Our Need for a Spiritual Path

many-paths“Among all my patients in the second half of life—that is to say, over thirty-five—there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost what the living religions of every age have given their followers, and none of them has been really healed who did not regain his religious outlook.” These are the words of the renowned psychiatrist, Carl Jung. His experience of those in crisis was significant. When the crisis comes, and it will, we either find a spiritual path or we get stuck in depression and/or addictive behaviour. Finding a spiritual path requires us to surrender; self-sufficiency keeps us in a cycle of attachments and addictions.

There are many different spiritual paths available to us.  Some are highly structured and require a lot of discipline; others involve a commitment to the practice of a few core values.  A spiritual path gives us a sense of meaning and purpose.  It provides us with a way of dealing with painful experiences like hurt, abuse, rejection and negative feelings like anger, resentment, jealousy.  It also helps us feel connected to the divine presence in our lives.  For many this connection with the divine presence is an experience of unconditional love, forgiveness and protection that they have never felt before.

A spiritual path needs to have three elements.  These are prayer, companionship and service.  Prayer builds our relationship with the divine. Companionship is the experience of human affirmation, support and guidance. Service is the essential movement beyond ourselves in response to the needs of others.  If our spiritual path does not have these three elements it lacks balance and perhaps authenticity.

It is important to remember that every spiritual path is not an end in itself but a means to an end.  There is always the danger that we will make an idol of our spiritual path.  If we become too attached to our spiritual path we are putting the path itself in the place of God.  The ultimate purpose of every spiritual path is to help us surrender to God who wants us to come home with empty hands.  “You have made us for yourself O God and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (St Augustine).

Money

money-imageMoney is necessary. We cannot live without it.  We need money not only to survive but to ensure a good quality of life.  Yet it is obvious from the Gospel that Jesus had a concern about money.  His concern about money seems to centre on two things: (1) How we make money, and (2) How we use money.

There is a good way to make money and a bad way to make money.  The good way is through honest work and the responsible use of our time and our talents.  The bad way is through unjust practices, exploitation of the poor, taking advantage of other people especially those who are vulnerable.

When it comes to our use of money Jesus has an interesting suggestion.  He says, “Use money to win you friends” (Luke 16:9).  Obviously we will use our money to satisfy our own personal needs.  This is only right and fair.  But if we use our money solely for our own personal benefit, if we are selfish with it, then we may become isolated from other people and lonely.  This is what happens to the miser.  If on the other hand we are generous with our money, if we are willing to share it to the benefit of others then it will make us friends and we are unlikely to find ourselves living in a dark and sad world.

Money is a good servant, but a bad master.  When we make it honestly and use it generously it enriches our own lives and the lives of others.  However, if we build our lives around money, if we become attached to our money, then it will control and even oppress us.  Money may talk, “but it don’t sing and dance and it won’t walk” (Neil Diamond).

A Prodigal Father

Koder PaintingThe story of the Prodigal is regarded by many as the greatest story ever told (see Luke 15:11-32).  It is a story that describes the relationship between a father and his two sons.  The father is God the Father of Jesus.  The two sons represent humanity.

The younger son asks for his share of the family estate, leaves home and treats himself to a good time.  He is wasteful and ends up broke.  In fact, not only does he end up broke he also ends up broken.  He finds himself broke financially and broken emotionally.  He becomes penniless, powerless and friendless. He is stripped completely bare, left with nothing to hold on to.  His hands are totally empty.  Knowing that his hands are empty he decides to take a risk.  He returns home hoping that his father will forgive him and accept him.  His hopes are realised beyond measure.  His father is delighted to have him back.  Without words of complaint or judgement his father clasps him in his arms and kisses him tenderly.  Indeed his father calls for a celebration because he has got his son back safe and sound.

The elder son is the dutiful son who stays at home and does the work.  His sense of duty while admirable makes him angry.  He is angry at his younger brother for being wasteful with the family’s hard earned money.  He is angry at his father for welcoming his younger brother back with open arms and no conditions.  And he is angry with what he perceives as the unfairness in the life of his family and indeed in his own life.  For the elder son love is not free.  It has to be earned, achieved by hard work.  The elder son is a conformist who has remained loyal, but his heart is resentful.  He is not at peace.

