Sunday, August 21, 2011

Married spirituality

Recovering from wedding fever
Months before my son’s wedding, people began asking me if I had my dress. I didn’t. I began to worry about my dress. I woke up at night, worrying about this dress that I didn’t have. I was succumbing to wedding fever, a condition of temporary craziness that grips women involved with wedding planning.

A good self-talking to (“Relax, it’s only a dress”) and a plan of action (“Go shopping”) put things back into perspective. When I finally went shopping for the dress two months before the event (which seemed like plenty of time to me), I discovered these sorts of special occasion dresses are typically ordered a minimum of three months in advance. ("Has everyone gone mad?" I wondered. "All these dresses, and I can't buy one off the rack?")

The wedding industry: form over substance
Weddings have become an industry, an economic driver of small proportions. Put the word “wedding” in front of something, and the price escalates. According to the website for Weddingbells magazine, there will be 156, 920 weddings this year in Canada at an average cost of $23,330. That’s an astounding 3,660,943,600!

Weddings are not only costly; the planning is time consuming, and for some, becomes a feverish obsession. Most of the planning focuses on the external elements that make the party special.

The wedding industry promotes form over substance. The goal for the wedding day is to transform everything. Decorations transform ordinary venues into magical places of beauty. Bridal gowns transform brides into princesses. Tuxedos, dresses and up-dos transform members of the bridal party into red carpet celebrities.

The ceremony, which should be the main event, plays second fiddle to the buzz of the party. This is obvious in the Weddingbells budget estimate. The estimate accounts for items such as the bridal gown, flowers, venue, cake, photography, videography, wedding bands, transportation, wedding favors, and DJ’s. Tellingly, there is no mention of a minister (religious or civil), church, or organist.

Towards a spirituality of marriage
All this leads me to wonder, are we, as a society losing sight of what weddings celebrate? 

To balance the obsessive craziness of wedding planning, couples and their families need to rediscover a spirituality of marriage. This is particularly important when 25% of first marriages end in divorce within 10 years.

A spirituality of marriage, whether in the religious or civil sphere, begins with pondering the meaning of the marriage vows, which are remarkably similar in both types of ceremonies. Through their vows, the couple freely gift themselves to each other. They promise to honor one another, care for one another in sickness and in health, and to forsake all others for the duration of their lives.

Married spirituality, and this may seem odd, looks like the Paschal mystery of Jesus, which is the experience of transformation through suffering, death and resurrection.

Dying to self to create a communion of persons
Marriage is the willingness to give your life for the one you love. Most of us will never have to physically die for our spouse. To create a life-giving marriage, both spouses have to die to the human tendency to focus on the self.

Marriage involves subduing the ego, liberating the self from the desire to be right, to control, to be dominant and to dominate. A spirituality of marriage places a premium on serving, rather than on being served.

Marriage welcomes the process of transformation. The self-centered “I” becomes the unified “we.” Two separate individuals become a communion of persons. Because life is full of daily annoyances that have the potential to create friction in a relationship, the process of transformation is ongoing throughout the life of a marriage.

The transforming experience of marriage takes effort. It’s not unlike planning for the party. A venue for a wedding is transformed for a day, and decorating it requires creative vision. The effect can be magical.

Creating a communion of persons, a “we” from two separate “I’s”, is magical, but it is not magic. It is a challenge for both spouses to accept. Both must embrace a spirituality of transformation from moment to moment, every day, year after year after year. Then, regardless of life’s ups and downs, the spouses share the joy of loving and being loved.

The love nurtured in marriage reaches out to family, friends, and the community. It calls the spouses outward to transform their world into a more loving and just society.

Wedding parties are fun, but the ceremony is the moment of significance. With the exchange of vows, two people commit themselves to becoming one in body, mind and spirit. The spiritual aspect of this union will be critical to the success of the body-mind relationship.

Saturday, August 6, 2011


Finding rest in stillness

I chuckled as I ran by the local elementary school on a hot sunny day in late June. I don’t typically laugh when I’m running; I’m usually too busy gasping for air to even think about laughing. But this particular day, my heart laughed as I jogged by. 

It was sports day. Various stations were set up in readiness for the day’s events. The stations looked fun and I felt a childlike desire for play.

A few years ago, educators in the United Kingdom undertook an experiential study on play. A number of concerns prompted the study: high stress levels and depression in young children, poor academic performance, poor behavior, and inadequate social skills.
The educators made some remarkable discoveries when they equipped the playground with simple, everyday objects suitable for imaginative play. Student creativity increased. Playground fights decreased. Academic performance improved. Self-esteem rose; students took more risks academically and socially. Children were happier and less stressed when they had time for unstructured play.

That morning as I ran, I considered that as adults we either do not play enough, or our play fails to provide any measurable benefits. 

There are obvious reasons why adults ignore the importance of play. Family commitments, work, chores, and deadlines take priority over recreational activities. The expectations we impose on our self, or those that others impose on us, dominate our time.

When we do engage in leisure activities, we may not feel rested or refreshed. That round of golf was frustrating, the motor on the boat malfunctioned, or the kids were fighting. Despite all the money and time we spend on recreation, we often remain dissatisfied. 

Something, it seems, is lacking in our attitude towards leisure.

Sabbatical living
We can liken leisure to the biblical concept of the Sabbath. The Biblical explanation for the Sabbath goes back to the creation myth of Genesis. God created the earth in six days, and rested on the seventh. If rest was good for God, it was also good for people.

Initially, the Sabbath was a day of rest for everyone, including beasts of burden. Over time, a concept of sabbatical living evolved. The concept encompassed rest and relaxation, celebration with others, and sharing in God’s divine life. Periods of worship gave the individual and the community opportunities to pause, reflect, and connect with God. Attitudes of joy and thankfulness permeate sabbatical living.

The concept of sabbatical living reaches its fullness in the example and teaching of Jesus. When the Pharisees accused Jesus of breaking Sabbath laws, Jesus replied, “The Sabbath was made for humankind” (Mark 2.27). Work and rest both have a purpose and fulfill a need in human life.

The Gospels record instances of Jesus working hard, going off for a meal and a glass of wine with his buddies, and withdrawing to a remote place to pray. Jesus balanced work, recreation, and leisure as a spiritual discipline. As a spiritual discipline, leisure was a form of personal re-creation that energized Jesus to return to his ministry with vigor and passion.

Leisure nourishes spirituality

Leisure can be for us a practice that nourishes spirituality, but it demands a shift in our attitude towards time. In a culture that often judges a person’s worth by the activity of their smart phone, leisure teaches that constant availability and activity is detrimental. In a society that makes a competition of busyness, leisure says to slow down.

In today’s social environment, we may feel compelled to buy into the busyness, even with our leisure time. Our vacations sometimes become such a swirl of activity that we return   home needing a rest.

Leisure encourages us to seek rest for our souls, to listen to the sounds outside of our self, and to see the world beyond our self.

Leisure asks that we stop running so that we might breath in deeply of the stillness that makes us receptive to God. In stillness, we encounter the presence of God in our self, in others, in our activities, and in the world around us. In stillness, we temporarily transcend our concerns. We re-emerge with new vision and energy.

If we approached leisure as a spiritual discipline that nourished stillness, I suspect that we would experience benefits similar to those that the children in the study experienced from play. If we could learn to rest our weary self in God, we would become more creative, productive, self-possessed, selfless, joyful and holy.