Spirit Alive: Modulation as a Spiritual Practice

Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog that looks at different aspects of mission and ministry throughout the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church and beyond.
January 10, 2017

With Heart, Soul, and Mind:

How Will You Choose to Invest Your Spiritual Energy this Year?

As a new year begins, it is as good of a time as any to consider how you wish to invest your spiritual energy in the coming year. One way to consider this is to consider a spiritual practice I call modulation. Over the years, I've read everything from the Rule of St. Benedict to The Imitation of Christ...from George Fox and John Wesley's Journals to The Cloud of Unknowing. But in all my reading, I have seldom run across one spiritual practice that I think is a crucial part of living a spiritual life. It is something Jesus practiced regularly as he encountered a variety of situations. It is what I call spiritual modulation.

In the dictionary, modulation is defined as "the act of adjusting or adapting to a certain proportion;
regulate; temper...to change or vary the pitch, intensity, or tone of something." It often refers to modulating one's voice in singing or playing in music. It is also used in the fields of architecture and electronics.
But in terms of spirituality, you seldom see this word ever mentioned. When this idea is referenced in some way, it tends to refer more to how one should moderate their own spiritual life, not how to engage one's spiritual energy with those around them. In older spiritual writings, the closest we come to the idea of modulation is the notion of moderation or temperance. Sometimes it has to do with humility. Today, we might think about it as having to do with emotional intelligence or self individuation. But none of these concepts quite describes what I mean by the spiritual practice of modulation.  .
In The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis says: "He who knows how to walk with the light from within and makes little of all outward things, needs no special place nor definite time to perform his (or her) religious exercises. The interior man (or woman) recollects himself quickly, because he never wholly pours himself out on external things." This is helpful, but not quite what I'm talking about regarding modulation.

In The Cloud of Unknowing, the author writes: "I tell you, that if you keep this law of love and this life-giving counsel, it really will be your spirit's life. Interiorly, you will know the repose of abiding in God's love. Exteriorly, your whole personality will radiate the beauty of his love, for with unfailing truth, it will inspire you with the most appropriate response in all your dealings with your fellow Christians."
Now this is getting closer to the matter. But again, for me, modulation has to do with assessing a situation and discerning how best to invest one's spiritual energy. It isn't just about my interior journey. It has to do with how much spiritual energy I invest in things going on around me. Do I need to speak out? Or...be more silent? Do I need to frame a question in a particular way that moves the conversation more deeply? Should I share a story that takes the conversation in a new direction? Or...should I simply try to lighten things up? These aren't just personal decisions. They have to do with the spiritual practice of modulation.
Here are some questions to consider: How do you invest your presence and energy in a given situation? Sure, teachings on spiritual practice generally say to be "fully present," but "fully present" in what ways? Do you contribute what you are uniquely positioned to offer in order to positively impact what is taking place? Do you end up over or under investing your energy? Do you hold back, so that the spiritual energy already present and being offered by others can be given room to grow? Do you see the opportunities to contribute spiritually in ways that help to advance the situation? These are the questions that impact how one modulates one's energy in a given situation.
Just asking yourself these questions may give you enough time to determine how best to bring your own
energy to a gathering...and as a result, help guide you in terms of how best to influence what is taking place. It is always easy to over engage. It is also possible to hold back too much and not contribute what you are uniquely positioned to offer. Jesus was a master of spiritual modulation. It is why wherever he was, people felt that God was present there as well.

Modulation has to do with a number of character qualities, including humility and self-assurance, compassion and justice, prayer and prophecy. But it isn't simply one or the other of these. It is the alchemy of deciding how much of any of these spiritual qualities to contribute to a given situation.
Modulation involves discernment...and then applying what you have to offer. It is a kind of spiritual alchemy, much like seeing a master chef at work in a kitchen. He/she isn't just following the recipe, they are putting just the right combination of ingredients into the dish, so that the result is something to savor. This is spiritual modulation at its best. It is an experience to enjoy and savor long after the meal (encounter) has been taken place.
 Now here's the catch. It is one thing to understand this. It is quite another to actually practice it successfully. I have struggled with the practice of modulation all my life. I have my good days...and my not-so-good, even bad, days. Ultimately, there is a little bit of spiritual Goldilocks in it all: not too much....not too little...but finding just the right amount of spiritual energy to harness and invest in a given situation. This means that we depend on the community to help us a bit as well: "I think we're getting too much of you here, could you give others some space to find and use their voice and gifts?"...or "We really need a bit more of you here. You've got gifts to offer that could make a difference in the outcome, if only you'd share who you are with the rest of us!"

I call this whole endeavor a spiritual discipline because it is not an easy thing to do. At least, I've never found it to be easy! In fact, I'd call it a spiritual art more than a discipline. Over the years, I've worked at this art in my own life in a variety of settings, but I still find myself coming up short all the time.
Did I over-engage and not allow others the opportunity they need to find and use their public voice? Did I miss the opportunity to positively impact a conflict, a struggle, a frustration in a way that I'm uniquely qualified to do? Keeping these questions before us is precisely why it is a discipline to be practiced... rather than an achievement to be accomplished.
In many ways, The Prayer of St. Francis says it best:
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

So how good are you at investing your spiritual energy these days? Are you able to modulate what you have to offer in ways that help bring about transformation in the world? As I look at myself and the world around me, I'd say we all have our work cut out for us, especially in the days ahead.

Let us walk in the light of God's love,
Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog and email by Rev. Lowell Greathouse, Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Conference. It seeks to identify where the spirit is alive in our congregations and communities. Check out past editions, or subscribe to the email list.



Lowell Greathouse
Lowell Greathouse is the Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Conference of the United Methodist Church. He looks for places to find where the spirit is alive and help them grow in vitality and fruitfulness. Share with him at lowell@umoi.org