The healing power of play

Play. For kids it comes easily. But for adults it’s not something we do that often. When was the last time you played a game, acted in a skit or picked up some crayons?

It had been a long time since I had done any of these things—until I attended a contemplative retreat a few months ago. But that’s exactly what we did at the retreat. We played, we laughed, we relaxed—and something sacred happened. Continue reading

Embracing Ordinary time

Summer is one of my favorite times of year. I love the sun, the long days and the blooms in my garden. But perhaps the reason I like it most is that there are no big holidays to get ready for. In the church calendar, we are in “ordinary time” and this long stretch from Pentecost to Advent is a time when we can focus on our “ordinary” days. I can ask, how do I spend my time when I don’t have the extra obligations of the busier times of year? How can I live with more joy and a balanced rhythm of work and play?

One way to do this is by “savoring.” We all know what it means to savor our food. It means appreciating the smells, colors and textures, lingering at each bite, and enjoying the taste. It had never occurred to me we could “savor” other experiences. Perhaps ordinary time is a time to savor the ways God has met me in the first part of the year. In my times of prayer or meeting with my spiritual director I can recall and savor the special moments from the last six months, like the time a friend was baptized or my trip to visit my older son. I feel more joy when I remember the sights and sounds of these events.

I am also learning to value silence. Most days I try to take a long walk in my neighborhood. It’s easy to fill that walk with noise—music or a podcast. Those are not necessarily bad things. But I’d like to experiment a bit with silent walking. I notice more of my surroundings when I am unplugged. I make space for creative thinking and maybe even prayer.

There is still work to be done in ordinary time. Sometimes it feels quite, well, ordinary. There is shopping, cooking, cleaning, paying bills, planning trips. We all have to do a lot of routine and often boring tasks. In my better moments, though, I remember the example of Brother Lawrence, the 17th century monk who found peace in washing dishes in the monastery kitchen. He was a believer that we can experience God not just in “spiritual” activities like church but in our everyday, menial tasks.

Many contemporary authors write about this idea of experiencing God in the ordinary. Tish Harrison Warren explores this concept in her lovely book “Liturgy of the Ordinary, Sacred Practices in Everyday Life.” She breaks down a typical day, from waking up and getting dressed to losing her keys and checking e-mail, and shows how each activity is not so different from the elements of a Sunday worship service. Waking up, for example, is like baptism and “learning to be beloved.” Losing keys is like confession (because she realizes how angry and frustrated she can get by such a small thing). I particularly like her “fighting with her husband.” She compares that to passing the peace and the “everyday work of shalom.”

All of the small, ordinary events of our lives can be sacramental, says Harrison Warren, meaning that God can meet us in the “earthy, material world where we dwell.” I hope to reread this book this summer and pay more attention to the rhythms of my daily life.

This summer, unlike most summers, my family has no big travel plans. Maybe that’s why I’m feeling like I can embrace this ordinary time even more fully. Perhaps this is the summer to appreciate where I live, where God has placed me. I’m eager to attend the outdoor theater production in a neighboring town and I look forward to exploring parts of the city I’ve never been to. I know there are projects at home too. We will be putting a new roof on our house sometime in the next few months, and I’m mindful it will require patience and a heart oriented to thankfulness. I also appreciate this summer as a pause before my son’s senior year of high school, a year that will be filled with a lot of busyness as he prepares college applications and graduation requirements.

As I write this it is almost the summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere where I live. It’s a great time to practice savoring. In particular I remember past summers when I was traveling in some beautiful places. I especially remember several trips to Northern Spain, where, because of its geography, the sun didn’t set until nearly 10 pm. I’ll never forget the lively nighttime streets, the delicious tapas and paella, and our rosy cheeks from a day at the beach. I’d like to be back there again, but the memories are almost just as good.

What can you savor during this ordinary time? How can you build more silence into your days? And how can you be aware of the sacramental in the ordinary, everyday tasks of life? A friend of mine recently recounted how she had been gone for three weeks and when she returned a sunflower in her yard had grown about five feet! This reminded me that in this season of light and ordinariness amazing things are happening all around. This season, void of big holidays, can be the perfect time to notice the holy in the everyday and find reasons to orient ourselves toward joy and peace. We just might need more joy and peace in the busier times of year.

Exploring the mind-body connection

Do you have a favorite time of day? Maybe it’s looking forward to that first sip of coffee in the morning. Maybe it’s listening to your favorite song or podcast on the way home from work.

I have a few favorite times. One time is at the end of my day, maybe around 11:30 pm. That’s when I’m usually in bed, journal or book in hand, my Schnauzer cuddled up next to me. It’s also when my younger son TJ joins me, ostensibly to cuddle with the dog for a few minutes, but also for a little mom time and a back rub.

Not so many years ago TJ was a little boy and I would tuck him in his bed among his stuffed animals after reading to him. As he approached adolescence I knew those days were numbered and I became wistful that he’d no longer want that nighttime ritual. A few years later I did stop reading to TJ and instead he and his older brother Miguel simply chatted with each other as they fell asleep. Then, Miguel left for college and TJ felt alone in his big room. That’s when he started coming to me to hang out for a while before bedtime.

