From the Gettysburg PO
by Michael Cooper-White, President
As a boy accustomed to a heavy dosage of farm labor, some of my favorite times took place on those rare days when my dad or uncle would take me fishing. Ah, there’s nothing like sitting in a boat in the middle of the lake and feeling the sudden tug at the end of the line! After being away from fishing for about four decades, I plan to take it up again next summer, especially since I now have a brand new fishing rod thanks to my wife’s generosity on my last birthday.
Though undoubtedly there’s a bit of skill involved, for the most part good fishing is simply a matter of patience and intent. If I stay at it long enough, and place a well-baited hook in a spot reasonably hospitable to fish traffic in a lake or stream, sooner or later something might bite. If my efforts fail, more than likely there is minimal fault or failure on my part; probably, the fish simply weren’t hungry that day, or were finding their food in other quarters. To be sure, timing is a factor as fish are more prone to feed certain times of day, and in some types of weather one’s chances of a catch are also better than average.
Just because Jesus called several fisher-folk among his first disciples does not mean there’s an intrinsic connection between fishing and spirituality. But a recent workshop here at the Seminary, convened by initiative of some of our students in partnership with our new Coordinator for Spiritual Formation, Pr. Ginny Price, reminded me of the parallels. Led by Dr. Greg Finch of the Community of Reconciliation at the Washington National Cathedral, the half-day workshop was entitled “Our Rhythms of Intention.” Dr. Finch’s approach followed themes drawn from The Rule of Benedict, which seems to have experienced widespread resurgence in recent decades. The “spiritual” is found in the “ordinary” as we pay more attention. If we but listen carefully, God speaks in the “still small voice” amidst the din of our daily lives. Benedict knew this. His “rules” are simply suggestions about the kinds of actions and activities that are likely to locate us in spaces and places where God’s spirit might hook us.
In the Benedictine way, there is a rhythm in which solitude alternates with life in community. Too much time with others may leave little time for God; too much time alone may offer the delusion that my thoughts and perceptions are God’s. We need time alone in prayer and Scripture reading. We need time together for mutual affirmation and encouragement, and sometimes for a bit of admonition and collegial correction.
Some folks get disillusioned and disappointed if they fish and expect a big tug on the line every time the hook goes in the water. Some days there are only nibbles. Some days the line remains utterly still. If “success” is measured in some volume of “hits” or spiritual cargo carried home, the very quest for a catch will soon take on a driven nature and be counterproductive. But if one simply lives within the “Rhythms of Intention,” sooner or later there likely will be some stirrings beneath the surface. And you will know that God is active in the world and concerned about your life. You will also recognize that it’s not a matter of our “hooking God,” but allowing ourselves to be more solidly netted by the Divine.
The very topic of “spirituality” was somewhat taboo during a long season in the Church, most especially in theological seminaries. Many Lutheran theologians have shied away from the whole notion of pursuing a more spiritual way of life, afraid that a spiritual seeker will give way to some version of works-righteousness, trying to earn God’s favor and salvation. A pioneer in “spirit talk” during my student years here on the hill was Dr. Bengt Hoffman, a native of Sweden who taught theology and ethics for decades in this country. While looked askance at by some in its early post-publication years, his book on “Luther and the Mystics” has found an enduring presence in the theological corpus. Our current faculty has built on foundations laid by Bengt and others over the years. The collective effort that led to publication of “Spirituality: Towards a 21st Century Lutheran Understanding” nearly a decade ago gives testimony to this school’s commitment to encourage and nurture a life of the Spirit.
An additional resource I’ve come to appreciate greatly is by another Lutheran theologian, Dr. Bradley Hanson. In “A Graceful Life: Lutheran Spirituality for Today,” Hanson suggests that authentic spirituality “equals a lived faith plus a path. By ‘path’ I mean a holistic way in which a particular faith is nurtured and expressed.” To some degree, each of us must chart her/his own pathway, discovering those disciplines conducive to fishing for revelation and inspiration. But in large measure, the spiritual journey is communal. Jesus promised to be present “where two or three are gathered in my name.” In the conviction that this intentional rhythm of private devotion and corporate worship constitutes the contours of a spiritual journey, we try to offer a good measure of both in Seminary courses, opportunities for lectio divino, chapel worship, student-led Compline services, and all the other ways in which any faithful Christian community seeks to nurture its members.
As always, I’m eager for “fellow traveler feedback,” and would be pleased to hear your thoughts about “Our Rhythms of Intention” and the spiritual journey.