The “spiritual” part of me, as I see it, is that aspect of who I am in my depths that yearns to touch and be touched by what is most glorious and powerful; I’m drawn toward it. That “it” in the minds of some seekers is God. For others, the “it” is something internal, a part of us and yet something we cannot manipulate or control. For still others, that “it” is precisely the true self, at its best.
How do you nurture your spiritual self? You begin by building a three-part foundation. First, by realizing that however you do so, seeing to such nurture is YOUR opportunity and your responsibility. No one can do your spirituality for you.
Second, by coming to grips with the reality of how you are put together as a human being. Your spiritual self isn’t some separate part of the whole that is you, which you can stroll by, visit now and then, and encourage with stroking and special treats. The physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of who we are, are interconnected and intertwined; only one of these aspects of who we all are can be adapted by physical manipulation such as physical therapy or surgery.
You’ve never heard anyone sober say, “I’m going to have surgery on my sad side to see if some of it can be removed so I can be happier more often than I have been for the last several years.” But we can take medications to treat emotional illness, and in drastic situations shock therapy—these days induced by medications rather than electric wands akin to those that often restart hearts that have stopped beating. Improving the emotional and/or spiritual parts of who we are must be accomplished without physical touching them.
The third part of the foundation, another matter to clear up on your way to establishing a foundation for spiritual nurture is to accept the fact that there are no formulae that work for everyone who desires to be more spiritually spunky. This is to say that, while understanding what works for others, what works for us individually will have to be discovered along our own pathway of seeking. A simple example of this would be comparing those who find it highly meaningful to set aside a specific time each day for prayer or meditation and reflection—perhaps influenced by inspirational reading—and those who find no meaning in scheduling spiritual practices at all. I’m one of those for whom the set time of day practice never worked; I’ve tried it time and again across the years, and I can’t feel much growth by doing it that way.
When I was in seminary, we most of us thought of the spiritual giants-to-be among us were those who arose before dawn and had their time of inspirational reading and prayer before the demands of the day began. Using that as a measurer, I knew that I would not dwell in the land of those kinds of giants. I didn’t have any trouble getting up early, but being expected to do something that required thought left me out. I was sufficiently disappointed with myself, but I felt some sense of comfort and relief when a big time southern preacher said in chapel one day, “I got tried of that getting up really early to pray thing, and all it did for me was to make me throw up. I needed my sleep!”
However they did it, I’ve known some key people across the years who, without a doubt, drew spiritual health and strength from regular times of prayer and/or meditation sometimes combined with inspirational reading whether that, for them, was from the Bible or the Koran or a poetry anthology bringing them heart to heart with the great poets, from Emily Dickinson to Maya Angelou, from Percy Bysshe Shelly to Robert Frost. I am so grateful for writers who have inspired me and those who still inspire me, but I have to say that, consistently, the most powerful influences on my spiritual well-being are people whom I know or know about with a special commitment to having a healthy spiritual self, and they have come from all over the place geographically, theologically, and in terms of style or practice.
I have told some of you before that the most influential person in my life in terms of making me want to believe in and work toward a healthy spiritual self is Dr. E. Glenn Hinson, who was a professor of church history and spiritual formation at Southern Seminary. Ironically, he was one of the first to be called a heretic when the literalists began their witch hunts, which led to many professors being forced out of their jobs; most of the best and brightest scholars who made up our stellar faculty were gone in a very short while. Two of his several books, were utterly pivotal for me: A Serious Call to a Contemplative Lifestyle and A Reaffirmation of Prayer.
Glenn is brilliant, clever, and witty. He walked to work most days and did much of his scheduled praying on those daily walks. He has a serious hearing challenge and wears hearing aids, but on his walk to work each day, he turned off the hearing aids so he could concentrate on his prayers. Many of us who loved him worried that he’d be so caught up in praying he might step into an intersection and get hurt; he couldn’t have heard vehicles rapidly approaching him. Thankfully, that never happened. He was fine, and he still is. A couple of years ago he celebrated his 50th year in teaching, and he’s still at it.
