Category: Spirituality

Spirituality

Stay Awake

But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. – Matthew 24:36-44 NRSV


The Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Advent always catches me off guard. It’s dark and a little bit scary. There’s a reminder of the horror of the flood, people being taken away, and God is compared with a thief. And here I thought we were just getting ready for tiny, smiling, baby Jesus and buying gifts for our family. We get none of that as Advent begins. We get a warning. Stay Awake.

These two words stuck out to me, as I am sure they did for many, on Sunday morning as my pastor read them. It was these two words that caught her attention as well. It’s a command that many of us are attuned to at this moment in our history. For a lot of us our world is quickly becoming a scarier place, and for many others our fears and concerns are being confirmed rapid fire in the words and actions of people. We are hyperaware of the fear and the danger swirling around us, and so many of us are primed for a fight. Stay awake we hear and we tighten our fists and prepare to stand up and defend those in our midst who are targeted by hatred and violence. We hear Stay Awake and we think about Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, Standing Rock, Immigrants and Refugees, Muslims, and the LGBTQ community. Stay Awake because oppression shows up while the rest of us are sleeping.

This is a reminder we need, particularly those of us who hold a significant amount of privilege. Our friends in communities of color, and the LGBTQ community, do not have the luxury of falling asleep. They are awake to the violence and oppression they face on a daily basis. But those of us who might not be directly targeted by policies of a certain President Elect, or by the hatred and violence perpetrated in his name, may be tempted to take a break from the outrage and the fear and do something else for the time being. This is a dangerous mistake. This is the kind of silence that contributes to violence and oppression. Stay Awake, Jesus commands. Do not fall asleep while Muslims in this country are threatened with a registry. Do not fall asleep while immigrants in this country are threatened with deportation and arrest. Do not fall asleep as white supremacists bend the ear of the President Elect. As Christians, called to serve and stand with the vulnerable and the targeted among us, we cannot fall asleep. We must stay awake.

This means that we must also Stay Awake in the small details of our own daily lives. It is so simple to become distracted by the noise on the news or to lean heavily on the efforts of large organizing bodies. While the ACLU, water protectors at Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter are doing incredible and critical work which we should support and participate in, it is vitally important that we begin our work in our homes and places of employment and education. Advent is about repentance which requires a turning away from the ways in which we have fallen asleep to our call as followers of Christ. Often the first signs of this turn up in our most intimate relationships; with our partners or spouses, parents or siblings, friends, and even with ourselves. Do we lash out in anger at home while decrying anger in public? Are we becoming lost in the swell of consumerism around Christmas, but neglecting to find gratitude in simplicity and relationships? Are we abandoning our spiritual practice? These things may seem small or trivial in the grander scale of staying awake, but they are incredibly important.

I often joke that I have inherited the family legacy of a quick temper. Unfortunately, in action, it’s not very funny at all. This isn’t the righteous anger of justice, this is the petty anger of inconvenience. I know that it takes extra work on my part to avoid spikes of anger in certain environments or when I do particular things, and if I neglect that work and let my anger drive me I become empty of any ability to feel compassion and empathy. I’m not able to hear the legitimate concerns or fears of another person when I am in the midst of one of my temper tantrums. Blinded by rage is a very accurate description of the effects of anger. But I am reminded by Jesus to Stay Awake. I cannot afford to be blind. I cannot afford to be asleep. I need to be awake to the small daily interactions that require my care and my attention, so that when I am called upon to stand against oppression and injustice I can do so from a place of health.

At the Stand Up For Racial Justice general meeting a few weeks ago the crowd of nearly 800 people were asked to talk to a neighbor about what or where it is that they go to recharge, to rest and recuperate. I was so grateful for this reminder that in the work of standing against oppression it is important that we act out of a place of health. Movements need people, and people simply cannot act when they are emotionally, spiritually, mentally, or physically exhausted. We need to stay awake to our own needs as well. As followers of Christ we are routinely called into difficult and uncomfortable spaces, whether they be in our own relationships, or in the larger pursuit of justice that looks like Jesus. Sometimes praying for our enemies isn’t as easy as we’d like it to be, and we find that we first need to take some time to pray for ourselves. This self-focused work is just as important as the other-focused work we hope to do. They are simply different sides of the same coin.

