Beginning the Work Again :: The Redemption of Pieces of Ourselves

Holding his heart.

Pieces of the heart.

One of the struggles I faced early on when it came to re-beginning “the work” was giving myself permission to even enter into it. 

It felt like entering into this new process would undo everything I’ve grown into over the course of many years. 

Because here’s the thing. 

When I look out over the scope of my spiritual formation, I see one long, circuitous journey ever building on itself. The first 19 years were the foundation stones of my belief. Then, at age 19, I broke open in a type of second conversion. This led to “sitting in the dark” for two straight years, questioning everything I thought I knew about myself and God and willfully asking God to teach me what love meant.

At the end of those two years, I encountered Jesus in a new way. This fundamentally changed me and ushered me into a couple more years spent getting to know this Jesus and letting myself be known by him. 

This led, very gradually but naturally, into a more tender heart for others. I began to long for others to know their worth and value in an intimate, real way, the same way I had come to learn my own. This opened my heart and life into informal means of ministry. 

After about five or six years of growing into this new and tenderized heart, I received — and then answered — a call to formal ministry, which led to enrolling in graduate studies for spiritual formation and a three-year training program for spiritual direction.

Then, through my graduate studies, I encountered the ideology of nonviolence. 

This gripped and changed my life, too.

Now I found my heart broadened from a love for those who are wounded to a love for those who do the wounding. I noticed a deep well of compassion building up in me for those who are victimizers, perpetrators, hardened, and even murderous.

I didn’t fully understand this growing love in me, but I knew it was important. It seemed the natural and eventual outflow of a life changed and gripped by Christ. I wondered how the love that had transformed me might also transform individuals we instinctively dismiss or repel as being too far gone. I wondered how the love that transformed me might perhaps transform society. 

In stepping into this new healing work, it felt like all of that evolution of growth in me was getting lost.

Because the truth of the matter is, I’m bumping up against violence here in this healing place — violence done against me — and I am nowhere near a nonviolent response to it.

I’m nowhere near forgiveness or peace. I’m nowhere near compassion for the one who harmed me. I’m nowhere near the rooted, peace-and-love proponent I’ve slowly yet steadily become in the last 15 years.

I’m in a reeling, scared, hurt, and angry place. 

Perhaps you can see why I’d be unwilling to give myself permission to enter into this new part of my story that emerged in that fateful session with my spiritual director last month. Perhaps you can see why I’d not want to touch it with a 10-foot-pole once I began to feel some of the feelings tied to it. 

Would this new journey erase those 15 years?

Was I not a real proponent of nonviolence if I couldn’t respond to this revelation with willing charity and forgiveness? 

These are the questions I’d begun asking myself, and this is where the wisdom of Debbie, my therapist, was a God-send.

“What if we thought of it this way?” she said when I met with her last week. “I think of our hearts having been fractured because of the Fall. They’re broken into pieces. And the work of redemption, or our spiritual formation, is the healing and restoration of those pieces to wholeness.”

As she said all this, I nodded vigorously. I believe this to be true.

She continued, “What if pieces of your heart — the pieces you’ve known all these years to be growing into love and a nonviolent response — are pieces that have been restored to wholeness, but this new part over here hasn’t? Could there be room for this new part to go through the process, too?”

Man, she’s wise. 

I guess what I want to say here is that if you’re scared to enter into the process, you’re not alone. I’m scared, too! Nor are you cuckoo for fearing you’ll lose whatever growth you’ve realized already in your life. I’m scared of this, too!

But also hear this, just as I am hearing it: That growth isn’t gone. You haven’t lost it. It’s not irrelevant, and it’s not erased. It really happened. It’s still real. It’s just that there’s another part — a newly discovered part — that needs to experience that same kind of growth. It needs to be given a chance to learn what the other parts of yourself have already learned. 

Is this helpful for you to hear? Can you relate to the fears I’ve been feeling at the outset of this process?

Beginning the Work Again :: A New Series



Hi, friends. 

I’m starting a new series here with a bit of fear and trembling, as it marks a decision to dive in deep and live out loud through a process of healing I’m currently living. 

I shared a few weeks ago that some as-yet-unrecognized truths surfaced in a session with my spiritual director last month. It’s wreaked a bit of havoc in my inner and outer world, and I’ve been taking intentional steps ever since to enter more deeply into those truths and surround myself with what I need to begin the difficult (and scary!) healing process. Thankfully, I have a really great support system in place that’s already helped me take several courageous steps forward and is helping me stay with this.

But here’s what I’ve noticed:

As I’ve been taking these steps, it feels so much like starting over. 

Truths I’ve learned and lived into for years now feel so far away. In certain parts of myself, I feel so much like that 19-year-old girl who first discovered she had a heart, she didn’t understand grace, and she’d been living inside some coping mechanisms that left a lot to be desired. 

