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    Entries in Spiritual Life (8)


    Living What We Know

    In Thoughts in Solitude, Thomas Merton writes:

    A purely mental life may be destructive if it leads us to substitute thought for life and ideas for actions. The activity proper to man is not purely mental because man is not just a disembodied mind. Our destiny is to live out what we think, because unless we live what we know, we do not even know it. It is only by making our knowledge part of ourselves, through action, that we enter into the reality that is signified by our concepts.

    When Merton speaks of "man" he addresses all of humankind, both male and female, who are equally adept at the substitutions described above. Within the same chapter, Merton states, "Spiritual life is not mental life. It is not thought alone. Nor is it, of course, a life of sensation, a life of feeling--'feeling' and experiencing the things of God, and the things of the spirit."

    This understanding of the spiritual life does not exclude the mind or emotions. Merton states plainly, "It needs both." Spiritual life is human life, and encompasses every aspect of our being. Merton writes, "If man is to live, he must be all alive, body, soul, mind, heart, spirit. Everything must be elevated and transformed by the action of God, in love and faith."

    Jesus summed up the Law and the Prophets by saying that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and spoke a parallel command to love one's neighbor as oneself. Love directed toward God leads to proper self-love that overflows to those around us. Both Jesus' exegesis of the Old Testament and his sequencing is significant. When the entire self is directed toward God and then metamorphosized by God's grace, the natural result is action.

    Action within the spiritual life is characterized by living what we know. What we know is the God who has decisively been revealed in and through the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In John 17:3, Jesus says, "Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent."

    In John 20:21, the resurrected Jesus sends his disciples as he has been sent. To encounter the resurrected Christ is to be incorporated into his action, his mission. Jesus is no longer a concept, but the living Lord who calls us to act as agents in his eternal kingdom, which is our newfound reality.

    God's action always precedes our own. It is grace that initiates, sustains, and brings our faith to completion. Grace also calls, activates, empowers, and sends us forth to act as servants of Jesus Christ. Knowing him, may we live what we know.


    Person, Not Thing

    Over the course of my seminary studies I heard classmates say that God had become “homework,” the focus of a task or assignment given by professors.

    The result was discouragement, a waning love for God, a tepid Christian spirituality, or all of the above. God had become something to look at, not someone to look to.

    Ministers are prone to the same malady, reading the Bible only in preparation for a sermon or class, praying only when called upon to serve as a religious functionary, etc. “God” becomes associated with the tasks of ministry, rather than the calling of the minister.

    I suppose this is a potential pitfall for any congregant. Established routines of devotion become stale, and reliable ways of engaging the Bible, serving others, or practicing prayer no longer warm affections for God as they once did. Bewilderment and confusion follow.

    Reframing might help. In the case of the seminarian, the minister, and the congregant the practice of completing assignments about God or tasks for God can replace being in relationship with God. God becomes an object rather than a subject.

    But if we can remember that the God revealed in Scripture is always personal and always working, it becomes increasingly difficult to relegate God to the domain of an assignment, a task, or a religious duty. God is not something we can control. God is someone we serve.

    If we remember that God is God and we are mortal, we will cease our efforts to control God through the machinations of achievement, duty, or piety. Our most skillfully argued thesis, our most diligently prepared sermon, or our most consistent practices of devotion are given as a free response to God rather than a means by which we might define, distribute, or control God.

    We can also remember that God, being a person and not a task, may feel distant despite being near. This happens often in human relationships. It is often the case that in these seasons, we learn new ways to love. We also discover new things about ourselves.

    We remain with those to whom we have pledged our steadfast love. We carry out our duties and remain within our routines. We maintain attentiveness and offer the gift of presence. We help and provide.

    Passions can wax and wane in all relationships, yet steadfastness binds us one to another, and the fruit borne is in keeping with love. All the while, we do not fulfill our tasks and duties in order to receive a feeling, a positive affirmation, or a grade. Instead, we continue to act in keeping with our commitment to relationship as an evidence of our love.

    And because God has loved us first, and called us first, and claimed us first, and redeemed us first, we can be confident that God has not abandoned us or removed his presence from us. Perhaps, instead, God has given us the distance we need to grow, to learn new ways of loving, and to discover new things about ourselves. Good parents give their children room to breathe. God is no different.

    God has given us the gift of time, wherein we may discover our own selfishness and wrong-headed assumptions. God has given us the opportunity to long for the experience of God’s presence and the overflow of divine love. God has also given us the opportunity to repent, and to ask for the grace we need if we are to ever become all that God has created us to be.

    Any attempt to depersonalize God leads to idolatry and works-righteousness. God is not an assignment, a duty, or a feeling. God is Trinity, revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Person, not thing.

    Subject, not object.


    The Question is Not Whether We Live the Spiritual Life.

    Photo by Stefano G.

    The question, rather, is if we live it well.

