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What happens when you try spiritual life

by
03 January 2012

Caroline Chartres reads God Hunting: A diary of spiritual discovery by Jo Swinney

JO SWINNEY (above), mother of an ener­getic toddler and expecting a second child, writer and speaker, and wife of a youth pastor and Anglican ordin­and, identifies busyness as a contem­porary disease, and the excuse for “the poverty of our Christian lives”.

She sets out to remedy the lack of spiritual depth in her own life by focusing on one spiritual discipline each month for six months, and writing about her experience (“Is it possible to do this without with­draw­ing to a mountain cave with a Bible, a blanket and a can of baked beans?” she asks).

The resulting journal is revealing, not only for its account of the author’s spiritual journey, but also for the mirror that it holds up to our own. The first discipline that she tackles is prayer, identifying as one of the barriers to her own prayer-life a belief that she had “picked up from somewhere” that God isn’t really interested in the trivial events of daily life.

Once she decides that she can talk to God about anything, and stops worrying about the “acceptability” of her prayers, she prays much more often and more easily.

Her exploration of other strands of prayer includes intercession, which brings me face to face with one of my own prayer problems. My daily intercessions seem to operate along the lines of the children’s memory game: “I packed my bag, and in it I put . . .”; the problem is that I keep stuffing more and more into an already full bag, without attempting to sift through what is there already.

This may be a good exercise for a failing memory, but is hardly conducive to effective or dynamic prayer. And I feel guilty about stopping praying for, say, the victims of a natural disaster whose suffering continues long after the flood/ famine/earthquake has fallen from the headlines — as if my failing to draw them to God’s attention might mean that he somehow manages to overlook them also.

Praying for someone is sometimes the one practical thing that we can actually do for them, but at what point does prayer (or telling some­one that we are praying for them) become a substitute for doing any­thing else? Reading this account of someone else’s explora­tions in prayer helps us to recognise how the self can come between us and God — not only in prayer, but also in our reading of the Bible.

The author is on terra firma here: she is passionate and well-informed, but admits to “years of battling missed-Quiet Time guilt”. She is honest about her continuing struggle with depression, which “always affects the way I read the Bible. . . I hear all the judgements and miss the mercy and grace.”

Tackling fasting midway through her pregnancy, she shuns food-fasting in favour of going without other things that feature promin­ently in her daily life — her plan being to “make myself vulnerable by removing the props I usually rely on”.

She chooses to cut out fiction, hot drinks, media (“I use media to self-medicate . . . it soothes my dis­comfort and distracts me”), and sugar. “Media” here includes radio, television, newspapers and mag­azines, and, crucially, the internet, which Swinney recognises as a big time-thief. In contrast, a “phone fast”, for her, would not be a deprivation, but an enormous pleas­ure.

On worship, Swinney starts from the helpful recognition that we signpost the real objects of our worship by the amount of time and attention we give them. She acknow­ledges that “I can get things the wrong way round, and start seeing God as a character in the epic drama that is my life.” To worship God is, consciously, to restore the balance: “In worship, I decrease and he increases.”

Without solitude, Henri Nouwen said, “it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life.” Swinney challenges this (can spiritual solitude be a state of mind as well as a physical reality? Could the search for solitude some­times be “the spiritualisation of es­capism”?). At the same time, she acknowledges the temptation to arrange her busy life with small children in order to avoid being alone, and surprising herself with what follows (“I have shocked myself by finding a day alone with God to be a wonderful thing”).

Appropriately, Swinney’s final challenge is simplicity. She tries to simplify her physical surroundings, her use of time, her “inner monologue”, and her relationships, recognising that decluttering can become a monumental task because of our capacity to imbue objects with “the significance of the stories that brought them into my life”. I loved her observation that “we can end up being full-time curator in a personal museum of useless stuff: do we really want that job?”

Simply stopping for long enough to take stock helps us to realise how many of our assumptions are coloured by the baggage that we are carrying, and how far our spiritual experiences are affected by our state of mind, “like someone arriving late at a job interview, scruffy, under-pre­pared and yet still hoping for a favourable reception”.

Swinney confounds her own expectations, but she is also honest about her instinct for self-sabotage and the comfort of slipping back into busy, excuse-filled ways: “A lot of spiritual practices can co-exist very comfortably with what I have planned in each day. I just need to do them.” Amen to that.

God Hunting: A diary of spiritual discovery by Jo Swinney is published by Scripture Union at £6.99 (CT Bookshop £6.30); 978-1-84427-533-5.

