Some innies and outies of spirituality

Retreat & Exposure: When Extroverts Become Silent–

and Introverts are Exuberant

I’ve spent much of the past year considering and appreciating silence and trying to assess its role in my own spiritual life. I took an online course called “The Uses of Silence,” and came away convinced more than ever that silence is deeper and more profound than the simple absence of sound. I am moving in the direction of considering silence a form of revelation or a form of knowing. In a culture that appears to decry and belittle—indeed, to fear–silence, I am concluding that quietness and silence provide a pathway to a deeper relationship with God.

Wouldn’t you know that just when I think I’m beginning to understand the nature of contemplation and serenity as a part of our need for private, introverted time alone with God, along comes the argument in favor of deep spirituality for extroverts, extolling a life of prayer and devotion that “appeals to those who thirst for inebriation in the vast fullness of life.”

Father W. Paul Jones, a Roman Catholic (ex-Methodist) university and seminary professor, has brought me up short with a little tract he’s written entitled, A Spirituality for Extroverts. (This theme runs through several of the 11 books Jones has published, but this little pamphlet from The Forward Movement, the Episcopal devotional publishers in Cincinnati, summarizes his thinking on extrovert spirituality.)

Because of the culture of introversion in which he was raised–where quiet aloneness was cherished, where the deliberate, slow and silent processing of experience was encouraged, where deep and devoted mulling always preceded action–Jones grew up believing “I didn’t have a spiritual bone in my body.”

For over 30 years, Jones writes, “I was left with the conclusion that if ‘God’ was whatever was supposed to happen in the silent insides of me, then I was doomed to be a spiritual failure.”

Jones takes us through a tiny history of contemplative Christianity, noting that Teresa of Avila placed contemplation at the apex of one’s prayer life and advocated “a consuming silence transcending all relationships” as her spiritual goal.

Similarly, John of the Cross suggests spirituality is “divorced from all things external” to the extent that even the appreciation of natural beauty must be broken.

Where does this leave the exuberant energy that marks the Pepsi Generation? Jones asks. He says the introverted spirituality of these saints implied that any spirituality claiming his extroverted personality would need to reclaim what the saints appear to deny. His spirituality would involve “a yearning to taste, smell, hear, touch, and see in all things.”

Without giving away Jones’ solution to the extrovert’s spiritual dilemma with which he struggled (enough to say he finds a corrective model in the incarnation of Jesus Christ), I share a bit of advice that probably rescued me from similar introvert-extrovert bewilderment in my continuing search for a spiritual path; although, my dilemma probably had more to do with hyperactivity than a quest for spirituality, and my quest is by no means over.

A wise professor with whom I studied the New Testament urged upon his students a strategy of retreat and exposure. He argued that we needed time alone to think and get our professions properly ordered; however, he also argued that isolated aloneness was minimally helpful over an extended period; we needed to expose our well-honed thinking and beliefs to both friends and critics.

“Retreat and exposure,” he repeated as his scholarly mantra. “Retreat and exposure” must become the way of spiritual growth.

That mantra made sense to me. Each time I sought to retreat into some sanctuary or quiet place to “get alone with God,” I grew lonesome and fidgety. Conversely, in a crowd of worshipers, I found myself often longing for a quiet and isolated time to speak with God. Retreat and exposure outlined for me two facets of my spiritual quest, both valuable and necessary. The same God who urged stillness also urged going into the entire world, or in my professor’s words: “Retreat and exposure.”

I have never been able to classify myself accurately on the introvert-extrovert scale. If I can be permitted a sports metaphor: I’ve always valued true teamwork, but I know that when a player steps into a batter’s box or goes to the free-throw line, that player is utterly alone. There’s a time for retreat and a time for exposure. In sports, that usually translates into defense and offense, both of which the game requires.

Jones uses a series of poetic descriptions to capture this dual nature of spirituality. He calls it “a carnal spirituality,” a “fleshly mysticism,” a “sacramental living.” Deep spirituality, he suggests, is “a cello well played, a motorcycle aimed at the sunset, a contagious laughter, a friendship wanting nothing, a playful kite at the end of its string, a child’s giggle.”

Where seriousness characterizes the introvert’s spirituality, Jones notes levity is the mark of an extrovert’s spiritual life. “What silence is for introverts,” he writes, “music is for extroverts.”

The key, I think, for understanding Jones’ extrovert spirituality is recognizing that greed and self-centeredness have no place in his engagement of the world and of life.

Whether we are introverted or extroverted, our spirituality has nothing to do with us; it’s not all about me; it’s ultimately about God and who I am in my relationship to my Creator-Redeemer and the wonderful world I find myself trying to understand.

The apostle John probably captured this best in speaking about Jesus: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30, KJV).

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