Spiritual 911

(Portrait via Facebook; cover via Amazon)
Making the case for the devotional life

Gary Jansen is the author of a new book published by Random House, where Jansen is an editor, called Life Everlasting: Catholic Devotions and Mysteries for the Everyday Seeker. (He’s also editor of a book-length interview with Pope Francis on the Our Father which is also out today.) In Life Everlasting, he describes devotions as akin to “crisis intervention or spiritual 911 — methods of communication that not only bring us closer to God but also offer reassurances that we are never, ever alone.” He talks a bit about devotions and the book with National Review Online. — KJL

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Many people feel burdened by life. Why would they ever want it to be everlasting?

Gary Jansen: The phrase “life everlasting” refers to eternal life or heaven. The weight of time can be heavy and press upon us in oppressive ways, especially for those who are suffering. Yet, for me, searching for the eternal and communicating with God through prayer is a way of experiencing timelessness, of experiencing heaven on earth. I don’t know much but I do know that these transcendent experiences bring with them a lightness of being. Mystics call it union with God. Psychologists now just call it flow.

“The closer we draw to the light of God, the more radiant we become. There are many ways to do this, but what I’ve found to be most effective is to find something or someone you can dedicate your life to and then allow the transcendent to reveal itself to you.” What if life feels too overwhelming to even know where to begin with this?

: You write: “The closer we draw to the light of God, the more radiant we become. There are many ways to do this, but what I’ve found to be most effective is to find something or someone you can dedicate your life to and then allow the transcendent to reveal itself to you.” What if life feels too overwhelming to even know where to begin with this?

Jansen: Life often feels chaotic and overwhelming when we don’t have a focus. Rick Warren calls that focus the purpose-driven life, and when we live from that level of consciousness, that God has allowed me to be in this place and time for a reason and that my life has purpose, then it unlocks a strength in us that can allow us to do great things — being a great friend, a dependable employee, a responsible student, or a dedicated parent. That strength is the Holy Spirit. But to your point: How do you start? I think one practical way is to accept the fact that you are alive right now and that you are living in a specific time in history. You weren’t here 200 years ago and you won’t be here 200 years from now. For whatever reason, you are here now, so do what you can to serve and not feel entitled to be served. Ask yourself this question: “How can I serve someone today, even if it’s just helping someone smile?” Small things are very important because they can lead to great things down the line.

: Why should we live with a heightened knowledge of an invisible world when the visible is often overwhelming enough?

Jansen: The invisible world is constantly affecting us. You can’t see the sun’s rays but it’s providing you with vitamin D every day. We can’t see air, but we need it to breathe. We can’t grasp love in our hands but lack of love destroys us. If God created everything and God is spirit and spirit is invisible then everything has a spiritual element because it all comes from God. I’m not saying a rock has a soul, but that an invisible thread connects all of creation. A basic tenet of our faith is that we believe in all that is visible and invisible so while the visible world might seem like enough for many of us we’re missing out on a whole other world of creation if we ignore the invisible.

: You suggest your book as a “prologue to the spiritual life,” as an invitation “to hang with me and talk about God.” How can that help matters? Is this book for beginners at prayer or for others as well?

Jansen: Ha! Have you ever hung out with me and talked about God? I’m a good time! But seriously, I love prologues. I don’t see a prologue in a book or a movie as an introduction. Prologues are openings. They set the stage for what’s about to come next and I hope this new book is an opening for a discussion about God and the art of devotion, wherever you are in life — whether spiritual practice is new to you or if you’ve been on a spiritual journey for years. What do you get out of it? Peace of mind, peace of heart, peace of soul.

: You write that we are in the “midst of what author George Packer calls an unwinding, in which ‘everything changes and nothing lasts.’ Many of us want to take action— or do something— but we can’t seem to move. We’re standing in a road, there is a tractor trailer barreling down upon us, and all we can do is watch.” What on earth does that mean? And yet, I might know all too well. . . . If that resonates at all with anyone, how is your book possibly going to help?

Jansen: We live in a temporal world and that’s just a fact. Everything is always changing. It just seems to be changing, at least in the West, faster than it ever has. It’s disorienting to many people. In Dante’s Inferno, he describes a part of hell as “a sea in tempest that is beaten by conflicting winds.” Twenty-four-hour news cycles can leave us feeling a bit seasick for instance. How do we find safe harbor? Spiritually speaking, we find it through prayer and developing a devotional life. Oh, and turning off the TV.

: You write: “Our unexpressed fears often create spiritual and mental pressure cookers that if not handled properly can become quite dangerous. The overflow of energy can lead to chronic anxiety, insomnia, and depression.” If we’re quite used to not expressing these things, how do you start suddenly? Is it enough to simply say, turn to God? What if you need professional help?

Jansen: How do you start? Slowly. Baby steps. Or in what I like to call micro-shifts, which are just tiny changes we make in our lives, like starting to pray before meals if you don’t do that, or going for a short walk every day to clear your mind. I’m not a fan of making drastic changes. You need to allow air to come out of a pressure cooker slowly otherwise it can explode. Developing a spiritual practice with God doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go to the doctor or seek professional help from a therapist, just as going to the gym doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go to the doctor when you’re sick.

: You also write: “In the past twenty years of my own spiritual journey I’ve come to realize that the times I felt close to God were the times I felt less tense in my life and most joyful. There is a direct correlation. When I prayed, things seemed to, well, open up. Questions were answered. Signposts appeared that pointed me in the right direction. And doors appeared that often led to new opportunities or fresh ways of thinking.” What if they don’t? What if prayer leads to more frustration and confusion?

Jansen: If prayer leads to frustration, then try something else. You can’t force a relationship with God. I worked as a catechist for a short period of time, and I learned you can’t make a teenager believe anything by forcing them to do it. Well, you can’t make most people do anything by forcing them to do it. They just rebel or resent you. In my eyes, the best you can do is set a good example; be firm and dedicated, but show a good example. Share your experiences, which in turn can help people feel relaxed to share theirs.

: Why would you make a claim as bold as: “The contents found in Life Everlasting — if followed and embraced with a healthy mix of desire, commitment, and faith — can radically alter your life for the better, ushering in a new awakening and a heightened awareness of God’s abundance in your day-to-day life.”

Jansen: Because it’s true. The art of devotion and spiritual practice draw us closer to an awareness of God. We’re always connected to God though often times we don’t feel that way. Sadness, depression, shame, and guilt can often leave us feeling like God doesn’t want anything to do with us or that God doesn’t exist. But just because you feel a certain way doesn’t mean that you’re correct in your assessment. We can often feel unlovable, but at the same time have people around us who love us dearly. The contents found in Life Everlasting are avenues for helping us develop a personal spiritual practice. Does prayer cure migraines or fix a marriage or help you with money problems? I can’t really answer that, but I do know that prayer can alter your awareness of what life is all about and that in turn it can provide spiritual answers to physical problems, relationships, and money issues. What do I mean by that? Spiritual practice helps to give what we experience meaning.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here.