The Quest for God
Old habits are hard to break, and no one is easily
weaned from his own opinions; but if you rely on your
own reasoning and ability rather than on the virtue of
submission to Jesus Christ, you will but seldom and
slowly attain wisdom. For God wills that we become
perfectly obedient to himself, and that we transcend
mere reason on the wings of burning love for him.
Thomas à Kempis
I wrote a lot of this book in coffee shops. I
was working at one in May when a spring
thunderstorm came roiling across the plains
of western Minnesota. The table at which I
was sitting faced the large parking lot of an
adjacent mall. As the wind picked up, the trees
started to bend, and then the rain came in
almost horizontal sheets.
It being a weekday afternoon, the mall's
parking lot was only half full. Way out on the
edge was parked a brand new BMW 525i-it
didn't even have license plates yet. Someone
had parked it far away from all other cars, hoping to avoid the
dings and dents of carelessly opened doors.
As the wind gusted, I saw a shopping cart begin to roll, pushed
by the storm. Free from the constraints of the Cart Corral, the
unmanned missile gained speed, unhindered by obstacles as it
wheeled across the slick asphalt.
I saw it coming: The cart seemed to be caught in the tractor
beam of the new car-250 yards and closing fast! 200 yards! 150!
100 yards! 50 . 25 . 10 . 5 . Impact! That cart smashed right into
the side of the as-yet unblemished BMW. I kid you not: there
wasn't another car within 100 yards, but that cart was honed
right in on its target. Mission accomplished.
It seems to me that God is a lot like that shopping cart-not
that God has four wheels and a child safety strap, but that God
always seeks us out. No matter how far away we park, and
no matter how much we try to avoid bumping into the Divine
Creator of the Universe, God finds us and leaves a mark. It's not
a search-and-destroy mission; it's a search-and-give life mission.
I've found that it's pretty common for God to hunt me down and
smack me in the right front quarter panel. I know others share
this feeling, hence the continued popularity of Francis Thompson's
nineteenth century poem, "The Hound of Heaven," in which
the protagonist proclaims,
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
And yet, Love pursues, with an "unhurrying chase" at an "unperturbèd
pace," and a Voice proclaims, "Naught shelters thee,
who wilt not shelter Me." Love wins; God wins, hounding the
poem's protagonist toward the gates of heaven, never giving up,
in spite of attempts to outrun him.
Now, this is a poem not a theological statement. It would be fairly
silly to assert that one can't ignore God. In fact, it hardly needs
to be stated that, of the six billion people on this planet, a pretty
hefty number disregard God completely. But for a lot of us, Frances
Thompson's poem articulates something significant. We have
this nagging feeling that God is following us around, nudging us to
live justly, and expecting us to talk to him every once in a while.
I guess I'm one of those people; one of those whom God is
constantly nagging. Every time I leave God's side, as it were,
it's not too long until I feel God tagging right along beside me. I
can't seem to shake him. Yet having this sense of God's company
doesn't necessarily translate to a meaningful spiritual life. I know
this because despite my awareness of God's presence, I have
spent most of my life trying to figure out what to do about it.
Why Go Ancient?
I was raised in a nice, Midwestern, church-going family. I went
away to college and got involved in a conservative evangelical
college group then went straight to seminary after graduation. In
other words, by the time I was 25, my views of God, prayer, the
Bible, etc. were pretty screwed up. I had more head-knowledge
about faith, religion, whatever you want to call it, than a person
should, but I really didn't seem to be able to put it into practice. I'd
say there was one word that summed up my religious life: obligation.
I had been taught that the way to connect with God on a daily
basis is to have a 30-minute "quiet time." That is, you should sit
down with your Bible open, read it a little, and then lay a bunch
of stuff on God, making sure to mention how excellent he is before
running through the list of all the things you need.
I found this style of personal devotion to be a pretty shallow
well, and it wasn't long before I was doing it only every other day,
then once a week, and then, well, never. Taking the place of my
30-minute quiet time, however, were hours and hours of that great
religious tradition: guilt. Here was the equation: God is out there +
God wants to hear from me + I'm not talking = failure by me.
