Welcome to New College Berkeley's blog, "Walking in Newness." Each month a member of the NCB faculty will post a personal reflection on their life of faith. Click here for the complete list of blog posts starting from September 2013.
When they arrive,
they leave their phones in a basket by the door and grab a bite to eat. We
light a candle that's in the center of the table within our circle, a reminder
of God in our midst. We pray for God to enlighten us.
"How are you, and what's true for you right now?"
This is the question we start with, and one evening I had them illustrate their
answer by choosing an item to place on the table. The person who chose a photo
of a compass said she felt a growing certainty about the road ahead. Our "camel"
felt burdened. Our "lone wolf" was worried about the future—would
leaving Berkeley after graduation mean unwelcome solitude?
Each month as I've
offered group spiritual direction to these UC Berkeley undergraduates, they've
had the opportunity to place their hopes and fears on the table, so to speak,
laying them before God and each other in a contemplative setting.
We often use the prayer of lectio
divina, a technique of prayerful reflection on a piece of scripture,
poetry, or art. One evening, one of the students chose Rublev's Trinity as her focus for prayer. This
icon shows the three persons of the Trinity encircling a table. The Creator
gazes at the Spirit, the Spirit gazes at the communion cup that sits on the
table in their midst, and Christ points to the cup and bows his head to the
Creator—a circle of loving interconnectedness. After spending time with this
image in silence, the student noted that the bodies of the three figures face
towards the viewer, and the table between them is spacious. "It looks like
there's room for me in the picture," she said.
It seems to me that life with God is nothing less than an
invitation to that table. God is willing to include us in that mysterious
circle of love and relatedness—a circle that's beyond our comprehension. And
spiritual direction can be a representation of God's table for us, a table
where we have freedom and space to lay out the pieces of our lives, and where
there's room for us to join the circle just as we are.
In the group we also use the prayer of examen, in which we focus prayerful attention on everyday life
looking for signs of the Spirit's presence and action. One of the questions we
sit with is "Where has God been showing up?" and it turns out God's
been showing up everywhere for this group: In a trip to see family that helped
one person remember who she is; in a conflict-filled project that turned out,
in the light of prayerful reflection, to be a gift; in listening to music for a
class; in meeting a prison minister and becoming inspired about vocation.
Over time, patterns can emerge in the prayer of examen, and this can help with
discernment about life decisions. Praying like this can also bring up
questions. For example, one person had spent retreat time with the group
instead of doing a school assignment, and the assignment had turned out not to
count. "Was that God, or just luck?" she wondered. "How does God
Nobody in the group tried to come up with an answer, and I'm
grateful for that. It's the kind of question every person needs to puzzle out
for herself. In a way it's the
question we explore in spiritual direction—how does God work in my life? What's
my lived theology?
We sometimes close our group spiritual direction time by
having each person share what the gift of the evening was for them. One student
said she appreciated having me read scripture and poems aloud during our time
together rather than reading them herself. "I'm trained to analyze and
make connections when looking at words," she said, "and when I don't
have a piece of paper in front of me, my mind doesn't need to start jumping
around." Another person had been sick and said that although the extra
sleep and time away from class had been restful, our spiritual direction group
provided a "different" kind of rest. This "different" rest
is what contemplative prayerfulness brings. It's the kind of rest that’s
possible when we slow down and use the spiritual tools of the heart, letting
the sharp tools of analysis stay idle for a little while.
After our final prayer, we say amen and blow out the candle,
and the students collect their phones and head off to potlucks, movies, study,
sleep. My prayer for them as they leave is that they'll find themselves often
at God's spacious table, more and more aware of God's many gracious invitations
in their lives.
Katarina Stenstedt is a professional editor and
writer, and a New College Berkeley spiritual director.
hard not to pay attention to Brené Brown, whose most recent
book is Daring Greatly (NY:
Avery, 2012). She
has several TED talks that are among the most popular ever. She's also
done those PBS special series that usually go to the pre-eminent
psychology person of an era (years ago it was John Bradshaw).
Brown is most known for is her research on vulnerability; in fact the subtitle
of this current best seller is How the
Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.
