When I was a freshman at Westmont College (the only year I would spend there), second semester I found myself in the little white chapel next to the pond almost every night (even though it was quite a hike from my dorm), and at other times as well. I was homesick (okay, lovesick, too - pining for a good friend that I hoped would become more - he didn't), lonely, and grieving the absence of my roommate (and kindred spirit) who had left after our first semester (to be with the boyfriend she thought she would marry - she didn't).
I felt such an aching that I longed for God to soothe. I didn't want to be where I was, but I had to for a few more months, so I sought solace in that prayer chapel, a place free of distractions, quiet and peaceful, where I could be alone with my Creator and Savior. It had a prayer notebook where chapel comers could write to God, which is what I did. And I read what others wrote. In fact, I even made some friends that way, because we sometimes wrote encouraging responses, thus beginning a dialogue. But my main purpose for going to the prayer chapel was to seek God, to be consoled by his presence, and to hear him speak life to me through his Word.
I also liked the security in the ritual of "escaping" to this private place. I knew I could go there at any time and that I would be refreshed. That I had a secret space to pour out my heart and to come undone with no one but God watching, and holding me next to his heart, even if I couldn't always feel that with my emotions. I would come away with that peace that passes all understanding, which Jesus promised his followers. I might be romanticizing it a bit, but whatever happened during that season of my life, I always remember it as the time when I experienced the deepest intimacy with God.
When I left Westmont, I sorely missed that sacred place. The heartache of unrequited love (actually more of a crush but I still felt devastatingly disappointed), the confusion of navigating my educational and career path, and many more challenging circumstances made me pine this time not for a guy or even a friend, but for a special meeting place with God. Anytime I would go on a retreat, if there was a place of prayer - be it a chapel or garden - I would gravitate there. I even started a flickr group specifically for people to post pictures of such small sacred spaces. I made up my mind that one day when I was married and had my own home, my husband would build a prayer chapel in the backyard.
Fast forward twenty years from my twenty year-old self, and now this forty year-old has finally entered the promised land. It doesn't quite look the way I imagined. It's not even a building, but then again, I have no backyard to put one in. And no one built it for me - it started with a simple thought I had one day while freshening up in the bathroom (funny how my best ideas often originate there). Our closet is attached to the master bath, so I began thinking...wouldn't it be nice if instead of using this tiny room for clothing storage, I turned it into a little spa where I could give people facials? Then I remembered that I wasn't an aesthetician but a homeschooling mom who couldn't even wash her own face on a regular basis, let alone provide pampering to others.
Another idea emerged. It was true that if I moved the clothes out, the approximate four foot by (just under ) six foot closet could actually be converted to a room. And if not an actual spa, wouldn't it be nice to have a restful room, a sanctuary of sorts? Thus was began the project of repurposing our master bedroom closet into a prayer closet (alternate names: upper room, secret place, sabbath chamber, sacred space, rest spot, quiet nook, hidden sanctuary).
Once everything was cleared out (I moved our clothes into the kids' closets - we may eventually get a wardrobe, in which case this idea will have birthed two magical places!), it was just a question of what to put in it. When I thought about seating, I kept picturing a moon chair. That ended up being the one extravagance of our humble prayer closet, but it was totally worth the splurge, as it has turned out to be exactly the right chair - I feel hugged whenever I sit in it! After taking one child at a time into the prayer closet, I realized it was a space where two or less could gather, so I wanted comfy, inviting seating for a child as well. That turned out to be a makeshift "lounger" I created out of throw pillows and a comforter (our winter one right now). When I'm alone (which is most common), it serves as a foot rest.
I didn't want to clutter up the place with stuff, and it's tight quarters, so I decided on one small, narrow bookshelf we already had. The shelves are for the Bible, my journal, and books to aid in prayer and worship. I started with just the basics, so as not overcomplicate things, but gradually I will add others we have that are helpful for practicing liturgy, sabbath, and the contemplative life.
