Honestly, I really don't.
As a Spiritual Director, I'm listening and looking for life.
For some this looks like a daily time set aside for reading Scripture and praying with words (whether silently, written, or spoken). This can be a very grounding and growing time.
Or it can be a burdensome box on the spiritual checklist marked by guilt-if-I-don't-do-it.
Even worse, it can be a time to grow the ego (rather than the mind of Christ).
Reading the Bible and memorizing Scriptures are not a guarantee that one is on the path of and toward Life. Some things may have the appearance of life but underneath we find superstition or pride in disguise.
However Spirit is in the process of utterly transforming our hearts (which impacts the lenses through which we see the world, including Scripture), that is what I am looking and listening for when I sit with a person in Spiritual Direction.
Let me give an example:
One person felt guilty because they did not want to do a one-year-Bible study initiated by their peers. I affirmed their resistance which was telling them the truth--should they say "yes" out of obligation, they would only grow resentment, not life, in their relationship with God and others.
As I continued to listen, it became clear that this person would step out of their particular compulsions and into a deeper place the more they spent time in Nature (God's first revelation) and working with wood. Nature and Beauty were of utmost importance in growing in Love and Life. Their year would be better spent outside and in their workshop.
There is no one-size-fits-all contrary to what you may have heard as a child, young adult, or a newbie to tending to the spiritual life.
Having regular, uninterrupted time on the couch with a cat or dog or sharing a peaceful and delicious meal with one's partner, both are life-giving, love-growing practices. Others may find that silent meditation or reflecting on a poem expands their soul. Working with a dream from the night before, puzzling over a vision, wrestling with a spiritual question, painting, gardening, playing with children...the possibilities for spiritual practice and experience are endless because God is endless.
It also does not have to be either-or when it comes to spiritual practice...either I read the Bible or I spend time in Nature. You might read the Bible in Nature. Spending time in Nature may give you new eyes with which to see the Bible when you do read it next (or you might discuss different ways to read Sacred Scripture with your Spiritual Director).
So how do you know if your "daily quiet time" or spiritual practice is life-giving and growing?
Reflect on the practice after you've engaged it for a length of time, at least a month. Any given day can feel like a slog and the fruit of the practice may show up outside of the time itself! For instance, after time in Nature, you may be calmer, less reactive, and more patient with others.
Here are some questions to discover the fruit your practice is bearing (or not):
If you come for Spiritual Direction, I'm not going to give you Bible verses to memorize or critique your spiritual life. I'm going to listen for life within your life so that you may walk in the way that leads to Life (which is what the Bible encourages us to do!).
We all experience the "voice" of the Sacred Presence. Whether or not we pay attention or correctly identify it requires ongoing discernment. One thing is for certain, it's hard when you're hangry (hungry + angry)!
On Sunday mornings, my family spends a little time in guided prayer. We often get ideas from Imaginative Prayer for Youth Ministry: A Guide to Transforming Your Students' Spiritual Lives into Journey, Adventure, and Encounter by Jeannie Oestreicher and Larry Warner (I'd use this resource even if I didn't have kids!).
The past two weeks, we were "present" in the desert with the exhausted Elijah who needed to rest and eat. Then we were with Elijah again as he experienced God's voice. We, too, received God's invitation to rest and eat in the desert as well as recognized God's voice as we stood beside Elijah on the mountain.
After some time in silent reflection, we share what we experienced. I'll share mine.
"What are you doing here?" is the question Elijah hears God say to him in I Kings 19:13, twice.
As I stood at the mouth of the cave on the mountain in my mind's eye, I realized the power of gentleness through that question. It took me a while, though. The first time, I felt criticized.
Tone matters. How we hear God's question to us reveals our current condition, our image of God, and how we interpret and then respond to the question.
When I am exhausted, I can hear things in a particular way that perhaps the speaker never intended. I can also miss things the person intended me to hear. My response often reflects my tone deafness. My husband and kids can attest to this!
Only after resting and eating, did Elijah have the strength and ability to look, listen, and recognize God's response to his complaint.
In Chapter 19 of the book of I Kings in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament of the Bible), we're told that God had Elijah go stand on the mountain and watch for the Lord. A whirlwind, earthquake, and fire came and Elijah did not recognize God in them. It was in what followed the fire...a gentle whisper (the sound of sheer silence some translations say)...that Elijah recognized the voice of God. And God asked Elijah for the second time, "What are you doing here?"
