June 10, 2010
Pilgrimage of a Soul, Part Two
Here's the second of our posts discussing Pilgrimage of a Soul, the new Likewise book by Word Made Flesh codirector Phileena Heuertz.
(SD) Activists aren't necessarily known for their contemplative spirituality, but you've managed to keep spiritual formation at the center of Word Made Flesh. How did you swing that? What are some of the hallmarks of that active-contemplation/contemplative activism dynamic at WMF?
(PH) I'd say we've learned the hard way. Seems like hardship is often the best teacher. Young twenty-somethings, fresh out of college, tend to have an honorable zeal and imperviousness. That was me, my husband and the few of us who dared to go against the tides of the time and give ourselves in service among the poor--not street evangelism and church planting, which were the mainstream focus of the evangelical church at that time. In the 1990s mission strategy was focused on the "10/40 Window" and "unreached people groups." We were finding a different way to be faithful to the gospel in a world of poverty, trying to orient ourselves theologically and spiritually rather than strategically. We faced a lot of doubters and critics in those early days. But we were compelled by the love of God and the love of our friends in poverty to press on. So activism very much took the main stage of our vocation.
Activism was our teacher, and through that dimension I believe we received spiritual formation. Mother Teresa's life encouraged us as we witnessed her "praying the work." We were being spiritually formed by our service. We were actively eager to pursue justice and reconciliation among the poor, and we gave ourselves tirelessly to that end. And in this way we were learning about the aspects of God as one who is active and in pursuit of us--a God of justice, peace and reconciliation. Our reading and prayer life reflected this dimension of God. Scripture and study reinforced our active posture in the world.
But after about seven or eight years of a rigorous pace, some of us started to come to terms with our limitations. Activism and engagement with a suffering world certainly offered formation and transformation in our lives. Conversely, limitations have a way of opening space within us for formation and transformation as well. Though we had readily responded to Mother's admonishment to "pray the work," we had not understood at the time her equal commitment to detach and withdraw regularly from service in adoration of Jesus through prayer and contemplation. Through the example and teaching of Fr. Thomas Keating, the Christian contemplative tradition started to inform our activism. Thus began a posture of learning what it means to rest in God and abide in God.
The Christian contemplative tradition literally arrested me in my tracks. I was gripped by the notion that there really is a way to rest in God--regularly--and that this too is honorable to God. As I pursued contemplative practices, balance to the active-contemplative continuum started to emerge in my life, and a deeper work of spiritual formation began to take place within me.
Contemplative practices create space within our crowded lives to be attentive to and surrender to the action of God within us. Made in the image and likeness of God, we bear the divine imprint. As Christians we affirm the doctrine of the divine indwelling, meaning we believe in the immanent presence as well as the transcendent presence of God. But much of modern Christianity is divorced from practices that emphasize the immanent presence, focusing primarily on the transcendent nature of God. Contemplative practices bring equilibrium to this imbalance. In so doing, our illusions of self, God, others and the world are more likely to be dismantled, freeing us to participate more fully in the life of Christ.
In WMF today we are growing toward making space for various contemplative prayer practices, like lectio divina, the prayer of examen, the breath prayer, centering prayer and the labyrinth prayer. In Omaha, where we are based, some of us practice two periods of centering prayer per day--one during workday, in the afternoon. This deliberate pulling away, detaching and surrendering serves as a reminder to us that the work is God's, and we are only an instrument in God's hands. This offers perspective for the enormity of very real and desperate needs of the world that can weigh so heavily on us. In addition, this practice allows space for our service to be purified, re-orienting us to serve from our true self, rather than the false self with its never-ending ego demands. Though we all work tirelessly on behalf of our friends in poverty, we have established and emphasize regular, weekly sabbath; regular personal retreats for longer periods of rest, prayer, study and reflection; and sabbatical every seventh year.
Over time, when bringing balance to the active-contemplative continuum, it really is possible to experience Jesus' promise that "the yoke is easy and the burden is light." For years I wondered how it was possible to experience that. And it seems that many Christians live with a very heavy burden of service or else put service aside--many Christians just live with a heaviness, period. The Christian life often looks less like the abundant life Jesus promised and more like that of an oppressed, slave-driven kind of life marked by guilt, fear and shame. Contemplative practices help free us into the divine life, marked by the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.