With darkness falling earlier, I have looked forward to the growing number of lights as I drive through my neighborhood. The display increases with each passing day!
Childlikeness, anticipation, playfulness, joy, and magic are part of the season.
So is pressure, overstimulation, exhaustion, loneliness, anger, and grief.
Some years it is more one than the other, isn’t it? Other times it is a mix.
The good news is that God is with us (& found) in both—moments that look & feel light and those that look & feel dark.
Said the Psalmist (139):
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
Our culture does a good job celebrating God in the light, but rarely guides us to discover God in the dark, especially during Christmastime. For some, the idea of God seeing us in the dark inspires more fear than comfort! However, the Psalmist is extolling the wonder of being seen by God, even when he cannot "see" God.
When all is dark around us, God is still there, within and without. Do you have the inner eyes to see (& receive comfort)? Perhaps it is time to let yourself befriend the darkness or rather let yourself be befriended in the dark.
As I stepped on the shovel, I couldn't help but smile.
On Sunday, I joined other members from Wisdom Tree Collective as we partnered with Blessed Earth Tennessee, to plant 12 trees at Jones Brummett Elementary School. Why?
Wisdom Tree Collective is a nonprofit that I helped co-found this year (after 3 years of planning!). My main branch of WTC is its School of Spiritual Direction and our very first cohort of students just started their third month of a 2-year online training program to become fulltime Spiritual Directors or bring a Spiritual Direction lens to their current callings.
I continue to be amazed by those who are going through the program (from around Middle TN; Joplin, MO; and Tacoma and Seattle, WA) and the Spiritual Directors who are mentoring them!
While it's a lot of work this first year, as I am developing both the content and rhythm, to say it's exceeding my expectations would be an understatement. Already I can tell you that I will whole-heartedly send people to each one of our current students for spiritual direction next year.
Back to the trees...
Part of Wisdom Tree Collective's commitment is to give back to the Earth by honoring our namesake and the ways we have experienced and continue to experience Divine Wisdom through trees. How have trees been a gift to you? Do you have any early childhood memories associated with trees? To read some of ours, go here.
For every person who participates in our training program, classes, or retreats, we will plant a tree in their name. This year we planted 12 trees—9 for each of the students in the spiritual direction program and 3 on behalf of the 3 founders, the 6 spiritual direction mentors, and the Triune Dance of Love in which we find ourselves!
And Heather Bennett of Blessed Earth Tennessee, found us the perfect location for our first tree-planting day—a brand new school in the Lebanon Special School District here in Wilson County, TN. She had no idea how much symbolism there was in planting trees around a new school's playground.
As we dug the holes and planted the Sycamores, Sweet Gum, Tulip Poplar, Red Maple, White Oaks, Live Oak, and Southern Magnolia, I felt a sense of awe. Both of us are in our first year. A new elementary school has been planted in our community and trees have now been planted by the new Wisdom Tree Collective's School of Spiritual Direction.
Looking up at the playground I smiled as I recalled all the times over the years I have talked about "the playground of God" or "the playground of the Holy Spirit" during classes and in spiritual direction. What a holy surprise! Clearly God was joining us in celebration on this crisp and sunny day!
Are you interested in joining me for the 2022 fall cohort? The Certificate in Spiritual Direction Application can be found here. And be on the lookout for both online and in-person retreats and classes offered by Wisdom Tree Collective next year!
By the way, if you're in the area, let me know if you drive by Jones Brummett Elementary and see our trees.
To learn more about Blessed Earth Tennessee, go here.
And for more information about Wisdom Tree Collective, go here.
I’m tired, so I’m giving myself permission to not write much this week. What can you give yourself permission to not do this week?
Instead, I'm going to let another voice speak by offering 2 poems from a book I’m revisiting called I Heard God Laughing. Reading it is like water to my weary soul. I hope you enjoy these two renderings of the Persian poet, Hafiz, by Daniel Ladinsky.
Pulling Out the Chair
Pulling out the chair
Beneath your mind
And watching you fall upon God--
What else is there
For Hafiz to do
That is any fun in this world!
Tripping Over Joy
What is the difference
Between your experience of Existence
And that of a saint?
