I was a sophomore at the University of Alabama when I bought my first bible. It was a black leather- bound “King James”, and I had my full name imprinted in gold leaf on the front cover.
I tucked my new treasure under my arm, and started back to my house. It was early Saturday morning, and the streets around campus were empty. As I walked past the student bars, empty beer bottles and plastic cups littered the curbs. The smell of stale alcohol hung low to the ground.
It occurred to me that I felt different from just moments ago—almost ‘giddy’ with a vague sense of anticipation. I had the curious feeling that my life was about to change.
Cornered by Life
It wasn’t moral goodness that drove me to that Christian book store that morning. It was anxiety. It was discontent. It was loneliness. It was a yearning inside for something more than this standard student life.
The American psychologist William James said “all spiritual experience begins with ego-deflation at depth”. Men and women do not just decide one morning to look in a different direction for happiness and fulfillment. We are jolted.
As I walked on, I felt I had stumbled into the entryway to another world—a non-material world that I would soon discover impacts and informs the physical world in ways that change everything.
Literature itself suggests the existence of the inner world through allegories of this inward adventure. For example;
- C.S. Lewis The Chronicles of Narnia
- Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland
- J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan
- L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz
In each of these stories, the protagonists stumble unaware into an alternate universe, and the experience changes their lives forever. Nothing will ever be the same. How they perceive and interact with the physical world is transformed by the experience. In every case, they become more wholly human, more awake, more alive.
Blaise Pascal, mathematician and Christian Mystic said,
“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words, by God himself”
Most ancient world religions acknowledged the existence of a ‘transcendent God’, or ‘Higher Power’ that hovers above all things.
Then, Jesus Christ entered the physical world with the astonishing news that God could not be found or contacted “out there”, but only from within. God is imminent.
“The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21)
Describing the Indescribable
Unlike the scientific proofs available to us for the workings of the physical world, this inner world, this ‘fourth dimension’ relies on empirical data. It relies on the primacy of experience. It relies on the common testimony over centuries of those who have immersed themselves in this inner world, and with mumbling and halting words, attempted to describe for us the inefable. It is like describing what an orange tastes like to one who has never even seen one.
The Christian mystics found only similes and metaphors could come close to describing this inner life. They wrote of the ‘Dark Night’ of the spirit, and of the descent into various rooms within a mansion, and of the ascent to the mountain top, and of mountains, and valleys, and of courtship, and of fire and light—all in an attempt to describe an inner journey that can be known only through experience.
The Inner World, Art, and Social Justice
Without this inner world, there would be no art, literature, music, or any of the humanities. This is why the arts and humanities must not be ignored in this technocratic world. All art, all literature, all music, all creative endeavors, all courageous acts of selflessness, spring forth from the inner life.
“Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world.” Edward Hopper, Artist
“The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.” Michelangelo
The greatest social justice movements in history were born of a rich inner life filled with faith, hope, and love—movements led by men and women who were dedicated first of all to cultivating their inner life; St. Theresa of Avila, Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Edith Stein, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, St. Theresa of Calcutta.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the inner lives of the artist, mystics and social activists over the centuries has saved our world from imploding underneath the weight of its materialism, individualism, greed, and self-absorption.
Falling Forward – Again
Since that Saturday morning, walking down the city streets with my treasure tucked under my arm, I have tried to stay close to my inner life. Many times I have drifted away from the journey inward, and have always paid a price; the price of allowing the outer world to inform and impact my inner life; the price of anxiety, frustration, melancholy, impatience, and general discontent.
In that state, I am unfit to be helpful to others, and I begin to lose a sense of meaning and purpose. This is serious stuff to me.
However, once I ‘come to my senses’ like the prodigal son, and make my way back home, I am restored almost immediately to that place of peace and serenity. Life is built upon these ‘mini-conversions’.
Why does this matter?
It is through my inner life that the events and circumstances of my outer life are informed. Evelyn Underhill, herself a Christian mystic, said “Those who have a deep and real inner life are best able to deal with the irritating (and sometimes tragic) events of outer life”
It is from God within – whether through spiritual reading, prayer, meditation, or circumstances, that I receive direction and guidance throughout the day. Some may call this intuition. I like to think of it as “God’s nudge” -as if God is elbowing me to alertness, to take some action, or to remember someone.
Dr. Franz E. Winkler wrote in his book Man: The Bridge Between Two Worlds:
“We must not believe that modern man has lost the gift of intuition. It is rather that his interest has become so exclusively focused on the outer world, his mental activities so completely occupied with analytical thinking, that he has lost the full appreciation of inner experience.”
These nudges have resulted in little miracles along the way; from being inspired to take a risk with a new initiative or proposal at my job, to a subtle prompting to reach out to a friend or family member, and discover it was the precise time they needed a friend. Even what to write about in this blog is most often the result of this nudge—sometime subtle, sometimes hard and abrupt.
This is the stuff of the inner world, and it is what makes life exciting and overflowing.
Emily Dickenson, poet and lifetime recluse, said “To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.” Led by the inner life, each day becomes an adventure, though the outer world appears to be the same, mundane place—or worse, it seems to be imploding on itself.
I will be forever grateful for that season of discontent years ago, that moment in time that ushered me into the reality of this inner life. The physical world is indeed beautiful, but it alone cannot sustain one with meaning and joy. The physical world was meant to be connected with and informed by my inner life–by God, who lives in me.