Making (and Keeping) a Personal Rule of Life

Living Intentionally

Every January, lots of folks make New Year’s Resolutions. This year I will lose weight, exercise more, improve my diet, pay off my credit cards. Sadly, though, it seems that by Valentine’s Day (if not before) most New Year’s Resolutions are long forgotten.

New Year’s Resolutions point to two basic truths about being human. First, to be alive is to seek to grow, to improve, to make improvements in our health, our relationships, our quality of life. But the second truth is the tough one: we often are not very disciplined when it comes to following through on our desired areas of growth.

For people of faith, in addition to all the typical types of resolutions we might make about our health, weight, or finances, many of us also want to grow in our relationship with God. We want a more disciplined prayer life, a stronger commitment to meditation and contemplation, a clear orientation to compassion and forgiveness. We want not just a New Year’s Resolution, but a “Lifetime Resolution,” to grow in grace not only now but for all eternity. One powerful spiritual tool we can use to foster such spiritual growth, while setting up agreements with ourselves (and, hopefully, others who will keep us accountable) is a brief written statement, outlining our commitment for on-going spiritual growth and discipline. Such a document is called a rule of life.

Most religious communities follow a rule of life.

Written by the community’s founder or some other luminary in their past, these texts govern details of community life from the most mundane, work-related matters, to the most sublime considerations of spirituality and shared devotion to God. Some of the best known of such rules are the Rule of Saint Benedict, the Rule of the Secular Franciscans, the Brief Rule of Saint Romuald, the Rule of Taizé, and the Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist.

The idea behind the rule is very simple — in a brief document, members of the community can find guidance for the principles and values which govern every aspect of their lives, physically as well as spiritually.

Even if you’re not a member of a monastic or consecrated community, a rule can still be an important part of your life. All Christians share in the “rule” of the promises we (or our godparents, speaking on our behalf), make when we are baptized. At its most basic, these agreements include rejecting the powers of evil and clinging to faith in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Some churches have developed more detailed baptismal promises — a lovely example being the Baptismal Covenant found in the Book of Common Prayer.

But communal rules are not the only type of rule. Many people find inspiration and spiritual guidance by crafting, and adhering to, a personal rule of life.

This idea has actually become rather trendy in the business world. In their book First Things First, business gurus Stephen Covey, Roger Merrill and Rebecca Merrill popularized the idea of a “personal mission statement.”

Consider the big picture — what you care about, what makes the moments in your life meaningful. The key to this connection lives in the clarity of your vision around such questions as:

  • What’s most important?
  • What gives your life meaning?
  • What do you want to be and to do in your life?

Many people capture their answers to such questions in a written personal creed or mission statement. Such statements capture what you want to be and what you want to do in your life and the principles upon which being and doing are based. Clarity on these issues is critical because it affects everything else — the goals you set, the decisions you make, the paradigm as you have, the way you spend your time. (First Things First, page 79)

Corporations have been formulating mission statements for some time now — at least as long as I’ve been in the workforce — so it only makes sense that business minded “highly effective people” would want to formulate similar statements for their individual lives. Covey and  his associates have create numerous products around this idea of a personal mission statement — there’s even a page on Covey’s website that will walk you through the process of creating your own personal mission statement.

Well, what’s good for business is even better for spirituality. What is our mission — as contemplatives, as aspiring mystics, as followers of Jesus Christ and devotees of the God who is Love? How do we live out a faith-filled life given to prayer, meditation, and service? How do we establish a structured way to grow in our love of God, our love of neighbor, and even our appropriate love of self?

These are the kinds of questions that a Personal Rule of Life addresses. The idea behind a personal rule is that “putting it in writing” is an excellent way to establish our values, principles, objectives, and commitments. A self-help book came out a few years ago with a succinct title: Write it Down, Make it Happen. That’s the principle behind a personal rule of life.

Anything that is important and meaningful can be covered in our personal rule. We can document the agreements we make with God (and ourselves) regarding our prayer life, our church involvement, our efforts to care for ourselves through exercise, proper diet, and study; our commitments to others through charitable or social justice action, and even our intention to devote quality time to our family, friends, personal recreation, and Saturday afternoon naps.

What are the kinds of commitments you include in your personal rule? Here are a few examples.

  • I commit to at least 20 minutes each day in silent prayer, every morning and evening.
  • I commit to exercise three or more times each week.
  • I commit to a technology Sabbath — no computer or electronic devices on Sundays, except for true emergencies.
  • I commit to participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation at least once a month, and more frequently if I have something serious to confess.

Like I said, these are examples and the elements of your personal rule may be different.

