So, with subtle indirection, the toolbox of yearning
wed to oratory, wed to a cloud of unknowing,
expecting nothing more than a tale well told,
comes the bard and we are given –
a road for our story.
Historically, patterns of prayer and devotion that would later evolve into a “Rule of Life” grew out of the monastic tradition dating back to the Desert Abbas and Ammas of the 4th century CE. There, in the blistering heat of wasteland, they faced down demons, drank deep from hidden wells, prayed unceasingly, listened for the deafening whispers of God, and taught others to do the same. They owned little, but possessed the universe. Over time, their lives, lived small and yielded, but writ large upon the heavens, were lassoed into usable fragments of a living reality.
I suspect most are like me, living pugnaciously crammed lives begging for the breath and space.. But, unless one’s name is Antony, or one of his eremetic contemporaries, one has experienced little in the way of solitude.
Such an exercise, as useful and meaningful as it is, necessarily leans upon an accompanying acquiescence on the part of the pilgrim – namely, me – to its regularity, rigour, and influence. Frankly, I’m more concerned about that than the Rule itself. Over the years, I’ve developed a deeply satisfying practice of contemplative prayer, gradually learning the benefits of housing shalom in the confines of a thirsty but unpredictable soul. I’ve spent days alone at any number of monasteries, growing and learning with monks and nuns of various ecumenical stripes. I write extensively on the spiritual life, a blog of my own (www.innerwoven.me), and for numerous others as well. In 2011, I graduated with a Master of Arts in Spiritual Formation and Leadershipfrom Spring Arbor University, Michigan. Since then, I’ve undertaken the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and was anointed with oil as a lay Jesuit. I’m writing a spiritual memoir. I have studied the life and spirituality of St. Francis (because I’m a hippy at heart) and the Rule of St. Benedict (because hippies lack structure).
Why do I boast in such Pauline fashion? Because, after years of ardent pursuit of the Christian spiritual enterprise, and already possessing a not inconsiderable Rule of Life with more than a few years of practice, I am less skilled in it now than I’ve ever been. Without hesitation, I enjoin myself to Paul whose boast is always in weakness about weakness, and leads to his exasperated proclamation, “I am the chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15).
Whatever Rule is forthcoming will be more about my openness to what that Rule represents. It must be more a means to an end than the end itself. Like the rudiments I’ve practiced for decades in pursuit of musical prowess, I construct and practice a Rule of Life to forget it. Musicians play scales without thinking about playing scales. They play music, in which rudiments have formed and buttressed, shaped and evolved that music.
Saints live a Rule that is at all times thinking about union with God, which is the end and the beginning of it all.
…in my dream, I looked out over the rocky embankments
still holding my thoughts and, over the tomb where
recently someone left not long after arriving, a placard read:
“Beware, those still trapped in a life safe, and un-ruined.
You won’t get to enjoy the looks of incredulity from those
In early November, I was a participant in a class toward my ordination entitled “Vocational Excellence.” This is part 4 of the paper I submitted, aimed at constructing and presenting a Rule of Life.
In every life, there are (mis)guiding voices. Inner recordings, as it were, play loudly and insistently, often dictating how one goes about the tricky task of living. Put another way, all of us live from somewhere – fear, suspicion, self-aggrandizement, false hope, willing blindness, ass kissy-ness. They cast long shadows upon our spiritual landscapes and pull us away from the perfect centre of our circle.
Every time I drift from my centre, I cease trusting in the glacial process of transformation at work within me. My trust gets misplaced, landing on anything quicker and easier to a perceived end of satisfaction. The shortest distance between two points can become the broad road to ruin the quickest means of personal misanthropy.
Something inimical of the human heart is its apparent willingness to be anywhere other than where it should. The place most required of us is where we least show up. And with so many competing allurements to our deepest allegiance and passions this is a bit like crossing the freeway naked and blindfolded. It seldom ends well.
Better might be the comparison of grade school students. Some, like myself, adored school and never missed a day (I skipped twice and was caught both times…another blog perhaps?). Others reveled in the delicious naughtiness one experiences in going to the mall, or simply hanging out behind it smoking untoward substances (again, what could I possibly know of such shenanigans?).
A rule of thumb for fellow Christ-followers, prone to wobbly wheels but who yearn to embody their Rabbi is to pay heed to Stan Smith’s words from American Dad. When pressured as to why he keeps rubbernecking women other than his wife, he responds: “my eyes may wander, but my heart comes home.”
