Being human, part 3: the spiritual life

I’ve been thinking a lot about the spiritual life lately. Not, of course, that it’s ever too far from my mind. As a teacher of those preparing for ordained ministry, I always considered the pastoral and spiritual implications of the theology and ethics I taught. And as a person of faith, I have found the spiritual life an integrative force in my life, which often seems like a patchwork of roles and responsibilities and hopes and disappointments. Woven through the various scraps of fabric, there is this sense of purpose that draws in everything–yes, everything–and orients it toward a bigger-than-I reality.

Although my recent thinking about spirituality has been inspired by the situation of women in colleges and universities and the challenges facing them, I’ve been struck deeply by the universality of our need for spiritual well-being. An article by David Morstad, over at The Larger Table, points out that people with significant intellectual disabilities have as great a desire and need for spiritual nourishment and community–if not greater–than those with greater cognitive abilities.

A sense of spirituality–which might be as simple as the notion that there is a reality bigger than we are, that holds us and draws us forward–seems fairly standard and unobjectionable. The category of folks who consider themselves ‘spiritual, but not religious’ attests, I think, to this foundational place of spirituality in our lives. But that isn’t to say that ‘spirituality’ is somehow what religion is really about, or that the practice of any sort of religion or spirituality is the same.

What our various approaches to religion and the spiritual life should teach us, I believe, is not that religions are all the same, or even that ‘religion’ is a thing that means the same thing to people who practice different religions. Rather, our continuing openness to faith and spirituality, and the persistence of faith-based values within our society, ought to remind us that, however much divides us, there is much that we nonetheless share. Being human involves forming a view (insofar as our capacities allow us to do so) about what it is to be human, and this is a task that involves a great many of us in spiritual reflection in addition to philosophical and scientific study.

As Lent begins, Christians around the world pay renewed attention to the life of the spirit.  I hope that this Lent will be a time when the universality of our need for grace also awakens in me a deeper awareness of the unity of the human family. After all, Jesus’s prayer for us as he entered into his suffering was that we might all be one. May it be so.

Deo gratias.

 

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Be ready!

This week we have the Advent lessons and carols service at the younger children’s school.  Of course my 8-year-old doesn’t want anything to do with it, though he can sing perfectly well. The 3-year-old, on the other hand, walks around the house singing, “Alleluia! The Lord is coming to stay!” and “Stay awake! Be ready!” and also reminding us that “no one knows the day or the hour.”

I always consider motherhood as a spiritual discipline. Faith-shaping, patience-testing, hope-building and joy-giving, it is an exercise of love at its easiest and its hardest. But usually the connection between my Christian faith and the work of parenting is at the practical level. The expressions of love (“the best part of my day is seeing my mummy”) fill my heart, and the surly disobedience (best left unrepeated) breaks it. But this is different: this is a little chime, reminding me over and over what Advent is all about: stay awake! Be ready! The Lord is coming!

I choose to understand my making-ready in light of the second reading from yesterday, Gaudete Sunday. “Rejoice!” Easier said than done, but the passage from 1 Thessalonians goes on to explain that the injunctions (which include “pray constantly” and “give thanks in everything”) constitute “the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” This has a two-fold benefit. It gives me some concrete things to do to prepare (pray, “rejoice” and “give thanks”) that don’t occupy any space on the to-do list but rather accompany all the comings and goings and doings. And it also frees me from the worry about what “the will of God” might be. In a (school) year marked by transition, when the next steps are as yet unknown, it’s easy to become anxious (really, really easy) about what God has in store for us.

Now I know: rejoice, pray, give thanks. And then I will be ready for the Lord, whenever and wherever he meets me.

Deo gratias.

It’s all good

Having read the thoughtful post from The Accidental Missionary, I considered the way I use ‘feeling blessed’. I don’t use it, actually. Not that I have objections; it just isn’t one of my stock phrases. The accidental missionary is absolutely right to point out that Jesus calls ‘blessed’ those to whom we might not apply the term as it is often used in Christian-speak; that is, it is when things go well that we are likely to say we’re ‘feeling blessed.’ We are less likely to say, ‘I was mugged this evening on the way to the bus stop, and the thief took all my money, my watch, and my mobile phone, leaving me with a bruised cheek and no way home: feeling blessed.’ But that seems more in line with the ‘meek’ and ‘persecuted’ that Jesus calls ‘blessed.’

My instinct, though, isn’t to refrain from using the language. Maybe, even, I should start considering myself ‘blessed’ a whole lot more. Pope Francis has been talking us through the the epistle of St James recently, in daily homilies and weekly audiences. James begins (following his greetings) rather disconcertingly, ‘Consider it all joy…when you encounter various trials.’ Trials and tribulations are to be welcomed, because the fruit of endurance is to ‘be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.’ That’s blessed–and here I am in complete agreement with the accidental missionary: the good stuff is not what makes us good. It’s not even evidence that we are on the right track.

In the middle of the book of Acts, Paul sets out to check on his church plants in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, where Christians have been experiencing some fairly intense persecution. Acts 14:22 reports on the content of Paul’s message to the fledgling communities. Paul and company ‘[strengthened] the souls of the disciples, encouraging them in the faith, and saying, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”‘ Not goodwill or success or growth, but tribulations are the evidence that the communities are on the way to the kingdom. (I have something more to say about this in the last chapter of my book, Rethinking Christian Identity, if you’re at all interested.)

That’s not, of course, to say that only tribulations are blessings: this morning’s invitatory Psalm (66 [67]) reads ‘the earth has yielded its produce’ as evidence that ‘God, our God, blesses us.’ Such logic is common in the Old Testament, though there are clues (see Job, for example!) that it is more complicated than that. So the way forward, I think, is rather to regard it all as blessing. One of my mentors, who has spent a lifetime as a Christian priest and theologian at the intersection of Jewish, Muslim and Christian thought, is very fond of the phrase alhamdulillah. Whether the news is welcome or unwelcome, God be praised! If we encounter challenges or enjoy success, thanks be to God!

It’s all good. Now, we don’t always know how it’s good, but that is a question of a different kind (see Wisdom 8.1 and Romans 8.28).

Deo gratias.