07 May The Value of a Path
Feeling drawn to a deeper communion with God, how do I seek to integrate this longing with my role as a pastor of a mainline, Protestant church? Having pastored in my current setting for twenty-one years, has given me “permission” to explore this question in many small group offerings in recent years, and to reflect on this in weekly preaching. It’s a question which leads a pastor and those willing to follow into the search for practices and a path which will deepen and sustain a transforming experience of God, in the midst of a culture and its patterns which do little to promote spiritual searching.
A recent retreat at a Benedictine Abbey, led by Cynthia Bourgeault, has inspired me to learn more about the Benedictine path and how it might inform the life of a Presbyterian pastor and his congregation. I have begun keeping a journal of my attempts to bring a Benedictine rhythm to my own life. I am unable to observe the Divine Offices of daily prayer as Benedictines have for 1500 years, but I am beginning to chant several Psalms each day in the privacy of my home or office. Cynthia’s challenge to us retreatants was to create our own pattern of prayer alone, work alone, prayer together and work together, which she sees as the outline of Benedictine life. This pattern is intended to bring our awareness consistently to God in the movements of our day. Prayer and work flow into each other, inform each other, and draw us to see the divine presence in the ordinariness of our lives. Being alone and in community teaches us to open ourselves and perceive the holy in ourselves and in the other.
Centering prayer meditation and spiritual reading form the foundation of my prayer alone. Working on weekly sermons, classes, tending to the needs of the church and its people are the core of my work alone which spill into work together. Work together includes helping to maintain my household with my wife. Watching our grandkids, weeding, doing dishes, cleaning toilets, hosting dinners, managing the trash and recycling. Prayer together, of course, consists of Sunday worship, weekly meetings of contemplative practice of members and friends, and moments of conscious conversation which move to deeper and more subtle levels. When I am dancing and singing with my five-year-old granddaughter, is that work together or prayer together? It may not be Benedictine chanting of Psalms, but it often can move into a worshipful energy. The idea is not to be slavish or literal in our mimicking of the Benedictine pattern, but more balanced and mindful in how we show up in our daily routines.
In my daily practice, I am looking for patterns of when I am awake and in a life-giving flow of awareness and when I fall into retreat, constriction and resistance. Can I recognize when I am falling asleep and bring myself back into presence? Can I bring a non-anxious awareness to enable me to begin to see myself in my reactive and unconscious defenses as they arise?
In my study, I am looking at the Rule of Benedict and of the influences on this ancient rule from John Cassian who brought the patterns and rules of the early Christian desert mothers and fathers to Europe in the early part of the fifth century. The zeal and attention to detail of our contemplative ancestors is humbling. What they are after is establishing a pattern of life which will promote disengagement from our egoic habits and identifications, with all of their preferences and aversions, so that a deeper and truer self can begin to become our center. By experience, they have discovered inner energies or thoughts which block the movement of God’s Spirit within us. Evagrius Ponticus identified eight thoughts which undermine sincere attempts at spiritual growth, which John Cassian brought to France. These eventually were distilled into the seven deadly sins which became an essential part of Catholic teaching. My times of prayer and work together now include a rich stream of sisters and brothers from our ancient past whose wisdom and humility speak powerfully to my longings for a more fruitful spiritual life.
Joan Chittister, a contemporary Benedictine, writes beautifully about the wisdom of this ancient Christian path for our own time (see Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today). She exposes the modern trap of the independent self which jettisoned religious rules and guidance, seeing them as an impediment to the freedom and evolution of the self. The self, and its likes and dislikes, however, becomes a prison which chokes off an experience of God. Our ancient spiritual ancestors knew this, and so does Chittister. She observes that prayer is not magic or bribery of God. It is not about bending God’s will to serve our own, but about changing us deeply, that we might begin to put on the mind of Christ. It is a changing of our habitual mode of perception so that prayer and work are no longer something that we do only for ourselves, but for community and for this world that God loves and calls us to love as well.
So much of the concerns of the Benedictine pattern are with small, everyday things. Work, prayer, time alone, time together. It doesn’t promise ecstasy or escape from the ordinariness of life. It embraces the daily and the ordinary as the necessary elements for a transformation of the self. Trained as we have been to seek happiness by consumption, it tells us that a consumer culture ends up consuming our souls and our world. Those hungry for God, will pursue an alternative path and find alternative food. Though long neglected, our contemplative tradition offers much food for the hungry soul. Will our churches be able to separate ourselves from the addictive nature of our consumer culture, and begin to partake of and to offer others food for our souls and a path which truly leads to life?