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Saint Benedict on the Freeway
A Rule of Life for the 21st Century
By Corinne Ware
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2001 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Collected and Recollected
You are the topos tou theou (God's place) and the spiritual life is nothing more or less than to allow that space to exist where God can dwell, to create a space where his glory can manifest itself. —John Eudes Bamberger
"I just have to stop and collect myself!" she says. "Everything's happening at once and I'm about to come apart." Down the hallway an executive cradles his head in his hands and moans, "This pressure is getting to me." Events crash in relentlessly and we experience the panicky despair common to us all, that feeling of being scattered, fragmented, and uncentered. It is more typical than not, in this century of acceleration, that we will be confronted by decisions before we have even had a chance to think through what we need to do. Few of us enjoy the luxury of "enough time." There are periods when we feel unprepared for even the expected and for what we have known all along was about to happen. We have days and months when it seems that everyone and everything makes demands on us at the same moment. Pressure builds and what we may want most in the world is a closet in which to hide, a stretch of wave-washed beach where we can forget it all, a person who will give us that soothing promise that things will be all right again. We want anything that will lift us out of our dilemmas. If only we might have just a moment to collect ourselves.
Times like these illustrate—indeed, prove to us—that we believe ourselves to be happy or unhappy as a result of circumstance. Isn't it true, after all, that if things go well we will be happy? I think we must admit that it does help. Who among us can realistically say that circumstance, good or bad, does not affect us? It is more than reasonable that we should make efforts to secure for ourselves and those we love safety, security, comfort, and advantage. The person who does not strive to secure these blessings is usually called impractical and, at worst, masochistic.
Singer Sophie Tucker told us, "I've been rich and I've been poor, and rich is better." Although we've seen that this is not true in every case, nevertheless, circumstances do matter. It helps to have resources! In asking the question, "Is that all there is?" we are actually wondering out loud about resources. What or whom may we call upon to get us through the times when circumstances are against us? And even when life seems to be cloudless and our circumstances quite good, where is that enjoyment and tranquility we expected to experience? It is a commonplace that we suffer that vacant dis-ease that comes when one is vaguely unhappy even though things are going well. We want to know, "If everything is so good, why do I feel so bad?" It is our "not at home in the world" feeling.
What Is Recollection?
The frantic plaint, "I just have to get myself collected," is exactly opposite from the calm assertion "I am recollected." Recollection is a word used by spiritual writers, mostly in the past, who wanted to describe the concentration of the attention on the presence of God. It is sometimes used in a more limited way to describe a particular stage of prayer during which someone is so stilled that God may work in that person without hindrance. For our purposes, the first and more general definition is the more helpful. Being recollected simply means being conscious that God is with you. The essential feeling is that of being accompanied. It suggests the development of an interior life within a person, one that is not the same as exterior and circumstantial events, but which nonetheless affects every aspect of one's life. All of this has to do with what we are currently calling "spirituality," a term that is often used and seldom defined. Geoffrey Wainwright defines spirituality as the "combination of praying and living." The inner life of recollection inevitably results in an increased outer life of connection, compassion, and a certain composure.
Recollection, as it once was called, is a mental state of awareness. It serves as the connective tissue that holds all our life within the matrix of a consciousness of God. For instance, the religious but unrecollected person (most of us) may attend services of worship, act according to a religion-based ethic in the conduct of work and relationships, give money to charitable causes, and even say formal prayers at specific times. All of this is extremely commendable and, indeed, such acts are part of the very fabric of civil society and provide some personal fulfillment. But there is something important to notice about this. In fulfilling these obligations, we may be segregating our acts from our thoughts and attitudes at those times when we are not especially engaging in "religious" things. Very often we participate in religious activities as special events disconnected from the rest of life. Acts we do in obedience to our highest values are good things, and they enrich our lives and the lives of others. Scripture says such conduct "pleases God." That is no guarantee, however, that we will feel God's presence within us, long term. The "something more" that we seek is that sense of always being accompanied, of God-with-us at all times and not in special moments only.
