My experience of faith, my spiritual emotions if you will, have changed over the years.
I’ve never a person who experienced extremes of emotion, but over time my experience of God was growing quieter. My life of faith was less exciting.
For a long time I worried that this meant I was losing my faith. I was afraid that when I met Jesus face to face, he would spit me out for being lukewarm. (Revelation 3.16)
Whether it was intended or not, the message I received from many of the churches I attended, many of the youth conferences I enjoyed, was that if I didn’t feel moved during worship, something was wrong. Wrong with me. Wrong with my worship. Wrong with my relationship with God.
Frederica Mathewes-Green writes that “where worship is relatively spontaneous, … people powered by religious emotion simply do run out of steam.” By “spontaneous,” she is referring to worship that doesn’t come from centuries of liturgy. Not that modern evangelical churches are all shallow institutions, but that liturgies have the advantage of being a steadily flowing river you can slip into and allow the prayers and Scriptures to shape you rather than attempting to rely on yourself to dredge up the necessary emotions.
What I discovered after much time in prayer and reading is that rather than cooling off, my relationship with God had simply changed. It moved deeper. Silence and attentiveness are now greatly necessary to me. My faith has moved deep inside, “glowing there like a little oil lamp.”
Many of our Church Mothers and Fathers have written about why it is good to move beyond the emotions of experiencing God.
St. John of the Cross speaks of sensory benefits as the least of God’s gifts to us, a gift that he often withdraws in order to convince us to turn our eyes of faith on the Father rather than on what he is giving to us. St. John calls the desire to feel something in our time with God a “negative judgement” on God. It is a lack of trust in God doing in us what he promised to do.
In much more modern times, Richard Foster writes that “The Bible shows us that God works through long periods of our lives in which — apparently — nothing much seems to happen.”
Mathewes-Green describes this deepening of faith, this moving away from the passions and emotions into the realm of silence and attentiveness, as something that is natural and necessary in our relationship with God, just as it does between two people who are in love. I think I will end with this quote from her:
At the beginning, the heart pounds just to see the beloved’s handwriting on an envelope; at the end, two sit side by side before a fire and don’t need to speak at all. When (churches) urge their (congregations) not to let the joy fade, they may be calling them to fight a fruitless battle against moving to the next stage of spiritual communion, the one where God moves deep inside. When years shape us to be like him, his presence is less electric and strange; yet as we draw nearer, deeper faith yields deeper awe.
May God continue to shape you to be more like him, leading you into deeper faith and deeper awe as you sit in silence with him.
Children have control over so little in their lives.
We grownups like to think that we have control over our lives, but perhaps that is only illusion.
Daddies and Mommies tell them when to get up and when to lie down, when to eat and when to play, what to wear and where to go. Children will often grasp at anything that will give them more power over their lives.
One of the things I’ve noticed that children use to gain a little control is knowing what name to call things, especially when that thing frightens them a little. When she was smaller, my eldest daughter’s constant response to a loud noise was That was? That was? Even when she was a little older, she still asked What was that? That noise? Knowing the name of something gave her power over it, made it seem a little less scary.
She sought to know.
Perhaps she is not very different from many adults.
Scientists, medical researchers, geneticists, stay-at-home moms who like to learn…people want to know what name to call things, want to know about things, because that gives them power over those things, those ideas. If we know how something was put together or how something works or even just what to call it, we feel as though we have power over our world.
We seek to know.
A long time ago, in a land far away, around the beginning of the Christian Church (perhaps even earlier), there lived a group of people we call Gnostics who believed (among other things) that matter, the material universe, was bad and that deliverance from our material form could only come through special knowledge.
Not long ago at all, in a land not at all far away, there lived a group of people who believed that their minds were all-powerful, that the dying of their flesh was bad, that through knowledge they could overcome all physical limitations. They could eat poorly and take vitamin supplements. They could ignore their children and send them to therapists. They could extend life and choose the sort of life that they procreated through the technology they created. They believed that saving our natural resources wasn’t important because their minds, human ingenuity in the form of science and technology, could surely take care of that problem as well.
