I recently re-read Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality by Ronald Rolheiser. It was first published in 1999, just as I was beginning full-time pastoral ministry. Twenty years later, after retiring from being a pastor and with the benefit of life experiences over the past years, this book provided an entry for cultural and personal reflection. I appreciate Rolheiser’s humility in stating upfront his focus on Christian spirituality and “acknowledges God speaks in many and diverse ways, and no one religion has a monopoly on truth.” My experience of listening and experiencing God in different cultures and through different people has resulted in greater freedom, joy, and awe. I have caught glimpses of God in a variety of pools of wisdom in and outside the Christian tradition.
Foundational to this book is the belief that everyone has a spirituality, but it is not clearly understood as to its meaning and source. Rolheiser uses the word eros to describe the fiery energy at the center of our lives – a sacred fire of creative energy that drives our spirituality and Christian practices. He suggests we are not restful or serene creatures, and eros is connected to our seeking and searching. For me, the words wrestling, passion, desire, intimacy, and longing come to mind.
Twenty years ago, Rolheiser already recognized our cultural context was post-Christian and post-modern. I was certainly not as aware of this shift as I am now. In hindsight, the significance of this transition for individuals and religious institutions in the West means we are navigating new terrain and traveling off-the-map. Phyllis Tickle described an every 500-year cycle of historical upheaval as rummage sale. We take furniture out of the attic and decide what to keep and what to let go of to make room for new acquisitions.
A key quote from Holy Longing continues to resonate with me for its relevancy in our current cultural context:
“Each generation has its own dark night of the soul, its own particular temptation to despair, as it tries to find peace of soul and make peace with its God. Our own dark night of spirituality is very much shaped by our naiveté about the nature of spiritual energy; by a conspiracy against death and prayer caused by narcissism, pragmatism, and unbridled restlessness of our age; and by our inability to hold in tension a series of dualities.”
My experience of carrying tension within myself and with others during this rummage sale moment feels vulnerable, risky, and isolating. Rolheiser writes, “Accepting to carry tension for the sake of God, love, truth, in principle, is the mysticism that is most needed in our day. Almost everything within our culture invites us to avoid tension and resolve it whenever possible even at the cost of some of our more noble instincts....Waiting in frustration and consummation is not our strong point"
Connecting mysticism with holding tension in our off-road terrain is a hopeful insight regarding a way of faithfulness with only enough light for the next step. For some, mysticism is suspect, but the writings of the mystics have shaped my spirituality and the Quaker tradition. For instance, the founder of Quakerism, George Fox, recounts many mystical experiences in his journal. Friends across time and places have gathered together in the silence of Waiting Worship to listen together seeking guidance, comfort, and encounter with Presence in their midst.
Some of my favorite Christian mystics include Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, and the unnamed author of the Cloud of Unknowing. These mystics offer a language of interconnection and hospitality toward themselves and others. Their understanding continually disrupts and invites us to expand our framework regarding the how and why of God and how we make meaning of our world. I find the notion that we must all be mystics and live in mystery, to be life-giving and expansive. This mystery is not something to be solved but a mystery that continues to unfold and suggests we must wake-up to all the different ways of knowing. This unfolding invites us to trust our inner experience in addition to the certitude often valued in statements of doctrine and belief.
What helps us wake-up? How do we make space for our new understanding of experience and learning? What allows us to hold tension as we seek connection and meaning within the pressure of unanswered questions and shifting times? A word closely associated with the mystics is contemplation, which describes a way of life that allows for inner stillness and silence that opens up and syncs the knowing of the head, the heart, and the gut. This movement of integration allows us to heal our distorted and limited vision and wake-up to experiences of Divine encounter all around us. We will take a more in-depth look at this invitation in the next blog post.
 Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: The Search for A Christian Spirituality, 1st Ed. in U.S.A (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 41.
 Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012).
 Rolheiser, 40.
 Rolheiser, 224.
 Rolheiser, 216.