The saint knows
That the spiritual path
Is a sublime chess game with God
And that the Beloved
Has just made such a Fantastic Move
That the saint is now continually
Tripping over Joy
And bursting out in Laughter
And saying, “I Surrender!”
Whereas, my dear,
I am afraid you still think
You have a thousand serious moves.
It had not even been 24 hours since she got the news her cancer was back.
Whenever I have a cancellation, I contact those who are on my waiting list to see if anyone wants the spot.
In October, a person I had not seen for a long while got in touch with me saying she just had a feeling she needed to begin spiritual direction again. I had no openings but promised I would contact her when one became available.
A couple of weeks later, I happened to have a cancellation and she was able to arrange her schedule to meet with me later in the week. She had no idea when we set that appointment that she would be sharing news about the return of cancer.
Last week I wrote about friends who have terminal illnesses and wake up happy and grateful. But when the news is fresh, that’s probably not how you’re going to wake up.
Scared and angry is more like it.
During our session of Reiki and guided prayer, I asked her if she could let God be angry with her about the news she had just received.
“God doesn’t get angry,” she said.
“Well then you haven’t read the prophets,” I replied.
“Really…” she said with a mix of surprise and sarcasm.
“Yes, really, I imagine God damning this prognosis to hell. I want to yell: God, damn it!”
She smiled wryly. And then her imagination began to unfold and tears mixed with words flowed, as she let God into her anger.
Sometimes we wake up happy and grateful. Sometimes we wake up scared and angry. God can join us in both.
Both can be holy as we allow God into every part of our lives.
Even though we may know God is always present, we often live as though God is far off and we are on our own. Or we might think that God expects us to be hopeful and happy so will wait until we have a bit more gratitude before joining us.
This simply is not true.
The Creator who endowed us with the full-range of human emotions, expects us to express them. And every single one of them can be pathways to prayer and to the very heart of the One who made us.
Rather than running and hiding through self-sufficiency, self-loathing, or a smile, when the Divine Presence asks, “Where are you?” let’s be honest.
“Here I am!” we can say and then name where and how we really are—angry, sad, scared...
Let God in, for God knows it’s not good for any of us to be alone.
Two people in my life are facing a terminal illness. And here’s what else they have in common: gratitude.
Every time I talk to them, whether a simple conversation or in spiritual direction, I am amazed at the depth of their gratefulness.
Their faces light up.
It is like their diagnoses gave them new eyes to see life. And they are overwhelmed by the beauty right in front of them. Even more so, they are overwhelmed by the peace of God inside of them. The windows of their souls reflect it in such delightful ways.
“Every day I wake up so happy!” one exclaimed to me (without a single relationship or situation changing in their life).
How is this possible?
Much of it is pure gift. Grace.
And some of it, I am sure, is because both have done inner work in the years leading up to this moment.
They learned how to listen deeply to God and how to listen deeply to others. They entered into meditation and mindfulness. They learned to play and be playful. They sought out spiritual direction and a precious few others to accompany them along their inner journey.
Now their outer journey reflects what they cultivated within. Awe. Humor. Peace. Kindness. Joy. (Just to name a few)
I am honored to be a witness. They are teaching me a lot.
One of their gifts is reflected in the Sufi poet, Rumi's words, “I saw grief drinking a cup of sorrow and said to it, ‘Tastes sweet does it not?’ Grief confessed, ‘You’ve caught me and ruined my business. How can I sell sorrow when you know it’s a blessing?’”
If you have no idea how sorrow can be a blessing and if you do not wake up happy, maybe it is time for an inner journey of your own. There is so much to be grateful for in this life.
Choices can be difficult.
Wanting to make the perfect one, I can struggle with “buyer’s remorse.” It can be about a purchase or any decision I have made or need to make (especially if others are concerned).
Did I take enough time to make the best choice? What if I didn’t? Was I right? Was I wrong? I will replay the options.
Especially if my choice does not please others, I will replay it even more. Sometimes it can become compulsive, stuck on a loop in my brain. We all have experienced the stress that comes from obsessive over-thinking.
Over the years, I have tried a variety of ways to “throw a stick in the spokes” and stop the constant thought-cycle. The practice of Centering Prayer has been one thing that, gradually, has made a difference.
