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Sooner or later we sense it. The "it" is hard to describe. Something deep inside is moving. Sometimes we may feel it as a certain restlessness, hunger, or emptiness. At other times we might feel it more positively, as a quality of peace, light, love, or calling.
We can respond in different ways. We might mistake the hunger as a need for more sensual, ego, or superego gratification of some kind. Then we turn our energies to various material, relational, work, or educational pursuits that aim at such gratification. In such ways we strive to fill the hole we feel within us. We may find temporary relief in these ways, but the gnawing feeling inside us has a way of returning. When it does, we may try to ignore it as some psychological quirk not worth paying attention to. We can respond differently though. We can choose to drop deeper and listen more carefully. Then we might begin to sense the restlessness as a fever of our undernourished, deepest nature grown out of that mysterious loving Ground we call God.
If our spiritual fever has had a full rather than empty content, with some sense of peace, love, etc., we may have a confused response. At our sanest we feel deeply drawn to the One who gives the experience. However, our confused egos feel disoriented and out of control. As a result we are tempted to draw the experience toward us as a possession, a trophy to grasp, secure, and assimilate into a willed autonomous empire of self. The sad result is a greater separation from the Holy Source of the experience, who has been invitingus to relinquish our confused and willful autonomy for the sake of deeper communion.
We are made for this deepening, creative, loving, liberating communion. But we are also made in such a way that we are free to miss and resist the invitations. Jews call this tendency a yetzer hara, "a wayward heart." Christians call it a divided heart.
The webs of our interior and exterior relationships, social structures, and cultural values spin out of this divided situation. When we see these assisting communion with God and God's creation, our heart in God has been at work. When we see them spinning us away from such communion, our wayward heart has been at work. Since both these forces are active, we can call our human world broken: one full of human pieces broken off in consciousness from their shared Ground and driven in contradictory directions. One direction aims at accumulating mental and material things for ourselves in order to grow larger and more separate (St. Paul's way of the flesh, of sin). The other direction seeks our proper "fit" with God and creation in order to realize dynamic communion (the way of the spirit, of sanctification).
This drama is lived out in special hopefulness when we take seriously God's mysterious power eternally at work for us through the Holy Spirit, working to reconcile our hearts and the world's heart. In Jesus Christ we see our brokenness compassionately exposed and our deepest heart in God empowered. But not fully. The battle continues, but now with a beginning sense of orientation and trust in One who is for us.
Thereafter, for the rest of our lives, we are called to deepen this orientation and trust in all dimensions of our being: our minds, senses, imaginations, wills, bodies, and communities. This is the historic process of ongoing conversion, of sanctification, of living into our shared human call to holiness.
All the authentic historic resources for spiritual formation are aimed at assisting this process in these many dimensions of our being. We would not need such resources if the process was easy and clear cut. We all know by hard experience that it is not. We all live daily with the two questions that a Cistercian abbot once told me that people are always bringing to him:
What do I do?
How am I doing?
These are questions of discernment. In the end we must answer them for ourselves, since we are dealing with a mysterious process of unique unfolding that no one can be closer to than we ourselves. God has never created anyone just like you or me, and the process of unfolding our Christ-nature is distinctive with everyone. There is no clear blueprint known ahead of time to follow, no precast mold into which to pour ourselves. Each of us is an adventure of God's Spirit.
However, this adventure unfolds as part of a collective journey. The very nature of God is described as corporate: a loving Three-in-Oneness, reflected in our own being. Further, St. Paul describes us as members of a giant Body of Christ in which our differences are seen as complementary, mysteriously working together toward a common end (1 Cor. 12). Modern physical sciences, too, strongly reinforce an awareness of interdependence and coinherence in the movement of life. Thus we can turn to one another in expectation that, even with all our differences, we have much in common. God's Spirit is reverberated among us in our shared conversation, silence, prayer, and action.
Other spirits are reverberated among us too: spirits of confusion, narrowness, oppression, willfulness, and evil. Thus seeking spiritual help from people and literature around us in itself involves discernment. We need to test the resources we turn to for the fruits of God's Spirit (Gal. 5:22).
What kind of resources do we need for helping us discern and turn to God in our daily lives rather than to the delusions of all the lesser spirits that touch us? Look first to your own experience in answering this question. What resources have you turned to in recent years, and with what results? Do some of these seem empty and in need of "benign neglect" now? Do others come to mind that seem particularly called for? Do you sense a...