Tag Archives: spiritual director

A message from art

I love to travel, and last week, I visited friends in Ireland. When I travel, I try to be especially mindful of my surroundings and pay attention to what I notice.

My friend and I visited the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin and there we saw, among other great works of art, The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio, which had apparently been hiding in plain sight above a mantle in a Jesuit house in Dublin for many years.

The Taking of Christ is full of emotion, and I stood looking at it for a while. What caught my attention, though, were Jesus’ hands, which were clasped loosely in front of him and looked like a sign of acceptance or surrender. His face had an air of resignation; his hands confirmed it. Jesus was not going to put up a fight; he would be led to his execution.

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‘The Taking of Christ’ by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Later, I came upon The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes by Giovanni Lanfranco, and I again noticed the hands in the painting more than anything else. There are hands raised in supplication, hands being used as support and hands pointing. Most of the hands are empty and outstretched, waiting for bread.

I wondered why the hands in these paintings were grabbing my attention. Is there something in the position of the hands that might hold some meaning for me? Am I being invited to a deeper level of surrender? How am I like the people in The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes? Am I grasping for some nourishment?

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“The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, ” Giovanni Lanfranco, Italian, 1582-1647

I also wondered what my hands might be saying about me—do they convey a message about what is going on in my life? Is there something in the way I position my hands that reveals something about me?

My friend did not notice the hands in these paintings. She noticed the expressions on the faces in The Taking of Christ and the people more generally in The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, so I know there is some invitation or message specifically for me in my noticing the hands in these paintings.

Last month, I saw an exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Art called By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800. Perhaps that set off some sort of fascination with hands in art, although I don’t remember being particularly drawn to hands in any of the paintings at that exhibit.

As I walked through the National Gallery, pondering the possible message of the hands in those two paintings, the words of St. Theresa of Avila came to mind: “Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet but yours…” How am I using my hands? How might I use them to benefit others?

My spiritual director recently reminded me that God speaks to us through all sorts of channels—prayer, scripture, people, rituals, events, art, etc. These two works of art spoke to me, inviting me to pay attention and to be open.

Spiritual direction

Forty years ago, when I was considering becoming a religious sister, the Sisters required me to have a spiritual director to help guide my discernment process. That discernment process led me to say “no” to life as a vowed religious and “yes” to ongoing spiritual direction, and I have had a spiritual director ever since.

Whenever I have moved to a new city, finding a spiritual director has been one of my top priorities, right up there with finding a good bakery, a hair stylist and a doctor. Spiritual direction is an integral part of my life.

Perhaps because my spiritual life is so important to me, people have often come to me to talk about their experiences of God or spiritual dilemmas, and I have been an enthusiastic listener. I love hearing how God moves in people’s lives and I also enjoy the challenge of offering suggestions to reframe difficult situations, of inviting people to look from different perspectives.

About fifteen years ago, I took an introductory course to become a spiritual director, but the timing was not right. Now, though, I am enrolled in an Internship in Ignatian Spirituality at a local retreat center, and I am learning about the practice of spiritual direction, which is mostly about listening.

I am reading books written by people who have many years of experience as spiritual directors, and I am learning from their wisdom.

Something that continually surprises me in these books is how many people seem to have an image of God as harsh, demanding and judgmental, something they were taught as children and have carried into adulthood.

It surprises me because I somehow missed that lesson; God has always been loving and forgiving to me.

The image of God I have carried into adulthood is from when I was eight years old and God rescued me, pulling me into a loving embrace and whispering to me, “He can’t hurt you.” My God loves me and wants what is best for me.

When I mess up, God is there to welcome me back, like the father in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). God may not always be pleased with my actions (or sometimes my lack of action), but God always loves me as I am, accepts me as I am and forgives my shortcomings. I am much more likely to be critical and demanding of myself than God is.

Most of us have things from childhood we need to reframe as adults, things we learned that were just plain wrong or at least not helpful. Mine tend to be connected to issues of trust and low self-esteem, and I am continually working to change what I was taught that turned out to be false.

What has been your experience of God? Can you recall a time when you felt God’s delight in you? Can you imagine a conversation with God and hear God call you beloved? Do you ever talk with someone about your spiritual life?

