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)