Coming Back From a Spiritual Dry Spell

How is it possible I haven’t posted on this blog in over six months?! I had the best of intentions and lots of half-formed reflections that just never made it onto the page. I kept telling myself I would work on something next week or the week after…or the week after. Isn’t that how most people fall into creative ruts or writer’s block? And isn’t it possible that the same sense of drifting can happen in our spiritual lives?

Drifting away from God is easier than you might think. Slipping into a spiritual dry spell can happen so gradually that before you know it you’re in the middle of the desert without a drop of water in sight! It isn’t anything we do on purpose, and sometimes we don’t stop long enough to realize what’s happened. We just wake up one day and realize that our connection to God—the divine thread that ties us to our loving Creator—feels old and faded and brittle. Do any of the following words accurately describe your spiritual life right now?

DRIED-UP •  BRITTLE • WILTED  • STALE • BARREN

It’s perfectly normal to go through dry times in your faith life. We all experience days in the desert. Sometimes days turn into weeks and months. But that doesn’t have to be the end of your story! Let me share with you a story of hope. 

Over a year ago now, my husband and I took up kiddie-pool gardening as a “pandemic project.”  Basically, we planted assorted vegetables and herbs in a soil-filled kiddie pool on our back porch. Amazingly, we had some success, and we got such a thrill from eating salads made with our own cucumbers or eating margherita pizza made with our own basil and tomatoes, that we decided to give it a go again this summer. But this year, we diversified beyond cucumbers and tomatoes, thanks to my husband’s co-worker Bill, who gave us some small eggplant seedlings. 

Unfortunately, due to a bunch of factors—including a big family trip in June and a ridiculously long stretch of rain in July—we didn’t even get around to buying the soil for the kiddie pool until mid-July, let alone planting anything. That meant those eggplant seedlings—the generous gift from Bill—just sat in the garage, essentially abandoned, for a month. 

When we were finally ready to plant, Mark brought out the dried-up eggplant sprouts. I shook my head. They were shriveled and withered, and didn’t look at all viable. When I plucked them out of their plastic containers, the soil around the roots crumbled away in my hands. I thought we should just toss them and cut our losses, but Mark wasn’t ready to give up. Instead, he planted the eggplant, even though we had such little confidence those seedlings would grow, we didn’t even grant them a spot in the kiddie pool; instead, we relegated them to a big pot next to the pool. 

“Let’s just water it and see what happens,” Mark said. For a long time, exactly nothing happened. Then—much to my astonishment—the green sprouts began to grow. Taller and fuller. Healthy and lush. And one day in early August I came out to the deck and found this.

small eggplants growing

The eggplants grew and grew until they were big enough to pick and bake. I enjoyed the best-tasting eggplant parmigiana I’ve ever had. What I thought were dead plants came back to life and fed and sustained and brought joy.

So what appeared to be dried up and withered, was actually only dormant…lying asleep, waiting for the right moment to wake up and sprout and grow.

Instead of viewing your spiritual life as something dead and brittle, try to view it as temporarily asleep, anticipating that gentle nudge from a loving God who is waiting for you. God provides the water and sunshine, and you do the growing. Just let it happen. 

Feel God’s presence. 
Bask in the warm rays of the sun. 
Soak up the quenching rain. 

Don’t focus on doing the “hard work” of getting back in touch with God. That’s not the work of the desert. Start by simply letting yourself grow in awareness. In every living thing you encounter, God is there. God is alive! With you. Surrounding you. Sit with that feeling for a few minutes, and then more and more each day. You will find your dried up roots begin to stretch and strengthen. To dig deep into the soil, searching for new life. 

You may have drifted away from God for a time, but it has only ever been temporary.

Photo by laura adai on Unsplash

Message in a Bottle

Seashells on beach

A friend of mine describes Cape Cod as her “happy place.” Memories of fun and relaxing summer vacations bring her a sense of peace she can’t find anywhere else. She often remarked that a week every summer was not enough time to capture that feeling and tide her over for the remaining 51 weeks. One day at a souvenir shop, she bought a fancy glass bottle with the words “Cape Cod Air” painted on the side. When she was back home—feeling stressed, anxious, or worried—she would uncork the bottle and take a quick whiff, feeling the tension immediately leave her body. Now…my friend is not naive. She knew it was impossible to actually trap Cape Cod air in a bottle and transport it home. But the ritual of holding the bottle in her hand, taking her mind back to peaceful times, and imagining that she was there again…it worked.

