I see them every day on the streets—the hungry. They stretch out trembling hands and plead for something to sustain them. A handout is not enough though. It may fill them for the day but they are back at the same bus stop the next morning, empty-handed and asking for more.
I’ve been that person for many days. I come to God with open hands and I ask for more of who He is, some feeling of His presence to carry me. I can’t count the number of books on prayer and contemplation I have read in the past few years. I begin reading with a hopeful heart. This is the one that will jumpstart my prayers,I think, that will tell me where my heart has gone astray in its connection to the giver of life. But I close the book in sadness. I don’t see any changes in myself.
The Furious Longing of God by Brennan Manning has been in my kindle queue for a while and I opened it on a whim last month. When I finished reading it I felt more like that pleading pauper than ever. I saw so much of myself in the flawed character of this alcoholic ex-priest, this man both attracted to and repelled by God. I knew his heart in the way he was never settled, always searching. But he had something in all his wandering that I didn’t—this ability to accepted God’s love fully and not get bogged down in his own failures and attempts to earn the love of the Father.
I wept with longing as I read: “Is your own personal prayer life characterized by the simplicity, childlike candor, boundless trust, and easy familiarity of a little one crawling up in a Daddy’s lap? An assured knowing that Daddy doesn’t care if the child falls asleep, starts playing with toys, or even starts chatting with little friends, because the daddy knows the child has essentially chosen to be with him for that moment?”
I yearn for this kind of trust in God’s affection for me. I want to believe that my attempts towards Him are enough, that in all my lack He is still infinitely pleased with me. I kept coming back to Manning’s words, devouring his autobiography in a few days and then launching into Dear Abba. I didn’t yet see any kind of shift in my prayers but I was so taken with this ragamuffin that I kept reading.
I was invited to a two-day retreat with a few other expat ladies in the South Asian city I’ve called home for nearly half a year. I longed for connection to someone in a place where loneliness is my daily companion. I came again with trembling and empty hands, not sure if there would be anything to fill them...
A gentle whisper in my ear broke through my early morning dream. I sat up quickly when the sunlight filtering through our red paisley curtains cast a crimson glow across my son’s face. The unwelcome light accused me and immediately my self-berating thoughts began:
"I did it again. I promised this day would be different. I would get up while it was still dark and spend time with God. I know I need it and it is a new year. I can’t do anything right."
“Play with me, mommy?” My six-year old's big brown eyes danced with hope as I was caught up in my inner dialogue of despair. My first instinct was to decline his request and send him on his way. My husband and daughter’s snores told me I could hand my son an electronic device and still have time to hit my yoga mat before they woke.
In the split second between his request and my response, there was a war raging inside my head. I thought back to the previous day when I sat at the dining room table with papers scattered all around. My half filled out bullet journal from last year sat there mocking me. You failure, the uncompleted to-do lists said. The daily gratitude page was half filled out, telling me I was ungrateful. You're lazy, said the books I intended to read but hadn’t. The pieces I needed to have already written because deadlines were looming, calling me: Procrastinator. And worse of all, the scriptures I hadn’t memorized, the devotional I was reading that I was weeks behind on said: Bad Christian.
I ripped out the accusing pages one by one. I stared at the crumpled mess on the floor and wanted to shout at them, "You don’t define me. I am going to change. This time will be different." After over three decades of living with this inner dialogue, I know my tendencies by now. I’m all or nothing. If I can’t follow through with every stroke of my schedule, the whole plan is abandoned. If I say I am going to get up and workout, read my Bible, and pray every morning and instead oversleep (again), then I will go the whole day without doing any of those things. I’ve already failed, so what’s the point in trying?
All those stories so ingrained in my early upbringing in the faith run through my mind. Meant to encourage us towards spiritual disciplines, these stories set a bar of perfectionism I have been trying to attain every since. There was the one about a certain man of faith who never once missed a day reading his Bible. When he got sick towards the end of his life, his wife sat by his hospital bed and read it to him each day. There is the man praised because he didn’t miss a single Sunday of church even when his child was sick in the hospital or the woman who showed up to rock babies every weekend for decades. I was always told faithfulness to a task proves faithfulness to God…thus I am unfaithful.
This bent towards perfectionism has been killing me for years, snuffing out a fire of intimacy with God that used to burn brightly. And I’m so tired of it...
It’s so much to take in—the cacophony of sounds that is never-ending in this place. There is never silence in our swelling, overcrowded city. The sounds are becoming familiar to our Western ears these days.
