I have a friend who speaks often of ‘the vagaries of life’, which, he says, beset us all. This is so true.
This week has been a bit like that for me. Last night, as I was writing this article, I received a phone call to say that a lovely young friend, someone I baptised, confirmed and married, was expecting the imminent arrival of their first child. As soon as this couple knew they were pregnant, they had asked me to baptise their baby when the time came. It was an experience of much joy.
During this same week there has also been much sorrow. I received a phone call a few days ago from a colleague who told me that a dear saint in one of our parishes had just lost his battle with illness and had gone to be with the Lord. I knew the person well and was saddened. He was a loved leader and an integral part of his church community. His family, friends and church will grieve for him.
Such is the breadth of our human experience. We can know the heights of joy and the depths of sorrow, as well as everything in between, in one lifetime. Sometimes, it seems, in one breath.
I have long been convinced that there is no separation between our physical, mental and spiritual lives. In that sense, we are trinitarian beings – body, soul and spirit – and like the divine trinity, these parts of our identity are both distinct and unified. I have often observed a strong correlation between what is going on in our mind and body and how we are travelling in our spiritual experience.
There can be a real connection between things like traumatic events, or poor physical or mental health and our spiritual well-being. Many of us have had more than our share of trauma of late, when we think of the fires, floods and viruses that are part of our present world. Add to this the prevalence of mental health issues and physical ailments that are common among us and it is not surprising when a person finds they are feeling spiritually low. We experience the ‘vagaries of life’ in every part of our being.
Last weekend, I had the privilege of sharing a time of retreat with a group of wonderful, faithful women from one of our parishes. The group had requested a particular theme – how to ‘drink from the source’. These women, like so many of us, were feeling a little worn and weary from the constant demands of life. They sought a time of rest and refreshment for their souls.
In John 4, Jesus told the woman at the well, ‘Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’
We reflected on how we could drink deeply from this living water and how we could maintain its flow within us; how we could find refreshment from this spring in our difficult times.
Jesus told the Samaritan woman that if she’d known the gift of God and who she was speaking to, she could ask for this living water. In John 7, where Jesus again invites the thirsty to come to him and drink, John adds that Jesus ‘said this about the Spirit, who believers were to receive’.
To drink deeply from the living water is to recognise the promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit in those who believe. The spring is already within us as believers. We can drink of this stream through communing with the God within us. However, this can be difficult if we are not in a good place spiritually. How can we drink of this living water, if we no longer recognise our need of it? How can it gush from within us when we feel it is but a trickle?
One of the things that can keep us grounded in times of mental or physical struggle, is routine. Things like brushing our teeth, showering, eating – all have the ability to help us keep going when the going is tough. If we apply this principle to times of spiritual struggle, it is reasonable to suggest that ‘spiritual’ routines might have the same helpful effect.
The early church fathers spoke of an experience called ‘The Dark Night of The Soul’. This was their name for a time of deep spiritual depression, a descent into spiritual blackness; a time whereGod seemed distant and where confidence in him was lost. The early church fathers also spoke of the value of the ‘rule of life’ which was a name for the devotional practices that formed the rhythm of their daily lives.
The early church fathers and mothers knew and experienced life as we all do; a life full of joy and sorrow, agony and ecstasy, elation and depression. They also knew the value of their particular ‘rule of life’, and how it could ground them in their heights and depths.
A little ‘rule’ or routine could help us also. We may decide to run and pray, or walk and pray; we may commune with God through our art; we may find refreshment in Christian company; we may read, write or listen to podcasts; we may ruminate, contemplate or meditate.
May I suggest that if we establish devotional practices as routines or habits, they will be valuable in seeing us through our own spiritual lows. The fitness exponents talk of a 21/90 rule. That means it takes 21 days to establish a habit, and 90 days for it to become a lifestyle change. Health practitioners are a little more conservative, and say that it can take between 18 and 254 days to establish a habit, but say that generally takes at least 66.
If we can develop sound devotional practices as habits in our lives, we will be daily drinking from this stream of living water. It will keep us thirsty as we will long for more, and we will see it gushing from within us to splash others.