a reflection on Luke 10:38-42
We’ve been talking this summer about spiritual practice: all the things we can do in order to open ourselves to the presence of God that is always with us, always offering to heal and transform our lives, our relationships, our communities, our world.
As we’ve moved through this summer together, we’ve been exploring different kinds of spiritual practices: praying in silence; praying with the news; praying with our bodies so that we might keep our hearts open.
As a new school year begins, and as we give thanks for the teachers among us it seems to me that this is a perfect time to talk about the spiritual practice of finding, and apprenticing ourselves to, a spiritual teacher. This is a very ancient practice, of course. It’s the way spiritual insights have been transmitted for many thousands of years. When Jesus was alive, he passed on his teachings directly, to his disciples: Martha, her sister Mary, their brother Lazarus, and others. After Jesus leaves them, these disciples pass on his teachings, as they understand them. And on through the ages, in every spiritual tradition. It is our job, as the spiritual beings that we are, to allow God to transform us, and to transform — to heal — the world, through us. Clearly, this is not an overnight process. It’s the work of our life! But every spiritual tradition in the world teaches that this process, this slow transformation of human consciousness, is precisely why we’re here. It’s why we’re here on earth. And I believe it’s why we show up here on Sunday mornings.
“One thing only is needed,” Jesus warns. “And Mary has chosen it—it will not be taken from her.”
Mary has chosen, it seems, to spend her time sitting at the feet of the master, absorbing the spiritual lessons he has come to impart. And this can be our choice as well. We are free every day to choose, to practice, the path of transformation. We are also free to choose, just as our friend Martha chooses, to be too busy. Too busy doing chores, too busy putting food on the table. It’s not that these things are unimportant, of course. It’s hard to imagine Jesus, of all people, saying that feeding others, or offering hospitality, is not important. It’s just that the busy work of our lives will always be there–it never ends! And that busy work will not transform our consciousness. Unless…we also attend to the spiritual discipline of stillness: the discipline of taking time to learn from, and practice with, the masters who have already transformed themselves.
What I want to say this morning is that the stakes are very, very high right now. The consequences of neglecting our spiritual transformation are dire. Next time you read the newspaper or watch the news, I invite you to take a close look at the most horrific and discouraging situations in the world today. And then ask yourself which human mindset created those situations. I think you’ll find that at root, these painful circumstances are created by why is known as the egoic mind, which is the mind of separation: a mind that is always watching for anything or anyone who seems a little too different from ourselves. A mind that is determined to exclude or dishonor that difference. It’s a mind that makes us cling desperately to what we have, that makes us refuse to share, and urges us to continue extracting more resources from a planet we believe was created to serve our needs. This is the egoic mind at work: always, and only, looking out for Number One.
The good news is that the egoic mind can be transformed. The bad news is that this transformation takes discipline, and time. And I believe that only a transformation of human consciousness will allow us to change our ways in time — in time to save the world we love. A transformation of human consciousness that takes us from a mind of separation and division to a mind of sacred union with all creation. I would not be standing here this morning unless I believed that Christian tradition actually offers us a way—a spiritual path—to bring about this transformation of consciousness. And I wouldn’t ask you to be here, either. The stakes are far too high to waste our time with any tradition that does not heal our relationship with one another and with all of creation.
And yet, these spiritual practices, these spiritual technologies for human transformation, are not something we learn in school, or even in Sunday school.
In most churches, we don’t even learn these practices in worship. That’s because these teachings about spiritual transformation were largely lost by the institutional church very shortly after it became the official religion of the Roman Empire: an empire that was more interested in preserving its own wealth and power than in bringing about the justice and the healing that spiritual transformation offers. And so, as the early church went from being a radical movement for spiritual and social change to a state-sponsored religious institution– very different things!–the church’s transformative spiritual teachings were largely pushed out to the margins. And out there on the margins of the church, these teachings were preserved by monastic communities: men and women who were trained in meditation and spiritual disciplines; men and women who intentionally removed themselves from the mainstream church and from mainstream society in order to put on, and live into, what Paul calls the Mind of Christ.
And this is where the teachings remained for many centuries. In those early years of the church, if you wanted to study the Christian path of spiritual transformation, you had to leave your home and family and travel out to the desert to sit at the feet of a master. Or, in later centuries, you entered a monastery to absorb and live out the teachings in spiritual community.
Neither of which is a bad idea. Some days, in fact it sounds like a pretty great idea! But what about the rest of us? What about those of us who have grown up in the institutional church without learning this kind of spiritual discipline—the one thing thing that is essential, as Jesus says, to the transformation of consciousness? Do we have to leave our homes and jobs and enter a monastery in order to sit, as Mary does, at the feet of a master?
That’s always an option, of course, and if you feel called to that path, I won’t talk you out of it. But for most of us, this is not a likely scenario.
So, what can we do? The first thing we must do, if we want to sit at the feet of a spiritual master, is to actually learn how to sit. And by that I do not mean just sitting in a chair, but sitting in meditation. In many spiritual traditions, “sitting” is another word for meditation, for learning to open our mind to the presence and action of God. Every spiritual tradition teaches that our ordinary, everyday mind is too attached to its own thoughts to be open to God. Meditating doesn’t mean that we still the mind or stop the thoughts — that’s impossible. It simply means that when thoughts arise, we don’t chase after them. And with practice, this opens a space for the presence of God to get in and change us. The Mind of Christ, the mind that is open to God, is like a muscle: we are all born with it, but in order to use it, we have to develop and strengthen it. This is why I am committed to teaching the discipline of meditation every week, in some form, at church. These days, we have a meditation circle every Sunday morning at 9 am in the Upper Room, and you are invited to drop in and join us anytime.
Another thing we can all do, even without running off to a monastery, is to take up a practice of spiritual reading. Once our mind is open, we are ready to absorb the teachings–sometimes directly from a teacher, but often these days, though reading that teacher’s words. Spiritual reading is not quite the same kind of reading that happens in school. Often, in school, the goal of reading is to gather information. Spiritual reading is less about information and more about transformation: taking in spiritual insights little by little, drop by drop — sort of like a slow pour-over coffee– so that the teachings can soak deeply into our consciousness. I won’t say that this is a substitute for finding a living spiritual master to learn with. But for most of us, spiritual reading is as close as we can get to sitting at the feet of a spiritual teacher every day, as Mary does in our gospel this morning. And I believe that this kind of reading can take us a long way on the path of transformation.
Out in the narthex, near our spiritual practice library, I’ve left a list of suggested books that you can use to take up a practice of daily spiritual reading. Each of these books is written by a spiritual teacher, and each one offers a small daily dose of reading that you can absorb throughout the day. All the books on the list, and more, can be ordered from your local independent bookstore.
But before you do that, I encourage you to look up their authors online, to learn what you can about these spiritual teachers, and to see which ones resonate with your own soul. Spiritual teachers come in different personalities, and their teachings come in all different flavors. Which is a beautiful thing, because we each learn differently: we need as many different teachers as we can get, for the different students that we are. So I encourage you to keep looking until you find one that speaks to you.
As we begin this beautiful new school year, I invite you to consider apprenticing yourself to a spiritual teacher. Because as far as we know, and as Jesus’ friend Mary knows, this is the way human consciousness is transformed. Person by person, heart by heart, mind by mind. Daily, slowly, we are called to put on the Mind of Christ. Daily, slowly, one by one, as we are transformed, so is the consciousness, the collective mind, of the human race, transformed. From separation to oneness. From fear to love. From greed to the care of all creation. The stakes couldn’t possibly be higher than they are right now. Everything depends now upon the learning we might yet choose. May we choose well.