Allahu Akbhar. The musical nature of the call the prayer lulls the children to sleep.
Briing. Briing. We have come to expect the jingling melody of bicycle rickshaw bells. We hardly notice the yelping of the street dogs anymore, the clanging of aluminum rice pots in the early mornings. These are the sounds of life in the most densely populated city on earth. We feel our place amidst the noise, but a speck in this teeming sea of life.
But it is when I try to fill this space with my presence that I become even more aware of my smallness. The language I long to speak sounds like just another noise to my untrained ears. This language has existed in some form for thousands of years, descendant from one of the most ancient tongues on earth. This language is the pride of its people, shaped the very foundation and form of this nation.
Friends who’ve learned what feels impossible to me know tell me the first step of learning the language is listening, teaching your ear to recognize the rising and lilting sounds of Bangla. They call it the listening phase. For the first couple months full comprehension isn’t the goal, but recognition.
I hear a word that stands out in a string of melodic words, can recognize one or two and fill in some of the rest based on context. I know enough to get around town (sometimes) and talk to our house helper (about some things). I stumble my way through a sentence or two. A glimmer of joy passes through her eyes when she feels understood and our normal communication of gesturing and sounds becomes something a little bit more.
Dhonnovad. Thank you.
Onek Shundor. Very pretty.
I recognize so little. Understand even less. I long for my listening to produce the fruit of knowledge, of separating noise from language. I want to cross the bridge into familiarity instead of everything feeling exotic, unknown, other. But it takes time. Lots of it. It takes discipline, work, repetition—and always listening.
I’ve been working for years to understand another language, the language of the Spirit. Silence. Communion with God. I’ve been struggling to separate God’s voice out of what feels like the din that is ever-growing around me. Sometimes I feel a glimmer of recognition. I feel progress in hearing, experience His Presence. Other times His voice seems as unrecognizable as the curls of the Bangla script to this bideshi’s eyes...
The walls of a monastery have held the echoes of my thoughts for the past few New Years. The cold, smooth stone became the embodiment of silence and peace for me as I reflected on the year behind, dreamed of what lie ahead. I have always been able to hear God so clearly in the silence carved out by the Benedictine Brothers that have informed so much of my spiritual life for the past few years. I crave this kind of silence in my daily life but outside the abbey walls it seems unattainable.
This year my New Year’s Reflections were anything but clean and cool and silent. We were traveling by train outside of our new home in the most densely populated city on earth, where silence is but a dream. I was thrilled to be in a rural area over the weekend that stretched across the New Year. I dreamed about sitting under the stars that I can’t even see from the hazy capital city sky. My aspirations of a tidy time for reflection were met with disappointment as yes, the moon and stars were beautiful, but I could only sit under them for a minute before the mosquitos drove me back inside. Yes, I was in a place of beauty but even in this wild area of jungle and tea gardens, voices and songs filled the night with noise.
So much like my desire for the perfect place for reflection, my daily spiritual life always feels lacking. My works-focused evangelical faith has often provided a goal, an unachievable standard. I can say I believe in grace all day long but still try to heap up works that prove how much I love God. If I can’t seem to hear God’s voice in prayer, I give Him the silent treatment for days to follow. If I can’t have my ideal 5 am quiet time of silence and journaling, prayer and Bible reading, I just throw in the towel all together and call myself a failure. Nothing is ever enough. It was striving, burned out faith that led me to seek out contemplation and silence in the first place.
On my weekend away I started reading Ruth Haley Barton’s Sacred Rhythms, hoping to find a little peace. It was like I was reading my own journal: “Our longing for a way of life that works is most often met with an invitation to more activity, which unfortunately plays right into our compulsions and the drivenness of Western culture.”
I said I was giving up resolutions a couple years ago but never really let go of my unattainable aspirations of perfection. I dressed them up as a Rule of Life, something that felt more holy. But they were still goals with a timeline attached, something to strive for—something to fall short of. Every broken promise was a reminder that I couldn’t seem to change my life.
I started choosing one word to guide my year as a means to focus less on goals and more on what I wanted the year to embody. In 2016 I chose the word practice, exploring spiritual practices that I hoped would draw me closer to God. It was a year of leaning into silence and contemplation but I felt like all my learning never turned into something that could sustain me.
