Faith


“Sadly, spiritual is most commonly used by Christians to describe people who pray all day long, read their Bibles constantly, never get angry or rattled, possess special powers, and have the inside track to God. Spirituality, for most, has an other worldly ring to it, calling to mind eccentric ‘saints’ who have forsaken the world, taken vows of poverty, and isolated themselves in cloisters.
“Nothing wrong with the spirituality of monks. Monks certainly experience a
kind of spirituality, a way of seeking and knowing God, but what about the rest of us?” ~ Mike Yaconelli, in Messy Spirituality

This is one of my favorite books. It’s the kind I give people at Christmas and Birthdays, or when they seem to feel just like Mike, and just like me, that they will never measure up, no matter how they try.

This is one of those rare books that give voice to the unspoken things, the things we are afraid to think, though we feel them, nonetheless. I can hardly believe anyone dared to publish this book (God bless Zondervan), but if you dare to read it, it will lead you to a good, wide-open place.

How’s your day going? I almost hope you could use a little lift, because I’ve got one for you: Here’s a good chunk of Messy Spirituality for free. Really. Right here.

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It keeps coming back to me, this call to silence. In The Way of the Heart, Henri Nouwen writes about the eternal silence out of which God “spoke the Word, and through this Word created and recreated the world.” Nouwen goes on to say:

“By entering into the Egyptian desert, the monks wanted to participate in the divine silence. By speaking out of this silence to the needs of their people, they sought to participate in the creative and recreative power of the divine Word.”

Speaking out of silence. If you read the book, it makes wonderful sense, as contrasted to speaking out of all the noise, all the impulses and insecurities and drivenness that goes on in our heads most of the time.

So there was that. Then Image Journal did a lovely review of Into Great Silence, a beautiful, unusual film documenting a group of monks who have given their life over to divine silence. One passage in particular caught my eye:

“…in the silence, each thing has a chance to step out, to take upon itself the glory it was meant to have. In the way of paradox, it becomes clear how much more can be heard, and seen, in silence. Candlelight burning, the rustle of woolen sleeves and cowls, the knock of stone placed upon stone, pages of an old missal, turned–each sound rings clearer and each sight gains more shape, stepping out from their familiarity for a newfound claim upon our attentions–as though to say, ‘Look now; see, finally, what I am.'”

Also, last Saturday morning I read on Jeff Berryman’s blog:

“I’ve said many times that there is a hidden monk living in me, and while I don’t advocate a complete removal from the world for a lifetime, there is something deep to be said for silence and quiet and reflection…

“I remain convicted that much of how we live as Americans is too, too fast. This is a place to be counter-cultural, and I don’t have to tell anyone that it’s costly.”

And now I read in Tony Jones’ The Sacred Way this quote from Thomas Merton:

“The hermit, all day and all night, beats his head against a wall of doubt. It is not a question of intellectual doubt… It is something else, a kind of unknowing of his own self, a kind of doubt which undermines his very reasons for existing and for doing what he does. It is this doubt which reduces him finally to silence, and in the silence which ceases to ask questions, he receives the only certitude he knows: the presence of God in the midst of uncertainty and nothingness, as the only reality…”

I am a person who likes, even needs to be alone much of the time. On one level, I think I love silence. At least I love quiet, and the sounds I hear in quiet places: that flicker of the candle, that turning of the page. But true silence, where I sit still and listen with no goal, no mental project, no story to outline or story character to explore… That kind of silence just makes me nervous. And anyway, it’s hard enough to find the space for it. There are phones to answer, family to care for. Emails to answer. Stories to plan.

But when I put these quotes together, I come up with something like this: Real silence takes discipline, and resistance to my own compulsions. If I do resist though, if I turn aside into the divine silence, I enter into the deepest beauty, and come away with something closer to the truth about myself, and about God. I come away more able to live creatively, lovingly.

Tony Jones says he tries “to schedule one half-day of silence per month, a day-long silent retreat per year, a week-long silent retreat every five years and – God willing – a 30-day Ignatian retreat before I die.”

Part of me thinks those 30 days would kill me. And part of me wants to find out.

But I’ll start small: I’ll schedule a half-day. Soon. Or (yikes!) maybe just a half hour. I’ll let you know.

