Daily Examen

As is my usual, I don’t have too many ideas that are entirely my own.  Maybe none of us really do.  We meaningfully repackage—or a more contemporary term would be to re-mix—other peoples’ words and experience into significant practices in response to our own lives.  This is one of those times.

In a recent yoga class on New Year’s Eve, my wise guide, Nicole, encouraged us to identify barriers.  She used this quote from Rumi, a 13th century Sufi mystic and poet.

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.

I am ever mindful about how I make myself known to God and experience God’s love in tangible ways. One realization for me during that ninety-minute yoga class was how my over-thinking and second-guessing—too much attention on what I’ve already said or done or how I came across that I think I control—is a barrier to joy and being loved.

Mitch has reminded me repeatedly, as I lamented over the day, to focus on what I did do.  It is true that I am often focusing on what I failed to do, however, just as often I think too much about what I did do or say or think that day.  As an academic, I feel compelled to critically examine…everything? Okay, I am placing the blame outside myself and that is not exactly the reason for my self-conscious criticism. The truth is that being critical (over-thinking in my case) is a way that I try to control my life and how I view other peoples’ lives.

Even when the things I’m lamenting don’t seem to matter much—like eating out when I could have fixed a meal at home—the time I consider what I could have done, or said, or why, could be more productively spent. Why is it so hard to let go, to stop those inner conversations?

So, I write in my morning pages and rehash a decision or event and insight does often emerge.  However, the idea that my overthinking is a barrier to being loved or trusting beyond what I do creates new possibilities for a response.

In our faculty retreat before the fall semester began, Jamie Smith suggested a practice to cultivate individual reflection in a healing way.

In Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola developed such a prayerful reflection on the events of the day called Daily Examen.  The prayerful practice is intended to help us see God’s hand at work in our daily experience.  The Examen evolves through five stages of reflection.

1.    Become aware of God’s presence. To look back on the events of the day in the company of the Holy Spirit is different than lamenting over what I didn’t do or selfishly focusing too much on what could have been.

2.     Review the day with gratitude. Walk through the day in the presence of God to focus on the day’s gifts.  For me, when I focus on relationships, not just what I did, the day changes.  Relationships are reciprocal.  It’s not just about what I did or didn’t say or do but what gifts I receive without doing much of anything.

3.     Pay attention to your emotions. This is challenging for me.  And here I will recite what I learned about St. Ignatius.  One of his great insights was that we detect the presence of the Spirit of God in the movements of our emotions. I’m not sure I understand this but I’m reminded of the Rumi poem, “The Guest House,” and wonder what God is saying or preparing me for through these feelings that I either give over to completely or want to avoid.

4.    Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.  I have found this kind of prayerful attention significant.  Most often what I have decided to “pray from” has been a seemingly insignificant experience or one that I am inclined to over-think.

5.    Look toward tomorrow. 

The last step, look toward tomorrow, reminds me of Buechner’s words that name my barriers that would be so easy for me to take up again as I look forward to a new day.

“Let go and let God”—which is so easy to say and for people like me so far from easy to follow.  Let go of the dark, which you wrap yourself in like a straitjacket, and let in the light.  Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you…because that is just what you are powerless to do.  Even your own life…is God’s business.  Leave it to God.  It is an astonishing thought.  It can be a life-transforming thought.

How do I know God and how do I open myself up to such transformation?  By taking the time to review the day, I listen to my life; recalling the times that I protected my ego by paying too much attention to what I did, thought, or said and the times when I was open to recognizing others.  When I find myself feeling defensive or trying to change others, I will ask for God’s mercy.  When I notice that I did act with little self-concern, I will be thankful and experience God’s cleansing grace.

There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that, all the more compellingly and hauntingly.  Listen to your life.  See it for the fathomless mystery that it is.  …All moments are key moments and life itself is grace.                                                   Now and Then

Simple Intention

Every morning, I write a few pages. Not pages for any sort of paper or blog, I write what I am thinking or wondering or whatever comes to mind. Today my writing was filled with questions. On some days, I recall and reflect on what has happened or anticipate what will happen or maybe even what I hope will happen. And somehow, God is in the midst of all the meanderings.

Anne Lamont says that we don’t think our way into becoming ourselves. We take action and insight follows. For me, writing is an action, a spiritual practice, and yes, insight does often emerge. Somehow in the words I write, God speaks; occasionally in that moment, but most often over time. I’ve been pondering across the pages how my life unfolds without so much purposeful striving but with some intention.

