Category: A to Z Challenge

L is for LISTENING

I’m often asked, “How do you maintain the motivation for Spiritual Growth?”

Obviously, it’s about committing to it, and persisting in it, but there is also an aspect of listening that is required. Listening takes practice, and it must become a way of life.

We are not naturally inclined to this activity of listening to God. And the fault lies in us, not in him. God is always present, and always ready to give us what we need. Not only the physical provisions we keep lists about, but the emotional provision we crave as well.

Our problem isn’t simply that we refuse to listen, I think, we’ve forgotten how.

I began learning about Listening at the same time I began learning about Benedictine Spirituality. “Listen,” is the first word in St. Benedict’s Rule, his guidebook for communal living. “Listen, my child, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart.”

Listening with the ear of your heart, is different than hearing with your ear. Hearing with your ear is passive; some sound disturbs the air and hits your ear drum. This causes a nerve to be stimulated, which is then processed by a speech center in your brain. And you hear.

Listening with the ear of your heart is active. There is a receptivity to it, a sensitivity. There must be a desire to hear God, a yearning of sorts.

Now, God isn’t a tricky god. No, He doesn’t want to make things difficult, but He also wants you to do the work. I think it’s because are aren’t really ready to hear, until we are really ready to listen. If you want to progress in the Spiritual Life, you will need to begin, and continue in the process of listening to God.

I want to encourage you that there are tools that will help. I shared several resources in my “E is for EXERCISE” piece. If you missed it, here’s a link. Make a commitment to your own growth, and try one of them out today! When you do, email me and tell me how it went!! I’m always inspired when I hear stories of how God shows up and uses my exercises to convey a message!

Want to know how to keep yourself motivated in your search for Spiritual Growth, practice listening! It will become, for you, a new way to seek God.

“You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” Jeremiah 29:13

Tomorrow: M is for Merton!



K is for (self) KINDNESS

It wasn’t until I began to understand God’s kindness towards me, that I began to extend that kindness to myself.

I found a quote from C.S. Lewis, that I customarily transferred into the opening page of each new journal I began – I did this for years, until the quote stuck fast in my heart,

The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men.  – C.S. Lewis, “Surprised by Joy.”

I grew up viewing God as continually disappointed with my lack of perfection. Something, I’m sure carried over from my childhood. Born in the late 50s, I was raised in the post WWII era, where everything in life, was tied – somehow – to my ability to live in response to the wonderfulness of my culture. A culture that had been protected by great, hardworking people. Many of them, gave their lives to protect me from the tyranny of Communism. I owed them my best.

Born with a temperamental inclination towards rule following, I mostly did a good job of being perfect, at least in my parents’ view. I was able to hold up the façade for some time.

Then the first big failure in college – then a series of choices, that compounded the failure – then the oppression of hiding my lack of perfection. And so, the ball of self-judgment and disappointment began to roll. It was easier to hide from God (and my parents) than admit my imperfection.

Then a season of desperation, and I returned to God in humility. In my weakness, I found Him to be a loving, forgiving God. A God that gently smiled when I explained the events that took me down the road, away from His light. He never beat me up, and has kindly guided me along my way.

Why are we so hard on ourselves, when God isn’t? Why do we insist on pursuing the image of who we think we’re supposed to be? I think the problem is that there’s still a little bit of the Garden of Eden in us. I think the problem is perfectionism.

When you think of it, perfection is in our DNA. We were created perfect, and designed to live in a perfect place, experiencing a perfect relationship with our Creator. Deep inside we KNOW perfection is the goal. But here’s the truth, we’re all on a journey to that GOAL. In theology, it’s called the Process of Sanctification. And here’s the kicker, God knows. He gets it.

At this writing, we’re right in the middle of Holy Week. The events of Christ’s betrayal, torture, and death, are upon us. As we walk through the ancient ritual of remembering what was done on our behalf, I believe we are required to show ourselves kindness. If God thought we were worth Christ’s great sacrifice, shouldn’t we live people who believe it too?