I was preparing a project that included the subject of vulnerability, so
I decided to give it a read. The popularity of the book hit me when I
went to two bookstores and found it sold out.
I didn't expect to find
a lot new on the topic since I've been a psychologist for 30+ years and much of
my work has been with men and all the ways to support their greater
vulnerability, especially in relationships. Reading Daring Greatly I discovered that I really liked Brown's sense of
humor and how she manages to steer clear of most clichés on the topic.
I've recommended it to several clients.
What I found most
interesting, though, is that what she wrote hit me in a completely unexpected
way. I've always thought of myself as reasonably vulnerable, but Brené Brown pushed me to take
a hard look at myself. I was well acquainted with the fact that my choice
to go into a helping profession was influenced by my being a caretaker in my
family. The same role developed with my friends, similar to most people I
know who have gone into this line of work.
Where Brown's Daring Greatly shook me up was to show
me that my caretaking has become how I AVOID vulnerability. By listening,
drawing people out, and giving a broadly positive response (with good intent
that is usually appreciated), I was also hiding my own strong feelings,
inhibiting remarks that might rock the boat, and seldom asking directly for
what I need.
It was embarrassing for
me to have this laid bare. Here I'm supposed to know myself—but no.
Also, seeing my behavior as a way of playing it safe made me chafe, since I
usually like to think of myself as an adventurous fellow.
The next thing to do, of
course, was to experiment with opening up more. So I made small changes,
because nobody deserved to be shocked or hurt by me suddenly spinning the dials
on how I operate. Several times I took a deep breath in a meeting and
said how I really felt, rather than making a safe comment reflecting what
others were saying. Or I gave a direct answer to a client about what I
think he should do, rather than "exploring" what he thinks. Twice
I let a close friend know I did not appreciate his sharp words, when usually
I'd just have let it settle down.
The funniest experience
was working up my courage to ask my daughter her opinion on glasses frames I
was considering (New #1). "Round frames would not look good on
you," she said. I teased that her outspoken response hurt my
feelings a little (New #2). I persisted (New #3) and told her, "I'm
tired of my look and I want to change it up" New #4). And she
proceeded to find a whole class of glasses online that she thought would look
great on me. I take that with me to the optometrist next week.
Not earth-shattering by
any means. But it's where I injected more of me into relationships,
beyond my usual caretaking and facilitating roles. These new
conversations feel more interesting, and at times funny (I had been worrying my
sense of humor was drying up!). I realize people give me way more
latitude for response than the narrow rules I’ve set for myself. I'm still far from "daring greatly,"
but there's a little more liveliness. Maybe great daring is coming next…
The new year has begun in a deluge of rain in
the Bay Area—with even a few minutes of hail and snow in Berkeley on January
23!—and a new administration in Washington.Spring programs are beginning at New College Berkeley, and some are continuing
into the second half of the academic year.
Our spiritual direction groups and the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises
groups are mid-way through their nine-month journey. So far in these groups
we’ve witnessed new life coming, the passing of loved ones and loved
identities, the healing of relationships and health, responses to a new
president elected and inaugurated, and a host of challenges and blessings held
before God in a covenanted circle of praying friends.
Sometimes in our lives and in the lives of our
communities, we wonder how we can be helpful. God invites us to pray! Prayer
isn’t passive. It’s an active engagement with the Holy One who sustains us and
whose comforting and correcting grace shapes our world. Prayer stretches our
hearts and refreshes our minds with what at times is a radical reframing of our
point of view. This is especially so in a group where various people’s voices
Some of the spiritual direction groups have been
meeting for years and will continue to do so, and most of them take a hiatus
during the summer months. As the days lengthen and summer approaches, the
people in the groups rest in the familiarity they have acquired with one
another, which allows greater openness to the Holy Spirit among them.
The practice of spiritual direction is a means
of God’s grace. It’s a spiritual discipline that helps us pray as we weave the
warp of the stories of our lives with the woof of God’s story. As we do so,
spiritual maturity is nurtured through prayerful reflection and another’s or
others’ directive attention.
