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SEEDS OF FAITH Practices to Grow a Healthy Spiritual Life
By Jeremy Langford
Paraclete Press Copyright © 2007 Jeremy Langford
All right reserved.
Chapter One Who Am I? The Practice of Spirit-uality Many spiritual traditions and practices begin with a single question: Who am I? The question is a persistent and intimate companion. The search for our essence, our identity, is fundamental; it is as necessary for individuals as for nations, tribes, races, and spiritual communities. Who am I? Am I spirit or flesh? Am I sacred or secular? Am I irrevocably shaped by the circumstances of my personal history, or am I still free to move and grow, to uncover a new and brighter path? Am I fragile or am I strong, am I broken or am I whole? When I listen deeply to my inner life, what do I hear? What is the substance of my soul, the core of my being? What is my true nature? -Wayne Muller
When Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama, she set in motion a civil rights movement that eventually led to the end of institutionalized segregation in the South. It was 1955, and Montgomery laws required African-Americans to pay their fare to the driver, then get off the bus and reboard through the back door. Sometimes the bus driver would take off before the person could reboard. African-Americans also had to give up their seats to white passengers if the bus was full. On that cold December evening, a forty-two-year-old Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat based solely on the color of her skin. "I did not get on the bus to get arrested," she later said. "I got on the bus to go home."
Imagine if Rosa Parks had been unsure of who she was, if she didn't have a strong sense of herself. She wouldn't have been able to expose the segregation laws for what they were-unjust. And she surely wouldn't have inspired countless others to be courageous enough to stand up for what's right. But Ms. Parks knew who she was, and her legacy lives on.
What adjectives come to mind when you stop and ask yourself, "Who am 17" What feelings surface?
Underneath all the adjectives that we use to describe ourselves and all the feelings that go with those descriptions lies our true nature, the spirit that animates us and makes us who we are. It's easy to get so caught up in life, family, and work that we put our heads down and plough through each day. In some ways, we become actors. But deep inside, we know who we truly are. Naming our unique spirit is an essential part of living a healthy life and growing as a person.
Naming our spirit tells us what kind of spirituality we practice on a daily basis. Some may object to this notion on the grounds that spirituality belongs to the realm of faith and religion. But spirituality (with a small s) is fundamental to being human and is not reliant upon faith or religion. Each one of us has a spirit, an essence, a fire in the belly, a driving force that makes us who we are. The "uality" in the word spirituality refers to the way we express the "spirit" that makes us who we are. If our spirit is one of anger, then our lived spirituality-the way we shape and harness our spirit-is to look for reasons to be angry and people at whom to be angry. If our spirit is one of peace, then our lived spirituality is to take things in stride and do our best to maintain balance and perspective. And so on.
In his popular book The Holy Longing, Ronald Rolheiser puts it this way:
Spirituality is not about serenely picking or rationally choosing certain spiritual activities like going to church, praying or meditating, reading spiritual books, or setting off on some explicit spiritual quest. It is far more basic than that. Long before we do anything explicitly religious at all, we have to do something about the fire that burns within us. What we do with that fire, how we channel it, is our spirituality.... Spirituality is more about whether or not we can go to sleep at night than about whether or not we go to church. It is about being integrated or falling apart, about being within community or being lonely, about being in harmony with Mother Earth or being alienated from her.
The human spirit is fueled by fundamental questions common to everyone: Why am I here? Who am I? Where am I going? What do I love? What should I do with my life? How do I become the person I want to be?
Spirituality-tending to our spirit-has to do with asking these questions at various stages in our lives. When we search beyond ourselves to better understand why we are here and what we are to do with our lives, our spirituality takes on a religious dimension and becomes Spirituality with a capital S. Belief and religious practice are ultimately about tapping into the Spirit, the Source of Life, who speaks to our spirits and shapes our understanding of what it means to live with meaning and purpose.
Spirituality with a capital S centers on our human experience of God and finds its expression in religious traditions such as Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Christian spirituality centers on the lived encounter with Jesus Christ in the Spirit. In this sense, Christian spirituality is concerned not so much with the doctrines of Christianity as with the ways those teachings shape us as individuals and members of society. Through the Incarnation, the central mystery of Christianity, Christ became human like us so that we might become divine like him.