In The Sacred Way, Tony Jones quotes this from Henri Nouwen:

In the spiritual life, the word “discipline” means “the effort to create some space in which God can act. “Discipline means to prevent everything in your life from being filled up. Discipline means that somewhere you’re not occupied, and certainly not preoccupied. In the spiritual life, discipline means to create the space in which something can happen that you hadn’t planned or counted on.

For some time, the thought has haunted me, that there is so little space in the lives of most of the people I know and see around me. Up to a few years ago, there was so little space in my own life. So little quiet, so little peace. So little sleep. And as a consequence, so little undirected thought.

So little prayer.

In fact the truth is, while my days have calmed down some, my mind often churns as though nothing has changed at all.

I nurse the suspicion that people once had more space in their lives. In our formerly agrarian society, people may have worked hard, but wasn’t much of it manual, often solitary work, the kind that left the mind free to think its own thoughts? When we lived in the light of candles and oil lamps at night, didn’t we turn in earlier? Didn’t we rest more?

Or am I only romanticizing the past? It’s possible. America wasn’t overweight back then, but I have photos of ancestors who were bone thin, and hollow eyed. I could be wrong about this.

It’s just that people seem so bereft to me. I catch the eyes of the them when I drive down the street. Everyone seems so numb, and I think of something Edna St. Vincent Millay said once, in a play she wrote:

Man has never been the same since God died.
He has taken it very hard. Why, you’d think it was only yesterday,
The way he takes it.
Not that he says much, but he laughs much louder than he used to,
And he can’t bear to be left alone even for a minute, and he can’t
Sit still.

As Tony Jones says, people have been looking for answers for a very long time, so there must have been questions.

But what difference would it make if we made ourselves sit quiet awhile, just to listen? If we gave something unplanned a chance to happen?

I want to learn what this book has to teach.

Today at the bookstore I found myself in my favorite dilemma: “Should I buy this book? Or this one?” Of course, I bought them both.

Only when I got to the car and pulled my loot from the bag did I notice the titles: The Way of Story, and The Sacred Way. The Way… and The Way. Hmmm…

Even the authors’ names seemed significant: Catherine Ann Jones, and Tony Jones. Was there a message in this?

The next moment, I had a good notion that the message related to something I read in another book, one I’m listening to on my iPod, titled The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis, by Alan Jacobs – quite a good book, by the way. It’s hard to find anything original or informative about Lewis when so many books are written about him, but Jacobs found a way.

There was a passage in The Narnian that really stuck in my craw. In discussing Lewis’ approach to writing, he said:

What (the writer) has to do… is to trust the images that come into his mind – or, more accurately, trust that he is being formed as a Christian in such a way that the images that come to his mind are authentic ones, ones that lie at, or at least near, the center of his soul. “… Let the pictures tell you their own moral. For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life.”

Whatever spiritual roots I have succeeded in striking during the whole course of my life? Ouch. Just as I suspected. If my writing fails, at least half the reason is that I have failed in a much deeper, more profound way. The writing only displayed that failure to the public, got it down in black and white. For posterity.

A statement like that can scare you to death. So I grabbed those two books like flotation devices thrown from the deck from which I’d fallen. It just took me a while to realize what I’d done.

They do both look like good books. In the coffee shop, I plowed into The Sacred Way, a book about ancient spiritual practices such as Silence and Solitude, Sacred Reading, The Jesus Prayer, Centering Prayer. In the foreword written by Phyllis Tickle, she likens the present-day interest in such practices to the the thing we do when we’ve outgrown our rebellious stage and look back at our upbringing and realize that not everything we grew up with deserved to be jettisoned, and that our lives are the poorer for the loss of them. But we don’t go back home and re-create the past. We take up those things from our past and find new ways to use them to build a new present, and a new future.

The Way of Story begins by liking the writer to the ancient shaman, who descends into the depths of his own soul, and comes back with a message for the reader. Pretty clearly, the depths of my soul today were telling me to strike deep spiritual roots, and then figure out how to dive down… or dig down… oh, you know.

I’ll let you know how the books go, as I read them.

I consider a room without reading to be a hell without consolation, an instrument of torture without relief, a prison without light, a tomb without ventilation, a ditch swarming with worms, a strangling noose, the empty house of which the Gospel speaks.”
~PETER OF CELLE, Bishop of Chartres, 1181 – 1183

Okay, to some, that could seem overstated. But those of us who love to read – who really love to read – will understand.