I’m a firm believer in the power of symbol and ritual in our spiritual lives. Using the five senses to create a connection to the Divine can have an amazing effect on our state of mind and our emotional well being. Many church services are filled with symbols and rituals to help us experience God in our midst. A document called “People of Ritual” by the Brisbane Catholic Education Offices states, “All Catholic ritual is founded on the belief that God is present and revealed in the world and, in a particular and powerful way, through Jesus. This means that God is revealed and encountered in the real and tangible moments of everyday life.”

So many of us are still cut off from our places of worship where we normally experience the rituals that bring us close to God. But that doesn’t mean we have to live without them. Most of what I write about spirituality focuses on finding God in ordinary moments, every day experiences, and common objects. We can create our own symbols and rituals to remind us that God is present and all around us. If you learn to look for God in the everyday events of your life, you’ll realize that you can never be separated from God, no matter what might be happening in the world.

Having just spent four glorious days on Cape Cod with my family, I took my friend’s advice and decided to create my own “bottle” of peace and calm. I spent my vacation collecting shells from the beach, and on the morning we left, I scooped up a few handfuls of soft white sand into a plastic bag. When I got home, I spent a quiet afternoon, painting some of the shells and layering the sand and shells into a glass bottle. I typed up the following quote on a little piece of paper and rolled it up to place in the bottle: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).

Message in a Bottle

I will use my “message in a bottle” to remind me that God is stronger than any of my fears. That I am not alone in my worries. That I have the peace of Christ to carry me through. The bottle now sits on my desk where it can be a constant symbol of God’s presence in my life.

I encourage you to create your own symbol or ritual to remind you of these same truths. You don’t have to be an artist. Fill a bottle or a shoe box with items that make you feel connected to God. A pressed flower. A treasured photograph. A prayer book. A piece of sea glass. Anything that helps you remember that God is present in the “real and tangible moments of everyday life.” Create a mini-chapel in a corner of your house where you can place these objects and look at them often. Turn to these symbols whenever you’re feeling “troubled” and “afraid” and be reminded of God’s overwhelming presence in our lives. We are surrounded by the Divine every day and in every way.

AMEN!

Encountering God Within

silhouette prayer

With churches closing all over the world due to the spread of COVID-19, many of us are being kept away from our parishes, our beloved retreat centers, or other places of prayer. It’s easy to feel closed off from God during this time. 

If we can’t get in…how can we encounter God?

We are used to seeking God outside of ourselves, but now we must find God in our own hearts. This time of social distancing requires us – even encourages us – to look deep within, for the Holy One dwelling inside of us. Distractions of the outside world are greatly reduced as we embrace stillness and quiet. We take solace in nature. In God’s beauty. In the knowledge that we can rest in God when we feel overwhelmed with worry, sadness, or exhaustion.

Jesus says: “Remain in me and I will remain in you.” (John 15:5).  What does it mean, to have Christ remain in us? It means that Jesus is not someone who exists outside of us. He dwells within us, a constant presence and source of hope. 

In Richard Rohr’s meditation “God is Everywhere” he states: “The pinnacle of prayer is reached when we can trust that we are constantly in the presence of God. We cannot not be in the presence of God!” Our churches may be closed, but we – the children of God – are open to God’s great love. We are open to pray for one another and our world. We are open to God’s gift of grace. Amen!

Please share your thoughts below. How are you keeping your faith life alive during this time of church closings?

A Prayer of Emptying

Snow on branch

Lord, I bring to you all that is on my plate.  The noise, the clutter, the chaos, and the distractions.  Help me to empty myself so that I may see you, hear you, and feel your presence.

Loving God, may your Spirit come to move my life. Empty the interior space of my soul that I may receive you and discover who I truly am.

Lord, I bring to you my fears and worries…all the things that are so heavy and hard to carry. I place them into your hands.

Loving God, may your Spirit come to move my life.  I place my trust in you. I place my faith in you. I place my life in you.

Lord, I bring to you my burdens. Things that I cannot control weigh me down like a heavy rock.  On the days that I am tired, stressed, and weary, I know that you walk with me.

Loving God, may your Spirit come to move my life.  I know that you are my rock—my cornerstone—and I can find rest in you.

AMEN.

