Iterative Progress

Spiritual maintenance starts with a candid look inward.  For some people, taking an inner inventory feels cathartic and liberating.  For those who are approaching a major life change, introspection can reveal truths that validate their new direction and propel them towards it.  It can give them a new energy and peace for the next life stage.  For others, however, there is just too much pain in the past to confront it all at once.  Twelve Step recovery seekers sometimes describe the Fourth Step “searching and fearless moral inventory” as an onion with layers.  If one doesn’t have the capacity to cut to the core all at once, he peels back as much as he can handle, and then returns to peel back more as he is able.

Some people take this onion layers approach not only to introspection but also to forgiveness.  Forgiving is a key ingredient for healing and spiritual growth.  It is also an obligation in several faith traditions.  Medieval Rabbinic authority Maimonides instructed:

“The offended person is prohibited from being cruel in not [forgoing the other’s indebtedness], for this is not the way of the seed of Israel.  Rather, if the offender has [resolved all material claims] and has asked and begged for forgiveness once, even twice, and if the offended person knows that the other has done repentance for sin and feels remorse for what was done, the offended person should offer the sinner [forgiveness.]”

The stakes are even higher on forgiveness in the Christian tradition.  Scripture makes clear that forgiveness requires forgiving and that God extends it under no other terms.

And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. (Mark 11:25)

For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.  (James2:13)

Even with intellectual assent to the moral obligation of forgiveness, and an earnest desire to be rid of resentment, releasing it in the act forgiveness can take time.  Resentment acts like terrible blinders that restrict our view.  After releasing resentment for some aspects of wrongdoing, other more subtle aspects of the offense may come into view.  That gives us yet another opportunity to release resentment in deepening forgiveness.

Progress on the spiritual journey is individual.  Our eyes might be opened to great spiritual insights in a flash, and we may wander in a wilderness of uncertainty for long periods.  One child abuse survivor shared her story of coming into the ability to forgive her abuser suddenly and unexpectedly on this blog several months ago.  Whether your ability to release resentment deepens with effort over time or arrives all at once in an unexpected moment, forgiveness lightens our load on the journey.

Join the conversation.  Have you ever discovered something you thought you had forgiven lurking in your psyche?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Spiritual Maintenance

It takes spiritual maturity to recognize dependence on God when things are going well—either before we hit rock bottom or after salvaging life from a broken place.  When we have been saved from that broken place, and when we have experienced some healing and perhaps some spiritual growth, embracing redemption means leaving the past in the past.  We can look inward to see if we are being called to further life change without rehashing the past.  Introspection can focus less on one’s past and more on one’s present relationship with God.

A regular practice of inner inventory will keep us moving from intellectual awareness into action.  Many spiritual traditions rely on introspection to keep us from settling into a comfortable rut.  The Catholic tradition has a practice of confessing weekly before celebrating mass.  Early Buddhist texts indicate monks confessed individual faults to a superior privately twice a month at the full and new moons.   Jews observe Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, annually with prayers of confession spoken aloud in community.  Outside of ancient religious traditions, Twelve Step addiction recovery programs rely on the power of introspection in the Fourth Step, searching and fearless moral inventory, but also as an ongoing practice.  The Tenth Step calls for frequent inventory in order to make prompt amends.

What is the optimal interval?  It’s individual, of course.  Some Twelve step recovery programs encourage nightly examination.  Several protestant traditions incorporate weekly confession into Eucharistic prayers.  When we look at our challenges with a daily or a weekly focal length, however, we can overlook patterns.  Most of us have to step back from what occupies us day-to-day and week-to-week to discern the major themes at work in our present journey.

Jewish and some liturgical Christian traditions also give a framework for annual self-examination with Yom Kippur and Lent.  For a truly searching and fearless moral inventory of the patterns in my life, I find that a yearly interval is practical.  Embracing your own new life alongside others in your faith community can intensify the experience.  Traditional symbolism can deepen meaning as well.  Alternatively, confessing annually on the anniversary of a first confession or, in the case of addiction recovery seekers, the anniversary of one’s last drink may have special meaning.

An American commentator (and I am hopeful an alert reader will remind me of which one) drew the analogy that a white fence grows black over time unless it is repainted every year.  We, too, are in need of spiritual maintenance at intervals.

Join the conversation.  How do you know whether you need spiritual maintenance if you don’t stop to look?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Obstacles to Intimacy: Preserving our Center

Growing in intimacy requires… well, growing.  That means we have to change, and we resist change for all kinds of reasons.  At their core lies self-preservation.   We resist losing some part of ourselves.

Child development models identify egocentrism—the tendency to perceive, to understand and to interpret the world in terms of the self—in young children.  At some point, maturity leads our awareness to points of view outside of our own.  This development of perception has an analogous development of motive.  When all our desires center on self and when we live with our own desires as the driving force in our lives, we have a very narrow range of decision-making ability.  We are severely limited in thought and action, and we invariably run into conflict with others.  When we remove our own desires as the driving force in our lives, much becomes possible.

The Twelve Step tradition addresses this condition in Step 3: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”  If I seek freedom from the involuntary servitude to self-will and the confines of my bondage to it only to continue pursuing my own desires, I escape nothing.  It is a radical change, but nothing less frees us.  The Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book speaks candidly to those seeking a more moderate path:

“At some of those [steps] we balked.  We thought we could find an easier, softer way.  But we could not.  With all the earnestness at our command, we beg of you to be fearless and thorough from the very start.  Some of us have tried to hold on to our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely.”

