Here at St Placid Priory, my ongoing discoveries in the contemplative enterprise have been eye-opening, soul-expanding, and at the risk of hyperbole, even a little mind-blowing. And, although I will never grow appreciably better at navigating these things, they are the stuff of life’s best acquirements.
But, for all that, I admit I’d likely not make a good career contemplative. Those brave and hardy souls who risk it all to face God so closely, so regularly, are a breed unto themselves. The monastic experience is so rich and good – for a time.
However, I also need my present reality – a corner chair at a local Starbucks. This lively interchange of strongly felt opinions (poorly considered in many cases), postured pretensions, all with a sprinkling of social anxiety, is just as real. Equally fraught with the beautiful danger of God-among-us. In true Celtic fashion, it is as much a thin place as any other, the ridiculously unexplainable. All while sipping a hot Americano (that came out wrong, didn’t it?).
I am still very much a marketplace Christian. The agora is yet my home, despite my penchant for the numinous and otherworldly. My vocation is to pursue the heart of monasticism amid the mire and stress of busy, workaday folks. In the rat’s nest of holy chaos that is the avenue, the neighbourhood, the hospital bed, the lover’s bed (mine, of course, not just random!), the early morning rush hour, all of it awash in the presence of the God who sees.
I am called to be a mystic in the mess where mystery meets mammon (no extra charge for the clever alliteration). I guess that, alone, is a significant rediscovery of my time here. I am coming to miss the buzz of the city. Perhaps even long for it. If spirituality can’t work here, then it can’t work anywhere. Otherwise, it’s not spirituality, or some inauthentic version of the same.
Whatever else may come from my days here at St Placid, at least I can say with confidence that I don’t belong here for any length of time. The outside world calls me back to share my hard-earned discoveries. And this notion, this understanding, draws me to these contemplative moments in very specific ways.
I dive down deep with God to rummage around in there together. I let God mess in ma bi’niss. Revealed to me are tiny snapshots of my soul that, surprisingly, is more calm and rested than I might otherwise have expected. Armed with these pictures of the potential stillness and breath available to all, I am then called back out to where little people fight big dragons. Out where tears fall with no one to dry them, or just with whom to sit and cry together.
Far more than any silence, or spiritual gymnastics, or fancy Desert Father talk, the prayerful in-this-world life speaks most readily to who I am and prods me toward what I need to become – a Starbucks-mystic-martyr-monk (for this alliteration, I’ll gladly take donations).
I want to be a ready, willing, and eager purveyor of Jesus to the crowds. Simply put, a lover equally of marketplace and monastery for the purpose of sharing God’s mysteries. Someone possessive of contemplative spirit called to witness to a hurting, unjust world the great riches of the gospel.
Lord, help me do exactly that, even if imperfectly.
Lent isn’t just a gift for us convinced “churchy” types. It is the Church’s gift to underdogs, renegades, spiritual deadheads, and cultural hoarders, too. Historically, during Lent (which means quite simply, Spring), God’s rag-tag collective has willingly chosen aridity above over-watering, penitence over pride, self-sacrifice over indulgence, broken interiors over shiny exteriors. It’s the John the Baptist trailer before the Jesus main event. Is it any wonder it has precious little publicity? I mean really, who in their right mind would want a specific period of time considerably longer than the obligatory 30 minute happy ending wrap-ups during which one doggedly pursues the dark, not so pretty parts of our souls?
Actually, quite a few.
Lent is not generally the holiday hot spot of the liturgical calendar. It bids us come and mine our shadowy interiors for soft spots needing stronger foundation, or sinkholes needing to be filled in with something substantive. It’s a bit more like a dentist appointment than a car wash. Both are necessary, but one isn’t as much fun; is a little less sudsy, and creates greater discomfort.
What is the broader invitation of Lent however? In our pursuit of her riches we will use a lot of insider language: repentance, centering, seeking, lectio divina, true self/false self, contemplation, etc. It is wonderful, time-tested language descriptive of something known, experienced and at least partially understood – by the convinced.
There is a very real danger in the Christian spiritual formation enterprise that we become comfortably cloistered in the safety of recognizable, “insider” language. Our shared assumptions, ideology, emphases, personalities, experiences, and ethos almost guarantee some gargantuan hurdles for interested onlookers.
