Driving my kids back to Tennessee from my rowdy and fun family's 65th reunion in Pennsylvania several weeks ago, I asked my kids to tell me about their favorite moments of our trip.
My shy 10-year-old daughter said, "Well, my favorite thing is that I surprised myself...I actually carried on conversations with people! I was even funny. AND, I surprised myself because I actually enjoyed it!"
Her surprise was met by my own, for I was not only overjoyed but completely caught off-guard, not expecting to hear this out of my quiet, catlike girl, especially not as her favorite part of the trip! It was a good reminder of how we often pigeonhole ourselves and others.
The term "pigeonhole" was first used in 1864 to describe placing a person or thing in a narrow or confined category that resembles a literal hole a pigeon roosts in. As you can imagine and see from the picture, the borders of the pigeonholes tend to be pretty rigid so it's up to the one roosting to leave the safety of the confined space.
Speaking from experience, we often let our expectations keep us from discovering and entering into the "new thing" the Spirit of God is inviting us to discover, whether it be within or without. Instead we keep rehearsing (& posting) old stories and viewpoints. A look over our social media posts or reflecting on recent conversations inside our heads or with others can reveal a pigeonhole or two we roost in.
But might our continued pigeonholing be fear in disguise? For once we venture outside a particular pigeonhole we can no longer dwell within that hole again. After my daughter said she surprised herself by enjoying a conversation, she can no longer claim she's too shy to carry on a conversation (or enjoy doing so)!
Bursting out of the pigeonhole takes courage...what a beautiful spiritual practice she invited me (and now you) into! Let's try it:
* Take a moment and look at the above pigeonholes. Maybe even sketch them out and put a word in each box that you would use to describe yourself (begin with yourself then branch out to another person or situation).
* Now let the below words from Isaiah 43 or II Corinthians 5 blow through your pigeonholes.
“Forget about what’s happened;
don’t keep going over old history.
Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new.
It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?"
"...we don’t evaluate people by what they have or how they look. We looked at the Messiah that way once and got it all wrong, as you know. We certainly don’t look at him that way anymore. Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it!"
* Whether experienced as a gentle breeze or wild wind, stay with it for a few moments. Notice which words are being ruffled. You may experience this as a feeling of resistance or fear around a particular word, you may have immediate knowledge as to which word is being blown forward, or you may be more visual and imagine how the words are affected.
* Is there a particular pigeonhole you're being invited to step out of? Write it down, pray, and tell someone! This will help you spread your wings and fly, carried by the currents of the Ruach, the Holy Wind. And, you may even find, much to your surprise, you enjoy it!
More than I thought.
In 2009 I had emergency back surgery for a ruptured disc that caused the worst nerve pain I have ever felt...paralyzing lightning down my leg and out my right toes leaving me screaming.
After the surgery, I'd hoped the muscle pain and sciatica I had experienced on and off since high school would finally be gone...it wasn't. I did physical therapy (having already done chiropractic). Again I was hopeful...it didn't help.
Whenever the pain would hit, I'd chalk it up to accidentally bending or twisting and tweaking an old basketball injury. It would have me either in bed or on the floor with my feet up on the couch for days. I thought my active life of hiking and carrying stuff (like my own little girl) was over. I (& those around me) started treating my back gingerly, making sure I did not lift or do anything that could trigger that familiar shooting pain. You can imagine what I looked like whenever I walked and sat down or did anything that included my back (amazing how much does!).
One night at a breathwork class, after observing me, the instructor told me to read John Sarno's The Mindbody Prescription, saying it would help. I thought this was laughable. I'd undergone the knife and physical therapy, how could a book help? Undeterred she told me how it had helped a friend with my kind of pain. At the end of our time she said, "You're so young, I just don't want you to be in pain the rest of your life." What did I have to lose? I read it.
I haven't been on the floor or in bed due to back pain since. Seriously. That was 8 years ago!
Over the past eight years, beginning with that book, I've learned three things:
My physical self is interconnected with all other parts of myself. How I am spiritually affects how I am emotionally which affects how I am physically and all can affect how I am relationally. What's happening relationally can affect how I am mentally and emotionally and physically and so on. If we choose to dissect and isolate any of these when we have dis-ease or pain in any given area, we miss ways of healing that come when we consider the whole of us.
A lifetime of being a "good girl" coupled with perfectionism affected my body. It led to the suppression of anger and other unwanted feelings which finally erupted in physical pain. My unconscious thought physical pain a better choice than emotional pain. Locating an old area of injury and a socially acceptable place of pain (back pain is what ulcers used to be!), that's what it chose. It's interesting the games our minds can play (thinking that they're helping us)!
Seeing God as a Divine Task-Master perpetuated my good girl-perfectionist cycle. Since we become like the God we adore (as I mentioned in last week's post), my inner critics had no problem replicating this God-like perpetual drivenness to accomplish and improve. Be better. Try harder. Be (or at least act) perfect. And it's no surprise that snippets of Scripture would often run through my mind to back up these "commands"! Anytime I fell short, which of course I did since I'm human, I took the feelings of anger and shame and stuffed them. Eventually my body would no longer "play these reindeer games" (it began warning me in junior high but it took me a long time before I would or knew how to listen!).
