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.


O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel

O come, O come, and be our God-with-us,
O long-sought with-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name,
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,
O tiny hope within our hopelessness,
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.

– Malcolm Guite

from: Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year

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.

Guest Post: The Journey of Grief As Pilgrimage

Christine-Valters-Paintner-I’m honored to be hosting my friend and fellow author, Christine Valters Paintner of Abbey of the Arts here today on the Anam Cara blog. This is part of Christine’s virtual book tour for her latest offering, The Soul of a Pilgrim: Eight Practices for the Journey Within. To win a copy of her book, just comment on this post, and a winner will be drawn by Friday, July 24.


My heart sank when I stepped tentatively into my mother’s room. She lay there connected to a complex web of tubes and wires, eyes shut. The thin skin on her face was sunken and bruised, her lips were raw. She had a serious pneumonia that had entered her bloodstream causing septicemia and leading to unconsciousness, kidney failure, inability to breathe without a respirator, and dangerously low blood pressure. The previous evening she had gone into cardiac arrest twice but they had resuscitated her.

I took a deep breath and I began to pray those feverish prayers of desperation as death whispered in my ear. When you suddenly hope the way you have lived your life somehow earns the right to a miracle even though you no longer even believe in miracles and deep down you know that’s not how the world works. I prayed that she would be able to go home. But as day gave way to night, I realized that the meaning of that prayer had shifted. Going home would mean something entirely different.

I spent the hours perched on the edge of my mother’s bed, rubbing hospital lotion on her arms and legs as a private act of anointing. Each stroke became its own kind of blessing.

“She can hear you,” the nurses kept assuring me, despite her not being conscious, and so I sang simple chants to her choked by tears. Words of longing would rise up in me and I would bathe her in song. I told her again and again that I loved her and that she was beautiful and I wanted more than anything for her to open her eyes again and gaze on me.

Five days after I arrived to that hospital room, my husband John and I were there alone with her, her blood pressure and heartbeat began to drop and I knew my mother and I were both at a threshold in our lives. The slowing beep of the heart monitor sounded as though it marched her toward death rather than merely recording the journey. And when the beeping became one long sound, I began to wail.


We returned to Seattle and in those November days I found more solace among trees than people with well-meaning, but often trite, advice about grief.

First, came the brilliant gold leaves of the bigleaf maple, then the orange Pacific dogwood, and finally the reds of the vine maple. Then the slow process of letting go and watching the leaves fall from the trees became a daily meditation.

Once the last leaf had surrendered its futile grip and drifted gently to the ground, I was propelled into winter. Bare branches. Days that grew shorter. The sun, when it was visible, dipped low along the horizon so even in daytime there was a darkness that lingered and pressed upon my imagination.

My mother’s death was a threshold and grief became its own kind of pilgrimage through my life. The seasons became witness to the slow unfolding of loss from the release of autumn, to the ache of winter, to spring’s renewal of possibility, and the fruitfulness of summer.

We live in a culture that worships spring and summer. In my own pilgrimage of healing I discovered the wisdom and depth of winter. I have learned to love it on its own terms – not just as a preparation and precursor for spring’s blooming – but for all the ways it calls me deeper into unknowing. Being fully awake and conscious in the dark days of winter can be challenging.

But pilgrimage thrusts us into these spaces of unknowing and mystery, that are so often uncomfortable experiences. We have all had winter seasons in our lives when what was familiar is stripped away and we have to hold grief and open ourselves to the grace of being rather than doing. Winter calls us to trust that fallowness and hibernation are essential to our own wholeness.

For me, making a pilgrimage is not about growing more certain about the world, but embracing more and more the mystery at the heart of everything. In a world where so many people are so very certain about the nature of things, especially in religious circles about who God includes and excludes, I believe unknowing calls us to a radical humility.

As we mature, we must engage with what our own mortality means for us, knowing that we one day enter what I call the Great Unknowing. The season of winter helps us to practice for this and naming these experiences as times of pilgrimage helps us to understand them as ancient journeys.

This is the gift that pilgrimage can offer, a way of connecting our experience to thousands of journeys that have been traveled before. Some for very long distances, and some just along the tender borders of the heart.

Connect with Christine further at Abbey of the Arts, and follow more of her thoughts inspired by The Soul of a Pilgrim. Don’t forget to comment below to enter to win a copy!


Guest Post: A Different Kind of Grace

I’m over at Addie Zierman’s place today, sharing about my One Small Change for her series on social justice. It’s an honor to be hosted by such a warm, engaging, deep and thoughtful writer. While the piece made me squirm, the practice helps me keep my heart oriented toward God’s heart for me and for His world. (img source)

* * *

When I first came to faith, I was living as an alien in a large metropolitan city. Holding citizenship in a different country was a continual reminder that I was different from those around me, and my conversion pushed me further out into what I perceived as the margins of power in a power-centered town.

So I took up little acts of rebellion.

Correcting people’s grammar when they referred to the United States as “America”, asking co-workers not to use “Jesus Christ” as an expletive, insisting on saying grace over meals in public places.

This last I did wherever I was, whenever I could. Although I’d perfunctorily ask others if they minded, I rarely listened for the response before launching into a kind of prayer-speech designed more to discomfit the people at the table than to give thanks to God for what we were about to receive.

I thought myself so courageous, a defender of the faith, when the only thing that was “so” about my actions was self-righteous. I was more interested in keeping myself comfortable than caring for others, more interested in my position (and defending it), than meet people where they were.

I look back at my younger self with kindness and chagrin, continually made aware that each stage of the spiritual journey comes with its own wisdom and blindnesses. But I’ve also come to believe that I was close to getting something right in my early fervor: grace should make someone uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, back then, the someone I wanted to make uncomfortable over salad and sandwiches was my meal mate. Over the past few years, I’ve come to realize that the person shifting uncomfortably in her chair, holding her napkin to her knees should best be me.

Hang with me here.

Read the rest of the post over at Addie’s place.

Guest Post from John Blase + Book Giveaway

I’m so very honored to be hosting John Blase on the blog today. John is a sage and a mystic, a man with clay feet and a psalmist’s heart. His words got me through writing the first draft of the book (and I’m in edits now, which is why the blog has been so quiet.) More than anything, I love the way John loves, and the way he abides in God. Ever since the release of his newest book, Know When To Hold ‘Em: The High Stakes Game of Fatherhood, I’ve wanted to introduce it (and him) to you, to give it away like candy. And because of his publisher’s generosity, I get to do just that. So, enough of my words, and more of John’s. (And you can scroll to the bottom if you want to know how to win a copy of his book, but to miss the soul spilled out in between would be a poverty.)


The Message of Christmas

They were a team, two speakers taking turns at commentary. They were squeezed in- between the sounds of the season as performed by a university choir and orchestra. The man used the phrase love demands, not once but several times in the courses of his brief homilies. The woman spoke variations on that theme, like Christ will not return as a baby but as a man. After all, how could a baby demand everything?

I am a man who pays attention to words. And at least in my mind the man and woman seemed to have determined beforehand with a handshake and a wink to focus on the word demand, and to weave it in the evening as many times as they could. To me they definitely seemed in cahoots. As their commentary continued I kept thinking does love demand? Is that the message of Christmas? I am also a man who pays attention to the audience. And the audience nodded and a few even moaned yes, yes at the spoken passages of demand. But just because a crowd does something is not any indication of its goodness or rightness, even at a Christmas concert. So I kept thinking does love demand? Is that what Christmas is all about?

On my better days I am even a man who pays attention to the weather. And as I drove home after the concert it began to slowly snow. And the question I’d been thinking about became as clear as I could see in the cold night. No, I’m very sorry all you cahooters, but love does not demand.


The falling whiteness does not demand.
It simply falls, scattered.
If you choose to marvel at its beauty, fine.
But if you’re too busy, say on a phone call
with someone convinced of their importance,
well, that’s fine too.

Love, like snow, does not demand.
It simply descends, offered.
If you choose to be amazed at its falling, fine.
But if you don’t, you’re not the first.
It will melt away until it comes giving
again in a future season.




John Blase is the author of Know When To Hold ‘Em: The High Stakes Game of Fatherhood (Abingdon 2013). He is also a poet who practices the craft at He lives with his wife and three children in  colorful Colorado.




Book Giveaway

So, the rules are simple. I have six copies of the book to giveaway. (And if you’ve already read it, you know what a great Christmas gift it will make.) Comment on this blog post, and you’ll be entered to win. You can just say hi, or you could share a little about what these words meant to you, or what the meaning of Christmas really is, or whether or not you’re going to make your grandma’s pudding for Christmas day this year. Anything you like. Just share your words, and you’ll be entered to win. I’ll be drawing six random winners on Sunday, December 15 (Gaudete Sunday, good for joy and winning), and I’ll post their names here. I’ll also comment on your post to let you know that you’ve won, and you can send me your address via email. I’ll pop these beauties in the mail right away.

So, have at it.

Winners Announced!

Our giveaway winners are:

Josh Freeman
Billie Spiers
Jenny Wells

Please email me your full name and mailing address, and I’ll get these books to you by Christmas!

Guest Post—Savoring The Sameness

I’m over at A Beautiful Mess today, writing about what it means to savor life this summer.

With the door propped open in the evening, I am beginning to parse out the smells the wind brings over the threshold—the neighbors barbecuing burgers, fresh fertilizer two streets over, the way the lawn is telling us it needs a drink.

Read the rest here.

Guest Post—Waiting for Rain

The day is dark and heavy with cloud, a rare thing for Colorado. Last year’s drought has left the grass with little nourishment, the ground desiccated, and the low sky promises much-needed moisture. I’ve opened the doors to let the breeze blow through but I keep having to get up to prevent the front door from slamming shut. Eventually I prop it open with a quilted pillow. Something light that still keeps it from closing.

I’ve wasted several precious tea bags today, accidentally letting the water cool and the brew turn bitter as I’ve slept on the couch, waiting out a plane-bourn virus that snatched me from the jaws of productivity this week. I should be grateful for the slowing down, the way I’ve mirrored our dog in these languid, healing hours, laying first on one surface, then the next, in one position, then another. I am restless with dislocation, though, waiting for rain.

Years before, in our season of desolation, we came across a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye. Enfolded in rhythm and mystery, it spoke something that we needed, gave shape and weight to the nebulous and nagging sense of irritation we felt when someone came to us with simple answers, platitudes, Scriptures tacked on to pictures of soaring eagles. Between illness and job-loss, we’d been stripped of the simple, and when people came, holding it as a gift, not realizing it was instead a shield between them and our pain, we didn’t know what to do with our anger.

Read the rest of this guest post for the incredible Elora Nicole on radical self-care and waiting for rain.

Christians & Masturbation

As some of the Anam Cara Community are aware, I write, speak and teach on the topic of sexuality and spirituality. It’s a great gift to be able to do this—our sexuality is a vital part of who we are and what it means to be fully human, and our spirituality is deeply connected to it. I love the conversations, giggles and healing I’ve been a part of as I’ve brought God’s hope to this part of ourselves.

Today, I’m over at Rachel Held Evans blog talking about the topic of Christians and masturbation, where I was one of seven perspectives on the subject. Here’s a small excerpt.

Like many of the questions surrounding sexuality, I don’t think we can find simple answers—or any answers that hold together in real life situations—outside of the context of relationship. For me, sexuality is broader than mere genital expression (intercourse, foreplay, masturbation, etc.), and encompasses all of the embodied ways that we desire connection with the world, with one another, and with God—as well as all of the ways we go about expressing that desire. While that definition can be taken to extremes, taking a broader view of sexuality allows us to see the ways that sexuality impels us to connection with one another. Taken in this context, masturbation and whether or not it is a healthy expression of sexuality for a particular individual become questions of whether or not the acts of masturbation at a particular season of life are drawing you deeper into isolation from others and from God, or into deeper connection and intimacy.

Click here to read more.

If you come back later in the week, I’ll give you more than just a few paragraphs on the subject. If you have questions, please post them in the comments. I’ll do my best to answer them.

An Interview with Christine of Abbey of the Arts

I’ve been hosting Christine of Abbey of the Arts on the Anam Cara blog this week, and thought I’d round out the week by asking her a few questions. Feel free to listen in. (And don’t forget to enter the book giveaway to win a copy of Christine’s new book, Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice.)

Christine, thank you so much for all that you do. Your resources and writings have consistently brought healing, life, resurrection and more of God into my life. My first question is this: Can you share with us a time that having “eyes of the heart” helped you to see something (a situation, a place, a person) in a different way, just as the disciples recognized Jesus in the Emmaus story?

For many years now, part of my spiritual practice is to work with family systems and the healing of ancestral wounds, especially those of my father.  He died seventeen years ago, but his death in many ways only amplified my grief over his emotional absence.  About five years ago my husband and I traveled to Riga, Latvia, the city where my father was born.  He later had to flee to Vienna, where his mother’s family lived, because the Russians invaded.  I knew this experience of being a refugee shaped the adult he became.  I walked along the shores of the Baltic Sea, the same beach my father played on as a child and I had a powerful experience of seeing him there in his innocence.  Years of contemplative practice, and learning to soften my vision, broke me open to a whole new layer in my father revealed by being in that landscape.  I came to see him differently and myself, bringing compassion.

You mention in your post that “receiving” pictures is different than “taking” pictures. Can you explain the difference?

We move through so much of life just trying to get by, to “take” what we need from our various encounters.  Perhaps our weekends are filled with purpose-filled activities, like cleaning the house, paying the bills, stopping by the bank.  Maybe we even set aside time to be with our children, but are always thinking about what else needs to get done, or the work waiting for us.  None of these things are bad in themselves.  We do need to navigate, as best we can, a world of demands.

The problem becomes when this perspective infuses everything we do.  We go to the grocery store and feel impatient with the checkout person moving slowly because our time is being wasted.  Even spiritual experiences can become about consuming as much as possible, rather than transformation.

So this becomes translated into our photography.  Taking photos, we often have the urge to grasp at our experience, to record it and mark it.  With digital photography we can take hundreds of photos without thinking twice.  But we sometimes miss the experience itself in our urge to seize it through the lens.

In photography as a contemplative practice, we approach things differently.  We slow ourselves down.  We soften into the moment.  We trust that there is more than enough.  We do not need to rush, or grasp, or seize anything.  We wait and see in a new way, so that we begin to attend to what shimmers in the world around us.  Contemplative photography honors that this practice is about receiving the gift of the moment, not something we are entitled to receive, but sheer grace.

I love the quote you share about the Transfiguration really being about the disciples being transfigured, rather than Jesus. How does living as a contemplative, as a monk in the world, help us to be open to those moments when God invades to help us to see differently?

Those moments are happening all the time, we just aren’t attuned to them.  I believe in a God who is generous and abundant, who cannot help but overflow grace into the world.  So my call as a monk in the world, is to open myself to this possibility: right here, right now, in the most ordinary moment of my life, grace might break in.  Grace is already available, but I might make myself receptive to it.  I might soften the defenses of my heart which say that there is “nothing new under the sun.”

We have a lot of artists and creatives in this community who are also contemplatives. Would you share with us a little about the process of writing this book for you? What was it like? What surprised you?

The writing journey for me is always a process of discovery.  I begin with an outline of ideas I want to explore, but in the searching, I stumble upon new connections and insights.  What I especially loved about writing this book in particular, is that I had taught the material in an online class format for several years.  When I began to work on the book, I was given the opportunity to go into even more depth with the themes and to find new themes.  For example, color wasn’t part of the original class, and yet such a rich avenue of visual exploration.  Then to begin to investigate all the ways color has been symbolically significant in writings of mystics, like Hildegard of Bingen, or in the liturgical calendar.  In my chapter on mirrors and reflections I stumbled on all of these wonderful readings from medieval mystics about the mirror as symbol of the soul.  Writing a book feels like a delicious excuse to lose myself in my subject and follow the threads to see where they lead.  They don’t always lead somewhere, but it is the journey itself that brings so much delight.

Thanks for being with us this week. Join us here to win a copy of Christine’s new book. And now it’s your turn…

Do you have an Emmaus story that caused you to see things differently?

Have you practiced “receiving” pictures rather than “taking” them? What was it like for you?