Spiritual Formation and Our Journeys Back to the Center That Holds

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.
                                                                                         –William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming

 They are words that seem like they could have been written this week or last, aren’t they?  But these words from Irish poet William Butler Yeats were written 100 years ago – in the early 1920s: a time of real turmoil and disorientation and strife in Europe and around the world.  His was a world and a time very much like ours – marked by uncertainty, a global pandemic, civil and social unrest.

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.

The imagery of his words has a childhood memory coming to mind…

Ever before there were MP3 files and players, ever before there were CDs, ever before there were cassette tapes, ever before there were 8 track tapes, there were 45 records.  (So-called because they needed to be played at 45 revolutions per minute.)

By today’s standards, such a disk should contain a whole album—at least a dozen or two dozen tracks.  But low and behold, all it held was two songs—one on the front and one on the “flip” side.

And then, there’s the big hole in the middle.  It was important when you played a 45 record that you had an adapter or an insert disk which would allow you to properly position the record on the spindle (i.e., the rod, about the size of a pen or pencil, at the center of the record player’s “platter”).

This brings me to my memories—prompted by Yates’ words.  Here, I can remember early experiments with my sister’s record player (when she wasn’t around, of course)– trying to play a record without an adapter or an insert, trying to eyeball the center of the 45 around the spindle.  With the first few rotations of the record, things would play fairly well, but then things would become a little distorted (playing fast on one side and slow on the other).  In time, as the speed of the platter picked up, the distortion would become worse and, eventually, the arm and needle would be thrown off the record.

The message is clear: without a strong enough center (a center that will hold), things can disintegrate (now, there’s a word!) and ultimately derail.

Returning to Yate’s words, I am torn.  Yes, I’d agree: things can and do fall apart.  Yes, at the speed of life, things can and do disintegrate and derail.  But, I find myself countering, there is a center that can hold.  There is an inner core that can sustain us – even as we are thrust into the worst this world can dish out.

Here, the witness of E. Stanley Jones comes to mind:

I was talking to a bishop who had retired.  He was frustrated.  When he was no longer in the limelight of the bishopric, he was frustrated and told me so..  He wanted to know the secret of victorious living.  I told him it was in self-surrender.  The difference was in giving the innermost self to Jesus.  The difference was in the texture of the things that held him.  When the outer strands [of his life] were broken by retirement, the inner strands were not enough to hold him…  Fortunately, with me, surrender to Jesus was the primary thing, and when the outer strands [of my life] were cut by this stroke, my life did not shake…  You see, I need no outer props to hold up my faith for my faith holds me [from within].

Altogether, it offers me still one more metaphor
for defining spiritual formation…
and affirming its essential place in our lives and living:
Spiritual formation is
the graceful journey

of coming back
to the Center that holds.

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