The top of the bookshelf is mainly for the oil lamp, which allows me to adjust the brightness, unlike the large overhead light. Its only drawbacks are a faint odor and that it gives off a fair amount of heat, especially with the door closed (I sometimes leave it ajar) and if I have it turned up, so I also bought an aromatherapy diffuser plug-in halogen nightlight that has a dimmer switch. I put a few drops of essential oil - usually lavender - in the glass dish and its fragrance fills the room. I also keep some strongly scented candles on the overhead shelf (where I store memorabilia - pictures, journals, etc.), so that the room always has a distinct, gently floral aroma. Sometimes when I come upstairs to go to the bathroom in the middle of our school day, I'll splash water on my face, a spritz of rosewater toner, and then open the prayer closet door, inhale the sweetness, reminding me that in a little while I'll be able to retreat here. Just a glimpse of the room and a breath of its scent is soothing and calming.
Walls. Not the emotional kind. I'm talking white space. I knew I wanted imagery to evoke beauty and serenity in this special space, so I finally put to good use those old calendar pages I had saved - of Greece, the Mediterranean, whimsical garden scenes, waterfalls, Scriptures - and put them up, but not too too many, mind you. It's kind of funny because we've lived in our house seven years and I've still not hung our pictures on the walls!
Another thing about the lighting and the windowless space that occurred to me is that it's similar to what it would have been like it the catacombs, those underground passageways in Rome where the early church met in secret to worship (we were just studying that in our homeschool history). Ironic that their light shone brighter in those dark caves than out in the sun where the worship of of Christ was forbidden.
For the past year, my husband and I have been reading books about Sabbath keeping, and we've been trying to practice that in our family. Keeping the sabbath is a tangible way of seeking the rest and peace of God. By setting aside one day each week to cease from labor, consumerism, social media, etc., and to actively pursue the things of the spirit - in body, mind, and heart - it trains and empowers us to live that way in the midst of whatever pressures might surround us during the week.
I had the epiphany that this prayer closet symbolizes, and actually is a vehicle for that sabbath rest. It's a tangible expression of stopping and breathing and focusing on what really matters, and giving all my cares over to Jesus, and receiving his love, grace, truth, and whatever "word" he might speak to me for encouragement and growth.
A place. A day. These are actual solid tools, props if you will, to take all our good intentions and actually apply them. Illuminating the candles to start the sabbath. Lighting the oil lamp to begin a "quiet time." Saying blessings over the bread and the wine to remind ourselves of why we're at the Lord's Table and what we're entering into. Opening the Word to feast on God's goodness as I come to him alone, hungry and thirsty. These spaces, these ceremonies, these objects - they are examples of how our senses can be a gateway into what we cannot physically touch or taste or smell or hear or see. Liturgy - patterns that are repeated - engage all parts of who God made us. Through repetition, we go deeper and deeper into the knowledge of our Lord, becoming more intimate with him, just as our routines and traditions build closeness and strengthen the bonds in families - between husband and wife, between parents and children.
I'm only just beginning to use the prayer closet, and not nearly as often or as consistently as I want to, but already it has affected me deeply, and not just me. I have had very special times in it with each of my children. Quiet cuddling. Heart to heart talks. Prayerful problem solving. And each of them feels special when they get their alone time in it with me. Even just a few minutes, because usually that's all it is. Our middle child (age 8) set up her own prayer space underneath her desk! I nearly cried when she showed me. It brought home the truth that we lead by example more than words.
One last thing - for now - about this special space. I find that spending private time with God enhances the my experience of him in community. When I come to church on Sunday morning, the worship is that much sweeter when I have prepared my heart for it...or rather, God has. It also helps fill me with his grace and love, so that I have more of that to give to others. I'm not just in church desperate to be ministered to, but instead, I can minister from a full heart. Admittedly, I'm not totally there yet, but just like having a place for church helps motivate us to gather with the Body of Christ, so does the presence of a prayer closet invite me to come and meet with my Lord.
Reading this article about a ninety-five year-old woman who was one of Hitler's food tasters, I was struck by the conclusion:
Now at the end of her life, she feels the need to purge the memories by talking about her story. "For decades, I tried to shake off those memories," she said. "But they always came back to haunt me at night."
