One of my favorite things is to host groups for the sake of spiritual formation. There is a gift of walking through deep and vulnerable conversations in community as people begin to trust seeing and being seen by one another. A beautiful image that represents the flow in this kind of space is a pebble tossed into a still and quiet pond. Rings of water spread out from where the pebble touches the still water. The rings grow into larger and larger circles as they flow out toward the edges of the pond. Once they hit the edges, they flow back toward the center where the stone first broke the surface of the water, reverberating back into the continuing circles still flowing outward. This image represents the flow of the Spirit moving amid the participants in a group as they share vulnerably with one another. Witnessing the grace of this flow is a beautiful experience for all involved.
Spiritual formation is growing deeper in our relationship with God while discovering who God is and who we are in God. We experience God in solitude through the normal giving and receiving flow of our ordinary life, and incarnationally through community as God flows through each one of us. We may think we can do it alone, but to fully understand life, God, and love, we need community – to be in the physical space of the giving and receiving flow of Love.
As we struggle through relationships, we are invited to greater freedom in our relationship with those around us, God, and ourselves. It is in these very relationships that we can experience the love of God more fully and completely than in our individual relationship with God. We are created for connection with one another.
Authentic transformation cannot fully happen outside of this connection in community. The gift of the transformational journey is evident in an increased capacity of love in all our relationships. It changes everything, even our outlook on the world, without striving to make that openness happen. As we begin to notice that there is ‘that of God’ in everyone, we allow ourselves to see the face of God in the other, and when we do, it changes them and us.
Living this out intentionally with ourselves first and then others is true spiritual formation. One of the gifts of safe community is the healing of ourselves as the plasticity of our minds allows us to adapt and to learn as we create new neural connections and pathways.[i] This beautiful work is walked out in relationship with another as we experience something different than we have known previously. This reshapes the narrative we tell ourselves and clears the distorted lens we created from previous experiences.
This process requires increasing vulnerability. It is essential to have people that we can be completely open and honest with, in a safe space. From a spiritual formation viewpoint, I would say that to live our ordinary life well requires being awake to ourselves without judgment and excuse. For this to occur, it requires a safe space with others and with ourselves to allow us to know and receive God’s full acceptance. Our first invitation along this journey of emotional healing incorporates a lifelong journey through all three relationships: God, self, and others. Very much like an image of a descending circular staircase, we go deeper with one as we go deeper in another.
It is not only vulnerable to be seen in this way but to see another as well. We desire this type of connection, and yet, I believe, we do not know how to make this happen within our own American culture. We don’t know that we hide. We are not aware that our false self, how we want to be perceived, isn’t truly our identity. We don’t know how to genuinely be seen or to host the space to see another. But it is in vulnerable community where we can fully experience the love of God, and in living life this way, we become able to experience God’s love deeply.
Experiencing the gaze and embrace of God allows us to show up in our own lives, to wake up to the giving and receiving flow of Love. We discover a centeredness and groundedness that is stiller and deeper than we ever knew possible, regardless of whatever was or is going on in our world. This is the life we are invited to live, and this is the life we can choose.
When we walk it out in community, we aren’t alone in the process. We all desire to see and be seen, know and be known, and love and be loved. A safe community is vital in that journey towards wholeness. If you are interested in finding more information about spiritual formation groups – please reach out. We are forming groups now.
[i] Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, General Theory of Love, First Vintage (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 98.
“Nothing is more beautiful than the uniqueness that God has created.
You don’t have to create beauty - you’ve already got the beauty.
You don’t have to create the freedom - you’ve got it.
You don’t have to create the image of God in you - you have it.
You don’t have to win over God’s love - you have more than you know what to do with.”
A Prayer by Thomas Keating
What if that was really true? Could it actually be true? What if you, me, each one of us, regardless of which side of the aisle or whatever dividing line we put in place, is unique and loved in that uniqueness. What would change, with that realization, as you start this new year?
Imagine trusting your uniqueness, beauty, freedom, the image of God in you, and your very own belovedness in God’s eyes. We know, in theory, the trueness of Keating’s prayer but do we know it deep within us in a way that makes a difference in the way we live life. Does this understanding impact not only the way we live our own life but the way we live life with others?
