One summer, I took my annual walk up to American Lake, which is at the top of a mountain near Aspen, Colorado. I was in a spiritual frame of mind that morning, and on the hike up the mountain, I composed a list of all the things I would have to give up to God if He actually existed: my work, my reputation, my friendships, my life, my loves, my family, my vices, my bank accounts.
I reached the lake, sat on a rock, and pulled out a book of Puritan prayers that I’d brought. Most of them are grim affairs, about human depravity and all that. Then I came upon one called ‘The Valley of Vision.’ The first line is, “Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly.” I looked at the spare and majestic mountain peaks in front of me. Just then a little brown creature who looked like a badger waddled up to the lake, not noticing me. He came within two feet of my sneaker before looking up, startled, and scrambling away. High and holy, meek and lowly.
The next sentence is, “Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision.” Well, there I was in the bowl formed around that lake. “Where I live in the depth but see Thee in the heights.” I was in all sorts of depths but could see mountaintops. “Hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold Thy glory.” The rest the text summarizes the whole inverse logic of faith: The broken heart is the healed heart. The contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit. The repenting soul is the victorious soul. Life in my death. Joy in my sorrow. Grace in my sin. Riches in my poverty. Glory in my valley.
This was not a religious conversion. It wasn’t moving from one thing to another. It felt more like a deeper understanding. I understand those who cannot relate to this experience or who just see it as an emotional response to nature. I can only report how it felt and feels. It was and is a sensation of opening my eyes to see what was always there, seeing the presence of the sacred in the realities of the everyday. There’s a worldly story to follow, as people move closer or further from their worldly ambitions. But there’s also a sacred story to follow, as souls move closer or further from their home, which is God.
I did not go on this spiritual journey alone. I consulted dozens of people, seeking, in a rather pathetic and needy way, advice and counsel. The Jews, by and large, didn’t know how to talk to me. Judaism doesn’t really have much of a tradition of entrance and exit. You are born a member of the tribe and there’s not an evangelical tradition. The Christians were all over me. Word of my spiritual wanderings spread, and before long dozens were praying for me. Loving friends flew in from Chicago and elsewhere to talk and minister. One friend began praying for me and my family and has sent me an encouraging text every Friday ever since. Some Christians crudely sought to woo me over as a sort of win for their team, and they were a destructive force. Most gave me books. I received about three hundred books about faith in those months, only one hundred of which were different copies of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.
I had a few steady companions, including Stuart and Celia McAlpine, who lead a local church, and Jerry Root, a C. S. Lewis scholar. Then there was Anne Snyder, my researcher and colleague at the Times. I actually first gave Anne a job interview because she had gone from Andover, a prep school, to a Christian college, Wheaton. She and I had worked together for three years, and I valued her work tremendously but barely noticed her as a person. We never went to lunch or had coffee, and I recall maybe one perfunctory performance review. I was an inept and absent colleague.
Anne was one of the researchers I worked with on my last book, The Road to Character, especially on the chapter on Dorothy Day. Around this time, we exchanged a series of memos on different chapters of the book, and through them I began to see how radically different the religious consciousness is from the secular one, how big and absurd the leap of faith really is. I was describing Day’s spiritual journey as an effort to achieve superior goodness and understanding; Anne corrected me and argued that it is a willingness to surrender to a truth that is outside yourself. I was always writing as if Day were the prime mover. Anne helped me to see that in Day’s eyes, God is the mover and Day is the one moved upon.
The core of that book was Rabbi Soloveitchik’s distinction between the two sides of our nature, which he called “Adam the first” and “Adam the second,” and which I called the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. I said that Adam I was about majesty and career, and Adam II, the spiritual side, was about the search for goodness and purpose. Anne would send me memos saying that my rendition of Adam II was too New Age, or too drenched in contemporary secular categories. Anne pointed out that Day didn’t serve the poor because she wanted to find some purpose in her life so she could rest contentedly and be happy with herself. What Adam II really sought, she wrote, was devotion and obedience to “absolute truth, objective truth.”
“By becoming aware of an external reality that demands one’s loyalties and lays out a specific bounded path, Adam II ultimately does find fulfillment, but the goal is not rest at the place of self-satisfaction. There is so much more, and beyond oneself. There is a truth to stake a life on. And the grasp of this truth will permeate everything. Staking a claim on it will cost.”
In the early months of Day’s conversion to Catholicism, she met some Catholic women who had agreed to hold off on sex until marriage. Day admired them lavishly, for their sacrifice and the dignity in that withholding. I was flummoxed. In my world, prohibitions on pre-marital sex had gone away with the Victorians. I was old-fashioned enough to believe that you should have sex only with someone you love, but sex is a form of communication, and it is appropriate to have sex with someone you are committed to, as a way of deepening and exploring that bond, and having fun.
