by Carolyn Kwiatkowski
I could not have foreseen the impact that taking this course (Living from the Heart or LFMH) would have when I first signed up. Even though I’d been skirting around the edges of contemplative practices for about ten years prior, it was just a foretaste of what I’ve since learned contemplative living actually means. It’s not just something you do—it’s someone you are. There are so many themes that are meaningful and I continue to reflect on how to include them in my life. Things like awareness, listening, keeping Sabbath differently, developing a Rule of Life, discernment—they all resonate and I find them cycling in and out of my consciousness at various times, triggered by however God brings them to me.
One aspect of contemplative living that will assist greatly in incorporating these various facets will be from intentional times of silence and solitude. These two components together are crucial in hearing God to discern and gain insight. For much of my life, I’ve relied a great deal on my intuition but it’s been more reactive and not usually from a sense of being in tune with God. Journal writing is one of those times when I often hear from God, and I’m so appreciative of what He brings to me in those moments as I write, listen, and often weep.
My focus in this summarizing reflection, however, will be on prayer, spiritual transformation, and compassion. Since my late teens, prayer has been a fairly important factor in my life, both corporately and personally. I’ve been involved in many prayer ministries, some of which continue through to today, but I’ve also discovered a richness when I’ve participated in silent prayer retreats, even though it’s often unsettling at the same time. I’m realizing that this longing I’ve experienced has really been my response to God’s call. This desire has created some tension with people close to me though, which caused me to question what I thought prayer was and why it often felt so weighty. I didn’t know how to verbalize this deep yearning, but, looking back with the perspective I have now, I believe it was “deep calling to deep” as the Psalmist expresses it. The various disciplines I’ve been exposed to have continued to affirm that deep, soul response to God that I need to pay attention to. From making prayer shawls and praying the hours to practicing centering prayer and Ignatius’ examen of consciousness, my prayer life is much broader than it used to be and more satisfying, if I can put it that way. Centering prayer helps me lose, for a time, all the ways that I think I need to be in the world. In a type of prayer where “nothing” appears to be happening, it seems unbelievable that that’s exactly one of the ways that spiritual transformation takes place. I also appreciate what practicing the examen does in, for, and through me. The mix of gratitude with honest reflection in my area of need is a huge help in discerning where God is already at work and where He wants to be more at work in my life.
Dissecting the picture of a trellis during the first LFMH intensive has come to be very meaningful and serves as a reminder of how transformation happens. I’ve grown up in a Christian home, gone to Bible school, taught women’s Bible studies, etc., but I have never understood how spiritual transformation actually happens. Somehow, I thought my spiritual growth was dependent on me. I knew theoretically that it was Jesus, not me, but the reality of that was elusive. The trellis illustration helped me understand that all those things that I was doing, and continue to do, help guide my growth but they weren’t the growth itself. Only God could do that. That has been such a freeing concept for me; it’s hard to put into words. It seems I’ve always been aware of my brokenness, the ways I don’t respond well to life or to people, but I’ve never felt victorious in rising above that brokenness. This course has helped me be kinder to myself, to know God loves me in those broken places yet still affirms me for me and that it is God who will do the transforming work in that brokenness. I don’t think I totally understand that even yet but that’s okay. I can “be still and know that He is God.”
The last theme I want to touch on is compassion. For a variety of reasons, I’ve had an ambivalent response to compassion but it seems to come up for air in my consciousness more often than not. A quote by Henri Nouwen sums it up well: “Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely and broken.” Being compassionate is a bit scary for me. I’m afraid I’ll be asked to invest in people who will suck the life out of me and I won’t know how to handle it. I already feel there’s enough going on in my world that I can’t keep up as it is, so how could God ask me to enlarge my heart even more? Where is that energy supposed to come from? It seems there is some further work for me to explore here, even as I sense God is revealing things as I write this paper.
There’s a beginning part to Nouwen’s quote that actually ties my last two themes together: “Compassion is the fruit of solitude and the basis of all ministry. The purification and transformation that takes place in solitude manifest themselves in compassion” (bold mine).
Through this program—the books, reflections, and interactions with my Soulcare group and spiritual director—I’m so much more aware of the long reach of God throughout my entire life, not just through this course. It humbles me. The verse in Lamentations seems fitting: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.” Through it all, I sense an invitation (much better word than challenge!) to take this “deep calling to deep” more seriously. There is still more and more. My prayer in going forward from here is that my times of solitude will be transformative, that whatever ministry God has for me will be exactly what the times of solitude have prepared me for and that there’s no room for fear.