In 2017 I felt exploring led way to establishing, rhythm becoming my guiding word of the year. I hoped to establish unforced rhythms in my life, take some of what I was learning and make it part of my every day (practicing examen instead of just reading about it, finding ways to weave silence into my daily practices). But 2017 was a year that would prove to bring the most upheaval into my life I have ever experienced. Changing plans, shifting dreams, moving four times and finally settling 8000 miles from home—my plans to grow deeply rooted felt thwarted when all I knew was uprooted over and over again.
So tired of feeling like a failure at the end of every year, worn on from the striving, I settled onto the train to return home on the morning of the first day of 2018. I watched a world so exotic to me roll by. Women precariously balance jars of water on their heads as men plucked the rice plants from the water logged paddies. Extraordinary to me. Utterly mundane to the people who live day to day in these villages stretching out before my eyes. It seemed the whole of humanity passed before my eyes in those hours. Beggars and the lame. Children and the old. Women in their best getting ready to board the train for a holiday. As I watched them I thought God are you here? Are you with them as you are with me? Are you with me?
Something breathed into my spirit and in the least silent moment I can imagine, God met me there, assuring me that He was with me. That He was in this place in more ways than I can possibly imagine. “Solitutde is a place inside myself where God’s Spirit and my spirit dwell together in union,” says Barton. I was truly alone with Him on that ride and for a few minutes I could let go of my need for the perfect. I was just there. So was my loving Father.
My 2018 word settled into my soul in those moments. I am done trying to drum up the perfect plan, with the striving, the goals, the failure. I can’t hear Him if I am running ahead all the time. I can find a still place in the noisiest city on earth, in my always-churning thoughts.
I just want to be where I am. I just want to be where He is. Present.
Join the conversation: Do you have One Word you have chosen for 2018 and what ways are you weaving it into your life this year? What ways do you find to let go of your perfectionism? How do you find stillness in a chaotic world? How do you find ways to be present each day?
The sounds of bicycle bells, car horns, and rickshaw motors are my constant companion. They intermingle with the clanging of construction in a city that always seems to be expanding and the Call to Prayer five times a day reminds us that we are in an unfamiliar place. As foreign as these things feel, these aren’t the reasons I feel out of sorts.
It’s more that I don’t know how to dwell in this place: this not yet, the in between. You’d think I would be accustomed to it by now. We moved out of our house nearly three months ago and lived with friends. We settled into a borrowed home and a new routine just in time to pack up again. We’ve been living out of suitcases for a couple weeks now: first in my parent’s house in the States and now with friends in our new home country.
Everyone asks how we’re getting settled in here after a few days here. Settling isn’t the right word. Not yet. We are learning our surroundings and how to get around but we are still living as guests. Someone else is shopping and cooking for us, cleaning up after us. Once we get our own apartment then I think we’ll start to understand just how lost we are in this place. Already I feel like a baby, so dependent on others for translation of the language, for interpretation of a culture that is so deeply different than my own, for my food, and for our schedule.
As we got ready to move and I dealt with the unknown that lies ahead, I turned often to the words in Exodus. I identified with the Israelites as they stepped out on newly dry land, trusting God to keep the waves from crashing down upon them. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I now feel like those same wanderers as they stumbled around in the uncertainty of the wilderness.
Reading the books of Moses, we have the hindsight to know that the Hebrews would spend forty years wandering. But as they journeyed they lived with total uncertainty, never knowing when they would feel settled, would have a true home. I wonder if some made their home in the in-between while others stopped living while they waited for the Promised Land? Certainly, life went on there in the wilderness. Babies were born and others left this life behind. People married and worshipped and lived their lives all while they were in the not yet of their sojourning.
I think I am looking for an arrival but I want to look instead for how life happens in all the places we are...
When I was a young evangelical who was new to faith and the church, I learned to speak about Jesus with passion. When we praised someone who was “on fire for God,” we were describing a person who was vocal about their faith, who talked about experiencing the presence of God, who served in big ways. These were those kids at youth camp who raised their hands or the ones who showed up for the small groups and service projects. We talked about their fire because we could see external evidence of something burning inside them.
So we all worked harder to show our faith. We wanted the feeling of being so consumed by something that it changed our lives. Duty and devotion were intertwined in the inner workings of our faith. If we loved Jesus, then everyone should know it. Our goal was to be sold-out, on fire, radical. Young and fearless, we prayed the prayer of Jim Elliot: “God, I pray light these idle sticks of my life and may I burn up for thee.” All passion and fury, we forged ahead…and some burned up but most burned out.
