I’ve been re-reading a book this past week that I first read last year. I do this a lot. I’ll read a book the first time through and think, meh, that was okay. But then for some reason I’ll come back to it, months or even years later, and the second time through it rocks my world. Such is the case with Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation, by Ruth Haley Barton.
In the first chapter, even before she gets into the spiritual disciplines, Barton talks about longing, about the process of uncovering and defining our deepest desires. She writes about a moment in her life in which she experienced a sense of wholeness and completeness so overpowering, it prompted a prayer to spring up from the depths of her heart:
“O God, give me more moments like this — moments when I am fully present to you and to others in love,” she prayed. “Moments when I am connected with what is purest and most authentic within me and able to respond to your presence in that place.”
I sat with Barton’s epiphany and prayer for a good long time. What are your moments like this? I wrote in my journal. Can you think of times when you’ve been fully present to God and others, when you’ve felt whole and truly connected to your purest and most authentic self?
I thought about those questions for a while. Truth be told, I panicked at first, because for a long time, I couldn’t think of a single moment in recent months that seemed to encompass what Barton had experienced.
Slowly though, memories of such moments surfaced. I made a list of them in my journal:
Gathering with my book club friends to take a painting class, laughing uproariously, creating and enjoying good food.
Reading and journaling in the early morning quiet at the cabin.
Having coffee and a muffin with Noah on the deck of a coffee shop in Florence, Oregon.
Cross country skiing and repeating the breath prayer in the Minnesota woods.
Walking Josie and following the call of a great horned owl.
Thinking about Barton’s questions and making my own list of moments was illuminating. I realized that most of these moments, when they did happen, occurred during times of quiet intimacy — intimacy with a small group of close friends, intimacy with my natural surroundings, intimacy with my loved ones. These were the moments I felt most alive, most exhilarated, but also most content and at peace. These were the moments when I felt all was right with the world.
My sparse list also told me that these moments were far and few between – a mere handful that had taken place mostly on vacation last summer and over the holidays. Yet at the same time, the moments on my list were accessible. It’s not like I had experienced presence and authenticity while dog-sledding in the Arctic or spelunking in a remote Mexican cave.
In fact, my experiences couldn’t have been more ordinary: reading, writing, connecting in person with friends and loved ones, walking my dog in my own neighborhood, spending time outdoors. These were experiences I could sink into in my everyday, ordinary life.
But here’s the truth; here’s what I learned when I made my list: I rarely take the time to engage with my people and my place this way. I rarely stop long enough to connect with my closest friends, my environment or even myself in a meaningful way.
I think it’s easy to lose the essence of ourselves in this day and age. We fill every small moment, every bit of margin, with noise, distraction and technology. We rush from task to task, place to place, errand to errand. We forget to breathe. We don’t allow ourselves to sit. We don’t allow time for quiet. We skate by on bits of shallow connection – an email, a Facebook comment, a string of texts, a Voxer message. We don’t linger with our people. We don’t soak in the details of our places. We don’t allow our deepest selves the space to surface.
And then, we wonder why we feel fragmented, empty, restless. We wonder why we find ourselves thinking, What’s the point? Where’s the meaning? Is this all there is?
As Ruth Haley Barton observes: “Constant noise, interruption and drivenness to be more productive cut us off or at least interrupt the direct experience of God and other human beings, and this is more isolating than we realize. Because we are experiencing less meaningful human and divine connection, we are emptier relationally, and we try harder and harder to fill that loneliness with even more noise and stimulation.”
Reading the opening chapter of Sacred Rhythms, asking those questions and making my list has helped me see, in a new, clearer way, that I’ve been doing exactly what Barton describes: feeding my isolation and sense of meaninglessness with that which, in the end, only isolates and fragments me further.
I don’t know where you might find your most authentic self, where you are most fully present with God and others. Your list might look completely different from mine. Frankly, it will probably look a lot more exciting or interesting. Regardless, I would encourage you to try this exercise yourself. Think about the moments you have felt a sense of wholeness and peace, an intimacy with God, with others, or with your surroundings. Make your own list, and then think about how you can find the space and opportunity to experience more of these moments in your everyday life.