The theme of “keeping life in balance” is of interest to me. Finding a good balance in my life is essential on practical basis. I’ve a tendency toward mild depression, but I feel better when I maintain a right proportion of work, family, exercise, diet, and recreation. Balancing life’s aspects can be challenging for all of us, especially those times when we must focus more attention on family issues or work or whatever.
A good book that I purchased a few years ago is Ronald Rolheister’s The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality (New York: Doubleday, 1999). Rolheister, of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, notes that the quantity of spirituality-related books available, with different approaches and themes, is staggering (pp. 51-52). But given this abundance, he asks: what are the essentials of a Christian spirituality? Interpreting the example and teachings of Jesus, he gives four “nonnegotiable pillars of the spiritual life”: “a) Private prayer and private morality; b) social justice; c) mellowness of heart and spirit; and d) community as a constitutive element of true worship” (p. 53).
Rolheister goes on to discuss characteristics of each, especially what happens when a person deemphasizes one or more (pp. 54-69). Thinking along with him, I speculated that many of us are pretty faithful on A and D but tend to neglect B and C. That is, we go to church, participate in its life; we pray, and we follow a moral code in our lives.
What about B, social justice? This can be tricky. I read somewhere about a lady who, whenever her church study group or her pastor began to discuss social issues, responded, “What does this have to do with John 3:16?” For her, personal belief in Christ that gains one the gift of eternal life, as expressed in this verse, was the most important thing. After all, that is a precious message of the Gospel!
But there are many social teachings in the Bible: justice for the poor, feeding the hungry, supporting the imprisoned, taking the side of the disadvantaged, gaining justice and advocating for groups of people who are marginalized. Even if we worry about the church becoming involved in “politics,” we know that the church is called to minister to the world in Christ’s name as the Spirit gives guidance. So if we are faithful about A and D, we can prayerfully seek ways to support the church’s work in bringing healing and justice to the world.
Some of us have a different challenge: we’re so passionate about certain social issues, we emphasize “B” and neglect other aspects of spirituality. Why should God care about one’s personal prayer life or everyday behavior as long as one is feeding the hungry, etc.? But this is a temptation to have an imbalanced spirituality.
Another side to that: Sometimes I hear people complain that the church is too fixated on buildings, building projects, and facility upkeep; therefore, the argument goes, we should be using that money on the poor. This, too, is a way that social justice issues neglect other aspects of spirituality: in this case, the nurturing of people’s prayers and lives (A) and the cruciality of community and worship (D). I serve on our church’s board of trustees and can see first hand the many needs and costs in maintaining a building for the congregation—-but this is the way things are supposed to be! After all, your home, which protects and nurtures you and your family, require regular maintenance, and so does a church home that protects and nurtures a worshiping body.
On to “C,” mellowness of heart and spirit. This area interests me a lot because I’m a terrible worrier, and I feel that my anxieties betray an immature faith—or at least a faith where I’m calm in my “head faith” but emotionally fussy. Also, I’m inspired by Buddhist teachings that explicitly aim at serenity of heart, kindness, mental discipline that aims at inner peace, and so on.
These teachings are not at all different from Christian teachings, but some of us fall short on them. The other three aspects of spirituality can certainly help nurture inner tranquility and gratitude.
Interestingly, an overemphasis on both A (private prayer and personal morality) and B (social justice) can lead to a lack of inner peacefulness. On one hand, a person is so focused on the personal quality of faith and life, that pride has slipped in to his/her spirituality. (Alternately, a person has so emphasized the personal salvation of John 3:16 that she never quite pursues a transformed life.) On the other hand, a person who is very focused on some justice issue can become angry and strident—accusing people of inadequate faith if they disagree on that issue—rather than mellow, loving, and peaceful.
(Our very partisan politics enters into this, too. We become angry in our political views, we become frustrated with friends who disagree with us, and soon, instead of a honest and friendly exchange of opinions, a spirit of division has been created.)
And finally D, community and true worship. Many people are personally devout and moral, concerned about social issues, and peaceful of heart—-but they don’t go to church. Perhaps they’ve been hurt by a congregation, or they’re annoyed when the bureaucratic and otherwise “human” qualities of churches seem to get in the way of the true message. Perhaps they simply prefer solitary time, such as walking in nature and listening inwardly for God’s guidance. The individualism of our contemporary society—-this is what works for me, and you can find what works for you—can make us neglect the benefits of belonging to a religious community, and thus part of a religious heritage.
Most of us do indeed know what we need spiritually, and churches do indeed fail and disillusion people. My advice is always to keep looking for and praying for a community, and to keep a healthy perspective about the humanity of churches. There are bad people in churches, people who let you down, people who don’t get things right, but also people who are struggling like you and me and are humble in their struggles. They’re people who can be friends and cohorts in the spiritual journey. Not only that, but God works powerfully in the midst of congregations, and discovering God’s presence in a congregation is a vital part of the spiritual life.
Another side to D: some pastors love to see “worker bees” around the church, volunteers who are constantly doing things. Volunteer church ministries can consume one’s time, getting people’s lives out of balance, if the pastor is not sensitive to the needs of people to use their time sensibly. It’s important that a pastor with high expectations of service teaches people the importance of the other three aspects of spirituality.
Rolheiser rightly points out that “balance is not the ultimate goal of spirituality” (p. 69), but rather, our spirituality is an aspect of fulfilling our vocation as members of the body of Christ in the world, to help bring God’s redemption to the world (which includes the planet) (pp. 69-70). Thinking and praying about our spirituality, though, helps us draw closer to God and become clearer about the ways God calls us to live and serve.