I don’t know how old I was (jr. high?), but I do know this: I was too young to be the Sunday School teacher for the 5th grade boys. But the church was desperate and I was their boy, so the coach put me in. I am not sure what the class learned except how clever they were to discover that I could be nicknamed “Rod White and Blue.”
But I learned quite a few things. One of them has stuck with me ever since. In order to keep these boys occupied I decided to have them enact the story of Joseph for the church (Genesis 37-50). I have no idea why the pastor let us do this in the Sunday meeting, since it was a uniformly terrible production. But the parents put everyone in a bathrobe and the servant found the communion chalice in a gunny sack and the whole thing. Perhaps the kids still remember the epic story as a result. I do. I have been pondering it my whole life (and I’m not alone).
Edge and center spirituality
Recently, I learned a new twist to the great story after I read a book about discerning life transitions. I have offered an entire series of messages about life transitions based on this great saga about Joseph and his family, since all the stages are all there and vividly portrayed. But this new book taught me that, in the course of moving through the stages of spiritual development, there is another theme to follow and the author used Joseph to demonstrate it. Ernie Boyer called it “edge spirituality” and “center spirituality.” Boyer’s idea sees two spiritual ways in life, reconciling them in the image of a circle, in which the “edge” is our traditional sense of spiritual discipline and the center is a renewed spirituality of everyday concerns. His idea brings Mary and Martha back to living together in the same house, perhaps Mary returning from her hermitage or Martha moving into the monastery.
Boyer encourages us to explore life “on the edge” (following the lead of our apostles, prophets, and artists) — like the edge of a wheel, feeling all the highs and lows, coming into contact with the rough surface of the earth, and rolling into what is next. But he also, realistically, encourages us to stop neglecting life “at the center,” which we often despise for its repetition and domesticity, and find the Spirit in what is already established. These two spiritualities are often side by side in the New Testament, though the edge is often considered the better way. You can see how this is a nice metaphor for meditating on our individual and communal lives. Individuality lends itself to a heroic search for the edge. Community leads us to look for ways to develop the sacrament of our routine and the blessings of living as part of the Lord’s body. There is always a balance of individual calling and caring for others, of looking at our personal career goals and caring for our family, both biological and spiritual.
Joseph learns his relationship with God and his unique calling out on the edge: in his dreams as a teen, in a pit in his twenties, way on the edge in Egypt in his thirties, in prison in his forties (the timeline is subject to interpretation of course). Then in his older years, he ends up in the center of Pharaoh’s household in the center of the whole kingdom and in the center of a famine that gives him the capacity to save his family, bring them to live with him and end up at the center of them again. There is an interesting dance of these complementary spiritual ways in the story. Joseph’s family upheaval spins him out on the edge. Then his great spiritual journey on the edge makes him fully capable of nurturing the center. You can also see this idea worked out from the beginning to the end of the Lord’s mission. At the beginning, Jesus is pushed to the edge by his mother, at a wedding no less. Then at the end, as Jesus turns back toward home, both as a man and God on the cross, he looks to his mother and provides her a home with John, then turns to the Father and says, “It is finished.”
How the two spiritualities go together
As I look back over my faith development, I can see how these two spiritualities often felt like they were in competition, but usually ended up in a balance – or at least a truce! When I got out of high school, and the kind of Baptist Church that would make me a Sunday School teacher (!), I became an actual Christian. My first mentors in the faith were all people who had great faith “on the edge.” I loved Anthony in the desert, Patrick on his hill, Francis in his cave and Wesley on horseback. It was a real question whether to become a Franciscan or marry Gwen. I just could not get God to let me be a Franciscan — and since you may know my wife, you can see why I did not argue too much with the good given to me in her! But my mentors in history made me feel a bit guilty about my choice. Since an “edge” spirituality often despises anyone who ties themselves to the “center” of the wheel.
Thank God I had the flower-child-recasting of St. Francis in Brother Sun, Sister Moon to encourage me. Here is a bit of wisdom stuck in my memory, straight from the script:
[Giocondo] I can take all the rest, the cold, the hunger, but there are days and nights when I’d gladly face eternal damnation for one moment of love. I’ll ruin everything you’ve tried to do, Francesco. I can’t go on.
[Francesco] But, but you don’t have to. We’re not a regiment of priests for whom the sacred vow of chastity is a discipline. We’re, we’re just a band of men who simply love God, each according to his own capacity. But if Giocondo finds the lack of a woman distracts him from loving God,then he should marry and breed to his heart’s content.
[Giocondo] You didn’t cut my hair before. You knew I was weak. You knew this would happen.
[Francesco] If everyone took the vow of chastity, the human race would end. Be fruitful and multiply, but with a wife, remember.
Dwight Judy says, “Most of us are not living the highly individualistic life of early hermits in the desert. We live in society, in communities, and in families. Yet the resources from Christian spirituality largely reflect the individual quest for purity of soul before God. Even when engaging in a communal living situation, such as monastic life, our spiritual legacy of prayer and attention to the inner journey helps us primarily with the task of solitary communion with God.” Francis had to assure Giocondo that making love is great. For many of us it is one of the most spiritual things we do. And watching a child born is usually the closest sense of incarnation we ever witness.
The spirituality of the center is the hub of the circle where we live in community and family, doing the daily routine in grace. The turning of the wheel and the bumps in the road usually push us toward the edge, where we meet God in our unique experiences, gifts and troubles. The rarified experiences we have out on the edge then inform our return and refresh the center. The two spiritualities are woven together in a “coat of many colors,” just like Joseph’s.
Being conscious helps with the balancing
I have a great affection for St. Francis whose “out there” spirituality also built a community who still love to call themselves the “little brothers,” just like he taught Giocondo. I know my balancing act of the two spiritualities, though somewhat conscious, has often careened from one extreme to the other. This blog post arose in a day of retreat out on the edge. But I will be into the community life of Circle of Hope later in the week and August is full of family and friends — and I am still married to my lovely wife! But as much as I long for my solitude with God and the pure joy of revelation and comfort I find there, it is really no less joyful, I think, than having my grandson climb up on my lap as I am lounging, put his little nose on my big one and ask me one of his profound questions. So odd, isn’t it, that we might despise one revelation in comparison to the other, or ignore one and specialize in the other, or fear the edge while we cling to the center or fear the center as we look beyond our edge.
I take heart in the story of Joseph, since it begins and ends with impossible grace. He never knows what is going to happen next, but he apparently knows where he is going. He’s rolling along with God, not assessing whether he is experiencing “edge” or “center” spirituality! He receives whatever comes along. He even tells his brothers. “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Gen. 50:20). But if you are learning how to have a disciplined spiritual life, the point is: Don’t mistake the edge for the whole wheel. Don’t despise the hub as if it were mediocre or mundane. It is all one life energized by God’s Spirit. From wherever you start today, perhaps clinging to the center too much or aspiring to an impossible edge too much, we all have the assurance that God keeps developing us, just like Joseph developed, by the seemingly unpredictable or even troubling experiences we face. It is all a wonder and God intends it for good.