In fact, the church has a long tradition of devout readers. Consider this curse found near the library doors in the monastery of San Pedro in Barcelona, Spain:

“For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain, crying aloud for mercy, and let there be no surecase to this agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails…and when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him forever.”

We Christians can get passionate about our books.

And I’m no different. When I read in the Gospel of John that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God,” I take that as my personal confirmation that God was the original writer, and that he has a soft spot in his heart for me – a writer too.

And a reader. I can never resist a good book, can you? I could use either a bigger night stand with stronger legs, or else maybe a little self-discipline. Frankly, the night stand’s easier to come by.

You’ll notice a certain bias in all my writing and reading. It’s this: I believe that beneath the trouble and frustration of life in a fallen world, a deeper, more beautiful reality glimmers through. That reality is my obsession. When The Message says in Matthew, “If you open your eyes wide in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light,” it tells me the wonder is there, hidden sometimes, but there to find if we trouble ourselves to look. I for one don’t want to miss it.

In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” If that’s you, then please drop by from time to time.

And whatever you do, don’t miss the wonder.

(Thanks to Radek Bayek for the beautiful image.)

I’ve been away awhile, burrowed in under the manuscript for my second novel. Actually it has been the better part of a year, with a small reprieve over Thanksgiving and Christmas that almost didn’t count because the holidays are an obsession all their own.

But for now the novel is out of my hands, and strange as that feels, it’s a chance for me to check in here. And tell you about a book, The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen, that presented itself just when I needed it most, when I was in the middle of that head-pounding, hair-pulling patch of frustration that seems to be part of writing a novel for me – at least if I can judge by my experience with the two I’ve written.

If I tell you why the book was so important just then, I’ll have to tell you more about the novel than I think I should just yet. Suffice to say, a film I saw about Henri Nouwen and the fact that this book was only 94 pages long tricked me into thinking I could read it very quickly, and get back to my writing with some answers.

Ha.

It did give me answers, but it wasn’t a quick read. It was the kind of book that had me reading a page, then pacing the floor, waiting for the million thoughts it excited to settle down so I could read the next. This went on for a week. And then I read it again, and read it out loud to friends. The cheap copy I bought is already wearing out.

What’s it about? Simply, it’s about the ancient practices of the Desert Fathers, of solitude, silence and prayer, how and why they came about, why they are needed now, and how they can be made to work in our crowded, noisy, distinctly non-contemplative lives.

The thing that first got my attention, was Nouwen’s description of the problem of worldliness in the church, our tendency to think the way everybody else thinks. Worldliness, not simply in the way we’ve all come to see it, drinking and carousing, that sort of thing. He talks about the sneakier form of worldliness, the kind that creeps in without our noticing, that has us convinced that what makes us valuable, what makes us worthwhile is what we own, what we have accomplished, and what people think about us. Take those away and we have no reason to exist.

Think what that does to us. Think how it drives our choices, how it colors our view of others.

That’s what began to get my attention. What sealed the deal, what convinced me that I needed the wisdom this book offered was the story of St. Anthony, who after some twenty years of practicing the disciplines of Solitude, Silence and Prayer was finally able to pray a true prayer – talking to God as himself, not the person he thought or wished or hoped to be. And when he rejoined humanity, his very presence was healing to people because at last he could look at them with clean eyes, he could really see them as they were, not as accessories to his own self esteem.

Can you imagine how that way of being would change everything?

Buy this book. If you can, get a good strong copy. It’s going to have to hold up to much reading.

636896_twirlingYou don’t know how many times I have tried to post this poem here. Once a year, I guess, since I started this blog. But just look at this snippet:

Start with my toes,


you old Ghost


Spirit the soles of my shoes


and teach me a Pentecostal


Boogaloo…

See what I mean? Wonderful.

And the thing is, it’s Pentecost today. And this is the best Pentecost poem I ever saw. And I have tried, and tried to find Nancy McCready, its author, so I can get permission to post the whole poem here for you. And I just can’t find her.

So here’s what you do: go to an old page on Andrew Greeley’s site here (yes, I’ve tried to reach him, too), and run a word search for “boogaloo.” That should take you right to it. Read it, and let it lighten your step.

The rest of the page is worth your time too, by the way.

May your Pentecost Sunday be lovely and joyous.

Nancy McCready where are you???

(Thanks to galofgray for the fabulous picture.)

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