 

Photo by Roman Trofimiuk on Unsplash

Drifting Towards God

two boats

I have a friend who is a social worker at a middle school, and she spends a lot of time talking to her young students about the peaks and valleys of friendship. Children’s loyalty can change with the wind. A best friend one day can be an icy acquaintance the next. This can lead to confusion and hurt and can be very difficult to navigate. To help her students make sense of it, my friend uses the metaphor of two drifting boats. It’s ok to drift away from a friend for awhile, if that’s what seems best. It doesn’t mean you can’t come back together at some future point.

More than anything, God desires to be in relationship with us. But the metaphor of the drifting boats isn’t quite right in describing this divine relationship. God never drifts away from us, but is instead the constant fixed point. Firmly anchored in a place of love and faithfulness. We may come and go depending on our feelings, emotions, doubts, and life circumstances…but the best news is that God never moves. We can always drift back (or even come crashing back!) onto the shores of God’s love. 

In her book Journal Keeping: Writing for Spiritual Growth, Luann Budd poses the question: “On a scale of 1-10 (10 being intimate), how close do you feel to God today?”  Before continuing with this blog post, sit for a few minutes in silence and answer this question. Write down the number.

Now spend some time this week examining why you scored yourself that way. If your number is on the low side, why might that be? Have you drifted away from God for some reason? What is holding you back from moving closer to God? Very often it’s guilt. Or maybe confusion. A feeling that God has abandoned you during a time of need. Or it may be a fear of revealing yourself. If God truly saw me for everything I am, God couldn’t possibly love me! 

Recognize that these thoughts may be natural and very human, but they are not based in the truth of God’s love. Try to spend a little bit of time each day pondering God’s unconditional love, acceptance, and presence in your life. You’ll find your thoughts begin to change and you’ll drift closer to God each day.

If you scored high on the scale, that’s great! You’re feeling close to God in this moment. Drink it in and let yourself be filled with gratitude. Examine the circumstances that have you feeling so close to God right now. What methods are you using to connect with God in your life?  

  • Maybe it’s nature. You’re in touch with the beauty of God’s creation. You find God in the warm sunshine, the gentle breeze, the endless ocean, the enduring woods. 
  • Maybe it’s relationships. You feel fulfilled by the love in your life, and you know that God has placed these people in your path. You feel God every time you hug your child, smile at your spouse, laugh with your sister, or cry with a friend. 
  • Maybe it’s your ministry or vocation. You are doing God’s work and you feel a sense of fulfillment and purpose. You can hear God speaking to you through the work that you do. Helping others, caring for the earth, tending to the needs of God’s Kingdom. 

Whatever the reason may be, lean into it. Capture the feeling. Write about it in your journal.  There will come a time when you inevitably drift away again, and it will help to have a reminder of this time when you felt close to God’s radiant love.  

And remember, our spiritual practice is constantly changing and evolving. Your score today may not be your score tomorrow. Return to this exercise again and again in your ongoing journey to draw closer to God.

 

Background Photo by Evgeny Nelmin on Unsplash

Let Yourself Be Surprised By God

Elijah

My “little sister” gives the best advice.

I really don’t call her that anymore since we’re both in our 40s, but the years I spent thinking of her in that way is exactly what kept from realizing this important truth. For most of my life, when I struggled with a problem, I had my “go to” advice-givers…my grandmother, my mom and dad, my older sisters, and a few close and trusted friends. With my younger sister, I could only see myself as the “big sister” who was there to give HER advice, not the other way around.

How many years I wasted not taking advantage of the wise and helpful guidance she had to offer! It was with a sheepish and regretful sense of surprise that I allowed myself to discover her wisdom and her insight.

We see something similar in 1 Kings when God tells the prophet Elijah to go out and stand before Him. Elijah looks to all the usual and expected places to hear God…only to find that God was somewhere else.  

“And as he stood there the Lord passed by, and a mighty windstorm hit the mountain; it was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.”  (1 Kings 19:11-12)

Instead, Elijah heard God in the sound of a gentle whisper…not what he was expecting at all!  “When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his scarf and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.” (1 Kings 19:13)

We know that God whispers—the whisper of a baby born in a stable on a quiet and holy night, the whisper of a resurrected Lord appearing to a couple of women and a small group of disciples. And we know that He is a God of surprises, speaking to us when we least expect it.  

Elijah listened in all the mighty places for the voice of God, never imagining it would come as a gentle whisper.

God speaks to us in so many ways—through what we may describe as “gut feelings”, through the events in our lives, through the voices of others, through our children, images in nature, our dreams…the possibilities are endless. We have to be awake and alive to each moment, and open to hearing God everywhere.

