Returning to the Sacred

In 1969, singer Peggy Lee recorded a haunting and depressing song, “Is That All There Is?” It described the emptiness we all feel at times about life, but didn’t give a solution to the problem.

Today people are searching for answers in deepened spiritual lives which bring them closer to God. Books on spirituality are literally flying from bookstore shelves. Why the sudden upsurge of interest? There seem to be several answers:

• Publishers discovered a spiritual hunger among people. “Church members are growing tired of ordinary church life and a preoccupation with structure and business that doesn’t nourish them,” says Dr. Martin Marty of the University of Chicago.

• There is a breakdown in our trust in science. “There was an assumption that science was going to explain things,” says Dr. Gerald May of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Washington, D.C. When this assumption proved to be incorrect, they turned elsewhere.

• There has been an economic breakdown as well. “The myth of inevitable progress is broken, and the idea of limitation has entered our world,” says Dr. Jay Rochelle of the Lutheran School of Theology. This makes the search for a meaning in life even more urgent.

• Unsatisfied secularism. As one priest expressed it, “We’re grasping for meaning. As we grasp, we discover that we can’t find it in the places our culture has told us we can — belonging to a group, in pleasure, in materialism, and in consumerism.” Now people are beginning to look beyond the secular and are finding meaning to their lives in the sacred.

• The speed of the times. “We feel driven,” says Father Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O., of St. Benedict’s Trappist Monastery in Snowmass, Colo. “There’s no opportunity for refreshment. We are looking for a way to survive.”

All the above factors seem to be converging on us and taking us from our frenzied secular pursuits back to the sacred areas of life. Finding the quest for material things unsatisfying, we are looking for deeper spiritual lives which can be realized only when we seek the presence of a living and loving God.

Human beings are inescapably spiritual, so it isn’t surprising when we hear that 88 percent of all Americans say they pray. Nor should we be amazed when national news magazines publish stories on prayer. Our hunger for ultimate truth is basically unsatisfied. Parishes are getting the message and responding. Small groups that enable people to listen to the message of the Bible and other spiritual classics continue to pop up in churches of all denominations. Clergy and laity from many Christian communions are swelling the numbers of spiritual formation programs at Catholic monasteries and parishes all over the nation.

Jesus is the Life

Within Christianity there are many spiritualities, many attitudes and practices intended to help us live under the Lordship of Christ. And Christ remains the center. This makes Christian spirituality a unique experience. As Professor Rochelle states, “One can be a Buddhist without having much to do with Buddha, who taught a way of life. But Jesus did not teach a way of life; He is the life.”

Father Keating of St. Benedict’s spends six months each year teaching the techniques of prayer. He says that we must realize “that God has addressed us first. The Gospel is an invitation to come into friendship with Christ. Christian life is growth in a personal relationship with Christ.”

But growth in this relationship is sometimes slow, undramatic, and imperceptible. It takes time for prayer, reflection, worship, solitude, conversation with others, meditation — time away from the distracting noise and drivenness of modern life. No small task. A mature relationship with Christ, some suggest, is like an old couple sitting together on their porch. Sometimes they speak, often falling silent, perhaps patting each other’s hand, yet there is an enormous sharing there. They can rest in each other’s presence.

Deepened spirituality begins with prayer. Prayer isn’t just speaking to God. It is also resting in His presence; meditating on Scripture; reflecting on a word or two that expresses our desire to know and love God, and listening to our life and to the depth of our hearts when God speaks.

In some ways, to our modern ears, spirituality sounds like a total waste of time. We live under the curse of a modern law. This law says that anything that does not produce money, goods or services is not valuable. That’s why we have taught ourselves to feel guilty when we don’t have anything to do. This very attitude works against the idea of spending any quiet time alone with God. Even our liturgies and public worship services seem to plow on full speed ahead as though all time with God must come under the scrutiny of the clock — and often this is just the case. There is little time for silence and meditation.

But quiet time with God has even another dimension than just that of bringing us personal inner peace. It has an other-people dimension as well. To focus simply and solely on the achieving of our own personal peace without considering others around us can bring us nothing more than what one clergyman called, “a high-class tranquilizer.” Real growth in spirituality leads beyond the boundaries of selfish goals to a solidarity with the whole human family.

As the attitudes of our friends affect our own, so the spirit of Christ’s love affects our attitudes. Breaking that bondage to ourselves, Father Keating asserts, “is one of the things we learn in real Christian spirituality.”

Spirituality involves a return to the sacred. Even the Church can be guilty of fostering a commercialism and hurried approach to faith that leaves little time for a quiet meditative relationship with Christ and our fellow human beings. Your parish can help by:

1. Having special groups for an in-depth study of the faith. Too often religious instruction ends with catechism and confirmation and we fail to recognize that the Christian faith is a life-long learning experience. What about establishing groups for Bible study or a study of the lives of the saints, or of Church history in general?

2. Consider having a prayer group which meets regularly to pray for the special needs of those in the parish and community, such as the family with a child who has leukemia or the father whose business has just collapsed and is facing bankruptcy, plus a multitude of other needs. Advertise the group, ask people to join and let the people you pray for know you are remembering them in your prayers.

Given the spiritual hunger of our day, perhaps the major challenge for the Church is not to keep people busy, but to help them ask the question, “What is God doing in my life?” Our response becomes that of Jesus’ disciples, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Then we will be able to answer the question, “Is that all there is?” by saying, “No, there is more — much, much more.” TP 

Dr. Dickson is a retired Lutheran pastor and college professor in North Carolina.