When I was present to him
I saw his crinkled little brow of curiosity
looking at the commonplace.
Such seeing changed my day.
When I was present to her
I saw her dark eyes shine while
the rest of her danced with delight.
Such being invited me to play.
When I was present to him
I saw his furrowed brow and tired eyes
and I was invited into silence.
Such sharing meant more than I could say.
I wrote this poem in 2012 after being curious about what would happen if I was present to my ordinary surroundings for fifteen minutes. Knowing so much of my time can be filled with my to-do list (of which spiritual practice can be a part), I decided to "throw a stick in the spokes" of my day. Am I ever glad I did!
I saw my family members in such a different way in a mere quarter of an hour. And in seeing them, I felt seen by God and was invited into seeing as God sees...and isn't that the whole point of spiritual practice?!
Try it. Whether or not there are other humans in your house, be curious as to what you see and how it/they "speak."
While they may share silence and look the same on the outside, join me in taking a look on the inside…
Different forms of meditation offer the practitioner different gifts depending on their focus. Some of these forms and gifts are mindfulness, movement, awareness, breathing, insight, chakra-opening, loving-kindness, relaxation, guided, calming, and creativity.
As one who meditates, I appreciate and practice a variety of methods and even combine some, but I call Centering Prayer my main practice. However, many do not understand how Centering Prayer offers anything different from other forms of meditation.
Centering Prayer was developed by Trappist monks, Fathers William Meninger, Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating, to help bring the ancient practice of contemplative prayer within the Christian tradition to people outside the monastery—which is most of us!
Inspired by early Christian contemplatives and the medieval text, The Cloud of Unknowing, their process—20 minutes of silence once or twice a day—allows the power of and presence in Silence to be accessed by those of us who live in the “world of words.”
This prayer’s nickname, the "Prayer of Consent," reveals how it differs from other forms of meditation. Rather than focusing solely on being present to sounds and sensations or giving the ego mind something to do like count, follow our breath, or say a mantra, Centering Prayer’s sole focus is surrendering. We consent to the presence and action of God within us.
During the 20 minutes of sitting comfortably, but alert, with head up and eyes closed (or with a resting gaze toward the floor), we introduce a “sacred word” as a symbol of our intention to consent. This can be a word like “Peace,” “Jesus,” or “Love.”
Whenever we become aware of our mind being engaged with thoughts (no matter how interesting or enlightening!), we simply and gently say our sacred word. We come back to surrendering all—every plan, worry, person, to-do list, dream, ah-ha, observation, insight…you get the idea. We let go of everyone and everything, trusting God with and for all.
Given the focus is learning to trust God, it does not matter how many times we catch ourselves wandering and returning. Every instance is an opportunity to “come home” and trust the Beloved with each. Some days we will find ourselves saying our sacred word quite often, for we may have more weighing on our hearts, minds, and bodies than other days.
Notice how relational Centering Prayer is!
It can certainly expose an unhealthy image of God which may be why a part of us rightly refuses to surrender! To explore that being a possibility rather than the normal ego tantrum of giving up control, go here.
How we enter into Centering Prayer can help us consent.
We see a model for this powerful and humble consent in Jesus, especially in the Garden of Gethsemane after asking to be spared from suffering but willing to surrender anyway. His deep trust in the Heart of God leads him to say what he taught his disciples to pray, “Thy will be done.”
Jesus’ response echoes the words of his mother, Mary, after being told she would bear the Messiah. To this overwhelming and possibly dangerous news, she says to the angel bringing her the announcement, “Let it be done unto me according to Your Word.” Perhaps Jesus learned his prayer of surrender from her!
Every time we enter into Centering Prayer, we join Mary and Jesus in this powerful, humble, and holy consent. For twenty minutes, we practice releasing our grasp on our plans, desires, abilities, and attachments.
After coming to an end of our own words in prayerful petition, no matter how a situation may look to us (and others) on the outside, we trust in the presence and work of the One who dwells in secret on the inside.
