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September 1, 2016
September 2016
Susan Phillips


My mentor (of blessed memory) Robert Bellah, inspired by Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote about the “habits of our hearts.” These social observers understood religion to be crucial in shaping our hearts and their habits. That understanding is core to the mission of New College Berkeley.

For nearly forty years NCB has been dedicated to the formation of the hearts of persons and communities through classes, lectures, retreats, and seminars. For the last eight years throughout the greater Bay Area we’ve also offered year-long spiritual direction groups that have engaged hundreds of people in life-changing, heart-healthy, spiritual disciplines. 

Religion, through practices, cultivates individual souls as well as the communion of saints. The 2011 study of religious faith among young adults in Canada, “Hemorrhaging Faith: Why & When Canadian Young Adults Are Leaving, Staying & Returning to the Church,” found that only one in ten Roman Catholic and Mainline Protestant young adults who attended church at least weekly when they were children are still doing so today; for evangelicals the number was four in ten (statistics are similar in the United States). 

Of the four factors found to be significant for continuing church participation, the first mentioned is how parents practice their faith. How they model faith—not teach it—on a day-to-day basis. The children who choose to be part of churches have witnessed the faithful habits of their parents’ hearts.

In a few weeks New College Berkeley will be offering the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius for the third year in Berkeley (Jill Boyce and I, the spiritual directors), and the first in Brentwood (with the Rev. Christine Shiber directing). Each year six or seven men and women commit to gather together over the course of 30 weeks for weekly, two-hour, directed meetings of prayer and reflection. Every day for an hour a day for the 30 weeks, each retreatant engages privately in guided prayer, part of the covenant of the Spiritual Exercises. 

When we come together each week, we share what the blessing and challenge of the daily prayer practice has been for each person. We bear witness to the stretching and shaping of hearts, by divine grace and human discipline.

One retreatant wrote:

A weekly class where we pray for two hours—how can I do that? That was my initial reaction to a class on Ignatian spiritual practices. I had much to learn—and I did. This 9-month experience has taught me new ways of praying and new ways of being still and listening. My walk with God has been deepened and expanded, and I have learned and grown in ways I never expected. What appeared an impossibility nine months ago has become a way of life.

Another retreatant wrote: 

Deciding to commit to a weekly class from September through May was not easy. But after the first two or three weeks, I never looked back. My prayer life is richer. My ability to listen to God’s word is keener. And my spiritual toolbox has been upgraded not only for the sake of those whom I pastor, but for my own soul as well.

Habits of the heart are formed by this discipline.

Near the end of his magisterial Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot addressed how we live in the sphere of God’s grace, using garden imagery. In the garden we experience a shaft of sunlight, the scent of wild thyme, the waterfall. Eliot wrote that these encounters are “only hints and guesses, hints followed by guesses,” while the greater part of our living is “prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.”

In New College Berkeley programs beginning this fall—the Spiritual Exercises, half-day retreats, spiritual direction groups, our fall Writing Your Journey course, and more—we experience hints and guesses of God’s presence. Blessed with a bird’s eye view of what goes on in the garden lives of the people in these programs, I’m deeply impressed by those intimations of the Holy, and also by the heart habits I’ve witnessed: “prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.” By these habits, faith grows, rather than hemorrhages.

Posted on September 1, 2016 at 4:12 PM

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