Recently, while finishing up my morning quiet-time routine, I reflected on the important place that this morning routine has on my preparation for the day. As I sat and reflected, I had the impression, of climbing up on a ladder attached to the high dive platform of a swimming pool. This impression had me feeling resolved to go through with an action that I had done a number of times before, making a high dive. I was used to the pattern of getting up on the diving platform by climbing the ladder and standing there, mentally preparing for the dive. I imagined a brand new pool and felt the comfort of looking around, knowing that all was in order, seeing how clear and still the water was, and knowing that just like all the previous times, I would stride to the end of the board, dive off and enter the water cleanly, knowing just what to expect and being met with those expectations. On the other hand, I also imagined myself in a derelict building, the lighting was dim, the walls were dingy, the water was a bit murky, and the ladder was slippery. Now, I did not have the sense that I had been up there many times before, and I was not ready because I did not have a routine. I had some fear that when I dove, some mishap might occur.
I see this high dive platform experience as a metaphor for my morning routine, a jumping off point for my day. As inconsequential as my process of having a cup of coffee, reading the bible, reflecting quietly, and then writing in my journal might seem to another person; for me, it is life-giving because it is a routine that I depend on to bridge from the world of sleep to the world of endless possibilities for my day. Will I view the day from the well-established and supported platform, or from the slightly off, unsure platform? I’d like to go into the day saying;
“I am a creator today, just like my Creator! What is on my agenda today, what do I want to create? Perhaps I will create a happy occasion for another person, maybe an opportunity for someone to achieve a goal. I might create a barrier against harm for myself or others. I could create space for my own contemplation and growth. Or, I might make some art that will cause someone to feel, to sense, to remember, to experience, or to wonder. All of these are possibilities. I can take advantage of the open invitation to create and I believe that what I make will be useful, edifying, encouraging, comforting, or loving for another person, for myself, and for my community. I am a creator!”
The book of Genesis prompts us that mankind is made in the image of God. Being in the image of God grants to us the ability and determination to create. When I think about creating and shaping the moment, I see it as an opportunity. Recognizing my role as a creator is both liberating and empowering, while at the same time, I recognize that being a creator comes with responsibilities. And what are those responsibilities? Is it to be true to my art? Is it to steward my resources? Is it to use my gifts to bless others? These are all good aims, good and true. And why do I say that? Because I have the belief that this is what my art of creation is, the shaping of goodness and light. Regarding the opportunity and responsibility of creation, what else is there for me to do but to trust the Spirit’s leading?
In following those leadings, I accept the core responsibilities of a creator; stewardship, integrity, and blessing others. When I move forward with stewardship, integrity, and blessing, I am able to proceed, even if the exact details of my day are not known. For I can live in light of the following questions. In this moment, in this day, am I stewarding the gift of creativity? Am I preparing myself to be creative by my recognition of God’s leadings, and the needs and opportunities around me? In being true to the art of creation, am I acting with integrity to take what I have been given and share it faithfully with those around me? Sometimes a prompt to speak or act may make me uncomfortable. To be faithful in the moment requires me to disregard the doubt and discomfort. I do not know who needs to hear or receive and I don’t know who will benefit if I am faithful. Finally, am I creating blessings for others by kindness or faithfulness or goodness? What am I creating today that helps others, serves others, and influences others for good?
My morning routine does prepare me for the moments of the day. I can choose to view the world as a beautiful place in which I can contribute on a daily basis or as an ugly or difficult place I want to avoid. Each day I have that choice, and each day I can steward the moments for the purpose of blessing others. My morning routine of reading, writing and silent prayer and reflection provides the springboard for me to enter in to the day in a pleasing and energizing way.
One of my favorite hobbies is running because it provides fresh air and a very quick, affordable workout! And yet over the years, I have succumbed to various running injuries of which my initial approach is to try to push through the discomfort in hopes it will heal on its own. This last round I found myself with a tight hamstring that, despite all kinds of stretching, would not subside. So, I threw on some Icy Hot type substance, put on a leg wrap, turned up the grit, and hit the road. It was the next day I felt that the hamstring injury moved to my back with a zing that would not disappear.
Treating running injuries over time has enabled me to befriend a wonderful Physical Therapist, name Kathleen. Kathleen is a true gem, who puts me back together like Humpty Dumpty after each injury. Sometimes she can fix the issue and have me back running within the week, yet other times it takes a bit longer. On this round, she discouraged me from running for a while, but I developed some restlessness and so out of almost sheer necessity to burn some energy and move my body I decided to bust out some push-ups and heavy core work two days later. Sometimes stubbornness pays off; sometimes it bites you in the butt. Literally. In this case, it was my sacrum (lowest part of the spine) that shot pain through my body right before my foot went numb.
