Speaking Fluent Spirit

I spent a life-giving two weeks in the desert outside of Tucson studying to become a certified spiritual director at the Hesychia School For Spiritual Direction at the Redemptorist Renewal Center. Spiritual Direction is an ancient practice of companioning another person in their spiritual search and practice. One of the questions we ask a lot in spiritual direction is, “Where is God in all of this?”

Spiritual Direction is a different modality from therapy, which presumes a problem, issue, pathology or struggle to work through. SD is also different from pastoral counseling, which often involves advice-giving and religious guidance. Spiritual Direction is a practice of active listening where the director essentially holds a space for the directee to explore how the spirit is moving in their lives (or maybe not moving — and the directee wants to dedicate time to wonder about that, to question it, or to investigate their beliefs with a supportive person).  A spiritual director will not think you are having a nervous breakdown or psychotic break if you have a mystical experience. They might wind up referring you to a psychiatrist, but they will not react negatively or suspiciously at the outset of a report of hearing voices or seeing a vision or having a prophetic dream or other such phenomena that can trouble the modern soul and society.

For me, the beauty in Spiritual Direction is its foundational claim that God/Spirit/Higher Consciousness is real, that it can be trusted, and that dedicating a portion of our lives to pursuing time with it is a worthy and important endeavor. God is real. There is another dimension to our reality than what we can see and touch, and there’s a lot of meaning to be found there.

There were about twenty-five of us in the program, from all over the country and a wide selection of religious traditions, and we became a tight team. It was the most joyous imaginable thing to spend all day with a group of people who speak fluent Spirit! We were Catholic priests, Protestant pastors and ministers, Jewish chant musicians, lay people, Southern Baptist consultants, Unitarian Universalists, nuns, etc. — and what we shared in common was a belief that creation is holy, that people’s stories are sacred, that those in religious leadership must  protect the community’s spiritual mission from the the capitalist cult of production and busy-ness, and a passionate desire to connect to the divine on a regular basis.

Got a little rainbow for you.

There are lots of different methods of spiritual direction (many directors use the Ignatian Exercises, for example), but  I am being trained in the non-directive, or evocative method.  We started doing practicums in the second week of our intensive, and I found that I loved sitting in silence with my practice directee. I loved the silence so much that I was gently critiqued for leaving the directee feeling a bit vulnerable or emotionally abandoned after they had shared something deep. It’s a hard practice! Where I am tempted to jump in and actively enter into conversation, I know that is not my role. When I settle comfortably into the more contemplative listening mode, I can settle in there too deeply! Earth to Vicki.

But I loved it. The desert filled my well. I hate to be corny with the desert metaphors but having read a lot of the desert mothers and fathers, I was excited about studying spiritual direction in the environment they lived in all those centuries ago when they withdrew from Christian life in the city. I think it’s hilarious that as far back as the 4th century people were already like, “Ech, the Church is so corrupt.”

I mostly expressed my sense of reverence and awe in response to the desert landscape by walking around and saying things like, “Oh my God, what ARE you?” and “Holy s*%$, what even IS this?”

ouch! but yet …flowers

These darlings will literally attack you if you brush up against them. I saw hikers in Joshua Tree National Park yanking the spikes out of their arms and heels with pliers. Blood everywhere. The desert does not mess around!

We stayed in little rooms on a beautiful campus and ate breakfast at 8AM, started sessions at 9:30, worked until noon when we broke for lunch, went back for afternoon session at 1:30, worked until 4:30, and had dinner at 6PM.

We walked to breakfast in this kind of situation…

And did things on our breaks like hike, read or walk the labyrinth:


It’s like something out of Dr. Seuss

Loretta is a wonderful pastor from Wisconsin.

I am not really a group person. I’m a strong extrovert in some ways, but more than one day of structured programs with the same group of people usually chafes at me. The only time I remember loving a residential learning and retreat experience was when I got a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1993 and spent three weeks studying Emerson, Thoreau and the New England Transcendentalists at Oregon State University with Professor David Robinson.

