Conversation Guide

In this feature of the Conversations journal, several articles are selected for use as a small group resource. We provide you with a summary and discussion questions with the hope that each issue of Conversations may morph into a thematic resource for spiritual formation groups. Kim Engelmann Part 15 of 17

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Table of contents

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Living a Little Rule of Life: Pilgrimage to a Motherhouse

Anne McLoughlin

Anne McLoughlin talks about “a little rule” that will grow us in our spiritual life. She uses the four walls of a cloister as a metaphor to guide us through that “little rule.” Just as the cloister creates sacred space and a sense of God’s presence for many people, so following the four principles of the “little rule” can bring God’s presence into our everyday lives. The four pillars represent the four rules of the monastic life: 1) daily prayer, 2) community, 3) work, and 4) rest.

For daily prayer McLoughlin points out the importance of making quiet space for God at the start and end of each day and during the day also to do things that remind us God is present. She emphasizes silence and listening and tells us that “moving into quiet”—simply being with God—is the essence of prayer.

Community is where we must engage with those we are called to love. It is easy to love our neighbors from a distance! It is much more difficult when we are engaged over the long haul. Also, community is a mirror in which we can see the face of Christ in others, and this can help us discern God’s will as we hear the voice of God in others.

Work, McLoughlin points out, is more than just a means to the end of survival. Rather, work can be involvement in the creative work of God when we are attentive to God as we do it. Work is not meant to prove our worth. It can be joyfully done when our worth is found in our being loved by God, and we simply see our work as God’s work.

Finally, rest (my favorite) is essential. God rested. How about us? If we are constantly busy, we don’t stop. Stopping can become uncomfortable. Do we know how to rest? McLoughlin uses the image of children playing to illustrate a carefree, playful attitude toward life, with rest as a necessary ingredient.

All four pillars are needed in order to become aware of the unforced rhythms of grace that are meant to inform us on multiple levels and bring God’s sacred presence into the normalcy of every day.

  1. Which of the four rules above do you practice currently, if any? Which of them might you find easier to do? Which of them might be more difficult for you? Discuss.
  2. Do you think having a “rule” for life is legalistic? Why or why not? How are rules helpful? Hurtful? Do you see these four rules at work in Jesus’ life? If so, where and how?
  3. What one thing can you do this week that might create space inside yourself or in your schedule so that you can become more aware of God’s presence with you, journeying alongside you through the “normal” moments of each day? What about these practices allows the “normal” to become “sacred”?

Life With the Brothers

Mindy Caliguire

No silent getaway here! Mindy Caliguire talks persuasively about receiving gifts from “the brothers”—not in a monastery, but right at home. “The brothers” are her three sons. With a husband and a menagerie as well, she describes her journey of discovering how to find spiritual gifts embedded right where she is. Her first gift, she discovered, was the gift of silence that leads to wisdom. Not that there is a whole lot of silence in her home, yet Mindy makes silence by making an intentional effort to speak less herself. She creates time for her own silent listening to God in the morning before even the dogs are awake. Then she also engages in voluntary silence with her family, being intentionally silent when she would be tempted to speak. Through this discipline she is able to realize how many of her comments are evaluative: praising or critiquing, encouraging or pointing out error. (This, she said quite insightfully, exposed her own inner voice that was constantly evaluating her!)

Through silence she was able to engage more fully with her children in non-evaluative conversations. Other gifts include the gift of service that leads to purpose. Mindy emphasized the importance of doing things with joy—the delight of doing menial tasks when you love someone. She emphasizes “devoting” our work to God, consecrating it as meaningful because it is meaningful—always—when it is done in love. Finally, “in being with” we receive the gift of love. “The brothers” have said many things that remind Mindy of God’s love and care. Being with God directly as she begins her mornings with openness, contrition, and devotion has allowed her to be able to receive the gift of love from those around her through allowing herself to be known, accepted, and reassured.

So how might you receive the gifts of wisdom, purpose, and love available in your monastery at home? Here are Mindy’s questions:

  1. What’s the “place” of silence in my life? What am I receiving from silence?
  2. Where does service (with a “want to” attitude) find expression? What do I receive in those times?
  3. What ways of prayer help me directly to be “with God”? What gifts do I receive in those times?
  4. Who around me offers the gift of “being with,” and what am I receiving from them?

The Living Sacrament

John Van de Laar

Van de Laar offers us four areas of contemporary life where we can specifically change our lenses in order to see what we do and who we are through sacramental lenses. The first is our concept of time. Chronos time is not kairos time. Chronos time is linear time with deadlines and pressure and the proverbial mandate never to “waste time.” We operate as slaves under the chronos imperatives. Scriptures talk about another kind of time. It is kairos time—an appointed time—“a season in which God’s purpose and presence break into our chronological myopia.”

