Or as Albert Schweitzer put it when asked to name humanity's most pressing question, "Is the universe friendly?"
More and more people question whether anyone or anything is watching out for us on a cosmic level. The "new atheist" authors are convinced that any belief in God is sheer foolishness. The complexity of life and the overwhelming suffering in the world leave many of us beset by doubts. Yet doubt is a part of life. Many years ago I heard the rector of the St. Paul Seminary say, "Anyone who has never doubted is either a liar or a fool." While I know a few people who've been gifted with an unwavering faith, most of us wonder, especially when times are tough.
Often the debate rests on what appears to be a logical argument between science and religion. I would hold that science and religion ask different questions. Science can tell us that rainbows occur when light is refracted through water droplets, perceived by our eyes and processed by our brains. Science can't explain why 99% of the human race call rainbows beautiful, and why our first response to a rainbow is to catch our breath and stop in wonder - at the beauty, not the physics.
The God/science discussion is obviously way more complicated than that simple summary. My point here is that the scientific method has its limits. We make the biggest decisions of our lives - who and whether to marry, whether to live a generous or an exploitive life - on something other than logic and careful measurement. Our best life decisions don't ignore logic, but they are heavily influenced by intuition and the heart. So an intellectual debate about the existence of a Divine Being is only part of the search. Another path is the road toward encounter.
My husband told me this morning he saw what he thinks are fox tracks in the snow in our back yard. A debate about the existence of foxes and their usual habitat will not tell me whether he's right. The only way I can know for sure is to keep watch - quietly and patiently. If I don't see a fox, it doesn't mean there are no fox in our neighborhood. If I see a fox tonight, there is no guarantee I will observe a repeat tomorrow night. The fact that fox are unpredictable does not mean they don't exist. The fact that spiritual experiences are not as predictable as gravity does not mean they're not real.
My purpose is not to try to prove that God exists. I do want to suggest that by watching carefully, over a period of time, we may encounter something unexpected. I also suggest that, barring an outburst of grace, without a patient search we can't arrive at an answer.
We can argue the Sacred out of our world, or we can set up camp and watch for its presence. Spiritual practices up our chances of catching a glimpse of the fox in our woods. Some practices equip us to watch solo. Some offer us the benefit of other seekers' wisdom, experience and company. The percentage of people in the world who know how to track an actual wild animal has dropped dramatically over the last century. Linking up with skillful tracker can increase my chances of seeing an elusive fox.
Industrialization has taken a toll on our spiritual as well as our physical environment. We are short on space in our lives to notice God's action, and we've found some of our guides to be seriously flawed. Yet true guides are abundant, especially if we look back into our spiritual history. Saints and heroes like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Francis of Assisi, Desmond Tutu and Badshah Khan would all say they could not have achieved what they did or become who they were without strength that came from beyond themselves. We have nothing to lose but a little time if we decide to learn some of their techniques for following tracks in the snow.
Photo credits: Christopher Michel, Flickr; Peggy Cadigan, Flickr
I can trash social media with the best of them. Yes, technology disrupts our lives and sometimes fries our brains. The sight of seventh graders sitting shoulder to shoulder after school, thumbs flying, oblivious to one another’s presence, makes me shiver. I weary of the constant battle - with grandkids and with myself - to tame the monster.
But seriously, what would we do without our smartphones? And who knew technology could help us pray??!! In an ideal world we wouldn’t need outside help, but nobody I know lives in an ideal world. In the real world I can use all the help I can get.
I use two apps on a regular basis to help me stick with my morning prayer/meditation routine. My favorite is InsightTimer, which is free and pretty amazing. I use it primarily for the timer function, which saves me from peeking at my watch when I should be thinking deep thoughts. If you like you can also set it to sound a few times during your meditation to remind you this is serious business, just in case you've forgotten and started planning out your daily itinerary instead. (Unfortunately, on a really bad day i can get to the end of my 20 minutes and not even remember hearing the gong.) You can select from different sounds to begin and end your session and how long you’d like to spend.
The app has classes available for purchase, but there are so many free guided meditations available you could listen to a different one every day for the rest of your life. Granted, some of them would be terrible, but they’d be free. You can also form an online group and check out who in your town is meditating and what they’re listening to. (Some people would call that Too Much Information.)
Most guided meditations on the app are secular or lean toward Buddhism or Hinduism. Christian meditations are available but rather scarce, not because the owners discriminate against Christians but because there's a scarcity of Christian teachers. Which is pretty interesting, when you think about it.
My second favorite app is Pray-As-You-Go, put out six days a week by Jesuits in England. PAYG reflects on the Scripture reading of the day for ten to twelve minutes. It begins each session with a contemplative piece of music. A narrator then reads the Scripture passage for the day and another invites a reflection and application to your own life. The Scripture passage is reread during the remaining few moments and the session closes with a doxology: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.”They've expanded their offerings to include other forms of prayer, several of which are familiar only to Catholics. They're worth exploring, but I usually stick with the Scripture reflection.
I tend not to use this one when I’m on track with my spiritual regimen, but lean on it gratefully when life is hectic or hard. The combination of music and narration sometimes gets a little busy for my taste if my mind is behaving, but when I'm wound up they're just what I need to wrestle my brain back to business.
My shallow side loves the English accents because they make me feel like I’m traveling in Narnia, the land of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I also notice that my brain quiets more easily when I listen than when I read a reflection.
This is just a small sampling of available resources. The biggest challenge these days is sorting through all the options to find one that works for you. The great thing about apps is that if you find one you like, you can listen in the car, at lunch, in the morning seated with coffee and a candle, while watching soccer practice.
These two are available online at www.insighttimer.com or www.pray-as-you-go.org or wherever you access your apps. And no, I am not receiving any compensation for recommending these. They're really and truly helpful.
Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney warming up to sing Counting Your Blessings from White Christmas
“You should be grateful!”
We’ve all heard those words, most often when we weren’t in the mood to listen. We’ve scolded ourselves for not being grateful - also, most likely, when gratitude wasn’t coming easily.
Yet gratitude is one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal for building spiritual resilience. Gratitude actually holds the power to nudge us away from depression and anxiety and toward greater peace with our world.
So What Exactly Is Gratitude?
Gratitude is not the same as appreciation, although appreciation is a good first step. When we appreciate something or someone we stop to notice, to pay attention. We take the opportunity to register and savor the awesomeness of the moment. Appreciation is taking time to notice just how cool someone or something is.
Gratitude looks further to the source of the goodness. When I appreciate a plate of lasagna, I take a good look at it, I smell the delicious aroma, I pay attention to what’s on my fork and in my mouth without being overly distracted by what’s going on in the room. I appreciate the meal but I’m not considering how the meal got to my plate.
When I’m grateful I also acknowledge the cook’s skill and the time invested in preparing the meal. I can grow my circle of gratitude to include those who grew the ingredients and transported them to my grocery store. If I dig even deeper I can expand my scope to include the planet that sustains my life and ultimately to the One who created it all.
The online Oxford Dictionary goes one step further, defining gratitude as thankfulness and “a readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” Pretty powerful plate of lasagna.
Simply telling ourselves or our kids to be grateful doesn’t often make much difference. On the other hand, consciously shifting our attention toward the blessings in our lives can. I used to ask my high school students to list fifty things they were grateful for. I knew if they wrote a short list they would probably get stuck in clichés, but as they stretched to fill those last twenty slots their lists became much more interesting.I will never forget one student’s entry. She’d been injured as an infant while in the care of a negligent babysitter, and her beautiful face bore a noticeable scar even after several surgeries. On her list, without any explanation, was, “My scar.” I was humbled by her wisdom.
A Gratitude Practice
A spiritual practice is a concrete action we engage in on a regular basis in order to bring ourselves back to what's real. There are lots of ways to establish a practice of gratitude. You could make your own list of 50 and review it frequently, but most of us will forget, lose the list, get bored and figure it all takes too much time.
An alternative is to choose a time or event that happens regularly in your day, such as a meal, getting up in the morning, commuting to work, etc. Pick one recurring event and commit to thanking God in that moment for at least five people or things in your life. If possible, take time to really be present to each item on your list. Try to focus long enough that the gratitude actually registers on a feeling level. Pick a "target frequency" - say five times a week, and then give it your best shot.
There's actually research out there saying a gratitude practice can make you happier. Check it out if you don't believe me. You don’t have to take their word for it either. Give it a try for two weeks and see what happens. Then write and let us know how it goes.
Or the Senate Committee Room or...
Like so many others, I’ve been hooked by the Supreme Court confirmation firestorm. The situation is tragic regardless of who or what you believe. Rather than debating who's right or wrong, I'd like to examine a spiritual practice that can help each of us respond.
We're fascinated by this drama because we find somebody’s behavior appalling, and really bad behavior is frightening. When groups of people become enraged a terrifying sinister energy seems to emerge. And when we feel personally endangered our own dark side - vengeful, slanted, self-protective - fights to cut loose and start swinging.
I’d just finished reading the latest wrinkle in the unfolding story when suddenly an image of Jesus walking into that room came to me. In my imaginary hearing room he wasn’t there to take the stand or to take someone’s side. He was simply being present.
The effect on me was remarkable. I immediately calmed down - not completely, but substantially. Gone was my feeling of the world rocking beneath my feet, and I could sense a peace and clarity surrounding Jesus. The scene didn’t shift my opinion about who was telling the truth. It did shift me toward compassion for everyone involved. Until that moment my compassion had been reserved for the persons I considered to be injured, while I focused my judgment, resentment and anger on the other guys. Those guys included a large portion of my fellow Americans.
Regardless of what did or didn’t happen at a party 30 years ago, tragic incidents of sexual misconduct happen every day. We clearly need new awareness and revised systems to help us reduce their incidence and impact. The spiritual practice of imagining Jesus in our midst is one small tool that can help us get there.
The picture in my head showed up without my asking, but we can consciously decide to create imaginary scenes. The visitor we imagine doesn't have to be Jesus. For me as a Christian, Jesus is a spiritual touchstone. For Buddhists it might be the Buddha, for Muslims Muhammad. We can visualize a major figure in our spiritual tradition, or someone we rub shoulders with every day. The key is to choose a person of compassion and wisdom and to use our imaginations to create a vivid picture in our minds.
Visualization As Spiritual Practice
A practice is something we do on a repeated basis, usually to accomplish some result. Brushing your teeth is a practice. So is regularly checking the air in your tires or rewarding your dog's good behavior with a treat A spiritual practice is something we do on a repeated basis to call us back to our core beliefs and help us live according to them.
Athletic coaches as well as pastors and spiritual advisors teach visualization. Research demonstrates that athletes who visualize success are more likely to achieve it. Vividly imagining a spiritually-inspired scene helps anchor us in our own spiritual base. When we visualize we draw on our sense memory of sight, hearing and sometimes smell to help change our thinking and our mood.
Visualizing Jesus is a spiritual practice that helps me shift gears and see things in a new light. When I picture Jesus in a contentious scene several things predictably happen:
At their best, spiritual practices engage our whole selves - our bodies and emotions as well as our minds. When we tap into our sense memory to create an image different from the ones our overheated brains are currently cooking up, we get wiser.
And more peaceful, and compassionate, and hopeful, and...
Photo Dirksen226, Wikimedia Commons
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