Insight from this retreat at BGST.
‘be still’ is not the lack of physical activity but the ‘state’ of being in God’s presence to know him.
Insight from this retreat at BGST.
‘be still’ is not the lack of physical activity but the ‘state’ of being in God’s presence to know him.
Thomas Merton, in one of his classes for his noviates, was attributed to have said, “in order to have a spiritual life, you first have to have a life’. In one comment, Merton highlighted what is wrong with our spirituality today. Somehow, in the dark corridors of Church traditions, we were taught the sacred-secular dichotomy. Some part of life is spiritual while the bulk of life is ‘secular’. Only a few spiritual elites such as nuns and monks and members of the clergy live the spiritual life. The rest of us who work the earth and brought forth food by the sweat of our brows lived secular or non-spiritual life. This dichotomy fragmented our understanding of spirituality and hangs a false understanding of what Jesus meant to ‘abide in Him’. Merton meant that our spiritual life is to be found in our normal everyday life and not apart from it. It involves working, eating, sleeping, playing as much as praying, studying the Bible and attending church services.
Many of us try to live a spiritual life apart from our normal life. Living this dichotomy is doomed to failure. Trying to divide the body, soul and spirit and dealing with each individually leads to a fragmented, broken, and disconnected life. If we can only understand that Christian spirituality teaches a holistic concept that their spirit, soul and body are one, then we are on our way to integrate our lives as a holistic walk with Christ.
14 Jan 2019
Two men were walking towards the town of Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were discussing animatedly about the events of Jesus’ claims, his death, and reports of his resurrection when a third man joined them. This man explained the significance of the events through the Scriptures. During the evening meal at Emmaus, the two men recognized the third man as Jesus! (Luke 24:13-33). They were enlightened both by the dialogue and Jesus’ explanation of the Scriptures until they feel their hearts burning within them. The Truth turned their despair to joy when they beheld the risen Christ.
Spiritual direction is this Emmaus walk where two (or more) disciples through dialogue, Scriptures, and discernment are led deeper into God’s revelation of Himself by a third person. This third person is the Holy Spirit whom Christ sent in his place when He ascended. The true spiritual director is the Holy Spirit. In our present context, a human spiritual director is one of the disciples on this road who helps the other disciple to hear correctly what the real spiritual director, the Holy Spirit, is saying to him or her. The human spiritual director’s role is not to counsel or offer advice but only to help the other disciple or directee to hear what the Holy Spirit is speaking into his or her life. Unlike counselling which focuses on the resolution of a specific problem or pastoral care, or of a specific situation or life event, spiritual direction focuses on helping the directee to hear what God is saying to him or her. Spiritual direction is hence useful for those who have major life decisions to make, or those who want to deepen their spiritual relationship with God. It involves prayers, dialogue, silence and stillness, listening, and discernment.
Spiritual direction is an intrinsic part of the Christian tradition. Throughout the ages, it may be known by different names such as ‘one anothering’, spiritual guide, spiritual father or mother, and mentoring. Jesus as recorded in the Gospel is the spiritual director par excellence. He helped his disciples to grow closer in their relationship with God. The role of the spiritual director became more established in the early church in Acts; Ananias and Paul after his Damascus experience, Barnabas and John Mark, Paul’s decision to turn to Macedonia in his missionary journey, and Paul’s pastoral letters to the churches. When the church became institutionalized in the 3rd Century, the Desert Fathers and Mothers moved out to the deserts of Syria and Egypt in order to be closer to God in these barren wastelands. Though initially they were solitary hermits, the Desert Fathers and Mothers were soon sought out by those who seek a closer relationship with God and they became spiritual directors to these seekers. A community soon grew up around these spiritual directors. These became the site for the great monasteries.
When the Latin and Greek speaking churches split in or around 1054, each tradition continued with spiritual direction enshrined within it. The Greek Orthodox tradition offered spiritual direction as a part of community life, whereas the Latin Roman Church restricted spiritual direction to its clergy and the elites of its Orders. When the Protestant churches split from the Roman Church during the Reformation, about 500 years ago, the Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin incorporated spiritual direction into their new churches. The practice of spiritual direction remains strong in the Orthodox and Roman Churches while in the Protestant churches, it declined with the rise of evangelicalism. It has been experiencing a revival since the middle of the Twentieth Century when evangelicals began to realize that talking to God is more important than talking about God.
