December 1st, 2020
The Gift of Contemplative Meals
Contemplation is looking at life as it is in in the very here and now – Thich Nhat Hanh
Do you ever eat mindfully? Perhaps during your Thanksgiving feast, you took time to really enjoy the delightful culinary offerings on your plate? I know if you’re like me, you probably rush through a lot of meals, and barely consider the taste and experience of eating. But, I want to encourage you to consider eating mindfully. During this pandemic year when we eat alone and/or with just a few companions, we have an opportunity to experiment with this contemplative practice.
Choosing to eat mindfully involves eating slowly and savoring the food. Noticing the colors, the tastes and textures can be quite astounding. Suddenly, the table becomes a living sanctuary, full of the glory of creation.
A contemplative meal also provides a special time for gratitude. There is time to consider the long chain of growth and activity leading to the presence of food on your table. There is time to consider and give thanks for the people who planted and harvested, packaged and transported, prepared and presented the food. There is also time to consider and give thanks for the varieties of plants and animals that grew into fullness and now offer a gift of life at your table.
A contemplative meal provides a laboratory to practice mindfulness and dwelling in the present. Putting down the utensil between each bite can help foster slowing down. Really paying attention to each morsel provides more time for the digestive process. Your body benefits from this experience as slowing the consumption process enhances digestion. And your soul will gather delight.
Several years ago, I read a book about mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh, a prolific Vietnamese Buddhist. That day, I read his directions on eating mindfully at my table. It’s amazing how delightful food tastes when you take time to savor slowly. You can really appreciate the varieties of fruits and vegetables, the textures, and then many flavors.
When I attended the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation program on leading contemplative small groups and retreats, we gathered for residencies. Always, there would be a silent retreat as part of this training, when for a day and a half or two, we entered into the silence. A silent retreat is a powerful experience, which I highly recommend, by the way. During these retreats, we received instructions for eating silently and mindfully during our shared meals.
The first time, I remember placards on the tables. On one side, it told us to give thanks for the people who prepared the food. On the other, it included sentence phrases about mindfully eating. When you let go of words, you focus on so much more. Suddenly, I began to think about the many people who bring food to my table. I imagined the wheat growing in the field, the beans on the plant, the fruit on the trees. I wondered about the animals who gave up their lives for my meal. I ate in awe of the food production process. And I ate slowly, giving thanks, and in prayer for those without enough food. I prayed for the people at the table with me. It’s really such an awe-inspiring experience. And I know I don’t need to go on a silent retreat to do this.
A popular weight-loss app (Noom) encourages mindfulness as one strategy to lose weight. Always in a quest to lose weight myself, I decided to eat one or two Hershey kisses, instead of four, and really savor them. I love sugar and chocolate, but I’ve found that the rush and enjoyment is possible with small quantities. I focus on the quality of the experience. Letting the kiss melt on my tongue, I enjoyed the soft texture of the chocolate, filling my taste buds with joy as the candy lingered in my mouth. Yes, I could get as much fulfillment from one, and perhaps more than eating a handful.
In creating space in our lives, we slow down and realize the miracles of the moment. And if you take time to consider the process of digestion, it’s quite mind-blowing. Beginning with the taste of food, our nose and taste buds on our tongue allow us to truly experience the food we eat. Continuing with the saliva which starts to break down the food. Then our throat and swallowing process, carrying the morsels down the esophagus, specially designed to move the food along with tiny hairs as it continues its journey to our stomach, where more chemical processes turn it into energy to be carried through our blood stream, then pushing the waste into our small intestines, where the food continues to move into the large intestines, all the cells working together to move the waste along, until our body calls us to eliminate what is not needed. And the process begins again. The liquid gathers in our bladder for elimination.
So this month, I encourage you to take time while eating to be mindful. Be aware of each living thing that contributes to your diet. Take time to savor each bite with your senses. Be grateful for those who harvested, packaged and developed your food. Be grateful for your body and the marvelous way it processes your food. And may you live just a little more mindfully in all you do, to fully experience this one precious life you’ve been given.
Suggestions for Mindful Eating Personal Practice
- Make a placard for your table.[i] On one side, write: In this food, may I see clearly and gratefully the presence of the entire universe supporting my existence. All living beings are struggling for life. May each one have enough food to eat today. I vow to live for the benefit of all living beings. On the other side, write: THE FOUR GREAT ACTIONS. With the first taste, I promise to practice loving kindness. With the second, I promise to relieve the suffering of others. With the third, I promise to see others’ joy as my own. With the fourth, I promise to learn the way of peace and presence.
- Next time you eat a snack, eat it mindfully. Savor each bite. Really chew your food, noticing the texture and the taste.
- If you tend to overeat, next time you approach something where you might eat 15-20 of, say, crackers or chips, select 4-5 and eat them slowly, enjoying the crunch and the taste and experience. Experiment and note if that fewer number is more satisfying than a large quantity.