*Contemplative Outreach offers an app with a timer and ways to enter into and end your time of Centering Prayer. And no matter what level of experience you have, you are always welcome to join me for communal Centering Prayer every Friday morning from 9:00 AM- 10:00 AM (Central Time Zone). Contact me for the Zoom link.
Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
Mark 16:8 (NIV)
Sometimes our reaction to resurrection isn’t joy.
Sometimes it’s trembling and bewilderment (or as the NRSV translation says “terror and amazement”).
This Easter, my family of four paused at this ending of the book of Mark before continuing on with the two endings that were added later on.
My teen daughter jokingly calls the latter the “fan fiction endings” (alternate endings or additional info added by those who love the story rather than the original author). She is a reader of fan fiction when it comes to her favorite novels.
Clearly the women's fear and silence was not the end of the story given how it unfolded in the other Gospels and in the book of Acts, but the earliest manuscripts stop at verse 8.
And it got us wondering how many times in our own stories has God presented us with resurrection and we’ve been too scared out of our minds to accept it (let alone tell anyone!).
This might be resurrection in the form of a new dream, calling, or relationship arising just when we thought all hope was dead and gone. Maybe this has happened to you (or is happening to you) and instead of joy, your first response is trembling, bewilderment, and keeping it to yourself. Why?
Why might terror and amazement be our first reaction to the reality of resurrection?
It doesn’t fit our storyline. We’re not expecting it. The women were expecting to see Jesus’ body, that’s what they were prepared for. Their biggest challenge was how they would roll the stone away, that’s the story they were prepared for. They were utterly unprepared for this.
Years ago, my husband had just broken off an engagement. He told God he was ready to be a lifelong bachelor, then less than two months later, I came along…terror and amazement.
We don’t want to let go of our old storyline. If we let go of what is familiar (even if it’s painful), what might that mean? What might others think if something is voiced that is out-of-the-norm, completely other than what is expected? They were just ordinary women going about their plan to anoint their loved one’s dead body. Nothing out-of-the-ordinary. Now they are told to be evangelists! Women sharing the Good News with men—of the risen Christ—not so easy, definitely tremble-worthy.
In Russ’ hidden handbook of dating, two months was not enough time in between relationships. What might others think? Could he let go of what others (and even a part of himself) thought?
The new storyline seems too good to be true. Who wouldn’t want to hear that their loved one has been raised from the dead?! Sometimes when something is beyond our own imagining, it triggers all of our insecurities and fears. Given women’s role in society, perhaps the women that early morning felt especially vulnerable in sharing such news. Would they be believed and if not, what then? Could they bear being mocked and belittled?
Entering into another relationship for Russ, meant entering into another possibility of exhausting dysfunction, hurt, and rejection. Staying to himself seemed easier, but after our first conversation, he could not resist the feeling of hope for a healthy relationship. He had to decide if stepping out of hiding was worth the risk and ridicule.
He decided to take the risk that comes with resurrection.
After learning I had just had my wisdom teeth out, he walked up to me after a church service (he played in the worship band and I was the youth pastor) and asked how I felt after the surgery. Awkward? Yes. Did it trigger not only his, but all of my own insecurities? Yes. But, we will have been married for twenty years this October.
As I write this, I’m staring into the face of another resurrection. It has come while I have not yet totally released my grief and attachments to the old, dying storyline (what, how & who I had planned on being part of the unfolding of a dream I had pictured over fifteen years ago). Much like Russ experienced twenty-one years ago, God has raised up a new dream before I have felt ready, causing much trembling and bewilderment!
And like the women that morning, I have been afraid. I have needed time to ponder whether or not the eyes of my heart have been deceiving me. And I have needed to further loosen my grasp on the old while becoming aware of what has been triggered in me so as to open my hands and give my heart to the new. As the Spirit of God gives me courage, I share the good news of this new dream with others. And I imagine it will spread soon enough (as good news eventually does!).
When resurrection happens may your eyes be open to see it. And may the terror and amazement lead not to shame but to solitude with the God who raises the dead and to community with spiritual companions who can give you courage. May you trust that you will not remain afraid forever, but step boldly, no matter how clumsily, into the truth revealed by the resurrected Christ.
