Lecture 4: EXPERIENCING SPIRITUALITY
(This guest lecture by the Reverend Linda Mitchell, D.Min.
(firstname.lastname@example.org) is the 4th in a six-lecture series on “Interfaith
Spirituality” presented to the Senior University Georgetown lifelong
learning program for their Winter-Spring 2008 program.)
Presented: 18 February 2008
We very well may be our own proof of the existence of the spirit, or soul, if deep within we experience:
* A profound something, not to be quieted
* Negative emotions such as emptiness, aching, anguish, incompleteness,
sadness at something lost or unavailable, a sense of internal brokenness
* Positive feelings as yearning, craving, desire, hope.
Karl Barth, 20th century Christian theologian describes a “universal
homesickness” and, throughout life, we attempt to fill the echoing
lack. My experience and reading convince me that such feelings exist
embedded within each of us. The heart of our homesickness is that
somewhere, somehow, there is something or someone through which meaning
can flow back over the whole. I suspect that you are in this class
because you experience that “universal homesickness,” those yearnings,
those heart’s desires.
Country music provides a secular version of this yearning or emptiness.
Broadway musicals sing of this human condition. Carousel’s “You’ll
Never Walk Alone” is a way of coping with the negative. In West Side
Story, the positive yearning is that “There’s A Place for Us…”
somewhere. In The Wizard of Oz, the pining is for “somewhere over the
rainbow.” At one point or another, each of us ponders, “surely, there
is more beyond suffering, tragedy and death.” The name behind such
yearning is God, the Divine, the Ultimate Concern, Yahweh, Jehovah,
Allah, Krishna, Shang di, Brahman, Spirit.
So it has been for me. My own story begins with the emptiness of being
an only child in a dysfunctional family. I was claimed increasingly by
the WHY questions, which the Roman Catholic education system abhorred
in the ‘50s and ‘60s and life on the south side of Chicago did not
touch. This yearning was invaded by a bizarre drivenness for success in
athletics, dance, gymnastics, scrambling for degrees, and an obsessive
compulsion to “become someone.” My misdirected ambition led to
self-destructive behavior, unethical decisions, and disastrous
relationships. I had followed paths that I thought would bring
fulfillment in my life, only to discover a daunting emptiness. I
yearned for something more, something that I realized I was incapable
of producing for myself. Desire led me.
Yet on a solitary hike in the foothills in the Sierra Madres of Tecate,
Mexico in the booming silence, I sensed what it might mean to be
filled, to become lost in the Divine, by giving myself
away—surrendering myself in a way paradoxical to the values of our
society of winner take all. Salvation came to me on that
mountaintop. The Greek root for the word salvation is sozo which means
literally healthy, moving to wholeness. I was being saved, delivered,
and beginning my restoration to wholeness. The organic healing
process began: the integrative formation of my body, mind and spirit.
For me, Anne Lamott’s statement stands true for my journey: “Religion
is for people afraid of hell; spirituality is for people who have been
What is “wholeness?” Its definition is debated by scholars far
more insightful, intelligent, and introspective than me. My
description is derived from my early experiences as a child attending
the 111th Street YMCA. Wholeness is the integration of the body, mind,
and spirit of an individual—the self cannot be compartmentalized. My
body’s condition affects both my mind and spirit. My mind’s state
affects both my spirit and my body and so on. We develop the
capabilities of our body, mind, and spirit not simultaneously or in any
particular pattern, but circumstantially, as our life unfolds. Society
stresses and gives ample opportunities to progress both intellectually
and physically. Our Western culture applauds and rewards the
development of intellectual capacities and extraordinary physical
competence. Until recently, however, such has not been the case for our
What is my understanding of spirituality? In one sense it is
simply the capacity for a spiritual life—the universal capacity to
receive, to reflect, and to respond to the Spirit of the Divine. In
practical terms, spirituality is the way we realize this spiritual
potential. It involves conscious awareness of, and acquiescence to, the
work of the Spirit in us. Spirituality points to a path—to choices of
belief, value commitments, patterns of life, and practices of faith
that allow the Divine to be formed in us. Marjorie J. Thompson,
in Soul Feast, speaks of the spiritual life as “the increasing vitality
and sway of the Spirit in us, a magnificent choreography of the Spirit
in the human spirit” stirring and moving us to communion with the
Divine, one another, and creation. Spirituality is dynamic, alive, and
Many folks that I know, who have what I want—which is to say, purpose,
heart, balance, gratitude, joy—are folks with a deep sense of
spirituality. They follow a light brighter than the glimmer of their
own candle; they are a part of something beautiful. What they have
found in life is very simple, but not easy. They may or may not have
had a journey similar to mine.
