I’ve been doing some reading for my spiritual formation doctorate program about how to walk alongside communities of faith. The books span across a range of theological understandings and disciplines, such as theology, sociology, and psychology. I am finding that I am resistant to the traditional models presented. I think part of that is due to my own journey toward wholeness and my prior understandings.
For example, most of my life, I have forced myself to meet the expectations of others. I have grown to understand that complying was part of being responsible and a “good Christian.” Through the last few years, I have been on the journey of noticing when I am forcing myself and then following the invitation of healing and wholeness with gentleness and grace.
When I notice my tendency to force myself to fit in or “do right,” I stop and listen to what is going on internally for me. In doing so, I listen to my desires and woundings to discover the way forward. Listening deeply to my soul requires intentionality. David Benner defines our soul as the reflective space where we make meaning of our experience from the events throughout our lives. Using his psychological lens, he further defines both our soul and spirit as ways of living instead of as traditionally understood as parts of ourselves. 
An essential component in this journey is our tendency for self-deception. The truth is every one of us shares this same struggle, and we are unaware. The Johari window is a means of communicating that struggle visually. It illustrates our inner selves as being divided into four parts. One part we know and so do others, this would be our most visible part. One part we know but we do not let others see our private world. Others can see one part, but we are not aware of its hidden aspects inside ourselves. The last part is unknown to both us and others.
Spiritual writers would use the language of false self and true self. A greater self-awareness allows us to know our own tendency toward self-deception. As we continue to build up what we “should” be like, we tend not to notice our own actions or our motivations. At times, we may choose to not be aware of our internal workings but often we do not know how to live any differently and remain unaware.
For example, let’s consider the practice of gratefulness. If someone from my spiritual direction practice came in and spoke about being restless or discontent, I would not encourage a practice of gratefulness. That would devalue what was going on internally for them. If someone felt restless or dissatisfied, I would wonder what is underneath those feelings. What is the invitation for them?
Often, these seemingly negative feelings are an invitation to greater freedom in our relationship with God, ourselves, and others. I would encourage someone meeting with me to share more about their struggles. I might even walk them through a healing prayer where they take their feelings or an image that represents that feeling to God to discover God’s view. It is in a place of non-judgment where we can begin to understand what is going on inside of ourselves and to begin to see our own belovedness in God’s gaze. I trust God to meet each of us in our struggles. Through our experience of being met by God, we can realize all of us belongs in God’s intimate gaze.
I would say that the practice of gratefulness would only enforce our false self. Experiencing God meeting us in our ungratefulness, discontentment, or restlessness, allows healing, integrating our false self and true self. I’ve seen experiences like this bring peace to people, and their presenting problem falls away to a greater understanding and a deeper intimacy with God.
Often, the lies we believe in our core are replaced with a core truth, bringing gratefulness that arises organically within and can’t help but be expressed externally toward others. We don’t have to act it out when we don’t feel the truth of it – being grateful when all we want to do is complain because of pain, hurt, or a core lie we have held for our lifetime.
Practicing gratefulness isn’t the problem but pretending to be grateful when all we feel is discontent isn’t helpful. We do not need to “fake it till we make it.” When we discover ourselves as restless and ungrateful, a practice we can embrace, instead of complaining, is first to notice what is going on in our hearts without judgment. Non-judgment means not assigning a value of good or bad to our noticings. Once we notice, we can listen with God about what is going on in our soul and allow God to show God’s view. As we experience the grace and gentleness of God, we can encourage others in this open, gentle, and compassionate way.
 David G Benner, Spirituality and The Awakening Self: The Sacred Journey of Transformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2012), 121, 137.
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.
Have you ever been in a discussion or listening to a presentation where one word or phrase sends you down an unexpected direction? I suppose that the new direction in your mind could be considered helpful or maybe not so helpful, but your mind follows the path ahead.
There is research that states that we can only understand or take in whatever we encounter through our current lens. This lens is defined by our current set of knowledge, including both conscious and unconscious understandings. We only know what we know, and new information comes through that filter.
