Monday, October 31, 2016

Way of a Pilgrim

“But how wonderful, how delightful and how consoling a thing it is when God is pleased to grant the gift of self-acting spiritual prayer, and to cleanse the soul of all sensuality! It is a condition which is impossible to describe, and the discovery of this mystery of prayer is a foretaste on earth of the bliss of heaven.”[1]

Ever living and ever loving God,

Let it not be enough to be near You, but to be found in you.
Let it not be enough to know of You, but to know you in the mystery of your passion and the power of your resurrection.
Let it not be enough to visit where your presence dwells, but may I ever live in you.
Under the shadow of your wings, in your tender mercy.

Jesus Christ, Son of God have mercy on me a sinner. Look upon your servant with favor. Hide not your face from me, but blot out all my iniquities though the are many. Cleanse me, purge me, purify me that I may worship You in Spirit and in truth with clean hands, with a pure heart and with lips that speak no guile.

Speak to me in the silence of the inner heart. May I find you there.
Speak to me through the companions who accompany me on this journey of faith. As they come and go let me see your face in theirs. Let me hear your voice in their words. May I greet them with joy and with joy lovingly release them back into your hands.

Holy God, let your name ever be on my lips. Let it ever dwell in my heart. Let my name dissolve in your name. May my life be hidden in Christ. May I become by grace what you are by nature by the power of your indwelling Spirit. All these I ask you in the name of your son Jesus. Amen.

   [1] Way of a Pilgrim. (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1992), 15.

Word of Life: The Deseert Mothers and Fathers

“A certain brother went to Abbot Moses in Scete, and asked him for a good word. And the elder said to him: Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”[1]

     It appears our lives couldn’t be more different than the desert mothers and fathers of ancient Egypt. I have lived my entire life in the city; I doubt I would survive one night in the desert without wifi. It’s easy to view this ancient desert ammas and abbas as totally removed from our bustling modern life, but on a fundamental level they are not. They too were surrounded with bustling cities with lots to do. The soul’s need for rest and stillness is just as real then as it is now. It’s remarkable how the conditions of the soul have not changed over the years. External circumstances vary wildly throughout history, but the internal terrain of the soul remains the same. And so the wisdom of the desert mothers and fathers gained from a life of contemplation is wisdom for today. It speaks to the soul today. Their words of life then remain words of life now.
     Those on the spiritual path today still need to hear a word of life rom time to time to guide them on the spiritual journey. The quote from Abbot Moses resonates with me deeply. I am not a monk, nor do I have any desire to be. I do not spend most of my time in a cell, but the words of Abbot Moses are still relevant for me today. His instruction highlights the absolute necessity of silence and stillness in order to dive deeper into one’s spirituality. I have a large capacity for work and I often find myself taking on more projects because I should, but because I can. I inevitably realize my need for rest and silence only after I have gone without far too long. Abbot Moses reminds me not to throw in a time of rest here and there, but to begin in stillness and let the necessary action flow from the discernment and rejuvenation of stillness.
     I am intrigued by silence. I have spent so many years in Evangelical, Charismatic and Pentecostal churches which are very vocal that seeking to spend time in silence is relatively new for me. When I first began, five minutes was unbearable. How strange that our modern world today is so fast paced and so productivity driven that spending just five minutes in silence seems like torture. How ill equipped our modern society is for the task of tending to the soul. I still struggle with making time for silence, but I recognize my need for it more and more. Maybe this is how it begins. Perhaps I’ll never be proactive enough to start with stillness and let my actions flow from that place of clarity and rest, but at the very least when I feel overwhelmed I will turn to the words of Abbot Moses. I will go to my room, shut the door and just be still. I will let the silence speak and teach me what I need most to know. Sometimes the word of life we need to press on in our spiritual journey is only found in the silence of the inner heart.

