I find that it takes effort to keep even the good practices of my life from skidding off the road on one side or the other. Most self-examining people take time for reflection or meditation on a regular basis. It is a healthy practice, regardless of one’s faith — or lack thereof.
Meditation time is important and those I know who practice it bear the fruit of that practice in their lives. I also know that just like my prayer life, my devotional life ebbs and flows. I like to think it continues to trend in a positive direction, but it doesn’t always feel that way.
As with anything in life, even those things to which we devote ourselves completely, there must remain some balance. Sometimes the balance concerns expectations and sometimes it concerns the use of our resources. Today I have been thinking about keeping expectations in perspective. The two extremes are those days when that time is empty, and I can’t focus. Then there are other days when I emerge pretty sure that I have discovered the key to life, and everyone needs to understand my insight — right now. These are rarely fully experienced, but there are days when I feel more toward one end of the spectrum than in the middle.
I want to share two texts that can help us keep such balance in our lives. The first, from Ecclesiastes is a little more indirect. The second are instructions concerning devotion from a fourteenth century English mystic which I have paraphrased from the archaic language.
The Preacher in Ecclesiastes 7:15-18 encourages us to keep balance in life. I have puzzled over this text for years and for today have settled on it being a call for humility in all parts of our life. And I think the last sentence is helpful with what to take with us to our devotional time — “all of reality.” This is from The Message.
“I’ve seen it all in my brief and pointless life — here a good person cut down in the middle of doing good, there a bad person living a long life of sheer evil. So don’t knock yourself out being good, and don’t go overboard being wise. Believe me, you won’t get anything out of it. But don’t press your luck by being bad, either. And don’t be reckless. Why die needlessly? It’s best to stay in touch with both sides of an issue. A person who fears God deals responsibly with all of reality, not just a piece of it.”
Walter Hilton an English mystic who died in 1396, but whose writings were not published until the early sixteenth century, wrote an encouragement to a busy and wealthy person, Treatise to a Devout Man. Paraphrasing, he says, “Pay attention to certain things when you meditate. Here are some examples. When you have a spiritual thought or insight . . . and it gives you comfort and then passes, do not try to hold on to it. Otherwise you will spend your time trying to get that feeling back and it will lead to frustration and bitterness. Or if it doesn’t pass and you dwell on it continually it may keep you from seeing God working in other ways and from doing other good deeds.”
Even though he is considered a mystic, he was sympathetic and practical when it came to living a spiritual life in the world. He understood that devotional life was not always easy or natural for us. He didn’t want us getting discouraged if we struggled. Again, loosely paraphrasing, “If you have spent some time considering Christ or another good matter and have sought with all your heart to have more spiritual knowledge or feeling of his presence and it doesn’t come to you, don’t worry. Read a scripture or recite a prayer. Don’t be discouraged, it is enough today to have a longing and desire for God — let that suffice.”
We live in a competitive and intense society. This is not a good or bad thing, it just is. Because of this our expectations of religion can be affected. Whatever we do we want to be part of something that is new, growing, exciting, and the best. There is no doubt that such an environment has the potential to cause us to think that time spent in devotion to God is not time well spent. And because we expect dividends and production from our time, we might seek the same in our quiet times.
Experience teaches me that good does come from such times, but not always in the time or in the ways that we expect. We do some things because we know they are good for us, not because they produce. They are more important than that. Some things keep us balanced and healthy so that we can contribute to the lives of those around us.