Some long trails made me feel like I was making progress on the “walk” and others wound back on themselves, veering away from the center. If you’ve ever trekked a labyrinth in prayer (or walked a smaller version with your hands), you know that there is only one path but it is not a straight one. This ancient prayer tool is made of serpentine lines winding in and back out again, helping the pilgrim focus. There is no guessing if you are heading in the right direction, no worries about taking a wrong turn. You can just focus on the walk, focus on the presence of God with you.
As someone who loves to know the plan before I begin, not knowing what lies ahead makes me uncomfortable, even anxious. Somehow in that moment, not knowing where I am going or how long it would take me to get there made me feel free instead—free to trust that I would make it to the center when it was time and back out again safely. I didn’t have to worry about where I was going because I could trust that the maker of the labyrinth had laid it out correctly and the whole goal was to just walk.
As I’ve accepted that I am a good halfway through an ordinary span of life, I have become more profoundly affected by the twists and turns of life. Half of them behind me now, I can look back with insight on a life that has turned out where I supposed it should have, though not without much pain and many unexpected detours along the way. Nothing has turned out the way I imagined it would. But I have the benefit now of looking back and recognizing where God was at work.
My own way has wandered through countless forks and roadblocks. Early in my faith, I met the unexpected moments in life with trite answers and pretended it was enough. I swallowed more well-meaning “when God closes a door he opens a window” answers than I could stomach through the years and they began to rub me the wrong way.
Two distinct moments in my life, I can remember raging back against simple answers to life’s complex twists. Barely three months into my dreamed-of life in the Middle East, already rattled by culture-shock, the call that shredded my insides came. My husband entered the room, his face void of color. I don’t remember much except dropping to the shower floor and wrapping the towel around me to absorb the tears when he told me my father had experienced a “widow-maker,” a massive heart attack. That was 13 years ago this winter and my dad is still with us, but our dream of living overseas is not.
We launched out again, believing we were following God’s particular route laid out before us only to find ourselves again in the wilderness. A shockingly similar call came when we were living in Bangladesh. It was my mom’s voice again on the phone, telling me of my brother-in-law’s ruptured brain aneurysm. The same fears arose inside of me, the same feelings of obligation to my family and the need to be by their sides. The same anger—not at God, but at those who would pin the pain my family was going through on God.
The same words ripped through my throat in those startling incidents a decade apart: “My God did not do this!” When others gave me that, “there, there” look and told me it was all a part of God’s plan or that the Lord was testing our faithfulness, anger surged through me..
When I first started practicing Centering Prayer in earnest, focusing on a sacred word to bring my thoughts back to the Presence of God, I daily focused on the word beloved. I was struggling to see anything good in myself. Borrowing from the teachings of Brennan Manning, I imagined crawling up in the lap of my loving Father. Something still felt amiss, though.
Living in Dhaka and learning the marvels of the Bangla language expanded my prayers in a way I never expected. The word for father in Bangla is “Abba,” that same loving name Manning uses for his Father God. “Amma” is the word for mother, but there isn’t a separate word meaning “parents.” Instead, Abba-Amma (or the more informal Baba-Ma) is used to signify parents, the combination of mother and father, the ones who are everything to the child. The distinct-yet-inseparable persons make up all the child needs.
I prayed in this way, calling God my Father-Mother, my good parents, my everything. And I breathed in the belief that I was their beloved.
For a long time, that’s all I could pray: “God, help me see you as good. God, help me understand your love for me.”
I don’t remember when the shift first happened. I just noticed when it had. I would see the face of others I loved while I sat silently anchored by the word “beloved.” I would hold onto the pain I knew a friend or family member was experiencing like I could take it away for a moment. It was as if I could sense God saying, “They too are my beloved; now help them see it.”
The sense of God’s love for me had seeped down deep into my bones and I didn’t need to ask God to show it to me anymore. I could hold out that hope for others. I could see the way we’re all connected to each other. I could clearly see, as Desmond Tutu said, that: “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours. We belong in a bundle of life....”