Instead, I am being directed to return to the quiet, contemplative life, planted in the Benedictine moniker: ora et labora – prayer and work; contemplation and action, inner and outer life wed as one. To care for the centre is to care for everything else at once.
Although not a word one might use in everyday life, truancy pictures a life on the edges of things. It is uncommitted – wayward, as in a constant insistence upon finding any path other than the one presently under foot. In gospel terms, to show up is to find oneself amid the delight of Holy Spirit constancy and the hope of a future that will never be cut off.
To eschew truancy in the spiritual life – to abide in the vine, as it were – is to embrace the promise of a rather adept gardener of my soul.
* * *
“God cannot be found by weighing the present against the future or past, but only by sinking into the heart of the present as it is.” -Thomas Merton
all counting, forsaken, in the business of nothing –
and watch what yet will come.
Ora et Labora: A New Gestalt
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” – St. Paul, 2 Corinthians 3:17-18
The Celtic mystic in me, enamoured as it is with a blurring of edges that allow all to fade into a singularity of life and love and lessons learned, squirms at the notion of life in quadrants, or pieces. With that proviso, I submit and share some insights that can help shape a new Rule of Life.
The history of Christian spirituality would dictate a unity of personhood; a whole individual, undivided into constituent parts. It would argue for a centering motif through which a follower of Jesus is made complete by means of consistent focus on the interior life. Buttress the centre of the wheel and the spokes become stronger by default. This has consistently been my experience.
As mentioned previously, a poster-boy 4 on the Enneagram and an INFP on the Meyers-Briggs scale, I’ve made a cottage industry of melancholy. I capably personify inwardness; an artistically-brooding poor-me-ism. The result? A paralyzing self-referentialism that prefers the role of armchair philosopher-poet than street corner pastor or jungle Bible translator. But, as Dr. Robert Mulholland urges in his book, Invitation to a Journey, it is the holistic life to which the Gospel calls us. He suggests that, as a result, where we feel least useful or competent is often where we are most required to be.
Spiritual Directors have played a significant role in my journey for many years. That said, the pain I’ve harboured well and nurtured often, of Sister Alice’s retirement from her ministry with the Sisters of Providence here in Yakima, has left me gasping for breath. Sister Alice played that role in my life for almost 5 years. Every time I stepped into her quaint living room, the presence of God was thick in the place, literally dripping from the walls and windows and oozing out of the carpet.
She was fond of saying that the ways by which God reveals Him/Herself becomes who I am and paves the way for whatever ‘me’ is still emerging. If she is any indication of the ramifications of that notion, then I need to reimagine this journey once again. It is a trip exponentially greater than the sum of the miles involved – it is a foray into the heart of God.
Combined with a compelling need to share my story once more I heed the counsel of my Vocational Excellence peeps and I’m prayerfully scouting out a new Spiritual Director. As in the past, I am submitted to the quietly insistent guidance of God in this.
Lord, have mercy.
Every time I drift from my centre, I cease trusting in the glacial process of transformation at work within me. My trust gets misplaced, landing on anything quicker and easier to a perceived end of inner satisfaction. The shortest distance between two points becomes the quickest means of my personal misanthropy. Instead, I am being directed to quiet, consistent return to the contemplative life, planted in the Benedictine moniker: ora et labora – prayer and work, contemplation and action, inner and outer life wed as one. To care for the centre is to care for everything else at once.
Getting Out from Under God’s Feet
I hear some very clear injunctions all week. They crystallize gradually into the plans I am now putting to page. It taps into my love for Celtic spirituality, which teaches a three-fold martyrdom as askesis for the soul. Red martyrdom is death for one’s faith. Green martyrdom is a life of deep self-denial in pursuit of union with God. White martyrdom typifies many Celtic saints, specifically St. Patrick, who chose willingly to leave his native Wales and return to Ireland as a missionary. It is to this idea God calls me, metaphorically speaking. I am often vexed by fear, passivity, and loneliness. Together with the invitation to the silent cave of the heart, I hear God shoeing me out the door to “go play outside.”
“You live too alone, so you live in your head. Get outside of your head and home. Make relationships. Show up so I too may do the same. Learn by doing. Let your prayers be out of needs generated by the work of your hands rather than hiding from your life and escape my redemptive gaze…”
Therefore, my instructions and my plan are to go out and make things happen, trusting in God for whatever results might be forthcoming. A mystic to the core, God has placed a yearning for a chance to hop into the nearest boat to anywhere that might lead me outside my own head. My path of deepest transformation is to move in through the out door: to find God’s presence in the other.