When it comes to these new revelations and the work of integrating them into my life and story, I feel like I’m starting over. And I’ve been realizing that I need to teach this new and tender part of myself, step by step, the things I learned over the long-haul journey of growth and healing and new life that began for me at age 19. 

Then last night I realized: 

It might be helpful for me to form out loud through this process with you here. 

Perhaps you’ve been in this place of starting over, too — healing a fresh wound, or an old-but-feels-fresh one. Or perhaps you’re at the beginning of the journey and need some help even knowing where to start. 

In this series, I’m going to share with you my process as I’m walking through it. I’m also going to share things I learned when going through this circuitous journey the first time around. Hopefully you’ll find it helpful or encouraging in some way for your own experience. I know that, for me, it will be helpful to have a place to process the journey and “re-teach myself” things I need to re-learn.

Would you like to take this journey with me?

The Body Series: Grace and Truth in the Body

Suffused with grace.

All he does is suffused with grace.

A great deal of my journey into love had to do with learning grace. I just didn’t “get” grace. Why did I need it, really? Oh, yes. I’m a sinner from birth and all of us fall short of the glory of God. We all need it. 

But truthfully? 

That didn’t mean anything to me.

I wasn’t in touch with my “sin nature,” nor was I quite in touch with my actual sins when I committed them. And I most certainly wasn’t in touch with my belovedness. 

And so during that dark season when I sat down on the ground of my life and decided I wouldn’t get up until I understood God’s love for me, it had a lot to do with learning grace. 

Do you want to know what I learned about grace? 

It meant not having to perform. It meant being accepted exactly as I am. It meant not having to watch my every single move to the left or right, constantly gauging whether it was the exact right move. It meant the world wouldn’t fall apart if I didn’t hold it — and myself — together. It meant being allowed to be flawed and still being completely loved.

It was a revelation. God’s grace covered all my “sins” — which, strictly translated, means “missing the mark,” like when you’re shooting an arrow at a bull’s eye target. I didn’t have to hit that perfectly round and narrow mark with every single move. If I “missed,” God’s grace covered the miss.

God freed me from my perfectionism. That’s what God’s grace did for me.

My prayer today.

Don’t ever deprive me of your truth. Not ever.

The reason I share this with you is because of something one reader, Katy, shared in response to yesterday’s post. She wrote: 

I think that I became more in-tune with my body when I became more in-tune with my emotions … I started paying a lot of attention to how my emotions were affecting my physical health, and how my physical health was affecting my emotions. Now I know that being sad or mad or stressed can give me stomach issues, and that eating low-sugar, high protein meals helps with my anxiety. The better I eat and the more I exercise, the better my mental state.

I read these words and thought, I need to understand that better

And the reason I need to understand it better is because my experience of increased emotional health led to gaining weight, to the point of being overweight for the first time in my life. Was I not as emotionally healthy as I thought I was? Did I miss a right turn somewhere? 

I think, for me, this has something to do with growing into a greater balance of grace and truth. 

One of my absolute favorite passages in the Scriptures is John 1:14, which says of Jesus that he was the “fullness of grace and truth.” In his being, he held them both in fullness of measure and perfection.

Grace. Truth. Together.

Sometimes I think the ongoing journey of spiritual formation can be summed up by saying it’s about growing into the fullness of grace and truth together. When I encountered my need to understand grace because the idea of it bounced off me like a ball against a wall, I was way far over on the truth side of things. I know now that I was pretty much like a Pharisee. 

And so I started to learn grace. And once I found it, I bathed in it. Soaked in it. Relished its amazing gift. Fell so in love with Jesus. Bowed down in gratitude. 

To the point where grace showed up in my treatment of my body. I savored rich foods in ways I never had before. I celebrated a lot. I welcomed the enjoyment of a good meal the way I was learning to welcome myself and those around me in full acceptance in the presence of God. 

Just like we can fill up on truth to the exclusion of grace, I think we can do the same with grace: fill ourselves up on grace to the exclusion of truth. 

But Jesus is the fullness of both. And that is perfection and glory and beauty and perhaps the real definition of love. 

On my body journey right now, I’m in the process of pulling truth back into the mix — while keeping grace alive. 

How might you describe your own body journey in the context of grace and truth?

The Body Series: Are There Limits to the Body-Spirit Formation Analogy?

Winter in New York.

A few days back, a friend shared that she’d recently gotten caught up on this body series and had a question for me. It had to do with this idea that the formation of our bodies might mimic the formation of our spirits

She said:

“Presumably, over the course of our lives, our spirits are meant to grow stronger and stronger — more vibrant. But our bodies, as we age, are getting less and less so. What do you do with that, in terms of the analogy?”

