Every moment and every event of our lives on earth plants something in our souls. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in our minds and wills. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, because we are not prepared to receive them: for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity and love.
—Thomas Mertor 1
While waiting in line to pay for my wife’s birthday gift, I spied something called “Lavender in a Bag.” Liz loves lavender, so I had to get it. The directions were simple: “Empty the seed pouch into the soil bag, and add water.” Upon seeing Liz’s joy over the brown bag, our two-and-a-half-year-old son, Tyler, was confused. “What is it, a bag of dirt?” He asked.
We thought about it for a minute. “Well, yes and no.”
“What do you mean?” He pressed.
“The seeds and dirt in this bag represent how everything in the whole world works.”
His big green eyes lit up.
“Just like you, these seeds need food and love and care. If we put them in the soil and water them, over time a plant will grow. Eventually the plant will sprout pretty flowers that smell nice.”
“I like flowers,” he said before peppering us with more questions.
When he’d exhausted our knowledge of the natural world, we explained that each day he could peek inside the bag to see what was happening.
For the first week, Tyler checked the bag every day to find only dirt. He was disappointed, but he held out hope that something would happen.
And something did. When he peeked into the bag on the eighth day, he was thrilled to see small sprouts pushing their way through the soil. Each day thereafter, the lavender plants continued to grow, and so did Tyler’s enthusiasm.
Driving to work each morning after checking on the lavender plants with my son, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and clarity. It was good to see my son so excited by nature and to be able to teach him. It was nice to remember my own wonder as a child experiencing things for the first time. And it was important to be reminded that at its base, life is as simple as seeds, soil, nurturing, and growth.
Then one day, Tyler asked, “Where did the seeds go?” Trying to recover from pride in my son’s insightful question and its philosophical magnitude (out of the mouths of babes!), all I could think to say was, “Well, honey, they became what God intended them to be.”
The moment my son asked that question, I felt as if he’d just put into words the essence of my spiritual quest. What seeds has God sown all around me? What has become of them when they hit the soil of my life? Who does God intend for me to be? How might I be more open to transformation?
The concept of God as a gardener is nothing new. The book of Genesis tells us that God “planted a garden in Eden” and strolled through creation “at the time of the evening breeze.” 2Through his parables and teaching, Jesus reveals that God is a sower, the Word is the seed, and we are the different types of soil.3 We’re like the footpath if we hear the Word, but don’t understand it and allow it to be snatched away. We’re like the rocky ground if we receive the Word with initial enthusiasm, but fail to let it take root in our lives, especially in times of trial. We’re like the thorny ground if we hear the Word, but let the cares of the world and the lure of personal gain choke it out. Finally, we’re like the fertile soil if we let the Word take root in our lives and bear fruit.
If we look at this parable from a different vantage point, we can also ask, What if we are the seed? What if God sows us into the world?
Tell Me About God
In my experience, spiritual transformation occurs when I recognize what God the gardener is doing in and through my life. In these “God moments,” I feel at home. I know that I am loved. I am awake, aware, and alive. I have purpose. And I make a difference in the world.
The challenging part, as Marcus Borg illustrates through a story in his book The Heart of Christianity, is staying connected to God. As the story goes, a three-year-old girl is very excited for her parents to bring her new baby brother home from the hospital. When the day finally comes, the little girl asks her parents if she can be alone with her new brother in his room with the door shut. Her parents are a bit uneasy about this request, but they decide it will be okay as long as they have the baby monitor on. After letting their daughter into the baby’s room, the parents close the door and then listen to the receiver of the monitor. They hear their daughter’s footsteps as she approaches the baby’s crib; then they hear her saying to her baby brother, “Tell me about God—I’ve almost forgotten.”4
Paradoxical as it may seem, spiritual transformation is about remembering and staying grounded rather than racing off to be someone else.
Because I forget who God is and who I am in God, I pray to remember.
When I asked a friend of mine who is a gifted spiritual director why prayer can be difficult or dry, he explained, “Because deep down, most people feel like they don’t know how to pray, or that they pray incorrectly.”
One thing I tell them,” he continued, “is to stay with it and to follow Jesus’ example.”
As the Gospel stories reveal, even Jesus had to learn from his parents and community how to worship, study the Torah, and pray. Eventually, through intense prayer, Jesus came to understand who he really was and formed an intimate relationship with God. From this place of prayer-connection, he remained strong and centered even when the demands on him were at their greatest—to heal, to feed, to teach, to forgive, to love, to lead. Time and again, he retreated to a quiet place to pray and listen and be restored so that he could be the best servant possible.
Though they had prayed all their lives as good Jewish believers, the disciples saw something unique in the way Jesus prayed. As Wayne Muller explains, “They felt something different in the way he touched, the way he spoke, the way he listened, and waited, and remained at peace. When they saw him with the poor, with the hungry, with the lame and the lepers, he was so calm, so kind, so unafraid. They wanted to feel what Jesus felt. They wanted to be that clear, that whole. They wanted to feel his peace and wisdom in their own hearts and minds.”5
And so they asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Jesus responded by giving them the “Our Father.” What is most striking about this exchange between the disciples and Jesus is that they did not ask him for a specific prayer—they asked him how to pray. The “Our Father,” then, is not a prayer to be memorized and repeated mindlessly. It’s a guide for how to practice prayer and how to talk with God on an intimate level.
The Miracle of Mindfulness
Over the years I’ve learned a simple truth: God may be the same everywhere, but I am not.
I’m busy and bothered, driven and distracted. From the moment I wake up until I go to sleep, I’m moving, thinking, directing, taking orders, assessing, measuring progress.