Usually though, I skip a lot of retreat programming and flee into solitude for my mental health. I find group process to be laborious and over-earnest and then I beat up on myself for being cranky and critical.  My own UUMA (the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association — a professional, dues-paying clergy organization and yes, UUs are the only denomination that has such an organization) has been in a horrific meltdown for a couple of years, culminating in a past 12 months of divisive, vicious, grace-denying, Spirit-ignoring, accusatory, vengeful, schismatic actions and reactions. We are ostensibly a covenantal organization but the covenant has been blown to smithereens and I doubt that there will be genuine collegial trust in my lifetime. I feel exceedingly grateful to have well-established friendships and decades of close working relationships and fellowship with many colleagues, so that I retain affection and loyalty even to those with whom I am in disagreement over the latest contretemps. I also serve a congregation that is stable, has strong and healthy lay and professional leadership, and is located in a beautiful location within a vibrant wider multifaith community of mutual care, concern and social justice commitments.  I have a very good and fulfilling life in ministry.

There is a lot of lip service paid to the notion of covenant in my collegial circles, but since there is no recognition of a greater reality, wisdom and grace beyond strong convictions held by various arguing groups,  “covenant” has been utterly degraded. In its current usage among the UUMA it is used in a punitive way; official documents speak of “being brought back into covenant,” as though covenants are strictly between groups of people and not initiated by a God who invites us to be in relationship with God and with each other, to become a people of God.  Covenant is always a vertical proposition, an Us-and-Thou; it is never “us versus them.”  The conversation among UU clergy has flat-lined.

And there is also a thing that New England religious progressives do that stymies deep spiritual conversation: we are really committed to seeming smart, educated and sophisticated.  My being GenX adds a layer of sardonic detachment to the rational smart reasonable people thing. We don’t go around talking about God. Even with my best friends, even with my parishioners, even with my closest colleagues, we keep our mystical experiences and promptings of the Spirit pretty private. We touch on the subject carefully, most often (I find) out of respect for other people’s time and tolerance for such religiosity.  We are careful not to assume that our ways of expressing how God/Spirit/Deeper Reality/Soul presents itself in our experience will be comprehended or accepted by others, and even those with whom we are in spiritual community.

That’s our way. I remember in Div School people would walk around asking each other about their prayer practice and say things in the hall to each other like “How is your walk with Jesus?” and I would flinch.  It felt so forced, and also invasive, and also like bragging. I wanted to yell out, “Be careful you don’t step on Jesus’ robe and trip him on your walk!” just to let the air out of the piety.

But at Hesychia, we sat in a lot of silence and heard from one another about how confusing, demanding, inspiring, frightening, exciting, upsetting, healing and disruptive the movement of the Spirit is in our lives today, right now, and in our pasts. We told stories about how, when we really attended to our souls, we felt guided, loved, led and supported through the most harrowing of times. We shared tears over recollections of suffering, times where we felt empty or abandoned, when our spiritual practices bore no fruit at all.

We listened to each other without interruption and without judgment. We brought insensitivities or mistakes to each other’s attention with care and respect. We trained and disciplined ourselves not to fix, not to project, not to say “I know just how you feel” or “You know, that reminds me of something…” or “there’s a book you should read.” We waited in silence for more truth to emerge. We protected each other’s privacy and honored each other’s feelings. We showed non-verbally that we cared, that we were paying close attention to every word in our practicum sessions, that we were intensely committed to being a companion in the work of going deeper.

I get to go back for the last two weeks at the end of April. I will write more later about some life insights I recorded while in the desert. They’re not radical or new, but they led me to make some interior shifts that have brought me more peace and equilibrium, and who doesn’t need that?

With love.


This was the February full moon. I was walking to the dining hall for dinner when I saw a group of my sister Hesychasts looking out to the mountains and I gasped. Almost missed it. 

Loud Lady At The Monastery

I was up on Montserrat today visiting the beautiful monastery nestled in the crazy mountains of Catalunya about an hour outside of Barcelona.

