Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 8, 2003
Seek an Advent simplicity
Retreat leader says 'Clear out the inner clutter'
By BILL GLEN
WCR Staff Writer
It's Advent, that time in our liturgical year when we quiet ourselves and prepare for the coming of the Lord.
Hard, isn't it? The television blasts chock-a-block commercials. Mailing deadlines come and go. Party invitations fill in the calendar squares.
In a frantic world, it is difficult to come to stillness and enter the mystery of God, says psychologist Mark Burch.
"Sometimes, when we think about our life as Christians, we can become occupied with all of the things we have to say. Even our tendency to pick up guilt is self-centred. So I say, 'Get out of yourself.'"
Burch spoke about how to make room for God in one's life during a Nov. 26-28 retreat at Providence Renewal Centre.
Well known for his talks on voluntary simplicity - making the psychological transition from a consumer lifestyle to a simpler, more meaningful way of life - Burch told the group that to cultivate stillness a person needs to clear out the inner clutter.
"The prayer of simplicity is a prayer where, through the process of praying, we aren't thinking about more things to add to our list to talk to God about. As a matter of fact, we find ways of letting go of things so that there is less and less in us. It's a freedom from clutter.
"People relate to clutter as a physical reality - a lot of stuff. We live in the midst of the clutter and we experience it emotionally, not just physically, as a burdensome complexity.
"St. John of the Cross has taken the image of Jesus saying 'Go to a secret room, close the door and have your conversation with your Father.' He said there is an inner chamber which we sweep clean in order to welcome the Divine Guest," he said.
The sweeping clean means letting go of everything, at least during a time of meditative prayer. It includes our agendas, our memories, our resentments - even our noble ideas of God. It's letting go of our self-centredness.
Fundamental to contemplative prayer is believing that we are safe in God's hands, Burch said. People feel they are in a net they can't get out of.
"Part of contemplative prayer is simply getting out of the way of what God intends to do. God is there, grace is flowing to transform our lives into a closer image of Christ."
The call to us to be still and know the presence of God implies that in stillness, we know God and we might take a deep intimacy to know one's self to the core. To be still and know is to be totally absorbed, he said.
"Classically and even today, cultivating one's spiritual side or inner life, requires time and some measure of quiet solitude from a hurried life that is relatively free of external distractions. Then a person can concentrate on what's inside.
"It isn't a matter of withdrawing from society or not expressing our Christianity through service. I think contemporary society takes us too far in the other direction - far too extroverted. We are out of balance. One of the consequences is that we lose touch with our inner world and a personal intimacy with the Divine," Burch said.
If a person has been removed from the presence of God and wishes to start a journey back to the Lord, some people might feel fear, in that there is a conscious commitment to let go and simplify.
But it is in that moment of assumed anxiety that we are actually most safe to hear the word of God.
"As I understand and experience it, God made us and God loves us. God's desire is that we blossom in every way. We are completely safe in that sense. It's the ultimate trustworthiness," Burch said.
"But from the perspective of the ego that needs to be in control and needs to know what's going on, being in that presence can feel unsettling because it's so different from our ordinary experiences. I guess it's because we don't go there enough."
The retreat was called Simple and Forgotten Things, based on a quotation from Carl Jung, a 20th-century Swiss psychologist and student of Sigmund Freud.
Jung once received a long, rambling letter from one of his patients that described how disoriented and distracted he was because he was so busy. Jung wrote him back saying we find ourselves again, in the simple and forgotten things.
"That has always resonated for me because something I associate with daily living in the 21st-century consumer culture, is a quality of forgetfulness," Burch said. "It's very fast paced and superficial. It's also extremely dangerous because we're driving big cars and flying in airplanes at high speeds. There's all kinds of machinery with warning bells and alarms going off.
"We forget the simple things that connect us with each other, with nature and with God. In our forgetfulness, we drift about forgetting who we are and why we're here. We forget how many of the raw materials for a good life are already ours for free."
Burch lives in Winnipeg and holds a master's degree in psychology from the University of Manitoba. He teaches numerous courses at the University of Winnipeg, including one on voluntary simplicity.
He has written three books on the subject and has produced radio and television programs.