SPIRITUALITY AND CHANGE

pexels-photo-414160.jpegEarly in the first century AD, St. Paul wrote the following words from prison urging Christians in a church he himself had founded to live lives dedicated to Jesus Christ:  “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to live a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4: 1-3).  A few verses later he urged his readers to “grow up”  in the Lord (Eph. 4:15) and to “put away your former way of life…to be renewed … and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4: 22-24). If one were to ask Paul what he thought true Christian spirituality was about,  he would not, I suspect, have given a definition of it. Rather, he would have offered the kind of practical advice offered above.  

What stands out most about the advice St. Paul offers is that spirituality involves change. Christians first are called to grow up. When we commit ourselves to a life of discipleship, of following Jesus, we are not fully formed or fully matured. That will take some time and commitment on our parts. We will have to renounce our old way of life and then we will have to embrace a new life of righteousness and holiness.  We have to cast off the old garments of sin and unrighteousness and clothe ourselves with a new self. These at first might sound like pious platitudes but Paul defines for his readers what he means by a life of righteousness and holiness. A life that is righteous and holy is marked by humility, gentleness, patience, and the ability to maintain relationships with others marked by unity and peace. For Paul true spirituality is not about the thoughts we might have about God or about the desires for things we wish God would fix or change. For Paul, our spirituality and devotion to God is reflected in how we ourselves interact with others. It is reflected in our humility, gentleness, patience, and peaceableness. 

Most of us like “change” as long as it conforms to our wishes and desires, but it is not so appealing when it comes to changing ourselves, that is our desires, behaviors, habits, and way of interacting with others.  That takes hard work, work for which we are not always ready to commit ourselves.   

Whenever church folks are surveyed concerning what they want from their church they invariably reply that they want to become more spiritual. I have no doubt that this is a genuine concern to them. I am also sure that some people are not sure what to say and so they figure that is the most reasonable response to give. In any case, I find that while folks say they want to become more spiritual, they find it difficult to actually embark on the journey that will lead them to that destination.  

If you, for example, want to become a more loving, patient, giving, or forgiving person, you will have to change the way you currently interact with other people and even the way you treat yourself—and that may not be easy.  To begin that process you will have to be willing to change.  Wanting to become more spiritual while at the same time trying to continue living as you already do is like attempting to go sailing in a boat without untying the boat from the dock.   At some point you will have to trust God enough to untie yourself from the dock and take a chance on the water.   

The Russian Orthodox writer Anthony Bloom tells the story of a Russian man, now revered as a saint, who wanting to live a more spiritual life, went into a church one day and asked God to help him become more patient. Perhaps he had a sense of his own flaws and knew where he needed to mature spiritually. As he left the church he ran into one of his brothers, with whom he had never even so much had had a sharp word.  Soon they were arguing furiously, almost coming to blows. The man, distressed, ran back to the church and asked God how it was that he had prayed for patience and almost immediately had fallen into such a violent argument. The Lord answered him to the effect that “you asked to become a more spiritual person. I was only giving you an opportunity to learn patience.” 

We learn to be more patient through our impatience; we learn to be more forgiving by actually having to forgive others who have hurt us; we learn to share with others by sharing what we have; we learn to pray by praying. Because each of us is a different person, we each have different challenges.

If you truly want to become more spiritual, that is, more gentle and humble in your dealing with others, you will have to make the effort to do so. No one can do it for you.  In his book Beginning to Pray, Anthony Bloom offers these words of wisdom:  

It is absolutely pointless to ask God for something which we ourselves are not prepared to do….When in our prayers we ask God for strength to do something in His Name, we are not asking him to do it instead of us because we are too feeble to be willing to do it for ourselves.

If you want to become more spiritual, you will have to be willing to change. You will have to be willing become a different person, a changed person. You will have to let go of the person you now are and embark on a journey that will lead to your becoming a new person in Christ. God will provide the opportunities for you to learn and grow in righteousness and holiness. God will help you and be with you at all times on your journey, but the journey cannot start without your own willingness to change and grow.  

