This morning, I am supposed to be packing and then en route to a lovely retreat center three hours away for three days of Presbyterian reflection and planning. I spent a lot of time preparing two liturgies for today, and was all set to lead the opening worship service and this evening's compline ~ and was so looking forward to this time of getting to know and working with my colleagues.
Instead, I will be writing a sermon for the funeral service that I'll be conducting tomorrow for a lifelong church member. He and his wife, who died just a year ago, were the only ones in their family still members of our church. His adult children had not, therefore, seen the bulletin announcements the last two weeks indicating that I would be away for three days, and made their scheduling plans before involving me.
It's a privilege to preside over tomorrow's Service of Witness to the Resurrection for someone with whom I've spent a great deal of time as he has struggled with his health and the loss of his wife of fifty-eight years. But it occurs to me that, under the circumstances, I, too, need to hear a portion of what I wrote for today's noon service for the Presbytery retreat, the opening of a day dedicated to exploring The Way of Consolation.
The essence of spiritual consolation is the sense of an inner movement toward God. We all experience fluctuations in our relationship with God. Sometimes we feel that we are moving toward God; sometimes, away. Sometimes we feel that God is moving toward us; sometimes, that God is pulling away. At times our relationship with God is one of peaceful confidence that God is present to us and active in our lives -- whether things are going well or not. At other times we are confounded by turbulence and a sense of distance from God -- again, whether things are going well or not.
These movements, or changes in feelings and experiences, are not indications of success or failure on our part. They simply are. What helps, however, is to learn to recognize them. Our capacity to see clearly, to make choices, to determine whether to follow new paths or to re-commit ourselves to the old -- to discern -- is grounded in our capacity to appreciate when and where God is at work in our lives, guiding and leading us toward God.
Sometimes we experience spiritual consolation as a overwhelming sense of God's presence that seems to come out of nowhere. An awareness of God's gift of love, a feeling of strength and confidence that God is present and active, may come as pure gift. Perhaps you wake up to a particularly beautiful sunrise and are flooded with feelings of gratitude for God's goodness and care for all creation. Or perhaps you look up from your desk in the middle of composing a difficult letter in response to a troubling conflict and are nevertheless overwhelmed by the sure knowledge that God is present and offering love and reassurance to you in the midst of struggle. The external situation is not the determining factor in an experience of spiritual consolation. The determining factor is the awareness of God and your own connection with God.
More often, we experience spiritual consolation, a movement toward God, as the result of some form of activity that is clearly leading us toward God. If we are engaged in prayer, or in study or preparation for preaching or teaching; if we are conversing with someone in a pastoral encounter; if we are working on a mission project or even an administrative task; if we are doing, or planning, or preparing for the work to which we are called, we often experience a corresponding sense of spiritual consolation. That sense of being drawn toward God, of our deepest core self being in accord with God's desires for our lives, of satisfaction in our calling, might come in the feeling of deep affirmation in the context of a sermon that's going really well. Or it might be the only thing getting you through a meeting that's going really badly. Again, the external situation is not the decisive standard. What matters is that sense of movement toward God -- which most often reveals itself when we are alert to who we are as someone being uniquely shaped and molded by God and what we are doing in response to God's individual and loving call to us.