Spiritual Essays

Subscribe now to receive new weekly essays by email!

 

  • Which Way? Directions are available for those who ask.

    If we ask “Which way should we go?” we hope to receive directions that will enable us to take the one way that is better than any of the others that are open to us. In life, there are many ways that we might proceed, some far better than others, although it might not be apparent to us at the time of choosing. In all the jokes about drivers who refuse to ask directions and who become hopelessly lost, the humor derives from fairly common human beliefs that our opinions are always correct and that we must act independently as much as possible. Neither belief offers a realistic way of proceeding any more than does a denial of being lost when we do not know the way.

    Seeking appropriate information is among the best of options when we are making choices about which way is better. Whether we ask a purely factual question of an automated electronic device or seek extended counsel from a person we trust, we do not thereby give up independence nor is our level of maturity diminished. The decisions we make are still ours, whether or not they have a direct logical connection with whatever information we might receive from others.

    Our experience of choosing the better way is quite often more satisfying and integral after having consulted than when we, like lost drivers, continue in self-affirming ignorance of everything except our own thoughts and ideas. Though we have learned much over the years, and are quite capable of making good decisions on our own, we are very often at our best when we integrate information from others before we speak or act.

    Of course we can ask direct questions, but if we are open to the vast amount of information available to us in people’s faces, gestures and tone of voice, many of our implicit questions will be answered. We can also obtain much very helpful information by observing our own internal movements. For example, when we are concerned about making a good decision, we might notice some anxiety. We could then wisely choose to wait, rather than make just any decision in a vain attempt to put an end to the unwelcome feeling caused by uncertainty.

    Many insights and inspirations come to us as answers to questions that have not yet come to mind, and are significant aids for determining a better way of progressing. Not every decision is the result of careful consideration, for we know of occasions when the best way forward came to us without any conscious questioning, even implicitly. From experiences such as these, when the right door opens before we even recognize that there are others, we can rightly conclude that we are always accompanied in our desire to make decisions that are not only good for us, but for others as well.

    The many ways that we go about making decisions can certainly include a direct request of God for guidance, because the same Spirit who is within us and gives us freedom of choice, is also pleased to clarify which way to go for those who ask.

  • Heard Of - Any of us might be well-known in one societal context, and unheard of in another.

    We have often been told or have seen in writing that some particular event was “unheard of,” usually meaning that whatever has now been made known had previously been scarcely or not at all a part of local information. We can turn the phrase around by referring to a particular event as “heard of” but at the same time scarcely or not commonly adverted to by those who know of it.

    Aside from our birthdays, how often do we reflect on the unique event that is our entry into life and our ongoing active presence in the world. We have been heard of by some, perhaps very many persons, but do we ever take time to consider the relational impact of our existence? We are quite aware that the world as a whole does not appear to be affected by our presence as one particular individual among billions. But quantitative measurements are about as useful for our present purposes as would be standing before the most beautiful work of art and thinking only about its size. Quite literally, there never has been or will be another you or me. We can at least consider for a brief amount of time what it means for us to be here, now.

    We can look with some wonder, no matter how young or old we are, at the immense reach of the relationships in which we participate. In some, we have been passive, as when we came into this world. In others, we were and are active members. But in all of our interactions, we have effects upon each and every person with whom we have spent even a moment. The world around us is irrevocably different, just from our presence as another human. In such a consideration we can recognize the huge responsibility that is ours for speaking and acting in such a way as to benefit, not harm, the equally significant unique others around us.

    Another “heard of” event is the manner of Jesus Christ’s entry into the world. Jesus is a historical person as are each of our own ancestors, even those whose names we have never learned. He is also like those many individuals, some remembered as praiseworthy and others as notorious, who are subjects of biographies and stories. But when mention is made of his also being God: for some of us, the possibility is mentally beyond normal comprehension. But even for many who have heard of this unique event, and who also accept that God can do whatever God wants to do, they still do not recognize the occurrence as making any more difference than their own presence in this world. Reflection is the means we can use to appreciate the gift that Jesus is, just as it enables us to be truly appreciative of our own existence.

    Any of us might be well-known in one societal context, and unheard of in another. But our value and significance in the human community comes not from what is written or said about us, but from our created existence, for which we can rightly give thanks to God, who is Presence. 