After about 10 years of this, and hearing this same pattern
corroborated by many people who were also trying to listen for
God in their lives, something occurred to me: people have been
trying to follow God for thousands of years, Christians for the
last two thousand. Maybe somewhere along the line some of them
had come up with ways of connecting with God that could help
people like me.
About that same time, I happened to be due for a three-month
sabbatical from my job, and I could think of no better way to
spend it than to travel and read about different ancient ways of
prayer and devotion. So that's exactly what I did.
My travels took me to England, where I stayed at the now defunct
Boiler Room in Reading, a prayer center for young people.
Some churches there got together and leased out an abandoned
pub, which happened to sit on the site of a medieval abbey destroyed
during the Protestant-Catholic tensions of the sixteenth
century. The churches wanted to develop a place where the
young people of Reading could come and hang out, but instead
of filling the old pub with pinball games and loud music, those in
charge constructed prayer chapels and piped in ethereal chants.
While it was open (2000-2003), the Reading Boiler Room boasted
a 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week prayer vigil, and people from
around the world posted prayer requests on the "Wailing Wall"
on their website. A new Boiler Room has since been opened in
West London, and other branches of the British 24-7 prayer
movement are being launched as well.
I also flew to Dublin, Ireland, where I met with Fr. Alan Mc-Guckian
and the staff at the Jesuit Communication Centre, the
keepers of the most popular prayer website in the world (you can
read more about it in chapter 8). And I went to Communaute
Taizé, an amazing community of peace, brotherhood, and prayer
in southern France (see more in chapter 11).
I voraciously read authors and books they didn't assign in seminary:
St. John of the Cross, St. Theresa of Avila, and The Pilgrim's
Way. I met with other Protestants, with Roman Catholics, and
with Eastern Orthodox Christians. I took a long hike in the Red
Mountains of Utah with a shaman. I corresponded by e-mail with
people around the world, and I talked with others about prayer
over the phone.
All this I did in an effort to solve my dilemma. For years I'd
been told that to be a Christian meant I had to do three things:
(1) read the Bible, (2) pray, and (3) go to church. But I had
come to the realization that there must be something more. And
indeed there is. There is a long tradition of searching among the
followers of Jesus - it's a quest, really, for ways to connect with
God - and it has been undertaken by some of the most intelligent
and deeply spiritual persons ever to walk this planet. The quest is
to know Jesus better, to follow him more closely, to become - in
some mysterious way - wrapped into his presence. And I thank
God that some of these brilliant and spiritual persons wrote down
what they learned.
For me, there is incredible richness in the spiritual practices
of ancient and modern Christian communities from around the
world. Incorporating new ways of praying, meditating, reading
the Bible, etc. have fueled my faith and my passion for spirituality
in ways I never thought possible, and have, without question,
brought me into a closer relationship with God. And beyond
those rather self-centered outcomes, they've also helped me to
become a better father, husband, and friend. And that's why I'm
interested in writing about them as an offering to you.
You've probably noticed that for me, the point of these practices
is to draw me into a deeper relationship with the Christian God.
You may or may not agree that spirituality necessarily involves
God. Obviously, I feel strongly that the road to inner peace and
connection with our Creator is through Jesus. If you are one of
the more than two billion Christians in the world, you may feel
the same way. But in case you don't, I think you'll still find a great
deal of worthy information here. I'm not going to try to convince
you that you can only do these things if you believe in Jesus-I've
seen lots of people try to convince other people about Jesus,
and it's rarely successful.
Instead, I suggest you try some of these spiritual practices
with an open mind. Honestly, what have you got to lose? Even if
you already count yourself among those convinced of the whole
Christian thing, you may remain skeptical about the part where
Jesus talks to you. (If you're like me, you get more than a little
uneasy when your coworker says that when she was late for her
son's soccer game, the Lord helped her find a great parking spot;
or when your brother says the Lord told him to do this or that.
The Lord just doesn't speak to me like that.)
