We Are the Chambered Nautilus

This past weekend, I attended a retreat to complete three years of training in the ministry of spiritual direction. For this week s entries on StillForming, I ll be posting reflections gleaned from the retreat that made me think of you and this space throughout the weekend.

During this past retreat weekend, our theme was the chambered nautilus shell. Have you seen one of these? They are sea creatures that are circular in shape, and they keep growing in ever-broader circles around and around their center over the course of their lives.


Image credit: Micro Macro

The nautilus is predicted to have been around for 500 million years — that’s 285 million years longer than the dinosaurs! — and yet this unpretentious but beautiful creature has never changed it’s basic makeup in all that time.

As our retreat leader suggested, there’s a lot to be learned from something that hasn’t changed in 500 million years, isn’t there?

One thing about the chambered nautilus that has stuck with me is the way it keeps growing forward while always remaining attached to its past as a growing little sea creature. As you can see in the photo above, little ridges on each chamber piece, calledsiphuncles, keep the individual chambers attached to one another. As the nautilus grows new chamber pieces, the new pieces attach to the old so that the nautilus always carries its complete story everywhere it goes.

I love that the nautilus keeps growing new chambers, around and around in circles, until the day it dies. In this way, it never knows just how full its nautilus life will ultimately become. It just keeps growing, never finished until its life reaches an end.

Our lives are like that too.

We are always forming. Every moment of our lives is an experience of being formed in some way. And we, too, circle around and around in our growth process, often bumping up against familiar themes, just living through them in new places.

That’s one reason I named this site the way I did: because formation is a foundational part of the human experience, and we will always, so long as we are human, be stillforming.

A poem by Ranier Maria Rilke companioned with us through the retreat weekend, which I found beautiful:

I live my life in growing circles

which move out over the things of the world. 

Perhaps I may not achieve the last

but I will surely try.

I am circling around God, around the ancient tower,

and I have been circling for a thousand years,

and still I do not know

if I am a falcon,

a storm,

or a great song.

— Ranier Maria Rilke

This poem speaks to me about the formational process of our lives. It speaks to how we are ever growing in widening circles, circling ultimately around the truth of God in us and our core identity, and yet we will never fully realize all that we truly are. That knowledge is only in the mind of God. Our job is to simply live.

Do you think of your life this way, as an ever-present process of formation? Does that thought comfort you in any way? Distress you? How might you relate to the speaker in Rilke’s poem above?