  • Graces - In them we find support for living in a truly graceful manner of life.

    Most of us are likely familiar with “grace” in the singular, as for example, “She has about her an aura of grace,” where we refer to the quality of a person rather than a specific act. But when we talk about graces, we engage in reflections not about our own or others’ personal excellences, but upon experiences that influence, guide, impel, and otherwise move us in the direction of kindness, generosity and any and all possible manifestations of goodness.

    In looking within ourselves to better appreciate the particular graces we receive, we find that there is no coercion involved, only invitations or positive options that we can accept or ignore. When we consciously observe our past and present experience of graces, we probably gain a joyful awareness of how much that is good comes to us unbidden and without previous preparation on our part. We do not need a definition of terms from an encyclopedia to guide us. Instead, whenever we wish, we can give a few moments’ attention to some of the gentle but real interior movements that assist us in choosing thoughts, words and actions that merit our own honest approval. 

    Though we do not create graces, nor have any means of directly causing them, we can definitely seek graces and dispose ourselves to receive them. We know the difference between the times when we find ourselves giving attention to skeptical thoughts and when we take on a more hopeful, open manner of making judgments about experiences. In the first case, we receive nothing, and rarely are satisfied with reasoning that is basically negative in orientation. When we choose to tentatively identify some of our thoughts as graces, based upon their positive effects, satisfaction follows.

    In carefully examining the movements that we identify as likely being graces, we make proper use of our reasoning skills to find the real connections between our thoughts and feelings with reference to particular incidents. We can with assurance classify as graces all those ideas, suggestions and insights that enable us to make good decisions. In so doing, we find support for living in a truly graceful manner of life.

    Since we receive graces rather than create every good thought or impulse by some power of our own, we might wonder about the origin of such positive activity within us. We can read and otherwise consult with others to learn what they tell us. But we can also return to our reflections upon experiences to find answer to our enquiry. What thoughts come to mind in answer to our question that seem to have the same qualities of reasonableness and a sense of authenticity as those that we have already identified as graces? Without anyone telling us that we are right, we are able to accept as true those possibilities that are accompanied by an interior sense of peace. There is no limit to the graces that we can receive, whether as answers to questions or even questions themselves.

    Upon reflection, the graces we receive are found to be the direct personal activity of a loving God.

  • Compliments - Spice for our daily interactions.

    Although we enjoy receiving or giving a compliment, we usually think of them as rather peripheral and non-essential, even though an honest compliment is about a true positive quality or accomplishment. If we look a little more carefully at giving and receiving compliments, we might gain respect for a facet of life that offers us more benefits than we had previously noticed.

    When we hear a compliment given to us or to someone else, we might quickly wonder whether the speaker has a hidden agenda, even if we can verify that the behavior or quality that is praised is in fact worthy of being noted. We might even second-guess our own motivation in deciding whether or not to compliment someone, being concerned that the other person or persons might think that we are insincere when we give praise. The choice is ours: to discount the compliment or to accept it as appropriate no matter what motivation the giver might have; to be ruled by self-doubt from giving a compliment or to go ahead and deliver someone a well-intentioned word of appreciation.

    Flattery is saying something nice to or about others with the purpose of manipulating them for one’s own objectives. But a compliment is the acknowledgement of reality, and like a ray of sunshine illuminating some particular part of a beautiful scene, gives recognition to specific praiseworthy conduct. We are all the better when one of us focuses, even for a moment, on any of the small but significant positive contributions we and others create in our activities and interactions with one another.

    Most of us consider a diet of bread and water to be a punishment, not a daily menu that we would choose for ourselves or others. We can live without giving or receiving compliments, but how much better off we are when we advert to the daily positive words and actions that are a part of life even for those who suffer greatly. The benefits might seem small when we make mention of good things that are said and done, but each honestly given or received compliment makes us more aware of our own and others’ unique contributions to life. Rather than a diet of bread and water, we add spice to our daily interactions by calling attention to the particular additions which make for a positive, tasteful difference.