Approaches to the spiritual journey are myriad. However, many spiritual
seekers might claim that a helpful introduction to the spiritual path
is experiencing contemplative presence. Blaise Pascal once intimated
that all human evils derive from our inability to sit still in a room.
Quieting down and focusing long enough to listen to the voice of the
Spirit within us and within our noisy circumstances is perhaps one of
the most important things that we can do for ourselves.
Practicing contemplative presence enables me to appreciate reality—the
actual world—most directly and accurately and invites me to take, what
Walter Burghardt describes as a “long, loving, look at the real.” Each
word is vital. The real, reality, is not reducible to some far-off
abstract, intangible spirit. Reality is living, pulsing people; reality
is fire and ice; reality is a sunset, a child lapping an ice cream
cone, Beethoven’s Mass in D, reality is a young wind-blown woman
striding down the street. I enter into it. I do not analyze, describe,
or define. I am most myself, most human, most whole, most
contemplative when my whole person responds to the real. Lounging by a
clear stream, I don’t exclaim, “Ah, H2O!” I let the water trickle
gently through my fingers experiencing the tactile sensation of that
To “look” wholly means that my entire person responds--not only my
mind, but my ears and eyes, smelling, tasting, and touching. There is
far more openness, far more letting go, than we were permitted of old.
The look at the real is long, not in terms of measured time, but
wonderfully unhurried. To contemplate is to rest in the real—not
lifelessly, not inertly, but alive and responsive, vibrating to every
throb of the real. I do not clock sitting on the beach, listening,
feeling, smelling, and tasting the ocean. This long look is a loving
look—not a fixed stare. Whatever or whoever is the real, in that
moment, calls forth love and oneness with the other. Contemplation is
not study, examination, or a computer. To contemplate is to be in
love. From such contemplation comes communion. I mean the
discovery of the Holy in deep, thoughtful encounters-- with
creation, with people, with self, and with the Divine. The spirit grows
within us as the moments of practicing contemplative presence, those
times of “noticing,” present themselves more often as time goes
on. More moments begin to shimmer in recognition of the Spirit.
Experiential: In these few silent moments can you remember a time when
you took a “long, loving look at the real?” Did you recognize that you
were in the present moment? How did it happen? How did it feel to you?
What might it mean to you today?
In the spiritual discipline of contemplative prayer, or what many
may term “meditation,” the intent is to lose oneself in the fact of
being, by quieting the mind, or focusing on one’s center. All thoughts
are turned off, stopping one in the immediacy of the now. Contemplative
prayer means refraining from doing for the sake of being. Such a state
has been variously described as resting in the Divine, losing oneself
to find one’s self, or transcending the subject-object split. Whatever
the method used, the goal is to turn off the mind.
* Assume a relaxed position; breathe deeply. Permit a request, phrase,
or word to surface from within. Repeat it over and over, giving the
mind an undemanding activity to keep it out of the way, so that the
self can lose itself. Any phrase or word, often called a mantra, will
do, but many individuals find names for the Divine, or words such as
peace, love, hope, grace, or a phrase such as heal my
brokenness...let me feel your love…
* Keep repeating the word or phrase at the slowest speed needed to keep
the mind occupied. If the mind wanders, increase the speed. Let the
speed decrease until a moment comes when all separation is overcome.
* End the experience gently, with a thankfulness that prepares you to
taste the Mystery of Presence in other dimensions of your living.
* In the beginning, take brief periods of time for your contemplative prayer, increasing time as you see fit.
My dissertation advisor, a monk/priest/retired seminary professor,
explained that in the monastery monks use two-handled cups, for
contemplative reasons. While most of us drink coffee mindlessly from a
cup held in one hand while doing something with the other, the monk
grasps the shape of his cup with both hands and is rendered unavailable
to do anything else except to be totally absorbed in the act of
drinking, lost in the experience.
