I had a dream last night — about one of my favorite retreat centers, and one of my favorite books.
The setting of my dream was the Montreat Conference Center, in Black Mountain NC, just up the road from Asheville. I’ve been to Montreat numerous times over the past six or seven years, but always in a leadership role. But in last night’s dream, I was a participant in a program, led by one of the faculty members of Columbia Theological Seminary.
As the dream begins, I was milling about in a conference room, chatting with some of my fellow retreatants and waiting for a two-hour class to begin at 3 PM.
I was thinking about a used bookstore on the other side of the lake opposite the conference center (in real life there’s no used bookstore there, only a gift shop and a fair trade store, but hey, this is a dream). I had visited the used bookshop earlier in the day and had seen a nice copy of Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill, which of course is one of my favorite books. At the time I didn’t buy the book, but later, as I’m waiting for the three o’clock program to begin, I decided I wanted it.
What to do? In that split second I decided I need to dash back to my room, grab my wallet, and run down to the store, buy the book, and then run back up the hill to the conference, where hopefully I would only be a few minutes late to the class.
So I made for the door leading to the stairwell. Just as I was about the cross the threshold, the retreat leader called out to me. She was getting ready to begin her class, and clearly was discomfited with my conspicuous leaving. She asked where I was going. “I just need to get something, I’ll be right back,” I replied. She also called out another person’s name, and I saw that a woman had reached the stairs ahead of me. That woman, however, remained silent. I ran past her and started bounding down the steps.
I was mentally calculating how long it would take me to get to my wallet, get to the store, make the purchase, and dash back up the hill (and stairs!) to my class, when — just as I reached the main landing in the conference center — the thought occurred to me: “Why am I going to all this trouble for a book I already have?”
For you see, I already own five copies of Underhill’s Mysticism. I have a lovely 1962 printing of the hardback with dust jacket which I keep with my autographed and antiquarian books; I have two copies of the Dutton paperback edition — one that a friend gave me in 1979, and one that I use when I’m teaching — plus two ebook editions, the Kindle version and the Verbum version. I think it’s safe to say I don’t need another copy! Even for a book I love as much as Mysticism.
So as soon as I realized this whole endeavor didn’t make much sense, I woke up.
I think this dream encapsulates something I’ve been pondering a lot lately. The spiritual life comes with its own share of pitfalls and snares — and one such trap is getting caught up in the idea that I need “something more” — I need to read another book, or attend another retreat or workshop, or become familiar with the teachings of yet another mystic, in order to find what I’m looking for.
Don’t get me wrong. I love all this stuff. I enjoy reading the mystics, as well as the writings of contemporary contemplatives. And I love going on retreats (whether I’m leading them or simply enjoying being a participant). So I’m not suggesting there’s anything “wrong” in doing all of the above.
But I think sometimes, like me in my dream, we are running after something we already have. Maybe we do that a lot.
The necessary “ingredients” for the spiritual life are the presence of God, the pleasure of silence, the ability to stop and listen and behold, the capacity to pay attention (and to resume paying attention whenever we’re distracted), a commitment to repent and forgive and be forgiven, and a willingness to love and serve others, whether that means feeding someone or working for justice or some other worthy initiative. Throw in the scripture, the writings of the mystics, the sacraments, and a healthy and growing faith community, and you’ve got everything you need.
So why do we keep running after the latest bestselling book, or celebrity teacher, or popular practice?
I think often we don’t know how to trust. We don’t know how to trust that God is truly present, even in our humble, ordinary daily lives. We don’t know how to trust that our imperfect, halting, distraction-prone attempt to pray or meditate really is all we need to get started (or to continue). And we don’t trust that the little ways we are called to serve, or to love, or to forgive, are really all that we need to grow as God wants us to grow.
So we keep hustling after the latest spiritual fad. I’m not saying that’s a sin. But perhaps it’s a bit unnecessary.
The Roman philosopher Seneca said, “It is much better to devote yourself to a few authors, than to lose your way among a multitude.” A more contemporary figure, Sara Maitland, makes this statement in her luminous work called A Book of Silence: “In ten years I have shed over thirty yards of books and can honestly say I have seldom missed any of them.”
We don’t need to read 1000 different books in order to be a mystic (or a contemplative). Likewise, we don’t have to read the same book a thousand times. Once again: if you love books, read books. If you love a particular book, read it as much as you want.
But if you’re running after something you already have, I invite you to stop and consider what you’re doing. Maybe what you’re really after is already within you. And maybe all you really need is to trust.