    To move to a different level of thought, we could consider the possibility that we receive compliments from God, and that we also offer some to God. Most compliments are given in words, but we have received nods of approval, perhaps an occasional wink or other gesture that contains a similar meaning. And we have at times given a wordless hug of congratulations or spontaneously clapped our hands in recognition of someone’s gracious behavior. We know the feelings that are generated by such manifestations of admiration. Sometimes when no one else is present, we have similar feelings at small accomplishments. Compliments from God? And when we become aware of a particularly uplifting truth, beautiful scene or intriguing creature, we might direct to God a wordless “wonderful!” and experience the same joy as when we give a compliment to a fellow human.

    Compliments celebrate reality.

  • Sacred - Deserving of our reverence and respect.

    Many locations, buildings and objects are identified as sacred by diverse people, and for a variety of reasons. Religious organizations are the first we would expect to use the term for places or articles that are reserved for specific purposes. Civic organizations also dedicate and set aside particular places for distinctive aims, though they do not use the word “sacred” when referring to them. And some individuals too, describe specific entities as sacred to them, often based on their personal experiences. Finally, many people consider their ancestral lands to be sacred.

    Those who hold anything as sacred hope or expect that their beliefs will be respected by others, even by those who do not share those beliefs. The hope and expectation is the same even for structures, monuments and other properties designated for public use or admiration. Whether the word “sacred” is used or not, the desire to treat something as worthy of respect or even reverence is apparently a universal human aspect of living in communities.

    Individuals can and do claim all kinds of things as their own, but most of us have an innate understanding and acceptance that at least some things, whether man-made or natural, are best treated as serving a common good. We thrive wherever we share some beliefs in common, no matter whether they are religious or secular. The sacredness of places, even those scenic locales that readily evoke a sense of awe, is not a property that is inherent in them but is freely applied to them by people for their own reasons. Likewise, sacred objects and secular memorials are given their designation by those who make them. 

    When we see or hear the word “sacred,” whether in terms of things or of particularly significant experiences, many of us think, at least implicitly, of an association with God. Or, whenever we reflect on experiences of transcendence, we acknowledge them as being sacred. Our immediate appreciation of beauty, whether through our physical senses or through interior spiritual movements, draws us towards the Creator of beauty, thereby revealing the very real connection between God and the sacred.

    We readily consider as sacred the many objects, buildings and locations we use for worship, because of their immediate participation in our relationship with God. But the experience of sensing a link with God in sacred spaces is similar to and related with the spontaneous lifting of our spirits when we behold a place such as the Lincoln Memorial: a kind of reverence that many of us associate with whatever we or others might call sacred.

    Whatever we accept as being sacred, we want to preserve from harm of any kind. We have good reasons for calling the earth sacred, and most especially humans. In doing so, we do well to reflect on the logical and spiritual consequences: the earth, and we who call earth our home, are deserving of respect and protection from harm.

    The responsibility for the sacred is ours, not just the naming, but treating them with reverence and respect.

  • Unity in Diversity - We can easily take for granted the mystery of unity within us.

    If we consider the topic of unity in diversity, our first thought might be about persons with widely differing perspectives who cooperate as members of one community or nation. However, we can start with our own personal experience of being models of unity in diversity. We are composed of mind, body and spirit. We have the capability of observing how we think about doing something, then verify it as being in accord with our values and finally enact it. We likely proceed without much reflection most of the time. However, unless our chosen behavior is solely physical, like breathing, it is in everyone’s best interests that we give some consideration beforehand to whatever we do that has consequences for us or for others.

    If we hear a strange noise when we are going about some normal activity, we will very likely make some quick decisions as to whether or how we will take into account the new fact that has caught our attention. Even if we adjust rapidly, and proceed with the same movement that we had begun, we include additional thinking and valuing prior to acting. That is, no matter how brief a time it takes, we reason about possible causes and consequences and we take into consideration our personal priorities before resuming action.

    We can easily take for granted the real mystery of unity within us, but we can also pause at times to appreciate and enhance this gracious spiritual reality through reflection. By focusing on the components of our actions, we will increase the quality and efficiency of our behavior. We can consciously engage in the process of thinking, valuing and acting just as we can direct our breathing for specific purposes such as reducing anxiety or inducing mental peacefulness.