The Blessing of Good Soil
Congruently, my itch to run is met with clear instruction to stay where I am. Far too many uprootings in my wake fueled by a well-honed fight or flight mechanism make me grateful for the stability we enjoy here in Yakima. It’s surprising how God’s vitals become more pronounced when one isn’t always out of breath, heart pounding in the ears. It makes inner silence and listening so much easier. My friendships may barely exceed a decade. But God has planted me in a distant soil to bring me and mine closer to the fattest harvest, that of the heart.
For reasons much deeper than career satisfaction, I choose to stay and use what skills and passions I’ve been given to make Yakima the kind of place in which I’d choose to retire. In Jesus, the exiled alien, I find identification and strength to stay.
Trust Your Own Press
A victim of my own mental gallows, I am hearing quite clearly the necessity of “trusting my own press.” Self-love is strongest not in the proud, but in the humble. “You’ve earned the ear and respect of a congregation. Don’t be afraid to leverage that in pursuit of your desires.” Good advice under my present circumstances.
In sum, my spirituality will strive to be more illustrative of a commitment to move back in by moving out but staying put. It must involve pursuing and engaging with a Spiritual Director who in turn can assist in the accountability and faith required to do so.
The Spokes: Running to Jesus
I have a long and complicated history with a mistress. An insidious lover is she, alcohol once steered me nearly to ruin. Since getting sober in 2002, and again this year, my choice of addiction has changed. It is running. Lots of it. It has translated to a minimum of thirty miles a week and a loss of twenty-six pounds. I’ve run marathons before but a serious accident in 2010 robbed me of rigorous, injury-free movement until recently. Running provides thin place (pun shamelessly intended), incarnational moments of contemplative awareness for me and requires little in the way of accountability. It simply happens. Pounding feet on pavement mesh with pounding heart seeking rhythm with God’s. Here, God saves me.
The Spokes: Rediscovering Me for Others
As outlined earlier, I battle with a certain degree of mental-emotional illness. Historically, it has been both medicated and exacerbated by alcohol. The sturm und drang of the disease pushes and pulls one into places one would never otherwise go. It, together with all its ramifications, has me in regular therapy. Dr. L. has been seeing me now for a little over a year. God has made it clear that, until recently, she would act as my Spiritual Director; one of a different sort. She has helped me to wander down the confusing corridors of my psyche in search of the minefields that destroy and maim. I look for another Spiritual Director. But, this must continue apace as parallel healing. Hence, any kind of Rule will include constancy under the scrutinizing light of her scalpel.
The benefits of this professional relationship have been staggering in my relationships, both personal and professional. Once the misplanted weeds are plucked from my mental garden and lie open for consideration, my family, friends, and colleagues have been more than happy to help me replant. The healing has been demonstrable and satisfying.
I write. A lot. I don’t see that changing anytime soon. For me, writing is prayer; contemplative space – catharsis wed to self-care on a bed of creative spiritual process. I am being urged toward an even greater regularity of this artistic-spiritual process as it relates to spiritual praxis. It brings a peace that translates to all my relationships.
It is apparent that I am under-fed socially. Although an introvert, I have become far too withdrawn and isolated from the warmth and challenge of ministry colleagues. This must change immediately. In the interest of a better self-understanding, I commit to a better developed collegiality and accountability among mutual professional friends.
The Spokes: Serving
“My life mission is to draw people to God through my life and work, which strive to meaningfully communicate God’s beauty and truth.”
I didn’t see yesterday and what landed itself full upright
in today’s path, muse-appointed.
There are the moments when, at a
full stride, forehead high and strong,
come words and stories, notes and beams,
high-stepping toes, pointed at heaven;
brushstrokes for love or anger, life or less –
those are the boldest strokes, the highest notes,
the brightest steps…
The sound of music is good wherever notes
find you. Let it be your symphony.
The initial reticence I felt as I warmed a car seat for twelve hours – with all the attendant over-thinking to which I’m already prone – promptly unravelled upon arrival. My penchant for wow-factor uniqueness finds a backseat in favour of the welcome mat of other faith-commoners; like-minded, thirsty-souled, vocationally-curious individuals more like me than I care to admit. It would prove to be one of the most significant weeks of my personal and professional life.
Since God loves the twist-in-the-tale, this mystic-philosopher-poet-dreamer-romantic-idealist-non-pragmatist is ripe to meet the vacuum at the shallow end of his soul. In company with fellow travellers of the Way, I come up wanting every time, albeit with a blossoming knowledge that “all manner of thing shall be well” (Julian of Norwich, Showings).
