Spiritual direction: Staying the course

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.

Book excerpt: Confessions of a spiritual mutt

Note: This is an excerpt from my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my previous excerpts, link HERE.

My church’s adult faith formation class has been discussing Christianity’s Family Tree, a fascinating exploration of how several denominations came into being and what their members believe. One thing I like about the book is that author Adam Hamilton refrains from criticizing the denominations he writes about. Instead, he compares members of various faith traditions to relatives we might meet at a family reunion, and invites us to enrich our own faith by learning what we can from our “cousins” in Christ who belong to the other traditions.

Studying the book has also helped crystallize for me why I’m increasingly at peace with the convoluted nature of my own spiritual journey. Hamilton’s personal faith experience somewhat resembles mine in its twists and turns – he started life as a Roman Catholic, joined a Pentecostal church as a teenager, then ended up a member of a United Methodist Church, where he is now a minister. I’ve done some hopping around myself and, like him, I’ve come to see my rather zig-zaggy spiritual path in a positive light.

My journey through the spiritual/religious kaleidoscope began early. The church my family attended on a given weekend often depended on where we had Sunday dinner. One week we might attend the mainline Protestant church we and several members of Dad’s family belonged to, while the next Sunday might find us at the more conservative church Mom’s side of the family attended.

Being of different denominations, the two churches presented contrasting teachings on everything from baptism (sprinkling or immersion?) to communion (wine or grape juice?) to how one gets “saved” (baptism or personal decision?). But Dad regularly assured us, “In the end, we all worship the same God.” And the extended-family feasts that followed church and Sunday School are among my favorite childhood memories.

In college, I joined Campus Crusade for Christ (now known as Cru), a nondenominational student organization whose main attraction for me was that these classmates didn’t pressure me to participate in the drug scene or the sexual revolution. (In the early 1970s, both proliferated on campus.) Some of the classmates invited me to attend services with them at a local evangelical free church, where congregation members encouraged us to join them for Sunday dinner – a great outreach effort for homesick students, I must say.

After college, I followed the trajectory of a growing number of today’s young adults and became a “None.” I didn’t stop believing in God altogether, but I was preoccupied with chasing professional brass rings and worshipping at the altar of career success. I referred to the endless round of political fund-raisers, Chamber of Commerce cocktail parties and Happy Hour gatherings with colleagues as “networking” and convinced myself these alcohol-soaked events were essential to my job … until I wound up in detox.

When I embarked on my recovery journey in the early 1990s, I immersed myself in the 12-Step movement, which labeled itself “spiritual but not religious.” The people I met “around the tables” came from a wide variety of spiritual/religious backgrounds with wildly diverse understandings about God. Folks at the meetings advised me, “Take what you need and leave the rest.”

Meanwhile, my husband and I joined a church that shall remain mercifully nameless. Members seemed obsessed with pointing out how smart they were in comparison to most Christians. The toxic organizational culture – marked by constant bullying, backbiting, infighting and power struggles between rival cliques – ultimately drove us out of the congregation. After that, I took another hiatus from church, though I continued to attend 12-Step meetings.

In my late 40s – after a huge medical scare during which I prayed fervently and made promises to a God I hoped would still listen to me – I started going to a mainline Protestant church with my husband and mother-in-law and periodically sneaked into a couple of Evangelical/Pentecostal churches my parents, other family members and friends now attended.

Shortly after I started going to church again, I began working for a faith-based prison re-entry program that encouraged congregations to “adopt” incarcerated mothers reintegrating into the community. Part of my job description involved recruiting and training a team of volunteers from each congregation to work intensively with their “adopted” mother and her children. The recruitment process required me to attend services at a dazzling array of churches – from Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian to Baptist, Evangelical and Pentecostal. Every month or two would find me attending a different congregation’s church service.

In addition to sampling the denominational smorgasbord as part of my new job, I read the entire Bible from front to back for the first time in my life and discovered passages that prompted me to observe, “So that’s where the Pentecostals get their belief about speaking in tongues … where the Catholics get their belief about purgatory … where the Evangelicals get their belief about the Rapture.” And I found myself agreeing with Dad’s long-ago observation: “In the end, we all worship the same God.”

I now belong to the mainline Protestant church I began attending nearly 20 years ago with my husband and mother-in-law. I like that the people at my current church do their best to practice what they say they believe. I like their involvement in serving the larger community. I like that I’ve been able to ask questions in our adult faith formation class that probably would have gotten me burned at the stake in a previous era, and I haven’t been excommunicated or struck by lightning. At least not yet. So even though I’m still questioning a lot of things, my current church is where I’ve settled and plan to stay.

