One of my favorite pieces of spiritual advice comes from Herbert McCabe's God, Christ, and Us:
People often complain of “distractions” during prayer. Their mind goes wandering off on to other things. This is nearly always due to praying for something you do not really much want; you just think it would be proper and respectable and “religious” to want it. So you pray high-mindedly for big but distant things like peace in Northern Ireland or you pray that your aunt will get better from the flu–when in fact you do not much care about these things; perhaps you ought to, but you don’t. And so your prayer is rapidly invaded by distractions arising from what you really do want–promotion at work, let us say. Distractions are nearly always your real wants breaking in on your prayer for edifying but bogus wants. If you are distracted, trace your distraction back to the real desires it comes from and pray about these. When you are praying for what you really want you will not be distracted. People on sinking ships do not complain of distractions during their prayer.
The appeal of McCabe's guidances lies in how it goes against the grain of spiritual expectations. Spirituality is supposed to be a state that elevates life beyond everyday cares, a kind of haven in a heartless world. But McCabe says "no!" and throws you right back into the muck of all the things you consider unspiritual and dispiriting. How very incarnational of him.
The French Novelist, Michel Tournier, best known for his World War II drama The Ogre—later rebranded The Erl-King and made into a film by Volker Schlondorff—takes this insight to uncomfortable extremes in an interview he did after the debut of his novel The Four Wise Men in English:
In Christianity there is a sort of heretical idealization of poverty that I detest because Jesus always defended himself against misconceptions concerning poverty; for example, when Mary Magdalene poured out a very, very expensive perfume on his feet, the disciples were indignant and said, "But that's idiotic, with all that money we could have done …" etcetera, and He said, "So then, I have no right to precious ointment? I like nard!" Then, there is the parable of the talents which is a banking parable … There is also the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor where Christ's beauty was resplendent—a divine beauty. It was not a humble beauty; it was shattering, awe-inspiring: He very much resembled the sun. That is how I conceive of Christianity; I envision a solar Christ, not a mendicant Christ.
The Four Wise Men ought to be read in light of this comment. It begins with a scene where a shattering, yet mundane, beauty of a slave-woman throws King Gaspar's life off of its tracks:
I am black, but I am a king. One day, perhaps, I shall have this paraphrase of the Shulamite's song - I am black but beautiful - engraved on the tympanum of my palace. For what greater beauty can there be than a king's crown? To my mind that was so solidly established a certainty that I did not so much as think of it. Until the day when blondness burst into my life.
The passages that follow upon this are a showcase of Tournier's ability to make even a desert landscape (also blond) palpably resplendent:
It all began in the last moon of winter with a rather muddled warning from Barka Mai, my chief astrologer. He is an honest, conscientious man, whose science I trust as much as he distrusts it. I was dreaming on the palace terrace, basking in the first balmy breezes of the year beneath a night sky sparkling with stars. The sandstorm that had raged for eight long days had abated, and with the feeling that I was breathing in the desert I filled my lungs.
Gaspar harbors, embodies, becomes, is transformed into, an obsessive love for Biltine, the young blond slave. As everything else in Tournier's fiction, the situation is taken to its extreme ("blondness had broken into my life and threatened to lay it to waste"), then disappointed, and only later surprisingly transfigured into a love that respects the freedom of the other. Balthazar (art) and Melchior (politics) undergo their transmutations of desire through similarly painful experiences.
The areas of life that the three traditional Wise Men symbolize—love, art, and politics—seem dignified enough to merit such a spiritual recalibration. But the fourth Wise Man, Taor, seems outside the pale. His stumbling block is so quintessentially American!
Taor symbolizes and embodies the culinary arts, or to be more precise, a form of gluttony, obsession with eating. The descriptions of food in the chapters devoted to his story are as delicious as the blondness of Biltine (and the desert), but at the same time a little disgusting, because, after all it is an obsession with grub—the ultimate daily distraction.
Yet, they were probably more Christian than they realized since in the end, after a harrowing period in the salt mines of Sodom, Taor emerges totally transformed, barely misses the Last Supper, but discovers leftover crumbs, and with that bit of grub he "becomes the first to discover the Eucharist."
The Eucharist gets the last word in Tournier's novel. It is, after all, the bread and butter of all Christian theology. Theology always comes later.
I cannot think of any other recent novel whose theological aspirations aim that high (and start so wonderfully low).