Content from my website has moved to my blog and the website is no longer active. Both http://www.thegreatjourney.com and http://www.turningaround.net will now take you to this site. Check out the new menu items.
Jun 142017
 

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.


 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of Our Own

Reflection IV
Listening Obedience
Attention Is Everything
(Part 8)


Obedience
Seeking Consonance

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.

Richard in Church

Photo by Winnie M. Southworth

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

  1. 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…
Introduction

Developing Attention  View…
The Power of Focused Attention

Developing Openness  View…
Becoming Vulnerable 

Attention To Our Speech View…
The Discipline of Restraint of Speech

Developing Apatheia View
Attention To Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Impulses

Prayer View
Attention To Our Sacred Inner Being

Developing  A Way of Life View
A Guide To Live By

Obedience (This Post)
Seeking Consonance

(Coming Soon…)

Richard’s Rule of Life


Follow Us.

Feb 202017
 

This post is part of a series titled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of My Own.  It is Part 5/9 of Reflection IV: of that series titled Listening Obedience | Attention Is Everything.


 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of Our Own

Reflection IV
Listening Obedience
Attention Is Everything
(Part 5)


Attention to Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Impulses
Seeking Apatheia

New versions of the old beast seem to rise from the murky, tempestuous sea of our time with relentless steadiness, with vast armaments, wars, famine and disease, earthquake and flood, with political and social oppression, bad jobs and no jobs, unresponsive and entrenched bureaucracies, brutality and callousness, family and social disintegration, with environmental rape, with trivial, mind-numbing consumer diversion.

Inside us, driving, competing, confused desires and fears bounce us from fleeting pain to fleeting pleasure, making us ever restless, causing us to seek ever more and other there, rarely content with enough here.  That is man becoming without being, adrift without a compass, revolting in revolt, falling through in blindness calling it rising, or in darkness calling it damned.*

Tilden Edwards

The turmoil and violence that we see internationally, in our country, and in our communities ultimately has its roots in the inner turmoil of compulsive thoughts, emotions, and impulses that drives each of us as individuals. Together they form what is traditionally called the ego. Our ego expresses itself in a seemingly endless myriad of “obsessions, addictions, violence, and loss of meaning.” Recognizing, acknowledging, and accepting responsibility for our own inner turmoil is the first step, and often one of the most difficult steps, on a journey toward wholeness and holiness. If we can quieten that inner turmoil, even for a moment, and listen, we will encounter a deep yearning for a new way of life.

It is important to note here that all turmoil is not made up of intrinsically negative things. Sometimes it is created when we overextend ourselves with essentially positive things like taking our children to school, church events, and social events. If we are a working parent, we can get overwhelmed trying to balance work and family relationships and other responsibilities. In one way all of this is good, and yet it can create its own turmoil—its own series of compulsive thoughts, emotions, and impulses. It can create its own cycle of “obsessions, addictions, violence, and loss of meaning”. We can feel trapped in the seemingly endless series of ego driven demands and needs and desires, however good and even necessary all of these things may seem.

For many of us—even most of us—the turmoil resulting from these “driving, competing, confused desires and fears” seems to dominate our lives.  All of our energy is consumed in the never-ending effort to meet their demands.  We are clearly motivated, and often downright driven, by these and other powerful compulsive thoughts, emotions, and impulses. Much, if not most, of the stress and the dissonance in our lives is the result of these powerful ego driven drives that seem to possess us and to have a mind of their own. Individuals and life events “push our buttons,” and we become ineffective, depressed, and often even mean and violent. In spite of our best efforts, for many of us, these compulsive ego driven drives rage inside of us and control much of our lives. They impact our marriages, our relations with our children and other family members, and our work relationships. Even those of us who are reasonably well adjusted frequently find ourselves surprised by the strength and the power of these preconscious compulsive thoughts, emotions, and impulses.

At times this turmoil takes the form of a kind of numbness or indifference. We seem closed to the people, events, and things in our life, including those closest to us. On the surface we appear unaffected by the turmoil around us. But like anger or anxiety or fear, the numbness and indifference is just another expression of the turmoil. It is made up of its own ego driven compulsive thoughts, emotions, and impulses, and it both drives us and limits us in very powerful ways. This numbness and indifference can also be an unconscious, yet powerful, defense mechanism that distracts us from the drives which often seem overwhelming. Boredom is just another form of this turmoil. As Mary Michael O’Shaughnessy, OP has put it: “Boredom is anger worn thin.”

Identifying and owning that hidden ego driven turmoil of compulsive thoughts, emotions, and impulses and the unique ways it expresses itself in our individual lives is crucial to the Spiritual Journey. It is a crucial part of what spiritual practice and prayer is all about. The movement toward the healing of the ego is the very essence of the conversion of heart that is so central to the Spiritual Life.

From this perspective the first goal of the spiritual life is a state referred to in Greek as “apatheia.” “Apatheia means, literally, “without emotions’—or, more precisely freedom from emotions.” It is telling that there is no English word that accurately translates the Greek word apatheia. In fact the concept is very difficult to even describe accurately in English. Typically we use the word apathy. According to the dictionary apathy refers to a “lack of interest or concern, especially regarding matters of general importance or appeal; indifference,” or to a “lack of emotion or feeling; impassiveness.” Even though the dictionary refers to apatheia as the root of the word apathy, the definition misses the deepest meaning of apatheia and assumes that apatheia is a negative state, essentially equating it with not caring about the important things in life.

The Revolutionary is not a person who doesn’t care or who is “impassive,” and yet, as Nouwen points out the revolutionary person:

is moved by what happens around him, but he doesn’t let it oppress or shatter him. An inner freedom flows out from him, giving him an independence which is neither haughty nor aloof, but which enables him to stand above immediate needs and most pressing necessities.**

Quiet River

Photo by Richard N. Southworth

It is the freedom from his own inner turmoil—from his own compulsive thoughts, emotions, and impulses—that places Nouwen’s Revolutionary squarely in the state of apatheia.

For much of my life I was filled with a strange combination of anger, boredom, and anxiety. These strong emotional reactions filled much of my life, and drove both my inner and outer reactions to the people, events, and things that made up my life. Something happened in my life that I did not like, and I felt angry. Life failed to provide something I wanted, and I felt bored. Faced with a difficult task, I was filled with anxiety. Once those reactions set in I was locked into a series of patterned, often destructive responses—a series of compulsive thoughts, emotions, and impulses. There was no freedom of choice, and at times only an iron will prevented me from becoming abusive and physically violent and allowed me to perform most necessary daily responsibilities with reasonable effectiveness. The effort was exhausting and added to the turmoil.