 I just finished reading the first novel in Buechner’s The Book of Bebb. Buechner weaves this intriguing analogy throughout the story.

In Hindu iconography, I have read somewhere, the mind of man is portrayed as a monkey swinging from tree to tree, witless, purposeless, grabbing out at whatever new branch happens to come to hand, which I take to mean that it is not we who control our thoughts but circumstances that control them. Let me smell bacon frying, and in spite of myself I am hungry; wave a red flag at me, and I am made as hell. Or subtler stimuli—a drop in barometric pressure, the look in somebody’s eye…

 Buechner goes on as the narrator of Lion Country to wonder how our perceptions of or attitudes toward people (his of Bebb) change “just because these were the branches that presented themselves.”

A few evenings ago, two graduate students were slated to be community readers at parent/child-reading events at two local elementary schools. As the adult students’ instructor, I wanted to be there to support each of them. Leaving another event at the University early, I drove just a few blocks to find Garret welcomed and comfortable in a school cafeteria filled with teachers, parents, and young children. He was confident and assured in the opportunities the evening held. After a few conversions with others there, I headed for the door and the next school, a few miles away.

The school was farther than I had anticipated. I felt a bit anxious that I would arrive in time. Janelle, my other student and community reader, would be beginning in just a few minutes. However, the monkey’s arm presented in that moment made me even more uneasy; actually more than uneasy—indignant and then self-conscious of my own reputation—how I might be perceived instead of her dilemmas.

You see I am trying to establish new relationships between local schools and my University. Some of the schools provide field education and student teaching placements for our students. My desire is to create more equitable partnerships where we support one another. One way is to provide community readers and other support for these “reading parties” where children read with a community member while their parents are encouraged in new ways to support their young learners. Everyone in attendance shares a meal together and the children leave with a new book and a stuffed animal. For these teacher candidates and me, this is an incredible opportunity to share this time with these children and their parents.

As I drove, my phone was next to me giving directions when a text message from Janelle popped up. She simply said she would be “heading that way” as soon as an issue at her work was resolved, She was so sorry.

What??  She wasn’t already at the event like I expected?  That meant there wasn’t anyone from the community there, from my university community that had promised a guest reader for the evening. Like the narrator in The Book of Bebb, the branches that flung in my face as I drove faster moved me from anger to disappointment to action. I was disappointed that she hadn’t made work arrangements that freed her to keep her commitment. I was angry with her for not being there, at the school, as our University’s representative. I felt compelled to make it right—to get there myself and somehow make up for the fact that she wasn’t there.

More texts came but I didn’t have time to safely look at them. I pulled into the parking lot and ran into the cafeteria filled with busy parents and teachers. Fortunately, a lady happened to be passing by the entrance. Anxiously I inquired, “Our community reader is late, could you direct me to the children?”

I paused to introduce myself and she smiled and led me to the kindergarten classroom filled with young readers. A young girl jumped up to grab my hand and ask if I had come to take her back [to her parents]. The teacher who had just finished reading looked my way. I explained the predicament. She didn’t actually respond to me and began handing out books and stuffed animals to the eager recipients. I helped.

After the books were passed out, another adult noted that there was time for another story. I quickly suggested that I read the next one and the teachers could do what they needed to do. I grabbed a book from a nearby bookshelf and began reading.

Funny how reading to a group of engaged five and six-year-olds, taking a logical next action, changed things. I didn’t have time to be angry or disappointed or even think about the “real” circumstances that lead me to this action.

I didn’t see her arrive, but I could see Janelle standing forlornly a few feet away from our group.

When I finished reading it was time for the children to go back to their parents. As I walked toward Janelle, I surprisingly remembered my intention to support her. So I did something I usually only think to do after I say too much, I listened.

Janelle was almost in tears. In fact,she said, “I’m about to cry.” She told me how she did get her supervisor to take over her usual responsibilities at her work, however, she was caught waiting for a teen girl’s parent who didn’t show up on time. Janelle was doing what she had to do, wait. Waiting when she knew she had other obligations. Waiting that required surrender to circumstances beyond her control. Waiting that challenged her own resources—could she… should she… would she…

My learning was to let both our anxiousness and disappointment remind us of our need for embracing God’s love that is beyond our experience and meets us over and over again in these everyday moments as we honor one another.

How can I make this sacred center home? To think from here, speak from here, act from here instead of reacting to a world that controls, rewards, and enables other possibilities. To act in ways to gain insight from these moments when, as Buechner says, we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know.

