Conscious contact

Now that I’ve discovered a reliable way to address my occasional doubts about God’s existence – immerse myself in nature – it’s time for the next step in my spiritual direction journey: Addressing my questions/doubts about a “personal God.”

Matthew 10:29-30 says “not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered.” How do I quell my periodic doubts about whether God really cares about me and other people, let alone sparrows? Does God truly have a plan for my life and does God honestly try to communicate directly with me?

With these questions in mind, I’ve dedicated this year’s Lenten season to improving my conscious contact with God. And the logical way to do this is through prayer. 

Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of In All Seasons for All Reasons: Praying Throughout the Year, suggests using Lent as “a time to explore new ways of prayer.”

Among the forms of prayer suggested by Father Martin and my spiritual director, I’d like to focus on the following. While I’ve used some of these prayer techniques off and on for years, I’d like to commit to doing them on a more regular, disciplined basis. Others, such as the “examen” and “lectio divina,” I’ve never tried before and find intriguing.

  • Morning meditation. A time set aside for prayer before I start my day. 
  • Prayers of petition and intercession. Prayer on behalf of myself or others.
  • Prayers of thanksgiving. Expressing gratitude for answered prayers and other blessings.
  • Nature prayer. Encountering God through creation.
  • Writing/journaling. Keeping a journal to record the fruits of prayer, or using writing itself as prayer.
  • Music. Both making and listening to music as a form of prayer and meditation. 
  • Lectio divina. Sacred reading as a prayer method and guide to living.
  • Examen. Prayerful reflection on the events of the day to detect God’s presence and discern God’s direction for my life. 
  • Mindfulness in church. Paying closer attention during church services, and trying not to get distracted by my own random thoughts. 

As I pray, my spiritual director suggested I spend some time listening as well. Say (or write) a prayer, then be silent. Quiet my mind for a few minutes and wait for God’s response. What is God saying to me?

Moving forward

What’s next, as I embark on the next leg of my spiritual direction journey? How do I maintain and build on my progress?  

My first goal will be to spend some time each day outdoors – away from the computer screen, away from the political bickering by culture warriors on TV and Facebook, away from endless news reports about people’s inhumanity to other people. Because nature constantly reminds me of God’s existence, going outside is something I can easily do whenever I encounter those pesky doubts. I need to immerse myself in God’s creation. Watch sunsets. Listen to cicadas. Smell some flowers. Feel the breeze against my face. Take a walk. Dig around in the dirt and plant flowers or veggies. Experience evidence of God with all my senses. If severe weather keeps me inside, I can nurture the plants in the sunroom or watch the birds and squirrels from the picture window in the living room. Meanwhile, I’d like to start each day with Psalm 118:24, which reminds me, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” 

While I’m nowhere near my original goal of “a place for everything and everything in its place,” I’ve made some real headway sorting through physical clutter. I still advise houseguests against venturing into the basement or garage (I’d rather not have to file a missing person report), but the house mostly stays presentable enough so I’m not totally embarrassed when someone drops by without notice. I plan to continue with my spiritual director’s recommendation: Devote one hour per day to tackling clutter. And stop collecting more and more STUFF to fill a home already bursting at the seams with too much material abundance.

My spiritual director and I have also explored various kinds of “spiritual clutter” that crowd 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 must say I love the newfound free time. Deadlines have practically disappeared. I feel so much “lighter” – like I’ve put down the 100-pound bag of stress I carried around for five years. Now, as I ponder the question of vocation, I must resist the urge to plunge into something new right away. I need to be selective as I discern where God wants me to go next.