What would the spiritual formation enterprise say to the thrice-divorced Mom of four, without alimony, presently working two jobs, one of them prostitution, just to survive? To the middle-aged businessman who has just lost his business to poor management and embezzlement? He’s trained for nothing else, his self-esteem and confidence are in the toilet. He has mouths to feed. To the fifteen-year-old girl, kicked out of her fundamentalist home minutes before thumbing a ride to obtain her second abortion? To a man on death row, guilty of killing an entire family, including a little child? To the frat house full of “dudes” intent on bagging and bragging their next unaware, likely unwilling, virgin?
Without falling back into another insider language of North American evangelicalism, how would the language of the soul speak to them? To others? To those who have never even heard the words ‘Lent’ or ‘spiritual formation’ or ‘centering’, or ‘apophatic’ or….
Would this be “contemplative evangelism?” If not, then what?
I welcome all of you to a Lenten blog series entitled simply, “Eyes in the Alley.” I have assembled a crack team of bloggers to help us struggle through this a bit. They will engage head on with the places of need and the places of disconnect which keep much needed spiritual nourishment from making its way into the bellies of the least of these, the last, the lost, the shat upon, the hopeless, the frightened, the trapped, the hated, the screwed-up-with-little-recourse among us. I’ll kick it off on Ash Wednesday with an opener and a blank page upon which we may all work.
I…we, heartily welcome you to this series. I’m truly excited about this little venture. My own hope is that our collective voice may offer a probing look into to a topic of increasing interest to many: Christian spirituality for “the rest.” That is, the language of the soul in the grime of the streets; trying to understand ways that our spirituality becomes for us…eyes in the alley.
Ash Wednesday: Yours truly
Lent, Week I: Sunday, March 9 – Christianne Squires
Lent, Week II: Sunday, March 16 – Bob Holmes
Lent, Week III: Sunday, March 23 – Valerie Hess
Lent, Week IV: Sunday, March 30 – Dr. Elaine Heath
Lent, Week V: Sunday, April 6 – Tara Owens
Palm Sunday: Sunday, April 13 – Giff Reed
Easter Sunday, April 20 – Valerie Dodge Head
Pictures from here
From time to time God bowls me over with a renewed sense of God’s faithfulness, goodness and, frankly, sense of humor. Many of my best life experiences can find their way back to times spent with quality people discussing quality things for quality reasons. These are the times that refresh me when too much rust builds up on the underbelly of my life. Good friend, fellow blogger and writer, Chadwick Walenga, is celebrating new pathways of grace in his life together with a wonderful woman, Amy. (Follow them on Twitter).
Chadwick and I have history. A short history but a good one. We both studied Spiritual Formation and Leadership online through Spring Arbor University, Michigan. In that place was forged a meaningful bond that will last to our dying day and beyond. He is deeply sensitive, spiritually aware, devilishly handsome (sorry, I promised), extremely funny and just…a good man. He has pastored churches for many years and is father to four of the coolest kids, like, ever.
He and Amy have recently begun a new website with a rather unimaginative but to the point title (dude, really?). I want to endorse not just their website but them, the road they’re on together; the shared invitation to explore life, both theirs and ours. It’s what lives lived openly and honestly can look like.
What I’m particularly jazzed about however is a writing contest they’re hosting through their site. I’m always down for these kinds of things. Anything to keep me writing. Besides, I love this guy and simply want to support he and his new life, his own writing and to say, “dude, you’re awesome!”
Check it out, friends, and throw your hat in the writing ring. I’m gonna. They’re not exactly promising a new car, but if you saw what he typically drives, you’d be grateful.
Let’s have some fun, shall we?
Your partner in shameless shenanigans among the jokes, words and cries for help…Rob
Friends, I am grateful and humbled to be a part of a quickly growing organization…organism really, called Center Quest. It is defined as “an ecumenical hub for the study and practice of Christian spirituality.” It’s focus is on identifying, training, encouraging and unleashing spiritual directors into a world badly in need of this ministry. In that effort, it has attracted top practitioners of this ancient art together in one remarkable place. The brainchild of international Nouwen scholar, spiritual director, retreat leader and friend, Dr. Wil Hernandez (pictured here), it is truly precedent setting in that it also seeks to be a “center” around which many other schools of spiritual formation and direction around the globe receive equal press; kind of a “one stop shop” for those seeking advancement in their spiritual journey and needing resources – lots and lots of resources. They call CenterQuest “home” without ever really leaving their own “home” carved out through their own unique calling and vocation as leaders in these areas. Please be sure to check out their website to discover the vast possibilities for personal and community growth. (Val Dodge Head)
Speaker, writer, retreat leader, spiritual director, and friend, Val Dodge Head, acts in an administrative and supportive role to Wil in helping to establish a most impressive list of companions, consultants, board members, partners, mentors, and friends. The cool website has been made possible through her tireless efforts along with web designers. Her gentle spirit, enthusiasm and joy will be invaluable to Wil and team in the days to come as the dust continues to settle and the sun rises on this new and exciting venture.