I girded my loins and took the little cable car/funicular thingy, reasoning that five minutes of potential terror would be easier to endure than twenty minutes  white-knuckling on a train sliding around hairpin turns with a death-drop view. I am known to be a bit dramatic when I get terrified, as in I have actually flattened myself on the floor of vans, trains and airplanes (“Ma’am, PLEASE TAKE YOUR SEAT”) when animal fear overcomes me on dangerous or tubulent trips. Don’t ask me about my drive down coastal highway 101 in Oregon – I was the passenger on the floor hugging the front seat.


Montserrat is truly beautiful and has a museum, a basilica, a hotel, a monastery, a cafeteria and some lodgings for those who live there full time. It is best known as the shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat, or The Black Madonna, the patron saint of Catalonia. Many people had obviously come to the shrine for healing, and I lit a candle and prayed for the many people and animals in my life who need healing and compassion.

While I was there moving in and out of crowds of tourists, I heard an English-speaking woman hollering for her daughter. The girl wasn’t very young and she wasn’t lost — this was just someone being loud. I have noticed that Americans are often the loudest in tourist spaces. They are inevitably talking about how many steps they’ve taken that day, what other sights they’ve “done” ( not seen; done, as in “we did Madrid and then we did the Dali museum in Figueros), how irritated they are by the spotty wi-fi connection, or how much things cost. It is always shocking to me when I am in an international setting to realize how aggressive and competitive Americans are by nature.  We take up so much space and air in the room.

So this woman was hollering and another woman in her party kind of shushed her with an embarrassed laugh, and I heard them murmuring and then the loud lady said in an earnest way, “I’m not religious. I didn’t know!”

This is so interesting to me. I’m going to be thinking about this for awhile. My parents raised me to be considerate in all public environments and to keep my voice down (I was frequently admonished to “turn it down, Vicki,” which I actually regard  just as much an attempt to diminish and feminize a naturally strong little girl as it was to instill appropriate social conditioning and good manners), and it must have been my grandparents who taught us church etiquette – hushed voices, standing and kneeling on command, opening and holding a hymnal or prayerbook even if you can’t read from it. We did not make the sign of the cross or genuflect; we drew the line at such expressions of faith, and we did not receive the Eucharist. But we learned how to be a good guest in someone else’s religious home.

So I got to thinking about howtraditional religious spaces contribute to what we might call “cultural literacy” or, flipping the framework around, how they contribute to patriarchal control and/or white supremacy culture.

I conclude that I am grateful for all the spaces that contribute to a shared human experience of REVERENCE. General reverence transcends nation, race, religion, political party, gender and class.  What I would hope for the shouting women is not that she move through the world fearful and embarrassed that she will do the wrong thing at the wrong volume in a sacred space and insult “the faithful,” but that she will develop a happy attentiveness to her environment (especially while traveling) that leads her to naturally adopt a gentler presence when she is in houses of worship or their environs.

When hundreds of us from many lands and many or no faiths gathered at 1PM this afternoon to hear the famous Escolania de Montserrat Boy’s Choir, the monk leading the service was very clear in his gestures, inviting in his words and inclusive in his language. It was clear to me that he knew that it was not just Catholics who were there, and not even a variety of Christians, but a wide variety of human beings who wanted to hear angelic voices in a glorious setting. To me, that is a religious instinct. It isn’t adherence to a doctrine that makes someone religious, it is a hunger to be in relationship with God (by whatever name) and those who also seek to live deeply from the soul.

If I could, I would draw the loud lady aside and say, “Did you make an effort to get up this mountain and visit this lovely place out of respect, interest and perhaps a longing to be touched by something deeper than the daily news and the quotidian concerns of your life? Then you are religious. You are a legitimate part of this community of pilgrims. If you turn down the volume on the voices in your head telling you how religious you aren’t, you may be able to hear your spirit better.”

Ultimately that is what I devoutly wish for us all.

Those little boys sure could sing.







High-Speed Train

I rode the Eurostar from London to Paris, which I have never done before.  I dragged my suitcases from the Airbnb flat in Kensington to the Gloucester Road Tube station, got on the Piccadily line and thought vicous things about the cows who were sitting right near the door when they could have moved over three seats to the empty ones and let me sit with my big suitcases.