I had an experience where I brought a quote to a gathering. It was from a mystic that spoke deeply to me about community and shared contemplation. It had words in the quote that at one time would have triggered my own feelings rooted in past religious understandings. In my current understanding, these words don’t cause that kind of reaction for me because I have redefined them. I’ve had to work through the implications of often viewed exclusionary terms through a different lens. For me, the phrase was open, free, and inclusive. I understood the words based on the author's mystical understanding of God as Love, which is evident in his other writings.
Others struggled with the words and reacted to the exclusion evident in the phraseology present in the quote. I had missed it, and they reacted to it. If we are only able to understand through our own lens, the acceptance or reaction to a phrase tells us much about the lens we currently use.
In an undergraduate class I teach, Christian Faith and Thought, I use a slide of the words kindergartners use for the Pledge of Allegiance. The young students use “Richard stands” instead of “Republic Stands” and “the library down the hall” for “liberty for all.” These familiar words make much more sense than the words they have never heard before. We only know what we know, and we understand through that lens.
One of the gifts of teaching this course is allowing students to discover the lens they use to understand the world without judgment of themselves or others in the room. As they begin to trust the space we create together; they begin to identify their own lens. Then they can allow others in the room to help them redefine it in some ways and to further define it in other ways.
This kind of understanding is the gift of noticing where we get triggered. It allows us to take notice and to look deeply into what is going on in us, just beneath the surface. This process requires letting go of judgments toward those who disagree with us. We can only let go of our judgments when we notice them without judging ourselves in the process. Those who disagree with us aren’t the enemy, and neither are we. The dissonance created by being triggered helps us to take notice of our lens and surface how we make meaning around what we hold to be true.
The gift of doing this in community is allowing others to help us notice what we aren't able to see ourselves. Maybe it is more significant than we have understood previously. Often, this gift happens as people who live in a place of privilege listen to others who are part of an oppressed people group in some way. When we listen to the other, we can hear the full story and begin to hold the space that our view is only one facet of the larger picture.
My experience offered an invitation to listen without becoming defensive, as others were triggered. I could discount their experience, or I could follow the invitation to notice and allow their understanding to further refine and define my own. It gives me a broader perspective of community and walking alongside others.
That said, some words trigger me due to my background. When I encounter those words, the invitation is to take notice and allow the fuller perspective of the community to refine and define my understandings. This process is the gift of doing this work in community. It is part of the contemplative life - living in the giving and receiving flow of the Love of God. It is a beautiful thing and flows from a small group of people, through the one meeting, and way beyond into all the world. That is living in the flow of goodness and Love.
We don’t often have opportunities for this kind of discussion in our current political climate. We tend to debate, deciding who is right and who is wrong, instead of a public discourse that allows all those involved to be transformed. This work can not be done in isolation. The invitation is to allow disagreements and let the one in front of you speak into your life and you into theirs.
I will be teaching a series through the Companioning Center this fall - Discovering Your Lens. We will travel through 6-week courses designed to take a look at what has shaped what we hold to be true about faith. The first session will look at how our faith has been shaped through history, and the following one will be what we hold true about Scripture and the impact of our beliefs. These 6-week courses will be an opportunity to share in community what we believe and allow the community to help us look at the implications of those beliefs as well as redefining them. It isn’t about changing someone else’s lens, but it offers an opportunity to learn from others who might not believe the same way we do. In the journey together, we can notice ourselves, our lens, and others as we are all transformed together.
Check out companioningcenter.org for more information in coming weeks.
I find it interesting how we understand what we read based on the lens we use to understand the world. I have always read this particular verse based on my own understanding of needing to fit the "right" behavior, doing what is "right."
"I love each of you with the same love that the Father loves me. You must continually let my love nourish your hearts. If you keep my commands, you will live in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commands, for I continually live nourished and empowered by his love. My purpose for telling you these things is so that the joy that I experience will fill your hearts with overflowing gladness! So this is my command: Love each other deeply, as much as I have loved you." John 15:9-12 TPT
In the past, I have understood my obedience to Jesus' commandments as a condition for God's love. Being loved meant behaving correctly. This isn't really unconditional love, is it? Unconditional means being loved has nothing to do with behavior. So what could Jesus be saying here if obedience isn't a condition to being loved?