The walk, Glenn’s walk, was a hike so he invested some serious time in praying in the course of a day. It made an impact on him; he was in truth a saintly sort whose active connection to the God whom he met in his praying caused him to approach life differently enough that he stood out. I can’t tell you how indebted I am to him, but I have tried to tell him. Teacher, mentor, prayer partner, friend. If I were to be faced with some great life challenge, and I don’t just mean some crisis—it could be an earth shattering opportunity—I’d get in touch with two people to ask them to pray for me. Dr. E. Glenn Hinson and Dr. Gertrude Burrell.
Here is a word from Dr. Hinson taken from his book, one of the ones I mentioned a few minutes ago, A Serious Call to a Contemplative Lifestyle:
…how can we conceive of God as at one and the same time intimately involved in the universe and yet not simply equivalent to it? Shall we conceive of God’s immanence or transcendence spatially, as the primitive world view did? God is normally “up there,” high above all earthly realities. Occasionally, God becomes immanent “down here” in order to set creation right again. Or, on the opposite extreme, shall we say God is totally immanent, as some secular theologians argue? What we describe in regard to the natural order is God’s action. God is wholly within the secular process. Thus there is no need to think of transcendence at all.
In Dr. Hinson’s book, from which I quoted, he deals with the problem in prayer of knowing where to “place” God. Most of us, I think this is true, warm up to the idea that God is within us and not way out there somewhere. This does not mean that we have learned to communicate well with God even after we think we know where God is. The more basic question in the lives of busy moderns is, “How can I make time to try to commune with God?” We are too busy; we most of us really are. Too many people who claim to want some kind of connection with God find it increasingly difficult to give church attendance even an hour out of their busy weeks; anything and everything is more important than church, even though the church should be helping us find some answers to the spiritually-based questions we ask, thus contributing to our spiritual nurture.
So, with Glenn’s question about conceptualization of God for the purposes of prayers, his more basic question in the book and a more fundamental question for us as well is: Is communing with God a worthwhile practice, and if so is there any time during our busy lives when we can focus exclusively on that for even a few minutes?
Those who wrote down the oral traditions about Jesus had much more to choose from than they wanted to or were able to write down, for whatever reason. We have to believe from a literary as well as a theological point of view that traditions from Jesus material floating rather freely around were chosen very intentionally by the writers of the Gospels both because of the pictures they were painting of Jesus with their words and because there was something in a given story they thought essential to understanding Jesus, as they—each individual Gospel writer, I mean—conceived of Jesus.
So, in the story before us today, Jesus is pooped. He had a hard time saying, “No,” and as a result a hard time calling it a day as people with every imaginable problem pressed and pressed upon him to help them find deliverance from their afflictions. Yet, he did have to rest, and he did have to eat. He had to tend to his personal care; angels didn’t do his laundry, you know!
Now and then, he had to get away by himself, BY HIMSELF, for rebuilding his energy and his spiritual resources so that he could help others. Let’s get the context of this partial portrait of Jesus.
Jesus was known for his faith healing activities, and that included the casting out of demons. In a prescientific world, illnesses were thought to be sent by God as some kind of punishment, and the carriers of illness were often thought to be demons. It was one of several incongruities about God disliking something that God Godself caused; here is Jesus, after all, trying to undo illness in God’s name even though the widespread theological standard said that God had willed the illness.
At synagogue one day, a man with some unclean spirits controlling his speech and behavior showed up, and the unclear spirits spoke through the man to Jesus, “What would do with us, Jesus? Here we are, demons right in your face and fully in control of this man’s every word and every move.” Jesus exorcised the demons, and as they departed the man’s body he began to experience convulsions, but he was free of the demons.
Those who witnessed this encounter were amazed. They didn’t know Jesus so well, and they wondered aloud, “Who is this guy on whom the demons will not try to force themselves?”
The writer of the first of the Gospels to be completed and circulated, Mark, explained that after this exorcism, Jesus became famous. Everybody with an ailment wanted his attention.
