W. Paul Jones bridges diverse worlds. He was a United Methodist minister for over forty years before becoming a Roman Catholic five years ago. A Trappist Family Brother, he spends part of his time as a hermit. His latest books include A Season in the Desert: Making Time Sacred and A Table in the Desert: Making Space Sacred.

What is spirituality?

In the broadest sense, spirituality is the lifestyle resulting from commitment to that which functions as God in one's life. This definition is broad enough to encompass everyone. Thus one's God might be IBM or the craving to be a bishop or the centrality of one's family -- or the father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Each of us has something that makes life worthwhile. And spirituality is the name for the lifestyle that flows from that commitment. This accounts, in part, for the widespread interest in spirituality today. It involves us all.

How can we know if our spiritual restlessness is God leading us and not our own temptation to escape?

That's an excellent question. Two things come to mind. My spiritual director is a hermit living in the Ozark Mountains. He gets up at 1:30 A.M. to begin his day of "being in the presence of God." I asked him once, "If you are trying to be in the presence of God, how do you know when you are actually in that presence?" He answered, "When I'm permeated by a deep sense of peace." I think that's one real criterion as to whether we are resting in God or whether we are attempting avoidance. When we try to escape, we are usually nervous and uneasy, feeling guilty as we wander, and are driven to justify our lives.

A second way to test one's spirituality and one's God is through silence. In contrast to the early desert fathers and mothers, we fill our lives with noise, whether it is TV, traffic, or radio. Sounds distract us, keeping us at a very superficial level, keeping us from going deeply inside. In contrast, when one comes to a monastery or its equivalent, what one experiences immediately is the booming silence of being alone. It is in such silence that the demons are most likely to bubble up out of the unconscious. And the longer the silence, the more will they take on names and places and faces, often varnished with guilt. Sooner or later, we will be unable to avoid one fundamental question: is the functional God of my life able to give me the courage to go through the desert to the other side, offering forgiveness and restoration? To be alone in the desert is to know fairly quickly what is for real and what is not.

You indicate the need for quiet. Would this be a daily time?

Yes, though for those who are truly searching for the first time it needs to be longer. In my own case, it was a weekend of silence in a monastery that began to rattle my frame and began my search. It took me seven years to muster the courage to go to a monastery again, this time for three months. I don't expect that everyone will be able to do this. Yet everyone needs to acquire a taste for silence, experiencing what happens when one is invaded by it. It is incredible what discoveries occur when one has only one's self as a roommate.

I find that the minimum daily time for immersion in silence is half an hour. This is when and where one is most likely to sense the silent presence of God. At least once every three months, one ought to go away for at least a day, preferably overnight. It can be a canoe on a lake, walking through autumn leaves, breathing the deep peace of a forest, or going to a monastery. Whatever the external arena of silence, two things are crucial: that one is totally alone, and that it is in a place where there is no possibility of being interrupted.

How can those who are new in the Christian faith and those who have grown in believing learn from each other?

The temptation for each of these groups is that of the perceptive questioner. The person new to the faith may be afraid of really asking and therefore doesn't learn so well. What can be best done for their learning, as well as for those who are fairly mature in the faith, is to keep asking why or who or where. Those who are mature in the faith tend to take some questions for granted, and there's nothing quite so fatal to spirituality as to begin to take things for granted. When those who are newly seeking ask why, or what is it like, it's incredibly renewing and even deepening for the persons of mature faith to have to try to articulate what they take for granted. As they do this, the new person can see several things. One is how deep are the resources in Christian faith for them. And second, that one never gets beyond the questioning, the doubting, and the searching. What they are beginning is what they are going to do for the rest of their lives.

How can we overcome our modern compulsion to master tasks and become truly spiritual?

This question pushes us to the heart of our dilemma. To become truly spiritual requires undergoing conversion. I mean total conversion: where one's motives are transformed, one's life is lived at a very different pace, and one's goals in life entail pilgrimaging in an opposite direction from that taught by society. Society lures us with the promise of the three P's: power, prestige, and possessions. We are bombarded by what our society tells us we need, we want, and by which we are to measure success in our lives. In contrast, for the Christian these three P's are to be regarded not as values but as temptations. When Jesus began his ministry, the Spirit took him into the desert to be tempted. And that by which he was tempted were these three so-called values by which our society is so totally enamored. And even when Satan did leave, he vowed to return at more opportune times, which means throughout Jesus' life. We too are tempted in the same way, and that is what can turn our ordinary living into a desert.

