by Jeffrey A. Nelson
An excerpt from his new book, Coffeehouse Contemplative which explores concepts of spirituality, prayer, and spiritual direction for those who are unfamiliar with these ideas and practices. Reprinted with permission from the author.
She walked into my office wearing a nervous smile. We were meeting for the first time to begin an eight-week version of Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, a shortened overview of the full retreat that would include daily prayer and reflection on scripture passages, as well as a few other meditations. We’d meet weekly to talk about her experience, and I would offer tips and guidance on themes and practices for the new week.
As she sat on the couch across from me, she voiced her hesitation regarding what she was about to do. “I’m really going out of my comfort zone for this,” she explained. “I don’t know what to expect or how this will go. My mom thinks I’m crazy for doing it! She told me, ‘I’m glad you are, because I sure wouldn’t!’”
As the weeks progressed, this hesitation faded. Most meetings featured an account of her ability to enter imaginatively into the scripture stories suggested to her. She noted a more peaceable engagement with difficult situations at her job. And with joy and amazement, she described her awareness of a presence with her; a consciousness that she wasn’t alone in her daily interactions. Over eight weeks of prayerful study, she’d begun cultivating a new way of seeing the world; of seeking the divine undertones to each interaction and experience of her day.
In truth, this experience had less to do with me and more to do with her own willingness to enter into an intentional time of spiritual direction. I had made an open invitation to people in my congregation interested in making such a retreat, but it was her own hunger and curiosity that had inspired her to take up this discipline. A venture out of her comfort zone had revealed to her a new frontier of spiritual exploration.
In my own denomination, the United Church of Christ, as well as many similar denominations and traditions, the hesitation expressed by my directee is quite common. Many who participate in mainline Protestant church settings may feel uncomfortable with the word “spirituality,” let alone the concept. Spiritual practices as many know them are seldom explored aside from the content of the Sunday morning worship moment, which may typically feature corporately read and responsive prayers, a standard selection of familiar and beloved songs, a few scripture readings, and a time to listen to a sermon. If one serves on a ministry group or attends another function during the week, there may be a prayer to bless the proceedings in some arbitrary fashion.
For many, this compartmentalization of spiritual practices is enough. It serves them well their entire lives, and has for generations: worshippers feel a certain connection to those who preceded them and, if done well, a certain reverence. What has become known as “traditional” worship communicates a sacred time; an hour or more truly set aside that looks and sounds little like the workplace, the morning commute, the YMCA, and wherever else one may find oneself the rest of the week. This is a solemn time to think, sing, and talk about God. For many, it even embodies something about how we’re meant to approach God: organizers and attendees alike intend it to be excellent, well-crafted, respectful, and taken seriously. In such a context, many frown upon audible or visible distractions such as noisy children, coffee cups in the sanctuary, or someone not dressing to an unspoken standard. These disruptions deviate from the script; they don’t respect the sense of God’s presence that this time set apart means to convey.
As we consider the meaning and practice of spirituality, placing too much emphasis on these things can lead to some blind spots. First, such a heavy focus on Sunday morning worship as the primary expression of spiritual practice often means that one will experience an incredibly small percentage of possibilities available to Christian believers, especially in a culture becoming more diverse, ecumenical, and post-denominational.
Second, while it is important to respect both the space and time of the weekly worship moment, holding a particular room and hour as sacred detracts from the ways other times and places can be sacred as well. We end up discounting the times when we may be able to discern God’s presence while we happen to be wearing blue jeans, nursing a cup of coffee, or interacting with an active, talkative child.
Finally, placing too much stock in words, reason, and intellect have the potential to hinder or devalue our use of silence, imagination, experience, and emotion. Many are prone to see these sorts of elements in spiritual practice as too “Jesus and me;” overly individualistic and based on faulty, non-objective criteria. Thus, many reject such practices because they seem too unreliable or fanciful, bringing discomfort or suspicion. This mindset tends to discourage or avoid 1anguage of an experiential relationship with God, instead placing high priority on intellectual discernment of who God is and what God asks of us. This results in many dedicated churchgoers, among others, casting the concept of “spirituality” in a negative light, causing the sort of hesitation displayed by my directee.
On the other hand, the United States is experiencing a growing interest in spirituality. The first part of the 21st century has seen the rise of a belief identity known as “spiritual but not religious.”
Much needs to be clarified regarding how this categorical group uses the words “spiritual” and “spirituality”: in many ways the use of these words are employed in a way that defies clarification. At the very least, they may be used to denote a belief in God with a rejection of any formal religious expression. There may or may not be any intentional individual or group practice meant to deepen a connection with God involved. All the same, one gift that those who seriously pursue this identity offer to those still involved with traditional religious expressions and institutions is that an experience of God is possible in many ways and places beyond the walls of one’s house of worship.
Whereas “spiritual” may evoke suspicion from some who treasure church participation, it may be a word still in search of a definition by those who have given up such involvement but still seek a connection to something beyond themselves. Serious consideration of the concept and practice of spirituality has more to offer both groups than perhaps either realizes.
Jeff Nelson is pastor of Grace United Church of Christ in Uniontown, Ohio, as well as a spiritual director and writer. He regularly blogs about ministry, spirituality, and pop culture at http://www.coffeehousecontemplative.com.