Friday, June 19, 2015

The Busy and Hurried Soul

I have often be queried why I titled my book Spiritual Formation on the Run. It was suggested that it should include ‘…run away from the busy life’ or ‘ to silence and solitude’. It puzzled me for a long time until it dawned on me that to many people, spiritual formation or spiritual growth is incompatible with being on the run or movement. To many, spiritual formation will only occurs when we are still and silent, like on a retreat in the mountains in the middle of nowhere. I do not know where this idea comes from but it seems to me that too many of us are exposed to Chinese kungfu movies where the grandmaster or sifu only attain enlightenment (usually implied a higher level of martial skills) by meditation while sealed in a cave on top of some misty mountain. I often wonder how he (usually it is a he) handle his toilet needs. I guess this is reinforced by the Christian division of hyperactive Martha who was busy being hospitable to her guests, and her quiet contemplative sister Mary who was sitting and listening to Jesus.

Luke 10:38–42 (NASB95)
38Now as they were traveling along, He entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. 39She had a sister called Mary, who was seated at the Lord’s feet, listening to His word. 40But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.” 41But the Lord answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; 42but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

Interestingly, this account was only found in Luke and happened immediately after Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37). The parable highlighted doing good to all people irrespective of caste, religious afflictions and stations in life. Martha is associated with the active life while Mary with the contemplative one. Jesus seems to praise Mary’s choice as the correct one. If this is the only lesson from the passage, then Martha should come and sit at Jesus’ feet and everyone will go hungry without supper!

The houses in New Testament times are rather small so even when preparing food, both the ladies will be able to hear Jesus. The passage seems to imply that initially both Mary and Martha were involved in the food preparation. Then suddenly Mary left the preparation to sit at Jesus’ feet to focus fully on what Jesus was saying. Martha’s ire was that her sister was not helping her in the food preparation. Martha was busy and in a hurry. Maybe she wanted to produce an exception meal for her special guest. In her hurriedness, she was distracted and was not listening to Jesus. Jesus was speaking to everyone in the house, not just Mary. Jesus’ rebuke to Martha may be because she was not listening to him. This was because she was so distracted by her busyness. Martha should be preparing the food and listening to him at the same time as women are wonderful at multi-tasking. I am sure Jesus wanted to eat too. Jesus did not say, “Martha, stop what you are doing, sit down and listen to me!”

We all live very busy lives. From the moment we are rudely awakened by our alarm clocks to the time we fall asleep, we have to perform many tasks. Our ‘to-do’ list often runs to two or three pages. If being busy means that we have not chosen ‘the good part’ that most of us are in trouble. Not many of us have the opportunity to take time away to be in a retreat, to just sit and listen. There are bills to pay, houses to clean and kids to bring up.

There is a difference between being busy and being hurried. We can be busy without being in a hurry. Busy is an external condition where we have many tasks to complete. Hurry is an inner state where we are distracted because of the external busyness. This inner state of distraction means that our soul is confused, fragmented and disconnected with our minds, hearts and spirits. What is more significant is that the hurried or distracted person cannot hear the voice of God. What Jesus was trying to teach Martha (and us) is that it is not wrong for us to be busy (for which one of us is not busy) but not to be hurried and distracted. This is because when we are hurried and distracted, we cannot hear him.

This means that Christian spiritual formation and transformation may occurs in a busy life. However the process may be difficult in a busy and hurried life. Dallas Willard notes, “Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day. You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.” Is it possible to live a busy but unhurried life?  Gregory the Great was the first monk to become a pope. He became Pope Gregory 1 from 590 to 604 AD. Gregory was a Doctor of the Church and a Latin Father. He contributed a lot to church services and is known as the father of Christian worship. In his busy schedule, Gregory was able to maintain a powerful devotional life. John Calvin mentioned Gregory in his Institutes and praised his contribution to the church.

