annoyance that in spite of these I’ve been developing a paunch which is certainly nothing to do with my liking for cheese and wine.

I reacted by looking online for “paunch- busters” and was astonished to come up with thousands of routes to a new slimline me, many of them simply fraudulent as they were using my body – shape problem to persuade me to sign up to everything from  Traditional Chinese Medicine to a Two -Week Holiday Programme of Tantric Sex. Although I was tempted (by the Chinese Medicine of course, since as a traditional Scot I’m averse to any sexual practice that lasts more than 2 minutes 57 seconds), I opted for some arduous crunches that I vaguely remembered from football training.

It occurred to me to wonder whether remedies for spiritual paunchiness were as well provided as for the physical variety. In fact, although the search for “spiritual disciplines” throws up all manner of offers, there’s not much recognition that a person’s spiritual condition might be flabby and bloated. Nor do the voluminous works of the “body/soul/ spirit” industry have much to offer to the needy people who want something just to see them through a day on which they face poverty, statelessness, addiction, chronic illness or disability; so two of the common ailments of the spirit, over-indulgence and deprivation, may go unhealed. That’s because the spiritual guidance sector sees itself as peddling a range of remedies much as a “health” shop peddles vitamin compounds and ginseng. They are consumer options rather than answers to real need.

The offerings of traditional religion, on the other hand, are deeper and more arduous: the Christian Ignatian Exercises or  Buddhist Zazen are not lightly undertaken because they require serious commitment if they are to be beneficial; and are not well-suited to a secular lifestyle because they were developed in monastic communities.

As a habitual bible reader, I know that there are small disciplines based on biblical material which address the needs of rich and poor alike: the ten commandments for example are the basis for both Jewish and Christian disciplines of daily life. The  Catholic Christian use of the Psalms is another example. I have in the past suggested the use of the Lord’s Prayer as a communal discipline. But in the following series of blogs on this site I want to advocate a discipline based on the Blessings or Beatitudes of Jesus, found in Matthew chapter 5 verses 1+12:

Happiness for those who want no power over others:

The rule of heaven belongs to them

Happiness for those who grieve:

they will be comforted.

Happiness for the gentle:

they will possess the Land.

Happiness for those who hunger and thirst for justice:

they will be satisfied.

Happiness for those who show mercy:

mercy will be shown to them.

Happiness for those who have clean hearts:

they will see God.

Happiness for the peacemakers:

they will be called God’s children.

Happiness for those persecuted in the cause of good:

the rule of heaven belongs to them.

Happiness for you, when they hurt you and persecute you and slander you for my sake,

Be full of joy and delight

Because the reward which awaits you in heaven is huge.

For in the same way they persecuted your ancestors, the prophets.

(My translation)

I intend to work through each of these, but in truth to enter into one of them sincerely is to enter them all.

These are not blessings in the churchy sense. The Greek “makarios” points to a person’s good fortune,  success or happiness, which are blessings in the old sense of blessings which are counted. Jesus is insisting that real happiness will come to certain people whom he proceeds to define. We can say that he was looking to God’s rule or heaven’s rule when all wrongs would be righted, but he also said that people should see this rule already present in his struggle with evil spirits. The sort of people named by Jesus would be rewarded by the rule of God now and in the future, but their happiness starts now.

Jesus was telling both those who practised these virtues and those who rejected them, that contary to conventional wisdom, happiness was to be found in them.

That’s what we want, whether we are the poor and powerless who long for something better, or rich and powerful who think there is nothing better than what we have: happiness. The first blessing is hard for the rich and powerful to believe:

Happiness for those who want no power over others:

the rule of heaven belongs to them.

The Greek says “poor in spirit” designating the those who are content with modest means and status, the Hebrew “anawim” who are often mentioned by the prophets. This is not a blessing on abject poverty, which is as Bernard Shaw said, “a crime and the mother of crimes,” but on the capacity to walk lightly on the earth, accepting others as equals.

This is a hard one for me, as I often have a proud spirit that wants to dominate others, although I have no desire for wealth and find it reasonably easy to give it away. But I detest losing an argument or being less popular that the next man. Why can’t others see that I’m right and charming?

How can I enter into this blessing of Jesus?

Well, he’s cunning: Right up front he promises happiness. Indeed he makes no demand at all. Simply points to where real happiness is to be found. Can he be right? The only way of checking it out is to try it. In this case that means letting go the desire to dominate and watching out for what happens. And yes, certain things do happen. Firstly I can relax with others rather than being ready every minute to fight for position. I can notice with interest and sometimes pleasure, what others are like. After a while perhaps I begin to appreciate the equality I enjoy with these others and to resent those who are always trying to be top dog. Already some happiness has come my way. That cunning promise has led me into a change of mindset, in which my wrong desires are disciplined not by threat of punishment, but by happiness! How extraordinary that what may make me a better person is neither condemnation nor even a rush to be righteous, but the ordinary experience of happiness.

When I get this far, I have begun to enter Jesus’ blessings but there’s much more to discover.

 

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