Being Holy Week, let's allow the art of German priest and artist, Sieger Köder (1925-2015), to lead us in meditation. "The Eucharist" or "Communion Table" is the subject for these two paintings that will receive our contemplative gaze.
Look closely at the first, depicting Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper found in Mark 14, Luke 22, and John 13.
Look: What or who catches your eye? Let your eyes rest there for a moment.
Notice: What stirs in you? Feelings, bodily sensations, thoughts/questions/curiosities...
Ask: "God, what are you saying to me through this painting?"
Listen: Pay attention to any words, images, memories, scriptures, songs, feelings, etc. that may arise. You might choose to journal.
Now look at the second painting below with those from the 1940's WWII-era with the risen Christ. A Jew, prostitute, beggar, clown, scholar, rich woman (maybe a widow), and wounded African guest worker with Nazi concentration camp pajamas have been invited (and have come!) to the table. You might repeat the above questions or focus in on a particular person at the table.
Look: Who catches your eye? Or, who do you most identify with or feel resistance towards?
Notice: What does this person stir in you? Feelings, bodily sensations, thoughts/curiosities...
Ask: "God, what are you showing or saying to me through this person?"
Listen: Pay attention to any words, images, memories, scriptures, songs, feelings, etc. that may arise. You might choose to journal.
Now let both paintings dance together. What do you notice? Is there a theme in what is being communicated to you through the paintings? Are you aware of any invitations?
Like parables, Sieger Köder's paintings contain many layers of meaning. There are endless ways to engage them, like entering one or both of the paintings through your imagination as an observer, one who joins Jesus at the table, or is the face of Christ for those present. What happens next?
Whatever happens next, may your time at the table speak to your soul and lead you further on the path of and toward Life.
This may be figurative for you as in, “There’s no going back to church as it was before the pandemic.” Or it may be literal, as in, "I'm not going back…period."
I have heard both. Pastors and parishioners come to spiritual direction wrestling with what the future looks like for their particular church and the Church as a whole.
Others come with the discovery that church attendance was part of a checklist they found relief from during the pandemic when it was no longer something they “had to do” because they couldn’t do it!
But things are beginning to open up. As more people receive vaccines and mask-mandates are lifted, some are feeling a growing pressure to figure out what they’re going to do when it comes to church (this includes pastors!).
Some tell me how much they miss being with their congregation and cannot wait to go back to in-person worship without the worry of virus spread. While these folks have regularly tuned-in to online worship, just thinking of returning to the building brings joy. It will be a type of homecoming to a family and place they long to see and be.
Yet this is not the sentiment of everyone.
Two months into the pandemic, a long-time church-goer said to me, “It’s astounding how little I miss church. That's definitely saying something to me.”
This person regularly comes to spiritual direction and regularly helps those in need, yet they have experienced a growing disconnect with their church over the past few years. The pandemic only heightened, or brought to the surface, what was covered by obligation and comparison. While those around them seemed to be enjoying and feeling nourished by the Sunday morning service, everything felt forced and inauthentic to them.
In spiritual direction they recalled continuously leaving spiritually starving and angry. They recounted every positive-thinking, heart-opening spiritual practice they have tried…and nothing changed. Their discontent and disgust just grew. The pandemic was in some ways a grace, offering a break from the inner turmoil of whether they should stay or leave.
Overly-simplistic truths like “Church is the people not the building” offer little help because church and church-going can be complicated depending on one’s personality, childhood, personal beliefs, and present experience of church-going and church-people. I know this, because I, too, have wrestled for decades, and continue to wrestle, with all that is intertwined with church/Church.
It’s been a long, liminal space for everyone. This threshold, or in-between time, can lead to deep questions or the acceptance of a clarity that has been clouded over by a sense of coerced duty and/or loyalty (whether the pressure comes from within or without).
Could leaving church actually be a sign of spiritual growth? It just may be.
My directee craves more than their congregation can offer. They want to go places theologically and spiritually their congregation is unwilling—perhaps unable—to go. Conversations have failed to lead to Shalom (peace and wholeness).
