Listening to your life

by Rich Heffern

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There is widespread fascination today with elements of Native American spirituality. A central component of these spiritualities is the vision quest, that part of a person’s development in which she goes out into the wilderness for a period of time to fast and pray, to nourish an intimacy with her inner life, and to find direction for life.

Ordinarily, the regimen of the quest would give rise to vivid dreams or showings or visions. The quester would take these events back to the wise ones in the community for interpretation and counsel.

The irresistible fascination with these Native American ways seems to come from the refreshing fact that they honor, respect, and pay attention to our unique individual experiences. What occurs in a person’s life – his or her inner stirrings, promptings, enthusiasms, relationships, struggles, trials, explorations, homecomings, defeats and victories – are important in native spirituality. Often a native person derived his or her very name from some important life experience.

In this kind of spirituality, one navigates a course through life by heeding and honoring one’s unique, individual experience and then by taking that inner life to the community’s spiritual tradition in order to test its validity, to find both critique and counsel in its wisdom. One’s own story is fitted into the larger story of the community. One’s own life journey is a gift to that community that must be honored and used for the common good.

Francis of Assisi was wont to pray for nights on end, “Who are you, God, and who am I?” He was unable to find satisfying answers to these questions in the culture and institutions of his times. One Sunday he was listening to a sermon in which the preacher quoted Jesus telling his followers to take nothing for their journey – in short, to embrace poverty. Francis was galvanized. He left Mass overjoyed and committed the passage to memory, saying “This is what I want. This what I long for. This is what I desire to do with all my heart.”

Francis had noted that whenever and wherever he encountered poverty and simplicity in his life and in others, then his heart would warmly glow, his insides would light up with smiles. The scripture passage validated this important inner experience. His enthusiasm enkindled and his creativity given direction, he went on to create a band of brothers who lived simply and in solidarity with the poor. Francis took his direction in life from this inner navigation, following his deepest enthusiasm, and created a new way of living and working with others. His enthusiasm was the key that opened up his inner life and unlocked his creativity, and then joined that life to the service of the wider community.

Fr. Andrew Greeley has pointed out that the sacraments – those bulwarks of the Catholic life – exist for the purpose of celebrating and hallowing the grace and spirit that have already entered our lives. We encounter the divine mystery primarily in our daily living. The sacraments are there to single out and validate those encounters with grace and mystery and enable the whole community to bless and celebrate them.

The sacrament of baptism, for example, celebrates the miracle and extraordinary gift of a birth that has already happened. The sacrament of marriage consecrates and validates in the eyes of the community a sacred union, a spirit-filled and graced relationship that has already developed between two people. The sacrament does not make holy the relationship. The relationship is already holy, because all of life is holy. Greeley calls this interaction between life and our worship “empirical liturgy.” He suggests that it is having this dynamic wrong-way-round that causes our worship to be often so dull, bloodless and uninspired.

The Judeo-Christian scripture is a record of one person after another listening to his or her own experience, deciding that experience was God’s way to communicate, and then finding counsel and support in the spiritual community. This is what happened to Moses, Abraham, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, Paul took his own life to the radical gospel message of Jesus and wove together a whole new framework for early Christianity. Francis of Assisi resonated inside when he heard a passage from the Gospels that confirmed his heart’s desire.

All of these figures in our religious past began with their own life experiences and then took their encounters with grace and mystery to the community. There is always the possibility that we can take wrong turns or travel down to dead ends. We need our spiritual traditions for guidance and help, but we also need to listen carefully to our own living.

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