Photo: People of Bethany Mennonite Church walk the church’s labyrinth. Photo by Tom Smith.
This is a web-exclusive article on the theme “Good News, Great Joy.” For more stories on this theme, see the December issue of The Mennonite.
I have accumulated spiritual disciplines slowly, over decades. They are a source of joy in times of fear and sorrow. Here are some examples.
A monthly discipline that brings me deep joy is spiritual direction. When I began working as director of women’s concerns at Mennonite Central Committee 25 years ago, my wise predecessor told me not to try to work with issues of abuse without being in spiritual direction. At seminary a professor said something similar about pastoral ministry: Don’t try to do it without a spiritual director. Any work within systems of power, any public role that might distort your own sense of yourself, any role that makes you ask, “Am I crazy, or is it them?” — don’t try to do it without having someone you trust to talk to. Find someone who has no vested interest, who understands but is outside the system, and who has the eyes to see the divine in daily life.
The essence of the role of a spiritual director is to listen and to ask, in various creative ways, “Where is God in this?” In the last two and a half decades I’ve had spiritual directors from various Christian traditions: Catholic, Moravian, Presbyterian, Mennonite. I’ve had a few stretches after a move or a director’s death or retirement when I had no spiritual director. Then I relearn how much I value being listened to well.
I believe in the healing power of thinking out loud. I journal regularly because I learn from unfiltered reflection on my experience. But there is something about speaking and being heard that is different from writing in solitude. A pastor can have a hard time taking off the invisible cloth of the pastoral role. I have a supportive pastoral team at church, close friends, and a compassionate husband, all of whom listen well. But I need one place to talk absolutely freely with no filter about confidential issues. It’s not that conversation with a spiritual director has no boundaries; it’s that in those conversations, I’m not the one who is maintaining the boundary.
I currently talk to a spiritual director at a distance by phone. She listens deeply and playfully. She might read scripture or look up a dream symbol in a dictionary “just for fun.” I often start the phone call thinking I have nothing much to work with this month and hang up an hour later shaking my head and smiling at the way a listener who can’t see me and doesn’t know me has once again been the voice of the Spirit in my life.
I receive daily email reflections from several websites that promise to integrate inner and outer spiritual work: “Inward/Outward” from Church of the Savior, “Richard Rohr’s Daily Thoughts,” from The Center for Action and Contemplation, “EnneaThoughts” from the Enneagram Institute. When I list the daily readings I receive, this embarrassment of riches becomes embarrassing.
I read a lot about meditation but am not very good at it. I have been sitting in silence for 20 minutes a day for more than two decades, and my restless mind is still noisy. But of all spiritual disciplines I believe my bad centering prayer has made the most practical difference in my life.
I was introduced to the practice of centering prayer through a spiritual director and books by Cynthia Bourgeault and Thomas Keating. The discipline involves sitting in silence, using a silent word to return my mind to stillness whenever I notice it has wandered off in pursuit of an interesting thought or compelling feeling. It is that practice of noticing and turning back to the silence that is so valuable. I’m reassured by the fact that the more often I get distracted during a time of attempted stillness, the more exercise that returning-to-quiet muscle gets. That ability to turn away from a shiny distraction, a compulsive thought, an explosive emotion, is useful in daily life. My daughter says I stopped yelling at her when I started meditating. I know centering prayer makes a practical difference in how attached I am to my fleeting emotions and compelling dramas.
When I practice centering prayer I do not have dramatic mystical experiences. I hope to gaze at the Divine and sense the Divine gazing lovingly at me, but often I fall asleep. I sometimes feel I’ve wasted 20 minutes of non-productive time. But I know that this form of prayer has saved me from myself. I value memorized prayers and sung prayers and spontaneous spoken prayers, but centering prayer is the form of prayer I want to be praying as I die.
I have a mostly sedentary job. Reading articles and commentaries, writing emails and sermons, having conversations with congregants, I could do a lot of it at home without getting out of bed. I have to be intentional about moving my body, not only for my physical health but also for my spiritual health. Physical movement has increasingly become a direct point of access to joy.
I try to do some of my pastoral care on the move. Our rural sanctuary has a labyrinth mowed into the field. Except when buried in snow it’s always available for a reflective stroll. Next to our sanctuary is a river and beside the river is a dirt road that leads through the woods to surrounding hills. I often meet congregants at the church and ask whether they would like to sit inside or walk outside. Most people choose to walk while talking.
Bodily movement can bring joy even in times of intense sorrow. Recently, when Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life community experienced a violent massacre, our local rabbi invited clergy and friends to come to their synagogue to be together in prayer and solidarity the following Sunday morning. A group from our congregation went there after our worship service and joined them after their congregation’s B’nai Mitzvah classes were finished. We gathered at the Woodstock synagogue without a plan. No words seemed adequate for the shock and grief. The informal gathering began with silence and tears and hugs. Then people began speaking spontaneous words of hope amidst the fear. The speaking was punctuated with singing. The cantor included us effortlessly: “These are the words in Hebrew… This is what they mean in English… Feel free to just sing ‘lai, lai, lai.’” People from our congregation did nothing but show up, and yet the gratitude expressed for our presence was immense. The songs were often in a minor key, and the words lamented the horrific occasion we marked, but by the closing song people were standing and clapping, holding hands and making a human chain around the sanctuary, dancing in the joy that transcended the sorrow. As a middle-aged woman who grew up in a non-dancing Mennonite culture, I am a late comer to this discipline of finding joy in movement. I am grateful to learn from others and join in the dance.
Gwen Groff is pastor of Bethany Mennonite Church in Bridgewater Corners, Vermont.