There is nothing new under the sun…
In C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man (in 1943!), he said that mankind’s power to do exactly what it wants seems to be growing all the time through humanity’s so-called “conquest of Nature” – the progress of applied science. However, “each new power won by man is a power over man as well.” We can throw bombs from airplanes but can also be bombed ourselves; a race of birth-controllers is a race whose own birth has been controlled.
We seek to know. We seek to control.
Why do we feel that Nature is bad, that the material world needs to be conquered? Even as Christ-followers we seek knowledge because we fear. We want to know and to name so that we can control that which is uncontrollable.
Is the pursuit of knowledge wrong? Not at all.
Paul says in Philippians:
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. ~Philippians 1.9-11 (Italics mine)
Paul seeks to know.
Paul also said this:
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. ~Philippians 4.12-13
Paul is definitely not in control, nor does he seek to be.
Is this a Faustian-like power, this power of knowledge? A power that gives away everything good that God created in order to gain power and control over His creation?
It can be.
As Christ-followers, do we seek knowledge because we are fearful of the future and wish to wrest control of His creation from the One Who set it all in motion?
Sometimes I do.
Perhaps instead we can seek knowledge in order to praise God with our minds. Perhaps we can seek knowledge in gratitude for our imagination and intelligence, in gratitude for the complexity of His creation.
I suppose that, as with most that God has created, the goodness or evil of the pursuit of knowledge depends upon the heart of His creation.
May our hearts and minds seek to know out of thanksgiving rather than out of fear.
I can spend two whole days in silence with God and still want to scream at my children the next day during school when they throw a tantrum over practicing the piano.
Loving others is hard.
This second greatest command is easy to say, yet ridiculously difficult to do.
It always seems to me that it should be easier than it is.
To be sure, loving a stranger might be difficult, giving of yourself to someone who habitually behaves horribly would be a challenge, but offering love to those dearest to you? It is a task that should be effortless.
It is not. It is a near impossibility to consistently love people day in and day out, no matter how much we adore them.
Why is this so difficult? Why is it so daunting a task to truly love another person?
I think it is because this kind of true other-love involves a death.
It involves a kind of death of our own self as we set aside ourselves, our desires and dreams, for the sake of the other.
No matter how hard we try, we resist this death: we fight back … We seek any convenient excuse to break off and give up the difficult task. ~ Thomas Merton in The Wisdom of the Desert
Just as our physical bodies fight to cling to life, our inner selves also repels any attempt at self-crucifixion.
Our only hope in this fight to obey this most necessary command is in surrender.
We cannot hope to succeed in the battle to die to self without the deliverance of the only One who has laid down his life of his own accord.
What is required as we learn to love is not a greater effort on our part to will our selves into obedience but a laying down of our works and a waiting on God.
We must become like Israel with the Red Sea in front of them and Pharaoh’s chariots coming up quickly behind them.
The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.
In the end, being able to love my children, the stranger we invite into our home, even the poorly behaved acquaintance, requires not that I try harder, screwing up my will in an attempt to force myself to behave in a loving way.
Being able to love others requires that I spend more time in silence with God, allowing him to change me into a person who can die to myself.
I must be silent and let God fight this battle for me.
The idea of work has changed a great deal over the centuries, but more recently (relatively speaking) it has undergone a more dramatic change. In the beginning, we were created to work.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.
We were made to do significant and meaningful work and we were made to do it well.
Mankind moved from the practice of each person or family creating all that they needed themselves to the practice of families gathering together in villages and having specific people working to make what was needed for everyone (the metal smith making tools for the hunters, the potter making jars to hold water, etc.). Yet now, in our modern age, we have moved even farther down this road. Now we have work that is solely for the purpose of earning money.
No longer do we consider whether a work is good in itself, nor do we consider whether an unnecessary work is done well. It has, in fact, become necessary that work is not done in a way that is good. How else would people continue to consume, and workers therefore continue to have work, if the products being made were not designed to wear out quickly?