Wait. What are these words
etched so blatantly in this fog-ged mirror
beside the shower
curtain of immodesty;
before me yet beyond my senses,
in ears endampened, engrossed, entombed-
like my murmuring heart?
Skin awash, adazzle;
insides asleep, awaiting…
There, there I see on glass, smeared,
perhaps by finger, nose, or shoulder –
condensation wiped from misty mirrors
word for word what I most misunderstand
and least fathom.
Traces left, glances of a face
revealed yet indeterminable; known, un-strange;
but surprising now, and terrible
soft and fearsome, lithe but
too big to hide even
in the darkest corners of my indirection.
Droplets dive to swim and speak
the intangible peace of this lilting voice.
Like an eyeball widget
refusing to stand still, darting to and fro,
never seen straight on,
just out of focus,
you write this tale, shrouded
in the vagueness of a loving stare,
adroit and sharp, a repeated repetition,
repeating yet again the same words:
“I have made you clean.”
Still, I know this face.
It is yours, subtle One.
It is mine.
It is ours.
On August 28th, 2008, I began a journey 20 years in the making – I started my Master’s degree. What am I studying? I’m glad you asked. I am taking a Master of Arts in Spiritual Formation and Leadership. It is an online degree through Spring Arbor University in Michigan. Responses I’ve received have ranged from mild curiosity to deep fascination to turned up noses! So, why that and why now? Again, thanks for asking.
A favorite Rife family rock band, U2, wrote a chart topping song in the 80’s called, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. Since Bono, their lead singer, was widely known to be a Christian, they received much bad press from the church for not speaking in more definitive terms about their experience of faith. However, it was something deeper that he was singing about. Like Bono of U2, ever since I can remember I’ve had a similar unfulfilled longing. You know that gnawing ache inside when you are standing in front of the refrigerator eyeing all the possible ways to deal with it? You can’t sit still. You’re bored but don’t know why. Nothing you do makes any difference. Augustine called it a restlessness. Ah, I knew you were going to ask that…yes, I do know and love Jesus Christ and his loving presence is everything to me. Then, why this “unfulfilled longing”? Let me briefly try to explain and in so doing describe why I’m studying this stuff.
I love the Church. But it makes me sad as well. I believe that we have abdicated our role as “God’s skin in the world” (see “The Holy Longing” by Ronald Rolheiser). Our mad dash toward relevance has squeezed out significance. Our insistence on just the right doctrine has left us with all the wrong lives. We’ve traded in righteousness for “rightness”. We have exchanged transformed lives for informed heads. Often, what passes for faith is a “notebook Christianity” where, with pen and paper, we learn God rather than love and live God. We study and memorize Scripture trying to control and tame God rather than being read by Scripture, thus being brought under its control. We have taken our risen, ever-living Savior and boiled him down to an idea or a worldview. We have a theology divorced from spirituality.
Says Dallas Willard, “we live from our heart.” Jonathan Edwards, the great 18th century Congregationalist pastor and theologian spoke much of “religious affections” which provide us with a “spring of action.” Willard calls the lack of real spiritual formation in the Western church “the Great Omission.. THAT is what I am studying.
I love Jesus Christ. I love the church. I love the rich and varied tapestry of Christian history and I love classic Christian spirituality. I have a longing to help all of us who are victimized by a materialistic, consumer society but who hunger after deeper realities to find wholeness and the re-integration of our fragmented lives. My own life mission is “to draw others to God through my life and work which strive to meaningfully communicate God’s beauty and truth.” Through worship, spiritual disciplines, liturgy and the arts my goal is to become the very Jesus we sing about and help others do the same.
Writer and theologian M. Robert Mulholland defines spiritual formation as “the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.. May God lead us to discover all the riches of Christ in order that we are conformed to God’s image for the sake of others. THAT is what I long for.