When my therapist told me that it was not possible to actually heal the destructive emotional patterns and the best I could hope for was to learn to manage it better it seemed to confirm my personal experience. She and I were both wrong.

As I have discovered and implemented my personal spiritual practice the conversion of heart I sought began to happen. More and more I have found myself in situations that in the past would have generated strong destructive emotional responses, and the responses did not come. I do not mean here that I was better able to control or manage my responses. I mean that I did not feel angry. I did not feel bored or anxious. As a result of these changes I have experienced a great freedom—“a great freedom from (my) emotions.” More often now I find that I am able to choose my responses to the events of my life in a way that is almost indescribable. In this state of apatheia I am much more aware of, not only my own inner calling, but also the needs and desires of the people around me. Without the inner turmoil I am much more able to live my life in response to that inner calling, but I am also much more able to respond to and care for those around me.

The development of apatheia—this freedom from my compulsive thoughts, emotions, and impulses—is one of the immediate goals of spiritual discipline including prayer. It is the very foundation upon which transformation takes place. Without apatheia I am so full of my own ego, so full of my own thoughts, emotions, and impulses that I cannot even hear “the divine summons” much less respond to its call. Apatheia leaves me open and available, not only to the divine summons, but to the rhythm of life itself. It is the very essence of what it means to be open.

When we quiet our compulsive thoughts we open ourselves to the gift of inner silence. We allow ourselves to move beyond words. When we quiet our compulsive emotions we allow ourselves to move beyond mad, glad, sad, and scared. When we quiet our compulsive impulses we allow ourselves to move beyond basic needs and desires. Apatheia offers us the possibility of moving beyond our habitual responses. It offers us the possibility of freedom from the inner tyranny of those habitual responses to the people, events, and things in our daily lives. Each of us have different combinations of compulsive thoughts, emotions, and impulses. In my case it was, and all too often still is, anger.  So many of the examples I use relate to anger, but it is important to recognize that your struggle may be something entirely different like overeating or drinking or pornography for example. The possibilities are legion.

Much, if not most of our struggles in the spiritual life ultimately involve letting go of the ego. Richard Rohr is reported to have said about spiritual practice, “don’t expect people to rush to a practice the ultimate goal of which is the destruction of the ego”. He is right on that point, the destruction of the ego is a major part of what the spiritual life is all about—of what prayer is all about. If we are unwilling to face up to that ego we cannot progress but so far in the life of prayer.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What compulsive thoughts, emotions, and impulses drive my life? What are the consequences of those drives in my daily life? Am I willing to bring those destructive responses into my spiritual practice—into my prayer?

____________
* Edwards, Tilden, Spiritual Friend:  Reclaiming the Gift of Spiritual Direction. (Ramsey, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1980), p. 14.
** O’Shaughnessy, Mary Michael, ???
*** Needleman, Jacob, Lost Christianity: A Journey of Rediscovery to the Centre of Christian Experience. (Rockport, MA: Element, Inc., 1980), p. 137.
**** Excerpted from American Heritage Talking Dictionary. Copyright © 1997 The Learning Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


If you liked this post, check out the other posts in this series:

Listening Obedience:  Attention Is Everything View…
Introduction

Developing Attention  View…
The Power of Focused Attention

Developing Openness  View…
Becoming Vulnerable 

Attention To Our Speech View…
The Discipline of Restraint of Speech

Developing Apatheia (This post)
Attention To Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Impulses

(Coming Soon)

Self Presence
Attention to Our Presence In Events

Prayer 
Attention To Our Sacred Inner Being

Obedience
Seeking Consonance

Richard’s Answer To Question # ?


Follow our blog.

Sep 052016
 

This post is part of a series titled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of My Own.  It is Part 8/9 of Reflection III: of that series titled What Is Prayer Anyway | Examining Our Vision.


 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of My Own

Reflection III
What Is Prayer Anyway
Examining Our Vision
(Part 8 of 9)

 

What Will Prayer Ask Of Us?
The Call To Transformation

Sometimes it seems to me that we approach prayer as something designed to change God—to persuade God to do our bidding.  As I mentioned earlier, all to often our prayers sound like a todo list for God.  If we  pray for ourselves we are often just asking God do something for us, and even if we pray for growth or change we are asking God to change us.  We want God to do all of the work.

But then there is this from Romans:

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. 

Romans 12:2 (NIV)

Canon

Photograph by Winnie Southworth

This sounds more like we are being asked to grow and change, and there are very specific instructions for that growth and change.  A persistent commitment to prayer will call us to that growth and change.  It will call us to “the renewing of [our] mind”, and to discerning “his good, pleasing and perfect will” for our lives.  We can pray for God’s guidance and strength and courage, but in the end true prayer will call us to do the “work of the spiritual journey”—to receive that guidance and implement it into our active lives.  In the end this is work which we have to do ourselves.

At its heart Christianity is an inner path of growth and transformation out of which all else in the spiritual life grows.  The essence of that path is captured in these two verses from Romans.  Do not conform to the pattern of this world.  Be transformed by the renewal of your mind.  Discern how we are called to live our lives.  The monastics call this path conversion of heart.  From a more academic perspective it  is called spiritual formation.  Our journey along this path is a lifetime journey.

Belief is not enough.  Baptism is not enough.  Prayer is not enough.  Fellowship is not enough.  Worship is not enough.  Service is not enough.  All of these and other similar activities are good and absolutely necessary parts of the spiritual life,  but they are not enough.  If the spiritual life is to reach its full potential ongoing personal transformation is essential.  That call to “be transformed”, and to “test and approve what God’s will is” must form the very foundation of our daily lives—the very foundation of our belief, our baptism, our fellowship, our worship, and our service, and thus of our prayer.

It is this ongoing “work of the spiritual journey” that is at the center of my own spiritual journey and all of my writing and teaching. There are valid spiritual Practices that facilitate this ongoing growth and transformation that I have come to call The Practice.

Butterfly

Photograph by Kate McFarland

It is spiritual practice—prayer practice that:

  • quiets the inner turmoil of compulsive thoughts, emotions, and impulses that typically drive our lives, and;
  • guides us to the ongoing discovery of who we most deeply are  and who we are called to be as unique spiritual persons, and;
  • facilitates the ongoing incarnation of those discoveries into the reality of our day-to-day active lives.