Mostly, our conversations revolve around the dog. Where is Romeo’s favorite place to be scratched? Is he putting on some weight? What does he dream about? In between, I read a few pages of a book and TJ looks at Reddit on his laptop. Every so often I’ll glance over in amazement at TJ’s lanky six-foot frame stretched out next to me. How did my little boy grow into this big man? Eventually, if TJ stays a long time, my husband will come in and kick him out. But he’s reluctant to interrupt our time together.

I thought of all this recently as I learned in my spiritual direction program the importance of engaging mind and body in spiritual practices. The times of hanging out with TJ before bedtime, being close physically and mentally, are almost spiritual experiences. It feels like time stops for a while. I get a sense of the transcendent in everyday life.

At my spiritual direction group this week one of the facilitators started our meeting by reminding us that it was holy week, the most important week of the Christian year. She asked us to pray holding our palms open and facing up, as a physical symbol of letting go of those things that were weighing on us. I thought of the many worries on my mind and the things I wanted to resolve. Then I thought of Jesus’ life. He only lived 33 years and, from a human perspective, that seems short. Think of how many more miracles he could have performed or sermons he could have given had he lived longer! Yet he lived a perfect life. As I sat in prayer, with my hands open, I asked God to release my striving to complete and resolve so many things. Our meeting continued on for several more hours, but that moment, with my palms turned up, was the most transcendent.

Lent and Easter can be a good time to remember the mind-body-spirit connection. For Lent we often give up something physical, like a certain food, to focus on the holy. This year, instead of giving something up, I added something healthy. A friend challenged me to walk to church instead of driving. Since the walk is only about 10 minutes, this wasn’t difficult. I just had to remember to give myself an extra 10 minutes to get to church. The extra walking felt good. I didn’t exactly pray during the walks but I found myself in a state of gratitude as I admired the neighbors’ blooming daffodils and tulip trees. I always paused at a small creek where I could hear the spring rains running by, down to the bay. One morning I saw a family of deer cross the street. I arrived at church on Sundays in a more contented, relaxed state. This is one Lenten practice I’ll hope to keep.

Last night I participated in our Maundy Thursday service, which culminated in a powerful mind-body-spirit experience—washing each other’s feet. We did this to commemorate Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, when he washed their feet to show his love toward them. I’ll admit I was a bit hesitant to wash another person’s feet and get my feet washed in return. My partner and I let a family with two small children go ahead of us in line. Surprisingly, or maybe not, the young children were eager to participate. They each had a turn in the chair, dangling their legs above the water bowl and eagerly leaning forward to get their feet washed. When that was done, they cried out, “I want to wash your feet Mommy! Can I do it, please!” It reminded me that kids aren’t self-conscious about their bodies. They can enter into an experience in a way adults often can’t—or can only through some effort. I wanted to be a bit more like those kids.

Today is Good Friday and I will once again go to church. It will be a somber service. The sanctuary will be dark except for a few candles that will be gradually snuffed out. At the end of the service we will take turns holding a heavy hammer and pounding nails into a large wooden cross. The sound of pounding will ring in my head for hours afterwards. I will remember Jesus’ short and perfect life. I will experience his suffering and death in a tiny way through the sights and sounds of the service. I would rather skip over this part of the story but I realize darkness and pain are part of our reality. I will attend this service, if not out of desire, then out of obedience to the truth of the whole story. And fortunately today isn’t the end of the story.

What will I remember of this Easter season? I may remember that this was a time when I saw more clearly the integration of mind, body and spirit. I will be thankful that I have many teachers of this lesson—my son, my spiritual direction group, friends and friends’ children. I will commit to living not just in one dimension, but in all my wholeness, slanting toward joy.

“I have the immense joy of being a [human being], a member of a race in which God became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” – Thomas Merton

Embracing Walden Pond

“Sometimes the truth depends on a walk around the lake” – Wallace Stevens

Several years ago I was staying with a friend in Boston and he suggested we visit Walden Pond. He had always wanted to go and, knowing I was a writer, thought I might enjoy seeing the place where Henry David Thoreau wrote his famous treatise on living a life of simplicity in the woods.

It was early April and the ground was slushy with snow when we visited Walden Pond. It took us at least an hour to slosh our way around the “pond,” which is really more like a small lake. We paused midway through to look in awe at the posts indicating the spot where Thoreau had built his 10-by-15-foot cabin (it no longer stands). Thoreau lived here for two years in 1845 and 1846 while he experimented with meditation, solitude and nature observation.

I had mostly forgotten about the trip to Walden Pond until I saw my friend recently. As it turns out, he enjoyed the excursion so much that he continues to visit the pond frequently. Something about the place has touched his spirit. For a few hours he can set aside his life as a busy doctor and soak in the beauty, quiet and stillness that Walden Pond offers.

I think of this today as I’m preparing to see several people in my new role as a spiritual director intern. For the next nine months I’ve been assigned to meet with four people and listen to their stories. I will help them identify their Walden Ponds, those places in their life that bring them solace or connect them to something greater than themselves. I’ll also listen to their wonderings, questions, and most likely, pain. As a spiritual director, I am not a counselor who will fix their problems. I am there to accompany them along whatever journey they are on, believing that the Holy Spirit is guiding our conversation. Most people will come wanting to deepen their relationship with God. Other people may be exploring God or their spiritual life for the first time.

