Four Compass Points for the Spiritual Life

They come into the monastery bookstore where I work all the time. It's a joy to help them. For the most part they are Christians, often long-time churchgoers, but beyond that no single descriptor applies to them. Some are young, others old. Men and women, white and black, affluent and not-so-affluent.

I am speaking of people who find themselves hungering for intimacy with God. Whether they are twenty-five or seventy-five, these spiritual seekers have discovered something new for them—a new yearning, a new desire, a new longing that C. S. Lewis described best: "the imaginative longing for Joy, or rather the longing which was Joy." This Joy-with-a-capital-J is both the grace and the object of the spiritual life: the love that both flows from God, and yet is God.

Spirituality is like your fingerprints; it is unique for each person. We all have singular stories to tell of how we first came to love God, to embrace eternity, to attend to silence. And for all of us who are still alive, the stories are in process, we do not know what plot twists or surprise endings await us. Still, there are some basic themes of the God-immersed life that appear in pretty much every story. And one of those themes is the heady bliss that accompanies the discovery of spiritual joy for the very first time.

It would be silly to say it is a lot like falling in love, for it is falling in love; indeed, falling in love with God is the archetype, the primal, universal experience of love and all human fallings-in-love matter because they resemble it—not the other way around. And yet like all our earthly fallings-in-love, the initiation into the mystical life is both indescribably sweet and potentially quite disorienting. God invades your life and suddenly you see everything (and I mean everything) from a new perspective. Like putting on glasses for the first time, even prescription glasses that you need for 20/20 vision, it takes some getting used to.

And so many people who experience this dizzying new dimension of their adventure with God come out to the monastery to talk to a monk, to sit in the silence and listen to the chanting, and then to stop by the gift shop and load up on spiritual books. And I can see by the mixture of happiness and confusion in their eyes that they are new to all this spirituality business, even though they've been going to mass every week for the past forty years. And so we talk, and I encourage them (and suggest that they pace themselves with all the books).

But after many such conversations with eager beginners in the contemplative life, I've come to see that there are four dimensions—compass points, if you will—to spirituality. I don't know if this applies to spiritualities outside of the Christian faith, but it certainly works within our tradition. These points are not lessons to master, or ideas to memorize, or anything like that. Rather, they are like landmarks on the horizon. If we get to know these four dimensions, we can have a sense of where we are: we can be oriented in the spiritual life. It will take us the rest of our lives to get to know this new landscape in which we suddenly find ourselves dwelling. But that, too, is part of the adventure.

So here are the four orienting dimensions of the spiritual life, each one presented as a statement: not a command, but an invitation.

1.    Live into the Questions. Rilke said it first, and he was talking about poetry, but it applies just as well to the contemplative life. Spirituality begins not with answers, but with questions. Who am I? Why am I here? Why is there suffering? What happens after we die? Is there a God, and if so, how can I know God? What does God ask of me?
Take it deeper: What is mysticism? What is contemplation? Can I become a contemplative or a mystic? What does that involve? What do the monasteries or the great mystics and saints have to teach me? What is emerging in the spiritual life today, and where is God leading us?
Live into the questions. This is the beginning, and the continuation, of the spiritual life.

2.   Discover the Gifts. Mysticism is related to mystery, and mystery, in Christian spirituality, is related to the hidden things of God. So part of spirituality involves discovery: finding the hidden treasures and manifesting them in our lives. Such mysteries often come to us through sacraments (sacred rituals of grace) and through charisms (gifts from God). Such gifts-from-God are often utterly normal and ordinary: gifts such as nature, community, friendship, forgiveness, hospitality, simplicity, silence, and love. Sometimes the gifts of spirituality are more "religious" in character: gifts such as repentance, humility, grace, and sacrifice. When you recognize the gifts that come to you from God, you open yourself to the mysteries of God's heart.

3.   Remember the Stories. Human beings are storytellers, and like I said, each of us has a story to tell. The stories of men and women who loved God in the past—up to, and including, the present day—can be profound inspiration for each of us on our own unique God-search today. So let us take time to learn about, imitate, and honor the mystics and contemplatives and sages and saints of the past, people like Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, John Ruusbroec, Evelyn Underhill, John of the Cross, Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Assisi, and many, many more. When we remember their stories, we are nurtured in our own unfolding stories of intimacy with God.