In No Man is an Island, Thomas Merton makes a distinction between two kinds of intention, a right intention and a simple intention.  Merton says,

When we have a right intention, our intention is pure. We seek to do God’s will…we consider the work and ourselves apart from God and outside of Him. Our intention is directly chiefly upon the work to be done. When the work is done, we rest in its accomplishment…

But when we have a simple intention, we are less occupied with the thing to be done… We are more aware of God who works in us than of ourselves or of our work.

Thankful Recipients

I decided to begin this post as it began for me, with an uncomfortable quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the small book,  Life Together.

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious.

Isn’t visioning productive?

I’ll begin with something simple (that’s really not). I have a vision of being welcoming here, in my house. So I just rearranged the living room furniture. It looks and feels like it would be an encouraging place to sit and have conversations, however, usually I’m sitting in here alone, like now, pondering. So my vision isn’t exactly realized, yet?

I long for community—in my work-life, in my neighborhood, where I go to church.  I miss the people in my former church– an incredible community of people who aren’t much alike really, yet the conversations and care are ones that thrive in that differentness and common lives of faith.  Yet, I also have vivid memories of the first months I went there; sitting in the back so I could leave right after worship, terrified of going to the “fellowship” happy hour afterward. I do imagine the kind of community I want but that doesn’t quite match what seems real. I also imagine how I think people should be and act in that community.

Bonhoeffer continues to make more sense of my initial troubledness:

 The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, than an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.

Lately, I seem to be considering more acutely (I don’t want to say judging even if that is true) others whom I perceive as believing or being a certain way – from a distance—some aren’t people I really even know. I act the same way though with people I’m closest to – my next-door neighbors, colleagues on my hallway at work, my family members who live their lives outside my everyday view. Even if they were here, I complicitly make assumptions about how we all should or could live in the world.

My kingdom or Thy kingdom?

When I bring my own ideas of what my life should be and try to realize that vision, I eventually become disillusioned with others and myself. While this quote from Buechner might seem a bit contradictory to Bonhoeffer, on the contrary, he clarifies the distinction between our own vision and what is God’s.

 If we only had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born both within ourselves and within the world; we should know that the Kingdom of God is what we all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know. We catch sight of it when at some moment of crisis a strength seems to come to use that is greater than our own strength.

The Clown in the Belfry  and Listening to Your Life

 If only…we would know that the Kingdom of God, that community we seek, is already here. Because God has already laid the foundation for community, our common life together, Bonhoeffer contends,

We enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients.

 If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary… everything…is so far from what we expected…

 We live as thankful recipients and our community grows when we dare to be satisfied with the small measure of spiritual knowledge, experience, and love that has been given to us.

Wide Awake

Yesterday, the day after the election, many people I encountered were full of emotion and wondering for a myriad of reasons. At lunch, a colleague wondered aloud how she could live through what seemed like a dream.  A student in class was lamenting that she’d just lost two friends over the events of the past day. On my drive to work, I listened to a lady say that this morning she was “wide awake” to difficult realities in the world and her own response. Being “wide awake” is a good way to describe the intentional ways we love, especially those who are most challenging to us.

Alive with synchronicity, I read these words from Buechner’s book Listening to Your Life  on this day.

Matthew the tax collector and Thomas the doubter. Peter the Rock and Judas the traitor. Mary Magdalene and Lazarus’s sister Martha. And the popcorn-eating old woman. And the fat man in the pick-up. They are all our family, and you and I are their family and each other’s family, because that is what Jesus has called us as the Church to be. Our happiness is all mixed up with each other’s happiness and our peace with each other’s peace. Our own happiness, our own peace, can never be complete until we find some way of sharing it with people who the way things are now have no happiness and know no peace. Jesus calls us to show this truth forth, live this truth forth. Be the light of the world, he says. Where there are dark places, be the light especially there. Be the salt of the earth. Bring out the true flavor of what it is to be alive truly. Be truly alive. Be life-givers to others. That is what Jesus tells the disciples to be. That is what Jesus tells his Church, tells us, to be and do. Love each other. Heal the sick, he says. Raise the dead. Cleanse lepers. Cast out demons. That is what loving each other means. If the Church is doing things like that, then it is being what Jesus told it to be. If it is not doing things like that – no matter how many other good and useful things it may be doing instead—then it is not being what Jesus told it to be. It is as simple as that.