Centering Prayer can be a challenge as one gets to discover all the places the unruly mind wants to wander instead of stay in the present (it is certainly not interested if the present has feelings it doesn’t want to feel!). As I have grown in acceptance of the brain’s (sometimes bizarre) escapades to do anything but feel reality and rest in God, I have grown in awareness of when I am joining its invitations to run away to the circus of compulsivity.
Here are two simple ways of returning home:
The keys to both are patience and gentleness (two indicators or “fruits” of the Holy Spirit as described in Galatians 5:22-23). It may take a while, but with gentle persistence old compulsive paths will be less and less traveled. And relief will rise with your every return to the pathways of peace.
Or maybe both.
Whatever length, from 90 minutes to 4 days, I always offer these words at the beginning of a silent retreat: "Some of you have come here to rest, some to wrestle. You will probably end up doing both and both are holy."
Many people think the purpose of a retreat, especially a silent one, is to rest. And that's true...but sometimes what brings rest doesn't feel like it at first.
The pace of life can leave little time to slow down or stop for a while. A silent retreat offers one an opportunity to do just that...there's nothing one has to do. There is no food to prepare, no lawn or children to take care of, no work-related tasks that need to be done...ah freedom! Slow walks, naps, sitting by a pond, taking time while eating, these can be a welcome change of pace.
But the pace of life can also leave little time to tend to feelings of grief and anger. A silent retreat offers on an opportunity to do just that...there's plenty of space in your schedule to welcome what has not had time (or permission) to surface.
For those who have been in survival-mode from one day to the next, whatever the cause, a cleansing cry may bring the kind of rest most needed. A prayer walk or talking to a spiritual director about one's anger rather than continuing to hold it in may bring the freedom most desired. And where better to wrestle than a safe, quiet, and beautiful place of prayer?!
One retreatant pointed out how the word "rest" is found within the word "wrestle." Fascinating. We do not need to fear wrestling, for within it we find rest!
Is it time for you to come away to a quiet place by yourself to rest and wrestle?
I've got an opportunity for you! A couple of rooms have become available for October 28-31, at Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, IN. Scholarships are available. Register here.
"Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace" is this silent retreat's theme. And peace may just begin with some wrestling!
writes Mary Oliver at the start of “If You Say It Right, It Helps the Heart Bear It” in Evidence.
Language is important.
Every area of life has its own language whether the world of science or business, music or 12-step groups, the same is true for the world of spiritual direction.
One of the first things people notice when coming to spiritual direction is it offers a new kind of language.
For those suffering from religious abuse, the language itself can be a balm for the soul. After her first session of spiritual direction, a woman said to me, “The words ‘deep permission’ and ‘invitation’…I’ve just never considered Jesus offering me those, it feels extravagant. But I feel such relief to think that God would be giving me permission and inviting me into something so healing…those words alone have been a revelation today.”
No language is perfect, but it helps convey something of essence or experience. Words like hospitality, authenticity, curiosity, allowing, and stirring, offer a different way of entering into a conversation about God and with God.
A youth and children’s pastor started using this language of invitation and curiosity during spiritual direction. He has come for a while so has become familiar with thinking about and entering into the spiritual life in some different ways. Hearing him talk warmed my heart, because I knew he was integrating this language of the soul into his work with children and teenagers.
As we enter more deeply into these words and find them life-giving, we cannot help but integrate them into our own vocabulary where or when it seems right. However, the irony in all of this, is that spiritual direction isn’t about words at all!
We spend a lot of time helping people befriend Silence and the One Who is Beyond All Words. When we and others do speak, the words can be very powerful because they begin with God in Silence. And they can be equally powerful when we do not speak the words, but embody them.
I’m reminded of a woman who told me she saw a symbol of another religion in her adult daughter’s home that made her cringe. Usually she would have spoken her mind right away. As she felt her daughter’s eyes on her, she resolved to bring the matter to spiritual direction instead.
“Way to go!” I told her, “Way to wait and take it into the Silence with God!” By the end of our session she exclaimed, “Praise God, I’m so glad I didn’t react because it would not have been the right response but one full of fear and judgement. Instead I want to invite her to tell me about it. I want to hear her story.”
