As I begin the new year, one of my priorities is to resume the spiritual direction journey I began nearly five years ago.
Spiritual direction is a partnership in which one Christian helps another grow in a personal relationship with God. Several factors led to my own decision to seek such direction: 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; and the internal tug-of-war over my own values brought on by the increasing divisiveness and polarization in our society.
For three years, I met monthly with my spiritual director for one-hour sessions in which we discussed everything from trying new prayer techniques to eliminating clutter to improving creativity. Sister M. 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. She recommended various reading materials as well.
Then the COVID-19 lockdown commenced in March of 2020 and put a stop to any face-to-face meetings. Six months after that, sadly, Sister M. died. While I found her homework assignments and reading suggestions enormously helpful, what I found most valuable of all was her completely nonjudgmental attitude as I grappled with questions some would say I shouldn’t even be asking. And I know she would want me to continue my journey.
So a month ago – after a hiatus of more than a year – I had my first session with Sister K., my new spiritual director. To help us get started, I’ve written an overview of what I worked on with Sister M., where I am right now and where I want to go from here.
These are some of the main issues Sister M. and I worked on:
- Doubt. For most of my life, I had been pretty sure there was a God. Yet, nagging doubts about God’s existence continued to creep in from time to time. Sister M. allowed me to discuss this issue frankly and honestly – without passing the slightest hint of judgment.
- Prayer. We explored a variety of prayer techniques, some familiar and others new to me. Among them were meditation, prayers of petition and intercession, prayers of thanksgiving, writing and journaling as a form of prayer, nature prayer, and practicing better mindfulness in church. For more detailed descriptions of our work on prayer, click HERE and HERE.
- Clutter. We discussed how to eliminate clutter of all kinds, from the physical clutter in my house to my overloaded and chaotic schedule to the various kinds of spiritual clutter that distracted me from my priorities and threatened to crowd attention to God out of my life. Click HERE to see a fun and illuminating homework assignment Sister M. gave me.
- My writing. 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.
- A toxic situation. For several years I had dedicated an average of 5-10 volunteer hours per week to a local not-for-profit organization and contributed hundreds of dollars. While not church-related, the organization served a cause dear to my heart, and I had previously thought nurturing its development might be a significant part of God’s plan for my retirement years. However, warring factions within the organization seemed more focused on vanquishing each other than they were on the mission, and I needed to make a decision about my continued involvement.
For a while, my spiritual progress felt agonizingly slow – at least to me. But when I step back and look at the whole three years, I realize I’ve actually made quite a few strides. I’ve also gotten much more comfortable with the idea of incremental progress. Baby steps, Sister M. would say.
Here’s where I am right now:
- Reassurance. I’ve discovered that going outside is something I can easily do whenever I encounter those pesky doubts about God’s existence. I can watch sunsets. Listen to cicadas. Smell flowers. Take a walk and feel the breeze against my face. Experience evidence of God with all my senses. (Click HERE to read my post about nature prayer.) For me, finding a way to effectively address my occasional doubts has been huge.
- Regular meditation. 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’ve now added evening meditation as well, and I’ve become much more disciplined about including at least one meditation session per day. Click HERE to read my post about meditation.
- A clean house. Sister M. recommended I devote one hour – and only one hour – each weekday to sorting through “stuff.” While I haven’t yet tamed all the clutter (I still have several boxes marked “miscellaneous” in the basement waiting to be sorted), my house at least looks presentable most of the time.
- An abundance of writing. Since beginning my spiritual direction journey, my creativity has soared. I’ve posted more than a hundred entries to my blog and have written several book excerpts. To read about my book project, along with some excerpts, click HERE.
- Photography. As I engaged in nature prayer, I also acquired a new hobby – photography. I even invested in a new camera with a 40X zoom, which has allowed me to capture stunning close-up photos of birds and other wildlife. For the past couple of years, I’ve been posting some of my favorites on my blog under the heading “God’s Other Book.” For examples, click HERE and HERE.
- Freedom from abuse. After five years of relentless conflict and escalating abuse at the above-mentioned organization where I volunteered, I had to admit the organization’s dynamics were never going to change. And no matter how worthy the cause, I was doing untold damage to both myself and my other relationships by continuing to participate. With much sorrow, and after consulting with my spiritual director, my pastor and a valued mentor, I walked away. Summoning the self-respect and courage to walk away from an abusive situation was an enormous step for me.
So what’s next, as I resume my spiritual direction journey? Mostly, I’d like to maintain and build on my progress. Here are some things I’d like to focus on:
- Surviving COVID-19. I need to figure out how to live with this never-ending pandemic. I’m slowly beginning to grasp the reality that things aren’t getting “back to normal” anytime soon – if ever – so we all might as well adjust to “the new normal.” What should that look like? How do my husband and I continue to have useful, worthwhile and abundant lives while at the same time protecting our own health and the safety of others?
- Self-care. 1 Corinthians 6:19 reminds us that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and my medical adventures of the past few years have sent an unmistakable message that I need to take better care of mine. Toward that end, I’ve been experimenting with recipes designed to make healthy eating more enticing. After much adjusting and tweaking of ingredients, I’ve managed to come up with a few recipes that I share on this blog from time to time (examples HERE).
- Values clarification. From the beginning, I have been questioning all kinds of dogma, from the spiritual and religious to the political and ideological, and I would like to continue this discernment process. For me, this has started with questioning a lot of things I thought I knew, along with values other people – whether liberal or conservative – want me to hold. I want to develop a value system that both my rational mind and my conscience can accept, rather than simply parroting a set of values that will let me fit in chameleon-like with my peers and surroundings.
- My writing. I want to keep working on my book. The excerpts I’ve written so far have outlined why I think our society’s culture wars are so damaging. As I keep writing, I want to focus on additional questions: How do we engage people who disagree with us, while keeping in mind God’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves? Even if we think someone’s values are totally wrong, how do we change hearts and minds if we demonize certain people and won’t have anything to do with them? And perhaps more importantly, how do we as Christians avoid becoming part of the problem as our society grows ever more partisan and angry?
- Service to others. For the past couple of years, I’ve participated in our church’s community service committee, and my husband and I will soon begin teaching an adult faith formation class. We are also training to become part of the Associates Program for the Dominican Sisters in our community. Associates assist, among other things, with the Dominicans’ social justice activities. One of the things we’ll focus on as part of our training is discerning where God wants to use us next.
I’m ready to get started!