Even after many years, they may need to heed Jesus' call in Matthew 10, to “shake the dust from your feet” and leave. No need to demonize the pastor or congregation, it’s simply time to move on and continue one’s journey on and toward the path of Life. It’s not easy. There’s no one-size-fits-all way of leaving a place and people one had hoped would be life-giving.
It requires a lot of trust.
As my directee has wrestled with their discernment, I have never given them reasons to stay or leave or suggestions on how to stay or leave. I just listened. Ways of wisdom always arise as we release our stranglehold and wait for God's guidance (for the Holy Spirit is the true Spiritual Director, after all!).
So whether you are joyfully anticipating resurrection through returning to a beloved congregation or grieving the realization that you need to let something die for belovedness (including beloved community) to be born again, spiritual direction is a safe place during the in-between.
In spiritual direction, you will find permission to let your own inner wisdom be your guide. Allow the feelings of pressure and dread to speak. Listen to what your body has to say. Pay attention to the images your soul is offering. Become aware of patterns in the ways God has been at work in your own life story.
For God has been and always will be fully present to you and in you. The fullness of God's presence is equally with the person who worships in a church building (with 15 or 5000 people) as with the person who worships in ways that do not include a church building and its congregation.
To a group of young men, 13th century mystic, scholar, and Dominican priest, Meister Eckhart, said: "Whoever truly possesses God in the right way, possesses him in all places: on the street, in any company, as well as in a church or a remote place or in their cell…” (Walshe, 2008, Talks of Instruction, 6). He also once said,
Some people prefer solitude. They say their peace of mind depends on this.
May the wisdom of Meister Eckhart give us the boldness to listen to our own—and to stay and leave as the Spirit beckons.
Cats should be the mascot of contemplation.
They have resting awareness down.
Some people think contemplation is laziness, but this is far from the truth. “Doing nothing so God can do everything” is hard work!
It takes an active, yet relaxed, vigilance to stay present rather than follow the mind into the past or future where regret and worry reign. But like a good Zen master, the cat can teach us.
"Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God. Every creature is a word of God," Meister Eckhart proclaimed in the late 13th century. I find this to be true as I spend time with my cat. Listening and watching with the ears and eyes of my soul, I discover she has a lot to teach me. Here's some advice she offers...
5 feline tips for contemplation (also known as "contemplative catnaps"):
Cats make contemplation look simple. While simple, it can be challenging. Surrender and serenity are daily exercises that may look different each day! A routine-loving cat still changes nap spots, so how do surrender and serenity look for you today?
Watch a cat for a while and allow the Spirit of God, which enlivens both you and the cat, to speak to you through this furry part of Creation.
I did not think I could do spiritual direction without my dog.
She had been there from the beginning with her soulful eyes. She knew when to sit on a directee's lap, cuddle up beside them, or stay on my lap looking and listening. Her presence and gaze was the topic of conversation during many spiritual direction appointments.
"It's like she's looking into my soul!" one young seminary student exclaimed.
"In my vision, it was your dog that helped me have courage and assured me that I would not fall into darkness; how did she know to come sit with me at just that moment?!" a stay-at-home mom said with wonder-filled eyes.
When asked to sum up what God had been offering him through spiritual direction, the aerospace engineer who cultivated a Zen garden in his backyard, replied, "The image is Annie, your dog. God has shown me grace through her."
My miniature dachshund and I were partners. So when faced with sitting with people by myself, I did not think I had what it took. I was convinced it would not be as powerful of an experience for people. I relayed my fears to Father Carl Arico while on a Contemplative Outreach retreat in Sewanee, Tennessee. And while he believed I would be just fine, he suggested I set out a photo so that she would continue to be with me during the time of spiritual direction.
It was then that I understood how God had companioned me through her during my beginning stages of being a spiritual director. She had modeled ways of listening and discernment, showing me it was not about what I knew, or about any kind of performance, but how I was with people that mattered most. Through her, God had been present to me.