Said another way [a valid life of prayer] must ultimately lead to real growth and change—real transformation and conversion of heart.  It must ultimately lead to our active lives increasingly becoming an authentic expression of who we are and who we are called to be by that Mysterious Divine Presence that created us and  guides us and gives us strength and courage.   It must facilitate Choosing Authenticity.

That is what prayer is all about.  Ultimately that is what the entire spiritual life is all about.  I want to share some of my own experience and some of what I have learned so far through study and through my own practice.  It is my hope that it will challenge you to begin or deepen your own journey of growth and transformation.  If I can help just one person along this journey this labor of love will be worth it.

Question for Reflection

  1. Have I felt called in my prayer to growth, transformation, and conversion of heart?  What specifically have I been called to change in my prayer life, and in my active life?  How have I responded to that call?  In what specific area of my life to I feel called to growth and change now?  How will I respond?

Purchase Choosing Authenticity: Religion Is Not Enough


If you liked this post, check out the other posts in this series:

What Is Prayer Anyway?  View…
Seeking a Deeper Understanding

Prayer Is Not Magic View..
It Is No A ToDo List for God

Prayer Is A Relationship View…
Prayer Is Not A Monologue

The Foundation of Prayer View…
Stillness, Quiet, and Silence

Types of Prayer View…
Expanding Our Vision of Prayer

Praying Without Ceasing  View…
Letting Our Lives Become Prayer

What Will Prayer Ask of Us? (This Post)
The Call To Transformation

Richard’s Answer To Question # 4 View…

 

Jun 222016
 

This post is part of a series entitled Choosing Authenticity: A Prayer of Our Own.  It is the seventh section titled Reflection II:  Because We Must: The Call To Prayer.


 Choosing Authenticity
A Prayer of Our Own

Reflection II
Because We Must
The Call To Prayer
(Part 7)

Life Out of Balance
A Vision of a New Life

I cannot improve on these words of Tilden Edwards to describe the times we live in:

Inside us, driving, competing, confused desires and fears bounce us from fleeting pain to fleeting pleasure, making us ever restless, causing us to seek ever more and other there, rarely content with enough here.  That is man becoming without being, adrift without a compass, revolting in revolt, falling through in blindness calling it rising, or in darkness calling it damned.*

In the modern world these “driving, competing, confused desires and fears” often take the form of seemingly valid drives for what is sometimes called “the American dream.” We are driven to succeed in our jobs, own a larger home in a better neighborhood, and have a fancier car. We want our children to go to a better school, have all of the trendy clothes, and play on the right sports team. We race from one seeming imperative to another as we try to balance a myriad of jobs and family responsibilities, and in the end all of this becomes part of the turmoil in a way that is even more insidious because it is so much a part of the cultural imperatives that shape us.

I came home from work one day with my evening all planned. I wanted to look at the news, have a good quiet meal, do some writing, and go to bed early. I had no more than walked in the door when my wife told me that she was not feeling good and needed my help, and my oldest daughter called and wanted us to come over and order pizza with her and our grandchildren. When the evening was over I had not seen the news, had eaten pizza on the run, had not turned on my computer, and was late going to bed. None of these activities were difficult or negative, but I felt frustrated and grouchy all evening. The frustration and the grouchy feelings and behavior were driven by my own inner turmoil, and prevented me from enjoying helping my wife and kept her from getting the full benefit of that help. It kept me from enjoying time with my family, and it also prevented me from choosing to negotiate time for my own needs.

Schedule

Image by Richard Southworth

The turmoil created by these “driving, competing, confused desires and fears” seems to dominate our lives.  Much of our energy is consumed in the never-ending effort to meet their demands.  We are clearly motivated, and often driven, by these and other powerful thoughts, emotions, and impulses. Much, if not most, of the stress and the dissonance in our lives is the result of these powerful drives that seem to possess us and to have a mind of their own. Individuals or life events “push our buttons,” and we become ineffective, depressed, angry, or at times even violent. In spite of our best efforts, for many of us, these compulsive drives control much of our lives. Even those of us who seem reasonably well adjusted find ourselves surprised by the strength and power of these preconscious thoughts, emotions, and impulses.

At times this turmoil takes the form of a kind of numbness or indifference. We seem closed to the people, events, and things in our life. On the surface we appear unaffected by the turmoil around us. But like anger or anxiety or fear, the numbness and indifference are themselves an expression of the turmoil. It is made up of its own compulsive thoughts, emotions, and impulses, and it both drives us and limits us in powerful ways. This numbness and indifference can also be an unconscious, yet powerful, defense mechanism that distracts us from the drives which often seem overwhelming. Identifying and owning that hidden turmoil is crucial to the Spiritual Journey.

Unfortunately our involvement in church often becomes another part of the turmoil. Instead of helping to heal the turmoil it adds to it. Beyond going to church and Sunday School on Sunday, we gradually accumulate other responsibilities and activities that add to the list of things that we need to somehow balance. We join a committee, We become a deacon, we participate in a mission project. We go to Wednesday night supper and participate in a bible study. We join the choir, visit the sick, and we take our children to their activities. All of these things are essentially good things. They are what we believe we are supposed to do as Church members, but when taken to extremes and added to our other responsibilities and activities they

Image by Richard Southworth become part of what keeps our life out of balance. They contribute to the turmoil, and in my experience church teaching does little or nothing to help us manage the pressures of trying to balance all of the responsibilities. It just encourages us to ever more participation. In my opinion this is one of the reasons the churches continue to loose individuals and families. It just becomes too much and we walk away from church altogether.

The turmoil affects each of us individually in a thousand less overtly destructive ways. Every time I “lose my temper,” yell at my wife and children, give an obscene gesture to an aberrant driver, or say something hurtful about a coworker, I am acting in response to thoughts and emotions that are rooted in the turmoil. Whenever inappropriate, anxiety or fear prevents me from reaching my fullest potential the block is rooted in the turmoil. When my mind is so full of thoughts about my work that I find myself unable to give my full attention to a conversation I am having or to the book I am reading, the thoughts are being driven by the turmoil. Every time I overeat or go searching through the refrigerator because “I’m just really craving something!” I am responding to an impulse that is part of the turmoil.

