“What Father Solomon suggested that day was a season of life marked by intentionality, by dedication to what he called ‘spiritual practices.’ At first I had little idea what he meant. As a Protestant, all that really came to mind when I heard ‘spiritual practice’ was quasi-erratic Bible reading and occasional, desperate prayers. I’d never really fasted before, had never spent more than five minutes in silence if I could help it. Beyond that, the realm of spiritual practice was a vast and uncharted wilderness.
I asked a lot of questions over my additional meetings with Father Solomon that week at the monastery. He patiently answered all of my questions and suggested several ways that I could learn more. Turns out there are more spiritual practices than I had ever imagined. Father Solomon and I discussed confession and pilgrimage and creativity, along with silence, simplicity, service, and even the intentional embrace of our own human finitude and mortality.
‘Just about anything can become a spiritual practice,’ Father Solomon suggested on my last day at the monastery. ‘If you approach it in the right way—with intentionality, humility, receptivity, hope. And of course with an attentive eye on the lookout for the activity of the divine.’
I was surprised by this claim, and Father Solomon chuckled at my raised eyebrows but then told me about another monk who lived a long time ago—named Brother Lawrence—who had extraordinary encounters with God while washing dishes in a monastery in France. And Saint Francis of Assisi, who believed that learning from the animals and birds was an avenue to God that most human beings couldn’t even begin to fathom. And the modern writer Kathleen Norris, who reportedly found God permeating the everyday, quotidian aspects of her life, like cooking meals and hanging laundry.
Though I found all of this exciting and hopeful, a worry was growing inside of me during our conversations, a question that I knew touched on complicated theological ground and which I myself didn’t have any clear thoughts on.
‘But aren’t spiritual practices kind of like trying to work our way to God?’ I blurted out at last, struggling to find the right words. ‘You know, trying to make ourselves holy, or earning our own salvation, that sort of thing? Most days I have a hard enough time just keeping my head above water, and, to be honest, I don’t have the strength to try and make God love me or even like me.’
Father Solomon’s face went grave, and he closed his eyes for several long moments. I wondered if I’d offended him somehow. When at last his response came, they were words of comfort, though the gravity of his tone shook the room like an earthquake, echoing in my soul like a song. ‘That’s not the way this works, Michael,’ he said. ‘You needn’t put that much faith in your own strength, for your strength is a mere atom beside an ocean of God’s unending love. God is the Source. The Origin. The Ground of All Being. The One from whom and through whom and to whom are all things. You can’t ‘make God love you,’ any more than you can make a star or a planet or even a human being. Any more than you can make yourself.’
I didn’t respond but sat there in the silence, listening.
Father Solomon spoke again, and the shaking of my foundations continued. ‘The God who called you into existence ex nihilo—out of nothing—is the same God who holds you in existence this moment and every moment. Were he to withdraw his hand, you would vanish without memory. All things would. No, you can’t make God love you. You can’t make God like you. But nor do you need to; he already does. Never forget that that is why he made you—because he wants you to exist. And not just exist. He wants you to live life in all its fullness.
When Father Solomon at last opened his eyes they were moist with tears, tears that coursed down into the deep wrinkles of his face, irrigating deserts as they went. But somehow these tears weren’t embarrassing; I didn’t look away but instead took in the monk’s weathered old face and hoped—just for a moment—that what he was saying might actually be true. And in that moment, a warmth wrapped itself around me like a Caribbean breeze, so quick and fleeting that I wondered if I’d imagined it, but so evident that it left me breathless.
Father Solomon was talking again. ‘Spiritual practices are a way of mapping your own personal soulscape. Helping you become more acquainted with who you are, who God is, and the people he’s placed you into this life alongside of.
‘It’s rather like sailing,’ he said. I thrilled at the thought of this monk out there on the open ocean, white hair billowing in the wind, drops of sea spray clinging to his whiskers. A veritable Old Man and the Sea.
‘When you’re sailing, you learn to be constantly attentive to the wind—how it is blowing over your sails, what direction it is coming from, how fast it is moving, that sort of thing. Does that make sense?’
‘This attentiveness to the wind becomes the main task—no, that’s not the right word—the main art of sailing. We must both attend to the wind and then respond to whatever it is that the wind is doing. We trim our sails, adjust our course, sometimes we even exchange one sail for another—whatever it takes so as to be in the most receptive place given what the wind is doing. Our attentiveness to the wind allows the wind to move us.’
‘And spiritual practices are like that?’ I asked. ‘Like adjusting our sails and making sure we’re in a receptive place given what God is doing?’
‘Exactly.’ Father Solomon was smiling as he spoke. ‘And—if you’ll indulge me for a moment—this metaphor becomes all the more fascinating given that in Jesus’ time there was only a single word for ‘breath,’ ‘wind,’ and ‘spirit.’ ‘The Spirit of God,’ ‘The Breath of God,’ and ‘The Wind of God’ are all accurate translations of a common New Testament phrase, a phrase that basically means GET READY: God is up to something!’
I fell silent, wondering what shape the sail of my soul might be, where it might take me if I allowed my Maker to set the course. Then I remembered something Father Solomon had said during our first meeting. ‘Interesting that you knew a ‘storm’ had brought me here to the monastery.’
‘Very interesting indeed,’ Father Solomon said with a smile. ‘Now the question is: How will you respond to what the Wind is doing in your life?’”
(Part 3 and Final – Excerpt from The Sacred Year by Michael Yankoski)