“Don’t ask me now to wash away the grime;
I can’t come in because it’s too high a climb.”
And he walked away from my fleeting house.
— from “Morning Glory,” a song by Larry Beckett and Tim Buckley (video below)
If the goal of my spiritual life is transformation, spiritual attainment, or personal improvement, then any path I walk leads back to me — that is, nowhere.
When the orientation of my spirituality is toward something that I want for myself, then I remain, unquestioned and unquestioning, at the center. While I am in that condition — which I might hide most effectively from myself — my spiritual life is a delusion: my soul is a cloistered void, a vacuum in which spirit does not breathe. My spirituality is an ornament, a possession, another “good” in a life given over to acquiring, enjoying, and exhibiting goods; even the good works I do are such goods. Ironically, absurdly, my existence as spiritless void thrives in the delusion that I can and do possess spiritual life.
It may seem, therefore, that I should try to free myself from delusion. But Quaker wisdom warns against any attempt at self-salvation. Instead, it invites me simply to be open to recognizing my delusions — an attitude that may lead to my being increasingly detached from them. Note the uncertainty and passivity. The mind of delusion cannot free itself; it can only allow itself to look when light shines on that which has been ignored or repressed. If detachment comes, it will be a fruit of that revelatory in-sight.
That mindset of openness to sobering, even painful revelation is at the heart of silent Quaker worship: the turning of bare attention, without denial or rationalization, to whatever appears as I am searched by the light that was in Jesus. Silent worship leads me into a living awareness of my delusions, beginning with that of believing that I have none. The experience of worship destabilizes my sense of self — which, after all, is grounded in the delusion of autonomy, substance, persistence, presence. In that disruption, that break in the void, spiritual life may take root.
But the receptive passivity of worship is not my natural way. Normally, I walk the path to nowhere, the path of self-as-center, believing that I am on a spiritual journey in search of truth. Meanwhile, the light that would visit me with disruptive revelation is knocking, as it were, at the door of my empty house. Indeed, I would not be seeking had I not already failed to open myself to the light. That is why Quakers have emphasized the apostle John’s doctrine that the light called Christ “enlightens everyone” but imbues with spiritual life and power only those who accept it.1
It is when I can no longer deny the futility of my “own thoughts, searching, seeking, desires, and imaginations”2 that I may find myself in the patient and humble waiting of worship. If I then hear the Christ-light knocking, I can do no more than unlock the door in fear and trembling.3 As light enters my house, my psyche, any attempt on my part to control the encounter will end it, probably leaving me with the delusion of attainment — that is, further from truth than before, if that were possible. Believing that I have attained something by experiencing the light, I will be confirmed in delusion even as my soul is dying of self-absorption. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to preserve her psychē will destroy it, but whoever destroys her psychē for my sake will preserve it.”4 To unlatch the door of the heart and entrust oneself to the Christ-light is to begin to destroy one’s psyche, for the normal human psyche is an interlock of defenses against spirit.
Spiritual life begins, then, with a kind of death, when defenses fail and delusions fall apart, when I see and cannot flee from my essential nothingness, when I am inescapably confronted by my own absence. It unfolds in unsolicited subtraction by the Christ-spirit — subtraction as loss of absolute value, not as addition of negative value. Loss is not a gain or attainment here; only the simulacrum of loss, the accumulation of negative value, can appear as such. That is, no technique, no regimen of detachment, asceticism, or via negativa,5 can avail; ultimately, those are economic transactions, attempts to add to myself. But by dispelling the delusion of self as center, the Christ-light delivers me from quantification, from fixation, from the fallacy of presence, easing my need for self-validation and spiritual success. In this deliverance, nothing is perfected, transformed, or improved: indeed, nothing is saved.
 See John 1:9-13.
 “[B]e still awhile from thy own thoughts, searching, seeking, desires, and imaginations, and be stayed in the principle of God in thee ….” — George Fox, letter to Elizabeth Cromwell Claypole. Compare Isaac Penington’s “Give over thine own willing; give over thine own running; give over thine own desiring to know or to be any thing, and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee, and be in thee, and breathe in thee, and act in thee ….”
 The sentence contains two scriptural references. (1) Revelation 3:19-20: “As many as I care for, I am exposing and instructing: be zealous, therefore, and of changed mind. Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears me and opens the door, I will go in to them, and will dine with them, and they with me.” (2) Philippians 2:12b-13: “Make effective your deliverance with fear and trembling [quaking], for it is God who is working in you, willing and acting for good desire.” (Both renderings are mine.)
 See Matthew 16:25, Luke 9:24, Mark 8:35; cf. John 12:24-25. Psychē is a transliteration of the Greek ψυχή, the noun used in all four books.
 Via negativa is “the way of negation.” For the classic theological use of the term, see the Wikipedia article, “Apophatic theology.” For an example of contemporary self-help use, see “Via Negativa – The Art Of Adding To Your Life By Subtracting From It.”
The video below features a 1968 studio performance of the song “Morning Glory” by the original Blood, Sweat, and Tears group. The song’s text can help illuminate the theme of this post. The narrator lights his “purest candle” and places it in the window of his “fleeting house,” hoping to attract a vagabond, a character whom we can see as a Christ figure, who will enter his house and tell him stories. Presumably, he hopes to acquire wisdom as well as pleasure — and, perhaps, to be distracted from the “fleeting” nature of his “house” — by listening to “tales of time.” When a hobo is attracted by the candle’s promise of hospitality, the narrator does not inquire about the other’s needs or even offer food or drink, but immediately calls out a demand for stories: although he smiles at the man and even kneels before him, he is not really in relationship with him; his focus is on himself and what he wants for himself. Any good works that he might do, such as feeding the hobo, are contingent upon his own wants being satisfied. The hobo refuses to be used, speaking the lines that are quoted as the epigraph of this post. Apparently, he understands that the narrator’s proud self-absorption precludes real learning from a dirty vagabond — or is it the unacknowledged grime in the protagonist or his house to which the visitor refers? As the vagabond walks away, the narrator curses him, falling to his knees as he cries, “Turn into stone!” One can easily contrive to receive validation from a Christ idol, an ersatz spirit; the living spirit, however, does not bend to one’s will. The final scene is humorous but all too realistic: the vagabond gone, the narrator again lights his “purest candle” and sets it in the window, hoping again to attract a vagabond and add stories to his collection. He has not learned anything; likely, he never will. [Return to post]