Spiritual Communities and Spiritual Teachers

Your assignment for the new year is to get yourself a spiritual community and join it. Then get yourself a spiritual teacher. By that I don’t mean the priest, pastor, rabbi, or whatever the spiritual leader of the spiritual community you have joined is called. I mean someone who can provide for you spiritual guidance, or spiritual companionship, or spiritual direction, or spiritual teaching. Any of those titles, and a host of other similar titles, will be just fine. If you just aren’t ready for the spiritual teach, you can wait for that for three months while you are getting yourself a community. Why? You need a spiritual community because you are going to die. In fact, you could die before you finish reading this article, in which case it will be too late.

May people suffer from the notion that because they attended someones parish for six months in the late 1990s the priest there is obligated to take care of their sacramental needs when they die in 2015. Nothing could be farther from the truth. If all clergy were responsible for the pastoral care of everyone who ever walked into their church, we would all have burnt out long ago. The attitude that we are responsible for your sorry self perpetually is caused by some mistaken notions.

The first is that the public at large believes that clergy are called by God to be at the complete and total disposal of the public at large. Untrue. We are called by God to serve God, and being effective at serving God means being a good steward of all your resources, including our spiritual health. As a part of that calling, those of us called to serve in parish ministry are called to serve that particular parish. In serving the parish we serve its members – and membership is not defined as anyone who ever passed through the door. I have received calls from people who I haven’t heard from in literally four or five years because someone has died and they don’t have anyone to serve the funeral. There may be times I can help, but there will also be times that I cannot – and probably more of the latter than the former.

The second mistaken notion is that the role of a person in developing their spirituality is completely passive. Like a car pulling into a gas station, they expect that they can show up on Sunday, get gassed up, and leave again. Naturally, when people with this attitude die they imagine they can just pull into that gas station they stopped at five years ago and get “funeralled” up. The problem is that the pastor of any community is first and foremost responsible to its members, and tending to any parish takes quite a bit of time.

The third mistaken notion is that spirituality is something that can be achieved in a vacuum. “I don’t need to belong to a church to be a Christian.” True! But you do need to belong to some sort of spiritual community to achieve spiritual growth because our spiritualities are of necessity played out in a community – because humans are social animals! When you drop dead you are going to want your loved ones comforted, and to do that most effectively you need to have established relationships within the context of a spiritual community. If it’s not a church it can be a prayer group, a monastery, a group following a particular spiritual teacher – but it needs to be a relatively current relationship.

Why worry about all this? If we are honest with ourselves, we worry about every other facet of preparing for death. We write wills, we establish trust funds, we invest so that we leave something for our children, and a host of other tasks in preparation for death. The only reason we ignore our pastoral needs is because in this culture we are in absolute denial about our own death.

Throughout the coming year we will be doing everything we can to come to reality about our own mortality – both here and in the Christ Enlight program.

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