“How do I recognize the mission I’ve been given for my life?” I’ve been asked that question countless times in the years I’ve spent as a monk, a professor, a writer and a psychotherapist.
My best-selling book, Care of the Soul, and my latest, A Religion of One’s Own, both attempt to help people find their purpose and calling.
One thing I believe strongly is that each of us has an inner voice, a tool to help us navigate through life. Yet so often that voice gets lost in the daily din of living. Here are five steps to keep your spiritual hearing sharp.
1. Clear the decks.
Before beginning any journey of discovery, you need a clear space, free of distractions. You need an inner calm and an alert but not too busy mind to be “a feather on the breath of God,” to use Hildegard of Bingen’s lovely words.
Some days in my writing I know nothing will work. I am weighed down by too many responsibilities. The door to what Emily Dickinson called “the heaven” is closed.
I don’t force the door open. I wait. I have found that my most imaginative ideas come to me from 10:00 P.M. to midnight, when the day’s toil is behind me.
The Christian community of Shakers believed that to be open to inspiration, one has to live a clean, well-ordered life, fasting, praying, resting, looking inward.
Certain members of the community were called “instruments” because of their capacity to be inspired. The rest looked to them for the messages they received.
You don’t have to practice the self-denial of a Shaker to find the simplicity that will help you connect to the Spirit. Examine your life and discover where and what you can simplify.
2. Look to nature.
I live in New Hampshire, where the long winters are snowy and cold. That does not stop my dog from wanting to go out twice a day. I walk out on a clear dark night. My dog shoves his snout deep into the snow, apparently catching the scent of a deer.
I look up and see Orion brilliant against the dark blue-black of the sky. My mind can’t hold the vast openness and complexity, and yet, here I am, waiting for my dog to do his business in snow that mirrors the Milky Way.
In moments like this, my daily ritual transcends the mundane. I’m pulled out of myself into wonder at the stars. I am ready to hear and entertain even the most fanciful possibilities.
Make a habit of visiting a special outdoor place. I know an office worker who goes to a spot by the river in her city every day and just sits for a half hour.
I used to do that when I was a professor at the University of Windsor in Canada. I’d sit by the Detroit River and watch the water, especially the passing freighters. I wondered where each ship was going as I watched them pass by, and heard their wakes splash against the banks.
I was absorbed, mesmerized, meditating not just on the water but with it. The flows and patterns of nature helped me gain perspective on my own life.
3. Read. A book can help you not just formulate your vague intimations but also sharpen them.
One example that always inspires me, probably because I have been a Catholic monk, is the Cistercian Thomas Merton. He was an ardent searcher all his life, but especially in his youth, when he had a strong pull toward religion.
One big step in his march toward monasticism was a heavy tome written by the philosopher Étienne Gilson, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy. “What a relief it was for me,” he writes in his autobiography, to discover “that no idea of ours, let alone any image, could adequately represent God.”
The German novelist and poet Hermann Hesse tells of how he happened to find a life-changing book on the seat of a train when he was searching for some answers. A passenger had left it behind, and when Hesse picked it up he found just the right trail to follow.
The book spoke to him. He went on to win the Nobel Prize in literature.
4. Be an artist.
Even when we see the trail, it can be difficult to take the first step. Be creative. I play the piano without any professional skill, but I do it passably well and with the intention of entering a sacred space.
I lift the lid and place my fingers on the keys. The sound brings me into deep meditation just as I might find in a monastery choir stall. Art shows us the invisible in the visible, the sacred in the profane.
You don’t have to be a brilliant photographer to use a camera these days. Now we can all discover the artist in us.
Go into the wilderness with your iPhone. Seek unusual angles, various distances, look for forms rather than things, find images that move you, that awaken your inner voice. You are using the camera lens to help you see through the façade of fact to an inner realm of imagination.
One year I went out at night and photographed mannequins in store windows. In the dark, these figures had an otherworldly quality. A camera can bring out the interiority, depth and abiding spirit in anything. When you’re busy creating, you find yourself much closer to the source of your creativity.
5. Embrace the unusual.
We tend to be materialists in life, even if some among us are strong believers in traditional religion. We seem to fear the autonomy of the imagination. Take seriously what many of your neighbors and friends would dismiss as imaginary and fantastical.
I have found that reading tea leaves (like my Irish grandmother) has fired my intuition. Tea leaves of course can’t tell the future, but I look to the leaves on the sides or bottom of a drained cup and focus on the shapes and images left behind.
I can make leaps of understanding that I could not do through more rational ways.
Jesus said that we are to come to him with the trust and openness of a child. When we are young, listening to our inner voice comes naturally. As adults, we must take steps to open up our imagination and our minds to wonder.
When we do, the light comes on, the darkness lifts and our path unfolds, bringing us closer to who we’re destined to be.
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