For many, if not most of us, this compulsive, driven behavior has become such a “normal” way of life that we have lost even the awareness that there is another way of being in the world. And yet, if we pay attention, somewhere deep inside of each of us there is a “still small voice” that speaks to us of a different kind of longing—a powerful calling to a different kind of life.  We long for a life that is free of this destructive inner turmoil.  If we listen to that still small voice behind the turmoil, we discover at least a vague outline of a vision of a new life. We wonder if it is possible to really quieten the turmoil so this yearning and this deeper vision can become a reality.. We wonder if it is possible to actually live our lives in response to that vision. If we pay attention to that still small voice and take it really seriously, if we sit with the questions that voice raises, the call to prayer rises up out of the turmoil.

  1. What compulsive thoughts, emotions, and impulses tend to drive my day-to-day life? What destructive habits prevent me from living my life fully and authentically? Focus especially on situations where I feel pressured to do, do, do and just want to get away from it all Consider such things as anger, addictions, and violent behavior. Describe these issues in detail. What are the roots of that behavior? How do I feel called to respond?

____________

Edwards, Tilden, Spiritual Friend:  Reclaiming the Gift of Spiritual Direction. (Ramsey, New Jersey:  Paulist Press, 1980), p. 14.


Other Posts in this Reflection:

(Part 1) Introduction View…

(Part 2) Why Do We Pray View…
Seeking Satisfactory Answers

(Part 3) History   View…
Responding To A Call 

(Part 4) Awe And Wonder View…
The Call To Mystery

(Part 5) Suffering And Loss View…
Another Call To Mystery

(Part 6) Self-Awareness View…
Accepting Responsibility

(Part 7) Life Out Of Balance (This Post)
A Vision Of A New Life

(Part 8) An Experience Of Prayer View…
A Call To Depth

(Part 9) Richard’s Answer To Question # 3 View…

 

Feb 242016
 

This post is part of a series entitled The Work of The Spiritual Journey. In this series we go into detail on what I have come to call “The Practice”— the prayer practices that have changed my life.  Click here to see other posts in this series.  This post is repurposed from a previous post Titled: Why Do We Pray? | Reflection I: Introduction: What Is Prayer Anyway? (Part 1) View...


 

 The Work of the Spiritual Journey | The Practice

Reflection: I

Prayer
Examining Our Vision
(Part 3)

Questions for Reflection

  1. What have you been taught about prayer by your faith tradition? Is your understanding of prayer from your faith tradition enough for the realities of your life? In what ways is it not enough?
  2. Reach beyond the specific teaching of your faith tradition. What is prayer all about for you personally? Why do you pray, why do you not pray, or why do you sense a call to pray or to deepen your experience of prayer?
  3. What deeper questions do you have about prayer? What “answers” have you been taught that leave you unsatisfied and longing for something deeper?
  4. What is your prayer life like today? In what specific ways do you feel called to deepen your prayer life?
  5. How does your current prayer life affect the way you experience and live your daily active life
  6. Where is your prayer life disconnected from your active life? What do you need to do about that.
  7. In what ways does your prayer life call you to change and grow in your active life? In what ways does your active life call you to change and grow in your prayer life?

Richard’s Answer to Question #4

4. What is your prayer life like today? In what specific ways do you feel called to deepen your prayer life?

When one becomes an expert in some field, and especially when one presumes to write a book on a particular topic to help others in that area, there goes with that at least some expectation that one will have that part of their own life in some semblance of order. That expectation becomes even stronger when one dares to write or teach about the spiritual life in general and about prayer in specific. At least it seems so to me.

Yet I have often said that if I could live even a tenth of what I know about the spiritual life, I would be a saint. I am not a saint! I am not any kind of a saint. I am closer than I was twenty-five or thirty years ago. I am even closer than I was last week. But I am not a saint. In the end I can’t really live anywhere near what I know about spiritual formation and prayer. Truth is some days I am not at all sure that I know that much about these complex topics anyway. Yet I still feel a strong call to share what what I have learned.

I am retired, and in that sense I am mostly free to set up my prayer life however I want. In response to that freedom I have told myself that I could take my time apart pretty much whenever I wanted. I have convinced myself that I could go into my room and close the door and pray any time I felt called. What I find is that this theory has put me in a kind of maintenance mode. In this maintenance mode I often do not feel “called” on any regular basis and when I do feel called it is mostly when I feel stressed or upset for some reason. In this mode the times when I do “take my time” the process is abbreviated. I often go in my room, sit down, and go straight to contemplation, skipping things like centering, reading, meditation, and prayer. I often sit for twenty minutes and just get up and go back to work. This is good, but it is not near enough. It mostly keeps me on even keel, but it does not always lead to that growth and transformation and conversion of heart that is so central to what I know to be real spiritual formation—real prayer.

What is worse is that for some time now I have been having trouble sleeping. I tend to wake up at four or five o’clock in the morning. I tend to blame that problem on getting older, and keep trying to go back to sleep, often with little success. Sometimes I play games on my mobile phone. Might this not be that still small voice calling me to take some serious time apart? Might it be coming-out of the monastic call that has been so important on my journey? Whatever else it might be it is clearly an opportunity for me to take that time. I know that I should take that opportunity. I am reminded of this reflection by Henri Nouwen:

In the morning, long before dawn, he got up and left the house, and went off to a lonely place and prayed there.” [Mark 1:35] In the middle of sentences loaded with action — healing suffering people, casting out devils, responding to impatient disciples, traveling from town to town and preaching from synagogue to synagogue — we find these quiet words: “In the morning, long before dawn, he got up and left the house, and went off to a lonely place and prayed there”. In the center of breathless activities we hear a restful breathing. Surrounded by hours of moving we find a moment of quiet stillness. In the heart of much involvement there are words of withdrawal. In the midst of action there is contemplation. And after much togetherness there is solitude. The more I read this nearly silent sentence locked in between the loud words of action, the more I have the sense that the secret of Jesus’ ministry is hidden in that lonely place where he went to pray, early in the morning, long before dawn.*

Henri J. M. Houwen

I know that the secret of my own spiritual life is “hidden in that lonely place” where I go to pray. I know that I need to get out of maintenance mode. I need to get up “long before dawn” and go to my lonely place and pray there. And I know that I need to take the time to formally center myself. I know that I need to read and study. I even know what I need to read and study. The Rule of Saint Benedict was central to my practice for years, and I need to make it a part of my time apart again. I know that I need to take time to reflect yet again on those readings, and then ask that Mysterious Other I call God to guide me and to give me the strength and courage to take this into my active life. And yes, I need to sit silently and listen for that still small voice within. I know all of that. I teach and write about all of that, but I do not do it regularly. Why do I hesitate? What do I fear? For me, Marianne Williamson answers the question well.:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.**

Marianne Williamson

“Lord God, come to my assistance. Make haste oh my God to help me”.***

____________

** Nouwen, Henri J. M. Nouwen, Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life, (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1974), p. 13-14.
** Williamson, Marianne, A Return To Love:  Reflections of the Principles of A Course In Miracles, (Harper Collins, 1992. From Chapter 7, Section 3 (Pg. 190-191).  Quoted at http://skdesigns.com/internet/articles/quotes/williamson/our_deepest_fear/
*
** 
From Psalm 70:1 (NIV)


I encourage you to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below so we can all benefit from your insights as well..