The numbness had me pretty concerned, especially heading into a week of vacation in another state. Although Kathleen worked miracles on my back and got everything to a comfortable position, the foot numbness remained. Nevertheless, we packed the car and headed out on the road. The sitting did it wonders but the restlessness built up and I managed to push too hard, mess up my sacrum again, and send my back into muscle spasms while on vacation.
Not one to let a good, sunny vacation go to waste, I limped around Legoland loading my body with two Ibuprofen every 4 hours. As a general rule, I prefer water, eating healthy, fresh air, and a good night sleep to taking any kinds of medication. However, since I would not have access to PT for a week, I was not finding any comfortable sleeping positions, and I could barely move, I rolled the dice with the Ibuprofen.
The discomfort continued. It was frustrating and out of my control. No matter how hard I tried to push, I could not go fast. I encountered forced sabbath. The idleness created more restlessness and frustration, but I could not go for a run (or even a very brisk walk) to blow off the steam. The discomfort caused a complete break in my regular rhythm. I had a choice - I could continue to try to push hard (and make it worse), or I could choose to let go and be vulnerable to a process - to relax, to go slow, to trust others do some heavy lifting, to heal.
We started our road trip home on Good Friday, and it was a long day of driving. Toward the 7th hour in the car, I could feel the sacrum bone shooting discomfort into my muscles. I tried rolling a tennis ball while sitting in the front seat to loosen the tightness. I sat there in agony, rolling the ball, trying to find a position that would ease the pain. And I started reflecting on the day. Good Friday. The profound historical significance of the day hit me. As I was meditating on the circumstances of the moment a Hillsong United song, So Will I, poured through the radio with the line, “If you gladly chose surrender, so will I. If you gave your life to love them, so will I.” And I broke. Tears flowed forth. Surrender. What a place of vulnerability. Letting go, ceasing to push, releasing the illusion of control. Navigating life, embracing the opportunity to do the next right thing, which might not be “more of the same.”
Two days later, on Easter Sunday, I spent some time reading about the Paschal Triduum (the period of time from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday), which is also referred to as Triduum Sacrum. In a great moment of irony, my eyes fell back on those words, Triduum Sacrum. Sacrum! Could this be connected to the sacrum bone that was healing in my own body? A quick Google search helped me learn that the sacrum part of the Latin Triduum Sacrum, indeed referenced the bone, and it was known as the “holy bone” because the sacrum was, in ancient times, the part of the animal surrendered in sacrifice! Some even believed it was where a person's soul resides. Further reading revealed that the Greek word for the sacrum literally meant “strong bone.” Indeed there was a history of strength and surrender tied to that bone.
Sometimes we encounter problems that we experience as very frustrating and inconvenient, and yet sometimes I wonder if these problems actually have a place in our lives. Through the whole process of injury and recovery, I learned that sometimes discipline and strength are needed to push harder doing more of the same, but sometimes that same discipline and strength is needed for surrender. Strength and surrender seem paradoxical, but they work together. It takes great strength and temperance to surrender. And yet there are times in which it is only through the surrender we can emerge stronger. And maybe, just maybe, it is in the temperance and paradox that one might run well and truly thrive.
In his Best Lent Ever series, Matthew Kelly encourages the idea, “Don’t give up chocolate for Lent.” Kelly is suggesting here that, while the sacrifice involved in fasting treats and sugar can provide space for refocusing our lives, perhaps Lent gives us an even bigger opportunity to examine the greatest challenges facing our soul. In other words, soul maturation can require growth at a deeper level. To offer an example of this dynamic, the author invites to imagine someone who is shot in the hand and the heart but enters the emergency room seeking only surgery on the hand.
So how do we identify these substantial opportunities for progress in our lives? How do we determine our most important avenues for growth? What are the deeper issues of our heart that are just waiting for healing? Perhaps we encounter the answer when we pay close attention to the little ordinary moments in our daily existence.
