(This guest lecture by the Reverend Linda Mitchell, D.Min. (revlsm@aol.com) 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 there.”

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 spiritual dimension.

 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 never static!

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 moment.

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.

Experiential Exercise:
* 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.

Experiential Exercise:
* 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 may be:
   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 lives.

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.

Spiritual Direction

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 naturally holistic.

Other Activities That Are Used to Promote Spirituality

Here are a few of the many Spiritual Disciplines available:
Practicing contemplative presence/noticing.                Sacred reading (Lectio Divina)
Journaling        Examen of Consciousness        Listening/Contemplative prayer/meditation          Prayer
Fasting    Sabbath Time        Spiritual Director        Hospitality      Image Contemplation            Silence and Solitude
Sacred spaces                Nature         The Arts/Poetry/Creativity        Simplicity & Possessions
Dance                    Yoga/Body Prayer      Labyrinth                Development of a “Rule for Life”
Desert Experience            Dreams          Finitude                Memorization
Entering One’s Shadow        Enneagram                               Work                    Hagiology  (Study of models/saints of spiritual faithfulness)


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!