Spiritual Direction

Today is my spiritual direction session — a once-monthly meeting with my spiritual director. It is an opportunity to take an hour to reflect purposefully, with the aid of another, on my ongoing relationship with the Divine. We might talk about where I have seen God’s touch in my life or where there appears to be (or needs to be) guidance concerning an issue now or going forward. My spiritual director has known me for many years, so she is able to draw connections with past conversations and past events in my life. Because she is also a widow, she has valuable insights into the feelings and movements of the grief process.

Spiritual direction can occur between two people of the same faith, or two people of differing faith traditions. The sessions offer a grounding with the Sacred through the listening presence and companionship of another person, one who has committed to set aside her/his own personal issues for the duration of the session in order to focus on those of the directee. In an ideal session, the director serves prayerfully as a conduit for the Holy Spirit.

Spiritual directors are available virtually all over the world. Where in-person, face-to-face sessions are not convenient, telephone or Skype sessions might be arranged. If you have an interest in learning more, or in contacting a spiritual director, visit the website www.sdiworld.org. The menu under “Find a Spiritual Director” offers as its first item the “Seek and Find Guide,” with instructions for using the Guide as well as listings for thousands of directors.

Spiritual direction is a valuable practice in everyday spirituality.

           

Giving Thanks In All Things

You’ve surely heard the Biblical instruction “give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God for you.” It is Verse 18 of I Thessalonians 5. You certainly heard it if you were in a Christian church on Thanksgiving Sunday. Most people who point to this verse emphasize that we are instructed to give thanks IN all things, not FOR all things, indicating a prevailing attitude of trust and gratitude that we should maintain no matter what is going on in our lives.

But I would like to point out something else that I don’t usually hear mentioned. This verse is one of three exhortations in one sentence. They are verses 16, 17, and 18 from I Thessalonians 5, and together they form a single sentence. It reads: “(16) Rejoice always, (17) pray constantly, (18) give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” That’s how the NIV puts it. The International Standard Version reads, “(16) Always be joyful, (17) continually be prayerful, (18) in everything be thankful, because this is God’s will in Christ Jesus for you.”

If all you read was the International Standard Version, you might think that only the third part, giving thanks in all things, is God’s will for you, but if you see the NIV, you can’t miss that semicolon—which brings both of the earlier two parts under the same umbrella. All three are God’s will for you.

The Message makes that last point especially clear. Set off in a paragraph by themselves are verses 16–18: “Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live.”

Happy Thanksgiving, joyfully, prayerfully.

           

Grief Progression

A friend sat down beside me Sunday before church and told me that she misses me. I knew, and so did she, that I haven’t missed any Sunday services. She meant something else, so I explained that it feels to me as though a buffer of gauze exists between me and the world. It’s that buffer that she senses. On Sunday it was 15 months to the day since my partner died. This gauze buffer is the current state of grief for me. My friend seemed to think it might be two years or more, so we surprised each other.

People are still offering advice about how to deal with grief. Some people think I’m going too slow; others, that I’m trying to go too fast. In truth, I’m not doing either but just being here, day to day, doing my work, tending to the dogs, and thinking constantly of how to deal with the aging cat.

I seek advice on the latter from God and from my departed partner and somehow the needed answers come. I’m not certain from Whom/whom, only that the answer has come from the Spirit world. And that’s enough.

           

Faith: a matter of spurning the opposites

Marcus Borg’s Days of Awe and Wonder, is one of many books my friend Linda and I have read together to share the points that amaze us or help further our own spiritual journeys. The subtitle is “How to Be a Christian in the 21st Century,” so it’s no small task set for this compilation of Borg articles, sermons, essays, speeches, interviews, and lectures published posthumously.

Though a book like this offers almost unlimited starting points for a blog entitled “Everyday Spirituality,” I have continued to think about a small section of a sermon on faith delivered by Marcus Borg in 2005.

Four meanings are given to faith in the Christian tradition, says Borg. “Faith as believing” is the one commonly put forward—believing the doctrines of the tradition, believing that there is a God, believing that Jesus is divine, and so forth. Borg concludes that this meaning of faith is not only a modern distortion but absolutely impotent in our lives. “You can believe all the right things and still be miserable,” he writes.

So he turns to three other meanings that he considers more ancient and authentic. The first is faith as trust, faith as radical trust in God, which may have very little to do with where a person lands on the beliefs continuum. Here is the key for me: the opposite of this definition of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith as trust is anxiety. This provides a sure-fire way to measure the depth of your faith.

The second of the ancient meanings of faith is faith as fidelity to a relationship, specifically a relationship with God. The opposite, therefore, is unfaithfulness. Borg writes that unfaithfulness has frequently been referred to as adultery; however, the prophets were not talking about sexual conduct, but rather about unfaithfulness to God. It’s hard not to think of the commandment here: You shall have no other gods before Me.

The third of the ancient meanings has to do with a way of seeing “the whole of that in which we live and move and have our being,” writes Borg. Is it hostile to us? indifferent to us? or is it the gracious force that created us and continues to nourish and support us?

These meanings may not be the usual “definitions” of faith we are given, but they seem practical for everyday life. The faith that enables me to see the whole in a way that sustains me is the one that is based in trust in God and faithfulness in my relationship with God.

           

Today Is Ours

 

American poet and actress Beah Richards passed away in 2000 at the age of 80. One of her contributions to the world is the following poem:

 

Today is ours. Let’s live it.

And love is strong. Let’s give it.

A song can help. Let’s sing it.

And peace is dear. Let’s bring it.

The past is gone. Don’t rue it.

Our work is here. Let’s do it.

Our world is wrong. Let’s right it.

The battle is hard. Let’s fight it.

The road is rough. Let’s clear it.

