If you are here to explore working with a Spiritual Director, you may well be in the right place. Explore the site, listen to how you feel while reading what's written here, and if you'd like to be in touch, the Let's Get Started page will put us together.

The spirit of my practice can be summed up in these words (adapted from Robert Mabry Doss): For those who come here seeking God ... may God go with you. For those who come embracing life ... may life return your affection. And for those who come to seek a path ... may a way be found, and the courage to take it step by step.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Talking To Yourself

Today I want to offer an exercise.  You can do it once, or several times.  You can do it in your head, out loud, or in a journal.  The only thing you need, really, is the right attitude -- be playful.  If you over-think it, it won't work.  If it does work for you, though, it this can be really illuminating.

Think back to a time when you thought you had a pretty good idea of how you wanted your life to be.  Maybe you were 16 when you had it all figured out; maybe you were 12.  Maybe, for you, it was even a little younger than that, or a little older.  It is certainly possible that at different ages you had it all "figured out" in different ways.  So here's your first chance to avoid over-thinking.  Don't try to come up with the "right" age, the "perfect" age.  Just think back to a time when you thought you had a pretty good idea of how you wanted your life to be.

When you have an age in mind, create a scene for this younger you.  What were your favorite things to wear?  What kind of music would you have been listening to?  Would your room have smelled like incense (or something else)?  Or do you see yourself somewhere else?  Try to imagine yourself, at the age you've chosen, in a setting that makes sense to you, and try to give all of your senses something to play with.

Then imagine you, as you are now, entering the scene.  Introduce yourself to your younger you.  Make whatever small talk comes to you, and then ask the question:  so ... how do you think I've done with your life?

Remember ... don't over-think this.  If a feeling comes up, listen to it.  If words -- whether they surprise you or not -- go with them.  Don't question your younger you's responses, just pay attention to them.  Ask questions, but don't challenge or defend.

It's good to make some kind of record.  Write the "conversation" down in a journal, if that works for you.  Record yourself narrating the encounter, if that's easier.  And -- once more -- don't over-think this.  Be playful.  Be curious.  If you like, think of this as a kind of lucid dream, and see what you might learn from it.

Pax tecum,


Monday, January 15, 2018

If Only ...

My wife and I were each born, and grew up, in New York State.  I went to college in Ithaca -- for the first two years, at least -- where lake effect snow from Lake Cayuga means it snows during the winter!  For a time my wife and I lived outside of Boston, and for my first settled ministry we moved to Yarmouth, Maine (north of Portland and south of L. L. Bean).  We lived there for a little more than a decade, and that's where our kids came into the picture.

Speaking of pictures, somewhere I have a picture of our boys as toddlers, making their way through the paths we'd shoveled from the front and back door to the road.  The walls of the paths were taller than the kids!  And there's a picture I took to show a friend in Texas that Maine winters weren't all that bad -- I'm wearing snowshoes, standing on the two or three feet of snow in the front lawn, shoveling snow off the roof!

All this to say ... my family and I like snow.  Love it, actually.  And now we live in Charlottesville, Virginia where they close the schools because of a "prediction of precipitation later in the day that might cause icy conditions."  There might be icy conditions on the roads later in the day, so the closed school entirely.  I do understand that even slightly icy conditions can be treacherous, especially if you're not used to driving with ice on the road, and you live on one of the way-back-there country roads.  I get that, and I'm glad the schools put the kids' safety first.  Still, it's hard not to make fun of school being canceled for a Prediction-of-Precipitation-Later-in-the-Day day.

Even when it does snow here, very often the temperatures shoot right back up within a day or two and everything melts.  In Maine, the first flakes to fall at the end of October could still be on the ground, under a mountain of their followers, at the time Mud Season begins in what others call the Spring.  Here?  You can be back out in a tee shirt and shorts by the end of the week.

It does get cold, though.  Not Ithaca, Boston, or Yarmouth cold, but cold enough.  And when it does, invariably someone in the family will say something to the effect of, "I don't mind the cold ... as long as there's snow on the ground.  Without the snow, what's the point of so much cold?"