“And you may learn something really interesting!” I added. Then she asked if there was anything she could read in order to expand her own thinking. After suggesting a book, I said "What a beautiful conversation this is going to be with your daughter! I can't wait to hear about it!"
What a wise mother of an adult daughter she is!
So words can welcome and invite connection, and words can help us name, describe, and discover even more. But there is no final word—whether it be about God, ourselves, each other, or spiritual direction. We're always growing and expanding...and that’s part of the fun!
I’ve grown weary of all the talk about the heart in contemplative prayer.
Sounds terrible, doesn’t it?!
After all, the heart is the focal point of contemplative prayer!
But after a while, my heart started getting angry, feeling the burden of such attention and expectation.
Nineteenth century Russian mystic Theophan the Recluse said, “To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all-seeing within you.”
Teachers of prayer and contemplation, like Theophan the Recluse, have emphasized the heart and taught various ways of guiding us to pray from it. I have learned and offered others various ways of integrating such prayer, especially through the imagination as we bring our attention to the heart.
But I did not realize how much modernity was still operating under the surface.
Contemplative prayer was such a welcome relief for me after prayer that emphasized the “head” with its words, whether thought or spoken. With the latter, once one had invited Jesus into or given Jesus their heart, the focus was on knowing the right beliefs and acting accordingly. All that was needed for prayer was found from the neck up (and the rest was not to be trusted!).
This disconnect was not unexpected. When modernity ushered in a time of dissecting in order to discover, the heart became associated with a particular organ in a particular location. Where is the heart? It’s in the chest, of course! It’s job is to pump blood (and woe to the person who trusts any feelings associated with it!).
The earliest Biblical people did not think of the heart (lev) in this way.
The “heart” of a person referred to the “seat of all of life.” When told to “love God with all of your heart,” this included one’s mind, soul, and strength. For the ancient people, the heart was the whole of a person—feelings, thinking, understanding, will, and wisdom. Since the heart was the center of one’s existence (physically, mentally, and emotionally), to love God with one’s heart was to allow God to be at the center of one’s whole self (body, mind, and soul).
What is at our center directs our life. Tapping into and resting in that center with God is the playground of contemplative prayer.
However, modernity broke up this inherent unity to study and evaluate the diversity of the parts and it elevated the mind above all else. Contemplative prayer with its emphasis on the heart, invited the mind to descend from it's place of self-sufficiency and recover humility. But, if modernity is still the framework, the draw is to elevate one part over the others, this time placing the heart on a pedestal rather than locating it within the whole.
During a time of meditation with a Buddhist, I was not guided to focus on my heart, but to discover any place of openness or peace within. Hearing her words offered me an unexpected ah-ha moment! I immediately was transported back to the Hebraic view of the heart. As I listened to the whole of my body and not just one part, I discovered the burden on my heart and tension in my chest began to dissipate. (Last week I mentioned this inner co-dependency with the heart.)
I chuckled as I noticed the openness was in my face, particularly my cheeks. Another time the openness was in my gut, still another behind my eyes.
All of these places were open to God but I was unable to see them for my inner eyes were focused on one place! So much wisdom just waiting to be discovered.
When God infuses all of oneself, all of oneself is a channel to experience God. The heart is found everywhere, not simply in one physical location.
Where am I best able to listen to the heart of God today? I notice an openness in my hands. Through my hands, the heart of God has something to say to the heart of me. Through my hands I listen and offer a prayer.
Living with tension in my chest has been a normal way of life for me for a long while.
Feelings of heaviness, anxiety, pressure, and strain are familiar. Usually it is a manageable low-grade variety, but sometimes not.
I have dealt with stress in my body for as long as I can remember—from intense stomach issues, headaches, and back pain that began in my early teens through late thirties to chronic hives and tension in my chest that is more prevalent now than the earlier symptoms of the previous decades.
What I did not know then that I am beginning to know now is how hard my body has worked in order for me to move through life in productive and even life-giving ways. It has tried to control all the chaos, experienced and perceived, around and within, by holding it in different parts—the head, the stomach, the back, and now the heart.
