For the “Down” Day

It’s very hard to avoid them completely. Sooner or later, it seems that we will all have days when our spirits are troubled by doubt or loss or confusion or a frightening suspicion that we might have been abandoned by the Spirit we must have to sustain us.

Christian Century (April 29, 2015, issue) published an article entitled, “Books for the Dark Night.” Eight persons who are active in the Christian community in one way or another were asked to identify and reflect on a book that helped them at a low point in their faith journey.

Several of these books are worth taking a look at. These are titles that would be useful to have available in any case, but especially for those times when you need a place to turn. Here are the books mentioned and briefly discussed:

The Sacrament of the Present Moment, in a translation by Kitty Muggeridge

Don Quixote, in a translation by Walter Starkie (This one surprised me!)

The Soul’s Sincere Desire, by Glenn Clark

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson

God Is More Present Than You Think, by Robert Ochs, SJ

Morality: Memory and Desire, by Luigi Giussani

Companions on the Inner Way, by Morton Kelsey

Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott

I will be reading a few of these and will likely report on them here in future posts.

           

Lesser-known Heroes

I continue my subscription to Christian Century because there is always something special in every issue—something that makes me pause and think or maybe causes me to be a little more grateful. A lot of my blog posts had their roots in something I read in the magazine.

“Faith Matters” is a column that I always take a look at, and in the January 7, 2015, issue the column was entitled “Lesser-known Heroes.” It was written by M. Craig Barnes, President of Princeton Theological Seminary. His lofty title notwithstanding, Barnes was writing to recognize local pastors who not only do not usually have lofty titles, but are seldom celebrated. He reminds us that “there are many unpretentious, undistinguished pastors in the world who are quietly doing heroic things.”

And what is the main heroic thing these pastors do? Barnes tells us: these pastors go before their congregations, people often beaten up by the effort life can be, to remind them, “We have a Creator for our lives who is not done. We have a Redeemer for all of the tragedy we have created by acting as if we were gods. We have a Spirit who will not abandon us to the mess we’ve made of ourselves and the world.”

To be thus reminded has to be one of the highest reasons to attend local church services.

           

Practicing Silence – Part 2

I closed the year 2013 with a reflection (see below) on Sarah Coakley’s essay entitled “Prayer as Crucible” in How My Mind Has Changed (Essays from the Christian Century, edited by David Heim, Cascade Books, 2011). Professor Coakley writes about what happened to her as a result of an ongoing practice in Transcendental Meditation—one very effective way of practicing silence.

She described her experience this way: “Underneath was an extraordinary sense of spiritual and epistemic expansion—of being taken by the hand into a new world of glorious Technicolor, in which all one’s desires were newly magnetized toward God, all beauty sharpened and intensified. Yet simultaneously all poverty, deprivation, and injustice were equally and painfully impressed with new force on my consciousness.”

I can imagine that many people would want the first half of that, but not so much the latter half, since we live in a world in which every newscast wants us to know about the very worst that is happening in the world. Presumably, it was the first half of Coakley’s experience that made the second part bearable.

Shortly after reading Coakley’s essay, I picked up a copy of Jefferson Bethke’s book Jesus > Religion (Thomas Nelson, 2013), in which I found the amazing suggestion that what young people fear most today is silence. Bethke looks at how incessantly connected young people are to their iPods, social media sites, and cell phones, and concludes that the most intolerable thing must be silence.

I wonder if one reason young people might fear silence is that they know by some instinct that what awaits them through silence is a driving deep within themselves. Perhaps they sense that what awaits them, should they dare, is what Coakley found: a great, intense magnetizing toward God in which, yes, there may be tremendous beauty, but there might also be a too-terrible, too-painful encounter with the poverty and injustice in the world.

           

Practicing Silence – Part 1

“Prayer as Crucible” is the name of a chapter by Sarah Coakley in a book entitled How My Mind Has Changed: Essays from the Christian Century. The book was edited by David Heim, executive editor of Christian Century. Sarah Coakley is a professor of divinity at the University of Cambridge and a priest in the Church of England.

Almost anything about prayer catches my eye these days because in about two months my novel on the subject will be published by an independent publisher.

Coakley describes her essay as “an account of how prayer—especially the simple prayer of relative silence or stillness—has the power to change one’s perception of the theological task.”  There’s something to roll around in your mind!

I agree with her understanding of the prayer of silence because this was my experience too. Like Coakley, I came to a quite deepened relationship with the divine through the practice of Transcendental Meditation (TM). She calls her TM experience an “experiment.” Mine, which started in 1992 and has continued since, was more deliberate but the results have been similar. She writes, “the impact was electrifying.” I usually understate it as “the single most important thing I’ve ever done.” But I like her words that the prayer of silence has the power to change one’s perception of the theological task.

Of course this begs the asking of what the theological task is. If theology literally means “study of God” and is understood as meaning the study of the nature of God and religious belief, then the change in my perception that came about through TM was the realization that what I most wanted (to feel close to God) is not only possible but a gift God wants for me to have. Therefore, the theological task, as I see it, is falling into relationship with God.

Sitting in silence as a regular practice is the ticket.