How do we become unhurried in our busy life? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Do not be a perfectionism
Martha may not be so distracted if she was not in such a hurry to prepare a gourmet meal for his visitors. Perhaps a simpler meal may allow her to slow down and listen to Jesus as she worked. Our home need not be so clean and tidy to be featured in Ideal Home magazine. We do not need to have that complete set of Minions from McDonald Kiddy Meals. Being less of a perfectionist may remove the strain of being a hurry.

2. Prioritize your to-do list
Not all of the things on our to-do list needs to be completed. The world will not come to an end if we do not complete it. If Christ comes again then we do not need to complete it. Prioritize and do the most essential things first. Be realistic in assigning the amount of time to complete each task. Group similar tasks together. A bit of forward planning can help to eliminate hurry from our schedule.

3. Take ‘minute’ retreats
A ‘minute’ retreat is to take a minute of your time during a busy period, close your eyes and calm your mind, slow your breathing and take deep breaths. Visualize a quiet room within your heart where you can meet with Jesus and say hello. This will break the vicious cycle of stress caused by your business. Stress tend to induce hurry in our inner life. You can close your eyes and do a minute retreat at any time and in any place. Except maybe when you are driving or skydiving.

4. Keep things in perspective
In a particular busy period, ask yourself will what you are doing matters in five years’ time? Will it matters in a year’s time? Next month? Often answering this questions bring things into perspective. Having things in perspective helps to eliminate hurry. One of my favorite quotes from Facebook is a paraphrase of the Serenity Prayer: “Lord, give me coffee to change the things I can change and wine to accept the things I cannot, and chocolate while I figure out the difference!” Not taking ourselves too seriously and having a sense of humor helps us to slow down and not to hurry.

5. Let go and let God
The need to be in control and a busy life is a guaranteed recipe for a hurried life. Most of us are control freaks. We need to learn to let go and let God take control of our life and of our schedule. Learning to let go means learning to say no. Letting go means focusing on things that has eternal value rather than chasing after things that offer temporary satisfactions. This also helps us to be more patient with events and people.

A hurried life is a distracted life. We can be hurried even when we are not busy. Even during our vacations we are hurried and busy. A distracted life is an unhealthy life. It harms our bodies leading to hypertension, diabetes, obesity and heart problems. Our souls are also being harmed. We are restless. We feel disconnected and lost. There is lacking a sense of being anchored or grounded. We became swayed by every events that come our way. We are irritable and short fused. And we cannot hear the voice of God. Listening and hearing to the voice of God is what Jesus said as ‘only one thing [is] necessary’. So, take a deep breath and stop being in a hurry to finish reading this post!


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Thursday, June 18, 2015

You must arrange your days

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The most important thing in your life

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Hurry kills your spiritual life

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Understanding the Dark Night of the Soul