There is still plenty of work that is both good in itself and that is good to do well: agricultural laborers, doctors, teachers, artists, and many others do work which they would do even if there were no pay to be had in it. Yet there is another whole category of work that has no significance and no importance. It was only created to allow the maximum number of people to be employed.
Employing people is not an evil, of course. It was an act of love that led from talk of reducing the “surplus population” to talk of reducing unemployment. The danger is that this has led us to forget that unemployment is not an end in itself. We want people, as C.S. Lewis put it, to be employed only as a means to their being fed – believing that it is better to feed them even for making bad things badly than for doing nothing.
Perhaps this view is correct, but it should not lead us into forced appreciation for work that is not good.
I, of course, have no comprehensive plan or brilliant strategy for ending this sort of endless cycle of meaningless jobs producing poor quality products that are consumed briefly and then discarded, requiring a new replacement product. Yet perhaps it is something just to recognize the problem and the insanity of the idea of meaningless work.
Just as the Christian has a great advantage over other men, not by being less fallen than they nor less doomed to live in a fallen world, but by knowing that he is a fallen man in a fallen world; so we shall do better if we remember at every moment what Good Work was and how impossible it has now become for the majority. ~ C.S. Lewis
One of the areas in which I see this most clearly is in Christian art. It is another topic for another essay to discuss whether or not there even IS such a thing as Christian art but, as Madeleine L’Engle said, if it is bad art, it is bad religion, no matter how pious the subject. When art is done well it testifies to God, even if the artist does not know God.
Provided he is an artist of integrity, he is a genuine servant of the glory which he does not recognize, and unknown to himself there is ‘something divine’ about his work. ~ Madeleine L’Engle
In the same way, work that is done well, even if the worker does not personally believe in God, testifies to the glory of God. It is not an insignificant instruction of Paul’s that whatever we do, we should work at it as if we were working for God rather than only for men.
Whatever we do, whether we are leading a meeting or scrubbing a toilet, whether we are painting the sunrise or designing a bookshelf that will be put together by a young father, we are to do good work.
We may have to earn our living by taking part in the production of objects which…would not be worth producing – the demand or ‘market’ for them having been simply engineered by advertisement. Beside the waters of Babylon – or the assembly belt – we shall still say inwardly, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning.” ~ C.S. Lewis
In this way we will testify to the glory of God and will draw others to Him so that they, too, may bask in His presence.
What do you think? Should anything be done about work that is unnecessary or of poor quality? Can anything be done? What about your own job: would you still do it if you did not need the income to survive?
Here we are again, at the start of another school year.
Most of the schools in our area began last week.
We actually launched into school four weeks ago, but that is another story.
In our home, this is the time when the lazy days of summer come to a close and the busier school days begin to ramp up.
It is the time when we look toward the year ahead, consider which activities we want to participate in, think about how busy we want to be.
That is, when we are at our best we take in all of these considerations. Too often we merely fall into all the activities because our kids want to do them, because they sound fun, because a friend is already doing them.
Even if you do not have children at home, it is often easier to thoughtlessly agree to the busyness than to take time to reflect on what would be the wisest use of time.
Easier in the short term, that is.
Time is an odd notion.
We even speak of time in an odd way.
One saying that comes to mind is “killing time.”
Such a sinister phrase.
The time you are killing is, of course, your own time, and we are given precious little of it as it is.
It seems that our default, the default of a great many people in this world, is to simply get through our lives, killing time, living on the surface of things.
It takes such enormous effort to break through the outer crust and into the very depth and marrow of life. We wonder whether it is worth it.
So many of us
are so bad at hearing each other and seeing each other that it is little wonder that one life seems enough to them or more than enough: seeing so little in this world, they think that there is little to see and that they have seen most of it already so that the rest probably is not worth seeing anyway and there is nothing new under the sun. ~ Frederick Buechner in The Hungering Dark
Yet with only a small amount of effort, we can break through the surface of things into the beauty and joy that lies just below the outer crust of indifference.
