…. as much as I am able, I practice my little Rule, keep my little fasts, do my prayers and meditation, remain quiet and as much as possible I keep my thoughts clean. What else should I do?Chittister, Joan. In God’s Holy Light, Wisdom from the Desert Monastics. Franciscan Media, 2013; p.131 Abba Lot
With 2020 still in my rear-view mirror, I have not yet gained enough distance from the fog of it to see clearly the turn into 2021.
Beginning with the COVID-19 shut downs in March 2020, my own life rhythms were largely interrupted. In other seasons of stress those practices were reliable ballast in the storms. But in 2020, my Rule of Life was pitched overboard by serial interruptions: Pandemic. Murder. Protests. My father’s death. Fires. Shut downs. Elections. U.S. Capitol breach and lock down. I find it disorienting and confounding. Like Abba Lot recounting his own holy habits I have wondered: What else should I do?
01. Living the Interruptions
Ironically, as a Spiritual Director I have hosted others’ discovery of practices that supported their desire for intimacy with God. What of my own? Ranier Maria Rilke once counselled a younger poet to love the questions themselves, and “to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”Rilke, Ranier Marie. Letters to a Young Poet
Well, I don’t love the interruptions and living them hasn’t provided answers. Though I’m largely confounded I don’t feel any resentment toward them. I think of the more personal ones as momentary invitations to choose a loving response, to try on humility, to offer compassion – the very virtues that I hope characterize the Christ Life in me. In that regard, I am grateful for the practice, however impromptu or prolonged. But interruptions have made a mess of my rhythms. What now, exactly, is my rule of life?
I don’t think that is an inquiry into what I have for breakfast or when I brush my teeth; when I read the Bible or how do I pray. Writing down a schedule so that I can check the boxes, meet deadlines, or finish the tasks on a to-do list may require careful time management and make for measurable productivity. But will the natural outcome be a fruitful life? Better question a faithful life? Will the structures I choose to put into my calendar assure transformation or increase the probability of loving encounter? Does praying, Lord I want to do this with you, make it so?
02. Arranging for With-God Living
I consider how I might cultivate a posture for reflection and arrange for a contemplative approach to being a human being. I wonder if or which seeds of virtue I’m planting. And what kind of tending will those seeds require to grow and eventually yield a harvest.
Do I really want a with-God life, and how badly do I want it? For me, I am persuaded that there is no life apart from God, no without-God life. To what end am I arranging for that? My notes from a Dallas Willard lecture read: If we want to live a life in conversation with God we will have to arrange for it. More precisely Dallas’ words to John Ortberg were: “You must arrange your days so that you are experiencing deep contentment, joy, and confidence in your everyday life with God.” Further, what I offer to others, Dallas says, “just like the main thing you will give God—is the person you become.Ortberg, John. Soul Keeping, Caring for the Most Important Part of You. Zondervan, 2014. p. 88
03. Becoming Real
So how do I arrange my days so that the natural outcome of those days, one after another, results in my becoming the person that God always intended me to be? What kind of a person have I become through 2020, that is, what is the natural outcome of my living the interruptions? Will my life be a testament of devotion like Thomas Kelly’s life and work, or a testament of distraction?
Dallas was certainly convinced that it would not happen by accident but by intention. So what am I intending. What can move me into a life that I am only at the edges of a dense fog imagining?
Joan Chittister shines a light for me. I paraphrase here what she wrote in the final chapter of her book, In God’s Holy Light:
The spiritual life is not about perfection. It is about the direction of the mind, the orientation of the soul, and the beat of the heart. It leads a person with unfailing energy to what becomes the source of a person’s life-and the only reason clear enough and enthralling enough to get a person up in the morning. When the spiritual life is more than a program of spiritual exercises, we become totally human and loving. Most of all, we start to view all of life through the filter of the Gospels, the beatitudes, and through a commitment to peace and justice for all. We become a real Christian, like those Desert Monastics who will break a rule to save a person rather than keep the rule and lose their own souls by preferring false righteousness to real sanctity. At that point, all the fasts and prayers, all the disciplines and rules, have done what they were meant to do. They have stamped on our souls the soft outline of the caring face of Jesus.Chittister, Joan. In God’s Holy Light, Wisdom from the Desert Monastics. Franciscan Media, 2013. p.132-135
04. Coming Home
2020 marked the first Christmas and New Years Eve without my dad. While finishing out the final holiday weekend with my mother, I was grateful to spend the days at her pace and in the home I grew up in. Being with her lends a lot of perspective on 2020; it simplifies my accounting of what matters, what to hold on to, what to let go of.
Given the ongoing pattern of interruptions to life, What else should I do? For me there is wisdom for 2021 in the stories of Epiphany. Warned NOT to go back to Herod, the magi chose a different route home. The dark mists of 2020 continue into this first week of 2021 and seem to me ample notice that we cannot go back to what use to rule our lives, we must choose a different route Home.
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said: Abba, as much as I am able, I practice my little Rule, keep my little fasts, do my prayers and meditation, remain quiet and as much as possible I keep my thoughts clean. What else should I do? Then the old man stood up and stretched out his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten torches of flame. and he said: Why not be turned completely into fire?Ibid. p. 131
May Christ’s Fire and Face be seen in me and in you in 2021.
05. Two Classes for the New Year
If this article has stirred a movement within you, might we recommend two classes from the Conversatio treasure house to help you renew your desire for practicing God’s Presence and for developing a Rule of Life with rhythms that are life-giving, life-healing and life-sustaining.