It’s a good question.

To clarify, here is where I see the overlap between the two: 

  • The good things we put into our bodies — food, exercise, supplements, rest — interact with our bodies’ interior processes at a level we can’t control. We are just one part of the equation, and there’s a point at which we do our part, trusting our bodies to do the rest. This is similar to what happens in our spiritual formation: We participate, and God and God’s grace do the rest.
  • Our bodies are meant to move in the direction of health, just like our spirits. They can certainly move away from health, and our spirits can, too, but we are meant to live with health and vitality at whatever stage of life we’re in, to the extent we are able.

I keep thinking of the older folks I see at my gym — men and women in their 70s and 80s who are fit and trim and limber and alive because they’ve continued to tend to their bodies as their bodies have aged. Many of them are in much better shape than I am at 34 years old! 

As they are moving toward the end of their lives, they serve as an image to me of what vitality and health can look like at an advanced age. In the midst of our decay, we can still be moving toward life.

Ultimately, though, I think my friend has a good point. 

Our bodies, in this life, will die. Our spirits won’t. But on the other side, in some mysterious way I don’t understand, our bodies join our spirits in different form. Even as our bodies progress toward decay in this life, then, that decay is not the end of the road for our bodies. 

Maybe the breakdown of the analogy has something to do with putting things in their proper order. Jesus spoke often of the inward person of the heart being of core importance, more than what our outward bodies do. (I’m thinking of the passage where he tells the Pharisees that they’re more concerned with cleaning the outside of their cups without realizing what’s on the inside of them.) Not to say that what we do with our bodies isn’t important, and not to say that the body isn’t important, either, but our inward reality is where it all begins. Everything else flows from it. 

And perhaps what I’m trying to say is that the process — what happens when growth is happening, whether in body or spirit — looks similar in both.

What are your thoughts on all this?

The Body Series: To Each, a Unique Shape

Dusky beauty.

One of our readers here, Ree Ann, shared some thoughts in response to yesterday’s post that I’m finding helpful and encouraging, and maybe you will too. 

She said: 

Because we are born into sin and because we each have our sins to deal with, there are (because this word will carry my point) deformities in our souls that need even more of God’s grace and our best attempts to learn what we are able to do to cooperate with Him so that our souls become as perfected as possible before it is our time to cross to the other side.

So it is with our bodies, as far as I can tell. One of the reasons that best portrays this, for me, is the differences that are in each body when it is born. There is the incrdible range of what we would describe as “perfect” bodies to deformities that make it nearly impssible to live at all and the whole range between.

What I see because of this is that as we become cognizent of the states of our bodies, we need to educate ourselves about the best care for them and ways of maintaining them and making them as healthy as possible.

God provides us each with a body. There is much to learn about how to relate to them. We must pay attention to our body language…pains, imperfections, conditions, diseases.

What I gather from Ree Ann’s comment here is the idea that every body is unique, just as every soul is unique, and that we need to “learn” our unique body, just as we “learn” our unique soul in our process of formation. 

When it comes to soul-level formation, each person has glory and, well, fallenness. It is the original glory God is seeking to restore in us in ever-greater measure, and it is the fallenness in us that God is seeking to burn away. What those look like for each one of us is unique, even as there are general truths to be known about each that apply to everyone.

So, perhaps, it is with our bodies. 

There’s a natural truth to the way the body works, but the way that nature plays out in each individual body is different. Due to genetics and environment, some have a faster metabolism and some have a slower one. Some are disposed toward exercise, having been trained in it from an early age, and some aren’t. Some are lactose-intolerant, and some aren’t. Some have a gluten allergy, and some don’t. And on and on and on.

Part of this process is learning our unique bodies — as well as the natural order of things — as we grow in relationship to our bodies and the way God intends us to live inside them. 

What do you think of this idea?

The Body Series: Its Formation

He hangs for you.

Perhaps the most arresting question I encountered when I began exploring how God intends for me to view my body is this: 

Are our bodies meant to experience formation, just as our souls are?

It’s the question I’ve been holding in the back of my mind ever since, and I’m going to put it forward as a tentative thesis for this series as we explore its possibilities the rest of this week.

So, here’s the back story.

The question came to mind as I was reading the introduction to Reclaiming the Body in Christian Spirituality. One single, obscure line — half a line, really — brought it about. The line read: 

“There is every indication that salvation does not mean getting out of this skin, but being transfigured and glorified in it.”

— p. xi

The line made me think of what will happen in heaven. 

As a spiritual formation practitioner, I believe our interior being is meant to form over time, conforming in greater and greater measure into the image and likeness of Christ. Our “work” here on earth is to attend to that formation that God is about in us. We’re meant to participate as God does what God wants to do. 