With only a small amount of waking up, of paying attention, we can open our eyes to the wonder and variety that lies in the people and places all around us. Especially in the people and places most dear to us.
We often look for ways to make the days go by faster, wishing the years to pass quickly in order to move on to some other phase of life, while we completely miss all the joy, beauty, and wonder in which God has placed us.
This missing out on all that God has waiting for us is the danger in our busyness, the danger in merely falling carelessly into all the activities rather than choosing deliberately and wisely.
You often hear the advice that if you keep busy, it will be over before you know it, and the tragedy of it is that it is true. ~ Frederick Buechner
A feeling that makes me want to take a trip, move to a new place, find a different job.
A feeling that tempts me to believe that my current place and work don’t really matter, that nothing I do is important, that continuing on with my life as it is seems utterly unappealing.
I’ve had this feeling off and on throughout most of my life, yet it was only recently that I discovered this feeling has a name:
Naming a thing has power.
It is the feeling that what you are doing does not matter, is utterly unimportant, and that you would rather be anywhere else doing anything else.
It is the feeling that causes us to feel bored and impatient with all of the “drudgery” of whatever role we have in our lives.
Doing the dishes after one more meal, sitting through one more meeting, driving the kids to one more practice, coming home to your spouse one more time,
these are all practices that can cause acedia in our hearts.
We live in a consumer culture, one that advises us to keep our options open so that we are free to seize the new and improved edition when it comes out.
It prompts us to see obligations to family, friends, and colleagues as impediments to that freedom … Whatever the place of our commitment — a monastic cell, a faith community, a job, a marriage — well, we are better off just walking away … But soon we discover that no place will satisfy us, and no one person, no group of friends, can meet our needs. The oppressive boredom we had hoped to escape is lodged firmly within us … ~ Kathleen Norris in Acedia and Me
Acedia is a condition of the heart that has long been recognized by the Christian spiritual tradition as a temptation to be resisted.
It shows itself in a boredom with the mundane, repetitive tasks of life, in not caring about anything in our hectic schedules, in a listlessness and a desire to give up and move on to something else, anything else.
What is it like, this failure in the art of life? It is the failure which manifests itself in a loss of interest in really important things … But if … your feelings and sensibilities are withering, if your relationships with people near to you are becoming more and more superficial, if you are losing touch even with yourself, it is Acedia which has claimed you for its own.” ~ Robertson Davies in The Deadliest of the Sins
The problem is, of course, that acedia is a disorder of the heart rather than a disordering of any outward circumstances. That restless, listless feeling can and does come with any work, any community, any place.
Let me pause and say that acedia is different from depression or despair. I like the way Kathleen Norris puts it: “For despair, participation in the divine nature through grace is perceived as appealing, but impossible; for acedia, the prospect is possible, but unappealing.”
What, then, is the solution? If a change will not dislodge acedia from our hearts, what will?
Again we turn to our heritage, our earlier Fathers and Mothers of our faith, for help.
Their counsel lies in the spiritual practices of prayer and endurance.
Evagrius Ponticus, a fourth century monk and theologian, urged, “Endurance cures listlessness, and so does everything done with much care and fear of God … Set a measure for yourself in everything that you do, and don’t turn from it until you’ve reached that goal.” But also, “pray intelligently and with fervor, so that the spirit of listlessness will flee.”
Several of the desert Mothers and Fathers instructed their students to perform the humblest of tasks with full attention and no fussing over the whys and wherefores.
It seems too simple, to merely carry on with your current task in your current place with your current people.
Yet I can attest to the wisdom of their counsel from my own experience. The times I have responded to acedia with change, the feeling continues to hound me. The times I have responded with endurance, the temptation eventually flees.
Perseverance is the essential condition for conquering the temptation of acedia.