My prayer for you as we enter the holy season of Lent, is that you will let yourself be surprised by God. Don’t get stuck in all the usual places you go to hear God. Listen for God in places you don’t normally listen. Let us follow the suggestion of Vinita Hampton Wright in her book, Days of Deepening Friendship:

Over the next several days, practice listening. Listen to everything—traffic sounds, nature sounds, speaking sounds, and the sounds of peace and quiet. Try to listen with great attention for five or ten minutes every day. Do this during a coffee/tea break, if that helps. Then, gradually tune in to God’s voice. This voice will come through many of the sounds you have already been noticing. It will also emerge as you partake of the arts—books, music, paintings, dance, and so forth. You will hear God’s voice during worship or while your children are playing. Try to spend a few moments each day quietly listening for God. Don’t say anything or ask for anything. Or if you do ask for something, may it be, “God, help me tune in to your voice.”

These days, I make it a habit to seek my younger sister’s advice about all kinds of things. She inspires me and encourages me all the time, and I learn so much from her.

In much the same way, the more time and practice you devote to spending time with God—listening for God’s “gentle whisper”—the more tuned in you’ll become to God’s messages in all areas of your life, and at any time of day.

 

Background photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

Come As You Are

god is faithful week 2

Background photo by Frank Mckenna on Unsplash

A few years ago my husband and I spent an amazing week on a tropical island in the Caribbean. The weeks leading up to the vacation were stressful for me. I was tired from work, pale and washed out from the long winter. I was fighting a cold, and my lower back had a consistent ache from sitting for long hours at work. And I had not reached my ideal weight for wearing a bathing suit. I was putting so much pressure on myself to “fix” all of these things before we left. This was a trip of a lifetime and I wanted everything to be perfect.

Seeing how anxious I was, my husband said: “Isn’t the point of the vacation to rest and heal and relax?” The thought hadn’t occurred to me, and his words calmed me down right away. I didn’t need to be perfect before I arrived. I could come to our vacation exactly how I was. Let the sun, the ocean, and the tropical air work its magic on me.

Come as you are.

This is God’s invitation to us—to know us and be in relationship with us just as we are. Wounds, regrets, scars, bruises, and doubts…God wants all of it. We don’t have to do any frantic preparation in order to make ourselves “ready” for God. We just need to show up. All I needed to do to enjoy the healing benefits of that tropical vacation was to get on the plane. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “God doesn’t want something from us, He simply wants us.”

You don’t have to be perfect before you come to God. You are made perfect in God’s love. You don’t need to fix yourself so that God will accept you. Bring your deepest wounds to God and let the healing begin. You don’t need to rest up so you’ll have the energy to be what God wants you to be. You can find rest—and profound peace—in God.

In words attributed to Abigail Van Buren, “The church is not a museum of saints, but a hospital for sinners.” Whatever your experience of faith or worship is, think of the doors to a church as a metaphor for your relationship with God at this moment. Where do you find yourself? Outside the closed door…afraid to open it and come in? Or maybe standing in the open doorway…peering inside, wondering if there’s a place for you?  

You don’t have to be a “saint” or saintly to live a life of faith. Very few people are! In my experience, so many of us hold ourselves back from a truly authentic relationship with God because we feel inadequate or “not enough.” In her book Days of Deepening Friendship (2009) Vinita Hampton Wright writes: “No matter what state you’re in when you enter the Room, it has no impact whatsoever on God’s love for you. God’s invitation is sweet and clear: Come in! There is so much to know and to experience. And you will be astounded by the divine moment called love.”

Our faithful God provides all the love, healing, and rest we could ever need.  All we need to do is show up.

After a week of lying on the beach, sleeping late, and feeling the warmth of the sun—I was transformed. My cold faded away, my skin lost its winter pallor, my aching back was healed from long soaks in the hot tub and a massage. (I confess I didn’t make any progress on reaching my ideal weight…all-inclusive buffets are really, really tempting!) The healing and restoration my husband promised me would happen, happened that week. I simply needed to trust that it would.

For the next week I ask you to trust in the faithfulness of our loving God. Trust that God will welcome you with open arms. Come as you are and accept God’s invitation. Open the door and come inside. Just simply show up…and let God take care of the rest.

Leave your prayers or thoughts on this reflection in the comments section below!

What Should I Pray?