This week, ease up on the pressure, be kind to yourself, and rest in God’s love.



J is for JULIAN of Norwich

If you have never heard of Julian of Norwich, allow me the honor of introducing her. Born November of 1342, she is one of the great Christian mystics. She lived in England, among the widespread plagues in of the 14th century. Many scholars believe she may have lost her family during this time.

Little is actually known of her life, except for her great work, “Revelations of Divine Love.” Written in 1395, it is believed to be the earliest surviving book written in the English language by a woman. Although she minimizes herself due to a lack of education, her writing is full of deep theological truths and profound encouragement.

When Julian was 30 she experienced a life-threatening illness. Presumed to be near death, a priest was called in for “last rights.” An altar boy accompanied the priest to her bedside, carrying a large crucifix. When Julian saw the crucifix, she became transfixed, imagining that the body on the crucifix was bleeding. Over the next several hours, as she teetered between this life and the next, God gave her a series of 16 visions. These visions, or showings, as she called them, are theologically sound, yet profoundly personal.

Upon her recovery, she began recording these showings, creating what is known as the “Short Text” of her book. She spent the next 20 years expounding on what she had revealed to her, creating a fuller, more developed piece called, “Revelations of Divine Love.”

She lived in a time when religious leaders were criticizing people and blaming them for the plagues. While preachers railed that their sins were the cause of the plagues, Julian, “a simple and unlettered woman,” was sharing her visions. Visions that assured people of God’s profound love and care for them.

Here is one of my favorite excerpts:

“Right so He said in the last word, with true secureness, meaning us all: You shall not be overcome. And all this teaching in this true comfort, it is general, to all my fellow Christians, as it is aforesaid: and so is God’s will. And this word: You shall not be overcome, was said clearly and mightily, for assuredness and comfort against all tribulations that may come. He said not: You shall not be tempested, you shall not be travailed, you shall not be afflicted; but He said: You shall not be overcome. God wills that we take heed to these words, and that we be ever strong in sure trust, in well-being and woe. For He loves and enjoys us, and so wills He that we love and enjoy Him and mightily trust in Him; and all shall be well.”

God works in wondrous ways. Julian might not have been given these precious showings outside of her great suffering. If you’re searching for comfort in your struggles, you might take time to learn more about her “Revelations of Divine Love.” You can find the whole work as a .pdf on the internet!! Wonder what she would have thought of that?



I is for IMAGINATION

“For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.” ― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Great quote from C.S. Lewis about the importance of the imagination. I love Lewis, not because he was a great theologian, but because he had an incredible imagination. Through his imagination, he made complex ideas and thoughts, real and understandable.

In my own study of God, little of what I read in the Bible meant much to me until I started thinking in terms of stories. Using my imagination to understand the people I found there.

I knew facts about Jesus, but He didn’t come alive until I spent time contemplating how he interacted with people. How He met each person where they were, how he treated them, how he showed them his love and acceptance.

As I started putting myself in their shoes, I gained a greater understanding of myself, and Him.

The story of the “Woman at the Well” has been a transformative story for me. I imagine how the woman must have felt. Busy with her mundane life, carrying water so that she can complete her domestic tasks. I imagine her back hurts, as does mine. I marvel at her ability to verbally spar with Jesus – and I marvel that He permits it.

Not having tools to draw water from the well, Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”

Knowing her lowly state in life, and that she’s usually ignored or harassed, she retorts back,

“How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan Woman?”

When we hear that word Samaritan, we think on the story of the “Good Samaritan.” It’s a good thing, right? To be a Samaritan? Actually, no, it isn’t a good thing, especially to a Jew.

Jesus continues, almost teasing her,

“If you knew the gift of God, and who is it who says to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.”

She volleys back, I hear a bit of my own sarcasm in her response,

“Sir, You have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep. Where then do You get that living water? Are You greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, as well as his sons and his livestock?” She forms a solid argument.

Jesus is about to unload some heavy theology on her, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.”

She takes the bait,

“Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.” She is tired.