Understanding the Dark Night of the Soul
St. John of the Cross is closely associated with the prayer concept of the dark night of the soul. Living in the 16th century, St. John was a reformer of the Carmelite order of which he was a member. He is regarded as one of the foremost Spanish Christian mystic. His well-known works include the Candicle of Love, the Dark Night of the Soul, Ascend of Mount Carmel and his poem Living Flame of Love. Actually all his works have only one theme and one book was often a commentary on the other. The theme is the contemplative movement of a soul to a unitive experience with God in prayer. The dark night of the soul must be understood in the context of prayer. In the last couple of decades, there has been a revival of usage of phrase ‘the dark night of the soul’ especially by evangelicals. Unfortunately it is often misunderstood as depression, spiritual dryness, or being patience in suffering.
To understand the concept of dark night, we have to aware of the context in which St. John of the Cross wrote. Firstly, he was a practicing mystic and a spiritual director. A mystic just meant a person who have experienced the closeness of God and is aware of the His loving presence. As a spiritual director, he was aware of the pitfalls and dangers of depending on experience alone. He described his works as spiritual theology. His focus was on prayer especially contemplative prayer.
Secondly, he was trained under the teaching of Thomas Aquinas. Thomas Aquinas divided a human soul into two parts: sense and spirit. By sense is meant our attachment to the things of this world which include human relationships. The spirit refers to the cognitive part of the mind which includes the will, memories, and thinking. When St. John refers to the dark night of the sense and of the spirit, he was assigning different meanings to the common modern words we use; sense and spirit.
Finally, St. John comes from the apophatic tradition. Christian spirituality basically may be divided into two categories. The kataphatic tradition, to which most Protestant and evangelicals belong, believe that God may be known and described by language. This tradition utilizes creeds, doctrines and lots of words. The apophatic tradition believe that God is too awesome to be described. No human language has words to describe God. God can only be describe by negatives. The only way to describe God is by what He is not. The apophatic tradition is known as via negativa because of its use of negatives. Examples of apophatic theology include God's appearance to Moses in the Burning Bush; the Name of God which may not be pronounced; and the prophet Elijah's experience, where God reveals Himself in a "still, small voice" (1 Kings 19:11–13).
Prayer is human-God communion. Broadly prayer may be divided into linguistic or non-linguistic. Linguistic prayers which include verbal and meditative prayers are prayers that are practiced using our mind and language. Most Christians are familiar to this form of prayer. We ‘talk’ to God using words. The non-linguistic prayers include contemplative and unitive prayers. Here words are seldom used. It utilizes our other faculties to connect with God. St. John focused mainly on contemplative and unitive prayers. He observed that people who have are advancing in contemplative praying will eventually hit a brick wall on their way to unitive praying. Suddenly they will find their prayers dry, arid, or lose their sense of the presence of God. They may even feel that they have been abandoned by God. When these pray-ers have examined themselves and not find any hidden unconfessed sins, St. John described the stage they are in as the dark night of the soul.
St. John described two dark nights of the soul. One is the dark night of the sense and the other is the dark night of the spirit. Each in turn has a passive and active component. St. John suggested that God is teaching us to detach from our attachments to the world, and attach ourselves to Him personally. It is to teach us to let go and let God be God. According to St. John, the dark night of the sense and the dark night of the spirit do not occur sequentially but are both side of the same coin.
In the dark night of the sense, we are taught to detach ourselves from our worldly possessions, our loved ones and even ourselves. Most of the time, it is these worldly possessions that distract us from being fully present to God. In the dark night of the spirit, we are taught to detach ourselves from our pride in our cleverness, our memories (past), and our willfulness. We are also taught to let go of our past experiences of God as these experiences may bind us down. The passive component is letting God work on us and the active component is our willingness to submit and allow God to work. It must be noted that this is different from the Buddhist discipline of emptying of the mind and attaining the non-self. The goal here is not to empty the mind and self but to detach from all that bind us and distract us from God Himself. The aim of these dark nights is unitive prayer where one become fire.
Only when we have lost all our detachments can we stand close to God who is fire or ‘living flame’ as St. John noted. St. John also noted that not all pray-ers will achieve this unity. Many pray-ers perceive that during the dark nights, God has moved away. God has not moved away. Instead He has moved closer to us. So close that we are blinded by His light. Hence the darkness we perceive.
One metaphor which St. John like to use to describe the process of the dark nights was that of a burning log. When a fire was burning a log, first it dehumidified the log. Then it turned the wood black and charred. Finally “the fire brings to light and expels all those ugly and dark accidents which are contrary to fire” [Dark Night, Book II, Chapter 10]. When the fire of the Holy Spirit burns us, the initial effect is alarming and painful. As the damp log dries and become blacken, cracked and dry, in God’s refining fire, our real self is revealed - blackened, cracked and dry. It has always being there but the flame revealed the truth and the truth always set us free.
This progress of contemplative prayer to unitive prayer as illustrated by the dark nights of the sense and spirit is a useful guide for those who seek to deepen their prayer life. In the process, we are transformed. This process was not discovered by St. John. The early church tradition was very aware of God as refining flame and our purpose to be like God. Here is a short story from the Desert Fathers; Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, 'Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?' Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, 'If you will, you can become all flame.' If we will, pass through the dark nights, and become all flame.

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