- If you are eating a meal alone, choose to give yourself time to really savor your food. Perhaps decide in advance to spend 30 minutes eating. Take single bites and savor the food as it goes down. Imagine what happened to get that food to your table. Consider your loved ones not dining with you and pray for them. Let each bite be a time for thanksgiving and prayer. Pray for those without enough food. Be present in the experience. Consider your digestive process. Approach your meal as an experience of participating in a miracle. When you slow down and take time, you encounter the sacred.
For more information on mindful eating and other contemplative practices, check out my book: Awakening: A Contemplative Primer on Learning to Sit (2020)
[i] These cards were designed by Ann Dean who directs contemplative leadership programs for the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Washington, D.C.
November 11th, 2020
The Contemplative Gift of Gratitude
“If the only prayer you say in your life is “thank you,” that would suffice.”–Meister Eckhart
A few weeks ago, one of my friends developed pneumonia. Her doctor instructed her to call 911 to get to the hospital as soon as possible. Already living with a compromised immune system, this illness threatened her life. And yet, as her conditioned worsened that week, she decided to deal with the situation with an attitude of gratitude.
A few minutes later, she opened the door to five paramedics who started oxygen and she began thanking them. Once in the hospital, she made a point of expressing her gratitude to everyone caring for her. She felt so grateful for those who cared for her when she needed help. She acknowledged their willingness to put their lives at risk to serve during these pandemic times. When she returned home on the seventh day, she continued maintaining an attitude of gratitude.
Cultivating a spirit of gratitude transforms life into an experience of grace. By giving thanks, one focuses the mind on the positive aspect, thereby creating positive energy of spirit and health in the body. During this month in which we Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, I want to encourage you to maintain an attitude of gratitude and experience firsthand this goodness and grace.
The people of the Bible include this practice in their life of prayers. The worship book of the Hebrews (Psalms) brims with gratitude. The Psalmist recommends: “Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; sing praises on the harp to our God.” (Psalm 147:7). When Jesus heals the 10 lepers, only one returns to give thanks. He tells the grateful Samaritan that his faith has made him well (Luke 17). The epistles include instructions to give thanks. “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6). Also in Thessalonians 5:18, we read: “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Recent scientific discoveries within quantum physics suggest the observer influences what happens. Our outlook on life transforms not only our inner world, but also events and people around us. When we choose gratitude as a daily practice, we cultivate joy for ourselves and others.
We’re all human. It is very easy to dwell on the negatives in life. It’s hard not to be anxious, angry and frustrated in 2020. But these are times when we also desperately need spiritual practices that help us cope and move forward with hope. I believe gratitude to be one of those practices.
For many years now, I begin my day with journaling and meditation. Almost always, I give thanks the gift of a new day. Life shines with such a sacred quality in this early hour. I go on to remember special moments, people, learnings, events, answers to prayer from my previous day. Such a gift to start my day with these smiles.
I remember an older friend, a woman in my church, who was diagnosed with stomach cancer at 88. She asked me, “Nancy, is it wrong to say that I’m thankful for cancer? If I never got this illness, I would never have known how people feel about me.”
Why was she so happy? Because our pastor told us in church one Sunday that she was lonely and we should visit her. I did. As I sat with her, I decided to make an appreciation book for her.. I asked church friends to fill out a sheet and return it to me, filling in the blank for several prompts. “What I appreciate about you is…”, “Thank you for…”, “My prayer for you is…”, “A special memory I have with you is…” I made a little photo album with pictures and these comments for this woman, and suddenly, she knew that the people in our church truly appreciated her smile, her kind words, her presence with us each Sunday. She kept it by her bedside, reading it again and again. “If I didn’t get sick, I never would have known how they felt about me, Nancy,” she told me. It’s one of the mysteries of the contemplative life that ripples of goodness extend out from one life into another when we take time to express appreciation and thanks.
Another way I practice gratitude is on Thanksgiving each year. Instead of writing a list of five things, I challenge myself to go to 100. The first time I did this, I noticed my whole body felt lighter and happier that day. As gratitude shifts the inner self to joy, it affects not only the mind and spirit, but also our physical selves. Such a very good way to live.
These days, there are so many books written on this topic. A book I found transformative is by Barry Neil Kaufman, Happiness is a Choice (1994). When Barry and his wife gave birth to a severely disabled child, they were instructed to put the child into an institution. But they chose to ignore that advice and to choose happiness, welcoming the child as a gift which became transformative for them, eventually writing about it to share their story of joy. I gave this book to my mother in her later years after I read it. A month later, she learned her breast cancer had spread to her tailbone. I didn’t think she had time to read the book, and I never would have given it to her after her diagnosis. But in fact, she did read it and proceeded to write a letter to me and other close family members, asserting that she was choosing happiness in the time she had left. She instructed us to help her laugh when we came to visit, rather than to cry. When we visited, my sons would read her jokes. We played games and laughed. We watched funny movies and tv shows. And my mother’s cancer disappeared.
