In the midst of the present wave of Covid and our current abstinence from in-person Sunday worship I have been wondering about how we nurture and sustain our spiritual lives.
For many cradle Lutherans, Sunday morning attendance has been the primary, and sometimes the only, spiritual practice that sustained our faith. It was inspiration from the sermon, joy of singing hymns, the peace of coming to the Lord’s Supper, and the consolation of seeing friends and other congregation members. Some have had private devotional practices like daily scripture reading and prayer to sustain their spiritual lives, but I suspect this is not very many people. For most of us the practice of faith is coming to church on Sunday.
The present moment of history presents us with a deep challenge and question. If we can’t gather for Sunday worship, then how do we nurture our spiritual lives now? How do we cultivate our relationship with Jesus? (Not that Jesus or his Spirit ever leave or abandon us, but how do we feel that presence, remain inspired, and grow in faith, hope, and love?) What practice is available now that (in person) Sunday worship is not possible?
Fortunately, history and tradition offer us many options. While it is true that the weekly gathering of the community on the Lord’s Day for prayer and praise and celebration has always been the primary and most fundamental Christian practice, people of faith have always engaged in other activities that also nurtured and sustained their relationship with God.
One guide that I have mentioned before in Pastor’s Pages, is the monastic community of the desert of the 4th and 5thcenturies. Monks and nuns in that time practiced different patterns of life, including communal living, solitary life, and a combination of these. Those who lived alone in caves and hermitages went for months or even years without gathering for Sunday worship. Instead they read scripture, prayed, and worked with their hands. Although many practiced in solitude, their goal was always to grow in patience, kindness, goodness, self-control, and so on (the fruits of the Spirit) in order to be better neighbours to others. In order to be better in relationship.
Here are two sayings from the monks of that time:
A brother came to visit Abba Moses and asked him for advice. The old man said to him, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
If a trial comes upon you in the place where you live, do not leave that place when the trial comes. Wherever you go, you will find that what you are running from is there ahead of you. So stay until the trial is over, so that if you do end up leaving, no offense will be caused, and you will not bring distress to others who live in the neighborhood.
Here we are in the opening of 2022, again confined to the “cells” of our homes, unable to gather with the people of God on Sunday for worship. Many of us feel disconnected and maybe depressed in our solitude. And yet the monks of the 4thcentury say that our cells “will teach us everything.” How? Because there we have the opportunity to read and to pray.
I want to confess that I am one of those cradle Lutherans for whom most of my spiritual practice was Sunday morning worship alone. Especially as a pastor I could “get away with” this minimal practice because I study the lectionary texts on a weekly basis. A good practice for anyone, but not necessarily enough to sustain a complete life of devotion and study… or prayer. While the Prayers of Intercession on Sunday morning are important, they are intended as brief public expressions for a community, not designed to be words we take to heart as our individual and personal prayer.
In the past couple of years, however, I have managed to grow a personal discipline of prayer that has been incredibly life-giving, one that anyone can practice anywhere. I’d like to think that I’m finally learning from the Desert Fathers and Mothers that I have known for so long, finally putting their words into practice in my life. In the morning I wake up and pray aloud Luther’s morning prayer:
We thank you, heavenly father, through Jesus Christ your dear son, that you have kept us this night from all harm and danger. And we pray that you would keep us this day also from sin and every evil, that all our doings and life may please you. For into your hands we commend ourselves, our bodies and souls and all things. Let your holy angels watch over us, that the wicked foe have no power over us. Amen.
It is wonderful how the words of this prayer continue to live and grow and become personal each day as I think of different daily circumstances that I anticipate the day will bring. The more rote it becomes the more heartfelt it also becomes.
Next I sit down for quiet time. First I spend a while just focusing on my breath. It is the Holy Spirit, already praying in me “with sighs too deep for words.” Whenever my mind wanders I simply return to awareness of the breath. After a while of this meditation I turn to prayer, slowly working through the Lord’s Prayer, line by line in my mind. Or sometimes I find it is the Jesus Prayer that arises in my heart: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me… Lord Jesus Christ, you have mercy on me!” –over and over. In the midst of prayer people’s faces and names come to me and I offer them to God’s gracious care and love.
If you don’t already have a practice of prayer or scripture reading on your own, I commend this practice to you. Even just 10 or 15 minutes a day is enormously beneficial. If you would like to learn more, or discuss other practices you could adopt, I would love to visit.
Now in the midst of the present trials and tribulations, may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit, through Christ Jesus for whom we wait.