As an example, imagine a flower blooming on a warm spring day, opening up to the brightness of the sun warming its overly full bloom. The sun casts light on the opening flower creating shadows, which highlight the depth of color and vibrancy of the varied shades. The bloom draws you for the pure loveliness of it. The petals are soft to the touch, and the fragrance is sweet and pleasant to your senses. It is a thing of astounding beauty.
Now imagine as you step back away from this flower, the field of flowers that surround it. Each flower is unique in its own beauty. Together the beauty is amazingly fuller than the individual bloom can contain. The swath of color or the varied shades of a field of flowers is enough to take one’s breath away.
This field of flowers, full of individual blooms, is a good analogy for living in community. Each of us is created uniquely, beautiful, and beloved in our own existence. Yet, we are also designed for community that includes, celebrates even, the unique diversity of all gathered.
Such a beautiful experience that requires each one to see their own gift of beauty without comparing themselves to one another. The communal gift of receiving and celebrating each other’s uniqueness and beauty reflects a space of abundance. This is different than the fear of scarcity. We don’t have to try to be something we already are.
The invitation is to know who we are and to live in that awareness while celebrating the same journey in others. Knowing and trusting that each one brings a beautiful and unique aspect of life allows the freedom of discovery as we walk and celebrate that truth in ourselves and in others.
How do we walk this out and the freedom it brings in our lives? How do we live life as a beautiful flower in what may seem like a field of thorns?
This question actually shows the dualism that comes from comparing ourselves to others. What if the field of thorns is really a distinctly unique and beautiful array of blooms. When we see another as the enemy or the problem, it usually shows us something about ourselves. If we take time to notice our tendency to compare ourselves to others without judging that tendency, we can begin to notice the lie, fear, or doubt we are believing. As we notice, God can meet us, heal the brokenness in our understanding, and take us deeper in relationship with God, ourselves, and others.
So, what if we are a beautiful and unique creation, and so are the people we are having difficulty with? When we notice the flower’s beauty we imagined at the beginning of this post, we can see the sweet grace of transformation. It wasn’t always a beautiful bloom but grew from a seed or bulb. It went through a process.
For us, the depth of beauty is created amid pain and suffering, which forms compassion in and through the journey. As I have sensed God give this image of a flower’s beauty, God has shown me it is God’s beauty, God’s strength, for God’s glory, and my delight to join in the process, even amid the pain.
As God loves, heals, and draws us deeper, God creates that beauty, glorious beauty, in each of our lives. We have a choice, a chance to continue or to stop, to abandon ourselves or to close off, to love and be loved. This transformation is a real miracle of healing, abandonment, love, and creative beauty. It is by God’s design, and God is the one who orchestrates it, while we get to delight not only in the process in us but in those around us.
As people are drawn to the flower for its beauty, people are drawn to God by seeing God’s beauty, God’s glory, and God’s love in us. Through us, God heals and makes beautiful the world, those who are hurting, are broken, are seeking. They will be loved, healed, and put back to the beauty God created them to be.
But first, the journey is ours to embrace - can we rest in the truth of Keating’s poem at the beginning of this post. It is only in our resting in the knowledge of the reality of our own uniqueness, beauty, and belovedness that we can walk alongside others in theirs. May the journey this year, for you and for me, be one of being abundantly and boldly loved and loving others out of that same love.
The advent season directs our hearts toward anticipation and waiting. The imagery abounds in birth and gestational language. I wonder about Mary. The waiting for her, surely was a juxtaposition of wonder and fear, perhaps terror. We can only surmise what Mary was feeling. Never before had a human being been given the immense privilege and responsibility of being the womb for the Deity.
Imagine the fear, a labeled woman, whose reputation would be forever altered and her standing in society compromised. Without the intervention of an angel, her beloved Joseph could have cast her out. I have a sense that this young girl, would have had to give up her dreams, those she had envisioned for her life. An angel’s declaration, a life forever changed. Shock. Waiting. Confusion. Belief. Acceptance. I am amazed at how quickly she moved between these states of being. Perhaps, this speaks to her intimacy with Yahweh and the reason she was the chosen one.
