Tuesday, 30 July 2013

The Labyrinth of the Heart

Dr D invited me to spend the morning with him in Glendalough, one of my favourite places, - a "thin" place for me. He wanted to help me to have a morning with God. The morning was to be divided in three parts the first of which was the labyrinth.

The idea was to start at the outside-symbolising where I felt in relation to myself i.e. resident in the outer courts of myself. From there I would journey to my centre via the various paths the labyrinth would present. I live in my head a lot -going inwards- heartwards- I don't always do instinctively. So, starting at the outside, facing inwards I begin to speak to God and myself, saying aloud (!)I feel this... I feel that...making a stab at how I feel. It might be...I feel frustrated... I feel bunged up inside...I feel annoyed that I don't know how I feel. As I get closer to the (my) centre, I get closer to how I am really feeling." I am feeling frustrated" might develop into I am so angry at Tom for not getting back to me with his decision. "I feel numb about that argument" might morph into "I am so hurt by what she said, I feel so pathetic, will I ever feel like a grown up".
The labyrinth at Glendalough

Each effort peals some of the numbness away, leads to a more real picture of how I am doing.  Often we can, out of habit, (maybe a need to protect ourselves), ignore the feelings we have - especially the uncomfortable ones. Unfortunately, this desire to keep us sane pushes us out from our centre to the outskirts. Ignoring uncomfortable feelings numbs us to all feelings, even the life giving ones.

Being pushed out of our centre impacts our relationship with God too. We meet him in our deepest place- the bible calls it the heart. If we've left home, it's so much harder to sense Him, to feel his presence, live out of His energy. So the journey from the outskirts of the labyrinth to the centre is the journey to our own hearts where God lives. And that's why Dr D taught me to begin my morning with God with the journey inwards. Answering the question, "How do I feel?" as I took each step.  To meet God both of us have to be present. Funny how I often think it’s Him who hasn’t turned up!
St Kevin's Chapel Glendalough

Monday, 29 July 2013

On this everything depends...

I want to tell you about my first experience of spiritual direction. My Director was a big bear of a man we will call Dr D. He looked quite a bit like Santa Claus actually. It was the beginning of my own journey to exploring contemplative spirituality. I just felt salty to experience Jesus in my life. Dr D took me under his wing. He was so encouraging and accepting of me that he gave me a safe place to explore my heart and to make room for God in there.  I remember he wore a ring with the word "Beloved" on it. We didn't talk much theology -a  natural temptation and roadblock in my prayer life. I remember he told me "Paul, God didn't give you your brain to figure him out!" Slowly tentatively, I began to  trust that I was God's Beloved too, that he sangs songs over me, that His banner over me was love. That took a while and truthfully, the warmth and acceptance of Dr D were the fertile soil in which this seed was planted. Of all my reasons to be a Spiritual Director myself, helping to awaken an appreciation of their Belovedness in somebody else was easily the most significant one.  It's amazing how much convincing we need, how much resistance we have to that idea- as we nod or heads (not our hearts) when we are told it. It's the nod of the heart that makes all the difference. As you nod your head and say "Oh Yes of course... I am God's Beloved..of course" what are we really thinking? If you can verbalise it you are half way there. Can you chat the one who calls you Beloved about the answers? Because knowing in you bones, in your deepest places, that God sees you as His Beloved Child is the foundation for everything. As my other Spiritual Director would say..."On this everything depends."

Experiencing God - for Brianiacs Only

This a post from a blog I follow. I gave my own response and it is included below. Peter Enns is an academic and expert in the Old Testament. He has helped me enormously in trying to figure out what the Old Testament is. In conservative evangelical circles he is a controversial figure because he doesn't toe the line in some areas (e.g inerrancy). He makes sense though and has a great sense of humour.

This post with all the responses is here

Where do you experience God? Well, answer me.

