This post is part of a series titled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of My Own. It is Part 8/9 of Reflection IV: of that series titled Listening Obedience | Attention Is Everything.
A Prayer of Our Own
Attention Is Everything
Few of us have the courage to burn—to be totally called, awesomely marked, thoroughly spent, and imperiously sent. The divine summons is ignored, the human vocation is dodged, and the eternal banquet celebrating the final love affair, is postponed because we are so fearful. Ignorance and fear have plagued us from the beginning until now and are responsible for our multiple idolatries.
William McNamara, O.C.D.
McNamara has captured something extremely important here. Few of us have the courage to burn. All too often the divine summons is ignored. Ignorance and fear often plague us. In our context here, many of us have bought into the idea that the Mysterious Other we call God no longer speaks to us personally. Divine Union, so important to the spiritual life, is not even something to be sought after. Said another way, we have all too often come to believe that there is no “Sacred Inner Voice” (or, as my wife put it, no Holy Spirit) to trust and listen to and be obedient to—no opportunity “to be totally called, awesomely marked, thoroughly spent, and imperiously sent”. We have bought into a system where reading and studying scripture and trying to abide by all the dos and don’ts we learn through that process is all there is. We can ask God for help, but there is no real expectation that God will reply—no expectation that God will actually provide the “guidance, strength, and courage” we need.
If we do consider the possibility of God speaking to us through that sacred inner voice the question of being able to trust that voice is often overwhelming. We have only to listen to the evening news to find countless examples of people who have done absolutely atrocious things and claimed to be following God’s leading. We are also well aware of some of the strange things that sometimes go through our own head as well. We cannot bring ourselves to even consider the possibility of “Listening Obedience” to that Sacred Inner Voice—to the Spirit—or of distinguishing that voice from all of the other “voices” that float around in our heads. We have no clue how to really do that, thus “the divine summons is ignored”.
The term often used in much of the spiritual literature for that process is discernment. Adrian van Kaam has referred to the process as seeking consonance**. I like “seeking consonance” because it focuses on the goal where discernment focuses on the process. The dictionary defines consonance as:
agreement or compatibility between opinions or actions.***
In van Kaam’s model, consonance consists of three primary principles: Congeniality, Compatibility, and Compassion. Competence, Commitment, and Balance, are also talked about as supporting principles. All six of these principles are necessary to the discernment process. We will look at each of these principles briefly.
I sense that I am being called by that Mysterious Other I call God to redefine my relationship with church — I believe that Still Small Voice—the Spirit—is leading me to rethink my commitment to church. Generally, I have learned to recognize and trust that voice, but in this case, I want to be sure I am doing the right thing. To use van Kaam’s model, I want to be sure that this choice is really consonant.
What exactly do I do? What would the discernment process look like for me to consider all of the different possibilities? Do I quit church completely and focus on developing “a religion of ones own”**** apart from church? Do I let go of my relationship with church as a major issue in my life, go to church when I feel led to, and stay home when I feel led to, and not worry about it? Do I let go of my struggle to find a church that works better for me? These and other options rise up in me every time I think of church. Clearly for me that Still Small Voice—that Spirit is calling me to change my relationship to church and I need to respond to that. Yet that voice, as I have perceived it so far, is not nearly so clear about what I should actually do. It is very clear to me that voice is calling me to the discernment process—calling me to seek consonance. What is the consonant answer to these questions? What is congenial, compatible, and compassionate. How does competence, commitment, and balance play into this?
Congeniality: Congeniality is all about being authentic—about being who we really are. Is the guidance I seem to be receiving an expression of who I most deeply am and who I believe I am called to be or is it some ego driven issue? Is what I am considering here the right thing for me personally? All other things aside, and if there were no conflicting issues what is the right thing for me as an individual? Let me be clear, this question is not the same as what do I want to do. It is better expressed as what am I called to do by that Mysterious Other I call God? How am I called to change and grow and be transformed?
I have been to many different churches in many different denominations over the years, some traditional and some not so much, and a few that were downright weird. While I found something that worked for me in some of them I have never felt at home in any of them. I am not, and never have been, a traditional Christian. I do not necessarily buy in to all of the traditional doctrine. I am either bored and/or uncomfortable in most Sunday School classes and with much of what goes on in church in general. Church, as I have experienced it, is not really congenial for me personally.
I know without a doubt that I need to define a relationship with church that is congenial for me. If I am going to continue to attend church, at the very least, I need to find a way to make peace with that. I need to define a congenial way of doing that.
Compatibility: Compatibility calls us to move beyond our own needs and desires and consider seriously the environment we find ourselves in. Is the action I am considering consistent with the rest of my life? Here I have to let go of my own personal needs and desires and consider other things in my life that will be affected. Where I live, how I support myself and such. What else in my life will be affected by the decision I am considering here? It has been said that compatibility is about choosing our battles. Is it worth it?
Church is what church is. I know that I cannot “fix” it. Maybe I could have some impact, but as much as I sometimes would like to, I can never hope to make it over into my image. I know I need to let go of that. It is not the answer. It is not really even part of the answer. I also know that I will never find a church that really is compatible for me. I have tried that without success way too many times over way too many years.
There is also the issue of family. My wife and son both want to go to church, and my wife is involved in a service group there which is good for her. I also have a granddaughter who likes to go with us. When my then eight year old granddaughter decided she wanted to go to church she called me and asked if she could go with me to church. For most things she calls her grandmother, but for this she called me. I feel strongly called to support her in that. I know that they all want me to go with them.
What about the other people at church. I was discussing the possibility of quitting church with my friend and Catholic priest Fr. Patrick Foley one day and he responded: “The church needs both your presence and your discontent.” That adds another whole dimension to the compatibility question.