The walking wounded among us are not just holocaust survivors. Now is the time to begin dealing (with the past) and healing. Not wallowing in it, but praying through it, and in some cases, getting counseling, maybe for a season...or seasons...and not just for yourself, but for those close to you, with whom you are most likely to perpetuate the cycle of pain, if you don't stop it in its tracks.
We are born broken from our inherited sinful nature, and then the broken people who raise us inflict more damage, but when we invite God into the pain of the past, he picks up the pieces and makes us into magnificent mosaics. Fragile but held together by the strength of his love and radiant with his beauty. We are still his image bearers, even with the marks of our brokenness. And he joins us in our scars, his pierced hands and feet reminding us of his limitless love for those who will receive it.
So since I've failed to have a consistent Bible reading plan for...oh, a number of years...I had hoped to try afresh with the start of the church year, but it didn't happen until the advent of Lent (pun intended), at which point I began following the daily office of the Book of Common Prayer, which takes you through the Bible in two years in a sequential fashion - not in order or chronologically, but through three books of the Bible at a time with each day having a passage from the Old Testament, the Gospels, and an Epistle. It also has several psalms (think it takes you through them twice). Thematically, the readings are patterned after the seasons of the liturgical calendar. The idea is to read the Word morning, noon, and night, but I usually just do it in the mid-afternoon when my children are having quiet time in their rooms, and if I miss that, then right before I go to sleep, or if I miss that, then two days' worth at once (which is what's happened this week). I haven't yet worked in the psalms, but I'm hoping to read one in the morning and one at night.
Today I read in Deuteronomy and Hebrews about belief vs. unbelief (God's faithless and unfaithful chosen people) , and then Jesus' words in John 3 about baptism and spiritual rebirth...fast forward to tonight when I read The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald (C.S. Lewis' favorite author) to my daughters, the chapter was all about belief /unbelief - including the truth that even seeing isn't always believing, and it used the imagery of baptism - the princess submersed in a a magical bath that cleanses and renews her, inducing a peaceful sleep. As we were discussing the Christian symbolism (really the first time it's been obvious and we're pretty deep into the book) of believing the gospel, dying to our sinful self, and becoming born again, which baptism represents, I suddenly realized it was all so evident to me because I had just read it in the Bible! Yet another divine serendipity...
So for Lent this year, I'm giving up alcohol, white sugar, and white flour...except on Sundays...which my dear orthodox friend thinks is cheating. I told her and I'll tell you (in case you don't already know - I didn't, being newish to all things liturgical) that in the Catholic and Protestant traditions, there are actually 46 days of Lent - 40 days of fasting and six Sundays, which are feast days, because they represent Resurrection Day, so they are thought of as little Easters. When I've fasted from things before (food or the internet usually), it's always been for a whole season, so that's made me either more timid in my fasting (i.e. giving up less hard things) or I've failed (tried to go gluten-free last Lent, lasted two weeks). Getting the seventh day reprieve feels doable, and if it goes well, it may even extend past this season, becoming a way of life, because it's sustainable.
Besides the Sunday exemption, I am creating another modification - let me pause for a brief aside: none of this is mentioned, let alone mandated in Scripture - it's all manmade tradition, so it should especially be bathed in grace, without any hint of legalism. The point of following the church year and using these kinds of liturgies is to draw us closer to Jesus, to help us grow spiritually, and to be more like Him. It's not about shoulds and oughts and rules and regulations - that was the old covenant...so it's kind of ironic what I'm going to say next...
In recent months, we've been studying the fourth commandment, to honor the sabbath and keep it holy. My husband and I have been reading books on the subject and trying to implement sabbath keeping. We decided to begin our sabbath on Saturday nights and conclude them on Sunday nights. There is an opening ceremony in which we light candles and say blessings over the bread and the fruit of the vine and the children and each other (our sabbath table is pictured above). So...if Sundays are the exemption days to our fasting, that would mean no challah (unless I make it whole grain) and no wine (unless it's grape juice), so my idea is that to make sabbath keeping and Lent work together, "Sunday" will actually be the duration of our sabbath, so Saturday night to Sunday night, meaning we can have wine, bread, sweets, etc. from Saturday dinner until Sunday dinner (not including it).