Feb 172016
 

This post is part of a series entitled The Work of The Spiritual Journey. In this series we go into detail on what I have come to call “The Practice”— the prayer practices that have changed my life.  Click here to see other posts in this series.  This post is repurposed from a previous post Titled: Why Do We Pray? | Reflection I: Introduction: What Is Prayer Anyway? (Part 1) View…


The Work of the Spiritual Journey | The Practice

Reflection: I

Prayer
Examining Our Vision
Part 2

If we really ponder the question of why we pray in any depth all kinds of questions arise, and those questions make us uncomfortable.  Who is this Mysterious Other we call God that we pray to?  What do we expect from God when we pray?  What does God expect from us when we pray? Will our prayers be answered?  How will they be answered?  Do we even take time to listen for an answer? Do we even realize that listening in prayer is at least as important as speaking? Could we ourselves be responsible for some of the things we ask of God? Does prayer really work? What does “work” really mean when we speak of prayer? What does any of that even mean in the reality of our lives?

But beyond even those questions is the question we most want to avoid: will prayer change us?  Is prayer supposed to change us? On the other hand, is prayer, as it often appears to me, all about changing God? How will it change us? Will it require something of us that will be more than we bargained for? Michael Quoist’s poem pretty clearly points to the fact that it will. I know from personal experience that if we take spiritual practice really seriously—if we take prayer really seriously, it will change us in ways we cannot even imagine, and in ways that we may not even think we want.  At the beginning of a class on spiritual practice I made the statement, “Be careful, this class might just change your life”.  One man responded, “Am I going to have to leave my home, become a missionary, and move to Africa?”  But were it that simple. His question was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it points to a deep, but often preconscious, concern many of us have about prayer.  If we take prayer seriously will it change us?  Will it call us to “go where we dare not go”?  A few of us may actually be called to leave our home to become missionaries, but a sustained and serious life of prayer will call all of us to a lifetime of change, personal growth, transformation, and conversion of heart. It will call us to change the way we actually experience and live our active lives. It will call us to be present in the events of our lives differently. This is the question that often keeps us from going deeper.  Deep inside of us we know, again often at a preconscious level, that if we really take prayer seriously it will in fact call us to change and to grow, and in profound ways.  To even begin it will require that we change our busy schedule to make the space for our time apart.  Prayer is at the same time our deepest desire  and our greatest fear.  We often fear the very growth and change we desire. Whatever else serious prayer is about it is about listening to that Mysterious Other we call God—listening to that sacred inner voice inside, and paying attention to where that sacred inner voice leads us. Taken really seriously prayer calls us to live our daily lives in response to that leading.

But even more basic than that is the question, what is prayer anyway? The dictionary defines prayer as:

a spiritual communion with God or an object of worship, as in supplication, thanksgiving, adoration, or confession.*

I suppose that captures the very basics of prayer, but it is unsatisfying. Intuitively we know there is more to prayer than that—much more. We know that dictionary definition is not enough.  The truth is that the definition of prayer varies from one religious tradition to another, from one denomination to another, from one culture to another and even from one sub-culture to another. More importantly our own interpretation and understanding of prayer is unique for each of us.  We each have our own understanding of prayer, even if we haven’t thought about it all that much.  That definition is there in our subconscious, and it drives our approach to prayer or our avoidance of it. Ultimately it drives how we approach our lives.  If we are really serious about the spiritual life we need to take that definition out and look at it carefully. We need to be honest and clear within ourselves about what prayer really is and what it means for us.  As we work through the reflections in this book we will reflect on the many different reasons we come to prayer, and hopefully, in the process discover and deepen what prayer is for each of us personally.

For many of us, all of the sermons we have heard, all of the Sunday School lessons we have participated in, and all of the bible study and reading we have done, is not enough. It falls far short of giving us a real deep understanding of what prayer is, why we pray, or how we are to pray.

My friend and past pastor, Drexel Rayford tells this story in the forward to my earlier book

As I go about my pastoral ministry, I often see the spiritual equivalent of my attempt to run a 10k race without training. Not long ago, I visited a woman facing her last days. She has struggled with a cruel disease since she was a little girl and now that she has grown older, complications from that disease will end her life. A profound feeling of injustice permeates her reflections, and as we discussed how to come to terms with her situation she said, “My Sunday School faith is unequal to this spiritual challenge.” She finds herself required to “run a race” for which she professes she has had little training.**  

Drexel Rayford

In the face of a life threatening crisis she realizes that she has outgrown her Sunday School faith. As we reflect on the many different answers to the question “Why do we pray?” we will discover many varied aspects of what prayer is.  We will see clearly that prayer is not magic, and we will discover that true prayer always calls the person praying to growth, transformation, and conversion of heart.  Yes, at times prayer can change situations and at times even other people.  Yes, prayer can affect the outcome of events in our lives and the lives of others.  But almost always it calls us to grow and change, if of course, we are open to that possibility, if we are listening, and if we have the courage to respond to what we hear.

Prayer is more than something we do from time to time. In its most powerful form it is a way of approaching our lives. The call to ”pray without ceasing”*** conjures up a vision of a monk walking along saying the “Jesus Prayer” (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!”)**** all day long. As good a practice as this may be from time to time for some, this book does not envision that type of practice. The call to pray without ceasing calls us to take our daily time apart for prayer and reflection. In that time apart it calls us to listen carefully to that still small voice within where that Mysterious Other we call God guides us and gives us strength and courage. In that listening it calls us to discover who we are, who we are called to be, and ultimately how we are called to live our day-to-day lives. The call to pray without ceasing calls us to incarnate those discoveries into the way we actually experience and live our lives—without ceasing. It calls us to live that sacred rhythm of discovery and incarnation in every event in our lives. In this way our entire life increasingly becomes prayer. This “pray[ing] without ceasing”***—this sacred rhythm of withdrawal into prayer and engagement in our active lives—is ultimately a lifelong journey of growth and transformation and conversion of heart. That is ultimately what prayer is all about. In its most basic sense this is what prayer is. This is ultimately at the very heart of why we pray.
Henri Nouwen points out that:

A prayer in church, at table or in school is only a witness to what we want to make of our entire lives. Such a prayer only recalls to mind that praying is living and it invites you to make this an ever-greater reality. Thus there are as many ways to pray as there are moments in life. Sometimes you seek out a quiet spot and you want to be alone, sometimes you look for a friend and you want to be together. Sometimes you’d like a book or some music. Sometimes you want to sing out with hundreds, sometimes only to whisper with a few. Sometimes you want to say it with words, sometimes with a deep silence.*****  

Henri J. M. Nouwen

In all these moments, you gradually make your life more a prayer and you open your hands to be led by God even to where you would rather not go.