The very last verse of this section states the only commandment necessary. We are to love each other deeply, just like Jesus has loved us. That is it! So basically, as we love one another, we will be loved. The gift, the longing we all have to love and be loved is met in our loving one another. That is very simple, but not really all that easy.
We all desire to love and be loved. Throughout society, the lack of compassion and the lack of experiencing the giving and receiving flow of love is evident. Currently, we are experiencing greater divisiveness in the public sphere. So much so, relationships that once close, both with family and friends, are becoming divided and tense.
So, how do we walk this out? Embracing our own inner journey of discovering who we are is the first step. This starts in giving up our understanding of our inner core as evil. It actually goes back to before Genesis 3 and allows for an understanding of ourselves as created in the image of God, the Imago Dei. Instead of defining our goodness or badness based in the Fall, we can embrace our identity defined by our original blessing - God stating humankind as very good.
As we begin to understand ourselves as very good and worthy of love, we can know God as the One who loves us more intimately than we experientially have understood. The more we know about ourselves, the more we know about God. The more we know about God, the more we know about ourselves. Seeing ourselves as beloved creates the space for having compassion for those around us because we don't need to try to be something more than we are.
When we understand ourselves as beloved, we can start to believe the best about everyone around us. This understanding of being beloved has to be experienced, well beyond rationally believing it as truth. We are invited to experientially know this truth of our identity deep down into our bones, as our essence of existence. Having this understanding changes everything because we can become secure in who we are without having to prove we are who we think we should be.
From this space of being beloved, we can see that of God in those around us. We can desire the highest good for another without trying to understand their behaviors or seeing their goodness. We can believe the best of one another, regardless.
Often times, people have pushed back on an understanding of God's view of us as beloved. The phrase I usually hear is "what about God's judgment." It seems that many see love and judgment on a continuum. They understand that we should find ourselves someplace in the middle of that line. Not too much love and not too much judgment. But how does an understanding of love take away the need for justice? True love is the basis of justice and compassion.
To understand ourselves and those around us as beloved takes more than a rational understanding of God's love. We have to experience it as truth, knowing it with our whole selves. Contemplative prayer is a means of understanding God and our own belovedness as a reality. We can take our minds, our rational understanding, down into our hearts and experience the God of love. It requires us to not judge our thoughts or our emotions as evil but as a place to be met by the God who loves us intimately and wholly.
This requires vulnerability, courageous vulnerability. Through the quietness of contemplative prayer, we are invited to experience an inner stillness that allows us to notice our judgments based on fear and pride. As we notice what goes on inside ourselves, the healing of our inner divisions becomes possible. Our ability to live as beloved and whole is as simple as becoming aware of when we aren't, and allowing God to meet us there, bringing a healing touch to our fears and doubts. The healing touch of love helps us to live as who we truly are instead of who we think we should be. This requires stillness, awareness, vulnerability, and discernment in community. And part of that community is allowing ourselves to be that kind of space, not only for ourselves but for those around us. We will do this very imperfectly and only one step at a time.
If this is a journey you are interested in, take a look at the Being Boldly Loved and Loving Boldly study series on our website. We take small groups through this series in both online and in-person small groups. Email us if you are interested in joining an upcoming group.
This last weekend I attended a training held at one of my favorite places, a local Trappist Abbey. The first morning, before it started, I took a walk by the ponds. The morning felt a little damp with a low fog, making everything a little mysterious.
As I walked between the two ponds, there was a large splash across the largest pond, and an animal of some sort was swimming straight towards me. I could not identify it and wondered if it was a dog with an owner close by. My eyes scanned the fields behind the creature, but I only saw another dog, possibly a coyote. I began to wonder what was going on - this felt very surreal. What was swimming directly towards me? What do I do? Should I be concerned?