None of the ladies in my family shrink back. Distinctly southern, full voices fill the room when we enter. We’re known for our loud laughs and warm embraces. We aren’t afraid to speak our minds and take the lead. We see a space and fill it. We see a need and fill it. I never grew up with the misconception that, as a woman, I wasn’t capable.
I grew up with a mom who worked equally as hard outside the home as my dad to provide for our family. She worked full-time as well as nights and side jobs at various points in mine and my sister’s childhood. Despite that, I remember her being present at every event. Each dance recital or band competition, game or school function. She showed up. She volunteered. She was known and beloved by all my friends. She appeared to do it all with ease.
I’ve always prided myself on being part of a line of strong women. It wasn’t until I was a young working mom myself, wracked with anxiety brought on by all the things I believed I should be doing but couldn’t manage, that I realized a weakness I inherited, too. The waters of all the expectations I placed on myself were rising higher than I could swim. I was going under.
When I started admitting my feelings of failure, the women around me echoed back my anxiety. “Why can’t we do it all?” we said. We all felt weak, believing the strength of a woman meant being all the things to all the people all the time.
My mom admitted the disquiet she lived with as well. She never let us see it as children, but she struggled to keep her head above water, too. When I looked at her as a real person and not just Supermom, I saw the crack in the facade, the weak place I’d missed before: her inability to rest.
Just like the women before me, I was weak when it came to caring for myself...
The new leaves look as small and fragile as a baby’s fingernail. I smile in wonder as I water the miniature umbrella tree that sits as a quiet reminder to me in my window sill. The bonsai sits soaking up the morning sun doing its slow work. Changes are subtle and take days to notice. It looks like nothing is happening for a long time; then suddenly what appeared dormant emerges.
I am the farthest thing from a gardener. Though I love plants, I can’t keep them alive. Yet, after years of admiring the bonsai garden at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit which I visit several times a year, I finally bought one of the minuscule trees last year. I took great care the first few weeks to make sure it was watered and fertilized. In short order, the leaves drained of their color and started collecting in heaps around the base of the tree.
I read more about the specific type of plant and realized I was over-saturating it. I purchased a humidity tray to keep subtle moisture always nearby. I started watering it only once a week. Yet, I feared it was too late as the branches remained bare for weeks. I kept pouring water into the ceramic, turquoise base every Monday. I didn’t think there was any hope for the weepy branches, but I kept trying.
And then one day as I was watering the apparently dead tree, I saw those tiny leaves beginning to emerge. Something had been happening beneath the dark, moist soil that I couldn’t see. Life had been pulsing inside the branches all along, quietly, imperceptibly.
I started working on a rule of life four years ago sitting under the high arches of the very same abbey church where my little bonsai started its life as a sapling. I sat at the monastery and dreamed of a well-ordered life like the ones the brothers who live there know—one that prioritizes prayer and community, faith and action. One that finally makes sense.
“A rule of life aims to create a framework for being and becoming, rather than checking something off a list. Practical and spiritual goals fit into this framework as prayer and Bible reading can get sidelined into another item on the to-do list.”
I first learned about living by a rule at the monastery but found that followers of Christ have been creating personal rules individually and in community for years. St. Benedict himself, who wrote the most famous rule which orders the life of monastics around the world, summarized the rule as “simply a handbook to make the very radical demands of the gospel a practical reality in daily life.”
I’ve struggled to complete or live by a rule in the years since because it feels rigid in my ever-changing life. I would get a draft together of spiritual practices I wanted to pursue and ways I wanted to fix my life around anchor points that didn’t shift when my circumstances did. A few months into the year, just like with resolutions or goals, I would abandon the attempt, only to try again later. Continue Reading
A clump of dried Georgia clay crunched under my shoe. I sighed as I turned to grab the broom and sweep the floor again. I looked out the living room window at the mound of orangy-brown earth that had been the source of the mess. My husband took down a hundred trees a few months ago and left a jagged scar running through the yard. It is preparation for building the extension that will house a bedroom and bathroom eventually.