My writing coach, Kathie Giorgio, experienced several whammies in recent years, including an assault while walking her dogs by a man wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat in the week after the presidential election of 2016. Not wanting to give in to despair, she made a commitment to blog each day about one thing for which she was grateful in the midst of very difficult times. She called it “Today’s Moment of Happiness Despite the News.” Shortly thereafter, she received a diagnosis of Stage 2 breast cancer, and then her husband lost his job, taking with it her health insurance. The blog became quite popular and her publisher turned it into a book, Today’s Moment of Happiness Despite the News (2019). She says now that this practice saved her life.
Here are some suggestions for a personal practice of gratitude. And I’d love to hear other strategies you have to be thankful and how gratitude transforms your life. May Thanksgiving this year launch you into a life brimming with gratitude into 2021 and beyond.
Suggestions for a Personal Gratitude Practice
- Pick a time each day to give thanks. If you already have a journaling practice, incorporate that into your journal. If not, consider keeping a small notebook by your bed and make a list of five things from the day for which you are grateful, every night before you go to bed. Or if you prefer, do it when you first wake up. Take time once a week, perhaps on Sunday, to read over the gifts of your week.
- Take time to give thanks for the food before you eat. Consider not only a general note of thanks, but for the gifts and miracle of the Earth, for those who harvested, for the animals who gave their lives, for all the workers who labored to get this food to your table, and also give thanks for the ways the food will nourish your body and give you energy for your day.
- Make a habit of writing thank you notes and appreciating the people in your life.
Find a chapter on the contemplative practice of Gratitude, as well as other contemplative practices, in my book Awakening: A Contemplative Primer on Learning to Sit.
October 1st, 2020
Each month, since the launch of my book Awakening: A Contemplative Primer on Learning to Sit) May, 2020, I am reflecting on a contemplative practice introduced in the book. For October, the focus is on Sacred Conversation.
Today, I want to talk about the importance of being heard. We all need someone to listen to our lives. I believe that God sends people to listen, love and guide us on our spiritual path. In a letter I received from God while writing my book on contemplative practices, God said to me, “You are the way I communicate. You can be my heart beating for the person we both love.”
So I want to ask… Who listens to you? Who holds you in prayer? Who walks with you through your spiritual life? Do you have people who help you reflect upon your day -to-day experiences?
Throughout my life, I’ve been blessed with good listeners. I remember a time in particular when I became very confused on my spiritual journey. I once heard that a thinking Christian struggles at least every seven years with their faith and belief in God. Perhaps, our image of God becomes too small for the reality of the One who created us all. For me, this happened in young adulthood as I tried to resolve the many variations of theology I learned in college. I left the church for a while. One night, someone listened to me. He didn’t judge me but acknowledged the difficulty of my journey and my unanswered questions. I still remember his compassion that became a bridge into a deeper faith journey for me.
Now I have a spiritual director who I meet with regularly. She helps me consider how God is moving in my life. She listens to my struggles, encourages me along the way and validates the way God is guiding and speaking in my life. I value her presence and listening with me.
When I started receiving the letters from God, which I call “Letters from the Earth,” I talked to her about the letters, often reading them to her. She encourages me to continue to listen, and she affirms the messages I hear. She wants me to share these message with others. At times, I worry that people will think I’m totally bonkers, but she assures me that these are good messages and they need to be heard. “Who else will speak for the Earth?” she asks me. She tells me that God is still speaking through us.
Spiritual directors are not therapists or counselors, but instead, they help a person explore a deeper relationship with the spiritual aspect of being human. They help people tell their sacred stories. Spiritual direction helps guide us, teaching how to live. James Keegan, SJ explains, “Spiritual direction is the contemplative practice of helping another person or group to awaken to the mystery called God in all of life, and to respond to that discovery in a growing relationship of freedom and commitment.”
Often small groups can also be places of deep listening. Throughout my life, small groups support my spiritual walk. In high school, they encouraged my growing faith. In college we prayed and searched together. In my first job after college, I led a small community of college students in an intentional Christian community and that became a beckon of light and love for each of us. As a young parent, our church offered many groups for companionship and navigating the challenges of life. A career counseling group a friend and I led, helped me become who I am today, encouraging me to follow the path to which I felt called, to serve God and people and to work for peace and justice. As unpractical as it seemed, my small group encouraged me, and that is who I have become. I’m forever indebted to their presence with me in that time.
When the pandemic began, my current church formed Circles of Hope. We meet by Zoom weekly to check in, consider questions following up on the weekly sermon, and to pray for each other. I also participate in a Shalem Circle which meets monthly, with others who have completed contemplative studies with the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. We also meet virtually during the pandemic, and early on started meeting twice a month as we all tried to navigate this difficult reality of COVID-19. These circles support me in my day-to-day walk.