Theologian Paul Tillich writes about "ecstatic reasoning," by which he means the intersection of the immediate with the ultimate, the horizontal with the vertical. In other words, what is going on right now can be informed and influenced by my consciousness that God is also "going on" right now. Whatever is happening in the present moment, God is also happening, which is to say, God is active. It is as though we learn to think of two things in tandem—our experience of the events of the moment and our experience of God in the moment. This concept is actually not a foreign one. You can recall times in your life when you have heard in your mind the inner voice of a parent or teacher just as you were about to speak or act. You were thinking of both the immediate circumstance and of the inner voice all at once. Take a moment to remember times when this sort of tandem thinking made a difference in what you did or did not do.
These inner values can be good and important, but there is a potential problem for us if the voice we hear tears us down rather than builds us up. How easy and natural it is to resent the voices we do not like. Didn't they often deprive us of the very thing we wanted most at the time? We may even recall them as putting us down, not an uncommon experience for many. Seeing God as the parent who denies, or the stern and punitive teacher, we might even want God to go away!
Think instead of how you felt when you were deeply in love with someone, one who's presence in your thoughts accompanied and dominated all your waking moments. To think of the person you loved affirmed you and made you feel alive and whole. This is exactly how we experience a consciousness of the divine when we see God as God truly is. It takes a lot of unlearning for some of us to believe that God is "for us," that God wills our good in the moment, and at every moment. Theologians name this quality of God's being with us as God's immanence. The opposite experience of God would be to feel God as distant, remote, and uninvolved, even hostile. It is no wonder that we feel lonely if this is how we see the Creator. One who experiences God as remote interprets the Creator as being uninterested in the creation. An honest person would admit to feeling rejected and hurt by such a perception, and probably angry. This underlying sense of abandonment by God expresses itself in many ways. To relieve the isolation, we may seek constantly to be in the presence of other people, so as not to feel so alone, or we may claim not to care about God, if God exists at all. On the human level, we see ourselves use these same defenses when we feel rejected by people who are important to us.
All religions attempt to bring their adherents into some sort of harmony with the divine, a harmony which overcomes this empty feeling of separateness. Each may see God very differently, but the overwhelming common desire is to bridge what is perceived as the gap between the human and the divine.
The Common Quest of All Religions
Major religious traditions have as their ultimate goal the union of the creation with the Creator. Whether this union is a merging or a profound connection depends on how a religion views the capacities of human beings. Nevertheless, it is a moving toward God (or the Infinite) that characterizes most of the ascetic disciplines of major faith groups. As one author put it, there are "many paths to the same summit." This is not to claim that all paths are of equal value or that all faith traditions are the same. For the purposes of this inquiry, those judgments are left to others.
A common ground in the major religions is the hunger to be in union with the one who creates. It is a quest for meaning and a desire to move beyond unsatisfying self-centeredness. The word religion (religio) actually means "rebinding." This yearning for union and transcendence is the motivating engine for the religious practices found in Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and many other religions. Although this book is not exclusively for the Christian reader, it is primarily addressed to the person who is largely formed by that tradition. To my fellow Christian, I would say that I find it affirming, not threatening, to realize that we are not the only ones seeking a sense of being accompanied by God. If other traditions seek what I am seeking, it encourages me to think that, as a human being, I am somehow on the right track, certainly in those areas on which there is common ground. It is encouraging to know that seeking a state of recollection, which is a continuous awareness of God, is not some quirkiness found just in me or only in Christianity, but is a fundamental human hunger.
When religions become too institutionalized, their followers are likely to forget their original purpose and so no longer remember that connection was the central reason for being. Religious services are meant to enable our worship of God and our experience of union with the Creator. They badly miss their mark when they become staged productions, instruments of recruitment, entertainment, or even something that must be done because it's a particular day. If I am honest, I will ask myself why I am going to a worship service at this particular time, and what I expect and hope for when I get there. I may expect to meet someone whose company I enjoy, or perhaps may just want to keep up my reputation as a churchgoer and a religious person. Seeing the person I wanted to meet and maintaining my reputation are not unworthy goals. The deprivation occurs in turning aside from the primary purpose. I am there primarily to worship God, to seek God, and to be found by God. Whatever the particular vocabulary, religions begin with this end in mind.