The promise of Christianity is that if we dig beneath our accomplishments and failures, doubts and beliefs, we find that our essential nature is whole and unbroken, as God intended it to be. If we tap into it, we experience a harmony with ourselves and with the world. We gain the courage to be who we really are-made in the image and likeness of God, the Light of the World. And we live our lives more fully in touch with our true purpose.
Thomas Merton said, "There is in all visible things ... a hidden wholeness." The crucial decision we all must make is whether to live out of this hidden wholeness or to continue living lives that are fragmented and inauthentic.
PRACTICE FOR SPIRITUAL GROWTH
Anais Nin famously said, "We don't see the world as it is, we see it as we are."
Who we are shapes how we perceive everything. Our unique spirit expresses itself in a lived spirituality that determines how we see and relate to the people and situations in our lives.
* Begin your practice by setting aside some quiet time to reread the quotation at the beginning of this chapter and pointer the questions it raises.
* Make a list of adjectives and qualities that describe who you are, what you care about, what values you hold most dear. Describe your spirit-what makes you, you?
* Reflect on how you see the world and interact with others. If you find it helpful, do this exercise with someone you trust, saying aloud who you are and noticing how you feel as you describe yourself.
* * *
Our spirits are not set in stone. The beauty of being human is that we are free to make choices about who we are and how we want to live. We can change. We can aspire to be our best selves. We can engage in spiritual disciplines that help shape our spirits to be fully alive.
* Throughout the course of a day, ask yourself, "Who am I?" When you awake and get ready for your day, ask this question. When you interact with coworkers, eat your meals, read the newspaper, exercise, plop down on the couch, go to bed, ask yourself this question. Who are you when you first awake? Who are you when you interact with family and coworkers? Who are you in each task, each moment? Are you the leader, the follower, the person just trying to skate by? Are you frustrated and angry, or are you happy and at peace?
* Next ask yourself how you feel each time you identify who you are in a given situation. Are you content with your role? Are you embarrassed by your actions? Do you feel authentically yourself in each situation?
* Spend a day noticing the ways in which who you are and how you feel about yourself change. Which descriptions and feelings best represent who you are on the deepest level?
* Next ask yourself, "Who am I when I'm relaxed, on vacation, enjoying a ballgame, reading, exercising, playing with the kids?" How different are you when you're doing something you thoroughly enjoy, as opposed to when you're in the workaday routine? What might you do to bring the aspects of your most free self into the times in your life when you feel most trapped by routine and monotony?
* * *
Finally, reflect on the following quotation from Marianne Williamson's book A Return to Love:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
* What, if anything, holds you back from being your true, best self?
* In the final analysis, what do you want the meaning of your life to have been?
Chapter Two Why Believe? The Practice of Doubt Doubt has inspired religion in every age: from Plato, to Augustine, to Descartes, to Pascal, religion has defined itself through doubt's questions. Of course, this extends up to today. -Jennifer Michael Hecht
Every year I doubt they'll come up. They were a gift-two bags of an assortment of plant bulbs that produce crocuses, tulips, daffodils, and alyssum in stages throughout the spring and early summer. We planted them seven years ago in the impossibly hard, root-laden earth at the base of the trees that line our walkway. We don't take care of them the way real gardeners should. And so each spring I think they can't have the energy to force their way through the ground one more time. And every spring, I am wrong.
I don't want to doubt, but I do. I doubt a lot of things-myself, my career, my loved ones, institutions, God. About the only thing I don't doubt is doubt itself. It dwells in every human heart and takes on many forms, from the seeker to the skeptic, the scientist to the preacher.
Is doubt such a bad thing?
It can be if we let doubt paralyze or diminish us. In its worst forms, doubt fuels fear and cynicism. It convinces us that life is meaningless and that rather than moving closer to our dreams and goals, we are merely marching to our graves. It turns us into cynics-naysayers who scoff at dreams and shoot down enthusiasm. We stand with Shakespeare's Macbeth, who lamented:
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.
Since the dawning of human consciousness we have looked into the sky and wondered why we are here and what the purpose of our lives is. In our darkest moments, we see ourselves as mere accidents coming from nothing, living for no real reason, and heading back toward nothing. We race to our scientists, philosophers, psychologists, and theologians for explanations and direction. We construct theories and philosophies to comfort and protect us, but we are all swallowed by the shadows at some time or another.
Yet, as paradoxical as it may seem, doubt is a seed of faith. It is essential to the very nature of being human and to belief. Doubt is healthy. It forces us to ask, to think, to seek. It's healthy to doubt our faith and have faith in our doubt.