I use “cow” as an insult for all humans who lumber along in life without any awareness of those around them. I am hyper-aware of those around me and apologize profusely when I am selfish or inconsiderate when I should have realized that a simple action could have provided some relief to someone else. It’s not a sacrifice to scoot down a few seats. I hadn’t had any tea or coffee or food and I was cranky. Still, I judge. I most definitely do.  A bit of attentiveness costs nothing.

I got to St. Pancras and stood in line for security and passport control and I found my seat and stowed my luggage and got all settled on the train (window seat) and sat happily contemplating the next leg of my journey. I had a tremendously delicious latte at a stall called Source at St. Pancras, where I also asked for “some bread and cheese” and was sent on my way with an enormous container full of huge slabs of delicious cheddar and something soft and runny and a third kind of slightly tangy frommage and some toasts. A feast! I brought it to my hosts in Paris and we will be eating it all week.

As I sat in comfortable tranquility and watched the landscape whiz by I remembered traveling as a very young woman and becoming aware that my interior monologue was relentlessly frightened and self-critical. These were my first adventures in solitude and I became attuned to myself for the first time in a way that I suppose some adults never actually do. Solitude eventually emerged as my lifestyle, perhaps vocation? — and my internal monologue at this age is mostly concerned with things on the ministerial to-do list, thoughts about life, death and God, a bit of worrying and thinking about friends and loved ones (still a category of more insecurity than most others in my life), dog details and housekeeping. I am not rattled by insecure or self-critical thoughts although I have very little skill in dismantling them, whereas I have developed a fairly high level of skill in interrogating and untangling insecure and other-critical thoughts; particularly in catching myself catastrophizing or projecting.

I am grateful for that. Now, perhaps, I can learn some effective ways to disarm the monster who lives in my head who takes up arms against myself. That monster is so deeply hidden, I only hear rumblings when she is active. She tends not to speak in complete sentences, she just shrieks and throws things and is as irrational as my parents were when they were in their fits of rage or addiction.

But today on the train there was no monster and no anxiety or fear. I am an experienced enough traveler to think a few steps ahead and get where I am going — and by the way, I am not going to Venice as I had planned, because I trust my instincts by now — and I like myself as a traveling companion.

I recognize now that the extreme anxiety I experienced when traveling in my youth actually caused me to dissociate, as happened on the beach in Antigua when I was 18 years old and on a senior trip with three of my girlfriends. The three of them went horseback riding one afternoon and I decided to go to the beach by myself. When I settled myself in the sand, I experienced a jolting sensation of the world rocking and went blind for a few seconds, after which I saw shooting stars everywhere and felt that I no longer existed. It was one of the earliest memories I have of literally losing my mind and it scared me badly. I decided to patiently wait where I was until my senses returned, so there I sat on a beautiful tropical beach, a young, pretty teenager trying to stay sane.

I was probably dehydrated and God knows if we had been eating enough food. We were drinking like fishes, far away from home and on our own. I remember the trip very fondly in general but I have not forgotten the tilting earth and my momentary blindness. Stress, anxiety, a fragile psyche, I was a kid whose father had recently died and who was living alone at home with an actively alcoholic living parent and a kid brother, sitting thousands of miles away under a too-hot sun with only three peers to rely on if my brain didn’t start functioning right again. We got through it. I am still close friends with two of those three peers and I feel protected by their good cheer, their confidence in and love for me now as I did then.

This morning: navigate the Tube. Use the Oyster Card. Find the platform. Get the coffee, bread and cheese. Load the luggage. Take the journey.  Disembark, find the toilet. Learn the toilet cost .70 Euros. Locate the bank machine, obtain the euros. Return to the toilet with the help of a friendly nun. Protect the bags, the passport, the phone from pickpockets. Call an Uber.  Find the Uber, who is parked a block away. Find the apartment code. Load the self and the luggage into the tiny lift. Be received in warm, welcoming arms of friends. Eat dinner, have some wine, load the laundry. Plan tomorrow.

Write. Remember. Thank God for the sound mind and body, for the accumulation of experiences, of years, of journeys.