Inveterate—confirmed, hardened, incorrigible, habitual, compulsive, obsessive: Yup, that describes me as a church-goer. I may lurk on the periphery, I may rail against the church’s (titanic) flaws, I may flinch every time I name myself a Christian, and yet I can’t help myself. Church has blessed me. So I show up.
Those of us who are inveterate church-goers are numb to scripture. We’ve heard the stories so much, our immediate reaction is, “Blah, blah, blah; same-old same-old.” A rare good sermon might shake us out of our complacency, helping us hear scriptural wisdom afresh or making it relevant. Every once in a while, a beam of sunlight breaks through the barriers of the text and lands, shockingly, on our bored hearts. Most of the time, for me at least, the Bible is flat, familiar, and, frankly, uninteresting.
Over the past few years, the central arena of my faith life has shifted from church to practice. I’ve been deeply engaged in the spiritual life for decades, so it’s not like I’ve been some shallow pew-sitter passively going through the motions, but still, my Christian identity revolved around church and my spiritual life was something else entirely, largely (and paradoxically) unrelated to anything that happened on Sunday morning. Then I discovered the contemplative prayer tradition hiding beyond the edge of institutional Christianity, and I began practicing. I began, daily, ineptly, consenting to divine presence and movement. It’s as though I’d spent the first forty-five years of my life listening to (and being stirred by) great piano concerts every Sunday morning, and then one day sat down at the keyboard. I’ve no clue how to make music. But I’m learning, and as any musician knows, you learn by practicing.
Needless to say, everything is different. To give you one small example, the Beatitudes have always been for me a refreshing spring rain: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” The sound and sentiment are beautiful. When I actually lose a loved one and am mourning, however, I feel–well, cursed. The Beatitude has helped me not a whit. Through the lens of practice, I recently heard “Blessed are those who mourn” as a process—a metaphysical description of how real change happens. Those who mourn, who feel their losses deeply, who fearlessly enter the awful emptiness of grief and move through these darkest of emotions, will experience transformation. Suddenly the Beatitudes call me forward: practice poverty of spirit, mourn all you’ve lost, become meek by exercising humility in your agency.
Now I’m a beginner fumbling at the piano. Faith is a means, a movement, a thorough, whole-hearted, full-bodied participation taken (as those in the recovery movement say so wisely) one step at a time. One faltering, inadequate, and blessed step…at…a…time. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
(Thanks to Walter Brueggemann for the inspiration and Nancie Hughes for the photo.)
** I’m excited to be back at the Madeline Island School of the Arts this September, offering a retreat based on my latest book. Please join me September 24-28, 2018 for Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice retreat.
** Please join me for the ongoing Second Friday spiritual memoir drop-in series at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality:
4/13: Characters: Real People in Two Dimensions (This session is facilitated by Carolyn Holbrook)
6/8: Adding by Subtraction