Lent is a time of fasting, reflection and fighting our devils in the desert.
We enter into it with Jesus' own 40 days of fasting in mind. What sustained him? I cannot help but think it was his memory of what happened beforehand.
Right before Jesus was led into the silence and solitude of the wilderness for 40 days, he was baptized where he received an image and words. At that time He saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Him like a dove and He heard the Father’s voice say from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
Whether or not we're participating in a Lenten fast, we will come up against plenty of temptation, wilderness and desert seasons. What image or words will help us remember who is with us and who we are? For God knows all of us need something to hold onto.
If you do not have a sustaining image, pause in prayer and ask God for an image or memory to accompany you. "God, what image would you like to offer me in the quiet of my heart? I remain open to You, to whatever You would like to bring to mind, whether familiar or new. If nothing comes, I patiently wait knowing You will bring an image if it is needed. I go on with my day trusting you, for even the Cloud of Unknowing is an image of trust."
As to the words, perhaps you already have been offered a phrase like 14th century Julian of Norwich's "All shall be well" or a Scripture. It may be the perfect time to bring it to mind again. We can also remember that the very words offered to Jesus by his Abba are offered to us as well. We can pause to listen and receive the words, “You are my child, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Close your eyes and imagine them spoken to you. Receive them again and again, allowing these words to move from your eyes and ears, to head, heart and every cell of your body, like Mary, Jesus' mother did (and perhaps taught him to!).
God knows exactly what can and will sustain you in the times of wilderness and desert. Sometimes what is truest is not what is seen or heard with our physical eyes and ears but what is hidden within us, what has been treasured and pondered in our hearts. Lent invites us to return to and remember those words and images.
A blessing for the journey:
"May God-given life-giving images and words companion each of us in times we feel lost, alone, struggling, weary, thirsty and hungry. May we be reminded of our belovedness, a security that can sustain us. And in remembering, may our eyes be opened that we may see the belovedness of others and become life-giving images and words to all who are lost, alone, struggling, weary, thirsty and hungry."
While not mentioned in the Bible, Lent, a season of self-examination and penitence leading up to Easter, has been observed by Christians since the 2nd century. It evolved into the current 40 days beginning on Ash Wednesday in the 6th century.
When it comes to self-examinations, my favorite is the 16th century Awareness Examen by Saint Ignatius of Loyola (the founder of the Jesuit religious order). He thought examining the moments of "consolation" and "desolation" to be so instrumental to one's prayer life that during the Council of Trent when the Jesuits asked if they could skip their prayer exercises because they were so busy, his response was they could skip anything but the Examen. Noticing God's presence in their daily lives would help them best draw near to and follow God during such a busy time.
As we draw near to God though examining our daily life, we discover three gifts--balance, wholeness and discernment.
Rather than rushing through a day and labeling it all "good" or "bad," I can gently look back over it, discovering there was more than met my hurried eye. Moments I thought insignificant end up being full of meaning, at times offering a completely different or at least a more balanced perspective of the day I labeled.
Rather than being a product of my personality, the lens with which I view the world is offered a gentle corrective. Perhaps you're like one of my children who sees the world through a more negative lens, it's harder for her to remember her happiest moment in a given day. Or you may see the world through overly-positive eyes, ignoring the moments of anger and sadness. No matter what our lens, the Examen helps us consider parts of our day and ourselves we may not naturally see. As we do, we are reminded that God welcomes the whole of us and is fully with us in and speaking through every kind of moment.
Rather than letting life live me, regularly engaging the Examen and even keeping a record of my reflections offer keys for discernment from my own life to guide my life. Looking back over our moments of "consolation" and "desolation" we may see themes and patterns emerge. Clarity for decisions and callings become apparent in reviewing what has been life-giving and life-draining or where God's presence has been most experienced.
This prayerful look over one's day or week can be done daily or weekly after dinner-time or before going to sleep. We can practice it privately or communally. Both children and adults can engage the Examen which takes about 15 minutes. So find a quiet place, a family member or friend, and begin your time of reflection.
A version of St. Ignatius’ 16th century prayer by Kasey Hitt (2006-2007), Mark Yaconelli's Sabbath Retreat (2003), and Dennis, Sheila and Matthew Linn’s book, Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life.