Stories and the knowledge they contain help us
remember how we’ve been shaped, who we are, and how we are known. We grasp for
the truth of our own life story and grapple with the knowledge conveyed by the
narratives of our culture and families. As Christians, our personal stories
rest in and are shaped by the story of our faith, the story of Jesus Christ.
The word “narrative” comes from the
Indo-European root “gna” which means both “to tell” and “to know.” The Greek
root of the word narrative is “gnosis,” knowledge. It’s the stuff of wisdom and
guides our spirituality. The knowledge contained in stories is fundamentally
relational. A word association exercise with “story,” would likely elicit
“telling” as a first response. Stories are told and heard. The listener—or
Listener—evokes the story, just as much as the teller weaves it.
Our faith is informed by narrative knowledge,
relying on stories to help us know how to live faithfully, even and especially
in times of change. This relational knowledge of God helps us rest in faith,
rather than in the emergency stances of fear and anger. The stories of our
faith—biblical and more recent—as well as our own stories and those we hear
from our brothers and sisters, shape our lives. In particular they impact us in
terms of memory, meaning, morality, and mending (healing might be the better
word, but requires resisting “mending’s” alliterative pull). All these aspects
of story-telling and story-listening are at play in NCB’s spiritual direction
and Ignatian groups.
Stories elicit emotion, and emotions embed
memory in our bodies. Preachers and professional story-tellers of all kinds
know that if you want someone to remember what you’ve said, engage their
feelings. If we laugh, cry, or feel any strong emotion, that experience will
stay with us more than if we weren’t moved by it. In the Ignatian Spiritual
Exercises, we pray through the life of Christ as presented in the Gospels. We
imagine ourselves with Jesus, as his disciples and followers were with him.
Having participated in these prayers for several years now, I hear the stories
in a new way, as though I’d been there. For instance, when I hear a reference
to Jesus’ Transfiguration, I know what it feels like to cower on the ground
with the disciples when God thundered: “This is my beloved son. Listen to him!”
And, I know what I felt when I imagined Jesus coming to me as I cowered,
touched me, and moved me away from fear.
Spiritual directors intentionally guide people
toward remembered stories of grace-filled experience. There is blessing in the
original experience as well as in re-experiencing it through telling the story.
When I remember my experience with the Transfiguration account, my soul is
shaped as I contemplate God’s glory and receive the Spirit’s renewing grace (2
Stories also cultivate meaning. Religion,
etymologically, is that which binds together, just as ligaments are binding
agents in the body.We’re bound by the
meaning that religion offers, and we’re bound relationally to God and others in
the Body of Christ. Personal stories bind us together internally, through
coherence and purpose, as do the stories we call history, literature, and
Scripture. In the spiritual direction groups we hear all these varieties of
story, and the practice affords a regular time to bring all these stories into
communication with one another.
Sometimes directees have been exposed to
biblical teaching that leaves them with the impression that God is merely a
harsh schoolmaster and judge looking down from above. That is a narrative that
has been metabolized and associated with feelings, self-image, hopes, and
fears. Yet, inklings of a different spiritual narrative have brought the
directee to a New College Berkeley spiritual direction group. There’s hope that
a loving relationship with God might be forged, perhaps a relationship based on
In the spiritual direction groups and the
Ignatian Exercises, people often keep a journal throughout the year of their
experiences of God. Those journals become a florilegium;
in Latin, “a gathering of flowers,” and the classical term for a compilation of
writings. Florilegia are books that
monks and others keep of Scriptures and holy writings that have shaped their
hearts as they’ve prayed with them. Each person’s florilegium, like Scripture itself, recounts personal, human
encounters with God. The narrative of the directee’s life with God holds
meaning that anchors him or her to God, especially when those experiences might
be swept away by life-sapping ideas about God.
Narrative carries moral heft. “What shall I do
to gain eternal life?”: Let me tell you a story. Jesus taught us how to live by
telling us stories. Robert Wuthnow (Acts
of Compassion, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993) found
that one of the most significant factors in whether young people engaged in
volunteer activities was whether or not they knew the story of the Good
Samaritan. Without delineating ethical principles or arousing a rational
debate, a robust morality is conveyed through story.