But I haven’t stopped exploring ideas or getting spiritual support from a variety of sources.

Over the years, I’ve continued to attend Evangelical and Pentecostal services when visiting family and friends. Members of my parents’ congregation never failed to make me feel welcome when I went to church with them and I absolutely appreciate how supportive they were of my parents during their final years when I lived too far away to be as involved in their day-to-day care as I would have liked.

More recently, my husband and I have been receiving spiritual direction from a pair of Dominican teaching Sisters and this year we joined their “associates” program. Spiritual direction is a partnership in which one Christian helps another grow in a personal relationship with God, and serves as a supplement to – rather than a substitute for – church. During monthly sessions, I have been examining my relationship with God, prayer, my personal values, and various lifestyle choices. As associates my husband and I assist, among other things, with the Sisters’ social justice activities such as their anti-racism and environmental efforts.

I’m an insatiably voracious reader as well. I subscribe to both Christian Century (mainline Protestant) and Christianity Today (Evangelical), as well as America Magazine (Catholic). I devour books by authors from a variety of faith traditions – some of the more interesting titles I’ve been reading lately include Falling Upward by Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, Do I Stay Christian? by Emerging Church leader Brian McLaren, Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk by Evangelical pastor Eugene Cho, Creation as Sacrament by Greek Orthodox theologian John Chryssavgis and Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others by Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor.

During a recent session of my congregation’s adult faith formation class, I shared some details about my rather eclectic spiritual background. “I guess you could call me a spiritual mutt,” I joked. One of the other participants responded, “I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing,” and I would be inclined to agree.

Some might consider my spiritual journey – with its hopelessly squiggly lines – confusing. (At best!) But I’ve come to believe that experiencing a variety of traditions has had benefits. I certainly don’t claim to have a corner on the truth about religious/spiritual matters. I refuse to demonize people whose beliefs differ from mine. I’m less likely to get drawn into squabbles with other Christians over the long list of issues Martin Luther would label “adiaphora.” And I get thoroughly impatient when either conservative or progressive culture warriors imply that people who belong to a denomination other than their own “aren’t real Christians.”

Instead, like Hamilton, I prefer to learn from my “relatives” in Christ and to look for areas of agreement. What I really care about these days is how well a church encourages its members to fulfill these commandments:

  • Love God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind.
  • Love your neighbor as yourself.

“When we view the body of Christ as a tree, there are several things we begin to realize,” says Hamilton, in Christianity’s Family Tree. “We are reminded that all the branches share the same roots and trunk. Our roots are Judaism. Our trunk is Jesus Christ. Permeating the entire tree is the Holy Spirit, which feeds the leaves and allows the tree to grow.”

Hamilton reminds us that in the beginning, Christianity did not have denominations. There were no Lutheran, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist or Pentecostal churches. Christians were known as “followers of The Way” or simply followers of Jesus Christ.

And I still trust my father’s advice: “Remember, in the end, we all worship the same God.”

Question for readers: What has your spiritual journey been like, and has it changed over the years? I’d love to hear your response to this question, as well as your comments on the article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

Spiritual direction: The journey continues

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!

Time to write that book

I’ve known since grade school that my writing skill would play some role in my life’s work, whatever that turned out to be. From young adulthood on, I’ve used this God-given talent in my career as a journalist, as a public relations writer helping various not-for-profit organizations promote their causes, and as a human services executive preparing grant proposals for prospective donors. I’ve even managed to win awards, from first place in an American Legion essay contest when I was in seventh grade to statewide journalism awards from the Associated Press when I worked for a daily newspaper.

But one goal on my bucket list has remained elusive. From age 10 onward, I’ve dreamed of writing a book. More than 50 years later, that goal is … still on my bucket list. So this year, I’ve decided it’s time!

My book — with the working title We Need to Talk — will examine the polarization ripping apart our society and discuss an appropriate Christian response.

