By the Reverend Dr. Johanna McCune Wagner
Director of Spiritual Life
The ancient world loved the symbolism of numbers. The seven days that went into a week. The twelve months that went into a year. The integrity of the number ten. The wisdom embodied in series featuring three elements: a middle term between two extremes.
If one of these numbers put in an appearance in a story, it meant something: that a character was perhaps especially close to God or good.
“There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east.”
For us modern people numbers can also serve as important spiritual tools. Numbers can help us set the kinds of behavioral goals capable of changing our moods or reframing our relationships.
For example, we can set a goal of counting 100 blessings every day as a means of cultivating gratitude.
We can take the prophet Muhammad’s advice and refrain from anger until we have come up with 77 excuses for another person’s offensive behavior.
Or we can incorporate into our spiritual disciplines St. Ignatius’ emphasis on doing a twice-daily accounting, once after lunch, the second time after dinner, of the number of times we have fallen short that day in our attempt to correct some bad spiritual habit.
People often get frustrated when they try to change an aspect of their personality or perspective. They will make the decision to become kinder, bolder, more thankful or God-conscious people, only to discover that this desire for change does not necessarily translate into change. Post-resolution, they will catch themselves looking at people with just as much petty irritation as they ever did.
Often, people’s frustration stems from a misunderstanding about behavioral change. Wanting to be different is one thing. Practicing being different is another.
This week in Constructive Meditation we will look at some of the ways faith traditions have tried to use numbers to help people grow in piety and virtue. We will set some numeric goals of our own and see if practice can make perfect, not just on the playing field, but in our spiritual lives, too.
Editor’s Note: Constructive Meditation has been offered to Culver Academies’ students for the last several years. It focuses on building age-appropriate mindfulness skills and fostering wisdom through journaling projects and group activities. These are based on disciplines as diverse as Quaker clearness committees and the study of the sunnah by the Prophet Muhammad. This is the first year for Culver Summer Schools & Camps. This series of articles by the Rev. Dr. Johanna McCune Wagner, director of Spiritual Life, describes of what campers are doing week-to-week