I am always delighted to meet someone who has been spiritual for decades. Perhaps it is because I spend a great deal of my time with younger folks. Even if a college-age student has been religious for quite a while, that still pales in comparison with an eighty or ninety-year old person who has “been at it” for decades. Most college-age students simply have not lived long enough to experience the serious ups and downs of life. On the other hand, if you have lived eighty years, chances are you have seen a great deal.
I am intrigued to know how the old-timers manage to hang in there with their spiritual practices. What sustains them over the years? In my own Quaker tradition we talk about “dry places.” These are the times of the life of the spirit when nothing seems to be happening. We may spend time in prayer, but there seems to be no connection. We may meditate regularly, but to no real avail. We practice, but our spirits are so dry, there is no growth.
I long to know God’s Spirit so well that I can persevere over the decades of ups and downs. I want to be connected sufficiently that dry places do not tempt me to give it up completely. I want to know what it is like to sign up for the long haul---till death do me part?
It was at this point I ran across a couple sentences from a work I value quite highly. Roger Walsh has written a book entitled, Essential Spirituality. It is one I use when I teach a class on Contemplative Spirituality. I consistently find nuggets of wisdom in this book. And its real strength is the myriad of practical exercises designed to help us grow and develop our spiritual lives. Let me share those sentences.
The first thing Walsh claims is that “Over time, spiritual practices work their transformative wonders on our hearts, minds, and lives.” Let’s unpack this sentence to discover the power of Walsh’s insight. Clearly, Walsh is talking about spiritual practice or discipline. All of these are designed to help us with the spiritual journey “over time.” Discipline is not a one-night stand. Spiritual practices are engagements over a period of time. They are designed to take me into my eighties or, even, nineties, if I live that long.
The next thing that Walsh affirms about spiritual practices is that they work transformative wonders. I love that claim. I cannot imagine anyone saying, in effect, “nope, I don’t want any transformative wonders!” To the contrary! Even if I am not sure what kind of transformative wonders are being described, I want in on the action. “Here am I, Lord,” I shout.
Without summarizing Walsh’s entire book, I can say that the transformative wonders are, indeed, life changing. In essence, these wonders enable me to know myself at my deepest level and to know the Holy One deeply within me. They are called “wonders” for good reason. The wonders affect every aspect of who I am. As Walsh affirms, they work their magic on my heart, my mind and my life. All of who I am is transformed---to the very core of my being.
And this is exactly what Walsh claims in the second sentence I want to quote. He says, “As the heart opens and the mind clears, we see further and further into the boundless depths of the mind.” Apparently, the early work of the spiritual practice working its transformative wonder is to open the heart and to clear the mind. This is the kind of claim that is easy to read. But it takes a little time to reflect on the profundity of that claim.
If we can engage the spiritual practices and allow our hearts to open, we will be more and more vulnerable to God’s creative and re-creative work in our hearts. Our hearts will become more deeply capable of love and, ultimately, of compassion.
The same thing is true for the clearing of the mind that is effected by spiritual discipline. As our minds clear, we see more sharply and more truly. As Walsh says, when the mind is cleared, we see more and more into the boundless depths of the mind. To see and, then, to live from those boundless depths of mind is to be situated in life in such a way that personally become spiritual transformers of our world.
Surely, this helps explain the lives of Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Jesus and all the spiritual giants we could name. Surely it was only through the practice of the disciplines that they developed the breadth and depth we associate with them. Surely, it was the basic practices that enabled them to grow. And surely, it is the same with us, too.