Anne explained the orthodox Christian view. Day was not puritanical. She was an intensely sensual person who did not regard sex as something dirty. But, ultimately, she saw marriage as a sacred covenantal bond, a one-flesh creation, a mutual obedience to and movement toward God. Sex, too, is not just a physical coupling but a spiritual union, a way of giving your entire person entirely to another, a “whole life entrustment,” an act of total and naked honesty, the consummation of two people’s loving journey to become one. Its place is thus within the context of marriage. In Day’s view—and in Anne’s as well—to have sex outside and before marriage is to cheapen and isolate it, to diminish the ultimate gift implied by the act. To reserve sex for marriage, that one-flesh creation, is to preserve the loftiness and true beauty of sex, to keep it from being dragged into the materialistic shallowness of the world.
I had been around orthodox believers, Jewish and Christian, at different times of my life, but I was not the sort of person who invited vulnerable conversations about faith, or much of anything else. So I didn’t know what orthodox faith really involved, how much surrender to the vertical axis was required, and how much it reoriented an entire life. I eventually learned that Anne was sensitive to all sorts of sins that I had never even considered, including impenitence, the failure to seek proper penance for your sins. She felt spiritually tarnished by things I took for granted—such as the consumerism of a luxury mall. I later came to see that she experiences different states of the soul at different times of the day, or at different times of her life. Sometimes, depending on what she is doing and what the circumstances are, she feels close to God, but other times far away.
As we worked on the book, the mesmerizing subject I kept dragging her back to was agency and grace. I am a byproduct of the meritocratic culture. In that culture, you take control of your life by working hard and producing results. At some instinctive level, I treated my journey to faith as a homework assignment: if I did all the reading and wrote the final papers, certainty would come. I sort of knew this was ridiculous, but it was how I was wired. Anne answered my questions as best she could. She never led me. She never intervened or tried to direct the process. She hung back. If I asked her a question she would answer it, but she would never get out in front of me. She demonstrated faith by letting God be in charge. This is a critical lesson for anybody in the middle of any sort of intellectual or spiritual journey: Don’t try to lead or influence. Let them be led by that which is summoning them.
I was struggling with the concept of surrender and grace. I didn’t like Martin Luther’s idea that you can’t be saved by works, but only by faith. I wanted to stake out a middle ground, which I called “participatory grace”. You’d do some good things for your fellow human, and God would sort of meet you halfway.
Anne was having none of it:
“Grace is the central thing Christ is offering, but that is the doorway. I see lots of emphasis on striving in your note, and I appreciate its antidote to cheap grace. But the foundational fact is you cannot earn your way into a state of grace—this denies grace’s power, and subverts its very definition. Grace must reach out to the broken and undeserving. It must reach out to those recognizing plainly, vulnerably, their own need and emptiness. It can only find welcome in those sitting still.”
The name of my condition was pride. I was proud of who I had become. I had earned a certain identity and conception of myself by working hard and being pretty good at what I did. I found it easier to work all the time than to face the emptiness that was at the heart of my loneliness.
Pride of self comes in many forms. Among them is pride of power, the illusion that you can gain enough worldly power to make yourself secure. There is also intellectual pride, the pride suffered by those who try to organize life into one all-explaining ideology that explains away all mystery. Then there is moral pride, the ego’s desire to escape moral insecurity by thinking it is better than other people, that it has earned its own salvation. In the grip of moral pride, we judge ourselves by a lax standard, which we surpass, and judge others by a strict standard and find them wanting. There is also religious pride. This is the pride that afflicts people who think religion involves following the moral codes and who think highly of themselves because they follow those codes. Such a person may pray every day, but his real concern is self. Is God listening to my prayers? Is God answering my requests? Is God granting me peace? Is everyone seeing my goodness, and am I being rewarded for my righteousness? All pride is bloated and fragile, because the ego’s attempt to establish security through power, money, status, intellect, and self-righteousness are never quite successful. In the regular world, pride is often rewarded, but in the underplay of which I was becoming slowly aware, pride is the great tormentor and humility the great comfort.
It was relatively easy to perceive God’s presence up at American Lake. It was going to be a lot harder to actually practice a faith. I was always proud, striving, taking control. I’d had many friends who were Christian, but now I was asking them a bit more how they lived. I learned about the spiritual disciplines and concepts that formed their daily and annual routine—prayer journals, fasting, tithing, silent retreats, Bible study, accountability groups, healing prayer, constant direct contact with the poor, discussions of spiritual warfare, the presence or absence of God, genuine rage at God for those long stretches of absence. To me, corporate life meant working for a big company. For them, it meant worship in community.
David Brooks is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times and the bestselling author of The Road to Character and The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement. Excerpt from The Second Mountain: The Quest For The Moral Life by David Brooks, copyright © 2019 by David Brooks. Used by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.