Spirituality


What makes the spiritual life different from any other life? What are we doing that is so different from what everybody else is doing? The answer is it not what we are doing at all that makes the spiritual life different from the life lived without consciousness. The answer is it is what we are and how we do what we do that is the mark of the spiritual life. It is what we are while we are doing whatever it is we do that makes Benedictine spirituality a gift for all ages.

Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, p164

From Spiritual Direction and Meditation, by Thomas Merton
“…the real function of meditation is to enable us to realize and actualize in our own experience the fundamental truths of our faith. But there are other subjects for meditation. Our own life, our own experience, our own duties and difficulties, naturally enter into our meditations. Actually, a lot of ‘distractions’ would vanish if we realized that we are not bound at all times to ignore the practical problems of our life when we are at prayer. On the contrary, sometimes these problems actually ought to be the subject of meditation. After all, we have to meditate on our vocation, on our response to God’s will in our regard, on our charity towards other people, on our fidelity to grace. This enters into our meditations on Christ and His life; for He desires and intends to live in us. The Christ-life has, as its most important aspect for each of us, His actual presence and activity in our own lives. Meditation that ignores this truth easily tends to be aimless and confused.”

In her prize-winning book, The Incredible Journey Sheila Burnford uses the term “companionable silence” to describe the hours spent in a canoe between two brothers during their annual vacation; and the time a father and son spends walking along a forest trail.

Is companionable silence lost forever to the generation growing up with social networks and cyber-relationships? What replaces companionable silence in the online world?

Plan to end your sabbatical the same way you started it–with a retreat. This will give you an opportunity to reflect on how you have changed. What are some of the practices you want to maintain, albeit in a simpler form, as you return to the marketplace? How can you maintain and strengthen the habits of prayer you have cultivated? Thomas Kelly, in a Testament of Devotion, claims that it is possible to live at two levels simultaneously–that of interior prayerful attentiveness to God and that of external activity, including mental activity. To what extent this is attainable remains to be experienced. Nothing prevents you from repeatedly making a start.

Continue to cultivate attentiveness towards God. Whenever you remember, say a simple word of prayer. Nurture inner silence in your heart. In this way, you are more aware of subtle distracting attractions and can turn away from them before the pull becomes too strong. In the same way, you become aware of little inner promptings of the Spirit: a burden to pray for someone, a task to work on, a request to turn down. In this way you are led to engage the world in your particular sphere of influence, and not be overly anxious about everything else. Over time, you may only need to say one word of the prayer to bring yourself to the posture of attentiveness.

Now, let’s turn to the topic of distractions. There are very many ways to fill our time and spend our lives in this world. Media and entertainment options abound. Electronic devices and the computer beckon us. Set limits and boundaries for these activities so you preserve time for prayer. In order to pray well, we need to prepare to pray. Preparation includes planning regular, unhurried times at a quiet place away from crowds and noise.

Do not be discouraged if life gets too busy and you cannot or forget to pray.Start again, and keep starting again. Over time, the posture of prayer will grow on you. Your life becomes simpler. Some days you will find yourself walking with the Spirit and it happens effortlessly by grace. Keep praying. Maintain the course. Plan your next sabbatical. You will be surprised at the person you’ve become then.

Previous -> Beyond Your Sabbatical: Loving the World

At this point of time in your sabbatical, you have rested, slowed down and exercised your prayer muscles. You are at a good place to view the culture and society you are part of—what the Bible calls the world—more clearly. The lens of your sabbatical helps you focus and be intentional about your participation, involvement, and contribution to the world. Outside of the sabbatical, you will be subject to the loud voices of the world prescribing a way of life that many passively follow. You are called to be in the world, but not part of it. How do you live this out?

Your love of the world is primarily actualized through your daily work and routines. Undergirding your participation in the world is an order of charity within the Kingdom of God. First, you are to love those closest to you—parents and children, spouses and siblings, family and friends. Then your love must extend to the community you live in, your neighbourhood, town or city, state and country and eventually reach out to all humanity, all creatures and all of creation. That is a tall order but you are not called to do everything. You must discern your specific gifts and callings.

You have the unique calling to love those whom only you can love. No one else can be a child to your parents, a sister or brother to your siblings, a father or mother to your child, a husband or wife to your spouse—only you can! This is a totally unique calling to love those closest to you. We love them by cooking that meal, cleaning that spill, doing the laundry, making that phone call, and visiting them.

Then there is the specific calling to love those you encounter in daily life:  your colleagues, neighbours, other commuters and road users, drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, receptionists, servers, cleaners; in other words, the people whom we encounter, the Lazaruses we meet. We treat them with respect, say a prayer for them under our breath, and consider their needs and circumstances of life. One way of doing this is to put yourself in their shoes and learn to experience yourself from their eyes. Normally, when you interact with your neighbour, you react and respond to the other as yourself. In this spiritual practice of loving your neighbour as yourself, you listen, think and feel about the interaction as the other person. This is radical and may seem strange but as you put this into practice, one encounter at a time, one person at a time, you will see both yourself and your neighbour change. Talk to God about your interactions with people. Pray and be pleasantly surprised as grace enters your world, one relationship at a time.