Praying for courage

Rachel Mankowitz is a blogger and author who inspires me. Rachel openly shares her history, current struggles and vulnerabilities. I faithfully read her blog, and I have read her book, Yeshiva Girl, a story that gave me insight into growing up in a religious Jewish household and also challenged some of my preconceived ideas about Jewish people (Before reading her book, I did not know that I believed Jewish men did not abuse children, but as I read Yeshiva Girl, that fact kept catching me. “Oh yeah,” I would think, “Jewish men abuse, too.” It sounds naïve, I know, but there it is.).

Anyway, Rachel’s bravery inspired me to pray for courage. “I want to be like Rachel,” I would often say to myself after reading something she wrote. And then I would pray, “God, give me courage.” Rachel might demur, but in my opinion, she is one of the bravest women I have ever known.

I want to be less concerned about protecting others and more able to just speak my truth and share my experiences. I had learned from reading Rachel that her honesty helped me, and if I could speak honestly, maybe I could help someone else (and help myself in the process to heal from the shame of what happened to me).

When I last spoke with my spiritual director and told her some of the things that had been happening in my life, she asked, “Have you been asking for something? Maybe courage?” I told her I had been, and then I could see what she saw.

Over the past few weeks, I had begun to speak up and to speak out. The stories I was telling my spiritual director were examples of me being courageous. God had answered my prayer.

I am feeling less fearful and less protective of those who have done something harmful. Let the chips fall… is what I have begun to think.

New clichés are replacing the old messages I used to tell myself that left me powerless and paralyzed. It is utterly freeing to speak of my past without fear of judgment or recrimination.

Some topics don’t come up in polite conversation, I used to tell myself as a reason I never told anyone my abuse history. Now, I just bring them up.

When I was twenty-seven, I was raped, I said to my neighbor as we walked in the park yesterday. Was she shocked? Maybe. But I had to impart that knowledge to explain why I had contacted the local domestic abuse organization to volunteer for their Survivor Speaker’s Bureau. In the past, I would have said nothing. Truthfully, in the past I would not have contacted the organization at all but would have kept my history to myself.

All my life experiences have shaped me and made me who I am today. I want to shed all shame and walk freely into the future. Thanks, Rachel, for being so brave and inspiring me to pray for courage.

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Formed by God

This word came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Rise up, be off to the potter’s house…I went down to the potter’s house and there he was, working at the wheel. Whenever the object of clay which he was making turned out badly in his hand, he tried again, making of the clay another object of whatever sort he pleased. Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do to you…as this potter has done?…Indeed, like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand…” Jeremiah 18:1-6

I love pottery and started buying it when I was twenty. My collection grew quite large until a friend who was helping me pack for one of my many moves said, “New rule: no more pottery.”God-vulnerability-prayerThe uniqueness of each piece of hand-thrown pottery fascinates me.

It is understandable then that the image of the potter at his wheel in Jeremiah has always caught my attention. How I would love for God to tell me to go to a potter’s house!

I can easily imagine a lump of clay being shaped and reshaped. I imagine that some of the form comes from the potter and some of the form from the clay. It is a partnership—the potter’s concept and the clay’s malleability.

That, perhaps, is where using the potter and clay to analogize my relationship with God hits a snag. Am I as pliable as clay? Am I completely open to being shaped and reshaped? Unfortunately, I think not.

As I read these words of Scripture the other day, I tried to imagine how God would reshape me at this point in my life. What would I look like if I dropped all of my defenses and allowed myself to fall into a vulnerable heap? How would God remake me?

I have some sense of that level of vulnerability and defenselessness from times in my life when my hopes and expectations were not met (crushed, really), and I had to accept that I was not in charge. Those times of raising my arms in surrender, of giving myself completely to God, were freeing and also terrifying. Accepting my vulnerability and admitting I have no control is so very difficult for me.God-vulnerability-prayerAnd yet, I do know that God holds all the cards.

As I read these words from Jeremiah, I remembered my spiritual director’s suggestion that I start with a clean sheet and imagine my life. I actually did the exercise, which in itself is a sign of how God has reshaped me—all of my past spiritual directors can attest to my resistance to these types of suggestions. And, like other times when I have moved against my resistance, this exercise was very insightful.

Perhaps I need to start each day visualizing myself as an unshapen lump of clay, and ask God to shape me into a vessel that will be most useful to carry out God’s will on this day and.in this place.God-vulnerability-prayer