    We know that there are situations where we react instantly, as when we hear a flying insect coming directly towards one of our ears. We learned such behavior over time, through a process of thinking, valuing and then acting. In this way, some of our spontaneous reactions relate with our more conscious decisions and we can thereby recognize an additional aspect of the unity in diversity that defines us. We manifest in some of our immediate reactions, the values that we have previously formed into habits through conscious decision-making.   

    Our personal internal spiritual unity is in the image and likeness of God, whose being is the very opposite of static, impersonal and focused inward. Our creator is love, a communion of persons, whose love goes outward, creating us so that we exist as unique individuals who make use of reasoning, whose feelings relate directly with thoughts and who make decisions that ultimately allow us to love. Our unity in diversity is not for our sake alone, nor even primarily about us as individuals, but is the essential movement within us that goes outward to others. Our thoughts about the unity of diverse people in communities now takes on a deeper meaning as we understand ourselves as created by love, for love.

    Created in the image of God orients us individually and collectively to the fulfilment of our unity in diversity.

  • Wholly Spirit - Peace and joy are as real as love of family and friends.

    Pentecost is a celebration of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit among us. It is safe to say that the Holy Spirit is wholly spirit, having no physical or spatial attributes at all. We who have bodies are not wholly spirit, nor, with sincere honesty, would we even describe ourselves as being wholly spiritual. However, to some degree, we surely are spiritual beings. Our spirituality is not our own projection as a means to justify ourselves or in order to obtain good feelings. The experience of acting from hearts and not just our minds is a spiritual process and is ultimately relational with the Holy Spirit, no matter how we might describe it in our own words.

    Though we are capable of thinking all kinds of unrelated and irrelevant thoughts, the Spirit of our spirituality enables us to recognize our truth, no matter what other material, personal and emotional influences affect us. We know the difference between thoughts that are idle and those that contribute to good decision-making, just as we know the difference between driving a car that is sitting at an intersection and one that is moving through heavy traffic. We are recipients of inner guidance that is not prescriptive, though the orientation towards whatever is better can be strong.

    Ordinary and familiar as thinking is, we can reflect on how we manage or do not manage our thought-processes. If we wish, we can become more skilled in our use of mental activity, just as we can reflect on any of our activities, such as driving, and make positive adjustments. Our spirituality is only as good as the thoughts we choose to follow in making decisions.

    The peace and joy we experience in “doing the right thing” is as real as is our love of family and friends. We can rightly understand both love and appropriate decision-making as spiritual, not because spirit is a positive feeling, but because the decisions we make in favor of both love and right action have a transcendent component that affects our senses in a positive manner. Our spirituality is that of embodied spirit, not spirit separate from body.

    The Holy Spirit is very much involved with physical and bodily realities. There is no contradiction with being wholly spirit and being intimately close with human kind. The inspired thoughts that enter our minds and that elicit feelings of peace and joy are the experiential results of the Spirit’s presence within us. We do not create these helpful thoughts; we rely on them to help us enact our love in deeds, even sometimes at the cost of inconvenience and suffering.

    Though we are not wholly spirit, neither are we merely physical bodies who happen to have well-developed brains. Even children participate in the spirituality of love, though they are not yet capable of conscious thought to the degree that we are. The mysterious bond of spirit and body is easy enough to observe and to experience, but we are incapable of fully understanding who we are.

    We are not wholly spirit, but the Holy Spirit is present and active within us beloved embodied creatures.

  • Truth Lies - Not dead, in a grave, but alive in our hearts.

    For the sake of making a strong statement, “truth now lies in a grave” will do. It is an overstatement, but we are well aware that this present age is marked by a strong propensity among some persons to maintain that their personal views are true not just for themselves, but for everyone else. Disagreement and conflict naturally follow, since opposites are rarely true at the same time. We know the uncomfortable feeling of reading or hearing from those who assert they are right, and that those who think differently are wrong. We are especially distressed when they declare as erroneous some of our own beliefs of which we are quite certain.