Here are some of the issues and questions I want to explore:

  • I suspect the ongoing Culture Wars affect our daily lives more than we realize. How does the steady barrage of name-calling, insults, character assassination and demonization of opponents permeating every area of our lives affect our work, our personal relationships and our mental health? Is the endless bickering simply irritating background noise, or is the impact more malignant?
  • Our current political climate did not just come out of nowhere. Why are people so angry, and what factors are contributing to the rage? Are the Internet and social media to blame? Talk-radio and cable news networks? Changing demographics? Social changes that threaten to disrupt our way of life? The dizzying pace of technological change that overwhelms our ability to keep up? All of the above?
  • Part of my initial motivation for seeking spiritual direction was the internal tug-of-war over my own values brought on by the increasing divisiveness in our society. I’ve begun to suspect I’m part of an “exhausted majority” of folks who feel pressured to take sides in the Culture Wars, but at the same time, don’t fit neatly into either the left-wing progressive or the right-wing conservative camp. What are my own beliefs about the hot-button issues that consume our nation’s culture warriors? How can I avoid the continual pressure to “choose sides” and do more of my own thinking?
  • As ideological positions in our society harden, and people become increasingly “dug in,” common sense seems to have flown out the window. Is healing possible? What aspects of our thinking and behavior would need to change for this to happen? What would happen if we could all take off our political/ideological hats for just a few minutes, eliminate the name-calling, the shouting, the trolling and the flaming, and have a rational discussion about the real issues?
  • Some would say Christians are in no position to judge secular society when it comes to the Culture Wars — we are often accused of stirring the pot ourselves, and not in a good way. What is our role as Christians in fighting or mitigating society’s political battles? How do we engage people who disagree with us, while keeping in mind God’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves? And perhaps more importantly, how do we avoid becoming part of the problem as our society grows ever more partisan and angry? How can we be part of the solution?

As I research these issues and explore the questions with my spiritual director in the coming months, I will post book excerpts to this blog. I’d like to invite the blogging community to comment and offer editing or research suggestions. I hope to get responses from all sides — liberals, progressives, conservatives, libertarians, independents, centrists, people who don’t like labels. 

Since 2017, I’ve been posting entries to my blog Seriously Seeking Answers. Among the helpful features Word Press offers is a running word count. My annual site statistics show I’ve written approximately 20,000 words each year since I first created the blog. After three years, that’s almost … a book. This means I’ve proven to myself that writing a book is doable. No excuses!

Be still! (And know I am God)

“How challenging would it be to totally quiet your mind?” my spiritual director asked. 

“Extremely challenging,” I admitted.

That would be an understatement. A meme circulating on Facebook sums up my problem nicely: “My mind is like my Internet browser. At least 19 open tabs, 3 of them frozen, and I have no clue where the music is coming from.”

Before I retired, I didn’t even bother to try this “quiet the mind” business. I was too busy juggling to-do lists: my to-do list for work, my to-do list for household chores, my to-do list for family/friend commitments, my to-do list for urgent matters, even a master list to keep track of all the to-do lists. This elaborate system of lists was suggested by the creator of the day-planner I carried around constantly and called “my conscience.” I was convinced I had to keep these multiple to-do lists or I wouldn’t remember to do simple things like brush my teeth.

I can still remember sitting in the church choir loft one infamous Sunday morning. Instead of focusing on the service, I grew increasingly impatient. The Children’s Message usually took about five minutes. That day, it stretched to ten. The pastor, whose sermons I usually enjoyed, talked way longer than usual. Then he shared his sermon time with a college student who enthusiastically described her recent mission trip in great detail while I nervously checked my watch every couple of seconds. Finally, the sermon was over and the choir sang.

As soon as we finished our last note, I grabbed my belongings, dashed to my car, and hightailed it to work. As I sped across town, yelling at traffic lights that seemed bent on slowing me down, I muttered, “Enough of needing to be in two places at once! Whatever happened to keeping the Sabbath Day holy?”

Alas, things didn’t change as much as I hoped once I retired. During a church service these days, my attention span tends to resemble a hummingbird flitting from one blossom to the next – even while reciting the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostle’s Creed. (Don’t ask about sermons.)

My attempt to focus on the Lord’s Prayer during a recent service provides a good illustration of how my mind often works:

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy …  Did I remember to take my pills this morning?… on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day …  And the coffee pot. Did I turn off the coffee pot?… as we forgive those who trespass against us. … How long would it take the coffee pot to burn dry and catch the house on fire?… but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom … I wish those people would grow up! They are working my nerves big time.… forever and ever. Amen. Sorry God, I was sort of spacing out there. I’ll try to pay better attention next time …”

Now mind you, I actually recited all the words of that prayer. My mouth was forming the words, but my mind was racing like Usain Bolt in a 100-meter relay. When this happens, I feel lucky I haven’t – yet – been struck by a bolt of lightning right there in the middle of the sanctuary.

