Spiritual Disciplines for a Fragmented Culture

[Christian Vision Project email newsletter, Spring 2007]

As a writer and culture critic Frederica Mathewes-Green has landed stories on National Public Radio, in the pages of major magazines and newspapers, and in bestselling books on culture and Christian spirituality. Like all public figures who challenge the assumptions of mainstream culture, she has had to learn how to stay focused and humble in the midst of both success and hostility. There are few Christians who model grace and creativity better than this grandmother of four. In this interview she describes two basic spiritual disciplines that lead to a life of integrity in a fragmented culture.

CT: How would you diagnose our culture?

FMG: I find that when I’m speaking, to any kind of audience, there’s one word that consistently produces a response. People just go silent—they hold their breath. The word is loneliness.

You might not think that loneliness is such a big problem. Most of us are surrounded by other people everywhere we go. But the extreme individualism of our age has made people focus more and more on their atomized single self: defining themselves as the unique person separate from everyone else.

Our forebears defined themselves by what they produced. Now people define themselves by what they consume. And this undermines our sense of effectiveness in the world. No matter how much you define yourself as this important, significant individual, there’s a feeling that nothing you do is going to make any difference.

This is even harder for Christians. We have the mandate to go out and bring the gospel to the world. And yet it often seems like nobody’s listening. So we are tempted to try things we shouldn’t get into, because we think nobody will find out. That’s the path to disintegration—when we are so isolated, lonely, and ineffective that we start to think our lives don’t matter.

CT: What’s the remedy?

FMG: I believe that the path to integrity requires going back as far as we can to the beginnings of Christian history, and adopting those spiritual disciplines that were used in the first few centuries.

Saint Paul says that the life of a Christian is like an athlete’s. Well, from the outside, I sure don’t look like an athlete. But as I’ve learned the spiritual disciplines, especially the most basic ones of prayer and fasting, I can see the change. I feel a bit more of the presence of the Lord. But that hasn’t happened just by cultivating sentimental gooey feelings about the Lord! I’ve had to learn to follow explicit disciplines rooted deep in the history of the church.

CT: So what does a spiritual discipline of prayer look like?

FMG: The most significant form of prayer to me is the simplest and the most difficult. It’s called the Jesus prayer, and it’s very short: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Ever since the fourth or fifth century, Christians have been using this prayer, repeated continuously, as a way of practicing what Saint Paul calls us to do: “pray without ceasing.”

So as I go through my day I’m learning to repeat this over and over: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” It’s a way of calming the mind and unifying the thoughts. Most of the time, our minds are just dawdling around, thinking about trivialities, but if you can keep focused on the Lord all the time, it brings your whole life into coherence.

The point of the Jesus prayer, of course, is not to get really good at saying the Jesus prayer. The point of the prayer is to encounter Jesus, in our hearts. The more you can look into your heart and address this prayer simply to him in humility, in simplicity of heart, you begin to sense that connection there.

I’ve been trying to acquire the Jesus prayer as a permanent habit about ten years now. I get a little bit closer all the time. Now, when a negative or disruptive thought comes into my mind, it’s like someone threw a baseball through the window. I pick it up and say, “This is not my baseball!” and throw it back out again.

People get discouraged at first. You think you’re going to sit down and do the Jesus prayer for five minutes and you do three or four of them—and you’re thinking about your grocery list or a phone call you have to make. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Don’t stop saying the prayer because you do it badly. Just pick yourself up and start in again.

CT: You also mentioned fasting—what does that mean as a spiritual discipline?

FMG: The early Christians fasted on Wednesday and Friday. Many Christians have continued that Wednesday-Friday fast from the first century, and our whole family is among them. But we don’t go totally without food. Instead we follow what the early writer Tertullian called the “Daniel fast.” We eat the same kinds of foods that Daniel ate in the king’s palace—essentially a vegan diet. No meat, no dairy products, no fish.

CT: So what do you eat on Wednesdays and Fridays?

FMG: Well, at first you eat a lot of peanut butter sandwiches! Then you discover this whole other world of cooking you never thought about before. Indian food, Chinese food, hummus and pita—there are vegan dishes from all over the world.

As with the Jesus prayer, the point isn’t the discipline itself but what it cultivates in us. If I’m able to turn down a jelly doughnut a couple times a week, I can also resist getting angry at the person driving in front of me. I can learn to control my anger, my greed, my selfishness, because I’ve been weight-lifting with jelly doughnuts! I’ve been weight-lifting with these elements of the fast. Fasting strengthens self-control in any number of ways.

CT: How have you seen these disciplines bear fruit?

FMG: A number of years ago I was invited to give a speech for a group with an odd name: the Pro-Life Association of Gays and Lesbians. Towards the end of my speech, a group of thirty or forty women came in with protest signs and trailed by television cameras. They clearly weren’t there to hear what I had to say: they just wanted to challenge me during the question and answer period. They were angry; they were mocking me; they were antagonistic. My heart was pounding, my stomach was clenching, my mouth was dry.

But about halfway through this tense exchange I found this incredible peace spreading all through me. I was suddenly able to see each one of these hostile questioners as a beloved child of God, as somebody who was hurting and in pain. When I left that evening, I felt so much joy in the Lord, in what had really been one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.  I thought, this must be what it’s like for the martyrs—my little tiny experience, as much as I could bear, of martyrdom. I discovered that there is so much joy in loving our enemies—just as Christ loved us when we were his enemies.

The spiritual disciplines enable us to be more that we could be on our own. If I had tried to approach that situation by memorizing a list of snappy answers, I could have won the debate, but I wouldn’t have won any hearts.

The spiritual disciplines equip us, they build us up, and they put us in an eternal community. We’re not alone anymore. And they equip us even to love our enemies. We discover that we are never alone in this world—that nobody has to be our enemy, that we are always able to reach out in love.  There is nothing that anybody could ultimately take away from us, because we have everything in the Lord Christ. And when we live that kind of life, we become the presence of Christ, the fragrance of Christ, and begin to change our world.

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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