“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Romans 8:26
To most observers it would probably be concluded that people are more interested in an inner faith these days rather than things external. By that I mean people in organized religions are moving toward more interest in their inward thoughts and feelings than they are to outward externals. We see it in the popularity of such arts as yoga and meditation and with growing times of silence in Presbyterianism.
The lack of such inward emphasis has caused many to leave the church with its outward, serving, doing emphasis on social action. Yet we have seen born in the church such things as labyrinths, planned times of meditation and even Tai Chi. In 1985, San Francisco Seminary, which is a Presbyterian Seminary, actually gave me a grant to travel to India and study silence and meditation.
Another great motivator for pushing us to look more inward was the discovery in 1945 of the Nag Hammadi documents near the present day city of Cairo, Egypt. These were documents probably hidden in the fourth or fifth century when the organized church was burning such letters and requiring adherence to creeds or doctrines in order to experience salvation and healing. Discovery of these documents has helped church scholars appreciate much deeper an esoteric form of early church belief and practice.
The formation of the Theosophical Society in 1875 was another step in moving toward this inner spirituality. The society was based upon a book written by Helen P. Blavasky, which has as its title The Inner Secret. This was the group which I joined last spring and traveled to Chicago last week in order to be a part of their annual meeting including a meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The purpose of the Theosophical Society has been to study the workings of the spirit and transcendent world in ways we can connect without being divorced from the credible science. It was a fascinating time for me, being with people of all religions, a society with other Presbyterians as myself, with a common goal of experiencing the divine spirit within.
Many writers now see the apostle Paul as one who taught and lived an “inner Christianity.” We can see such in many of his writings in what we call the New Testament, or in the early church writings. From one of our lessons, the letter to the Romans, chapter 8 verse 26, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weaknesses; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
The Spirit helping us in our weaknesses, and interceding for us with sighs too deep for words! This is not something done in usual church crowds or services, but alone or with few others. It is the practice of “Being still and knowing God” as the famous phrase in the Psalm 46 goes. It is a process of realizing that divinity is within us, or what is commonly called the Kingdom of God. Being still and silent is a method which one learns to cultivate to listen to and hear this inward spirit. For this Spirit speaks to us often without words, but in nudges, feelings, and intuitions from our deepest spirits.
Have you ever been so engrossed or drawn into an activity that you feel one with it, you want no one to speak to you or distract you with smaller, simple talk? Like watching a movie you absolutely love and someone begins to speak! You are so distracted you might want to scream! That’s why movie theaters ask people not to speak during movies. Or reading a book and you don’t want to be disturbed. Or how about making love? Do you want to feel one with another you love and talk on the phone or have your partner talk about a golf trip or grocery list? I don’t think so.
This is what Paul was writing about in these verses. In such ecstasy as he experienced, one becomes more aware of the transcendent Self that it is beyond words as it groans, and ah’s and “oh yeses!”
I first found myself interested in this and more conscious of it in the late 80’s when I got called into the Presbytery Executive’s office one day, one of those times I’ve been called in in my career. She was curious of my experiences in meditation and in my trip to India! I tried to explain a little bit and said how I was trying to cultivate meditation and silence. She stopped me saying, “That will never work in Presbyterian circles or churches you know, because the longest time Presbyterians can remain silent is about six or 7 seconds!” But I do think things have changed since those years in people, whether in the church or outside of the church, with the practice of as yoga, meditation, labyrinth walks, and prayer walks along with journaling.
The art of learning to be still and to listen for the divine center is like cultivating a new consciousness. It’s similar to something you never knew you had before but now you know you do. It’s like never having a bicycle before in your life, and suddenly your parents give you one and you find yourself thinking about it constantly. Or it’s like people along the Atlantic Ocean who now are very conscious of the possibility of sharks lurking in near shore shallow waters! Or discovering a friend as a close, intimate girl or boy friend; you just can’t get them out of your mind. What’s more exciting, peaceful and rewarding than to remembering in your consciousness that God’s Spirit is in you and wants to bless you, and guide your life in peace!
So what is a result of this new consciousness, this new awareness of Spirit within interceding for us? It is a peace which becomes the proof of our identity with His presence. If God is all love and indestructible, then we share those same characteristics in our inner spirit or our true higher selves. We become conscious that when we defend ourselves or attack another we have forgotten this Presence. In my favorite book, A Course in Miracles, such defensiveness and attacking others is called “the crucifying of the Child or the Son of God!” We are “killing our awareness of the God Self within.
This consciousness and living in identity with it is the purpose of our living or being in any religious group. We become a place of refuge for forgiveness and peace for all. We learn together to listen to that Spirit, and understand how all things work together for those who love God, for those who are called according to this purpose. (Romans 8: 28). What an amazing goal in life we could have; that somehow we could see how everything that happens to us it is for the growth and goodness of the eternal Essence, our True Self, our Christ Self, or our being the very Son Of God. But so it is.
I discovered much of the Theosophical Society had its roots in Eastern Buddhism. Although there are many different religions within the society, it is oriented toward a kind of Buddhist listening to the presence of God within. Along with that, one will hear conversations frequently about reincarnation, being aware of our chakras and auras. During one of our times listening to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he said it really doesn’t make any difference about how many times you think you’ve been incarnated or will be reincarnated, but the most important thing is how you live your life in peace and gentleness with others. One of the members of the society gave a talk one day warning us about getting involved in Theosophical gossip rather than attending to the important art of treating one another with respect and kindness and forgiveness.
And thus the question for ourselves today in this congregation; what is our or your purpose in existing? Is it not the cultivation of peace in our identity with God who is eternal love? It is so easy to get away from these hidden, inward, and unseen characteristics and focus on the externals; the outward body and the formal structure of organizations. I see the church’s purpose as attention toward everything being done in line with the inner presence of God’s Spirit. And then everything will be seen as working together for good whether or not the church structure remains as it is or resolves into another form.
Back in the early 90’s when we saw the movie “City Slickers.” Some of you may remember seeing the movie starring Billy Crystal as Mitch and Jack Palance as Curly. Billy Crystal was the city slicker who left New York City to go out West and become involved in a cattle drive, to find “himself again” riding horses and driving cattle across the country. He was so inexperienced in the outdoors along with animals such as horses and cattle, but he greatly admired Curly the drive and herd leader. One night, they were sitting out under the moon and stars when Mitch confided in Curly that he was not a very happy man but constantly anxious to find such in life. He said he loved and admired the way Curly seemed so confident, sure of himself and so happy. Curly turned to him and pointing with one finger said, “One thing!” Mitch asked, what do you mean by one thing? Curly answered, “You find that one thing and you’ll know what I’m talking about.”
The one thing we can learn as a group of people calling ourselves believers in God, is the experience of God within. Everywhere we go and in everything we do this is the one thing, the “seeking first the kingdom of God with all these other things being given to you!” It is our deepest love, beyond words and pictures yet the deepest essence and experience we can find.
And so it is; the Spirit wants to help us in our weakness. The Spirit loves us, wants us, IS us. Are we willing to take the time to listen in silence and connect?
Talk given by Rev. David Persons at the first Presbyterian Church of West Seneca, New York, on July 24, 2011.