In other words ... if only there was snow, the cold would be okay.  Most of us probably know that feeling -- if only.  If only finals were over.  If only I could get that promotion.  If only my wife didn't have to work so hard.  If only my dad wasn't sick.  If only ... if only ... if only.  It is so easy for us to fall into "if only" thinking, so easy that we don't even always know when we're doing it.

The problem with "if only" is that it pulls us out of our lives as they are.  Because the truth is, no matter how much I prefer my cold days to have snow in them, the cold day I'm alive in today doesn't.  But when I focus too much of my energy into "if only there were snow," I miss the possibilities in the day as it is.  I miss this day, because I'm pining away for that day, even thought that day doesn't exist.

Around a decade ago I wrote a sermon exploring all of this, using as my jumping off point a couple of lines from a Willie Nelson song.  (I wrote a brief synopsis on my blog A Ministers' Musings.)
Here I sit with a drink and a memory. / I'm not wet, I'm not cold, and I'm not hungry. /  Classify these as good times.  Good times.
I know that I can layer my life with so many expectations and desires, so many if onlys, that I forget to be satisfied with what I do have.  Maybe you do, too.  If only we didn't ...

Pax tecum,


Friday, January 12, 2018

Now the eyes of my eyes are open ...

"Stamen Study 5" (© Erik Walker Wikstrom  2010)
Edward Estlin Cummings -- often written as "e. e. cummings," although, he, himself, preferred his name to be appropriately capitalized -- was a poet of the 20th century well known for his rather ... idiosyncratic ... style. 

I read one of his poems in worship the other day, and it's one I think of often.  It feels to me like a beautiful expression of gratitude; it feels to me like a prayer.  The poem begins, "i thank You God for most this amazing day," and ends:

(now the ears of my ears awake andnow the eyes of my eyes are opened)
This reminds me of a phrase that's attributed to Yeshua ben Miriam (who is better known as Jesus).  It appears six times in the Gospels:  "If a man [sic] has ears, let him hear!"

Unlike many passages, looking at different translations doesn't reveal too many variations.  All of them have Jesus saying essentially the same thing.  (The Amplified Bible: classic edition elaborates: "He who has ears to hear, let him be listening and let him consider and perceive and comprehend by hearing."  Eugene Peterson's quite personal translation, The Message, puts it a lot more simply:  "Are you listening to me?  Really listening?")

I know that all too often I fail to hear the "still small voice" (or, "the voice of quiet stillness," as one translation puts it) that is whispering to me of Life's love.  My ears are too stuffed with the noise of the news, and the voices calling me to do something for them, or telling me how to do the things I'm doing.  I know that all too often I pass beauty by, unseen, because I'm too focused on the comings and goings of my days to attend to the deep truths of my life-- of Life.  I know that all too often my ears are not open, and that all too often my eyes are not open, and that all too often I simply can't "consider, perceive, or comprehend."

How about you?

How open are your ears?  Not in general.  Right now.  Do you have ears that are able to hear?  Are you listening to the song of life?  Really listening?  Not always, but now.  If not, take a moment.  Close your eyes.  Allow all the noise to quiet down, and notice what you hear.  This takes practice, and none of us will ever be able to listen to Life like this all the time, but it's so important that we do.

The same with your eyes ... what are you able to see, right now?  Are you seeing surface things, the illusions of importance cast by so many things in this world?  Or are you able to see through the distractions and delusions that veil deeper truths?  Again, not always.  Right now.  If not, take a moment.  Move your gaze from thing to thing in front of you and really see it, then really look at the next thing.  See that stapler, or that sock, or that squirrel in front of you.  This, too, takes practice.

The spiritual life takes practice, because it is so much about developing the ability to really attend to life -- our lives, the lives of the those around us, Life itself.

Cummings' poem begins with a joyous, delightfully and delightedly exuberant prayer of thanksgiving to, "this amazing day."  It ends by declaring that now those inner ears, and those inner eyes, the eyes and ears that can truly hear and truly see, are open.

