Spiritual Aerobics–Making Choices

Spiritual Aerobics
Spiritual Aerobics:
To go with the “Making Choices” reflection just posted moments ago

  1. Consider something in your life that feels “stuck” or undecided. What is one, small positive step you could take to move the process along? (Example: Making one phone call to gather info about the matter.) 

 2. Journaling: Think of a time in your past when you made a good decision. What helped you through the process of decision-making at that time?

(Photo credit: “Yoga” by Zdenka Darula–Dreamstime)

Making Choices: What’s the next step?

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
            Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao-Tzu

A number of years ago, while discussing an issue with my spiritual director, I suddenly burst out, “I wish God would just give me a recipe for my life.”           

To this, the saintly elder nun replied, “What kind of God would that be?”  

This answer caught me off guard, and since then I have pondered its meaning many times. Certainly God gives us various guidelines for the spiritual journey, but God also gives us the free will to choose the many ways in which we can express our love.  

Would I really wish that God decided everything for me? Wouldn’t that make me a puppet on a string or a computer that was just programmed to act in a predetermined manner?

 If one believes, with Saint John the Apostle, that God is love, or at least believes in living according to the ways of compassion, then it follows that we are given freedom in order to choose the many ways in which to express a healthy love for God, self, and one another.  

 What’s the next step? 

When I feel a little “stuck” in a project or indecisive about something, I consider a question I first heard about in a spiritual direction training course: What’s the next step?   

Retreat leader Pierre Wolff describes this method in his book Discernment: The Art of Choosing Well (Liguori, Revised edition, 2003, pages 27-30).  Focusing on just one step forward in love can help us keep from giving up a seemingly monumental project before we even begin. One step at a time also keeps us from expecting ourselves to have everything figured out and the decision completed within an unreasonable time frame.  

I also find that simply taking one simple step helps me keep from putting off something indefinitely. I can sort one pile of clutter rather than set myself up to clear out all the cobwebs of my house in a day (an unreasonable goal that is destined for failure). If I am feeling “stuck” in a writing project, I can ask myself, what is the one thing I could do today to move it along? If I’m experiencing a strained relationship, I can select one little way to reach out to the person with compassion.           

 A journey of a thousand miles. . .

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” This wise saying is attributed to Lao-Tzu, a major spiritual figure in Taoism. (Some say that the saying originated with Confucius.)  

I believe that it is true that the little tasks we do, the little decisions to love, the day-to-day ways we treat each other, gradually add up to something tremendous, as Mother Teresa was fond of saying, “something beautiful for God.”

However, there is another meaning to this saying that is not readily apparent in the English translation. According to the website Quotationspage.com, the original Chinese proverb can also be translated into English in this way: “The journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet,” or “Even the longest journey must begin where you stand.” It is explained that this translation means that actions are best when they arise out of stillness.  

That means, when you are thinking about a choice, or doing some action, stop to think about it first. Take a walk alone to think it over, meditate, mull it over a bit in your journal, or spend some time praying about it. Listen to where the Spirit is moving in your heart.  

Hmmm… Isn’t that what Jesus did when he went out in the desert to pray, before beginning his public ministry, before selecting his ministry companions?  

Just for today, let us ask ourselves, with the attitude of compassion, what’s the next step?   

For reflection: What do you find helps you make good decisions?

Dealing with Fear

“And you kill what you fear
And you fear what you  don’t understand”
                        –Lyrics from “Duke’s Travels” by Genesis
Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid!”
                        –Words of Jesus in Mark 6:50

Sparrow photo by Marek Kosmal –Dreamstime.com

Have you ever noticed how fear permeates our society like a kind of illness? Although it is part of the human condition to have to deal with a certain amount of tension, it seems to me that the overall anxiety level of our culture has escalated in the past decade.

 While humans have always had to deal with fear, Americans are bombarded with negative, anxiety-producing messages every day, thanks to the many forms of modern communication. Advertisers play on our underlying nervousness about becoming old, infirm, weak, or ugly. Politicians stoke our fears in order to gain votes. Religious preachers speak of a terrifying time they call Armageddon (Is this supposed to make me want to join their church?), while environmentalists warn about catastrophe caused by global warming.

It’s not that we shouldn’t be concerned about issues of our day or things that touch our lives in big and small ways. However, I am concerned that too many decisions are made out of raw fear and too many of us are stuck in a fear-based lifestyle. 

I’m not immune to the effects of all the negative messages that surround us and infect us with anxiety. In fact, it is because of my own fears that I am exploring this problem here on the Spiritual Drawing Board. 

