As my husband and I begin a new year under trying circumstances, one of my priorities is to continue the spiritual direction journey I began around five years ago.
Spiritual direction – for those unfamiliar with the concept – is a partnership in which one Christian helps another grow in a personal relationship with God. Monthly one-on-one meetings have involved examining my relationship with God, my prayer life, my personal values and various lifestyle choices. For me, spiritual direction has been a supplement to – rather than a substitute for – church.
Several factors led to my 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 personal values brought on by the increasing divisiveness and polarization in our society.
I’ve begun to think of this decision as a “God thing” that came at exactly the right time. Pete and I have recently lost what feels like an unbearably long list of loved ones. We’ve taken turns being hospitalized ourselves. COVID-19 has upended our lives relentlessly. Now we’re dealing with chemotherapy (Pete) and cardiac rehab following a heart attack (me).
As we struggle to establish new habits/routines and ward off depression and exhaustion, spiritual direction has turned out to be exactly what the doctor ordered. In fact, when Pete saw how much I was benefitting from the process, he decided to begin spiritual direction himself.
So what’s next, as I continue my spiritual direction journey? Here’s what I’ve worked on so far and where I want to focus my attention in the coming year.
Doubt. I began this journey by learning how to address those pesky doubts about God’s existence that creep in from time to time – mostly by going outside and immersing myself in the natural environment, which constantly reassures me of the presence of a Creator. But I still wrestle with questions about God’s nature, especially in the midst of our current crises. I’ve often found myself asking, “Is God really concerned about each of us personally, let alone each sparrow? Or is that idea just wishful thinking?” One might say I’ve graduated from “Does God exist?” to “Does God care?”
Prayer. I’ve explored a variety of prayer techniques – meditation, prayers of petition and intercession, prayers of thanksgiving, writing or journaling as a form of prayer, nature prayer. I must confess that lately most of my prayers have been of the “foxhole” variety. (“Dear God, please get us out of this jam.” Or simply, “Dear God, help!!!”)
Self-care. 1 Corinthians 6:19 reminds us that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and my recent medical adventures have sent an unmistakable message that I need to take better care of mine. I really, really need to establish better eating habits and a sustainable exercise program. I want to help nurse Pete back to health as well. We’re assembling a good medical team that can help both of us get the ongoing physical care we need.
Emotional support. Getting the right support system in place has been crucial for surviving recent events. Family and friends have been supportive, and members of our church congregation have reached out as well. We’re on several prayer lists. I’ve added a professional therapist to our medical team to help Pete and I cope with the emotional fallout from battling a pair of life-threatening conditions simultaneously.
Staying spiritually connected. I participate in our church’s community service and faith formation committees and am helping keep our micro pantry filled. Pete and I continue to co-facilitate Sundays@6, our congregation’s adult faith formation class. We are part of an associates program for the Dominican Sisters in our community, where we are involved in their anti-racism initiative.
My writing. I want to start making some real progress on my book, and keep working on my blog. From age 10 onward, I’ve dreamed of writing a book. More than 50 years later, that goal is … still on my bucket list. I’ve known since grade school that writing would play some role in my life’s purpose, whatever that turned out to be. I do consider my writing ability to be a gift from God that should not be wasted.
Gardening. We had extensive landscaping work done last spring. I planted lots of native perennials, as well as an abundance of annuals, and the yard is looking beautiful! We’ve turned our flower beds into a welcome center for hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. I like to think of this project as “God’s work, our hands,” and have found gardening to be enormously therapeutic.
Finances. This past year, Pete and I updated our wills and power-of-attorney documents. We also established a donor-advised fund with our local community foundation in honor of his parents and mine. This coming year, we want to consult with our financial advisor to help us find socially responsible investment opportunities.
Clutter. My first spiritual director recommended I devote one hour each weekday to sorting through the physical clutter in our house. This priority may seem trivial in the face of everything else we’re dealing with right now, but when the house is a mess, the rest of my life starts to feel unmanageable. Decluttering is one small thing I can do to feel less helpless when life gets chaotic.
Discernment. From the beginning, I have been questioning all kinds of dogma, from the spiritual and religious to the political and ideological. This “deconstruction/reconstruction” work started with questioning a lot of things I thought I knew, along with beliefs and values other people – whether liberal or conservative – want me to hold. I want to develop a belief/value system that both my rational mind and my conscience can accept, rather than simply parroting a set of values and beliefs that will let me fit in chameleon-like with my peers. What do I actually believe about God and why? What is God’s purpose or plan 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? What are my own beliefs about the hot-button issues that consume our nation’s culture warriors? What is my role as a Christian in fighting or mitigating society’s problems and political battles? I would like to continue this discernment process.
Keeping our heads above water, for the next few months at least, is going to be a challenge for my husband and me. But I also want our lives to move beyond mere survival mode – from surviving to thriving. Hopefully our continued spiritual direction work can be a key part of making that happen, with God’s help.