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Rising From a Spiritual Rut
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Friday, January 7, 2011
She was in a rut. As she trudged through the routine, she ticked off the mental litany: Get water, wash dishes, do laundry, cook meal. He was in a rut. He’d learned to think along straight lines: Follow direct paths, don’t deviate from safe assumptions.
Then they both got nudged out of their ruts and into another world.
Sound familiar? You may know them by other names: the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:4-42) and Nicodemus (John 3:1-21).
They may seem like us. The woman at the well follows a worn path which continues, even in her way of thinking, when she’s surprised by a stranger. Jesus’ request for a drink is preposterous. Even today, Orthodox Jews don’t share meals or vessels with those whose dietary practices are less strict than theirs. Furthermore, Jesus comes thirsty and tired to a well without a bucket! Even more shocking, he, who isn’t supposed to talk publicly with a woman, takes a playful tone with her.
Jesus also nudges Nicodemus. As a teacher of Israel, Nicodemus complacently adheres to tired concepts which Jesus tries to broaden and expand.
It appears that Jesus is no lover of ruts. It’s heartening to hear that “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19) and “[f]rom his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). Jesus repeatedly reminds us that he came to bring abundant life, spilling over any rut.
He entered human life in a totally unexpected way—born in a stable, not a palace; to young peasants, not royalty. He refused to believe the teachers who protested, “But we’ve always done it this way!”
Jesus often shakes people out of their comfy grooves. He broke taboos; he healed and invited people to more compassionate life. Blind Bartimaeus gladly gave up his begging routine. Matthew abandoned the daily grind of tax collecting. Jesus startled his disciples, upsetting their calcified notions of holiness. And we who follow Christ,
what do we do when we’re stuck?
Many spiritual writers address the problem. Kathleen Norris has written a whole book,
Acedia & Me
, on the “noon-day devil,”
or sloth. St. Benedict wrote in his
, “Each day has reasons for joy.” Each day’s joys are unique and intriguing, and searching them out can entertain us daily.
St. Francis of Assisi’s delight in creation could also bump us out of a rut. In any season, we can find beauty: blue shadows on snow, first buds tight as fists, sunlight playing on summer leaves, brassy colors of autumnal harvest. St. Teresa of Avila once described the spiritual life as dragging buckets to water a garden (remember, she lived in dry Spain). Then, God’s grace comes as rain, disrupting the weary routine.
Piero Ferrucci in
What We May Be
gives helpful imagery for directing the psychic energies. The psychotherapist asked one client to reflect on risk. It channeled the person’s natural vitality so that he was soon doing small things to jolt himself out of his “cocoon”: phoning someone he hadn’t seen in a long time, starting a new hobby, challenging co-workers to ping-pong games. If we don’t take our routines too seriously, we discover that the world doesn’t end if we shift them a bit. Listen to jazz a lot? Try classical. A regular at the 9 a.m. Sunday Mass? Try the Saturday afternoon. You may meet old friends you haven’t seen in years. For a wild-and-crazy break from routine, attend a different parish! (It might make you appreciate your own.) If Scripture is growing stale or overly familiar, spend time instead with the marvelous spiritual authors writing now: Rolheiser, Rupp and Livingston, to name a few.
If your routine has been centering prayer, try praying with music. Or set aside your usual devotions and spend a few silent minutes each day simply listening for God’s whisper. Why cling to practices that fail to nurture? The bottom line: If it’s not feeding you, quit doing it—at least for a while. No hard, fast rules restrict how we read, reflect or pray.
One man vowed on his 50th birthday to do something new each day. Such openness, such a spirit of adventure, challenges us all. Some days it might be a small thing, like flipping to a different radio station or Web site. Others may be major changes, like not vacationing in the same spot we’ve visited for 20 years, or changing jobs.
The worst mental ruts are those of anxiety, bills and health concerns. These can be so paralyzing that our creative juices—exactly what we need to address problems—stop flowing. Surely the disciples on the road to Emmaus knew that experience. When a “stranger” (Jesus) joins them, Luke 24:17 records, “[t]hey stood still.” Stuck in the ultimate rut of grief, they don’t start moving again until Jesus encourages them to share their story. Despite already knowing, he asks what’s been happening in Jerusalem. Those of us in ruts should take note: Telling Jesus of our stuck situation is a good first step beyond it.
If we’ve slid into a rut, we must nurture our deepest selves with whatever we need: a walk, a bike ride or a swim, a latte, a new shirt, a change of routine, time with a friend or a book. Self-nurture may seem “selfish,” but we are God’s beloved children. God designed the human mind, soul and body for stimulation, not stagnation.
God’s creation brims with beautiful variety. It must disappoint God when we explore only 10 percent of it. Read the Genesis creation story for the marvelous unspooling of sun, moon, stars, oceans, lakes, rivers, creepy crawlers, chirpy birds and lithe gazelles. All of this, God creates with glee—insects, trees, innumerable shades of green, each flower, snowflake and fingerprint unique. Maybe it’s time to look at the night sky, stroll through a meadow or a botanical garden, taste something new from the produce aisle or farmer’s market. Vive la différence!
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