A rule does not have to be a hundred pages long like the Rule of St. Benedict. In fact, I think a personal rule works best when it is no more than a page or two long. Long enough to detail all that we commit to for our personal and spiritual growth, but not so long that it’s a chore to read or difficult to remember. And a rule should be challenging enough that it “stretches” us to grow, but not so demanding that it feels like a burden. Finally, making and (keeping) a rule, even a personal one, works best when it is shared with another person: a spiritual director or companion, or a prayer partner. When someone else knows about the ways you choose to grow spiritually, it keeps you accountable (and it also gives you support, since you can ask the person to pray for you).

If you’ve never created a personal rule of life, follow this link to download a PDF from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist: Living Intentionally: A Workbook for Creating a Personal Rule of Life. It’s a workbook filled with thought-provoking questions that can help you to reflect on, and then compose, your own personal rule. Don’t expect to complete this in a day or two, though. The questions require some thought (and prayer). Take your time with developing your personal rule, that way it will more likely be a statement that will truly bless you and support you as you grow in your faith.

If Living Intentionally doesn’t resonate with you, here are two other books that can help you create your personal rule: At Home in the World: A Rule of Life for the Rest of Us by Margaret Guenther, and Crafting a Rule of Life: An Invitation to the Well-Ordered Way by Stephen Macchia.

Good luck with your personal rule. If you have an interesting story to tell about writing (or living by) a personal rule of life, please leave a comment. I’d love to hear about how this kind of exercise has made a difference in your spiritual journey.


I offer a workshop on “Crafting a Personal Rule of Life.” To see about having me come to your church or organization, visit my Booking page.

The Dazzling Darkness

Photo by Fran McColman
Photo by Fran McColman
Photo by Fran McColman

“There is in God (some say)
A deep, but dazzling darkness”

— Henry Vaughan

“Truly, you are a God who hides himself,
O God of Israel, the Savior.”

— Isaiah 45:15

“Your brightness is my darkness. I know nothing of You and, by myself, I cannot even imagine how to go about knowing You. If I imagine You, I am mistaken. If I understand You, I am deluded. If I am conscious and certain I know You, I am crazy. The darkness is enough.”

— Thomas Merton,
Prayer Before Midnight Mass,
Christmas 1941


God is always present, yet hidden. When the metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan described God’s “dazzling darkness,” or Thomas Merton declared that God’s brightness is his darkness, they were participating in a mystical tradition that can be traced back through Saint John of the Cross (“the dark night of the soul”) to the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing (who equated darkness with God’s mystery) all the way back to the great mystical theologian of the sixth century, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, who  eloquently spoke of God’s mystery as “hidden in the darkness beyond light, of the hidden mystical silence.”

When we enter into silent prayer, we make ourselves available to God’s hidden presence. Because God is “a God who hides himself,” all we typically experience in contemplation is silence — or the buzz of our own distracted thoughts and feelings, although the silence is always just beneath our mental chatter. Indeed, the heart of contemplative prayer consists of continually returning to the silence as our thoughts and emotions keep distracting us.

But when we let go of our distracting inner chatter, what do we find? Silence… darkness… unknowing.

By faith, we know God is present in the silence. Yet our faith may be weak, and often it seems to us that the silence is boring, or uncomfortable, or pointless. Sometimes in silence we may feel restless or anxious. Sometimes we can feel deep peace. But other times the silence just seems to highlight how unruly our inner lives really are.

Yet even in the most boring moments of restless, fidgety prayer, our souls remain — at a level deeper than our awareness —immersed in the brilliant light of God’s unseen, unfelt presence. Praying into the silence beneath the normal chatter of our thinking minds is like walking outside on a bright sunny day after being inside in a dimly lit room.

When we enter bright sunlight after being in the dark, our eyes blink in order to adjust to the light. Distracting thoughts during silent prayer function in a similar way. These thoughts are the mind’s “blinking” in order to shield itself from the dazzling darkness of God’s silent presence.

On a physical level, human eyes simply do not function well in darkness. So there is almost a primal fear of the dark, which can terrorize little children trying to sleep, or compound the suffering of those who struggle with depression, anxiety, or loneliness. On a mythic level we associate darkness with evil, and a recent study of Daylight Savings Time changes and crime rates affirm that perception: an extra hour of daylight can reduce serious crimes by 40{b583bb596bb2c84984aee1f32e70a80b80285001a0226212b58cbda01f2115e7} or more — at least, for that hour.

Even the Bible gets into the “darkness is bad” theme: consider this verse from the Gospel of John: “people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). But other verses suggest that there is more to darkness than meets the eye, such is Psalm 139:12, addressing God: “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”

How do we sort all this out? God is a God of Light, so darkness can be a metaphor for all the ways we human beings resist and reject God’s love and goodness. But that metaphor hardly makes darkness itself evil. Isaiah 45:7 reminds us that God created darkness as well as light, and we know that human beings and other living creatures need the rhythm of daylight and night for times of rest and rejuvenation. Just as the earth needs winter as a time of rest before the new life of spring and summer, so too does all of God’s creation need the “dark” time of rest to prepare for the hope of a new day.

