Thursday, April 27, 2006

American Monasticism: finding sanctity in the unexceptional

Supplication, worship, prayer are no superstition; they are acts more real than the acts of eating, drinking, sitting or walking. It is no exaggeration to say that they alone are real, all else is unreal.

- Mohandas Gandhi


Recently, I’ve become impressed with my own need to refine an answer to the question “why am I a pastor?” As part of this process, I have recognized that I am a pastor, first and foremost, because I want to connect people meaningfully with Jesus Christ – I want spirituality to mean something in the lives of ordinary people. I want to help people have personal encounters with God, to see and taste and touch and feel His magnificent presence, and to entertain a life that makes Him proud.

I also want this for myself.

Yet it seems that the traditions and disciplines of our Christian forebears sometimes betray this simple desire to know God. Tales of fantastic men and women of faith, those who carved spiritual paths out of sacred practice, abound local bookstores and create a paradigm for spiritual formation that is neither entirely represented in scripture nor entirely resonant with life in the 21st century.

For example, let us think of the recent fascination among EmergentYS publishing and authors like Tony Jones and Gary Thomas[1] who contemporize ancient disciplines like walking the prayer labyrinth or invoking bodily prayer as a means of centering oneself upon God. While there is much good that has been done both by this approach and by these books, there also lies the inherent supposition that we grow spiritually through the practice of spiritual disciplines; and, while this is true in part, it is also true that we grow in innumerable other ways as life takes us through twists and turns and the spirit of God uses the very ordinary, often mundane, experiences of our lives to educate and form us into something more like Himself.

Brother Lawrence, in his celebrated Practice of the Presence of God, remarks that there is neither skill nor knowledge needed to go to God, but only a “heart dedicated entirely and solely to Him out of love for Him above all others.”[2] It was Lawrence’s belief that the disciplines themselves were but a means to an end – the end being greater union with Christ – for he himself found no satisfaction in a methodology of spiritual formation.[3] For Lawrence, the spiritual life “consists of practicing God’s presence”[4] and the most effective way he knew how to do that was to simply do his ordinary work.[5]

Eugene Peterson echoes this kind of approach when he remarks that the “God-breathed life is common”[6] and totally accessible across the whole spectrum of the human condition “…not a body of secret lore [for it has] nothing to do with aptitude or temperament.”[7] Instead, Peterson asserts that “spirituality is the insistence that everything that God reveals of Himself and His works is capable of being lived by ordinary men and women in their homes and workplaces.”[8] In fact, we might hypothesize that spiritual exercises are only “a pretext for something that could just as well happen without them,”[9] and that we must get beyond the technique so as to truly engage the spirit out of our growing unconscious.

This may be precisely the kind of approach Trappist monk Thomas Merton had in mind when he stated that all “good meditative prayer is a conversion of our entire self to God”[10], which we can use as a springboard to ask ourselves what it means to engage in a holistic approach to spirituality. For it is hard to escape the fragmentation of the popular approach, which seems to prescribe spiritual disciplines like workout regimens and treats spirituality as something we do – another activity in which we are involved – instead of something that permeates our whole existence and fosters wholeness in that existence. “A life is either all spiritual” says Merton, “or not spiritual at all. No man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by what you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire.”[11]

It is to an alternative understanding of spiritual formation that we now focus our attention, one that has filled me with daily greater conviction since moving to the United States from Vancouver, BC, this last year. During this time I have become increasingly aware of one peculiarity of the American spirit. There is, for good or ill, a distaste for rules in the average American. It is a kind of rebellion that often serves nefarious purposes, and yet has a redemptive side as well. This redemption shows up in athletic innovation, like the Fosbury Flop,[12] or in business, with entrepreneurs defying the stratosphere and sending commercial flights into space;[13] and it also shows up in spirituality.

There is a rebellious charm that rears its head every now and then in defiance of authors and ascetics who would prescribe a rule of life that has been standardization and reduced to the lowest common denominator. It is the validity of this rebellion that has led me to American Monasticism as a moniker for my work on spiritual formation in the postmodern 21st century.
American Monasticism is a defiance of reductionist spirituality, challenging the notion that there are rules to follow that will ensure our spiritual growth. It is, rather, the belief that God takes the everyday occurrences of our lives and teaches us to see them as sacrosanct, as teachable moments of the divine, and to accept that our entire lives are lived before God as either offering or ignorance. American Monasticism recognizes there is real worth in spiritual disciplines and ancient sacred practices, but that worth is not in the practices themselves but in the attitudes and divine proximity that results from those practices; and it maintains that those attitudes and that proximity can be cultivated in many, many different ways if we approach life with an orientation that allows us to look for those moments.

To illustrate, I have provided four common examples of spiritual discipline – contemplation, solitude, centering, and pilgrimage – and reinserted their practice into a more local context. This is done in an effort to prove, for example, that the worth of a pilgrimage is not in traveling to Jerusalem, but in the journey of our soul to God which may be as easily undertaken in a trip to the refrigerator at midnight or the playground in the afternoon. Both the ambition and the reflex of American Monasticism is to have our actions “unite us with God when we are involved in our daily activities, just as much as our prayers unite us with Him in our quiet devotions.”[14]

May He guide us all through such unity!

[1] Cf. Tony Jones, Sacred Way (Grand Rapids, Youth Specialties, 2004) and Gary Thomas, Sacred Pathways: Discovering Your Soul's Path to God (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1996).
[2] Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God (New Kensington, Whitaker House, 1982), 22.
[3] Ibid., Cf. 39
[4] Ibid., 33
[5] Ibid., Cf. 24
[6] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2005), 17.
[7] Ibid., 19
[8] Ibid., 5
[9] Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery (London, Penguin Books, 1953), 18. A fascinating read, we may consider this to be much more about a Westerner’s comprehension of spirituality than archery and Buddhism.
[10] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999), 40.
[11] Ibid., 49
[12] Richard Douglas "Dick" Fosbury (born March 6, 1947) is an American athlete who revolutionised the high jump using a back-first technique, now known as the Fosbury flop. His method was to sprint diagonally towards the bar, then curve and leap backwards over the bar. Cf.
[13] Richard Branson, English entrepreneur, announced the signing of a deal on September 25, 2004, under which a new space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, will license the technology behind SpaceShipOne to take paying passengers into suborbital space. The group plans to make flights available to the public by late 2007 with tickets priced at $200,000. The deal was mostly financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and the modern American space engineer & visionary, Burt Rutan. Cf.
[14] Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God (New Kensington, Whitaker House, 1982), 24.

1 comment:

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