As part of the human condition, fear has its place. When you see a runaway semi-trailer headed your way, fear can make you swerve to avoid collision. “Fear of God” (healthy respect) can motivate a person to change his or her life for the better. Feeling an intuitive fear in an unusual situation sometimes warns us of real danger.  

But—and here’s the big question—how does one reconcile all this anxiety, fear-centeredness, and fear-mongering with the words Jesus said repeatedly, “Be not afraid”? So many people in our country say they believe in Christ, claim to follow his teachings, and even want to call America a “Christian nation” (something that makes me uncomfortable), while at the same time acting fearful about all sorts of dangers, real and imagined, creating scary scenarios, and spreading ideas that only serve to increase fear.  

However, is this how the real Jesus of Nazareth would want us to live? As slaves to fear? Jesus himself experienced a kind of fear or agony in the garden just prior to his arrest and death on the cross, but he did not let that anxiety stop him from accomplishing God’s plan for his life. Jesus trusted God, his Abba (Father/Daddy) completely. This trust was not the belief that nothing bad would ever happen, but rather that God was always with him, through both the good times and the bad times. 

In the gospels, Jesus tells people again and again not to be afraid—and these people he spoke with had a good deal more to be afraid of than the average American of today. Most of his listeners did not have the abundance of possessions that most of us have, they did not have credit cards, life insurance, or the advanced health care we have today. Most of Jesus’ friends would not have been considered full-fledged citizens (his early followers were Middle Eastern Jews living under Roman rule). In fact, in the years that followed Jesus’ death, some of them would give their own lives for following Christ—and yet, Jesus told them don’t be afraid. 

As the year 2011 continues to unfold, there are many challenges ahead. Jesus did not promise us we would never suffer, but rather that he would be with us in our suffering. The Divine Spirit is with us in the depths of our hearts. Christ is with us when we gather together for worship, Word, and Sacrament. When we are attentive to God’s presence, we hear not the voice of fear and darkness, but rather the still, tender voice of the Holy Spirit. 

Sparrow--by Marek Kosmal --Dreamstime

“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs on your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”     –Jesus in Matthew 10:28-31.

Note: The sparrow images in this post are segments of an image by photographer Marek Kosmal (Pixelman) from Knurów, Poland and obtained through a free-use agreement with Dreamstime. To view the original photo, follow this link: http://www.dreamstime.com/free-stock-photo-sparrows-rimagefree1279766-resi1238037    .  Many thanks, Pixelman!

The Breath Prayer Revisited

A simple way to pray everyday

Blue sky with snowy branches in Eagan MN

A number of years ago, I published an article about the “breath prayer” a contemplative nun had taught me. Since then, I have found this way of praying to be such a blessing that I would like to share it with readers once again.

 There are many ways of meditating in relation to breathing, but this one is called the breath prayer because it only takes the space of one breath to say it.

 In the years since writing that article, I have found I like using the prayer of Jesus on the cross: “Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit” (Luke 23:46).  I can connect the first part of the sentence with inhaling and the second part with exhaling. (Do not hyperventilate. Prayer is not about creating “special effects”!)

 Over the years, I have developed a simplified version: “Your hands / my spirit.” This short version is like the code talk of lovers: God knows what I mean. Putting myself in God’s hands takes me out of my own self-focus of controlling, fixing, and do-do-doing, so that God can be in charge of the moment.

 Some Christians are concerned about using mantras or repetitive prayers, but I do not feel believe that is a problem in this case, unless you are counting up how many times you say the breath prayer and then expecting God to pay you in return for your effort.

 At any rate, there is no need to say the breath prayer a million times. After a while, you may find yourself drawn into a quiet space in the presence of God. At that point, by all means, let go of words. You may just feel like a little child resting in the warm glow of the loving arms of God. At that point, who needs words?


For more info, here is the original article  from 2003:

“Pray without ceasing,” writes Saint Paul in the First Letter to the Thessalonians (5:17).

“Isn’t that a sweet sentiment?!” I think to myself, somewhat sarcastically. How can the typical Christian pray always, even amidst rambunctious toddlers or ballistic office phones?

It is tempting to shrug our shoulders and leave all that endless praying stuff to the monks. However, I notice that St. Paul was not preaching to cloistered religious folk, but ordinary baptized believers like me.

Over the course of church history, to “pray without ceasing” has come to mean developing an ongoing awareness of God’s loving presence in every moment. Although we need specific “quality time” for prayer each day, we also gratefully recall the divine presence while washing dishes, meeting with a client, or repairing roof shingles.

