When you are on a spiritual path, your community—-your people—-are important to your on-going discernment. You probably have a spiritual community whether it is a church, spiritual group, 12-step group or a circle of friends you can be fully yourself with.
How do you feel about your spiritual community (or communities)? Are they nurturing you? Are you nurturing others in the community?
This is an important question for a lot of people for whom traditional forms of spiritual community are falling short. It’s a question spiritual directors frequently ask of new directees.
We need to know who our “tribe” is and have a place where we fit.
Not having this community can lead to loneliness and alienation.
Perhaps we will have to redefine community and find new ways to be in community. That is the challenge many traditional spiritual institutions face right now as memberships decline and people’s levels of commitment dwindle. If old communities do not stay alive and vital, new ones will need to be birthed.
If your spiritual community is just what you need it to be—-Congratulations! Spread the word. If not, know that you are part of a great big world of spiritual seekers also yearning for something new.
It’s the beginning of Lent and Facebook is full of Christians posting what they are doing to clear out space for God in their lives as they move toward Easter.
By contrast, the lectionary scripture for today is Matthew 6: 1-6 (beware of practicing your piety before others….). I certainly have no problem with people announcing their Lenten practice—or any other spiritual practice, value or belief that is important to them. Other scriptures tell us to “let our light shine before others.”
Today’s passage does make me wonder, though, what do people of faith do when no one is looking? What spiritual practice do they do in secret, in their rooms alone with God who is in secret?
What do you do with God or for God that you don’t feel the need to tell anyone about?
I like to imagine all the people—from any and all religions—that are quietly praying and working for peace.
I envision all the people sitting in meditation, listening for a word from God.
I like to believe there are people cheerfully and discreetly opening their hearts, their hands and their wallets to causes that make the world a better place.
I want to believe there are many of us praying and working for an end to violence and poverty.
I don’t have to see it posted somewhere. Faith tells me it is happening “under the radar.”
May your Lent be meaningful.
Humility is the spiritual practice of removing yourself as the center of the universe and considering all that you do not know. It can be an awe-inspiring experience! Very freeing.
However, in our culture today, humility is viewed as one of the worst sins a person can commit— the sin of having low self esteem. I was perusing advertisements for jobs recently and saw one looking for “a rock star.” (And it was for a job in the health care industry). So today we can’t just be the best version of ourselves. No, we must be ROCK STARS in order to compete.
Rock star = opposite of humble.
Humility is also a tough concept for a lot of women. Some of us were raised to fade into the background. Not call attention to ourselves. Be quiet and submissive. So when women consider humility, it is easy to think “been there, done that” or “someone is just trying to shut me up.”
Humility is not about being a wallflower. It is about the intentional stepping back in order to allow something or someone else to shine. As John the Baptist once said about Jesus, “I must decrease so that he may increase.”
Humility is acknowledging that what you know and understand is limited. That it is OK not to know everything. It’s OK to be a small part of a great big world.
Yes, we are supposed to shine and “be all we can be.” But we do so knowing that everyone else is capable of the same thing.
Humility grounds us, in the best possible way.
How is it that you practice humility?
Each of us is born with gifts. And it is our responsibility to cultivate them, use them for the good of the world, preserve them and, at times, protect them.
Since we are in a season that emphasizes giving, it’s a good time to think about what our gifts are.
Gifts are not the same as acquired skills. We may be very skilled at something but actually have little gift for it. We determine that by how energized or fulfilled we feel after doing it at length. I am skilled at using a keyboard but if I do it all day I feel awful! However, I’m gifted at listening to people describe their spiritual path (or seemingly lack thereof). At the end of a day a listening, I may be tired but I don’t feel awful. I feel gifted!
To determine your gifts you don’t need some extensive academic “gifts inventory” to fill out. Your time is probably better spent taking an hour or two alone in prayer or reflection, relaxing and sitting intentionally with the question: What gives me life? Or, the classic discernment question given to us by Frederick Buechner—“where does my deepest joy meet the world’s deep need?”
Some other useful questions are:
- What aspect of my personality brings joy (peace, grace, etc.) to others?