Staying true to my “via negativa” modus operandi, the most significant gleanings from the week are found in what I don’t want to be about; who I don’t want to be. I’ve been in professional ministry long enough to enjoy a few tricks of the trade sufficient to dazzle and woo – successfully limping through that ministry for many years. It isn’t the material so much as the context for it. Many words are spoken, good ones. But, it is parsing those same words with other colleagues that distills the broadest reality. It makes for a week of living object lessons of what’s missing most in my experience: the mutuality of friendship, the deeper blessing of stability and sobriety, and a renewed commitment to monastic spirituality: ora et labora – prayer and work.
The intentionality of connection and outward motion is a challenge for a poster-boy Enneagram 4 (The Individualist), INFP (Meyers-Briggs), who loves passive-aggressive self-pity. If seeking a life more patterned after historic saints is what I seek, these ones prove just as good; perhaps better given their physical presence in the room. Proximity makes immediate the holy danger of accountability in the Jesus Way.
Through many words rich with advice and good counsel, it is the relentless voice of God that most unsettles me. God impresses only a few simple things, repeatedly. Repeatedly. Re….It is those things that spin around my head and to which I now turn.
* * * * *
I am twice adopted. In biological terms, this means effectively that I am riddled with fear – of risk, of invalidation, of abandonment, of failure – of success. Pursuant to this is a terrible sense of boundaries, which to one such as I, are not an end, but a means to it.
I suffer from GAD, (Generalized Anxiety Disorder), ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), mild OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), and CGEODD (Can’t Get Enough of Disorders Disorder). I live in a veritable sea of worry, and panic, and the over-thinking commensurate thereof.
I’m a recovering alcoholic. Given the first two points, this should come as little surprise.
I have mountains of unresolved pain, grief, and guilt. I grieve poorly.
I am a mystic-contemplative in a culture, drunk on self-important pragmatism, that eats such ones for lunch.
I’m a gifted musician, writer, poet, and liturgist. With these gifts, I’ve been blessed to draw others with me into the shimmering thin places that life can truly be.
I have a deeply intuitive, imaginative spirituality; an abundantly creative orthopraxis, so to speak.
I’m gifted in interpersonal conflict resolution – ironic, given my depth of hatred for the same.
I’m a gifted teacher and group facilitator.
I’m a culture and bridge-builder, finding ways for diverse segments of the church to envision a better way to walk the Way.
I’m compassionate and like to hear travel tales of other sojourners.
I’m very funny. No, really.
I’m a handsome, irresistibly debonair, man-about-town simply fun to be around.
Best of all, with much hard work and prayer, I’ve finally been gifted with self-forgetful humility (superglue tongue to cheek here).
A Rule of Life will, for me, bridge these two lists.
Great Guardian of hearth and horizon, soul and sail,
I have lifted my feet in obedience to an insistent wind.
I have lifted my head up above this tiny-rimmed being.
I have sought again what once was too costly.
I have set out once more upon a wildly restless sea –
and found what was looking for me.
I The End
I leave with too much chaos in the rearview mirror and too much uncertainty through the windshield to find confidence for the journey ahead. The idea of professional development in the city of my birth sounded good at the time. But now, the twelve hours between there and me promises only dead airtime – lots of it – in which to muse the unmuseable; the distance between an overactive head and underachieving heart. An emotional breakdown mere months earlier hangs like a bad smell in the car. The loneliest places are those most familiar, which no longer bring comfort. I think this will be my Gethsemane before the Paschal journey yet to come.
Hours become years in the unsettled mind. But the chronos of crisis never lasts. The familiarity of road spreads before me, rhyming itself with an inexplicable sense of watchfulness. (And, for me, a good playlist always helps). I become aware of something growing in newer soil; something that echoes out of better shadows – hope. It frightens and exhilarates me as day wanes and night fills the windshield with stars. Could this be God, rearranging God’s schedule for the days to come?
When it comes to the spiritual endeavour, I’ve always delighted in the iconic metaphor of wandering – passaging as I like to call it. My best guess is that it most capably represents my propensity for being lost in places even blind people navigate with ease – a hallway to the bathroom, the distance from upright to nosedive, or retracing my steps from mall to parking lot.
One life tributary has led to another, each in turn yielding to something else on its way to waterfall or harbour, estuary or eddy. At times, I get stuck, unmoving; or so it seems. Frankly, to be stuck can be a decision not to decide something. Perhaps it’s a slow, deep spot before being sucked back out in the rapids where I easily lose my sense of direction and the not unreasonable expectation that I’ll fly ass-over-tea-kettle into the frothy spray. At other points, my boat slows to a crawl and I drift lazily along in the enchantment of a Pirates of the Caribbean-style rendezvous with delight.
