Zen and the Art of Spiritual Maintenance

Posted: June 30, 2009 by Kristy Harding in ReEmergent Church
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By Kristy HardingFriendship icon

           Yesterday, my husband and I stumbled into the car at insane o’clock in the morning to drive half-way across the state–something we do on occasion (though usually not so early) when we’re looking for something. Because we live in Boston and rarely drive, going to Portland for Maine sea salt or New Hampshire for yarn is as much about getting out of the city and seeing trees as the thing we’re looking for itself. Yesterday, though, we weren’t just looking for an excuse to go for a drive. We were going for spiritual direction.

Every couple of months, we visit Genesis, a spiritual life center founded by the Sisters of Providence, a Roman Catholic order. There we spend an hour with our directors teasing out the places in our lives where the Spirit is working and finding encouragement to look for God in places that we might not otherwise look. Yesterday, my husband was given a book on eco-spirituality by Thomas Berry, and I was told to stop trying so hard with my overwrought and overcomplicated spiritual disciplines and encouraged to read the works of Buddhist nun Pema Chodron.

“Contemplation,” My director said, “Is a long, loving look at the real. That is all.”

I appreciate her advice, of course, but what I appreciate as much as the guidance is the guide. My director is not the first person to tell me I need a simpler, more contemplative life. I hear this advice from those close to me all the time, but being told to do something isn’t the same as being taught how, and I haven’t wanted to attempt meditation without an experienced guide. I especially wouldn’t have thought to look for the work of Pema Chodron without her advice–which is why I found myself knocking on the door of Genesis.

If I had been in this situation fifty years ago, I might have been on my own. At least, I probably wouldn’t have been able to consult a spiritual director. Spiritual direction as we know it comes to us from the Desert Fathers and the relationship they had with their “spiritual fathers.” The monks looked to their “spiritual fathers” for an extra measure of support to help them in their solitary lives in the desert and make up for the direction they were lacking by not being members of a church community under the authority of a priest and bishop. The desert fathers also provided “words of salvation” to those who traveled from miles around looking for a few words of wisdom, but regular spiritual direction for those outside of the monasteries was exceptionally rare.

Up until fairly recently, it was generally assumed that “ordinary Christians” could get the direction that they needed in their spiritual lives just by living out their lives in Christian community. There is, of course, wisdom in this. Most people always have, and most people still do get all the direction they need this way. Group spiritual direction and other forms of discernment exist as more formal way of recognizing the way that communities watch for the presence of God in their members.

There are times, though, that listening to the collective wisdom of the community isn’t enough. Even those outside of a system where spiritual direction is “built in”sometimes find themselves like the desert monastics, separated from a community of faith or in a community of faith so wracked with turmoil that it has no time for discernment. Others are in discerning communities but find themselves in a personal spiritual desert that leaves them inside and outside the community at the same time. Still others are like me, lead by the Spirit across obscure and difficult terrain and needing a guide, who has traversed that ground before. In situations like these, one might need a specialist, one of the descendants of the ancient spiritual survivalists–and you don’t necessarily need to sneak off in the dead of night like Nicodemus or make a pilgrimage to a monastery to find one anymore.


”What is Christian Spiritual Direction?,” Spiritual Directors International

Thomas Merton, Spiritual Direction and Meditation
(Published in 1960, it still assumes that spiritual direction is mostly only available to monastics, but it is still a good introduction to the history of direction and gives a good sense of how to approach it.)

  1. Matt Horan says:

    Great post, Kristy. The practice of seeking quiet intimacy with God is so lost in out culture of progress and measurable goals and achievement, and I am as guilty as anybody. A friend of mine has bee trying to intriduce the practice of “Centering Prayer” in our congregation–a time to just sit quietly in the presence of God, intentionally removing he thoughts that creep in during our prayers to make us get distracted.

    This is a good follow up to “Jesus Saves.” A life of simplicity and intimacy is far more “Sustainable,” as one commenter put it, then the fast paced debt ridden accompplishment driven life that we tend toward at the moment! MH


  2. Kristy Harding says:

    Thanks, Matt!

    “Centering Prayer” is such a good practice, and what a great opportunity to share that practice with others! That’s not something I’ve been able to do–I don’t know anyone who is interested. I hope it works out for you. 🙂

    Sustainability in the spiritual life. That’s something I almost never hear anyone talk about. There’s an occasional nod at the Sabbath, but even that is never discussed in terms of sustainability.


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