The nature of fire is that it constantly needs to be fed or it fizzles out. I equated faith with feelings and looked for mountaintop experiences with God to fill me. I understood the Lord’s presence as something to be felt or God must be absent. As we prayed “God, be with us in this place,” I learned to invite God into my worship as if He wasn’t already there and if I felt some stirring within my heart then I must be pleasing Him.
But when the music stopped and the lights went out, I didn’t know how to hear Jesus in the quiet of my own heart. When I heard no answer and felt no rousing emotions, I wondered—had my fire gone out?
I had a language for fervor but not for the doubt, or the dark night of the soul waiting on the other side of anxiety. I didn’t have a place for God in the brokenness or even in the mundane that made up the moments between being lit up. For years I struggled with feeling like I was just living among the dying embers of something I had lost a long time ago. I kept going through the motions of the truth I knew, hoping one day I would feel again.
Just like I can’t pinpoint a time when I entered the wilderness, I can’t remember emerging...
Where do you experience God? If you can't feel His Presence, do you know He's still there? Come with me to SheLoves today as I share how I'm relearning how to experience God in the silence and in the noise...
I sigh as I tug on the hem of the cleaning gloves for what feels like the hundredth time and wipe another fingerprint off the wall with the magic eraser that is all but torn to shreds. Now that we are getting our house ready to sell, I notice every smudge and imperfection made by little fingers. Each one represents another chunk of time, another task to do before the deadline we have set for getting ready to move. It seems all those little segments of time add up to more hours than I have available these days. The practical has been pushing the spiritual out of my life and my soul is parched. I ache for quiet moments to seek God like I used to, those precious days I get to retreat to the monastery or go to a writer's conference. I am fortunate to have those opportunities but then I return to "real" life and I long to be able to find quiet in my every day for the spiritual practices that feed my soul.
But I also know that time slips away so easily and I don't want to wish away the hours with these little ones that won't be little for much longer, my nearly eight-year-old already turning into a young woman in front of me. When I take a few minutes out of my dinner preparation to pour red and yellow paint onto a plate and brush it onto their eager hands, I notice how much more paint it requires these days. I have stacks of handprint pictures from their preschool years but we haven't done this in a while. Their fingers barely fit on the page and I'm startled at how sad it makes me. It's funny how I laminate and treasure these little fingerprints, evidence of how tiny they once were. But those same precious marks don't seem so precious when found on my clean walls.
As I working mom of two, I have found the noise of life to be overwhelming. Hence the desire for this place online I created two years ago (with a 5 and 3-year-old at the time) seeking to help myself and others find God's voice in all the real and virtual noise of life. I have explored new spiritual practices (like examen, silence, keeping the church calendar) and tried the same methods that I want to work but can't seem to make fit into my life anymore (waking early to read the Bible, journaling, online women's studies).
I remember the first time I heard about Brother Lawrence, the famed seventh-century monk who wrote The Practice of the Presence of God about finding God in the common daily tasks of the abbey. I thought this is what I need, wisdom in finding God in ordinary life. I read the small book eagerly, and while his words are an inspiration, I still found it difficult to relate the practices of a French monk to my schedule in which I am either taking care of someone or working most every waking hour of the day until the house is quiet and my mind is incapable of anything more substantial than a conversation or television show.
So, here I am - busy mom, wanna-be contemplative, failing at the practice of God's presence - and a friend asked me to read her new book on motherhood and spiritual disciplines. Honestly, at first, I thought, oh, another thing I don't have time for. Another book to tell me what I should be doing and I'll try for a little bit but then just end up feeling guilty I am not doing better at it. I picked up the book at a retreat and read the back cover: "Rich, soul inspiring practices for moms who have neither quiet nor time." I was intrigued.
The more I talked to Catherine that weekend and connected with her humor, her wisdom - I knew I had to read it. I opened the book on the plane ride home that weekend and in just the first few pages I knew this wasn't the "do more" mom book I had been expecting. It was the how-to practice God's presence in the midst of the noise of motherhood book I never thought anyone would write. It was the Practice of the Presence of God for 21st-century women. It was more than soul-inspiring to me. It was life-giving.
So, I'll let Catherine tell you a bit more about her heart behind the book and hope you find it as rich a tool in your journey towards God as I did.
Thank you! I’m a mom with three kids (and a few part time jobs). I love to read and garden. I love to study theology and ancient cultures. I’m always trying to learn something new. I enjoy getting to know my neighbors and learning how different people see the world. I love to explore how theology impacts our real, physical lives…and how our real lives impact theology. I’m enamored by the creation of new life but find that working in the garden is less exhausting than pregnancy.
