As the New Year begins, many individuals make promises to themselves to eliminate certain bad habits and/or introduce better ones. Though such resolutions are notoriously unsuccessful in producing positive results, some people are sufficiently motivated and determined to make the desired changes. If you are one of those individuals, I wish you well.
Unfortunately, it’s not common for religious institutions to make New Year’s resolutions. If they were to decide to do so this year, I suggest that their resolution should be: “Let God take the initiative among you.” I make that recommendation because it is so universally needed and so frequently missing. Many religious leaders will probably be offended by that statement, but I urge them to think carefully about it. For many religious institutions, the most recent awareness of any Divine intervention was centuries ago. Despite protestations of dedicated fidelity, the fact is that most religious institutions are so focused on traditions, rituals, programs, buildings and budgets that very little attention is given to considering whether God might have any other concerns or priorities. As a result, most religious organizations see themselves as responsible for the life and activity of their group, without any need for Divine intervention. Functionally, they differ little from any other secular organization, with all the associated problems, conflicts and survival issues. Rather than talking much about their latest experience of undeserved and unsolicited Divine initiative and the resulting personal transformation, religious conversations tend to be limited to vague references to formulaic doctrines and beliefs. Attend the next meeting of a religious community’s governing board and see how little time is spent listening for God’s guidance and how much time is spent talking about what the people present want to do.
My point is that many religious communities don’t seem to expect God to initiate anything in their lives. The focus is on human activity, not on Divine activity. Many seem to assume that what they want is what God wants. There seems to be little awareness that spiritual initiative is either possible or necessary.
Many contemporary writers (Frances Vaughan, Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault, Brian McLean, and Jim Marion, to mention only a few) have bemoaned the lack of a “mystical consciousness” in the life of religious institutions today. Even casual observers notice the absence of a “spiritual atmosphere” or a sense of “spiritual energy” in these organization’s life. I don’t believe that this is a result of God’s withdrawal from these groups, or from the malicious intentions of those involved. Instead, I think these groups have forgotten (or never learned) how to discern the presence and activity of God in ordinary life. If that’s the case, then that is something that can and must be relearned.
Christian scriptures remind us that, when Jesus walked the earth, he came proclaiming that God was already present and doing revolutionary things, even in the midst of the most unlikely conditions. His life and ministry repeatedly demonstrated the amazing changes that God was making possible in their lives and relationships. These changes weren’t personal accomplishments, but Divine initiatives and interventions. They were gifts to be recognized and accepted, rather than products to be produced.
That sense of Divine initiative (whether understood in a Christian context or in some other religious framework) is the same thing that we need to become attentive and responsive to today. I’m convinced that Spiritual Directors can help that to happen, both in individual lives and in religious institutions. If you think I can help you or your group to sense God’s activity in a new way, please let me know.