Even self-hate reflects an unwillingness to shift one’s focus outward on God’s kingdom rather than inward on self.  Like so much else in the spiritual life, it is binary.  Only one thing can be at the center.  C.S. Lewis describes the dilemma:

“From the moment a creature becomes aware of God as God and of itself as self, the terrible alternative of choosing God or self for the centre is opened to it.”

We may wonder who will advocate for our desires if we do not.  Being open to the desires and imaginations of others, though, opens the possibility that others will delight us in unexpected ways.  These verses and breathing prayer encourage openness to the possibility that God’s imagination for us is better than ours for ourselves.

11For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29: 11-14)

Inhale:  God’s imagination
Exhale:  bondage to self

Join the conversation.  What really bad thing happened to you that, in retrospect, made a really good thing possible?

 Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Accepting God’s Invitation to Intimacy

If I want to accept God’s invitation to intimacy, what do I actually do?  Intimacy in any relationship requires a willingness to reveal part of ourselves—not the image we project to the world but rather the inner truth of who we really are.   We often think of intimacy as revealing that truth to another, and we wonder, perhaps a bit anxiously, how the other person will respond to that truth.  It’s different with God.  Rather than revealing the inner truth to another, in intimacy with God, our inner truth is revealed to us.  And we wonder, with more than a bit of anxiety, how we will respond to that truth. 

Hence, many of us pause at the threshold of self-discovery.  I regularly write and teach about the power of introspection for spiritual growth, and yet, I find myself pausing, lingering, and hesitating before crossing that threshold.  Introspection is not easy, I imagine not even for the pure of heart.  There’s a Sufi story about Mullah Nasreddin who searches for the key to his house.  He looks frantically outside under a lamp post, and his neighbors come to his aid.  After hours of searching, one asks where he was when he lost the key.  Nasreddin replies he lost it in his house. The neighbor asks, “Why are you looking outside?” Nasreddin responds, “Because the light is better out here under the lamp.”

Like Nasreddin, we find it infinitely easier to analyze external conditions than to take a candid look inward.  Accepting the invitation to intimacy with God, however, requires us to leave the light of the lamp post to go deep into the darkness of our own houses.  What impedes our journey is less fear of what anyone else will think than fear of what introspection will bring to light for ourselves.  As we embark on introspection, the prospect of facing our less than best moments is uncomfortable.  For those who suspect that they won’t like (or can’t live with) the person they find, it is terrifying.  If I have negotiated an uneasy peace with my past, introspection might feel like opening Pandora’s box.  We fear changing, too.  Even if my present way of being causes conflict and suffering, I might fear giving it up or resist conceiving of a new way to be.

How does one get to the place where an honest and unflinching introspection feels safe?  Several spiritual traditions–some ancient and religious and some modern and secular—offer wisdom to address this question.  In observing the Christian tradition of Lent, this blog for the next six weeks will explore some of the obstacles that hold us back from intimacy with ourselves and with God, along with prayers and meditations for overcoming each one. 

Join the conversation.  What holds you back from crossing the threshold into intimacy and vulnerability?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Spiritual Conversion: 3 Steps from 3 Traditions

This blog has discussed emptying oneself of one way of being in order to make room for a new way of becoming, and it has spoken of the binary spiritual conversion healing and life change require.  How does one approach remaking oneself from the inside out?  Here is wisdom from three different traditions for finding that kind of life change. 

The Twelve Step tradition speaks of “rock bottom” as the point at which an addict becomes open to life change because his life has become unbearable.  No one wants to hit rock bottom, or to see it come to that for a friend or loved one, but that’s what it takes for someone deep in denial.  The Big Book’s chapter titled “We Agnostics” encourages: 

Do not let any prejudice you may have against spiritual terms deter you from honestly asking yourself what they mean to you.  At the start, this was all we needed to commence spiritual growth, to affect our first conscious relation with God as we understood Him.  Afterward, we found ourselves accepting many things which then seemed entirely out of reach.  That was growth, but if we wished to grow we had to begin somewhere. 

Spiritual conversion doesn’t require hitting rock bottom, but it does require relinquishing something comfortable in pursuit of something unknown.  The first step, then, is openness to a new way of being.

In the Christian tradition, C.S. Lewis encourages trusting God’s imagination: 

We are halfhearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.    (Mere Christianity)

When I realize God’s imagination for me is infinitely better than mine for myself, I can relinquish my silly notions that I know what’s best.  Whether those notions have led me to complete devastation or to a dull ache of emptiness (“There’s got to be more”), relinquishing them will liberate me from bondage to self and create awesome possibilities.  So the next step is trusting God’s imagination.  

The Reform Jewish prayer book recalls what Abram had to leave behind in order follow God’s call.  Abram left his homeland, his friends, all he had accumulated over a lifetime, and all that was familiar–for what?  He did not have the answer, but he had trust.  “Radical Leaving” is what the prayer book calls Abram’s courageous step, and Rabbi Norman Hirsh’s poem “Becoming” describes how we encounter it:

Once or twice in a lifetime
A man or woman may choose
A radical leaving, having heard
Lech lecha — Go forth.

God disturbs us toward our destiny

By hard events
And by freedom’s now urgent voice
Which explode and confirm who we are.

We don’t like leaving,
But God loves becoming.    (Mishkan T’filah)

The third step is the radical one.  We open our clenched fists and release our old ways of being as we stretch our hands into the unknown for the new ways of becoming.  We have to experience our own personal exodus before we see the promised land.

Join the conversation.  What is your personal exodus story?

 Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.