The younger son’s failure and emptiness allow him to accept his father’s love as gift while the elder son’s pride does not.  The younger son has no choice but to come to the father with empty hands.  The elder son needs to have his list of achievements in the presence of his father. Perhaps for the first time in his life the younger son knows that his father’s love is unconditional.  The elder continues to see it as conditional.

But what about us?  Where are we in the story?  Is our experience of God that of the elder son or the younger son? Are we still trying to win God’s affirmation and approval by our achievements?  Or are we now able to come to God with empty hands in the affective knowledge that his love is unconditional?  Of course the truth is it usually takes an experience of failing and falling like that of the younger son before we can really accept the Father’s love as gift, not achievement.

The One Certainty

cropped-Sunset-1.jpgThere is one certainty in life; one thing that is constant, that doesn’t change, that isn’t affected by circumstances, by the situations people find themselves in, by world events, by human behaviour.  It is God’s unconditional love.  God’s unconditional love for each and every human person is the most important reality in our lives.  In the words of the spiritual writer, Richard Rohr, “The only real biblical promise is that unconditional love will have the last word.”  The thing that we need the most is the thing that never changes.

And yet most people find it hard to accept that they are loved unconditionally by God.  They can accept it perhaps in their heads, but not in their hearts.  It is the heart where the difficulty lies.  The Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich, said that we do not really experience what it means to be saved until we accept the fact that we are accepted unconditionally by God.  Accepting acceptance is a matter of the heart.

The greatest sign of God’s unconditional love is of course Jesus.  “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16).  There was nothing more God could do to convince us of his love than the gift of his own Son.  Those who have children must surely know what this means.  If the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus aren’t enough to convince us of God’s unconditional love, nothing will convince us.

God’s love is expressed in God’s compassion.  According to Jesus compassion is a word that perfectly describes God.  Many people were brought up on the fear of God.  God was a judge waiting to condemn them for doing wrong, for stepping out of line, for messing things up.  It is not easy to unravel where this emphasis on judgement came from, but it did a lot of damage.  It is certainly not the Gospel.  “God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved” (John 3:16).  The God of Jesus is not a God of condemnation, but a God of compassion.  The God of Jesus is a God who is personally involved in our lives, a God who understands our weaknesses and forgives our failures.

Humble Service

Jesus sought to create an inclusive community, a community that would be a reflection of the Trinitarian life of God.  This is why we find Jesus in his teaching challenging those who think they are better than others.  Jesus criticised those who used titles to make themselves important.  Titles create distinctions between people and distinctions cause division.

Jesus’ desire to create inclusive community was also reflected in his behaviour.  Jesus reached out to those who were on the margins, to those who felt excluded – lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, the poor.  Everything Jesus said and did had the objective of breaking down barriers and overcoming isolation.  In the community which Jesus created there was to be no more Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free.  The members were to be sisters and brothers, equal in the family of God.

So what is it that creates this inclusive community?  Jesus mentions two things in particular: humility and service.  The word humility derives from the word humus which means ‘from the earth.’  To accept that we are from the earth is to accept that we are dependent on God.  Indeed it is to accept that we are also dependent on one another.  Our dependence on God and on each other guarantees that we keep our feet firmly on the ground and that we have a sense of gratitude.

And then there is service.  In the community of Jesus service is a must.  The followers of Jesus must be willing to wash each other’s feet.  This service is the true measure of greatness.  The late Martin Luther King once said:  “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”  The love in our hearts is what makes us great.  It is this love expressed in practical, humble service that makes our world a safe and caring place.  It also makes it a place where no one feels inferior or excluded.

Through his humility and his service Jesus brought people into the inclusive family of God.  Through our humility and our service we can help people today to know what it means to belong to this great family.

Those Deep Waters

“The ship in the harbour is safe, but that’s not what ships are made for.”  Ships are made for the open sea and so are we.  In reality however most of us prefer to stay close to the shore.  The shore is safe and secure.  It is also familiar.

Jesus constantly invites us to leave the shore, to go out into deep and unchartered waters.  It was out in the deep waters were Peter and his companions caught a huge catch of fish (Luke 5: 4-11).  The deep waters are fruitful.  It is in the deep waters away from the comfort of the shore that life in abundance is to be found.