Perhaps to understand the spirituality of darkness, we need to consider the Genesis creation story, which begins with God creating light to shine in the darkness. This is echoed in Micah 7:8: “When I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me.” God is Light, and darkness is the container into which light is poured.

As Arlo Guthrie once folksily proclaimed, “You can’t have light without a dark to stick it in.” So the darkness of God’s mystery and seeming absence — the darkness of unknowing, of uncertainty and ambiguity, of feeling like God is far away — the darkness of the silence that resides deep inside each of us — is not an evil darkness but a receptive darkness, a place of hope and waiting. 

And when the light comes, it dazzles us. And our eyes blink. Just like when we encounter silence, our mind “blinks” with distracting thoughts.

The key to contemplative practice is perseverance. Take time to sit in the silence each and every day. However you respond to the silence — with feelings of peace, or boredom; restfulness, or fidgetiness — simply notice it, and let go of any impulse to judge or criticize. Let your relationship with the silence be what it is. God is present, whether you feel it or not. God loves you, whether your feel it or not. God’s dazzling light is bathing over you, whether you feel it or not. The invitation of contemplation is to simply bask in the darkness that is dazzled by inaccessible light.


Seven Hopes for the Christian (and Church) of the Future

Church buildings will eventually crumble, but Divine Light lasts forever.
Church buildings will eventually crumble, but Divine Light lasts forever.

In his 1981 book Concern for the Church, Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner made his famous prediction, “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all.”

A third of a century later, has Rahner’s prediction come to pass? The “not exist at all” part seems ominously real, as more and more congregations face declining membership, a shortage of priests, nuns, monks and volunteers, and difficulty raising enough money to pay for clergy salaries or building maintenance. But I think Rahner was trying to challenge followers of Jesus Christ to think outside the ecclesiastical box and envision new ways of spiritual living and faithful discipleship to re-shape our identity as Christians, both as individuals and as a Church.

With this in mind, I’d like to offer seven hopes that I have for the Christian — and Church — of the future. Continue reading →

My Forthcoming Book on Cistercian Spirituality

Abbot Francis Michael of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. Photo by James Behrens, OCSO
Abbot Francis Michael of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. Photo by James Behrens, OCSO

Dear friends, I’m excited to announce the title and subject of my forthcoming book.

In July 2013 I began a conversation with an editor associated with Ave Maria Press about writing a book grounded in Cistercian spirituality. If you’re not familiar with it, this is the spirituality of Cistercian monks and nuns — including mystics like Thomas Merton, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Beatrice of Nazareth. The contemplative prayer movement in Christianity today has its roots at least partially in the Cistercian tradition. Some people are more familiar with the name “Trappist” — Trappists are one branch of the Cistercian family.

The conversation moved slowly, not only because of the normal demands of my schedule, but because of my daughter Rhiannon’s needs — the summer and fall of 2013 she was in and out of the hospital, culminating in her entering in-home hospice in January 2014. Thankfully, the editor never gave up on me, and in a series of phone conversations and email exchanges, the book gradually began to take shape. Continue reading →

Images from the Monastery of the Holy Spirit

Here is a gallery of photographs taken at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, GA. The photographers are Fr. James Behrens, OCSO, and Haven Sweet. Enjoy!

Silence Today

Seagrove Beach, FL. Photo by Fran McColman.
Seagrove Beach, FL. Photo by Fran McColman.

Today is a wonderful day to be silent.

If you have never taken time to simply “be still and know God” (Psalm 46:1), then I invite you to do so. Not some day — today. Find some time today to turn off the smartphone, unplug the television and the laptop, silence the iPod and iPad — and simply rest, gently, quietly, in silence before the mystery of God. Continue reading →

Mary and Martha are Sisters

"Christ in the House of Martha and Mary" by Diego Velázquez (1618)
“Christ in the House of Martha and Mary” by Diego Velázquez (1618)

A sermon preached at First Baptist Church, Springfield, Ohio, on October 26, 2014
Scripture: Luke 10:38-42

When I was a little boy, my brother took me to the theater to see my first movie. It was called The Parent Trap. While younger members of the congregation may remember the 1998 version starring Lindsey Lohan, those of you who are about my age will, no doubt, agree with me that there really is only one version of this film, the 1961 version, which was originally billed as “starring Hayley Mills … and Hayley Mills!” The  young British actress, decades before CGI or other modern special effects, dazzled and amused audiences around the world by playing identical twin sisters, who were separated at birth, only to suddenly bump into each other as teenagers one summer at camp. The first half hour of the film derives much of its comedy from the rivalry that erupts between Susan and Sharon, two girls who look identical, who immediately take a profound dislike for each other when they attend the same summer camp. Pranks pulled on each other escalate until an entire Saturday night dance is ruined as the girls fight.

