Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
How do you listen to the leading of the Spirit?
I’ve been pondering this question for the past several days. Although it’s not the first time I’ve considered it, our celebration of Pentecost last Sunday got me thinking a lot about what we mean when we say we are led by the Holy Spirit. As Christians, we speak about discerning God’s call for us and being led by the Spirit. Yet strangely I find we spend little time actually clarifying how we do that. Despite coming from a rich spiritual tradition, very few Christians seem to even know where to begin spiritual discernment.
As I pondered this question, I happened to come across an episode of the popular TV series The Real Housewives of New York. While I typically wouldn’t watch the show, something about a recent episode caught my attention.
For those unfamiliar with the show, The Real Housewives of New York is a reality TV series that follows a group of wealthy women through their various adventures and day-to-day dramas. As with so many other reality TV shows, the show is anything but reality. Rather, the characters are paid to act and behave in the most extreme and sensational of ways, often leading me to wonder if we humans have been reduced to our animalistic desires. While the characters are portrayed as having all that they need in life, it’s evident — at least after watching the show for a few minutes — that the actors lack any depth, meaning, or purpose in their lives. Rather, they frantically seek one adventure or another, often involving drugs, alcohol, and sex, as ways to sedate their broken and wounded lives. Inevitably their escapades leave them wanting for more and feeling less fulfilled.
Although the show is not something I usually watch, I couldn’t help but be drawn into one of their latest episodes. The episode features the women on a “retreat” at one of their friend’s estates in the Hamptons, a seaside destination for the wealthy elite of New York City. Seeking refuge from their tumultuous lives, the women decide to let it all go and party and indulge in life’s luxuries.
However, unlike other episodes, there’s a twist to this particular night of partying: the host has invited a spiritual guide to help the women deepen their spirituality. The women pause from their partying and spend time meditating and finding their inner-selves. After a series of meditative exercises, the women break down and share their hunger to be spiritually nourished and find an inner peace.
As I listened to the women share their experience, I noticed the way they spoke about their experience. Rather than share how the spiritual exercises led them to be in relationship with others, they all focused on themselves and their wants and needs. Spirituality for them meant finding what made them happy and made them feel good. At one point, one of the actor’s even said that in order to find her true purpose, she had to listen to her feelings and care for herself. As soon as the spiritual practice ended, the women resumed their extravagant party and the evening concluded with drunken fights.
I sat bewildered by the spectacle I had just watched. While I appreciate the need for all of us to care for ourselves, I was troubled by the narcissistic language the women used and the way their spirituality made no demand for change in their lives. Rather, it simply affirmed their wants and desires and left them wanting for more.
While I realise the show is far from reality, I couldn’t help but wonder if the show reflected what most people think of spirituality. Popular spirituality has largely been reduced to nurturing and affirming the self. In a way I am not surprised by that. Walk into any bookstore and you will find a spirituality section that covers shelves and shelves of books about how to find your true self or real purpose. Even popular Christian writers and preachers have fallen into this trap; some of the most prominent televangelists in North America preach messages about “living your best life now” and how you will prosper financially and materially if you cultivate a relationship with God. Tragically people will be drawn to such messages only to be left sorely disappointed when they find their spiritual practices don’t make them more wealth and eliminate the difficulties in their lives.
There is, however, another form of spirituality, one that looks very different than the spirituality illustrated in reality TV or popular books. The spirituality that I call our attention to is one spoken of by St. Paul in the selection read today from his Letter to the Romans. It is a spirituality grounded in the Triune God.
Historically speaking, Christian spirituality was less about self-realisation and more about aligning ourselves with God, who is the good, the true, and the beautiful. For the longest time, going well back into our Jewish roots, a person who sought to deepen and cultivate their spiritual life would do everything they could to align themselves with God and God’s way of life. In order to hear the voice of God and discern the leading of the Spirit, a person would devote countless hours to reading and memorising the Word of God. It was believed that by “meditating on the Word would gradually imprint the Word on the heart so that it could be remembered and lived.” The Psalmist tells us of this practice when he exclaims “Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long. How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth.” (Ps 119: 97, 103). As Raymond Studzinksi notes in his book on sacred reading that, “The devout Jewish reader is to embody the Word and weave it into life so that the sacred text becomes the context for all activities. Christianity, emerging within a Jewish milieu, shares this devotion to the Word and sees that Word fully enfleshed in Jesus Christ.”
Simply put, the early readers of the scriptures read not to conform the text to their wants and desires, but rather to let their lives be aligned with the scriptures. The purpose of their prayerful reading wasn’t to affirm their feelings, wants, and desires. Instead, they read to be nourished, formed, and configured to the Word. They did not alter the scriptures to their desires, but altered their desires to the scriptures.