In addition to the fasting and feasting of this Lenten season, I want to add something to this time, to make the fasting meaningful by replacing those comfort foods with soul food. And not just to feed myself, but others. The way I've always done that best is through writing. I've been hoarding my insights in my private journal or squandering them through social media. As I am more intentional in spending time with God and consistently reading his word (I'm beginning the daily office of the lectionary in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer), I want to share what he gives me with you. I also want to post some of the things I've already written, both in recent times and from the past. My plan is to post at least once per week - I'd say more but I don't want to set myself up for failure or feel pressured.
I'm excited...and honestly, desperate....for the new thing(s) the Lord will do in the next six weeks. I'm not expecting any kind of emotional thrills - I just want to hear that still, small voice instead of all my noisy self-centered thoughts. My prayer is to earnestly seek to follow what Jesus said were the two greatest commands - to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love my neighbor as myself, to live 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 because I believe and receive 1 John 4:7-19.
If you're a fellow INFJ (or even if you're not), are you always on a quest to find the perfect ______? Do you enjoy the thrill of the search more than actually finding whatever it is? Once you find it, are you on to looking for the next thing? For me right now it's road trips. We've never camped, so I'm hunting for the perfect spot for a weekend getaway - not too far from home, but not so close it's familiar; not too modern but not too primitive (showers); woods and also water; fishing for the husband and swimming for the kids; not lots of bugs or poison oak...and on it goes.
Before I was married, my quest was finding my "soulmate" - that kept me occupied for about a decade...not that I didn't look for other things in the meantime - research (introverted thinking) is the INFJ's tertiary/hobby function. Once I met my husband, the new "thing" became finding ways to celebrate special occasions - anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, vacations - I'm sure that, combined with the spiritual aspect, is what drew me to all things liturgical. I love the concept of making something new out of the old and of building traditions that are rejuvenated by creative interpretations.
What's interesting is that the brainstorming, the planning, and the anticipation often turn out to be more fulfilling than the thing itself. In the case of something permanent - like marriage and motherhood - thankfully that hasn't been true (though I have a strange recurring dream that I'm turning 40 - which I am shortly - and I'm still single, but just when I'm on the verge of hopelessness, I remember eHarmony - this dream is *very* annoying). With short-term quests, though, I sometimes spend more hours researching (and building up expectations) than actually doing whatever it is. I've read that actually most people enjoy the anticipation of a trip more than the trip itself.
INFJs, with our dominant introverted intuition always idealizing, our extroverted feeling making us want to be emotionally fulfilled while pleasing others, our preference for judging that drives us to perfectionism, planning, and getting everything settled, our introverted thinking function that analyzes everything to death...when all that goes into something that will be realized (lived out) with our inferior function of extroverted sensing - it can be somewhat of a letdown. I'm drawn to camping because it taps into that part of me that's not as developed - the hands-on sensory world - and in the best way, by enjoying God's creation. Still, all of my vicarious virtual camping is not going to translate to the perfect family getaway. I will struggle with setting up tents, getting dirty, lacking creature comforts, hearing the kids whining, quarreling with my husband over the best way to roast marshmellows (just kidding), fighting off mosquitoes, hauling stuff around, etc. Most of all, when it's over, I will feel the urge to look for something new to do, but really I'll be seeking something to think about, dream about, look forward to...
If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world. ~C.S. Lewis
I wrote this 12 years ago, but every summer it comes back to me, because it's still so true...
June 26, 2000
(if you have the REM song, it makes a nice soundtrack to this)
I am lying on my back, staring up into the great arms of the giant Oak stretched out across the dusky sky. Floating on this bed of water, it is as though I am flying without motion. Beneath me, I feel a light touch, an almost imperceptible grasp from head to toe. Invisible hands wrapped around my body, becoming one with it so that I am barely conscious of my physical self.
My mind, no longer barking out frenzied orders to the rest of me, readily relinquishes control to the unseen forces. My senses, too, are at rest--all except for my vision, and even that is obscured by the darkness that now covers the earth. Gazing into the blue-black expanse above me, I see the faint glow of stars illuminating the night one by one, their distant radiance whispering an other worldly existence. Against this ethereal backdrop, the branches of the Oak spread high and wide; they are strong and real and tangible. Yet this tree, like me, is reaching out for something more.
The perfect stillness purifies my thoughts, making them clearer and simpler. Like taking breathing for granted until you open a window in a stuffy room and take in the unexpected pleasure of delicious, fresh air. Or drinking out of a mountain stream and remembering what water is supposed to taste like. My mind, bathed in tranquility, returns to its oft forgotten childlike faith that trusts and hopes without reserve. I revel in the serenity of this place, imagining heavenly hands holding me up as I surrender my will to my Creator. The moment feels timeless to my soul, but my mind, too finite to comprehend the wonder, doubts. I feel the water begin to cover my face, fear sets in and I sink. I rise and fall again and again, relishing the minutes when I’m not bound by my human frailty.
I cannot stay in God’s calming presence forever but it is just long enough for me to have the strength to swim. As I labor to go across the pool, my arms and legs pumping furiously, my breathing rapidly increasing, I am aware that I am not doing most of the work. He is still carrying me as I travel back and forth, gently reminding me that it’s okay to stop and float.
On this Good Friday, I realized something very good. God giving us the seasons - literal and liturgical - proves that he never gives up on us. We always get another chance, a new beginning, a "next time" to do it differently. Notice I didn't say "do it right." We may have to wait for it, but it won't seem like it since whatever time it is, we'll be starting one of those cycles over again - or be in the middle, perhaps floundering, or even just anticipating the end of a certain season, so that we can move on to the next one.
What I mean is this. The last time I blogged was the beginning of of Lent. I had thought that by giving up and receiving grace for certain things, like reading the Bible in a year, catching up on past projects, etc., I would be able to more fully enter into the liturgy of Lent - do my devotional readings, spend more time praying, concentrate on repentance, quieting myself before God, finishing "The Celebration of Discipline" which I had been reading (barely) since...well, this post. What I actually did was pretty much give up on all of it. It wasn't intentional, and therein lies the problem. Somehow I have the best intentions but I fail to be intentional. Paradoxes abound. So does grace. Thank God.
So I failed Lent. And it's even worse than that. I also totally stressed over all the stuff I was trying to let go of thinking about. That's probably connected to my lack of connecting with God during this time. And to be totally honest, I had also decided to give up gluten, but I quit after two weeks. It wasn't that I missed it so much. I just didn't know why I was doing it. It turned out not be a spiritual discipline. I think the only food that would qualify for that would be cheese. But I digress. It wasn't the fasting part that made me feel like a failure. It was the part where I missed Lent. Where I didn't even make myself go through the motions except for a few feeble attempts. But guess what? I have next year. Come Epiphany 2013, I hope to start preparing myself for Lent. Because I think that's part of my failure - not planning ahead. Which leads me to my next point.
The two biggest cycles of the church year have down time in front of each of them. With Advent, we've got scads of Ordinary Time, and with Lent, it's the same deal...or it's Epiphany, but not much going on then, especially for us Protestants who don't have all those feast and saint days to bother about - no offense to those that do - I think it's very cool, but I'm a latecomer to all things liturgical.
My main point, though, with this post, is to marvel at how God redeems our mortality, not only through the gift of grace that gives us eternal life, but also through the way he structures time on this earth. Winter, spring, summer and fall (yes, the James Taylor song is running through my head, too) provide a rhythm for life, as well as a context, or a backdrop, if you will, against which we can see our growth and our need for growth. The world around us changes, yet it stays the same. We can either be a hamster on the wheel or we can be the groundhog...er, like that guy in the movie Groundhog Day (all these pop culture references are dating me, I know) who wakes up in the same day every morning (and to Sonny & Cher singing "I got you, Babe"). When he finally sees it as an opportunity to change, he becomes a new person (and gets the girl, of course). But it took waking up in the same day umpteen times for him to finally realize he could live differently.