My continuing spiritual journey also involves asking more questions. Lots of them:

  • The nature of God. I’ve decided there must be some kind of Creator. But who, or what, is this Entity I choose to call God? Is God distant and uninvolved, as some deists claim? Or is God a “close-up” entity who not only cares about each of us personally, but intervenes regularly in human affairs?
  • Authority. What is my authority for what I believe? The Bible? Church tradition? Clergy? Why, or why not? What about the priesthood of all believers? Where does science fit in? Since not even all Christians agree on the issue of authority, how do I decide who is right? Also, who or what outside of church has influenced my beliefs? How reliable are these sources of authority? Should I rethink some of them?
  • Church. Why go to church, when by my own admission, I feel the presence of God most while immersed in nature? Is there anything I can get from church that I can’t just as easily get by going outside? If we go to church, how often do we go? What characteristics should I look for when evaluating a church? What characteristics serve as deal-breakers? 
  • Prayer. 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 about “crowd-sourced” prayer on Facebook?
  • Salvation. Some Christians say we’re “saved” through baptism, while others insist we must make a personal decision for Christ. Which is it? What about predestination? Is there a literal heaven or hell? If so, who goes where? What does salvation mean, actually?
  • The 10 Commandments. How do I relate these Commandments to 21st Century issues? For example, I promise I’ve never even been tempted to worship a golden calf made from melted-down jewelry. But what about the bronze bull on Wall Street? What does it mean to keep the Sabbath Day holy in a 24/7 culture that worships productivity? What constitutes stealing? Your wallet may be safe with me, but what about the way I invest my money?
  • Sin. In a world where many “sins” have been reframed as “diseases,” is sin still a legitimate concept? Is sin a specific act or is it the condition of separation from God? How would liberal Christians define sin versus how conservative Christians would define it? Who is correct?
  • Creeds. 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? 
  • Politics and the Culture Wars. Part of my motivation for seeking spiritual direction was the extreme level of vitriol permeating our society in recent years. I’ve begun to suspect I’m part of an Exhausted Majority who feels pressured to take sides in the Culture Wars, but at the same time doesn’t fit neatly into either the liberal or conservative camps. As the partisan positions have gotten more and more extreme, common sense seems to have flown out the window. This has prompted me to ask: What are my own beliefs and what is my role as a Christian in our society’s political battles? 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? 
  • Ecumenism. 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’s just for starters. 

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 want to keep being honest about the questions I have.

One thing I do know for sure: I’m grateful to be making the journey with this spiritual director. When I shared this list of questions with her, as usual, there were no lectures. She just smiled and asked, “Where do you want to start?”

Spiritual progress

A little over a year ago I 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 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 church’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 a spiritual director to help me explore these “ultimate” questions and reorder my beliefs and values as necessary. Seeing a spiritual director does not replace going to church, of course – it’s a supplement, rather than a substitute. Spiritual direction is a one-on-one partnership in which one Christian helps another grow in a personal relationship with God. 

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. 

My spiritual director, thankfully, has been patient as I grapple with questions some would say I shouldn’t even be asking. For the past year, we have met monthly for one-hour sessions. She offers a variety of suggestions for homework assignments, allowing me to choose which ones I might find most helpful. She recommends various reading materials as well.

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 journal 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’m a rather “visual” person, so I’ve also used imagery to describe what I’m experiencing at any given moment. 

One of my 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 and added a rope to represent the tug-of-war over everything from my time to my personal values caused by competing demands and continual conflict. Underneath the papers and boxes and to-do lists, I placed several boulders with labels on them – fear, anger, pain – to represent the steady stream of anxieties and resentments that kept me awake at night and pre-occupied during the day. 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.

Using the graphic as a starting point, I listed those areas of my life that felt not-so-well-ordered. My relationships. A messy house. Our finances. My frantic, overloaded schedule. Health issues ranging from aches and pains everywhere to heart problems, along with my inability to sustain a healthy eating plan for more than a few days at a time. My writing, which seemed to languish. My emotional life, which often left me feeling like a walking bundle of anxieties and resentments. 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.

I shared my “laundry list” with my spiritual director and showed her the graphic. I described the chaos that seemed to permeate my life, stemming from my own challenges with organizing skills, my talent for procrastination, my difficulty saying “no” to demands on my time, and my penchant for getting sucked into other people’s dramas. Repeated efforts to get my life under better control often left me feeling more frustrated than ever, I confessed. 

My spiritual director listened to this litany without negative judgment – at least none that I could detect. Looking the graphic over for a moment, she asked, “What stands out for you?”