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Why Do I Need a Spiritual Director?

On Friday I kicked off the weekend asking what the word "spirituality" means.  I suggested that it could refer to the difference Henry David Thoreau saw between living life and that which is not life.  Most of us, most of the time, live a sort of not-life in which we miss the moments of our living (most often because we're preoccupied with the past or the future, and not focused on the present moment).  Spirituality, then, has to do with learning to live life.

On Monday I explored the question of why we would need to do any kind of practice, have any kind of discipline, if spirituality is simply about living our lives.  The lesson of Pablo Casals' commitment to the disciplined practice of playing scales -- even after he was an acknowledged master of his instrument -- offered an answer by way of analogy.  You can make sound if you pick up an instrument from time to time; you can make music if you're committed to practice.  (I'd not that Siddhartha Buddha is said to have continued meditating twice a day for the forty or so years following his Enlightenment, and Jesus is remembered as praying regularly.)

Let's say that these two posts have made sense -- spirituality is about living deeply and fully, and doing that takes practice.  Still, why would you need anyone helping with that?  What could a Spiritual Director offer that you couldn't find on your own?

The Personal Trainer - Eemnes, Netherlands, 2017
Floris Oosterveld, used under Creative Commons license)

Do I really need to say more?

A personal trainer is someone who knows how to help you on your way to being more physically fit, but they don't lift the weights for you.  That you have to do.  And people do certainly work out on their own, yet a qualified trainer can help you to avoid common pitfalls, and can check your form in the moment to help you avoid injury, and can suggest exercises you may not have thought of on your own.  Yet they don't know everything there is to know about fitness, they really know very little about you, and they can't do your workout for you.

I keep coming back to that point, don't I?  There's a story I've read about a Zen monk who had a brand new, overly eager student thrust upon him.  This younger monk pestered the elder with questions, clearly wanting to glean all that he could from the learning of the more experienced monk so that his own journey would be easier.  Aware of this, recognizing that his young charge essentially wanted him to do the work on the other's behalf, the senior monk looked the younger one in the eye and said, "I will do everything I can to help you on your spiritual journey, yet there are four things I cannot do for you:  I cannot eat for you; I cannot go to the bathroom for you; I cannot get into your skin and walk around for you; and I cannot live your life for you."  It is said that upon hearing this the younger monk attained enlightenment.  [I've adapted this story from Sōkō Morinaga's marvelous book, Novice to Master:  an ongoing lesson in the extent of my own stupidity.]

A lot of people seem to have an image of a Spiritual Director as some kind of medieval monk, dour and stern, telling someone how long they should stay on their knees (preferably on a cold stone floor), and how many prayers of just what kind they should be praying.  (With, of course, the threat of eternal damnation if one should disobey.)  And that is certainly one way this calling has been understood and, unfortunately, is no doubt still understood by some. 

Instead, the Spiritual Director -- like the personal trainer who keeps an informed eye on how you're executing the various exercises you're doing -- travels with you to help keep you focused on your desire to see, hear, feel, love, live more clearly.  A Spiritual Director won't -- shouldn't -- tell you what prayers to pray, but will help you to see what "prayer" means to you at this moment in your life, and to look for the ways you are connecting, and to discover new ways through which you might connect, with life's depths (which some call "Spirit," and some call "God," and others call "Inner Wisdom," and others need no names for).  

Pax tecum,


Monday, January 8, 2018

Why Do I Need To Practice?

"Pablo Casals, en visita a Buenos Aires, 1937" (Public Domain Image)

If spirituality is about living life, then why do I need a "spiritual practice"?  The Buddhist monk, poet, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh has said that cutting carrots in the kitchen, or washing the dishes after a meal can be a meditation.  If that's true, why should I spend any time in meditation or prayer?  Why should I journal or take time to meditatively walk a labyrinth?

