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Spirituality: Tuning in to God
by Karen Sue Smith

I grew up hearing the story of a man who visited the church each weekday just for a minute. He would drive into the parking lot, then walk into the church alone, always at a time when no Mass was scheduled. The pastor, who had never seen the fellow in the Sunday congregation, found the behavior curious. One day, he couldn't resist asking, "What do you do there so quickly?" The man replied, "I just say, 'Lord, it's Jim,' then I wait a minute and leave." Every day for several weeks afterward, the pastor noticed Jim's visitations. One day Jim left the church elated. "What's up?" the pastor asked. "Today, my prayer was answered," he replied. "As I was waiting, I heard a voice say, 'Jim, it's the Lord."'

Although quite limited in its approach to the church, this story contains much Scripturebased wisdom. It illustrates that God hears and answers prayer, addresses us in our own language and calls us by name; that persistence is rewarded; that eloquence isn't necessary; and that some people—even those not publicly practicing a common faith—long for a personal experience of God, which God honors. In the story, Jim's longing for God is vital to his emerging spiritual life.

What I find appealing is not only the story's simplicity, but also its irony, once it has been situated in the Church's teaching about the Holy Spirit and the workings of God.

Jim's habit of putting himself in the presence of God is so simple that anyone anywhere could take it up. The practice itself is inspired: Jim attends regularly to his interior hunger for God. Because something about the Church has attracted Jim, it will gradually, one would hope, draw him deeply into its spiritual life. The Holy Spirit that ignited the Church at Pentecost ignites and guides it still.

A beginner, Jim stands at step one in a lifelong process of discovering the Spirit. From Jim's point of view, he is faithful to his self-prescribed discipline of checking in with God whether God "answers" him or not.

The story's irony is that God is already present with Jim, has been since the first day of his existence and will be into eternity. Although Jim gives God a moment of his time, God hasn't missed a single moment of Jim's entire life! God has attended and been present to Jim's every need, hurt, success and failure. God has initiated the brief conversation described in the story, even though it isn't told that way. As the story ends, Jim has consciously "discovered" that he is in relationship with God.

God-awareness

Spirituality refers to one's conscious relationship with God. For us Catholics, it refers to the way we exercise our Christianity, our discipleship. Spirituality is our lifestyle in its broadest sense, affecting everything we do and all we are. Nothing—not our family, not our job, not our intellectual life, not our sexual life, not our political or civic life, not our social life, and not our interior prayer or religious life—is left out of it.

We are not the only people with a spirituality, yet the Christian view of God—hence of the world—is unique. We believe that in Jesus, God became one of us, entered human history and became subject to life on a human scale. With the resurrection of Jesus, something momentous happened. Using poetry, we tell the mysterious truth that God "broke the bonds of death." Since then, nothing has been the same. All creation has been caught up in the Spirit's transforming power. It moves among us. All creation is being made new, recreated: Send us your Spirit and renew the face of the earth. We who have been baptized into Christ's death and resurrection are called to be caught up in the Spirit's dynamic work as well—consciously, willingly, attentively.

Attending to the Spirit

How do we open ourselves to the Spirit, who is already at work in us and in our world? It may seem elementary or even homey, but I take a "stop, look and listen" approach.

Slow down. Most of us would admit that sometimes our lives do, indeed, move too fast, at a pace quickened by the complexities of modern life. As moderns, we consciously inhabit several worlds at once: the wide, multicultural, multilingual world of nations and peoples; the closer world of people and events in our neighborhoods, offices and homes; and the interior world of the self—conscious and unconscious.

Experience and reason tell us that we must willfully put a brake on our frenetic thoughts, preoccupations and activities if we are to attend to the things of the Spirit. Those of us with bulging dayplanners and heavily booked calendars need particularly good brakes if we are to grow spiritually. When we don't slow down, we may have difficulty experiencing God. Even if we religiously appear for Mass, we may have trouble "attending" to it.

It isn't that God can't keep up with us, of course. St. Paul credits God with knocking him to the ground, an act that slowed him down so that he could then experience "firsthand" the risen Christ. Paul's dramatic conversion came only after he stopped galloping around. Speed presents no obstacle to God, but a purposeful downshifting can predispose us to attend to God already in our midst.