We put the build that will give our kids their own rooms on hold until our income is more reliable though. So a muddy heap of earth is a reminder of living in this in-between space of what is and what is yet to come.
I long for that more expansive home but there are so many steps needed to get there and so much cost associated. It’s going to be a mess for a long time before it is beautiful.
“I don’t feel like you don’t need to add anything else to your daily practice,” my spiritual director said. I wanted to believe her, to take her words as permission to feel like it is enough, like I am enough.
In response to her question of how I see God moving in my life, I mentioned how I am seeking God. I talked about trying to read through the daily office lectionary (a two-year cycle of Scripture for daily reading from the Book of Common Prayer), practice centering prayer, and take breaks throughout my workday in which I stop to pray and send encouraging messages to friends for which I am praying.
She could tell I was asking the question without saying it out loud: “Is this enough? Should I be doing more?” I feel like I’ve been wandering around in the wilderness for so long and I want to finally say I have it all figured out.
Friends who know me well tease me about my orderly way of living. I love to make plans. My house must be clean and organized before I can rest. What I am really after isn’t an orderly house; it is a well-ordered life.
“You make lists just so you can check things off them,” a friend recently said to me. I laughed in response. It was the nervous kind of laughter that says, “yes, this is true; I wish it wasn’t.” We were discussing personality types (How I am an ISFJ and particularly how the J-judging part of my Myers-Briggs type leads me to desire a structure and control).
I slipped into a rule-based faith in my teen years because it fit well into the way I saw the world. I could make lists and check them off. God fit nicely into a box inside my compartmentalized life and all was well...until it wasn’t.
Over the years, the lists kept multiplying. I couldn’t keep up and I felt like I couldn’t earn the love of God anymore with all my list-keeping.
When I first discovered contemplative prayer, I felt like it was the answer to the tyranny of lists that ruled my life. It was a slower, quieter way of encountering God. I was anxious and burned out and never felt any closer to the Presence of the one I wanted to please.
For a few years, I learned about and dabbled in contemplative practices. But instead of finding freedom, I added them to my ever-growing to-do’s. Finally, all the striving and anxiety left my soul in shambles. I couldn’t do any of it anymore. I couldn’t do anything but groan and hope that God understood that I had no more words.
As I tiptoe forward into what I hope are more life-giving rhythms of faith practice and spiritual formation for me in this season, I realize I am living a life under construction. I want to be living in the house already, the one that is inhabited daily by the sweeping winds of the Holy Spirit breathing new life into me. Don’t we all want to feel like that every day? We want to feel like we’ve arrived instead of wandering around in the wastelands.
My life is like the dirt heap I daily force myself to stare at outside my window. I needed to tear down a lot of things that were in my way. I needed to be still for a good while and just sit in the muck until I was ready to move on. And then sit a little while longer.
And that is how we build. First, we have to tear down what is between us and God. Maybe it’s a raging bit of ego in our own way, our own anxieties and expectations. Maybe it’s lies we’ve let ourselves believe. Maybe it’s a relationship that is broken or something we need to let ourselves grieve. An addiction. A sin. But we can’t keep building on a faulty foundation and expect our houses to not come tumbling down.
“The wilderness, by design, disorients,” said Rachel Held Evans. “As any wilderness trekker past or present will tell you, the wilderness has a way of forcing the point, of bringing to the surface whatever fears, questions, and struggles hide within.”
We spend so much of our lives trying to tidy up our filth, to find our way to the Promised Land at last. We miss the vibrant life that can exist right now, not sometime in the future when we have it all figured out.
I yawn as I wrap a blanket around my shoulders and head to the window. The mound of earth is but a shadow under the faint early morning light. I smile in the darkness, remembering it is there. I am growing fond of the grimy reminder that life isn’t perfect (and neither am I).
That is where God finds us, in the middle of all the ways we realize how much we need grace for our messes. I close my eyes and do the last thing I want to but the very thing I need. I thank God for the disorder, for the wandering, for all that has been torn down and is being rebuilt. For today, that is enough.
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