21 Nov Forgetting God in Church
I am several months into an experiment of trying to bring a Benedictine pattern of prayer and work into my daily rhythm. This commitment started with a statement made by Cynthia Bourgeault who was leading a retreat at The Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham, Massachusetts for students of The Living School of The Center for Action and Contemplation. It was our first night and Cynthia was leading our opening session, when she said something to the effect that it is not enough to have spiritual practices. We need a daily pattern designed to keep us awake and grounded in a more graceful state of awareness. This seemingly harmless observation struck me with a force which was hard to ignore. Something in me knew that these words were spoken for me and were important for my growth. I had been working diligently at various spiritual practice for years. The next step was to deepen the work with a daily rhythm to support it.
I don’t feel as though I’ve made much if any progress since then. At times, I feel like I am falling backwards into old patterns of becoming unconscious and reactive, running from the difficult work which, one way or another, I have been avoiding all of my life. Still, I keep turning to readings about The Rule of St. Benedict and to the writings of John Cassian, who inspired Benedict, and I find within a desire to learn how to bring an inner alignment with Christ into each moment. Why do I experience times of living in a Christ-flow, only to lose a sense of inner connection to Christ as quickly as it arrived? Why is it so hard to stay connected and awake?
I imagine that the Benedictines have their bad days as well. Reading the early Christian monastics, it’s clear that the journey toward greater intimacy with and awareness of God has never been an easy reality to attain. Recently, I was reading commentary on the seventh chapter of Benedict’s Rule–the one on humility. A couple of quotes from Joan Chittister jumped out. “It is not perfection that leads us to God; it is perseverance.” “Benedict wants us to realize that accepting our essential smallness and embracing it frees us from the need to lie, even to ourselves, about our frailties. More than that, it liberates us to respect, revere, and deal gently with others who have been unfortunate enough to have their own smallnesses come obscenely to light.”
So much of our learning is head learning. As a life-long learner, I value head learning. Yet the spiritual path requires the learning of the heart. It necessitates looking at long unresolved issues of our hearts over and over until we have the courage to embrace, heal and integrate them. Accustomed as we are to feeling like we have mastered some of life’s tasks and skills, this spiritual work feels so humbling. We inevitably feel the same repressed fear, inadequacy, and rage that we felt as children. Who wants to feel as helpless and needy as we felt when we were young? Who wants to feel deeply vulnerable, especially when you have to preach the next day and sound like someone who has something of value to offer?
The Protestant Reformation of five hundred years ago was largely a head trip. It was concerned about right belief and right authority. Energy was spent on debates about grace and law, and authority was located no longer with the Pope or the Church, but with Scripture. These were important debates and created energy in the church. Perhaps, however, the energy of that moment in church history has run its course. As part of the larger evolution of human consciousness in Europe, the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, took the path of rational argument and justification as the one which would get them to the Promised Land. Our contemplative heritage which, at its best, integrated the knowing of the head with the knowing of the heart was ignored and viewed as a primitive manifestation of consciousness which we needed to outgrow. Lost was the wisdom of mystical geniuses like the anonymous author of “The Cloud of Unknowing” who claimed that God could not be known by our minds, but only through love. For him, and many in our contemplative tradition, love is not some fuzzy, fleeting and sentimental emotional state. It was a sustained practice of self-emptying from mental and emotional attachments, in order to open space for reception of the mind of Christ.
We are not going to think ourselves to union with God or to a transformed self. Neither will sentimental and undisciplined piety get us to a new self. My experience in Presbyterian churches is that these are the two primary paths that good and well-meaning people have tried. These have not created people or churches which are significantly different from people or groups in the larger culture. What is missing, I believe, is serious re-engagement with the treasure trove of our contemplative heritage. Great minds and great souls like Cynthia Bourgeault, Richard Rohr and Jim Finley of The Living School are living exemplars of this great heritage. There are many others as well. It has taken me a life-time of service in the church to gain the confidence to engage a congregation, with seriousness of purpose, with this great spiritual stream. I am now a mystic come out-of-the-closet, offering to all who would receive the hidden pearl of the contemplative path of transformation.
What I like about the Benedictine path is its seriousness of purpose and its ordinariness. Its goal is to bring online a consciousness ever awake to God in a simple and grounded life, balanced between time alone and in community, time in prayer and in work. In Benedict’s Rule, you will find counsel on prayer and on doing the dishes and serving others at mealtime. Benedict does not offer a flight from the world, but a life lived with balance and depth of awareness in the world.
We Presbyterians are good people. Yet, I have found that we are prone to forget God as we go about work in the church and in our lives. Church life often is as void of God, in any tangible way, as life outside the church. We may say a prayer before and after a meeting, but the Spirit of Christ does not always permeate our time in-between. I find myself wondering if Benedict’s Rule might offer us wisdom in helping us to put on Christ’s mind in all that we do.