As I’ve experienced the transformative power of being heard in my own life and heard stories of how listening transforms others, I’ve made a commitment to do more listening. Recently at a Shalem Gathering, a new friend explained a process in San Francisco, where her community listens to street people. They set up two chairs on the sidewalk with a sign announcing “When you talk, we listen.” Then they sit, waiting for whoever needs to be heard on a given day. I also know of a program in Columbus called “Women-to-Women”[i] for low income women, single mothers, and those facing a myriad of issues, such as re-entering society from prison and overcoming drug and alcohol problems. Their approach is to listen, as well.
For several years, I been participating in another type of listening circle, initiated by a local program called “Circles.” At the time, two national non-profits (Move the Mountain and Bridges out of Poverty) partnered in a project to help people move out of poverty. An important part of the program involved small groups of “Circle Leaders” who were navigating their way out of poverty, and “Allies” who were there to support and provide networking connections. When my Circle met, we listened to each other, shared our personal goals and related progress and prayed for one another. This group continues to be important to us all as we navigate our lives and work to reach our goals. Over time one of our Circle members paid off her debt, bought a house and completed college.
Still another form of spiritual listening is a Spiritual Friendship, where you meet regularly and listen to each other.
So, if you want to explore having some to listen to your spiritual journey, I encourage you to take time to find a spiritual director, friend or listening circle, finding someone who resonates with your experience and faith journey is so important. Here are some suggestions for getting started:
- If you seek a spiritual director, the websites of both Spiritual Directors International (sdi.com) and Spiritual Directors of Color Network (sdc.com) provide directories of spiritual directors. You can also contact local religious organizations for referrals.
- If you seek a spiritual friendship, invite a church friend or close companion to consider doing this with you. If they agree, set a regular schedule to meet and listen to each other and pray for each other. It’s helpful to have a format you follow, and to agree to the length of time you’ll meet. There are books written about this that may help guide you. A simple approach would be to start with silence, then have a time for each of you to share, followed by a time of listening for God, sharing any insights and then praying for the person who shared, and then repeat the process for the other person.
- Join a small group at your religious organization or ask if you could start one. Resources are available to assist you.
Check out my book Awakening: A Contemplative Primer on Learning to Sit for more information. And let me know how you find
[i] Women-to-Women, Columbus Spirituality Network. Reference: https://spiritualitynetwork.org/women-to-women.
September 1st, 2020
Lectio Divina with the Earth: Time to Listen
My heart reels with sadness for Mother Earth. Last week, Hurricane Laura (Level 4) slammed into the coasts of Louisiana and Texas. Fire fighters battled walls of fire in northern California that have consumed over 100,000 acres of land, as well as many homes and businesses. And here in Ohio, I continue quarantining in place with the rest of our nation in the fifth month of a pandemic, one of our first major illnesses brought on, like these other situations because of climate change. If ever there were a time that we need to listen to the Earth, it is now.
In our post-modern world, we are surrounded with technology and equipment, gadgets and machines. Brian Swimme in his book, The Hidden Heart of Cosmos: Humanity and the New Story (New York: Orbis Books, 1996), suggests that much of the reason we have so much depression in our materialistic culture is that we focus too much on “dead things.” We separate ourselves from a close connection with the earth. For this reason, perhaps, we allow our society to destroy much of the environment on which we depend. Regular walks in nature can begin to remedy this alienation and help lead to a path of personal and planetary healing.
Just open the door and take a walk out into nature. Make your goal mindfulness and awareness. Slow down and use the senses to see, hear, feel, smell and taste the infinite varieties of diversity in this amazing world.
Lectio Divina, a practice for reading scripture developed by a monk in the Middle Ages, can also be used to read the holy Word of God found in all of creation. Beginning with Lectio (reading), look at or “read” the landscape and listen for what “shimmers” or jumps out at you on this particular day. Allow the Spirit to call your attention to something. It could be the big picture, or a small decaying leaf; a flying bird or a stream of industrious ants. Then move into Meditatio (meditating) on that aspect of the Divine Word, considering the message for your life today. What are you hearing? Why did you happen to focus on that particular aspect of nature? After a time of meditation, move into Oratio (praying), for whatever you’ve discovered about a message for your life. Pray for that thought to take root in your every day. And finally, sit or walk with Contemplativo (contemplating), silencing your thoughts and just be present to God.
A walk in nature may not only heighten your awareness of God, but also your physical interaction with creation provides life-giving oxygen for you, and necessary carbon dioxide for the plants. This stimulates a harmony of mind, body and spirit. When it’s not possible to go on a walk outdoors, meditating on an indoor plant or even a photo of the natural world can provide contemplative joy.
One day, practicing Lectio Divina, I sat with a bouquet and the leaves shimmered for me. I considered how a leaf grows from the center of the plant, branches out and receives sustenance from roots in the soil, always connected to its source. I thought about how it fulfills its purpose of absorbing sunlight and CO2 to feed the plant; a form of symbiosis (Lectio). I realized that I am like the leaf. I have grown from a seed, branching out, receiving all of my nourishment from gifts of the natural world. I am of the Earth, and also part of this greater ecosystem (Meditatio). I then prayed, “Help me God to stay connected to You in each breath. May I realize my place in this ecosystem. May I live from my heart Center and feel this symbiosis of interdependence” (Oratio). And then I sat into silence with the leaves (Contemplativo).