   [1] Thomas Merton, trans., The Wisdom of the Desert. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998), 30

Ignatian Spirituality

“Man is created to praise, reverence and serve God our Lord, and by this means save his soul. And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man that they might help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created.”[1]

     I must confess that when it comes to the Catholic Church I am heavily biased. The Catholic Church and I had a bad break up when I was thirteen and we have been estranged ever since. We just haven’t figured out a way to remain friends. I attended a Jesuit high school and college and learned a lot about Ignatius. Ambivalence is the best word to describe my approach to Ignatian spirituality then and now. As I Protestant I cannot overlook the fact that the Jesuit order was brought into existence to counter the Protestant Reformation. Protestants were viewed as heretics and enemies and even today much military language remains in its charter. However, I have deep respect for Ignatius’ commitment to living simply and caring for the poor. And surprisingly I’ve found the daily examen, when it is adapted for our modern context, to be a very helpful tool in deepening one’s spirituality and tending to the soul.
     For me the daily examen is not about focusing on sin or trying to overcome some fault; it’s about awareness and cultivating the capacity to look inward. This is so badly needed in our world today which often finds us always on the go and masking our dissatisfaction with activities on our calendars. The daily examen provides opportunity to pause, reflect and take in the day. To discern what has brought joy and what has not; to learn to see in such a way that is impossible unless one is still and silent even if for only a few moments. The examen is grounded within the Christian tradition, but has been adapted to speak to non-Christians as well. I believe it can be just as enriching to those outside theistic traditions.
     The adaptations I am most drawn to are the ones that center on gratitude. The language of gratitude provides a framework for self-examination that is gentle, grace-filled and forgiving. This language speaks to theists and non-theists alike. This is very important to me as I don’t believe that spirituality only belongs to those who believe in God. I was led through one such adaptation of the examen. The actions were simple, but moving. Simply sitting still, breathing intentionally, placing my hand over my heart while bringing to mind what I was most grateful for during the day, brought me to a different place. And when I brought to mind what I was least grateful for I was able to face a difficult aspect of myself with much grace. I imagine doing this every day would lead to a blossoming of awareness, discernment, self-compassion and compassion for others as well.
     Whether you are Catholic, a biased Protestant like me, or of a different faith or of no faith altogether, I invite you to try on the daily examen for yourself. Find an adaptation that speaks most clearly to your heart. Give it time and stick with the practice for a while. I believe you will soon find it to be a necessary component to furthering the spiritual journey of tending to the soul and living life well.

   [1] Ignatius of Loyola. Spiritual Exercises and Selected Works, trans. George Ganss (New York: Paulist Press, 1991), 24.

The Small Group That Wouldn't Let Go

“A Methodist society, they said, consists of ‘a company of men having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other work out their own salvation.”[1]

     One of the most enduring legacies of early Wesleyan spirituality is the church small group. While not as rigorous as Wesley’s original classes, they no doubt sprang from this source and have nurtured the faith of generations and continue to do so today. I don’t think there has been any denomination which has done a better job incorporating small groups into the life of the church than Evangelicals. I became acquainted with the Evangelical and Charismatic experience at the impressionable age of thirteen. They had me at hello. I was immediately drawn in by the vibrancy of the worship, the animated preaching and the depth of commitment to following Christ found among the church members. I would remain in the Evangelical camp for years to come.
     College was not without its challenges for me. I felt overwhelmed and out of place my freshman year and so I found a Christian group called Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and quickly joined a small group. Little did I know this would be the small group that wouldn’t let go and that my life would be deeply enriched by it. Evangelical culture can at times become judgmental, stifling and shame inducing, but this group represented the best Evangelicals had to offer. It offered a place for me to deepen my faith accompanied by peers who took their faith seriously. It provided the companionship I craved and a love-filled place where I felt secure. The slogan on our t-shirts was doing life together and that’s what we did. We prayed together. We sang together. We studied the Bible together. We laughed and cried, and faced our ups and downs together. We were companions on the way of faith and became life-long friends in the process. To do this very day there are about fifteen of us who still keep in touch in various ways.
     The original Wesleyan classes and the church small groups of today remind me how vital community is to cultivating one’s faith. I doubt if I would have handled the stresses of college life as well as I did without Christian fellowship. The spiritual journey is one you cannot take alone and if you try to you will soon find yourself off the path altogether. Community can provide spaces for our faith to grow and be nurtured. It can provide a space for us to wrestle with difficult questions and come face-to-face with the difficult aspects of ourselves we’d rather not face. Community provides encouragement when the spiritual journey becomes hard and I don’t think any life of faith without challenges is possible. I thank God for my small group experience and the fact we did not engage in rigorous self-examinations like the early Wesleyan classes! Though not Methodist, I am indebted to Wesley for laying the groundwork for the flourishing of church small groups which enabled me to flourish in my own faith life. There simply is no replacement for community in the spiritual life.