I first experienced spiritual direction myself 20 years ago, when my pastor led a group of us through the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius. I saw my pastor monthly for a year and we simply talked about life and how I was experiencing God. This was a revelation. Although I had been a Christian since childhood I had never talked with anyone about God in such a direct way. It’s one thing to believe that God spoke to people in the Bible or maybe that he hears my prayers. But it’s another thing to believe that he is speaking to me today in even small things like sunsets or synchronicities—and to give voice to that experience with another human being.

Spiritual direction is countercultural. Our culture thrives on information, entertainment and noise. In spiritual direction we light a candle, invite God’s presence and take an hour to slow down and just be. The spiritual director may ask a few questions, such as: “What was life like for you today?” or “Can you describe the time today you felt most free—or least free?” Mostly though, the spiritual director listens and helps the directee go deeper into their story. The director may notice that the directee has strong emotions around a certain topic and ask the directee to say more about that. Or the director may point out certain rich words the directee uses and highlight those as significant signposts, worthy of attention. Other times, the director may suggest a few minutes of silence in the conversation. This is the ultimate countercultural gesture and for those new to direction, it may be uncomfortable at first.

It surprises people to learn that a spiritual director is not highly directive. The title of director is a little misleading. As one of our books described, the director is more of a companion or midwife. The directee is the one birthing new ideas and thoughts and the director simply helps them attend to those. The Holy Spirit is the real director. To be sure, there are models of spiritual direction in which the director is more directive, for example in the model used by orthodox priests. The model I’ve been trained in, however, positions the director much more in the place of fellow traveler.

My journey in training to be a spiritual director has taken its own twists and turns. When I started my program a year ago I envisioned the training to be mostly a head exercise. I assumed I’d be learning facts and techniques. I was only partially right. We have learned some of these things, down to some “technical” concepts like transference, whereby a directee might transfer feelings they had toward some person in their past to the current director, because the Director reminds them of that person. Or there is counter-transference whereby the director transfers feelings they had for a past person toward the directee. It is good to be aware of these dynamics and other nuts and bolts issues. However, where I’ve really been impacted is during our “practice” sessions of spiritual direction itself.

Each time we meet for training we take up roles as either director or directee, with a trained facilitator observing us. These are real sessions when we bring our real anxieties, experiences and joys to light. In these sessions as a directee I’ve talked about everything from the desire I’m feeling to spend more time writing to the sadness I’m feeling over a strained relationship. Most of the time I’ve felt a great lightness after these times of sharing and I feel buoyed even days afterwards. Sometimes I’ve felt a great heaviness as I talk over a difficult topic and I realize I need to give that issue more attention. I believe this is the work of the Holy Spirit in spiritual direction. The director usually has not directed me in any specific way; it is the Holy Spirit leading me. When I’ve taken on the role of director, I’ve sometimes been nervous. But I relax as I take in the directee’s honestness and vulnerability and I do my best to pay attention and listen well.

There are twelve of us in the spiritual direction training program and each person brings their own unique personality and strengths to their role as director. We are a diverse group of different ages, genders, interests and faith experiences and it gives me some relief to know we don’t have to fit a certain mold. In my case, I see a lot of overlap between writing/creative work and spiritual direction. A few months ago I took a class on how to interview people. The teacher told us to look for the “gold tape,” or that part of the interview that has the most energy, and “cut” for that. In spiritual direction we are also taught to “pan for gold,” to identify those places in the conversation that glimmer and go deeper in those areas. Those nuggets will often be things that the directee wants to savor—or they may be things for which the directee feels some resistance. Both of these experiences, savoring and resisting, are things we don’t generally take time to note in a “normal” conversation. We often rush through our everyday conversations in a great hurry without much contemplation.

When I visited Walden Pond I was surprised to learn that Thoreau wasn’t in complete isolation in his cabin for two years. He often entertained visitors and walked into town every day or two. If even Thoreau needed companions on his journey, then we all must need it! There is something powerful about verbalizing thought that gives it more weight. And then too, we often discover our true feelings only through sharing our thoughts with an attentive listener. In this way, spiritual direction is a gift I’ve been given and it’s a gift I want to give others. As Thoreau said, “The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.”

Looking to life beyond us

In the 2105 movie “The Martian,” astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on Mars after a dust storm causes the rest of his crew to flee. Watney knows he must make contact with the crew in order to be rescued. He is completely alone in the barren landscape of Mars. Yet he manages to keep his faith that somehow, some way he will reconnect with his team and make it home. He puts his efforts into surviving.

Sometimes Earth itself can be a lonely place too. It can feel quite desolate. We often feel we have to use all our wits to just make it one day to the next. Yet many of us have faith that there’s another thing out there in the universe that is constantly rescuing us, leading us “home.” This thing is called God and he is interested in every detail of our life.

Recently I’ve been challenged to reaffirm my belief that God is a God who cares about the big and small details of our lives. I’ve embarked on a program to train to be a spiritual director. The core of being a spiritual director is listening to people’s lives and helping them see where God has been present. It is an ancient practice that is enjoying a resurgence of interest at a time when many people, Christian and non-Christian alike, are seeking to know more about spirituality and God.