On the first Saturday of Lent, I had an amazing opportunity to attend a Companioning Conference at a local church where the theme centered around journeying well with others. The one-day event featured a variety of breakout sessions, some led by close friends of mine, and I was so excited for the opportunity to simply show up, sit back, and absorb their wisdom. After the welcome and opening speaker, we were invited to navigate our way to our first break out session, and I found mine to be down the church hallway. A dear friend, Katie, was leading my first breakout session although I did not find her in the room on my arrival. Grabbing a seat near the door I soon heard Katie’s voice down the hall. She seemed to be in conversation with another woman, although the woman’s voice was somewhat loud and difficult to understand. Glancing up from the session handout I watched Katie slowly enter the room guiding her friend toward the seating. It was in this moment I realized that the other woman’s slow movements, slurred speech, and motor skill impairment were most likely symptoms of cerebral palsy.
Through what seemed like an eternity, I watched the slow, deliberate physical effort required by Katie to guide her friend by the arm. Knowing that I was sitting close to the door, and there was an open chair right next to me, I knew what was coming. At that moment, I became aware that Katie would invite her friend to occupy the seat to my right and I felt my initial response was one of hesitation. This dynamic could demand that I put in a lot of work. This encounter could be uncomfortable. This seating arrangement could require something more of me when I simply desired to sit back and listen on this Saturday morning. On the surface, I did not skip a beat in welcoming the woman as Katie made the introductions, but I knew the reluctance in my heart having intuited the energy that would be required of me. “Hi...there...I’m...Lyla,” the woman offered. We navigated the formalities and then sat back to hear the presentation.
Throughout Katie’s talk, I found myself not only working diligently to help Lyla see the handouts but also inviting her into the “talk at your table among yourselves” moments. Engaging her in the conversation involved providing space for her to complete her sentences and then straining a bit to understand her contributions so that I could engage her with more than a blank stare. No doubt it required a great deal of effort on my part.
As our session ended, I noticed Katie had to leave the room and so I found myself there with Lyla and not really sure how she was going to stand up and make it to her next breakout session. Although I was slightly self-conscious of saying, or doing, the wrong thing in my offer of assistance to Lyla, I found relief when she accepted my invitation to help her stand and make her way forward. Lyla gave me slow, but helpful, verbal guidance, “grab...my...arm…”, but also infused our conversation with great humor! “Shall...we...dance?” was her first line to me as we gradually moved toward the door.
In his book Seizing Your Divine Moment, Erwin McManus suggests that we all encounter these divine moments or opportunities in which we can look to the right and seize the moment, or look to the left and pretend we saw nothing at all. In one chapter, McManus offers an example of witnessing an opportunity to help someone and, in a split second, we decide whether we will look to the right and dive right in, or look to the left and ignore what we saw. McManus proposes that seizing these divine moments requires something from us. Diving in requires initiative, courage, and sometimes even a level of risk but he encourages us to “look right” and seize these opportunities as they become evident because they provide fertile ground for growth.
As I reflected on divine opportunities to look left or right, I realize that choosing to stay back and help Lyla was precisely a space in which I found myself at this “left/right” crossroad. As everyone stood to leave Katie’s session, my internal dialogue was hopeful that someone else was coming to help Lyla so that I could get on with my day. At this moment, I wish I could say that I was eager to be the first person to courageously jump in and walk alongside Lyla, but the truth is that I was actually just waiting around for someone else to take the lead and I waited so long that everyone else had left the room. I “looked right”, and made the decision to assist her, primarily out of awareness that I was the only one there to do so.
Through the day I found my path crossing Lyla’s extensively. I helped her navigate the lunch line, helped her wash hands in the restroom, helped gather and schlep her belongings from one room to the next, and of course, found us sitting at the same lunch table. Did my interactions with Lyla require me to continually take initiative and maintain stamina in doing so? Oh yes. But a funny thing started to happen as we “danced” together. Over the course of the day, I started to really “see” Lyla. Although her speech was slow, her wit was lightning quick and I found us both laughing so much together over her hysterical one-liners. Through these interactions with Lyla, I saw not only her spunk but also her soul. I saw her resilience. I saw her light. I saw her emotional and spiritual fortitude. Through the events of the day I realized that, while I may have been physically stronger than Lyla, Lyla brought a spiritual and emotional strength far superior to mine. While I originally thought I was walking alongside her, helping her, and giving to her, I found that she was actually walking alongside and giving to me. I was actually the recipient.
On Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, I was reminded of the beautiful words of St. Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offense, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.