But then something interesting happens: to discipline the girls, they are required to spend the rest of their time at camp — with each other. The camp counselor says, “Either you’ll find a way to live with each other or you’ll punish yourselves far better than I ever could.” Shortly thereafter, Susan and Sharon figure out that they are in fact sisters, separated at birth, and the rest of the movie follows their exploits as they work together to help their estranged mother and father to reconcile.

Now, I know that not all sisters — or for that matter, all brothers — can find the kind of storybook happy ending that is the trademark of a Walt Disney film. Still, the charm and the humor of a story like The Parent Trap is built on a rather universal human principle that, thankfully, is true at least much of the time: that two sisters, or for that matter two siblings of any gender, are liable to fight like cats and dogs — after all, we have a term for it: “sibling rivalry” — but underneath the squabbles and the bickering, they’re family, and at the end of the day, they love each other.

Mary and Martha of Bethany are two of more colorful “minor characters” in the Gospel story. They were sisters, and we know from the Gospel of John they had a brother named Lazarus. There has been a lot of confusion over Mary in particular. In the middle ages, Mary of Bethany was frequently confused with Mary Magdalene, although in modern times most scholars believe they are two separate figures. We know nothing about their family, if any of them were married or had children. One legend suggests that Mary and Martha were women of means, and in fact provided financial support for Jesus’s ministry. But this of course is mere legend and speculation. All we know for certain is what we see in the Bible. And the story of the sisters that we find in the tenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel has been one of the most commented upon stories in the entire Gospel.

When Jesus comes to Bethany, he arrives at Martha’s home. We do not know if Mary lived with Martha or not, the evangelist does not say. We do know that while Martha busies herself with “her many tasks,” — presumably related to hospitality for her guests — her sister sits does at the Lord’s feet and listens to what he is saying. We can assume that this is probably not a private audience, that Jesus is teaching his disciples. Mary has broken the rules of society, choosing to sit with the boys while leaving her poor sister to do all the work in the kitchen.

Needless to say, Martha gets annoyed. We might speculate that this is not the first time that Mary has opted to leave the chores to her sister, because as best we can tell, Martha does not confront Mary; no, she goes straight to Jesus. You can almost imagine what is going through Martha’s head as she marches up to the Lord. “She won’t listen to me, but maybe she will listen to him.”

In making her appeal to Jesus, Martha is not above some old fashioned guilt tripping. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” Unfortunately for Martha, Jesus is smart enough not to get in the middle of this family squabble, so he deftly sets a boundary of his own. “Martha, Martha!” he says, repeating her name twice, presumably because he didn’t get her attention the first time. And then he simply acknowledges her. “You are worried and distracted by many things.” Three different Greek words are used to describe Martha’s state in this brief story:

  • περισπάω — perispao,
  • μεριμνάω — merimnao, and
  • θορυβάζω — thorybazo.

Each of these words carries the connotation of anxious, troubled, worried, upset, distracted. In fact, English translations like the New Revised Standard Version render both merimnao and thorybazo as “distracted.” Martha seems to be a very distracted person.

In acknowledging that Martha is upset, Jesus surprises her because he defends her sister. “There is need of only one thing,” he muses. “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” In other words, Jesus is saying, “Martha, what really matters here? Mary has made a good choice, so don’t ask me to take it away from her.” We could possibly read this passage as Jesus putting Martha down, since she did not choose the “one thing necessary” or the “better part.” But I think Jesus is not criticizing the work she is doing, but the manner in which she is doing it. It is her distraction that he pushes against. If Jesus were here today, speaking in our contemporary colloquial language, I can imagine him saying, “Martha, CHILL!”

As I said a few minutes ago, this is a passage that has often been commented on, over the ages. In recent years it has been seen as a type of feminist parable, in which Jesus encourages Martha to step out of prescribed gender roles like her sister has spontaneously done. But in the past, Mary and Martha were understood not in terms of gender, but as metaphors for ways in which Christians respond to the Gospel in our lives.

In the fourteenth century, an anonymous book was written called The Cloud of Unknowing. It is a manual on prayer and meditation — on how Christians can learn to grow closer to God through a sustained daily discipline of meditative prayer. The classic word for this kind of prayer is contemplation. In fact, in the middle ages, when The Cloud of Unknowing was written, Christians who wanted to devote their lives to prayer and meditation often would become nuns or monks, so that the way of life found in monasteries or convents became known as “the contemplative life.” By contrast, the life of Christians who got married or otherwise lived out their faith outside of the walls of a monastery were said to live an “active life.” By the fourteenth century, this idea of an active or contemplative approach to discipleship had become a commonly understood distinction within the life of the church.

