Friday, July 21, 2017


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Prologue: One sunny July morning in 2007, I woke up in one of my favorite cities, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Being a church-going guy, I set out for a nearby old Roman Catholic Church and took a seat near the back. During the first lesson, an elderly – or maybe she had just had a hard life – homeless bag lady came in and sat beside me. During the sermon she nodded off, slumped my way, and slept through the priest’s proclamation with her head on my shoulder. She woke up around the Creed.

I spoke even less Spanish then than I do now. So, the sermon did not stir my soul either. As an Episcopalian, I was not supposed to receive the Sacrament; and I honored the boundaries of the Roman Church.

So, what was the point of my being in Church that morning? One rarely knows the point of what one is going to do before one does it or even while one is doing it. In retrospect, I believe I was there to provide a shoulder for the bag lady’s head.

Maybe Americans are losing interest in going to Church because they were going for the wrong reason in the first place. I have often heard, “I used to go to St. Swithens, but I stopped because I wasn’t getting anything out of it.” That is the cry of the spiritual consumer. I want to ask, “What exactly were you putting into it?” To be clear, I don’t mean “you have to put something into it to get something out of it.” I don’t mean you have to hold up your end of the bargain in a spiritual/ commercial exchange. I mean the point of going may not be to get something out of it. We might go to support others, maybe people we don’t know, maybe some bag lady who wanders in. Maybe we say the Creed not to express our opinions but rather to give voice to the faith someone else may need to keep them going in life.

Community As The Starting Point And the Destination. My last Epistle troubled some people. It was meant to. It troubled them because I argued that individualistic spirituality in which we practice our own private religion, standing alone is not the way practice our faith. Authentic spirituality has its roots in community. I said:
Ruth’s religion began in a human relationship. Her God was not her own, not “the God of her own understanding” but the God of someone she loved and the God of a people to whom she had consented to belong. How utterly and shockingly foreign to the individualism of our contemporary culture!

Ruth the Moabite loved Naomi the Jew and chose to be a Jew. To be a Jew was not to make up one’s own idea of God, but to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, the God of Naomi. That understanding of God arose out of an older, larger horizontal flow of human relationship. There were tribes. There was a tribe of Ephraim, a tribe of Zebulun, a tribe of Naphtali, a tribe of Benjamin, a tribe of Judah, 12 tribes in all -- and they each had their god. Some called their god El, some called their god, YHWH. Then Moses drew them all together in a covenant law of freedom, justice, and equality. He convened the 12 tribes, calling them all by a single name, “Schema’ Israel. Hear oh Israel.” Then he continued, “Your God is one. You have the same God. YHWH and El are One. Adonai elohanyu Adonai echad.” They agreed to worship one God, no longer divided over whether god looked like a bull or winged lion but praying together to an imageless nameless God whom they worshiped first and foremost not by sacrifice but by treating each other justly.

In sum, I said authentic spirituality is a group project. It takes the church, the synagogue, the mosque, the sangha, the AA meeting. We need each other. Without each other “the god of our own personal understanding” is a projection of our own psyches, an idol of our own making, not the Wholly/Holy Other who can summon us beyond the prison of our little selves.

The objection to my argument is: what about our own private spiritual practices. Is there no value in that? Is there no point in going to the garden alone? The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola are a solitary practice. Is faith just group think? Can I love a God with whom I do not meet intimately in solitude? My beloved Byron said,
            Then stirs the feeling infinite, so felt
            In solitude where we are least alone.
                                                Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

The Place Of Personal Spiritual Practice. Our technology and social structure train us in linear thinking and that makes religion – any mystical religion: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism – hard for us. Religious truths are not linear. They come in paradox. The tension between community and individual spirituality is such a paradox. We pray together our common prayers in order to be sent forth to pray unique prayers privately out of the depths of our unique hearts. We then bring the experience of those one on one meetings with God back into the community, both in our worship and in our care for one another. When I lead a congregation in the common prayers, I can feel without a shred of doubt how much private prayer has gone on the previous week. Without the infusion of spirit from those private encounters with God, our worship together falls flat.

The Gospels recount multiple episodes of Jesus in synagogues and in the Temple, places of common prayer. Jesus was a good Jew and Jews show up. But Jesus also said:

            When you pray, go to your room, close the door,
            and pray to your Father who is in secret . .  .
                                                            Matthew 6: 6

It takes both. Neither works alone. Common prayer that does not draw together the vital private spiritualties of individuals is drudgery. Private spirituality untethered from the community is like a kite with a broken string. It doesn't soar.

The Real Point Of Personal Spiritual Practice. Lest I seem to have made an easy peace with the privatized spirituality of our time, the one I challenged in the Ruth and Reality epistle, I must offer this twist. Most of our private spirituality still misses the mark.

