My writing time this month has been taken up with papers for my Spiritual Direction classes, so I thought for this month’s musing I might share some of what I wrote for my class on The Art of Discernment. I reflect on my own experience and some learning I had from the experience and reflection. As I have mentioned, San Francisco Theological Seminary, where our classes are held, resides on top of a hill in San Anselmo.
Personally, as I recall it now, one of the gifts of our class time “up on the hill,” was the invitation this class offered to pay attention, to notice and then to reflect on the spiritual nature and depth of what we saw, heard, felt around us and within us. This is not an exercise to which I have been overly prone and, I will confess, since coming down “off the mountain,” I have settled back into the inevitably undermining stress of a full and busy life. So, the exercise of going back over the observations I made and journaled is a useful one. It reminds me of that this sort of reflecting, discerning exercise is invaluable to spiritual formation or to life in the Spirit, if you will.
A long time ago, Robert Raines wrote a little devotional book entitled, Surprised by Joy. The gist of that slender volume is the surprising richness of the presence of God in and around us, all the time, if we’re open to it. Being open is key. I do believe there is much in life that weighs us down, that blurs our vision and blunts our perception. Life can become consumed with stultifying ritualization. Both surprise and joy are forced out and it may seem as if God has abandoned us – that is if we ever make room or take the time to think about God in the first place. I’m sure this is something of an overstatement, but I have always been drawn to the wisdom in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetic phrase:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware…
I take this to mean that wonder is all around us, if we open our eyes. Thin places are more prevalent than we can imagine. God is ever present and is as near to us as we will allow God to be. The potentiality for surprise and for joy is so much more than we make room for. So a crucial element to spiritual formation is a willingness to slow down, to listen, look, smell, taste, feel how God is present in myriad ways we never expect or look for – sometimes as tiny and fragile as a butterfly’s wings, sometimes as overwhelming and immense as the moon and stars on a cloudless night.
The third theme is beauty [on which I focus.] I don’t know if I would have chosen this theme if I hadn’t gone back over my reflection papers. Since the experience of what I call the “nature walk” that we did for this class, I have been more conscious of beauty all around. I think I have always been strongly affected by what I find to be beautiful, but the intentional focus of the exercise invited and assisted me in seeing how much more beauty there was around than I was aware of and just how important it is to me. Another aspect of the Elizabeth Barrett Browning quotation is the encouragement to look for and find the beauty of holiness in the small things and the everyday.
The beautiful, which can be an indicator of God’s presence, if not a synonym for it, can be found in decaying leaves, gnarled oaks, oddly placed cacti, a labyrinth that looks out a cloud-capped mountain peak, the song of a flute or the blaze of a trumpet, the words of the poet or the mystic or even the preacher, the smell of bread baking or summer’s harvest, the crash of the waves or the swirl of the dancer. I love the lines from Thornton Wilder’s, Our Town, when the newly deceased Emily is allowed a last look back over her life in the tiny town of Grover’s Corners and exclaims,
But, just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s look at one another. I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. All that was going on in life and we never noticed. Take me back – up the hill – to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-bye, Good-bye, world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners, Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it – every, every minute?
Let’s look at one another. Let’s look around at the glory of the mundane and the beauty of the everyday. Let’s learn to take it all in while we can, for there is something in this seeing and realizing that leads to love in all its richness – to love for God, for one another, for ourselves, for all creation. Love becomes the way and destination, the journey and our home. The gift of life is more beautiful, more wonderful, more precious than we can ever know. There are “…openings through which my love can flow into the life of the other, and at the same time locate myself in openings through which love can flow into me.” May our practice of spiritual direction lead us ever more deeply, fully, richly into the beauty of holiness. Whatever touches us and lifts us to a higher plane or accompanies to the deepest depths is beautiful.”