Now, introduce us to your book Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline.
Long Days of Small Things is a book that looks at the real life work we do in our everyday lives, and finds God right here in the midst of it. It’s a book for moms (or dads…or grandparents…or caregivers…) who know they don’t have any extra time or energy, but still want a way to connect with God and discover how to find Him.
How do you do that in Long Days of Small Things?
In each chapter I tell stories from our real lives—the seasons and stages of motherhood, pregnancy and delivery, infant days, sleepless nights, caring for children of all ages—and the tasks that fill them. I look at spiritual tools that already hide there—like sacrifice, surrender, service, perseverance, and celebration—and consider how we can open our eyes to the spiritual boot camp we walk through every day. Without adding anything extra to our live or to-do lists, we practice so many disciplines every moment of the day.
Why did you decide to write Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline?
A few years ago I was a work-from-home mom with a baby, a toddler, and a preschooler. These precious, demanding children took me all the way to the end of my rope…and left me there indefinitely! My life changed in every way, yet I heard only the same spiritual prescriptions I’d always heard: spend quite time each day with God. Find 30-60 minutes each day to be in silence and solitude before the Lord. As I considered the classic spiritual practices (which I love!)—prayer, worship, fasting, meditation, service, solitude, etc.—it became abundantly clear that the realities of motherhood meant I was likely to fail. Or opt out entirely.
But my spirit didn’t allow me to do that. I heard a lament rising in the hearts of the women around me—I have nothing left, nothing left to care for myself or give to God. But as I looked at the actual seasons and tasks of motherhood, I was convinced that there was no better “boot camp” for my soul. Each day we mothers create, we nurture. Each day we are pushed to the end of ourselves and must surrender, sacrifice, and persevere. Each day we serve, pouring ourselves out. We empty ourselves for those in our care—and isn’t this emptiness the very reliance on God that the spiritual disciplines are designed to produce?
I’m convinced that motherhood is doing an eternal work on my soul, even if I’m too exhausted and overwhelmed to notice just now.
What are the “Practices” that you describe in Long Days of Small Things?
At the end of each chapter, I list three things we are doing already—things like walking, eating, driving, changing diapers, going to work. And I explore how we can use these things, already in our daily routines and schedules, to awaken to God’s presence with us. Moms often don’t have time to add additional tasks and tools into our days, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use the tasks already there! In fact, in many cases, I think these natural things are the most effective.
How has motherhood impacted your understanding of spirituality?
We think of spirituality as something that happens in our minds, in silence. We are taught that our bodies, our mess and complications and noise hold us back from being with God. That doesn’t leave a lot of hope for moms, whose pregnant or post-partum bodies, newborns, toddlers, and van-full of carpool kids have no end of loud, messy, physical, chaotic needs.
But God made us, didn’t He? Genesis describes Him getting in the dirt and forming us from the dust by hand, then breathing His own breath into our mouths. That’s pretty physical and messy! Then He actually took on a body Himself. The King of Kings wiggled around in a woman’s womb, surrounded by amniotic fluid. He entered the world through her birth canal. God was born, you guys. That’s our Good News.
All this physical stuff that we feel keeps us from Him is the same stuff He used to meet with us, to speak to us, to save us.
So Long Days of Small Things is a book for moms “who have neither quiet nor time” as the cover says—or dads, grandparents, and other caregivers.
Describe an experience that first caused you to understand motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline.
I was shopping with my three kids. Can you imagine the scene? Lugging my infant in one of those terribly unwieldy baby-carriers. Holding my toddler by the hand, while my preschooler zoomed around the store. The diaper bag was falling off my shoulders, and I clenched the grocery bags with the same hand that grasped my toddler.
And then…the door. I couldn’t figure out how to get us all through. The baby was wailing for milk and a nap, the toddler and preschooler needed lunch (and a nap). I wanted lunch and a nap too, truth be told. But mostly I just wanted to get us out the door. No one held it open for me, but plenty of people watched me make a fool of myself trying to wiggle us all through without banging any heads or pinching any fingers. It felt like a hero-feat, an epic win.
When I finally got everyone home, fed, and sleeping, I sat down to read an article I’d been saving; a short biography of a favorite Christian teacher. The biographer described this hero of the faith as so spiritual, he radiated peace just by walking through the door.