The braking technique—be it deep breathing, slow walking, meditating, contemplating, taking a vacation, serving soup at the homeless shelter, jogging, adoring Christ in the Eucharist or making an extended retreat—isn't the most important issue. Paying attention is. Whenever we slow down, time cooperates, seemingly stretching out and unfolding before us, lingering with us rather than running away from us. Choosing to slow down in order to pay attention to God is the prequel to the spiritual life.

Look around. Being open to the Spirit requires observation skills. Where is the Spirit—in me, my family, my workplace, my neighborhood, the period of history in which I live? To answer, one has to be able to see who and where one is. A close look might raise difficult questions: Where is the Spirit in my quarreling family? in my failures, doldrums or successes on the job? in my inadequacies and strengths as a spouse, parent, sibling, friend? Whom do I leave out of my circle? Who stands on the fringes of my life? Who is the stranger, the needy, the naked, the imprisoned closest to me? Spirituality starts with reality.

In the Bronx area of New York, members of the contemplative branch of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity take daily "contemplative walks." Stepping over broken glass and refuse littering the neighborhood, they look at the burned-out shells of buildings around them, pay attention to any and all people they see, take in all the tragic sights and malodorous smells of the blighted area where they live. They see all that and more. Theirs isn't a cloistered walk but it is contemplative, for as they walk they see where the Spirit is—and is not—present in their streets. Spirituality isn't otherworldly. It is this world God created, loved, lived in and died for, not some other more perfect one.

Practice paying attention. It isn't a religious skill per se, but developing attentiveness can have profound implications for one's spiritual life. Test your senses, for example. If you want to know how well you listen, think of someone whose remarks you might be tempted to dismiss (perhaps someone a rung or two below you at work or someone who interrupted you). Ask yourself: What did he/she just say? If you come up blank or have only half the story, you need to improve your listening.

One's ability to see can also be tested and improved. While on a weeklong walk across Fngland with my godson Peter, I tried to share with him my own way of taking in and remembering a scene. First, I look at the place with concentration, taking in the smells, sounds, colors and shapes. Then I close my eyes, letting those same sensations arise in my mind's eye. If anything comes out a blur or a blank, I open my eyes again and look more closely at that part, and try it again. On a particular mountaintop where parts of our view were shrouded in fog, Peter and I attempted this technique several times, trying to drink in the scene, giving ourselves an interior keepsake. (Drawing is another way of sharpening one's observation skills—regardless of artistic talent.)

As Christians, the Spirit calls us to pay attention to the larger world around us, to what we read in the newspaper, for example, bringing our concerns about the people and places in the news into our prayer and parish communities.

Pray. Prayer begins from wherever we are and can penetrate the deepest core of our being. One can and should read what the Bible and the spiritual masters say about prayer. Nothing, however, can substitute for actually praying. Knowing about God is not the same as having a relationship with God. If you regularly attend Sunday Mass, you already are spending an hour each week "at prayer." Do you make the most of it? Are you able to add your personal petitions to those of the whole parish and pray for them all? Do you pray by actively participating—singing with a full heart, listening, observing and giving inner assent to the words, gestures and actions of the Mass? Do you observe the silences in the Mass, or take a moment before or after to be still before God?

At home, do you "say grace" before meals? Too often, this is a perfunctory prayer, but it need not be. Certain times each day lend themselves to prayer: morning (waking) and evening (bedtime), commuting, the major entrances and exits of family off to work/school and home again, and odd times spent waiting (at the doctor's/dentist's office). It takes only a moment to lay one's hand on one's spouse each night and utter a simple blessing: "May God bless you, watch over your going and coming, your waking and sleeping, and grant you joy and peace."

If you have more time, the parish can assist you with prayer groups, devotions, seasonal prayer times and periods of reflection, and resources on prayer—from books and newsletters to featured speakers and retreats. You may also want to inquire about spiritual direction. Meeting with a trained spiritual guide regularly can help you see and articulate where the Spirit is at work in your life.