Spiritual directors are with directees as
stories emerge and enlighten. A directee’s experience might be like that of
the apostle Peter by the shore of Galilee after Jesus’ resurrection. Peter had
denied Jesus three times, yet Jesus didn’t chastise him for that. Jesus asked
him three times if he loved him. With each affirmation, Peter was invited to be
Jesus’ under-shepherd, feeding the sheep, just as the Good Shepherd does. So,
too, a directee praying with this passage in the Ignatian Exercises, might feel
beloved by Jesus and invited to serve others, even in ways that are difficult
In the group setting, the directees are
supported by others who witness their experience of God. Peter, too, had the
fellowship of other disciples around him bearing witness to his call. The
witness of others to our spiritual life-story helps strengthen our moral
resolve, and also attunes our discernment through the holy listening others do
on our behalf. Perseverance and discernment are crucial to integrity, parts of
the moral force of sharing our narratives.
The morality that emerges from narrative is full
of grace. It isn’t a light that scorches and destroys. Rather, like the Light
of the World, it is one that illuminates, warms, and, laser-like, molds us into
Narrative also serves a healing function. I
mention this as a separate category, but my belief is that constructing healthy
memory, weaving meaning, and fortifying morality are all generative of spiritual
health. Additionally, there is evidence that telling one’s story fosters mental
and physical healing.
Studies have found that recovering from
traumatic experiences can be expedited by writing about those experiences for
others to read, or speaking about them to others who are listening. Writing or
speaking for an attentive other, turns experiences into narratives. This has a
healing effect, as measured in a variety of ways, including immune
responsiveness, pain tolerance, and quicker healing time (see, for example, the
research of J. W. Pennebaker). This is healing work. Many believe that it’s
only through re-experiencing painful feelings in a safe and loving environment
that healing can occur.
So as we enter 2017—New College Berkeley’s 40th
anniversary year!—I’m delighted to witness the work of God’s Holy Spirit
through the spiritual direction groups around the Bay Area, including several
with UC Berkeley students, and the Ignatian Spiritual Exercise groups. This is
the transformative, healing work of prayer!
Give Praise to the Lord, O my soul; let not all His blessings go from your memory. ~ Psalm 103:2
This January as we anticipate the new year, we also reflect
on the past year. Remembering what God has done for us in the past can shape
how we face the future. The people of God seem to need constant reminders. Hebrew
Scriptures repeatedly called the Israelites to remember God’s faithfulness and commands:
You shall remember that you were
a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you
out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore
the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deuteronomy
and do not forget how you
provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came
out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious
against the Lord. (Deuteronomy 9:7)
The New Testament also
encourages us to remember what Jesus promised his followers:
Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach
you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.(John 14:26)
The celebration of the last
supper institutes an ongoing, physical, reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice for us on
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it,
and gave to them, saying,Thisis my body which is given for you:this do in remembranceof me.
Each fall I teach Writing Your Journey for New College
Berkeley. In the class we write stories about our lives. As we write, we
discover themes and gain new insights. We recognize what God has done for us
and are reminded to trust God on the road ahead.
At times I’ve read passages
from Madeleine L’Engle’s book Walking on
Water as inspiration for the class participants. It’s a book L’Engle wrote on
a ship going through stormy waters. The wildness of the storm reminded her of
the creation narrative. The storm, she wrote, “Left her ill at ease and
uncomfortable, and so I rested in the great story of the beginning.”
Out of this meditation
L’Engle drew peace and insight:
The creation is God’s. It is El who has made us and not we ourselves. .
. the creation is God’s and we are a part of it, and being part of creation is
for us to be co-creators with El in the continuing joy of new creation.
Writing about our lives is a
way of gaining insight and a reminder of God’s faithfulness. As we draw
fragments of memory into coherent narratives we begin to see our lives as a
journey, instead of a series of random events.
We do this in a community of
people who listen and comment. Our classmates may have insights and see
patterns that we don’t see. They may also offer encouragement for the road
ahead. Hearing how God has worked in the lives of others—through hard times and
good times—encourages our walk of faith.
