Recently, at a public forum, I was asked to address the question as to whether or not America is having a spiritual revival. It was an easy question to address because there is blatant evidence from coast to coast that the answer is a resounding YES! However, I want to stress that this spiritual revival is not necessarily bringing hoards of people back into our churches. In a host of cases this spiritual revival is taking place outside of organized religion.
It is quite clear to careful observers that this increasingly post-modern age into which we are moving is one that is marked by men and women who have an intense hunger for experiences that will nurture their souls, but sadly, many of these questing spiritual nomads have not found what they are looking for in churches.
Many of them report that they have tried the church and have heard theological discourses and social justice sermons, but have failed to encounter much that offered them mystical encounters with transcendent spiritual powers.
They longed for, and didn’t find in organized religion, experiences that could create the ecstasies of heart and mind that Rudolph Otto, the German phenomenologist called “the mysterium tremendum.” Consequently, many have sought and found the food that could satisfy their souls outside of institutionalized Christianity or Judaism, so that some of the most spiritual people I know will claim to be without religion.
In my own life there was an unspoken dissatisfaction with my spiritual life that only has begun to be allayed over the past few years as my prayer life underwent change. Believing the gospel had never been a problem for me, but during times of reflection I sensed that believing in Jesus and living out His teachings just wasn’t enough. There was a yearning for something more, and I have found that I am increasingly being spiritually gratified as I adopt ways of praying that have largely been ignored by those of us in the Protestant tradition. Counter-Reformation saints, such as Ignatius of Loyola, have become important sources of help as I have been learning from them the ways of centering and contemplative praying.
Being brought up Baptist, all I had learned to do while praying was to go through a litany of non-negotiable demands to the Almighty. Prayers were little more than petitions. Oh, I knew about confession, adoration and other kinds of prayers, but when I prayed I wasn’t far removed from my six-year-old son, who came into the living room one night and said, “I’m going to bed! I’m going to be praying! Anybody want anything?”
Each night I still make my requests “known to God, ” just like the Bible tells us to do (Phil. 4:6), but in the morning I don’t ask God for anything. Instead, I center down on Jesus.
I have to drive back the animals—the animals being the hundred and one things that trouble me from the day before, and the many things that are waiting to be done in the new day. I’ve got to push everything out of mind, save the name of Jesus. I say His name over and over again, for as long as fifteen minutes, until I find my soul suspended in what the ancient Celtic Christians called “the thin place.” You could say that I use the name of Jesus as my koan. Perhaps that’s because, as my friends and country gospel musicians, the Gaithers, sing, “There’s just something about that name.”
Once I’ve entered “the thin place” with its profound stillness, I “wait patiently for the Lord” (Psalm 40:1) to invade me. In quietude I surrender to an invasion of the Holy Spirit.
I wish I could say that every morning is a time when I feel this spirit of Christ saturate my being. The truth is, most mornings nothing happens. Sometimes weeks go by and nothing comes from my centering prayers. But then, often, when I have come close to despairing, it happens.
Blaise Pascal, the 17th century philosopher and mathematician, gave testimony of such an inflowing of God’s Spirit as he described going into a room early one evening, shutting the door and sitting alone in darkness and prayerfully waiting. The next day he wrote in his diary:
10:30 p.m. FIRE! God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not the god of the philosophers and the scholars—absolute certainty—beyond reason. Joy! PEACE! Forgetfulness of the world and everything, but God! The world has not known Thee, but I have known Thee. JOY! JOY! JOY! Tears of joy!
When I am asked how I know that such mystical in-fillings of the Holy Spirit aren’t simply “feel good” techniques, such as those that sometimes mark the ecstasies of New Age practitioners, I have an answer. I explain that these experiences generate within me an intensive passion for telling others about Jesus, and what He can do for them. Along with that powerful evangelistic drive, His Spirit also creates within me a compassion for the poor and oppressed, and I am driven to respond to their pleas for help and justice.
The Bible says that if any person says that he or she loves God, and fails to live out love towards those who have needs, that person “is a liar” (I John 4:20). The validity that the ecstasy experienced in stillness is an infilling of Christ’s spirit is that one’s heart is broken by the things that break the heart of Jesus. Experiencing compassionate love for others is the evidence that “the spirits are of God” (I John 4:1).
There’s an old African-American spiritual that goes “woke up this morning with my mind stayed on Jesus.” I think I am gaining some idea as to what those folks in the antebellum South were singing about. I think that Ignatius and his understanding of centering prayer was on the same page with them, at least that’s the way I see it.