“This is what we want to do, and sometimes we are able to do it – just to say to Thee, Father, here am I. My life as it is at the depth I give to Thee. And I want Thee to hold it so that it is no longer my life to do with in accordance with my whims, my impulses, my desires, or even my needs, but to take my life and to hold it until it takes on Thy character, Thy mind, Thy purposes. If Thou wilt do this and if Thou wilt help me to do this, then I can be in myself what is truest and surest in me. And this, O God, is all, all, all.”
-Howard Thurman, an excerpt from “The Sustainer of Life” in The Centering Moment, 111.
As we approached the top of the walkway we were met by an astonishing site. In the middle of this fecund rainforest floor, where life seemed to be unfurling upon itself, there a dead tree trunk stood – burnt and jagged and hollow. The trunk’s stark contrast was only further accented by a neighboring plume of bright, vibrant green leaves. At a particular angle and if in a certain mood, one might say that it felt as if the life around this dead trunk was standing in boastful mockery of it. That initial and acute sense of polarity caused an almost derisive response – like a clawing desolation.
When I think back upon this year with my UC Berkeley undergrads in the New College Berkeley spiritual direction groups, I am reminded of the precision and specificity of God’s timing. I was first approached in 2016 about possibly leading a group, which eventually did not come together. I remember feeling a deep sense of disappointment at the time. To be honest, it was a much stronger reaction than I anticipated. Having left a university faculty and staff leadership position in 2013 to move quickly from Southern California to the Bay Area to tend to family, I now realize how sorely I had missed investing in students. Once again I would be reminded that, timing truly is everything.
This past fall, I was thrilled and honored to join the NCB team of spiritual directors. After discovering the make-up of my student group, I can recall feeling a deep and intuitive level of cautious anticipation. Having met with the student director, and given the demographic make-up and relationships of the students themselves, I could acknowledge the high likelihood of there being complicated dynamics at play within the group. Perhaps it was my producer and trauma-care practitioner selves pushing to the forefront to offer me fair warning, but it seemed obvious that the year would bring a certain amount of complexity to it. In hindsight, I believe the Spirit of God was already preparing me for what could only be described as a true work – a work that could not be known or appreciated at the time, but would come to be defined by a keen sense of love, abiding and deep care for these ten students. Having never led an intentional, ongoing spiritual direction group for undergraduate students before, I knew that the year would bring about new stretching experiences. And now, as I sit in reflection upon this journey, I could not be more grateful even if, at times, the stretching felt bruising, even painful. Here are just a few truths and gratitudes that characterize this year’s pilgrimage of grace:
- Students are so busy and easily distracted. In the best way possible, coordinating everyone can feel akin to herding puppies.
- Contemplation and the posture of spiritual direction is antithetical to how students function – especially undergrads.
- It’s easier to talk than it is to listen and for some, not being able to be heard feels like a form of silencing.
- You still want to be liked – even as the leader of the group.
- True preparation in spiritual direction is the willingness to simply show up and to remain present, malleable and grace-giving.
- The minute you feel you’ve figured out a rhythm within the group, something shifts.
- Being a leader in spiritual direction is really a work of witness and a work of holding the space for God to do God’s work.
- Where you start is not indicative of where/how you will finish.
- The Holy Spirit will always surprise you.
Though they feel important to name, I suppose these are more “procedural” lessons. On a deeper note, and in light of Pentecost, the big soulful discovery was in recognizing that our students today (and I include millennials in this group) are truly struggling to hold onto the belief that God is indeed still in control and still for them and for their communities. Many could articulate or rehearse the theology of God’s power, but living into and trusting God’s power was a whole other ball game. I think this to be more universally true than we’d perhaps like to admit even as more mature believers. As they continue to grow in awareness of who they are as people and what they believe outside of the framework of their family’s creed of faith, it seems poignant and meaningful that they continue to even show up despite significant doubt and spiritual malaise. The sheer magnitude and frequency of desolation and cultural resistance our students encounter because they follow Jesus makes it difficult to hold onto the hope and belief of His resurrection power. It feels easier to linger at the tomb when death, destruction, disappointment, and despair surround us. Of course this is only further accented in their daily lives where school work, expectations, relationships and calling all coalesce to feel like one huge onslaught of overwhelming responsibility. Grasping towards consolation begins to feel like more work. Do you remember what it was like feeling this overwhelmed at 19-20 years old (the average age of my students)? It seems important to recall that the human brain continues to develop until about 25. The struggle for these students is multi-fold: It is biological and physiological as much as it is spiritual. So yes, it makes sense that, oftentimes, it’s easier to identify with the deadness of a tree when it stands in contrast to all that is able to thrive and live around it. It feels like injustice. It feels like being forgotten.