In my program the last six months, we’ve explored various contemplative practices, such as journaling, the Prayer of the Examen, centering prayer, contemplative listening, and imaginative prayer. In addition, I’ve continued meeting with my own spiritual director. In each of these practices, I’ve trusted that God is present and sometimes I catch a word or image that feels like it’s just for me. My general experience as a result of all these practices is a feeling of nourishment and well-being.

This is not to say there have not been challenges, doubts and fears. In “The Martian,” Mark Watney initially has success growing his own food thanks to the fact he had potatoes he could plant and his own waste to use as fertilizer. Then, however, a storm destroys the greenhouse he has built and he is back to ground zero. In the same way, just when I feel I am understanding spiritual direction or God, a storm blows through, causing me to rethink things.

Early on in my spiritual direction journey, I became friends with a woman who is a staunch atheist but finds herself in a space that is causing her to explore the possibility that God might just exist. In our weekly discussions she asks me just how is it that a loving God can allow suffering. Or why God seems so selfish in demanding our complete obedience. I’ve had to admit that I don’t have adequate answers to these mysteries, yet I still affirm that God cares about us deeply. I’ve never been in a relationship in which another person has so persistently questioned God, and, to be fair to the questions, I’ve questioned him too.

It’s easy to see God in the good things but not so easy to understand him in the perceived absences. Not long after I started the spiritual direction training program, I learned I would have to change my own spiritual director, whom I had seen for several years. I was upset. I had grown to trust her guidance and rely on her support. To make matters worse, just as I had to change directors several difficult relationship issues came to a head. How could God pull away this support in a time of need? I eventually did find a new director but not without much fretting. In hindsight, I realize we are almost constantly in a state of need and the months I was without a director made me feel even more strongly that having a director is a good thing—though it’s not the only thing. I can and did receive “direction” from other people.

When Mark Watney was left behind on Mars, it didn’t take long for NASA to realize his predicament. Although communication lines were cut, they desperately tried to reach him. Is God the same way with us, using any and all means to communicate with us? My faith tradition and experience tells me the answer is yes. And the contemplative practices and spiritual direction help me to slow down and see the signs. They even help me examine my doubts.

One thing so far is sure. God doesn’t leave us as we are. Through the contemplative practices and spiritual direction, I can see the faint outlines of change. As my atheist friend points out, personal growth is what God seems to be after. It may be too early to see the big picture of all this. That can wait.

A family reunion in Guatemala: Part 2

As I explained in my last post, spending a week in the little town of Panyebar, Guatemala recently was a little like a family reunion. Our “family” of Mayan Partners supporters, ages 7 to 50+, joined a group of Guatemalans of all ages, and the results were lovely and heart-warming. Like any family though, there are complex dynamics at work and some situations feel so fluid and unresolved you can only let go and let God (hopefully) direct.

First, I’ll start with the heart-warming interactions. The kids in our group took no time at all to relate to the Guatemalan kids, despite language and cultural barriers. They played basketball and soccer and endless games of duck, duck, goose. They helped out when we painted the basketball court and made crafts with the preschoolers. I’ll never forget seeing my big 16-year-old TJ and his friend Sammy, also 16, sitting on the tiny preschool chairs helping the little kids draw animals. Between them, they came up with the Spanish words for rabbit, cow, and butterfly as they talked about the pictures. The little Guatemalan kids thought it was hilarious that Sammy had the same name as one of them. They kept repeating Sammy’s full name: “Samuel Heller, Samuel Heller…” and they laughed and laughed.

Another comical moment came when the middle school girls in the village decided to braid my boys’ hair. Starting the first day, the girls crafted intricate braids in the hair of the girls in our group. Then, the second day, they turned to the boys. Their hair was just long enough to pull into tiny braids. The very next day, TJ decided that if his hair was long enough for braids, he needed a haircut. He asked one of the villagers where to get a haircut and someone led him down the road to the one barber in town. He got the cheapest haircut of his life: $1.

One surprise was how easily my older son Miguel related to the preschool teachers we worked with, who were mostly my age. We had written to them before coming that Miguel wanted to interview them to make a documentary. But we weren’t sure if these women would open up to him. Would they want to talk on camera? How would they feel interacting with a young man? As it turned out, they were completely enthusiastic about the interviews. Miguel completed three long interviews on three consecutive afternoons and the women were open and honest, talking about their lives, hopes for the future and dreams for their children. Juana broke down in tears. Dominga told me how talking to Miguel felt like talking to her own son. I realized that for these women, who work long hours taking care of so many children, being able to express themselves as individuals was quite powerful. For Miguel, what impacted him most was their deep faith that God was good and taking care of them. (Miguel hopes to put together the film this fall.)

Beyond the laughter and joy, which dominated most of our interactions, there were other situations which reflect the complexities of rural Guatemala and our desire to be friends and not merely rich American cousins. The first day we arrived, after enjoying a festive parade and welcome ceremony, some of us climbed up to the newly completed third story of the middle school and enjoyed a breathtaking view of the village below, surrounded by lush mountains and fields. One of the teachers introduced herself. She was wearing a traditional colorful Guatemalan outfit with a feature some better-off women now sport—a smartphone tucked into her wide faja (belt). She quickly told us her dream was to live in America and work as a Spanish teacher. She is single and wants a better life for her daughter. She had tried twice to apply for a visa but had been turned down. She wondered if any of us had a WhatsApp account so she could write to us. I hesitated a bit, but gave her my address, wondering what I could really do for her. I wouldn’t want to cultivate false hopes. I have no idea how to apply for a visa, and even if she got one, I imagined making it in America would be pretty tough. Was it really worth it to leave this beautiful place? Then again, the job opportunities are so limited here, people are very poor and the village is isolated. The school is one of the only employers in town. I haven’t heard from her yet but maybe someday I will.

