I was at a retreat over the weekend, focussing on spirituality or if you like, spiritual formation. It’s a religious term for trying to find and somehow commune with God, however you understand that term, and to learn how to help other people do the same. It can lead to becoming a spiritual director, but that seems a long and slightly weird path for me, but who knows!
The retreats, there are 4 a year, over 4 years ( I know, a long commitment) involves looking at those who have gone before, mystics, and sages, priests and ordinary people, who have found the something extra, something more in life. It also entails looking in the arts, or in ourselves for this presence. On this weekend just gone we examined the desert fathers and mothers, who instead of joining the crazy society of their day, around the 4thcentury CE, went out into the desert to find and hear the word of God.
The desert for them was a place they could drop their egos, their selfish ways, and their ambitions and find the source of life and love, and to recognise they were human beings, made in the image of the divine. They were often hermits, or were hermits in a community, and for long periods of time found silence the main way of achieving this connection.
The problem for many of us today is that we have little time or inclination to go off into the desert.
I don’t think we really have to, although finding a place where the worries and distractions of the day can drop away and we are left with just the spirit and the essence of ourselves seems a pretty good idea. Sometimes our world is just too noisy.
But, as well, going off into the desert to find God is not necessary because God is right here. Unless your God is planted in a place away from you, separated from you, then you carry the spirt of God with you wherever you go. You cannot be separated from the ground of all being because it is within you.
As many, including the wonderful Frederick Buechner would say, “God is found in the muck and misery and marvel of the world”. In the ordinary and every day. Or another quote from him, “listen to your life”, because that is where the spirt of life can be found, nibbling at your toes, nudging us forward towards the light of love, and compassion and forgiveness. To see and commune with the spirit, is to see this act as an essential part of being human, much like breathing. And we can do that anywhere!
So instead of going off to the desert, we have to listen for the divine voice in the everyday world we live in. God is not found external to us, in some far away place, intervening now and again when we beseech him/her by prayer. No, God is closer to us than our breath, deep in our hearts, a presence unseen but oh so real for those who have the willingness to listen.
So with that in mind I was totally taken by the people doing the course. They were people who were in the world, as chaplains, ministers, switch board operators, managers, teachers, and researchers. They were in the world, but with a sense that they also belonged to the eternal spirit that brings life. And in their day to day encounters with others, they try to bring this capacity for caring and compassion to the fore.
I laughed when one person, described her management style. She is in charge of a large number of people in a big government agency, and she has in big letters on the board a summary of how she wants to work with everyone.
Kindness, fairness and humility.
What she is saying, is that she wants to be kind, fair and humble in the way she interact with each of her staff, and she wants them all to do the same.
That’s her management style.
When she first introduced this statement many in the office went away wondering where it had come from. Was it a new method, was it an old one they hadn’t heard about?
Of course they were shocked to hear that it comes from the bible – from the prophet Micah in the Old Testament –
Micah 6:8 “And what does the Lord require, to love kindness, to do justice and to walk humbly with your God”.
I laughed and laughed when I heard that. She was totally unapologetic that she operates out of a faith position, that the mystery she calls God influences how she works, how she treats people and how she treats herself.
I loved the weekend, the other people attending, but I already know that when I listen for the divine presence I am not waiting for a voice calling me to attention, or yelling in my ear. I feel the presence when I perform little acts of love, when I am kind, or help seek a little more justice for someone. In my quiet moments I sense the mystery that lies beneath what we can touch and measure, that we all contain this great life giving force, and when we connect with one another in life giving ways, that force feels real.
Could I explain that to someone else, maybe, although the many people I have talked to have thought either that I was crazy and deluded, or a wacko. Yet for those who are seeking, there is a light that shines forth, that can be seen in the world and in each one of us.
But we have to look, with our eyes firmly open, to the wonders of our existence and the beauty of the earth and the incredible sacrifices so many make for complete strangers.
For it is here that I think that Spirit can so readily be seen.
I don’t know where to start with this blog. So much has been happening to me lately. I have just finished presenting a 6 week course on basic anatomy and human biology to engineers and technicians working in the health sector. A course I loved to teach as I never get sick of showing people how amazing we are, how amazing our bodies are, and that amazingly we can live a long time quite healthily, even though this body of ours is so complex and interrelated.