   [1] Paul Hutchinson, and Halford E. Luccock, The Story Of Methodism. (New York: Abingdon Press, 1954), 165.

Mother Wit

“With biological children and with ‘spiritual children’ older African American women shared their ‘mother wit’—their proverbial wisdom found in the Scriptures, cultivated in community and applied to daily life.”[1]

“The mother wit schoolhouse was life, the textbook was the Bible. The lesson plan highlighted the generational passing of insights for living.”[2]

“I’ve never been through a storm that did not pass over.”

     This is just one of the numerous pearls of wisdom passed down to me from generations of Mother Wit in the Black church tradition. It’s the kind of wisdom you can only get through experience. Reading a book won’t give it to you and taking a class won’t be of much help to you either. The wisdom that flows from the elder women we affectionately call the “mothers of the church” is hard earned wisdom. From the very beginning the Black church in America found itself embedded in struggle and though not nearly recognized often enough, Black women have always served as its backbone. Mother wit was born in the bush of slave religion out of necessity. Women turned to the Bible to place their struggles within the context of faith. They took the strength and comfort they received from the Scriptures and passed it on to others, nourishing the entire Black church in the process. Mother wit sustained the Black church through the horror of Jim Crow and the lynching tree. Mother wit fortified the Black church during the civil Rights movement amidst all the violent backlashes it incurred. The Black church would be lost without the spirituality of black women.
     The church mothers spoke words of life to their community in the same way the desert mothers and fathers did. Far from the enigmatic koans of the Zen Buddhism tradition, the words of life they spoke were plain and full of practical reason. Facing opposition in school or on the job? Don’t let nobody turn you around” would be their reply. If they felt you were resisting God’s call upon your life one would sharply tell you “Your arms are too short to box with God.” And if you found yourself overwhelmed by the problems of life a church mother would surely tell you what was told to me. “I’ve never been through a storm that did not pass over.” That simple phrase has been such a source of strength and comfort to me throughout the years. It always comes back to me when I feel overwhelmed by difficult situations. I cannot argue with its truth even when in a very pessimistic frame of mind. No storm, no matter how big or strong continues indefinitely. Every storm eventually comes to an end. This word of life rooted in the ground of practical wisdom continues to be a sustaining source for me.
     A product of the Black church tradition, I am in debt to the spirituality of Black women. Their form of spiritual guidance meets people at their point of need. It’s accessibility to the every-day person adds to its strength. Spiritual guidance in the hands of Black women strengthens and comforts. It challenges and rebukes when necessary. It leads and instructs. It lifts up and places those who have fallen back on their feet. The strength of Black women of faith has been the strength of the Black church and I as well as many others would have never survived without it.

   [1] Robert W. Kelleman and Karole A. Edwards, Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 194.
   [2] Ibid., 195.

Defining Spirituality

“Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Centre, a speaking Voice, to which we must continuously return." (Alan Kolp)

Spirituality is
The awareness that we are more than flesh and blood that can live on bread alone,
That the world is more than rock and earth,
The recognition that there is an internal terrain one must navigate,
A destination carried within us that can only be reached by being still.

Spirituality is the perpetual movement towards the Light,
Without feeling the need to name it or claim is as one’s own,
The contentedness to enjoy its warmth
And desire nothing more.

It’s hearing the voice in the wind,
The wisdom to interpret its message,
The strength to live it out.

It’s seeing one’s soul reflected in the face of the other,
And creation as the soul’s mirror,
The interconnectedness of all that is.

Spirituality is downing in a sea of love,
Enjoying the suffocation of ego,
The suffocation of fear,
The suffocation of rage,
Letting them sink down to the abyss
Never to rise again.

Spirituality is
The stilling of the mind,
The stilling of the tongue,
The stilling of the soul,
Treasuring the silence that speaks to the heart.

Spirituality is the nurturing of love.
It can be no less,
It can be no more,
Nothing more is needed.

Kevin Vetiac