Spirituality for Passionate and Rapidly Changing Time

by Carolyn M. Craft,
an Episcopal priest and professor in the department of English, philosophy, and modern languages at Longwood College, Farmville, Virginia.


Although I am often emotionally expressive, I like myself best when I am calmly engaged but not ego-invested, and when I am aware of interconnections, rather than of differences, between myself and others. Yet the particulars of my life, including some recent hurts, lead me often to focus on difference even as God calms and calls me to empathy and compassion for others, to acceptance and discerning courage which both speaks out and is silent. Often, too, I see passionate intensity which scares me, in the world, in our nation, in the Christian church, and in my own church - the Episcopal Church. Spirituality is about counting blessings, about goodness, about life, but often the opposites of pain, evil, and death lead to deeper spirituality - to a bridge between God and self - or so they have for me.

I have been blessed, tremendously blessed, with family, friends, department colleagues; with opportunities for intellectual, psychological, and spiritual exploration; and with an abiding sense of God's presence and love - which sometimes disappears in order to make me more aware of its presence. Nevertheless, I have also suffered from sexism and racism, as well as from marginalization in my second part-time profession. In none of this am I unique: many, even most, women have suffered from the sexism of our educational systems, our employment opportunities, and our churches. Among my blessings is an increasing awareness of these types of discrimination, which are pervasive yet seldom noticed; but that awareness also brings pain. In addition, out of concern for others, there are deep feelings I cannot share. Some involve the marginalization which women and part-time professionals often suffer; this awakens my deeper concern for our society as it shifts to more part-time professionals: will the next generations readily undergo intensive study and preparation if employment is uncertain?

I am frightened that revealing my hurts will reveal the insensitivity of others, frightened of seeming to claim greater closeness to God than I have, and afraid to reveal the sense of intimacy with God which comes at times. I'm painfully aware of the passionate intensity of some who are, at least in my perception, passionately wrong, and I'm aware of my own need to disengage and examine, to be quiet and to listen. So I write with an engagement which may be hidden beneath the explanation I must give. Christian history and the lives of great as well as lesser Christians are full of misunderstanding, of being ignored, of being misunderstood: how can I expect to be exempt? The spiritual life schools us in getting what we don't deserve - the grace, goodness, salvation, and love of God which are always more than we deserve - and also in getting not precisely what we deserve when others' failures of empathy intervene.

Three identities shape my life. As a woman I grow increasingly mindful of gender issues in my personal and professional lives, in my local community, and in the world. As a college professor (thirty-one years of teaching English and twenty-one of also teaching religion, especially world religions), I guide intellectual inquiry which is supposed to be both committed and yet dispassionately directed wherever truth leads. As a priest (twelve years, almost eight of those as Priest-in-Charge or Vicar of two Episcopal churches, an experience enriched by the fact that I am Caucasian and my parishioners were African-American), I experience the tensions of otherness, whether defined by religion, by race, or by gender, and the responses of inclusion and exclusion which sharpen my awareness of God as Other who relates not only by creation but also through incarnation and inspiration.

My identities as woman, professor, and priest articulate my sense of call: to nurture and to care for; to teach and to facilitate others' self-discovery; to be a sacramental person who leads them to discover their own sacramentality; and often to the service of standing and waiting, of preparing the way for other women. There are other identities too: daughter, sister, aunt, friend, and citizen - national and global.

Christian Sacraments - holy cleansing (Baptism), holy eating (Eucharist), holy ratification of God's indwelling given in Baptism (Confirmation), holy reconciling (Reconciliation), holy blessing (Anointing the Sick), holy uniting (Matrimony), and holy ordering (Ordination) - are particulars which point to universals. Consecrated bread and wine lead us to discover the ultimate holiness of all eating, the life-from-death and growth-from-destruction reality of food. Through the same bread and wine, we discern the Body of Christ as Sacrament and as Christian community through which individuals are remade in the divine image and likeness. We as particulars become pointers to the truly universal - to God whose image we bear. This sacramental richness points to my understanding of spirituality, my own and others': it is the tug toward less of self and more of all - more connectedness with others, more letting my own struggles point to those of others, more attachment to God. How to realize these in my own life? An impossible task, except that God values the effort and uses the very small to bring forth something greater in the blessed community God is birthing.

Spirituality involves "hints and guesses" (in the words of T. S. Eliot) reverently received with passion and detachment, with commitment but without grasping - received as gift and shared with others, so that each of us, brought into relationship with the ultimate Giver, becomes both giver and gift to others. It is the passion of silent awe before the immense graciousness of God.

