Getting from Sunday to Monday

Installment 3: Opening Yourself to the Guidance of God

Written by Linda Douty

In order to bridge the gap between belief and experience, between the head and the heart, between our Sunday pronouncements and our Monday ordinary life, we need to participate in the Divine life that is leading us from within and without. If we wish to get in touch with the authentic selves that God created and be true to the divine imprint on our souls, we need to look at specific, workable ways to get in sync with the process. In other words, how can we open ourselves to the guidance of God?

Our religious history is filled with admonitions to "obey God," to "listen to the voice of God"—and (for me, at least) precious little guidance as to how to listen to that voice, how to participate in our own transformation, how to go with the Divine flow rather than against it.

We have looked at some of the ways we resist this process—from fear of change to fear of losing control. Now it's time to explore concrete practices that help us in our transformation. However, we must be clear about the difference between participating in the process and managing it! Though it is more about letting go than trying harder, there's a delicate balance to doing what we can to offer ourselves to change and transformation—trusting that the abundant life is in fact truly abundant—without trying to control the process.

Imagine the spiritual life as a huge house surrounded by light. Opening the "windows" of the spiritual disciplines will let in the Light of God. We don't have to open all the windows at once; we can choose those practices that seem natural to us, that "call" to us. All let the light in.

The traditional disciplines include prayer, journaling, worship, Bible study, spiritual reading, fasting, daily examen, hospitality, gratitude, service, solitude, spiritual direction. The book Soul Feast by Marjorie Thompson takes a comprehensive look at each discipline in a "user-friendly" way.

We'll review a few of the disciplines briefly:

PRAYER —Nothing opens us to the Spirit more radically than prayer. I am not talking about the conventional forms of prayer—like liturgy, or intercessory prayer or petitions—important as they are, but rather about broadening our horizons of prayer and looking at prayer as relationship. Often we act as if God were a cosmic bellhop ready for our instructions so that he can give us what we ask. Prayer then becomes for us a matter of asking for what we want—or think we need —and convincing God to grant our wishes. In so doing, we are asking not really for God's will, but for God's stamp of approval on OUR will—OUR agenda of what we've decided is best for us.

Of course, it's appropriate to approach God with petitions, but our prayer life is woefully incomplete and without real power if we limit it to the spoken word. If we think of prayer as "loving attention to God," it can take an infinite number of forms, depending on our personalities and the need of the moment: Listening to music that stirs us can be a prayer; staring at the water alone; breathing a quick prayer and imaging the breath of God—all can deepen our connection. We don't have to use eloquent words; in fact, we don't need words at all.

Prayer as relationship can't develop if it is unilateral—that is, when we do all the talking and none of the listening. Prayer is not manipulating God (God is already in our corner!); instead, it is more like building a friendship.

You're all familiar with the verse "Be still and know that I am God." It does not say: "Study and learn about me; read another book about prayer; enroll in another class on discipleship." It says BE STILL AND KNOW.

So how do we become sensitive to the voice of God? Thomas Merton said it well: "Silence is the language of God—all else is poor translation." Silence is the training ground for the art of listening.Engaging the silence may be one of the most important and productive things you can do for spiritual deepening. I know for us compulsive, productive, extroverted types, this is a tall order. The bottom line is—it's worth it! But we have to believe that it really matters. In our culture, silence and stillness have been equated with wasting time, doing nothing, being lazy. NOT TRUE. Think of it this way—the silence of meditation is NOT the silence of a graveyard; it is the silence of a garden growing. Many of you are gardeners, and you know that when you're standing in the middle of a quiet garden, that silence does not mean that the garden is dead. Far from it. An intense activity is going on in the ground that will later take the form of buds, blossoms, and fruit. So, too, in silent meditation. There is divine formation and activity going on beneath our consciousness that will produce fruit —particularly in the areas of compassion and creativity. It is analogous to Jesus' parable of the mustard seed. The growth of that tiny seed into a large mustard tree is a slow, slow process —it can't be rushed; it can scarcely even be observed; it must be trusted.

So if you decide to try short periods of centering prayer (receptive prayer), you may think nothing is happening. Don't strive and seek; just relax and receive. And remember, don't evaluate it; simply trust God's process. To quote Merton again—"Gradually, after deliberately choosing quiet times with God, our heart begins to sharpen its perception of God's presence. The quiet of God begins to speak and direct us, and our heart becomes more finely tuned to the frequency that God uses to speak to us."

God's frequency is silence. It gives reality to the verse from Romans promising that "…the spirit prays in us with sighs too deep for words."

SCRIPTURE — For spiritual formation, it's vital to practice reading the Bible formationally rather than informationally. Academic study has its place; the truth is, however, that we can be Bible scholars and avoid transforming our lives. To be transformed by scripture, one lets go of all preconceived ideas and allows God to speak personally through the Word. Bear in mind that when the gospel message is read slowly in this way, it becomes not third-class mail, marked occupant, but first- class mail, marked personal.

JOURNALING—Journaling for spiritual growth is not a matter of keeping a spiritual diary of events or writing for publication. Instead, it is getting thoughts, dreams, hopes and feelings on paper without fear, without judgment, and without evaluation. There's no need to pay attention to spelling, punctuation, speed, grammar; just work straight from the heart to the page. Oddly enough, over time, it forms a continuing conversation with God. A pattern emerges. If a journal answers just one question, it is this: What is God doing in my life?

DAILY EXAMEN—Forms of the daily examen can serve as discernment tools —good for discovering how you're wired, what your particular personality responds to, what your passions and talents might be. In its contemporary form, it is a great diagnostic tool and is a simple practice. At the close of the day, one explores these questions:

1. What surprised me today?

2. What touched or moved me today?

3. What inspired me today?

4. What was "life-giving" to me today?

5. What felt "life-taking" to me today?

6. What did I learn about God and myself today?

What would I do if I knew I could not fail?
What am I doing when I lose track of time?
If I could take only two books to a desert island, what would they be?

Progress in prayer and in the spiritual life in general can be measured, in one sense, by a movement from active to passive—from effort on your part (verbal prayer, service, what one does for God) to allowing God to work with you. Another subtle shift is reflected in how you view your relationship with God. This is described beautifully in the Psalms : "My soul rests like a weaned child at the mother's breast." A weaned child is not asking for anything — just resting in the love of the mother.

In our lives, this shift means that one moves ever so subtly from a stance of obedience to authority, of wanting peace and protection, desiring a star in one's crown, or heaven itself (that is, trying to get something from God), to one of enjoying God, loving God with all one's heart, soul, mind, strength. It is reflective of that age-old theological dilemma, "Is spiritual growth our work for God or God's work for us?" The answer to both questions is Yes!

In our final installment, we will consider a "litmus test" for our spiritual growth. In other words, "How do I know if I'm on the right track?"

Copyright 2002 Linda R. Douty

Go to the fourth installment of Getting From Sunday to Monday.