In his  book Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer says that the world needs people with the patience and the passion to make the pilgrimage toward our authentic vocation, cultivating God’s truth, not only for our own sake but also as a social and political act.

Have Mercy

Brendan is Frederick Buechner’s tale of the sixth-century Irish saint told through the eyes of Brendan’s loyal friend and follower, Finn. I struggled, to be honest, to finish this book. This sixth century Saint seemed to have little to say to me, for my life in the twenty-first century. I was lost in the language and images of sailing the world over 1500 years ago, however, there were moments that truths of humanness in relationship trumped the obscure settings.

Finn was the one I listened to through Buechner’s crafted voice.  He was a constant companion to Brendan on journeys to the end of their known world and beyond. Finn literally left his new bride and young son behind to continue his whole life as a faithful observer and confidant. On the last page of the novel Brendan speaks his final dying words to Finn.

I fear the presence of the King, Finn…I fear the sentence of the judge.

Remarkably, Brendan’s life had been one of continually seeking to do and be God’s servant in every way and Finn intimately witnessed this journey.  Finn’s words in response after Brendan’s death are more remarkable.

 As to the sentence of the judge, I’m not one to know nor even if there be a judge at all. If I Finn, was judge I’d know well enough though.

I’d sentence him to have mercy on himself. I’d sentence him less to strive for the glory of God than just to let it swell his sails if it can.

 While the ways and extreme of Brendan’s striving are far removed from my own, I, too, want to take Finn’s words to mean the same for me. Somehow, I, too, want to learn to cease striving and rest in God’s provision. That’s the powerful thing about stories; we locate and make sense of our own lives in someone else’s words about their own.

Today, I planned to spend the day in contemplation; it is just the dog and I here.   I went to early Eucharist at the local Episcopal Church where the liturgy supports such contemplation and I don’t know many people there so there is no need to chat. During the brief sermon, the rector said something that spoke to my needs for this day.

You see, I’ve felt a great source of joy in my new job. However, I’m beginning to wonder. I’ve been working really hard on some things—and I have so many ideas for teaching and for writing and for making friends and supporting colleagues and making this house more comfortable and sustaining goodness in all those communities. I am pushing too hard—expecting and considering too many things. The trouble is that I am thinking about doing much more than I am actually doing. And, am I doing things that matter anyway?

I want to have mercy on myself; to strive less for my own glory that I’m not sure I can always distinguish from the glory of God. What does Finn mean just to let [God’s glory] swell his sails if it can?

In his sermon today, Joe said we don’t have to work harder. Sure, there are some limiting habits we might need to change. The Holy Spirit is doing the real work. He was talking about the larger church, actually, but maybe there is a bit of truth in there for me as well.

In Wishful Thinking Buechner writes,

A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s noting you have to do.

 We don’t earn God’s favor but live into it; to let it swell his sails if it can.

Desiring and Imagining

Jamie Smith explores these three verbs in his chapter “You Make What You Want: Vocational Liturgies.”

Image             Unfold                        Occupy

Smith understands each as a doing. First, we are called to image God so that image is a task or mission rather than a characteristic. Secondly, we are called to unfold creation’s potential. This is our task as image bearers. Lastly, we are called to occupy creation; to be a faithful presence, people who occupy creation and remind the world that we belong to God.

Smith argues that we are called to “image God” and that ruling and caring for creation includes “cultivating it, unfolding and unfurling its latent possibilities through human making.” Maybe we begin by imagining or glimpsing God’s imagination regarding how we might unfold and unfurl possibility in our own lives.

For me, coming to this new place and position did unfold over time or maybe even was imagined in unacknowledged ways all my life. Was the process culminated in landing here in this job and place after all that struggle to find the “right one” or was it a mutual finding?

I think of how this place is bits and pieces of things I imagined as the “good and perfect life” over the years without actually knowing or consciously searching for this kind of place.

