Supernaturally Natural

Ordinary, Photo by Hamid Najaf
Ordinary, Photo by Hamid Najaf

Early in my adult life, I listened to teaching from a Bible teacher who used to say that God made us to live “supernaturally natural” lives. I’ve always liked that phrase. To all appearances, and in truth, those who follow Jesus are no different from anyone else in the world. However, God’s declaration that “Christ lives in me” means that somehow and in some way the new creation has broken in upon my life and there is something more, though it may be difficult to put one’s finger on it.

The anonymous author of the second century letter, The Epistle to Diognetus, made this point.

For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life. This doctrine of theirs has not been discovered by the ingenuity or deep thought of inquisitive men, nor do they put forward a merely human teaching, as some people do. Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth.

Indistinguishable, yet at the same time giving “proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth.” Supernaturally natural.

Here are a few of the “proofs” that the author tried to impress upon his reader:

They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring [i.e. “expose” — commit infanticide]. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed. It is true that they are “in the flesh,” but they do not live “according to the flesh.” They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require. They love all men, and by all men are persecuted. They are unknown, and still they are condemned; they are put to death, and yet they are brought to life. They are poor, and yet they make many rich; they are completely destitute, and yet they enjoy complete abundance. They are dishonored, and in their very dishonor are glorified; they are defamed, and are vindicated. They are reviled, and yet they bless; when they are affronted, they still pay due respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; undergoing punishment, they rejoice because they are brought to life. They are treated by the Jews as foreigners and enemies, and are hunted down by the Greeks; and all the time those who hate them find it impossible to justify their enmity.

To put it simply: What the soul is in the body, that Christians are in the world….

In other words, followers of Jesus are not out to impress. They are quietly, naturally flesh and blood like everyone else. They do not stand out as different or special in any particular way. At the same time they give evidence of a supernatural depth to their lives.

This is one reason I became so dissatisfied with evangelical culture, which in my experience has been all about marketing, attracting, impressing, enthusing, and getting people to participate in various forms of churchianity, promising “transformation” that will lift them out of the realm of the ordinary. It has not, by and large, been about simply living responsibly in the world as regular human beings, supernaturally natural in character and bearing.

In a 1944 letter, Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed his own sense of discomfort with the outwardly religious life, preferring, he said, to walk among the “religionless.”

I often ask myself why a “Christian instinct” often draws me more to the religionless people than to the religious, by which I don’t in the least mean with any evangelizing intention, but, I might almost say, “in brotherhood.” While I’m often reluctant to mention God by name to religious people — because that name somehow seems to me here not to ring true, and I feel myself to be slightly dishonest (it’s particularly bad when others start to talk in religious jargon; I then dry up almost completely and feel awkward and uncomfortable) — to people with no religion I can on occasion mention him by name quite calmly and as a matter of course.

I was visiting with a patient the other day for the first time. I could tell he was uncomfortable. After going through my usual spiel and asking about his faith background and what kind of support he wanted in that respect, the room grew silent. I wondered if we had reached the end of our conversation.

Then, I simply began to ask how he spent his days and what he liked to watch on TV. Turns out he is a huge sports fans, and even played on a professional level and coached at university. It was as though a floodgate opened, and we talked for at least another half an hour, as he shared stories from his experience and his family. All hesitancy completely disappeared, and from then on he seemed happy to have the company. By the time I left, I felt as though we had begun the process of becoming friends.

We may never talk about anything else. Or we might. Who knows? All I know is that if I make a big effort to push “supernatural” matters on this guy, I’ll run face-first into a wall and fast. On the other hand, if I just sit down with him as ordinary, natural Mike, another guy who loves sports and talking about them, then he will respond and might at some point see something of Jesus in and through our discussions. Call it the sacrament of sports-talk.

That’s my daily goal now. To be supernaturally natural. To be a quiet, natural, genuine human being, trusting God to reveal the supernatural depth of his Spirit in my life.

Thomas Merton got it right:

A saint is capable of loving created things and enjoying the use of them and dealing with them in a perfectly simple, natural manner, making no formal references to God, drawing no attention to his own piety, and acting without any artificial rigidity at all. His gentleness and his sweetness are not pressed through his pores by the crushing restraint of a spiritual strait-jacket.

• • •

Photo by Hamid Najafi at Flickr. Creative Commons License.

39 thoughts on “Supernaturally Natural

  1. This resonates.

    Coming out of an environment where there was a constant stream of God-talk, where that talk was put to all kinds of uses (by myself and others), I was grateful for some of the habitual reticence that exists in the mainline. The drawback is that it’s hard to cross that barrier to initiate such talk – if there are rules, I’m uncertain what they are – and my own natural and acquired reticence makes me less-than-bold about transversing barriers. But I wish someone would, more often. As good and healing as it is not to be made to speak, there’s also real benefit in hearing about other people’s experiences, and in being able to speak safely, if the space can be made for it. Provided that the God-talk isn’t anxiously trying to take possession of everything and everyone around it. There are things another person can do, in speaking words of peace, that it is very hard to do for one’s self.