The monks and mystics of my faith all teach that persevering in a spiritual discipline, especially when it seems futile, is the key to growth. ~ Kathleen Norris
The consequence of not enduring? A gradual withering of desires and passion and interest in anything at all, as well as an enslavement to your own self.
There is no longer any room for an abandonment … to the other or for the joy of gift; what remains is sadness or bitterness within the one who distances himself from the community and who, being separated from others, finds himself likewise separated from God. ~ Jean-Charles Nault, OSB in Acedia: Enemy of Spiritual Joy
In my own life, I have found a great power in being able to name this feeling that comes upon me now and then. It gives me courage to hold on, knowing that if I will only continue to pray and endure, this temptation, like all others, will eventually flee.
I pray that this gives you courage as well.
I end with a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. Take these words and use them when you have trouble finding your own. Peace be on you.
This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus. Amen.
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Art credits: book images are from Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and a Prologue by Maurice Sendak
I often have difficulty understanding what I am feeling.
That may seem strange, but I’ve always found it difficult to name my emotions and understand them.
Part of the trouble is that I generally have a fairly even-keeled sort of temperament. I don’t tend to sink into the depths of despair, but I don’t experience the dizzying heights of joy either.
There are benefits and drawbacks to every personality.
Another part of the trouble is that I mistrust the transience of emotions. Because emotions change quickly, because they don’t always tell what is true about something, I dismiss them as completely irrelevant. I am impatient with them.
I was recently reminded, however, that the One who created the sunset is the same One who created us as emotional beings.
Yes, some of us have bigger emotions than others, just as some of us have darker hair than others, but we all experience a range of emotions.
I was gently reminded by the Spirit that when I dismiss my feelings, I am dismissing a piece of God’s creation. I am throwing a piece of who God created me to be back in His face and telling Him that I do not think it is good.
My deep desire is to glorify God with everything that is in me. This means glorifying Him with the way I care for my emotional self.
I have neglected this part of me for so long.
This is hard.
I must be patient, bringing my emotions before God and asking His Holy Spirit to guide me in discernment and wisdom in caring for this gift that He has given me. I must ask Him to help to see it as a gift.
If there is a piece of you, mind or heart or body or soul, that you have tended to neglect (and probably we all have something), will you bring that fragment of you before God and ask Him how to better tend it, ask Him to knit it back into your whole?
This is part of the way in which we become whole people, capable of becoming who God created us to be, capable of glorifying our Lord with all that we are.
The cool, crisp air striking your skin, the blazing bonfire scent filling you up with every breath, the crunch of leaves underfoot.
Most of all, the leaves.
The dazzling display of fiery colors that fill your sight in every direction.
Those radiant colors that inspire poetry and art are, I recently discovered (or perhaps rediscovered as I feel sure I probably learned this at one time during my elementary school career), actually the true colors of the leaves.
The green that we see for most of the year, the green that fills up our springtime and summer, is just the tree-feeding chlorophyll covering up the brightness. It is not until the tree is no longer making food, not until the leaves are beginning to die, that their true colors blaze out.
I want that.
Oh, how I desperately want that.
As I age, as my body moves closer to death, I want for the colors of this life to begin to fade away and the colors of Jesus in me to blaze out.
From the moment we choose life in Jesus, we are changing.
Little by little, day by day, the green of this world starts to fade.
Little by little, choice by choice, the light of the life to come begins to shine.
The older I become, the more I want people to look at me and see Jesus. I want the colors of me, the colors of my natural self, to fade away.
I want the brilliance of Jesus to take over.
At the end of my life, my body will be bent and wrinkled, dry and withered.
My prayer is that by then my own self will be so one with Christ that when people look into my eyes, they are taken aback with the dazzling display of Jesus that fills their sight.
What are some of the lessons that Mother Nature is teaching you about our common Creator? She speaks loudly if we will only listen.
For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. ~ Romans 1.20
To hear my blog post read aloud, just click the play button. If you’re reading this in an email, you may have to click here to hear the post on my site.