Prayer often calls us to go “even to where [we] would rather not go”. Yet as Quoist put it, “Where shall I hide? I meet you everywhere. Is it then impossible to escape you?” If our image of God is big enough the answer to that question has to be a resounding “Yes, it is impossible to escape you!”, but then why would we want to escape?

____________

*  Apple Dictionary, iOS Software version 7.0.4., © 1983-2013, Apple, Inc. All rights reserved.
** Rayford, Drexel, in Southworth, Richard N., Choosing Authenticity:  Religion Is Not Enough, (Seattle, WA, CreateSpace, 2011), p.  xvi
*** 1 Thessalonians 5:17 (KJV)
**** Unknown Author, The Way of A Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way, (New York: Doubleday, 1992). p. 21,
***** Nouwen, Henri J. M., With Open Hands.  (Notre Dame, Indiana, Ave Maria Press, 1972), p. 158.


I encourage you to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below so we can all benefit from your insights as well..

Part 3 of this reflection will include questions for reflection related to this post and my answer to one of those questions.

Feb 102016
 

This post is the first in a coming series entitled The Work of The Spiritual Journey. In future posts in this series we will go into more detail on what I have come to call “The Practice”— the prayer practices that have changed my life.  Click here to see other posts in this series.  This post is repurposed from a previous post Titled: Why Do We Pray? | Reflection I: Introduction: What Is Prayer Anyway? (Part 1) View…


 

Richard and Mountain View

Photo by Winnie Southworth

 

The Work of the Spiritual Journey | The Practice

Reflection: I

Prayer
Examining Our Vision

I am afraid of saying “Yes,” Lord.
Where will you take me?
I am afraid of drawing the longer straw,
I am afraid of signing my name to an unread agreement,
I am afraid of the “yes” that entails other “yeses”.
And yet I am not at peace.
You pursue me, Lord, you besiege me.
I seek out the din for fear of hearing you, but in the moment of silence you slip through.
I turn from the road, for I have caught sight of you, but at the end of the path you are there awaiting me.
Where shall I hide? I meet you everywhere.
Is it then impossible to escape you?*
Michel Quoist

Any serious reflection on prayer raises all kinds of questions. Why do we pray? What is prayer anyway? What are some of the different types of prayer? What does it mean to pray without ceasing? What will prayer ask of us? How is prayer related to conversion? What does it mean to have a prayer of our own? Confronting these these and many other questions is essential if our prayer is to be truly authentic—if our prayer is to be a prayer of our own. Yet many of us never really consider them seriously. Questions like these have seldom if ever even been brought up in any of the many churches I have attended. These are some of the questions we will look at in this reflection. Yet these are only the beginning. There are many others, some of which will be addressed in more detail in the reflections that follow.

____________

Quoist, Michel, Prayers. (Kansas City, Missouri: Sheed and Ward, 1963), p. 121.


Future posts in this Reflection will include the following topics.  As they are posted I will place links to them in this list.

Why Do We Pray?
Seeking Satisfactory Answers

What Is Prayer Anyway?
Seeking A Deeper Understanding

Types of Prayer
Expanding Our Vision of Prayer

Praying Without Ceasing
Letting Our Lives Become Prayer

What Will Prayer Ask of US
The Call To Growth, Transformation, and Conversion of Heart

A Prayer of Our Own
Authentic Prayer

Feb 042016
 

This post is the first in a coming series entitled The Work of The Spiritual Journey. In future posts in this series we will go into more detail on what I have come to call “The Practice”— the prayer practices that have changed my life.  Click here to see other posts in this series.


 

The Work of the Spiritual Journey

The Practice

Richard’s Story

Windmill

Painting and Photo by Winnie Southworth

The Quest

Please, try to remember.
You looked at me and you called me by another name.
Dulcinea, Dulcinea.
Once you found a girl and called her Dulcinea.
When you spoke the name an angel seemed to whisper,
Dulcinea, Dulcinea.
Dulcinea, Dulcinea.
Won’t you please bring back the dream of Dulcinea?
Won’t you bring me back to that moment of shining glory?
Of Dulcinea, Dulcinea.
Perhaps, perhaps it was not a dream.
You spoke of a dream, and about the quest.
The Quest.
The words, tell me, tell me the words.
But they are your own words.
Try to remember.

From The Man of LaMancha

I remember the event like it was yesterday, even though it was over twenty years ago. I was sitting at the dinner table with my family. I have no idea what we were talking about, but something made me extremely angry, until finally I picked up my dinner plate and threw it across the room against the wall breaking it and scattering the pieces and the food all across the floor and the wall. Luckily I did not hit anyone, but it was a wakeup call for me. I knew then I had to do something about my anger.

Psychology

I began meeting with a psychologist shortly after that. After two years of therapy I was sitting with my therapist, and I was tired and frustrated with the process. I told her that over the time I had been meeting with her I had learned a lot about where my anger came from and about how to manage that anger so it did not spill over onto my family and others nearly as much. But, I told her, the anger was still there, and it seemed to me that, in a way, continually having to manage that anger actually added to the depth and power of the anger rather than reducing it. I asked her if I would ever get to the place where that anger would subside. Her answer actually shocked me. “No”, she said, “the best you can hope for is to be able to manage the anger better.” My daughter, who is also a clinical psychologist, assured me that this was not the case. Good therapy, she insisted, should really reduce the anger. I get that on some level, but at the time the words of my therapist, confirmed by my own experience, made my daughter’s denial seem hollow. The fact was still true—after two years of therapy I was still living with that anger. It was still driving the way I experienced and lived my life, albeit mitigated externally by my improved ability to manage it. Therapy was not enough. I quit therapy shortly after this discussion.