This is why conversion is so fundamental for the Christian. Our society drives us to covet a larger house, a higher paying promotion, a fancier car, thereby capturing our whole lives in a frenzy of doing. Doing, in turn, becomes an insatiable distraction from true being. Consequently, the only identity we have is the one given us by what we do. Whether a tire repairman or a banker, that is the identity by which we are defined. What conversion teaches us, on the other hand, is that doing has nothing essential to do with our identity. And for the Christian, truly to be depends upon truly being loved unconditionally by God. That alone can speak to the ache and yearning of our condition.

How do we accomplish this without withdrawing from society?

Jesus said for us to be in the world but not of the world. Whether we are physically in the world or in a monastery, the world comes along with us. Thus in one sense there is no way to escape our society, which has molded us since before birth. It was a hard lesson for me to discover that the sordid activities that go on in society are evident in their own way within the monastery. But the question is whether you are claimed by it; whether it is your God; whether your reason for being, your value and your life come from promotions and prestige or whether it comes from our Lord Jesus Christ. If it's the latter, then you are not of the world. There is no way you can be of the world and follow Jesus. But that means that you are in the world because you act out what it is that God would have you act upon. Then you can ask the question, what about monasteries, are they not moving out of the world? In a sense they do. Yet the world is there with them. They are dependent on all kinds of different things. They try to create a way of life that is different from free enterprise America, that can influence and change. Our postulate is not so much to go into the world to do something, although some orders do that. We create a new way of living and being and acting and eating, and invite others to partake of that new way, which we think is like the early church. They owned everything in common and gave all that they had to the alleviation of the poor. That's what monasteries are. There's no private property whatsoever. Seven times a day we pray, so that our doing may be wrapped in the presence of God. There is an alternation between being and doing, resting and being active. What we try to do is create a healthy balance of different factors that people may hopefully be bitten by and try to do it in their own lives.

There is no way that one can be of the world and follow Jesus. What is at stake is our reason for being. Life involves being, having, and doing. One of Christianity's tasks is to disclose that what most folks are about is doing for the sake of having as a reason for being. But in being gracefully embraced in love by our Lord Jesus Christ, one no longer has need for the promises that empower our society. What we are about is being for the sake of doing. Thereby we lose our very taste for the dynamic of this world. Our being is thereby reversed, issuing forth as the reason for living for others.

How has your experience as a seeker led you to places you never imagined?

I'm from Appalachia, from the hard-living world of coalmines and steel mills. It is like a miracle, then, that I was able to leave that world, gaining four university degrees, and teaching at Yale and Princeton. How can I explain this journey without the Holy Spirit? But then, having all the success one could want, I was led to give it all up, hounded by the enormous difference between teaching about Christianity and being a Christian. I was led to teaching theology at a Protestant seminary, training persons for ordination. And while I previously taught with a chalkboard, I came to realize that real learning occurs best when students are immersed in what they are studying. So I taught my course in the doctrine of resurrection at a city morgue, assigning a corpse to each student for whom he or she was to prepare a funeral service. In dealing with social change, each student participated in such things as spending three days in solitary confinement at a federal penitentiary, and living on the streets for 24 hours with no money or identification.

This radical participation changed me at least as deeply as it did my students. Increasingly I became troubled that, even though I was involved in social change, I could escape by going home to the suburbs. Consequently, my family and I sold all that we had and bought a tenement house in the inner city. That way red-lining, police brutality, and inferior schools became our dilemma as well. During the time that followed, one of my disappointments was learning that every victory in social justice is acquired at the price of at least ten defeats. And the few victories gained tend to revert in several years to become defeats needing to be re-won. While the feeling of such existence is that of unending defeat, I had no real choice but to do it. And it was this dynamic, in turn, that identified my pilgrimage as the search for a faith in which I could honestly recognize my life's work as an unending defeat while still having the courage not to give up.

It was this quest that brought me to the monastery. My meager faith needed to be tested and deepened by participating in a community in which everything is done to the glory of God. Monks wash dishes to the glory of God. They pare apples to the glory of God. Nothing exists outside that glory. This was what I needed to see and feel and touch and smell and taste -- and ponder. My resolve was that by the end of my stay I would have reached a crucial intersection. On the one hand, I might need to give up teaching, for I would have discovered that I was unable to be what I taught. On the other hand, I might find myself so claimed by the radicalness of the gospel that I would be branded for life. And what did happen? By traversing the dark night of the soul, I was claimed on the other side by the pearl of great price for which the surrender of all else was hardly enough. Abandonment into God became the grounding that I needed, that I wanted, and without which I could not claim to be faithful.


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