Another day a sunflower shimmered for me. I observed this dazzling beauty with its sturdy stem, a circle of centered seeds, its border of brilliant gold petals and underneath, a green lotus-like green support that undergirds the large flower (Lectio). It taught me to look underneath the surface to find the gems of the person, the moment the day. It said, “Listen, be curious, interview, learn about people. Look for supportive practices that will help you act from the center. Cultivate strength (Meditatio). And then I prayed, “Help me God to take time to cultivate the strength I need for my life. And help to always look beneath the surface and be curious to listen and learn from others” (Oratio). And this led into my time of silent meditation, as I marveled at the underside of the sunflower that I had never really seen before (Contemplativo).
Still another day, I walked down to the waterfront of Lake Erie, a day when the pier and beach were closed due to algal blooms. I sat on a chair focusing on this sadness at one of my favorite places and considered the pollution, brought on by agricultural runoff and warmer waters due to climate change. I considered what can happen when our ecosystem suffers from the release of too much carbon into the atmosphere. I felt within me alarm. I heard the earth crying out and begging me to listen to the damage of our industrial society (Lectio). Within the cry, I heard a call to action. The Earth needs me to continue to organize and build bipartisan political will to address climate change (Meditatio). And then I prayed, “I’m sorry, God, for the damage we humans are causing to your beautiful gift of the incredible ecosystem of Earth. Help me to do what I can. May I work with others. May I try harder as a member of Citizens’ Climate Lobby” (Oratio). And then I sat in silence with the sick lake, seeking God in the midst of this suffering of our ecosystem (Contemplativo).
I encourage you to take time to listen to the Earth in these days. God will speak to you. Use the practice of Lectio Divina and let me know what you hear! You can contact me at email@example.com. Check out my website at spiritualseedlings.com for more information about my book Awakening: A Contemplative Primer on Learning to Sit (Higher Ground Books and Media, 2020) which includes a chapter on the practice of Lectio Divina with Nature, and ten other contemplative practices.
August 3rd, 2020
These times of pandemic challenge all of us. We seek hope, signposts for the journey, and sustenance to make it through. In this blog post I would like to encourage you to try the ancient practice of Lectio Divina. This practice will help you slow down and listen to sacred words that will shimmer into your life. You will find guidance and new inspiration to help you , make the most of these times.
Preliterate people told stories. Scripture of the ancient ones lived in their hearts before they became words on parchment and later paper. Later, common people who didn’t read relied on the spiritual leaders to read the holy words out loud. Words were carefully copied from one document to another. The monks were often the caretakers of the Christian scriptures in this way.
Over time, as more people learned to read, they began to read the scripture for themselves. The oral tradition, now written, helped them to learn about faith experiences in the past. Scriptures are read, discussed, dissected, researched and interpreted. A common practice in most Christian churches will be for a preacher to speak on various scriptures each Sunday. Bible studies help teach the scripture and the meanings, interpretations.
But back in the 6th century, Benedict of Nursia started a meditative approach to scripture. Instead of reading and studying the passages, he began to instruct the monks to also pray with the scripture. This approach, known as Lectio Divina, was formalized into a four-step process in the 12th century by a Carthusian monk, Guigo II. In later years, the Catholic Church recommended it as a way to read scripture. Although there are variations on the approach, the main goal is to read scripture slowly, listening for God’s word in a phrase or single word, rather than looking at the passage as a whole, in context.
You begin this practice by selecting a passage of scripture. Psalms work well. Usually, you begin by reading the scripture through once or twice out loud. This is the first step: Lectio (reading). During the readings, you listen for what “shimmers” or jumps out at you on this particular day. You allow the Spirit to call your attention to something. It could be a word, a sentence, a phrase.
After you have focused on a particular part of the scripture, you move into Meditatio (meditating), during which you reflect on the word or words deeply. What is the message for your life today? What are you hearing? What drew you to that word?
Once you have a sense of the message for you, move on to the third step of Oratio (praying). During this time, pray over whatever you’ve discovered here, and how this message speaks to your life. Pray for that thought to take root in your every day.
Finally, you end your prayer by sitting in silence during the Contemplativo (contemplating) step. Let your thoughts go and just be present to God. The Latin words used to describe these steps don’t quite jive with our understanding of the words. The contemplative step is actually what most of us now refer to as meditation. If you have a regular meditation practice, you can begin your practice with this divine reading approach as preparation, which is probably how the monks originally conceived of the process.
My own spiritual journey includes deepening meaning over time. I look for opportunities for new spiritual understanding. After years of reading scripture, there are many passages I have read and heard discussed hundreds of times. It’s so important for me to have ways to keep the scripture fresh for me. Lectio Divina provides a great way for me to listen again for the first time with new ears, from my heart.