Another situation that left me somewhat confused happened with a former employee of the school, a woman named Flory. Flory had been a secretary at the school until a few years ago when our group and local leaders decided to implement a policy to eliminate nepotism, which had caused some problems. (Flory is the daughter-in-law of the head of the local committee that runs the school. Her husband Feric and some other teachers also had to leave the school because of the nepotism rule.) Our group reached out to Flory after she lost her job and asked her to make handicrafts for sale in the U.S. as a way to earn income. For two years, she and a group of other women made Christmas ornaments that we sold. We sent many e-mails back and forth to coordinate. Then, this year, I stopped hearing from Flory. My many e-mails went unanswered. What had happened?

Our second day in Panyebar, two of us went to Flory’s house but only found Feric, working hard behind a huge loom. It turned out that since losing his job at the school he turned to the only other industry in the village besides farming, which is weaving cloth. He said Flory was out but would be glad to speak to us and we arranged to meet with her the next day.

The next day came and Flory received us in a friendly way, but seemed a bit reserved (I later realized this was her personality). She was dressed in a purple hupil (blouse) with matching earrings and a traditional corte (skirt). I asked Flory whether she had gotten my e-mails and she simply said she hadn’t received them (she thought maybe they had been bloqueado–blocked). In any case, she now had a new address. I asked whether she still wanted to make ornaments and she told me a long story about how she now had a part-time job in another town teaching young people to make handicrafts. Finally, though, she said she would very much like to make the ornaments. I was glad to hear this but also felt unsatisfied about our communication. I had hoped for a better explanation. Why had she not written me with her new e-mail address? It’s never easy though to read people’s thoughts or motives, especially when another language and culture is involved.

The good news is, Flory and I are now in e-mail communication again. Even better, we had a subsequent good meeting in which took she me around the village to meet the women who make the ornaments. Most are young mothers, caring for small children. One spoke very little Spanish and Flory had to translate my Spanish to Quiche. As Flory and I walked between the houses, on little dirt paths, she told me of several other projects she’s involved in, such as teaching literacy classes in her home and setting up a handicraft center in Panyebar. It’s clear this is a woman with vision.

As I reflect more on my interactions with Flory and the other villagers, I realize that most of the people we met in Panyebar did, in fact, have vision. They have dreams and hopes for their lives. In that way, they are no different from us. Just how we Norteamericanos can help them in reaching those visions is an ongoing question. Thankfully, we don’t need to depend on ourselves for all the answers. Like the villagers, we have faith that God will provide and lead. More than anything, our work in Panyebar is a trust-building exercise–with each other and with God.

First steps on the path to spiritual direction

“Spiritual director? What’s that?”

I hear that question a lot when I tell friends that I have started a program to train to be a spiritual director. Most people have never heard of spiritual direction, even though it’s been around for hundreds of years. It’s understandable. Spiritual direction was a practice confined to Catholic monks and nuns for most of its history. Only in the last few decades or so has the practice been adopted by lay people and Protestants.

I was fortunate to learn about spiritual direction almost 20 years ago from my Protestant pastor. At the time she was leading a group of us at church in doing the Ignatian exercises, a 30-week period of intense study of Jesus’ life and Saint Ignatius’ writings. Over the course of the 30 weeks we met regularly one-on-one with Pastor Helen or her husband Pastor Max. The one-on-one meetings were a revelation to me. Never before had I participated in a conversation solely focused on how God was working in my life. I had been in lots of Bible studies and prayer meetings but nothing like this. To talk with someone uninterrupted for one hour about spiritual matters changed me and my whole outlook. I began to see things, even ordinary things, through spiritual lens.

Once our Ignatian group ended, so did my meetings with Helen. I could have continued I suppose, but with a baby to take care of, I didn’t think I had the time. Many years passed and I longed for the type of spiritual conversations I’d had with Helen. In the meantime Helen moved to Chicago. Then, about three years ago, as I was surfing the Internet, I came across the web page for Mercy Center, a Catholic retreat center in Burlingame. Through a program there I started meeting with a director again, and then one thing lead to another. My director moved to Seattle, I started meeting with Helen again (over Skype), and last summer I decided to apply to a program where I could study to be a spiritual director. I recently completed my first two months of training at the Journey Center in Santa Rosa.

Actually, I should say I am exploring becoming a director. The idea of directing anyone in spiritual matters is daunting. I don’t feel like a spiritual giant or mentor. I am not particularly rigorous about my faith nor do I feel like I pray enough, read the Bible enough or practice charity enough (unless you consider lavishing attention on my pets charity). I like to think I’m a good listener, however, and this is a key component of spiritual direction. Mostly the director offers a sacred space and listens deeply to the directee, It’s a type of listening we don’t often encounter in everyday life.

