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An atheist describes the spiritual life

This is Alain de Boton, the only atheist philosopher I like. He’s talking about the errors of modernity over “romantic love”. But transpose everything he says from the realm of looking for a spouse to the relationship of the soul with God. This describes the psychological difficulties we have when we first undertake to establish the intimacy with God that the real pursuit of the spiritual life is about.

“It takes us a long long time before we’re really on top of the way in which we are hard to live with…There’s a wall of silence that surrounds us from a deeper acquaintance with what is actually so difficult about us…A stranger we’ll know more about your flaws then you might learn over 40 years of life on the planet. Our capacity to intuit what is wrong with us is very weak.”

In fact, he’s describing is the difficulties of monastic life. The thing people don’t understand about monastic life is that it is just the Christian life without distractions or escape. It is all about forcing you to confront two very difficult and frightening things: yourself and other people. Everyone has to do this, but most of life is spent avoiding this necessity. Living in a monastery is mostly about speeding this process up.

Classical spiritual direction is about this too. The job of a spiritual director is to help you “cure your soul,” that is, to help you root out everything that’s wrong with you.

All of us are addicts…not injecting heroin as such, but addicts. We need to redefine what addiction is. I like to define addiction not in terms of the substance you’re taking… No. Addiction is basically any pattern of behaviour whereby you cannot stand to be with yourself and certain of the more uncomfortable thoughts and more importantly emotions that come from being on your own. And so therefore you can be addicted to almost anything so long as it keeps you away from yourself so it was it keeps you away from tricky self-knowledge.

This is what Pascal meant:

“When I have set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves…I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.” 

This self-knowledge is the first and absolutely indispensable prerequisite to the pursuit of holiness. You don’t get to keep God at bay. You can – sort of – do it in this life, but that’s not going to last, and if you try you will find that God tends to be rather insistent.

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;

I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,

Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.

But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,

Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,

They beat – and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet –

‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me’.