  2. Merton indeed was a flawed individual. Kinda like me. To his credit, I don’t think he tried to sugar-coat himself.


  3. “On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water-Bearer . . .”

    More often than not, when I learn that someone is an Aquarian, i think, ah, that explains it. Wouldn’t surprise me if this place had more than its fair share.


  4. If I’m right, Mule, then Father Louis, by these new practices of seeing, was even in this life moving down the path of concertedly trying to connect with the power to which you refer in your comment, and so will likely be well along the path, and not merely awaiting the general resurrection; I expect that he is running toward that resurrection. But there is no reason to believe that he might not turn back, even at the direction of God, to help slackers like you, and me, as we limp along up the mountain/ down into the heart. Perhaps he is even now a true Bodhisattva, which is to say, a saint who comes back from the felicity of eternal bliss to help others along the arduous way.


  5. In the last decade of his life, Merton seems to have shifted in his understanding of what it means to live a Christian life. He seems to have come to a place where he perceived that what is needed is not a new way of acting, or a new way of believing, but a new way of seeing, which dovetails with a new way of being. This is why he undertook the study and practice of Zen, among other things, such as photography and calligraphy: he hoped by these disciplines to enlarge his vision, both inner and outer, and thereby come into a new way of seeing and being, a way that he thought must be near to the seeing and being of God.


  6. I spent close to 30 years away from anything religious. About two years ago, all of that changed.. And without going into detail about that, I am now an active member of a ELCA congregation. The consequence of these many years, is that my now teenage and adult children grew up with very little Christianity, save what my mother was able to influence, but who lives 1000 miles away. Speaking with my pastor about how to introduce Christ to my family, his advice is to love them. That is the most powerful tool the Holy Spirit gives us. And like you said CM, “trusting God to reveal the supernatural depth of his Spirit in my life.” Trust God and pray. It’s what I do everyday.


  7. Yet more misspellings! And it’s far too late in the day for me to blame the earliness of the hour! I am undone!


  8. I appreciate the Bonhoeffer quote dealing with his dislike of religious jargon, and his mistrust of the way the word God is often used in Christian circles. I’ve encountered what he describes many times.

    But I’ve spent all of my adult life in the mainlines, and my childhood in the Roman Catholic Church. My adult experience has been that, outside of the liturgy and times of worship, God-talk is rarely employed in the in the mainlines. There is a real reticence about using such talk, and my own sense is that this reticence is the result of the deeply ingrained American cultural habit of thinking of such talk as very private and personal, and a keen awareness of the danger of overstepping boundaries by assuming too much when engaging in such talk. The net result is that mainline parishoners seem to think it best to avoid the possibility of the fracturing relationships that can result from the misuse of such talk by not using such talk at all.

    Part of my is totally okay with this, and wouldn’t want it any other way. I’m wouldn’t be comfortable in a church culture that was less reticent in its use of God-talk. But another part of me craves appropriate and meaningful God-talk in daily life, talk that points to hope beyond the merely human, talk that expresses transcendent hope when human resources seem to have run out, talk that recognizes limits while expressing trust that there something good in the places beyond the limits. Sometimes I feel I could die for lack of such talk, and conversation partners with whom I could talk God-talk.

    I guess that’s why I’m here.


  9. IF you read The Seven Storey Mountain be sure to read it first. After 8 years of reading everything else by TM I only got about half way through TSSM before putting it down. His late 1940’s writing makes me think, “religious little prick.”

    No Man Is An Island is my usual recommendation for beginning Merton readers.


  10. I think Seven Storey Mountain speaks powerfully to twentieth century climate, which where displacement and tragedy where very much the order of the day. Alongside, of course, the breakneck progress.

    I love first two paragraphs, so here’s something to get you started:

    “On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water-Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God yet hating Him; born to love him, yet living instead in fear and self-contradictory hungers.

    “Not many hundreds of miles away from the house where I was born, they were picking up the men who rotted in the rainy ditches among the dead horses and ruined seventy-fives, in a forest without trees on the banks of the river Marne.”


  11. “of course there is considerable overlap between Christian and non-Christian”

    since the Incarnation, I certainly hope so 🙂


  12. Thank you for sharing the selection from the Epistle to Diognetus – although I have seen references to it over the years, I’ve never taken the time to read it – I will now.

    The post and the Merton quote remind me of another one by him:

    “The first manifestation of love
    is the ability to let others be
    precisely who and what they are.
    Otherwise, we would be looking to love
    only that part of them that reflects ourselves.”


  13. Maybe we should go find the extra folding chairs.

    ….And with that, the invitations for the internetmonk reunion party were sent out.


  14. The Dignetus epistle does list some boundaries and there will always be some. However they don’t seem to define those early Christians in the same way many Christians set themselves apart today.


  15. So, little bit of an off topic question. I frequently see quotes on this site from Thomas Merton, and I always enjoy them and they resonate with me. Does anyone have any suggestions of where I should start when it comes to reading Merton? Thanks in advance for your input.


