John Chapman: “dryness is best”

More helpful thoughts from Abbot John Chapman’s Spiritual Letters (see previous posts 1 | 2).

Here is he writing “to a lady living in the world”, who was evidently concerned that her duties in everyday life were distracting her and preventing her from enjoying a “spiritual life” (italics are in original, bold is added):

If we are really uniting ourselves with God’s Will, then we accept passively the duty of being active; whether active in external matters, or active about our own soul. We find God wishes us to be Martha, when we want to be Mary; and this happens every day in external matters. We throw ourselves into them because we do not choose them, but they are there to be carried out. (p.103)

“I am so very busy I can’t be very ‘spiritual'”, Abbot Chapman tells the same woman in an earlier letter (p.102). He puts this more bluntly in another letter to her:

I quite understand that you “used to have a supernatural life”, “a spiritual life”. I hope that is gone for good! We have to become like little children. We have just the feelings God gives us; and we thank Him for them, whether they are joys or temptations. (p.99)

He adds:

You are on the look out for “consolation”, merely because you still imagine that you are not serving God properly when you are in dryness. Make up your mind once and for all that dryness is best, and you will find that you are frightened of having anything else! Embrace aridities and distractions and temptations, and you will find you love to be in darkness, and that there is a supersensible light that is simply extinguished by consolation! (p.99)

This reminds me a little of Luther’s concepts of tentatio and Anfechtung: the spiritual trials that make us despair of finding any comfort from within ourselves (what Abbot Chapman would call “consolation”), and instead encourage us to look entirely outwards from ourselves to Christ and God’s promises.

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3 Responses to John Chapman: “dryness is best”

  1. I don’t think that it is fair to lay the “new faith emotional energy” that we get at Mary’s feet any more than it is fair to attibute weak and pietistic faith at Martha’s feet.

    Mary stopped and listened when she had the Lord before her teaching. If we are too busy and too wrapped up in our lives to stop for hearing God’s Word and being in His presence, that’s not good. If we are seeking to do so all the time at the exclusion of being in the world God put us in and to serve in the vocations He gave us, that’s not good, either.

    When you look at John 11, you see the reverse of what people stereotypically attribute to the sisters. Martha, despite her grief in her brother’s death proclaims her faith that Jesus is the Son of God and belief in the resurrection of the Dead. Mary stays behind until she is called, and only echoes her sister’s statement “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not be dead.” Maybe that is the reason why he refers to Martha as being the most desirable…not that she is too busy to sit at the Lord’s feet, but that her faith continues strongly even in the face of grief and not understanding why her Lord didn’t do what she wanted when she wanted it.

    Thank God that in either case, Jesus blesses us. He might gently chide us for being too busy, but He is always calling us to Him to listen, always giving us opportunities to serve Him and be served by Him.

  2. Rick Ritchie says:

    The fact that we have two stories of Mary and Martha might make us hesitate to choose one temperament as innately better. The Puritans had a theory that to have something truly good, you had to have a supernatural uniting of opposite virtues. Most of us would have one of the opposing virtues by nature. The individual who is irenic by nature often cannot summon anger when it is needed. The hothead can, but will fail to make peace where he should. It took an act of God to get these virtues to appear in their time in one person.

    I think I trust Chapman’s advice to the one he wrote to. He likely knew her well enough to know this was timely. I don’t know if it is good to read it as universal. We can all ask whether it fits us. But I would not say of everyone that I hope that their time of spiritual consolation is gone for good. That many have this in their early experience is probably an act of Providence. That some find it at other times, likewise. If they aren’t trying to concoct it where it is not.

  3. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » A paradoxical peace for the distracted

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