Immediately after the rebuke of the demons, two of Jesus’ disciples asked for some special attention. Peter’s mother-in-law was seriously ill; she was running a high fever and was bed-ridden. Peter and his brother, Andrew, asked Jesus to help her. He agreed to do what he could. Inside their home, Jesus took her by the hand and helped her out of her sick bed. She was well on the spot. Mark tells us that immediately she began serving the guests in her home.
Busy day for Jesus, folks. Getting close to Jesus’ bedtime, he looked up and saw a whole crowd of people who’d been brought to him in hopes that he could get rid of their demons too so that they might be well. The curiosity seekers were there as well; in fact, Mark makes a point of noting that the WHOLE CITY was gathered around the door of the house where he was doing his healing work. That’s likely an exaggeration, don’t you think? The whole city? Either an exaggeration or it was a really small city. In any case, there’s no rest for the weary, Jesus.
There’s no mention of how late it was when Jesus finally did all he could do and had to call it quits for the day so that he could get some rest. The next morning, sleep deprived no doubt, Jesus still got up at a ridiculously early hour, and he went out in the pre-dawn darkness to a place where he could be all by himself so he could pray for a little while without interruption.
We don’t know how long he had to himself, but we do know that his dense disciples weren’t getting the picture as they were the very ones who came looking for him to interrupt and tell him there were lots more people who wanted to see him for healing. Duh! Thanks for the shocking revelation.
The disciples liked the fame that came to Jesus because they were able to share in it, and the more people he healed the more famous all of them were. Just in case, Jesus had been unwilling to leave his prayers and come with them, the disciples used what every kid has used at some time to try to force parents to grant some permission she or he thought essential in order to be able to hold head high among peers. “EVERYONE is searching for you,” they said. Right; just like the whole city was out to watch Jesus work the night before. EVERYONE! Jesus knew they were exaggerating, but he went along with them because, of course, he wanted to heal as many people as he could.
Trappist monk, and Glenn Hinson’s friend and mentor in a way, the late Thomas Merton said:
Solitude is not something you must hope for in the future. Rather, it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present you will never find it.
The poet, John Greenleaf Whittier:
Why idly seek from outward things
The answer inward silence brings?
Why climb the far-off hills with pain,
A nearer view of heaven to gain?
In lowliest depths of bosky dells
The hermit Contemplation dwells,
Whence, piercing heaven, with screened sight,
He sees at noon the stars, whose light
Shall glorify the coming night.
I do believe the first person I ever heard use the word, “mindfulness,” was Steve Fifield, and not so long ago. I immediately began to wonder, as Steve spoke, what the difference was between mindfulness and meditation. The answer I sort of worked out for myself after some reading and study is that for many people, the words are nearly synonymous; for others, and I guess this is what makes the most sense to me at the moment, meditation is a psychological and/or spiritual practice through which, in as much solitude and separation as I can manage, I try to transcend, if just for a limited amount of time, what troubles me, what hurts me, what scares me, what depletes my will to live well.
Mindfulness, in contrast, is nearly the opposite; by concentrating on my breathing, I am more focused on present reality than I normally would or could be, rushing through life the way I do. Mindfulness has me letting my consciousness bring to my attention whatever it will; I acknowledge that alert, but I, for now, have to let it go. I do not judge myself for having thought about something I couldn’t help calling to mind, but dealing with it at the moment is not what mindfulness does for me. In fact, I try my best to let go of that thought to give more concentration to constancy of my breathing, which is my core present reality. I’m not trying in mindfulness practice to transcend and take a break from dealing with whatever it is; I acknowledge that it is real and important, but now is not the time for me to focus on it so I let it go for now. I will be more capable of dealing with the issue that the unplanned thought tried to get me to concentrate on when I am refreshed by my mindfulness.
