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 are heard.
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 Cor. 3:18)
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 honest conversation.
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 and lowly.
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 disciples.
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!