What I’ve Learned from the Spiritual Disciplines.

As the past two weeks have shown me that my schoolwork is monstrously piling up, I’ve decided to tie up my weekly account of the spiritual disciplines (at least for now). Though I may get back on this road of experimentation in the future, I have chosen to stop and to reflect at this point — to pay attention to how these rhythms have shaped my heart this final semester of seminary.

When I think about what’s happened in my heart the past ten weeks, I narrow in on the following image of a tree’s roots aggressively fighting through the blacktop cement (photo taken on a walk in Cambridge):

For so long before this journey, I felt myself trapped by fear of failing in discipline, lack of motivation in connecting with the Lord, and a general complacency in my spiritual journey. However, living these past several weeks in light of the spiritual disciplines — with a literal expectancy of meeting with God — I’ve seen the roots of my heart begin to fight against the previous tendencies of my heart. I’ve felt new life take root in my heart, a kind of life that will no longer be constrained by the limitations I’ve put on myself or the ones I’ve (quite unsuccessfully) tried to put on God’s work in my life. Yes, the roots are breaking through the concrete. My new creation nature is experiencing regrowth.

*  *  *  *  *

As I look back at these spiritual disciplines, I recall such distinct images: sitting on a floral pillow in my seminary’s prayer chapel, praying in front of an icon of Jesus; gazing outside my window at snowflakes steadily falling, remembering the handiwork of God; pacing my room in silence, trying to bear with the strangeness of mute solitude; sipping tea and laughing with my suitemates, celebrating the gift of knowing them; speaking with a spiritual director, vocalizing how the Holy Spirit has been sensitizing my heart to His love and direction.

Through these practices, I’ve begun learning that my delight was not so much in the disciplines themselves — but rather in the fruit of the disciplines — a growing delight in seeing the Lord’s hand in my life.

What has this fruit been (or at least the fruit I’ve perceived growing within myself)?

  1. A greater responsiveness to the Holy Spirit. I’ve sensed greater conviction in the words I speak, the thoughts I meditate on, and how He’s leading me vocationally.
  2. Focused attention on the ordinary. I’ve begun to see individuals around me as truer gifts of God, realizing He has placed friends in my life with purpose and intention. I’ve begun greater delighting in the commonplace events of life: studying with friends, sharing a meal in the dorm kitchen, driving to church on a Sunday. I’ve found God nourishes me with His love in these common places.
  3. Intentionality is carving out space to meet with God. If I truly believe that my identity is found in God as His child, then I must invest time in spending time with Him. I’ve complicated this space, believing it must look a certain way and take a certain amount of time. However, simply showing up and allowing God to speak His love over me — this has changed everything.
*  *  *  *  *

    So, what does it look like moving forward?

    Two spiritual disciplines have especially stood out to me as being beneficial for my soul: Examen and Welcoming Prayer.

    With Examen, I’m encouraged to alert myself to God’s presence, choosing to be aware of the ways He has moved beautifully and apparently throughout the day. Additionally, I can be honest with myself and with God about the times I chose to live out of my own efforts instead of His. I can replay the moments of my day, asking the Holy Spirit to reveal aspects of His character to me and to change my heart so I can greater reflect His character in my own life.

    With Welcoming Prayer, I’ve learned to ask Jesus to be present in every single part of my day — no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. I’ve experienced the beauty of welcoming Him before running on the treadmill or working on a homework assignment; this practice has refocused me, causing me to consciously remind myself that all I am and have — any strength I muster — must come from Him and Him alone.

    These two practices, as well as the others throughout the past ten weeks, have been truly special, challenging me and drawing me into the rhythms of God’s timing — not the limited nature of my own timing.

    * * * * *

    So, in closing, I want to say:

    Thanks, Adele Calhoun, for your informative and special guide. And thank you, my reader, for joining me on this ‘Journey with the Spiritual Disciplines.’ I pray you continue to see the beauty of the rhythms God is leading you into — and how these rhythms can steadily guide you nearer to His loving and precious heart. He loves you so much.

    Week Ten: Retreat.