  16. if, as the Epistle says, the early Christians were condemned and persecuted and dishonored, it’s because of some difference that the non-Christians could see in them, and that set them apart. Not going to the gladiator games was the result, not the cause, of those deep differences.

    Yes. And that deep difference essentially boiled down to one question – “Is Caesar Boss, or is Jesus?” And in Roman times, that was as much (if not moreso) a *political* issue as a religious one. The Christians did not put the unity and superiority of the Empire first on their list of priorities – THAT, ultimately, is the root of their unpopularity with the Roman authorities.


  17. I said nothing about evangelicals, Eeyore. And of course there is considerable overlap between Christian and non-Christian; my comment included that acknowledgement.

    I’m just pointing up the incontrovertible fact that if, as the Epistle says, the early Christians were condemned and persecuted and dishonored, it’s because of some difference that the non-Christians could see in them, and that set them apart. Not going to the gladiator games was the result, not the cause, of those deep differences.

    There is, however, the fact that the age of martyrdom has been exaggerated in our historical memory, that the official persecutions were actually rare events and even more rarely widespread and systematic, sometimes separated by whole lifetimes. Most of the time, the Roman Christians lived among there neighbors, undisturbed and unmolested.

    My understanding is that gladiator games were actually pretty frequent, though not necessarily always on a large scale, and that the festivals they were connected to were also frequent.


  18. Even leaving out the Colosseum/local strip club, that still leaves a LOT of mutually overlapping territory. Gladiator games didn’t happen every day, they were special occasions usually tied to religious and political festivals (hence their close link to paganism).

    As for where to draw that line… Paul seemed to think that, even with accommodations to those who had not yet sorted out the essential meaninglessness of pagan religion, that line could go pretty far (I Cor 8) – but of course had its limits (I Cor 5). And most of the major “markers” evangelicals have or had set for themselves here in America (“Do not drink, smoke, dance, or chew, or hang about with those who do”) come NOWHERE near “betray(ing) the supernaturally natural work of God in you” in reality.


  19. “perhaps he and I are going to inhabit the same corner of Purgatory awaiting the resurrection; a little corner reserved for those who saw somewhat clearly what sanctity and Christlikeness involved, but were too clever and too assured of the ability of words to save our souls to enter therein.”

    Save me a seat, will you? :-/


  20. Yes, by all means, supernaturally natural. Sit down and talk sports, share at the human level without making the value of the discussion hang on getting to the religious and supernatural; just being human is of itself supernatural and religious.

    But, if your a second century Roman Christian, your supernatural naturalness cannot be about sitting down with your pagan neighbor and talking about a mutual love of the gladiator games; one of the things that reflects your supernaturally natural difference from your pagan neighbor is that you do not go to the gladiator games. To be just like him in this respect would be to betray the supernaturally natural work of God in you.

    Are there no areas in our modern life like that difference between the pagan and Christian Roman? I think there must be, and I think that if I fail to respect them, I fail to live the supernaturally natural dimension of my own Christian life, the aspec that makes it Christian.


  21. She tried to go on with her letter, reminding herself that she was only an elderly woman who had got up too early in the morning and journeyed too far, that the despair creeping over her was merely her despair, her personal weakness, and that even if she got a sunstroke and went mad the rest of the world would go on.

    But suddenly, at the edge of her mind, Religion appeared, poor little talkative Christianity, and she knew that all its divine words from “Let there be Light” to “It is finished” only amounted to “bourn.” Then she was terrified over an area larger than usual; the universe, never comprehensible to her intellect, offered no repose to her soul, the mood of the last two months took definite form at last, and she realized that she didn’t want to write to her children, didn’t want to communicate with anyone, not even with God.

    EM Forster; A Passage To India

    I remember about the middle of last month, about tax time, CM, when you did a series of posts on the necessary aspects of the pastoral calling. I kept waiting to see if you would ever mention the most important element of all, but you never did. I wasn’t surprised, because Protestantism in general is not strong on the One Thing Needful.

    I kept waiting to see whether you would mention anything relating to what I have come to think of as the shamanistic element within Christianity. For millenia, humans have always sought to connect with a realm they could not see, but always intuited that it existed. They saw it as a source of power, and it wasn’t always associated with moral goodness.

    Pentecostals speak about “the anointing” and the Orthodox have their charismatic “gerontes” or “startsi”. It was said of St. Paisios that he could turn a sinner from his sin merely by discussing weather, crops, or the fortunes of a local soccer club, because he brought Christ into the conversation in an almost palpable way. Yet many people who went in search of him because of his reputation for sanctity found him quite negligible; a squalid, unkempt little monk, missing teeth, huddled in front of a hut carving wood. They went away disgusted.

    Your quote from Merton encapsulates the essence of St Paisios quite well, but perhaps he and I are going to inhabit the same corner of Purgatory awaiting the resurrection; a little corner reserved for those who saw somewhat clearly what sanctity and Christlikeness involved but were too clever and too assured of the ability of words to save our souls to enter therein. Add to this on my account a bad case of spiritual indolence and I am certain that my case will be far worse that Br. Thomas’,


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