Here’s how my last session with my director started:

First, my director lit a candle and prayed that the Holy Spirit would be present in our conversation.

Director: What would you like to talk about today?

Me: There are so many things, I’m not sure.

Director: Well, how is your writing going?

Me: Oh, I feel like I’ve hit some roadblocks.

Director: Tell me about these roadblocks.

Me: Well, I wanted to write an article about grandparents so I decided to call some people–my aunts and uncles and brother-in-law–to interview them. But I kept putting it off. I think I feel shy about calling myself a writer and enlisting others to take part in that.

Director: So, how could you move past these roadblocks?

Me: I don’t know.


Me: Well, encouragement from other people helps. I could talk to other writers I know.

Director: You could do that. But tell me more about the roadblocks. Can you go around them or over them?

Me: I was thinking over.


Me: Actually, this reminds me of a roadblock I encountered before I started the spiritual direction program. I was talking with a friend of my father’s, a man who works in a seminary and has been in Christian circles his whole life and he didn’t know what spiritual direction was. I was so surprised. I realized then that if I pursued this direction thing I would have to explain it a lot. But in a strange way that made me more zealous about doing this. I really want people to understand it, maybe even try it.

Director: I hear that word zeal. Is that something you need in your writing too?

Me: Yes, I think I need to feel like my writing is important, that I have something worthwhile to say. I need to be zealous about it.

It’s notable that neither my director nor I mentioned God directly in that conversation. Instead, before beginning we asked God to be present, to direct the conversation. In fact, these conversations don’t happen in an isolated way, as no conversation does. The word “roadblock” was on my mind because another friend had used that word a few days earlier describing her own struggles. And “zealous”—that may have been lurking in my mind because my Bible reading that morning was about the apostle Stephen, one of the more zealous apostles. Perhaps spiritual direction is a place where all our percolating thoughts get mixed together and graced by God’s spirit to help us move forward, sort of like a purposeful dream.

While I don’t know for sure if I’ll become a spiritual director, the program has so far borne fruits, even in the first two months. For example, we learned about praying the “examen,” a prayer that helps you look back over each day and consider God’s movement in your life. While the examen wasn’t new to me, I learned two new aspects: one, identifying something you are proud of during the last day, and two, naming something you need God’s help with the following day. I’ve added those two components and it’s been good. Some days I initially feel like there’s not much to be proud of, but after a few minutes, God always brings something to mind, even if it’s something small. Praying about the next day has helped me take initiative in some areas I would have ignored. Some are spiritual; some are mundane. Two nights ago during prayer I realized I was really missing practicing Spanish. I prayed that the next day I would have the discipline to listen to a Spanish podcast I’d recently discovered. I made a point to do that the next day and ended up listening to two podcasts!

Another fruit of the program has been reading thoughtful books about prayer and the practice of listening. In one book I discovered a wonderful prayer written by Hafiz, a fourteenth-century Sufi mystic and poet:

In the morning
When I began to wake,
It happened again—
That feeling
That You, Beloved,
Had stood over me all night
Keeping watch,
That feeling
That as soon as I began to stir
You put Your lips on my forehead
And lit a Holy Lamp
Inside my heart.

Is the God of the universe watching over us even as we sleep? Most days I wholeheartedly believe this. But there is infinite mystery in this and I’m a long way from understanding it. If I listen closely, though, to my life and to others’, I begin to see the outline of God’s movements. Seeing this more clearly is my hope in becoming a spiritual director.

What I want for Christmas


When I was a child, the month of December seemed to pass so slowly. I would count the days until Christmas and it seemed to take forever. I couldn’t wait until Christmas morning when my brother and I would get up early, rush to the Christmas tree and tear open the presents. What special gifts would be waiting there? In the picture above I am wearing overalls I got for Christmas when I was 10. I really wanted those overalls. I was serious about the overalls. I wore them every day for two weeks straight, right into January. It’s like that with kids and their favorite gifts.

These days the Christmas season rushes by. Thanksgiving is over and suddenly it’s Christmas season. Time to buy a tree. Time to decorate the house. Time to buy gifts. As an adult, there doesn’t seem to be time to fit in all the errands, shopping and preparations. In the background linger all the voices that tell you what you should be doing. Maybe this is the year you should write your Christmas letter early (if at all) or this is the year you should put up those Christmas lights languishing in the basement. So many shoulds can take the joy right out of the holiday. It’s a challenge to quiet the shoulds and live in the present moment.

That Christmas when I was 10 I had my first “boyfriend.” He was a cute strawberry blonde with freckles. A few weeks before Christmas break he gave my best friend a little folded up piece of paper for me. It said, “Will you go steady? Mike” Only a few of the cool kids were going steady so I was flattered. I wrote “yes” below the question and sent it back to him. I hardly knew him and we didn’t talk after our note exchange. Then Christmas break came and I forgot about him until one day he arrived at my door with a gift. I was so embarrassed when my mother told me there was a boy to see me that I refused to come to the door. He left the gift with my mother. I later opened the gift and it was a set of Snoopy stationery. I loved it and kept it for many years, unused in a drawer. After Christmas break I returned to school and saw Mike again. I don’t remember whether I thanked him for the gift, but I must have, considering I was always taught to thank people. One day a few weeks later it was rainy and we had to stay inside for lunch. The kids were restless. Pretty soon some of the kids decided to play truth or dare. To my horror, they dared Mike to kiss me. Not only did I not want to kiss Mike, I hated being the center of attention. Instinctively I ran under a table and hid. Everyone laughed. That was the end of our going steady.

