Belonging: Living in God’s Contentment

When a new man joins our community, the first few months can be quite bewildering for him. There are so many new things to learn, and so many new Brothers to get to know. “Where do you keep the spoons?” “What do you do on the Sabbath?” But after a while there comes this happy moment when instead of saying “you” he says “we”! He no longer feels like an outsider looking in, but has begun to put down roots and begins to feel at last that he belongs. And with belonging comes a deep contentment. 

In order to thrive we all need to belong. I used to travel a lot in the Middle East and North Africa, and whenever I began chatting with a local, the first thing they would do is take out photos of their family. They expected me to do the same. They wanted to get to know me, so the first question was “show me your family.” “Who do you belong to?” Our fundamental identity has to do with belonging.

Not to belong is a terrible thing. What must it be like to be expelled from your country, your land, your home? To be exiled, to live as refugees forced to wander from place to place, having nowhere to call home? For me, there have been few images so heartbreaking as those pictures of Ukrainian men, women, and children forced out of their homes and villages, forced away from their very country. The pain and fear visible on their faces as they seek a place of safety has, I am sure, touched all our hearts. To be exiled is a terrible thing.

This very theme of exile, of not belonging, courses through Holy Scripture. One of the most poignant images in all of Scripture is the story in Genesis of the Fall. Through their acts of pride and disobedience, Adam and Eve have ruptured their relationship with God and no longer belong in Eden. So, God drives them out of the garden, and they become wanderers in an alien land. This story expresses a universal truth about the human condition: our shared sense of alienation and loss. 

To see this, we need only look back at these past few years. As well as the loss of life we have witnessed in Ukraine, we have all known personally the confusion and loss of these years of pandemic. So many of us have lost loved ones and have ourselves been seriously ill. 

There is perhaps no place where we experience alienation and loss more than in our broken relationship with our beautiful world. Years of abuse and exploitation have led to the current climate emergency. We no longer feel at home and at peace, either with each other, or with the land, or with the rest of creation. We no longer belong as we did. And with that comes the loss of that deep contentment which is the fruit of belonging. 

This theme of lost contentment is beautifully expressed in the work of the 19th-century English poet A. E. Housman. I love his collection of poems entitled A Shropshire Lad, written in 1896, amidst the beautiful Clee Hills which border England and Wales. My favorite poem is the fortieth one, where the sight of those distant hills evokes within the poet a deep feeling of melancholy, nostalgia, and longing for his true homeland:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows;
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
This is the land of lost content.

I think I love this poem because it reminds me of my first experience of God, when I was perhaps five years old. I would love to sit in my bedroom and stare out over the rolling hills in front of our home in Sussex. I remember how beautiful the hills were as they stretched out into the blue horizon. But I also felt a sadness, a longing. Somehow, I wanted to become one with those hills, which seemed to call out to me. It was, I believe, my first experience of God calling me home. My Welsh roots led me to discover that wonderful Welsh word, “hiraeth,” which cannot really be adequately translated, but which perfectly expresses that deep longing for home, that feeling of nostalgia for heaven, that “land of lost content.”

The Old Testament describes with searing honesty what it is like to be cut off from God and alienated from creation; to live as spiritual exiles. But bubbling up at the same time, are images of hope for restoration and reconciliation; of coming home. These beautiful images of hope are so often linked to the natural world. They are about making peace, and living in harmony with natural creation. They speak prophetically about the end of wandering and the promise of putting down roots again – of belonging to the whole of creation. The very first Psalm tells us that we will know contentment again if we put our roots down into the law of God, “like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in due season.” Micah has that beautifully irenic vision where one day, “nations shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid” (4:3-4).

These scriptural images of hope for restoration and reconciliation reach their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. On the cross, Jesus reconciled God with humankind and humankind with all of creation. Through faith we can come to know again the original blessing of belonging to God and recover that divine contentment which is God’s desire for us. This is expressed very memorably in the words of the Episcopal Rite of Baptism, in the words spoken at the signing of the cross with oil on the newly baptized person: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” We who were driven out of Eden are now marked as Christ’s own forever. We who were once destined to wander the earth as aliens are now welcomed home, to belong to God forever.

So how might we, who belong to God through faith and  Baptism, receive the fullness of that contentment which is God’s gift to us? In my own life of prayer, I have found inspiration and encouragement from Saint Paul. At times, Paul’s prayer would express his deep desire and longing for Christ, and at other times his prayer would be more contemplative and mystical. I love his letter to the Philippians, where he speaks quite intimately about his life with God. There is a remarkable passage where he writes, “For I have learned to be content with whatever I have” (4:11-13). Paul is not speaking about happiness or joy, for which he uses different Greek words. He is using a very particular Greek word, autarkes, and this is actually the only time this word is used in the whole of the New Testament! What does Paul mean by autarkes? The contentment Paul is describing by this word is essentially a profound gift which is not dependent on external circumstances. For even though he was suffering in prison, this contentment keeps welling up from within, like a spring of living water. “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.” Nothing can take away this profound inner contentment, this gift of Christ within. There is a deep strength and permanence expressed by the word. He writes, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” This contentment is a grace and gift from God, often experienced as something of a surprise! It is this contentment experienced by Paul which is perhaps the most wonderful gift of belonging to God. We are content because we are living in God’s contentment.

In my own prayers, I experience and try to deepen this gift of contentment in two quite different ways, which I hope you may find helpful in your own life of prayer. 

Firstly, I come to God with my longing and desire: that yearning for God which I first felt as a child, gazing at those “blue remembered hills” in Sussex. Saint Augustine famously wrote to God, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till we find our rest in you.” This prayer of longing is how I express my love, I think. I don’t need to say fancy prayers, but simply pray the prayer of desire. I sometimes start this kind of prayer by saying aloud Psalm 63:1-8; “O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you…” Or Psalm 42: “As the deer longs for the water brooks, so longs my soul for you, O God.” The Benedictine monk Sebastian Moore wrote, “Desire is not an emptiness longing to be filled. Desire is a fullness longing to be in relationship. Desire is love trying to happen.” That rings true to me. Come to God with your thirst. Bring to God your heart’s desire.

Secondly, and quite differently, I sometimes come to God not with my desire, nor with any emotion, but simply in silence and stillness. I sometimes start this kind of prayer with Psalm 62, verses 1-2: “For God alone my soul in silence waits…” Or the lovely verses of Psalm 131: “I still my soul and make it quiet like a child upon its mother’s breast.” Or I will sit still and simply breathe deeply and rhythmically, drawing in God’s Spirit. Or I’ll stare at a candle in awe and wonder. I sit silently and enjoy sharing in God’s contentment. Perhaps you might like to read Philippians again and experience for yourself the deep contentment which pervades the letter, and ask God to make it your own.

In the Rule of our Society, we read that “people are hungry for good news that life is full of meaning in union with God.” To be in union with God, to belong to God, gives us our truest identity, and our deepest contentment.

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