Let me preface this by saying I am talking about my private spirituality too – not just yours. I started meditating to relieve my law school stress. I resumed it awhile back to manage my anxiety. I pray regularly, mostly intercessions for people facing troubles. But the most sincere prayer I ever pray is “Help!” I pray hardest when I’m the one in trouble. That’s where I am and I do not criticize you for not being better than I am. This self-focus is where we all start.

But if our private prayer is stuck in private agendas – like I want to get in a spiritual zone or I want to feel elated or I need some peace – natural and legitimate as those things may be, they are not enough. Private spiritual practice does not achieve its end unless it transcends those consumerist goals of “getting something out of it.”

St. Mary of Paris (thank you Bishop Matthew Gunther for calling this to my attention) said:

            The way to God lies through love of other people. At
                   the Last Judgment, I shall not be asked how 
            successful I was in my ascetical practices nor how    
            many and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be         
            asked: Did you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, 
            visit the sick and the prisoners? . . . . I always knew it
            but now it has penetrated my very sinews. If fills me 
            with awe.”

Our prayers do move God but only as God already desires to be moved. They invite God into our lives. When God enters our lives, we are changed – as St. Mary was changed. The change is not the sort a spiritual consumer might choose. The change does not chill us out or put us in a perpetual zone of comfort. The change leads us not out of this troubled world but more deeply into it, just as God plunged into it and went to the Cross with us and for us. Authentic spiritual practice should come with a warning label. Actually, it does. The Bible.

So, here’s the point. I went to Church that morning, not to understand the sermon – I didn’t – not to receive the Blessed Sacrament – I didn’t. I was there to provide a shoulder where the bag lady could rest her head. When I pray alone, it is no different. Even if I am praying for myself or savoring God in nature or entering into wordless imageless contemplation of the Ultimate Mystery, it isn’t about me. It’s about the bag lady. It’s for her.

And who is the bag lady? My beloved mystics and contemplatives, for the love of God, read, mark, and inwardly digest Franny and Zoey by J. D. Salinger, the greatest mystical novelist of our time. No one loved solitude more than Salinger. But read Franny and Zooey, the story of two young actors whose departed older brother Seymour was their guru. In the novel, Franny has discovered the Jesus Prayer and given herself to it a bit too whole heartedly in her brother Zooey’s opinion, At the end, Zooey reminds Franny how when they were child actors their brother Seymour would admonish them to shine their shoes, to be funny, to do their actor’s art “for The Fat Lady.” The book ends with Zooey’s corrective to Franny’s private spiritual quest.

(Seymour) never told me who the Fat Lady was, but I shined my shoes for the Fat Lady every time . . .. This terribly clear, clear picture of the Fat Lady formed in my mind. I had her sitting on the porch all day, swatting flies, the radio going full blast from morning till night. . .. (S)he probably had cancer. …. Are you listening to me? There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady. Don’t you know that yet? Don’t you know that g**d*** secret yet? And don’t you know – listen to me now – don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? . . . . Ah buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.

Walk your labyrinths. Recite your mantras. Do your lectio divina, your active imagination with Scriptures. Pray your own way in your own time and place – but do it for the Fat Lady.


Daphne Stevens, Ph.D. said...

You've nailed it, Dan--at least for me. Thanks--Daphne

Unknown said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. Bishop Dan, you just rolled out the ultimate fertilizer and opened a gentle, but penetrating, rain on this field of green shoots. God bless you always!

++ Archbishop Benny Sagra said...

Your writings like this one comes out of the great recesses and depths of striking the balance between individual quest for God and that of community celebration of a common faith experience. Thank you for the biblical based teaching and exposition of what spirituality can be in our contemporary, practical and radical living off it!

Panharith said...

God bless you always!

Goldenslot สล็อต
goldenslot mobile

osma said...

Hello Everybody,
My name is Ahmad Asnul Brunei, I contacted Mr Osman Loan Firm for a business loan amount of $250,000, Then i was told about the step of approving my requested loan amount, after taking the risk again because i was so much desperate of setting up a business to my greatest surprise, the loan amount was credited to my bank account within 24 banking hours without any stress of getting my loan. I was surprise because i was first fall a victim of scam! If you are interested of securing any loan amount & you are located in any country, I'll advise you can contact Mr Osman Loan Firm via email

First name......
Middle name.....
2) Gender:.........
3) Loan Amount Needed:.........
4) Loan Duration:.........
5) Country:.........
6) Home Address:.........
7) Mobile Number:.........
8) Email address..........
9) Monthly Income:.....................
10) Occupation:...........................
11)Which site did you here about us.....................
Thanks and Best Regards.
Derek Email

Satu88 said...

Thank You