Compassion: Compassion is all about caring for both ourselves and others. It is about considering both congeniality and compatibility equally. On the surface it seems that having compassion for me personally and having compassion for my family are at odds with each other. On the one hand going to church does not seem congenial for me. On the other hand not going does not seem compatible with the needs and desires of my family. Then there is my friend’s statement that “the church needs your presence and your discontent”. All of these things are important, and they are all important to me personally. The call to growth here is strong, but what would that look like? How am I called by that Mysterious Other to resolve the apparent conflict?
Balance: What is called for here is balance. Balance calls me to look beyond the extremes. It calls me to avoid either/or thinking. It calls me to look for solutions that address both my need for congeniality and and my need for compatibility. Yes, one possible answer here is for me to follow my need for congeniality and just quit church. Sometimes our call to congeniality—our call to authenticity—really does call us to disappoint people that are important to us. Yes another possibility is for me to let go of that need and focus on the needs of my family and the church—to recommit myself to church without constantly wondering if I should quit. But these are not the only two possible answers. What happens when I consider seriously reaching beyond the extremes and seeking balance?
First of all, I can choose not to go some Sundays when my need for quiet is particularly strong (congeniality), and choose to go on other Sundays when I sense a strong need to support my family (compatibility) or when there is some need at church that needs my attention. But my coach brought up something even deeper here, and even more difficult to face up to. I sense in all of this “noodling”, as she likes to call it, a clear calling to change my attitude toward church. I need to see it radically differently, and that calls for some serious spiritual practice. Beyond that, I sense a deeper calling to move beyond accepting or rejecting what is and work toward creating something that, on some level at least, works for me and that might possibility be of service to others. Figuring out what that might look like is beyond the scope of this section.
Competence: Competence calls me to consider whether or not I have the knowledge, experience, and expertise to actually do what I feel called to do. I know how to do the spiritual practice necessary to change my attitude about church. I have engaged in that practice for years and made some significant and successful changes in other areas of my life. I have a masters degree in spiritual formation, and I have worked before to create something new in church. I can do it again if I really am called to that endeavor.
If that were not the case, if there was knowledge, experience, and expertise that I was missing, that would not necessarily mean I was not called in that direction. It could very well mean that I needed to do whatever was necessary to develop that knowledge, experience, and expertise.
Commitment: When we have worked through this process and we have clarified what we believe that still small voice—that Spirit—that Mysterious Other we call God wants us to do. Where does listening obedience call us to go from here? Commitment calls us to actually make it happen in our day to day life. It calls us to clearly articulate what we feel called to do and then make a real commitment to discover what that means. It calls us to turn that calling into actual goals and objectives and to track those goals and objectives over time. It calls us to take those goals and objectives into our examination of conscience practice to be sure that it actually happens.
On the one hand obedience and commitment call us to stay the course. It calls us to, as someone put it, “fake it until we become it”*****—until it becomes a natural part of who we are as a person. That said the process is not over. We need to be constantly open to the possibility that the Still Small Voice will call us to make adjustments to our commitment or even change the commitment over time. Even if the basic commitment stays the same, if we are open some individual goals and objectives may need to change over time. Some things will work and some things will not work over time. What is congenial, compatible, and compassionate may very will change over time due to changes in our life situation. What that Mysterious Other wants for us itself may change. We need to be open to those changes and willing to make the necessary adjustments and changes in our lives.
Passion: Passion is about having “the courage to burn—to be totally called, awesomely marked thoroughly spent and imperiously sent” as McNamara put it. It is about listening carefully to the “divine summons” and being passionately obedient to it. It is about being passionate about the discernment process—about seeking consonance and what we discover through that process. It is about being passionate about “listening obedience”.
All of this should be approached as a part of our spiritual practice—as a central part of our prayer practice. We should ask that Mysterious Other we call God to provide the “guidance, strength, and courage” so important to that process and then we need to be open to the response.
I think is important to note here that the Mysterious Other we call God speaks to us in many different ways and through many different people, events, and things. The Spirit often speaks to us through our Sacred Inner Voice, our life experiences, our life circumstances, our family, our friends, our acquaintances, and even perfect strangers. We need to “listen” and be “obedient” to the guidance that can come from all areas of our life.
The actual result of this discernment process will be part of “Richard’s Rule of Life” in the next section.
Questions for Reflection
- Identify something in your own life where you feel called to grow or change. Consider seriously each of the topics we have talked about—congeniality, compatibility, compassion, balance, competence, commitment, and passion. Write down the results of your reflections in each of these areas.
* McNamara, William, O.C.D., Mystical Passion: Spirituality For A Bored Society, (New York: Paulist Press, 1977), p. 4-5
** Van Kaam, Adrian, Formative Spirituality, Volume Three: Formation of the Human Heart, (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1986), pp 1-21
*** Apple Dictionary, iOS Software version 7.0.4., © 1983-2013, Apple, Inc. All rights reserved.
**** Moore, Thomas, A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World, (New York: Penguin Group (USA) LLC), 2014
***** Moore, Thomas, A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World, (New York: Penguin Group (USA) LLC), 2014
If you liked this post, check out the other posts in this series:
Listening Obedience: Attention Is Everything View…
Developing Attention View…
The Power of Focused Attention
Developing Openness View…
Attention To Our Speech View…
The Discipline of Restraint of Speech
Developing Apatheia View
Attention To Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Impulses
Attention To Our Sacred Inner Being
Developing A Way of Life View
A Guide To Live By
Obedience (This Post)
Richard’s Rule of Life