And then, in an instant in heaven, we will be transfigured into something more. Scripture speaks of creation groaning for the full restoration of that day (Romans 8:18-25). It speaks of the substance of our lives being refined in fire on that day so that only what is pure remains (1 Corinthians 3:10-15; 1 Peter 1:3-9). It speaks of seeing in a mirror but dimly now, but someday we shall see face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12). 

Clearly, something happens to us in heaven that is more than what we experienced on earth and has something to with the people we became while we were here — and the intent is for us to become, while we’re here, all that God intends for us. 

Could it be the same for the body?

I think about Jesus and how, upon his resurrection, he inhabited the same body he carried while a mere human. It was a body that could eat fish (Luke 24:41-43). It was a body that still bore the scars of the wounds he sustained on his hands, side, and feet (Luke 24:40; John 20:24-29).

Yes, it was a body that could walk through walls (John 20:19) and even, at times, appeared different than the body his disciples knew when he was alive (Luke 24:13-35; John 20:11-18; John 21:4). But it was also, clearly, a real body, and it was in some measure the same body as the one he had before. 

Perhaps in just the same way that who we become in heaven will be different — more full — than who we were on earth but also tied in some way to who we were while here. 

And so I am pondering the formation of the body: 

What shape are our bodies meant to take? 

What might growing in the likeness and image of Christ — in our bodies — mean?

I look forward to exploring these questions here with you the rest of this week.

The Body Series: Being Human, Having a Body

The torso of Christ.

The torso of Christ,

taken at the Cloisters in NYC

One thought I’ll share with you before we head into the weekend is the idea that there’s something fundamentally human about having a body. 

To become like us, Christ had to assume a body. 

This continues to support the idea that our bodies are good, as Christ assumed a body not only willingly but also as an act of love. He does not disdain what we are but rather moves toward — and even becomes — what we are as fully as he possibly can. So much of this had to do with his assuming a human body.

I’m also intrigued by this idea of there being something fundamentally human about having a body because of what I do. I work in the area of spiritual formation. This means I help people grow in their process of spiritual maturity, and this has to do with becoming more fully who we actually are.

It’s a question, ultimately, about being our true human selves. 

I’m learning that our bodies are a part of that. Having a body means something to the human experience and something to what it means to be human. 

What do you think of this idea that being human is, at least in part, about having a human body?

The Body Series: Considering Our Roots

Life abides.

One of the most helpful places to start in a series about the body is an assessment of our relationship with our own — and particularly the earliest roots of that relationship.

What are the early roots of your relationship with your body?

Here are a few of my own answers to that question, and I encourage you to share your answers (if you’d like) in the comments: 

  • Given the choice to be outside or inside, I would choose inside 100 percent of the time. While my siblings rushed to play outdoor games with the neighborhood kids, I preferred to sit in a chair in the living room with a book and read. I was not disposed toward physical activity.
  • In addition, I wasn’t very good at physical activity anyway. Three years of city softball and only hitting the ball once — not to mention getting hit in the nose with a softball during a pre-game practice — didn’t bolster my confidence in my body’s attunement to sports. I felt disqualified from anything having to do with athleticism.
  • My sister, on the other hand, was a natural-born athlete. She loved scraping her knees and making a mess, and she proudly identified as a tomboy. I, on the other hand, preferred to stay clean and tidy, and I certainly wouldn’t go for anything that might lead to scrapes or bruises. I was the bookworm; she was the athlete. Somehow those clear lines comforted me — made it easy for me to keep saying no to exertion.
  • I had a sweet tooth growing up. (I still do.) The kind of sweet tooth that would find me unable to finish my dinner but always save room for dessert. The kind of sweet tooth that had me refusing to finish my dinner, even, unless the dessert option made it worthwhile. The kind of sweet tooth that had me scooping quarters and dimes from my dad’s coin jar so I could walk to the store and buy candy after school. And since I could eat anything and still remain stick-thin, I came to believe that eating junk food in no way impacted my body.
  • What’s more, I seemed to have a different body type than most people in my family — one that followed the small-boned, no-curves pathway of my dad’s mother — which I came to believe would insulate me from body issues the whole of my life. Even though I didn’t “develop” much once I hit puberty, I felt pretty lucky to be as thin as a beanpole, wearing sizes 0, 2, and 4 all the way through college and beyond.

Not believing myself athletic, not enjoying athletics, eating whatever I wanted without consequence, and believing my body type to be immune from weight gain set me up for this: a whacked-out view of my embodied self. As I shared in a post last year on my personal blog, I truly believed my body to be an object that was supposed to serve me — to make me look good and not flinch at anything I gave it to consume. 

It’s a lot to undo, and it’s led to a ton of body confusion in recent years. 

What are the roots of your body image?

The Body Series: In It for the Long Haul

Come. Enter in.

When I began the process of learning my heart, it was helpful to have had two years of introspection in my back pocket.

Certain books had helped me think about myself, my life, and God in significantly new ways over those two years. I’d taken myself to therapy for a spell, where I’d just begun to learn about the inclinations and coping mechanisms and motivations that, underneath the surface, had guided my daily life, thought processes, and beliefs for so long without my knowing it. And, of course, I’d sat in the dark, willfully refusing to move so that God could teach me a new thing I really, truly wanted to understand and believe, instead of just saying I believed it.

As I shared yesterday, I’m in a similar place on this body journey now. 

Here’s what I know: I don’t understand the body. What’s more, I don’t understand my body. 

And after about seven years of living with a body that is completely foreign to the one I grew up with, flailing about in so many random ways in an effort to understand, change, and/or make peace with the body I now have, it’s time to sit down, willfully, and not get up until I get it. 

This could take a long time, but I’m not sure there’s any other way. I seem to be a stubborn sort when it comes to learning something important. I was just remembering this morning, for instance, that I went through a similar process over a very long period of years when I wanted to learn what forgiveness means and how to forgive someone — really learn it, so that I could say I forgave someone and mean it from my heart, rather than saying I forgave them just because the Bible said I should.

It took years, but I got there. And once I got there, it truly changed me.

I seem to have a way of digging in my heels, doggedly, for however long it takes to really learn something I just don’t understand. 

But when I learn it, I learn it.

It really means something then. 

It took me years to learn my heart. It took me years to learn forgiveness. And it may take me years to learn my body.

But I’m deciding right now that I’m OK with that — because it means that when I learn it, I’ll really have learned it, and it will change the way I relate to my body going forward, presumably for the rest of my life.

So, let’s begin. Shall we?

The Body Series: On Being a Beginner

Burn a light.

I remember when I first learned I had a heart — not a physical heart (obviously), but a heart that signified the seat of my self, the entity that comprises my real being. 

I was oblivious to it for 20 years. 

But then, at age 19, God turned everything upside-down. Everything I thought I knew went suspect. I realized I was pretty clueless about grace and Jesus, and God gave me the ability to see that truth and to say yes to a long journey that changed everything.

About two years into that journey, I picked up my Bible and began to read the four books of the Gospels straight through.

One thing I noticed was that the heart was everywhere.

Jesus, walking around inside those pages, was laser-focused on this thing he called the heart. It mattered to him more than anything, and he wanted it to matter to everyone else, too. 

That’s when I realized I had no clue what he was talking about. 

But, gathering up all I’d experienced the previous two years of the journey, I set out to learn. 

It felt a bit like stumbling in the dark, arms outstretched, feeling for walls and chairs. Eventually, a tiny glow of light entered the room, illuminating dim shapes and casting shadows. As my eyes adjusted, the space eventually took on a bit of familiarity. And then, eyes adjusted to what I could dimly see, the light turned up a little bit more — until eventually, the outlay of the room was known to me, even as so much was left to be explored. 

That’s how this body journey feels. Like I’m way back at the beginning, stumbling in darkness, arms outstretched in front of me, unsure what’s there to be found. 

But you know what? I was patient with myself in learning my heart, allowing myself to be a beginner at it, even as it took many years. And I hope to be patient with myself in this body journey, too. 

Will you be a beginner with me?

Still Points in the Day: Contemplative Lectures


Discovered on one of my #mileaday runs last week.

Kirk and I had the privilege of attending a lecture by Fr. Richard Rohr this evening — the same Richard Rohr who inspired the “Pieces of Formation” series we recently explored here in this space — and it was such a privilege. 

In the first place, we both love his writings.

In the second place, we learned tonight that he has two more months of traveling and speaking and then he’s retiring from it for good. (He has said he’ll only ever travel again if the Dalai Lama personally requests to see him. I’m sorta loving that!) So seeing him tonight was an unexpectedly rare opportunity.

More than anything, though, it was a privilege because of the kinship. 

When we walked into that packed room, I felt an immediate sense of camaraderie with the others there. People smiled openly. They made eye contact with you. They seemed relaxed and full of joy. 

And that was before Fr. Rohr even took the stage!

But when he sat down in that chair on the stage and began to speak to us about the formational process of the first and second halves of life, I felt my soul settle. I felt it breathe. I felt in tune with who I really am in this world — my heart for the deeper things, for contemplative spaces, for meaningful existence. 

In short, I felt connected to my true self. 

Which Fr. Rohr would say is the essence of real living.

I’m thankful for the way Fr. Rohr helped me think about things tonight. I’m thankful for the way he made me thankful yet again for the path I’ve walked — full of highs and lows — that have led me deeper into communion with God. I’m thankful for the way he made me thankful, yet again, for the chance to do my life’s work.

Are there people whose books or lectures make you feel more settled into your own soul?

Pieces of Formation: Faith Foundations


What was the faith component of your early years? Was there any? 

I’ve shared in this space previously some of my formative faith foundations — of always having had a sense of the presence of Jesus near me, of being raised Catholic until I was 9 years old, of moving to a nondenominational Christian church after that. It also made a real difference to my formation to be raised by a mother whose faith was personal and real. 

Sometimes I think about the presence of Jesus I’ve always felt near to me, even from my earliest memories, and I wonder why God saw fit to give me that kind of experience of himself. I don’t know the answer to that question. But I do know that the reality of this nearness I’ve experienced has deeply informed my sense of calling in the work that I do. I can see that my knowledge of Jesus and what he’s chosen to share with me of himself is meant to be shared with others. 

In that way, I hope to honor well the gift he’s given me of his nearness.

How would you describe the foundation of faith in your own life? What was your experience of God like in your early years?

Pieces of Formation: Significant Experiences

Shadow work.

When I was in first grade, a girl knocked me backward (metaphorically) with her cruelty, and I careened with shock.

When I was in second grade, a boy cornered me in an isolated area of the playing field at recess and ordered some of his friends to hold my arms behind my body and another one to lift up my dress. 

When I was in third grade, two girls a grade higher than me sneered at my family’s dilapidated station wagon the moment I ducked out of the car and stepped onto the curb outside the school office. 

When I was in fourth grade, my parents sat us down at the kitchen table to tell us they were separating.

Each experience took me by surprise.

I didn’t see them coming. 

And so, I learned to be watchful. 

Guarded. Alert. Untrusting. Prepared with extra contingency plans. Convinced that the world was an unsafe, cruel, cold place, and it was my job to protect myself against it.

It’s no surprise to you, I’m sure, for me to say that significant experiences form us. 

What significant experiences formed you?

Pieces of Formation: An Introduction

Life was here.

I mentioned in a previous post that when I couldn’t sleep one night, I listened to the first few chapters of an audio version of Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upward. I haven’t finished listening to the whole book yet, but an idea he presents early on has been sticking with me. And I’ve found that it makes for a great series topic for us to explore together here.

The idea Rohr presents centers on the concept of a container — namely, the container each one of us forms to make sense of life, our identity, and our interaction with the world. Rohr says the first half of life centers on building the container, while the second half of life concerns discovering what the container is meant to hold.

Basically, this has to do with formation. 

Or at least, that’s what it got me thinking about. 

The work of formation happens in two major phases.

First, it happens unconsciously. We take in data and experiences from the world, and based on that information, we become certain people over the course of our lives, beginning at our youngest age. We make decisions and agreements with ourselves — again, mostly unconciously, though sometimes consciously — about who we will be and how we will interact with the world and what we ultimately believe about it, ourselves, and other people and their relation to us. 

The second phase of formation is intentional. It’s a process of deconstruction and then reconstruction — of looking at the first phase and evaluating it, analyzing it, learning from it, and making decisions for how we want to move forward. 

Not everyone gets to this second intentional phase of formation.

They may be unaware the opportunity is available for them to live more intentional, examined lives. They may be disinterested in that opportunity. They may be flat-out scared. 

But those who choose to step into the second phase find it immensely rewarding. It isn’t easy, of course. Rewarding doesn’t necessarily mean fun. It’s hard work. It’s a long road. It can, indeed, be scary at times. Sometimes it feels, just like the title of Rohr’s book suggests, that we are falling upward with no sense of the ground’s true place anymore. We may discover that the ground is what we once thought the ceiling.

And inside this second major phase of formation, there are many smaller stages by which to move through it.

Despite the difficulty and courage such a journey requires, most who strike out on its path find it to be a rich and rewarding journey — and couldn’t imagine living any other way. Through this process, our lives become our own. We connect with our concept of God and our concept of self and how we fit into the mix. We discover what has been influencing us without our knowledge, and then can consciously pick up or put down those pieces once we’ve examined them.

As Rohr says, we discover who we are and are meant to be, and we live forward with that knowledge. Our lives become intentional.

And so, I’d like to take you through some of that second-phase journey here.

Each day of this series, we’ll look at the different pieces of our formation, a bit like we’re picking up rocks and turning them over in our hands, seeing the colors and shapes and textures. What have been our experiences of life? How have they formed who we’ve become? What do we make of that formation? What questions do we have?

Will you join us for this interior exploration? I hope you will.

A (Near) Month of Thanks: Influences

Right now.

