How did the book begin?
I've spent most of my life working with materials relating to the world religious traditions. Then about two years ago, questions about Christianity started to arise inside me, because it was for me--as for many--my formative tradition. And while I had never been disaffected like some people are, it began to dawn on me that my understanding of Christianity was arrested. Nothing much new had come in since adolescence. And as I looked deeper, there were many buried half-conscious questions, all together pretty primitive and subjective understanding of Christianity.
What were some of those questions?
Essential questions like...who was Christ? Had I really asked what was being asked of me as a Christian?
So as a result, the book is very personal. I just looked for those passages that resonated most strongly with me. I'm doing a companion volume to this one, 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 a group 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 reverence for the glory of the Holy Spirit. And it was not a theory for this 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. He was talking about a Russian martyr who was killed in 1990. One of his favorite themes, Serafim told me, was that Christianity is in its infancy. It's not an outmoded, out of date, worn-out tradition, but is in its infancy.
Because it has just begun after all. The aim is the spiritualization of all matter, the transformation of every human being. 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 the Lord a thousand years are as one day, so that means that Christianity is two days old." So you can't wonder at all about the missteps and the fumbling, because we're just beginning.
There is a saying, something like, "In the end, all theologians disagree 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 these vibrant, living, inner-core teachings of Christianity. I wanted to expose them because I felt that they'd been on the one hand encrusted by history and by human, I wouldn't say contamination exactly, but something like that. The words of the Christian tradition have been manhandled or used foolishly and loosely. Or they're so larded with sentimentality that you can hardly bear to hear them anymore. So I wanted to uncover the central teachings and what we can find in the words of people who try to live these teachings. It's these Christians who have been living the teachings who re-approach them and can make them new again.
In researching all of this, did you come across 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 levels
of pride. At the very end of the letter he says, "You've asked me to
write about humility and I ended up writing about pride. I reply I can only teach what I've learned, I did
not think I could fittingly describe the steps up, when I know more about
going down than going up, but if you look carefully you will find the way
So it's clear that no human being escapes the undercurrent of what Christianity calls sin: The tendency toward self-love and all of its forms, as opposed to love of God and love of neighbor. There no one is immune from this. 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 the neighbor, presence, will, obstacles, and so on, through to divine union, which is the ultimate relationship.
How did these people deal with those little niggling problems we have with other people--problems that are obstacles on the spiritual path?
Bonhoeffer begins with an insight that the Christian must bear the burden of a neighbor...of a brother. The Christian must suffer and endure the brother. It is only when he is a burden that another person is really your brother and not merely an object to be manipulated.
This cycle begins with another Orthodox Christian, Kallistos Ware. He says that a whole person is a person who is on the one side open to God and the other side open to other human persons. The isolated individual is not a real person.
Yet some of these people had a limited sphere of activity with the neighbor.
But even these felt connected to others, prayed for others, felt connected to the communion of saints and other fellow Christians. There's no feeling of the heroic individual here. They're always united to their fellows in spirit.
Any last thoughts?
After I'd finished the book, I read that the whole Christian teaching could be summed up in two words: Alleluia and Amen. That's wonder again. Praise and glory and thanksgiving. "Alleluia" for all the gifts of life, and "Amen": So be it, thy will be done. I could not have done the chapters--I could have just summed up that most perfect union in a two-word book: Alleluia and Amen.