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Wednesday, 20 April 2011 20:11

Spiritual community: A matter of being part of something greater

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Plink plink plink.

A moment of silence.

Again – plink plink plink.

It’s 6 a.m. and the sky is still unlit, the color of chalky charcoal. But in a corner,  a small orange light is on a steady, metronomic blink, flaring and fading at half-second intervals, indicating that there are three e-mails and two texts and another four calendar alerts vying for attention.

Ding dong.

It’s the open laptop on the desk, declaring to the room at large that it’s 6 a.m. and its own ceaseless Web-trawls have gleaned more e-mails, more tweets, a few new blog posts.

Welcome to the 21st century, where every day is filled from open to close with a multitude of technological tethers that tie us, Gulliver-like, to our phones, computers and tablets. If we haven’t received an e-mail by noon, we suspect system malfunctions. We feel out-of-touch and somehow exposed if stripped of cell phone or PDA.

In a world that is increasingly interconnected, a virtual bazaar of non-stop information blasts, the ancient practice of spiritual devotion can begin to seem out-of-place, a reverse anachronism. We value the new and innovative and original, and juxtaposing that against quietude and reflection that are the hallmarks of spiritual development can seem nigh upon impossible.

But now, during Easter, what was once revered as a time of spiritual reflection is now another instance of busy-ness in the extreme. The children need to get Easter baskets and join 1,000 other kids to pick up eggs in public spaces. There need to be festivals. And hats. And runs. And chocolate. And cookie-decorating experiences. Angry Birds has even released a special Easter version, so you can spend your weekend slinging wingless birds at Easter-themed pigs on your iPad, if that’s your thing.

 

A moment to breathe

So is there value in clearing through the bursting spring schedule to make a space for spiritual development?

Scott Holmquist believes the answer is yes.

He’s the executive director of the Billy Graham Training Center at the Cove, a retreat near Asheville whose mission is to promote spiritual growth and retreat.

“It’s like the difference between going to a regular movie and a 3-D movie,” says Holmquist.

Sure, a 2-D movie is decent, but it sort of pales in comparison to the wonders of three dimensions, popping out at you from unexpected angles. And while the spectacle of modern life is wonderful, it can limit how we interact with our own third dimension, the spirit, the 3-D glasses of personal growth.

“I’m so glad to be in the 21st century,” says Holmquist, “but those things that are wonderful can keep us from stopping, from taking a deep breath.”

 

A faith community

The ancient Sufi poet Rumi advised his students to “close both eyes to see with the other eye.” He was an Islamic Persian mystic who lived in the 13th century, and although that might usually qualify him for inclusion in the prudes-of-the-middle-ages category, the poet was actually an ardent believer in building spiritual life on love and devotion to God and others. Much of eastern Islamic music is built on the foundation he laid.

And ringing true eight centuries later, spiritual leaders from a plethora of faith backgrounds echo Rumi’s thoughts: spirituality in a modern world needs discipline, but more importantly it needs community.

The Rev. Michael Hudson is an Episcopal priest who leads St. David’s in Cullowhee. He says that, even after 60 years of life, he still sees the spiritual world as a mystery, and a good one. To him, it’s almost impossible for most people to experience that mystery alone.

“I think for 99.9 percent of us, it’s absolutely necessary to do that,” says Hudson of joining in a spiritual community. “I think we are diminished if we don’t do that.”

Heather Murray Elkins says much the same thing. She’s a pastor and professor and has also been a poet, a teacher at a bi-lingual Navajo school and an instructor in South Korea. And a truck stop chaplain. Next, she’ll be part of a spiritual growth retreat held in June at Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, a Methodist conclave in Haywood County.

Elkins’ seminars attract people from around the continent to talk and debate liturgy, and she agrees with Hudson that community is key, not only to sticking it out on the sometimes-arduous spiritual road, but to getting to that spiritual road in the first place. Like Rumi, Elkins sees value in closing physical eyes to open spiritual ones, but in this culture, it’s challenging to go it alone.

“In a culture where time is money, we just keep going faster and faster and faster, so I teach students to try to tell time differently,” says Elkins “How you go about doing that are little acts of resistance. You have to do it with some kind of community. You can’t keep holy time by yourself.”

Elkins gives the example of Orthodox Jews as impeccable holy timekeepers, holding one another strictly to observances of Shabbat, where all of the distractions and responsibilities that life necessitates are taken forcibly from the equation.

“They agreed to protect each other’s time,” says Elkins, and without that protection, holy time falls by the wayside in deference to the frenetic pace of the world clock.

She holds in low esteem the idea that spiritual life can be healthy without community.

“I meet people frequently who say ‘I’m a Christian, I just don’t go to church.’ That’s an absolutely nonsensical answer,” says Elkins. “It’s not a matter of going to, it’s a matter of being in. It’s community, and you can’t do that by yourself.”

But actual community in the 21st century – one that is comprised chiefly of people you see face-to-face, rather than in a virtual arena – is not only increasingly hard to come by, it’s apparently becoming increasingly undesirable, as well.

In a study done by the Harvard Business Review, people showed themselves to be far and away more likely to use self-service or automated options over interacting with an actual human. And this rang true on every level – from banks, to supermarkets to troubleshooting their glitch-ridden smartphones. People, increasingly, do not want to talk to or interact with other real people if they can possibly help it.

A National Geographic exploration of worldwide longevity found that we, as average Americans, had three close friends just 15 years ago; now, most of us say we only have 1.5. This is not the case among other groups — in Okinawa, Sardinia or even American Seventh-Day Adventist communities — where close-knit, lifelong personal communities are the norm, as is longer life.

