Saturday, September 17, 2005

Dying Upward

I discovered that curious phrase in the book I mentioned in my last post. Here it is in context: “He must seek the things of that world above him, set his affection upon it and mortify the members of his body that cling to and are entangled in that lower world in which he lives. If he cannot die to the old life, he cannot live to the new. It offers itself with all it has to give, but he must make his choice: live and die, exhausting his powers in the narrow life of pleasure, or dying upward into a life that opens out wider prospects and stirs his heart by more stimulating hopes… How hard it is to rise… How dim and impalpable the vision of the world above us until we enter in and take possession, and how substantial the grip of those things for which we live, until, with pain and tears, we break away and die upward into the world above. Then how poor and shadowy and worthless the world we leave seems when looked at from above—like the toys of childhood seen by the eyes of a man.”

This is just another way of explaining Jesus’ “doctrine of the cross.” To follow Him we have to deny ourselves and take up our crosses; we have to lose our lives in order to save them. That is, we have to lose our “lower” life (governed by the “law of the members” and the “law of sin”) in order to gain the higher life (governed by the “law of the mind” and the “law of the Spirit of Life”). It is a generous response to “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14).

Jesus also spoke of the grain of wheat that has to die (to its seed-state) before it can open up to the new and vibrant life of the full-grown, fruit-bearing plant. The old has to be sacrificed for the new to emerge. We see that law at work in nature and we see it at work in our psychological, moral, and spiritual lives.

“Mortification” has become a kind of a dirty word in many circles, conjuring up images of morbid self-flagellation, scrupulous asceticism, or shutting oneself off from all the beauty and joy in the world. True mortification, however, is not self-hatred; it is not contempt for the world God created. But it expresses a simple law of the spiritual life: you must die before you can rise, you must shed the old, sinful self before putting on the new, sanctified one—“always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2Cor. 4:10). Perhaps “self-discipline” would be a somewhat more agreeable term, though it lacks the paschal connotation of death and resurrection. In any case, it is essential to spiritual growth and maturity.

Fr Basil Maturin continues: “Henceforth, his life must be one of mortification, dying that he may live, a yielding of nature to grace, a surrender of the things of earth to the powers of Heaven, a constant mingling of the sadness of earthly surrender with the divine gladness of heavenly attainment… There is always a sense of loss at first in passing from a lower to a higher life, but the loss is soon forgotten in the gain… And as we pass from the undeveloped and spiritually ignorant state of the citizens of the kingdom of earth and become citizens of the kingdom of Heaven, we enter into ‘the liberty of the glory of the children of God.’ This is the mortification that the Christian life demands: the surrender of our whole self to the new life that descends from above to sanctify and energize every power and faculty of our nature and fit us to enter into the Vision of God.”

I’d rather die upward than live downward. The former frees us for the life of grace and prepares us for everlasting joy; the latter enslaves us to selfish indulgence and prepares us for the endless descent of the bottomless abyss. Begin today to press your way upward to the kingdom above.