When we read this prayer and reflect on it conceptually, we can experience it as such a pure, beautiful inspiration to guide our lives. Yet as we meditate on those divine moments in our lives when we can “look left” or “look right” we gradually come to realize that taking the initiative needed to act courageously and give of ourselves, can require a lot of work. Seeking “to understand” can be really hard when listening to someone, for example, with cerebral palsy, where the words are slow, loud, and sometimes unclear. The opportunity for “giving” can arrive at a time that does not feel convenient in our schedule for the day. And yet, I believe it is in precisely in these brief, challenging, inconvenient, and sometimes messy moments, in which we gain awareness of where we can benefit from “surgery on the heart” instead of merely “surgery on the hand”.
Reflecting on the events of the Companioning Conference, I remember many session highlights. But even more, I remember the way that Lyla shined her light while walking alongside me. Thank you, Lyla, for the invitation to dance!
Note: Lyla has given permission for her name and this story to appear on this blog. Thank you, Lyla! For those who would like to know a bit more about Lyla, she has a blog at: morethanlegs.wordpress.com/ and a book: It Takes More Than Legs to Stand available on Amazon.
I’ve been practicing contemplative prayer for about two years. For me, these practices include centering prayer, Lectio Divina, breath prayer, walking meditation, collage prayer, yoga, and the labyrinth. I have participated in spiritual formation groups and visit a spiritual director monthly. I’ve seen small bits of transformation in myself during this time as I gaze upon God and allow God to gaze upon me. These practices build depth, beauty, and enrich my spiritual life in ways that are difficult to translate into mere words.
In a spiritual formation group recently, we shared what the theme “take up your cross,” from Luke 9:18-27 meant to each of us. As Christians, we sometimes struggle with this concept, because we believe and somehow have been taught that these verses mean to deny ourselves of ourself, to deny our feelings, our desires, to always give or acquiesce our wishes for others. Over time, this can create anger and resentment, because deep down we know this is not truth.
I had operated this way for many years. I was “playing” a person, a role of what I thought I was supposed to be in order to be “Christian”, especially a “good Christian”. It even entered into what I perceived to be my role as a “Christian mother.” I did not understand then, that taking up my cross with that type of lens, meant giving up my True-Self, in other words, the person God made me to be. Outward behavior was priority, while the heart was ignored or buried. Upon sharing in my spiritual formation group, I acknowledged this struggle as part of my own. Then I began to share how I now understood the following verses.
“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?”
I had written my thoughts down when doing the study earlier in the week. I remember smiling to myself and feeling grateful for new insights, as I had read these verses hundreds of times before, but with my behavioral lens rather than God’s loving “you are enough” lens.
I now understood, when I try to “save my life”, I am working from a behavior focused lens, striving, achieving, not even aware of myself. For example, I tried to be a what I thought was the perfect parent or wife while ignoring the deep beauty of my inner self, the part of me connected to God simply because I am made in God's image. This is how I lose my life, how I lose my True Self. I am unaware of who I am, unaware of God. But if I let go, trust God, experience God, and “just be”, I will save my life, because of God’s immeasurable love.
It’s counter intuitive, especially for our American culture. The verse goes on to with “what good is it to gain the whole world” which is also about striving for and achieving our identity. This could be really anything that is shaped by how we want to be perceived by others; such as wealth, fame, success. This striving can even be the desire to be perceived as a “believer” or “strong” Christian. This gaining of the whole world represents building our ego-self and thus our False-Self. In the process, we lose our very selves and become divided or not whole.
What I love most about spiritual formation groups is the transformation and intimacy with God and each other that happens in our moments together. We find ourselves in a safe and sacred space, which allows us to be open and vulnerable. New depth and dimensions are discovered together. As we share with one another, our bond grows, our lens of God becomes a little clearer, and we experience God's gentle love as individuals and collectively. It’s beautiful to experience and behold.
My contemplative practices help me to learn to let go, to truly experience God, to be more self-aware and God-aware. By allowing spaciousness in my life, I’m free to open up to God in a way I never have before and God graciously, gently, and lovingly enters in.
So I've come to understand that picking up my cross is more about letting go rather than striving. After all, Jesus said, “For my yoke is easy and my burden light.” Matthew 11:30
Hello, I'm Kathi Gatlin. Thanks for stopping by!