Now my body is my friend. I view it as part of the whole. It tells me the truth. When I feel nerve pain begin in my toe, I know that if I don't tend to what feelings are running under the surface, it will soon start in my back. My God-created body has invited me to not only reflect on my God-created emotions but even my image of God. As my image of God has undergone healing and transformation, guess what? It's affected my mind, emotions, relationships, and yes, my body. Thank God for that gift of back pain.
I am grateful for freedom.
And to those who have made my freedom(s) possible.
I am grateful I have the right to vote and worship God how I choose. I am grateful I got to marry who I chose. I am grateful I do not live in daily fear in or outside my home.
And yet in the midst of all of my gratitude this July 4th, I am reminded of Frederick Buechner's words about peace in Wishful Thinking:
"...we are homeless even so in the sense of having homes but not being really at home in them. To be really at home is to be really at peace, and there can be no real peace for any of us until there is some measure of real peace for all of us. When we close our eyes to the deep needs of other people, whether they live on the streets or under our own roof-and when we close our eyes to our own deep need to reach out to them-we can never be fully at home anywhere."
I think the same can be said about freedom. Can there even be real peace without freedom?
Will you join me this July 4th in asking the question, "Who is not free yet?"
Who is not free to worship how they choose?
Who is not free to marry who they choose to?
Who lives in fear inside/outside of their home?
Who has no voice in religious, political, and business institutions?
It shouldn't take too long to identify at least one person if not an entire group of people.
Then with the voice of the Holy Spirit and the entire tradition of the Holy Scriptures urging us on, let's take the next step and do something about it. Like those who gave their lives for our country's freedom.
Then this will truly be "the land of the free and home of the brave."
Certainties. My early spiritual life revolved around, even depended on them.
Taking my cues from respected authority figures, I lived by the motto, "Just tell me what to do and I'll do it." I loved a good black and white answer. Right beliefs. Right actions.
This wasn't limited to what I should theologically believe. I had a lot of "shoulds," from food to parenting. Constantly searching for, collecting and then, more often then not, spewing certainties...ugh...talk about exhausting! Authenticity is important to me so that brought another layer of exhaustion when what I thought I was certain about did not align with my intuition! What was I to do?
Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch philosopher wrote of three ways of knowing:
All have their place. I had a good theological container growing up. The problem became when I did not feel the freedom to step out of the container to dialogue and chose to get really good at staying in the initial "box" (which is the Land of Certitude). Why didn't I? It doesn't take long to notice that when you move from Tradition to Reason to Intuition, you begin to step out of safe, socially acceptable boxes. Questioning what you've been told is true can be scary. Not only is it uncomfortable, your fear can be well-founded as you read about those "heretics" who did the same thing in ages past (i.e. who wants to be burned at a stake literally or even metaphorically?!)!
But as Paul wrote to those in Corinth, "Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (II Corinthians 3:17). I no longer see freedom in staying in an authority decreed box of certitudes (Jesus didn't either). Refusing to enter into dialogue with our most important beliefs and deepest questions does not bring life. Sure we may not be crucified or burned at a stake or attacked by internet trolls, but to stay in a box isn't living life at its fullest (as Jesus invites).
Now we don't have to burn the box. Jesus spoke to and within his tradition. Instead we can step out to get a better view of the tradition, ourselves and the question we're asking. This can lead to a deepening of one's own faith and a tradition which may offer an even better starting place of knowledge for others!
"In all affairs it's a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted." I couldn't agree more. It offers three freedoms or permissions:
To engage other voices and ideas.
My former authority-pleasing self cringed the first time I saw the above quote came from Bertrand Russell, the 19th c. philosopher and mathematician, whose personal conclusion was that he could not be a Christian. Voices like Russell's need not be ignored or feared. We have freedom to listen for life and truth everywhere, use discernment (a later post will offer discernment questions) and come to our own conclusions. My doubts and letting go of certain doctrines, like penal substitution, have happened to draw me closer to Christ. I also trust that God provides guidance and correction along my path so I am free to dialogue with the whole gamut of beliefs, opinions and experiences. And I've come to appreciate the Celtic saying, "Everyone has some of the wisdom."
To ask "dangerous" questions and listen to our God-given intuition. I can dive deep into the soul rather than skim the surface of things. For me, one of those "dangerous" questions for the past decade has been, "What beliefs of mine or the church's are superstitious or fear-based?" Last year I named my journal "Fearless Adventures with My Intuition" just to encourage venturing into any "off-limits" theological areas and ask questions I had been afraid to which led to discovering a variety of ways of listening to my intuition (something I felt was stifled early on). As I look back I can see that it's actually been the Holy Spirit (who is Truth) who coaxed me out of the box and into the questions!
To enter and even embrace the "Cloud of Unknowing."
It's a holy place. Admittedly, it can be uncomfortable (and even scary). Especially for a church leader or spiritual director (although the latter is typically more comfortable with the silence found there)! Being in a place of not having answers requires trust. We are invited to trust that God is guiding us into deeper truth even if we cannot articulate it yet. Our hearts can be at peace with those in-between states, rather than fretting to find another certainty to fill the empty space (and satisfy our ego by having an answer to give others). The "Cloud of Unknowing" offers gifts that are deeper than words and gifts us to be a safe place for others' questions and doubts.