Their back-and-forth gives me permission to spar with Jesus about my own issues. She shows me I don’t have to be afraid to confront the contradictions I see. Through my imagination, I identify with her, and I learn about myself, and Christ.

As you work to grow Spiritually, don’t neglect your imagination. Reason and imagination are both necessary to progress in the spiritual life.

Years ago, I learned about a modality that helps sharpen your imagination to the Gospel Stories. I created a worksheet that explains the process. It’s called Ignatian Contemplation. If you’re interested in giving it a try, use the box below, and I’ll send you a copy.




PS – I recently wrote about the difference between Meditation and Contemplation, you can read that here if you missed it.

H is for HUMILITY

When I selected HUMILITY as my “H” in this A to Z Blog Challenge, I didn’t realize that it would coincided with Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter. At my church the service is full of readings, music, and images of a humble man, whose obedience leads him to His death. A behavior we’re asked to imitate in our daily lives.

As I sit with my thoughts about humility, I regret that I’m attempting to write about it. I don’t even know where to begin to explain the role humility plays in Spiritual Growth, but it does play a role, an all-encompassing one.

Saint Benedict probably gave us the most useful information about humility. In the seventh chapter of his famous guide for community life, “The Rule,” he says that the ascent into humility is like the movement through 12 rungs on a ladder.

In his teaching, the rungs resonate with ideas like: mindfulness, submission, detachment, confession, contentment, disentanglement, and unconditional trust.

This last one sticks with me. I think humility is more about trust, than anything else.

Even though Christ asked that God find another solution for the issue at hand, he accepts humbly, the consequences, set in motion by the actions of selfish men. He did so with full trust that God would bring something good from it. And He did.

It follows then, that as I attempt to imitate Christ’s humility, I must trust that God will bring good from my surrender. My trust in God is demonstrated by my humility.

Humility by letting go of my rights.

Humility by letting go of my desires.

Humility by letting go of my plans.

Humility by letting go of my preferences.

Humility by letting go of my opinions.

Humility by letting go of my demands.

Humility by letting go of my expectations.

As I stop insisting things go my way, I am saying to God, “I believe that you will work all things for my good.” Easy to do? No.

But be encouraged, growing in humility is part of the ongoing process of Spiritual Growth. It is moving forward, step-by-step, in the trust that I will be okay, no matter what happens to me.

 

G is for Germinating

Time, time, time … it’s all about time.

I remember as a kid, being fascinated by those time-lapse movies of a seedling pushing up through the dirt, their tender leaves stretching to the sun! I mean, you’d never be able to sit and actually watch that growth happen the way the camera can catch it.

Spiritual Growth is the same way. You can’t really see it happening in real-time, but growth is occurring nonetheless.

What happens during that season called “germinating”? Turns out that seeds are their own energy source, like a plant embryo. They hold on to their energy until water, oxygen, soil, and an ideal temperature all come into play, causing growth to begin.

Seems to me this works the same in Spiritual Growth. I believe we already have within us that embryo of who we are, and we need the outside elements to help move us forward in our own growth. I think our elements are a little different:

Water – the living water that Christ offers, refreshing and restful

Oxygen – the movement of the Holy Spirit, leading and corrective

Soil – the foundation of God’s Word, enduring and changeless, and

Temperature – the warmth provided by the love and companionship of other people in our lives.

My beloved Fr. Francis once told me, “It takes us a long time to become the person God sees.” This is the process of human germinating. God has that time-lapse vision of us. Outside of our time, he has already watched us grow and become fully ourselves. As far as He is concerned, it’s already happened.

Don’t be discourage in times where no growth is obvious. Trust the process, and continue surrounding yourself with the elements you need; Christ, the Spirit, God’s Word, and the people that provide you with the warmth required for your growth.


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F is for Fruit (of the Spirit)

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

The hallmarks of Christianity, and the characteristics that should set us apart. They are seeds within us that grow over time, transforming us further into the image of Christ, the ultimate goal of Spiritual Growth.

