by Gwen Groff, pastor of Bethany congregation
I have accumulated spiritual disciplines slowly, over decades. They are a source of joy in times of fear and sorrow.
A monthly discipline that brings me deep joy is spiritual direction. When I began working as director of women’s concerns at Mennonite Central Committee 25 years ago, my wise predecessor told me not to try to work with issues of abuse without being in spiritual direction. At seminary, a professor said something similar about pastoral ministry. Any work within systems of power, any public role that might distort your own sense of yourself, any role that makes you ask, “Am I crazy, or is it them?” — don’t try to do it without having someone you trust to talk to. Find someone who has no vested interest, who understands but is outside the system, and who has the eyes to see the divine in daily life.
The essence of the role of a spiritual director is to listen and to ask, in various creative ways, “Where is God in this?”
I believe in the healing power of thinking out loud. I journal regularly because I learn from unfiltered reflection on my experience. But there is something about speaking and being heard that is different from writing in solitude.
I have been sitting in silence for 20 minutes a day for more than two decades, and my restless mind is still noisy. But of all spiritual disciplines, I believe my “bad” centering prayer has made the most practical difference in my life.
The practice of centering prayer involves sitting in silence, using a silent word to return my mind to stillness whenever I notice it has wandered off in pursuit of an interesting thought or compelling feeling. It is that practice of noticing and turning back to the silence that is so valuable. I’m reassured by the fact that the more often I get distracted during a time of attempted stillness, the more exercise that returning-to-quiet muscle gets.
That ability to turn away from a shiny distraction, a compulsive thought, an explosive emotion, is useful in daily life. My daughter says I stopped yelling at her when I started meditating. I know centering prayer makes a practical difference in how attached I am to my fleeting emotions and compelling dramas.
I have a mostly sedentary job—I could do a lot of it at home without getting out of bed. I have to be intentional about moving my body, not only for my physical health but also for my spiritual health.
I try to do some of my pastoral care on the move. Our rural sanctuary has a labyrinth mowed into the field. Next to our sanctuary is a river and beside the river is a dirt road that leads through the woods to surrounding hills. I often meet congregants at the church and ask whether they would like to sit inside or walk outside. Most people choose to walk while talking.
Bodily movement can bring joy even in times of intense sorrow. Recently, when Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life community experienced a violent massacre, our local rabbi invited clergy and friends to come to their synagogue to be together in prayer and solidarity the following Sunday morning. The songs were often in a minor key, and the words lamented the horrific occasion we marked, but by the closing song people were standing and clapping, holding hands and making a human chain around the sanctuary, dancing in the joy that transcended the sorrow. As a middle-aged woman who grew up in a non-dancing Mennonite culture, I am a late comer to this discipline of finding joy in movement.
I am grateful to learn from others and join in the dance.
This article has been excerpted from “Three spiritual disciplines: A source of joy in times of fear and sorrow” on TheMennonite.org. Financial assistance is available for conference pastors seeking spiritual direction. For more information, please talk with your Leadership Minister.