Then I went on a yoga retreat, over the weekend, surrounded by beautiful, engaging women, a great teacher, a magnificent setting amongst the forest and with time to reflect and re-energise. So good for the mind and soul, and so good for my body.
I got back ready to recommence work, both in my church setting and in the research setting, where I am finishing a PhD . The 3 year anniversary of the start of it came up yesterday, crikes, and how far have I got!!!
But somehow I could not let go of a book I started when down on the retreat. A book that in some ways summarises all of the above, the teaching, the space, nature and the sense of peace being around it gives us, life, the universe, God and everything in between.
So instead of working, I did some reading!
It’s called “Everything is Spiritual” by Rob Bell. It’s a rollicking ride, with no chapters, and with his usual style of short clipped sentences. And I absolutely loved it. It’s like he is talking to you, to me, the reader, sharing his journey, his ideas, but more importantly his heart. He realises everything he has experienced and lived through has contributed to who he is today and there is a joy in understanding that. We are to embrace all that has gone before to move forward. And so he shares with us.
For someone who is a complex mish mash of things, part average scientist, part explorer of the divine, part lover of people and relationships, part pastor, Bells take on it was refreshing!
The book also speaks to me because his journey is also my journey, from a different starting point. His was from the conservative church, mine was from science and no church. Yet we have both come to see that it is not them and us, or you and me, or faith or not, or belief and unbelief, it’s this amazing, incredible mind blowing universe and life we all participate in. And it’s the impulse in this life to create, to grow, and to bond together in relationship, even in the midst of loss and sadness and grief and death that we both sense. There is something moving beyond our sight, just below the surface, that enlivens the world and pushes us to new insights, new ways of being with one another and new ways of loving one another. All of us.
We belong to something greater, because the something greater is the reason we are here.
Bell takes us on a journey, of the universe and us, as humans. He takes us on a journey of his own awakening to a larger picture of God, not as a person but rather an indivisible part of the process of life, and a larger picture of Jesus, as the face of this presence, to those he lived with and to us here and now, in this place. A face that turns things upside down, that stresses love and connection over empire and violence and inequality.
Bell takes us on a journey in quantum mechanics, a weird journey but one that shows that we limit our vision by keeping our faith in a box. Tied up with doctrines and dogmas about who is in or out. Instead he suggests our faith needs to rise up and out of the box and into the crazy world we live and breathe and have our being in. And Bell takes us on a journey of how we can see in our everyday lives we can be the face of this God, this spirit, because spirit needs a body. It had Jesus and it has us. We are to be the bodies the spirit uses to make change.
Yet Rob Bell continually reminds us that this spirit is greater than us, that it was there in the beginning, the beginning of the universe, it was there in the beginning of the planets, it was there in the beginning of the earth story, the story of life on this planet , and it was there in the story of us. And it will always be there. A mystery, yes, but one in which we are soaked and meshed in and enlivened by. As the book title suggests, everything is spiritual, everything is connected, everything is related. We are body, yes, an incredible thing we often abuse, but we are also mind, and soul, and heart and spirit, which is everywhere and in all things. All interconnected, all part of what it is to be human.
And with this insight Bell shows us how we can, by our actions, be the bridge across the gaps people have made, by how we live and work and play and embrace each other. By listening, and being present, by creating and working for others as though they are our brothers and sisters, which they are! And by living with the idea that life is a gift, an amazing, incredible, awe inspiring gift, even with all the frustrations, pain and suffering that comes along with it.
Thew, I highly recommend the book to you, as a way of being refreshed for the journey.
Because I certainly have been refreshed! In my quiet moments, I sometimes I have worried that I should choose one path to follow, one road to tread, and one discipline to hang my hat on. That because I have spent most of my life oscillating between this and that, one love and another, in my mind never fully committing to only one, I have devalued all of them.
Yet now I realise that while I am a curious mixture of a God searcher, church worker and a person who loves science and teaching it, and showing how it reveals the something more in the universe, it’s actually okay! Will I finish my PhD, not if I get diverted to books like this, but maybe it doesn’t matter anyway, it’s a fun ride and gives me so much in the process. I don’t need a PhD to be a scientist and many don’t need a church to be a person of faith. But we do need each other. As Marcus Borg once said, we are connected at the core, a deep, deep connection.
And anyway, all that has gone before makes up who I am today! A slightly crazy, almost 60 year old!!!
Thanks Rob, now back to my research paper!!!