Now we turn from expressions of love to particular persons to the extension of your love to the world. Although you perceive and relate to the world in an abstract way, your love for it can be expressed in very real and tangible ways through your daily work—your vocation. This active love is at times expressed through the training and exercise of specific gifts and through doing work in unique circumstances.

The world sees it differently. It has a hierarchical order of positions or professions and the market economy expects us o be as successful as we can be. This promotes competition resulting in winners and losers. Instead look first to your gifts and passions, then find a place that needs your contribution. This is a different approach that promotes cooperation. After all, everyone cannot be doing the same work. We are called to be stewards of our talents, not to make the most gain, but to do the greatest good. Doing what you are gifted at releases others who are differently gifted to meet the unmet needs. Once you have clarity on your gifts and contribution, you will pay less attention to opportunities that lie outside your calling. You know what you are best at, what good you can do; you also know what you are not good at. God will call others to meet that need.

The world is a fallen place. You may not have the opportunities to discover and develop your gifts, or you may not have the opportunity to exercise your particular gift. Know this however, your love for the world is always manifested through work done with unique love, care, and attention–to the glory of God. So train your natural talents, use them if you can, but always do whatever work is before you with all your heart, giving your very best. In so doing, you are doing good work, good for your soul, good for the world, and that gives glory to God.

Next-> Living Your Sabbatical: Taking Sabbatical Practices Into the World

Previous -> Having Your Sabbatical: Loving Your Neighbour

Our family was part of an informal guild restricted to those whose work allowed the flexibility bread-making demands, and whose personal history affirmed what others might think a waste of time. Instead of baking bread, in fact, I could have been taking courses to further my career, learning a language, or pursuing an advanced degree. I did none of these things. I made bread. And in the quiet and contemplation it demanded–in the symbolism it carried–it was my salvation.

Donna Sinclair, The Spirituality of Bread, p39.

After your initial retreat, hopefully you feel physically rested and have begun to slow down your pace of life. If not, plan more days of rest where you “do nothing.” Being still and intentionally resting is not the same as doing nothing. As you emerge from this period of quiet repose with the Lord, it is time to focus on loving the neighbour. And the closest neighbour is yourself.

The way to a holy encounter with your neighbour is see the other through the eyes of God. This is not easy when the other person is yourself. Try to have a conversation with God about you. Listen to what God has to say. Be on the alert for other voices that try to drown out God’s voice:  your own estimate of yourself, what your family and friends say about you, the value that the media and culture place on you. All these voices are temporal. They are like shifting shadows that lack substance. Encounter the real you through God, through Christ and the Holy Spirit.

One way of doing this is to place yourself in the bible, in the shoes of one of the biblical characters. Who do you identify with? Timid Timothy, fearless David, proud Saul, devoted Mary, humble Moses, or loyal Ruth. We are all many faceted personalities and can identify with different characters at different times. So do not be afraid to identify also with sinners and others in their failure: unfaithful Peter, greedy Zacchaeus, the prodigal son, doubting Thomas, the person who was forgiven, and the sick who were healed. You can also identify with the mustard seed, the lost sheep, and the eagle. Listen to who the Lord says you are like, who you are, and how He feels about you. This is the truth about you.

Once you know who you are in Christ and how much you are loved by God, you are ready to encounter your neighbour, the other person, through Christ. Mother Teresa said that she saw Jesus in the face of the dying in Calcutta. She ministered to them as though she was ministering to Jesus himself (Matthew 25: 31-46). In so doing, she humanized the dying who were treated as useless trash; Mother Teresa restored their humanity and helped them die with dignity, the simple, natural, God-given dignity of a human being created in the image of God.

This is one way of relating to the neighbour who is from the bottom of the social strata. How do we relate to the neighbour who is at or above our social level? This neighbour may be your spouse, co-worker, or boss. The fundamental attitude we should have for our neighbours is that God loves them and that Jesus died for them too. The problem is that we so often forget this at the heat of the moment when our neighbour irks us or treats us poorly. This is when the practice praying continually comes to our aid. If we have toned our prayer muscles, we should be able to exercise them and pray a simple prayer such as, “Peace be upon you,” “Lord, bless (this person’s name); may s/he know you more,” and don’t forget to say a prayer for yourself, “Lord, bless me; may I know you more.”

The articulation of these simple prayers invites God into the relationship, into the action of the moment and reminds us that God loves our neighbour as well as us. Our posture towards the other begins to shift. No longer do we feel alone and under attack because we are holding God’s hands. Instead of reacting out of our own humanness and woundedness, we can respond through God’s love to our neighbour. We can begin to see and encounter our neighbour through God so that we begin to speak words that heal, inspire hope and restore love. Over time, with practice, these prayers become instinctive and can be prayed while driving, getting in and out of buses, waiting in a queue, over the phone, when reading the news, in the kitchen and across the dinner table.

The pace of normal life is generally too fast and makes it difficult, but not impossible, to nurture these prayer practices. The slower pace of a sabbatical is ideal to begin these practices, grow strong in them and adopt them in daily life. May the Lord’s peace be with you.

Next -> Beyond Your Sabbatical: Loving the World

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