If you had a glimpse of my interior world in college (and high school, and junior high, and grade school), you’d discover I was a pretty wound-up perfectionist constantly worrying and straining to make things right. If there’s a word to describe the image I hold of my young self in all those days, it would be the word scruples

But then God cracked me open, and a whole bunch of messiness ensued.

Confusion. Exploration. Possibility. Hope. Life. Grace. Love. Freedom. Depth. Calm. Solidity. Openness. 

The spiral of life and growth continues along these lines, with each new season bringing its portion of disorientation, exploration, discovery, and life. It leads to increased rootedness but usually requires a bit of freefall first. 

When I look back over the terrain of my spiritual journey and who I’ve become and am continuing to become, I’m incredibly thankful for the many wise influences, mentors, guides, and spiritual parents who have shaped me. 

When it comes to influences, I am thankful for: 

  • Clifford Williams, whose book Singleness of Heart began me on my heart journey
  • Anne Lamott, who first taught me about grace and the beauty of imperfection
  • Don Miller, who put language to some of my experiences and modeled permission to explore
  • St. John of the Cross, who first taught me about spiritual formation
  • My friend Sara, who gave me space to process the journey
  • Jesus, the first model for all I believe and do today
  • Henri Nouwen, who opened deeper the world of interiorities and helped clarify my sense of vocation
  • Mother Teresa, whose model of love still teaches me
  • Gandhi, who was and always will be the father of my nonviolence journey
  • Martin Luther King Jr., another father to me in the road marked by love and conviction
  • Thomas Merton, my spiritual father in contemplation and peace
  • Julian of Norwich, who currently models for me my life of prayer

Who are the influences that have shaped your life, and how would you express thanks for them?

A (Near) Month of Thanks: Growth

Crawling the wall.

Last night, when I was awake in bed for a couple hours and couldn’t sleep, I listened to the first couple chapters of Richard Rohr’s latest book, Falling Upward, on audio. 

The book is very, very good. Its central premise is that the tools we use to build the first half of our lives are not the tools that will work in its second half.

This got me thinking about growth.

To me, our capacity to grow is one of the most interesting things God built into the created order. And so today, I thought we could reflect on the ways we’ve grown over the course of our lives and how that growth causes us to give thanks. 

When it comes to the growth I’ve experienced in my life, I give thanks for the following: 

  • I’m thankful for the ways my family upbringing shaped the listener and peacemaker in me.
  • I’m thankful for the difficult experiences I sustained in grade school that later shaped my connection to Jesus. 
  • I’m thankful for the way pain in my life has made me a more sensitive being.
  • I’m thankful for a solid foundation of faith that paved the way for its deepening when I became a young adult.
  • I’m thankful God brought me to the end of myself when I was 19, even though it terrified me.
  • I’m thankful Jesus sat with me in the dark for two years, growing my trust in his patience and faithfulness toward me.
  • I’m thankful God has opened the doors of my heart to greater honesty and tenderness.
  • I’m thankful for the way my divorce experience helped me learn to receive grace.
  • I’m thankful I’ve become a person accustomed to taking risks. 
  • I’m thankful for the relationships in my life that have helped me settle into an identity of being loved.
  • I’m thankful for the stripping seasons in my life the grace God has given me to say yes to them.
  • I’m thankful for the ways God has given me a greater and greater heart of love.

When you look at the growth in your own life, what makes you thankful?

Into This Dark Night: My Wish for You

Shell in a boat.

It’s been a long journey for us here, learning about the dark night of the soul together. My sense is that enough has been said, at least for now, about this concept in this space. There’s plenty to ponder, for sure. And the archives are here, should you want to revisit the entries. 

But as we close out this series, I want to share my heart toward you through this. 

If you are walking in a dark night — either of the senses or the spirit — I want you to know this is real. You aren’t imagining things. You haven’t done something to upset God. God hasn’t left you. 

God is here, but in imperceptible ways. 

And what is happening here, even though you can’t see, hear, feel, or understand it, is profound and powerful.

It only requires that you wait.

The other aspect of my heart toward you here is that you would have companionship in this journey.

Companionship in the spiritual journey — having a place to talk about and discover God in the details of our lives — is always helpful. I have been meeting with a spiritual director once a month for four years, and it is one of the most beloved aspects of my life.

But in this place of the dark night, where the journey is so mysterious and dark and lonely, I would especially encourage you to seek out mature, wise, and discerning companionship.

How can you locate such a companion? 

There are a number of ways.

Call your church to learn if they provide this ministry. Call retreat centers in your area, as they often have spiritual directors available to meet with retreatants and local residents. 

Two websites — Spiritual Directors International and the Evangelical Spiritual Directors Association — provide online directories for finding a spiritual director in your area. 