I actually did this. All by myself. Quartered and stacked. Three rows deep. I did this.
I had lunch a while back with two friends visiting the area, home for a few weeks from their normal lives in Kenya.
In the course of conversation, one of them asked me, “Where do you experience God?”
My inner recovering Calvinist quickly surfaces and I think to myself,
“Mind your own business. And another thing, we don’t ‘experience’ God. We read about him and formulate thoughts about him. When we do experience God, it may be in a harshly worded book review, perhaps a knock-down-drag-out doctrinal debate in a session meeting, or, as in the good old days, some form of physical punishment.”
All partial kidding aside, my own experience in various expressions of conservative Christianity has not set me up to answer easily my friend’s question. The theology of immediate retribution on Chronicles, sure. Got that one covered. But not this one.
Which is a shame. I actually had trouble saying where I experience God. That bothers me.
I was taught–implicitly and explicitly–that the experience of God is something that…well…it’s good if you can get it, but don’t go looking for it. After all, experience is subjective and potentially misleading. Best to get your theology in order and leave subjective experience to the Charismatics.
I’ve been thinking a lot of about this over the last few years, and my friend’s question pushed me further along:
Experiencing God is the point.
I know some of you may wonder why I even need to write this, but:
Without the experience of God, what use is all our cogitating? What good does it to to reduce God to having either the right thoughts neatly arranged, or busying ourselves with the “work of the Gospel” when immediacy with God is not part of the package?
A life dominated by worry, fear, anger, etc.,–which commonly accompany the life of the mind–is a life where the experience of God is a theory, not a reality.
So, back to my friend’s intrusive question. I wanted to say–just to get her off my back–”in church” but (1) that’s not true, and (2) she knows I know it’s not true.
So, I think I said, “I don’t know. Give me a hint.”

Here the part of Pete is being played by an actor. Also, my trim is barn red.
She encouraged me to sense God’s presence by being open to God while doing those things that jazz me. I mentioned that I sometimes get very antsy while writing, and I feel I just have to go outside and stack firewood or paint trim for a couple of hours.
She suggested that was a clue about the kind of person I am and how I actually already do experience God along paths I don’t normally think about. I need to learn to keep my eyes and ears open.
I was taught from early on to experience God in reading the Bible, prayer, evangelism, and church. Maybe an occasional feed the hungry weekend.
Or a miracle in your life. Miracles are good.
My friend, however, was reminding me that God is bigger and more pervasive in his creation than these formulas. Is this too radical to consider–that perhaps God may be present in our lives in all sorts of “unconventional” ways; and what jazzes me may be telling me when those experiences are happening?
I am a “physical” person. I used to be an active athlete; I do a lot of work on our house; I still exercise; and I am fidgety–boy, am I fidgety. My friend pointed out that I even tend to express myself using “physical” vocabulary–”no need to jump off a cliff about it” is preferred to “no need to be so concerned.”
So, as I’m stacking wood or painting trim (or rebuilding rotted trim so I can paint it), I should learn to be mindful of what is going on inside of me those moments and ask God, “Where are you right here and now?”
Or maybe better, “How are you here right now?
No bright lights of God’s brilliant presence–at least I hope not as I’m 20′ up a ladder–but perhaps deeper and more…soothing, peaceful. I don’t know. I’m new at this. Give me a break.
I am so used to accessing a far-off God through my mind, through words. Rather than me calling the shots, maybe I can cultivate a patient discipline of seeing other, less controllable, ways in which God is already part of my experience.
I’m sure I’m doing a rotten job explaining all this, but I’m fine with that. I do wish, though, that I would have been taught some of these things during my formative Christian years–especially in seminary.
On the other hand, it’s not like I can’t learn some new things and keep moving along on the journey.
I’m fine with that, too. And I believe, so is God.


Thanks Peter, for your honesty and willingness to talk about an area you are not an expert in. Ignatius tells us to look inwards for our deepest desires and there we will find God waiting for us. Just takes a little time to carve through what we think we want and get to what we really want.
He hides in plain sight, so close to us that we miss Him a lot of the time. I find I experience Him often when I am caught off guard and my usual lens is out of focus for a second. Of course, the consequence of this is that I am wearing a lens that actually blinds me to Him most of the time. If I gave the lens a bumper sticker name, it would be "I shouldn't feel that". I'd been thinking that for 35 years before I actually heard it in my head for the first time. Boy, that was a moment!
So I'm finding that Ignatius' encouragement to focus on my inner experience- no matter how infantile my head tells me it is, really helps me to experience what God is doing. In this, his examen of consciousness is invaluable. It opens up a layer of God enriched experience happening everyday that otherwise will disappear like tears in rain (forgive the Blade runner reference please!)