What St. Teresa is teaching me about the new year

I’m giving myself an hour or two to write this morning. As with a lot of my writing, I don’t know where this will go. But today seems significant. It’s the last day of the year; tomorrow is a new decade. It seems right to pause, to linger over my coffee and enjoy a bit of solitude before tonight’s festivities. Continue reading

Showing Miguel’s film in Guatemala–heartbreak and hope

As soon as her face appeared on the screen, her husband began to sob. He cried loudly and his moans filled the packed classroom. I began to cry too as I heard his grief. I glanced around and saw everyone else—the middle school students, the teachers and her family–wiping away tears as well. Continue reading

Hanging out my shingle

I added a new page to my web site this week. It announces my entry into the world of spiritual direction. I’m now a certified spiritual director (as of March 9) and this page describes a bit about spiritual direction. Continue reading

This Lent, I give up worry

Lent begins today. Months ago, however, I knew what I should give up this season: worry.

Continue reading

Thoughts on a changing Christmas

I am a mother on the cusp of change. My youngest son will leave for college next year. And this holiday season the familiar signs of Christmas—the sparkling lights, the ornaments on the tree and the special sweets—reminded me that as much as life stays the same, it doesn’t stand still. Continue reading

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.