Along comes the internationally recognized mindfulness guru, Jon Kabat-Zinn, with a book, Mindfulness Meditation, and challenges the definitions I worked so hard to piece together. Still, we can learn a great deal from him about a health spirituality; speaking, and not from a Christian perspective, Kabat-Zinn says:
If you are routinely out of touch with the present, you may miss more than the morning commute. You might be thinking of other things while playing with your children, lost in thought when you are with friends, missing tender moments with your lover, oblivious to the beauty of a sunny day or the place you are–in short, missing out on life. Mindfulness Meditation is about learning to experience life fully as it unfolds—moment by moment….[W]ake up, experience the fullness of your life, and transform your relationship with your problems, your fears, and any pain and stress in your life so that they don’t wind up controlling you and eroding the quality of your life and your creativity….Mindfulness Meditation can give you back a high degree of control in your life, beyond the automatic actions and reactions that so often drive our behavior. It can free you from being stuck in fear or uncertainty and help you to take life on as an adventure in growth and learning and feeling. Begin listening today, and discover what it’s like to see the world you actually have, not the one you think you are missing, and to live the life that is yours to live in its fullness, moment by moment and day by day.
Here is another reminder of the interconnectedness of the physical self, the mental self, and the spiritual self. When one of the three is out of whack, one or both of the other two is likely to join in and become ill or dysfunctional as well. Conversely, if only one of the three can be whole, a natural pathway is created between it and the other two inviting them to wholeness and wellness.
We “do something westerners” are much more likely to take on enhancing physical health over the other two because there are specific steps we can take to improve physical health, and we really do want a step by step, how-to-manual, complete with check-off boxes. Eat more healthily. Exercise more consistently and in a more centered way. Get more rest. Drink more water. Positive, healthy results will almost certainly begin showing through very quickly.
Emotional problems, emotional illness or malfunction, are much more difficult to deal with, and so only seldom will someone start with healing emotions hoping the other two aspects of self will follow suit. Not only are the means of trying to heal emotional wounds intangible and invisible to the naked eye, but also we almost certainly will need someone to walk with us along part of the journey. I can go the gym most any hour of the day, but I must make an appointment with a therapist and wait for my 50 minutes of her or his attention every week or every month. In Tom Ledbetter’s lesson for us this past Wednesday evening, he mentioned a client with whom he worked for four or five years. The client to whom he referred, though, would probably never have been well emotionally had she stopped short of that years-long commitment to therapy.
Healing the spiritual self may be more demanding still. John McNeill referred to the overriding function of the pastoral ministry as the “cure of souls.” I take encouraging someone to work toward a healthy spiritual self and working toward the cure of a soul to be essentially the same efforts.
How does one tend to a spiritual self that needs to be made whole? We build a foundation as I described earlier, but, as I’ve said, there are no specific sets of steps that will work for all people. I will list a few; and most of us could lift two or three from the list knowing, if those were utilized, we would be healthier spiritually.
1) Meditating. Practicing mindfulness. Praying to commune with God, not to coach God on how to care for the sick or bring world peace;
2) Reading spiritually enriching materials including holy writ from the great religions of the world, knowing that some of it from all three monotheistic traditions, is disappointingly counter-productive, and including contemporary works that speak to the soul. In Alice Walker’s masterpiece, The Color Purple, the character Shug Avery, though a fallen woman, is more spiritually sensitive than is her father who is a pastor. She tells Celie, “I think God gets p-oed if we walk past the beautiful color purple and don’t notice it.”
3) Bask in the beauty of the earth and the glory of the skies, and care for our magnificent habitat.
4) Meet someone’s need when she or he is unable to meet it. Feed someone who is hungry. Stand with someone angrily rejected by society at large.
5) Be graciously receptive when someone ministers to you, even if you have enjoyed pretending that you didn’t need anyone’s help or support at all.
6) Become a part of a community devoted to enhancing the spiritual health of all in the group.
7) Learn to ponder your relationship with God or Life of the Great Mystery in solitude and in the midst of doing something practical like taking a walk or as the monk, Brother Lawrence, did, while washing pots and pans.
8) Submerge yourself in whatever is beautiful to you: art, music, color.
9) Learn to treat the loving touch of another person as a channel for nurture, even the nurture of the spiritual you.