This stopped me in my tracks. The memory of how I looked going through a door was so fresh in my mind. I realized that if spiritual growth entailed developing an aura of peace and radiance, I was never going to arrive—at least not without getting rid of these precious babies!
The contrast between this teacher and myself was so stark, and I realized he and I were simply on two separate paths. I was seeking God through the chaotic but life-giving seasons and tasks of motherhood, and this was going to look entirely different from the classic spiritual practices. “Results may vary” as they say.
How is this book different from all the other books and conversations out there regarding motherhood today?
There are so many books out there for moms on the topic of devotion and spirituality. Almost all of them have this in common: after admitting that moms are exhausted, stretched too thin, without any margin or time or energy, they look for a few extra minutes here or there which might be harvested for God; or offer a Bible study or prayer list that might fit in the tiny slots. Get up at 4:30am before the baby wakes at 5am! Read two minutes of the Bible each day!
I’m all for doing these things when it works, but I’m convinced that we don’t need to exit motherhood to have a spiritual life. Our children are what we create, and this is where our Creator God meets us. I’m certain of it. Without adding more “should’s” or “to-do’s” to our days, we can open our eyes to a unique spiritual journey, made just for us—and find him here. We’re already doing it. All that waits is for us to breathe deeply and being to drink.
What are your hopes for the moms reading Long Days of Small Things?
I told my publisher and editor so many times: I want the title, the cover, and every word to convey that I’m not saying you should do more. You are enough. You are seen. You are loved. You are doing so much already, and there is value here. God is here already. These long days of small things make us feel shunted to the side, second class, invisible.
But I’m certain of one thing: this is the very place God meets us. That’s why we practice spiritual disciplines—to arrive at this place. I’m confident that every flowing, bleeding, dripping, sticky, crying, dirty, wet, exhausted piece of motherhood is a piece that God made and loves, a place where He came, and place where He is.
If moms can hear me say that, and accept the invitation, and find Him there—I will be overjoyed.
Nicole again here. Guys, I truly recommend this book (and yes, Catherine is a fellow writer but I didn't think I had time to help promote the book but when I looked over the table of contents, realized I needed to read it so I bought it. And when I read it, I knew I needed to share it with you). Go buy and read Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline.
I would recommend reading this book with a small group of moms, too. If you are in MOPS, a homeschool co-op, a small group or any sort of gathering of moms, I have a special treat for you. As I was reading it, I was thinking how well the book would lend itself to reading together with others and discussing how you found the spiritual practices applicable in your own lives. Thankfully, Catherine has made a discussion guide available for just that reason and you can download it here!
And if you aren't a mom - I am sure you know one or two! I am going to stock up on this book as a baby shower gift for all new moms. Blessings friends as you seek to hear God's voice in the noise of mothering, fathering, and every other noisy season of life!
Interview and discussion guide courtesy of Catherine McNiel, author of Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline (NavPress, 2017). Catherine McNiel survived her children's preschool years by learning to find beauty in the mayhem. Now, she writes to open the eyes to God's creative, redemptive work in each day. The author of Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline (NavPress, 2017), Catherine cares for three kids, works two jobs, and grows one enormous garden.
I felt the pull to reflection deep in my spirit. As soon as the light through the stained glass of the Romanesque chapel fell on my face, I felt I was transported into a tangible awareness of the presence of God. I knew I needed time alone in this place. Over the course of the two-day writing retreat I was attending, I filled my time with as many interactions with my fellow writers as I could. After all, we had traveled from all over the country to be together. This was a unique opportunity full of divine appointments, prayers whispered, stories shared, and wisdom imparted. I didn't want to miss a moment, but I was missing something else.
As the retreat was coming to a close and dear friends were whispering goodbyes in the hushed lobby as people brushed by us into mass, I wanted to stay but I felt the tug on my heart that I had been denying all weekend. I cracked open the heavy wooden door, stopped a moment to kneel, and quietly slip into the back pew just after mass began. I hoped nobody would notice the tears streaming down my face during the lectionary readings that resounded off the stained glass prophets who spoke their words over and into me.
I met Jesus that weekend in the laughter of my friends, in the impassioned preaching of some of the strongest women I've ever known, over the dinner table, and in the prayers of the friend who scooted close knowing my heart was aching for someone to pray over me. But He was waiting in that chapel all along, too—waiting for me to quiet myself long enough to just be still before Him. Silence tugs at me and repels me at the same time. I know the need and I know the pain of the pruning that awaits there.
