By Fr. Gabriel Rochelle/ Sun-News
There may be many reasons why people are leaving churches, synagogues and other religious institutions in more than a trickle. One is that America moves relentlessly toward a thoroughly secularized future in which there is little place for contemplation, mystery, or perhaps even rest.
Another on my list is that some churches have taken to pandering to people in ways that are demeaning to the institutions they represent. I mean by this such things as bad hymnody, chumminess with God, and jumping on the latest bandwagon of social issues or activism. Lastly, for the moment, is the failure of these institutions to meet real needs. That is different from meeting felt needs, which are often quite different from real ones.
People really need time for contemplation, meditation and prayer, but they also need to be led into such times in ways that are not threatening. In a world where we are immersed in noise, silence may come not as a relief but as a threat. If you have spent most of your life focused on external matters (job, education, house payments, car payments, trivial pursuits) you may have little left to plumb — or you may think you do — on the inside. There is a hidden cosmos within each of us, but so often we have forgotten about it or lost it in hubbub and toil. Then we become fearful that we are simply hollow inside, and we avoid anything that might lead us into the darkness within. So we need to be carefully led.
We gain access to the inner life primarily through worship and prayer, which should be a regular activity to replenish our diminished spirits, but here again even worship may not be organized in such a way as to lead us inward. We also need partners in the faith.
Spiritual direction is an ancient practice that has gained contemporary notice once again. In the Celtic tradition spiritual direction was conducted with an anam chara, a Gaelic phrase that comes from Latin and means “soul friend.” St. Brigid of Kildare (451-525) reputedly said that “a person without a soul friend is like a body without a head.” She would not be alone in that sentiment.
Maybe you could think of this as having a conversation partner in today’s wording, but the notion of having a friend with whom you can engage in the deepest things that concern you and your world ought to be welcome. Often you cannot even talk about the things that matter to you most in your own family or at work. You need a partner outside the orbit of family and work and the local pub or nightclub or fitness center.
Much of American Christianity has become overly concerned with busyness. If we are not out there working to alleviate the latest social ill, we feel guilty. This busyness may stem from a nagging feeling that we are unnecessary in a secular culture. But in the midst of that hubbub you can quite literally lose your soul. And so can the church lose itself.
We are not tied to the secular agenda; at least I hope we are not. Our calling is to invite people under the rule of God, which creates a community that operates on a different model. Instead of ego, we seek humility. Instead of trying to get ahead, we seek to serve. Our heart’s true desire is to rest in God, if we but know our heart. To know our hearts, however, we need guides to help us on the way. Look for trustworthy ones; they’re out there to address these real needs.