In the early Middle Ages, religious thinkers began to acknowledge doubt as a central component of belief. Belief is hard, they reasoned, and religion must be a means for us to overcome, even harness, doubts that might otherwise destroy faith.
Since then, Christianity has focused on the stories of doubt that are fundamental to the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. For example, God promises the aged Abraham and Sarah that they will bear a son, and Sarah doubts. Eventually she does believe, and when her child is born she names him Isaac, which means "may God laugh." Job is tested to the outer reaches of human limits, and he doubts and questions God. Eventually he admits that he cannot possibly understand or judge God's ways, and God restores Job's fortunes twofold. As the Roman authorities seek to apprehend Jesus, his chief disciple, Peter, denies even knowing him. When Jesus is crucified, his disciples lock themselves away in fear, and doubt all that they have seen and been taught. When the resurrected Jesus appears to the dejected disciples on the road to Emmaus, their eyes are blinded by doubt and they do not recognize him.
But it is Jesus' own doubt that is most striking. After celebrating the Passover meal, Jesus asks a few of his disciples to keep watch while he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. In a profound moment of self-doubt, he turns to Peter and the two sons of Zebedee and tells them, "I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me." The Gospel of Matthew then tells us, "Going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, 'My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.'" Jesus asks three times if he really must be crucified, and each time he checks on his companions. Each time, he finds them sleeping. He is alone.
At first, Jesus rebukes them, but eventually he tells them to get their rest. Soon thereafter Judas, whose own doubt leads to the ultimate betrayal, identifies Jesus to the authorities by kissing him on the cheek. Jesus goes calmly with the soldiers, and Judas is so overwhelmed with shame that he takes his own life.
Having carried the instrument of his death to Golgotha, Jesus is nailed to the cross and left to die by crucifixion. This time he doubts God's loyalty when he cries out in agony, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
On the surface, the Christian story is nothing short of absurd. God sent his only Son to redeem the world. But that Son doubted himself and his purpose, was rejected by the very people he came to save, and eventually died an excruciating death on a cross as a blasphemer.
And yet, it is Jesus the doubter who, as the Christ of faith, understands our own doubt better than we do ourselves. Take, for example, the story of Thomas. When the resurrected Jesus first appeared to the disciples, Thomas was not with them. Upon hearing his friends' story of having seen Jesus, he was incredulous: "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."
A week after the resurrected Jesus appeared to them, the disciples, including Thomas, were all together in a locked house when Jesus "came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you.' Then he said to Thomas, 'Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.'"
The good news is that while Jesus praises those who believe in him without having seen, he invites the greatest of doubters to seek the evidence we need so that our doubt does not slip into disbelief.
Excerpted from SEEDS OF FAITH by Jeremy Langford Copyright © 2007 by Jeremy Langford. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of ContentsContents Introduction Seeds of Faith....................v
ONE SEEDS Introduction....................1
1 Who Am I? The Practice of Spirit-uality....................5
2 Why Believe? The Practice of Doubt....................12
3 Awareness The Practice of Seeking....................18
4 What Do I Really Want? The Practice of Feeding Our Deepest Human Hungers....................24
5 Living Fully in the Moment The Practice of Presence....................32
6 Loneliness vs. Being Alone The Practice of Solitude....................40
7 Companions on the Journey The Practice of Friendship....................46
8 Spiritual Exercise The Practice of Practice....................53
TWO ROOTS Introduction....................61
9 Listening for the Still Small Voice of God The Practice of Meditation....................65
10 Lord, Teach Us to Pray The Practice of Prayer....................74
11 Faith Seeking Understanding The Practice of Thinking....................83
12 Touchstones of the Sacred The Practice of Living Sacramentally....................91
13 Marching with the Saints The Practice of Being Fully Alive....................97
14 Where Am I Going, and How Do I Get There? The Practice of Spiritual Direction....................108
THREE BRANCHES Introduction....................115
15 How, Then, Shall I Live? The Practice of Vocation....................119
16 See How They Love One Another The Practice of Community....................125
17 How Do I Get Free? How Do I Stay Free? The Practice of Letting Go....................133
18 Happy Are They The Practice of Celebration....................139
19 MoralWisdom The Practice of Virtue....................148
20 When Did We See You Hungry? The Practice of Mercy....................154
21 Following Christ The Practice of Discipleship....................161