Pablo Casals was by most estimates the greatest cellist of the 20th century, quite possible the greatest cellist of all time.  He began, as most music students do, learning and then practicing scales.  This is a fundamental part of a musician's training.  Playing the scales over and over again -- at different rates of speed, in different keys -- helps to train your ear, and if you're a string player like Casals, helps to train your hands and fingers to find the right notes every time.  I have heard that Casals practiced his scales for up to 2 hours a day.

Casals was 97 years old when he died, and throughout his life he continued to spend 2 hours a day practicing scales, even after he'd been recognized as the preeminent cellist of his or any other day.  The year before he died he was asked in an interview why such an acclaimed master would bother with such a basic exercise.  "I think," he said, "that I am beginning to see some progress."  On the day he died he had already practiced his scales.

It is true that anything can be a tool to help you live life, as opposed to not-life, as we discussed on Monday.  There's a wonderful book that was published in 1999 by Skinner House Books, Everyday Spiritual Practice:  simple pathways for enriching your life.  It contains 38 chapters, each written by someone who is describing a spiritual practice they engage with that speaks to them.  There are chapters on silent retreats, sitting zen, fasting, and prayer, as you might imagine, but also martial arts, marriage, parenting, recycling, bicycling, and anti-racism work.  In spite of these very different approaches to spiritual practice, one thing all of the authors agree on is that to truly make that shift from live not-life, as most of us do most of the time, to living life, full and abundant, we do need to practice.  It doesn't come easily or naturally.  We must work at it.  Even Jesus is remembered as spending time in prayer; even the Buddha is remembered as meditating twice-daily throughout his entire life.

Skinner House will soon be publishing a new book, Faithful Practices:  everyday ways to feed your spirit.  Like Everyday Spiritual Practice before it, this book pushes the boundaries of what can be considered a spiritual practice -- blowing bubbles, roller derby, making dioramas for action figures.  Also like its predecessor, all of the authors who contributed a chapter recognize that these are things you could simply do, yet if you do them as an intentional practice, they can help you live a life that is deep and real.

You may already be doing a practice without even recognizing it as such.

Pax tecum,


Friday, January 5, 2018

What Is Spirituality?

"Untitled"  (©  Erik Walker Wikstrom  2015)
I have often been asked what is meant by the word, "spirituality."  It's a word that's thrown around a lot, yet one which those doing the throwing seem to assume is clear to everyone.  This might be true, if it weren't also true that there are almost as many different understandings as there are people talking about it.  As an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister serving several congregations of the past decade, I've had more than a few people ask me what I think it means.

I have an answer.

In his book Walden, Henry David Thoreau described his experiment of living alone in a 10' x 15' single-room cabin in the woods around Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts with this words:
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.  I did not wish to live what was not life ..."
In this he seems to me to be saying that there are two ways of living -- life and not-life.  Remember, this is the man who also said, "The mass of [humanity] lead lives of quiet desperation."  You can imagine, then, which way he thinks most of us live, and why he, "wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life."

Thoreau was not the first person to observe this dichotomy between life and not-life.  Buddhists have long said that most people live in samsara.  This is sometimes called the state of "delusion," or "restlessness."  It's what the Buddha was pointing to when he said that "life is suffering."  Yet Buddhism also teaches that there is a way to be free from samsara, to live in nirvana, which is to say, to really and truly live.  Life and not-life.

Christians talk about being "dead in sin" and "alive in the spirit (or "in Christ")."  It's the same distinction -- life and not life.  Nearly every one of the world's great religions, and most schools of psychology, agree on this point.   Regardless of the words used, though, the idea is the same -- there's a way of living our lives in such a way that we are really, truly, fully alive, and there's a way of living in which we're not.  And most of us, most of the time, are living in that second way.  In the book of Deuteronomy (30:19) God is remembered as having said, "I have set before you life and death ... choose life."

Which brings me back to "spirituality."  As I understand it, "spirituality" has to do with learning how to live in that real, fully engaged, awake, mindful, rich, deep, marrow-sucking way.  You can certainly use traditional religious language if you wish, but there's really no need to.  Spirituality is about living life and not not-life.

Pax tecum,