Christianity

Interestingly my experience with Christianity followed much the same pattern. Over the years I was in and out of multiple churches, in multiple denominations. Over that time I talked with a number of ministers, church leaders, fellow church members, and even a couple of spiritual directors. None of them seemed to even understand what my struggle was all about.

I was discussing this with the pastor at one of the churches I attended, and finally, out of frustration I blurted out, “Mr. D, you have answers to questions that are not even questions for me, and you have absolutely no answers to the questions I do have.” What I took from that discussion and others like it was essentially the same message I got from my therapist. I was exhorted to manage my anger—my sin, but I should not expect it to dissipate. Unlike with my therapist, my church experience did not offer any real guidance on how to even manage the anger except to say that I should pray, whatever that meant. The message I got was that it really didn’t matter much anyway. If I gave my life to Jesus I would be forgiven and “saved” in the next life. In some of the messages there was a kind of magical option where God would just reach down and transform me, but that never actually happened, and that, I was told, was because my faith was not strong enough. NEVER, in any of the churches I attended or the people in those churches I talked with, was I offered spiritual practices—prayer practices—that might begin to heal that anger. The truth is that, like managing my anger, my church experience over the years has ultimately contributed to my frustration and anger a great deal more than it has ever helped to heal it, but that is a story for another time. It suffices here to say that it was not enough.

A Prayer Of My Own

I ultimately quit looking for answers in church too, though I continued to attend with my wife from time to time. A short time later I began a period of self-study of the spiritual literature I had discovered as a part of my academic studies. From that self-study I began experimenting with various spiritual practices. Those books led me to other material, and over a couple of years I developed a personal practice that worked for me, and the turmoil and anger really did begin to dissipate. It is precisely here that I began to develop a real “prayer of my own”. Though that prayer has it very roots in the depths of the Christian tradition it was neither taught nor supported in any of the many churches I attended. If it was mentioned at all it was criticized as some kind of heresy. That said, it was just these practices that, over time, changed my life dramatically in ways that neither therapy nor my church experience ever even began to touch. That growth and transformation, or what the monastics call “conversion of heart” continues. My wife, both of my daughters, some of my supervisors, and several of my friends have all told me in different ways that I have changed more than anyone they have known. I attribute that “conversion” entirely to my spiritual practice—to my prayer practice.

Richard

Photo by Winnie Southworth

As that process of self-study continues I recently read Thomas Moore’s book, A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World*. While I would not have had the words to describe it then, I realize now that it was during this time that I actually began to develop “a religion of [my] own”. Moore’s book essentially served to legitimize my struggle and gave me the language to understand it and talk about it. Unfortunately at the time I could only see it as a criticism of and a rebellion against contemporary Christianity. I cannot help but wonder what that struggle to develop my own prayer practice would have been like if I had found the teaching and the support for that part of my journey in even one of the churches I attended. As we will see, this struggle to develop “a religion of one’s own”, will permeate my rethinking of prayer in all of my writing. We will be encouraged to reach beyond the contemporary view of prayer and to think about what prayer really means for each of us personally. What is envisioned here is a “turning around”—a conversion of heart that can transform our lives.

Prayer Practices

All that said, sadly at the time, neither my therapist nor anyone in any of the many churches I attended over the years seemed to even know of these practices, even though they come to us from the very depths of the Christian tradition, and the roots of those practices can be seen clearly in Jesus’ life and teaching.

They also can be found in different forms in almost all major religious traditions. The prayer practices that are outlined here are not new—they are not “new age” as some conservative Christians have tried to claim. The practices come from deep within the Christian tradition. They can be found all thru the writings of the spiritual masters, the saints, the desert fathers and mothers, and the monastic tradition. My quest to connect with that Mysterious Other I call God, to continue my own growth, and to write and teach about the spiritual life begins precisely here. I want to make what I have discovered available to others in understandable language that is not buried in ancient texts. To the extent that I can, I want to be obedient to that quest.

My Quest

This series is about “turning around”. Like all of my writing and teaching, it is about transformation and that “conversion of heart” the monastics speak of so profoundly. In the end it is about prayer as “the work of the spiritual journey”. It is about prayer that includes “turning around” as part of that work. These prayer practices profoundly changed my life and continue to change my life. They can change yours as well if you are open and obedient to them. Sharing that insight is the very essence of my quest.

Yet, at the same time, it seems ironic—maybe even hypocritical, for me to be writing about prayer. How can I presume to have anything useful to say about prayer? How can I presume to teach anyone about prayer? For most of my adult life I have openly criticized much of what has been said (and maybe more often, what has not been said) about prayer in the churches I have attended. As a result, until I began my search for “a prayer of my own” I spent very little time even thinking about prayer, much less actually praying. I pretty much ignored the subject entirely, and if I spoke of it at all it was mostly to offer some criticism of what the churches teach, or do not teach, about prayer. Yet here I sit, hands on the keyboard, typing the first paragraphs of just such a series.

This is a series that I must write if I am to be true and authentic to who I am and who I feel God is calling me to be. My quest grows out of this long process of criticism, study, practice, and growth. Maybe it is my initial struggle with prayer as it was presented to me in the churches I attended, combined with my own struggle, study, practice, and experience that will give these reflections a quality of legitimacy they might otherwise lack. That is my sincere hope. That is my quest. That is my prayer.

My friend and Catholic priest, Fr. J. Patrick Foley put it this way in the forward to my first book:

Richard Southworth is such a man: restless, searching, unsatisfied. His hunger for transcendence – which for the believer is ultimately a hunger for God – has driven him into, and out of, churches, various religious organizations, and activities, leaving him frustrated but still searching. Having been his friend, occasional fellow-traveler, and frequent sounding board for almost thirty years, I have often thought that this search possesses him more than he possesses it – and that very quality is proof enough of its authenticity. “The hound of heaven,” to borrow Francis Thompson’s image, pursues us all, whether we recognize it or not. Wisdom is found in that recognition, and in the desire and willingness to remove whatever obstacles stand in the way of such a pursuit.
Fr. J. Patrick Foley
 ____________
* Moore, Thomas, A Religion of One’s Own:  A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality In A Secular World (New York: Gotham Books, 2014).
Dec 012015
 

I recently received this email from a concerned follower on my blog.  It was in response to my post A Religion of My Own | Waking Up – Again.  Since he chose to send me this in a private email rather than as a comment on my blog, he will remain anonymous.  I do very much appreciate him taking the time to offer his comments and concerns on this important topic.