So am I one of those stress puppies who subconsciously needs drama to feel alive? Or am I afflicted with “monkey mind,” as my husband suggests? (“Monkey mind,” he explained, is a Buddhist term referring to the constant chatter of an unsettled, restless or confused mind.)

Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”

“So how do I quiet my mind?” I asked my spiritual director. She offered some suggestions, like taking walks, listening to music or reading excerpts from a daily devotional book.

So far, my morning meditation ritual works best for me. When I don’t need to go somewhere early, I start my day by feeding my cats, the birds and (yep!) the squirrels. If the weather is nice when I go outside, I may stroll around my backyard and admire whatever flowers are blooming.

Back inside, I sit in my recliner in front of the fireplace, a cup of coffee at my side and a cat in my lap, and journal. Listening to Oley Cat’s purr and the crackle of the fire, or watching the squirrels’ antics as they invade the bird feeders helps quiet my mind. A little. For a few seconds, anyway. I just need to commit myself to this ritual more often, I promise myself frequently.

But it was an observation my spiritual director made about my constant struggle with clutter that really got my attention. Clutter is a distraction, she said, whether it’s the physical “stuff” that litters my house or the mental chatter that keeps me from being able to recite the Lord’s Prayer without my “monkey mind” getting sidetracked.

Which leads to the question: What am I trying to distract myself from?

A question worth pursuing, I’ve decided.

Clutter is a spiritual issue

Ecclesiastes 3:6 reminds us there is “a time to keep and a time to cast away.” With that in mind, I resolved to make clearing out clutter a priority during this year’s recently-completed Lenten season.

Using the “one baby step at a time” approach, I actually managed to make an initial dent in the mounds of clutter littering our house. I thoroughly cleaned the refrigerator/freezer and about half the pantry, got caught up with a month’s worth of ironing, repotted several plants in the sunroom and took down the Christmas tree (yep, the first week in March). I even sorted through a drawer full of paper and shocked our accountant by giving her everything she needed to file our tax return on time this year rather than file for an extension the way I usually do.

As I cleaned and sorted, however, I realized the clutter in my life consists of more than just endless piles of paper and other physical “stuff.” My spiritual director has challenged me to identify the “spiritual” clutter clogging up my life as well. For example:

  • Computer clutter. As I said in a previous article, I could spend hours at my computer playing solitaire, mindlessly surfing the Internet or actually getting sucked into “news” articles about Miley and Taylor and Selena and the Kardashians. I am particularly likely to do this when I’m anxious or avoiding a task on my to-do list.
  • Calendar clutter. Some of the commitments overwhelming my schedule are things I really want to do – a visit with family or friends, singing in the church choir, community volunteer work. But too many other commitments have landed on my calendar because I can’t say no to people.
  • Nutritional clutter. Big-box stores, supermarkets and even health food stores seek to sell me cereal with sugar as the first ingredient, highly processed trans-fat-laden “dinners” I can pop into the microwave and whole aisles of cookies and candy. Restaurant buffets, family gatherings and church potlucks feature entire tables of desserts.
  • Mental clutter. And finally there is the steady stream of anxieties and resentments that keep me pre-occupied during the day and awake at night.

Why is all this clutter a spiritual issue?

When I put junk food into my body – the temple of the Holy Spirit – it clogs my arteries as well as adding extra pounds to my hips. The mindless Internet-surfing and solitaire games suck hours and hours out of my day that could be better spent taking a walk, connecting with other people, or just about anything else. Endless ruminating about resentments interferes with my ability to love my neighbor as myself. Turning down excessive demands on my time would help me focus more energy on those commitments that are really important. When the physical clutter in my house is out of control, my whole life feels out of control.

Alas, I still have quite a way to go just to address the physical clutter. Piles of paper cover nearly every surface in my office. My closets bulge with clothes and shoes I haven’t worn in years. Boxes and boxes and boxes marked “miscellaneous” remain stashed in the basement, many unopened from our last move nearly 10 years ago. And I don’t even like to think about the mess in the garage.

But I did make a good start during Lent, enough to motivate me to keep going. As they say around the tables at 12-Step group meetings, “One day at a time!”

 

 

Comparing spiritual journeys

I’ve been warned by numerous self-help books to avoid the comparison trap. Still, I can’t seem to resist the temptation, even when it comes to my spiritual life. So of course this Sara Zimmerman comic hit home:

Spiritual journey comic

Source: Unearthed Comics      

Readers can find more of Sara’s witty cartoons on her Web site Unearthed Comics. (Link HERE.) In the meantime, I’m glad I’m not the only one whose spiritual journey has squiggly lines.