A member of our most recent class wrote:
I’ve had many good classes at
the GTU, but this one was definitely the most encouraging to me in terms of my
faith. . . . A safe space [was created] for us to all share our different
perspectives, and [the instructor] also stressed how we can really listen to
one another. This helped cultivate an atmosphere where we could witness to the
unique work of God in each person’s life.
Our fall 2016 class is over.
But we warmly invite you to enroll in the 2017 Writing Your Journey class, which will begin in September.
Sharon Gallagher (M.T.S.) is
the editor of Radix magazine and NCB
professor of Christianity and the Media. Her books include Finding Faith and Where Faith
Jesus said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God
like? And to what should I compare it?It is like a
mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a
tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”~Luke 13:18-19
The parable of the mustard seed evokes
thanksgiving and a sense of advent. What was small and humble has grown and is
useful! Even so, it remains a humble plant that people might not notice among
the cultivated plants of the garden. Jesus tells us the Kingdom of God is like
Jesus’ followers recounted this short parable in
the three synoptic gospels. One mentions a garden (Luke) and another, a field
(Matthew). Mark writes that the seed became the greatest of all vegetables,
while Matthew and Luke write of a tree. In one account the seed is sown
(Matthew), while in another it’s simply tossed into the garden (Luke). All
three enable Jesus to tell us—millennia later—about a small mustard seed that
became a dwelling place for birds.
Jesus’ parables are condensed, metaphorical
stories that enable the heavenly to be viewed through the lens of the earthly,
captivating our imagination and schooling our character. The Kingdom of God is
like a mustard seed that when sown in the earth grows to shelter living
creatures. Imagine that! How then shall
Parables tell the truth in such a slanted way
that they provoke, disturb, challenge, illuminate, fortify, and teach. Like a dazzling sun the parable sheds light,
offers orientation, and anchors us with gravity. Jesus tells us that the small
seed becomes a home. Do you register that
dazzling, orienting, anchoring truth?
Jesus tells truth and also is the Truth which
dazzles. Jesus speaks metaphors and is one, too: “the image of the invisible
God” (Col. 1:15). In his parables the
natural world becomes witness to the spiritual world. What is the mustard seed’s testimony?
Mustard is hardy, ancient, and no respecter of
borders. It germinates with abandon, without cultivation, wherever it’s sown.
People throughout time and around the world have benefited from it as food,
spice, and medicine. This humble, reliable herb is neither delicate nor
gorgeous, sprouting with little more care than that provided by sunshine and
rain. Mustard sprouts and spreads exuberantly!
In the third millennium after Jesus told this
story, situated in the Global North which so wholly embraced Christianity for
centuries, many people are wondering about the Kingdom’s mustard in our
neighborhood today. Note that Jesus identifies a process: sowing, growing, and
sheltering. He doesn’t describe pearly gates or a pristine garden. His story is
about a seed bursting forth from its shell, spilling life force into the earth,
and bursting upwards in wood, leaf and flower. He points to the energy of
grace, not fixities of doctrine and structure.
Grace flows from the one who takes the seed of
life in hand and scatters it on the earth; through the development and
flourishing of the plant; to the harboring of the nesting birds (who themselves
participate in the flow of generative life). Do we trust that this grace is flowing in our time and place? Do we
Mustard plants are sometimes accused of being
weeds. The name has been applied to a toxic gas in which the plant plays no
part. Maybe Jesus is not only saying that the Kingdom is fertile and
generative, but is also telling us that the Kingdom is alive and well, even
though overlooked. We’re invited to participate in God’s grace; not manufacture
or control it.
For nearly forty years at New
College Berkeley people have sown spiritual mustard seeds, tiny capsules of
life-changing grace. We hear from people who were part of NCB in different
decades, with different teachers. More than what they learned in books or
lectures, they tell us how their souls were nourished. In one person’s words: My
walk with God has been deepened and expanded, and I have learned and grown in
ways I never expected.
Mustard seeds are sown. We at
New College Berkeley are grateful to be part of God’s grace as it dazzles and
spreads, orients and anchors, feeds and prunes. To God be the glory.