The author of The Cloud of Unknowing takes the story of Mary and Martha of Bethany and applies it to this way of understanding the faith. Martha, busy with her many tasks, symbolizes an active expression of discipleship. Mary, listening quietly as she sits at the feet of the master, represents the contemplative approach to faith.

The Cloud of Unknowing points out that it is Martha who complains about Mary, and not the other way around. Perhaps not much has changed since the fourteenth century! Activists, people who work hard to build the kingdom of God, indeed doing very good and holy work, might find it easy to criticize those who orient their lives toward a more receptive mode of spirituality. The great poet John Milton declared “They also serve who only stand and wait” — but perhaps the reason he had to put that in writing is because ours is a society that isn’t so sure about such things as meditation or contemplation or prayer. We dismiss such activities as “introspection” or “navel gazing.” A pastor of a large church in Atlanta once told me “I’m more of a practical person than a spiritual person.” I was stunned that he thought there was a difference. But apparently, that is a common idea in our society.

But the story of Mary and Martha is hardly the only case where Jesus challenges the conventional norms of society. He sleeps on a boat in the midst of a storm and takes time to pray even when he is at risk of being arrested. In fact, when we read the Gospel and pay attention, we notice that Jesus withdraws to pray again and again — usually by himself, sometimes with only two or three of his closest disciples present. No one could accuse Jesus of not having an active ministry, Jesus, who healed the sick, cured the lame, raised the dead, and cast out demons. But his ministry of service and healing was fueled by regular, solitary, and dare I say silent prayer.

Few of us are as balanced as Jesus. I dare say that if we went around the room and spoke to everyone we would find that some of us are natural Mary’s, and others are natural Martha’s. Some of us love to get in the thick of where the action is, working hard to get things done, solve problems, fix what’s broken, and right what’s wrong. At home the Marthas are the ones who are handy with tools; at work, they’re the ones you go to, to get things done. At church, you’ll find the Marthas on every committee and busy at every workday. Thank God for all the Marthas in the world, or nothing would ever, ever get done.

Meanwhile, where are the Mary’s? Now Martha might be quick to point out that Mary always seems to disappear whenever there’s work to be done. But perhaps things are not quite that simple. If you looked for her, you would find that Mary is busy praying. When there is a conflict, Mary is trying to understand all sides of the equation so that she can more wisely discern what needs to be done. When a situation seems mired down, Mary is the one least likely to try to push for a quick solution; rather she wants to take the time to make sure that a complicated process is done right the first time. Perhaps most important of all, Mary is patient — you’ll find her with a handicapped child, or a grandmother lost in the confusion of dementia. Mary understands that sometimes, you just can’t solve a problem, but you can help to make it a little bit better. And Mary understands these things because she is a woman who prays.

We run the risk when we read the story of Mary and Martha, of thinking that Jesus is taking sides here. When he says that Mary has chosen the better part, isn’t that a slap in Martha’s face? Isn’t that a way of saying that Martha’s choice is second rate, or second best? But I really don’t think that’s what Jesus was saying at all. And once again, we can turn to that medieval manual of prayer, The Cloud of Unknowing, to understand the real secret of this Gospel story.

“In this part, contemplative life and active life are linked together in spiritual kinship and made sisters, on the model of Martha and Mary,” notes The Cloud. “An active may come this high into contemplation and no higher, except very rarely and by special grace. A contemplative may come this low towards active life and no lower, except very rarely and in great necessity.” Now, I don’t think it makes sense to say that the contemplative life is higher than the active life. But scholars are pretty sure that the author of The Cloud of Unknowing was a contemplative, so naturally he was a bit biased! But we can put Mary and Martha side by side and the analogy works just as well. Mary and Martha are sisters. Like the twins in “The Parent Trap,” they are not above bickering and squabbling. But at the end of the day, they love each other — and that’s just how Jesus wants it.

Like I said, every one of us is a natural Mary or a natural Martha. So if you are a Martha where do you find your “Mary” — and vice versa? I think the answer lies within. Every one of us is naturally right-handed or naturally left-handed, but by the grace of God almost all of us have two hands to use, and sometimes we need that less-dominant hand. Our spiritual lives operate the same way. The natural Mary’s of the world know that they have to do their fair share of work. And likewise, the Martha’s of the world need to make time in their busy lives to simply be still, rest in the silence, and listen for the still small voice of God.

