By Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller - OSV Newsweekly, 5/6/2012
Spring cleaning clears our homes of things that we no longer need and that, in many cases, are getting in our way. They take up space where better things can be, or nothing needs to be at all, because clarity often comes where there’s space. Spring cleaning also gives us an opportunity to dust off, shine and take better care of what is dear.
And so it is with spiritual spring cleaning — out with unnecessary things that are cluttering our lives and standing in the way of order, and a new shine on the things that are staying.
Three authors give their take on how to do it by seeing more clearly those things that can bring light, brightness and a sense of order to our spiritual lives. And the maybe not-so-surprising thing is that how ordinary these ways and these treasures are.
The here and now
Nancy Jo Sullivan submitted a manuscript to a publisher that highlighted her journey through the grief of losing her daughter three years before.
He liked her writing, but he had a better idea.
“Instead of writing about every parent’s worst nightmare, he suggested that I write a collection of short stories about the transitions that women make when they move into the second half of life,” she said.
Hers were divorce, empty nest, changing relationships with adult children and raising a daughter with Down syndrome and grieving her death.
“That got me to thinking about how my image of God had changed, how I was a much stronger, wiser, self-actualized woman,” she told Our Sunday Visitor. “I started looking at the stories I had written so far and saw that God’s mercy had been poured on me through all the messes. God hadn’t called to me in mighty lightning bolt moments, but in the everyday encounters I have been having with my family, friends and coworkers.”
Sullivan, who lives in St. Paul, Minn., is an inspirational writer and speaker whose work has appeared in Reader’s Digest and Guideposts, and has also been published by Liguori Press and Random House. “Small Mercies: Glimpses of God in Everyday Life” (Loyola Press: $12.95), which was released last month, is a collection of touching and sometimes humorous chapters written to inspire women to welcome, not dread, the second half of life. Yet it is filled with insight for anyone facing inevitable changes.
It’s about being inspired by unlikely teachers, like one older woman holding up a checkout line who offered to pay for an angry and impatient man’s one item. Or her daughter Sarah, who made Sullivan slow down and smell the dandelions, and who loved fairy tales and wrote “I have a perfect life” and spelled perfect wrong. And who at the end of her life stuttered, “You been … a … a … good mom.”
It’s about accepting help — the friends who came in her rough times and never passed judgment. It’s about taking risks even in the small stuff like when her daughters persuaded her to replace her long-standing coffee order with a smoothie. Or allowing for “holy interruptions” when, in a sacred and unexpected moment, God might have something to say to you.
Sullivan learned to bypass spiritual stagnation by replacing past regrets with the here and now (“That’s all we have”) and in finding gratitude in small things and God’s mercies. Clearing out the clutter, she found, enables the spirit to grow.
“God calls us to be still and to be silent and to witness what is in store for us,” she said. “We really have to make an intentional effort to notice God’s presence, to recognize where it is working and where divine goodness is calling us to go in faith.”
Finding God in all things
Joe Paprocki thinks that everyone should go on a pilgrimage or a retreat to boost their spiritual lives. No, not necessarily a week away or a trip to Lourdes or Rome.
“We can have a half an hour and do something that invigorates or renews our spirits,” he said. “They are like baby steps that we need to begin with.”
When he was young, he thought that spirituality meant more piety and “doing more churchy things.” Now he finds that finding God in all things — what St. Ignatius talks about — brings on a sense of being childlike, and having an awe for God’s beauty that’s all around us.
Paprocki, who lives near Chicago, has a doctorate in ministry. He teaches, speaks, is a consultant and has written a number of Catholic books. His latest is “7 Keys to Spiritual Wellness” (Loyola Press, $12.95).
The previous books “were mostly catechetical,” he said. “This one is more personal and I think it’s a positive approach. I really focused on what to say ‘yes’ to. We are always hearing what to say ‘no’ to. Saying ‘yes’ comes with maturity, and I really could not have written this book 20 or 25 years ago.”
“7 Keys to Spiritual Wellness” takes the reader through detailed but simple steps to beat the “persistent threat” to our spiritual health — the overfed ego, the flabby soul and the sicknesses of selfishness and materialism.
He draws those remedies from Christian tradition, and calls them a spiritual path that Jesus invites us to walk, not just a code of ethics.
Why are so many missing the invitation?
“Scripture tells us many stories of people who tried to fill the void with something other than God,” Paprocki said. “We do that all the time by shifting our attention away, and this has been exacerbated in the present age. There are so many more opportunities for us to anesthetize ourselves, and I do all these things, too. But there are a lot of opportunities for us that we overlook. We can listen to beautiful music, we can enjoy the theater, we can have a spiritual experience of watching a good movie. I think that the steps we can take [toward spirituality] is merely shifting our vision.”
Paprocki encourages seven keys’ to spiritual wellness: See yourself as you really are, actively seek the good in others, think before acting, hold on loosely to distracting possessions, recognize and set limits in behaviors, seek beauty and unleash your imagination.
Examen and retreats
Jim Manney, who runs IgnatianSpirituality.com and is senior editor at Loyola Press in Chicago, has two suggestions for a spiritual boost. One is the five-step daily Examen, and the other is to make a retreat.
“A retreat is kind of an obvious thing to do, and lots of people go on weekends,” he said. “But if you can’t get away, you can make online retreats.”
His website offers one that’s free and there’s a daily three-minute retreat on Loyolapress.com. Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., has online retreats and the Irish Jesuits have daily prayers at www.sacredspace.ie.
“The Examen reviews your day with an eye toward finding where God has been in your day, and being sensitive to where God is leading you,” Manney said.
It was developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), as a spiritual exercise and an essential prayer. It’s usually practiced at noon and at the end of day.
“He thought that sometimes Jesuits might get too busy to pray in other ways, but they should always pray the Examen,” Manney said.
“Many people who have been influenced by Ignatian spirituality pray it, and I think it’s something that everyone should try. It’s a very practical, simple method of prayer that can be life changing,” he said.
The Examen asks us to become aware of God’s presence, review the day with gratitude, pay attention to emotions, choose one feature of the day and pray from it, and look toward tomorrow.
“You can rely on the Holy Spirit to show you what God wants you to see,” Manney said. “It can make you sensitive to things you don’t notice. I’m often surprised where God shows up in my day. It’s not always an ‘aha’ moment, but more often a subtle moment.”
And what kind of clutter gets in the way of becoming prayerful?
“I think we fail to develop a habit of prayer,” Manney said. “Prayer experience is often unfocused, and it’s a constant struggle with the wandering mind. That’s why I’m a big fan of the Examen. It puts the emphasis on finding God in all things, and it puts the idea of being a contemplative in action. It unites us with God in our work and our activities. It’s a good way to know God.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.
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