    This past week, I had the opportunity to participate in a day-long retreat with a discipleship center we have on campus called The Pierce Center for Disciple Building. These day-long retreats have very much become part of the fabric of my time at seminary (I have gone on five), giving me just enough pause to catch up to where my heart is and how God is working within it.

    This is a spiritual discipline that first captured my attention two years ago exactly, in March 2016, right before I graduated from college. I traveled with a small group of graduating seniors and a professor, lodging for three days and two nights at a Cistercian monastery in Ava, Missouri. Ever since that experience, I’ve known that silent retreats must be part of my spiritual life.

    So, it’s been a joy to retreat at the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur Abbey in Ipswich, Massachusetts.  I love that the founder of the order, St. Julie Billiart, declared: “How good is the good God!” Truly, that Abbey is a perfect landscape to reflect on the goodness of the good God.

    *  *  *  *  *
    Adele Calhoun, in her Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, describes Retreat as the following:
    Desire: to pull back from daily life and spend extended time with God
    Definition: Retreats are specific and regular times apart for quietly listening to God and delighting in his company. Retreats remove us from the daily battle into times of refreshing, retooling, renewing, and unwinding.
    Practice Includes:
    • having a short time as well as extended times away with God
    • detaching from productivity and doing in order to be in the presence of God and attend to his voice alone
    • having longer retreats of two to forty days
    • spending time in a hermitage
    • spending one day a moment at a retreat site for time with God
    • having seasonal retreats for rest and renewal
    • withdrawing from life in order to see where your soul is in danger, to seek God’s help in reengaging in the battle”
    (pg. 77)
    *  *  *  *  *
    So, here’s what a silent retreat looked like for me on Wednesday:
    • 9:00 – 9:30am –> Introduction with the rest of the retreat participants
    • 9:30 – 10:45am –> Silent time (in my room)
    • 10:45 – 11:15am –> Private spiritual direction session with retreat leader
    • 11:30am – Noon –> Small group of sharing what’s been going on within us
    • Noon – 1:00pm –> Lunch (eaten in silence)
    • 1:00 – 1:20pm –> Walk through the Stations of the Cross on Abbey grounds
    • 1:20 – 2:00pm –> Napping in a comfy chair
    • 2:00 – 3:30pm –> Reading Henri Nouwen’s book Discernment and prayer journaling
    • 3:30 – 4:00pm –> Closing session
    *  *  *  *  *
    Even though this retreat lasted seven hours, it felt so much shorter. Once my body adjusted to the rhythm of being silent, I began to sink into it like a cozy bed filled with huggable pillows (what a change from my experience with Silence a few weeks ago!). When I remembered that my truest self finds a home first in being seen and known by God, I knew that a “wasted day” was one of the greatest spent times I could give to Him.
    Especially since this week is ‘Holy Week’ in the Church calendar, I especially found my prayer walk around the Stations of the Cross to be a sweet time of reflection, meditating on the sufferings of Jesus that he willingly underwent so that I might find eternal life in his death and resurrection. Usually, it’s easy for me to find identification with Christ in his resurrection – in celebration – but while participating in the Stations of the Cross, I entered into meditation on the sufferings of Christ, something that helped me to deeper enter into fellowship with him.
    Also, I loved being able to nap in God’s presence, enjoying rest of body during my rest of soul. When I was dozing off, I remembered that God loves me for who I am in Him, not for all I accomplish or produce. But as I know His love more and more, I know that whatever I do in His name will come from a rich knowing of who I am first in Him.

    As the day came to a close, I felt tangibly refreshed and uplifted. I knew once again deep in my heart that God is waiting to meet with me; all I need to do is create that space.

    *  *  *  *  *
    If you’re interested in taking a silent prayer retreat, here’s a handy website that can help you find the closest retreat centers to you: https://www.retreatfinder.com/Search.aspx. Additionally, if you’re unable to go to a retreat center, you could very easily spend a day in nature, admiring God’s creation. I’d recommend not taking the retreat in your own home, especially because it’s very easy to get distracted when you see around you chores that “could” be done or tasks you “ought” to be accomplishing. 
    This spiritual discipline is one I truly wish to continue as I graduate from seminary and enter into my next vocation as chaplain. I encourage you, also, to carve out some space for Retreat in your own life, allowing you to refocus on the God who calls you His Beloved child.