As you find yourself perhaps with more time at home during these days of pandemic, this can be a great time to slow down, appreciate, and savor the sacred words. I find that doing this Lectio Divina approach with scripture opens the passages up to me in new ways. When I try this, I hear the voice of God in my life. When I’ve done it with a group, the same thing happens.
So here are a few suggestions:
- If you have a regular meditation or prayer practice, try using Lectio Divina for a week to begin your prayer or meditation time. Write the four steps on a piece of paper with their descriptions to help guide you, if you are not familiar with the process.
- After you practice Lectio Divina, take time to journal about the words that shimmered, how you applied them to your life, and what your prayers were concerning this.
- If you are Christian and attend a church who follows the lectionary, you can easily look these scriptures up on the internet and use them in your prayer time. Or if your church doesn’t follow the lectionary, just use the scripture from the service in your reflection. If you are from a different religious tradition, choose your own sacred text for meditation. Some people also use meaningful and/or spiritual poems with this practice.
I think that you will find words shimmering and the Spirit speaking to you in new ways. I know I certainly have!
For more information, check out my book Awakening: A Contemplative Primer on Learning to Sit. (Higher Ground Books and Media, 2020).
June 30th, 2020
Labyrinth Blog Post – July 1, 2020
Walking the Sacred Path
Labyrinths become popular in times of great chaos. Ancient cultures utilized this archetype, dating back over 5,000 years. In the middle ages, Christians built labyrinths into the floors of cathedrals. This divine imprint provides a simple path, winding into the center and back out again. Now, in these days of pandemic and awakening to the imbedded racism in our society, the labyrinth offers a path toward healing and peace. In this blog, I want to talk a little bit about my own experience with the labyrinth and encourage you to consider how it might enliven your spiritual practice as well.
When I turned 50, my friends surprised me with a labyrinth mowed into the grass in a friend’s backyard. For my first walk, I donned a red hat and purple boa and laughed. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure I really got it. If you come upon a labyrinth in a park or church, you may have a similar experience, but I encourage you to try it again.
After my party, one of these friends invited several of us to an indoors canvas labyrinth in a downtown church in a neighboring town. There, with soft music and lighted candles, I really experienced this sacred path for the first time, sensing the slowing and prayer time of listening.
There is a mystery about the labyrinth experience that I’ve witnessed both in my own life and with others. Some call it a “thin” space, where the veil between heaven and earth seems lifted. I’ve heard from people who have passed on to the other side. Often, I have received wise counsel from God as I walk the questions of my life.
The simple circular pattern of the labyrinth helps connect us with self and with God. The repetitive, symmetrical aspects of the path which wind around and back and forth tends to create balance and wholeness. Many report deep emotional and spiritual experiences when walking. Some also report a deep connection with the earth.
A simple way to walk is to release, receive and return. On the path to the center, release and let go of any burdens or thoughts. In the center, pause to receive a gift from God. On the journey out, begin to return back into the world. Or you might ask a question before you walk, listening for answers on the way in, praying about the answers received in the center, and beginning to integrate the answers on the way back out. New walkers are encouraged to walk the labyrinth three times, before deciding whether or not to incorporate it into their spiritual practice. Veteran walkers often report each walk to be a unique experience.
When I enrolled in a class in leading contemplative small groups and retreats with the Shalem Institute of Spiritual Formation, I began to read and learn about labyrinths. Later at our church, I created a cloth labyrinth with friends. We first offered Friday “Happy Hours with the Labyrinth” Over time, I began to rave that the walks were “better than beer.” I would arrive at the walk emotionally and physically drained from a long work week. After letting go of frustrations while walking the labyrinth, I found new energy and hope, near to the heart of God.
Later, I became a “Certified Labyrinth Facilitator” with Lauren Artress’ organization, Veriditas. Friends and I led labyrinth walks at a woman’s reformatory, in the juvenile detention facility, for an urban neighborhood group, for a church women’s retreat, at the local cancer center, and in the chapel at our local college. I slowly became a labyrinth enthusiast. I even wrote a novel, Revelation at the Labyrinth (eLectio Publishing, 2017) and my most recent book Awakening: A Primer on Learning to Sit (Higher Ground Books and Media, 2020) includes a chapter on walking the labyrinth
One of the most powerful experiences happened when a friend and I led a labyrinth walk at a women’s prison. The spiritual energy in the room that day stayed with me through the coming week. One woman said she felt such love from the others in the silence, unlike the hostility she often experienced in the prison. The women wrote beautiful poems and thoughts afterward, explaining what the session elicited within them. Another time, leading a session at the local juvenile detention center, I explained the labyrinth emerges in times of great chaos. I didn’t think they’d get it, but they totally understood. They also really seemed to enjoy the walk, connecting in the center with each other.