By honoring time as a gift in which kairos time (that manifests eternity) might just decide to show up, time can become for us a “little incarnation”— a sacrament through which the Living Christ can be encountered. The second area is the area of work. Work is not an unavoidable curse. Rather, work has the potential to be actually a divine gift. Discovering the sacred nature of work is the secret to fulfillment and joy. Brother Lawrence enjoyed the most menial tasks because he so enjoyed “doing little things for God.” If we see our work as a participation in the life of God, where we can serve others in the pattern of Christ, we can begin to see Christ incarnate in what we do.

Active Sabbath keeping is the third way to keep on the lenses of a sacramental perspective. John reminds us of God’s humor and playfulness and has examples of how Jesus continually introduced playfulness and mischief into serious interactions. John notes that in the same way, human beings also need the release of play and humor from the brittle dryness of being constantly pressured toward achievement and success.

Finally, although frightening for the author himself, the fourth area is that of intimate community, which is so much a part of the monastic life and so alien to our individualistic Western culture. Jesus believed in relationships and went out of his way to ensure that the twelve had to live and grow together with diverse and unlikely companions—tax collectors, zealots, fishermen, scholars, and women—all lumped together. In being with “unlikely companions,” we learn to see Christ in each other (Mother Teresa called this “his distressing disguise”) and the sacramental nature of relationship.

  1. Are you someone who plays easily? Laughs easily? Do you normally see laughter and play as part of spiritual formation? Why or why not?
  2. Do you have any “unlikely companions” in your life right now—people who are very different from you but with whom you have a deep relationship? If not, what are some paths by which you might find someone who would help you grow because he or she is different?
  3. What are the challenges in your life right now that might keep you from seeing your life as a sacrament? Discuss.

Gifts of Freedom: The Sabbath and Fasting

Lynne M. Baab

In this article fasting and Sabbath keeping are presented as complementary disciplines through which we can experience freedom, abundance, and celebration. Both disciplines create time that is set apart or holy, and both disciplines make space for prayer.

Sabbath keeping allows us to rest and to clear away the clutter of everyday life. In this time we can then give priority to things that are vitally important: reflection, relationships, God’s values, etc. Fasting allows many to “hear” God better and also causes us to pause from the constant consumption rampant in our culture. It is also a way to connect with those who do not have enough to eat, who are living in substandard conditions, and to pray for justice.

Baab does not see these disciplines as joyless or self-righteous. Rather, the Sabbath can be a time of intense joy and celebration as we experience one another and have the time to be in relationship. Fasting opens the door wide for the presence of God to instruct us, and as Augustine said, “fasting puts wings” to our prayers. Baab also emphasizes the need for holy rhythms and states, “The Sabbath and fasting give us an opportunity to catch our breath and experience the freedom of stopping.” When we stop, we realize that God is very capable of running the universe quite competently without our help, and we recognize that we are indeed utterly dependent on Someone else.

Fasting in community can also be tremendously enriching, as modeled by the monastic life. People can agree that they are fasting and praying for a specific thing, and they can provide feedback and support. Fasting can take many forms, including fasting from negative statements, entertainment, or even, with children, giving up a favorite food. Giving up is not the point, however. The point is to create space to receive God’s presence in new ways and to allow these rhythms that draw us closer to God to become embedded in our lifestyle.

  1. Do you have a Sabbath? When was the last time you stopped for a 24-hour period and allowed yourself the luxury of investing in relationships, play, celebration, and contemplation? What might be keeping you from doing this? Discuss.
  2. What associations does the word fasting bring to your mind? Does it seem austere? How does the consumption of food relate to our spiritual health? What are we saying when we abstain for a period of time from physical nurturance?
  3. Do you fast? Why or why not? If not, would you be willing to try? Perhaps as a small group you might consider fasting together in community and agreeing on some joint prayer requests and thanksgivings.
Kim Engelmann serves as Pastor in Caring Ministries at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California. She attended Barnard College, Princeton Seminary and Boston University where she received her Doctor of Ministry degree in Pastoral Care. Kim has three children and is married to Timothy C. Engelmann, a clinical psychologist in private practice. Kim is the author of six books her most recent being Running In Circles: How False Spirituality Can Trap Us In Unhealthy Relationships.
Listen to all parts in this Conversations—Gifts from the Monastery: Silence and Solitude series