After Chautauqua – A Pamphlet of Spiritual Unawakening
I read this anonymous little booklet many years ago, and during a recent re-organization of the house, I found it again. I realize now that many of my religious and spiritual instincts come from this book. It has no copyright notice, and is out of print. It seems to have been meant for unlimited reproduction. I thought it worth republishing here, as it continues to be timely for a certain population of Christians. I don’t know if the story contained in its pages is fact or fiction, but hopefully someone can benefit from the ideas.
Most nights in Colorado, we went to bed early, tired out by the ranch activities that kept us busy all day. But it was Sunday now. Activities had been curtailed, and most of us had gone to church that morning. We sat up late around a Great Room fire and spoke in hushed tones of the Kingdom of God.
In our youth, 8 of us had been drawn to Chautauqua by the infectious spirit of those times. It had been an attitude of overwhelming interest in spiritual renewal and discovery. Among the more orthodox, such as ourselves, it expressed itself as a desire for more spiritual vitality within the old religious forms.
We 8 first met there, on the shores of Chautauqua Lake and around the campfires of the conference grounds, and through the years we kept up those friendships. How many years had gone by I won’t say exactly, but most of us had grown children, and we had afforded to rent the ranch and meet there with our spouses.
Over the years, we had already in one way or another confessed our dissatisfaction with the spiritual lessons we had taken from Chautauqua. They hadn’t worn well, we agreed. Now we spoke with hesitation about our efforts to discover better paths.
“I feel like the rich young ruler,” someone said. “We were given all this good advice, but I went away sad because I couldn’t put it into practice.”
“The rich young ruler,” we echoed.
But a 9th man said quietly, “Or the reverse.”
He was older than any of us. We’d hesitated about asking him along, and had been slightly surprised when he accepted. Most of us knew him in one way or another – but not from Chautauqua.
After a moment of silence, we began to insist that he explain himself. It was for this kind of conversation we’d asked him in the first place.
He bowed his head, put his hands together, and thought in silence.
“The rich young ruler,” he said, “is the perfect example of the kind of person Chautauqua teaching is meant for. And most of us simply aren’t like him at all.”
“Let Go and Let God – that’s what they preach, isn’t it? Letting go of your self-righteousness and letting God take over?”
“And along with that, there’s all this teaching about death to self, taking up the cross, and so on. Well – to make myself clear, I met someone like the rich young ruler once. He wasn’t what you would think. He wasn’t pompous, or arrogant, and he didn’t seem to think he wasn’t in need of God. He was simply a man with enormous natural talent. He had the talent for making money, the talent for organization and efficiency, and the talent for fearless generosity and philanthropy. Why, if he had said to me that from his youth up he had kept all the commandments of God perfectly, I would actually have believed him. I wouldn’t believe it from anyone else, though.”
We smiled ruefully in the low light and nodded, murmuring agreement.
A shy lady spoke up, drawing her dungarees-clad knees to her chest and wrapping her arms around them. “I think I know what you mean. I – I don’t know what the psychiatrists would call it, but I have a sort of complex or something – I can’t bear to follow the same routine for more than three days in a row. I feel I must scream if something doesn’t change. Because of this I have always been quite unsuccessful in establishing any spiritual disciplines. I can’t help but think that if I had been born with an orderly, regular sort of mind, my spiritual hunger would be enough to make me one of those prayer warriors you hear about.”
We smiled encouragingly at her, and 9th man went on. “That’s exactly what I mean. One is disorganized; another is racked by anxiety; another has no willpower. These things have bad results, no doubt, but they are not really spiritual sins. They are inborn, just as the rich young ruler’s righteousness was inborn. Why, if we are going to talk about his “Self-Righteousness,” then we might as well begin talking about our own “Self-Un-Righteousness.” Because I don’t suppose that most of our unrighteousness is any more really unrighteous, in God’s eyes, than that young man’s righteousness was really righteous.”
“Why don’t we read about such things in the Bible?” a lady demanded.
“I think we do,” he said quietly, then fell silent.
The shy lady spoke up again. “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Doesn’t that sound as if it were spoken to a completely different set of people than those who are told, ‘Take up your cross and follow me?’”
We looked at the 9th man. “How many of us really need an extra cross, besides the one we are already nailed to?” he said.
We shook our heads.
A muffled male voice, belonging to a man who was having marital troubles, confessed, “I think it’s cross enough most days, just being who and what I am.”
No one disagreed.
The 9th man waited, but as no one else spoke, he continued. “Yes, the natural man will make of Chautauqua advice just as much a muddle as he made of the Old Testament law.”
We raised our heads. I myself said something around then, about having felt for a long time that there was a wrong way of being religious, and that it was just as miserable as being unreligious.
Someone else said that the natural man could be quite religious, and another observed that sometimes this simply expressed itself as morose self-torture, out of guilt-feelings.
We looked to see if the 9th man would object to the use of modern psychological terms.
The 9th man said, “And the Self-Un-Righteous man justifies his misery by those very passages not meant for him, about taking up his cross.”
Most agreed, but the woman who had objected previously spoke up again, more gently. She had an exacting personality, and liked to make sure she was getting things right. “So are these scriptures about death to self not even applicable to most of us?”
We waited for the 9th man.
