In a year of losses, I’m now facing another one. My spiritual director for the past three years died this month following a valiant fight with multiple sclerosis and cancer.
Prior to beginning my journey with Sister M, I had found myself at a spiritual crossroads. My husband and I attended church almost weekly, and I had read the Bible from cover to cover, along with shelves full of books on religion and spirituality. Yet I still found myself asking the “big” or “ultimate” questions. What do I actually believe about God and why? What is God’s purpose for my life? What are my values, or what should they be? How do I live my life in a way that is consistent with my beliefs and values?
Several factors had led to this renewed questioning. The transition in focus and priorities prompted by my retirement. The “time is limited” epiphany that comes with being 60-something, losing loved ones and developing chronic health problems myself. Questions about faith and a church’s true purpose raised by reading the Bible and serving on my congregation’s evangelism committee. The internal tug-of-war over my own values brought on by the increasing divisiveness and polarization in our society.
I made a commitment: Develop a better understanding of God, so I can fulfill God’s purpose for my life, discern what my values should be, and live accordingly. Toward this end, I engaged Sister M to help me sort through my bushel basket full of questions. It’s important for me to point out here that seeing Sister M did not replace going to church. Spiritual direction is a one-on-one partnership in which one Christian helps another grow in a personal relationship with God. It’s a supplement to — rather than a substitute for — church.
Sister M and I met monthly for one-hour sessions. She offered a variety of suggestions for homework assignments, allowing me to choose which ones I might find most helpful. Sometimes she would have me write my thoughts about a topic. Other times she might have me create an image, or take my camera and go for a walk, or read a book.
I had already developed a morning meditation ritual — sitting in my recliner in front of the fireplace with a cat in my lap and a cup of coffee by my side while I journaled about my priorities for the coming day. I began using this time to write out my thoughts and insights generated by the homework assignments.
I must admit the idea of working with a spiritual director made me a bit nervous at first. While I hoped this person would ask the hard questions, I didn’t want someone who would merely push me to adopt their own belief system. I needed this person to be nonjudgmental and open to the idea that I was questioning all kinds of dogma, from the spiritual and religious to the political and ideological.
Sister M, thankfully, was patient as I grappled with questions some would say I shouldn’t even be asking. Her demeanor was very pleasant, and we immediately discovered one thing in common — we both grew up on farms.
One of her first assignments: Come up with an image that best symbolizes my present spiritual condition. I created a Photoshop image of myself buried under a mountain of clutter. A pair of arms juggled several balls in the air — family, friends, volunteer work, the house. More balls had been dropped and were nestled on the ground at the bottom of the heap — my writing, self-care, God.
I listed those areas of my life that felt not-so-well-ordered. My relationships. A messy house. My frantic, overloaded schedule. Health issues. My writing, which seemed to languish. My emotional life, which often left me feeling like a walking bundle of anxieties. The suspicion I entertained from time to time that my life had been reduced to crossing items off endless to-do lists. My spiritual life, with all those questions and doubts.
Sister M listened to my litany without negative judgment — at least none that I could detect. I half expected her to supply some relevant Bible verses about the Godliness of cleanliness and self-discipline. Instead, she suggested I spend an hour each day tackling the clutter — just one hour — and leave the rest for the next day. Baby steps.
One of the first questions Sister M asked me was, “Have you ever questioned the existence of God?” She didn’t flinch when I said, “Oh yeah. More than once.” For most of my life, I had leaned toward the idea that there probably is a God. Yet, nagging doubts continued to creep in from time to time. I didn’t voice them to anyone, though. If the Christians around me ever doubted God’s existence, they certainly weren’t letting on.
As I began taming my schedule and tackling the endless clutter — one hour and one day at a time — a flash of insight occurred to me. A little epiphany, one might say. Could the question of God’s existence be what I was distracting myself from with all the to-do lists, the frantic scheduling, the endless cleaning and the mindless Internet surfing that cluttered my life and unquieted my mind? My spiritual director agreed that I might be on to something.
