Conversatio Divina

Part 9 of 17

Mining Below the Surface: Discerning the Gift of Presence

Helen Cepero

The maxim of illusory religion runs: “Fear not; trust in God and He will see that none of the things you fear will happen to you”; that of real religion, on the contrary, is ‘Fear not; the things that you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you, but they are nothing to be afraid of.”John MacMurray, The Form of the Personal (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1991) 171, quoted in William Peters, The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius: Exposition and Interpretation (Rome: CIS Publishers, 1980) 61.

When my mother died a year and a half ago, my siblings and I went through her things and found her diaries. She had kept diaries for years and years—those diaries with four lines for each day and three years in one book. All my nieces and nephews, my brother and sisters, looked up their birthdays and noted my mother’s record of their births and their weight and length and gender. “Bob called this morning and said that Sharon gave birth to a baby girl early this morning. She is 7 lb. 8 oz. Mother and daughter doing fine. They named her Suzanne Lea. Gray, cloudy day today again.” My mother never hid those diaries, nor did she need to because while she faithfully recorded events and the weather, she never wrote about her personal reactions or her feelings around events and circumstances that happened. We all tried to read those diaries, but soon lost interest.

The truth was we were not so enthralled by what the weather was like on April 14, 1967, or when she put her tomato plants in the garden. But we wanted to know—or at least know that she knew about—her feelings and reactions to the things that happened within our family. In 1967, I was sixteen years old. I remember that year as a sort of familial earthquake caused by my sister’s quick return home in a personal crisis from her work in India. My mother’s daily distress over my older sister’s situation and the upheaval it brought to our family was certainly at the center of everything each day of that year. But in her diary there is just the faithful notation—“Carol returned from her embassy job in New Delhi, India, today. Went to Mitchell Airport in Milwaukee to pick her up.” And again, the weather report from southeastern Wisconsin.

I believe it was fear that kept my mother always recording only the surface events, as it so often is for me as well. (The old saying is true—the apple does not fall far from the tree.) It is easy, much too easy, really, to judge her for not sharing her “real” feelings—and naming the anger or disappointment as well as the joy and peace that she experienced. Those treasures were there, hidden in the field of who she was, but she couldn’t risk selling it all to find them, so she clung to the familiar, the known and immediately observable events around her.

That is, until much later in her life when my sister-in-law Jill insisted that she write in a Grandmother Remembers Book about her own childhood memories. This time my mother, braver now in her older years, began to share not just events but reactions and feelings. Interestingly, for this writing she rejected the Grandmother Remembers Book with its regimented lines for significant events. Instead she wrote in a simple wire-ringed notebook with narrow lines that matched her circumscribed handwriting. In this notebook she found the grace and freedom to be expansive in her reflections. She began by telling her grandchildren (and all of us) what it was like to go to a one-room schoolhouse and live on Grandpa’s farm. She talked about living with her own grandmother and the birth of her younger brother and especially her much younger sister, who was entrusted into her care. She told about the few years she spent as a secretary to the first certified public accountant in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and how much she loved that work. She admitted how difficult it was to leave this job to care for her mother during her chronic illness. This time she told how her mother’s lingering illness affected her engagement to our dad and her frustration and sadness about not having a “real” wedding in church because of her mother’s illness. She wrote about the financial hardships in the early years of marriage, and how her father would not lend money to our dad to cover the first mortgage on the grocery store and business he was buying. She spoke then of both her disappointment and her determination to prove to her dad that they could make it on their own. She talked about the sacrifices they made as a couple and a family to pay off the mortgage on the store in just seven years. She never got to write much further than those first years of marriage and the birth of my oldest sisters. But this is the notebook we read aloud to each other on the days after her death, listening to her share her life with us.

If you are hoping to use journaling as a spiritual practice leading you into an authentic engagement with God, you (and I) will need to choose to go deeper than a diary of events. This is not automatic for any of us; it is a choice. And we will not be able to make this deeper journey into our writing and ourselves without facing the specter of our own fears. This is true whether it is fear of failure, fear of success, fear of doubt, or fear of trusting the deeper truth in our lives. And it is about this fear especially that Pat Schneider writes so eloquently in Writing Alone and With Others. “The first and greatest fear that blocks us as writers is fear of the truth we may discover. The world, dressed in our habitual interpretations, is familiar to us. It may not be exactly safe, but we know how to walk in it. We can get from sunrise to sunset.” Pat Schneider, Writing Alone and with Others (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) 3.

We don’t take on our fears just because it is the “right” thing or, as my teenage daughter said, because “we oughta, woulda, shoulda, coulda.” We write into our fear because fear is not the enemy of our writing. It is the friend of our writing and is often the place where God most wants to meet us. When we are able to enter into our real fears, we find ourselves on the edge of our true desires as well. Every one of us knows that when someone shares from that space, we are walking on holy ground with him. At the intersection of our deepest fear and greatest desire, God waits for us with the gift of Presence, the hope of grace. Listen to Schneider again: “Where there is fear, there is buried treasure. Something important lies hidden—something that matters—like the angel waiting in the stone that Michelangelo began to carve.” Schneider, 4.

Such courage to face our fears will not come to us because we are brave, but because we know we are loved. The reason the Angel of the Lord told the terrified shepherds, “Do not be afraid,” was simply that the good news of the coming of the Savior, Jesus Christ, meant that love was born in the midst of fear. And when Peter tried to walk out across the water to Jesus and felt himself sinking, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out a hand and caught him; love held Peter in his fear, and he was safe. In fact, the most frequent command in the Bible turns out to be “do not be afraid”; “fear not.” N.T. Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994) 66.

Only by allowing God’s love to meet us at the point of our greatest fear will we move from being people of fear to being people of faith. Still, it is one thing to be in theological agreement with the belief that “perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18). It is quite another to uncover our fears and what lies beneath them, trusting that such a perfect, embracing love will meet us there, because the fear itself can hold us captive until we are willing to let go.


In his essay “Falling Into Life,” Leonard Kriegel describes the terror he felt when, as a young polio survivor, he had to let his crutches go and learn to fall down to the mat. Despite the pleas of his physical therapist, Kriegel was frozen in his fear. But finally, after days and weeks of refusing, “I found myself quite suddenly faced with a necessary fall—a fall into life. . . . My body absorbed the slight shock and I rolled on my back, braced legs swinging like unguided missiles into the free air, crutches dropping away to the sides . . . ‘That’s it!’ my therapist shouted triumphantly. ‘You let go! And there it is!’” Then Kriegel says, “Yes, and you discover not terror but the only self you are going to be allowed to claim anyhow. You fall free, and then you learn that those padded mats hold not courage but the unclaimed self.” Leonard Kriegel, Falling Into Life. (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1991) 13. When we name our fears and let go, we then find not courage, but our unclaimed self and God’s embrace and love for the very things that caused us such terror in the first place.

A daily record begins on the surface where our lives are lived. The everyday events matter (yes, even the weather). The details of our personal map provide a topography highlighting the defining characteristics of the region we call home. The surface relief of hill and valleys, mountains and lakes gives us a clue about where there might be something of value to be mined below the surface, in the earth’s darkness. Our journals can function as a sort of divining rod pointing with surprising, forked words to a reservoir of hidden water or a vein of gold in our lives. Trust yourself to be a bit adventurous, and take time to reflect on your life’s surface.

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. 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.

Doctrine enforced.

Case closed.

Elliptical dots only periods.

Repeated ad infinitum.

still . . .

dissatisfied, unfinished,

demanding . . .

show me your backside, Yahweh . . .

the but . . .

hope against hope . . .

blessing against blessing . . .

01.  Journaling Exercises

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.