So if you're unconvinced, or convinced but still skeptical, or
even if you're a stalwart Christian who has a stale prayer life, the
exercises in this book may prove helpful.
The funny thing is, I can't really tell you why they're helpful. I
know they work because they have for me, but I'm still confounded
by their effectiveness. Maybe it's because the ancient spiritual disciplines
cause us to slow down and shut up, something at which most
of us are not very good. Maybe it's that there's something mystical
and mysterious about these ancient rites, like we're tapping into
some pretechnological, preindustrial treasury of the Spirit.
But I think they work because of Jesus. I'm afraid you're not
going to get much more explanation from me than that. Still, I
think that something about Jesus-who he was (Jesus of Nazareth)
and who he is (Jesus the Christ)-inspired the people who
developed these disciplines centuries ago. He led them on this
quest, which really is unique to Christianity. For only in Christianity
is there the belief that the one, true God came to earth as a human
being, and that, to this day, we can know him in as personal
a way as the disciples who shared lunch with him 2,000 years ago.
That is, Christians engage in these spiritual practices not out of
duty or obligation but because there is a promise attached: God
will personally meet us in the midst of these disciplines.
It's really pretty crazy when you think about it-which is probably
why some of the saints who favored these disciplines were
driven to extremes that their contemporaries considered mad. (St.
Francis preached to the birds in the forest-in the nude; Benedict's
disciples tried to poison him because he was too strict about
prayer; Julian of Norwich had herself walled into a little apartment
for years with food thrown in to her once a day through a
hole in the roof; the Stylites sat on tall poles for years at a time.)
Despite their sometimes-odd methods, the passion with which
these saints followed Jesus might be envied by us today. In our
age of cynicism in which everything falls prey to deconstruction,
it's inspiring to look back to an age before Newton explained how
the world works and Freud explained how the psyche works.
Following these saints' lead, of pouring oneself into something
without really understanding it, can be an incredibly liberating
experience. It has been for me.
Imagine thinking about spirituality in a time when the words
of Jesus had not been picked apart and voted on by the Jesus
Seminar; the veracity of Jesus' miracles had not been analyzed byTime Magazine; his sexuality had not been the subject of movies
and plays. Having not experienced the cynicism of our postmodern
age, the ancient saints pursued Jesus with a relentlessness we
can hardly imagine-not all of them, to be sure, but enough of
them to make the history of Christian spirituality one of the most
fascinating fields in historical study.
And again, I submit that all this took place because of Jesus. In
the end, there is something so compelling about the person of
Jesus and the way of life he offers that it causes people to commit
everything to the pursuit of him and his way. Many are saying
that right now is a time where the spiritual quest for Jesus is
again on the rise-that people are tired of Jesus being hoarded
by the academicians, that we want him back as Lord and Friend.
But is it cheating for us to jump backwards, to look for spiritual
guidance to the era before the Enlightenment? Only if we look
back with nostalgia, like the people who say, "I would have fi t
much better during the Renaissance than now," or the people who
spend all their time and money on Civil War reenactments. On
the contrary, traditional Christian practice is not about nostalgia,
but about a way of life and faith that has been honed by the centuries.
It is a way-the way-to live in the sacredness of God.
Because so many of the spiritual disciplines in this book were
developed and practiced by those we now consider saints, there
can be a sense of exclusivity, a belief that these are only for the
deeply devout or those who are prepared to drastically alter their
lives-to live in solitude, fast for months at a time, or give up all
worldly possessions. But my hope is that you see them as truly
practical ways of awakening your spiritual life. It may be a cliché,
but if I can do it, you can too.
You'll be either disillusioned or relieved to discover that I am
not a spiritual guru (whatever that means). I'm not a monk, I
don't live on a mountain, and I rarely wear robes. Instead, I'm
a husband, father, brother, son, and friend. I'm trying to make a
living, stay in shape, and finish reading the novel I started two
This book wasn't written high in the Himalayas while I lived
on crusts of bread and honey. I wrote some of it in coffee shops
and much of it on a folding table in the middle of the half-painted
nursery for our new baby.