I kept watching the creature, still unable to identify it except to recognize it was large with huge ears that stood straight up. The rest of its body was completely submerged in the water. It continued to swim directly toward me. As it came closer, I could tell it was a deer. I have never seen a deer swim before.
The doe stepped out of the water about 3 to 4 feet away from where I was standing. Her front right leg was severely wounded. It looked like it was broken and entirely out of place. It seemed swollen and painful. She pulled herself out of the water and stood on 3 legs while surveying the space around her noticing my close proximity.
Across the pond, I could now identify the coyote jumping around looking for a way to get to its intended next meal. It moved quickly and came around the same side of the pond where the deer and I stood. Further down the path it crouched, watching and waiting for what the deer would do next - would she run, would she come towards it, what would she do?
The doe’s little heart must have been beating with fear as she navigated what to do with this strange person close by, a coyote closing down on her, and the Abbey presenting a place of safety ahead. Her brown eyes connected with mine and my heart was filled with compassion for her predicament. I could tell her leg wasn’t something that would heal on its own, it needed to be reset to be functional again. All I could say as she slowly walked by was, “I’m sorry baby, I’m so sorry.”
As the deer slowly walked in front of me and past my right side, the coyote watched from its crouched and ready position. I stepped between the two out of instinct. This obvious, expected process of the natural circle of life would not happen on my watch. The doe walked up towards the safety of the Abbey and the coyote, recognizing its defeat, turned and walked away. My heart was drawn to compassion for this beautiful coyote losing its prey.
As I have reflected on this surreal experience and my training at the Abbey this last weekend, I began to see a parallel in what I saw and what I experienced. In one session, my own story was triggered by something someone else had brought. I was able to do what I needed to do in my role, but my heart felt a harshness in the experience, a lack of compassion for myself. Sometimes we need to do what is before us and take care of how it makes us feel at another time. Yet, being careful to notice the pain that can get triggered is not only essential to notice but also essential to hold with compassion, grace, and love. We can actually do both at the same time. Being present and having compassion are not opposites and do not preclude one another.
The woundedness of the deer, her deep pain, fear, without any hope of the situation changing reminds me of the pain I felt being triggered during the session. The pain and the triggered experience doesn’t define me, as the wounded leg doesn’t define the doe, yet it is an invitation for compassion. We are invited to recognize, acknowledge the painful parts inside of us with an intention to return in a safe spaciousness, to hold the pain with compassion, grace, and love.
How do we do that? Well, for starters, we do it very imperfectly. We can recognize and become more tolerant of the tension we experience in discovering a place of pain, either in us or in those around us. I tend to try to fix whatever I discover inside myself. But what if it can’t be remedied so quickly? What if the gift of embracing the pain is the invitation? Instead of fixing or covering over what we discover we allow it to do the work in us. If the journey of spiritual formation, this growing in our understanding of our own belovedness, is about letting go, then we let go of the escape or numbing practices we may have and hold ourselves and those around us with compassion, being present to what we discover.
Doing so doesn’t make us stuck in a victim mode either. Being a victim or a martyr isn’t a place of compassion. True compassion doesn’t rescue or fix anyone, but it is about walking alongside while feeling with the other, even ourselves. It is treating one another and ourselves with kindness. When we try to reduce or fix an issue, it is usually about us being uncomfortable with the tension. Can we hold the tension of not being able to fix it? I didn’t fix the issue for the deer but only gave it space to live another day.
Sometimes, there are things we can do to fix the systemic issues that cause places of pain. Stepping in the middle of this natural cycle of life delayed it for another day. Both coyotes and deer deserve to live, and the natural circle of life isn’t something to fix. Yet, there are many kinds of systemic injustices in our culture that do invite us to step in the way of what seems like a natural consequence.
I believe holding pain with compassion is the ground of being able to step into places to fix systemic issues without making enemies of the other side, those who disagree with us. The coyote wasn’t doing anything but being a coyote, the way it was created to live. The coyote deserves our compassion too. The question I have been considering is who in my, your, world is an invitation for compassion today?
Hello, I'm Kathi Gatlin. Thanks for stopping by!