The list of the Fruit of the Spirit is found in Galatians 5:22-23. The word in the New Testament’s original language is, karpos; fruit, as in the fruit of a tree. These fruits are produced internally and are visible to others. These fruits are given to you, so that you can grow in the characteristics of Christ. So that you are able to do the things you should do as a Christian. So that through you, others can see what Christ is like. And these fruits are among the few things that you can pray for, with full assurance, that you WILL receive them.

I have to tell a story on myself, how the Fruit of the Spirit showed up in an ugly encounter. I was in Denver, getting ready to conduct a retreat. I had to pick someone up at the airport. When I arrived, I was lucky to find a spot in the short-term parking spot right in front. I dashed in, having to turn quickly, squeezing into the spot, facing the other way. My sudden and unexpected movement surprised the parking lot attendant. As I got out of the car he began yelling at, me. That I was driving dangerously … I told him I was sorry that I surprised him, and insisted I was not driving dangerously. He proceeded to scold me with colorful, and unnecessary language, accusing me of almost running him over.

I reached for his badge to get his name, I told him I was going to report him for speaking inappropriately to me. He mistook my reach as an attempt to touch him, which sent him further into a rage. I became angrier and left in a huff, showing my displeasure at his behavior.

This encounter really upset me. I tried to compose myself, as I waited for my friend’s flight. Then I heard that still, small voice. “Well, that’s a nice – Christian lady – preparing to lead a retreat. You can’t even own your part of that conflict. Go back and apologize to the man.” Yes, God often talks to me this way, it’s irritating sometimes. So, I headed back to the parking lot. He saw me coming and begin rantings began before I could speak. I interrupted him and said kindly, “I’m sorry I surprised you. I did not intend to cause you any harm. Will you forgive me?”

He was astonished, and meekly accepted my apology while offering me one in exchange.

Can you see the Fruit at work here? Kindness, Gentleness, and SELF-CONTROL. A thankless job, being a parking lot attendant at a large airport. It had probably been years since anyone extended him any kindness. I’m sure he went home and told his wife all about the crazy lady that almost ran him over, then apologized.

A long time ago, someone told me you could tell a Christian by the fruit they bear. She said “Christians bear other Christians.”

She was wrong. You can tell a Christian by the fruit they bear, but the fruit they bear is love, joy, peace …

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Up tomorrow: in Spiritual Growth; G is for GERMINATING

 

E is for EXERCISE

That dreaded word: exercise. And in the Spiritual Realm … really?

It is a well-known fact that if you want to improve in anything, you must submit to exercises. Spiritual improvement is no different.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola are perhaps the most well-known series of exercises. Ancient in their origin, they are still being utilized by Spiritual Directors today, including myself.

I love all Spiritual Exercises. They push me out of my comfort zone, challenge my faith, and cause me to look at things in a different way. Spiritual Exercises have helped me know myself, create new habits, and heal old wounds. Most importantly, regular practice of Spiritual Exercises help me strengthen my faith, so I am better equipped for hardships. And I’ve had my share.

The whole purpose of exercising Spiritually  is to create a space for interior work to be done; giving you the opportunity to challenge what you know and advance in Spiritual Growth.

I have shared several Spiritual Exercises on my blog.

The Centering Prayer which provides a regular method for being still in God’s presence

Lectio Divina – the ancient monastic practice of the intentional reading of Scripture,

Visio Divina – similar to Lectio Divina, yet using nature as the text, and

Developing a Rule of Life –  a method for organizing your Spiritual goals.

This week I am launching a new line of digital products for dailyPAX: SelfRetreats.

Each retreat is designed around a theme, and contain relevant teaching, readings, and Spiritual Exercises. They are intended for personal use and can be worked anywhere. The first one will address “Living through Suffering.”

If you’re interested in more information, join my SelfRetreat list below.


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D is for DISCERNMENT

A foundational element in Spiritual Growth, DISCERNMENT is simply the act of listening for God’s voice. Simple, however anything BUT easy. How do you discern His voice amid the other noise? His leading? A struggle I hear about in my work as a Spiritual Director, and an issue I’ve struggled with myself.