When the Harvard researchers agglomerated customer service call center data, the information showed that a staggering 57 percent of callers had already spent a considerable amount of time on the Internet and company website trying to address the problem themselves. Thirty percent stayed on the site, continuing to attempt self-service while actually talking to the person who is supposed to be the expert.

The author’s tone in the article trended toward concern for the fact that people just don’t seem to want to talk to other people without the barrier of an Internet connection. The piece was even endearingly titled “Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers,” because, presumably, they are no longer interested in being delighted.

“Here’s a hypothesis that would be concerning if it’s right: maybe customers are shifting toward self-service because they don’t want a relationship with companies,” say Matt Dixon and Lara Ponomareff, who penned the analysis. And while that theory is certainly distressing to businesses trying to romance the spending public, it carries heavier implications for the spiritual life.

Nate Novgrod, a licensed acupuncturist who also teaches Chinese spiritual practice in Waynesville, says that he sees the lack of spiritual practice translating into negative implications for his patients’ health.

“I think it can definitely be very helpful to have a group of people that are of similar mindsets,” says Novgrod. “My patients that have strong spiritual direction or path, regardless of what it is, tend to be healthier than my patients that don’t.”

That thought has a thread in it that runs through Scott Holmquist’s evangelical Christianity, too. He calls it The Body.

“The vitality of our personal relationship with God is pivotal and is key and is really, really important,” says Holmquist, “but it is always in the context of the body of Christ, the church, the virtual church.”

What he means, he says, is that sure, your own knowledge and experience is essential, but only, really, when it’s up against other people’s. That’s why it’s called a body – hands are amazing instruments, but severed from the rest of the body, they just become grotesque.

And so this is the common denominator – community, being with other people, as Heather Murray Elkins says, not going to, but being in.

And all of these practitioners concede that taking the time to do this is not easy, and the modern, Western world is in no way structured to offer time out for spiritual pursuits. Even that phrase seems like it should be in quotes, almost sarcastic in its diametric opposition to our time-is-money culture.

But taking a moment to reflect and committing time to engage with other people spiritually is, they say, vital to spiritual growth. And, as Novgrod points out, it’s not bad for physical health either. Just look at the Okinawans.

 

Finding the moment

Mary Teslow is a professor at Western Carolina University and also a lay leader of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Franklin. For Unitarians, the guiding principle is to help one another search responsibly for truth. And for Teslow, that means that taking a minute to prioritize that search is a pretty important component to finding it.

“I think it’s easy for us to lose track of it, things get busy,” says Teslow. “I think being intentional about it and being willing to start small — if you can consistently carve out 15 minutes, 20 minutes — then you can build on that. You don’t have to make that ginormous change; even if you get started, that’s a good thing.”

At your law office, waiting in line for coffee, walking to work – engage your spirit in all of those times. If you don’t schedule at least a little time to nurture your spiritual life with others, it’ll fall by the wayside. At least that’s the advice of the professionals.

“It’s kind of like spiritual muscle tone. You use it or lose it,” is the way Episcopal priest Hudson puts it. Is it a challenge? Sure, he says. But that’s what makes it worth it, to you and the people around you.

Medical research has shown that leading a consistently stressful life causes something called the inflammatory response, which, according to the National Institutes of Health, is a contributing factor to all manner of nefarious afflictions like cardiovascular problems and Alzheimer’s. Stepping back from that stress-fest for just 15 minutes a day can help reduce those effects.

In his congregation, Hudson says, they often refer to a quote by Frederick Buechner, the Presbyterian theologian, to guide them to fulfilling spiritual life: “vocation is where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”

Scott Holmquist says it’s really about taking the time you have, however small, and prioritizing it.

“The spiritual part of my life is going to require a priority that will need to have reflection in commitment of time and of resources,” he says. “Whatever we feed is going to grow.”

That’s a sentiment that hearkens back to our medieval friend Rumi, the love poet.

“But knowing depends,” said Rumi, “on the time spent looking.”

Places like Lake Junaluska Assembly exist to provide a respite and place to put in that quality time.

Jack Ewing, the director of the Assembly, says that’s what it’s been for him and his family for years; it’s what drew him to the job. He and his wife traveled to Lake Junaluska for 32 years to get away and recharge before moving there in 2005. Maintaining that spiritual space for other seekers is, he says, integral to what the Assembly is about, even as the church and world are changing.

“The reality is that we are in a world which is changing. What people want is changing,” says Ewing. “I think the mission of Lake Junaluska will always be to fulfill the needs of the church.”

That’s why, even in the action-packed Easter schedule they have going, the Assembly is carving out time for personal, spiritual celebration.

“We start Good Friday with what’s called a tenebrae service, which means a service of darkness, a relatively somber, quiet service of scripture reading and hymns,” explains Roger Dowdy, the director of ministry. That, he says, is followed by an Easter vigil, one of the most ancient ceremonies of the Christian faith that brings the church together to pause, in the darkness, and reflect on the sacrifice of Christ and their place in it together.

 

Changing pace

The lifestyle of our world puts pretty high value on speed, innovation and increased virtual connection. And as Scott Holmquist pointed out, there’s really nothing wrong with that. It’s led to some outstanding technological breakthroughs, like robotic surgery and nanotechnology and Post-It notes. But there is still, practitioners say, value in those little acts of rebellion against the clock. It’s a value that benefits our minds, spirits and even our bodies, and it is, they say, worth turning off the phone for, even for just a moment.

“Abraham Heschel said that if you had only one prayer to say,” says Heather Murray Elkins, “thank you would be sufficient.”

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