by Dan Morehead
From “Spiritual Practices – Living the Gift,” the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of Reflections magazine. To read the entire issue, click here.
“Until we realize that it is better, more useful, more productive of strength, to spend ten minutes in the morning in feeding and finding the Eternal than in flicking through the newspaper – that this will send us off to the day’s work properly orientated, gathered together, recollected and endowed with new power of dealing with circumstances – we have not yet begun to live the life of the spirit.” – Evelyn Underhill
In 1999 I was 34 years old. I had recently completed psychiatry training and was on staff at the Menninger Clinic. At home we had two fine boys, and my wife, Carol, was pregnant with another. We were moving into a big new house. And while all of these wonderful things unfolded, I was becoming aware that I had no spiritual life.
This was rather a shock to me, so surprising that I only realized it slowly, over a long period of time. I had always been religious, even devout. I grew up in a home where our Christian faith was the most important thing – we went to church three times a week (at least) and had family devotionals at home as well. Every night I read my Bible. Every day I prayed. During college, I was a religion major, and I certainly knew a great deal about my faith.
But I also found that intellectualizing about our religion is not (for me) the same thing as having a spiritual life. I could think about God and theology all day (and did in graduate school), but I felt farther away from God, rather than closer. Furthermore, I realized that I could do things such as go to church or perform good deeds and not experience any sense of closeness to God. More strangely, I noticed that I could even have emotions about God, Jesus, and my faith, but that even emotions did not constitute an experience of God or Jesus or my faith. I could think, do, and feel “about” religion, but in my case I still did not have a spiritual life.
It puzzled me for a long time. I was not even sure what a spiritual life was, or if anyone else had one, or if I was even capable of having one. But it gradually became clear that, if I were going to have one, it would be constituted by some actual, direct experience of spiritual reality, of ultimate meaning, of encounter with God. There had to be some actual core or substance to it, some genuine experience at the center of my feeling, thinking, and doing. Otherwise, it was all going to stay empty and dry, like a fine furnished home, abandoned and inhabited by no one.
So I began to search. I did so not in the best way, but in the only way I knew how – by reading books. Instead of intellectual theology, I tried to learn about the spiritual life and spiritual practices. I thought I already knew about these, for I had already dabbled with them earlier in life. But at the time, they did not seem to have much result. I could fast, and feel terrible (tired and achy and irritable), but not really be better off when I resumed eating. I could do quiet prayer or meditation, but it just felt like sitting there for a while, then getting up and going about my business in the same old way. It was all like having a not-very-interesting conversation with myself, and seemed to go nowhere.
But this time, at age 34, I was desperate. Although I was a non-Episcopalian at the time, I discovered this wonderful book called The Book of Common Prayer (you may have heard of it) and began doing daily prayers, three or four times a day. I started doing contemplative prayer as well. I was still terrible at fasting, but prayer seemed to form the backbone of this effort to have a spiritual life. At first, I would check every few minutes to see if I was having a mystical experience, or if some other wonderful, life-changing thing was happening. It did not. No special messages from God, no holy aura surrounding me, no St. Theresa-like raptures.
Luckily, I kept going. What I did not understand at that time was that spiritual disciplines do not have their effects in hours, days, weeks or sometimes even months. Spiritual practices are the necessary conditions for spiritual growth. And spiritual growth takes time, like the growth of a tall tree, or a child becoming an adult. You cannot see the tree grow, and the child cannot feel him or herself grow, but it is going on all the time. And so it was even for me, who had no clue what I was doing but just kept doing it.
Gradually, I found that I was being given everything I had sought, and much more. I did not “find’” God. Instead, I found that God had been close to me all the time, closer than I was to myself. And I found that the deep emptiness inside myself was already the substance of my spiritual life, waiting patiently to be born and live, if only I gave it the chance.