“Not if we take them to mean anything burdensome or torturous or agonizing,” he said quietly, but firmly. “It lends itself so easily to perversion, taken that way. I’ve worked with some people who don’t just have one or two personality flaws, but whole complexes of them. Such people as cannot even function in society at all, or who never had any chance of real success in life, and I don’t really believe it is their fault. Most such people, if they are sincere at all, experience a constant death-wish. They cannot bear to be themselves any longer, and see death as a coming release, not a looming threat.”
“How dreadful,” we murmured in pity.
“One wishes there were some way to help such people,” someone said. “Better education, perhaps.”
The 9th man waited politely to see if the conversation would now follow the new direction, of discussing social betterment. But after a few comments of the sort, the topic died down.
The man who was having marital troubles said, a touch bitterly, “Well, I, for one, don’t feel equipped to do much for them. It’s all I can do to handle my own troubles.”
To some degree most of us seemed to feel the same.
The 9th man had a look of compassion on his face in the firelight. “The death to self might be a terrible trial to someone of great natural virtue, but to most of us it is really something of a relief. What Paul calls the ‘natural man,’ I often refer to as ‘The Pseudo-Mind’ or ‘the Pseudo-Self.’ It is really a collection of thinking and feeling habits, like a transparent mask over the consciousness. It grew out of our life experiences and our inborn traits, and it feels as much a part of us as anything. But when the mask comes off and the true face looks out on the world, nothing then feels as if it were missing.” He drew himself up, pressing his lips together and seeming to fear he had said too much.
Someone else, a mother of 7, spoke up for the first time. She had not been at Chautauqua with us, but had married one of us. “I – I heard it said by someone once,” she said, “that it’s as if a nice gentle saintly person comes up behind you one day, taps you on the shoulder, and says, ‘Stop your fuming and grieving and hopeless wails. You weren’t supposed to be in charge here, and now you’ve got to move over.’ And you tell that person how hopeless it is, how little good she can do here, but she stares you down, and you subside. And suddenly, you aren’t that wailing ninny and never were. You’re the saintly person, and you’ve got the care of this poor beat-up organism the other has been running into the ground with her false virtues and accidental vices, and nothing at all is missing.”
We looked into the fire, as her husband put his arm around her.
The 9th man said gently, “And it’s true, that’s the real self and was all along. It’s the little baby that Christ has been feeding and nurturing all along, and it’s just gotten old enough to step into the director’s chair, now.”
“I’m not sure,” said the objecting lady, “How exactly all this is different from what we learned at Chautauqua. I mean, you’re both talking about the natural man and the spiritual man, and living in Christ, and walking by faith – aren’t you?”
We felt it was different, and that we’d just been shown a side of the picture we’d never seen before. But we didn’t have a strong enough grip on the concept to defend it yet, so we looked to the 9th man.
He was beginning to look tired, but he considered the question carefully. “I think the really important difference is how one approaches the whole thing. It’s no use, I’ve found, trying to die to self. It’s no use flogging oneself, either physically or mentally. It’s no use at all trying to force open the door and let in the new man. And it’s no use even trying to grasp who the natural man is, and who the new man is, until that tap on the shoulder comes. So all this “laying your all on the altar,” and “choosing to walk by faith” is really just a way to complicate the Pseudo-Self further – to make it more religious, and more vicious, and more self-satisfied, and more self-loathing, too. It is full of contradictions, of course.”
“Well, what’s to do, then?” the objecting lady said hopelessly – almost fiercely.
“Well, I know of only two things that help,” he said, getting up and stretching. “I really must go to bed.”
We stood up with him. “What are the two things?”
“I’m wrong,” and he frowned; “there are three.”
“The first is to feed that little baby. Any kind of spiritual nourishment you can take in, you simply and modestly take it in. And you trust that behind the scenes somewhere, that little baby is growing stronger. Not forgetting, of course, that the little baby is not any self that you know. If you think you are becoming better, you probably aren’t.”
The objecting lady’s head dropped a little, and she sat down again.
“The second,” he said, “is to wait. Call it waiting on God, if you like. Another way to put it is, don’t make it worse by attempts to become spiritual – or protestations of unspirituality, either.”
He stretched and stifled a yawn. “I’m almost saying, that one must stop being so sincere, and start going through the motions. Those motions – the reading of scripture, the repeating of prayers, the partaking of the sacraments and offices of the established churches – those things are really hateful to the Pseudo-Self, because it’s not he that is getting the benefit. To him, it’s all dry externalism or something. The grace goes straight to the new man, the hidden Son or Daughter of Christ waiting in the wings.
It is really the wild enthusiasms, the public repentances, the tears, the testimonies, and the surges of easy emotion that the religious Pseudo-Self loves. He is making believe, the whole time, that he really is the New Man, of which he has heard such very respectable things. He is making believe that his moping and resentment over his weakness is death to self, and that his moments of enjoyment and his natural virtues come from grace.”
We were moving toward the bedroom hallway in a little cluster, treading very softly to hear what he would say at the end.
“What is the third thing?” someone asked, just as he reached his door.
“Shut up about it,” he said, and then his head jerked up. “I beg your pardon,” he said, and went inside.
“Who is that man?” one of the spouses whispered, after his door had shut.
“Don’t you know?” someone said. “He’s one of the richest men in America.”