And lastly, if you would like my companionship with you — whether you’re in the midst of a dark night or not — I provide spiritual companionship to individuals all over the globe. It would be an honor and privilege to provide such space and conversation for you. You are welcome to get in touch with me here

Thank you for being here in this series with me. The dark night of the soul is not an oft-talked-about subject in churches, and I so wish it was more broadly known.

Much love,


Into This Dark Night: Why This?


Near the beginning of our study of the painful night of the spirit, a friend emailed me and said: 

“I just can’t comprehend why God would allow someone to experience that.”

We had, at that point in the series, talked about Mother Teresa and her 40 years spent suffering in the dark. We had also discussed that the night of the spirit is darker than the night of sense.

Why? she wondered. Why would God do all this?

In the place of such a challenging concept as the dark night of the soul, and especially the night of the spirit, I find two thoughts very helpful. 

The first is that our souls were meant for union with God.

Such intimacy was the intent of creation, and the fall of humanity has made the human journey one that continually seeks re-union. Some mystics throughout history have used the image of a spiral to picture this journey of the soul back toward God througout a lifetime. The labyrinth is another representation of this journey, with the soul advancing ever nearer the center, even as there are turns in the journey that seem to take us away from that point of center. 

John of the Cross uses the image of a ladder — similar to Jacob’s — in which we are continually ascending and descending the rungs but ultimately climbing ever higher toward the perfection of union. 

Even though the journey is complex and the experience sometimes one of consolation and sometimes one of desolation, all of it is meant for the intent of union. 

Such union is our soul’s intended home. 

The second thought I find helpful in the face of such a difficult concept is that the soul increasingly desires such union and is willing to endure whatever pain may be required to land upon it. 

John of the Cross says that at this point in the soul’s journey, when the night of the spirit comes, the soul is “so in love with God that she would give a thousand lives for him.” She would willingly die a thousand deaths. 

She is, plainly, heartsick for God. 

“When this love shows up in the soul,” he says, “it finds her ready to be wounded and united with love itself.”

The night of the spirit is one of the most agonizing experiences a soul can endure on earth. But it’s a road the soul, prepared for this journey, is willing to take when it comes. 

Into This Dark Night: Seeing All the Dust Particles

We're at the Plaza Theatre to see the Civil Wars, and our seats are incredible. Yeah!

The spiritual blindness that happens in the night of the spirit happens because the divine light of God is brighter than the eyes of our soul can handle. This is one reason the night of the spirit hurts — because our souls, being human, are much weaker than the brightness of the divine light of God. 

John of the Cross says this: 

“The light and wisdom of this contemplation are so pure and bright and the soul it invades is so dark and impure that their meeting is going to be painful. When the eyes are bad — impure and sickly — clear light feels like an ambush and it hurts.”

There’s another reason the night of the spirit is so painful, though, and it’s because what the soul is able to see when the divine light shines upon it are all its imperfections. 

The saint describes it this way: 

“Consider common, natural light: a sunbeam shines through a window. The freer the air is from little specks of dust, the less clearly we see the ray of light. The more motes that are floating in the air, the more clearly the sunbeam appears to our eyes. This is because light itself is invisible. Light is the means by which the things it strikes are perceived.”

The light of God is a sunbeam on the soul, and our native imperfections are dust motes and particles floating through the air, now clearly visible because of that ray of light. The sudden, acute awareness of all these imperfections makes the soul in this place feel quite wretched. 

Remember, the soul that has entered the night of the spirit has already endured the night of the senses. Her love for God has been purified a great deal, and she has come to a place of being wildly in love with God

Seeing her impurities through the searing light of God undoes her.

She feels these impurities will separate her from the lover of her soul, God, forever. 

Into This Dark Night: A Different Sort of Darkness

May all who enter here find peace.

In the night of the senses, we learned that darkness comes because God slams the door shut on the senses. There’s a drying up of what we feel and experience of God, and it’s because he’s turned the light off.

The night of the spirit is a different sort of darkness. 

Here, the work of God in the soul is directed toward divine union — the most intimate “one-ing” the soul can ever experience. And so, to accomplish this union, God turns up the light that’s poured into the soul. 

The result is utter blindness. 

I love the way John of the Cross makes sense of this blindness in response to God’s light: 

“The brighter the light, the more blinding it is to the owl. The more directly we gaze at the sun, the more it darkens our visual faculty, depriving it and overwhelming it, because of its inherent weakness.”

God’s light is so bright that it pains and blinds our “eyes,” or soul. We can’t see. We’re putting our hands out in front of us, feeling our way forward without the help of sight to see our way.

As paradoxical as it sounds, the darkness happening here in the night of the spirit is actually light. And it is immensely painful to the soul.

Tomorrow, we’ll learn why.