I’ve joined a men’s group / Bible study at work, and honestly, I’ve been hating on it ever since I joined. While other members talk about how much they need it for their spiritual life, I find there is little that is spiritual about it. We watch videos and the videos seem to me to be a cross between Dr. Phil and Peter Drucker with a few Bible verses thrown in much the same way that the Human Resources department uses those goofy inspirational quotes posters to lift morale around the office.
When I was a pastor in eastern Kansas and Nebraska I would take occasional retreats at monasteries (something the Presbyterian Church encouraged, by the way). In retrospect, one thing that struck me about monastic life was that the monks never got together for Bible Studies nor fellowship groups. They gathered daily, but it was always for prayers: matins and vespers for sure, and for those who were available, also prayers at “the hours” (every three hours throughout the night and day). Furthermore, these prayers weren’t an opportunity to talk to and encourage each other, they were highly structured with the purpose of making us humans shut up. They were made up of psalms, hymns, readings, and typically some sort of call and response prayer. (Later on I discovered this is also the pattern of Eastern Orthodox monastic life.)
What do the monks know that we Christians in the secular world have not figured out?
- While becoming a nicer, more polite, and productive human is a perfectly fine goal if you’re Miss Manners or Peter Drucker, those things can actually be distracting to our entering into communion and unity with God. The true goal of our spiritual struggle is a struggle to become one with Christ, not to become successful in our spiritual life.
- The enemy of our union with Christ is our love of self. Becoming a better human (better husband, better, father, better coworker, etc.) easily becomes a means of promoting my love of self disguised as love of God. (A classic form of idolatry.)
- Overcoming what the Orthodox Church calls the passions – what might be called the noisy distractions of everyday life, everything from my mind flitting from this topic to that willy-nilly, to my perceived need to obey my hunger pangs at a moments notice, to my becoming quickly bored when I’m not being entertained – are the true enemies of my entering into true communion with Christ.
- True unity is achieved through an attitude of prayer. Brother Lawrence called it “practicing the presence of God.” Talking to other people about spiritual things frequently causes us to focus on other people and the so called “spiritual things” and takes our focus off of God. The presence of God can only be discovered when our innermost being becomes truly silent, because God will very rarely interrupt our busy-ness of mind and body. He will wait silently until we too are waiting silently.
- The “language” of heaven, I suspect, is twofold. It is a “language” made up of silence and singing. Of course it isn’t actual silence, but that’s how we perceive it in our current state, because all our thoughts and words drown out the sublime and profound communication of the heart that leads to authentic communion with God and results in union.
- Authentic spirituality, like being a professional athlete, is highly disciplined. Disciplines require constant repetition. Once we begin to truly discipline our inner life, we are finally freed to enter into the world of God’s true light and life. (This is why in the Greek language, people who do this are called “spiritual athletes.”)
Knowing God is not an intellectual exercise, nor does it come about magically through socialization. It is an activity of the true heart. I suppose that fellowship groups have their place, but in the midst of this most recent experience I am reminded of the frustration of two decades of promoting this stuff as a pastor. The result is a deep sadness that we seem so willing to substitute this for true knowledge of God.