Hard Ideas for Hard Times

As Jenn and I work through the “Going Deeper With God” program of the Christian Formation and Directions Ministries, I’ve been finding it difficult to accept some of the classic mystical/monastic wisdom of the early Church. In particular, the last two weeks have brought me up against:

  1. The ancient monastic recitation of the Psalter, or all 150 Psalms, on a weekly basis… not presented as normative in my reading, but recommended for consideration nonetheless. The idea is that such repetition, with some portion of the Psalms, is a productive guide to learning about “heartfelt prayer,” the goal of which is that “God may be worshiped and the participants be led to the Maker of all.” Now, I’ve always had problems with spending too much times in the Psalms as David has struck me as manic depressive, and there’s just way too much supplication for the smiting and destruction of enemies for my taste. I just can’t envision Jesus praying many of these “prayers.” So I kind of shrug and say, “Well, I’m not going there. Sounds kind of spiritually poisonous to me.”
  2. St. Ignatius’ rite of the “The Prayer of Examen.” We are actually being taught this, and highly encouraged to make it a regular practice. The idea of the prayer is to “grow in a sense of self and the Source of self,” to “become more sensitive to your own spirit with its longings, its powers, its Source.” In the version of this “daily examen of consciousness” that we are studying, participants are asked to reflect on the moment in the day that drew us closest to God, and the moment that pushed us furthest away. Again, I’m all for reflection and self-analysis (maybe even overly so), but my instincts rebel at the idea of deliberately dwelling on negative things… particularly at the end of the day. I am, nonetheless, a good sport about trying new things, and Jenn and I started into a trial of “the examen” the night before Saturday’s CFDM retreat.

So I went into the retreat very unsettled in my mind, even to the point of feeling physically ill. I have often been at odds with God, but I’m no David or Jeremiah. I don’t rail at the Creator. Instead, like Jonah, I either tend to run away from God when I don’t like what I’m hearing… or I sit and sulk.

But hey: I didn’t sign up for CFDM to just keep doing things the way I’ve been doing them. I signed up because I expected God to show me something new. So I went into Saturday with all my senses open, waiting for something to click and tell me, first, why I was so sick to my stomach over what I’d been learning, and second, what I was supposed to do with it all. And for most of the day, I just grew more unsettled.

Then toward the end of the last full-group session, some things that Terry Tripp was saying about Jesus’ encounter with the blind man Bar-Timeus started seeping into my soul at a deeper level. I’ll just transcribe the notes that I jotted at the time:

In my reaction to the examen and the Psalter, the question should not be, “How is this wrong for me?” Instead the question should be, “What do I want?” Does my reaction say more about what I’m after from God… or what I want to withhold from God? That is: What I think I can I do for myself.

God might be saying, “I know that you can do this on your own, that you’ve gotten pretty good at handling negative emotions; but I want to help.”

This is a load I have been carrying long enough.

As Terry says, “Seeing might be suffering in a new way.” Can I pretend to see if I am not prepared to suffer? Can I be prepared to suffer if I am not prepared to talk about it with my Maker?

In a moment of epiphany, it dawned on me that I have of late been living my spiritual life in a relatively safe place, that I have grown accustomed to walking with God in gentleness and peace. But this is not where God is going to keep me. He is preparing me for great pain and sorrow. And he is teaching me ahead of time how bring him that pain and sorrow so that I will not have to bear it alone.

I’m not happy about that news, as you might imagine.

But I’m listening. You had better believe I am listening.

And… guess what I told God sucked the life out of me yesterday?

About Greg Wright

I have worn many hats as a writer and editor over the years. Unlike my scholarly and journalistic work from the "old days" at Hollywood Jesus, Past the Popcorn, or SeaTac Blog, the writing here is of a more overtly personal and spiritual nature. I hope it provokes you as much as it provokes me.
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2 Responses to Hard Ideas for Hard Times

  1. John says:

    Thank you Greg. Your reflection on ‘pain and sorrow’ struck a chord. I realize that many times, these responses come from specific external circumstances that include physical breakdown or personal loss. I wonder though … maybe pain and sorrow were meant to be a more prevalent emotion, kindled by an empathy and compassion for lost souls in a broken world … and greater awareness of our own sin.

    Earlier this year I read “Not a Fan”, by Kyle Idleman. One of the author’s more powerful ideas used to create distinction between ‘fan’ and ‘follower’ was Christ’s admonition to ‘pick up your cross’. Now I don’t know about you, but on some level I somehow equated ‘cross’ with ‘burden’. Maybe I was hoping that when Christ said “Come to Me, all you who are heavy laden”, He was really saying “Go ahead John, PICK UP that cross but don’t worry, cuz I’ll CARRY it for you”. But the author points out, rather bluntly, that a 1st century Palestinian would not make that mistake. He, or she, would have clearly understood that Christ was telling His followers to accept a very painful, and highly visible, death. The old man has to die, otherwise, you’re just ‘a fan’.

    I know I haven’t died to self yet. I’m trying to adjust, mentally and spiritually, to the idea that dying to self is an ongoing and painful process; that we will never, this side of heaven, have what might be called a ‘comfortable life’. On the other hand, Jesus came that we might have ‘life more abundant’. How do we reconcile these truths? I’m still learning. In the meantime, I hope that I can do a better job of acknowledging pain and sorrow in and around me, instead of avoiding it. Thanks for sharing your insights Greg, and know that while your pains and sorrows are uniquely personal, your experience is by no means solitary.

  2. Greg Wright says:

    Thanks, John. I appreciate your desire to take both God and our continuing friendship seriously! And when that pain and sorrow strikes, I will be sure to share it with you!

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