The heart of spiritual direction is our relationship with God. Our relationship with God involves our spiritual formation and transformation into being Christlikeness. There are three dimensions in our relationship with God. The walk to Emmaus and dinner revealed how Jesus formed and deepened the personal relationships of the disciples with God (person-in-formation). This is the first dimension. The narrative did not end there. They rushed back to the other disciples- in their community- where Jesus appeared amongst them (Luke 24:33-45). This is relationship at a communal level (persons-in-community formation), the second dimension. The third dimension of the relationship with God has to do with the mission of God which is to redeem the world and save the lost souls – the missio dei (persons-in-mission formation). Relationship with God involves being involved with his mission because the disciples are the witnesses (Luke 24:46-49). Helping a person in spiritual direction means helping the person through the Holy Spirit to develop these three dimensions of our relationship with God. God has always been working to deepen our relationship with him. Unfortunately, we are often not aware of this. The role of the spiritual director is to help the directee to be aware of God’s presence in his or her life and what God wants to do to deepen that relationship.
The role of spiritual direction in soul care or the nurture of the spiritual life in Christians mainly involves two major categories. One is in significant life event decision-making and the other in seeking to deepen our spiritual life. In life, we are often faced with making important life changing choices. These choices are not the choice between good and bad. The decision here is obvious. It is often between good or better in the light of God’s call on our lives. These are difficult decisions to make. The human spiritual director comes in to help the person making the choice to discover his or her underlying motivations through prayers and dialogue and also to help spiritually discern the leading of the real spiritual director, the Holy Spirit, on the matter. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises is a major influence on spiritual direction decision making. It was originally written for Jesuit novices to discern their calling to join the Order and its monastic vows. It is a manual for a 30 days retreat where the retreatants are led to make their decision by a series of structured exercises involving prayers, self-examination of self and emotions, with the help and discernment of a spiritual director. The modified Spiritual Exercises is still in use by spiritual directors and its principles still remain valuable today.
Many people have found spiritual direction useful in deepening their spiritual life especially in a life of prayers. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila are two interesting examples. They took turns to give spiritual direction to each other as they progressed in deepening their spiritual lives. Most Christians lead very superficial spiritual lives. God has invited us to jump into his depths and to experience a deeper life in Christ. Soul care work is not easy. We will meet the ‘dragons’ of our shadow self as we peel away the layers of our false self to find our true self. It may be disturbing and scary. This is where spiritual directors are very helpful. They journey together with us and teach us how to slay these dragons! The spiritual quests and dwellings which make up the movements of our spiritual lives are also movements of the Holy Spirit. Jonathan Edwards and John Woolman are two examples of spiritual directors whose writings offered profound insights into the deepening of our spiritual lives.
Spiritual direction is an important part of soul care together with spiritual friendship, mentoring, disciplining, coaching, counselling and pastoral care. The present day Church needs a deeper spirituality in Christ. There has been increasing interest in spiritual direction in the Protestants and evangelical churches. With the rapidly interconnected world, spiritual directors and directors do not need to be in the same room or even the same continent! This is a positive development if spiritual direction is to be available to a Twenty-First Century Church who is hungry for spiritual depth.
Today’s guest post is by Dr Tang U-Liang
There is at least three aspects of assurance that I can think of that relate to the life of a Christian in the body: The assurance of justification, the assurance of perseverance (or sanctification) and the assurance that we will see God again (the second coming of Christ).
What is your spiritual temperature?
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of Darkness”, writes Charles Dickens in his novel, A Tale of Two Cities. The two cities, Dickens has in mind are Paris and London. We, Christians are also living in a Tale of Two Cities. The Bible refers to the two cities as Jerusalem and Babylon. We are part of an epic drama that involves our eternal souls.
We are fast approaching the new millenium, a time of great happenings, a time when our Lord may come again in glory. We are told to be alert to His Coming, be ready for His Coming. “What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’ ” (Mark13:37)
Wang Ming Tao, a famous Chinese Christian taught us to always check our life with a spiritual thermometer so that we will be spiritually healthy when the Lord comes.
[place a ‘x’ at the area where you feel are in spiritually at this moment]
|Healthy Spiritual Life||Unhealthy Spiritual Life
|Fervent in prayer||Lethargic in prayer
|Bible reading tasteful
|Bible reading insipid|
|Fully trusting||Anxious and doubting
|Loving God more than everything||Loving worldly things more than God
|Resisting and hating sin||Compromising with sin
|Giving God the glory in all things||Seeking self glory in everything
|Fully at peace||Much worrying
|Giving thanks in all||Much murmuring
|Always happy and singing||Always sad and sighing
|Peaceful and patient in trouble||Easily provoked to anger
|Much consideration of others||Much consideration of self
|Seeking God’s in all things||Seeking men’s pleasure in all things
|Yearning for spiritual things in the heart||Coveting earthly things in the heart
|Speaking words that edify others||Speaking words that criticise others
|Happy to witness for Christ||No power to witness
|Cheerful to give to God’s work||Stingy and unwilling to give
|Rejoicing in other’s good success||Jealous of others’ good success
|A helping hand to those in trouble||Nonchalant at other’s misfortune
|Willing to forgive others||Not willing to forgive others
|Character first||Clothing first
|Happy to keep close to devout Christians||Happy in the company of worldly friends
|Happy to hear faithful admonitions||Happy to hear words of flattery
|Eagerly hoping for the Lord’s return||No thought of things touching on the Lord’s return
The shaded boxes gives a visual aid to the state of our spiritual life, our spiritual temperature. Are we on fire for the Lord and are we stone cold?
