Imagine being asked to die for a friend or a cause - how do you think you would tackle the decision to go ahead or not?
Last year I watched the engrossing film “Of Gods and Men”. It’s based on an event in Algeria in 1996, when eight Trappist monks were eventually taken hostage by terrorists. The monks live in a rural community that has been taken over by thugs who are intimidating and killing unsuspecting people. The film tells the story of how the Trappist leader, Brother Christian, encourages the monks to each wait on God in order to decide whether to stay, and face probable death or leave. The only parameter of the decision is that it must be unanimous amongst the monks. The story is layered with emotionally fraught decisions that test the men’s thinking, integrity, courage and practise of healthy boundary keeping.
The movie left me in awe and with the question –if I were asked to die for a friend or community – how confidant am I that I would hear God? How would I stay centred or grounded and not be overwhelmed by emotional pull? Or maybe in the process of deciding I would stay ‘in my head’ in a theoretical mind-set, and then when faced with the consequences of my decision I would later quake and wonder what on earth I had been thinking? Am I confident about my process of discerning what God might want in a particular situation or relationship? This film took me to a place of reflection that is far from our everyday experience in little old New Zealand.
Waiting for things in NZ, where we are constantly told we have the right to have what we want, when we want –can be quite difficult. Our inner impulses clamor for instant gratification. If what is happening now is pleasurable, comfortable, and appealing, then we’re happy. If we are seen to be successful, popular and strong that’s all good. But if ‘now’ means we are experiencing boredom, discomfort or pain then we want something to change and now. As Christ followers, is this underlying way of being what God wants? And how does this culture’s values (which secretly seep into us) impact our ability to wait on God and hear God?
‘Awaiting the Spirit’ is a term probably not heard outside of the church. What does it mean? The Spirit I speak of is the Holy Spirit, The One who is constantly seeking to attract us to God and God’s ways of being in the world, who convicts people of sin and righteousness, transforming us to be God bearers, loving others and living the truth right where we are. Awaiting the Spirit raises several questions that we will explore here. How can we know in our own lives what God wants? Most of us realize that in daily life we bounce from good and right ways of being to somewhat murky, confused or downright ungodly ways of acting and a whole scrambled mix in between. If we live our lives simply by thinking and planning on what makes sense to us, feels good, and leads to satisfaction, how is God’s voice or will going to be revealed especially if it is contrary to this culture’s wisdom? How can we recognize God’s will, whether we face small or life crunching decisions? This is the role of the Holy Spirit – to reveal God’s ways and will to us.
The landscape of ‘awaiting the Spirit’ asks for me 3 things: How I am in the world; what’s the essence of the way I live and interact with myself, others and God? What is the spirit of my particular way of being? As I get to understand that, I can decide what is me and what is God or something else.
In the film ’Of Gods and Men,’ the brothers had chosen a specific way of being in the world –out of love for Christ; to live in community, worshiping God, working in ways that contribute to the wider community and caring for the local villagers. But the answer as to whether they were called to die is not automatically apparent based on their values or intentions. They were each given the responsibility to listen for their own decision with God and extended family.
But how does one hear spiritually? For some folks it is tempting to separate out one’s life of prayer and worship as spiritual or sacred, and call the rest of life plain or secular. The problem with this way of thinking is it’s based on believing that what we say or intend in our ‘spiritual’ lives is not related to our actions, to our everyday choices and relationships, that God is only in what we deem spiritual but absent in the ordinary. Is that true? The Trappist brothers lived in community in order to carry through their intentions, hopes and prayers with collegial support. They regularly practiced listening for the Spirit in all of life. By realizing that all we do is an expression of our spirituality and beliefs, as the brothers did, we realize that everything we think, say or do is potentially sacred and is spiritual. Action is the expression of our beliefs.
One way I seek to clarify how I am in the world is to quieten myself and ask God to impress on me something that happened today that God wants to explore with me. Quieting myself implies I have some control of what thoughts I pay attention to. Quieting myself implies being able to slow down my thought stream and focus on one thing for the purpose of hearing God. That is the first challenge! In an attitude of faith that God will speak, I wait to see what thought or memory comes and think about ‘my ways of being’.
Other questions that help me identify my actual, not just intentional values are ‘When I look at my actions in situation x, to what or whom did I give the highest value?’ ‘Who or What was the strongest motivating force?’ and ‘What was my pattern of relating?” Sometimes I pick an experience where I had strong or unpleasant emotion and dig underneath that to discern my thinking and intentions. As I do this, the Spirit’s impressions, grace and truth comes. This digging and reflecting is an aspect of waiting on the Spirit –believing the Spirit will ‘judge the thoughts and attitude of the heart.’ I decide if these thoughts come from the Holy Spirit by the tone of impression/words and the encouragement, hope and sense of dignity that comes with it. If the thinking is like an extension of my own habitual thinking, is pressuring, condemning or de- motivating, I sense it is not from God.
The second thing: How do I recognize God’s ways in the world? I refer to Jesus, the physical example of God’s way of being. If I have spent time in the accounts of Jesus, I know the kinds of things he would say, do or want and I imagine myself right there with him by getting in the story.
How are God and I getting along together? Just as a person gets to know their friend by being with them and doing stuff together, so I get to know the Spirit of Jesus by doing things together, listening for the Spirit’s thoughts throughout the day. If my relationship with God feels distant - if I experience fear, guilt, disinterest or am habitually focused elsewhere, that will hugely impact my ability and desire to recognize God in the world.
In prayer times a helpful practice is to think about where I experienced God’s love, word or presence today. Where was my focus and attention? How did I communicate God’s presence and love to others? Where did I invite God’s input, word and ways? And where in daily life, do I leave God out of it? This last question has been impacting for finding steps to personal repentance and transformation, for being made new.
At the end of prayer I try to distinguish God’s impulses/inspirations from mine. The answer is usually identified by who gets the glory, and by the fruit of my actions.
The third thing: The problem of being biased: How can I hear God when I am biased, or want to hear a particular answer? How do I get clarity when there is a complex problem to solve, or I want something desperately? I imagine if I had to decide about matrydom, my impulse would be to resist. The monks in the film had to lay everything on the line, as they considered their distant families, their possible futures, the terrorized villagers, their brothers at the monastery and the terrorists. In light of all these they listened for what they believed was God’s desire at that time.
I find the temptation in these critical times is to do all I can to please God, to act in ways that I think will encourage God to give me the solution I am looking for. We can all fall into acting instead of waiting. In the film, the monks struggled and went through great turmoil in reaching their decisions. (Sometimes I make a hasty decision in order to avoid this turmoil and hard work.)They spent time reflecting and searching out their deepest desires. They eventually came to a place of surrender. All of these steps are part of waiting on the Spirit. The key to hearing God when we are biased, according to Ignatian discernment is to come to a place of neutrality, by surrendering our wishes. It may mean being open to hearing something other than our natural choice. We can only become neutral in attitude if we are practiced in surrendering.
So what does awaiting the Spirit – to be made new, invite? I need to examine how I am in the world. I have to learn to be different to those around me, especially when this culture’s values and actions are not Christ like. Different is learning how to slow down, quiet down and be still. Being different means developing a listening ear and eye to God’s ways in this world, being discerning. Being with Christ in order to become familiar with his ways. Different is instead of collecting stuff, knowledge, experiences and good reputations, I give up these things for Something higher, I have to practice relinquishment. Give away comfort, stuff, time, money, self-ambition. I learn to be with God in reflective times and the busyness of everyday life in order to really hear and know who and what is truly important.
Article written by Gay Cochran.
Gay is based in New Zealand and serves as our Pastoral Care Worker.