EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article appears in our current publication, Join the Journey
During the time I was doing the Ignatian Exercises, an image came to me. God and I are sitting on a beautiful hillside on a warm, sunny day—the kind of day you dream of in February. God is sitting next to me in a lawn chair, legs stretched out, arms resting on the arms of the chair. I’m comfortably ensconced in my chair. There’s no place we need to go, nothing we need to do. It’s enough to sit here enjoying ourselves. I don’t have to prove anything, earn anything, justify anything, explain anything. I felt a molecular change come over me as I felt this image move through me—that God loves me right now, in each and every moment, knowing me inside and out, accepting me with joyful love.
I only came to that image when I understood that I could take anything to God. Anything. My anger, frustration, complaining and whining, judgments, blame and finger-pointing, resistance and stuckness, my arrogance and bullheadedness. All of it. I didn’t have to clean myself up and put on my prettiest ruffly dress to get an audience. This image is one of grace, and blasts away my beliefs about having to earn God’s love by good behavior.
As I began to take more of my difficult emotions to God, I realized how powerful it was for me to truly listen to myself and acknowledge the truth of my own experience. Some situations and feelings that had been stuck began to ease. I gained more clarity, more resources for ways to work with my swampy and stuck places. I gained more practice in letting go. Those of us in spiritual direction—giving or receiving—know the power and importance of listening. But it hadn’t occurred to me to collaborate with God in giving that kind of listening to myself.
When I go more deeply into the dark places, I can bring understanding, compassion, and even appreciation. Many times those feelings of resistance or stubbornness are resourceful aspects of myself that were trying to solve a problem or take care of myself in difficult times. Now, maybe I can see how a particular tool doesn’t work as well as I thought—or at all, but expressing gratitude for my own creativity and resourcefulness helps me to let go and move on. Sometimes I feel that it’s far more powerful to transform or tame a dragon than it is to destroy it.
Reflecting with God on these hard places makes it easier for me to let go, because curiosity and understanding help to diminish the grip of the darkness. And I came to realize that, sometimes, whatever I let go of leaves a kind of vacuum or empty space, like an empty shelf or freshly dug bed of dirt in the spring. Sometimes I’m able to breathe into that empty space and just feel the freedom of not being pole-axed by anger or judgment. Sometimes, though, I find it useful to ask, “What do I want instead? How do I want that space to be filled?” I think about feelings or qualities that I’d like to invoke that would fill the spaciousness, maybe with laughter or healing. I think of these qualities or feelings as aspects of God or human expression of the Divine.
I started making a list of these qualities: presence, whimsy, compassion, rhythm, freedom, honesty, wisdom. I compiled quite a list and continue to add to it as I find new words. I use this list in prayer each day to reflect on how I want to be in the world, what form my expression, work, and play might take. On a day I’m cleaning off my desk, I might reflect on the quality of release. On a day when our family is spending time together, I might consider whimsy, generosity, and laughter. I like to journal about what the word means to me, what resistance or negative feelings the word brings up. I find that some words, like simplicity, have both a light and a dark side. There’s the aspect of simplicity that feels clarifying, and the aspect that feels tight. On some days, qualities like humor or patience seem rather far-fetched. Some words, like surrender and obedience, are difficult for me. And it’s not unusual for the nuance and connotation of any word to change from day to day, depending on my mood and perspective.
The practice, though, is to begin to choose the quality of my day, to listen for my desire, to ask God’s collaboration in creating a day where I feel awake and conscious and a creative participant in my response to the circumstances I encounter.
The step that is crucial is where God and I spend time reflecting on what is true for me in the present moment. I can’t skip over or ignore feeling tired or upset or frustrated. The creation of something new depends on knowing where I start. It’s easier to let go of the stubborn bits if I acknowledge them and honor them for the information they bring. It’s much easier to climb out of the swamp if I bring kindness, compassion, and insight to my reflections. As Mary Oliver wrote:
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.”
Merry Obrecht Sawdey is in the Spiritual Direction Formation Program at Sacred Ground. She is also a Kindermusik educator, writer, book artist, Godly Play teacher, and general enthusiast. She lives with her son, husband, two dogs, and two cats in Cannon Falls where, among other things, they foster dogs for Pet Haven of Minnesota.