    Week Nine: Scripture Memorization.

    This past week, I practiced a discipline that reminded me of my elementary school days of memorizing chunks of Scripture.  However, this week was probably my first time memorizing Scripture not for a homework assignment or a Bible quiz competition.  Instead of my motivation being external, it was internal – truly wanting to tuck God’s Word in my heart so I might access it at my weakest moments of discouragement and temptation.

    Here’s Adele Calhoun’s take on “Memorization”:

    Desire: to carry the life-shaping words of God in me at all times and in all places

    Definition: Memorization is the process of continually remembering the words, truths and images God uses to shape us. Memorization provides us with a store of learning, which can be accessed anywhere and anytime.

    Practice Includes:

    • memorizing Scriptures, hymns, poems, quotes, etc.
    • rereading portions of Scripture until they are committed to memory
    • memorizing Scripture verses that clearly reveal God’s plan of salvation
    • memorizing the books of the Bible, particular dates and times as well as where various verses are found
    • learning by heart portions of Scripture that encourage you when you are tempted”
    (Adele Calhoun, A Journey with the Spiritual Disciplines, p. 194)
    *  *  *  *  *

    So, for the week, I decided to memorize three passages – each to help me remember something particularly important about God and about who I am in Him:

    “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” – Hebrews 4:15-16 

    “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us spreads and makes evident everywhere the sweet fragrance of the knowledge of Him.” – 2 Corinthians 2:14  

    “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” – John 14:27

    I practiced these verses when I woke up in the morning and before I went to bed each night, reading them, then closing my eyes to repeat each verse again. Throughout the week, my devotional time was very much formed by declaring the words of these verses, inviting me to remember that Christ draws me to appreciate his divinity and his humanity, that I can approach him with a surety in his presence. I can remember that Christ leads me into triumph over what entangles me, giving me the gift of sharing his love with others. And I can remember that Christ’s peace is the only lasting peace; I can so easily try to seek for peace in many other places, but I know my heart’s true home is in the peace that he provides.

    *  *  *  *  *
    I’m thankful that this week-long practice provided me with truths to mull over for many weeks to come. Perhaps you’ll like to revisit the discipline of Memorization as well, allowing words of God’s truth to take root in your heart, blossoming forth and filling your mind when you are in need of it.

    Week Eight: Celebration.

    Since this past week was my ‘birthday week,’ I thought it would be a good time to put into practice the spiritual discipline of Celebration. When I think of the word ‘celebrate,’ my mind immediately wanders back to an old VHS about Disney World I used to watch as a kid; Mickey and his friends, as well as a bunch of kids dressed in colorful clothes, would all sing, “Celebrate good times, come on!” Believe it or not, I found the video:

    The above video might make you smile, or it may even be a little obnoxious (for me, it’s a combination of both). But what might Celebration as a ‘spiritual discipline’ look like?
    Adele Calhoun, in her book Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, writes the following about the discipline:
    Desire: to take joyful, passionate pleasure in God and the radically glorious nature of God’s people, Word, world and purposes
    Definition: Celebration is a way of engaging in actions that orient the spirit toward worship, praise and thanksgiving. Delighting in all the attentions and never-changing presence of the Trinity fuels celebration
    Practice Includes: Identifying and pursuing those things that bring the heart deep gladness and reveling in them before the Lord. This may include time spent with others, sharing meals, working, serving, worshiping, laughing, listening to music, dancing and so on.”
    (pg. 28)
    *  *  *  *  *
    I caught snippets of celebration this week, feeling completely blown away at how loved I felt by my friends and family. By each of their kind actions, I felt God’s love for me extended through them. I sensed the reality of Zephaniah 3:17, that 
    “He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, 
    he will rejoice over you with singing.”
    Here’s some moments where celebration made me feel loved by others and, in turn, made me feel the love of the Lord:
    • Enjoying some yummy dessert with dear gals on Sunday night, pondering some of the best parts of the year, as well as expectations for the future.
    • Waking up to a suite full of balloons, thanks to my lovely and kind suitemates who blew up all THIRTY-SEVEN of them with their lungs (and not a machine!).