Not cold enough to be called winter but dreary enough to still make all life lay dormant under the piles of fallen leaves, this has been a strange season. At the end of it, I am forcing myself to press into the silence. I found the practice of Examen last year (the daily prayer practice laid out by St. Ingatius Loyola), realized what thousands before me have known using this attitude of prayerful reflection for 500 years - that an examined life is a life of growth. Whenever I have practiced Examen daily, I have found such peace and guidance from God. But, in all honesty, I haven't practiced it very often. Because I've also found the dark places of my heart, the places I'd rather avoid. I've heard things I need to lay down that I desperately want to cling to.
The end of this particular season lends itself especially well to reflection as we also leave Ordinary Time for the Lenten season in which we focus especially close on our own sinfulness and cravings, preparing our hearts for the redemption that is to be celebrated at Easter. I love the practice of reflecting on what we've learned at the end of a season (be it the seasons of the calendar year or the church year). As I was preparing to join Emily Freeman and her community in sharing what we've learned this winter (don't forget to hop over to Emily's place to read some of the other "What We've Learned - Winter Edition" posts), I wanted to share cute and light lessons. But again I felt the tug to something deeper. This year, as the end of winter and the end of Ordinary Time coincide, I am noticing how looking back on what we learned is another form of Examen. I want more than just to reflect back on the season; I want the reflection to turn to prayer and the prayer to change the next season of my life.
If you too are wanting to look back on the past season before you head into the next, join me in examining your life before God, turning what you learned into a prayer of thanks, of repentance, of an openness to grow in yet deeper understanding in the next season. Spend just a few minutes or as much time as you can allow. There is nothing mystical about Examen. It is simply an attitude of reflection that leads to prayer. Traditional Ignatian Examen is done mid-day and at the end of the day. I have started using Examen at the end of the week during Sabbath and planning for the week ahead, or at the end of the month or season. You can journal your reflections if it helps or simply find a quiet place and be with God. Sit in the stillness for a little while. Listen before you speak. Look back. Look ahead. Most importantly, look up.
Leave a comment for me and the benefit of others or send me an email (for my eyes only). I'd love to hear what you're learning, how you're hearing His voice in the noise, and how we can pray together into this new season. Blessings!
The world outside the window fits the world inside me in this moment. What started as a light drizzle throughout the morning has become a downpour. Each week I enter this coffee shop while the stars still blanket the world, and I emerge after the sun has started to illuminate my table that acts as a writing desk for my weekly writing office hours. The sun should have emerged an hour ago, but the sky is grey and no light shines through. Folk music plays and the espresso machines whir; friendly chatter becomes the backdrop to my thoughts. Inside all is warm and dimly lit, creating an atmosphere of serenity. Outside the storm rages.
I’ve always prided myself on my strength. I come from a long line of strong women who worked hard, carried their families; women who did it all. I equated strength with quantity, with full and busy lives. So I followed suit. I launched myself into every endeavor with passion and gusto. When I travel, I seek to soak in every last moment, saying, “Who knows if I’ll ever be here again? I can sleep when it’s over.” I can do it all. I can have it all. That’s how I’ve lived for 35 years.
A decade ago my body started telling me that I couldn’t keep up the pace and the emotional strain of taking on everything with all of my being. My doctor finally named my chest pains and inability to catch my breath as what it was—anxiety.
Sometimes I have listened to my body, treated it well and found moments of relief; other times I pushed myself to the limit and pushed through the pain. I’ve begged God for relief. I’ve taken medication, diffused oils, stretched through downward dog and pushed my muscles to the limit in the gym. I’ve soaked in suds, played with my kids, escaped into books.
But I never stopped believing I could do all the things. I pretended I was slowing down when I turned down certain commitments. But I replaced those with new ones. I couldn’t let go of the addiction of activity, the rush of busyness. I said I wanted stillness but I didn’t really. When left alone with my thoughts, I was forced to face the realities I didn’t want to. Introspection became the thing I avoided with all of my doing.
I watch the gutters gush forth a full load, puddles spilling over like a tiny river that feet splash through on their way to the car. My heart fills like the gutters these days; it’s at capacity, overflowing...
You would think the concrete walls would feel cold on this winter day. Instead, the white stone exudes warmth and peace. Towering overhead, the arches reflect the colors of the stained glass. The warm hues of the filtered light add to the calming atmosphere of the Abbey church as I pause to run my hands along the cool stone underneath a wooden cross. This building always reminds me of the eternal, both in its carefully crafted features meant to direct attention to the God Eternal and in its unchanging strength. It has stood here for nearly 60 years, a testament to the lives of the brothers who enter each day to pray—lives that look much the same as those of the earliest Benedictine monks of the 11th century.
