Turning the focus onto you, I am repeating the question my friend put to me last week: What are you doing with your life?
Responding to that simple question that he asked me caused me to remember an old mantra I used in the past: Stop, Pause, and Reflect. Not a bad thing, as it alerts you to some imbalance that may have crept into your life. How much time are you spending in activity, and how much are you investing in reflection on what you are doing? Most of us tend to get busy and forget to take time to reflect and build our self-awareness.
Lent, of course, affords one a time to correct this. It offers those who attempt to pattern their life after the Christ an opportunity to hold up the spiritual mirror to get a look at how they are doing. Recently. I was listening to a young woman talk about her “listening to God” and how that was the way she got direction for her life. I was reminded of how easy it is not to hear correctly, to hear what we want to hear, in a word, using God to confirm our prejudices. I asked if she minded me asking her a question about this process. She gave me permission, so I asked her about how she uses her community to explore the insight she has heard from God. Might such an engagement with other people of faith be helpful, to clarify, to question, even to challenge her position. She seemed surprised at my suggestion, like it was a fresh way to approach God. But to her credit, she was open to trying on this new way of thinking about listening to God.
For me, that is called discernment. It can be with a spiritual partner, or as we call it, a spiritual director, one who has been trained to ask questions of clarification. In the past, spiritual directors could be heavy-handed, insisting that their way is the “right way”. Thankfully, that kind of spiritual imperialism is mostly a thing of the past. Most spiritual directors are trained to listen well, to ask questions that clarify and get to the heart of the matter so that one is more prepared to make some intentional spiritual decisions.
In fact, I and most spiritual directors I know view the work as a “partner”, one who comes alongside the person who is seeking to gain clarity as to direction. This is a very traditional model. I have a spiritual director who I have been seeing regularly for over forty years. He is a monk, and quite wise and schooled in various modalities of prayer and spirituality. And, thank God, he has a great sense of humor, which is required for working with me.
He has been my regular “partner” and knows the “longview” of my trajectory as a person. But I have also engaged other people along the way for direction. When I was in Texas, I had a spiritual director who was a hermit, living by herself at a Catholic retreat house. I could only see her once a year as she lived in a desert region of Texas where I would go during Lent. But in that intensive time, she was particularly gifted at helping me to see my “rough places”, specifically my need to develop my ability to be receptive. I value greatly what I learned from her.
Nowadays, I have a fellow Franciscan with who I am in regular contact. I am with him every two weeks in a group we share, but try to focus in on my journey in a spiritual direction session about every quarter. These moments, these pauses, allow me the gift of having someone else take a look at what I am doing and how I am doing. I give away, that is, grant them the authority to ask me hard questions, to push me a bit. But, I also am grateful for the times in which they are the means of grace in my life, affirming me, reminding me of God’s love regardless of how well I am doing or how much I am mucking it up. Grace….it’s a good thing.
Anyone can be helpful to you, as they are bringing another perspective to the field, hopefully adding an “other” perspective. However, I have to say that I am particularly thankful that my spiritual partners are well trained. They do not fall into the temptation to “fix” me, nor do they go all “rah-rah”, telling me how great I am. This comes from training, so while friends are helpful, they may not be up to the task to, as my Scottish grandmother used to say, “calling a spade a bloody hoe!” Clarity and clear-eyed comments give one the mirror that any person desperately needs. If only I could see myself as others see me. You can’t. Get some help in lifting that hefty mirror of self-examination.
One other piece about this spiritual partner, which some of you will not like, as it runs counter to our cultural notion of marriage. I often hear of married people referring to their spouse as their “soul mate”, and I get that. However, it can be tricky, dangerous even.
Partners in marriage tend to be too “close” to be helpful, in that your lives are so intertwined that one’s self-interest may get engaged. I am needing a person who cares for me as a fellow-creature, but one who does not depend on me or has an agenda for me, like a spouse normally does. My growth, my development, may become problematic for one’s spouse as it may make demands that push the envelope. When Mary and I are talking about decisions that affect our household structures, we both come to that decision point with agendas that are clear. Hopefully, in the dialogue between us, our perspectives and values become clearer, allowing us to make a joint decision. When one is dealing with one’s spiritual soul, it is best to be able to have someone without a dog in that fight so that the exchange can be as free of bias as possible. Someone who has specific training is able to avoid some of the pitfalls of being heavy-handed or too directive.
My therapist, and teacher, Tom Malone, used to tell me that the reason I paid him so much for therapy is that he refused to tell me what to do. He said, with his Irish sprite spirit, that I should go to the street corner of Peachtree and Piedmont Rd. and ask the next ten people what I should do. He said he would wager that all ten would have an opinion. He would not. That’s why you pay me, he said, taking my check.
Truth is, as he reminded me, I had a bad habit of looking to attach myself to someone who would give me great affirmation in exchange for my soul. When I was young, I was “needy” in that way, for a lot of reasons you don’t need to know, in the clinical world it’s called overdetermined by our family history. But he broke me of that habit by caring for me with no strings attached. No promises, No expectations, which was a great gift to my psyche. It freed me to be my Self, not tied to approval. Handing over your soul to anyone, regardless how caring, is too high a price. It is one of the great temptations in the spiritual journey. Ask me how I know this.
One other thing about this thing of discernment as to what you are doing or are figuring out what to do. I have found a group discernment process particularly beneficial. Rather than just relying, and putting the burden on one person, I have found trusted groups particularly helpful in that there are more perspectives in play, by definition.
My model for this is the Vocational Testing Program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, fiendishly put together by Caroline Westerhoff. This was a mechanism, or as she would call it, a “process”, by which a person could discern whether or not one should serve as a priest. One was asked to engage in a series of activities that would expose your reaction to structure, lack of structure, chaos, pain, difference, authority exercised over you, you exercising authority. Hey man, I am just getting started. It was a bear. But it gave you a chance to see yourself as you were interacting with others in a variety of settings. Your fellow participants, your peers who were in that same process, helped you to see hidden dimensions and motivations in your actions. It was different than seeing a therapist or spiritual director as an individual caregiver but had a power that allowed me that rare opportunity to see myself as others experienced me, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. It changed my life.
Here, I am borrowing from my theological mentor, Carlyle Marney, who suggested that real church, not institutional church, is where you can submit your images for what it means to live faithfully for correction. That stuff is in short supply in the church as I see it in this country, but it IS out there if you have the persistence and courage, that word again, to look, and listen.
So how are you doing in Lent? It may just be another season of the year for you. You may not be a follower of the Christ and so you have no prompt for keeping Lent. But if you are reading this, you are a human, and therefore it would do you well to up your game of being aware of what you are doing, and who is doing you.
I hope you will take the time to Stop, Pause, and Reflect. What are you doing with your energy, your gifts, your time, your resources? How are you being spent as a person in this one crazy trip of life?
Get a free prompt from the historical Church, who, around Springtime, a natural time of rebirth and new growth, drops a question on people who will attend and lister: how are you growing? How are you living? What are you doing with this precious life that is particularly and peculiarly yours? Taking the time to pause, reflect, and answer may just help you get an insight into this thing we called life.
I don’t have an agenda for you other than for you to be aware, and live your life the way you decide. But, I am pulling for you, hoping for you to get in the game, on the field, ’cause we need you. The Dalai Lama calls it enlightened selfishness, as it ultimately helps us all. And God knows, we need it now. Blessings in this time.