THE PRACTICE OF THE PRESENCE OF GOD

pexels-photo-756883.jpeg“What’s my line?

I’m happy cleaning windows

Take my time…

“I’m a working man in my prime

 cleaning windows.”

Van Morrison, “Cleaning Windows”

I was walking on 15thSt. in downtown Philadelphia on my way to meet a fellow priest for lunch when I felt tiny drops of water fall on my head. Because it was not raining at the time, I looked up to see where the water was coming from. There perched on the side of a large downtown skyscraper was a window cleaner attached to the building by a lone safety wire. In his hands were a bucket and a “v.” Directly in front of me was a mother pointing upward to showing her son the window-washer hanging precariously from the side of the building.

The lyrics to “Cleaning Windows,”one of my favorite Van Morrison songs, immediately came to mind.  It’s a song Van Morrison wrote about his work from 1961-62 when he and his partner Sammy Woodburncleaned the windows of the terraced homes in Belfast. The song reveals the simple joy and contentment that Van Morrison found in the rather ordinary task of cleaning windows.

Oh, the smell of the bakery from across the street

Got in my nose

As we carried our ladders down the street

With the wrought-iron gate rows

Oh, Sam was up on top

And I was on the bottom with the v

We went for lemonade and Paris buns

At the shop and broke for tea

I have always found this song to be a profoundly spiritual song. It points to the realization that people in many times and places have had, namely that God is often experienced in the utmost simplicity of everyday life. Christians perhaps best know the kind of spirituality that finds God in the midst of everyday activities from the witness of Brother Lawrence.

Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, born Nicholas Herman in 1611 in French Lorraine, was a large and clumsy man who was always breaking or accidentally smashing things. He had served as a soldier until wounded and then as a footman.  His conversion at the age of eighteen happened as he noticed a leafless tree against the background of snow and thought of the wonder of God that would be made manifest in the spring when that tree again bloomed.  In 1666 he joined the monastery of the Discalced Carmelites of Paris as a lay-brother to atone for his own perceived inadequacies but instead found only the grace and mercy of God. He was put to work in the monastery kitchen where he worked for the next 25 years. He died in 1691 around the age of eighty.

The Practice of the Presence of God, first published in 1691, contained excerpts from conversations with him and from his letters. In the one of the conversations he remarked “that he was more united with God during ordinary activities than in religious exercises, in which he was generally afflicted with spiritual dryness.” He observed that “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer.”

In the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.

Where Van Morrison finds contentment in the everyday task of window cleaning, Brother Lawrence finds the presence of God in the midst of the noise and clatter of his kitchen.

Brother Lawrence’s “practice of the presence of God” was really quite simple: wherever he found himself, he reminded himself continually that God was always near to him. This practice meant that he never strayed far from the well of God’s merciful presence and explains how in the midst of a busy kitchen, he was able to find rest and refreshment in God’s presence.

IN THESE TIMES

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This blog will feature reflections and meditations on everyday life.

I have worked on an off as a parish priest for almost forty years. Over this time, I have written many meditations on what it means to live the Christian life. Many of these were written in harmony with the seasons of the Church calendar, particularly, with the calendar of the Episcopal Church.

The seasons of the church year are dominated by the mystery of the Incarnation — Christmas  — and that of the Resurrection, the Paschal mystery, otherwise known as Easter. Before each of these seasons are  respective seasons of preparation, Advent and Lent.  The other times of the year, flexible in duration, are Epiphany, stretching between Christmas and Lent, and the season of Pentecost, beginning with the Sunday fifty days after Easter and stretching to the beginning of Advent. In the Roman Catholic calendar, time in the Episcopal seasons of Epiphany and Pentecost is called “Ordinary time.”  The Roman Catholic Council of Bishops notes that, “Ordinary Time is a time for growth and maturation, a time in which the mystery of Christ is called to penetrate ever more deeply into history until all things are finally caught up in Christ.”

While ordinary time has a specific meaning in the church calendar, it is a wonderful term to refer to all of all of human life, in which we each are called to grow and mature in the mystery of Christ.

In the coming months, I will begin to share my reflections on living and flourishing in ordinary time.