- When do I feel I am living most authentically?
- What do other people tell me I’m gifted at?
- What am I really good at? So good that it doesn’t even feel like work, it feels completely natural?
Don’t fall into a trap of thinking your gifts have to be super spectacular by the world’s standards. If you are gifted at knowing when to bring a downhearted co-worker cookies, then write that down and celebrate it! Ask God how you might expand that gift. I have a friend who is really good about hand-writing beautiful notes to people at special occasions. Another friend has the gift of quickly cutting through confusion and BS to get to the heart of the matter.
Enjoy whatever gifts you have and spread them around. All good gifts work together for God’s purpose.
Merry Christmas. Happy New Year. And I hope you didn’t forget to celebrate Festivus for the Rest of us on Dec 23rd!!
Where do I feel this emotion in my body?
The next time you experience a strong emotion—whether a pleasant one or an unpleasant one—ask yourself this question. Notice what your body may be saying to you about this feeling.
When we walk too long without a break, our feet talk to us, right?
When we eat too much food at one sitting, our stomach lets us know.
In the same way, we can gather awareness about ourselves by noticing things like a headache that appears in a certain setting but disappears when we change settings.
God created our bodies as a wealth of information. This doesn’t mean that every ache or pain is highly significant or emotional in nature. But some of them can be. How do we discern which ones are? How can we relate, spiritually, to these “felt senses?”
- Pay attention to “felt senses” in your body. That includes pain but is not limited to pain. You may feel other sensations such as tingling, warmth, tightness or pulsations. If you can’t find a word for what you are feeling, see if an image emerges.
- Talk to them. I know it sounds weird at first. But put yourself in a calm, relaxing environment and ask the felt sense if it has something to share with you. If nothing happens, then OK. But you might receive some body wisdom just by asking! If you have a spasm in your neck that feels like a tightly wrung cloth, ask the wound-up-cloth “what gets you so tight?”
- Keep a journal of this felt sense and your interaction with it. Notice when it shows up and when it leaves. A journal over time can help you determine if this sensation is tied to an emotion.
- If it is a pain, ask it “What would all better feel like?”
- As part of your daily practice of prayer and reflection, thank your body for all it does for you. Let your body know you love it and will take good care of it. Entrust your body to the Holy One and accept all the healing that God offers.
If you want more information about body awareness from a spiritual point of view, look into books and articles on the practice of “focusing.” One book I recommend is Bio-Spirituality by Peter A. Campbell and Edwin M. McMahon.
We must engage questions that are alive and do practices that make us more alive. — Rabbi Danny Cohen
As I continue to write about meaningful questions that can be engaged in spiritual direction, I’m sharing this one from Rabbi Cohen:
How do I see the miracle in the mundane?
I remember facing this question when I was studying in the Spiritual Direction program at San Francisco Theological Seminary in the late 90’s. We were constantly asked to share experiences of God with one another as we learned the art of spiritual direction. My experiences always seemed a tad mundane when compared to ones shared by people who had seen, heard and felt visions or miracles.
One day I shared an experience of deep well-being that consisted of walking down a sunny street headed to my favorite burrito lunch hangout. I am not sure I had ever felt so held, so loved by God. So happy.
Then, another woman shared an experience of a giant Jesus walking toward her to embrace her.
Wow. Giant Jesus versus happy burrito walk. That’s really miracle versus mundane!
Of course, it’s never a good idea to compare spiritual experiences (I now know that). We’re not in a competition. There was no reason for me to feel ashamed that my miracle came in the form of a walk toward a burrito while her miracle was in the form of Jesus walking toward her.
Mine was the miracle of daily life shining with Divine Light for no particular reason. What St. Ignatius might call “consolation without cause.”
Moments of deep peace, satisfied well-being and a taste of the transcendent are miracles in this world where chaos and greed sometimes seem to be winning.
Where are you seeing the miracle in the mundane today?
Recently I made a shift in my own understanding of what it means to be upset about something. After taking a course in cognitive behavioral tools for rational living, I stopped seeing contentious events, people and things in my life as causes of my distress. Yes, they may be inconvenient and not what I’d prefer to have in my life at the moment. But they don’t cause me to be upset.
