About six months ago I summited Mount St. Helens. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done and I didn’t even put it on My Space. Damn it. The experience was an introduction to a new culture – crampons, gaiters, glissading; my mind was truly expanded that day.
The term that has stuck with me, that I use often, especially in reference to the spiritual life is the phrase false summit. Ask anyone who’s ever climbed as much as three flights of stairs, false summits have been the reason people don’t make it to the top
False summits can be what keep us from summits and they can also be what keep us from reaching depths of wholeness and presence.
Several months back I had been practicing “looking of the shoulder” of whatever kept me from Jesus. For example, when I felt anxious, depressed, angry etc. I personified the feeling or emotion in my imagination and looked over its’ shoulders for Jesus.
One morning, while contemplating praying or sleeping I remember feeling crowded and cornered (like zombies in I Am Legend) by the stresses of the day ahead. As I laid there I looked over their shoulders to find a real life flesh and blood Jesus welcoming me over. It was a profound spiritual experience.
A few weeks later, continuing this practice, I tried to look over the shoulder of some anxiety I was feeling and when I saw Jesus he was smiling at me. He kept smiling but not moving and then I realized, Jesus wasn’t flesh and blood anymore but a cardboard cutout of Jesus – like a life sized Fathead of Michael Jordan, Jesus looked like himself but he was motionless and dead. Jesus who had welcomed and warmed me only days earlier, was a thin helpless shadow that left me feeling alone and even more anxious.
What do we do when the present Jesus turns out to be a cardboard cutout? What do we do when Jesus goes dark after bursting with light? What do we do when our spiritual practices don’t go as far as they used to – when prayer, worship and even our own thoughts and words fall deaf to a mannequin Jesus?
For years, popular Christianity has told us that the purpose driven life, our best life now will be found when we find ourselves in a state of perpetual presence with God – where we’ve looked over all the shoulders we needed to and now we are safe, happy, healthy and prosperous in every way.
However, it has been my experience that true spirituality is found, not in once and for all finding Jesus, but in continually finding the false Jesus’ and looking over his shoulder to Jesus.
I brought my cardboard cut out Jesus to Abbot Peter one day. He said, “Next time you are looking over the shoulder only to discover a cardboard Jesus, look over that shoulder.” He said, “The false Jesus is just parts of you who haven’t fully accepted Jesus yet.”
Finding Jesus is an anxious task for us because I think we assume he is hiding like a needle in a haystack or a summit on a mountain. Honestly, I don’t think he is the needle as much as he is the haystack, he not the summit as much as he is the hike itself. We don’t find God there we find him here and the moment we start believing God is there and not here we miss him.
The next time you hit a false summit or rock bottom on the spiritual journey, don’t give up. Note that you are on the journey of being reconciled to Christ which will always involve meeting many false Jesus’. When you encounter these False Jesus’ don’t freak out, just poke your head up, look over the shoulder and trust that Jesus is there. When you don’t see him, look over that shoulder.
“The Lord watches over you–
The Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun will not harm you by day nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all harm–
He will watch over your life;
The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”