A Carmelite nun I know (who wishes to remain anonymous) teaches visiting retreatants a way to encourage awareness of God’s presence through a method she calls the “breath prayer.” After forty-seven years as a nun, she has found the breath prayer to be a great help to people both inside and outside the cloister.

The breath prayer, Sister explains, is like the traditional “ejaculatory prayer,” because it is very short and can be used anytime and any place. However, when one prays the breath prayer, the words are said inwardly, slowly, and in unison with one’s breath. One recalls that we depend on breath for life, and it is the Creator who breathed life into us in the very beginning. God is closer to us than even our breath. If we do not breathe, our bodies die, Sister reminds us, and if we do not pray, we die spiritually.

To compose your own breath prayer, Sister suggests first selecting your favorite name for God (Spirit, Abba, etc.). Next, add a short phrase expressing your love or petition. “My God, I love you,” “Shepherd, guide me,” or “Jesus, help me to love like you” are three examples of breath prayers. Pray the first part of your prayer while inhaling and the second part while exhaling. (If you are tense—like me!—let the prayer slow you down. Do not overdo the breathing. Remember, the main point is to gently focus on God’s presence.) 

You can also use your favorite Scripture verse, in simplified form, for your breath prayer. For example, the words of Mary, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38), can become the breath prayer: “Be / it done.” Jesus’ words, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34) becomes the breath prayer “Father / forgive them.”

After choosing your breath prayer, select some mental cues to remind you to pray during your average work day. For example, a teacher prays briefly every time the school bell rings. A dentist prays every time she washes her hands. Use your breath prayer when standing in line, downloading computer files, walking down the street, or even when feeling stressed or angry.

Over time, Sister says, the practice of the breath prayer prepares our hearts for other forms of prayer. Gradually, turning to God inwardly during daily tasks will become more and more natural, as natural as breathing itself.

Grandma’s Quilt

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever . . .   

                                                –John Keats, 19th century

Amish Quilt from Minnesota

 The smallest things can make an impression on a child. I remember the first time I experienced the beauty of patchwork quilts. I was spending the night at Grandma’s house, and she covered me with one of her own quilt creations. As she explained the pieces, my eyes lit on fabric squares of the same cloth she had used to make my doll’s clothes. It seemed a kind of magic: the same fabric in both places? How did she do that?

 Quilts remind us that nature is not the only place that beauty can be found. People can use their God-given talents to co-create with God. One way this is expressed is in the way women arrange “little scraps” together to form something artistic, giving us a glimpse of spiritual beauty. When our eyes behold a striking pattern, we pause in delight, even if only for a second. This pause grants us a little rest from the busyness of life, an opportunity to whisper a prayer of thanks.

Juggling the many pieces of my life often feels helter-skelter and confused, but a quilt reminds me that God is sewing these elements together into a pattern. I just don’t see the bigger picture in the moment—a picture that is bigger and better than just I, me, mine. Continue reading “Grandma’s Quilt”

Sunrise over Eagan, Minnesota, USA

Every day God sends us beautiful images in the nature all around us, but I often miss these gifts because my mind is too occupied with planning, working, worrying, and a host of other things.

Sometimes, as I am writing, I pause in my work and look out the window. On the day I took this picture (see the header image above) the sun’s rays were painting a lovely work of art. I know from past experience that such a view is fragile and easily lost. I dropped everything, grabbed my camera, and now I have something that reminds me of the simple-yet-awesome works of God.

What you do not see in this picture is that I live in a very ordinary suburb (okay, it’s a nice suburb, but not really unusual as far as suburbs go) with very ordinary things going on beneath this sky: commuters are packing their cars and sleepy teens are trudging toward the bus stop. Houses form a haphazard pattern on what was once a huge area of farmland, a place where once the woods met the wild prairie lands.

These other things are not shown in the photo so that we might focus our hearts and minds on something other than our own doings for a moment: to observe the great beauty in this world, even in the midst of what can seem at times a real drag of work, day in, day out.

I believe God is immanently present to us, in our hearts, our work, our play, and our relationships. I also think that sometimes we need a sunrise like this to help us remember that God is also transcendent. The light in the sky reminds me that there is something beyond my own petty worries and obsessions. Whatever the sorrow and suffering in life—and there truly is a lot of that—God still loves us and wants to bring us to something better, something filled with love and beauty.

For reflection: Did you ever see a simple work of nature that warmed your heart, perhaps on the most ordinary of days?