With the small boyfriend drama behind me I could turn to my interests at the time, which included dressing up my miniature Schnauzer in old baby clothes and playing superballs with my friend Kim. I still have the album of photos I made of my dog in various outfits. I don’t have the shoebox of brightly colored superballs, but I trust some other kid somewhere is having fun with those. Kids generally have such simple interests and I take that as a lesson today. Yes, I do have adult responsibilities, but I can still savor simple things. In fact, in light of my responsibilities and the shoulds, I need to savor simple things. Simple things today can mean adding a little egg nog to my morning coffee or writing a little extra in my journal. At the top of my Christmas list is a “frother,” so I can froth milk to make foam for my coffee. Next is a new leather moleskin journal and some nice pencils. Simple pleasures to enjoy the moment.

Of course, what I really want for Christmas these days will not come as a present under the tree. It’s what most of us want—a happy family, good health, fulfilling projects—and perhaps a dash of adventure. One of my most memorable recent Christmases contained almost all of that in a comical way. All four of us, my husband and two sons, had driven out to Salt Lake City, Utah a few days after Christmas to celebrate the holidays with my brother and his family. We had a great time sitting around talking, watching movies and sledding on a nearby hill. The snow-covered Utah mountains were beautiful and a nice change of scenery from the Bay Area. For reasons I don’t remember, we left on New Year’s Eve to make the l2-hour drive back to Berkeley. We passed through the frozen Salt Flats and then crossed the desolate Utah/Nevada border where you can drive 50 to 100 miles without seeing a town. Just after speeding by Winnemucca, Nevada, the halfway point of our trip, our car began to making sputtering noises and losing power. Panicked, we pulled off to the side of the road and called AAA. Fortunately we were just miles outside of Winnemucca and a driver came fairly quickly. We were towed back to town and found out that our car’s timing belt had broken. The bad news was that, since this was a holiday, they wouldn’t be able to get the part for our car until January 2. We were effectively stuck in Winnemucca for three days! A little dejected, we checked into the Winnemucca Hotel, which boasted its own small casino and restaurant. We drove our loaner car around the town (which took about 2 minutes) and cheered a little when we saw there was actually a movie theater (playing the Muppet Movie) and a Basque restaurant. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all. As it turned out, we spent a very happy couple of days in Winnemucca. Besides our outing to the movie theater and Basque restaurant, we sat in our little hotel room watching bad TV shows, writing thank you notes on Winnemucca postcards and reading and rereading “Of Mice and Men,” which my son had in his backpack. It seemed that time had stopped.

I don’t know exactly what Christmas will bring this year but as long as I have loved ones near I expect it will be good. I just hope time will slow down enough to enjoy all the right moments.

PostScript: Last summer we stayed at the Winnemucca Hotel for a night on our way to a family reunion in Colorado. We reminisced about being stuck there a few years back. There was no time for a movie or a Basque meal but I have a feeling we’ll be back again.

Consolation, desolation and the election

burning_candles_in_the_dark_199518For the last few years I’ve followed an ancient practice of the church, the daily prayer of the examen. Conceived by St. Ignatius of Loyola in the 1500s, the prayer of the examen has enjoyed a popular resurgence in recent years as people search for new (or old) ways to connect with God. The examen involves prayerfully examining your day and looking for points of “consolation” and “desolation.” Consolation may be a point in the day when you felt most grateful while desolation may be the point in the day when you felt least grateful. Another way to look at it is when in the day you most felt God’s presence versus when in the day you least felt his presence. I’ve found it to be a helpful and encouraging tool as I bring before God both my thankfulness and neediness.

This last week since the election I’ve felt both consolation and desolation. My feelings of desolation are not surprising, and they look like classic desolation—a mixture of hopelessness and despair. I ask, how can a man who has said so many hateful, thoughtless and damaging things possibly be our next president? How could so many people look past these dangerous statements and still vote for him? Moreover, how can so many people who share my faith think so differently than me? There is no ready “fix” for desolation. I simply bring to God my heaviness of heart, my fears for the future and my grief for the present. I believe God can bear my burden (“love bears all things” Corinthians 13:8). I take comfort in the fact that Jesus himself lived in an oppressive time, contending with an all-powerful Roman government, and he understands my despair.

I don’t really want to write about desolation though. What I want to write about is consolation. Because even in times of hardship, God supplies consolation. Despite what I perceive as bad news, God finds a way to bring moments of grace and blessing. One of the blessings of this post-election season have been some of the honest, heartfelt conversation I’ve had with people. There is a genuine interest in discerning how to best shape our future. How can we get involved to stop potential injustices and support the changes we want to see? I see people online calling their representatives in congress and signing petitions. This seems to be a first step to what could be a larger movement of activism. I’ve never been a particularly political person, but I feel hopeful, maybe even energized, as I consider how I can get involved.

