One of the challenges I face doing ministry has to do with encouraging the community of faith to nourish their spiritual lives. I can't tell you how many times I've heard this refrain over the past 40 years: If I get hit with one more surprise - or demand on my time or disappointment - I'm going to collapse (or explode or quit or...whatever!) It doesn't seem to matter how old or young the person is nor is race, class or gender a factor in this lament.The people I encounter in love and service are stressed out -- and it would seem that they haven't been taught, encouraged or shown how to use the time-tested tools of the journey inward to assist them on life's journey of challenges. They neither know the stories of Scripture as paradigms of the human experience nor how to tap into the peace of the Lord that passes all understanding. They are often committed to the work of social justice, but are woefully ill-equipped when it comes to caring for the soul.
Fr. Thomas Keating once spoke about this dilemma from the perspective of a monastic. He tells of a time after Vatican II when the institutional Church was once again opening itself to the wounds of the world. This was also the time when many of us who were young were checking out Eastern spirituality and meditation. Keating's concern was clear: there is a Western way of inward wisdom, too that offers equally beautiful resources for the inward journey, but it has long been locked away in cloistered retreat centers. Consequently, as many local church leaders were unable to assist their congregations into a mature prayer life, more and more people jumped ship. They knew they needed but could not find resources in contemporary Western Christianity. Pope Paul, therefore, encouraged monastics to make the wisdom of the ages public to both those inside and those beyond the Church. It was then that the Centering Prayer movement came to life.
If you were a part of the Reformed tradition (like me) it took another 20 years before we, too began to reclaim the inward journey of the soul. Think of the writing by Kathleen Norris or the countless young Protestants who were drawn to Roman Catholic retreat centers. Nearly 40 years ago an entire generation of social activist clergy in both the Roman and Reformed worlds started to reconnect with prayer, fasting, meditation and the beauty of liturgy. My hunch is that this renewal made an impact upon young adults in the late 80s and early 90s, but then the momentum was diffused and diminished.
One consequence of this is the current culture of confusion when it comes to care of the soul. How do I maintain equanimity? What does it take to cultivate a non-anxious presence in the midst of a hyper-anxious culture? How can I be a person of peace in the world when my emotions and thoughts are on a roller coaster ride nearly every minute of the day? In addition to this uncertainty, there seems to be a new albeit odd hesitation to nourishing new sacred habits. Sometimes I hear it expressed as mistrust, other times as resentment, and often it sounds like the ubiquitous complaint: I just don't have the time to do anything else!
And therein lies the challenge of this moment in time; we already have all the time there is, yes? None of our time saving devices have extended the hours of the day and many may have increased our addiction to the very sources of the stress we clearly resent. I experience it in myself when I can't seem to put down my IPhone. Last night, as I was watching a brilliant new British mystery on ACORN TV (Fortitude for those who are curious) I discovered that I was also checking my email and Face Book account every 7 minutes, too. Totally unnecessary because at 10 pm most everything that showed up on my little screen could easily have waited for the new day. But it was almost as if I couldn't help myself.
Today at midday Eucharist, two portions of our Psalm spoke to our collective quandary:
O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
During our time for lectio we spoke together of what this thirsting and parchedness feels like. We have all known it - and we have all tried different ways to slake our thirst with distractions, busyness, possessions, obsessive relationships, substance abuse and more - and none of it lasts. Because, as one soul noted, we have an inherent disposition for God. And if we don't move into intimacy with the Lord, we live a life of perpetual emptiness and dissatisfaction.
I think of you on my bed and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy. My soul clings to you.
This verse led to a discussion of how important it is to remember God's presence in our lives during adversity and trial. So I asked: how do you remember? What do you do to keep the flame alive and lit? Comments about spiritual discipline followed including insights about tools that we've outgrown, rituals that have become empty as well as resources like gathered Eucharist and quiet time together as assets that help us go deeper and sustain our quest for peace. Practicing breathing prayers so that we are open to "aha" moments was also mentioned. I thought of the "affirmation" I printed out for myself last night so that I might renew my own Lenten journey. These words come from Christine Valters Paintner at the Abbey of the Arts:
THE FAST THAT I CHOOSE…
I am called to fast from being strong and always trying to hold it all together, and instead embrace the profound grace that comes through my vulnerability and tenderness, to allow a great softening this season.
I am called to fast from anxiety and the endless torrent of thoughts which rise up in my mind to paralyze me with fear of the future, and enter into the radical trust in the abundance at the heart of things, rather than scarcity.
I am called to fast from speed and rushing through my life, causing me to miss the grace shimmering right here in this holy pause.
I am called to fast from multitasking and the destructive energy of inattentiveness to any one thing, so that I get many things done, but none of them well, and none of them nourishing to me. Instead my practice will become a beholding of each thing, each person, each moment.
I am called to fast from endless list-making and too many deadlines, and enter into the quiet and listen for what is ripening and unfolding, what is ready to be born.
I am called to fast from certainty and trust in the great mystery of things. And then perhaps, I will arrive at Easter and realize those things from which I have fasted I no longer need to take back on again. I will experience a different kind of rising.