Spirituality challenges us to a pervasive wholeness within life, a balancing of various polarities or a tension of opposites. Maturity or the second half of life, according to Carl Jung, should be characterized by development of the fourth or hitherto least-used function, whether it be thinking, feeling, sensation, or intuition. This form of maturation has been and continues to be part of my own quest through psychoanalysis, other therapies, the Alexander technique, and the Enneagram. I hope to expand my compassion and be expanded by my pursuit of ethnic studies, feminist and womanist studies, and studies of cultural and religious diversity - and to incorporate them in teaching and preaching. As our planet becomes, through communication, technology, and increasing interdependence, even more of a global village, both Christians and non-Christians are called to a spirituality that embodies interdependence and diversity, inclusiveness and difference, individual and community. Spiritually, as well as intellectually, I have learned not only from Christian teachers but also from Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, and Muslim teachers, as well as from agnostic spiritual seekers.

Spirituality at its best leads to an appropriate valuing of oneself - to self-confidence, self-respect, and humility kept in creative tension. It leads as well to community with the other - with family, friends, neighbors, other Christians, and ultimately to increasing community with all people, with nature and the cosmos, and with the true Other, God. Self-confidence rooted in God and in the development of one's own call and abilities provides courage on the path toward deeper identification with others - or so it does for me. It facilitates more engagement and spontaneity in preaching and teaching, and it enables me to risk letting my self flow into others, my identity expand to contain and be contained by other people - even other sentient beings, Earth itself, and God. Orthodox Christian doctrines incorporate this vision of God who is One-yet-Three and who wants to share intimately in our lives, not only through creation, redemption, and sanctification, but also through living a fully human life and uniting us to God's very self; creation in the divine image, redemption through Jesus Christ, and the inspiration and indwelling of the Holy Spirit prepare us for this destiny. These dogmas, reflected on passionately, profoundly, and silently, propel us toward Being and beings.

Jesus Christ, our lord and companion, is the Christian's exemplar of opposites reconciled, of identity in difference, accomplished through the hypostatic union of two natures, fully human, fully divine, and through a single human life lived radically for others - for all others. We who have "put on Christ" in Baptism are similarly called to contain contradictions until they are resolved in God.

Much of the language and many of the themes of Christian spirituality - at least as I see it - come from tradition and are enriched by traditional associations; much of the way I view the human condition comes from awareness of the rapid pace of change in daily life, and in human culture and from contemporary analytic modes. Challenges to Christianity from the disciplines of science and history, as well as from other religious traditions, increase the need for radical trust, for willingness to be led by rapidly multiplying human knowledge and by God into the wilderness of unknowing, not-knowing, and discovering what I might prefer to avoid: truths that emerge from probing the unconscious mind and from studies of the brain, truths about the limitations and contradictions of human knowledge, and truths about the God of mystery who reveals and yet conceals, who is both revealed and hidden. For me, often the passionate pursuit of knowledge which is my intellectual bent and my professional calling as a professor, and the passionate pursuit of belief and faith which is my emotional bent and my professional calling as a priest, must be held together by the trust that somehow God is in both and also elsewhere in the unknowing of spirit - a call that as I grow older articulates more loudly in my being.

Our age calls for deeper appreciation of the interpenetration of sacred and secular, body and spirit, brain and mind; it demands reverence and respect for that which is beyond all distinctions in ourselves and in God and summons us to mystical union with others and with God as ultimate other. Meister Eckhart spoke about a seed of a pear tree growing into a pear tree and a seed of God growing into God. This is an image of the spiritual path all of us - consciously, unconsciously, and in diverse ways - pursue through God's gracious Spirit. Spirituality is reverent awareness, an awareness which issues in gratitude, in availability to others and to God. This compassionate awareness must, of course, issue in deeds of compassion. For me, counselling students and pastoral ministry are important ways in which I try to put thought into action and worship into relationship. In such self-giving, we receive and are blessed, by God and by other persons, as we become blesser and blessing.

Life itself, and Christian life even more intensely, is a journey into the unknown which is yet well-known, into God who is Other, yet one of us, and within us. Many opposites are to be held together in tension; the ultimate opposites, God and self, are to be bridged in that union with God to which we are called and for which we are created, redeemed, and sanctified. Although people have more control over the environment than ever before, our increasing knowledge leads us into greater uncertainty and demands ever more radical trust of God who, in Gregory of Nyssa's phrase, leads us "from glory into glory" and from mystery into mystery. The Holy Spirit in our midst leads us forward. With our Muslim sisters and brothers we know, in a deliberately incomplete comparative expressing God's incomparablility, "God is greater." With our Jewish brothers and sisters, we know God uses wilderness as liberation and preparation. With other spiritually committed persons, we respond to common environmental, economic, social, scientific, and political challenges to the human family. This transformation is not our doing, though we may choose to cooperate with the dark and hidden process which is passionately alive within us. All this I believe with calm but passionate sureness. We are called to risk, to exploration, to becoming increasingly co-creators with God; we are given identity without boundary as grace expands us. Here Christians are; here human persons are; here I am by the grace of God.

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Source: Cross Currents, Winter 1996-97, Vol. 46 Issue 4.