“Where is the Holy Spirit in this conversation?”
I’ve had to do these exercises in less time than would be ideal, but then, that’s life for most people. For those of you who have had to fit this retreat experience into groups of minutes between dealing with job and household—I’m right there with you. This week’s exercise—of looking through my spiritual scrapbook with a wise friend—took place in about forty minutes while I had tea at Caribou Coffee just down the street from my office.
I’ve been inviting women into my imaginary retreat space lately, but this time I chose a fictitious older man named Sam, who is a fiercely passionate artist as well as a fiercely passionate Christian. I don’t know why I chose Sam; maybe because I wanted a male perspective and a direct, not-so-intuitive assessment. Recently I had to write a spiritual autobiography for another project, and that involved quite a bit of emotion and intuition, and it looked at a lot of details. So I didn’t need that sort of experience today. Sam and I looked at the broader strokes, at entire periods of my life, rather than dwelling on particular scenes. Also, I felt pressed for time and knew that Sam would get right to the point, and would not be so interested in how I felt about anything but in how I understood things. As an artist he would also respect my intuitive, emotive side, and because we’re both artists we would just understand that part and not have to talk about it. He and I looked at my life story in terms of my art and my faith, which have always been intertwined.
Most of the time, material from an exercise such as this is quite useful to the one doing the exercise but not too interesting to other people. So I won’t repeat much here. However, one bit of conversation is worth including.
Sam doesn’t care to dwell on the material I’ve worked with a lot already, such as my early artistic expressions. At least he’s not so interested in those things themselves. The more important aspect is my growing tendency to either open or close to God and to life around me. A mature artist must be an open soul. A mature Christian also.
“You began to close up, out of self-defense,” says Sam. “Even while your interior life was developing around spiritual/artistic hunger, your posture toward everything became more rigid. You were quite sensitive to hurt and to imperfection. You didn’t tolerate either very well, in yourself or in others.”
We observe snapshots of my rigidity, through junior high and high school. We also see, in those pictures of me, now in college and beyond, that the rigidity and self-defense have transformed into anger. Sam lets out a whistle. “Nothing screws up our wondrous abilities quite so much as anger. And most of us go that route, unfortunately. I think I was angry for about thirty-five years, myself.”
I see the gentleness in his eyes and realize that he is merely making an observation, not passing judgment. “How did you leave that anger?” I ask.
“Got tired of it, mainly. It sucks up a lot of energy. One day I watched a sunrise the color of pale roses slide over a skyscraper, and I said to myself, ‘Sam, the Creator has put you in the middle of a miraculous, stunning world. And you’re wasting it all by being angry all the time.’ And then I just let it go. Took a year or so, but there was definitely a change.” He looked into my eyes. “You got there earlier than I did. Mid-forties, right?”
“It may have started for me then,” I said, “but I let go closer to age fifty.”
This exercise was good for helping me state the reality of my life these days. I’m still learning, in bits and pieces, what it means to live a life of love and to walk by faith. But I can say that some things have gone well, and I have grown. I can say to God, “Thank you—for helping me grow up, and for helping me say to myself what has gone well.”
We are so programmed to look for what is wrong with us! For how we fail or don’t live up to holy expectations. But is that what Divine love looks at? Are we still stuck there, or did Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection mean anything—do anything?
Maybe this is just a phase of my spiritual growth, but more and more I’m convinced that God is quite weary of us reciting all the bad news. God is grieved at how we see ourselves. If we give the Holy some time and space to speak, those words will encourage and affirm—and remind us of who we really are and who we are becoming day by day.
I mean, really, isn’t this religion called Christianity supposed to be about Good News?