Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A LISTENING LIFE

While I sojourned in northeast Georgia last week-end, I spent an evening reading A Listening Life by Tracy Balzer, one of the latest books published by Pinyon Publishing in Montrose, Colorado. This practical guide to deepening the spiritual life reminds me of Evelyn Underhill’s books about becoming an everyday mystic by practicing “the art of union with Reality.” Through accounts about personal experiences and forays into monasteries, discoveries in art, nature, and poetry, periods of listening and meditating, Tracy Balzer presents a convincing case for those in contemporary society who want to find God and a more peaceful life. She advocates that spiritual seekers should develop an attentiveness to sacred and wonder-filled experiences and should pursue the practice of listening as a holy calling.
“Wonder-filled experiences alert us to transcendence, reminding us that God works co-creatively within us,” Balzer tells us in a chapter entitled “Wonder,” in which she explains the terms “general revelations” as anything in the created universe that reveals God’s truth to us,” and “special revelations” as “revelations that refer to Holy Scripture.” She explores general revelations with examples of natural wonders such as humpback whales singing to each other, the sight of goldfinches, visits to the Cascade Mountains, citing Psalm 8 as an articulation of the notion of wonder: “When I consider your heavens,/ the work of your fingers,/the moon and the stars,/which you have set in place,/what is man that you are mindful of him,/the son of man that you care for him?”

In a chapter on “Illumination,” Balzer gives an example regarding this concept of revealing a grand mystery in an unusual anecdote about her daughter, Kelsey, who at eight had accompanied Balzer to visit her great-grandparents in an Oklahoma nursing home. Missing her daughter, Balzer finds Kelsey engaged with an elderly woman in a wheelchair, looking intently into the woman’s eyes. As Balzer watches, she experiences the impression that Kelsey’s face is actually glowing as she talks to the woman–“ it appeared that she was wearing the face of Jesus as she tenderly loved this woman, a stranger…this was a simple experience of illumination, an illustration of the ways God reaches us through otherwise ordinary events…” Balzer also uses the example of lectio divina as a way of receiving illumination, citing Jan Johnson's use of the word “shimmer” when talking about the way Scripture catches our attention and opens our eyes and ears to Bible passages.

I particularly liked the chapter on “Possessions,” since I have been reading two biographies lately that feature outstanding figures in American history who have disregarded the ideas of “ownership” in favor of following their vocations at all costs–one is the biography of the scientist George Washington Carver, the man who discovered the various uses of the peanut; the other is a biography about the poet Robert Francis who lived in near-poverty while pursuing his career as a poet. I was interested in the example Balzer employed to illustrate the idea that we should shed many of our possessions. She described a grassroots movement initiated by blogger Dave Bruno who diminished his personal possessions to one hundred items and formed something called “The 100 Thing Challenge,” a movement in which people limit their material possessions so they can free up physical, mental, and spiritual space and are empowered to live more joyful and thoughtful lives.

The chapter on “Humility” and Balzer’s experience as a scholar-in-residence at St. Benedict’s monastery in St. Joseph, Minnesota arrested my attention as I worship at a convent where the Sisters follow the Benedictine Rule. During Balzer’s time at St. Benedict’s monastery she experienced the love and inclusiveness of Benedictine hospitality when the Sisters welcomed her and others “as Christ” and learned about the kind of humility essential to a “listening life.” Balzer quotes Thomas Kelly to illustrate the concept of humility as “the disclosure of the consummate wonder of God.”

In A Listening Life, Balzer achieves a spiritual message which Evelyn Underhill advocates in her famous Practical Mysticism: “the change of attention, which enables you to perceive a truer universe; the deliberate rearrangement of your ideas, energies, and desires in harmony with that which you have seen–that a progressive uniformity of life and experience is secured to you, and you are defended against the dangers of an indolent and useless mysticality…”

Tracy Balzer’s special charism is her teaching about spiritual formation: that we must become listeners–by paying attention, looking for spiritual illuminations, developing persistence and an authentic sacramental life, dispossessing ourselves of too many worldly goods, and developing compassion and humility–so that with “open hearts, minds, eyes, and ears, we can continue to seek the Truth, knowing it will be given to us. And it will set us free.”

You can order A Listening Life by Tracy Balzer online from pinyonpublishing.com.
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