As I sit with this astounding narrative, I wonder, what does waiting cost us? In this gestational time of waiting we call advent, what is being formed in us? We often pray and wait. This is not an easy place to settle. Waiting is not always bursting with joyful anticipation. Sometimes waiting requires a deep trust and a blind faith. Can we cry out like Mary, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior (Luke 1), in the presence of confusion and mystery?
This is a difficult posture, especially when waiting has cost and our lives are shrouded in mystery. May this advent season be one where mystery and deep joy respectfully sit together. “Oh, Holy One, be present to us in the time of waiting. Turn our hearts toward You. Give us a sense of Your redemptive and generative work, even in the times when we are blanketed in mystery. (If you are able, take some time to listen to Youtube, Martin Smith, Waiting Here for You).
As I begin preparing my heart for advent, I think of the expectant words of Jan Richardson,
“In the cave of our hearts, in the fabric of our lives, in the soul of the earth, You continue, Oh God to be Born”. (In Wisdom’s Path).
Birth, only the process of continuation. The work of God, never ending, not fully recognized. I wonder what our lives would look like if we truly lived in the space of continual revelation? What is being incubated right now? What would be birthed in us?
Healthy birth happens when the time of incubation is complete. When a child is born too early, problems occur. So, we sit with the tensions of readiness. This is the gracious space where the Holy One meets us, loves us and enters fully into the beauty, the creative process of our lives. It is a place of where impatience can grow and we desire to hasten the process. We may ask the childlike question, “Are we there yet?”
In this space we are given a Divine invitation, the invitation to slow down, listen, and cooperate with the continuation process. It is a place where trust and endurance can grow. In our haste to run for results, or to move ourselves out of mystery or pain we can bypass the work of grief, anger, fear, or anticipation, to name a few. What if God whispers to us, “Not yet” or the dreaded, “Not this”? Can we trust the Holy One in those places?
As you step closer to this advent season, if you are able, take some time with these images. What is God doing in your life right now? Where are the tensions in your life, that may in fact be birthing canals? Invite God into your own process of continuation. Take time to notice places where you desire to hasten the process. These are places for stopping, honoring and listening. Could these places of tension become places of invitation and hope?
Oh God, fill us with wonder and compassion as we wait for what is being born in us today. Oh come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel.
When I Am Among the Trees
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”
by Mary Oliver
Poetry has a way of speaking beneath the surface of things. It opens us up to the possibility of more than we can rationally know. Mary Oliver speaks of her desire for quiet and simplicity. The trees offer her the invitation of both the possibility of her desire and the way forward.
A dear person copied this poem for me today, and it speaks deeply to the unquiet held in all the tasks I have to complete and the quiet offered when I walk in the forested path behind my house. I can easily lose all the busyness in my world when I enter the opening to this path among the trees. It is from a place of quiet that I sense my soul settle in. Have you ever encountered a contemplative walk of listening with all your senses to your surroundings?
May I invite you to try it out? First, start down the path with a pause as you embark with the intention to be aware that you are in God’s presence. Then pay attention to all your senses.
Close your eyes and listen to all the sounds around you: the birds, the insects, the rain falling, your foot moving the rocks beneath, people talking, and the wind blowing through the trees.
Then open your eyes and notice the variety and shades of colors in the shadows and the sunlight. Draw your attention to your sense of smell; what do you notice as you focus on the scents around you. Remember, your sense of smell is connected to your sense of taste.
Lastly, notice your body and how it moves along the path, your heart beating, and your lungs moving the air in and out. Draw your attention to the way the sun, wind, or rain feels against your skin. All of these different means of sense create a symphony of sounds, sights, scents, and sensations.
I have discovered that a regular practice of this kind of spiritual practice helps me settle in my inner journey and to move more grounded in my outer world. I would love to hear your thoughts as you encounter this kind of exercise.
As I leave you to enjoy a space of trees for yourself, I have one more poem to share by Wendell Berry..
Hello, I'm Kathi Gatlin. Thanks for stopping by!