Grace in the Struggle

Today’s post is by Carl McColman

I have a confession to make. I’m a natural-born kicker and a screamer.

“Some people embrace the spiritual life with grace and ease,” my first spiritual director, Lin Ludy, told me one day in the mid-1980s. “Others, however, are dragged into heaven kicking and screaming. You, Carl, are a kicker and a screamer.”

She said it with a twinkle in her eyes, a smile on her face, and love soaked into her words. We both laughed. I had been unloading my monthly build-up of spiritual angst on her, fretting over this theological issue or that social concern or whatever personal matter was weighing heavily on my mind.

Lin wasn’t trying to criticize me or silence me. She simply wanted me to take a step back from the sturm und drang of my interior drama. She was gently reminding me that I could let go of my inner turmoil whenever I wanted.

Thirty years later, I still smile when I recall that playful moment in our director-directee relationship. But my smile is a bit rueful, because, well, three decades on, I’m still kickin’ and screamin’.

I love Winnie the Pooh, and when I read Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh I immediately recognized Pooh as a Taoist master. But we are not all Poohs. I’m afraid I’m more of a cross between Eeyore and Piglet, with a dash of Rabbit thrown in. Part pessimist, part scaredy-cat, and all amped up to a breakneck speed. Kicking and screaming. I’m one of those folks who started meditating mainly because I was so eager to find some inner peace. Of course, what I found at first was the monkey mind. But I’ve learned to recognize the luminous glimpses of silent serenity, in between the monkey’s screeches.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali offer such a lovely insight into the gift of silence:

1. And now the teaching on yoga begins.
2. Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence.
3. When the mind has settled, we are
established in our essential nature, which
is unbounded consciousness.
4. Our essential nature is usually overshadowed
by the activity of the mind.

(from the Alistair Shearer translation)

“The activity of the mind” — call it the monkey mind, or the “cocktail party” as Martin Laird does, or simply T.S. Eliot’s “distracted from distraction by distraction.” Kenneth Leech noted that contemplatives “explore the waste of their own being,” which takes place “in the midst of chaos and crisis.” Hmmm, perhaps we are all kickers and screamers, on some level?

But there is grace in the struggle — that’s the “unbounded consciousness” that rests within the very heart of our mental and emotional activity. God’s silence is not foreign to us; it indeed is what we are mostly made of. If you could expand an atom to the size of a cathedral, the component parts of the atom — the protons, electrons, and so forth — would be like butterflies dancing in the vast open space of the cathedral’s nave. If a single atom is mostly empty — mostly openness and silence — then that’s true of our bodies, our hearts, our minds and spirits as a whole. We are creatures of stardust and silence, and contemplative practice is simply a way of remembering who we truly are.

Thirty years on, I keep kicking and screaming. The issues may be different, but the angst is the same. Maybe the one thing that has changed is that I no longer need Lin, rest her soul, to point it out to me; I can notice it myself. And when I do notice it, I try to smile, and recall Pooh and Patanjali, and gently remember to look for the grace in the midst of it all. It’s always there, thanks be to God.


CarlMcColman-JS-225x300Carl McColman is an interfaith-friendly contemplative Christian writer, speaker, retreat leader and spiritual companion. Formed by the teachings of the saints and mystics and ancient practices like lectio divina and silent prayer, his message is simple and timeless: God calls each of us to a joyful, creative life of love and service, and the wisdom of our spiritual heritage shows us the way. His books include Answering the Contemplative Call and The Big Book of Christian Mysticism. His writing appears in The Huffington PostPatheos, and Contemplative Journal, as well as on his own blog/website, www.silence.today.

Integral Joy

Today’s post is by Carl McColman

A phrase from the Lakota language, mitakuye oyasin, means “all are related” or “all my relations.” It’s a way of seeing: of recognizing that we exist not as some sort of isolated cells over and against our environment or are communities, but that our existence, our very lives, are indeed integrally bound up together with all other beings, with the world and the cosmos. We are all related. We are all connected.

This in turn reminds me of Julian of Norwich, who wrote “the fullness of joy is to behold God in all.” So not only are we connect to all, but that if we learn how to see, we can behold God in all to which we are connected. In scripture we read, “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (Psalm 139:8).

God is everywhere: in the celestial regions as well as the underworld, and of course everywhere in between. Perhaps this is why we can say with confidence, mitakuye oyasin, all are related: because everything is knit together in the silent presence of God.

What all this means, of course, is that silent prayer or contemplative practice cannot be divorced from the rest of life. Spirituality is not something apart from everything else we do; it is knit into the fabric of our undivided lives, the same way that breathing is. In silence we pay attention to our breath, and then for the rest of the day we continue to breath, whether we attend to it or not.

In contemplation we rest in God’s presence, whether we feel or consciously experience it or not. Likewise, throughout the day we rest in the Divine, regardless of how attentive we may be to this fact. But the invitation is more than just cognitively acknowledging the Divine, but rather to enter into the fullness of joy. Learning to see God means learning to find joy.

Several times the Bible notes that “God is love” — but I think we can make the case that “God is joy” also. St. Paul calls his readers to “rejoice always” (I Thessalonians 5:16), and when he lists the fruit of the Spirit, joy is second only to love (Galatians 5:22). The Greek word here is χαρά, “chara,” meaning joy or delight — it’s related to χάρις, “charis,” the word for grace or gift. As it is God’s nature to love, so it is God’s nature to give, and to exude joy and delight. To gaze into God is to gaze into joy.

Now, in truth, much of life may seem anything but joyful. We suffer, we hurt one another, we encounter disease or abuse and death. Where’s the joy in all that?

I don’t believe God calls us to rejoice in suffering itself, but rather to rejoice in God even in the midst of suffering. That may not “feel” any different — I think joy is something deeper than the mere emotion of gladness, as lovely as that may be. Joy is a calibration of our inner compass. It gives us strength and faith to persevere in times of suffering and to bring light into the dark places of our lives.

Finding joy in beholding God in all means not that life suddenly becomes uniformly pleasant, but that we become conduits of God’s grace in any and every situation we find ourselves. It means trusting that God is present, here and now, regardless of what we may feel or think. Trusting that Divine presence, and learning to see it even in the most painful places, means not that we will never suffer again, but that suffering will never overcome us. For we will always bring the hope of joy with us, wherever we go.

Mitakuye oyasin. We are all related, and we are one in God. When I sit in silence, I pray to the one who brings joy to everyone and every situation. In following my breath, gently and silently, I train myself to more faithfully discern that joyful presence in every time and place.

Of course, I still make mistakes and I still fall down. But the grace is always there, waiting to be seen, to be beheld, to be shared. With every breath we have a new opportunity to share the joy.


CarlMcColman-JS-225x300Carl McColman is an interfaith-friendly contemplative Christian writer, speaker, retreat leader and spiritual companion. Formed by the teachings of the saints and mystics and ancient practices like lectio divina and silent prayer, his message is simple and timeless: God calls each of us to a joyful, creative life of love and service, and the wisdom of our spiritual heritage shows us the way. His books include Answering the Contemplative Call and The Big Book of Christian Mysticism. His writing appears in The Huffington Post, Patheos, and Contemplative Journal, as well as on his own blog/website, www.silence.today.