    We can best deal with the painful situation arising from the present lack of rational discourse found in just about every civic, social or religious organization, by accepting that we are not responsible for convincing anyone else of whatever truths we hold with objective certainty. That is, if someone opposes our graced, discerned, wisest and verifiable understanding of some issue, we rarely have the power to change that person’s mind when he or she disagrees. We do have competence for deciding whether to communicate to another whatever we know to be certain, and when and how we will do so. We might even have a serious responsibility to share our truth with a specific individual or group. However, we cannot force people to change their minds any more than others can compel us to believe whatever is contrary to truths that are so certain for us that we would be telling lies if we were to deny them. 

    Rather than lies from others causing us to lose heart and edge towards despair, we can do ourselves the reasonable favor of giving up our desire to control what others think and believe, even though the actions that follow their beliefs are hurtful to us. We can respond as forcefully as we think appropriate to the statements and actions of others without directly commenting on the implicit or even stated errors that underlie them. Telling someone that his or her asserted truth is really a lie will rarely bring about change, then or later. However, our clear statements of truth supported by relatively common experience might have positive after-effects. Seldom do people want to admit that they are wrong. However, facts and the witness of others who accept those facts, might well “give the lie” to false statements, and stimulate a hearer to change beliefs later on.  

    Assertions whose falsity is clear to us from knowledge and experience are hurtful to hear, but we do not thereby suffer diminishment in any way. Facing opposition to truth with honesty and courage is always an exercise of faith, which thereby grows integral to our way of proceeding in all aspects of life. Rather than becoming weaker, we become stronger and more attuned to the spirit of truth as we listen to the movements within us where mind and heart are in accord.

    Truth lies in our hearts far more powerfully and effectively than in formulations of words.

  • Ripples - Goodness has its effects.

    Some persons ask the rhetorical question regarding a well-intended word or deed that probably does not receive anyone’s thanks, and has no immediate observable effects, by saying “What good does it do?” In answer, we might think of a tiny insect that touches the surface of a small but motionless patch of water, causing little ripples to go out in all directions. Everything we do with a good heart bears worthy results, but we might not see it, any more than we can observe a blossom becoming an orange, except over time. Unlike a blossom, which could be blown away by the wind and therefore not fulfill its promise, the good that we intend has already set ripples in motion more certainly than water is affected when a stone is tossed into it.

    When we question ourselves about the benefits that we hope will arise from a kind word or thoughtful deed, we might as well ask whether putting our hand into a basin of water has any effect. The ripples of goodness have begun to move even with our initial intention, though we cannot see the positive consequences any more than we can directly observe changes that the falling or rising of barometric pressure bring about in the force and direction of wind. In a graceful kind of irony, to question the value of our good desires is too late, for the rocket left the launch pad as soon as we said “yes” to our purpose.

    We can, and sometimes actually wonder, “What good does it do?” Nevertheless, a bit of reflection on the transcendent nature of goodness can be very helpful, lest our wonder turn to doubt and even to discouragement. We often engage in little acts of kindness, small positive comments and caring thoughts. An immediate positive effect follows for us, as surely as every step we take is a bit of beneficial physical exercise. We become a greater force for good in the world with every least movement of graceful aim. Even if we cannot see the ripples of goodness touching others, we grow in that quality of goodness whose very presence in the world is of benefit to the common destiny of us all.

    We can become more aware of the power of good that moves in and around us by recalling some of our experiences of changing for the better in response to the words and actions of others. Many of the authors of books and articles, the example of wise and good public figures, family members and friends, have surely affected us in significantly helpful ways. However, we may not have given them any clear indications of the meaningful impact they have had upon us. We usually do not know whether they were aware of how the ripples of their expressions of goodness touched our lives, yet they surely did.

    In a final reflection, we might now recognize that goodness in thought, word or deed is not determined by whoever has been touched by the ripples of such activity. Rather, we can understand and rejoice in the simple profound truth that goodness always goes outward in a graced movement of love that flows from the origin of all goodness, God.  

    Every good choice causes ripples of goodness.

     

     

  • Ignatian - ignition of spiritual fire.
    Sometimes people who are not familiar with the word “Ignatian” will spell it with an “o,” which suggests the word “ignition” rather than the practices related with St. Ignatius of Loyola. We know that ignition has to do literally with starting a fire, and more generally with starting any form of internal combustion engine. Perhaps we can rightly identify the Saint with ignition, because “set the world on fire” is a fairly common expression of his purpose in offering to people any and all the forms of spiritual exercises that we now call “Ignatian.” 
     
