One thing I’ve loved about my spiritual disciplines class is the freedom we’re given to practice the disciplines each week in a way that is most meaningful to our current journey and life situation. We study two new disciplines each week and are then asked to practice them in some specific way, writing a reflection at the end of each week to share what we did and how it went.
On the whole, I have loved this because it brings a measure of freedom to an otherwise very structured experience. By their very nature, the spiritual disciplines are focused and intentional: we choose to do something in a certain way for a certain period of time in order to place ourselves before God and allow Him to change us. Simply by choosing to practice the disciplines, in other words, we bring to our lives some level of restriction. The freedom to choose what form that restriction has taken each week in this class, then, has been a real gift. It allows me to apply the material I’m learning in a way that is personal to my journey, my current life situation, my actual habits, and my specific need for growth.
This freedom to choose became difficult for me, however, when I got to week four.
In the fourth week, we studied the disciplines of simplicity and solitude. Figuring out a way to practice solitude was easy, as there is a retreat center near our house that has a long boardwalk through the woods that ends up at a lakeside seating area. Out by the lake, there’s nothing but the sound of water lapping and wind blowing through trees to keep you company. I decided I would spend some time sitting there at the end of the week, taking only myself, my Bible, and a notebook, leaving even my cell phone on silent so I wouldn’t hear it ring.
But getting to my time at the lake on Friday proved much more difficult than I thought it would be, and this is because of the way I wrestled with the discipline of simplicity all week long.
There are many different sides to the discipline of simplicity. In one way, it’s about learning to hold things loosely: possessions, relationships, time, and even experiences. In another way, it’s about learning to live more simply and respectfully of our resources: spending less money, using less gas and electricity, recycling items, and allowing what we already have to last longer and stretch further. In yet another way, it is about developing purity in our inner and outer life so that we say what we mean and mean what we say. It’s also about slowing down, being intentional, and bringing a less hurried pace to our activities.
These many different aspects of simplicity provided a whole host of ways I could intentionally practice the discipline that week. I could spend a day trying to be as simple and direct with my speech as possible, avoiding the temptation to manipulate words, situations, and relationships by truly letting my “yes” be “yes” and my “no” be “no.” I could look for more ways to respect the natural resources of the earth, perhaps by replacing lightbulbs in my house with more eco-friendly choices or finding creative ways to use what was already in my refrigerator to feed myself and my husband instead of burning unnecessary fuel, cash, and other resources with a trip to the drive-thru.
As much as I could see these options before me, I still couldn’t grasp the most specific way I needed to bring a greater sense of simplicity to my life in that moment. In what way did the Holy Spirit most want me to practice this discipline right now?
I soon found the answer when I attended to what was in front of me. Throughout the week, I noticed that certain activities were beginning to form an unhealthy grip on my insides and my time. I was becoming inordinately fixated on things that weren’t necessarily good for me, and I was having trouble choosing to do things that were better for me instead. For instance, I know from experience that starting my day devotionally with prayer and Scripture brings a greater sense of peace and centeredness to the rest of my day than starting my day with e-mail and Facebook, and yet every morning I headed straight for the computer. I also know that attending to work and school deadlines are better choices for my life than attending to political news headlines for hours on end, and yet one evening I found myself spending three hours catching up on a political blog I hadn’t read in several days because I felt a compulsive need to be in the know and gain some expert opinion. I felt an intoxicating pull to be validated, affirmed, and acknowledged by people in my life and to be on top of information that was constantly updating. I could never keep up, and I kept feeling like my very worth was at stake.
Slowly I began to wonder if one particular simplicity practice I had read about — that of writing a “rule for life” — might be what I needed most to do. By writing a rule for life, I would be composing a simple, general set of statements that would guide how I spent each day. It is meant to be written with prayer and attention to the Holy Spirit’s promptings about what things are best for your time and attention in that particular season of life. It is a tool to help clarify your priorities and choose what is most important.
