Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Church New Ulm, Minn., 2012

Editor’s (admin’s) note: Lightly edited copy of email I wrote in advance of this month’s appointment with my spiritual director, giving her a heads-up on what I’d been journaling on since our last meeting and, more to the point, helping me focus over time by archiving the emails with my journals on this blog.

Hi Sr. __________ —

A note to confirm our conversation — I’ve got it down for 1 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 16, over Zoom — and to confess I haven’t done much specifically with spiritual formation in the last month. I’ve been busy with other things — especially the adult faith formation discussion group on the 10 Commandments that Debi and I are co-facilitating for our parish church. 

But I have pretty much the same agenda as before — incorporating music into my spiritual practice, and what I described to you last month as “the whole issue of being more aware of the presence of God around me.” (That’s one reason for these emails: They help me keep on track.) The music part of it I can summarize quickly — I’m still playing the dulcimer at night, lately a Lutheran chorale that particularly speaks to me. 

It’s called “Now Rest Beneath Night’s Shadow,” and it’s by Paul Gephardt, a German pastor of the 1600s at the time of the Thirty Years’ War. I’ll just quote three verses here that I’ve been playing every night lately. Starting with the first:

Now rest beneath night’s shadow
The woodland, field, and meadow,
The world in slumber lies;
But Thou, my heart, awake thee,
To prayer and song betake thee;
Let praise to thy Creator rise.

… and the fifth:

5. Lord Jesus, who dost love me,
Oh, spread Thy wings above me
And shield me from alarm!
Though evil would assail me,
Thy mercy will not fail me:
I rest in Thy protecting arm.

… and the sixth and final stanza:

6. My loved ones, rest securely,
For God this night will surely
From peril guard your heads.
Sweet slumbers may He send you
And bid His hosts attend you
And through the night watch o’er your beds.

I’m finding that to get the rhythm right, I have to pay attention to the words. And the combination of words and melody is a nice thing to play at night before I go to bed. I’ve been trying to journal about it, but the first draft I’ve got so far is a rambling mess, and I won’t inflict it on you. If you want to hear the chorale, here’s a lovely rendition in English: 

But I will link you to one of my journal entries, since it deals with what I’ve been lately doing to seek the presence of God — and to move my prayer life along a little bit. Not surprisingly, it comes out of the curriculum Debi and I have been working with on the 10 Commandments. I’ll just quote you the part about prayer and link you to the rest.

It’s headlined “How a Zoom class on the 2nd (or 3rd) commandment, Luther’s catechism and a Latin pun suggest a God I can pray to,” and I put it up on the blog Feb. 12. Here’s the link:

https://ordinaryzenlutheran.com/2022/02/12/imago-dei/

… and here’s the pertinent part of what I wrote:

For several months now prayer has been on my to-do list. That sounds odd, doesn’t it? But I came back to the church late in life, and I’ve been stuck when it comes to envisioning a personal relationship with God.

Partly I’m turned off by the “Jesus is my boyfriend” vibes I get from contemporary worship music and elsewhere in the popular culture. Not to mention all the smug, self-congratulatory prayers I heard at public meetings I covered as a newspaper reporter down South. But that stuff, I can work through with a little good will and Christian charity. The other part goes deeper, to my concept of the nature of God, and there I get stuck.

Fr. James Martin SJ, offers this definition: “Prayer is a conscious conversation with God.” (I’m quoting here from a review of his Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone. I like the idea; I’ve ordered the book, and I’ve started reading it.) So, yes, I’d like to deepen my relationship with God. But a conversation? With the creator of the universe? Back in the day I read Paul Tillich, an existentialist theologian who was popular when I was in grad school, and I’m entirely comfortable with his idea of a creator God as the ground of my being. But I don’t really have a concept of a personal God whom I can sit down and chat with.

So that remains very much on my to-do list.

The closest I can come to it for now is to read — and reread — a footnote in William A. Barry’s Spiritual Direction and the Encounter with God. Fr. Barry was one of Martin’s spiritual directors, and the footnote makes sense to me. (Besides, as an old grad student, I have a secret unrequited love for well-crafted footnotes.) This one is a quote from John Macmurray, a Scottish philosopher of the mid-20th century:

The highest, richest and rarest qualities in our experience of human personality, such as creative spontaneity, provide the most adequate basis for our characterization of God. Even these, of course, are inadequate, and we have to use them mythologically. God is beyond the personal, of course, but it is the personal in our experience which points in the direction of God, and provides the most adequate language we possess for references to God.

A lot there to chew on, and I’m not rushing the process. But I think the quote from Macmurray is going to lead me somewhere.

In a little collection of essays on prayer titled In All Seasons for All Reasons, Fr. Martin suggests that some believers “picture Jesus in front of them, say, sitting in a chair,” and “pour out what they want to say.” I can imagine myself doing that, but I’m not quite there yet. I don’t want to rush that process, either.

There’s more, but I’ve given you quite enough to wade through already! And, as always, if you think another tack would be more productive Wednesday, I’m very much open to that.

[Published Feb. 19, 2022]

One thought on “Spiritual direction, February 2022

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