In spiritual direction, you are free to explore.
I welcome your questions and doubts. Most likely I will not have answers. I want to accompany you in stepping out of the box rather than give you a different one to step into. We'll have soul-shaping conversations as we dialogue with Scripture, reason, tradition(s) and experience. We'll listen to ways your body and imagination are speaking. Then I'll join you in the "Cloud of Unknowing" until that Voice coming from outside (but also through) us brings revelation. Which could be the freedom to let go of some certainties!
My mom has always kept a prayer list on her fridge. I know a lot of "prayer warriors" who daily present people's requests to God. But I don't.
I'm grateful for the "prayer list praying people." I know I can contact them to add my request knowing they will routinely lift each name and situation to God. I'm just not one of those people. That kind of praying is too heavy for my shoulders.
I read nothing of Jesus or the apostle Paul keeping running prayer lists. Although I think we'd agree that Jesus was truly present with whoever was in his presence and Paul offered prayers whenever someone came to his mind. I just don't think the latter's "pray without ceasing" was about cycling endlessly through a list.
After wading through the guilt of not wanting to and not being able to pray like others, I finally discovered a way of intercession (praying for or on behalf of someone) that better fits me. And my shoulders recognize it as the light kind of burden Jesus spoke of. Intercessory prayer takes different forms. Rather than prayer lists, for me it's "presence" and here's what it looks like:
Presence when with a person. When I sit with you as a spiritual director, I ask the Spirit of God to reveal, direct, and guide you. As you talk, I listen to the holy invitations in your life. I enter into silence on your behalf willing to listen and receive whatever is offered. In short, I give you my full attention. My hope is the same when listening to a friend in casual conversation. And if you're family, well, I continue to work on it...sometimes I'm more present than others!
Presence when a person is brought to mind. Over the years I've found that when someone is brought to my mind, I later discover it's at the precise moment when prayer was needed. A conversation has come up at a later time or I've felt nudged to go beyond prayer and contact the person. Even when we haven't been in touch for years and I have no idea of their need, contacting them has always revealed something was indeed going on that needed prayer! So know, if your name or face crosses my mind or you show up in a nighttime dream, I take it as an invitation to intercessory prayer.
Presence with requests for prayer. If you ask or email me to pray for you (and please do!), I'll pray right then or soon after...maybe with you, usually silently or actually emailing you my prayer. Then I'll let it go, placing you and your request in God's hands and trusting that if I'm to pray for you again, the Spirit will bring you to my mind. If I only pray for you that one time, I cannot think of better hands (or shoulders) to entrust your burden to (much stronger and gentler than my own)!
As 14th century saint Hildegard of Bingen once said, "God hugs you. You are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God." And on your behalf and for you, I believe this to be true, whether I pray for you once or one hundred times.
One of the most burdensome, guilt-inducing concepts I was ever introduced to was the daily quiet time.
Imagine a young girl who sees God everywhere and in everything. Suddenly she's taught she needs to set aside a certain amount of time to spend with God (preferably in the morning) in a certain way (verbally, either spoken or written after reading "the Word"), and saying certain things (i.e. ACTS- Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication).
Now please understand there's nothing inherently wrong with this practice.
The trouble comes in thinking it's one-size-fits-all...that's when pastors, parents and mentors can accidentally place an ill-fitting yoke on a child.
Back to the young girl...as she got older, there were accountability groups and partners to help keep her quiet-times on track. Given this was taught to be of paramount importance to the Christian life and, given this little mystic was also a rule-follower and authority-pleaser, she tried really hard. I tried really hard.
I had "catch up days" written in my junior high journal when I did double, triple or quadruple the quiet-time to make up for lost days. I began to carry guilt about missing days, missed days or not doing it right when I wasn't missing days. I carried this into college. I felt pride when I had not missed and could tell my accountability group or partner. Its taken me almost two decades to let go of the quiet-time guilt.
Spiritual direction is not about having more or better "quiet times!"
Ironically, I invite people to befriend the quiet. However, it's more of a return home, offering space to remember the practices that best connect them with God. The truth is, the mysticism of my early childhood was a perfect way for God to "speak" to a little Type-A rule-follower. And it still is.
St. Teresa of Avila, the 16th c. Christian mystic, once wrote:
"Don't think that if you had a great deal of time you would spend more of it in prayer. Get rid of that idea! God gives more in a moment than in a long period of time, for His actions are not measured by time at all. Know that even when you are in the kitchen, our Lord is moving among the pots and pans."
In spiritual direction we discern how "our Lord is moving among the pots and pans" and inviting each of us to be aware. It could take the form of a typical daily quiet-time for you or it may be more like Brother Lawrence's "practicing the presence of God." Perhaps it's a combination. Like me, you may have different practices depending on the season of life (or the liturgical calendar). We'll take a look at how God uniquely created you to connect with the Sacred Mystery before well-meaning Christians stepped in assuming you didn't have a spiritual life.
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.