Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Mansions of the Heart

In the preface to R. Thomas Ashbrook's Mansions of the Heart: Exploring the Seven Stages of Spiritual Growth, Eugene Peterson writes
"While I was in seminary in training to be a pastor, I was immersed in the Bible (a good thing), provided with an extensive familiarity in the theological thinking of Luther, Calvin, and others (also a good thing), but I learned virtually nothing regarding the on-the-ground living of the Christian life and what was actually involved in following Jesus over a lifetime in the cultural conditions of America." (p. xi)

Mansions of the Heart seeks to fill that void by providing a roadmap of the path to Christian maturity.  In this regard, it is nothing new.  In fact, it explicitly draws on a classic roadmap outlined in St. Teresa of Avila's The Interior Castle.  What is new is the way in which Ashbrook makes Teresa's insights orderly and accessible for contemporary Christian readers.  In so doing, Ashbrook has developed a manual for prayer and spiritual direction that is both catholic and evangelical.

In Teresa's typology, each "mansion" describes a stage of intimacy with God through Christ that moves more deeply into the interior of the "castle" (the human heart or soul).  It is a movement of increasing union with God, and each stage is characterized by different challenges and opportunities.  Ashbrook helpfully provides a template for each "mansion" that includes the heart's desire in relationship with God, key activities in response to God, changing patterns in prayer, Jesus' initiatives to draw us into a deeper intimacy with God, the "schemes of the enemy" that seek to undermine our growth in God, and keys for growth that help us cooperate with God.  These six lenses are used to examine each of the seven "mansions" or stages of growth.

Ashbrook grounds this theoretical template in a narrative of the lives of two hypothetical Christians, Abigail and Michael, as they move through the stages.  Their stories give texture and nuance to the stage theory they illustrate.  Ashbrook is well aware of the dangers inherent in such theories.  He is careful to acknowledge the unique way in which each individual will experience these stages, and emphasizes again and again that most people do not move through the stages in a neat, linear fashion.  Nevertheless, his use of St. Teresa's roadmap provides a framework that can help make sense of our own experience.

The great strength of Ashbrook's exposition is that he translates a catholic classic into language that contemporary evangelicals can hear.  This is, at the same time, the source of difficulty for readers, like me, who do not share the presuppositions of evangelicals.  While Ashbrook is far more sophisticated in his use of Scripture than simply proof-texting, he operates with a view of biblical authority that borders on sola scriptura - Scripture alone - that is alien to an Anglican hermeneutic of Scripture in dialogue with tradition and reason.

His felt need to quote Scripture at every turn is a little wearying at times, indicating an overly cautious approach to lived spiritual experience that tries to put God in a box.  At the same time, I appreciated his realism about our capacity to deceive ourselves about ourselves - and to be deceived by the evil one - which requires the corrective of the Christian community grounded in Scripture and tradition.

His depictions of Abigail and Michael felt a little sentimental and cloying in some places.  I would even go so far to say that it was, at times, sexist.  Abigail, for example, ministers only to other women, while Michael is called to ordained ministry.  Even so, their struggles with dating and marriage, parenting, addiction and other issues made their journeys real and compelling.  Ashbrook depicts their humanity, and ours, with a sense of grace and forbearance.

For me, what was most real and compelling about the book was its depiction of the Christian life as an ever-deeping invitation to love, a shift from treating God as an object to be manipulated, placated, or possessed, to experiencing relationship with God as an end in itself.  "Instead of having Jesus live as part of our lives, we had to discover how to live as part of His." (p. 170)  St. Teresa's vision is one of intimate union with God.  Ashbrook is at his best in conveying how this union is our heart's true desire, and all the ways in which we resist this desire.

Ashbrook's description of the spiritual journey is rich, complex, and realistic.  It has the ring of truth about it.  His chapter on St. John of the Cross and the experience of "The Dark Night of the Soul" rounds out St. Teresa's perspective nicely, and his exposition of the two provides a good introduction to Carmelite spirituality.  In spite of its limitations, any Christian who picks up Mansions of the Heart will find his or her experience reflected there.

No comments: