Third Things In Spiritual Direction

by Emily P. Freeman

Ten years ago, on the first day of Lent, I met with a spiritual director for the first time. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I held on to hope that she would somehow be able to accompany me through new, unfamiliar terrain. One of the first things she did was read from a book of reflections by Macrina Wiederkehr, and as I listened, I was grateful for the space. It allowed me to close my eyes, settle in, and focus on a third element: something that wasn’t me but also wasn’t her.

Now that I serve as a spiritual director, I have my own stack of favorite resources I like to read from in order to provide a similar third element for directees (Parker Palmer calls these “third things”). Here are a few of my favorites, starting with one my spiritual director introduced me to on that first day we met:

Seasons of Your Heart by Macrina Wiederkehr

Drawing from her experience as a Benedictine nun, Wiederkehr writes reflective meditations inspired by the seasons. Combining lyrical prose and simple poems, her writing offers accessible metaphors for faith, wonder, and the mystery of God.

Slowly she celebrated the sacrament of letting go

First she surrendered her green, then orange, yellow, and red

Finally she let go of her brown

shedding her last leaf

she stood empty and silent, stripped bare

leaning against the sky she began her vigil of trust.

—An excerpt from The Sacrament of Letting Go

To Bless the Space Between Us by John O’Donohue

A collection of blessings that put language to some of life’s most poignant moments: desire for freedom, meeting a stranger, starting again, and saying goodbye. O’Donohue submits that blessing is a way of life, and I’ve found his offerings to be a welcome reframe of spirituality without the trigger words.

When you travel,

A new silence

Goes with you,

And if you listen,

You will hear

What your heart would

Love to say.

—An excerpt from For the Traveler

Guerillas of Grace by Ted Loder

Rather than reflections or blessings, this is an entire book of prayers: for thanks, for reassurance, and for comfort to name a few. One of my favorite prayers to use in spiritual direction comes from this book. It’s called Gather Me to Be with You and I find it to be beautifully grounding, especially at the beginning of a session.

O God, gather me now

To be with you

As you are with me.

Soothe my tiredness;

Quiet my fretfulness; 

Curb my aimlessness;

Relieve my compulsiveness;

Let me be easy for a moment.

—An excerpt from Gather Me to Be With You

Beginning with a reading may not always be appropriate or necessary, and a third thing may sometimes be something other than words, like a painting, an image, or a song. I find it especially meaningful when a directee brings their own third thing into the room, sharing something that has meaning to them in their own walk with God. Mostly I’m grateful for third things, as they are a welcome reminder of the many ways God is always speaking to us.


Woman, You Are Set Free

Children walking through a labyrinth near the author's home


Recently, I preached from Luke 13 about the woman whose “spirit had crippled her for 18 years.” She was bent over and unable to stand up straight when Jesus calls to her, saying, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”

The story unfolds with religious leaders complaining about Jesus healing on the Sabbath. Jesus calls them out for treating their own animals, which they give water to on the sabbath, better than this daughter of Abraham. The story ends this way— “the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things he was doing.” There are so many ways to read this story, but what stood out for me was the idea that in order to be set free, we need first to know and then name what we are in bondage to. 

I began to explore that question, rolling it around in my hand like dice. Saying to myself, “you are set free.” I said it over and over. For weeks. I held the story close—the importance of my voice as a woman, the invitation to stand tall, and of course, the promise of freedom. But I still wondered. What did I need to be set free from? What was I in bondage to?

More recently, for our apprenticeship gathering, instead of teaching, or praxis, we were given space for rest and renewal. If it felt right, we were encouraged to take a walk and work through a guided set of questions. Not far from my house is an Episcopal church with a labyrinth. As I headed in that direction, I felt the heaviness of the roles I play—mother, wife, pastor, daughter, friend, spiritual director, and on and on (and on). I couldn’t clear my head enough to focus on the reflection questions in our guide, and I noticed that my body was tensing.

As I slowly made my way around the path of the labyrinth, I rolled my shoulders, adjusted my posture, and stretched my neck as I prayed. As I rounded each corner, I let go of the overwhelm just a little. I felt more and more present and connected—both to self and God. As I neared the center, I realized that the tightness was loosening. I could feel my body relaxing. And then, the story of the bent-over woman in the temple came to me. I could see her; I imagined Jesus calling to her and bending over to meet her eyes. But then I stopped; I could not for the life of me remember what it was he said to her. Why couldn’t I remember? It hadn’t been that long since I turned those words into a mantra.

I continued to walk, and after some time, a wave washed over me, and I recalled Jesus’ words: “woman, you are set free.” And at once, I felt it. The freedom of those words. I laughed out loud! I was surprised and delighted—I felt free. The burden of the roles I play cleared out, even if only for that moment as I heard it again “woman, you are set free.”

When I returned to the group, I shared my experience, and someone pointed out that Jesus called her—called me—woman. Yes, I am a mother, a friend, a pastor—but first, I am a woman, a person. First, I am me.

I don’t have these types of experiences often, and even in writing this, it’s hard to recall the details — did I really laugh out loud? Had my body really tensed and then relaxed so quickly? I suppose the details don’t matter, as much as my response. Will I choose to live as a person who has been set free? 

What am I in bondage to? Everything, I suppose. The groans of creation. My overwhelm and stress. The fear of using my voice, fear of what others might think or say, fear of not using my voice, but mostly the inability to believe I am set free.

So I write the words on a Post-it and stick it to my desk, I type it into a note on my phone, and I think about where I might tattoo the words — all in hopes of not forgetting them so quickly next time. When I go back to fear, when I hunch over in shame, when I tense up and forget who I am, may I remember those gentle words of Jesus — you are set free.


Author photo of Holly Phillips sitting in the labyrinth described in the post.
Photo credit: Whitman Phillips (the author’s son)

Holly Phillips is part of the Anam Cara Apprenticeship and comes to it with a background in church ministry. She feels called to walk alongside others and help them find the sacred in the ordinary. After years of wrestling with her place in the church and overthinking life with God, Holly has found new ways of encountering the Spirit through simply being. She currently serves as Co-Pastor at a small church in Austin, Texas, where she lives with her musician husband, their three kids, and a backyard full of birds. If you’d like to connect with her, you can do so through her Substack here.

Stories from Sabbatical

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Tara and her daughter Seren on the Hill of Tara, Ireland, during sabbatical

Even as a writer, I find it hard to put the experience of sabbatical into words. In truth, it would be easy enough to tell you chronological stories of what happened, when, and where. But one of the things I experienced is that time inside of sabbatical isn’t exactly chronological.

So, let’s start with the end, then.

Discovering What I Missed

As September began, my calendar filled again with the work I love and get to do: Scripture Circles, spiritual direction, supervision, apprenticing, teaching. Some of you wondered if that experience was difficult for me, wondered if it would feel heavy or tiring. What I found was that I’d missed something other than I’d expected—I hadn’t missed the work (especially the email part of it); I missed the with-ness with God and with people. That particular quality of sacred presence that runs as a golden thread through all the activities I get to do was what I missed the most, and what energizes me each and every day.

I had missed being anam cara, and discovering that “missing” was one of the many gifts of sabbatical for me.

Sacred Space, Sacred Time

One of the activities that emerged during the three-month window was the reorganization of my home office. With much-needed help, the prayed-over and well-used space of mess and meeting became a holy sanctuary. I gave away a lot of books. I moved retreat resources to storage. I kept only the books I would read again or the unread books. If we meet over Zoom, you almost wouldn’t see any difference in my bookshelf backdrop; however, what is behind me has massively changed. In some ways, I’ve created an antilibrary, a reminder of how much I do not know. Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined that term and writes about it this way:

“The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore, professore dottore Eco, what a library you have ! How many of these books have you read?” and the others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you don’t know as your financial means, mortgage rates and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menancingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.”― Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

It seems to me that this, too, is a parable of sabbatical, this reorganization of space to make more room for unknowing, while also inviting in more deeply the mysterious relationship that underpins it all—my relationship with Christ.

While reclaiming my space (I hesitate to call it an office) during my sabbatical, I realized I have more than 10 pieces of completely original art on the walls, some commissioned pieces, some not. The one on the threshold, that circumscribes the sanctuary, is an original painting depicting Jesus asleep in the boat during the storm. Around him the lines of the painting swirl and intersect. In the small quarter of the image where his body touches the water, the lines still and create reflection. This, too, is an icon of sacred time.

Don’t Die By Inches

Sabbatical began with a lot of death. Spiritual, relational, physical death happened around me and to me in various ways. There was a moment when I found myself running at full speed into those frigid waters, almost as if by holy instinct. I know what it is to let go of things reluctantly, prying my fingers off one cramped movement after another. I made a decision that if this time was to be in some measure about dying, I didn’t want to do it in slow, agonizing inches. I wanted to be plunged in quickly and completely.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to stay there for a long while.

Become the ancestor of your future happiness – David Whyte

These are the words that formed and held me in the dying. The hope and reality is that whatever this journey was, whatever it now is, whatever it will be, I have said yes to becoming a good ancestor. To myself, yes. But also to the sacred future. There is a way in which entering into sabbatical is a kind of death to linear sequential time—at least in the ways you’ve known it up until that entry.

Practically speaking, that also meant a death to my dream of time away on the island of Iona, time with the community of Northumbria, and time on Holy Island. It also meant death to my expectations (one of the hardest deaths, sometimes) and to my timelines.

There’s been a lot of learning and healing unfolding from those deaths, and there is still more. But death is not something that often happens easily, which surely continues to be the case for me.

Welcome Forward

This leads me straight into the paradoxical reality into which I’m still living: my sabbatical may have ended in linear sequential time, but I haven’t left sabbatical. I’m coming to see that if you’ve really, truly entered into sabbatical time, it’s not something you ever leave.

This makes for awkward conversation, especially when the traditional greeting you offer after someone returns from a vacation or a trip or maternity leave or a hospital stay (all of which I’ve experienced) is, “Welcome back!”

There’s no such thing as “Welcome back” from sabbatical (and I still deeply appreciate the people who have said it to me because what else does one say, really?). The closest reality is “welcome forward,” which also makes for awkward greetings. (Not as awkward as the Joshua/Moses/God intersection at the Tent of Meeting in Exodus 33, but that’s a sacred story for another time.)

All of this is to say that I’ll keep having stories from sabbatical to share: here, in person, in prayer, in writing. I’m still living out of time in ways that God is teaching me about, and as hard as that is to put into words, I’m deeply, wildly, unaccountably grateful.

So, thank you. For being part of the community that made and makes this countercultural reality possible. My hope and prayer is that you, too, will one day experience what crossing over into sabbatical will bring.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Is Your Spiritual Director Certified? Probably Not.

As I write this in the early days of 2022, the tragedy and tangle of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to shape our world in ways both seen and unseen. Homelife and safety, public life and how we form it, mental health and our care for one another, schooling and teaching—all have undergone radical shifts for ill and for good. Counselors, therapists, social workers, all find their schedules full with those seeking care. The same is true of spiritual directors.

One of the gifts of this time comes from the shift in accessibility that we’ve seen across the globe. Forced to move online, caregivers now have more secure, effective, and safe ways to meet with clients regardless of their location. This has opened up the practice of spiritual direction to so many who simply did not have access to it before, which is a huge grace and a stunning gift.

Alongside that gift comes responsibility, and one of the ways that spiritual directors are charged with caring for their directees and the larger community is by the accurate representation of their training and credentials. As training in spiritual direction has proliferated, and spiritual direction becomes more and more known as a healing modality, I’ve begun to hear a certain kind of slippage in the language used to describe a spiritual director’s training and credentials. This is, I am completely sure, good-hearted, as most of our understanding of caring professions gets modeled after licensed professional therapy or social work. But it’s dangerous, unnecessary, and unkind to borrow language from one profession in order to bolster the distinctiveness of spiritual direction.

Spiritual directors, when presenting themselves to the public, preserve the integrity of spiritual direction by being in right relation with persons and organizations representing qualifications and affiliations accurately. —Spiritual Director’s International Guidelines for Ethical Conduct

In 2016, ESDA (Christ-Centered Spiritual Directors) published an article explaining to their members why representing themselves as a “certified spiritual director” is a problematic practice. In it author Monica Romig Green explains:

Generally, when someone uses the term “certified,” it communicates to the hearer that the person has been given a certification as opposed to just a certificate. It usually means that they possess an official designation from a qualifying professional organization that affirms they meet and uphold specific standards of their profession.

To become “certified,” one must show evidence to a certifying organization that they meet or exceed continuing professional standards. Additionally, as a professional designation, certification is usually something that can expire over time and must be renewed occasionally in order to affirm that someone is still practicing their work at a competent or high level of quality.

Contrastingly, receiving a certificate or diploma from a training program usually means that you have successfully completed your specific program’s educational requirements. It does not mean that you have met the practicing standards of a particular profession.

Regarding spiritual direction, there is, in fact, no specific and official standard for training/formation. That means that one person’s certificate of training could mean something completely different than someone else’s. For instance, I know of a program that gives a certificate after someone has spent 2 weeks studying spiritual direction, while other programs require that their students spend two to three years studying and complete hundreds of direction hours before they receive their certificate. With such variation in training, it’s easy to see why our training certificates would not automatically indicate meeting some kind of general standard.

If you’re a spiritual director or even someone exploring the practice of spiritual direction, the whole article is worth reading. As Green argues, and I concur, it isn’t just a splitting of hairs to insist that “completed a certificate in spiritual direction” is a more accurate and ethical way of representing training in spiritual direction than using the term “certified” (or, in several somewhat upsetting instances, I’ve heard spiritual directors refer to themselves as “licensed” which is both inaccurate and manipulative, as it creates a false sense of accountability and safety for the directee when the director has no such body of oversight).

As someone who also respects and honors the work that my colleagues in therapeutic and social work settings have done, I don’t want to water down the incredible amount of work and continuing education they have and continue to do, even if it appears to up my credibility.

There’s also an important tension to hold here, as there is a certifying body in spiritual direction and the supervision of spiritual directors (CCPC Global), through which I hold both certifications. This is an open organization, to which anyone globally can apply who meets the requirements of certification over and above having completed a certificate in spiritual direction. At the same time, the larger community of spiritual direction continues to hold a diversity of opinion about whether or not certification is necessary, beneficial, or an accurate measure of expertise in a field that holds so much Mystery. Spiritual Director’s International (SDI), for example, discourages the use of these credentials, while the professional spiritual direction associations of countries like Ireland or Australia have created even more rigorous standards and accountability structures for the practice within their borders.

As our push online since the emergence of COVID-19 has shown us, there is also great good to de-institutionalization of education. Seminary-level education is now available to those who would never be able to relocate in order to have access to educators of this quality. Systemic barriers historically operating in education because of sexism, ableism, or racism have been seriously (and thankfully) damaged by our ability to seek wisdom not just from “professionals” but from those with expertise and lived experience. Those whose voices have previously been silenced in these spaces and conversations have had the opportunity to create new and dynamic spaces for experience and education.

In the face of this wild, generative proliferation, it is nonetheless important to care for those seeking spiritual direction with an accurate and clear portrayal of education, experience, and expertise. As a practitioner, I’ve continued to sit in the “both/and” of the questions around the professionalization of spiritual direction. In churches and spiritual communities around the world, there are wisdom figures and those who listen on the margins who would never go to graduate school or seek the title of “spiritual director”—and I believe these faithful men and women are still doing the good work of spiritual direction in the world. I also believe that it is important for me and those I train in spiritual direction to continue to do the work of skills building, growth, and learning within the field and that when it is within the purview and possibility of a particular director, to seek to meet any professional standards that are helpful to their practice and serve their directees well.

The chances are that your spiritual director isn’t “certified.” How and whether that matters to a directee is in the hands of those seeking spiritual accompaniment. However, for ethical practice, spiritual directors need to represent their training, associations, and professional development in a clear, straightforward and well-thought-through manner.

A Word About Weeks: The Valley of Gold



In November 2018, I had the gift of walking through the Valley of Elah. If you’re not familiar with that name, don’t worry—I wasn’t able to place it in the story of God until I planted my feet on it.

In 1 Samuel 17, Israel’s armies are encamped on one side of this valley. On the other, the vastly superior Philistine forces are aligned, ready to decimate the primitive tribe below them. Instead of costly bloodshed, they send out their champion to mock their opponents. And if you’ve guessed that champion is named Goliath, you know where that story goes.

That said, I’ve been thinking a lot about that valley since I took the picture of it at top. I’ve been thinking about it enough, that when a friend who was in Israel a few weeks ago sent me the picture at bottom, standing roughly where I’d been standing, my breath caught in my throat. Because the valley that had been only haunted by spring green when I saw it was ready for harvest. And I suddenly understood Pentecost on a deeper level than I ever had before.

For some of us, Pentecost brings up images of tongues of fire and a specific day in the Church calendar, if it brings up anything at all. (For me, it brings up a kitschy song, but that’s another story for another day.) However, Pentecost was a major Jewish festival, one of the moadim or sacred times. Also called the Festival of Weeks, or Shav’out (which begins on May 16, 2021), Pentecost is a harvest festival where the first fruits of the wheat harvest are to be brought to the Temple as a sacrifice to God.

The visual of the ripening harvest and the awareness of all that had been weathered by the people before they made their pilgrimage from their homes up to Jerusalem for this sacred festival makes me even more awake to the fact that God’s heart for us deep and wide.

Imagine for a moment the disciples gathered, waiting as Jesus commanded them, in Jerusalem. They don’t know what is to come. They’ve just been told that the Spirit will be poured forth. They don’t have any idea what that will look like, and, shaken by 40 days of Jesus’s frankly squirrelly resurrection appearances, they almost seem to be hiding.

And yet, there’s this festival that most of them know they need to be participating in. The firstfruits of the wheat harvest to be brought to the Temple comes most typically in the form of bread. The baking of which would have been happening all around them, filling Jerusalem with the pungent, yeasty smell of loaves and loaves of freshly made sacrifices.

Wouldn’t they been remembering all the times Jesus broke bread for them? Wouldn’t they have been thinking about the times that they walked through the fields of gold in their three years of following this wandering rabbi, plucking grain from the stalks, hungry not only for food but for more of what this iconoclastic man seemed to offer? Wouldn’t they be wondering about the harvest that Jesus had promised?

It’s on this festival that God chooses to pour out the Spirit. It’s in the midst of a city filled with the scent of baking that the Spirit enables these frightened women and men to become bread for others, the bread of Heaven.

They’ve walked through the valleys together, including the valley of the shadow of death—and giants much bigger than Goliath have been slain by Christ. Death is no longer. Sin has no grip. The valley that was a place of battle has become a valley of provision.

In this way, these disciples, these men and women waiting for what Jesus had promised, are themselves the firstfruits of His harvest. They are the grain that has been milled and crushed, leavened with the yeast of Christ’s resurrected presence. The waiting between Jesus’s ascension and this moment when the Spirit comes in tongues of fire has been a kind of proofing, a time when God has commanded them to rest quietly and let grace rise.

It strikes me that the tongues of fire were the kind of spiritual heat that was necessary for this full offering of themselves as food for the people. At Pentecost, they knew that the firstfruits, the wave offering that was to be given in order to sustain the people, were actually themselves. That the story that they were trusting in was coming forth in their very lives and faithfulness.

Pentecost is about the Spirit, yes. But it is also about all the valleys of darkness that God sows with good seed. In time, these valleys are filled with gold—sheaves of wheat that become the bread of our lives. And the bread of our lives that becomes sustenance for all people.

Thanks be to God.

Catch Me In My Scurrying: A Prayer for Lent by Ted Loder

Catch me in my scurrying

Catch me in my anxious scurrying, Lord,
and hold me in this Lenten season:
hold my feet to the fire of your grace
and make me attentive to my mortality
that I may begin to die now
to those things that keep me
from living with you
and with my neighbours on this earth;
to grudges and indifference,
to certainties that smother possibilities,
to my fascination with false securities,
to my addiction to sweatless dreams,
to my arrogant insistence on how it has to be;
to my corrosive fear of dying someday
which eats away the wonder of living this day
and the adventure of losing my life
in order to find it in you.

Catch me in my aimless scurrying, Lord,
and hold me in this Lenten season:
hold my heart to the beat of your grace
and create in me a resting place,
a kneeling place,
a tip-toe place
where I can recover from the dis-ease of my grandiosities
which fill my mind and calendar with busy self-importance,
that I may become vulnerable enough
to dare intimacy with the familiar,
to listen cup-eared to your summons,
and to watch squint-eyed for your crooked finger
in the crying of a child,
in the hunger of the street people,
in the fear of the contagion of terrorism in all people,
in the rage of those oppressed because of sex or race,
in the smouldering resentments of exploited third-world nations,
in the sullen apathy of the poor and ghetto-strangled people,
in my lonely doubt and limping ambivalence;

and somehow

during this season of sacrifice,
enable me to sacrifice time
and possessions
and securities,
to do something …

something about what I see,
something to turn the water of my words
into the wine of will and risk,
into the bread of blood and blisters,
into the blessedness of deed,
of a cross picked up,
a saviour followed.

Catch me in my mindless scurrying, Lord,
and hold me in this Lenten season:
hold my spirit to the beacon of your grace
and grant me light enough to walk boldly,
to feel passionately,
to love aggressively;
grant me enough peace to want more,
to work for more
and to submit to nothing less,
and to fear only you …
only you!

Bequeath me not becalmed seas,
slack sails and premature benedictions,
but breathe into me torment,
storm enough to make within myself
and from myself,
something …
something new,
something saving,
something true,
a gladness of heart,
a pitch for a song in the storm,
a word of praise lived,
a gratitude shared,
a cross dared,
a joy received.

Ted Loder, Guerrillas of Grace, Augsburg Books, 1981, 123-125.

Dread Leads You Deeper

Tara encountered Christiana Peterson and her words in Grand Rapids at the 2018 Festival of Faith & Writing. She knew immediately that Christiana would be a friend to the Anam Cara community. The excerpt below can be found in Christiana’s book, Mystics & Misfits: Meeting God Through St. Francis and Other Unlikely Saints.

Though the chapter this comes from is called Winter (and it is currently summer), when I stumbled across this, I loved it and wanted to share. Christiana gives us a glimpse into her every day journey – one that hold the roles of mother, wife and farmer with an ache to live in deep spiritual places. Christiana explores the desire to live a life of mysticism amidst the mundane routines of the daily life.


In the middle of February, my craving for the healing warmth of soil under my fingernails saw me starting my seeds inside the house too early. Flimsy black plastic trays lined the edges of my sliding glass doors. Their roots would be long enough to need more room before the soil in my garden was warm enough to transplant them. But I didn’t care. If I could just see something grow, I could believe that spring was possible. I could believe that the tracks in the snow—ones that marked my anxiety-filled trips to feed the chickens—were melting into the dirt, providing the moisture it needed for another year of growth. I needed to see the snow melting and the sun rising.

And I did. And just as my fingers were aching to grow something tangible in the soil, life was taking root inside my body as well: I discovered I was pregnant with our third child. Even though this was unexpected, we were excited to tell the kids. We knew Neva and Jude would take to their older sibling duties with gusto.

My belly expanded into the warmth of those summer months in the sixth growing season, healing parts of me. But true healing isn’t linear; it happens in fits and starts. Sometimes the tracks in the snow melt into the earth. And sometimes the snow covers them again and more are made.

Our lives had become waves of celebration and tension. Matthew and I realized that we could map out the farm seasons not by how well the farm had done or the health of the crops but by which major drama had occurred each year. The stress of five years in such an unsettled place began to catch up with both of us. Each winter, with the shorter days and so much more time to think, we wondered whether we should keep sticking it out for another farm season. It began to feel as though there were a fifth time of year: the season of dread.

In his book Contemplative Prayer, twentieth-century Cistercian monk and mystic Thomas Merton writes of the necessity of dread—dread leads you deeper. He says of a monk who is deep in monastic prayer:

The Word of God which is his comfort is also his distress. The liturgy, which is his joy and which reveals to him the glory of God, cannot fill a heart that has not previously been humbled and emptied by dread. Alleluia is the song of the desert.

The monk who is truly a man of prayer and who seriously faces the challenge of his vocation in all its depth is by that very fact exposed to existential dread. . . . The monk confronts his own humanity and that of his world at the deepest and most central point where the void seems to open out into black despair.

As I plunged more deeply into motherhood, I wondered what dread meant for a woman—one who, with her duties, couldn’t be a monk in the practical ways of life. Maybe she was a mother and a wife, working in the naptime hours or caring for others, or maybe she was single and working outside the home. Maybe she had a loving husband who craved her body and emotional strength, or babies who needed her body to live, who needed her emotional strength to be healthy. She was tapped out, her needs forsaken not because her husband and children were at fault but because she idolized her marriage, she attached to the idea that motherhood was a calling. Instead of insisting on her need for the things that gave her life, she was afraid that her needs were the idols.

She needed to grow in her spirit. But sometimes it felt as though I didn’t have the space to feel God’s presence. The mystics seemed to dwell in places of constant search, marked by times of quietness and times of agony, periods that lead them into a deeper relationship with God. Many of them monastics and nuns, they all appear to live in extremities of solitude, silence, and prayer, where distractions are mostly internal.

Clearly they didn’t have three young children. My solitude was extreme only in its absence.

Did I take a pass on mysticism when I became a mother and not a nun? Distractions abounded, and solitude took so much energy. And what was left for myself? What was left for God?

As I reached my mid-thirties, my hormones changing in normal ways, I was overcome by my own existential dread. Not from hours spent in solitary prayer—that was hardly ever a possibility—but from anxiety and depression. Were those anxious thoughts my prayers? Was this the kind of dread that should be my friend?

Maybe. Maybe dread was the only thing that made me desperate enough to ask God for help.

(Quotes are from Contemplative Prayer by Thomas Merton)
“Excerpted from Christiana N. Peterson’s new book, Mystics and Misfits: Meeting God through St. Francis and Other Unlikely Saints. (Herald Press, 2018) All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Christiana N. Peterson has written at places like Christianity Today, Christian Century, SheLoves, and Art House America about farm life, fairytales, community life, and grief. She lives with her husband and their kids in Ohio where she spends her time writing, wrangling four children, reading YA novels, leading worship, and trying to figure out how to live a mystical faith.

Four Meaningful Gifts for the Season

I admit it. I’m a sucker for the “suggested for you” and the Christmas gift lists sent out by my favorite writers (and retailers) around this time of year. If you put any stock in the 5 love languages, one of mine is definitely gifts, and I love scouring websites and catalogs for something both beautiful and meaningful for those I love during this time of year.

But, rather than suggest something for your spouse or best friend, or that special something for someone who has everything or wants nothing (two different states, mind you), I thought that this year I’d share just four gifts that might make for a more meaningful season—one more connected to the sacred and sacramental, to God and to one another.

So, in no particular order they are:

Every Moment Holy

This beautiful book of liturgies became my favorite book of 2017 as soon as I got it into my hands. Leather bound, full of original handcut prints, Douglas Kaine McKelvey’s book is both practical and sacred. In these pages you’ll find liturgies for changing diapers, liturgies for the death of a pet, liturgies before medical procedures, liturgies for feasting with friends, and more. They are meant to be used both communally and personally, and I believe that they’ll change the way you experience your every day life. Plus, it’s published by The Rabbit Room, which is a publishing house worth supporting. You can purchase yours here.

And if you’d like to experience one of McKelvey’s liturgies, you can download A Liturgy For A Husband & Wife At Close of Day.

A Christian Calendar

I’ve anticipated the release of the Christian Season calendar every year for the past five years. This calendar is full of original contemporary artwork, which is enough of a reason to purchase it in and of itself. But, more than that, this calendar is not shaped around the January to December year. It begins with the start of the Christian year, the first day of Advent, and traces the seasons instead of the world’s boxes of weeks and months. For example, one of the spreads is Holy Week, which includes Scriptures for reading on each day, and shapes the focus and importance of the week in the flow of the whole year.


You can get your copy of the calendar here.


Examen Dolls

Sacred Ordinary Days publishes a daily planner that includes the practice of Examen, developing a Rule of Life, and other wonderful resources for engaging God in your day-to-day life. However, since I’m the mom of a young child, I’m actually going to focus on one of their not-so-well-known resources, the Examen dolls.

There are two versions of these hand-stitched dolls (and, if you’re a sewer, you could probably replicate them yourself, but I’m not), which are inspired by the Ignatian Prayer of Examen. They can definitely be used as an adult, but they are intended as a tool for engaging a younger child in exploring where God has been in their experience of their day. The dolls provide a tactile way of talking through feelings, the nearness of God, and how your child has heard from God in their day.

You can buy one for your child or a friend here.

Sisterhood Soap: Preemptive Love Coalition

The Preemptive Love Coalition does incredible work around the world with those in war torn or at risk situations. You can purchase a variety of gifts from their shop that help those in need and support the work of Preemptive Love Coalition, but I love Sisterhood Soap in particular because of the person-to-person connection of the necessity and beauty of soap. As their website says, each item in this gift set is hand-crafted by a different refugee. Each one displaced by violence, each one rebuilding their lives. Every bar of soap, every washcloth, and every hand-crafted soap dish helps create a new future full of hope and possibility—for not one but three families.

Help three families by purchasing Sisterhood Soap here.


And, of course, if you’re looking for a way of entering into the seasons of Advent, Christmas & Epiphany in a more communal, slow, and sacred way, you can join me for When The Heart Waits: Accepting the Invitations of Advent, Christmas & Epiphany:

Prayer for the Woman in the Minivan Putting on Her Makeup at the Stoplight

I blame my friend, Tanya Marlow, for forcing me to make room to write this one out. You can blame her, too.

Prayer for the Woman in the Minivan Putting on Her Makeup at the Stoplight
After Brian Doyle

I will say, at first, that I’m glad you weren’t checking social media or texting or even reading email while you waited, which is what I see so many people doing these days while driving, and even myself, I confess. Father, forgive me. And I know you will probably be embarrassed that I saw you leaning into the small mirror in the visor before you, carefully dragging the mascara wand through lashes you most likely think are too thin or not curly enough or too short. But in seeing you in that moment I saw the vast and vulnerable humanity of us all—caught in between here and the world to come—trying desperately in our own small and humble ways to make the world a little bit more beautiful, a little bit more worthy of being looked at in the eyes when being talked to, a little bit more redeemed. However misguided our fumbling attempts, however we contain the sunsets with gilded frames and inspirational quotes—as if the glory of the Heavens needed a paint job—we are still trying, all of us, our engines idling in the rush between dropping off the kids and getting to the meeting, to bring the world into focus, to call forth something magnificent. And you did, you know: you and Cover Girl. You showed me the face of God. And so, amen.

The First Mention of Love

The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio

During Easter Vigil at my church, I was invited to share a brief meditation on Genesis 22. The theme of the evening was the ever-building victory of God over sin and death in the history of God’s people. As such, we heard meditations and experienced live performances in a variety of art forms on the Biblical narrative in the Old Testament starting with Genesis 1 and culminating in Ezekiel 37, as we waiting in anticipation for the dawning of Easter morning and the history-splitting revelation of the resurrection of Christ. In a short 5-minute reflection, I shared about God’s first revelation of love, which occurs in this very passage. I hope and pray it speaks to you now as it spoke to me to prepare and share this reflection then. It is still Easter, after all. He is Risen!

Imagine this moment with me.

You have been a pilgrim for the past 25 years. Instead of the stability, safety, normalcy that you had know for the first 75—seventy five—years, you have wandered in lands not your own, among people not your own.  

You’ve heard God promise you big—no, outrageous—things, and you’ve had arguments with Him under the stars. He has spoken, and though it has seemed completely crazy, you have obeyed, leaving everything you knew in order to see God’s will done, His promises fulfilled.

You walked in infertility for two and a half DECADES. Month after month, year after year, you and your wife—who is, by the way, just as old as you—have ridden the rollercoaster of hope and disappointment. Belief, and despair. Over and over again.

And, yes, you doubted God. You took things into your own hands. You forced and manipulated the story—who wouldn’t?—to make life happen. Ishmael. Your first born son.

But God wasn’t done with you. Your stumbling, He took it all in stride. In the face of your faithlessness, He was still faithful.

Sarah conceived.

Isaac, son of your laughter, was born.

It was a time of deep joy, a time for settling in to all that God had given you, stewarding it well, and living into the life He had promised you.

In amongst a people who didn’t know you, you embraced the promise passed down to you through Isaac. You provided for your son, you cared for your wife. You made a home in a foreign land, among people who didn’t speak your language, didn’t worship Yahweh.

You thought your wandering, your crazy days of following God into the unknown were done.

And then, God shows up again.

† † †

It’s in this context, 22 chapters into the book of Genesis, that God calls Abraham’s name. We can feel this story so deeply—the tense journey to mount Moriah, the moment that—if we’re truly honest—turns every parent’s stomach, makes every parent ache to hold their child (no matter how young or old) just a little closer.

Abraham binds his son, what he now believes is his only son after sending Ishmael and Hagar into the wilderness, and places him on the altar. He raises the knife.

And let’s not sanitize this, by the way. Isaac isn’t an infant. He knows what’s going on. Scholars debate an exact age, but Isaac is anywhere between 15 and 25 years old at this point.

The knife is raised, and an angel of the Lord stops Abraham’s hand. In a moment that points forward in time—hundreds and hundreds of years forward—God provides a substitute for the offering, a pure act of grace. Then it is the ram, but soon it will not a son of man to be offered, but the very son of God.

But let’s back up again.

Because there’s a moment before this, a tiny, seemingly unimportant moment, the moment when God comes to Abraham, who has walked through so much, given up so much already, and calls him by name.

Abraham, the one who has muddled through and messed it up, says to God, one more time, Here I am. At more than 100 years old, he says, Yes, God, I’m up for whatever’s next.

And whatever’s next is LOVE.

That’s the moment. Right there.

After 22 chapters, years of stories, this is the very first time the word LOVE is used in the Bible.

Oh, you’ll see it in the English, but the Hebrew underlying those translations is hesed, loving-kindness.

This time, in this encounter, God introduces us to LOVE (aheb) for the first time.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Love isn’t the romantic, flowers and chocolate love that the world sells us. It’s not even love between a man and a woman. It’s the love of father to son, in the context of sacrifice.

What God is showing us, what Abraham and Isaac are participating in, is real love.

Love that gives away the beloved with open hands. Love that offers the one it loves as a sacrifice. Love that is obedient unto death.

The first thing that we hear God the Father saying about Jesus in all four of the Gospels is this: This is my son, whom I love.

If we know Genesis 22, if we know what real love is, we know how this story is going to end.

And this time, it isn’t with a ram, with a life spared and a sacrifice redeemed.

This time, it isn’t about our efforts, our obedience, our faithfulness.

It’s about God’s effort, God’s obedience unto death, God’s faithfulness to us.

And we don’t have to clutch our children close, because God didn’t clutch close His son. He opened His hands and showed us what love really is.

For God so loved the world…