I upset myself. Whenever I find myself in distress, I now ask, “what am I upsetting myself about here?”
The key to changing attitudes about this is to refuse to beat yourself up because you unintentionally upset yourself when life didn’t meet your expectations. We were ALL taught to react as victims when things don’t go our way. It’s part of the Western culture.
So we all need to learn our new lessons in coping. Because if we can upset ourselves about just about anything, we can also calm ourselves down. Even if someone acts hideously inappropriate toward us and conventional wisdom says we “should be very upset at how they are treating us,” we can take a step back, remind ourselves that their behavior is all about them and not us, inhale deeply and take calm, appropriate action on our part.
I mention this in Pocket Spiritual Director because—for me—taking this step back from other people’s opinions, actions or life events is difficult but rewarding spiritual practice.
So many times I pray about a situation that I’ve upset myself about and I hear God say to me “remember your cognitive behavioral tools.”
Naturally, since this has been so helpful in my spiritual practice, I recommend CBT books, worksheets and therapists to anyone who feels tyrannized by life. My favorite book is Feel the Way You Want to Feel…No Matter What! by Dr. Aldo R. Pucci though there are many other great books on cognitive tools around. Find what works for you and make it part of your spiritual practice.
So many times we only see what we want to see.
The other day I desperately wanted to go for a swim in the community pool. It was 108 degrees in the shade with partly sunny skies and I had time to spare. So I slathered up with sunscreen, grabbed my floating raft and headed up the road. When I got there, much to my delight, there was no one in the pool. I had the whole place to myself! This was too good to be true.
I got into the pool and looked to the east and saw why there was no one in the pool. Overhead, just east, was the nastiest thundercloud you could imagine. And it appeared to be moving swiftly in the direction of the pool.
To the west, the sun was sparkling through a clear sky. Naturally, since I wanted to swim, I had only looked west, not east.
Which is why it is prudent in spiritual discernment to always ask, “What am I refusing to see here? What am I missing? What might I be overlooking?” Sometimes the thing we are overlooking is crucial. And even if it isn’t, part of discernment is gathering all the facts.
The fact before me was a stormy sky. So I packed back up and walked home—-fast, to avoid the storm.
Which never came. The grey-black cloud headed due north and bypassed me altogether. I could have stayed in the pool and splashed around for hours, but I didn’t know that at the time.
In spiritual discernment, it is important to gather the facts in a relatively objective manner, always taking into account that we human beings tend toward tunnel-vision. Asking “what is it we don’t know but we need to know” is a way of widening the lens and gaining a greater perspective.
Because I like open-ended questions so much, I went on a search through the New Testament to collect the questions Jesus asked. Here are a few of my favorites, which I use (in some form) in spiritual direction:
What are you looking for? (John 1:38) Jesus asked this one more than once. And because he said “seek and you shall find,” I think it’s important to know what we seek and long for. Stopping and asking yourself what you really desire and need is a great contemplative exercise.
Why are you afraid? (Matt 8:26) What causes you fear? We are told numerous times in scripture—many times by angels—to “be not afraid.” Yet we are afraid….a lot. Looking at the source of your fear and handing it over to God can help us heal.
Where is your faith? (Luke 8:25) I don’t ask this in that “o ye of little faith” belittling sort of voice that Christians can sometimes use. Rather, I ask it in the vein of “what are you putting your faith in?” Many times we need to evaluate what we have faith in. In whom or in what do you trust?
Do you want to be made well? (John 5:6) This is a tough one. I would never ask someone who is gravely ill if they want to be made well. But I keep this one in mind whenever I observe someone who is stuck in an “unwell” life situation and resists efforts to make a change that could bring about wholeness. I remind people to ask God for the wellness they desire. I see the desire to be well as a big step toward wholeness.
Jesus was well known for answering questions with deeper questions. Sometimes he did it to up-end the people trying to corner him. But many of his questions were to well meaning individuals designed to help them think more deeply about their life situation. These four questions are perfect for helping us do just that.