I pointed out the “God ball” at the foot of the clutter pile. God was there, of course, but after creating this image, I could see vividly how clutter of all kinds – from endless STUFF to excessive commitments – blocked my spiritual path.

I half expected her to supply some relevant Bible verses about the Godliness of cleanliness and self-discipline. But instead of helping me incorporate my “God ball” back into the rotation of balls I was juggling, my spiritual director suggested I leave it where it was for the time being. “Just sit with it,” she said.

Back at the drawing board (Photoshop, that is), I pulled up my Clutter Mountain graphic and painted my “God ball” gold. I then imagined myself crawling out from under the junk pile and sitting next to the golden God ball with my eyes closed and my back to everything else – a cup of warm coffee in my hands and my two cats at my side.

Of course, this meant the other balls I was juggling would drop, I told my spiritual director when I showed her the edited graphic. “That’s okay,” she said. “Those other balls will still be there when it’s time for you to get back to them. They’re not going anywhere.” She suggested I spend an hour each day tackling the clutter – just one hour – and leave the rest for the next day.

Then she asked me, “Have you ever questioned the existence of God?” She didn’t flinch when I said, “Oh yeah. More than once.” One of the things I’ve liked is that she’s continued to be nonjudgmental. I’ve been able to talk about things like my history of church-hopping (and religion-or-spiritual-tradition hopping) and I’ve even been able to acknowledge occasional doubts about God’s existence without getting a lecture.

I went to work on the clutter, using my spiritual director’s recommended one-hour-per-day approach. While I still have a long way to go before achieving my goal of “a place for everything and everything in its place,” slowly but surely, I’ve gotten my house to a point where it is at least presentable enough to invite people over from time to time.

I set a boundary with myself regarding my schedule. Before adding a new ongoing commitment to my calendar, something else must come off.  Some of the commitments really mattered to me: time with my husband, a meal with family or friends, singing in the church choir. But several other commitments had crept into my schedule because I should have said “no” and didn’t.

As I continued 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. 

For most of my life, I had leaned toward the idea that there probably was a God. Yet, those pesky doubts did creep in from time to time. I didn’t voice them to anyone, though. If the folks at church ever doubted God’s existence, they certainly weren’t letting on.

I confessed to my spiritual director that what I really wanted was that “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. 

One thing that became glaringly apparent when I tried to quiet my mind and listen for God’s voice was the level of resentment and anxiety that continually filled my thoughts – much of this prompted by a not-for-profit organization I was heavily involved in. For several years I had dedicated an average of 5-10 volunteer hours per week to this organization and contributed thousands of dollars.

The organization was not church-related, but its program 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. The leader personally targeted me and others whose competence and dedication threatened his sense of power. 

After five years of relentless conflict and escalating abuse, I had to admit this 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. 

My husband was so happy with this decision, he celebrated by taking me out for supper at my favorite seafood restaurant. I could literally feel the tension flow out of my body as I tied up loose ends and turned tasks over to others. I’ve dropped 15 pounds since I resigned from the organization because I no longer feel the need to counter stress by opening the refrigerator door and mindlessly stuffing my emotions with junk food. My schedule opened up considerably.

Then 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.

So, to ward off those nagging doubts that surface from time to time, I try to get outside as much as possible. Regardless of the weather, I like to start my day by feeding the birds (and squirrels) while my morning coffee brews. During the growing season I tend a garden and several flower beds. I take walks along an amazing tree-lined bike trail that runs beside a creek near our house. Strolling through our backyard, the bike path or a neighborhood park admiring the flowers and snapping wildlife photos sure beats watching the news and arguing with complete strangers on Facebook. Immersing myself in nature’s majesty continually reminds me there is an ultimate Creator.

My spiritual progress may seem agonizingly slow to anyone reading this. But for me, finding a way to effectively address my occasional doubts about God’s existence is HUGE. Summoning the self-respect and courage to walk away from an abusive situation has also been an enormous step in the right direction. As they say around the tables at 12-Step meetings, we aim for spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.

Time to fasten my seatbelt and embark on the next leg of my spiritual journey.