You might choose to light a candle as a reminder of the Holy Spirit’s presence, take a few slow, deep breaths, place your hand on your heart, or pray this Psalm, “God, examine me and know my heart, test me and know my concerns. Make sure that I am not on my way to ruin, and guide me on the road of eternity.” (Psalm 139:23-24)
Events of the Day
Ask God to help you look over your day (or week) and bring to your mind & heart the following two questions. (Choose one set beforehand)
For what moment today am I most grateful?
For what moment today am I least grateful?
When did I feel the most alive today?
When did I most feel life draining out of me today?
When did I feel closest to God (or sense I was moving toward God) today?
When did I feel most distant from God (or sense I was moving away from God) today?
For young children:
When were you happiest today?
When were you maddest or saddest today?
What did you feel good about today?
What was your biggest struggle today (when did you feel sad, helpless or angry)?
Thanksgiving & Forgiveness
Hang out in your moment of thanksgiving, relive it in your mind's eye as a way of gratitude. Receive again the gifts offered to you in that moment and offer thanks to God.
Recall the moment you are least grateful for without trying to change or fix it; be open to receive from God whatever God would like to offer. It may be the invitation to repentance, forgiveness, comfort, instruction, the nudge to ask for help, etc.
Help for Tomorrow
In your own words, thank God for today and ask God for help for tomorrow, whatever the need may be. Or close with this prayer:
"God, thank you for the ways you are with us everyday, in every moment, loving us just as much in our best moments as in our worst. May we place this day in Your hands and trust that you will guide, teach and companion us through the day tomorrow. Help us learn to notice Your presence and invitations in our lives. In Christ's Name, Amen."
If doing the Examen with others, share your two moments and allow your prayer for one another to flow from the sharing. Whether alone or with others, I hope you'll try this prayer practice at least 7 times over the next 7 weeks and see what happens! You might choose to keep a journal so at the end you can look back and see what patterns emerge offering discernment. Blessings to you this Lenten season!
Discernment is key to spiritual growth and having an adult faith.
Rather than looking for someone else to "tell you what to do or believe," how does one sift through the options, choices and voices using Biblical wisdom? Well let's give it a try.
Pick an issue for discernment. This could be the way you are currently praying or living, a choice or difficulty you're confronted with, options you're mulling over, a theological belief you're questioning, a relationship situation, or a change that's approaching.
Use the questions below. With your issue for discernment in mind, you're going to ask questions springing from the overall themes of Scripture. It's true, one can pull any Scripture from its context to justify any belief or choice. However, just as Jesus summed up the entire Law in two commands, there are what I call “summing up” Scriptures and stories that remind us of overall themes repeated again and again in the Bible. Here is my current list of questions and their summing up references:
As I practice asking myself these questions and allowing them to run through my mind in spiritual direction, they become the unconscious filters through which I see, listen and think. Over the years I've added questions, been led deeper into the questions and discovered when/how I need to invite others into the questions (a dialogue that is different than having someone else make my decisions or tell me what to believe). Such questions can also guide communal discernment. May these questions be signposts and gateways along your path of discernment.
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.
This week's post, Trading Daily Quiet Time Guilt for Pots & Pans somehow posted last week. Now normally this would cause me to scurry to find a way to fix it or beat myself up for it happening at all.
Is it it even a big deal? No. But my internal critic doesn't differentiate.
However, I surprised myself. After an initial, "Oh, that's not what I wanted to happen," I let it be. Hallelujah! I think that response deserves it's own post.
I'm in the midst of trading perfection for serenity. Small step by small step. One day at a time.
There's a little phrase in the extended well-known Serenity Prayer that I spent a lot of time with last year at the suggestion of my spiritual director who noticed my constant pursuit (and exhaustion) of doing/being better. See, my internal critics (or rather my whole family of internal critics) think they're helping me by constantly bombarding my mind with their own version of the Lowe's motto, "Never Stop Improving."
Here's the thing: these critical parts want me to be happy. So they tirelessly work to search, compare, and judge to find the perfect standard then work tirelessly to reach it. They think that if/when I reach that standard, I'll be happy. Here's the problem: Perfection in this world isn't possible.
Now being over forty and a spiritual director, you'd think I would've figured out by now how to give up the pursuit. But just as it is in the life of those I work with in spirtiual direction, it continues to be a step-by-step, part-by-part journey of transformation for me as well.
"How about being reasonably happy?" asked Sister Maria one morning last year, "Are you?"
