House of Prayer or Robbers’ Den? The Case for Spiritual Distancing.

Today’s gospel, Luke 19. 45–48, neatly encapsulates many people’s attitude to the Church, though I suspect those most hostile to her would not necessarily pick up the scriptural references but simply condemn her as ‘rich and corrupt’. Try applying the gospel text to ourselves as believers, and the words begin to sizzle uncomfortably. Is my heart a place where the Lord can pray unceasingly, or is it full of contradictory desires and selfish wants that not only block prayer but make me hypocritical — always a charge against Christians, but sometimes justified.

In a monastery you might think we have it all under control, but alas, that is not so. We have to learn, day by day, how to make the heart open to the Lord. Liturgy, the practice of lectio divina and, above all, living in community are great helps but none of them can take the place of the daily, personal conversion of heart expected of us. We vow it, so it must be possible; but it is a never-ending work in progress. One important aspect of conversion is the readiness to listen to people and opinions we don’t immediately find attractive; and by listening I mean more than waiting just long enough to hear the words but only in order to reject them. I mean really trying to understand what is meant and weighing it carefully to see whether it applies to us or not.

We are exhorted to be always on the alert for the voice of God, but it can be difficult to sift out other voices that do not come from him. I think that is why Benedict is so keen on humility, mercy and restraint of speech. He knows we are apt to assume we’re right about everything and be harsh on those who disagree with us. I know I am! But if we are truly to turn to the Lord and make our hearts a house of prayer, we need to practise what I’m tempted to call ‘spiritual distancing’. Older writers called it ‘detachment,’ and it means more than being indifferent to wealth or ease or avoiding sin. It means a wholly different ‘take’ on life which places God at the centre. Part of that involves cultivating freedom from our own opinions and preferences, and that can be more difficult than overcoming other, more material, forms of self-indulgence.

May I make a suggestion? Today, when tempted to react negatively, pause for a moment and ask yourself whether there is something you need to think about before you reply. It won’t necessarily stop you screaming at the radio or sending off that angry tweet, but it may open an unexpected pathway to grace in your life — and that can never be a bad thing, can it?

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The Art of Contentment

Here in the U.K. 28 November is ‘nothing special’. Our Jewish citizens are celebrating Hanukah, and our ex-pat U.S. citizens are celebrating Thanksgiving, but the average Brit is going about business as usual, which probably means more or less glumly, depending on such factors as weather, traffic and what they had for breakfast. The truth is, we are not a demonstrative people and it would be quite difficult to tell whether we are happy or sad just by observing us. Contentment, however, is something else, distinct from states of happiness or sadness. It is possible to be perfectly content while enduring the most appalling circumstances. That doesn’t mean acquiescing in what is wrong, or refusing to work for an improvement. Colluding with injustice is never right, nor should we confuse contentment with complacency. Contentment means, rather, not allowing what is, by definition, imperfect to destroy our serenity and joy. It is a way of transcending circumstances, allowing our inner self the freedom to be.

Serenity, joy, inner freedom, these are all, to my mind, attractive qualities we can cultivate. The art of contentment is to know that they are attainable and allow them to play a more important role in our lives than their opposites. That means a certain amount of discipline, especially over our thoughts. St Benedict was very keen on this disciplining of the mind and attention. He was, so to say, an early ‘positive thinker’, but he never intended that we should do violence to our nature. Instead, we work at recovering our true nature, our true identity, learning how to be content in any and all circumstances. If you wish to put a name to this, you could call it living the Beatitudes.

If we are content, we are grateful; and grateful people are happy people. So I would suggest that if you wish to know the secret of happiness, don’t make happiness your goal, as though this person or that activity could fulfil all your dreams. That is likely to end in disgust and disappointment. Seek contentment instead.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail