This essay by Spiritual Director Bethany Ward was published in Braided Way Magazine: Faces and Voices of Spiritual Practice in October of 2018
I’ve encountered so many people who desperately want to lead spiritually fulfilling lives who have no idea how. People often seek out my work in an attempt to try and understand how to create a sense of ease and serenity within their lives. They have tried fad diets, spiritual trends, meditation podcasts, and religion-hopping, all to no avail. They desperately believe that spirituality will be the key to discovering the peace for which they long. They are not wrong. Yet, despite their best efforts, spiritual vibrancy seems to remain elusive.
The problem is they are reaching too high for God.
I spent my entire early adulthood ensconced in religious life. I was either preparing to be a religious professional or I was one. I loved church. Worship music moved me until I cried big-fat-silent tears of reverence, and religious education exhilarated me. Throughout those years, I chased down wisdom with fervent passion. I believed that God was up there somewhere, and I was determined to keep going until I found It.
Only…I didn’t find God in that chase. Not really.
The problem was that I was always reaching too high for God.
If you are looking to live a spiritually dynamic life, you must look lower.
Jungian analyst Marion Woodman wrote, “Life is a matter of incarnation—the soul is an entity we have to live with in our human body. The problem is too many people in our culture try to skip this step and go straight up into spirit.” In her writing, she refers to this over-extended reach for divine experience as overspiritualization. Elisa Romeo also talks about this step of over-stretching ourselves for God in her book “Meet Your Soul“. We become ungrounded and disconnected from the very wisdom of our own souls when we try to reach too high for God. Overspiritualization is one of the reasons many people can’t find what they are looking for within their spiritual journeys. They are looking too high for a transcendental experience, and miss the experience of God entirely.
To be spiritually alive, we must ‘“recover earth” and be willing to engage with the mundane earth-bound essence of everyday life. This is how we regain interconnectedness and rediscover Wholeness.
“God comes to you, disguised as your life.”
Author Paula D’Arcy wrote these words. I discovered them around the same time that I was navigating my way through another layer of my own spiritual development. In 2015, I was working an excessive amount of hours in my role as the Director of Lifespan Faith Development within the congregation I served. It was becoming increasingly evident that I was burning out, rapidly gaining unwanted weight, and careening headlong into high-functioning depression. One early morning as I stood staring at my messy kitchen sink, I at once became aware that I was living my life in a state of perpetual desperation. One single sentiment bubbled up from the depths of my being and firmly insisted, “Leave the church.”
I’d like to tell you that I listened to my inner wisdom. But…to be perfectly frank, that rarely happens. I have yet to meet a single soul that has immediately heeded the call of their Inner Sage. We as a collective have told the story of “Jonah and the Whale” since the 4th century for a reason.
Instead, I did what most of us have been doing since Jonah tried to escape his own divine mission: I ignored it.
And that went exactly as you would expect.
I stayed in my job and kept burning out, continued to gain weight, remaining crushed under my own stubbornness.
My physical house was also a mess. Mainly it was a mess because I was a mess. I ignored this too.
I ignored it all because I was still chasing God and, in my failed logic, I believed that if I were to leave the church, then it seemed self-evident that I would then never find the Amazing Grace that I so desperately craved.
What I know now that I didn’t know then was that I was so attached to overspiritualization that I was willing to fully deplete myself for it. Yet what I was seeking then was also seeking me. God was showing up for me disguised as the very things that were right in front of my nose: a persistent still small voice and a sink full of dirty dishes.
What I understand now that I did not understand then, was that not being in my body—or in my soul—or even in my physical home—was the very thing keeping me from God.
I had such lofty goals of being someone for God that I forgot to just be someone.
I was so busy reaching for God that I completely missed how God was already working in my life.
This reminds me of a story: An old story is told about the beginning of time. The universe was in the process of being created, and not everything was yet in order or fully functioning. Before the universe could be totally engaged, the Creator had one final task to complete. To help me complete this task, the Creator summoned an angel.
The angel came. The Creator told the angel that she, the Creator, had one last job to do in the making of the universe. “I saved the best for last,” the Creator told the angel. “I have here the real meaning of human life, the treasure of life, the purpose and goal of all this. Because this treasure is valuable beyond description,” the Creator continued, “I want you to hide it. Hide this treasure so well that human beings will know its value to be immeasurable.”
“I will do so,” said the angel. “I will hide the treasure of life on the highest mountain top.”
“The treasure will be too easy to find there,” said the Creator.