    Any of us who consider some form of exercise as a health benefit might easily understand the comparison that Ignatius made between physical exercise and spiritual exercise, both being consistent with good health of body, mind and spirit. However, setting the world on fire seems far beyond what most of us think of as a reasonable expectation for doing exercises of any kind. With some reflection, we might find it reasonable and even attractive to find that Ignatian exercises, which are available to anyone, are in fact a source of ignition that is as real and of more value than starting the engine of a car.
     
    Most of us do whatever we do, hoping for positive results, whether at work or at play. If we make something, we do so with a specific product in mind. When we engage in a sport or hobby, we do so in a manner consistent with the particular kinds we choose. Sometimes we enjoy an activity that has no reference to anyone else, as does a person who successfully completes a difficult task at work that no one will see or a challenging crossword puzzle at home. More often, we find another and deeper joy in doing something that contributes to the welfare of one or of many persons, whether by being a good listener, by doing our part of a common task or by providing delight through our words and expressions. We do not intend or consciously attempt to ignite any kind of metaphorical fire in others, but neither do our efforts aim at extinguishing life, love or purpose in ourselves or anyone else. However implicitly, we really do have a positive intention in our words and deeds, expressive of an active and realistic spirituality.
     
    Efforts spent in being positive, improving situations where we can, bettering the lives of others according to our personal gifts, talents and interests is a matter of spirit. This is not a biological effect, but a deliberate choice to go from unconscious intent to a more valued and valuing state of living. We start where we are now and direct our efforts towards improvement. When we reflect and use our minds in concert with our hearts to choose options that are of benefit not solely for ourselves, but also for others, we exercise our spiritual “muscles” as much as taking a walk exercises our physical muscles.
     
    If the thought of setting the world on fire as an expression of our desire to make a positive difference in our world is attractive, we can turn on the ignition switch, whether or not we identify our spiritual practices as Ignatian.
  • Lemonade - The right ingredients for making lemonade.
    Most people enjoy drinking lemon juice only after adding some sweetener. The saying, “if you are given lemons, make lemonade,” seems to imply that we need to supply an additive of some kind if we are going to turn difficulties into advantages rather than losses. However, we do not always have access to the equivalent of sugar when we find ourselves beset by some adversity. Instead, we always have within our hearts the capacity for enduring suffering, even when we have no means of rectifying a painful experience. There is no easy or immediate resolution possible for the loss of a loved one or even for a small act of either aggression or rejection. Still, nothing can stop us from choosing to go on, to hope and to trust that all things will work out for the good.
     
    One of the advantages of having previous experiences to teach and mentor us is that we know of our ability to turn a sour situation into serving a good purpose, at least some of the time. We might also reflect on occasions when, for example, we had the option of accepting an injustice over which we had no control or of fostering our hurt and anger by choosing thoughts about how wrong it was, how undeserved, and all such things that come readily to mind. Many of us have learned to take better care of ourselves than to continue with thoughts that keep the pot of discontent cooking on the stove. The sooner we accept a reality that is not ours to change, the quicker the painful episode becomes a past event instead of an ongoing injury.
     
    Many of us have observed that some people are quite adept at “making lemonade” out of the same kind of unforeseen and unpleasant circumstances that other people consider only as unfair obstacles. Both are dealing with similar realities that are likely not of their own making, but those who do what they can to work within the limitations that confront them will keep moving forward through their difficulties, while those who put their efforts into complaining will remain much longer in a form of suffering that is unnecessary. We can easily recall from our own past that associating with lemonade-makers is more pleasant than being with complainers. While it is not easy for us to suffer under constraints of either injustice or accident, the exercise of courage and reliance on our inner resources provides us with satisfaction that no one can give to us or take from us, whereas denial, blame or avoidance gain us nothing.
     
    When we receive lemons, we do not have to go about making lemonade all on our own. Compassion is a wonderful gift that true friends provide, even if they cannot do anything else for us. In addition, those we trust are resources for learning about possible solutions and for receiving the wisdom of their experiences in accepting situations that they could not change. Finally, always and everywhere, One is with us who turns even the injustice of torture and death into success that lasts forever.