    • Those same suitemates making me chocolate-covered strawberries and tea, as well as getting each of us fun clown wigs. It’s amazing how much joy came into our hearts simply by laughing about these fun wigs! When we tried talking about serious matters, it wouldn’t last long due to the hilarity on our heads.

    • Getting absolutely surprised by an outpouring of joy and of love at a party planned by my friend, Petek. Complete with pizza, cake, candy, and a monkey piñata, it was a real bash. Swinging at that monkey gave me so many laughs that I could barely keep swinging! 

    • Receiving 20 different envelopes from back home filled with silly surprises from my besties, Gianna and Amy.
    • Opening a birthday package from my family, filled with treats and love.
    • Cherishing every card and letter and FaceTime chat from family and friends.

    *  *  *  *  *
    Apart from my birthday, I delighted in a couple other moments during the week:
    • The joy I spotted on a two-year-old’s face when she played with the leaves of a plant outside a coffee shop. I don’t know what made her so joyful about touching a plant (especially since it was pretty much dead considering winter chilliness), but she was laughing up a storm! I couldn’t help but smile, admiring how she was celebrating the simple joys around her.
    • Spotting the sunrise reflection upon my bedroom wall. Even though I gazed at it for a few moments, snapped a photo, then fell back asleep – it was a moment of sweetness. It added the gift of celebration to my morning – the blessed awareness that the morning was not a drudgery but a gift to be celebrated.

    *  *  *  *  *
    So, can the simple act of celebrating life be a spiritual practice? Though it may not be the same as sitting alone in a room on a silent retreat or fasting from a certain food for Lent, I’d argue that the practice of Celebration is just as important. I firmly believe that as we humans celebrate the blessings God has given us – especially in the form of cherished friends and family – we participate in practicing the joy He has placed in our hearts, the joy that ought to lead us closer to His heart.

    This past week as I celebrated the gift of life, I was repeatedly drawn back to thankfulness to the Lord for His faithfulness. I pray that as I continue living into this spiritual discipline, that all the joy may only and ever be glorifying to Him.

    As Adele Calhoun concludes her chapter on Celebration:
    “Celebrate the God who celebrates you.”

    I pray that you, my friend, feel celebrated this week by God.
    And maybe even put on a party hat.

    Week Seven: Examen.

    This week, I very acutely realized that I was cranky. After a Nor’easter (a fierce New England storm) knocked out our power on campus – not once but twice – I had had enough.  The darkness of the power outage did not bother me so much as the lack of heat in my bedroom.  Even though I bundled up in my blankets like a hibernating bear in winter, I woke up freezing cold with a sore throat and a sour attitude. Though hot coffee seemed to warm my throat and my perspective, I still felt some residual annoyance at having to deal with the interruption of a power outage.

    I had no idea that my spiritual discipline of Examen would be so appropriate and challenging for this week when I did not feel like being particularly attuned to God’s presence and grace.

    So, what is Examen?

    According to our now much familiar friend Adele Calhoun, here’s the skinny:

    Desire: to reflect on where I was most and least present to God’s love in my day.

    Definition: The examen is a practice for discerning the voice and activity of God within the flow of the day. It is a vehicle that creates deeper awareness of God-given desires in one’s life.

    Practice Includes: a regular time of coming into the presence of God to ask two questions (possible ways of asking the questions are below)

    • For what moment today am I most grateful? For what moment today am I least grateful?
    • When did I give and receive the most love today? When did I give and receive the least love today?
    • What was the most life-giving part of my day? What was the most life-thwarting part of my day?
    • When today did I have the deepest sense of connection with God, others and myself? When today did I have the least sense of connection?”
    (Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, pg. 58)
    *  *  *  *  *

    Though I had intended to go through these questions each night before bedtime, I more so integrated them throughout the day. I especially sought to look for where my heart was at, as well as my attitude, at given moments. In doing this, I realized that my crankiness at the power outage was more a reflection of my choosing not to see the ways God was revealing His presence to me in some sweet ways:

    During the power outage, my suitemates and I delighted at the shadow of a
    bouquet of baby’s breath flowers, caused by a phone flashlight. It was a moment of
    pause and of beauty in an otherwise chaotic night.

