Thursday, July 25, 2019

Spiritual Consumerism

Someone recently contacted me looking for a place to go on a spiritual retreat. They had a checklist for what they wanted a place to have, and as I put down the phone from talking with them, I felt as though I was helping them shop for a car or stove.  “I want it to have this feature; I don’t want that feature. . .” I hear similar lists of wants/don’t wants as people discuss worship. I wonder if we are often blind to the ways we attempt to dictate the time, place and method of encountering God.

Ironically, I’ve been listening to a series of conferences of John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic who gave us the concept of the dark night of the soul. John speaks of the dark night of the senses, which is when you no longer have a sensed presence of God. Many of us have experienced some sort of assurance of God’s presence through our senses—we see or hear or feel something that affirms God for us.

Without a felt sense of God’s presence, especially after have had such experiences, one may wonder if God’s presence has withdrawn from them. Unfortunately, much of our contemporary Christian spirituality is dependent on felt experience. So when you no longer receive a felt experience, you may change your spiritual practices to attempt to reclaim the “rush” you are missing.

The experience of what some mystics call “spiritual aridity” may leave us casting about for something new to recreate the buzz we are missing. But when our interest in spiritual matters is precipitated by felt experience, then our focus is not on God, but on ourselves. Spiritual experience can feed the ego, and ego is exactly what blocks our view of God.

There is no formulaic way to an encounter with God. Growth in our faith happens as we are content to know God present with us without the felt experience of God. Our faith grows not as we receive affirmation through a felt spiritual experience but through keeping faith even in the darkness, when we have no option than to simply trust that God is present with us.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Improving our Vision

People of prayer are, in the final analysis, people who are able to recognize in others the face of the Messiah.  –Henri Nouwen

 I am not there yet. I can see the Messiah in the faces of the oppressed. I can see it in the faces of families seeking asylum. I can see it in the faces of those who struggle between following orders and following conscience, knowing that following orders brings stability of paycheck—even though it is at the expense of their own well-being—while following conscience may lead to poverty.

Sometimes I see the Messiah’s face in people so consumed by fear that they hurt others directly or indirectly. This fear can take many forms: fear of those who are different, fear of losing some of one’s possessions, fear of change, even fear of God. When I can see their fear, I can find a measure of compassion for them, even when their fear causes them to reject, label, judge and demean others. It at least helps me to understand what motivates their hurtful behavior. It is still very hard for me to see the Messiah in such people. The only way I can even glimpse it is by looking at their fear.

I want to be a person of prayer, and yet this struggle to see the Messiah in others continues to challenge me. It reminds me that the faith journey is, in fact, a journey, and often a difficult one.  It also reminds me that prayer is more than simply talking to God. It is opening myself up to be changed by God. Prayer is the willingness to be pliable and changeable. Prayer is the willingness to have my beliefs challenged.

When I engage in prayer as listening to God in silence and solitude, my seeing changes. Unlike our physical lives, where vision often declines with age, the spiritual life offers us the invitation to improve our vision as we grow.