Where is God’s Spirit asking you to risk exploring just a bit more? Where does your personal topography indicate faults and fissures beneath, even in a relatively bucolic personal landscape? Risk going below the surface, even if it is a bit dark down there, remembering the psalmist’s insistence that “even the darkness will not be dark” to God, and “the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Psalm 139:12, NIV Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™).
If you are writing together with others, you also might find yourself walking further into the underground passage because when fear of the unknown threatens to halt our explorations, friends remind us that, as in any underground cavern, gold is often best mined in the dark places. Good spiritual companions wear their own searchlights on their helmets as they walk below to help us see what is underneath all of our living. And more light is more seeing. Friends can also carry into the cavern an essential mining tool that we often forget—the utter certainty that there is gold to be mined in every person’s life—the gold of God’s presence, the gift of love.
All good writing teachers will encourage you to begin with what you know. But when we take the step of going deeper, we might begin telling and writing what we know and then see we really write to find out what we know about our own life and experience. Below the surface of a daily record lies a way into what we have not yet understood, but we can now begin to see, hear, or understand. Such self-awareness is not self-indulgence; it is the beginning of wisdom.
My friend Mandy is a visual artist who often finds it hard to go to the empty white canvas and begin painting when the laundry is still undone. And sometimes it is hard for her to return to a painting begun but set aside when urgent matters of family and community and church raise their siren call. After all, her studio does not hold the same urgency as the tasks that need completing and the five o’clock pick-up from swim team practice. But she also resists going to the studio because the canvas stretched across its wooden frame is her entrance to both the terror and the wonders below the surface in her own life. One day, feeling a sense of hopelessness that bordered on despair, Mandy walked into her studio. Then she took all the “to do” lists in her life (and they were many) and made a visual collage out of those lists on the empty canvas. At first all she felt was her own lack of accomplishment in both completing the items on the lists and her own frustrated desire to paint. All that stuff on the surface of her life was just piled on top of other stuff—confusing and confounding her life. But then she stood back in the way that artists do and saw what she had missed all along. Below the surface of all of the lists was a life, her life—full of people and purpose, mystery and meaning, chaos and connections, emptiness and abundance. And what she felt was gratefulness—a response that surprised her and brought her to her knees.
My own writing can also surprise me in the same way, giving moments of clarity and insight even to situations that make me frustrated and angry. This insight revealed not so much a solution to my own difficult situation as a deeper longing for hope and a desire for blessing.
but . . .
I came into the meeting in the early afternoon,
longing for a yet . . .
reaching for a perhaps . . .
straining to discern a maybe . . .
nevertheless . . .
the ellipsis eluded extension.
Elliptical dots only periods.
Repeated ad infinitum.
still . . .
demanding . . .
show me your backside, Yahweh . . .
the but . . .
hope against hope . . .
blessing against blessing . . .
Choose just one of the suggested topics for journaling and allow yourself to go beneath the surface of the events and reactions. Dare yourself to explore into your fears and uncertainties, in unfamiliar geography or dark places. Here are some suggested relationships to examine with greater depth.
. . . my family and/or family of origin
. . . my vocation or work
. . . my faith community
. . . my friends
. . . my enemies or those with whom I struggle
. . . my marriage
. . . my future
. . . my past
. . . my schedule
. . . my body/mind/spirit
. . . my world and my environment
. . . my ????
Exercise 1: Free Write.
Begin with a free write—writing continuously and without any editing for at least ten minutes. When you want to stop, pause and try to write a bit more. What remains unsaid?
Discernment begins with a growing awareness of the truth. Free writing (sometimes called flow writing) can allow more profound, surprising, or even uncomfortable truth to rise to the surface.
Exercise 2: Mapping.
There are many different ways to map an area in your life visually. You might make a family tree, either a literal one or a tree that shows connections among family, friends, or church family. You might draw a church with people (including you) sitting or standing in their usual spots. There are political maps that list authority structures and relationships of responsibility and help us to see who is in charge—or not. Drawing and naming steppingstones is a helpful way to recall the past or build a pathway into the future. Or put the relationship at the center of a blank page, and draw lines radiating out and connecting areas. A wheel is a good map of a multisided area with spokes connecting the inner with the other. A literal map can serve to name the “country” where you live and its roads and detours, the topographical details in your personal geography.
When you visualize an area in your life through a map or a picture or a diagram, it is possible to “see” interrelationships between individuals or communities or even the past, the present, and a possible future. Understanding this larger context is essential for wise discernment.
Exercise 3: Lists.
As you reflect on the area you have chosen, ask yourself what time it is right now. You might even draw a clock with hands to help you see the time in relationship to the topic. And then try to list answers to these three phrases:
It is too late to . . .
It is too soon to . . .
It is time to . . .
As awareness moves toward understanding, these lists help begin the process of distinguishing where you are in relationship to this area of discernment.
Exercise 4: Changes.Exercises 3 and 4 are adapted from Virginia Hearn, Just as I Am: Journal-Keeping for Spiritual Growth (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1994) 54.
As you explore this relationship, write at the top of a blank sheet of paper, What I no longer believe to be true, and respond as truthfully as you are able. Then turn the page over and write at the top of the page, What I now know to be true, and respond as truthfully as you are able.
False or outmoded beliefs can foster illusions and make truth more difficult to discern. Holding on to these misunderstandings can foster illusions about what is possible—or not. Letting them go can open up potential, possibility, and hope.
Exercise 5: Invitations.
Sometimes, as we reflect deeply, we realize there are unsent letters to be written. Or we realize an invitation to move in a new direction, make amends, get some outside help, or find a place to stand with someone or something. What is God’s invitation to you in this area, with these people, or in this place?
If true discernment begins with a new awareness and a clearer understanding, it always ends with a personal willingness to act by accepting God’s invitation and the Spirit’s leading in our lives.
Helen Harmelink Cepero is a spiritual director and the director of spiritual formation at North Park Theological Seminary. She also leads workshops and retreats in prayer practices and journaling. An ordained Covenant minister, Helen has served Covenant churches in Chicago and Berkeley, CA. Helen and her husband, Max Lopez-Cepero (also a Covenant pastor) live on the north side of Chicago and are the parents of three adult children. She is author of Journaling as a Spiritual Practice: Encountering God through Attentive Writing, available from InterVarsity Press.
Thanks are extended to author Timothy Gallagher, The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living(New York: Crossroad, 2005), for his helpful use of discernment language and understanding.