Jesus said “Whoever receives a child in my name, receives me.” In other words, there is a certain holiness to hospitality in the life of faith. We are called to welcome the stranger, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked. We are called to be Martha’s. But we are also called to go into our room and pray in secret, to come aside for a while, to be still and know that God is God. In short, we are called to offer hospitality, in our hearts, to both sisters — to both the Mary and the Martha dimension of the spiritual life. If you’re a natural Mary, offering hospitality to Martha means making more of an effort to pitch in and help whenever there’s work to do. But if you’re a natural Martha, offering hospitality to Mary means taking the time to slow down, relax, let go of all your distractions and troubles and anxieties, and find that quiet place where you can listen to the stirrings in your heart and the whispers of the wind. With every breath, with every heartbeat, we can relax deeper into the presence of God, where we do not have to achieve anything, prove anything, or get anything done. We are simply called to be.

There is a verse in the Psalms — Psalm 65:1 to be exact — that historically has often been mistranslated. But several new versions of the English Bible, including The Message and the Common English Bible, get it right. If you translate the Hebrew word for word into English, the verse says, “To you, silence is praise, O God in Zion.” To you, silence is praise. What a challenging verse, especially for a society — and a religion! — as noisy as ours! After all, Christianity is a rather talkative religion — look at what I’m doing right now — and when we aren’t talking, we’re busy singing. We are a chatty bunch. And the One whom we call “the Word of God” understands and loves our words of praise. But Psalm 65 reminds us that sometimes, the best way to praise God is to SHUT UP and listen. Silence is praise! I think the reason this verse has often been mistranslated is because a lot of Bible scholars are more like Martha than Mary. But we can go back to the original Hebrew, and like Mary, we can sit at the feet of the Lord and we can be silent, and listen. This is the heart of contemplative prayer. It is a beautiful and loving way to worship God. It has been part of Christian history ever since Jesus spent forty days in the desert — we can rest assured he wasn’t talking to the Devil the entire time! — and it is available to us today.

Martha is wonderful, and we know Jesus loved her. But I am inclined to think that when Martha prays, she tells God everything that needs to get done. By contrast, when Mary prays, she listens to allow God to direct her toward what God needs to get done. I hope that every one of us, whether we are a natural Mary or a natural Martha, can find a way to pray by listening in the silence, at least for a few minutes every day. Remember, Martha and Mary are sisters. They need each other. And we need them both.

Our help is in the name of the Lord; the maker of heaven and earth. Amen.

Our Choices Determine Who We Are

A reflection given at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church, Artane, Dublin, Ireland, on September 28, 2014
Scripture: Ezekiel 18:25-28, Philippians 2:1-11, Matthew 21:28-32

Our Lady of Mercy Church, Artane, Dublin
Our Lady of Mercy Church, Artane, Dublin

It is said that actions speak louder than words. It has also been said that our choices determine who we are, or perhaps, who we shall become. Our lessons today highlight this essential spiritual principle. Ezekiel reminds us that when we blame God for our misfortune, often the real cause of our distress lies far closer to home. When we abandon justice to embrace what is evil, common sense dictates that tragedy will soon follow. But those who reject wickedness to do what is right are, in effect, choosing life over death.

Both of these scenarios imply making a significant, life-altering change — not a mere whimsical, spur-of-the-moment choice, but a carefully considered decision. Our Gospel lesson today underlines this point and perhaps even raises the stakes a little bit. Jesus tells us of a father making a request of two sons. He wants them to work in the family vineyard. I think we can assume that neither young man really wants to do his father’s will. The first son is honest about his lack of enthusiasm, although he later decides to go do the work. The other youth, by contrast, says yes to his father’s face but never follows through on the request. Jesus never tells us if the second son had good intentions about doing the work but somehow just never got around to it, or if he actually never meant to do the work at all — in other words, was he guilty of lack of follow-through, or of lying? It doesn’t really matter. Actions speak louder than words. When we say one thing and do another, at the end of the day it is our deeds that seem to matter most.

Jesus tells this story to a specific audience: the chief priests and elders, who were questioning his authority to teach. Typical of Jesus, he refuses to be intimidated by the authorities but he also replies to their challenge by recounting a few parables, of which today’s gospel is the first. When his questioners show that they get the point of the story, Jesus drives the message home by making it clear that no one — not even tax collectors and prostitutes — are beyond the reach of God’s liberating grace, if only they will choose to receive it. Actions speak louder than words. Our choices determine who we are, or perhaps, who we shall become.

Then we turn to today’s New Testament reading, one of the loveliest passages in the entirety of Sacred Scripture. Saint Paul wants his readers to be of the same mind, the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. He calls upon the Philippians — and, by extension, all the faithful — to have the same attitude, or mind, that is ours in Christ Jesus. What does this mean, to have the mind of Christ? Paul tells us, through a lovely hymn: Jesus, though equal with God, emptied himself, humbling himself in human form even to the point of death. The fancy Greek word here is Kenosis — “emptying.” We embrace the mind of Christ in humility and self-emptying.

