Reflections by Jerry Webber

Friday, February 19, 2010

Spiritual Practice and Seasons of the Soul

For several reasons I'm thinking about spiritual practices. Three days into Lent, it's hard not to consider fasting, prayer, and other spiritual exercises that might carry me up to Good Friday and Resurrection.

When persons ask me which spiritual practices are most important or are at the core, I usually am able to tell them about those that have been most helpful in opening my life to God, those that have most moved me toward a deeper attentiveness to God, self, others, and the world. I also have the benefit of hearing the stories of many, many people who engage in some kind of spiritual discipline, and their testimonies are helpful in thinking about core practices.

But whether with an single person or with a group, I generally try to be careful about prescribing spiritual practices as if one size fits all. Most of the time, I'll work through a process with the person or group and try to help them come to a sense of which practices are appropriate and nourishing for their unique relationship with God at that particular point in time.

I've had the opportunity to work this discernment process with a couple of groups lately. There is something organic about it that seems to resonate with persons. It is not a way to be let "off the hook," so to speak, so that spiritual practices become arbitrary or so that a person can be dismissive of them. Rather, it is a way of honoring the uniqueness of each persons connection to God, as well as honoring the different demands that a person's life-situation might make at a given time.

For instance, I try to help folks get in touch with what they are currently doing to nourish their souls. "What do you do right now that nourishes your soul?" I ask them to list as many as possible. I deliberately use the language of "nourishing your soul," because people don't automatically go to the usual spiritual disciplines. So things like, "walk the dog" and "read poetry" and "work in my garden" start showing up on lists. It makes conscious the daily, everyday things we do to keep our souls alive. I typically ask persons to notice what surprises them on their list. Most of us have two or three things on our "soul-nourishing" list that we didn't think was very spiritual. It's a nice surprise to find them there.

Next, I ask persons to list those spiritual practices in which they are currently engaged, things like prayer, fasting, worship, study, sabbath, etc. Put these on a paper, regardless of the frequency with which you do them. For instance, there are some practices that are daily for me. There are others that are weekly, others monthly, and others I address annually.

Then I ask folks to look at their list of spiritual practices and to evaluate their faithfulness to each practice. It's asking, "And how's that practice working for you?" We say that this practice is our intention, but then realize that it may or may not be opening us more deeply to God. Most of us have lists of spiritual practices that we don't actually practice or that have lost their effectiveness for us because we are in a different place now than when we began the practice. This discernment process clears out the clutter. It also can break up some strongholds of guilt, especially if we have a list full of spiritual practices that we no longer practice. Breaking up the guilt and shame that comes from feeling like a spiritual failure is a major healing toward having a life-giving relationship with God.

In the most crucial part of the process, I ask people to spend some quiet time with this question: "What season is it right now in your life? What is the season of your soul?" In other words, are you in the freshness and flourescence of spring? Are you in the heat and luminosity of summer? Are your leaves falling off as autumn? Do you feel dry and dark, with your growth taking place below the surface like winter? Where are you?

When I do this exercise for myself, sometimes I identify a season . . . and sometimes I identify a particular month of the year for myself at that time . . . once I even felt like God was saying a very specific date as the place where my soul was at that moment.

The season is important for a couple of reasons. First, the season in which I find myself can determine which practices I undertake. In the winter, for instance, I can't stand much rigor, so I have to give myself permission to do less. This happens for me when I'm in chemotherapy. I simply understand that for a period of time I'll have to do less. And it's okay. In the spring I may engage more. In the summer I may have still more energy for spiritual disciplines.

You'll notice, then, that this means I'll want to pause often to notice my own soul's landscape, to discern my own season. Very often, those spiritual practices I'm not currently faithful to are carry-overs from another season of life. They were appropriate at one time, but they are not nourishing or appropriate now. So I take them off the list.

The question I ask about which practices to undertake for the current season of life is, "What spiritual practices will sustain me in this season? What practices will nourish me in this season?"

The season is also important, especially for groups, because it helps us to see that we are all in different places. Small share groups or support groups, as well as large study groups, can hear others say, "I'm in spring," and "I'm in the fall," even as they themselves are in the winter. To prescribe one set of spiritual practices that would fit everyone leads only to guilt and can diminish the uniqueness of each person.

If you ask, "What about accountability?" I'll answer that it's very possible -- and helpful -- to be accountable to one another, and accountability can very easily happen without everyone carrying the same list of disciplines. I am invited to be accountable for my disciplines and you are invited to be accountable for your disciplines. We don't have to carry the same list to be accountable, but we can support one another, pray for one another, and hear the struggles we share in keeping our covenants.

