When I think back on the 5-day silent retreat I took in early May, one day among them all stands out. It's the one that springs immediately to mind and invariably brings a secret smile to my lips because of what it held and what it means for me and Jesus.
That is the day I'm going to share with you today.
I'll begin by saying that over the last year or two, I have begun to experience contemplative prayer in small doses here and there. These are times when no words or images are shared between me and God at all, but where prayer becomes more like a pure and wordless offering of my heart and mind to connect with the vast, unexplainable reality of God. Thomas Merton and the anonymous writer of the Cloud of Unknowing wrote quite a bit about this sort of prayer, which they termed contemplation, and I've written previously about this shift toward pure contemplation in my prayer life as well.
That pure form of contemplation, when I began to move toward it, was a very different way for me to commune with God after many, many years of holding images and practicing imaginative prayer in my journey through life with God. For about ten solid years, in fact, images and imaginative prayer were a central feature of my prayer life, and God has used images and imaginative prayer over the years to heal so many broken pieces of my heart.
Although there has been a shift in the last year or two toward that more pure form of contemplative prayer, images began showing up again for me last October. First there was the image of the red glass that transformed into a communion cup over the course of a few months, and then came the image of the woods in February. And when I went away for my 5-day retreat in May, that image of the woods was still a very present reality in my prayer life with God.
Again, the mystics call that pure and wordless form of prayer contemplation. They also refer to it as a form of ecstatic union between the soul and God, and from the small amount of time I have spent practicing that wordless form of prayer in the last couple years, I can understand why they refer to it that way. In contemplative prayer, there is a sense in which the soul forgets itself and is caught up entirely into the unending reality of God that is perfection, wisdom, beauty, truth, and all that is real. The soul experiences a pure ecstasy of sorts when encountering this vast, unending perfection of God that cannot be explained or even contained by words.
But on that day during my silent retreat in May when I sat on the denim couch in the front room of the house for six straight hours, by no means experiencing the pure form of contemplative prayer because I held a very clear image in my mind of Jesus and I sitting on a low wall together, enjoying one another and talking deeply about the three objects I had yet to surrender to him . . . even though that day was not comprised of that pure and wordless form of contemplation the mystics talk about, the most fitting words I can ascribe to the experience of that day are the words ecstatic union.
I shared in my last post that initially, when Jesus first presented that image of us sitting together on the low wall, all we did was sit and enjoy each other's presence. He smiled and laughed a lot, and I just let him smile over me. It made me feel a little shy, but it also made me feel incredibly loved and enjoyed.
And then, shyly, I asked him if he'd like to spend some time talking about the three objects: the earrings . . . the ring . . . the slip. And he said yes.
So that's what we did the rest of the day.
First I talked with him about the earrings. I pulled them out of my ears and held them in the palm of my hand between us. As I began to talk with him about those beautiful earrings and all that they represented to me, I discovered that it wasn't just riches or a life of comfort that they represented. It was also all the hopes and dreams Kirk and I have carried about our future, all the ideas we've had about things we hope to do someday: live for months at a time in Europe, travel around the world to attend conferences or study in other parts of the world, own a home where people can come for spiritual retreat, travel to various parts of the country and perhaps live in some of those places, too.
Those earrings represented all of it -- any claim I/we might have on our future, on choosing to do what we want with our life, of pinning our hopes and dreams on certain things instead of being fully open and available to God and his plans for us.
As I sat there holding those earrings in my palm between us, I began to think about the way God has always worked in our life together, all the stones that have emerged out of the water without our expecting them to or ever even trying to make that happen, how often God has presented us with ideas and opportunities we would never have dreamed for ourselves or thought we were even ready to have. The way we found our home was that way. So was the way we discovered the opportunity for me to complete my master's degree at Full Sail. Several of the jobs we've secured over the years happened that way. And our relationship happened that way, too! Stones emerging from the water at just the right time, more perfect than we could ever have planned or imagined for ourselves, presented with such grace and ease that choosing to step upon them was obvious and natural.