Right now, I believe the labyrinth to be a wonderful tool to help us seek inner peace in troubling times. It can also help us seek and find answers and solutions to the great issues confronting our society. Each of us can listen for our role and part in working toward a more loving, caring community.
So, I encourage you to try a labyrinth. You can probably find one in your community. Or maybe, like me, you’ll decide to make your own! Here are a few things you can do to explore:
- Check out the website “labyrinthlocator.org” to find labyrinths near you. You can also use this resource when traveling. Some labyrinths are in public places and churches, many quite accessible and possible to use while social distancing. Indoor labyrinths are usually open on a schedule.
- Make a finger labyrinth to use. This can be as simple as finding a labyrinth image online and printing it out, and then playing the spiritual, jazz, drumming or classical music that resonates with you while tracing the path with your finger. If you have craft skills, you might want to carve one into wood, or add texture to the paper labyrinth to keep your finger in the lines. I recently learned to make a finger labyrinth on a 12-inch square canvas, covering the lines with thick twine or clothesline, then modge-podging it and finally painting it with acrylics. You can also buy a finger labyrinth.
- Read a book about labyrinths to learn more about walking them. If you enjoy labyrinth-walking already, choose a book to learn about more ways to use a labyrinth. A few books I would recommend are The Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Practice by Lauren Artress (Riverhead Books, 1996) for introductory understanding and The Sacred Path Companion: A Guide to Walking the Labyrinth to Heal and Transform by Lauren Artress (Riverhead Books, 2006) to learn more about using the labyrinth for specific rituals and events.
Check out my website at SpiritualSeedling.com for more information on my books and work.
June 14th, 2020
“When you sit in meditation, you fulfill all my desires for you. You stop. You listen. You merge your mind-body-spirit into the unity of my creation. You let go of thoughts which divide. You become one and experience the love at the center of life.” – “A Letter from the Earth on Learning to Sit in Awakening: A Contemplative Primer on Learning to Sit, Page 37
Meditation! What a gift! What a learning process! What a struggle! What a blessing! I am writing this short blog to encourage you to find time for meditation.
Our society pulls us far away from the still, small voice of God. And yet, perhaps because our society clamors with so much urgency, so many images, so much stuff, we find ourselves drawn to leave the frenzy for the silence. The contemplative practice calls to us, leading us into the Center where our minds, bodies and spirits harmonize into the heart of God. Meditation is a gift available to all of us and so helpful. Research teaches that it helps the immune system, provides clarity of thought, calms the body and lowers blood pressure.
This practice changed my life from inside out. In the early morning, just a few minutes of concentrating on my breath and letting go of thoughts transforms my perspective and calms my spirit. Suddenly, anxieties, worries, stress melt away.
Serendipities happen and life unfolds more easily after meditation. I will express an intention to do something. Then as I walk through my day, the ducks line up to make it happen. People I need to help show up unexpectedly. Life blossoms in miraculous ways.
And, I encounter God as I meditate. In our scripture, there’s a verse that when we know how to pray, but sighs intercede too great for words (Romans 8:26). That’s what I think happens: I am just putting myself into God’s presence and then God stays with me through my day. Simply sitting into the presence of God provides a space of infinite growth and love. In this sacred place, one joins the Biblical pilgrims in the prayer of listening and being still before God. One connects with a deep wellspring of energy and inspiration for caring action. One cultivates harmony that leads to internal and external healing. And one becomes conscious of the unity of all beings, the earth and the cosmos.
So, yes, I am learning to sit. For about nine years now I have started every day with 20 minutes of meditation, and then I journal and write.
Like most people who meditate, I found it difficult. At first, I expected instant enlightenment, sterling new insight, and deep inner peace. Actually, as I began, I lear
ned that I shouldn’t look for great insight, just letting go. And in reading Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila, I learned that in order to get to the deep inner peace, I must first cross the moat. The junk of our lives tends to surface when we work to become silent. The demons and dragons may disturb the waters of our practice. What also is true, though, is that as we let go of these pains in our lives, we will find stiller waters, not only in our meditation time, but also in daily life.
Right now, most of us in America find life challenging and confusing. The pandemic turned our everyday life upside down. Regular events screeched to a halt. To be safe we must keep our distance from others. The economy buckled and many are without work. The graphic murder of George Floyd also brought racism front and center, begging for us to make deep changes as a society, to confront our own evil and find a path forward with justice for all.
I believe meditation catapults us into the spaciousness of God’s love, where infinite possibilities emerge for a path forward. I believe it’s just what is needed for this time.
If you would like to incorporate meditation into your life, there are a variety of ways to enter the silence. The Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation recommends some form of body prayer to begin. Focusing on the breath, relaxation, a chant, a time of reading scripture or nature may be helpful. An infinite variety of entry points are possible. Whatever assists you into the spacious silence of love should be followed. Experimenting with different tools may help you find an effective practice.
The goal is to still the monkey mind and let thoughts slip way. This, however, can be a difficult process. So be gentle with yourself and the thoughts that come. Just observe them and imagine them floating on down the river may be one way to let them go.
