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.