God Hunting— Some questions 

God Hunting— Some questions 

Have you changed anything in your spiritual life as a result of reading this book? If so, what were the effects of this?

Have you changed anything in your spiritual life as a result of reading this book? If so, what were the effects of this?

“Who we are and what we do are not the same thing, but the distinction gets lost when we don’t invest in our spiritual lives” (page 9). How far do you agree with this?

“Who we are and what we do are not the same thing, but the distinction gets lost when we don’t invest in our spiritual lives” (page 9). How far do you agree with this?

The author lists some reasons why she finds prayer difficult (pages 16-17). Do you recognise these struggles in your own life? Are there other things that make praying hard for you?

The author lists some reasons why she finds prayer difficult (pages 16-17). Do you recognise these struggles in your own life? Are there other things that make praying hard for you?

Have you tried any of the ways of praying which the author writes about in chapter one? If so, what was your experience of them?

Have you tried any of the ways of praying which the author writes about in chapter one? If so, what was your experience of them?

Have you ever fasted from food as an aid to prayer? What do you think about fasting from other types of behaviour as an alternative?

Have you ever fasted from food as an aid to prayer? What do you think about fasting from other types of behaviour as an alternative?

How can we ensure that giving something up is not only self-discipline, but also directed towards God?

How can we ensure that giving something up is not only self-discipline, but also directed towards God?

The author expresses her appreciation of creation as an aid to worship. What leads you towards God?

The author expresses her appreciation of creation as an aid to worship. What leads you towards God?

How would you answer the author’s questions about solitude? (See pages 91-92.)

How would you answer the author’s questions about solitude? (See pages 91-92.)

Is solitude a necessity for your spiritual life, or something you try to avoid? What did the author gain from moving beyond her natural inclination to spend time with others?

Is solitude a necessity for your spiritual life, or something you try to avoid? What did the author gain from moving beyond her natural inclination to spend time with others?

Could you simplify your life in order to deepen your relationship with God? Where do your priorities lie in the use of time and space?

Could you simplify your life in order to deepen your relationship with God? Where do your priorities lie in the use of time and space?

IN OUR next readings-groups page, on 3 February, we will print extra information about the next book. This is The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. It is published by Atlantic Books at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-1-84354-722-8.

IN OUR next readings-groups page, on 3 February, we will print extra information about the next book. This is The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. It is published by Atlantic Books at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-1-84354-722-8.

Author notes

Author notes

Aravind Adiga was born in Chennai (formerly known as Madras) in 1974, and grew up in southern India. He studied at Columbia University in New York and Magdalen College, Oxford, before becoming a financial journalist. Later he worked as a correspondent for Time magazine for three years, before going free-lance. He has written for the New Yorker, The Sunday Times, the Financial Times, and The Times of India.

Aravind Adiga was born in Chennai (formerly known as Madras) in 1974, and grew up in southern India. He studied at Columbia University in New York and Magdalen College, Oxford, before becoming a financial journalist. Later he worked as a correspondent for Time magazine for three years, before going free-lance. He has written for the New Yorker, The Sunday Times, the Financial Times, and The Times of India.

The White Tiger was his first novel; it won the 2008 Man Booker Prize. Since then, he has published a selection of short stories, Between the Assassinations (2009), and a second novel, Last Man in Tower (2011).

The White Tiger was his first novel; it won the 2008 Man Booker Prize. Since then, he has published a selection of short stories, Between the Assassinations (2009), and a second novel, Last Man in Tower (2011).

Book notes

Book notes

The White Tiger is a story of the contrasts within Indian society. Balram Halwai is a bright but poor boy from rural India, who ends up a wealthy entrepreneur. He climbs the ladder, initially through becoming chauffeur to the son of a village landlord, who is involved in political corruption. This relationship fuels his ambition, but he achieves his success only though murder and bribery. Balram tells his story in letters to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jibao, who is scheduled to visit India to discover more about its entrepreneurs.

The White Tiger is a story of the contrasts within Indian society. Balram Halwai is a bright but poor boy from rural India, who ends up a wealthy entrepreneur. He climbs the ladder, initially through becoming chauffeur to the son of a village landlord, who is involved in political corruption. This relationship fuels his ambition, but he achieves his success only though murder and bribery. Balram tells his story in letters to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jibao, who is scheduled to visit India to discover more about its entrepreneurs.

Books for the next two months:

Books for the next two months:

March: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

March: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

April: The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson

April: The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson

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