Since I’ve given you one Greek word this morning, I may as well give you another — Metanoia, which is rendered in English as “repentance,” a word that we often resist as being too churchy, too pious. But Metanoia, repentance, literally means simply “to change your mind” or perhaps even to go beyond your mind — the Greek prefix “meta-” means “beyond.” When we humbly empty our minds (and hearts) of all that stands in the way of love and life, we create the space for the Holy Spirit to bring healing from within. This is the essence of contemplative prayer — a prayer of radical silence, of emptying ourselves for the purpose of receiving God’s grace.

God’s love is a free gift; we cannot earn it. But we choose whether or not to receive it. When we choose the path of Jesus — the path of humility and silence, of self-emptying and trust, of choosing to do the right thing, even late in the game — when, like the Psalmist, we “wait all the day long” for God’s guidance, compassion and mercy — then we know that God’s grace and forgiveness shall determine who we are, and who we shall become.

The Hidden Tradition of Christian Mysticism

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa of Avila
The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa of Avila

Karl Rahner, one of the most renowned Christian theologians of the twentieth century, once famously remarked that “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.”

For people whose experience of Christianity is, often, little more than a religion invested in obedience and in patriarchal morality, this seems to be a bold statement. After all, mysticism implies not legalistic religion, but living spirituality —  heart-felt intimacy with God, centered on a miraculous and joyful appreciation of the Spirit’s ability to heal and transform lives. Can Christianity and mysticism really co-exist?

Not only can Christianity be a mystical faith, but in fact a mystical element of Christianity has existed since the time of Jesus. But for a variety of historical, social and political reasons, Christian mysticism has always existed on the margins of the church. In the fourth and fifth centuries, as Christianity gradually moved into its position as the dominant religion in the Roman empire, the mystics, contemplatives, and others who sought profound intimate communion with God retreated from the cities into the deserts and the wilderness. These “Desert Fathers and Mothers” were the founders of the first monasteries — intentional communities of people who came together to live in perpetual prayer and meditation. By the middle ages, Christian mystics were, for the most part, found only in the monasteries and convents; then in the sixteenth century, when the Protestant Reformation led to religious strife (and, often, bloodshed), mystical spirituality fell under suspicion by both Catholics and Protestants. Although there have been mystics in every century of the Christian era, the sad reality is that, because of the political nature of the institutional church, many mystics have been persecuted, some even killed, and others learned to camouflage their wisdom teachings in carefully worded books and poems that appeared non-threatening to the religious authorities.

So the mystics (and their teachings) are, in a very real way, Christianity’s best-kept secret. And even though some Christians of the third millennium remain suspicious of mysticism, many others have begun to embrace the transfiguring beauty of such core spiritual practices as meditation, lectio divina (“sacred reading,” a meditative approach to the Bible and other wisdom texts), and contemplative prayer — the profound form of prayer in which meditative silence is offered directly to God for the purpose of seeking and fostering deeper spiritual intimacy and communion. Meanwhile, even familiar Christian practices such as the Catholic Rosary are being rediscovered as tools for entering into contemplative silence; while other, lesser known exercises (such as deeply meditative “prayer of the heart” from Eastern Orthodox Christianity) have gained newfound popularity as means for Christians to embrace unitive (nondual) states of consciousness, where — in the words of one great mystic, Meister Eckhart — “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye is one eye, and one sight, and one knowledge, and one love.”

The roots of Christian mystical wisdom are found in the Bible itself. Unfortunately, centuries of reading and interpreting the Bible according to perspectives that have often been subtly (or explicitly) anti-mystical has made the visionary power of the New Testament’s wisdom teachings far too easy to miss. For example, the first verse of Psalm 65 makes the bluntly contemplative statement “To you, God, silence is praise” in the original Hebrew — but this verse has often been mistranslated when rendered into English or other languages; presumably many scholars who translate the Bible could not wrap their minds around the idea that silence could actually be a means for worship.

Julian of Norwich
Julian of Norwich

But for those who have “eyes to see,” the mystical message of such writings as the Gospel of John or the Letters to the Ephesians can become obvious —just like the 3-D image in a “Magic Eye” poster is hidden at first, but becomes impossible to miss when we learn to look for it in just the right way. From a mystical perspective, “just the right way” means approaching the Bible as a document encoded with messages about what the ancient Greeks called theosis — participation in the very nature of the Divine.