I confessed that what I really wanted was the “blinding light” experience the Apostle Paul had on the road to Damascus, or the burning bush Moses encountered. I wanted to be like those people who saw the blinding light or the burning bush, just knew what they knew about God, and had their mission in life spelled out for them.
She recommended I use part of my morning meditation time to be completely quiet. “Listen for God’s voice,” she said. Well, the blinding light hasn’t happened for me — at least not yet. But what has happened is nearly as amazing.
I walked outside. Dismissing the existence of a God is tempting when so many people who claim to speak in God’s name spew hatred for their fellow and sister human beings while committing assorted hypocrisies and evil deeds. Denying God’s existence gets even easier when watching one terrible event after another unfold on the news. But I’ve found it’s almost impossible to deny the existence of a Creator when I’m outdoors with evidence of God all around me.
Sister M helped me explore various kinds of “spiritual clutter” that was crowding attention to God out of my life — and I eliminated a major distractor by walking away from an incredibly abusive volunteer work situation. As much as leaving the organization saddened me, I immediately felt so much “lighter” — like I put down the 100-pound bag of stress I had carried around for five years.
When my spiritual director asked me point-blank if I ever doubted the existence of God, her question gave me permission to “go there.” For the next leg of my spiritual journey, I wanted to keep being honest about the questions I had. And I had LOTS of them.
Who, or what, exactly, is this Entity I choose to call God? What is my authority for what I believe? The Bible? Church tradition? Why go to church, when by my own admission, I feel the presence of God most while immersed in nature? What is prayer and how should we pray? Can writing, singing and gardening be forms of prayer? Is it okay to ask God for things? What does salvation mean, actually? How do I relate the 10 Commandments to 21st Century issues? In a world where many “sins” have been reframed as “diseases” or “dysfunctional behavior,” is sin still a legitimate concept? How would liberal Christians define sin versus how conservative Christians define it? Considering that no creed exists anywhere in the Bible and a number of Christian churches don’t have one, do we need a creed? If so, what should be in it? Is there a common core of beliefs shared by most Christians, regardless of sect or denomination? Do all of these denominations offer equally legitimate paths to God? Is there a way to heal the divisions between believers and relate respectfully to people whose viewpoints differ from ours?
That was just for starters. When I shared this list of questions with Sister M, as usual, there were no lectures. She just smiled and asked, “Where do you want to start?”
We explored a variety of prayer techniques. Among them: morning meditation, nature prayer, prayers of petition and intercession, prayers of thanksgiving, writing and journaling as a form of prayer, and practicing better mindfulness in church. While I had used some of these prayer techniques off and on for years, I committed to doing them on a more regular, disciplined basis.
When it came to my dreams, one goal on my bucket list remained elusive. From age 10 onward, I’d dreamed of writing a book. More than 50 years later, that goal was … still on my bucket list. So, with encouragement from Sister M, I decided it was time. My book — with the working title We Need to Talk — will examine the polarization ripping apart our society and share my personal search for an appropriate Christian response.
My spiritual progress may seem agonizingly slow to some who are reading this. But for me, finding a way to effectively address my occasional doubts about God’s existence was HUGE. Summoning the self-respect and courage to walk away from an abusive situation was an enormous step in the right direction. My creativity has soared. I’ve now written several book excerpts, I recently posted my 100th blog entry, and I’ve discovered a new hobby – nature photography. And while I haven’t yet tamed all the clutter in my house, I’ve gotten much more comfortable with incremental progress. Baby steps, as Sister M would say.
The graphic I produced for her at the beginning of our work together would now look more like this.
As they say around the tables at 12-Step meetings, we aim for spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection. One thing I do know for sure: I’m grateful God gave me the opportunity to make a portion of this journey with Sister M.
Rest in peace, dear sister in Christ. In your honor, I’m going to keep asking those pesky questions.