How did the book begin?
I've spent most of my life workingwith materials relating to the world religious traditions. Then about two years ago, questions about Christianity started to arise inside me, because itwas for me--as for many--my formative tradition. And while I hadnever been disaffected like some people are, it began to dawn on me that myunderstanding of Christianity was arrested. Nothing much new had come insince adolescence. And as I looked deeper, there weremany buried half-conscious questions, all together pretty primitive and subjective understanding ofChristianity.
What were some of those questions?
Essential questions like...who was Christ? Had I really asked whatwas being asked of me as a Christian?
So as a result, the book is very personal. I just looked for thosepassages that resonated most strongly with me. I'm doing a companion volume to thisone, on Christian teachings on the practice of prayer. In that book, I'm interviewing people.
What sort of people?
I didn't draw up a list--I'm hearing about people and I'm just following my nose. Someone told me about an Eastern Orthodox bishop, Father Bishop Serafim, a wonderful man. He's spent a lot of time in Northern Japan and now works with agroup in Moscow. Here's a man who embodies Christian spirituality in an undeniable way. The Eastern Orthodox tradition is very practical, very insightful, and ravishingly beautiful. It has this passionate theology of light and a very special reverencefor the glory of the Holy Spirit. And it was not a theory forthis man. The Holy Spirit--it was a reality. And when he got close to discussing these real things, tears would come.
One thing Serafim said just made my heart leap with joy. Hewas talking about a Russian martyr who waskilled in 1990. One of his favorite themes, Serafim told me,was that Christianity is in its infancy. It'snot an outmoded, out of date, worn-out tradition, butis in its infancy.
Because it has just begun after all. The aim is the spiritualization of all matter, the transformation of every humanbeing. This is a huge undertaking. And I told that to a Benedictine abbess later on, and she said, "Well, you know it's been said that in the eyes of theLord a thousand years are as one day, so that means that Christianity is twodays old." So you can't wonder at all about the missteps and thefumbling, because we're just beginning.
There is a saying, something like, "In the end, all theologiansdisagree and all mystics--of whatever religion--agree." Did you find that to be the case when you were collecting this material?
What I went looking for were thesevibrant, living, inner-core teachings of Christianity. I wanted to exposethem because I felt that they'd been on the one hand encrusted by historyand by human, I wouldn't say contamination exactly, but somethinglike that. The words of the Christian tradition have beenmanhandled or used foolishly and loosely. Or they're so lardedwith sentimentality that you can hardly bear to hear them anymore. So I wanted to uncover the central teachings and what we can find in thewords of people who try to live these teachings. It's these Christianswho have been living the teachings who re-approach them and can make them newagain.
In researching all of this, did you comeacross typical "pitfalls" of this very highly spiritually evolved sort of person?
Well, for example,Bernard of Clairvaux was asked to write about humility. He begins by writing about pride and all the steps where you begin to fall into this great center of pride, and all the levelsof pride. At the very end of the letter he says, "You've asked me towrite about humility and I ended up writing about pride. I reply I can only teach what I've learned, I didnot think I could fittingly describe the steps up, when I know more aboutgoing down than going up, but if you look carefully you will find the wayup."
So it's clear that no human being escapes the undercurrent of whatChristianity calls sin: The tendency toward self-love and all of its forms, asopposed to love of God and love of neighbor. There no one is immune fromthis. It's a struggle.
Your book is divided into 10 themed "cycles." How do these work?
Each cycle goes from the most accessible level to the most sublime insight on the topic on that cycle's theme. The cycles themselves move from what D.H. Lawrence called the "fundamental religious sense of wonder" through teachings on theneighbor, presence, will, obstacles, and so on, through to divine union, whichis the ultimate relationship.