For me this inner work is centered around the Liturgy of the Hours and Centering Prayer. I have become uniquely attuned to the ways in which I am affected when I neglect my practice. I begin to feel scattered and reactive. My temper flairs quicker and more intensely, and I become much more concerned with myself than with the needs of others. Thomas Keating says about Centering (Contemplative) Prayer:

“Contemplative prayer is a process of interior transformation, a conversation initiated by God and leading, if we consent, to divine union. One’s way of seeing reality changes in this process. A restructuring of consciousness takes place which empowers one to perceive, relate and respond with increasing sensitivity to the divine presence in, through, and beyond everything that exists”. *

I have found this wisdom to be true in my own life, experiencing the results even when I fail to understand the process. What I know is that my spiritual practice, the care of my soul, is foundational to my ability to give myself to any endeavor; be it my marriage, a friendship, my work, or the pursuit of justice. This sense of the divine in all things is coupled with a greater sense of humility, born of the realization that all of creation is connected in a beautiful and complicated way. This is why I have been so grateful for the discipline of daily prayer. It has awakened me, and helped me to Stay Awake, to the truth of our interconnectedness, to our collective belovedness, and to my own identity as beloved. For Benedict, it was the discipline of ora et labora, prayer and work. The two are interconnected and each serves to build the other up.

The Gospel reading from the first Sunday in Advent paints a terrifying picture of loss and impending doom. In our day, when so many are seeing doom on the horizon, we must heed the command of Jesus and stay awake. It will be so easy for us to be swallowed by our fear and our anger, and to turn from the important work ahead. Apathy becomes a tempting idea when hope seems lost and power seems absolute. But as followers of Jesus we must stay awake. We must build ourselves up for the work ahead, and we must care for and about those small daily tasks and interactions that empower us to do the work of justice. Our world cannot bear the burden of our slumber. It needs for us to stay awake.

  • Keating, Thomas. Open Mind Open Heart. New York, NY.: Continuum, 1991. Print.
Spirituality

Spiritual Junk Food

We are seven days away from an election that has dominated the national consciousness for over a year. An election mired in sexual assault allegations, email security, racism and xenophobia, and even some violence. Not only that, but last week water protectors in North Dakota were violently removed from sacred land facing destruction by the Dakota Access Pipeline. We have continued to witness police brutality against African Americans, the steady stream of Syrian refugees fleeing their homes, and the assault on Mosul. This is just a handful of the messages and stories we are consuming daily, and if I’m being honest, I’m starting to get spiritual gut-rot.

Honestly, it is exhausting to be an informed and concerned citizen. The constant stream of negativity that comes across our Twitter feeds or cable news is simply too much for one person to bear. It feels like we’re being continually pushed down before we’re even able to stand back up. The temptation is to say screw it, walk away, and shut out the world. I have some video games that haven’t been played in ages, maybe I could spend my time trying to kill dragons instead. Sometimes it seems that this tactic might be more productive than trying to engage a world that feels so damn broken.