For good or ill, it is my goal to passage well. In the ever-expanding journal of my circuitous journey, the increased clarity of a breadcrumb path always brings some satisfaction of adequate closure before moving on to another part of the story. It expresses a sense of poise and, ultimately, denouement to this life that those whose eyes are watching for signs of the Divine are longing to see.
At a Jesuit retreat and conference centre, the kinetics of kinship, sublimation of self, and a society of sojourners as inquisitive as I – equally reticent? – are set to begin the holy spin cycle that is Vocational Excellence. The point of this exercise is to wrangle into some sense of tidy usefulness the varied and complex detritus that is our personal-professional journey – a Rule of Life.
I love life. Rules? Not so much.
And so, a trembling lad peers through the shop window otherwise known as ordination, or at least the process thereof, and sees a combination of delights and dares; an invitation laden with perspiration. Inspiration that taunts inadequacies. I come to the end of the beginning, a new hallway of discovery, awaiting what doors may open and which are closing.
What follows is not a statement of political preference – although with little effort one could easily determine my ideology. Nor is this a kumbaya-just-come-to-Jesus plea by someone without convictions who just needs a hug. Nor is it a milk-toast acquiescence to fatalistic non-action. This is a simple exhortation for us to stop living from our heads, perhaps even our hearts.
It is an invitation for us all to rediscover ourselves. Our souls.
Anyone within spitting distance of social media the past few weeks, uh, months…well, years actually, has had to endure the cage match that has become political discourse in this country. Chances are you jumped in to scrap on occasion as well. Come on, admit it, doesn’t it feel positively cathartic to drop your well-reasoned, deftly-articulated, bulletproof opinions into the foxhole and then run back and wait for the barrage of new disciples?
I confess, despite self-promises to the contrary, I too have sparred from time to time online. I too have seen what you have seen – a massive groundswell of support and teary-eyed repentance because someone, namely me, finally spoke the truth.
Yeah, that’s what happened.
Actually, I merely added to the carnage of dry bones philosophizing in the desert of ignorance, that welcomed a never ending explosion of verbal piranha-ism. There was no change whatsoever in anyone’s beliefs. Ever. And, if anything I walked away inwardly disheveled and outwardly grumpy. No one gained anything at all from the exchange, least of all me. My soul was tattered and, worse still, I was beset by a deepening sense of guilt for having added to the seething Gehenna that is Facebook politics. The Twitterisms of twattle. I bred dissension rather than being an instrument of peace (thank you Saint Francis).
Now that the exhausting (and tellingly self-important) process that is the American election cycle has come to an end, I have peace. Oddly. I think it’s a bit like getting a needle at the doctor’s office. The waiting is always the worst part. Well, usually. We’ve endured a two and a half year drum roll, waiting to hear the fat lady sing after the failed attempt to shoot someone out of a cannon.
We can easily get stuck between the clarion call of a golden era, hiding somewhere in our not-so-distant past. Or, we become dilettantes of some visionary Utopia yet to be unveiled. Either way, we miss the sweetness of this moment.
This sound. That smile.
This smell. That embrace.
This possibility. That touch.
This challenge. That kiss.
Listen, I’m not happy that Donald Trump is our President. I’m not happy that almost half the population didn’t even bother to vote. I’m not happy with the entire political process in this country. I’m not happy with the deep divisions that exist among us.
But, I am in fact, happy. Or, in faith language, I’m blessed. I have peace in the aftermath. It is the unquantifiable peace of Christ, whose love is so much stronger than our naïve opinions and murky thoughts.
So, here I share my personal Beatitudes for the coming days of uncertainty, safe in the knowledge that I need neither knowledge nor safety nor certainty, to be blessed.
Dear friends, will you join me in pursuing such blessing?
Blessed is the one who awoke to draw breath for another day.
Blessed is the one who sees him/herself in the eyes of another.
Blessed is the one who appreciates the dare of morning and the hush of night.
Blessed is the one who finds solace in the laughter of children.
Blessed is the one who finds wisdom in the presence of elders.
Blessed is the one who cannot find hatred within, no matter who sits in power.
Blessed is the one whose speech is poetry, whose work is homily, whose life is liturgy.
Blessed is the one who sees past the surface to find the goodness in things.
Blessed is the one whose trust isn’t in flag, policy, or party – but in the Christ of love.