    I saw evidence of God’s presence on Wednesday, March 7, on my sister’s would-be birthday.
    I bought this bouquet of flowers from Trader Joe’s in honor of her.
    Though the day was a teary one for me, I was astonished when three hidden white lilies suddenly
    bloomed in all their brilliance. They reminded me that even in the long winters, spring is coming.

    Towards the end of my Examen practice, I used the ‘Pray as you go’ iPhone app (it’s wonderful) to go through one of their guided Examen Prayer practices. Through this practice, I became aware of how God had been present to me throughout the week (even when I was cranky) through His love and His graciousness. I felt His love among my fellow students this week as we crammed into a cold classroom to work on homework. I felt His love through a friend who paid for me to have a yummy Mexican food meal. I felt His love through another friend who gave me money to buy some cute & quirky thrift store finds. I felt His love when on the phone with my family, realizing how well they care for me. I felt His love when a Trader Joe’s employee gave me a free bouquet of flowers since it’s my birthday week.

    And more than anything, I felt His love this morning at church when I received The Eucharist and reflected once again on Jesus being ‘God with us.’

    *  *  *  *  *

    If you’re interested in practicing this spiritual discipline, here’s a collection of guided Examen prayers from Pray as you go:

    *  *  *  *  *
    I hope you find some pause in your week – some time when you can notice and perceive the movements of your heart and the movements of the Spirit.

    Week Six: Self-Care.

    During this season of Lent, a time when I’m especially drawn to thinking about the incarnated suffering of Christ, I’ve also thought of the way I view my own body. I’ve realized that for much of my Christian life, I’ve somewhat functioned as a gnostic – believing that while my spirit can be good (because of Christ’s redemption), my body ought to be tolerated at best. I’ve never really thought of my body as something to rejoice in. However, as I’ve contemplated how Jesus came to earth – how He literally became human and did His ministry as one of us – I’ve realized that God cares more about my body than I seemed to realize.

    Thus, I decided to delve into valuing the body this past week during my spiritual discipline practice of ‘self-care.’

    Here’s how Adele Calhoun describes this discipline:

    Desire: to value myself as my heavenly Father values me.

    Definition: Self-care honors God by nurturing and protecting the limits and desires of the body, mind, and spirit.

    Practice Includes:

    • living in a way that honors your body as a living temple for God’s presence
    • exercising and eating sensibly
    • observing appropriate boundaries
    • resting and keeping the sabbath
    • giving and receiving love
    • thanking God for the way he has designed you
    • encouraging rather than neglecting yourself
    • recognizing and practicing my spiritual gifts
    • choosing healthy rather than unhealthy friendships”
    (Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, pg. 80)
    I love what she writes about the practice:

    “God inhabits our bodies, delighting in every inch of us. Every eccentricity and peculiarity is received. Every longing and self-destructive habit is known. God knows us through and through and still wants to make his home inside of us. The fact that the Holy Spirit wants to abide in us is one way we know how infinitely precious and beloved we are. We are God’s own prized possessions. Prized possessions are something you take care of” (pg. 81).

    *  *  *  *  *

    This week, I sought to give God glory with my body, even in small ways. However, I still struggled with this practice, especially because I can still very much feel that self-care is selfish. Thankfully, author Parker Palmer speaks to this concern when he writes,

    “Self-care in never a selfish act – it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others” (pg. 81).