But, for those of us trying to follow Jesus, this temptation is one that we need to resist. We cannot simply exit the world emotionally without also turning our back on Christ. In July at St. John’s Abbey, our Oblate Retreat was led by Sister Christian Morris. Sister Morris asked us to consider where we could see Christ dying in our midst. This struck me as a very powerful lens through which to see the world, and the seemingly hopeless litany of tragedy and evil that often comes with it. Sister Morris played a video for us that strung together images of Syria, Black Lives Matter protests, gun violence, and other tragic narratives that we have encountered over the last year. As the video ended she reminded us, however, that the story doesn’t end with the cross, but with the empty tomb, asking us to stand in hope of resurrection. It reminded me of Tony Campolo’s famous sermon “It may be Friday now, but Sundays coming…”

Now that’s all well and good, and I do think that this is the challenge and the duty of the Christian; to proclaim resurrection to a world that proclaims death, but sometimes that duty feels just too damn difficult. While the grace of God can swallow whole the horror of this world, sometimes as people, we just get tired. And often we find that our spiritual health works an awful lot like our bodily health. When you get tired and run down, your spiritual immune system weakens, and all that toxic sludge starts to eat away at you. You begin to believe in the hopelessness, even calling it realism. Apathy starts to take the place of empathy, and before you know it, you’ve retreated from the world completely. Often we don’t even realize this has happened until we’re already bogged down in it.

Joan Chittister says it perfectly in her book Wisdom Distilled From the Daily:

“…without prayer, the energy for the rest of life runs down. The fuel runs out. We become our own worst enemies: we call ourselves too tired and too busy to pray when, in reality, we are too tired and too busy not to pray. Eventually the burdens of the day wear us down and we no longer remember why we decided to do what we’re doing…And if I cannot remember why I decided to do this, I cannot figure out how I can go on with it. I am tired and the vision just gets dimmer and dimmer”. **

I think this is where Benedictine spirituality has a lot of wisdom. For Benedict, the monastery is governed by the rhythm of the Work of God, the Liturgy of the Hours. This constant and daily prayer and recitation, along with the monk’s daily tasks, grounds the community in the present moment. It reminds the individual that there is something greater than the fear and negativity one might encounter, and it reminds the community that only together can we challenge the prevailing narrative. This is what Benedict is saying in his introduction, “First of all, every time you begin a good work, you must pray to (God) most earnestly to bring it to perfection” *. By centering ourselves first in the spiritual well-being of our own person, and then in the community, we can begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, or rather, the light within the darkness of the tunnel. As Chittister said, it reminds us why we are doing what it is we are doing.

I have found this to be true from my own experience. When I begin to feel weakened by the stress of my own life, and overwhelmed by the negativity and tragedy of the world, the first thing that I often neglect is my spiritual practice and the small daily tasks that need to be completed. This often snowballs, and before I know it I’ve binge watched some show on Netflix, the dishes are stacking up, laundry is out of control, and the thought of a time of silence makes me shudder. I completely disengage from the world and from myself. I ignore the news in favor of entertainment, and I neglect silence in favor of distraction. This is spiritual junk food, and as I said before, gut-rot is imminent. I know what it is that I need. I know that I need some good old, organic, free range, spiritual discipline. I need to ground myself in the rhythms of prayer, and the discipline of my daily tasks. This is the practice that plants me firmly in the moment, and rejects the temptation to try and predict the future based solely on the crushing negativity of the world around me. I think this is what hope looks like; a lived life in the face of a world that says life isn’t worth living. As stupid as it might sound, every time I light my candle for prayer, or finish cleaning the dishes, or take the dog for a walk, I feel just a little bit more hopeful. It reminds me that life is good, and re-energizes me to proclaim resurrection in the face of death. Spiritual burnout is inevitable if we are not grounded in the present, in the daily.

For myself, I am rededicating myself to the discipline of daily work and prayer. I intend to spend this week tidying up, domestically and spiritually. I will proclaim resurrection first in my own heart, so that from a place of fullness I can proclaim it to the world. There is so much happening in our world that requires our attention, and the work of our hands. Let’s not neglect our own spiritual, mental, and physical health. Let us act out of a place of wholeness, grounded in the present moment. No more spiritual junk food. It just makes you sick.

 

*Benedict, and Timothy Fry. RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English.

**Joan Chittister “Wisdom Distilled from the Daily” (Seriously, this is one of the greatest resources our their concerning Benedictine Spirituality)