Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Spirit and the Word, and the paradox...

Sometimes we experience a terrible dryness in our spiritual life. We feel no desire to pray, don't experience God's presence, get bored with worship services, and even think that everything we ever believed about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit is little more than a childhood fairy tale.

Then it is important to realise that most of these feelings and thoughts are just feelings and thoughts, and that the Spirit of God dwells beyond our feelings and thoughts. It is a great grace to be able to experience God's presence in our feelings and thoughts, but when we don't, it does not mean that God is absent. It often means that God is calling us to a greater faithfulness. It is precisely in times of spiritual dryness that we must hold on to our spiritual discipline so that we can grow into new intimacy with God.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey


In paradoxical language if you try to rest on one side and forget the other, you lose the truth.

We've seen some Christian cultures that are entirely centered on the Cross and they lose the resurrection. In wealthy countries like our own we have a desire for victory theology as it is called - all resurrection and almost no reference to the pain and suffering of the world.

You've lost the mystery as long as you do that.

Richard Rohr, from Great Themes of Paul

Somehow for me these two quotes just came together. Not only is it paradoxical, in Rohr's use of the word, that when we feel ourselves most abandoned by God, he is about to do his greatest work in us, but it is, as Nouwen says, that as we remain faithful to "our spiritual discipline", our regular times of prayer, our form of office, our set Psalms and readings from Scripture, that we are set free to grow, leap sometimes, into a new intimacy with God.

As Rohr says, we in the "West" have lost sight of much of this. We cannot accept paradox, and we call it "contradiction". Many of us, especially in churches where "victory theology" is paramount, think of regular discipline, rules of life, liturgical forms of worship, as stultifying, formal, lifeless "religion" that can be distinguished from "Spirit-filled, Bible-believing worship", where we can be "free in the Spirit" to "worship as we are led". But "you've lost the mystery as long as you do that."

For thousands of years now the Spirit has worked in people's hearts and minds, to give us the strong, flexible framework for life and worship that is found in liturgy and the daily Office. God is present in these words too, just as much as in those transcendent moments of inspired Charismatic worship - and unlike Charismatic worship, those words will still be there in our driest times, when we are alone, and heartbroken, or worse, bored stiff. They will still be there when our minds wander, when we are filled with lust, and anxiety, and greed, and we can hardly lift our heads to see the page.

God does not abandon us when we can't, or even when we won't, sense his presence; and the words of the Office in particular show us that, in the concrete form of ink and paper, or even pixels on a screen...

All those long years ago, the anonymous writer of the great acrostic Psalm, 119, knew just what all this was about:

Your decrees are wonderful;
   therefore my soul keeps them.
The unfolding of your words gives light;
   it imparts understanding to the simple.
With open mouth I pant,
   because I long for your commandments.
Turn to me and be gracious to me,
   as is your custom towards those who love your name.
Keep my steps steady according to your promise,
   and never let iniquity have dominion over me.
Redeem me from human oppression,
   that I may keep your precepts.
Make your face shine upon your servant,
   and teach me your statutes.
My eyes shed streams of tears
   because your law is not kept.

(Psalm 119.129-136)

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