Hi Richard,

In your thoughts of a religion of one’s own, you bring to mind a warning given to seekers who define their own journey. Please find the first two paragraphs below.  The whole article may be found at http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/spiritualfather.aspx

The Spiritual Father in Orthodox Christianity

by Bishop Kallistos Ware

One who climbs a mountain for the first time needs to follow a known route; and he needs to have with him, as companion and guide, someone who has been up before and is familiar with the way. To serve as such a companion and guide is precisely the role of the “Abba” or spiritual father—whom the Greeks call “Geron” and the Russians “Starets”, a title which in both languages means “old man” or “elder”.

The importance of obedience to a Geron is underlined from the first emergence of monasticism in the Christian East. St. Antony of Egypt said: “I know of monks who fell after much toil and lapsed into madness, because they trusted in their own work … So far as possible, for every step that a monk takes, for every drop of water that he drinks in his cell, he should entrust the decision to the Old Men, to avoid making some mistake in what he does.”

I had also received two other much shorter emails from two minister friends expressing similar concerns so I want to answer that question here.

On the light side, I have a seven year old granddaughter who is fond of calling me “Old Man”.  It has become a kind of family joke.  I am not at all sure if she sees me as an “elder” in the deeper sense or not, but it is clearly a term of endearment on her part.  It seems clearly better than my wife who she likes to call “that crazy old woman”.  What is that old saying, “I don’t care what she calls me, just so she calls me”?

That said this points to something deeper.  I think our society has mostly lost the concept of the “Old Man” or the “Elder”, even in our religious traditions.  At least in the many protestant churches I have attended when I have talked about Spiritual Direction, most people either did not know what I was talking about, or if they did, they did not see the need.  As indicated in the email the concept is retained mostly in the Christian monastic tradition, and apparently in the Christian Orthodox tradition.

So what is one to do?  I have been on this journey for a bunch of years, and there have been a number of guides that have shown up and stayed for a time.  Maybe the first was a Religious Studies Professor when I was in undergraduate school some thirty or more years ago.  There have been a couple of ministers, spiritual directors, coaches, and friends who have served in that role on some level.  Each has come and met a need for a time, and then, for various reasons, transitioned out of my life, or at least out of that role.  Maybe one of the most long lasting of those guides is my friend and Catholic priest, Fr. J. Patrick Foley, who I have known for some 27 years.  Interestingly each of the ministers who have served as a guide did so in essence outside of the church setting. Maybe the most powerful and consistent guide of all is my wife, Winnie, who consistently holds me back when I start to stray too far off of the path, supports me, and challenges me when I hide and resist taking the next step.

Labyrinth

Labyrinth
Photo by Winnie Southworth

While all of these guides have played an important part in my journey, none of them have served as a true “Geron” or “Starets” as mentioned in the above referenced article.  None of them have served as my “abbot” as the monastics speak of it.  The truth is that none of them seem to have seen themselves even potentially in that role, including the Spiritual Directors I have had over the years.  Each of them journeyed with me for a time, offered me guidance and correction in their own way, and in one way or another, encouraged me to find my own way.   In essence each of them encouraged me to find “a religion of my own”.  It took me years to heed that advice.

Maybe some of the most consistent guidance I have received over the years has come from my reading.  Authors such as Jacob Needleman, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Keating, and yes, Thomas Moore the author of A Religion of One’s Own.  These and  many other authors have appeared and reappeared in my life at just the right times to serve as my guides, and on some level even my “Geron” or my “Starets”.

My wife also pointed out that I love to talk about the spiritual journey, pretty much with anyone that will listen, including in some small groups.  In those conversations I listen to other people’s reactions to what I share, and to what they share about their own journeys.  In the process that sharing serves as guidance for my own journey.

All of that said, maybe the only real “Geron” or “Starets” on my journey is ultimately that Mysterious Other I call God.  Maybe that guidance can only come from that Still Small Voice that speaks to me in moments of deep contemplation—in moments of deep prayer.

I am aware of the concern here, and I take it very seriously.  Yes, in all of this careful discernment is critical.  People sometimes provide bad advice, or at least advice that does not speak to my unique journey.  That still small voice that I listen to at times may not be God at all, but my own ego.  I need to be careful that my choices and decisions are consonant—that they are congenial to my own sacred inner being, that they are compatible with the reality in which I live my life, and compassionate toward myself and others.  That will have to be enough.  Anyway no person has shown up in my life who I would begin to trust at that level.  Maybe that is as it should be.

As always I encourage you to add your thoughts and comments to this and any other post.

Nov 252015
 

I recently pulled out some of my old writing, and came across a paper I wrote for a class on formative reading while I was working on my master’s degree at the Institute of Formative Spirituality at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA.  The paper had no date on it, but it would have been sometime in late 1986 or early 1987.  During that class we studied the writings of several saints and spiritual masters.  Near the end of the class we were asked to pick one of the masters we studied that had the most impact on our own spiritual life for a term paper.  I told the professor that it was not an individual person that affected me the most, it was the overall effect of all of the people we had studied that spoke most powerfully to me.  She told me I should write about that.

Richard On Mountain

Photo by Winnie Southworth

Reading this paper now I realized just how powerful these studies were in my spiritual life at the time, and just how much they still spoke to me some twenty-seven years later.  Reading this paper again calls me to want to go back and read some of the books again.  Maybe the most powerful insight this material had for me personally was to see these masters of the spiritual life struggling with many of the same issues I struggle with in my own journey.  I had always been turned off by the old language and style, but when forced to read the material for the class, it spoke to me in a very powerful way.

In my previous post A Religion of My Own | Waking Up — Again I talked about the fact that “what I found in the many churches I attended never really connected with that [my] calling or the way I experienced and lived my life”.  It is interesting to me that these ancient writings speak to me in a very powerful way, and yet what I experience in church does not speak to me much at all.

Reading this paper again also called me to want to share these thoughts and experiences with you in the hopes that they will inspire you to read some of the writings of the saints and spiritual masters yourself.  Over the next few weeks I will share parts of this paper in a series of blog posts.  I plan to share the material as it was written at the time without editing it, though I may offer comments on some.  It is fascinating to me to see where I was twenty-seven years ago, and to realize just how powerful it still is to me today.

Here are the topics that will be included in the future blog posts:

As you read each of these posts I encourage you to add your own experiences and thoughts so all of us can learn from each other.

Read, Reflect, Enjoy! Richard

 

Follow

Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers:

%d bloggers like this: