Numinous Improvisation

“You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.” (Luke 1:31, GNTD)

That’s straightforward enough. An angel comes; an angel says, “This is what you will do and this is how it will happen;” and that’s what happens.

Kind of. Her betrothed almost set her aside — though he did plan to do it quietly and, hopefully, avoid the stoning which was the penalty for adultery. She gave birth in a barn — though Bethlehem would have been full of relatives at the time, which demonstrates how hardened most hearts were toward her among family members. Then, because her husband had a dream, she found herself traveling to Egypt with a newborn, possibly before she had recovered from the birthing experience, which may have been accomplished without the help of a skilled midwife.

Two thousand years have done a great job of wiping away the sweat and tears of what must have been a difficult lived experience. But stories always do that — even the stories we tell ourselves, especially the stories we tell ourselves about others. Their lives never seem to have the muck and chaos of our own.

This morning, as I sat down to prayer, which is how I start every morning when I am on my own, the daily readings included the gospel story of the Annunciation, and I found myself envying the way God clearly indicated to Mary his will for her life. I’ve not had that clarity for a very long time — since 1998, to be exact. In truth, I only had clarity in my life for one short period of time — from 1990 – 1998. I had gone to the Chicago Institute of Art with a dear friend, saw one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s cloud paintings; thought, “I could do that;” and walked out of the museum knowing in my bones that my life would be wasted if I didn’t paint. So, creating art; motherhood, the deep call of my heart; and personal/spiritual growth formed the triad that shaped my life during that period of my life.

It might be more accurate to say creating art, motherhood and personal/spiritual growth shaped me during that time, but I did not allow them to be enough. Who knows why? In a meditation published in December in a devotional called The Magnificat, Ann Voskamp, writing about The Fall in the Garden of Eden, says, “Our fall was, has always been, and always will be, that we aren’t satisfied in God and what he gives.” Perhaps, unintentionally, I did allow myself to be tempted away from the grace-filled gifts that God had given me.

Sister Joan Chittister, in her book, Following the Path: The Search for a Life of Passion, Purpose and Joy, writes, “People who are unusually gifted in something often tend to take it for granted. … In fact, they are often inclined not only to discount the gift itself as commonplace or even worthless, but to doubt their own abilities in anything else.” While it may be arrogant to claim unusual giftedness in any of the areas indicated, it might be fair to wonder if I didn’t try to prove myself in other areas — grant writing, non-profit management, mentoring — because of self-doubt. It might also be fair to wonder if I failed to recognize the deep stirring of my heart in the areas of motherhood, art and personal/spiritual growth because I was so engaged in trying to prove myself.

I’ve been spending several evenings a week throughout Lent in prayer and in reflecting on God’s call for me at this juncture in my life. I’m turning 60 this year, and am acutely aware of time’s winged chariots. During the past 17 years, I’ve moved seven times and held nine different jobs. I was not carried on the wings of a dream or driven by burning ambition. At best, it might be said, I was a pilgrim seeking the Holy Grail of destiny or clarity or God’s will or something. I wanted to know again the passion that allowed me to balance two jobs, an art career, raising children, caring for a household, and prolific, self-reflective journal writing.

What I’ve come to realize is this — for me it comes down to three things: my relationship with God, creative expression  and — yes — motherhood. A life shaped around that sacred-in-my-life triad is deeply authentic and has the potential of becoming deeply rooted. Because I failed to value what mattered most — going so far as to set painting aside for at least five years, maybe longer — I don’t know what that life will look like. I know that I’m a deeply contemplative person, so it probably won’t be a busy life. I know that these authentic expressions of myself will have to be balanced with activities that enable me to be financially self-sufficient. I know that I will have to be flexible in exploring what all of this means, in imagining what it will look like.

Over the weekend, when I was writing in my journal, I found a phrase to describe this phase in my pilgrimage — numinous improvisation. I like the sound of that. I like the way it characterizes this time as sacred. I like the way it alludes to music and theater and other performing arts. I like the dignity it accords this shaping period of uncertainty.

I also like being old enough to appreciate a simple truth: Mary’s clear instructions didn’t reveal how difficult God’s promise unfolding in her life would be. Maybe all these years of drifting through myriad life experiences has been God’s promise unfolding my my life. Maybe, I’ve been collecting material which will provide rich earth for the seeds of creative self to grow through this numinous improvisation and  bloom. I hope so.

I switched metaphors there, didn’t I? Hopefully, you get the picture anyway.



Some days I feel like a jigsaw puzzle, a thousand-piece puzzle dumped in a plastic bag because the box was tossed out. In other words, I don’t know how I am supposed to look when the pieces are assembled.

Once in a while, though, a few pieces slip together and I feel like celebrating. This morning is one of those mornings. As part of my search for employment, I have been reading books which I hope will help me to succeed — not just succeed at finding work, but succeed in ways which are meaningful for me, personally.

I learned long ago that I am not motivated by money; I am motivated by a need to help others, to make a difference, and I carry that sensibility into most jobs. The only job I ever held which was soulless for me was telemarketing because I could not make a difference; I could not help anyone. I was good at it, and won numerous sales prizes, but I died a little each time I stepped inside the door of that workplace.

I also learned long ago that I am multi-faceted; I can do just about anything that doesn’t require specific physical skills. When I was young and searching for a career path, I would ask people how they chose their professions (or major field of study in college). Invariably, people said, “I was good at it,” or “It interested me.”

That did not help me; as I said, I can do just about anything, and I have a magpie mind — anything about which another is passionate interests me for a while. That’s actually what made me a good newspaper person; every story fascinated me. The only abiding personal interests I’ve had are art, writing, spiritual development and people. I love getting to know people, watching the narratives of their lives unfold, and mentoring the lost souls who need someone to have faith in them.

One of the books I’ve read (and am rereading) is Sister Joan Chittister’s FOLLOWING THE PATH: THE SEARCH FOR A LIFE OF PASSION, PURPOSE AND JOY. Because I want a life of passion, purpose and joy, choosing to read this book was a bit of a no-brainer. (Besides, I’ve read a number of Sr. Joan’s books and like her God — or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say her understanding of God.) Understanding the book on a deep and personal level is surprisingly challenging.

The first time I read it, I was simply inspired, not only by her prose — her sensitivity to language calls to the writer in me — but by her ideas. “The path to wholeness of the self commonly leads through a labyrinth of possibilities, a maze of gifts. The fact is that coming to fullness of life is seldom a straight line. It is a matter of learning to listen to the call — to the magnet of the heart within us — to assess our own gifts, to follow our own passions, and to find, through them, the fit between passion and purpose.” Beautiful! Offering such hope to someone like me, seeking at mid-life greater authenticity, more meaning in the daily business of life!

Phrase after phrase, passage after passage, moved me. “We need, like raindrops in the river, to lose ourselves in what we were made to do.” “The important thing to understand is that when we are doing what we love doing, we are making the world around us a happier place for everyone.” “The song of life is born in every soul. But the song we are meant to sing does not come to us whole…. Learning to hear the song within us, finding the call within us, and then bending our lives to follow it to the fullness of ourselves is the key to happiness, to meaning, to fullness of life.”

Unfortunately, when I got to the end, I was not one iota closer to finding direction for my life than when I began. And so, I began again. This time, I am journaling about some of the passages, and making notes to consider my life in light of others — when I can set aside a day for prayerful reflection, because I know some of it will be painful and must not to be entered into casually.

However, this morning, my reflections on one passage began to bear fruit. Sister Joan had written, “Real passion focuses our efforts. It becomes the compass needle of the heart which presented with multiple options becomes the direction we take at every fork in the road.” I found myself recalling decisions I’ve made and could see the pattern, the direction I have taken at every fork in the road. I live for others.

I put aside my art career because I was persuaded that accepting a position for which I had not applied would benefit artists across the state. I put aside a professional career I enjoyed because I was persuaded I could strengthen an at-risk organization that helped abused and neglected children. In small ways, too, I have made sacrifices for others.

This morning, that insight slid into place beside two other pieces. The first was a quotation from GOD’S VOICE WITHIN by Mark E. Thibodeaux, SJ: “God has a particular calling for each person; we are not called to do every holy action that comes to mind or to respond to every good opportunity” (emphasis added). I’ve been mulling that over for months, asking, “What does this mean in terms of my life?” Obviously, it means I need to be selective, to discern when I am called and when to allow another to respond to a situation. But how am I to know the difference?

The second piece was from this morning’s gospel. “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field'” (Matthew 13:44). Out of joy — that is the key. The desire to live for others — the compass needle of my heart — needs to be expressed in ways which lead to joy, to that spontaneous outpouring of praise which is the most authentic expression of joy we can know. Choosing to sacrifice activities to which I actually feel called does not lead to joy, only despair — as I well know.