    Thomas Merton once wrote, "The spiritual life is first of all a life. It is not merely something to be known and studied, it is to be lived."

    In secular cultures, spirituality remains an active concept that nonreligious persons refuse to discard. But spirituality, as concept, remains undefined and contested. It has become an antonym to religion or religiosity. It has become something that, if a person remains open to the supernatural, compels and is thought to enrich one's life. But in the absence of strong traditions, combined with the presence of pluralism, it is the work of bricolage. We piece it together for ourselves with whatever we have on hand.

    For those who spurn religion, who decry the church, or who dismiss Christianity, there is still the matter of spirituality. The spiritual person is an explorer; they are seeking answers, and have found some truths they believe worth sharing. In my conversations with spiritual seekers, I have found that spirituality is a place to begin. The question for these people is not whether we live the spiritual life--it is whether that life is lived well. This is fertile ground for conversation.

    If, like me, you are a Christian, you may ask a spiritual person what it would mean to live the spiritual life--or life--well. You may ask these questions:

    • What are your key beliefs that guide your daily life?
    • What are the sources of authority that guide your decisions and practices?
    • Who are the examples that you follow?
    • What are the teachings that you rely upon?
    • How do those teachings hang together?
    • What questions are your presently considering?
    • What answers have been slow in coming?

    When you ask these questions, truly listen. As a Christian, you might consider these questions:

    • Might there be better answers found in the person of Jesus, in his life and teachings? 
    • Might those who have followed Christ through the ages provide us with examples of remarkable lives, without which belief in God might not make much sense? 
    • What might Jesus have to teach us about living life with God well that might be counterintuitive, but compelling? 
    • How does Christ expose our faults and correct our steps?
    • What questions is this person asking that Christianity addresses?
    • How does Jesus lead us to become someone that not only does good, but is good?

    If given the opportunity, you might offer ways Christianity addresses questions about what it means to be human, our purpose on earth, or how one lives a virtuous life (don't assume too much here--I think an essential aspect of life in Christ is the confession that a virtuous life cannot be lived apart from renovation and redemption by Christ himself). Explore the differences, but do so in a way that is gentle and respectful. Speak truth, even if it might stand in opposition to your conversation partner's perspective. Be ready for sparring. Trust God will be present with you in conversation.

    I am someone who believes that Christianity has content that is definable, even while it is debateable. It is a tradition, one that rests on certain claims about ultimate reality. Christians believe our world was created by God, and that human beings are dignified creatures, made in God's image. Despite this, we believe that something has gone amiss in our world. Sin and brokenness are very real--all is not as it should be. We believe that God has revealed his character and purposes through the formation of a people, Israel. We center our life on the person of Jesus, born of Mary--a Jew. He is the Christ, the Son of God, the Messiah, and we trust in him for salvation. Jesus accomplished victory over sin on the cross. He was vindicated by God in his resurrection. We believe those in Christ receive the Holy Spirit. We believe that in him we have been incorporated as part of the family of God, the church. We believe the Old and New Testament scriptures are inspired and authoritative, that God's people are marked in baptism. We celebrate his meal. We believe Christ will one day come again, judge the earth, renew creation, establish justice, and heal the nations. And we believe, and debate, many other things besides. Those claims within Christianity I believe that are absolute are some of the very same claims that enable me to enter the debate--love of neighbor, the dignity of all human beings, the finitude of my own mind, the power of forgiveness, the hope of reconciliation, and a confidence that God is the God of truth.

    But much of the preceding paragraph is a confession, or a summary of knowledge which may or may not lead to a spiritual life well lived. If a spiritual life is to be lived well, we need more than knowledge. We need conversion. We need outside help. We need the transformation only God can render, which Christians believes comes through faith in Christ. We need a comprehensive grammar, a verbal and nonverbal language of love, an individual and communal expression of life in Christ.

    Merton, again, is instructive:

    Spiritual life is not mental life. It is not thought alone. Nor is it, of course, a life of sensation, a life of feeling--"feeling" and experiencing the things of the Spirit, and the things of God. Nor does the spiritual life exclude thought and feeling. It needs both...If man is to live, he must be all alive, body, soul, mind, heart, spirit. Everything must be elevated and transformed by the action of God, in love and faith.

    The true spiritual life, then, one that is lived well, is one in which the whole person has been renewed by God. That life comes through Jesus Christ, who not only demonstrated and revealed this kind of life, but who continues to make it possible by the gift of his grace. For those in Christ, the greatest witnesses to the gift of the spiritual life, lived well, are those that have been transformed by his love, and trained as his disciples. Our apologetic and our witness is not only excellent when accomplishing the transmission of spiritual knowledge. It is not only accomplished through shared experiences of spiritual sentiment and emotion.

    It is done best as revelation, life lived, fully alive.

    Such a life is a grace, the gift of God.