Each of these spiritual exercises and the following encourage us to
remain in the moment—not speeding ahead to the future nor lagging
behind in the past. Both of these play a significant role in the
spiritual disciplines and we will get to those disciplines.
Spiritual disciplines are like garden tools. The best spade and hoe may
be used, but it does not guarantee a great crop. The seed planted grows
from within and includes variables such as weather and soil. But those
tools can make growth more likely by assisting in removing some of the
obstacles of growth, such as removing stones or interfering roots.
Garden help ensure that the planted seeds will bear fruit.
Another discipline is referred to as “Lectio Divina” meaning,
from the Latin, meaning “sacred reading.” Imagine for a moment that you
have received a handwritten from a dear friend. You might read this
letter over and over again, thoughtfully, savoring each word. In it you
discover how it is with one who is dear to your heart, what he/she is
thinking, experiencing, questioning. Reading your friend’s letter
brings a sense of your friend’s presence in that moment.
Perhaps, you pick up the newspaper. You begin paging through it, your
eyes skim the headlines, news photos, and captions. You may scan
articles that catch your interest. You might even stand up to read, in
order to grasp information quickly in order to return to those
unfinished tasks. Macrina Wiederkehr describes it well: “We do not
always realize what a radical suggestion it is to read to be formed and
transformed rather than to gather information. We are information
seekers. We love to cover territory.”
Lectio divina, or sacred reading has much more to do with my first
example rather than my second. Its purpose is to open us to how the
Divine may be speaking to us and through any particular text. Spiritual
reading is like drinking in the words of a love letter or pondering the
words of a poem. It is a meditative approach to the written word.
For many the Bible is the lake whose depths have never been fully
plumbed or individuals may prefer sacred texts from other religions.
The process can be applied to devotional literature or good spiritual
poetry. Several suggested texts are listed in the bibliography.
* Find a comfortable position and be aware of your breath.
* The text will be read aloud, slowly, three times—with time for reflection after each reading.
* 1st reading: Listen to the words; allow meanings to sink in; let
associations arise, images to surface. Remain with a word or phrase
that strikes you. Turn it over in your mind and heart…During the quiet
time, I invited you ask: Why did this phrase or that word leap at me?
* 2nd reading: As you listen, rest with the question. Why this word or
phrase? Why do I need to hear that word at this particular time? During
the quiet time, I invite you to ask: What can I discover about me and
my life experience from this word or phrase?
* 3rd reading: Listen with these questions in your heart: How does this
encounter move me to either “be” or “do.” How does this reading move me
regarding my relationship with the Divine, with myself, or another?
During the quiet moments, I invite you to gently lift out of your
thoughts, perhaps, expressing for what you have experienced.
At home, you may find a quiet space and exercise this discipline alone.
Read the text aloud to your self in order to grasp the sound of the
words. Allow both your ears and heart to hear.
A diary is a daily record of things. A spiritual journal, in
contrast, is an exercise in discernment, reflecting on both our
internal and external life, paying particular attention to our
feelings. It becomes an honest record of our life from the inside, the
deeper meaning of which is often discerned only by rereading later.
Through spiritual journaling, patterns begin to emerge that give
negative and positive hints concerning the shape of the whole.
Journaling can be said to be a primary type of personal self-direction.
One way a journal can become invaluable to the spiritual journey is by
recording our dreams. Sacred texts from many traditions record numerous
episodes where the Divine communicates with persons through dreams.
Sleep loosens the conscious mind’s control over our storehouse of
memory and imagination. I invite you to treat a dream as if it is the
spirit’s memory within you. While some meanings of dreams are apparent,
many are worth sharing with a spiritual director or a spiritual friend.