When I first began learning about Benedictine Spirituality, I was fascinated with the idea of “listening to God with the ear of your heart.” I wasn’t exactly sure how one could do this. My life was very chaotic, and most of the time I couldn’t hear myself think, let alone discern the voice of God.

My studies kept leading me back to solitude as a way to hear God. Solitude! What a terrifying thought for an extrovert. Be quiet? On purpose? Pure torture, I thought. But the more I tried to discern God’s voice, the more I knew I would need to give this solitude stuff a try.

I knew there was a Benedictine Abbey about 45 miles south of my home, and I the monks were quiet there, so I packed myself off for self-imposed, 24-hour, period of solitude. With the simple goal of trying to discern God’s voice. To listen with the “ear of my heart.”

It was awful. After the evening prayer service, I returned to my lonely room, and quickly fell asleep. In the morning, I struggled with my foolishness in taking on this venture alone. And I was sure that I must be needed at home, surely someone needed me at home. So, I made a deal with God. “I’ll stay and read one whole gospel, all the way through, then I’m going home.” I read Luke, had lunch, and went home.

About two years later, my Spiritual Director told me about silent retreat being held at a different Abbey. It hadn’t worked for me before, but at my Director’s urging, I decided to go.

What a difference it made having someone lead me through the process. The monk was so humble, he didn’t even introduce himself. He set a schedule for us and during the course of the weekend lead us through 5 different topics all around the idea of Community. He spoke for about 15 minutes on each topic and released us to silence and solitude, to discern God’s voice in relation to topic. I was silent for a whole weekend, and it was wonderful.

When I arrived home one of my children asked, “How was all that nice silence Mommy?” As I thought, it hadn’t been silent at all. Once I started listening, God never stopped talking.

That was all I needed, a little direction, tools to help me focus myself while I sought to discern God’s voice. This retreat was transformative for me, not the first time I’d heard God’s voice, but I learned tools to aide in the discernment. There are ways to do it, and tools that can help.

I want to offer those tools to you. Making a retreat is the single most effective way to discern God’s voice! I’ve been leading retreats for over 25 years. I’m putting together some resources that will allow you to take a retreat on your own schedule, in your own home. If you’re already on my email list, you’ll be getting more information this week.

If you aren’t on my list, sign up below to get the information, when it comes available.


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C is for CONTEMPLATION

From “Dark Night of the Soul” by St. John of the Cross, speaking about those in a deep relationship with God;

“Meditation is now useless for them, because God is conducting them along another road, which is Contemplation. It is very different from the first, for the one road belongs to discursive mediation and the other is beyond the range of the imagination and discursive reflection.”

Many people think that Meditation and Contemplation are the same thing and use the words interchangeably. Although they share similarities, they are different. They are both paths to God, but they differ in how one travels on that path.

Mediation is the work of the mind. Also called “discursive prayer,” it involves a back and forth between myself and God. It is my work, my questions, my thinking.

Contemplation is the work of the heart. Beyond discursive reflection, it involves being present to God. It is His work, His answers, His thoughts.

A few years ago, I attended at retreat on “Natural Contemplation.” At this retreat, I was introduced to many new ideas about seeking God, about listening to God, and about paying attention. About praying without words. The retreat was held in a beautiful mountain location, and the grounds offered abundant opportunities for contemplation.

I have been about this “work of the heart” since then, paying attention and seeking God’s wordless voice all around me.

I have developed an exercise that gives you guidelines to develop this type of attentiveness. It’s called “Visio Divina.” Similar to “Lectio Divina” in its movement of hearing, meditating, responding, and resting, but it utilizes the physical world as its divine text. I’d be thrilled to share it with you. Let me know by  visiting this link.

Practicing this type of Contemplation has sharpened my eyes to what God is saying – everywhere. I hope you’ll give it a try.

Tomorrow: In Spiritual Growth, D is for DISCERNMENT.

 

Click here if you missed my piece on Lectio Divina.