Before looking at Christianity's ways of connecting, it will be useful to examine how some other religions go about seeking and moving toward God. Is there a common practice running through the efforts of all worshipers, some discipline that might be seen as essential? We can learn by looking at religions that have lasted and by noticing those practices which satisfy spiritual hunger. We benefit by seeing what "works."
A clue that can guide us in spotting the common spiritual practice found in each faith is summed up by psychiatrist Gerald May. "God creates us for love and freedom; attachment hinders us, and grace is necessary for salvation." So what, exactly, is attachment? It is that to which we bond, that is, attach. And so, what is detachment, as we are using it here? It is not indifference, as we so often think, but the breaking of an overpowering bond.
British theologian Evelyn Underhill described healthy detachment as "love without claimfulness." Each faith tradition recognizes this truism. What "works" is to detach from what is not God and turn our attention wholly toward God. Detachment, in this sense, means not to be controlled by some thing or someone. The first of the Ten Commandments deals head-on with the attachment/detachment issue: God is to come first with us, and we are to worship God only. Anything else is an "idol" and something from which to detach. Becoming dependent on that which is other than God is what causes us to lose love and freedom. It is truly said, "We have populated this world with small, mean gods of narrow vision and cold embrace."
In trying to convince her that she should marry him, one of my sons-in-law declared to my daughter that he loved her with all his heart. Knowing her inner conflict about making a lifetime commitment, he assured her that if she refused his offer, he would be deeply saddened, but not destroyed. That is freedom. Had he said, "I cannot live without you," and actually meant that, he would have been making his happiness her responsibility not a thing we should do to anyone. Only detached, nondependent love can love truly. Saying he would not be destroyed by her refusal was the act of one who loves without contaminating self-interest, that is, a true love.
The best story about detachment that I know is one told about Jesus, and it is also the Gospel account that makes us most uncomfortable. We call it the story of "The Rich Young Ruler." If we are honest, we don't like this short scene because it sounds so unfair. A wealthy young man comes to Jesus asking what he should do to "inherit eternal life," which might be like asking for spiritual wholeness. He claims to have followed the commandments faithfully all of his life. Then, and here is the shockingly unfair part, Jesus tells him to sell everything he owns and distribute it to the poor. The Gospel of Luke (18:18-23) tells us that the man, saddened, turns away. And we don't blame him. After all, who in his right mind would give away all his money?
But the encounter is not about money—rather, it is about detachment. If the man had not been so attached to his possessions, to his identity as one who had it all, there would have been no need for Jesus to highlight his addiction by asking him to sell everything. If he had been able to say, "I'd rather keep everything to enjoy, but if I lose it all, I will not be destroyed," then we would know that his possessions gave him pleasure, but that they were not his life's chief concern. In other words, he would have "had no other gods," as the first of the Ten Commandments enjoins. His attachment to God would have been primary. On reading the story, my question to myself is to ask how Jesus would tailor his teaching to me. What idol would he ask me to jettison? No wonder this passage makes us squirm.
It will do us no good to dismiss religions other than our own as irrelevant. Most are growing in numbers and experiencing a renewal in interest and devotion among their members. We need to understand their power, asking ourselves what it is in these traditions that is satisfying to followers. Before asking questions of Christianity, let us make a very brief survey and notice four other traditions, each seeking the God- connection in its own way: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism.
Hindus seek union using ideas of attachment and detachment. The name they give to the supreme reality they seek is Brahman. Hinduism teaches that as long as a person is attached to physical circumstances, he or she is to that degree detached from Brahman, a term that represents the concept of absolute reality, utter bliss, pure consciousness, and Being itself. The overattachment we feel toward our own small lives, possessions, and powers prevents us from union, and subjects us to discontent and frustration. The process of detachment from the ego-self, so that one may move toward the infinite, is accomplished through a variety of personal disciplines, making practicing Hindus among the most disciplined devotees among the major religions. There are many other features that characterize Hinduism, some very different from Western practice, but it is useful to notice how self-transcendence and union with the Absolute is approached. Hindu notions of renouncing distracting influences are really not so foreign to us, and remind us of Jesus' admonition that the one who gains his or her life must first lose it. Essentially Jesus was talking about attachment and detachment, concepts central to both Hinduism and Christianity.
Excerpted from Saint Benedict on the Freeway by Corinne Ware. Copyright © 2001 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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