Journaling can also assist spiritual growth is through recording an
Examination of Consciousness —the spiritual process of becoming aware
of the content of our consciousness, so we may learn more about our
responses to life, to others, and the Divine. It is concerned with the
level of awareness rather than with character flaws and behavioral
lapses. In the examen, attention is paid to both the good and the bad,
noticing our state of mind and heart during various events and
interactions of each day. “Consciousness” includes awareness of both
external and internal realities. We are conscious of physical, sensory
data: places, people, places, sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and
textures of life. We are also conscious of mental and emotional data:
our thoughts, questions, beliefs, commitments, observations, feelings,
and suspicions. The purpose of the examen is twofold: to see where I
have “noticed” the presence of the Divine today and to see where I have
or have not responded to that presence. How do we “notice” the presence
of the Divine, we ask ourselves but two questions at day’s end. They
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?
When did I feel most alive today? What did I most feel life draining out of me?
When was I happiest today? When was I saddest?
The daily examen can make us aware of moments that at first we might
easily pass by as insignificant, moments that ultimately can give
directions to our lives. We can begin to see patterns arising. We begin
to “notice” the presence of the Divine during the most alive, happiest,
and grateful moments. We also begin to understand which activities
require deliberation to decide if they are a positive influence in our
In a culture obsessed with consumption, I believe fasting need to be
considered a spiritual discipline in terms of its inner dynamic:
abstinence. Abstinence from the Latin refers to the denial of the
appetites, holding one’s self back. The point of abstinence is not the
denial of all enjoyment of life. Its purpose is to learn to rightly
enjoy what we have. We need disciplines of abstinence because we have
come to relate food, drink, sex, money, recognition and many lovely
gifts to be enjoyed in moderation, but as objects of consumption to
fill emotional voids. When we find ourselves being consumed by what we
consume and being possessed by what we possess, the only way back to
health and balance is to refrain from using those things that have
control over us. We may abstain from: constant media stimulation;
over-processed foods; fast foods; needless shopping sprees; overbooked
schedules; throwing away packaging in our disposable culture.
With so many ways to practice fasting through abstinence, we need to
make choices appropriate to our character and our lifestyle. Behind
every fitting choice of abstinence lies the question, What do I do in
excess? What do I do to excess reveals my inordinate desires, my
compulsions, the attachments that have control over me. Fasting is not
primarily a discipline through which I gain greater control over my
life, but one through which the Divine gains access to redirect and
heal me in body, mind and spirit.
In order to follow a
spiritual path, oftentimes, desires an individual with whom to walk the
path. Spiritual direction, classically defined, is the relationship of
a teacher and a learner in the area of practicing the spiritual life.
Every faith tradition in the world has mentor-learner relationships.
Spiritual direction, today, is the guidance one offers another to help
that person grow in the spirit. A spiritual guide is someone who can
help us see and name our own experience of God. Most often, spiritual
directors act as companions, encouraging and supporting, praying for
their directees, listening, and sharing the learnings of their own
life’s journey. There are qualified spiritual directors in this
community and in the surrounding areas. When seeking a spiritual
director look for:
* An individual with a certain maturity of faith.
* Someone who knows he/she is not perfect.
* A patient and attentive listener.
* A person who invites trust.
* A mentor who places his/her trust in the guidance of the Spirit.
The spiritual life is not one slice of existence, but leaven for the
whole loaf. It is the broadest, most encompassing dimension of who we
are, embracing in its mystery what we call physical, mental, emotional,
and volitional aspects of life. Nothing that we do, think, or imagine
is without its impact on our spiritual life, and the spiritual life
influences every other dimension of our being. Spirituality is
Other Activities That Are Used to Promote Spirituality
Here are a few of the many Spiritual Disciplines available:
Sacred reading (Lectio Divina)
Journaling Examen of
Fasting Sabbath Time
Silence and Solitude
Simplicity & Possessions
Development of a “Rule for Life”
Entering One’s Shadow
Hagiology (Study of models/saints of
The Spirit insists on
transforming you and me at every level of our entire life: personal,
social, economic, and political. Prayer and service, contemplation and
action, and individual and community are not sets of opposites.
Nurturing the inner life and addressing social realities are both
important aspects of spiritual life.
Our world is hungry for men and women who know and are known by the
Spirit, for I believe that such individuals can give to today’s
paradoxical and desperate world the witness to a living Spirit that our
age demands. I hope that by briefly addressing the experiential side of
the spiritual life and by describing a few of the spiritual
disciplines/exercises you will be inspired to continue exploring the
spiritual journey and life in the Spirit.
