As part of my Spiritual Formation course, the class spent two nights at a Catholic Retreat Center in Mississauga, Ontario. Much of the course revolves around this retreat; the practicality, and impracticality of spirituality, and what it entails. Theology has always been a conversation, though we often like to make it more than that if only because it is safe. Spirituality, on the other hand, is the formation or manifestation of God in our life. It does not occur naturally. Like any form, it must be learned and practiced. I’d say too many Western churches confuse theology and doctrine with spirituality, which is why there is such a hunger in our culture for spiritual ideas. Religion, absent spirituality, is like an empty shell. And if we aren’t careful, we fill that shell with more religiosity, more of ourselves, and leave God out. Jesus said to the Pharisees that they were like “white washed tombs” (very ornate coffins). They looked good on the outside, but inside they were filled with the rotting bones of selfishness, pride, and vanity. (Does that sound like some religious people you know?) It doesn’t matter how good or strong you think your doctrine is, because in the end, it will not fill that void in our hearts nor will it lead us to God.
Spirituality is the practice of knowing God, and the attempt to allow Him to change us that we become more like Him.
Here are some thoughts from the retreat:
Wednesday, Feb 27
I arrived with Mark and Pete at about 7pm. We stopped along the way to get some food at Wendy’s, and I overate. They were both in tears (of laughter) from the restaurant to the retreat center because of my groaning, which made me laugh too, which only made it worse. Great. First day of my spiritual retreat. A glutton.
…I like my room. It’s small, with its own bathroom. I have a window, a bed, a chair, and a desk with a kneeler underneath. Somehow the spartan nature of the room makes me breathe easier. When I get back I intend to clean out my room back at the house.
…The chapel is barely large enough to hold all 68 students. It is shaped in a circle. Some of my classmates are unfamiliar with the Catholic setting: the altar and the tabernacle and the kneelers. I like it however, it reminds me of church when I was a kid.
…Our professor, Dr. Sherbino (who prefers we call him David), has asked us to call out what we hope to receive from our time here. I listen to a number of people call out before I voice my own expectations. “I am bitter towards God in certain areas. I’d like to work that out.” My bitterness is in the area of relationships. As a divorced, single man at 35, I have not had much success in that area. Coincidentally, Pete had asked me earlier in the week in I trusted God to bring someone into my life. My simple answer is no, I don’t. Every time I’ve met someone it has resulted in disappointment. I no longer trust God when it comes to women. I’d like to change that.
…At 11pm they turn most of the lights off. Every one goes to bed except for Pete, Mark, Greg and myself. We stay up until 2am talking and laughing in the dim light of the foyer. I can’t remember laughing so much. It makes me realize just how important it is to have good male friendships. Did you know that the average North American male does not have a single, deep, male friendship?
…I can’t sleep. I am hungry and cold. They turn the heat off at night and offer extra blankets. I can’t help but think I’d make a terrible monk. I do however, appreciate the silence.
Thursday Feb 28
…Happy Birthday, Sis.
…In the morning service, our professor stresses the importance of unity. The Scripture he reads is on the importance and power of our words. I can’t help but think of how often I get critical. Although I do like to encourage people, my heart is too often swayed by bitterness and frustration with those who do not see things the way I do. Especially in my conservative institution, where change is almost anathemic to many of the students. I must do a better job promoting unity.
…In our morning lecture we talk about solitude and the importance of solitude. One thing sticks with me. As we are looking at the three temptations Jesus faced, our professor labels them this way: 1)The temptation to be relevant 2) the temptation to be spectacular and 3) the temptation to be powerful. These are the three temptations all leaders face. For me, it is the second one. The desire for a spectacular life, for a spectacular ministry. I want to sell a million books, produce and direct best selling films, and deliver speeches to thousands of people. Although it is easier for me to shrug off the grasping nature of materialism, ‘spectacular’ still holds me in its spell. I long for the approval of so many. My prayer is to remember that small is big and deep, and that big is usually wide and shallow. Lord, help me to want small and deep.
…After lunch we are expected to spend the following five hours in silence. Some will find this more difficult than others. Despite my gregarious nature, as a writer this will not be too hard I think.
…It’s cold out, but the sun is bright, and the blue sky lends a perfect backdrop to the mass of evergreens and whitened landscape. The snow crunches under my boots as I head walk down the road. Greg joins me on my way back, and we walk in silence together for about ten minutes. It’s an odd feeling. Somehow my presence feels heavier when I am. I will have to think about this more.
…We're still in our time of silence. Mark and Pete and I head down to the river. We stumble down a rickety flight of about 150 stairs to the riverbank. The sun glistens off the rushing water, which bubbles and gushes, made louder by our collective silence. I am trying to listen to God, but find that I am too busy writing (in my head). I hear nothing. Our professor has said that we carry on nearly 1200 conversations in our head, that there is great noise when we first learn to appreciate silence. As the monks will often say, in our culture, waiting is associated with doing nothing or wasting time. But when we wait on God we allow our souls to grow up. I guess I have some growing up to do.
Friday February 29th
...I'm still thinking about silence, and how I use it. And when I do not. I am realizing that I often use silence to punish people. I put my gregarious nature on hold to let others feel my displeasure. I also realize that I am often uncomfortable being silent with others because I am trying to lighten the weight of my presence. Sometimes this is a good thing, but too often I equate silence with displeasure. For me, talking is a bridge. But does it have to be? And why am I so focused on lightening my presence?
Saturday March 1st
...It's been an interesting few days. A lot of fun, at night too, with four or five of us who stayed up way too late both nights playing pranks with plastic cups and throwing Kleenex boxes at one another. Not sure how spiritual that part of it was, but for someone who never goes on vacation, it was a nice break.
One last thing. Solitude must be intentional, especially in our culture. Let me encourage you to try it. Spend time, either in the car or take a half day and get away, so you can have some solitude. No music. No noise. At first, you may be amazed at some of the 'junk' that broils to the surface. Confess it to God, and wrestle with it. This is how we grow our character. At some point, we have to let God speak to us. That can be a scary event, because some of us worry that He WON'T speak to us, or if He does, what will He say?
I'd say take small steps, but if you're interested in true spirituality, you must be willing to face solitude. Jesus had a pattern of solitude and than facing the crowds, and than hanging out with the disciples. Real inner strength comes from that which God gives us. We risk burnout in this life when we forget to go to the well, as it were. God loves you and wants to get to know you. Remember the story of the prodigal son, where the son spends the inheritance and comes crawling back to the father, who welcomes him back and throws him a huge party. God is not angry with you! He longs for your company! I think the effect on your life and faith will surprise you.
-Have a good week everyone.