Spiritual Ruts, and Ways Out

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muddy roadShe was in a rut. As she trudged through the routine, she ticked off the mental litany: get water, wash dishes, do laundry, cook meal.

He was in a rut. He'd learned how to think along straight lines. Follow those direct paths, don't deviate from safe assumptions, and success was certain.

Then they both got nudged out of the rut and into another world.

Sound familiar? You may know them by other names: the Samaritan woman, Nicodemus.

They may seem like ourselves. The woman approaching the well follows a worn path which continues, even in her thinking, when she's surprised by a stranger. His request for a drink is preposterous. Orthodox Jews even today don't share meals or vessels with those whose dietary practices are less strict.

Furthermore, he comes thirsty and tired to a well without a bucket! Even more shocking, he who isn't supposed to talk publicly with a woman takes a playful, conversational tone with her. Jesus also nudges Nicodemus: for a teacher of Israel, he stays complacently with tired concepts, which Jesus tries to broaden and expand.

From his interactions with these two figures, it appears that Jesus is no lover of ruts. It's heartening to hear that "in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell" (Colossians 1: 19). And "from his fullness we have all received: grace in place of grace" (John 1:16). Repeatedly, Jesus reminds he came to bring us abundant life, spilling over any rut.

He entered human life in a totally unexpected way—born in a stable, not a palace, to young peasants, not royalty. He refused to believe the teachers who protested, "But we've always done it this way!"

His effect on people seems to be shaking up their comfy grooves. He broke the taboos, he healed and he invited people to more compassionate life. Blind Bartimaeus gladly gave up his begging routine; Matthew abandoned the daily grind of tax collecting. Jesus startled his disciples, upsetting their calcified notions of holiness. And we who follow Christ: what do we do when we're stuck?

Many spiritual writers address the problem. Kathleen Norris has written a whole book on the "noon-day devil," acedia, or sloth:Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life. St. Benedict wrote in his Rule, "Each day has reasons for joy." Searching those out could entertain us daily, because each day's joys are unique and intriguing.

St. Francis' delight in creation could also bump us out of a rut. In any season, we can find beauty: blue shadows on snow, the first buds tight as fists, the play of light on summer leaves, brassy, autumnal colors of harvest. St. Teresa of Avila once described the spiritual life as dragging buckets to water a garden (remember, she lived in dry Spain). Then, God's grace comes as rain, disrupting the weary routine.

Paolo Ferucci, in What We May Be, gives helpful imagery for directing the psychic energies. The psychotherapist asked one client, locked in immobility, to reflect on the concept of risk. It channeled the person's natural vitality so that he was soon doing small things to jolt him out of his "cocoon": phoning someone he hadn't seen in a long time, starting a new hobby, challenging co-workers to ping-pong games.

If we don't take our routines too seriously, we discover that the world doesn't end if we shift them a bit. Listen to jazz a lot? Try classical. A stalwart at the 9 am Mass? Try the Saturday afternoon. You may meet old friends you haven't seen in years. For a wild and crazy break from routine, attend a different parish! (Might make you appreciate your own.) If scripture is growing stale or overly familiar, spend time instead with the marvelous spiritual authors writing now: Rolheiser, Rupp, Livingston, or in a pinch, Coffey (such subtle self-promotion!)

If your routine has been centering prayer, try praying with music for a change. Or set aside your usual devotions and spend a few silent minutes each day simply listening for God's whisper. Why cling to practices that fail to nurture? The bottom line: if it's not feeding you, quit doing it, at least for a while. No hard, fast rules restrict how we read, reflect or pray.

8/2/2011 4:00:00 AM
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  • Kathy Coffey
    About Kathy Coffey
    Kathy Coffey is a national speaker, retreat leader, and the author of numerous articles in Catholic periodicals. On the web, find Kathy at: kathyjcoffey.wordpress.com