So what do the deep waters represent for us?  No matter what age we are there is always something new, something unknown, something unfamiliar that Jesus is calling us to.  But do we have the courage to respond? No doubt Jesus had to ‘fight’ with Peter to get him to respond.  Peter needed some ‘pushing.’  He had his reservations and his fears.  Jesus will probably have the same struggle with us.  We too will have our reservations and our fears.  We know what Peter’s reluctant cooperation produced.  Our cooperation whether reluctant or wholehearted will also produce much fruit.

And let’s not forget that the Jesus who invites us to the leave the safety of the shore promises to be with us all the way!

Busyness

“What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.”  Many of us are familiar with this verse from the poem by William Henry Davies.  Many of us too are familiar with the experience the poet is describing.  There are perhaps a number of things that prevent us from taking time to stand and stare.  One in particular is rife in our culture today.  It is called busyness.

Why are we so busy?  The practical reason might be because we seem to have a lot of things to do.  But there may be a deeper reason.  Perhaps we are busy because we need to feel productive.  Perhaps we keep ourselves busy because we do not feel good about ourselves when we are doing nothing.  Perhaps we need to be busy because our value comes from what we do, not from who we are.  Measuring ourselves by our usefulness is called utilitarianism, a philosophy that originated back at the beginning of the 19th century and has penetrated into the very core of our being.  The Anglo Saxon work ethic dominates our western culture and has a huge impact not only on the way we see ourselves, but, more importantly, on the way we feel about ourselves.

Perhaps another reason we keep ourselves busy is because we believe that we need to earn the acceptance and approval of Jesus.  “Look busy! Jesus is coming!” is a voice that has influenced our religious experience. It creates a double whammy that leaves us struggling.  Not only is busyness something we expect of ourselves; it is also something Jesus expects of us.  This is bad religion and a terrible misunderstanding of the good news of the Gospel.  Jesus’ love does not have to be earned. It is GIFT, not achievement.  Who we are is much more important to Jesus than what we do. He allows us to be and to rejoice in our ways of being.  This is what it means to be loved unconditionally by him.  Jesus is happy for us to take time to stand and stare.   Our culture may make us feel guilty doing it, but Jesus doesn’t!

Summer offers us an opportunity to leave aside our busyness and to take time to stand and stare.

Greed

It is said that the natural resources of the earth can feed five times the current population and yet half the people of the world go to bed every night either under nourished or starving.  What is the main cause of world hunger?  Is it unjust structures?  Is it famine?  Is it lack of political will?  All these things certainly do not help.  It seems to me that the real reason why so many people in our world go hungry is greed, human greed.  The rich want to get richer, while the poor get poorer.

A number of years ago I spent a short time in Nigeria.  My sense of Nigeria then was of a country full of contradictions.  These contradictions were probably best summed up in a statistic offered to me at the time: Nigeria is one of the most religious countries in the world, but it is also one of the most corrupt countries in the world.  Nigeria has enough natural resources to provide its people with a decent standard of living.  But most of the money made from Nigeria’s resources is going straight into the pockets of her politicians many of whom are multi millionaires. The cause of Nigeria’s corruption is greed.

But let us look at our own so called western world.  What are the philosophies which drive, in fact dominate, western society today?  Capitalism and consumerism.  Capitalism is about making as much money as possible; consumerism is about spending as much money as possible.  Both philosophies promote greed.  Over the last number of years we have endured many public tribunals.  Most of these tribunals have to do with irregularities in our financial institutions and practices.  What is the reason for much of the injustice that has been exposed? It is difficult not to suspect that greed has a lot to do with it.

No wonder Jesus gives us all a strong warning: “Watch, be on your guard against avarice of any kind, for a man’s life is not made secure by what he owns even when he has more than he needs” (Luke 12:15).  It is often said that money is the root of all evil.  One thing is sure. Money has the power to make us greedy and selfish.  Another thing is certain. We cannot take our money with us when we die.  It will be no good to us in the presence of God.  The only thing we can take with us into death is the love in our hearts.  This is all God will look for.  If our desire for money has made us selfish then we have condemned ourselves!

