Email message sent over the weekend to my spiritual director. Archived here as sort of a journal in the spirit of Flannery O’Connor, who famously said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

Hi Sister —

A quick note to confirm our rescheduled meeting for 2:30 p.m. Monday at the motherhouse. I’m over my cold now and ready to pick up where we left off …

Well, *sort of* ready. Life has been hectic lately, with my cold and Debi’s ongoing health issues, and I haven’t been very proactive about spiritual direction — or much of anything else, for that matter! However, I feel like we’ve been rising to meet the challenges. And, especially since I went to “Doc-in-the-Box” (the walk-in clinic on MacArthur) and got my symptoms on the run, I’m reminded each new day is a blessing in itself. 

So I guess I’ve been working on spiritual formation after all, it’s just been the foxhole version of spirituality.

Here’s a piece that may or may not fit in the puzzle, and I’d appreciate your reaction to it: I’m sure you knew of John Knoepfle’s passing, since he and Peg were so much a part of St. Agnes parish. They both were good friends and mentors, and their example was important to me 15 and 20 years ago when I was struggling with the idea of reconciling with the church (small “c” of course). And we reconnected after the dulcimer group I play with started having jam sessions at Hickory Glen. John played a very nice, soulful folk harmonica, and he loved playing with us. It was even mentioned in his obituary.

Anyway, John’s death hit me harder than I’d expected, but when we had our regularly scheduled jam session Thursday night, we reminisced some, played “Shenandoah” and some other tunes he loved, a couple of which the choir had sung at St. Agnes for his funeral — but this time without a harmonica in the mix — and closed, as we always do, with “Amazing Grace.” Also worked in practicing Christmas carols for our performance for the residents at Hickory Glen just before the holidays, which we needed to do in any event. It was kind of like a wake, I guess, and cleared the air for me.

Either that night or the night before, after John’s funeral Mass, I came home and noticed a harmonica on the bedside table. It’s been there for months (I don’t pretend to be a good housekeeper), but that night I thought about John and picked it up. 

And I’m playing it again, after a hiatus of several months. …

Anyway, I have no delusions of trying to fill John’s shoes in the jam sessions, but I don’t think it’s an accident I started playing the thing again. And I think it might fit into my spiritual practice (such as it is) if I go about it right. A couple of years ago, I stumbled across a program that teaches COPD patients to play the harmonica. They’re good for breath control, so I bought a couple of instruments on line and started practicing. Let it slide, and now I’ve picked it up again.

So far I’m basically noodling, finding slow, easy tunes to play by ear — like children’s songs and hymns in 4/4 time — and thinking about breathing. Which got me thinking — breathing is part of meditation, at least in Zen practice, and this might fit in somewhere with my spiritual practice (which is practically nonexistent at this point). Any ideas?

Other than that, I’ve been doing more reading than writing. And more writing, mostly about my reading, than any of the spiritual exercises I’ve been learning. 

I think the reading is helpful, though. In addition to the Gospel of John, especially the [first-century] hymn, “In the beginning was the Word …,” in first couple of chapters. And my reading seems like no matter where I start, it has a way of getting back to Luther. Well, Richard Rohr and Luther. Seems like I keep coming back to Fr. Rohr, too. 

I’ve posted several things in the last couple of weeks to my blog “Ordinary Time” at in this vein. Probably the most useful is this:

 — “Was Luther a mystic? It all depends …” — I’ll quote my “nut graf” or thesis:

… Franciscan friar and best-selling author Richard Rohr speaks of a “strain of mysticism characterized by an overarching wonder at the mystery of the Incarnation, which is grounded in nature, animals, the poor, the outsider, contemplation, joyfulness, and a cosmic sense of Christ.”

And … Rohr, director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, spoke to the Rocky Mountain ELCA Synod in May and Lutheran Bishop James Gonia said Rohr’s wisdom “is transforming our understanding of the Christian life by moving us out of our heads into our hearts, into our whole beings, for the life of the world.”

Time for a reset, I’m thinking. Maybe mysticism isn’t so un-Lutheran after all. After all, the biographies suggest Luther was influenced by some of the German mystics of his day. And maybe mysticism isn’t what I thought it was.    

Another was related to spiritual practice. I’ve kind of got it on the back burner now (probably because it isn’t as much fun as honking on the harmonica), but it might suggest something useful about practice:

 —  “Luther and the cypress tree in the courtyard: How picking a new URL led me to seek refuge in a Zen koan” — it keys off of something Thomas Merton said about how comparing Zen and Christianity is like comparing math to tennis, but they complement each other and the Buddhists have tools for spiritual practice that dovetail nicely. I wrote:

One of those tools is a morning meditation called the Lovingkindness Meditation or simply, as [Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich] Nhat Hanh calls it, the Love Meditation. “We begin practicing this love meditation focusing on ourselves (‘I’),” he says. “Until we are able to love and take care of ourselves, we cannot be of much help to others.” To begin the meditation, repeat:

<blockquote>May I be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.
May I be safe and free from injury.
May I be free from anger, fear, and anxiety. …</blockquote>

There’s more, including this — “May I learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in myself” — and this — “May I be free from attachment and aversion, but not be indifferent.” Again, I may be comparing math and tennis, but is the basic psychology here all that much different from the morning prayer in Luther’s Small Catechism? Luther tells us to start the day like this:

I give thanks to you, heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ your dear Son, that you have protected me through the night from all harm and danger. I ask that you would also protect me today from sin and all evil, so that my life and actions may please you. Into your hands I commend myself: my body, my soul, and all that is mine. Let your holy angel be with me, so that the wicked foe may have no power over me. Amen.

Two very different world views here. Math and tennis. But a similar attitude of starting out the day new and fresh, free from sin in the Christian tradition and free from the pitfalls of attachment and indifference in the Buddhist. The next step, I believe, draws the two even closer together. Nhat Hanh says after “we are able to love and take care of ourselves,” we can help others. So we repeat the meditation for them, “May [they] be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.” He continues:

Next, we can practice towards others (substituting “he,” “she” or “they”), first with someone we love, next with someone we like, then with someone neutral to us, and finally towards someone who has made us suffer. [Parentheses in the original.]

Tennis and math. Here and now. Bodhidharma, Jesus, Zhaozhou and Luther. The cypress tree in the courtyard. Love the Lord thy God, and the second commandment is like unto it. Understanding and compassion for all sentient beings without discrimination. A trail of breadcrumbs leading into the forest.

So unless I hear different from you, I’ll meet you at 2:30 Monday afternoon.

— Pete

Peter Ellertsen, 2125 S Lincoln Ave, Springfield IL 62704. For random notes on dulcimers, history, hymnody, cultural studies and all kinds of music, visit my research blog “Hogfiddle” at

One thought on “Spiritual direction — November

  1. Can’t remember if I told you about “Pray as You Go” a daily podcast from the British Jesuits. It is usually about 12 minutes long, has nice quiet music, the Gospel or reading for the day and a few thoughts. I find it a simple daily practice. Also great is an App by two Notre Dame graduates in their 20’s called Hallow. They send out a daily quote and have a great variety of prayers, meditations and talks which allow you to set a 5, 10 or 15 minute length. Great for restless times when I want to pray but not for too long. Also Plough, from the Bruderhof’s in upstate New York send out a Daily Dig with a challenging quote. That is free. All of these take the burden off the necessity of following a “spiritual practice” when the whole idea sounds too daunting.


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