Cultivating the divine dimension
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
"Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." Jesus invited his friends to get off the road. They probably headed to a hillside overlooking the Lake of Gennesaret, otherwise known as the Sea of Galilee. What a great idea. A retreat with Jesus himself! Quiet time outdoors, prayer and meditation, conversation and meals around the campfire.
They could debrief what had recently been a pretty stressful few weeks: the beheading of Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist, the rejection of Jesus in his hometown synagogue, and mission trips by the disciples, two by two, where in some villages they were run out of town.
All in all, it had been an intense month or so. So when Jesus suggested they take a break and reconnect with God and one another, they were no doubt eager to get away. Off they went, down to the lake. But you heard what happened. As they tried to board their boat, people from all over recognized this now-famous band of preachers and healers, and they mobbed them. Jesus had compassion, and so he paused and taught awhile.
Jesus and his friends finally shoved off, but the people, now even greater in number, wouldn’t leave them alone. They ran along the shore, and when the disciples moored the boat, people started rushing around, bringing sick people on mats, dragging them into marketplaces to heal some more. Before long, over 5,000 people had assembled, and Jesus, again having compassion, fed them all in the miracle of the loaves and fishes. This, of course, only cranked up the whole show by a number of notches.
So much for the nice, quiet lakeside retreat. They would get that time eventually, but not when and how they wanted it. For now, more pressing human needs took priority.
Something like this has no doubt happened to you. Many years ago, the night I arrived at another lake for a much-needed family vacation, I got the call I had long dreaded. A good friend’s two-year-old daughter finally succumbed to a brain tumor, and the funeral would be in a few days. I never unpacked.
We all find ourselves in this kind of situation from time to time, even if it’s less serious. It’s the end of a long workday, you’re tired, looking forward to a nice evening at home, and a fellow worker comes in with a crisis. You think “Where can I hide?” But you sigh, let go, and give yourself to the moment. Or you’re away on a long-awaited vacation, looking forward to everything you’ve planned. But a conflict with one of your kids finally has room to burst out into the open. Everything is ruined, you think, until you drop your expectations and give yourself to what is. Now it will be a different sort of week than you had planned.
But what happens when the demands of everyday life seem to prevent you from ever taking a vacation, a retreat, or even some quiet time each day for prayer or meditation? In spite of the crowds, I think that Jesus and his friends managed it from time to time. Otherwise they wouldn’t have had anything left to teach or to give - no center, no soul, no love. That’s what happens to us, too, when too many demands squeeze out all the space, all our energy. No center, no soul, no love. Just dutifully crashing through what must be done.
We all know, at least in theory, the importance of rest, sabbath, regular time with God. It refreshes our spirit, it renews our mind, it gets our heart and our body back in tune. People do this differently, of course, but I suspect you know what works for you. When you spend time doing whatever renews your spirit, life is easier, God seems more present, and you feel more patient and generous.
Why do things always seem to get in the way of this? It might be like our gospel story or the examples I used - a serious human need that is clearly more important than self-nurture. But if we’re honest with ourselves, that’s only once in awhile, or it comes in temporary waves.
Most of the time, we don’t get around to spiritual grounding for purely internal reasons. Some of us like to feel needed or productive, and so we respond to just about anything that comes wandering our way, important or not. We’re like a dog at a whistlers’ convention.
Others think that focusing on their own spirit is self-absorbed. They hear the 23rd psalm, which we sang today, like this - he maketh them to lie down in green pastures, he leads them beside still waters, he revives their souls. How nice that all those other people who really need God can ask for help.
Some of us fear the potential emptiness of not having any demands - who am I if I’m not busy? Is there any me there when I sit quietly in prayer in the morning, instead of busying myself with newspapers and emails? Can I just be with God, with myself, with the present moment, and not fall into an abyss?
And then others just get caught up in the habit of a stressful lifestyle, unintentionally re-creating its insistent rhythm so that it just keeps on going, like a perpetual motion machine.
Neurologists have studied the link between brain chemistry and serious addiction to digital media. I’m talking about the people who really can’t leave it alone. What they’ve found is that when something new comes along, the brain releases a little squirt of dopamine in order to quickly evaluate it. Friend or foe? Pleasure or pain? Dopamine is like adrenaline, so you feel a little rush. That’s the payoff. This is why it is so stimulating for some to endlessly, mindlessly surf the internet. Something’s always new - some image, idea, or activity. Look! Something shiny!
Similarly, we can be addicted to busyness. Constant demands, multi-tasking, complex days get the brain chemistry going and we just keep on going until we drop. And there are payoffs as we accomplish this task, as we satisfy that person’s request, as we face the next challenge. We feel satisfied. Other people like us!
But you and I are people of faith. As such, God has a claim on us, a higher claim than our habits, our addictions. The amazing thing about the divine dimension is that it is always available, in any circumstance. Whether we are on retreat or vacation in a beautiful setting, sitting quietly in meditation, hanging out with people we feel close to, in our garden, sitting at a desk, or driving the car, the kingdom of God is a breath away. Literally.
You can always stop. Close your eyes. Breathe in the Spirit. Breathe out your concerns. Stay here awhile. Nowhere to go, nothing to do, only this, here and now. Filled with God.
This, too, is habit-forming. The more we experience the divine dimension, the more want to seek it out. And the more accessible and natural it becomes. We Christians have not done a very good job of helping people build this habit. The Dalai Lama often uses the word “cultivating.” He urges us to cultivate compassion, to cultivate happiness and mental calm, to cultivate peace in the world. Cultivating suggests regular effort, like weeding, watering, digging in the messy parts like manure, watching how things are growing, knowing when to leave it alone and when to trim it back.
If there are rewards to the habits of busyness, there are more rewards to the habits of spiritual cultivation. We return to reality. We find our center. We calm down and see the simple magnificence of things as they are. We are more able to simply go through the day, whatever is taking place, one thing after the other, grounded in the Spirit all along.
And our capacity for compassion, patience, and generosity also comes more easily. That’s the whole purpose of cultivating a spiritual life, after all - not just so that we can feel tranquil and positive, but so that we can bring more goodness into God’s world.
There are times when the most spiritual thing we can do is drop self-concern and self-nurture, and turn towards those who are in need, as Jesus did that busy day along the lakeshore. But even Jesus didn’t do that all the time. He also found those quiet times to cultivate his life in the divine dimension, probably every day. It was the source of all his compassion, all his availability to the crowds, all his self-giving. It is ours as well.