The alarm goes off, and wham!—life comes at me full force: my wife and I get the kids up, then get them fed, dressed (!), and off to school. We race to our jobs. We work all day. We look at the weekly game plan, and one or the other of us races to pick up the kids and make dinner. Oh, no! The kids don’t like what we made. We coax and cajole, but often we make another dinner. Then, in the sweet spot of the evening between six and nine, we are all about the kids—playing, reading stories, doing homework, bathing, getting jammies on, brushing teeth, singing nighttime songs, praying, and—finally—sleeping.
Ah, we think, now a moment to ourselves! But exhaustion sets in, and more often than not, it’s all we can do to talk for a few minutes and get ourselves off to bed to rest up for the next day, let alone the weekend.
If I don’t stay vigilant, before I know it, I’m rushing down the river of life holding on for dear life without an oar or map.
But, thankfully, some years ago I learned one of the most important lessons of my life: Mindfulness.
One night when I was in my mid-twenties, I was jolted from my sleep because my heart was racing out of control. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get it to slow down. I’d never felt more exhausted in my life, yet I couldn’t rest. I phoned my mother. “Relax and breathe deeply,” she said, with great concern in her voice, “and get to a doctor as soon as you can.”
After running some tests, the doctor explained, “You’ve had an episode of tachycardia, or extreme acceleration of the heart rate.”
Later, a specialist determined that I have an irregular heartbeat that can be exacerbated by stress. “Your options,” he said, “are to take medicine to regulate your heartbeat, which can make you feel tired and depressed, or you can live with a sensitivity to the irregularities.” I chose to live with the irregularities.
“Oh,” the doctor added, “you should do everything you can to avoid stress.”
At twenty-five I was forced to stop and listen to my heart. It had physically awakened me from a deep sleep, and now it was trying to awaken me from a different kind of sleep—a lack of balance in my life.
Whenever any of us comes to the realization that the life we’re living might be killing us, it’s natural to search for solutions. As it turned out, I found my solution in a used-book store when I came across a tattered copy of The Miracle of Mindfulness. For $2.50, I learned one of the most valuable lessons of my life: how to be present to life moment by moment. Or, as the author instructs, “While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes.”6
Until that point in my life, I’d washed the dishes as I did so many other things: as quickly as I could to get to other, seemingly more important things. Why put any more emphasis on washing the dishes than necessary? “Because,” explains The Miracle of Mindfulness, “that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves.”7
Digging into my own Catholic faith tradition, I discovered a little-known eighteenth-century French Jesuit named Jean-Pierre de Caussade, who developed the concept of “the sacrament of the present moment.” Every moment, he says in his book Abandonment to Divine Providence, is given to us by God and thus bears God’s will for us. For de Caussade, living in a spirit of mindfulness and abandonment allows our lives to become texts: “The Holy Spirit writes no more Gospels except in our hearts. All we do from moment to moment is live this new gospel of the Holy Spirit. We, if we are holy, are the paper; our sufferings and our actions are the ink. The workings of the Holy Spirit are his pen, and with it he writes a living gospel.”8
Treating each moment as a sacrament teaches us how to focus, concentrate, and be present to the miracle of life. Over time, this practice becomes a way of life—a life of awareness that enables us to live fully in each moment.
In his song “Beautiful Boy,” John Lennon summarized this when he wrote, “Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans.” In other words, we often spend so much time planning a life of meaning and happiness that we forget to live the life we have. The side effects of this way of life are stress from worrying whether our plans will work out, and disappointment and sorrow when they don’t. We often then let our past failures hold us back from living more freely and fully.
The second step is to stop and listen to the questions of our hearts, including the ones we typically avoid: Am I too busy? Have I neglected friends and family? Am I happy? Do my goals and ambitions match up with who I am and what I believe is most meaningful in life? If not, what can I do to live more fully?
The third step is to learn how to master and restore our dispersed minds to wholeness so that we can truly live each moment of life. Like many, my greatest challenge is to live an integrated life in which I don’t divide myself and my time into parts—one for my wife, another for my kids, another for my job, and so on. There’s only one outcome to this way of life: frustration at how little of “my time” is actually left over for me. By practicing mindfulness, every moment becomes “my time,” whether I’m completing a task at work, spending time with family and friends, or even washing the dishes. By living this way, I savor the time I am able to spend reading, writing, exercising, and relaxing without coveting them as different from or more enjoyable than the time I spend being present to my family, friends, and coworkers.
The miracle of mindfulness is that we can be fully alive right here, right now, even in the most mundane moments. By paying attention to simple acts such as washing the dishes, getting dressed in the morning, and commuting to work, we become more integrated and peaceful and, therefore, better equipped to handle trials and savor joys. We also become more capable of recognizing and nurturing the seeds of faith that God plants in our lives.
Today, when I am aware of my heartbeat, irregularities and all, I consider life a miracle. My prayer is that with each beat I am better able to know God and live fully in each moment of my life.
Loving as Christ Loves
The simple truth is that I need God. And to be my best self, I need to carve out space and quiet time to pray. I need to go to Church and connect with community. I need to serve others.
The goal of the spiritual life, teaches Dallas Willard, is “through faith and grace, to become like Christ by practicing the types of activities he engaged in, by arranging our whole lives around the activities he himself practiced in order to remain constantly at home in the fellowship of his father.”9
By following Jesus and loving as he loves, we conform our minds, hearts, and souls to his. Inward disciplines such as seeking God, solitude, meditation, prayer, study, and letting go help us form a relationship to the living God who transforms who we are. Outward and communal disciplines such as friendship, spiritual direction, community, celebration, mercy, and service help us form a relationship with God that transforms what we do and how we live.
Together, these inward and outward practices transform us into the people God dreams us to be. By living our faith, we become “good dirt” for the seeds of faith that God plants in our lives.
I’m most transformed, most fully alive, when I’m prayerful and present and grateful. As Melody Beattie says so well:
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.