Are we spiritually healthy? Can we with confidence say, “ Come, Lord Jesus, Come”
“Now let me tell you about the three blind men and an elephant,” Abba Ah Beng began his daily teaching session with his disciples.
“I know the story! I know the story!” disciple Ah Lian rudely interjects, “My father told me this story before.”
“Okay then, tell us the story,” Abba Ah Beng said with a gleam in his eye.
“A long, long time ago, in a country far, far away …,” begins Ah Lian.
“Sounds like the beginning of a Star War movie,” stage-whispered disciple Ah Kow.
“…there lived three blind men who have never seen an elephant. Why? Because they are blind, so cannot see, see?” continued Ah Lian while glaring daggers at Ah Kow.
“But they want to know what an elephant is because they have heard so much about the mighty elephant from their friends. So one day, their friends brought them to an elephant. ‘Why, the elephant is like a tree trunk’, said one blind man hugging a leg of the elephant, ‘and all along I thought the elephant is a large great animal.’
“ ‘No,’ said the second blind man feeling the elephant’s trunk, ‘an elephant is like a slimy eel. See it is long with a lot of mucus.’ The elephant was having a runny nose that day,” explained Ah Lian.
“ ‘Alamak,’ said the third blind man tugging at the tail. ‘It is like a vending machine with a rope. You pull it and something smelly falls out.’
“ ‘Ha, ha, ha’ laughs the first blind man. ‘What is so great and fearsome about an elephant? It is just something like a tree trunk.’ ‘No!’ the second blind man countered, ‘it is like an eel.’ ‘You are both wrong,’ the third blind man shouted, ‘it is a rope!’ The three blind men started arguing, shouting and pushing at each other.
“The elephant became exasperated and sat on the three blind men. They were squashed instantly. End of story.” Ah Lian looked up only to be confronted with the shocked and mystified expressions on his fellow disciples’ faces. “What?”
“The story does not usually end like that but it is a good ending anyway,” said Abba Ah Beng gently, “and you can close your mouth, Ah Kow unless you want to catch flies. Now, my disciples, what lessons about God can we learn from this story?”
“Our perception of God is limited by our senses,” volunteered disciple Muthu before Ah Kow can open his mouth again to answer. Muthu is part of the disciple-exchange program where monasteries arrange for their disciples to have cross-cultural exposure and to get rid of some their really troublesome disciples at least for a short time. “God is big and we can only perceive a small part of Him with our finite minds,” added Muthu.
“We can only know God through what we are familiar with and what our senses tell us,” Ah Kow adds, recalling the hilarious way Muthu is learning to eat with chopsticks. “But I don’t understand why the blind men have to fight.”
“That’s the way of men who thinks that they know everything about God,” sighs Abba Ah Beng who is a veteran of many theological battles where the learned Abbas fight with words, books and kung-fu. “They forget that we ‘see through a glass darkly’ as St. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13:12. They also forget that no one person can know God fully. All of us know God in different ways and even so, we know only a small facet of Him. So why do we act as if only we have the whole truth of God and no one else? And why do we fight insisting that our perspective is correct? Will God be pleased?”
“God will flatten them!” boomed a loud voice from the back of the hall as a large hand slapped the wooden floor. All the little monks literally jumped out of their skin. They all turned. Standing sheepishly at the back is the cook who had snuck into the hall.
“Maybe not,” said Abba Ah Beng. “Like the blind men arguing over their perceptions of the elephant, the elephant remains an elephant. If the blind men took more time to feel the elephant more rather than making snap decisions, maybe they would have widen their perceptions. Instead of opening themselves to discover what an elephant is, they have instead created an elephant in the image of what they know, like an eel, a tree trunk or a rope.
“So it is the same with us who try to know God. Let us make sure that we are open to learn of God’s greatness rather than remaking God in our own image. There is the danger of remaking God like us, for example like Santa Claus, that we commit idolatry.”
“What about those people who do not believe that God exists?” asks Iskandar, another exchange disciple from the Middle East.
“There are some people who claimed that God does not exist. Others said that he is dead. There are those who claim that it is impossible for God to exist and that he is a figment of our imagination. God waits and smiles,” concludes Abba Ah Beng, adding, “the elephant in the room.”
(1) What are some of the ways we can use to get to know God?
(2) In what ways do we remake God in our own image?
(3) How do we keep ourselves from narrowing instead of expanding our perception of God?
