Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The All Seeing Lord Within

Theophan the Recluse, a well-known saint and mystic in the Russian Orthodox church of the 19th century, once said, “To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all seeing, within you.” A week ago I began teaching Spiritual Formation to our fresh intake of students, our “junior” class (I will soon begin teaching the same class to our new diploma students as well). It has been encouraging and even inspiring to see my students’ hunger for learning, their humility, and their desire for growth in the Christian life. Today, I shared how theological reflection helps us to open our minds to God’s truth and wisdom. In most of our classes at Nile Theological College, we reflect on the major themes of our faith and look back to the church of the past for guidance as we step out into the future. Spiritual Formation is an exceptional class in that we not only open our minds but also descend into the heart where we face the ‘ever present’ Lord who dwells within. In actual fact, being still and silent and ‘descending’ are not easy things to do. For most of us, our “inner lives,” our “interiority,” is either underdeveloped or undeveloped. We do not have a good sense of who we are, even as Christians, and we often are perplexed by the things we do and the things we say. In many ways our “mysterium tremendum[i],” the overwhelming nature of our inner lives, leaves us strangers even to ourselves, shaking us to the very core.

One of the things I have been learning over the last twenty years or so is the need for silence, solitude and understanding what it means to be a contemplative. By no means have I arrived in any matter of the term, but slowly I am learning to make progress in detaching myself from preconceived notions, from my “ego” or “false self,” and learning what it means to embrace my “true self” as God created me, listening to God’s quiet voice within. By no means am I a Spiritual Master, but I embrace this journey of ‘descending’ into the heart, allowing myself to be totally exposed to the all-seeing and ever present Lord who inhabits my very being. The late Henri Nouwen, a student of the interior life, summarizes the meaning of spiritual formation as the ongoing formation of the heart, exercised in community life, expressed in service to the world. He describes also the need for one to empty oneself of all opinions, ideas, activities and distractions so that the Spirit of the Living God has room to truly indwell and inhabit our very beings. This growth can only happen when we take the inward journey of the heart, walking the royal road of silence, and then moving back towards community. Too often our conceptions of God are too small as we race around with our busy and frenetic lives; God is so much bigger and perplexing and almost unknowable and mysterious than we can possibly imagine. In the end, though we may be competent in many ways, none of us are experts when it comes to the things of God.

I am hoping and praying that my students will capture the vision towards the contemplative life through this class. Already we have begun practicing Lectio Divina, or “Divine Reading” of Scripture, and within one short week my remarkable students have been sharing this ancient practice with others in their churches and helping them receive a fresh ‘Word’ from the Lord. I am greatly encouraged! In conclusion, here is a quote from the syllabus I created which gives a vision of where we are going together as a class (see below). Pray with me that God works powerfully in our midst! ~

We will learn together about the contemplative life and we will reflect together on spiritual disciplines such as prayer, fasting, retreat, solitude, silence, Bible reading, family worship, personal devotional life, lament, celebration, community, confession, and service. Practicing the spiritual disciplines together over the course of the sixteen weeks will be a hallmark of this course. As students and teacher learn together what it means to be in Christian community and to be in solidarity with all peoples, particularly the poor and powerless and those who are different from us, together we will become better disciples and thus better witnesses to others of life and faith in Jesus Christ, thus fulfilling the Great Commission (Matthew 28: 19).

[i] An expression coined by Rudolph Otto, the noted German theologian of the early 20th century.

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