    So, here’s some of what I did:

    • I ate healthful foods for my meals and snacks (for the most part). Instead of filling up on my usual go-tos (like desserts and…more desserts), I was extra conscious that what I ate would fuel me instead of only satisfying my sugar tooth cravings.
    • I went to the gym to exercise four different times, realizing that getting my body moving is part of taking care of my body and my mind. Each time I exercised, I was struck by how much even a half-hour of sweating could make me more energetic and focused.
    • I was more mindful of when I needed alone time to recharge after a busy day. Even though I was mindful, I largely failed at having this kind of restorative time alone. 
    • I tidied up my room so I could have a cleaner and more livable space. (Side note: exercising more produces much more dirty laundry)
    • I looked into the mirror and considered the truth that I am made in God’s image – that my being made in God’s image is what gives me utter value and what invites me to see others as His dear children. 
    • I bought myself a stuffed bunny, simply because it made gave me joy during a stressful week.
    • I lay down outside on the grass during a 60 degree day, allowing my skin to soak up the sun and my hands to play with the winter-worn grass.
    • I drank lots and lots of water.
    • I bought myself some flowers (the hydrangeas below) to brighten up my room.

    I think learning self-care is a dynamic process, especially learning how to glorify God through it. Also, it’s probably different for each person since we are each beautifully and individually made. 

    I love this song by Audrey Assad called “Humble” because it reminds me that Jesus came to be one of us, a human who felt pain, but still gave His life to redeem us.
    *  *  *  *  *

    When you think about your own body, do you view it as God’s prized possession? Or instead as useless? Or maybe somewhere in between? Because we are made in God’s very image, He values our very physicality. Because we are made in His image, He invites us to delight in how He’s made us – not in a selfish way, but in a way that gives Him glory. So, what does that look like for you? 

    As you think about your own body, I pray that you know how very loved you are by God.

    Week Five: Welcoming Prayer.

    It’s Week Five of practicing a new spiritual discipline, something Adele Calhoun calls ‘Welcoming Prayer.’ And let me tell you, this has been a sweet and dear practice.

    Stained glass at a local Anglican church.
    To me, it’s a reminder of the precious moment Mary said “Welcome, Jesus, welcome.”

    So, overview:

    Desire: to welcome Jesus into every part of my life, body, circumstances and relationships

    Definition: Welcoming prayer is a way to detach from my need to be secure, liked and in control, and attach to the presence of Jesus instead.”

    (Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, pg. 287).

    Additionally, she describes that a ‘welcoming prayer’ can be as simple as uttering, “Welcome, Jesus, welcome” (pg. 287).

    So that’s just what I decided to do – pray, “Welcome, Jesus, welcome” at various times throughout my day. It was a prayer I was aware of throughout the week, and whenever I felt nervous or lonely or confused or stressed, it bubbled forth from my heart: “Welcome, Jesus, welcome.”

    Though three simple words, they bent my heart towards deeper and fuller attention of Jesus’ presence in my life. Here’s some specific moments I prayed this prayer:

    • When I was nervous merging onto the highway: Welcome, Jesus, welcome
    • When I was about to hop on the treadmill to exercise: Welcome, Jesus, welcome
    • When I opened up my homework to read: Welcome, Jesus, welcome
    • When I was getting ready for bed: Welcome, Jesus, welcome
    *  *  *  *  *

    I was shocked (and not so shocked) to notice that as I kept my attention focused on practicing this prayer, my focus was repeatedly turned towards Jesus – how His presence could be so tangibly felt if only I chose to be aware of Him. Usually when I am nervous or lonely or confused or stressed, my first thought is to sink deeper into those feelings instead of asking Jesus to be present to me in the midst of them.
    By choosing to welcome Him into some of the most mundane moments, I started to taste the fruit Calhoun talks about:
    • “Increases awareness of triggers and the things that drive and control you
    • Ability to let go of the agenda and risk on God
    • Surrender of control
    • Growing awareness of the presence of Christ in the events of your life
    • Growing emotional health”
    (pg. 287)
    As much as I try to manipulate and clutch control onto many of my life circumstances, and as strangely comforting it is to nurture my fears instead of to surrender them, I know that Jesus invites me to taste the freedom He freely offers.

    I’m reminded of Matthew 11. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30, NRSV)

    *  *  *  *  *

    What are some ways you may invite Jesus into your life, even in the smallest and seemingly insignificant moments? Perhaps you could welcome Him before you write an email for work, before bedtime, during work, even while installing a light bulb? No moment is too simple to invite His presence into your life.