Thursday, March 11, 2010

My Life as a Sannyasi

"What do you do?" It used to be an easy question to answer. "I am a pastor." But now I no longer know what to say when I am asked that question. I usually respond with some variation of the following answers: "I was a pastor. I am taking some time off. I am not working at the present time. I am semi-retired. I am researching a new book. We are doing a lot of traveling, enjoying life, yada, yada, yada."

But none of those answers are really accurate. I only say them because most people do not really want to hear the long answer. (It is like the question: How are you doing? They want the standard answer; not the truth.) The truth is that I am spending my time in spiritual exploration. I read and write and pray and meditate and think and engage in spiritual conversation. (I also do physical exercise like walking and swimming to keep the psychosomatic balance.) I've been doing this for seven months now. I get tired sometimes, but never bored.

All I am really interested in is the spiritual life. In truth that is all I have ever been interested in. I entered the ministry as a young man in order to get paid for living the spiritual life. I could immerse myself in spiritual things fulltime and also provide financially for my family. But I quickly found out that most of church work has nothing to do with spiritual things or spiritual people. And the finances weren't so good either.

After more than thirty years of ministry, my children have grown up and left home. My wife and I were enjoying the empty nest. Then, more and more, the church began to get in the way of my spiritual life. Church life was taking me away from God instead of bringing me into a closer walk with God. It was time to move on to the next phase of life.

In classical India, a person's life had four stages: student, householder, retirement and sannyasa. The sannyasi, the person in this fourth stage, is a spiritual pilgrim who devotes himself completely to the spiritual life. It is normally reserved for people over fifty years of age who have at least one grandchild. They are finished with worldly pursuits and are moving on to other things. 

That stage best describes where I am now. I am immersed in spiritual things - more than when I was in fulltime ministry. I am constantly reading, thinking, praying and exploring dimensions of the Spirit that I could not investigate as a pastor. As a pastor I was - in the best moments - the spiritual director, leader, teacher and caretaker of others. I was responsible for many people, and I took that job very seriously. I was focused on the needs of my flock.

I was a shepherd - the literal meaning of the word pastor. But I felt like the captain of a wagon train, always concerned with the next water hole and getting those families over the next desert or mountain pass. Now I feel more like a mountain man exploring the highlands above the tree line. The Jeremiah Johnson of the spiritual Rockies. And I love it. I am exploring landscapes I only viewed from a distance before.

So now when someone asks me what I do, I will still give the standard answers. But if someone seems genuinely interested in how I spend my time, I will show them snapshots of the highlands. 

Artwork is The Spiritual Pilgrim, (colorized) woodcut, c. 1530, Anonymous German

1 comment:

  1. When people ask me that, I've gotten to where I give a standard response: "I'm taking out the trash." It's a line from "Peaceful Warrior," a movie I highly recommend.

    Most people, as you say, are uninterested in any elaboration on that subject. They assume I mean, "I'm doing daily chores...what I'm supposed to be doing" and leave it at that. That's fine with me.