Barks, Coleman. The Soul of Rumi: A New Collection of Ecstatic Poems. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001
Burghardt, Walter J. “Contemplation: A Long, Loving Look at the Real.” Church (Winter 1989): 14-18. (Journal article)
Chaffee, Paul & Judith Favor (Eds). Spirit Awakening: A Book of Practices.
A Spiritual Renewal Priority Publication of the Northern California
Conference-United Church of Christ. San Francisco: Word/Press, 1989.
Foster, Richard J. Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1989.
Fowler, James W. Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. New York: HarperCollins, 1981.
Guenther, Margaret, Holy Listening. Cambridge, MS: Cowley Press, 1992.
Jones, W. Paul. The Art of Spiritual Direction: Giving and Receiving Spiritual Guidance. Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 2002.
Keating, John. Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel. New York, NY: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1986.
Lamott, Anne. Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. New York: Anchor Books, 1999
Linn, Dennis, Shelia Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn. Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life. Mahwah, NY: Paulist Press, 1995.
May, Gerald. The Awakened Heart. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993.
May, Gerald. Care of Mind/Care of Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores Spiritual Direction. New york: HarperCollins, Paperback edition, 1992. First published 1982.
May, Gerald. Simply Sane: The Spirituality of Mental Health. New York: Crossroad, 1977.
Newell, J.Philip. Echo of the Soul: The Sacred of the Human Body. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2000.
Oliver, Mary. Why I Wake Early. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004.
Palmer, Parker J. The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1990.
Roth, Nancy. An Invitation to Christian Yoga. Boston: Cowley Publications, 1989.
Sheldrake, Philip. Befriending Our Desires. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1994.
Sheldrake, Philip. A Brief History of Spirituality. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.
Stairs, Jean. Listening for the Soul: Pastoral Care and Spiritual Direction. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.
Thompson, Marjorie. Soul Feast. Louisville, KT: Westminster/John Knox, 2005.
Vennard, Jane E. Praying with Body and Soul: A Way to Intimacy with God. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Press, 1998.
Vest, Norvene, ed. Still Listening: New Horizons in Spiritual Direction. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2000.
Wilber, Ken. Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Most and Postmodern World. Boston & London: Integral Books, 2006.
Overhead quotes used:
“I don’t know Who— or
what—put the question, I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even
remember answering. But at some moment I did answer yes to Someone—or
Something—from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and
that, therefore my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.”
—Dag Nammarskjold, Secretary of the United Nations, 1953-1961
“Religion is for people who are afraid of hell; spirituality is for people who have been there.” —Anne Lamott; Traveling Mercies
Our contemporary trap is…” believing that everything can be explained,
that reality is a simple affair which has only to be organized in order
to be mastered. All enigmas can be solved, and all wonder is nothing
‘but the effect of novelty upon ignorance.’”
—Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Between God and Man...
“We do not always realize what a radical suggestion it is for us to
read to be formed and transformed rather than to gather information. We
are information seekers. We love to cover territory.”
—Marcrina Wiederkehr A Tree Full of Angels: Seeing the Holy
in the Ordinary
In the spiritual practice of contemplative presence one is invited to
take “a long, loving look at the real.” —Walter Burghardt
“Contemplation: A Long, Loving Look at the Real”
Church, Winter 1989
“Contemplative practice brings expanded perception, enhanced
responsiveness, and greater self-knowledge.” —Gerald G. May,
MD The Awakened Heart
Linda’s understanding of spirituality...
In one sense it is simply the capacity for a spiritual life—the
universal capacity to receive, to reflect, and to respond to the Spirit
of the Divine. In practical terms, spirituality is the way we realize
this spiritual potential. It involves conscious awareness of, and
acquiescence to, the work of the Spirit in us. Spirituality points to a
path—to choices of belief, value commitments, patterns of life, and
practices of faith that allow the Divine to be formed in us.
Marjorie J. Thompson, in Soul Feast,
speaks of the spiritual life as “the increasing vitality and sway of
the Spirit in us, a magnificent choreography of the Spirit in the human
spirit” stirring and moving us to communion with the Divine, one
another, and creation. Spirituality is dynamic, alive, and never static!