Spring will come again. So will Easter. So will tomorrow. His mercies are new every morning. Let's remember that when we're groping around for God in the dark of night...or just sitting there on the couch, eating popcorn and zoning out in front of the screen. He's right there with us, ready to take us as far as we'll go, whether it's now or next year or the year after...
Giving up my best intentions. Giving up my less than best efforts. Giving up legalism. Giving up perfectionism. Giving up my pride. Giving up myself.
...So what am I actually giving up?
My plan to read the Bible chronologically in one year, while also reading it liturgically. After plowing through Genesis and Job - man, was that ground rocky - I completely fell off the wagon around the beginning of this month. I never really did consistently do my readings for Epiphany either, but at least I could pick up with Lent, whereas with the one year plan, I couldn't (or wouldn't) skip Exodus and Deuteronomy to get where I was supposed to be with my reading. That left me no choice but to quit and try again next year...or so my perfectionistic all or nothing mentality almost convinced me...until it dawned on me that I could continue reading where I left off if I would surrender the idea of reading the whole Bible in a year. And if I removed the time constraint, I could even have a chance to study those difficult Old Testament passages that were part of the reason my motivation had waned. Moreover, it would leave space to weave in my church year readings instead of feeling like I had to choose between them. Giving up rigidity was gloriously liberating. I wasn't giving up - I was giving in. Giving in to the God whose plans always turn out better than mine.
Catching up on the Past. I haven't printed photos from the last 6 years. With each upload, my burden to get them sorted and printed grows heavier and more seemingly untenable. So I asked myself what is at the root of this? Guilt and fear. I feel bad that my children (ages 9,7,5) aren't able to see pictures of themselves when they were younger. I fear their memories will fade of special times because they haven't been visually reminded. I even fear my life being cutting short and not having properly documented everything. I finally asked myself, "Is it impossible for them to see these pictures if they aren't in book form?" Not at all. For some reason, I hadn't thought it could work for them to browse through iPhoto, even though they often would do that over my shoulder when it was on my screen. I guess I didn't think it was good enough. I had this picture in my mind of our family gathered around the couch, flipping through pages together, reminiscing. Anything less than that seemed like failure. Now I'm giving up that ideal, as well as the fear its rooted in and the guilt it grows...and giving in to grace. I'm trying to apply that to my other unfinished projects, especially organizational ones - the kids' artwork accumulated over the past five years , a decade (our whole marriage) of filing, and so on. I'm not giving up on dealing with it but I am giving up listening to the ticking clock, surrendering my fears of an unfinished life and guilt over failing to preserve our family's legacy in the "proper" way.
Homeschooling by the Book. Although I love The Well Trained Mind, it sets the bar quite high for providing a classical education. But it's home to me - it's where I started and where I feel safest (there's that fear again) and what feels right. At the same time, its rigorousness is beyond my capacity, so I feel inadequate since I never quite can implement all the reading and projects and subjects, which even the authors tell you not to attempt, but my perfectionism plugs its ears and creates a compulsion to complete every curriculum by the end of the school year. All of this pressure has caused me to overemphasize structure and to quicken our pace. This, of course, drains the joy out of learning, and doesn't give us the time to linger longer over what's most interesting or takes more time to master (for lack of a better word). So I'm loosening up and slowing down and stepping back to look at the big picture. Academics are only one of our reasons for homeschooling, so that shouldn't be steering our course. Once again I'm giving up...giving up the wheel and letting God take the driver's seat, even if that means leaving classical country for new educational lands, or commuting back and forth between them, rather than insisting we stay parked in one spot.
Obviously this isn't just for Lent, but it does seem the perfect (haha) season to start the process of giving up and giving into God's grace, beginning with these tangible areas of my life.