The future is vast. Don’t fear it.

Is faith asleep? Let’s wake it.

Today is ours. Let’s take it.

           

Keep Going

A wonderful little book entitled Really Important Stuff My Dog Has Taught Me, by Cynthia L. Copeland, was among the last gifts I had given to my partner before her passing. The book is full of great photography featuring dogs, along with stories and bits of wisdom.

In reading through the book on Christmas Day, I came to this piece of instruction for life: “Keep going until you find your way home.” The story with the adage is about Mason, a terrier who found his way home despite two broken legs after a tornado hit his family’s home and carried him away.

Maybe getting carried off by a tornado isn’t so much different from finding yourself in grief or sudden loss. Like Mason, I am trying to find my way home. I mentioned to my spiritual director recently that one experience I’m having in dealing with the loss of my partner is I don’t know quite where I belong now. She pointed out that after many years of being a caregiver, I may be unsure who I am now that I no longer have the person I’d been caring for.

So my efforts to deal with grief are about trying to find my way home. I think Mason’s guidance is worth following: just keep going. And have faith that the right paths will open to lead where I need to go.

           

Making Your Life Vast

During my long stay in Florida, while my partner of 26 years was very ill and declining more and more each difficult day, I had two resources with me that became my main reading material for the quiet evenings. One was Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet on my Kindle and the other was the Bible in ESV (English Standard Version). One could argue that both made for somber reading, but both provided me with needed and appreciated solace.

Rilke’s Letter #8 seemed almost to have been written for my circumstances and I read it more than once. As for the Bible, I had settled on studying the book of Isaiah. Each night I would read from both books as a way to calm myself and try to get ready to sleep.

Isaiah and Rilke seemed quite unlike each other ordinarily, until one evening when it seemed to me that I was finding the same message in both. Rilke’s Letter #8 addresses how to deal with sadness and being solitary, especially when they come upon us suddenly. He wrote: “But it is necessary for us to experience that too. We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can; everything, even the unprecedented, must be possible within it. This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us.”

After reading that from Rilke, I picked up Isaiah, where I happened to be in Chapter 54, and it told me: “Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left….”

To me then and also now, these texts offer the same message: you must enlarge and expand your sense of your life, your emotional and psychic selves, so that they are vast enough to encompass and absorb whatever comes your way. Even something as devastating as the death of your partner. There will be no avoiding it, no shrinking away from it, no running away. All that is left is expanding enough, enlarging your tent enough, to accommodate it and let it be part of who you are.

My partner, Helene, passed away two months ago today, on July 22, 2016. I miss her more than I can say.

           

Power of Meditation

Part of my everyday spirituality is a daily reading from Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling. I’ve been around the calendar with it a couple of times now. Recently I was looking through some of her comments about meditation and came across this one:

When you sit quietly with Me, I shine the Light of My Presence directly into your heart.

This is one of the better descriptions of the power of meditation I have seen because it makes a useful attempt to describe what actually happens in meditation. The line resonates especially well with me because it is so close to what my first spiritual director explained to me many years ago. I had told her about my meditation practice and some of the changes that had come about in my life apparently as a result of it. She nodded and said, “By sitting in silence, you opened a door for God to speak directly to your heart.”

The practice of meditation, and this explanation of its impact, have been profoundly important in my life.

           

When Suicide Touches Your Family

These past four or five weeks have been one of the most sobering, disturbing times of my life—also one of the busiest as I have taken the lead in responding to the mundane, practical issues following on the passing, by her own hand, of my niece.

She was 42 years old, and by all outward signs, she had perhaps more possible avenues before her than many people do. She was bright, hard working, good looking, and talented in a number of ways. But two things are true: she could not see herself as others of us did, and we could not see how life was for her in the inner prison of her mind.

My initial reaction, which lasted longer than I would have preferred, was anger with her for the permanent choice she made, bringing devastation and horrible sorrow to so many, especially her mother and her children and more than one man who loved her. But as it fell to me to clear out her belongings from her home, I had the opportunity (not available to the others) to work through my feelings and come to experience her life in ways I never had before. In the process, I forgave her this act and began to pray for more for her spirit than simply that God would bless her soul.

The most frequent question people ask when a suicide occurs is: Why? And that’s the one question that cannot be fully answered because none of the possibilities really makes sense to the rest of us. There can only be acknowledgment of the wasted potential and sadness at the irreversible choice that was made.

           

My “Marilynn Robinson” Phase

For a couple of months I’ve been reading almost nothing but Marilynne Robinson. I really discovered her work only because she was suddenly pictured on the covers of both New York Review of Books and Writer’s Digest in the same month. I figured that much publicity must mean something!

So first I picked up a copy of Lila, Robinson’s National Book Critics Circle Award Winner, published in 2014. Immediately hooked, I put myself on the waiting list at the library for Gilead, which won the Pulitizer Prize, and also Home. All three books circle and recircle the lives of two families, both minister’s families, in Gilead, Iowa. The books are not heavy on plot, so if action is critical to you as a reader, these are not the books for you. However, if you like excellent writing and coming to know the psychological makeup of the characters, you will love Robinson’s work.

My favorite of the fiction books remains Lila, and the appeal lies both in the life and mind of this wonderful character and in the theological tidbits that are dropped here and there. Here is an example, spoken by Lila’s husband, the Reverend John Ames, as he reads to her a draft of a sermon: “Things happen for reasons that are hidden from us, utterly hidden for as long as we think they must proceed from what has come before, our guilt or our deserving, rather than coming to us from a future that God in his freedom offers to us.”

The sermon continues (it begins on page 222), but this opening thought struck me as worthy of dwelling upon in appreciation for the gifts that come to us—perhaps not “out of the blue” but rather out of the future God has ordained for us.