The second time, I became curious as to how we were all hearing it in our imaginations. I had my family try something after the time in silence. You can try it, too:
For me, the question changed completely! It went from a judgmental, accusing, you-should-be-doing-more tone, to one of care and concern. The voice in the whisper reminded me of the caring words and actions of the angel of the Lord who had offered much needed rest and food to Elijah forty days earlier.
And this reminded me of how the gentle whisper of God never fails to silence my inner critic and relax my body. I no longer feel the urgent need to run and hide (or get compulsively busy). When I listen to the still, small voice, I am ready to hear more-- even if that more is something that in a hangry moment I would not be open to hearing. Like, "What are you doing here?" which could be literal (in this physical place) or metaphorical (in this place in your life).
God (& my family) knows that after food and rest, I am ready for an honest conversation!
External Chaos Causing Internal Chaos?
How does your body let you know?
Here's how mine lets me know that the chaos is starting to overwhelm:
...eyes feel strained and tired.
...brain feels like an electrical storm of overstimulation.
...breathing is shallow or I'm holding my breath.
...adrenaline surges, making it hard to be still.
...chest feels heavy and tight with anxiety.
...shoulders and neck get tense.
...head begins to ache from all of the above!
This is a sure sign to me that it’s time to step away from the phone, stop scrolling through social media, or reading/watching/listening to the news. I won’t find what I’m really looking (or longing for) anyway!
And no, I'm not not talking dissociation (disconnecting with reality) and ignoring what is going on in the world. I'm talking about connecting with reality as it is experienced and revealed by our bodies so that we can connect to reality as it is outside of our bodies in a healthy way.
What if we asked ourselves, "Who is the me I'm bringing to the world (and to the issues at hand)?" Am I bringing my frantic, survival self or my grounded, truer self? Which would you prefer, by the way?
How do we do we connect with our true self (hint: not through more social media or news!)?
By diving under the chaotic surface of the waves (remember they’re connected to the calming deep but few venture to go there!), we discover our truer self. In the deep we surprisingly find we’re able to breathe, rest (physically & more!), and receive what’s next (or what isn’t next).
Instead of my frazzled, overstimulated, chaotic mind making decisions, I can bring to the world (& all its issues) the contemplative mind…the mind of Christ.
So here’s some permission. Dive (or if you’re extremely tired, sink) into the deep for a while.
Still don’t know how? Are you breathing as you read this? That is your starting place. Then maybe some Spiritual Direction for further exploration.
Christmas decorations (including outdoor lights) remain up at our house for the “12 Days of Christmas” culminating with Epiphany on January 6th. The candles will be left in the windows through Candlemas on February 2nd, but that’s for another post.
Through the years I’ve looked for ways, old and new, to celebrate the rhythm of the liturgical year (the Christian/Church calendar). Our "Christmas Card Prayer Path" is a favorite.
Throughout December as Christmas cards come in, we often take a quick glance before putting them in a card holder on the wall. When Epiphany, also called “Three Kings Day,” arrives on the 6th, we gather the stack of cards and lay them end to end, attaching them with tape.
After all are attached, the kids form whatever path shape they want leading to the nativity with its Christmas star overhead. Some years it has been a swirl, others a zig-zag of jagged turns, and once it looked almost straight! Isn't that the journey of life?!
They choose which Magi to accompany, then for the next 30-40 minutes, we join these learned “Wise Men” from the East on their journey to meet Jesus, Love Incarnate. Their journey (and ours) begins with the first card they are set on. As the Magi move toward the manger, the name(s) on each card are read and a blessing is said for each person, family, or group.
It’s usually something simple like, “Thank you for being part of our journey…
…may you be blessed with peace & joy this year.”
…may the love of God be with you.”
…may you continue to give and receive love.”
Throughout the prayer path, we pause when we hear, “Who’s that?” or “Do I know them?” We get the opportunity to introduce names and faces to each other. There are memories shared and stories told. We discover new friends on the journey. And we get to enjoy the humor and beauty of the cards themselves (deciding that some need to be added to our crafting and collaging materials!).
When we reach the last card, we say a prayer for all of those beyond the cards who are part of our journey and we theirs. Our prayer ends with acknowledging that although we’ve made it to Jesus with the Magi, it’s just the beginning of this year's journey of incarnating Love.
*Magi from Build Your Own Bethlehem by Gertrud Mueller Nelson and The Christmas Star from Afar Wooden Nativity Set and Book
Kasey is a scarf, ball and club juggling spiritual director just outside of Nashville, TN. Play helps her Type-A, Enneagram 1 personality relax, creating space for poetry and other words to emerge. She also likes playing with theological ideas like perichoresis, and all the ways we're invited into this Triune dance.