I started to realize my soul might need more intentional tending in May of this past year.
For starters, my movement in prayer was happening slowly. The labyrinth moment had happened in early January, and the purple robe showed up on the scene on Good Friday, March 25. It took me about a month after that to move so that I was sitting next to Christ as we looked at the robe together, and then we sat that way, shoulder to shoulder, just looking at it, for at least another month or two still.
In May, when all of this was still going on, Kirk came home from one of his quarterly retreats with the Transforming Community. This two-year program, over the course of nine retreats, teaches its participants about spiritual formation and soul care. One of the retreats, for example, focuses on solitude and silence. Another teaches principles of discernment. They cover lectio divina, different forms of prayer, the examen, the Enneagram, crafting a rule of life, and more.
Most of these topics were ones I had studied years earlier as part of my graduate degree in spiritual formation. I have incorporated these practices into my life for years and have also taught them to others.
Even so, every time Kirk came home from one of his quarterly retreats, he would tell me he thought I should consider doing the program. And every time, I told him I didn't think it was for me. I did not see the sense in spending several thousand dollars to receive training in areas I had already received training and had been practicing and teaching others for a long time now.
On this particular time of return from retreat, however, he offered the suggestion through a different lens.
"What if it's not about further training?" he said. "What if you just did it for you, for your own soul care?"
In that moment, something shifted. I saw the possibility afresh.
Do it just for me? For my own soul care?
Even though I'd been continuing to meet with my spiritual director every month and had seen God shape and direct my path through these difficult past few years, I also knew something felt off inside me. The labyrinth moment, with its corresponding anger, was the first big clue. The months it took for me to see any movement in prayer after that was another.
I told Kirk I would open myself to the possibility and see what happened.
We had already been planning for me to join him for his closing retreat with the community in August, so we began to view the upcoming trip as an additional chance for me to discern whether the program was something I, too, was being invited to do.
Still, even though I was open to furthering the work of my discernment at the retreat, my main point of focus was Kirk. It was his final retreat with this program he had been completing for two years. I was excited to meet the people in his cohort, to see the grounds where he had been taking retreat all this time, to see what it had been like for him to learn in this environment.
I did not expect at all for God to use the retreat to minister to me.
But that is exactly what God did.
The first thing that happened was the gaze of Christ.
On the first day of the retreat, the community met for gathering prayer in the chapel, a room with an altar in the center and four quadrants of chairs facing it. Different large icons of Christ were displayed prominently in each quadrant.
Kirk and I sat in the back row of our quadrant, and my gaze was drawn immediately to the Pantocrater icon of Christ standing to our left. For the whole of the service, I could not take my eyes off it. And because of the style of the iconography, it felt as though he was not taking his eyes off me, either. It felt like he was gazing right into me.
At some point during the service, I noticed my heart was speaking to him.
"I miss you," my heart was saying.
"I know," he was saying back.
We gathered for fixed-hour prayer several times during the course of the retreat, and each time we sat in that chapel, I continued to stare at this icon of Christ and let myself feel his gaze staring back into me. I noticed that, slowly, slowly, it felt like drops of water were being sprinkled on my parched, dry heart. My heart was being watered by the gaze of the Living Water.
The second thing that happened was that Ruth Haley Barton, who leads the Transforming Community, gave a closing homily on the final morning of the retreat.
It was a homily meant for the participants, who were bringing their journey together to a close. But, yet again, God used the homily for me too.
Ruth spoke on the Emmaus Road passage in Luke 24. She described the two disciples on the road, how they had started their walk to Emmaus feeling disillusioned, disheartened, and confused. They were dazed as they woke up to the reality of their lives. What had their lives become? How did they end up here, exactly?
I felt she was speaking directly to my experience. I, too, felt like I was waking up to a life I did not recognize. How had I gotten here, so far from God? What had happened to me and our shared intimacy?
I was dazed and disillusioned, for sure.
The tears started running down my face.
Ruth must have spoken for 20 minutes that morning, and the tears rolled down my cheeks for the whole of it. I could not get them to stop for anything. I felt conspicuous and embarrassed, due to the setup of the chairs that had our four quadrants facing each another. I was a visitor among this group, and yet I felt my tears, which I could not control, were making a spectacle.
Something was clearly happening at this retreat. God was using it to awaken something more inside me.
Over the previous couple years, a regular theme had emerged in my work with my spiritual director, Elaine. I would come to our sessions and tell her I'd been struggling to pray. During the sessions, I would be able to pray. Pretty consistently in those sessions, she would help me see that despite my lack of focused prayer on my own throughout the month, God had been present and active anyway.
This was different for me. I'd been used to regular rhythms of prayer in my life. At one point, in response to my sense of my contemplative call, I had arranged my life so as to be able to spend up to four hours most days in contemplative prayer and other spiritual practices.
A lack of regular prayer practice in my life unnerved me.
"Perhaps God is teaching you a different way of praying," Elaine would suggest. "Perhaps you are being invited to see the ways God is with you and moving in your life, even when you don't take time to sit and pray in the ways you're used to doing."
It encouraged me, the way she could help me see where God had been present in the midst of my changed rhythms, how God was moving in and through me despite myself, even when I did not know it was happening.
When the retreat ended, Kirk and I decided to take one last drive around the lake that adjoins the retreat center. As we drove, I shared with him what had been happening inside me during Ruth's homily that caused all those tears to fall. When I finished sharing, he pulled the car over and told me he wanted to give me a gift had purchased for me at the retreat.
It was the plaque you see pictured above. Bidden or not bidden, God is present.
As soon as I saw it, I burst into tears.
In that moment, everything collided: all that God had been stirring in me during those few days of the retreat, teaching me about my heart's desire and thirst for him and my feelings of disillusionment about what my intimacy with him had become, and all that Elaine and I had been noticing for quite some time together. Bidden or not bidden, God is present.
It had been hard already, in my work with Elaine, to reconcile that God continued to speak and move and work through me despite my shifting prayer practices. But now, after a few days spent realizing just how much I missed God after nearly a year of anger and distance from him, I had an even harder time reconciling this reality of God's ongoing movement and action through me.
Even as I had been struggling in my life with God, the Still Forming community I had been called to serve was growing. Together, we had walked through several meaningful seasons of learning and sharing over this past year. I knew I had noticed and responded to God's leading into and through those seasons.
And yet my life with God was struggling.
How could these two realities coexist? Bidden or not bidden, God is present.
It will likely not surprise you to hear that I decided to join the next cohort of the Transforming Community program. It started in October, and it is already helping to reorder and refresh my soul.
More on that to come.