Given the chaos of contemporary life, this spirituality is firmly grounded in four anchors: the Rule, the Gospel, the wisdom of the community and the particular circumstances of a person's life. It is both steadying and flexible. Prayer is a regular part of the rhythm of each day—not only when it's convenient or comfortable, but because praising God is why we're here.
Those drawn to this style know that some things can be learned only in community or family. The social dimension of life corrects our craziness and helps us mature. People who have gone through crisis or tragedy attest that God is present through the kind eyes and tender touches of other people.
The preferred form of prayer for this style is liturgy, psalms or hymns sung together. Transcending our unique styles, one sentence from the Benedictine Rule speaks to all, sounding clear as a bell on a frosty morning: "Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ" (72:11).
Carmelite/Depths of Silence
While it may seem contradictory, placing community and solitude together here shows that the roomy house of Christian spirituality isn't a simplistic either/or, but a place for both/and. We need solos and we need a full chorus. The tradition has always emphasized the value of silence, entering into the stillness of our hearts to find God. If we fear silence, we risk becoming shallow or fickle, never quite sure what we believe or who we are.
The prayer of Trappist Thomas Merton perfectly expresses this style: "To be here with the silence of Sonship in my heart is to be a center in which all things converge upon you.... Therefore, Father, I beg you to keep me in this silence so that I may learn from it the word of your peace and the word of your mercy and the word of your gentleness to the world: and that through me perhaps your word of peace may make itself heard where it has not been possible for anyone to hear it for a long time."
Note that we don't enter silence to escape the world, but to better embrace it. We listen long and hard for God's word in order to get it right when we speak to others. In a noisy world, with chatter, traffic and the constant blare of TV, radio and iPods, silence is the necessary antidote where we remember what matters. As Meister Eckhard wrote, "Nothing so much approximates the language of God as silence,"
People who make an annual silent retreat or practice centering prayer may not know exactly what happens there. But they leave the silence refreshed, more aware that they dwell within God's prodigious love, more conscious of how to serve others.
The human longing for the divine is found in all cultures. Some say that current interest in Eastern religions springs from a disaffection with western forms, especially their tendencies towards domination, sexism and exclusion. A more positive stance identifies Jesus as an Eastern thinker, and encourages explorations which enhance the richness of Christianity. The world's different belief systems follow parallel tracks. As Eli Weisel says, "there are many paths into the same orchard."
While the subject is far too broad to treat adequately in a short space, let's touch on three contemporary examples of this approach. The first is world-wide admiration for the Dalai Lama, who escaped his native Tibet when the Chinese invaded it. Despite his exile and the oppression of his people, he has remained resolutely peaceful, a commitment for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1989.
His travels have introduced many to the essentials of Buddhism, such as: wisdom, the ability to see things rightly, becomes compassion. Those who want more might read his books An Open Heart, The Heart of Compassion or a compilation of essential writings such as the Orbis series on modern spiritual masters.
From Thich Nhat Hanh, many learn attention to the present moment. Whether washing the dishes or eating an orange, we focus on the now, not worrying about past or future. Even our negative emotions, he teaches, should be welcomed, cradling anger as we'd rock a crying baby.
Over a million people annually are starting yoga, a moving meditation. They find that reverencing the body, stretching it and resting it appropriately relieves stress and alleviates pain. They also rediscover the importance of breath, stressed by all religious traditions, but often forgotten in packed schedules. Especially in tension, we resort to rapid, shallow breathing when we need the long deep breath, drawing in energy, releasing negativity. They learn "beginner's mind," or what Jesus called becoming like little children. Finally, they appreciate the absence of competition, the uniqueness of each person, and new movements for the body opening new channels for the brain.
Sam may not join the Franciscans, but he feels closest to God when he's working in his garden, weeding the tomatoes and admiring the light on their leaves. He's interested in the early roots of this style, expressed in St. Francis' "Canticle of the Sun." Beauty is his door to the sacred. He likes the contemporary version, creation spirituality, reading books by Thomas Barry or Wendell Berry, the new cosmology or the poetry of Mary Oliver which praises nature and finds there the inspiration for living well.