Giving the earrings to Jesus was, I learned, ultimately about accepting that continued movement and direction of God in our lives continually: his plans, not our own. Could I trust him to continue showing us what to do, allowing stones to emerge out of the water at just the right time?
I gave him the earrings.
The wedding ring was so much easier to give Jesus than I expected it to be. I'm sure a big part of that had to do with the work that had already been done in my heart at the discovery of the three humiliations the previous month.
All it took was reminding myself that Kirk is a man after God's heart, a deeply spiritual, God-fearing, and God-honoring man who wants to live for and with God. Should God ask something of us that I fear will create friction between us, I have to trust that the God in him is also the God in me and that the two of us will recognize God between us and around us.
So I took off my wedding ring -- literally, in real life, as I sat there on the couch inside the house, I took it off and put it on the pillow next to me -- and gave it to God. Inside the image, I gave the ring to Jesus, too.
Then I watched as Jesus put the ring back on my finger. What a beautiful gift.
After a little more time had passed, I asked Jesus if he'd like to talk about the shame, which is what I knew the slip represented to me.
I began by saying that my body has always been a source of shame for me, that it never developed quite the way I expected it would and hoped it would as an adolescent, and that various experiences in my life had only served to reinforce that shame.
I also said that who I am, as a person, has always felt on the fringe of groups, that I've always felt a bit like an oddball, never quite fitting in with those around me.
Then I reached a stopping point.
I didn't know how to keep talking about the shame. In some ways, it felt too big and too deep to even know where to start. It was everywhere.
Then I looked at Jesus, and a new thought occurred to me. I asked him, "Do you have anything you want to say to me about the shame?"
And he did.
I want to stop and say that everything up to this point had been so beautiful. But this next part, my friends, is the most precious part of all.
Jesus looked at me and said, "You're beautiful. You are beloved. Every single part of you was created by me and is celebrated." I sat and received those words, just letting them sink into me. I imagined what it was like for him to dream me up and spend time creating me. I closed my eyes and began to really feel those last words: that every part of me is celebrated. My body is cause for celebration in his eyes.
Then, concerning my feelings of being an oddball who never quite fit in, he said, "You are not an accident, an anecdote, or an afterthought." Wow. I let those words sink in, too. I'm not an accident, an anecdote, or an afterthought. I'm intended to be here. I mean something. I hold weight and value. I matter. I'm noticed. I'm wanted. I'm desired.
I just sat there for a while and let all these words he spoke to me sink into the depth of my being. And then I looked at him, sitting there with me on the wall, and just smiled at him, over and over and over. I couldn't stop smiling at Jesus, and I couldn't get over his beautiful smile, either. I could have sat there forever and been completely content never to move for the rest of my life. I didn't want to be anywhere else but where he was. I didn't want to move.
Even from him, I felt an elimination of time. He had nowhere else to be and all the time in the world to sit there with me.
I looked at Jesus and said what was in the fullness of my heart: "I was made to love you."
I had come to that retreat with every expectation that God and I would talk about my vocation and the possible next steps for my life. But where I landed was someplace altogether better: at the most fundamental truth of my being. I am made to love him. If that's all I do with my life, that is enough. Vocation, ministry, other work I might be given to do . . . it's secondary. Loving him is what I'm meant to do. It's all I need to do.
I felt myself on cloud nine the rest of the night, as you might imagine. Such peace pervaded my heart, soul, and mind. I took communion with a Ritz cracker and sip of Pepsi in a eucharistic goblet Kirk had packed in my bag before I left. And in that moment of eucharist, I asked God to consecrate my hands, my lips, my eyes, my ears, and my feet and for him to be with me as I went forward from that place so that I would return home changed.
Stay tuned for the last installment of this retreat series and what happened with the image of the woods . . .