Countless times since then I have met with people whose best (& many times only) experience of the unconditional love of God has come through their dogs. Because of my own experience of how a dog can be a vessel of the Divine, I pay special attention to the relationship people have with their pets. And I integrate this relationship into prayers and spiritual practices, because the love they give counts.
So maybe you are one of the people who need to hear that the way your dog loves you is God loving you through your dog. If that's the case, a spiritual practice for you is spending more time with your dog!
I know a woman who has three precious dogs, I call them her visible Trinity. Being with them is so life-giving, filling her with such love, that she is able to be in the world and interact with people differently than before the time with them. Her dogs usher her into the mind of Christ and is that not what the best spiritual practices do for us?
I don't have much to say today. Although I have much on my mind.
It's the one anniversary of the destructive tornados in my city of Mt. Juliet, TN, and surrounding area, followed by news of the pandemic days later. Maybe you are just as astonished and speechless as me when it comes to how much the world has changed in one year.
I read Ecclesiastes with different eyes, I can tell you that!
3 For everything there is a season
A look back at an animation my daughter began creating on the day of the tornados to help her work through her own feelings and to find a way to help others. Sometimes what helps our own soul, helps other souls, too.
Imagine you are being photographed and interviewed for Humans of New York. What story do you tell?
“We are the stories we tell about ourselves,” proclaims Rabbi Rami in his Guide to Forgiveness (p 65). If this is true (and our love of stories, as evidenced by the popularity of Humans of New York along with Netflix and novels, show it is), then it’s important that we know what stories we’re telling.
If the stories you share with others and the stories that live in you were turned into a movie, a series, a novel, or a HONY Facebook post, I’m curious what they would reveal as to who you are (at least in your own mind or who you want people to believe you are!). It’s worth consideration, so let’s ask some questions:
If you were to share 3 life-defining stories, what stories would you tell? When you start thinking through your stories, maybe you discover there are more you want to tell, so try 7-12 stories. Maybe you write down the titles or a brief synopsis to begin with, then take a look at them. Notice how your collection of stories define who you are and how you approach and move through life.
How many of your stories include tragedy and/or suffering? How many of those stories also include redemption and/or resurrection? Notice any elements of surprise or suspense.
Who are you in the stories you tell? What role do you play? Are you cast as the victim? savior? hero? rebel? fool? Is your soul happy with that role? We may not realize that we are playing a role someone else has written for us. Or, we might discover we are typecast in a particularly unfavorable role.
Thinking of stories of harm, hurt, anger, and resentment that continue to burden you…
Are there any stories that need to be edited or re-storied? Which ones are crying out for a rewrite?
Even as strong feelings exist around them…
Is it time to assign new meaning or step out of a role that no longer fits? As Rabbi Rami reminds us--feelings come and go, stories can last a lifetime. (p. 79). We do not have to wait until our feelings are all resolved before we move forward with our life. Sometimes feelings resolve as we move forward with more wisdom and creativity than before.
Your stories matter. Are you beginning to see how that is true?
The story that lives in you shapes who you believe yourself to be (as well as who you believe God and others to be). It also shapes the way you tell stories about yourself to others.
Says Gertrud Mueller Nelson, in Here All Dwell Free, “Know your story, or your story will live you.” If we don't know the story we are living, we can easily get caught up in or be entrapped by our feelings of resentment, bitterness, and anger. They can define us by becoming the soil out of which our story grows.
Misunderstanding, hurt, harm, suffering...they are all a part of life. Everyone’s story includes them. But not everyone allows them to be transformed.
Maybe it’s time to revisit your stories or to write down the names of people in those stories who have caused you harm. Then consider what God has done and is doing with and through those stories. You might be surprised.
A beautiful re-storying is found in the book of Genesis in the story of Joseph and his brothers (a powerful retelling is found in Stephen Mitchell’s book, Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness). After being sold into slavery by his own brothers due to jealousy, years later a famine forces them to seek food in Egypt, where Joseph, who was once a slave, has risen to power and is now in charge of the food supply. He recognizes them, though they don’t recognize him so he plans a creative way for the revelation to occur. His God’s-eye view of his own story allows the present story to unfold with compassion and creativity rather than revenge. Or maybe that is the best kind of revenge!
