Modern Times Call for Ancient Virtues

When I look back at my journal from 2001, I find this entry:

“(1) I will not hurry through the day so as to leave no spaces to hear from God. (2) I will not measure the day only by how much I accomplish. (3) I will not attempt to live the Christian life or minister for Jesus Christ in the power of the flesh or for my own praise.”

In the next few years, my life would be in ruins, and these goals would be the last thing on my radar. Now, after another ten years, I’m back to where I started, and I confess I still wrestle with these same three faults (“hurry sickness”, a “to do list” approach to life, and a desire to be noticed and admired.) I don’t even know if I’ve made any real progress.

But when I have found help, and I’m finding it again recently, it’s been in some ancient approaches that were unfamiliar to me most of my Christian life and during many of my years in ministry. It’s a counter intuitive approach where what was seen as bad (disappointing, distracting, painful, and shameful) can now be embraced as good (useful, revelatory, transformative, and redemptive). What previously was to be avoided with a vengeance, was now to be embraced. Henri Nouwen has famously dubbed this necessarily painful approach “downward mobility.” The theologian Jurgen Moltmann’s comments relate:

“… what are virtues for the mystic are torment and sickness for the modern man or woman: estrangement, loneliness, silence, solitude, inner emptiness, deprivation, poverty, not-knowing, and so forth …. What the monks sought for in order to find God, modern men and women fly from as if it were the devil.” (Experiences of God)

We do fly from these things. If they don’t terrify us (and mostly they do), they certainly make us uncomfortable. Moderns value being loved and included. We like to be confident of own adequacy and understanding, and most of us long for the respect of others and for a life of prosperity, or at least comfort. We love to surround ourselves with our music, and keep ourselves busy. Why would we want it otherwise?

The truth is that what is comfortable, easy, familiar and may seem to us what God clearly wants for us (health, happiness, satisfaction, knowledge), often instead prove to be distractions, detours or dead ends. If we’re lucky, we may finally become so desperate that we’re willing to try any approach – even if it’s one that turns our familiar approach on its head.

At the heart of this is what I recently started thinking of as “transformational moments.” When the Psalmist tells us to “quiet our souls“, when Henry Nouwen tells us that loneliness can be transformed into productive solitude, when Dallas Willard tells us to “ruthlessly eliminate hurry” if we want to grow, when Eugene Peterson tells us we must carve out a time for God if we are to “interrupt our preoccupation with ourselves”, when Nouwen (again) refers to the effect of the noise around us as “psychic numbing”, when C. S. Lewis says that “every single act and feeling, every experience, whether pleasant or unpleasant, must be referred to God”, when Philip Yancey recommends a kind of prayer as that which will help us overcome our “obsession with ourselves”, when Peter Scazzero continually teaches on the necessity of the “Daily Office” – they’re all talking about different parts of the same thing.

I think Jesus was also speaking of it when he told Mary, the sister of Lazarus, that she “had chosen the better part” – a notably surprising analysis.

So, here’s the thing. I’m writing this for me. I’m mapping out where I’m going in the months ahead – not so much with the blog as with my life. I’m mapping out what I want to think about – what I want to practice – what I believe really works. (In the past I’ve tried what is more commonly recommended, and that wasn’t enough.)

Let me end with a short illustration. Suppose I have a big fight with another family member, and I’m overwhelmed with anger. The traditional advice is to forgive before the sun goes down, to be slow to anger (next time), to imitate the Apostle Paul, or Jesus, and perhaps to ask some trusted friends to pray for me and hold me accountable. This is all well and good as far as it goes, but I don’t think it goes far enough, or starts at the right place.

Instead, the ancient virtues would dictate that I carve out some times to sit before God in silence, where I would ask him to show me what is likely the deeper cause of my anger. I might then decide to find some of the “angry” psalms to pray (There are many.), and to schedule several times a day to recalibrate my heart (centering myself at mid-day, for instance, on the God whom I may have forgotten since I did the same upon rising). I might also make a plan to end the day with an “examen” – reviewing the events of the day, and especially how anger played a part in it. I might “refer to God” my anger problem, deliberately trust him to change me from within, and seek to know what way my angry moments might be “transformational” or “redemptive” for me. I might end by confessing that I might be an overly angry person for a long time yet, that I know he can use me in the meantime, and that I understand that he will probably not simply remove my anger from me with a wave of his divine hand – and that his yet unfilled purpose in me is fulfilled in that. (As I think about these two approaches, I’m inclined to see the first one as comprising the “ends”, and this one as the “means” to those ends.)

Something like that. I don’t know. I’m embarrassingly new at this, but I’ve done each of these things enough to consider this a productive approach. I bet that some of you will relate, and perhaps have further suggestions. Perhaps others of you will think that I’ve become a new age mystic or even a heretic. I’m willing to hear from you as well.

In the meantime, I know I can’t go wrong with this example of the Psalmist, which I’ll be following. He says, “I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.” (Psalm 131:2) I think just this in itself, a very ancient practice indeed, will not fail to be transformational.

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8 thoughts on “Modern Times Call for Ancient Virtues

  1. Doug Britton says:

    And we can add Martin Luther to the list, with his comment that he had so much to accomplish one day that he had to spend hours in prayer first. Yes – foreign to us and our age.

  2. Ray says:

    The short illustration and the following paragraph speak directly to my condition last night. Yet I find that when I’m in this frame of mind, I can’t achieve such spiritual discipline. Instead, I threw myself into getting some work done between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. (a time I’m normally sound asleep) hoping that the sense of accomplishment will help calm my angry heart. It kind of works. Now that I’ve calmed down, sitting silently before God is more doable.

    • Bill Britton says:

      I think we all have to find what works for us, and there will be many variations. This morning I couldn’t sit still to pray (too aware of all that “needs to be done” later in the day), so I walked and prayed. I can’t do that all the time though, because it just doesn’t allow for essential things (looking at/praying Scripture, stillness and solitude, etc.).

  3. Excellent! I love the insight that instead of looking to practice sin management it would be healthier to dig at the root.

  4. Loved this, Bill! By the way, don’t know if you have found http://www.henrinouwen.org/ yet, but if not you would like it! I get the Lenten weekly devotional in my inbox. Today’s was so good, and I thought of you: “…And it is in the listening that God becomes present and heals. The Word of God is not a word to apply in our daily lives at some later date; it is a word to heal us through, and in, our listening here and now. The questions therefore are: How does God come to me as I listen to the word?…”

  5. […] Will you make a new start? embracing untried practices as you seek “a life … possessed of God?” Do you hear God calling you to that? […]

  6. […] Will you make a new start? embracing untried practices as you seek “a life … possessed of God?” Do you hear God calling you to that? […]

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