Today I am going to spend the weekend at Mount Calvary Monastery with members of the Stillpoint spiritual direction program. The theme of this weekend retreat is "Listening to the Experience of God." Our reading is a book by an Episcopal priest named Sandra Levy called The Imagination and the Journey of Faith. I love this book: it speaks to me as a former professor of literature and lover of the liberal arts, music, poetry, etc. Historically, Quakers have regarded art, music, ritual, etc. as distractions and they can be, but I (and many other contemporary Quakers) see enormous spiritual value in the arts, when we approach them from the right perspective. Levy does a great job of showing how we can use the arts and the imagination to deepen our connection with God.
During this retreat, we will be creating a community of trust where we can practice spiritual direction, learn skills, identify pitfalls, explore the relationship of narrative, image, and metaphor to spiritual experience, etc. It promises to be a spiritually rich and rewarding experience. Here's what I wrote in response to our assignment for this session:
Assignment: Write a brief reflection on your own experience of God/Spirit and on that of others. Include how this impacts your role as spiritual director. Drawing from class discussion and your own experience, explore these questions from the perspective of spiritual experience. What are my beliefs about spiritual direction? How would you describe it to someone else?
The experience of God. It’s hard to talk briefly about God, just as it would be hard to talk briefly about love. These are vast topics, with many dimensions, facets, levels and nuances.
I believe that the experience of the Divine/Infinite cannot be reduced to words or images, but words can be pointers or sign posts—like a finger pointing towards the moon.
Since I have been assigned to write about my experience of the Divine, let me begin by saying I have experienced the presence of God in innumerable ways. What I mean by “the presence of God” is:
· an awareness of something greater than myself;
· a heightened sense of being alive, of being fully present to the person I’m with, or the situation I’m in;
· a sense of awe, wonder, and mystery (often experienced in the context of some natural phenomenon, like a sunset, starry night, etc.);
· a feeling of deep interconnectedness with everything around me, the “we are all one” feeling;
· a sense that there is a purpose and “rightness” about my life, beyond the narrow confines of my ego and rational mind;
· a sense of being called or guided by a Power beyond my imagining.
· an “inner voice” or Inward Teacher, a not physically audible but nonetheless palpable response to my perplexities and questionings.
I often experience the Presence of God in silent worship and contemplation, when the chatter in my head fades away and there is a holy stillness.
The Presence frequently comes in quiet moments when I am reading, looking at art, listening to music. (That’s one reason I thoroughly enjoyed reading Sandra Levy’s book The Imagination and the Journey of Faith.) I also experience the Presence when I lose myself in writing, inspired by the Spirit.
I sometimes experience the Divine in the midst of “good works,” like doing a service project, feeding the homeless, getting arrested at a vigil, etc. On such occasions, I sometimes feel a profound sense of joy and wonder, as if the Kingdom of God or Jesus himself were present. I have even felt the Divine Presence while doing mundane household chores, when I do them mindfully.
I experience the Presence during bible studies or worship sharing, during religious services, when the Holy Spirit seems present in the prophetic words of a sermon, or in the rituals, the music or the silence.
Silent worship is where I usually feel closest to God. That’s what drew me to Quakerism. As the 17th century Quaker theologian Robert Barclay wrote:
In the inward quietness and withdrawal of the mind, the witness of God arises in the heart, and the light of Christ so shines that the soul becomes aware of its own condition. (Apology for the True Christian Divinity)
These epiphanies when God seems utterly and unutterably real are moments that I cherish. They are moments when I feel most alive. They are also moments that are hard to talk about, except with trusted friends. Like experiences of love, they are intimate and personal.
That’s why I am drawn to spiritual direction. It provides opportunities to reflect about how to draw closer to God, how to see the Divine in one’s everyday life, and how to help others to see ways in which the Divine is calling us.
I've enjoyed class discussions in which people share their spiritual journeys. They are similar to what Quakers call "worship sharing." We create a safe space, a container, in which we can open up and share what we truly feel, what we have actually experienced. This is a precious gift.
What is spiritual direction? I would describe spiritual direction as a commitment to explore one’s spiritual life with another person who is experienced in such exploration, a “companion along the way” or a guide we trust to help us open up more fully to the presence of God/Spirit in life. A guide who can also help us to see and face what is blocking us from fully experiencing the Presence of the Divine.
I believe that spiritual direction is an important spiritual discipline, like prayer, fasting, service, healing, prophetic witness, etc.
The biblical basis of spiritual direction/contemplation: Jesus provided spiritual direction in his intimate moments with his disciples, when he modeled how to be alone and pray, how to deepen one’s personal connection with God:
And early in the morning, while it was still dark, He arose and went out and departed to a lonely place, and was praying there. ( Mark 1:35)
And immediately He made His disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the other side to Bethesda, while He Himself was sending the multitude away. And after bidding them farewell, he departed to the mountain to pray. ( Mark 6:45-46)
And they came to a place called Gethsemane; and He said to His disciples, "Sit here until I have prayed." And He took with Him Peter and James and John, and began to be very distressed and troubled. And He said to them, "My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death; remain here and keep watch." And He went a little beyond them, and fell to the ground, and began praying. ( Mark 14:32-34)
And when day came, He departed to a lonely place; and the multitudes were searching for Him, and came to Him, and tried to keep Him from going away from them. ( Luke 4:42)
But He Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray. ( Luke 5:16)
And it was at this time that He went off to the mountain to pray, and He spent the whole night in prayer to God. ( Luke 6:12)
He also gave his disciples spiritual direction on how to pray authentically:
“But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you. Don't be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get " (Matt 6:6).
The “reward” for contemplative prayer is not specified, but I suspect Jesus means an experience of intimacy and connection with God. This is the most precious reward of all!
I feel extremely blessed to be part of the Stillpoint program at this stage of my life. I am a writer and peace activist, and I need to set aside time to reflect and pray in order to do my work authentically. To be a peace maker, I need time to deepen my connection with the Source and Inspiration for what I do and seek: the peace/shalom of God, which is beautifully described by Jesus:
Peace (shalom) I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful. (John 14:27)
Thank you, Stillpointers, for being instruments of that peace that passeth understanding.