Surface Chauvinism

“You wash the outside of the cup and dish…” (Luke 11:39)

In a helpful gardening article, “Simple Tips for Better Garden Soil” in Mother Earth News, Barbara Pleasant provides helpful suggestions to improve soil. Much of what she says depends on recent research into the micro-biotic life under the surface of the soil, a whole universe that has been only vaguely acknowledged and certainly not understood by farmers and gardeners until recently. Recent evidence is clear that traditional methods of tilling soil actually reduce the fertility of the soil (which is why so much fertilizer is necessary to produce a decent crop), while layering compost with minimal tilling produces better results over time without the use of chemical fertilizer. Changing people’s minds, however, about how to care for soil is no easy task. David W. Wolf, a Cornell University plant physiologist, calls the problem “surface chauvinism—the tendency to think that what we see on the soil’s surface tells the whole story.”

I do not usually find spiritual insight in Mother Earth News; in fact, I often find it’s features and articles full of anti-Christian, mildly Pagan or atheistic assumptions—and lots of good advice for simple living, gardening and small scale animal husbandry, which is why I read it. But my spirit sang when I read the words, “surface chauvinism.”

In my own pursuit of holiness and in my experience as a spiritual father helping others along their path to holiness, surface chauvinism has been perhaps the greatest hindrance. Among those who take their religious life seriously (and here we have already narrowed our lot considerably), much hay is made of saying prayers, attending services, the minutiae of fasting canons, and the correct way to recite the Jesus Prayer. [Oddly enough, very little is said of alms-giving, of the Father-forgive-me-I-give-too-little sort; and maybe I will talk about that in another blog.] The focus in almost all of this discussion is on externals. Some like to focus on morality, what should or shouldn’t be done, worn or said; some like to focus on exercises (asceticism), what one should pray or how one should fast or prostrate. Very little, however, gets to the heart of the matter. Very little produces life-changing repentance. Mostly it’s surface chauvinism.

In the parable of the sower, fruitful growth is all about soil: what’s under the surface. I am particularly intrigued by the rocky soil. The trodden soil and the weedy soil make sense to most of us, we can see the problem on the surface, but the rocky soil is another matter. Jesus says that the seeds in the rocky soil are received “with joy.” On the surface the rocky soil looks good. The person whom rocky soil represents crosses himself correctly, keeps the fasts strictly and never dresses inappropriately. Yet lurking just below the surface are rocks, hard places with no moisture. I liken this inner hardness of heart to a lack of empathy, an inability to weep with those who weep or to rejoice with those who rejoice. The attention of the person with rocky soil is so focused on keeping his own moral or religious obligations (and as a result paying way too much attention to the external performance of others) that he never feels the pain of others in his own heart, the rocks of his heart are never broken by an empathetic co-suffering with others.

Divine judgment is always a revelation of what has been there all along—under the surface. In the parable of the sower, the rocky soil receives the word with joy, but the plant withers quickly in times of tribulation because there is no depth of soil. God created the world with just enough predictability that we might cooperate with God and just enough irregularity that we would always have to trust in Him. Winter follows harvest and spring follows winter, but sometimes winter comes early and spring rains do not fall. The hard times reveal what we have (or have not) become in the good times. If our hearts are hard, if we have not allowed the oil of compassion to soften the rocks beneath the surface of our life, then the inevitable result will be judgment: the withering of the plants we have paid so much attention to on the surface.

Good soil usually looks good on the surface, but that is because what is unseen is in good shape. Clean the inside of the cup or dish, Jesus said, and the outside will be clean also. This is, of course, much more difficult than just paying attention to moral and religious guidelines. Cleaning the inside means repentance. It means a heart that is broken and contrite. Cleaning the inside means thinking of others as better than ourselves (even if the surface of their lives is not as neatly ordered as our own). It means leaving behind surface chauvinism.

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