“Making” Sacred

gloved hand cleaning
Home is sacred space. It is also sacred time. Whether home is a physical location or a state of mind while we wander the globe, we have the power to make it sacred, to hold it in loving attention and simultaneously offer it to God and the world as our gift to give.

Here are a few ideas for “making sacred.” I make home sacred by:

  • Receiving it with gratitude, noticing its details from day to day.
  • Attending to its needs: taking care of a physical house, nurturing an important relationship.
  • Remembering the important moments that occur there—through scrapbooks, photographs, storytelling, song, paintings . . .
  • Offering it to others, by opening its doors and receiving people for who and where they are.
  • Developing its beauty, whether planting a garden in a permanent home or building temporary shrines—prayer altar, photo collection, important objects of beauty and meaning—in tents, hotel rooms, and rented apartments.
  • Filling its space with conversations that are meaningful and with activities that are hopeful.
  • Cleaning it out from time to time, removing clutter that is physical, spiritual, or emotional.

Please add your ideas as well!

Three Reasons It’s Hard to Be Still

3 reasons it is hard to be still - still waters

We have been conditioned to feel guilty whenever we are not “productive.”

Stillness, even for the purpose of rest or prayer, can feel like wasted time to someone who lives in a world that values wealth, competition, high productivity, full schedules, and general self-importance. If we stare off into space for half an hour—and fail even to take notes on the thoughts that come to mind—that’s half an hour lost. The writer must always be recording and reflecting; the executive must always be strategizing. There’s no such thing as being “off” in such a culture. When we are stranded in traffic, we panic if there’s no device by which we can check the news, return calls, answer e-mail, or download a song or television show while we wait.

And if we do schedule a day away for retreat, we are tempted to load up the day with books to read, spiritual exercises to try, and journals to fill. Even in a retreat context we struggle to get still and do absolutely nothing.

We sometimes prefer distraction to concentration when it comes to soul work.

I have said to writers at various conferences: “We procrastinate when it’s time to write because, deep down, we know what true writing will cost us.” When the soul is allowed the space, time, and uncluttered mind to tell us our truths, we discover that those truths can be unsettling. If I’m quiet and inactive for an afternoon, what might rise to the surface is not some new insight into a Gospel passage but worries about the state of my marriage or my resentment toward a friend. My soul—under the influence of the Holy Spirit—will direct me to the real issues that I must see and tend today. Subconsciously, we understand that to invite silence and stillness is to open the door for soul work that is sometimes painful. It’s much easier to be busy—even “spiritually” busy—and to distract ourselves in various ways.

We have grown uncomfortable with any conditions that make us feel alone.

We now have a wealth of electronic devices that help us stay in touch, share information, and communicate with lots of people in lots of places. These same devices make it possible for us never to have to spend a moment truly alone because we are just a Facebook post away from hundreds of friends. Even if no one responds to the text I just sent by smart phone, I still feel connected to the universe, simply because I have composed and posted something on the world’s bulletin board. Our devices have become our constant companions. Recently I read a lengthy article suggesting that our children are not learning how to be alone or how to be bored because they are constantly on electronic devices. It is not uncommon now to see children who do not know how to be alone or how to create entertainment from nothing but time and a little bit of space.

Adults, especially those of us past age 40, are not quite so addicted to the cyberspace web, but some of us don’t know how to exist with our cell phones turned off—or with the television, radio, and computer turned off. I need sound in the room. I want company, even if it’s a TV rerun I’m barely listening to. I am used to some kind of chatter. Silence unnerves me. Silence signals that I am alone for the moment—and what must I face if the only company I have is myself?

Before we can develop spiritual practices that require stillness and solitude, we must grapple with the various forms of resistance we have developed to fight the very stillness we need.

  • What do you do to become still?
  • When do you most need stillness and solitude?
  • How do you deal with the ways you resist stillness?

How Do I Identify the Work That Matters?

revolving door

It can take awhile—sometimes many years—for a person to sort out all that she’s been taught, told, and in some cases manipulated to believe and value. Many people of faith must work through a period of rediscovering and redefining their faith, and quite a few of us, after a long process of interior sorting and pitching, reestablish ourselves in the faith that formed us. Only now it is faith we have examined, owned, dusted off, and refreshed.

And when we reassess all that we’ve been taught and all that we’ve simply picked up over the years, it can be a wonderfully clarifying experience to identify once again what is important. We look with intent and prayer upon our relationships, our work, our possessions, and our pastimes.

Also, we take another look at the “good work” we are trying to do in this world. We try to answer a few questions:

  • Does this activity truly reflect what I want to get accomplished, or is it a distraction?
  • Am I wasting effort, or must I be patient and keep working, having faith that I’m on the right track?
  • Does this organization, faith community, or workplace live out the values I hold dear?
  • Could I be doing something bigger and braver?
  • Am I still waiting for other people’s approval and reward, even though I know what must be done?
  • Should I be doing this same good work but possibly with a different group of people?
  • Have I found a good fit for my own gifts and desires as I do God’s work in the world, or do I try to be like other people whom I admire?
  • Do I have mentors? Can I point to people who inspire me forward as I do God’s work?

For the sake of simplicity, I use “good work” and “God’s work” interchangeably. Anything that truly comes from God will be good for the world. But not everyone is comfortable with the term “God’s work.”

  • How do you know when you are doing the work you should be doing?
  • What has helped you sort out the beliefs and values that are at the core of your life?

Five Ways to Relate to Family Members Spiritually

mother and adult daughter sitting outside

It can be quite difficult to express personal spirituality in family situations that are not particularly friendly toward religion. Especially if a family has experienced religion as judgmental or strident—and all it takes is one or two people to create that atmosphere—the door to spiritual conversations and expressions might be shut tightly.

But if we loosen up on our concept of spirituality, we might discover that we can relate quite spiritually with people who otherwise would resist religion.

1. Extend your gratitude practices to the people you love.

I believe more and more—and I think I’m with St. Ignatius of Loyola on this—that gratitude is foundational to spiritual health. If I go through life in a posture of gratitude, that will transform so many situations that would otherwise deteriorate. What I need to remember is that gratitude toward God is key—but gratitude toward others is important, too. If I make a practice of expressing to others, on a regular basis, what I’m grateful for in terms of their personality, gifts, efforts, and so on, I will be relating to people in a spiritually healthy way. And that will make a good impact sooner or later. I may help someone recognize her gifts, or I may help another be kinder to himself.

2. Help others become comfortable with silence.

People who can become comfortable when there’s no noise, activity, or talking, will be better equipped to handle stress, problems, questions, and all sorts of emotions. I can help others make friends with silence by being silent with them, by showing them that I’m fine with sitting together for a while without saying anything, by not rushing to get an answer or to form an opinion. I can model this sort of calm, and eventually others who spend time with me might just come to value that spiritual discipline as well.

3. Receive—always—a person as he or she is.

It can be especially difficult to withhold judgment with members of your own family or circle of friends, because we feel responsible for those we love. But if we can relax, trust God, and simply receive loved ones in whatever shape they’re in, they will be more likely to open up to us—maybe not right now, maybe some time from now—and allow us to be part of the conversation about the struggling marriage or the drug problem or the personality flaws that are making it difficult to hold down a job. Meeting a person first with judgment will send that person far away, even if she lives in the same house. And many people have been conditioned to think that if they turn to religion the first thing they will experience is God’s horrible judgment and anger. We have to model God’s open arms and forgiveness, otherwise how will anyone know the truth about Divine Love?

4. Reject cynicism and promote hope.

It can be a real challenge to reign in the negativity when people get together. If you have a certain friend or relative who has honed criticism and sarcasm to fine points, then pray for the patience to be just as energetic with encouragement and praise. When the conversation comes to a dark, thudding halt because everyone has helped everyone else become even more depressed about world affairs, dare to tell the story of someone doing a wonderful, brave thing. Of course you can’t always be on task with this, or it can seem that you’re arguing just as much as the other person, only with a positive emphasis. But hope is a spiritual practice, and sometimes we have to counter despair quite purposefully.

5. Care more about healing than about justice.

I am doing my best to swear off vengeance, because the world is rank with it, and we have to make a stand. I even refrain from seeing some films because it’s clear that vengeance is the major theme. I become vengeful easily enough on my own—I don’t need cultural reinforcement. So when dealing with daily issues, even conversations at a family gathering, I hope to not chime in about people getting what they deserve. And if a friend or family member is the one who’s receiving the harsh judgment, I may be the only voice advocating not for vengeance and punishment but for mercy and growth.

Well, these are just ideas. What do you think?

Allow God’s Gaze to Rest on You

eye closeup art

Recently I led a half-day retreat for Directors of Religious Education at a nearby parish. These are the men and women who work hard all year through, helping to care for the faith of others. They are nearly always “on duty,” organizing, running, and problem-solving within their parish faith formation programs.

The weather had finally, finally come around to spring qualities. We were at an expansive retreat center with lawns and water and trees and stately buildings. I had come with sort of a plan, but I nearly always finalize plans as we go, reading the audience and the situation and designing the kinds of exercises and activities that seem to fit best. I took one look at the 20-plus DREs and knew what the first assignment would be. First, I read from The Church of Mercy, by Pope Francis:

Let us also remember Peter: three times he denied Jesus, precisely when he should have been closest to him. And when he hits rock bottom, he meets the gaze of Jesus who patiently, wordlessly, says to him, “Peter, don’t be afraid of your weakness, trust in me.” Peter understands, he feels the loving gaze of Jesus, and he weeps. How beautiful is this gaze of Jesus—how much tenderness is there! Brothers and sisters, let us never lose trust in the patience and mercy of God!

The assignment: Spend 20 minutes outdoors and focus only on this: God’s gaze upon you. Meditate on what it means that God gazes on you with love. If any other thoughts arrive, say, “I’ll talk to you later—good-bye,” and send them on their way.

I leave you with this same assignment: Spend time basking in God’s gaze.

  • How do you bask in God’s gaze? Do you sit still, walk, say prayers, do some kind of meditation?
  • How would you describe the gaze of God?