Goal: growth in holiness

Evaluate the fruits of your efforts. The Spirit's gifts, presence and transforming work are always for the sake of all. So must our Christian spirituality be for the benefit of all. By trying habitually to open ourselves to the Spirit alive in our world, we put our faith at the center of our lives, we make it a life-style. Over time, we begin to take on God's likeness inasmuch as we are able. We grow in holiness.

The fruits of the Spirit mentioned in Galatians 5:22—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, trustworthiness, tenderness and self-control—are a good standard against which to measure oneself. We should ask ourselves: Am I improving in any of these qualities? Where do I seem least to exhibit the fruits of the Spirit? Reflect on your behavior at work and at home. Reflect on your various roles—citizen, neighbor, spouse, parent, parishioner, alumnus/a, team/club member and so on. Ask: How am I open to the Spirit in each of these roles? Do I bring my experience of the Spirit to all areas of my life?

When you are finished, thank the Spirit for your strengths and fruits; ask for help in your weaknesses. Above all, keep opening yourself to the Spirit who works within you.

Karen Sue Smith is the editor of Church magazine, a publication of the National Pastoral Life Center in New York City.


 

Robert Ellsberg 

Robert Ellsberg has always been a searcher. As a youngster growing up in the Episcopal Church in California, he felt deeply engaged by the gospel. Simply going to church on Sunday was not enough. He felt "called to discipleship" in some overt way.

Over the years, he found ways to answer the call and continue the search for a deeper relationship with God. After a period of disenchantment with the organized Church during the Vietnam War, he became part of the Catholic Worker in New York. There he found a community of people "radically living out the demands of the gospel" and converted to Catholicism. Now 42 and editor-in-chief at Orbis Books in Maryknoll, New York, he is still engaged in the search.

But, says the husband and father of three, God invites all of us on that same quest: "Deep inside of us is a sense of longing, of incompleteness" and a desire "to find our home in the world. There is always a consistent lure that draws us deeper," and that lure is God "inviting us to be more like Jesus."

To help himself and others on the journey, Mr. Ellsberg spent one-and-a-half years writing All Saints: Daily Refiections on Saints, Prophets and Witnesses for Our Time. Published in 1997 by Crossroad, the book offers a combination of the expected and unexpected. Included are people the Church has long recognized as among its holiest members: mystics, monks, martyrs, popes. Standing beside them are some surprising candidates: Johann Sebastian Bach, composer; Rabbi Abraham Heschel, philosopher; Sojourner Truth, abolitionist preacher; Anne Frank, "witness of the Holocaust"; Father John LaFarge, champion of interracial justice.

They intentionally represent a wide array of humanity, Mr. Ellsberg acknowledges. For him, saints are not "finished products" whose struggles bear little resemblance to our own. They are, he told Millennium Monthly, "flesh-and-blood people" whose lives are filled with "struggle, trial and error." But ultimately, their lives are filled with action on behalf of the gospel.

Mr. Ellsberg dedicates his book to his children in the hope that "they learn to draw light from these holy lives and so become a source of light for others." Indeed, that is his wish for all people ready "to take the harder path, not just what comes easily."

— by Judy Ball



 
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2000 and Counting

lsrael is rolling out the welcome mat for pilgrims visiting the land of Jesus' birth in connection with the third millennium. The Ministry of Tourism is hoping to develop sites for visitors in Jerusalem such as the Valley of the Kings, which includes the City of David, the Lion's Gate, the area around the Garden of Gethsemane and the Gihon Spring. Special efforts are also being made to illuminate several of Jerusalem's distinctive buildings, including the dome of the Holy Sepulcher. A new four-lane thoroughfare will allow pilgrims to reach Bethlehem by skirting the busy streets of Jerusalem.

The official logo for the year 2000 in Jerusalem was unveiled at a recent ceremony in front of the walls of the Old City. The work of an Israeli graphic designer, the logo includes the number 2000 in the shape of a dove and the word "peace" written in Hebrew, Arabic and English.

Speaking to those assembled for the ceremony, Shabtai Shay, senior deputy director of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, emphasized the Christian focus that will be placed on celebrations for the year 2000. Decisions about which events to organize are in the hands of various local churches, particularly the Catholic Church.

 
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