My friend Peter has written an excellent essay (he calls it a blogpost, I call it an essay) on this understanding of spiritual practice. His images are very helpful. I encourage you to read more at his blog:

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Sweeping the Floors . . . Again!!

While at the Benedictine monastery in Pecos a couple of weeks ago, several of us from Chapelwood decided to enter more fully into the rhythm of the monks' lives, not only by joining in their daily rhythm of prayer, but by spending some time each day in manual labor.

The monks live a rhythm of prayer and work. Unlike those of us who live outside the monastery, their work is put aside regularly when the bells ring for prayer. They don't have a manic need to accomplish in their work or to hurry to the end of it. They do what they can, then they pray together, then they do a little more work, then they pray together, and so on. Each day is like that. And tomorrow is like that, too. It is a wonderful ordering (and weaving) of prayer and work that is much healthier than most of us live.

So one morning, Gene Davis and I decided to give one hour to working in the monastic chapel, sweeping the tile and grout floor. With snow, slush, and mud outside, this room which is the main prayer and worship space for the monastery got dirty rather easily. Gene and I gave an hour to cleaning the floor. We swept. We scrubbed. We did a pretty thorough job, working for an hour without conversation.

[Sidebar: The hour spent working in the same room with Gene in silence was holy time. We've known each other for nine years and consider each other friends, but that one hour spent working together in silence brought us to a deeper place of friendship and companionship than we had experienced with one another . . . at least, that's what I sensed from my end. That was a significant learning for me.]

At the end of the hour, we put away our tools and went into the rest of the day, content that we had been faithful to that small task. The floor was clean.

Then, at the mid-day prayer time in that very room, you can imagine how Gene and I looked at each other when we entered and found that already persons had tracked dirt and mud into the space! And you can imagine my shame when that evening, I came straight into the chapel from outdoors and brought in my own mud and dirt!

So the next morning during our work time (10:00 - 11:00), Gene and I took up our brooms again, and started all over. We spent another hour doing exactly what we had done the previous day.

I'm guessing that I don't need to connect the dots for you. My life-experience with God is so much like this. I seem to come back to the same issues over and over again. Just when I've dealt with some part of my life that God wants to heal, when I celebrate some small ground gained, I find myself right back where I was.

How often have I said to God (and to myself): "But I dealt with that interior issue ten years ago!!" Yet, it seems always to come back around.

So at least for me, much of the spiritual journey is about sweeping the floors . . . again!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Overheard at the Monastery: Naptio Divina

I spent 5 days at the Benedictine monastery in Pecos, N.M. recently.

Father Sam, the 86-year-old monk who has been at the monastery for a long, long time, is still quick-witted and engaging. After lunch one day (the only meal of the day at which we could talk around the table), I asked Father Sam if he was going to take a nap that afternoon.

He responded, "Every afternoon I get my naptio divina!"

Ahhh . . . "sacred resting" . . . "holy napping" . . . I like that!!

Coming up for Air

I last posted on this blog over a month ago. Perhaps you could say that it was a sabbatical of sorts, but it didn't really feel like that. Through Advent I struggled with a deep melancholy that felt like grief over past losses. In some of my own reflections I named it as "drowning in sadness." It felt like a deep, dark pit in which in I was stuck.

That's not a judgment upon my Advent or the depth of my prayer, just the place in which I found myself for many, many weeks. I decided early on that it was a hole I was to experience, sitting in it and praying in it rather than running from it.

In many ways my prayer deepened in the experience. When I come to these times in my life, there is so little to cling to that truly holds the center. My daily prayer was one place where I continued to feel welcomed, invited, and myself.

Of course, that kind of sadness tends to be terribly uncomfortable for those around you. Those close to you want life to be goodness and light, and I confess that it would have felt much better. But it seemed as if the only honest way to move through the days was to be with the sadness authentically.

So now it's time to reappear. Several weeks ago, in the midst of the grief and melancholy I jumped into the poetry of Christian mysticism . . . from the Old Testament Song of Songs to John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, from Meister Eckhart to the writings of Thomas Merton. The words of these Christian contemplatives, offering their hearts in longing and desire to God, have pulled me above the surface of the drowning waters. Their passion is unmistakeable, the object of their passion is God, and their unashamed love reflects a larger Love for God, persons, and the world.

I'm not guaranteed that those days will not return, and I don't need that guarantee. I'm hopeful of finding life whether in melancholy or delight.

Thanks for being patient and waiting around for me.