What will God do with all this? What I do know is that God works at a very personal level to encourage us on whatever path we are on. Recently at work a woman named Judy joined our staff. She sits next to me and about a month ago we began to eat lunch together. At first glance, I thought Judy and I had little in common. She is twenty years older and single, with no kids. With the election season at hand, however, Judy and I discovered we shared similar views and it was a great “consolation” to process the news of the day with her. Several nights, when I prayed the examen, I thanked God for the consolation of my new friend Judy and our conversations.

In a more dramatic way, God consoles through healing. One of the harder conversations I had after the election was with a family member on the other side of the fence. It would have been easy to dispatch quickly with the election results in our conversation, but I made a point to tell him how truly sad and disappointed I was. He said he was sorry about this and asked me why I was so disappointed. We proceeded to have a calm, honest conversation about the election. We ended by both saying we loved one another. We can’t heal all the divisions everywhere, but it’s a start to face the ones right in front of you.

I’d be dishonest to say that my consolations don’t sometimes get overwhelmed by my desolations. It’s easy to feel like any small efforts (like calling a congressperson) or even bigger efforts (like volunteering for an immigrants support group) won’t amount to much when compared with the juggernaut of power our president and his advisers will command. I wish I could say I had an answer to deal with this type of discouragement. Simple platitudes and Bible verses don’t always help much. I can only say that I must be a person of integrity and do whatever small or large thing is asked of me. In the meantime, I’ll keep praying the prayer of the examen nightly. In this crazy and tumultuous time I need more space for reflection and quiet than ever. And every day, I commit to seeing God’s consolation.



Reflections after the Paris attacks


My first thought when I heard about the Paris attacks on Friday was of my children. What kind of world was this that they would have to live in? Would these kinds of attacks become more and more frequent? Would they become as commonplace in Europe,as they already are in the Middle East? How could my children live and thrive in such a violent world? If I had to do it all over again, that is, have children, would I still do so in today’s world? I had to pause and think about it. So much has changed in the last 18 years since my first son was born.

My children were 4 and 1 when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center. I still remember sitting at the kitchen table with them having breakfast when my husband returned unexpectedly from a meeting. He had heard the news and instinctively came back home to be with us and tell us about it. We turned on the TV and saw the image of the crash replayed over and over. I don’t remember what we told the kids about the events or even if we let them watch TV. The truth is, 911 shook up my husband’s and my world, which had never seen this kind of attack before, but for our children, the effect was different. They had no point of comparison. They didn’t know 911 was so impactful. For them now, there is no pre-911 world.

Since 911 there have been countless terrorist attacks in many places, from a hotel in Mumbai to a shopping center in Nairobi to the city streets of Beirut to a train station in Madrid. Unfortunately, these attacks, combined with the many acts of gun violence we witness each year in the United States, has made our world a scarier place. The effects on my children’s world are subtle. After the Sandy Hook shootings in 2012 for instance, their school hired a security guard for the parking lot and installed a camera and buzzer for the front door. Thankfully we haven’t been affected personally by any of these events, but it’s impossible to escape the ever-present images of violent carnage and the caustic debates about gun ownership. Ironically, this violence even seeps into play time. One of my sons loves video games and many of his games feature shoot ‘em up type activity. One such popular game, called Counter-Strike, pits terrorists against counter-terrorists. It’s a little too realistic in my opinion, but when we’ve talked about it he assures me it’s just a game. Two seconds later, he switches to a game in which he’s a virtual teradactyl swooping through a jungle and seems just as immersed in this world.

Where do we look for hope amidst the darkness? I found it very hopeful that the day after the Paris attacks, people were out in the streets talking about the need to carry on life as usual and present a united front. In the same way, we need to celebrate all the acts of courage we see in the world. They are all around us. My retired neighbor, for instance, volunteers as an ESL teacher in inner-city Richmond. I’m sure my kids don’t know this. Wouldn’t it be great to invite her to dinner and have her share her experiences? My nephew JP is currently in Nepal, volunteering his time to help rebuild communities destroyed by the earthquake. It would be great to invite him over as well and hear his stories. I can probably think of dozens more people doing good in the world. For every terrorist there are many more good-hearted, courageous people.

As I write this, it is almost the time of advent, the month leading up to Christmas. As a Christian I am called to pause and reflect on the miracle of Jesus’ birth. God sent his son into a world that was marked by violence and war, much like our own. The Romans were brilliant but also ruthless. Indeed, just days after Jesus was born his family had to flee to Egypt because Herod had issued a decree ordering all baby boys in Bethlehem killed. Jesus spent his first five years as a refugee in Egypt. (That’s a point we should remember in debates about welcoming refugees.) In any case, God sent his son with a very specific mission. One of his chief motives was to give us an example of how to live a loving life. Even if you are not a Christian, Jesus’ life is inspiring, filled with acts of wisdom and kindness. He went as far as loving his enemies, even asking for God to forgive his persecutors as he died on the cross.

My prayer this year is that my sons (and myself) can live such a loving life. Despite the violence and hate around us, I pray for courage to face each day with hope and love and also opportunities to recognize those that are already doing good around us. In fact, one goal of my blog this coming year is to highlight the stories of outstanding people. We need more stories of hope to counter despair. And my boys need to hear the abundant good in the world today.