After the surprising reveal, Joseph invites his brothers into God’s larger story of redemption when he tells them, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20). He does not pretend the harm did not happen, he just transforms the harm.
Harm happens and usually people don’t mean to harm you (you’re just in the way of their happiness) but sometimes people do. Either way, you are not condemned to your story of suffering, a new story awaits. Will you join in the ongoing work of the Author of Life in transforming your story?
“The Tao which can be told is not the eternal Tao,” states the opening line of the Tao te Ching. Try replacing Tao (or Way) with God or Jesus.
No matter who we are, the image of the Way, of God, even of Jesus, that we hold is not the true or eternal one. Our image will never offer the whole picture or truth. A book that is an enjoyable reminder of this is Naming the Unnameable: 89 Wonderful and Useful Names for God …Including the Unnameable God.
So even though God is beyond all images, why do I still often ask people in Spiritual Direction, “When you pray or think about God, how do you image God?”
You can learn a lot from the image of God you hold. Images are powerful.
As a Spiritual Director, they can let me know why a person may have such a hard time being in Silence, praying, or trusting the Sacred Presence. They can also help identify particular spiritual wounds. Some images we hold inspire fear and shame rather than love and trust.
An example from my work:
Most often people describe a masculine image of God (usually a Zeus-like one standing judgmentally outside of them). This is not surprising as religions are chiefly shaped in and by patriarchal culture and language.
Yet one may not (or may not feel the freedom to) stop to think how a strictly masculine image of God can be wounding. Women, especially, have suffered (the extent is a topic for another time). But all of Creation (as well as Creator) suffers when parts of them (and in this case, the feminine) is ignored, suppressed, or even despised.
For some, the suffering leads to feelings of resistance to all things around God, Jesus, Church, and Scripture. Not knowing the soul is crying out for a more holistic, truer image of Divinity, many times the person feels guilty or rejects all things religion-related (but somehow some still find their way to sitting with a Spiritual Director!).
As we listen together in the Silence, the still, small Voice begins to whisper of the Divine Feminine and often images from Scripture itself arise—Lady Wisdom (also known as “Chokmah” in Hebrew or “Sophia” in Greek), Mother Hen gathering her chicks, Mother God holding or nursing her beloved child, Mother Mary who knows suffering...
Notice the “Mother” theme? It is both telling as to what the person’s soul is crying out for as well as a needed corrective for an overabundance of Father imagery.
Feel uncomfortable with that thought? You are not alone, fear can often accompany the idea of turning toward these images (it did for me!). After all, a patriarchal culture only validates patriarchal images! Isn’t it amazing these feminine images are to be found at all in the Hebrew and Christian Bible? And by the way, Saint Paul declares Jesus to be the embodiment of Sophia (see I Corinthians 2:7 as one example).
When those in Spiritual Direction allow themselves to embrace (or be embraced by) the Divine Feminine, guess what? They can pray again.
And they begin to trust in the God who is with them, and in the case of women, a God who resembles and better understands them. They discover a true Soul Friend.
An example from home:
My teen daughter is a contemplative at heart. Silence has been her way of prayer since she was tiny. And for just as long, she has expressed a disdain for overly masculine images of God. We have talked about Mother God since preschool when we tweaked her school's "God our Father" singing prayer to also include "God our Mother." But not seeing or hearing the same language in communal worship has left her with little desire for institutional religion. I cannot blame her.
While it has not been a cause for worry, I have wondered if Silence is more of an escape from religion or a hiding place from the world rather than a surrendering to the Sacred. Regardless, I have trusted God would meet her in it, even if I had no idea of the particulars. But the other day she surprised me by saying she talks to Lady Wisdom and asks for Her help all the time!
I guess she figured one mother is enough for now! She has found relating to God as Lady Wisdom to naturally be more soul friendly. And finding a Friend of her Soul, she cannot help but pray.
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.