By Maria Evans
“Ordinary people find something excessive about any life bent wholly on the search for God. It is too challenging, too full of risk to be a comfortable prospect. The person who lives too close to God is dangerous.”–M.R. Ritley, Gifted by Otherness, p. 114.
Many, many years ago, I dated a trombone player for some period of time. To this day the most important thing I took from that relationship was that there is a wonderfully stirring countermelody in “Fight Tigers,” the fight song of my alma mater, the University of Missouri. Listen for the trombones and you can hear it. In fact, one of the things that makes for really good march music (and college fight songs) is the fact that it contains a countermelody–often the trombones but it can be other instruments–that weaves imperceptibly in and out of the piece, only peeking its head out at the tail of certain lines of the song.
If my then-sweetie only played the trombone part of “Fight Tigers” solo, it took on a life all its own, but it wasn’t “Fight Tigers”–and once I was trained to hear the counter-melody, to this day, it is what I hear and what my body sways to when I sing “Fight Tigers,” even when I hear the melody. On the surface I’m out there with the melody and all of the Fight-Tigers-singing-world, but the inner core of my body is weaving and dancing with the counter-melody.
This month, in Episcopal Café’s Magazine, you are going to read about many spiritual practices, and how they have (or haven’t) changed individual lives. I’ve tried on quite a few spiritual practices myself. Some I put back on the rack for someone else to buy, some I wear like the favorite old canvas farm coat I’ve had for 25 years, and others I wear for a season and put them back in the closet for later. As it turns out, though, the most important thing I’ve learned by taking on spiritual practices, is that living as a Christian is all about hearing and being swayed by the counter-melody, and that the counter-melody itself is of limited value without the rest of the fight song.
Whatever spiritual practice you try, once we get out of the beginner phase of it, over time, if it works for us, something is going to change. Even if you live and work and sing the melody of the song of our shared lives, someone is going to notice that you are moving to a different tune. They may even diss it or find you a little odd, just like how trumpet players find trombonists a little odd, or clarinet players find saxophone players a little too “out there.” We will begin to take on a quality of otherness from the spiritual practice, and at times people will try to point that otherness out. Yet it’s this exact otherness that begins to attune us to the marginalized others in the world.
Because of this otherness, spiritual practices both satisfy a yearning to connect with the music of our life, while at the same time, fuel a yearning to be in a group who shares and rehearses this sense of otherness. We can say “I’m spiritual” as a result of a practice, but until we connect with others in a meaningful way, we don’t hear how our part fits into an even bigger spiritual picture. This, I believe, is where the church comes in as rehearsal hall–along with all of the church’s messiness, brokenness, and the occasional ability to get the tune right.
So here’s a suggestion: Between now and Ash Wednesday, take all of what people have to offer in terms of what they share about spiritual practices. Try a few on, and pick a new one to stick with for Lent–but don’t forget to listen for the counter-melody (shoot, move along with it if the mood hits you), and don’t be afraid to let someone else school you in hearing it. Blessings on the journey!
Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, is a grateful member of Trinity Episcopal Church and a postulant to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. You can also share her journey on her blog, Chapologist.
image: the Musicians by Vicente Manansala