By the second semester, the average size of my group dwindles from 8-9 students in the first semester to about 3-4 students at each gathering. At first, I was not concerned about it. By the second or third gathering, I began to feel my own desolation rise around it. Perhaps I’m not providing a safe enough or even accessible enough space. I continued to pray about it. I continued to open my hands before God. I remember entering into the spring semester feeling quite prayed-up about the group. I had such a deep sense of love begin to genuinely grow for each of them. The students remained connected and honest in their communication with me – many of them are just too busy with school work, jobs, projects, senior theses, and their personal lives – if something has to go, it will probably be spiritual direction. What I noticed, however, is how those that continue to show up begin to exhibit a change. I started to curate the experience around this growing acknowledgement that it’s easier to sit in the shaded side. I brought icons, poetry, blessings, artwork that are essentially lamenting. When there was an unexpected expression of candid honesty around some difficult relational dynamics within the group we sat with it, we did more praying, we waited together. I probably talked a bit too much for what is generally accepted in spiritual direction, but I try not to overly judge myself in the experience as well and keep adjusting to what feels like the Spirit’s leading.
By the second to last meeting in the beginning of April I sensed that some spiritual shifting towards consolation had begun for several students. I took a chance and brought in a retreat-like experience in the hopes that it may deepen their growing interest in intimacy with God. I set out several stations with different items the students can choose. There was an art and writing station, a sitting-with-the-Jesus-chair station, an icon station and a Lectio Divina station with several reading options. I decided to sit back and act as DJ in this moment choosing different sacred and instrumental music to play softly in the background to help hold the space. The students were allowed to choose their experience(s). They could lean into one or two stations within the 30 minutes or they can switch every 10 minutes. Somehow, in having a choice in the experience and being allowed to soak-in by themselves and with God, I was struck by the vulnerability that began to blossom. I noticed one student in particular who’s attended nearly every group session we’ve had throughout the year. They were in tears. It was not a typical posture for them. As we came together for the last 90 minutes of our time together, I was struck by how open everyone was and how full and wondrous their encounters with God have been. Suddenly, rather than simply seeing the one dead tree, they were able to see its presence in relation to the rest of the ecosystem and the strange and unique interaction it has with the life around it. Somehow, it still has its place, but its place has begun to feel hopeful and life-giving.
We began the year with a lectio on Howard Thurman’s “The Sustainer of Life.” We ended the year with a promise that God gives to Jeremiah out of the deep lament over the loss of Jerusalem, “For I will satisfy the weary soul, and every languishing soul I will replenish” (Jeremiah 31:25, NLT). This verse came to me during the Lenten season not long before I would suddenly lose a pregnancy. The verse became an important part of our experience during our March session which marked the turning point for several students. I could not have anticipated how meaningful that scripture would become in the coming weeks - for the students and for me.
Last week, as my husband and I took a spiritual retreat to find closure in our own season of personal lament, we came across the dead tree in a rainforest in Vancouver, B.C. I was struck by its beauty and the way it so tenderly held life even if it could no longer thrive itself within the forest floor. It felt like a metaphor of the faithful pilgrimage – this strange yet mysterious harmony of death and life. My prayer for the students has become a prayer for us all: May we continue to hold onto the power of the resurrection especially through our lament; may we continue to lean into the mysterious burning in our hearts; and, may the Spirit of the Lord fall upon us offering new breath, new life, and new hope.
c. 2018 Naisa Wong, Spiritual Director, New College Berkeley