Christianity is built on two controversial—but thoroughly mystical—teachings: first, that Jesus of Nazareth is both fully human and fully divine, and furthermore, that this same Jesus is, literally, one with God, one person in a trinity of persons who share the Divine Unity. For many Christians, these teachings have been interpreted to stress humanity’s separation from Divinity: Christ may be one with God, but no one else is. This, however, is not supported by the mystical wisdom found in the New Testament. Indeed, Jesus proclaims that he is one with God in the Gospel of John (see verse 10:30). But Biblical writings also stress the oneness between Jesus and those who follow his wisdom teachings. “We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another,” proclaims Saint Paul in  his letter to the Romans. Christ is one with God, and we are one with Christ. Saint Peter is even more blunt, proclaiming that by the promises of Christ, his followers become “partakers of the divine nature.” Mystically speaking, Christianity points toward Divine communion as the ultimate destiny of being human.

Granted, Christian mystical theology is not the same as other wisdom teachings from around the world. Some wisdom paths point toward union with the Divine as the ultimate truth, suggesting that the experience of being a separate human person is, ultimately, simply an illusion that will fall away when we finally, fully, recognize our oneness with the Sacred. Christianity offers a different approach: in which the distinction between God and humanity is taken at face value, understood not as an illusion but rather as a simple point of fact in how the cosmos is structured. Such a distinction exists, according to Christian mystical teaching, not because humanity is inferior, but rather because it is only in the distinction between Divinity and humanity that we are able to fully, truly and ecstatically love each other. Thus, Christian mysticism celebrates communion with God as the ultimate destiny of humankind: eternal life is a never-ending cosmic dance, in which humanity and Divinity interpenetrate one another, joyfully sharing love and communion like a flower that is forever opening wider and deeper, evolving into ever new dimensions of blissful celebration.

Ignatius of Loyola
Ignatius of Loyola

While Christianity has its own distinctive mystical teachings that in some ways mark it as different from other spiritual paths, those who drink deeply from the wells of Christian contemplation tend, like mystics from all paths, to be far more interested in what unites people of different traditions, rather than what separates us. In the history of the Christian mystics, again and again the contemplatives have been the ones who reach out beyond the boundaries of institutional religion to embrace the teachings of other faiths. Clement and Origen, early mystics from the second and third centuries, embraced the wisdom of the pagan Greek philosophers in their teachings. Later, in Ireland and other Celtic lands, the saints of the Christian monasteries integrated druidic teachings and practices into their spiritual observance. In renaissance Spain, a number of Christians incorporated elements of the Kabbalah into their teaching; and the twentieth century was full of visionary Christians who reached out to the spiritual treasures of other cultures and paths: the Benedictine monk Bede Griffiths embraced Vedanta while the Trappist monk Thomas Merton explored Buddhism; Valentin Tomberg integrated Catholicism and Anthroposophy; and Mary Margaret Funk continues the work of deep interfaith encounter as she, a Benedictine nun, engages in constructive dialogue with members of the Muslim faith community. For Christians such as these, devotion to the wisdom teachings of Jesus and his followers is not about religious exclusivity or a belief that Christianity is superior to other faiths; rather it is about a joyful celebration of the beauty, splendor and diversity of all positive paths.

To learn more about Christian mysticism, read a href="">The Big Book of Christian Mysticism: The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality.
To learn more about Christian mysticism, read The Big Book of Christian Mysticism: The Essential Guide to Contemplative Spirituality by Carl McColman.

What difference can the mystical element of Christianity make in our world today? Sadly, most Christians remain unfamiliar with the spiritual wisdom hidden in their own tradition. But more and more people, both inside and beyond the institutional church, are turning to classic spiritual disciplines such as meditation, contemplation, lectio divina, regular chanting or recitation of the Psalms and other prayers (known as the Divine Office), devotion to Christ, Mary, and the saints, and turning to monasteries and convents for retreats grounded in silence and under the guidance of monks and nuns who have devoted their entire lives to prayer. The result, of course, is that more and more people are opening themselves up to joyful, visionary, and transfiguring encounters with Christ and the Holy Spirit. More and more Christians are finding in their faith not just the legalistic religion of old, but exciting possibilities of unitive consciousness found through silent communion with God. Such encounters may be thought of as “supernatural” but the case could be made that mystical spirituality is utterly natural: it is something that can reach us in the ordinary moments of life. At the same time, the encounter with God could also be so subtle that it is easily missed. No matter how glorious or humble, extraordinary or ordinary, such moments of communion with God often are marked by a profound sense of Divinely-given love, joy, and peace. They also can lead to a deeper sense of trust in God, love for other human beings, and — most crucial of all for our time — a profound respect for people of other cultures and faiths.

In other words, mystical wisdom and practice is not only the best hope for the future of Christianity, but it can also contribute to something that we all yearn for: a world shaped by peace and harmony among the people of all positive paths.

This article, in a slightly different form, originally appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Evolve! (volume 9, number 3).