As the contemplative practice grows in popularity, there are myriad resources available to assist those who seek this way. When the student is ready, the teacher arrives. So ask, knock, seek, and you will receive, the door will be opened, and you will find. I suggest that you:
- Make a commitment to meditate every day and choose a time that works in your schedule. Try to dedicate 20 minutes, but if that is too difficult, start with 5 or 10 minutes to begin. Set a timer, so you don’t have to focus on the clock. Most cell phones have a timer you can use.
- Find a place in your home where you can be quiet and sit. Most suggest that you sit erectly, either cross-legged or with your feet flat on the floor. However, if that position does not work for you, honor your body and be comfortable. The goal is to be alert into the silence. You might need to ask the people in your life to honor your time in silence. If you have young children, it’s probably easiest to meditate while they are sleeping.
My book Awakening: A Contemplative Primer on Learning to Sit (Higher Ground Books and Media, 2020) offers more resources on the contemplative practices of meditation, labyrinth walking, sacred conversation, Lectio Divina, gratitude, mindful eating, contemplative rituals, contemplative living, and contemplative action. It may help guide you along your path.
Visit my website at spiritualseedlings.com for more information and follow me on Facebook at Nancy Flinchbaugh, Author. If you’d like me to lead a retreat or speak to your group, email me at: nancy.flinchbaugh.com.
June 5th, 2020
“We will go into the future as a single sacred community, or we will all perish in the desert.”
— Thomas Berry
Last week our country reeled from the 100,000th death from COVID-19 and then a police officer in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, suffocating him to death with his knee while Floyd lay handcuffed, face down. This murder has awakened protests throughout our cities because it was captured on video. The murder makes graphic and painfully visible the mistreatment of African-Americans in 400 years of history of the United States of America, since they were kidnapped from Africa and enslaved to make fortunes for southern plantation owners. Meanwhile, our planet continues to heat into dangerous levels, bringing more cataclysmic storms, droughts, floods and a changing climate. dangerous future.
These are difficult times in which we live, and for that reason, I believe we are all called to awaken. Planet Earth and the people of the Earth need all of us now. Some suggest that we humans are Creation’s pinnacle, created in the image of God. I believe we hold the intelligence to lead our species into healing the planet, our institutions and our relationships, but we must awaken to this urgency. We must summon all of our abilities as the miraculous beings we are and work together.
My new book Awakening: A Contemplative Primer on Learning to Sit offers a path into the future for all of us. In a time when we don’t have the answers, we need spiritual focus to connect with God and to find solutions, together. This book assists the reader and groups to access contemplative practices, opening into the space of infinite possibility close to the Heart of God. Meditation, Labyrinth Walking, Sacred Conversation, Lectio Divina with Scripture and Nature, Gratitude, Contemplative Living, Contemplative Ritual and Contemplative Action are all paths to the place where we find transformative love. I believe in these spaces, we each we will find our calls to move out into the world with constructive action.
As we awaken, we will have clarity to begin what Thomas Berry calls our “Great Work.” We must change our relationship with the Earth and work to preserve life here. The Earth will survive, humans may not.
As we awaken, we will find a path to create a more just society where all people are treated with dignity and respect.
As we awaken, we will find a way to cultivate peace within ourselves and to awaken to the incredible gift of life that is ours. We will develop a deeper sense of love for people and the environment of Earth and its living creatures and plants. This fragile ecosystem holds us all, and we who have the intelligence and ability, must begin to care for it to lead us into a sustainable future.
I encourage you to read my new book and consider the ways that you are being called to awaken into your life to help create a sustainable future for us all. Don’t we owe it to our Creator and the future of our species, to awaken and put all of our intelligence, resources and energy into moving into a new relationship with our Earth and one another, a sustainable plan for the future?
Nancy Flinchbaugh 6/5/20
March 20th, 2020
In this time of fear, I call you to hold light. Each of you has the power to love. Beyond the unknown, beyond the breaking news, reach out and love those around you.
This is not the first time that pestilence has befallen on the people. Throughout time, pestilence and plagues, natural and unnatural disasters have impacted humankind. My creation is far from perfect.
Things happen. I’m sorry. Sometimes humans cause these things. Sometimes there is no one to blame. Know that in all situations I am with you to love and to protect.
Stay close to me and your true self. Glow like the candle. Dance like the ballerina. Sing your song. Let your voice be heard. You can’t go wrong.
I love you.
September 21st, 2018
Listen to the Podcast
It’s one of those weeks when life broadsides you. It’s easy to become overwhelmed and to feel stuck in the angst of the moment.
Today is the day to see me in every moment. Today is the time to listen. Today is the time to walk slowly and know my love carries you.
CultureFest is about unity in diversity. CultureFest is about our celebration of our humanity. CultureFest is bigger than you or me in the moment.
So keep hope alive. Be love. That’s what is most important.
I love you.