    Prayer: What Does it Accomplish?

    Irresistible Attraction

    Of all the Christian spiritual disciplines, prayer is the most difficult for me, at least as I have come to understand the practice. We are commanded to pray, and taught to pray by the Scriptures, most notably by Jesus, who taught us to pray, "Our Father..."

    And our pastors and leaders exhort us, telling us to pray, and from time to time they even give us a glimpse of what prayer looks like, earnest and transparent before the throne of God, offering praise, asking for divine help, confessing sin.

    But still, prayer remains difficult. Is God listening? Is his ear inclined to my prayers? Are my prayers, in effect, answered? Are "no," "yes," and "wait" the full range of responses God may offer? Could it be that the conversation is the end, and not the outcome or the result? Might it be that simply entering God's presence is enough? Could it be that prayer has other outcomes, other purposes, other transformative ends in the life of the faithful person, beyond the thrills of a spiritual experience, beyond the chiseling of character, or the witnessing of God's sovereign acts in accordance with our supplications? Or could it be that prayer is all of these, and more? That the facets, the effects of prayer are beyond our imagining? The privilege itself is ineffable.

    Here is a story that may capture one meaning, one end of prayer.

    I once heard a wise elder relay a story of a young monk who had become frustrated by the practice of prayer. He approached an older monk, his spiritual mentor, and asked, "What does prayer do? I am tired of praying! Prayer doesn't accomplish anything!"

    Instead of offering a theological rebuttal, the older monk simply said, "Here is my basket, woven together and made of straw. Please, take this down to the river and fill it with water, and return it to me."

    Again and again, the young monk filled the basket. And time after time, the basket slowly drained as he made his way back to the monastery. Finally, the young monk returned to his master, basket in hand.

    "Each time I attempted to return, the water ran through the basket. I attempted to do as you had asked, but to no avail," said the young monk.

    "Look inside the basket," the older monk offered. "What do you see?"

    The younger monk replied, "When I began, the basket was lined with dirt and a trace of filth, but now, the dirt has been removed. It is clean."

    The older monk then said, "This is what prayer does. It cleans."

    As you pray, remember, God may be at work exposing dirt and rinsing it away. The work may be slow and tedious and gradual. Your patience may wear thin. But take heart. Return again and again to the Water of Life.

    Let him cleanse you.


    Book Review :: Awaken Your Senses by J. Brent Bill & Beth A. Boorman

    J. Brent Bill and Beth A. Boorman, in their book Awaken Your Senses: Exercises for Exploring the Wonder of God, invite us to think differently concerning our experience in the world, and to make new and fresh connections in how those experiences shape our understanding of and relationship to God.  This book is extremely practical and filled with earnest illustrations.  For many, it may be a welcome introduction to a different way of considering the seamlessness between Christian faith and physical experience.

    Mr. Bill and Mrs. Boorman cover each of the senses, taking each in turn.  The major divisions are Taste, See, Touch, Hear, and Smell.  Underneath each subheading, Bill and Boorman alternate meditations, offering at the conclusion a practical exercise that can be undergone in light of their meditation.  For example, Mrs. Boorman directs the reader in an exercise called "Tasting Words".  The reader is instructed to reflect on their day, and the words chosen in each conversation.  By carefully considering what has been offered and consumed, Boorman connects the sense of taste with the concrete nature of our words.  She then offers questions, "How do these words taste?" and more.  Bitter, or sweet?  Healthy, or debilitating?  Quite simply, this is another way of evaluating our speech-acts in light of Christian discipleship.  In addition to the practices, each section is front-lined by a work of art depicting each sense, and accompanying questions that serve to guide the viewer as they contemplate the work.

    Charity is a personal policy.  When I review books, I always try to strike the balance between honest critique and careful encouragement.  There are books that I enjoy I am certain others would not, and there are books that I do not enjoy I am sure others most definitely would.  This book is the latter.  The aim of Mr. Bill and Mrs. Boorman is clear--they wish for their readers to engage their world with all of their senses, and learn from these experiences something new regarding the God who made all things, including the faculties by which we perceive our world.  Through their sensory experiments, they also hope to instill in the reader a sense of an embodied faith.

    My disappointments, personally, had to do with the depth of biblical and theological engagement.  Though Mr. Bill and Mrs. Boorman do make connections to Scripture and to certain elements within the Christian tradition, I would describe those interactions as cursory, not substantive.  The primary thrust of this book was personal narrative, as is the case with a number of resources on offer in the area of Christian spiritual formation.

    It may be the case, then, that I am asking too much.  Mr. Bill and Mrs. Boorman are dealing in the gentle avenues of grace, and that may be exactly what the bulk of their readers will need--a soft introduction to a new way of thinking, or a gentle invitation to a more embodied way of thinking about life as a child of God in this world.  I have no doubt that such people will be helped by reading this book.