While I could see that writing a rule for life would be a beneficial and helpful practice for me in that place, I resisted doing it. Writing it would mean articulating and committing to things that are good for me to choose for my life, but I didn’t feel ready to give up my poorer choices. I wanted to believe I could get out of them the life that I sought. I wanted to believe that e-mail, blogs, Facebook interactions, and political mastery would bring me the fulfillment I wanted and needed. Even though I knew these thoughts were irrational and untrue, I wanted to believe them anyway.
This struggle to commit to writing a rule is what caused difficulty with my solitude commitment that week, as well. I knew exactly what would happen once I met God in a solitary place. I knew that once we were alone, God would want to talk to me about this rule for life. He would want to help me identify which things in my life are helpful and which things are unhelpful. He would want me to look at the ways I was spending my time and why I was spending it that way. He would want to tell me that the life I was seeking in these other places could only truly be found in Him.
I really didn’t want to hear these things.
Somehow, though, after a very long struggle that Friday afternoon, I mustered the courage to drive out to the retreat center. My insides were kicking and screaming, but my commitment to practice solitude for my class gave me the little bit of motivation and strength I needed to at least show up.
The air was cold that day, so my time at the lake didn’t last very long. I ended up, instead, at the chapel. And once I was inside, all the clamoring voices and conflicting impulses at work inside of me led me to practice the one exercise that would release all the chaos: the “palms down, palms up” exercise I mentioned once before.
During the “palms down” portion, I spent time releasing all that was inside me. I released all that I was grasping after through those unhealthy activities that week. I released my need to cling to them. I released my hope for the life I wanted them to bring. I released the person I was becoming through those choices. I released my unwillingness to surrender to what was better for me.
And then, during the “palms up” part of the exercise, I could only repeat over and over to God one specific line: “I receive from You who I really am.”
It surprised me how intensely I kept uttering this plea, how much I needed to keep saying it to God over and over again. I felt a bit like Jacob wrestling with the angel or like the widow who persists in bringing her case before the unjust judge. I couldn’t stop saying it, and I felt like I was in a stand-down with God, unrelenting in my plea and remaining there with a tenacity that spoke my need.
I needed Him to give me my true identity.
After sitting for some time in the chapel with this prayer before me, I decided to move outside to the enclosed garden for the listening portion of the “palms down, palms up” exercise. I sat on a bench that faces a life-size sculpture of Christ on the cross.
I sat and stared at the sculpture. I could see the nails in His hands and feet and two fingers on each hand outstretched as though grasping for some final touch. I could see the outline of His ribs. His arms and legs were thin, wracked from the beatings and from the strength it took to hang there for hours and hours. His head hung down, a testament to His utter solitude and final surrender.
“Why?” I asked Him. “Why would You do this? Why would You go to such lengths to die in such a horrible way?”
I kept staring at Christ hanging there. Slowly, I heard Him saying to me, “Because of love.”
For a while I reflected on that love, how I’ve come to believe that love is the only true transforming force in the universe, and how so many of the metaphors used in the Bible testify to that love God has for us: we are His bride and He is the bridegroom; He is the father and we are His children; He is the shepherd and we are His sheep. A bridegroom rejoices over his bride. A father takes care of his child’s every need. A shepherd brings his sheep exactly where they need to go. All of these metaphors testify to a relationship in which God offers us the greatest degrees of love, delight, attentiveness, provision, and trustworthiness.
As I continued to sit with God in that place, reflecting over all of these things, I returned to what I had asked of Him in the chapel: who am I, really? And sitting on that bench, the warmth of the sun on my hair and the sculpture of the impassioned Christ before me, I heard Him say to me, “You are My beloved one.”
All the love channelled into those metaphors is the love He has for me. I can rest in that love. I can rest in my belovedness. That belovedness is who I really am.
That belovedness is what gave me the strength to see all those activities I’d been clinging to for what they truly were becoming for me: bankrupt activities that cheapen my true identity and purpose for living. This encounter with Christ on the cross, together with my confessions in the chapel and my unrelenting plea for Him to give me my true identity, helped me finally surrender to Him and what was best for me. My rule for life could now be written as a reclamation of my true belovedness, thus allowing my life to generate more love into the world, both for God and for others.