I briefly thought before answering this Sister of Mercy, "Yes, I am!" Both of us smiling she said, "Well how about trying that instead? Read the extended Serenity Prayer," she counseled. So I spent the better part of a year with it.
As I've prayerfully introduced the extended prayer and its whole "reasonably happy" idea, s-l-o-w-l-y my inner critics have started to give up their former jobs and trust that being "reasonably happy" is all that is needed (and expected). So now whenever I'm upset about the way something has turned/is turning out and I'm in a perfectionistic snit, I say to myself, "It's not perfect but are you reasonably happy with it?" The answer has always been "yes" and the moment I surrender perfection, I immediately feel relaxed in body and mind.
As a spiritual director I cannot help but invite people to befriend their humanity and extend grace to themselves during times of "failure," both large and small. I watch and listen, just waiting with them to see how the Holy Spirit is working/will work in and through all the mess and imperfection for their good (as Saint Paul reminds us in Romans 8:28).
How grateful I am that my blog post didn't go as planned! I was offered yet another reminder of serenity. AND the bonus of an invitation to you. If you happen to see me flailing, drowning in perfectionism, don't hesitate to say these two words: "reasonably happy." My inner critics and I will thank you.
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.
What do breadsticks have to do with the ancient practice of Lectio Divina? You're about to find out (and I don't think you'll ever forget!).
At the recent Middle Tennessee Annual Centering Prayer Gathering, I listened to Father Carl Arico, one of the founding members of Contemplative Outreach, speak about "Centering Prayer as a Way of Life."
Those of us who practice Centering Prayer often combine this silent prayer with Lectio Divina, Latin for Divine Reading. In a nutshell, Lectio Divina takes a short portion of Scripture and goes through 4 movements, sometimes referred to as the Four R's:
Father Carl told the story of a youth pastor friend of his who sought to teach his students Lectio Divina in a way that was easy to understand and difficult to forget! So he bought his youth group breadsticks. After passing them out, he told each teen to hold their breadstick in their hand. Then he walked them through the following:
Isn't this a wonderful way to learn to read Scripture?
When we read or listen to a portion being read during Lectio Divina, it's like we're taking a bite but not chewing yet. When we move into meditation, we allow a word or phrase to stick out to us and spend time chewing on this bite of Scripture, reflecting on how it intersects with or speaks to our life. Then as we respond by bringing our voice to the Scripture through prayer, we swallow. And just like the ingested breadstick, contemplation invites us to rest in knowing we are being nourished by the word of Scripture through the Spirit of God in ways we have no idea.
Now grab a breadstick or Bible and take a bite!
Here are some suggested portions of Scripture from the life of Jesus:
As division and divisive language continue to escalate, I think if Jesus were to choose one of his parables for us, he would share the story of The Good Samaritan and simply change the language.
You may recall this parable found in Luke 10:25-37. A man is attacked by thieves, left to die and those of his own group pass him by (even crossing over to the other side of the street rather than helping him). But the one who stops, bandages his wounds, takes him to a place where he can be cared for and pays for his care is none other than the enemy!
Hearing Dr. Amy-Jill Levine's words around this parable opened my eyes to be on the lookout for help coming from the "enemy camp." I found examples not only in the New Testament, but the Old Testament as well. Where did help come from for infant Moses pulled from the Nile? From the very palace of the murderous king who issued the order that all male Israelite babies be thrown into the river! The rescuing of Moses and the parable of The Good Samaritan remind me that people of compassion are everywhere (as are people of violence and indifference). They are found in every religion, in every political camp. It does no earthly good to continue to demonize those who are not like us. It's a waste of valuable time to continue to ruminate on how terrible those Republicans or Democrats are (or any group we are tempted to label and disdain). And it's certainly a waste of energy to share divisive Facebook posts or tweets!
Instead, pause from posting about your enemy and join me for a moment to enter into this take on Jesus' parable. Read and then close your eyes, allowing yourself to take in the scene with all of your senses (which is to meditate on the passage):
Jesus' parables confused, confounded and disturbed its listeners. On purpose. For those courageous or curious enough to enter into them (to meditate or chew on them) they offered salvation.
Whether a change of heart, a transformed mind, more freedom, mercy or love...whatever it is you're seeking today...what if Moses' own salvation and the parable are right? What if what you're looking for may just come from the enemy camp?!?
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.