Our Jewish and early Christian ancestors embraced this practice of sacred reading because they believed the Holy Spirit spoke to them through the Word. Not only did the Spirit speak through the Word, the Word was the voice of the Spirit. This remains the case today; we read the Word of God to learn and discover God’s call for us. While the traditional liturgical response to a scripture lesson is “this is the Word of the Lord,” some Christians — including many of you — have begun to respond to a scripture reading at Eucharist with the expression “listen to the leading of the Spirit.” Although a recent development, the phrase reflects the Church’s belief that we are led by the Holy Spirit by attentively listening to the Word of God, the Bible.
From the beginning, Christian spirituality was grounded in, and shaped by, the Word. Adopting the Jewish practice of praying throughout the day, the Church marked the hours of the day by praying psalms and scripture readings. This practice developed into what we now call the Daily Office, a cycle of prayer from morning until night. The praying of the hours formed the foundation of Christian spirituality for centuries. In fact, one of the unique traits of Anglican Christianity is the Daily Office. For centuries, Anglicans were known as the People of the Book, for in the one hand they would have their bibles, and in the other the Book of Common Prayer which is simply the collection of psalms and scriptures for the various hours of the day. The English Reformers were intentional about this; they insisted that the Word of God, the Holy Bible, be the source and foundation of the Christian life. Once again, it is not we who shape and form our spirituality, but rather it is the Spirit who conforms us to God’s way.
It is precisely this that St. Paul is getting at in our first reading today from his Letter to the Romans. For those of you unfamiliar with Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the letter is perhaps Paul’s finest letters to the early church. Confronted by those who insist our salvation is won by doing certain rituals and not Christ, and challenged by the hedonism of his day, Paul writes this masterful letter affirming the primacy of Jesus Christ and his redemption of us. Paul affirms the Church’s belief that there is nothing you and I can do to win our salvation. God’s love for us, as manifested by Jesus’ death and resurrection, is what saves us. All we need to do is profess our faith in Jesus and to place our trust in him.
Although there is nothing we can do to win our salvation, Paul argues our encounter with Jesus Christ and reception of the Holy Spirit is an encounter with truth and will demand a change within us. No longer can we live our former ways of life; now we must live according to the Spirit. Once again we hear in Paul the age-old dictum of Christianity that if we are led by the Spirit we are conformed to God’s way and not our way.
Yet what is the way of God? Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Trinity. Although it may seem strange to celebrate a doctrine of the Church, namely, that God is one and three, and three and one, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the principle point of the Trinity is that God is a God of relationship. Christians have come to experience in Jesus Christ a God who entirely gives of God’s self for the life of the world. God does so for God can do no other; it is in the nature of God to be in relationship. This is why Jesus speaks of God as his Father, for Jesus captures the dynamic inner-life of God in imagery that many persons can relate to. Although it is impossible for us to imagine how God, the Source of all that is, the Eternal Word, and Life Giving Spirit, is three in one and one in three, we are invited to sit at the table with the life-giving Triune God and eat. God’s way is a way of love and life-giving relationship. We who are baptised and marked by the name of the Holy Trinity are to embrace and live the same life-giving relationship with all people. In doing so, we discover who we are for we are created in the image and likeness of God.
And this is what makes Christian spirituality unique; not only in that Christian spirituality is shaped and formed by the leading of the Spirit, but it is a way of living for others and of self-sacrifice. This is why it is so important for us to let go of our selfish ways and take on the way of the cross and to give ourselves for others. Yet to know that way, we must root ourselves in prayer and study of the scriptures everyday. If we are to live God’s way of love, we must then get to know God and God’s way of love. So if we wish to hear the voice of God, to listen to the leading of the Spirit, we have to open the book, the Holy Word of God, and listen and pray.
Classic Christian spirituality stands in sharp contrast to the popular spirituality of our day. What I encountered in the reality TV series The Real Housewives of New York, was a spirituality that sought to affirm the self and not challenge a person to go beyond themselves and give of themselves to others. This was made all the more striking by the presence of dozens of servants slavishly working behind the women as they sat in the comfort of their meditation and later satisfied their hedonistic desires.
Although this may seem like a minor distinction, St. Paul makes clear that one of these ways will lead to death and the other to life. Paul bluntly makes this point in today’s lesson: “for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” The question for us is simple: which path will you take? The way of self-indulgence which leads to misery and death, or the way of self-giving that participates in the divine life of God? The only way we can answer that question is by picking up the book, the Word of God, and read, pray, and let our hearts be led by the Spirit and aligned with God’s heart. Amen.