The spiritual life is sacred ground, but often times we tread clumsily and heavily as if it were not. My own experience is that those of us who spend their time studying religion, history, philosophy, literature, theology, etc… sometimes fail to manifest the same sensitivity and subtlety that they have in their own fields of study when it comes to talking about an individual’s spiritual experiences.
For each of us the spiritual life differs vastly. I should not expect my life and my experiences to answer the questions of your life. The way I resolve my issues is not going to be the way that you resolve your issues and for all the right reasons. What is amazing, however, is how similar our experiences are when we can uncover them. If we can boil them down to just their essence, we see great similarities between what is happening in each of our lives.
What is most difficult is developing the subtlety to distinguish between non-spiritual and spiritual events in our lives. For example, the feeling of hunger is a non-spiritual thing. My stomach is empty, it pangs for want of food, and I can hear a growling. On a spiritual level, I can move beyond my body’s natural appetite to be fed. In a negative way, I can begin to despise the causes of my hunger and curse God for not providing for me. In a positive way, I can sublimate that hunger into a hunger for justice or grace. I can offer this temporal suffering out of love in atonement for my own sins. Whatever I do at that level, it is no longer a matter a my corporeal body.
Too often, though, we confuse non-spiritual affects with spiritual ones. Beethoven once said, “Music is the mediator between the spiritual and sensual life.” Because of music’s power to influence us on a physiological level, the place where the affect becomes spiritual is difficult to distinguish, and let us not forget that non-spiritual experiences really do influence our spiritual experiences.
This is why silence—real, true silence—is so necessary for us. We need to make time to sit with God in peace and quiet, listening to Him or listening for Him. Every outside influence can confuse us about what is spiritual and what is non-spiritual. So, in order to hear God we need to stop and draw clear lines of distinction between God’s voice and everyone else’s.
To do this we need to reflect on our day. We need to stop and reflect on the moments throughout the day where we made decisions and what things influenced the decisions we made. Were those influencers spiritual or non-spiritual? Were they ordered, reasoned, and directed toward God, or directed toward me and my own desires?
You can say, “who has time for that?” But that is already the wrong question. Just like every other relationship in you life, you make the time for the ones you believe are most important. If you cannot make five minutes for God, you have no business having any friends.
The prayer of the Church is a great place to start. In particular, I would encourage praying Night Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours. It specifically sets aside time for an examination of conscience, and is a good place to start for thoughtful reflective prayer that incorporates scripture. It will help you develop a habit of setting aside time to stop and spend in conversation with the most important relationship in your life.
So, before you start giving out spiritual advice to friends and family, develop a deep prayer life. If you develop a prayer life that incorporates silence and the written word of God, you will start to see more clearly those lines of distinction. When you can see those, you will not be able to do anything but tread lightly.
by Abram Muenzberg