And what does this have to do with Spiritual Direction you might wonder?
Well, the spiritual journey is one of giving up control! And that makes a body panic.
Authentic spirituality will always lead to surrender and the body is most often the last to let go.
Embracing a life of contemplation years ago with its practices of silence, solitude, and stillness has been transformative AND it has led me to this place of being on the brink of a deeper letter go.
But first, in teaching me how to be present and not avoid reality, contemplation increased my tension and revealed an inner co-dependency.
Weary of the increased tension, I began seeing a somatic therapist (someone who can help me better listen to the wisdom of my body, not just talk about my troubles). She also offers IFS. Internal Family Systems Therapy is a way of working with our internal parts or "family" so that there’s inner harmony rather than polarization and disharmony. I have found it so helpful over the years that I regularly incorporate it into Spiritual Direction with others.
So during a session when I turned my attention to my heart, the heart responded with letting me know it was working really hard in “keeping it all together” on behalf of the rest of my body. How?—by consolidating all of the stress and strain into one area, holding it all in the chest…no wonder it felt heavy!
As a Reiki Therapist (in addition to being a Spiritual Director), I know that the heart chakra normally filters what is being experienced but my heart was holding it all. Why? It did not want the other parts to feel the pain so it was “taking one for the team.” And the other parts were just fine with this co-dependent relationship. Even if a part was still hurting, it was willingly doing so. This is too common among mothers.
Not long ago, I sat across from a mother and wife who has been doing the same thing for her family members. From an outsider’s viewpoint, it can be said that her fun-loving, spirit-lifting self, is the heart of the family. Being sensitive to her family members’ challenges and difficulties, she does her best through a variety of measures to help them not feel pain (or at least not as much), lest in her words, they “be destroyed.”
Such a role can drain the light from one’s eyes, while also making it hard to see the co-dependency. Sometimes the only ones who can see clearly are the ones looking from the outside, noticing the absence of the eyes' light. They see the chaos and exhaustion and yet they have the least agency. For no matter how long or often another may see it, true "seeing" must come from within.
In the session with my therapist, during a moment of silence, I remembered the painful interaction with my friend a few days before, and my heart said, “What you see in her is me.”
Wow! I was surprised and then grateful for this insight.
After expressing appreciation for the heroic ways the heart has expressed love for me, the therapist gently reminded this part that it’s easier to pick up a large weight with two hands rather than just one. She went on to say that in allowing other parts to feel the pain and chaos, the burden could be shared.
My heart was skeptical but open. It saw and even named the co-dependency itself which meant it was ready for a change.
But it still feared that in letting go, I would be destroyed—once again I would experience the searing nerve pain that led to emergency back surgery, the painful IBS that made for uncomfortable moments of dashing toward a restroom, the cancelled plans due to the need to be in a dark room for headache relief, or worse. It wanted to keep me from more of those experiences (and had been doing a pretty good job of doing so!).
Yet I had sought help for the tension knowing that true freedom for one does not exist until there is freedom for all, whether in the outer world or inner world.
So it began to relax and open in this safe space. And I began to feel the tension spread to my stomach, neck, shoulders, and head…oh no. Gently, I reminded my inner self that I was older now and had insights I did not have earlier in life. We were going to share the burden. And pain did not need to be the enemy.
Guess what happened? Instead of being destroyed by the pain, the pain offered wisdom. In being dependent upon the wisdom of the heart, the other parts were sheltered. While this was okay for the short-term, it was unhealthy as a long-term strategy. Yes, different parts of me were not experiencing as much pain, but they were also not aware of the depth of their own strength and agency.
“Kasey, when you feel your neck and shoulders get tense, it’s time to take a step back. You’re carrying too much on your shoulders,” the pain in those areas told me.
Sometimes we need to step into what we fear may destroy us (or those we love, which is what we fear would destroy us). A spiritual director or therapist is often a wise (and usually a necessary) companion.
Sometimes when we take that step, the tension increases. Looking back, the increased tension, even hitting "rock bottom”, is most often what leads to being given new eyes to see.
Those new eyes to see help us navigate a new way to be.
Next week: “How teaching on contemplative prayer actually encouraged inner co-dependency”
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.