Sit With Me Prayer

Dear God,

I’m not quite sure what to say to you today. Is it ok with you if I don’t say anything? Can I just be aware of your presence? Will that be enough? I picture you out there. It’s comforting, but you’re not as close as I’d like you to be. Can I picture you within me instead? A spark of life deep down inside? Offering answers, hope, love, and comfort. A tiny spark to be sure, but it’s there. Let me just sit with this knowledge for today. That your spark lies within me. I don’t need to go outside of myself searching for it. I don’t need to sift through the rubble of broken hearts, bigotry, violence, and judgment to find you.  You abide in me, offering me all that I know is true and right. Maybe what feels like my gut instinct is really you, telling me what you wish and dream for me. I can follow that if I know it’s you.

AMEN.

A Cup of Tea for Advent

Christmas teapotAs the hectic pace of the holiday season ramps up, I encourage you to take a (short!) break from the shopping and decorating and sit down with a nice nourishing cup of tea. And when you do, spend some time reflecting on the teapot.

What makes a teapot a teapot?  Your answer might start with the materials it’s made of. The picture above is a ceramic teapot, so it probably started with clay baked in a kiln. Then some kind of glaze and paint.

But what if I took this teapot and broke it into pieces. It would still be ceramic, glaze, and paint, right? But would it still be a teapot? Looking at it another way, what if I took a solid lump of clay and baked it in a kiln, glazed it and painted it with this same Christmas image. Would it still be a teapot? No.

The missing element in both these scenarios is the empty space inside of it. That’s what makes it a teapot. The place that holds water and tea leaves. The part that bubbles and comes to life. Whistling when it’s ready. The empty space is critical for the teapot to fulfill its purpose.

Just like the teapot, we have an interior space within us, and that’s where our soul lives.  What happens in that space defines our relationship with God. It’s where our spiritual journey takes place. The empty space (and what we do with it) is what makes us children of God.

And so we are called to come to the Cross as empty vessels to be filled up with God’s love and grace. In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he writes: “But this precious treasure—this light and power that now shine within us—is held in a perishable container, that is, in our weak bodies. Everyone can see that the glorious power within must be from God and is not our own.” (2 Corinthians 4:7)

We may claim the outside surface…the walls of the pot…but the space inside belongs to God. And we want to keep our interior space as empty as possible so that God can fill us.

Fr. Anthony Ndang Ndichia, a missionary priest in Africa writes: “For God to enter our lives fully, we must be ready to create space: longing opens the heart to receive. The door to our inner self, heart, and mind must be opened: ‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be.’ God needs openings in our lives to get through to us, to communicate with us, to stretch us to greater growth, to nourish us, to revitalize and renew us with love.”

Spend some time thinking about how you might be more like the empty teapot.  How will you make room for Jesus during this Advent season? In doing this, the weeks leading up to Christmas become an exciting time of possibility.

What is God going to do with the interior space of your soul?  How will He fill you up?

Sacred Struggle – Journeying through the Desert

desert

My parish choir sang a hymn on Ash Wednesday that described Lent as a “sacred struggle.”  What a beautiful and thought-provoking phrase.  It suggests that Lent is not a time for putting up a front of spiritual tranquility.  It’s not a time for pretending everything is rosy and perfect.

Think of Lent as a pilgrimage—a journey—and not necessarily an easy one.  It’s time to dig deep.  To walk in the desert with Jesus.

Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit out into the parched wilderness to be tempted, tested and prepared, just as the ancient Israelites wandered the desert so many years before, in preparation for their entry into the Promised Land.  We are called to make this same 40-day journey.  To be tested, prepared, and renewed.  To encounter God in new ways.  And to ultimately be transformed by the experience.

Let us approach this Lenten season as an opportunity to embrace that which is difficult.  To face temptations. To examine our personal failings. To reveal our doubts. To work through blocks and barriers to our faith.

Don’t be afraid to walk through the desert.  You are not alone in the journey.  When you encounter thirst and drought, cry out to God to quench your spirit.  Know, without a doubt, that God will answer.  “They were not thirsty when he led them through the deserts; he divided the rock, and water gushed out for them to drink.” (Isaiah 48:21)

A desert journey is not a time of punishment, but a time of strengthening.  Jesus left his time in the wilderness with a renewed and strengthened spirit to begin preaching the message that the Kingdom of Heaven was near. (Matthew 4:17)  Your time in the desert will lead you closer to that Kingdom.  To a place of deeper connection to our Divine Creator.  To a greater understanding of the gifts we receive – brought to fruition with the Resurrection of our Lord on Easter Sunday.

May your Lenten journey be blessed, as you come out of the desert with a renewed spirit. Amen.