Recent comments by presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann have stirred up the discussion about gay marriage once again. While speaking to a group of high school…
Sometimes, ok, perhaps it’s often, I weary of the discipline it takes to stay faithful to the routines of tending life. I begin to skimp on the practices that nurture body, mind, soul and community. Fortunately, every now and then something wonderful comes along to enliven my efforts.
My husband and I met with friends for dinner a couple of nights ago. They are the type of friends with whom you always wish you could spend much more time. We enjoyed delicious food, wine, conversation, and heaping platefuls of hope. Interestingly, we had decided beforehand that we would discuss the end of the world. We were only half-joking. This idea was instigated by the distress of another mutual friend, a very wealthy man, over his fear of an impending world-wide economic collapse. He was ready to liquidate all his assets, pack up and move to South America. (I am not sure why South America would be better if the whole world was in trouble but there you have it.) One of our dinner mates is also in the financial world and well acquainted with the inner workings of the struggling economy. We looked forward to hearing what she might have to say.
We agreed that the mutual-friend-turned-conversation-starter is very bright and very rational man. This reaction seemed very out of character for him. But this sort of thinking is entrenched in our collective psyches and probably has been since the beginning of time. We are all afraid of what we cannot control. We are all afraid of loss. This fear is amplified through the lens of round the clock disaster movies and documentaries, and the Mayan, Nostradamus and Left Behind theories that all seek to interpret many world events in catastrophic terms. In response, there are survivalist websites selling packaged food and gear. Self-protective instincts run deep.
Our conversation moved to what if? Specifically, if major calamity does strike, how do people of faith respond? How do we create safe space for ourselves and how do we care for our neighbors? How do we share meager supplies with those who have run out? How do we offer the hospitality of God?
And, what would it be like? Would desperation finally push us to the faith that we have not grown into yet? You know, the kind of faith that feeds 5,000 from a few loaves and fishes, the faith that heals sickness and that finds the coins we need in the mouths of fish? We had no answers. These probably weren’t our real questions anyway. We have not been asked to live this way, not yet.
It was in this context that one friend brought up the idea of spiritual eldering. Spiritual elders are the folks who have been around a while. They have seen suffering and they have seen great beauty. They have seen heart-breaking betrayals, and they have seen love and sacrifice like that of Christ himself. They have seen faith fail and they have seen grace overflow. These are the ones who have “set their faces towards Jerusalem”, that is, they have set out finally on the journey that is Christ’s. They have seen Kingdom and can do nothing else but live in a way that brings it forth. They have let go of what brings only fleeting hope here on earth. They have learned what is truly important.
And there we were, the four of us, each moving into our sixth decade on earth. We recognized that we are entering the elder stage. And of course, none of us felt ready or adequate. My friend then asked, “So, when will we be old enough to give it all away?” It became apparent that while we are not old enough yet, our shared conviction was to move in that direction together as community. This is never a journey that we need walk alone. In that realization, we felt the growing potential, desire, and joy of the possibilities held between us.
Therein lies the hope. We were sitting in communion with friends who hope for Kingdom. Their hearts were for the left behind, the people in need. They were not thinking about preparing for disasters as much as much as learning to be good shepherds. They were concerned about growing into the people we would each need to become in order to bring forth the equities and the sweet, inclusive shalom of Kingdom life, no matter what happens. We all felt caught up in a quiet thrill at the thought of this communal dream. And just for once, the cost didn’t seem to obscure the prize.
None of this stuff would be surprising to my dear mentor nun, Sr. Marilyn. She is a spiritual elder in the truest sense of those words and she is helping to grow us up. She once told me a story of a priest whose South American monastery faced apocalypse when it was invaded by gunmen. The humble priest greeted them with open arms. They shot him. “It was the practices,” said Sister, “that prepared his heart to meet them that way.” Indeed, it was the practices that prepared him for anything.
Richard Rohr notes that in our younger days, we typically use the type of prayer posture that we feel will help to build our careers, fill our coffers, and create a life. As we move towards eldering, we need the kind of prayer practices that help us to let it all go. We need what will bring us to the place where being emptied enough to truly open ourselves to the reality and need of the other, becomes as compelling a desire as any other we have known here. Then, instead of grasping and protecting what is ours, we can begin to walk this earth with arms held open wide.
How do we get there? “Do the practices,” says Sr. Marilyn. “The practices will get you ready.” And the hope birthed by good friends does, too.
[The practices she refers to include regular engagement with faith community, Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina, the daily Examen and others.]