All my life I have been drawn to these mountains. As a child my dad was from a different part of Eastern Tennessee and we visited the Smokey Mountains often. My husband and I met in these mountains and have longed to return. Volunteering in Eastern Kentucky, vacationing in Western Carolina and North Georgia, and visiting friends in Western Virginia have fueled those longings. The low clouds hovering in the mountains, the cold mountain streams and the embracing presence of tall trees; however imagined, actually living here was a continuously visited possibility. And now I look out each morning on the Holston Mountain Range and walk up steep inclines to enter my office that looks out on a similar vista. The Appalachian people I read about are my next-door neighbors, people I go to church alongside, and colleagues and people whom I am honored to learn from and teach. Virginia is a few streets away and Western North Carolina an hour’s drive in more than one direction.mountain-view-king

At my daughter’s graduation from Hanover College—a place with many similarities to King—I remember a visceral tug as I watched the faculty in full regalia lead the graduates through the crowd. Those robed people represented the pinnacle of my love of thinking and knowing in a tangible way. Maybe it was a longing I didn’t even know about then—that was before I even considered a Ph.D. as a wild and crazy thing to consider. Now here I am in a similar school where that same practice happens multiple times a year. I was the robed one on a recent August morning as we, the faculty, in all colors of regalia, filed into the chapel behind a bagpiper for opening convocation where an honorary degree was being conferred.

Finding out that this place existed is filled with synchronicity. The Buechner connections: learning about the Faith and Culture center’s lectures (formerly the Buechner Center), imagining what it would be like to be able to be in such a community, listening to student lecturers who drew from Buechner’s writing to make sense of their own lives. Finding this University as an aside to finding the Buechner Writing Workshop at Princeton led me to consider a faith based community as a place to teach, without even realizing what I was imaging. Even though I felt like a fish out of water in connection with the other workshop participants, many of them clergy, I realized how much the corporate worship in a community of scholars fed my soul. The chapel at Princeton is in a circle of buildings with a large grassy area in the middle where I sat or stood each day imagining this as a place of wonder and creative thinking and spiritual rest. Not even considering that I might actively look for a “Christian” or faith-based institution, I wondered how and perhaps longed for faith and scholarship to be whole in me—a “hidden wholeness” as Parker Palmer calls it. Remembering the Princeton Chapel and grounds, I see the King Chapel and oval as a lived fulfillment of my imagining.


A few weeks spent tutoring adults at a GED center in Eastern Kentucky for the Christian Appalachian Project were in the same summer I attended my first spiritual formation retreat in Indiana and went to digital storytelling camp in Colorado. These were formative events that led me surreptitiously to my dissertation work and now I am occupying this place as remnants of storytelling, teaching, and formation continue to be part of what I do in new ways.

 Perhaps that is at the essence of what Jamie Smith says about being called to unfold creation’s potential. Being attentive to how our desires, our work, become aligned with God’s desires.

What do you want me to do for you?

In Luke 18:41, Jesus asks a blind man sitting beside the road, “What do you want me to do for you?”

For days I’ve read and reread this question. Our friend, who was visiting us for a few days, wondered why I’d written in this blog so much about my struggle to find the “right place”  and for me that also meant to even recognize the rightness where I was.  I was convinced I needed a platform to do credible good in this world.

Actually I had a “real job” if that means one you get paid for and has actual work you do that you are relatively qualified to do.  So, the question, “What do you want me to do for you?” takes on new significance.

I did ask God to do something, for a place—a place to use my gifts—for almost two years.  And in my struggle to find a “place” was unacknowledged tension between scholarship and practice; between thinking and doing; between everyday and extraordinary; between faith and “a job;” and between personal (faith/heart filled) writing and scholarly writing.  “Between” is a key word here.  I thought I had to land somewhere in-between what was my daily work—that I immerse my self into and consciously do some good for the world and get paid for doing –and my longing for being known and knowing God’s presence in that extraordinary everydayness.

In the life I imagined for myself, the academic thinking self would find room and enable (since I had a “real job”) those deeper desires that I couldn’t articulate concretely or tacitly recognize as they emerged.  Or maybe you could just say I was simply hoping for a place that was right and good and sustaining and that resting in God’s provision would miraculously make that “place” appear.  Nonetheless, I rested only after much anxiousness and striving and not only “after” but in the midst of more striving and wondering. I wrote about and lived that part of the story well.

“What do you want me to do for you?” was never supposed to really be answered.

Lo and behold, I’ve landed in this place that began with the charge to write an essay integrating faith and culture in my discipline.  Vocation or avocation?  I’m actually not sure of the difference or the fact that there is or should be one.  Like Robert Frost, maybe my “object in living is to unite my avocation and my vocation.”

Yesterday I wrote in my morning notebook that our work (leaning into a community) is about furthering or living into the kingdom of God.  I can be flexible in how I approach this day knowing I am in the midst of God’s presence and acknowledging and leaning into that presence is my first work.  Seeking that presence in all that I do also means surrendering not striving—and I’m still figuring out what that looks like.