Facing Apathy: Spiritual Practices and Cultivating Desire for God
I am TA-ing for a course this fall on the Inklings with Dr. Ralph Wood. Earlier this week, while discussing G.K. Chesterton’s The Ball and the Cross, Wood said that the world desires to “pave over with concrete” the deep longing for God. Now what here is designated as “world” can be disputed, but what I want to argue cannot be disputed is that one of the greatest temptations of the Christian, particularly the intellectual Christian is to be paved over with concrete—to be apathetic in the Christian life.
This particular kind of apathy is most often seen by people like me. People who spend much of their time reading the great works of Christianity—Scripture, Church Fathers and Mothers, the mystics over the ages—or preaching and teaching from these great works. It is a particular sort of habit, dare I say sin, that continues to follow me year after year.
My friend Michael Yankoski just finished and will soon release a book where he recounts his own year where he attempts to break free of what I am calling a paving over of desire. At the start of the book, Michael describes his life of teaching and travelling all over the country. In conversation with a monk, Michael confesses that he finds himself frustrated not only with others’, but with his own “dissatisfaction with the masquerade of faith” (10). He sensed that something was not right.
The power of Michael’s account in The Sacred Year is the integrity with which he both admits his own jaded and calloused state at the start of this year and enters into spiritual practices in order to break free. As I myself am most often jaded and calloused, I wanted to be cynical as I read his accounting of the spiritual practices like contemplating an apple for an hour with his five senses or spending the day digging a grave and then lying in it contemplating death. I wanted to do what I have been trained to do, stand with my critical eye looking for weakness.
But, here is the truth:
In reading Michael’s honest attempt to break free of the concrete, to cultivate real desire for God in his innermost being, to be attentive to that feeling in his gut that desires more, I found myself longing for those moments. Those moments buried away in my memory where God felt both present and pressing, those moments that are cradled in times of intentionality and purpose.
Michael identifies an intentional kind of cultivation that is not self-willed, he does not create the longing, but instead he makes room for the longing to be cultivated in him. His sacred year is a year modelled after the wise sages of the Christian faith, from Christ to the desert monks, from the Benedictines to the radical social character of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
The act of resistance to being paved over with concrete is spiritual practices. It seems strange (but ring so true!) that resistance to apathy comes not only in the form of seeking justice and participating in protest but in silence, solitude, simplicity and Sabbath.
At the close of his book, Michael points out that spiritual practices are not something we accomplish and then move on to the next thing, rather they require “a lifetime to come into its full maturity, a lifetime in order to bring forth all of its intended fruit” (329). Spiritual practices are not accomplished, but rather cultivate in us “our capacity for depth and life.” They cultivate in us the ability to resist the paving over, the malaise of a world apathetic to God.
You can find more on Michael Yankoski, his new book The Sacred Year and even a sneak peak here: www.thesacredyear.com. The book will be released on September 16, but you can pre-order now.