Telling myself that my sacrifice is for the greater good, when it is not an expression of my particular calling, does not lead to joy either. I can name each and every decision I have made which was not an expression of my particular calling, because I can recall so vividly the weight of obligation I carried with me day after day as I executed my job responsibilities, a weight which felt like a knot in the pit of my stomach. I can contrast those memories with others, with sacrifices that brought joy — not because they were easier to live (sacrifice involves a degree of difficulty), but because the inner peace and the outcomes were so good, so sweet, I would make no other decision if faced with the same situation again.

So, am I closer to getting a job? Yes and no. No, I do not know what career field to pursue. After all, I’ve only identified a small section of the puzzle. However, I do know how to assess whether a position is the right fit, and that seems like progress to me.

The Awakening

“When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.”  John 19:30

The suffering was over.

The long day on the cross — Mark’s gospel says it was 9 a.m. when they crucified Jesus (15:25) and it was sometime after 3 p.m. according to all accounts when he died. The long night preceding — a night of prayer and betrayal, abandonment and beating, a night during which he stood alone before those in power, condemned by those who should have allied themselves with him. The days and weeks leading up to that clandestine flurry of activity — days and weeks when fear grew among those who sought to be faithful to the covenant and did not understand the way in which Jesus was re-envisioning the Law for them. It was finished.

He could do no more. Not then. Not through the Incarnation, his fully human, fully divine presence among the people of Israel. And yet, in that moment, in letting go, he did not abandon his ministry or those he loved, although no one understood it at the time. They could not because in Jesus, God was working in a new way, one which led to Resurrection and the Church, which is the Body of Christ in the world today.

Often these days I attempt to enter into the stories, attempt to be present through my imagination in a way which enables me to experience the living presence of Jesus. This one, though, I do not need imagination to experience because like so many other people, I’ve experienced painful endings, times when the life I had worked to build was torn from me. In recent months, I’ve come to see how God was shaping me with those circumstances, drawing me into a more intimate relationship with him, working to ensure my heart was not hardened by goals and values which would have prevented me from serving Him with a heart pliant with love. I’ve come to see those endings as transformational new beginnings.

I am grateful for this understanding, grateful to be standing on this threshold — and yet I feel somewhat disoriented. For years, I’ve engaged in regrets about my past and imagined the life I might have lived had I made different choices. I’ve imagined what my life would have been like had I gone to a Catholic college instead of a state university after graduating from high school. I’ve imagined what my life would have been like had I gone to work instead of college and avoided the burden of student loan debts. I’ve imagined what my life would have been like had I managed to complete the degrees necessary to teach at a university, which was my dream at one time.

But, in coming to see my life as a pilgrimage, as a journey of faith, I find I must let go of these regrets. They must be, for me, finished, if I am to embrace the wisdom of God’s hand at work in my life, and if I am to be open to the new life which follows endings in God’s natural order of things. Setting aside habits of thought is no easy task, though. I am guileless as Mary in this. “How can this be?” she asked the angel who visited her (Luke 1:34). She had not been with a man, and could not imagine conceiving a child in any other way. “How can this be?” I ask. I have lived so long with the inner barrenness of regrets, I cannot imagine living with hope and the assurance of a fruitful life.

Fortunately, I am not alone in seeking answers to this question. Others have gone before me and have marked the way. Among them is Sister Joan Chittister, who wrote an especially relevant book called FOLLOWING THE PATH: THE SEARCH FOR A LIFE OF PASSION, PURPOSE AND JOY. I have been reading if off and on for several months, mulling over passages that seemed to have been written especially for me, and have finished it tonight. In the final chapter, she writes, “determining what we are meant to do with our lives will necessarily unfold slowly and tentatively. Just was we grow slowly and tentatively, so will our understanding and awareness of what we are meant to do.”

She then provides guidance for discerning what we are meant to do. Chittister says we’ll have a natural aptitude for the work and a passion for it. In addition, we’ll see it as meaningful. “God did not finish creation,” she wrote, “God started it. Its ongoing development God leaves to us. What we do in life makes us the hands of God in living flesh and blood.” She said we must trust that God is leading us to find our calling, and must ourselves be both patient and committed.

I think I can do that.  I’ve already seen God at work in my life with 20/20 hindsight. Now, I just need to turn around and look to the future, the future of hope he promised long ago.

Saving Grace

I took a break from packing this afternoon to paint.

On a good day, packing does not rank among my top ten favorite activities. On a bad day, well … I just need to walk away. I reached that point this afternoon when I ran out of garbage bags and boxes. I suppose I could have gone out to scrounge some up, but my intuition suggested I needed time to think.

How much am I willing to trash if need be? The crafting supplies from those years when I began making Christmas ornaments in July so I could enclose them in cards when the holiday rolled around? What about the frames I picked up on a clearance table 15 years ago and never used? And the scrapbook supplies I can’t even remember liking?

So much is still usable. Shouldn’t someone be willing to take it off my hands? Something inside rebels against just throwing it all away. I’ve worked hard for every dime I’ve earned and spent; throwing things away feels wrong. Wasteful. And yet, why move what I will in all likelihood never use? That’s not a dilemma for which a resolution was easily forthcoming.

So I picked up a painting I had finished earlier this year, “grace.” Over all, it was a bland painting, but one section of it pleased me. The color was used in a sensuous manner and the brushstrokes were spontaneous and loose. But, was that section strong enough to carry the painting?

When I hung it beside other paintings in the series, my first impulse was to take it down. However, each time I pulled it out of storage, I was again drawn to the area that pleased me. Last night, when I was looking at it yet again, a simple thought ran through my head: why don’t you work on it again and see what happens?

And so, that’s what I did. I added some geometric and collage elements. I deepened the color in a few areas with glazes. In just a couple hours, the bland painting was transformed into a visual feast, and I was struck with wonder because the process had been entirely intuitive. I hadn’t planned a single one of the elements which had given it life.

As I gazed at it later, I found myself recalling something I’ve read a several times in recent months. In her book, “Following the Path: The Search for a Life of Passion, Purpose and Joy,” Sister Joan Chittister wrote, “The problem is that people who are unusually gifted in something often tend to take it for granted. They got it without effort, after all, so everyone else must have it, too, right? In fact, they are often inclined not only to discount the gift itself as commonplace or even worthless but to doubt their own abilities in anything else.”

I’ve been stuck on that chapter because I found myself asking, “At what am I gifted?” Her premise is that each of us is gifted in some way at something. That premise probably comes with the territory — being religious, she undoubtedly believes we’re created in the image of a gifted God. Still, that doesn’t make the premise invalid.

Painting brought the question to mind again because it reminded me of those days when I attended art receptions and considered artists to be among my coterie of friends. I was often moved to wonder by their work, and was articulate in expressing my admiration, but quick to toss aside any praise that came my way. I’m not sure why I thought my work was included in juried exhibits, not only at local art centers, but also elsewhere when I had the funds to enter competitions and ship the work. I’m not sure why I thought my work was being purchased for corporate collections. I just knew that my paintings weren’t extraordinary in any way — not like the work that my friends were producing.

And yet, when I started painting again last fall, I was often frustrated because the small pieces I was struggling to create did not begin to compare to work that I did nearly two decades ago. Not only did I no longer have the intuitive color sense which once characterized my work, but I had also lost the delicacy of touch when it came to brushwork. About the only thing I could still do was mix paint from the tube with gel or gloss medium so that it was easier to handle.

As I struggled to regain my skills, I was often amused to find myself looking with pleasure at my earlier work, which lines my walls as though I lived in a gallery. I was often amused to find myself amazed at my skill in portraiture and at the unique ways in which I handled materials. In other words, more than a decade after my last exhibit, I was finally beginning to appreciate my own work. Brava! Brava!

I find myself asking, was I discounting a gift in failing to appreciate my own work earlier? I used to say painting kept me sane, because no matter what was happening in my life, I could lose myself in art. I could stand at the easel and forget everything except the work. When I emerged from that sacred space, I was better able to shoulder the burdens that challenged me in life.

Sr. Joan wrote, “one of the unfailing ways to identify our own gifts is to begin to notice what it is that moves us into an emotional zone beyond consciousness of time.” If this is true, then perhaps I am somewhat gifted at art — but it would also mean I’m gifted at other things as well. Writing and problem-solving come readily to mind.

What does this have to do with moving and decision-making? Maybe nothing. But maybe it means I need to let go of those parts of my past that I’ve been carrying around for years. And if I have to throw them away, maybe it’s not so much a waste as a symbollic gesture, one that says, “I’m open to what the future will bring. I’m ready to discover how to use the gifts that I have been discounting.”

Maybe I need to read the rest of Sr. Joan’s book to find out what comes next. It may turn out to be a saving grace in my life.