And I have stood under its sheltering pillars on one of the last days of the year for seven years now, sitting in the shadow of the same nativity scene each year. My annual retreat to the Monastery each December marks the passing of one year into the next.Though the scenery is my constant, adding to the feeling of ritual in my year-end reflections—the person kneeling at the altar today looks vastly different than the one who first entering through the heavy wooden doors seven years ago. Than the one who prayed here just a year ago.
Last year I came to the Abbey confident in where I was headed in 2016. God had given me the word "Practice" for 2016 and as my journey with contemplative practices deepened, I sought to craft a Rule of Life in My Year Without Resolutions. I had a busy travel schedule planned for the winter and spring, knew the places I wanted to publish in the coming months, and planned out a second half of the year with plenty of time for reflection and creation. I wanted to grow into new spiritual practices, deepen my writing practice, and out of the overflow of the rich experiences in South Asia, Israel, and connecting with my tribes at The Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing growth would flow.
As is usually the case, my roadmap of the year ahead took a significant detour, only six weeks into the carefully crafted year. My husband and I left South Asia with burning questions in our hearts, ones that would change the entire trajectory of not only the year ahead but our entire lives. We were launched into a world of transition as we followed step by step what God asked of us. As the path to an international move became clear, the margin in my life disappeared. I explored a lot of practices that moved me and sustained me in the year of upheaval but none of those practices grew into habit. I tried to use the fledgling Rule of Life I had established to guide me but I never found sustainable rhythms in the hectic schedule I was keeping. When the motion of life got to be too much (like it did in this recent season of Advent) I abandoned the life-giving practices I had explored and just felt like I was floating through my days, aimless.
I felt the call to contemplative prayer, to silence and stillness, to Holy Listening, to morning rituals to guide my day—but I didn't grow deep in any practice. In all the hustle and trying to force rest, I found none. I couldn't find the line between doing and striving, between a practice and a rhythm, between knowing Christ and abiding in Him.
As I reflected on all the changes (and the inability to change in the midst of them) in the Abbey, I already knew the word I would choose to guide the coming year: rhythms. It had actually come to me early in Advent as I reflected on these thoughts on the shallow growth in my 2016 practices. As I left the church and ventured to the greenhouse nearby where the monks lovingly nurture bonsai saplings into miniatures of deeply-rooted, well-established trees, I thought about the verse I have often reflected on as how I long for my life to look:
But blessed is the man who trusts me, God,
the woman who sticks with God.
They're like trees replanted in Eden, putting down roonts near rivers -
never a worry through the hottest of summers,
never dropping a leaf, serene and calm through droughts,
bearing fruit in every season.
-Jeremiah 17.8, The Message
Many of the fragile baby bonsai were attached to guides. A thin stick and some string don't look like much of a guide, but attached to a growing tree they provide the guidance needed to show the branches how to turn and help the limbs find their space to grow. I ran back to my journal as quickly as I could, drawing a trellis and vine as the framework for all that was churning in my heart and soul. The Rule of Life that had seemed so elusive last year, that never felt like it took shape—it all began to flow out on paper.
The word "Rule" has roots in both Latin and Greek as the word "trellis." I was first drawn to crafting a rule of life as I watched the structure of prayer in the monastery and felt the peace in my heart when I joined in praying the hours with the brothers, when I read Stephan Macchia's words describing it as "the well-ordered way." My hectic life cried out for order, my soul for a framework on which to grow. I quoted Henri Nouwen in my piece in which I first sought to craft a Rule:
A rule offers creative boundaries within which God's loving presence can be recognized and celebrated. It does not prescribe but invite, it does not force but guide, it does not threaten but warn, it does not instill fear but points to love. In this it is a call to freedom, freedom to love.
As the new year dawns, I am clinging to the words of Matthew 11.28-30:
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me - watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.
My rule of life is taking shape. A pencil sketch gives way to color, to words that make up the trellis on which I want to hang my very being. It took a year of living with a half-formed idea to let it germinate into a promise from God, a hope for living freely and lightly, for "being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others" (Robert Mulholland). The way the trellis guides the vine gently, directs it's path towards the life-giving sun, I am seeking to establish unforced rhythms to guide me to the place where life is found.