My friend Andy is writing a seemingly never-ending series of blog posts on rest. Especially in Part 11 (yes, 11 parts and going strong!) he talks about how our busyness often blinds us to the needs of others. The tyranny of the urgent hurries us along the path of life, but our peripheral vision suffers as a result: all we can see is what’s up in front of us, what we have to do next, the upcoming obstacle to hurdle.
It’s interesting how Christian spirituality has attempted to adapt to this. There are all kinds of devotional books written for busy people. Eventually they all kind of sound the same: How To Have A Deep And Meaningful Relationship With God With Only Five Minutes A Day! Devotions For People Who Don’t Have Time For Devotions! How To Look Busy And Spiritual At The Same Time! I fully understand this phenomenon, and I get caught in it quite a bit myself. But three minutes of prayer sandwiched between other pressing matters will only get us so far.
Don’t misunderstand me. Three minutes of prayer has benefit, and I firmly believe we ought to pray as we can, not as we can’t. But there is a principle of spiritual growth that we lose when the only activities we engage in are for a few minutes here and a few minutes there. Sometimes instead of doing devotions for busy people, we ought to stop being such busy people. The principle of spiritual growth we lose when we live in constant busyness is the principle of intensity.
Any spiritual activity we do (prayer, worship, fasting, service, solitude, silence, etc) is greatly enhanced when intensity is added. The intensity I’m talking about is not the intensity of human striving. I’m not talking about shouting when we pray, or "contending" with God, or working really hard to make worship "happen". I’m talking about the intensity of time. Silence and solitude, for example, take a lot of time to do their work. I know I run the risk of making this all sound like "one more thing to do", but this is how we grow spiritually. This is why retreats and conferences and the like are places where transformation happens more often than in the course of normal days. A retreat is a mini-monastic experience, a prolonged, "intense" time of community, simplicity, study, meditation and reflection. It’s the intensity that allows God to bring spiritual growth.
The neglect of intensity in spirituality is especially tempting for "full-time professional ministers". The pressure of a
deadline every week causes us to neglect intensity in spiritual
practices. We can spend an hour in prayer, perhaps, but not three days
in silence and solitude. There’s just too much to do, and Sunday’s coming.
Because it is so easy for us to join our culture in the stampede down Hurry Hill (there’s a children’s book waiting to be written), intensity is the most-often missing ingredient in much of our spirituality.
I’m not advocating that we all turn into hermits who grow beards and never bathe and levitate when we pray or something. But we do need to schedule intensity into our spiritual practices, because some things just don’t happen without it. It’s not a reason to cease non-intense spiritual practices. Praying for five minutes benefits us more than picking our nose for five minutes. But something deeper that happens when we are able to add the ingredient of intensity to our spirituality. In a frantic culture, silence and solitude are often the most important disciplines to engage in. Silence and solitude should be a time when there is nothing to do. Very often not even reading. As long as you go into it with a "to-do" list, you haven’t yet entered into it. It will take loving and sensitive arrangements with family, of course, but you’ll come back a different person, and that’s one of the most loving things you can do for your family, anyway.
We can’t engage in silence and solitude all the time, certainly. We have jobs, families, responsibilties. These are all good things. There is a time to work hard and not apologize about it, and in the course of our work there will be busy seasons, certainly. But there also is a time to rest, a time to retreat from normal activities and focus on certain spiritual practices in intensity. We don’t grow very far in God without them.