The silence was actually getting to me. Instead of welcoming the solitude as an opportunity to pray and work on multiple projects, it was becoming a distracting menace. Ash Wednesday had been a powerful experience of grace and healing. The next day was one of tranquility, productivity, spiritual awareness and communion. Then came Friday…..
The noonday demon [i] was about three hours early. I thought about my spiritual warfare brothers and sisters who would be renouncing Satan and claiming the power; I thought about the desert fathers and mothers wrestling visually with the powers and principalities; I thought about what these Jungian shadows might really mean; I thought about the Irish bar a few blocks from here already open; I probably think too much.
I was stuck recently by a passage from Thomas Merton’s book on spiritual direction. He was discussing how the role of spiritual director arose to meet the pastoral needs of the thousands of ascetics who escaped to the desert to find genuine Christianity in the Fourth Century. Though deeply devoted, Merton observed that “they lived solitary and dangerous lives, far from any church and rarely participating even in the Mystery of the Eucharist.[ii]” Those who had achieved high levels of piety and discernment were sought out as guides and masters for direction and spiritual solace.
The modern spiritual desert of contemporary life has not emerged because we have “gone out into the wilderness to seek Christ” as was the case with our Fourth Century brothers and sisters. On the contrary, today’s wilderness of the soul has been in part created by the conscious and unconscious removal of the Christian God from nearly all the normal rhythms of the day. Modernity has transformed society into a spiritual desert.
My point is not to engage in the larger discussion of the role of religion in the public square. Not all of this transformation is bad: what is going on in many corners of the world right now is a tragic and urgent argument for enlightenment tolerance and freedom of conscience. I have stated in the past, for instance, that removing public prayer from the school is probably good for prayer and piety in general, though not necessary good for the Republic. The societal issues and consequences in this debate are more complicated than often portrayed by either side.
My concern here is more practical. The average Christian’s unintentional daily life mirrors the voluntary state of the desert ascetics: We live isolated, spiritually dangerous lives, causally connected to church with very little sense of mystery (sacrament) or transcendence. Lent is a great opportunity to begin to address how to thrive in this desert and though each of these conditions merits their own treatment, I offer these preliminary thoughts.
1) Isolation- It certainly was not the intention of the Reformers to create the individualistic spiritual culture of today, but it certainly was one of the unintended consequences of the Protestant and modernist project. In many ways the easiest antidote to this problem is to become connected to a Christian community or a least seek out a reliable guide. But I am not alone when in my experience this is much harder than it seems. It would be ideal if every one of us could find a trustworthy and wise spiritual director who could guide us into a deeper life in God. But at the very least, we can cultivate spiritual friendships which even though they may be spiritually egalitarian (near-sighted leading the far-sighted). These relationships afford opportunities for mutual grace-giving and companionship along the way.
2) There are so many things about our current lifestyles that are “spiritually dangerous”-isolation being one of the chief. But if I had to pick another predominant danger it would be the over-stimulation of the senses in contemporary life. Whether it is due to the immediacy of access to information and contact afforded by our personal devices or the omnipresent sources entertainment, there is little opportunity for contemplation or reflection. Ironically, the desert saints experienced similar struggles with the under-stimulus of extreme silence and solitude. The soul needs to be able to find inner quiet in order to honestly look at the self and to be still enough to hear the silent voice of God’s lead. I think one practical way to do this is to create “technology free” spaces in one’s day or week in order to be more present to one’s self and God. Some of my Jewish colleagues practice “screen Sabbath” in which during Shabbat they turn off everything with a screen (laptops; cell phones; ipads, etc.). If academic information junkies can do this for 24 hours for their faith, surely we can pull this off an hour or so a day for ours as well.
3) Church Connection- It had been widely observed that Church attendance is down and there are multitudes of reasons for this phenomena. I think much of the criticism of church is unfair and many bring unrealistic expectations to both their fellowships and leaders. But since going to church is no longer my job, I have discovered both the challenges and the fruits of church attendance. Why we need to be in regular worship is not always experientially evident; to be honest churches that make it a priority to make every week entertaining and inspirational are probably doing their parishioners a disservice in the long run.[iii] Some Sundays I have questioned why I was sitting there and I and wondered if not brunch and the Sunday New York Times would have been more edifying.
But the Scriptures unequivocally teach that to be a follower of God is to be a member of the community of faith. You are not really being a Christian if you choose to live apart from a living expression of the family of God. In many ways the benefit to being connected to a church is akin to breathing-you may not always be conscious of how God is using those around you, but you cease to participate at your own peril. Trust me; I know this is not without some very real struggles. There may be times when either circumstances or necessity requires you to be apart from regular fellowship; but if this does not cause some inner dissonance, then something is amiss in your spiritual journey. There may be seasons of exile, but you eventually need to find your way to somewhere that at least approximates home.
4) Lack of Transcendence-I am going to address this more fully in my next blog, but in short the question is how does one encounter God on a regular basis? Starting pretty much in Genesis and on most pages until the end of St. John’s Revelation, the purpose of the whole God-Human drama is that God and humans are to find each other and actually enjoy one another’s company. If your church service is mostly about human speech and your prayers are mostly about what you need, at what point if ever do you bump into the Lord? And I am not talking about evoking strong feelings (nothing wrong with that -usually) or being moved by a song or sermon (hope so) but really entering into a sense of communion with the Triune God. This actually should be the ultimate goal of one’s life and may be the chief reason we exist; but neither the pursuit of personal spirituality alone nor a tight worship band[iv] bring you into the Divine Mystery. That is of a different order.
[i] Known as acedia or the noon day demon, first described by Evagrius Ponticus, a 4th century Christian monk and one of the most important ascetic theologians of all time. For him acedia was one of the 8 harmful thoughts (later transformed by Pope Gregory the Great into 7 deadly sins). Kathleen Norris has written a contemporary account of her struggles (2008).
[ii] Spiritual Direction and Meditation. p. 13.
[iii] Not that there is any virtue in making the service dull. Channeling Jim Rayburn, “It is a sin to bore anybody with the Gospel.”
[iv] Or a wall rattling Pipe Organ if that is your preference. But music certainly can be a tool-more on that in the next blog