Spirituality is definitely a growth industry. Check out your local bookstore and you are sure to find many books that will tell you about spirituality. Spiritual classics are sold right alongside bits of chicken soup for your soul. You're sure to find angels on every shelf. If you are short on time, look for some soul nourishment while shopping for body nourishment. You can toss some books on feeding your soul right on top of your mound of groceries.
When I lead retreats, I ask the adults to describe spirituality. Words are offered like "righteous," "compassionate," "faithful," "having a relationship with God." Then I ask them to name people that they would describe as "spiritual." The most frequently mentioned names are Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, Gandhi, Pope John Paul, Colin Powell, Jimmy Carter, and, oh yes, Jesus. Rare is the group who name themselves as "spiritual people."
Even with all of these helpful hints, I still find spirituality hard to define. It has as many different meanings as the word "God." It has been snatched by the market place, and done damage when represented as an ethereal otherworldliness that ends up diminishing human beings and neglecting the planet we inhabit.
I am not ready to claim a particular definition, but this much I know: It will take more than chicken soup to get us through these times.
The ancient Christian mystics pictured the soul with two eyesone looking to the eternal and the other looking to the temporal. This was no cross-eyed view of the world, but an illustration of balance. Our soul is not in need of chicken soup or aerobic exercises. Our soul is in need of attention. It helps to have guides to train our eyes to see, to hold our gaze on the interweaving of body and spirit, God and world.
Nearly 20 years ago, when I was a young Baptist pastor, I was approached by a Catholic sister who called herself a "spiritual director." I had never heard of such a thing. However, since my efforts to bring about a total transformation of the church were failing, I decided I could use some direction. We agreed to meet weekly for a time of prayer and discernment. At our first session I took out my pen and paper, "Okay, Sister Ellen, what books on prayer do you recommend I read?"
She smiled. "None."
None! What do you mean, none? I had gone to seminary, where I learned that you could master just about anything by reading about it. I even knew how to footnote God. I held a degree that confirmed that I was a "master of divinity."
She said, "If you read a book on prayer, you might be tempted to think that you have prayed. You might have the language and yet not have the experience."
Ouch! She really knew how to nail us preachers. "No books on prayer for 12 months," said Sister Ellen. "Plus, you will need to set aside 40 minutes each day for contemplative prayer."
I was ready to walk out. "Sister, I know you are a wise woman, but you do not know what it is like to have a husband, two small children, and a congregation. There is no time for contemplative prayer."
She smiled, explaining that a daily time of silent retreat was a way to sharpen my eyesight so that I could see God's spirit moving in the mess and miracle of it all. Then she offered this invitation. "This journey with the Spirit may not change the struggles and sufferings of this world, but, like the disciples at Pentecost, it will change you. The world will never look the same again."
What can I say of this journey after all these years? I still wobble with efforts to claim time for contemplation. My prayer practice has not led to peace, but it has led to snatches of perspective. In prayer I perch myself on the edge of mystery and peer, hoping to catch glimpses of the Spirit in the burden and blessing of it all. The world does not look the same. It shimmers with God-life.
Nancy Hastings Sehested is a Baptist preacher and state prison chaplain living in the mountains of North Carolina.