On the surface, it seemed like every professional event I've ever attended: dozens of my colleagues in marketing and advertising, all chatting at once, discussing the latest ad campaigns and agency gossip and the ever-present "how's business?"
The big difference was the timing. I had never before attended a professional event after four days in a monastery.
Those four days -- of silence, chanting psalms with the monks, getting a glimpse of their life and wanting more -- left me feeling like a stranger among marketers I knew so well. I kept looking around and thinking, "Why are we doing this? Why is advertising important? Why even have marketing at all?"
That's when it hit me: If you decide to pursue a deeper connection with God, hang on tight. It may be quite a ride.
Frank Bianco's Voices of Silence: Lives of the Trappists Today profiles a monk who, while living at his monastery, often retreated to a cabin on the grounds to "make more room for [God] in my life." That phrase could describe a chief aim of the spiritual path as a whole: to allow God more room to move in, and transform, our inner selves.
Monastic practices (among others) promote that transformation. In silent prayer -- whether we are repeating a mantra, gazing at an icon or just sitting in silence -- we focus our attention entirely on God. This opens us to the influence of the Divine Spirit, in the same way that focusing in silence on the words of a loved one makes more room for those words to penetrate our defenses.
Monastics devote a lot of time to sacred texts for similar reasons. Through lectio divina -- a slow, meditative reading of scripture -- they allow their innermost selves to connect with the text, which makes room for the wisdom within it to take root within their unconscious. The chanting of sacred texts like the biblical psalms fosters the same connection.
Anyone can seek a deeper connection with God in this way. But by making more room for God, we make more room for change -- sometimes countercultural change.
Take our view of self. By encountering the Divine every day, I begin to see myself more from a Divine perspective. In part, I see a person with inherent dignity, value and a set of strengths and limitations. At the same time, I see one person in a human community of billions. Suddenly it is much harder to believe that it's all about me. Indeed, as much as anything, it's about us.
That changes everything. My strengths are no longer tools to advance my status but gifts to contribute to the common good. My vested interests are no longer to be defended at all costs but to be harmonized with those of others. I have no more reason to accumulate possessions, status or power for myself, but many reasons to give these things away as the need demands.
There is also our view of the public square. With our vested interests assuming a smaller role, we are freer to reflect on issues from entirely different perspectives. This in turn allows us to ask and explore difficult questions. Why not restructure entitlement programs to address the deficit when they eat so much of the federal budget? Why does it matter whether America is number one as opposed to, say, number five? How do we know when a fetus becomes human? Our non-attachment to our own sacred cows allows us not only to consider other perspectives, but to reach across divides. We no longer feel compelled to take sides in the pitched battles that often characterize the American public square.
Finally, consider our view of time. Spiritual practices, once pursued, tend to elbow their way into our schedule. The deep reflection they inspire takes time by definition. Moreover, by engaging these practices at fixed times -- as monastics do, dropping what they are doing at the chapel bell to hasten to prayer -- we build our day around prayer, not prayer around the day. This draws us into focusing on the moment, oblivious (as much as possible) to the distractions around us.
Talk about countercultural. Our culture practically runs on distractions. We move at warp speed from activity to activity. As spiritual practices slow us down, we begin to question the reasons for the rush. Life comes more into focus and into balance. True, we may accomplish less. But what we accomplish may have more lasting value. And we may find ourselves happier.
By embracing these new orientations within us, we allow ourselves to move more easily through life. Unhindered by vested interests or cultural expectations, we can live each moment as a response to God, pursuing what many faith traditions uphold as God's deepest desires: compassion, justice, a focus on the other, non-attachment to the changing things of this world.
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