I have been reading James Martin SJ ‘s wonderful book The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life for my online Book Discussion Group. James Martin is an excellent writer with the ability to poke fun at himself and his order, The Society of Jesus or the Jesuits. The SJ which comes after his name stands for Society of Jesus (SJ) but also as he relates it was applied to him as Stupid Jerk!
Basically the book is an overview of Ignatian spirituality. He defines Ignatian spirituality as
1. Finding God in all things
2. Becoming a contemplative in action
3. Looking at the world in an incarnational way
4. Seeking freedom and detachment
which is an excellent summary of the main teachings of the Jesuits.
With no offense to the Jesuits, I always think that it should be “contemplative in actions” rather than “becoming a contemplative in action.” I guess it is a matter of which is the object and which is the subject or which is the one where the emphasis is. I can understand why the Jesuits chose “contemplative in action” because of the misconceptions that contemplatives are navel gazers who does not contribute to the real world by being involved in real “action”. Contemplatives are those who are closeted in the monasteries, protected by thick walls from the corrupting influences of the unwashed masses and spend their time in beautific communion with God.
That is a misconception of contemplatives. First a definition. A contemplative is a person whose inner life is lived focused on God with imputed grace resulting in love overflowing into every aspect of their being. Note the definition does not specify where the contemplative lives. That person may live in a monastery or with 7 million other persons on the tiny island of Singapore. Not all contemplatives are insulated from the mainstream of human life. I am always inspired by the examples of contemplatives like Bernard of Clairvaux who started hundreds of monasteries, became a Doctor of the Chruch, advised Popes and even started the Second Crusade, and Thomas Merton who became an anti-war activist, ecumenist and spiritual writer. So the focus on the contemplative seem to imply that the Jesuits are encouraging contemplatives to be involved in “action.”
However, not all of us are contemplatives. Many of us, by temperament are activists. We are trees cutters rather than navel gazers. Hence “contemplative in actions” where the emphasis is on the “actions.” We can act contemplatively rather than be contemplatives who acts. Another definition: a contemplative action is one that is done to please God and to fulfill his perfect will. This action may be something “spiritual” or “religious” or as simple as making a cup of coffee. God created coffee and who is to say that He does not have pleasure in seeing his creature enjoying the aroma of a full-bodied dark coffee?
Now where is my coffee?
Carl in his blog post explains mysticism and contemplation
Mysticism signifies spirituality that is characterized by mystery: in Christian terms, this means the mystery of Christ, the mystery of the Trinity, the mystery of prayer, the sacraments, and salvation. The Mystical Body is the mystery in which we mere mortals find union with Christ, who in turn is one with God the Father (see John 10:30). So Christian mysticism is the spirituality of union with God in Christ.
Contemplation, by contrast, signifies the relational “gaze” or interaction between a creature and God (in Christ, if understood as Christian contemplation). Contemplation is not a process of thinking, but rather a process of seeing. “I see God, and God sees me.” In the seeing and being seen, we are invited into union. Thus, contemplation is a normal and perhaps even essential element of mysticism. Contemplation, or contemplative prayer, is the means by which union with God may be consciously experienced (I choose my words carefully: “may” be experienced, for the act of contemplation, particularly as initiated by human beings, does not guarantee or engineer any particular experience of God; all it does is dispose the contemplative to receiving whatever gift, in whatever form, it may please God to give). But just as mysticism arguably requires contemplation, so too I think we can make the case the contemplation leads to mysticism (or, at least, to “ordinary mysticism” as I defined it yesterday). Thus, I believe that contemplation and (ordinary) mysticism, while not identical, are certainly most intimately related. Read more.
Here is an interesting dilemma:
is mysticism a subset of contemplation
or contemplation a subset of mysticism
or are both an overlap of the process of ‘deitification’ or union with God?
My understanding of mysticism is that it is the state in which our being (mind,soul,spirit) perceive of being in contact with God. It is best explained by the analogy of a dance. As the Orthodox tradition best explains it, this dance is the perichoresis of the Truine God. We are invited to join in this dance. Mysticism is the ontological and episemiological awareness of being participant in this dance.
Contemplation is a more focused mysticism in that the attention is directed to one member of the Trinity. It is also an ontological and epistemological awareness but narrower in scope.
Both mysticism and contemplation comes under the process of union with God as we come into deeper relationship and interaction with the Truine God who is both immanent and transcendent.
Carl McColman whose The Big Book of Christian Mysticism I am impatiently waiting to arrive so that I can read it on the long plane ride to South Africa defines “ordinary” and “extraordinary” mysticism in his blog post here. I find his definitions very illuminating and similar to my own perspective. This is especially useful for Evangelicals who for some unknown reasons find mysticism threatening.
I strongly hold that mysticism has a place in Christian spirituality because mysticism prevents Christians from placing God in a box.