A Thirsty Woman

In St John’s Gospel we meet a woman who wasn’t able to find the love she needed.  She thirsted for someone to love her unconditionally.  This thirst led her to look for love in the wrong places and among the wrong people.  Because she sought love in the wrong places and among the wrong people she became more and more isolated and lonely.  Why else was she visiting the village well on her own in the early afternoon, the hottest time of the day?

Then out of the blue something unexpected happened.  She had a brief encounter with a stranger in an unlikely place at an unusual hour and her life was never the same again.  In the presence of Jesus her longing was satisfied.  He looked into her soul and saw her hurt, her shame, her sadness, her need, her thirst.  He did not judge her; he did not condemn her; he did not reject her.  Instead, he accepted her and offered her the living water of unconditional love.  The encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman was short, but its impact was lasting.  It created a spring inside her that would well up to eternal life.

Like the Samaritan woman we too thirst for love; we long for someone to love us as we are.  This thirst can lead us also into relationships that are unstable and abusive; into situations that are damaging and hurtful.  At some point in our lives we have to acknowledge that only Jesus can offer us the kind of love that we need, a love that is truly gratuitous.  Once we do then we must learn how to access and receive this love.

There are a number of ways we can come to know the love of Jesus.  Not least among these is the willingness to create times of stillness and silence in our lives.  By having the courage and patience to sit still in silence we become aware from within that we are not alone and that we are being held by a strong yet gentle presence.  Within ourselves we know that we are being loved by Jesus in a way that does not expect us to be perfect and that does not condemn us for our weaknesses and our failures.  The love we are looking for is to be found inside.  It is there that Jesus is waiting for us, longing for us to make contact with him.

Perhaps one of the best descriptions of what I am saying is to be found in the writings of St Augustine.  In what is possibly the most beautiful passage in his Confessions Augustine tells us where and how he eventually found Jesus and the difference this made to his life.

 “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!  You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you.  In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created.  You were with me, but I was not with you.  Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all.  You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness.  You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.  You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you.  I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.  You touched me, and I burned for your peace.” 

 

 

Hospitality

In the home of Martha and Mary we meet two types of hospitality.  One is hospitality of the table; the other is hospitality of the heart (see Luke 10:38-42).

Hospitality of the table is about sharing our food with people.  It is about responding to the material needs of others, what used to be referred to as the corporal works of mercy.  Hospitality of the table is symbolised by the gesture of breaking bread.  Hospitality of the table is an act of Christian service.  It was the hospitality that Martha offered Jesus and his companions.

Hospitality of the heart is about making time for people.  It is about listening to people and allowing them to tell their stories.  It is about creating and building relationships.  Hospitality of the heart is the very essence of Christianity.  It was the hospitality that Mary offered Jesus.

These two types of hospitality, hospitality of the table and hospitality of the heart, are both necessary.  We have material needs and we have relationship needs.  From the very beginning the followers of Jesus recognised this and sought to respond to both sets of needs.  The Church needs Marthas, people who serve others in practical ways.  The Church also needs Marys, people who sit and listen, who help others to share what is in their hearts, who help to build relationships.

Some people are more naturally like Martha.  They are happier doing practical things for others.  Other people are more naturally like Mary.  They are content spending time with others listening to the story of their lives.  The truth is, while one may come more naturally to us than the other, we need to be both.  If we put all our energy into doing practical things, we end up neglecting our relationship needs.  If we spend all our time listening and talking, the necessary practical things will never get done.

There is of course an important message in this gospel story that Jesus is keen to get across to us.  It is the difference between Martha and Mary which he was quick to spot.  Martha gets her value from her work, from what she does.  She only feels good about herself when she is useful and productive.  Mary on the other hand gets her value from her belovedness, from the fact that she belongs to God and that God is pleased with her.  Mary knows that she is loved unconditionally.  She does not have to be busy in order to feel worthy of love.  In short, Martha thinks that love needs to be earned, whereas Mary knows that it is gift.  Jesus is adamant.  Mary has got it right! The Father’s love is gift, not achievement.

To Martha and indeed to us Jesus says: ‘You have no need to keep yourself busy. Learn to relax.  Let yourself be loved as you are. Be still and know that I am God.’