“Then,” said the angel, “I will hide the treasure in the great desert wilderness. Surely, the treasure will not be easily found there.”
“No, too easy.”
“In the vast reaches of the universe?”, asked the angel. “That would make a difficult search.”
“No”, the Creator said, pondering. Then his face showed a flash of inspiration. “I know. I have the place. Hide the treasure of life within the human being. He will look there last and know how precious the treasure is. Yes, hide the treasure there.” -Source Unknown
“The Kingdom of God is within you”
The more I ignored Wise Silence, the more my misery saturated my being. For a long while, I had nothing to really point to that would explain why I was miserable. I told myself that I loved the work that I did and, for the most part, the congregation was loving towards me and extremely supportive of my work. Yet, that persistent voice of discontent remained. What I did faintly notice was that my unschooled teen-aged children were no longer thriving, and the daughter who just recently launched into the world desperately needed me.
I needed me.
Eventually politically charged circumstances began occurring at the church that did not align with my personal and deeply held values. I believe this was no coincidence. God was going to get me to listen the easy way or the hard way. It was up to me to decide which way it was going to go. I certainly didn’t choose the easy way, so the hard way it was to be.
As the unfortunate events at the church continued to escalate, I finally realized that the time was now.
Let it be known, I didn’t surrender gently.
And I didn’t surrender quietly.
We rarely ever do.
In fact, I spent many months in tears in my own Spiritual Director’s office dramatically criticizing my fate.
…But in time, I did what I was being called to do.
Even though I was terrified, I surrendered.
It took me 19 months. But I finally heeded the call that came that long ago morning while standing at my kitchen sink.
At some point, we just have to let go and let God.
…And this is when we find the gate to the Kingdom.
Living Miracle to Miracle
It has been nine months since I left the church. I lost a lot of the life that I had known when I chose to surrender. The fact that some part of us knows that drastic change will most assuredly follow our surrender is one of the main reasons why it is so hard for us to do it.
I lost friends, my community.
I lost the work to which I was so dedicated.
I even lost my religion.
But in time, I also found something else.
At first, I slept a lot.
And I putzed.
I finally caught up on all those unwashed dishes in the sink.
The next day…I polished that same sink.
In time, I started to meet new and amazing people.
I got into my body—perhaps for the first time in my life.
I took up a healthy diet plan.
I joined Crossfit.
I started paying attention to my dreams again.
I journaled, meditated.
Slowly…I started to breathe again.
I stopped reaching.
And when I stopped reaching, I found the thing for which I was looking.
Carl Jung wrote, “Christians often ask why God does not speak to them, as he is believed to have done in former days. When I hear such questions, it always makes me think of the rabbi who asked how it could be that God often showed himself to people in the olden days whereas nowadays nobody ever sees him. The rabbi replied: “Nowadays there is no longer anybody who can bow low enough.”
This answer hits the nail on the head. We are so captivated by and entangled in our subjective consciousness that we have forgotten the age-old fact that God speaks chiefly through dreams and visions. The Buddhist discards the world of unconscious fantasies as useless illusions; the Christian puts his Church and his Bible between himself and his unconscious; and the rational intellectual does not yet know that his consciousness is not his total psyche.”
“The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine.”-Emily Saliers
Arther Rubenstein once said, “I have adopted the technique of living miracle-to-miracle.” When I chose to fully entrust myself to my own life, the promise of God’s presence was finally able to be realized. Today, I do my best to live each day miracle-to-miracle. My pace has slowed, I value rest, and I prioritize the gentle act of tending what is mine to tend.
It is true that God is in the details. When we bring our attention and awareness to what is directly in front of us, when we stop reaching for the Divine beyond ourselves, when we stop searching for what we believe to be missing, we awaken to the miracle of this very moment.
Awareness is a choice. This is what you do with faith. You choose it.
As an Integrative Spiritual Director, this is now how I help others. I help people choose faith.
My experience at the church was not “bad”. Disconnected maybe. But not “bad”. And this new life of mine is not “better”. Yet there is a fundamental interior shift from living in—or for—Spirit and living for Soul. In my own expression of faithfulness, I have chosen to look lower for God. Thankfully, God is gracious and patient. It took me awhile, but I am finally starting to bow low enough.
Reflection: Consider how you may discover your own hidden treasure within — how do you know you’ve found it? What might it teach you about yourself?
If you would like to know how you too can look lower for God, I invite you to consider working with me along your spiritual journey. Together, we can uncover the God within the miraculous details of your own life.