Soulmates aren't the same or even equal - there is a sameness about them, but it's not the way I always imagined. Before I met my husband, I thought that my soulmate would be my equal, and I his - equally attractive, intelligent, intellectual, spiritual, honest, and so on. Except of course in the traditional men/women characteristics - I imagined him taller, stronger, more courageous, confident, etc.
In fact, I married a man who is shorter, not as intellectual as I am, more attractive (well, at least I think so), and very different from me (besides our male/female differences), yet we are soulmates. In the early years of our marriage I wondered if I had made a mistake. We fought often and ugly - he didn't seem to "get me" so much of the time, and I didn't totally trust him. We weren't reading each others' minds and we had a great deal of trouble even understanding each others' words! Our communication styles and our ways of operating seemed to be totally opposite. Despite the conflict, we persevered, got outside help (parents, counselors, pastors), and kept working things out, even if was the same fight we had resolved ten times before. As we did that, a funny thing happened - we began to understand each other, accept each other, and actually become more alike!
Our stubborn refusal to give up communicating kept us constantly connected. And the other half of the time, we were mostly just enjoying, or at least being with one another. We were also having babies (three in those first five years, during which we moved homes every year, moved our business twice, and bought a house) and raising our children together. What we did have in common grew deeper - both of us prefer intuiting (N on the MBTI) and feeling (F), which makes us passsionate visionaries/counselors/artists (NF idealist on the Keirsey Sorter), but he prefers extroversion (E) and perceiving (P), while I prefer introversion (I) and judging (J). We actually found a book about ENFPs married to INFJs! Having an NF temperament was part of what made us both so willing to dialogue and grow and nurture our relationship with each other as well as our individual relationships with God. Our contrasting preferences created friction, but iron really does sharpen iron - it also forged each of us into being more well-rounded and preserved a sense of mystery/tension that helped keep the romance alive.
As we grew in our marriage, I began to realize that my husband was my soulmate. I started to see so many amazing qualities in him that blessed me and our children and the people around us. He does "get me" in a way no one else does. And I "get him" too, but even more than that, he loves me and serves me like Jesus. There is no more soulmate than that. My goal now is to become his soulmate - he would say I already am, he is so grace filled, he doesn't see the inequality, or maybe it's just that he chooses not to measure, which I shouldn't be doing either, because none of is worthy of our very soul, let alone a soulmate, yet the God of the universe loves us so much that he not only gives us life, but eternal souls, along with earthly soulmates. Both my soulmate and I know that there is only one who truly knows us in our deepest parts - the One who created us and with whom we will always be one.
I love it when God speaks to me through a serendipity. He often does it through repeated words or phrases that reappear in pairs or clusters - for a day, a week, a season. Some people might argue that my experiences are coincidences or that my mind is finding patterns because that's what it's hard wired to do. Oddly enough, that's exactly what makes yesterday's serendipitous moment profound to the point of transcendence...because it was all about the brain and spirituality, or as the book that started this whole thing calls it: "neurotheology."
About three weeks ago we were on vacation and stopped into a thrift shop where I found a copy of Fingerprints of God: What Science Is Learning about the Brain and Spiritual Experience by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. I vaguely remembered having read about it and being intrigued, so I was pleased to score such a deal on a relatively new book. Initially, I was captivated, both by the subject matter and the author herself - a "mainstream Christian" (whatever that means) NPR religion reporter on a paradoxically personal and objective quest to explore the relationship between the brain and God.
About halfway into it, though, I struggled with going forward. Two things were happening: 1) my specific belief system was challenged (much like the author herself) by the fact that people of all religions have the same kind of brain activity when meditating or praying; 2) spirituality was defined as having mystical experiences, even though that is not the stuff of day-to-day faith, nor do most Christians (pentecostals aside) have other worldly conversions or supernatural seeming encounters. In fact, many never do.
Still, it was a fascinating topic and I wanted to finish the book, so I kept reading. Yesterday I read about brain scans that scientists studying neurotheology performed on "spiritual virtuosos":
Newberg found another peculiar similarity. With both the nuns and the [Buddhist] monks, the parietal lobes went dark during deep prayer and meditation.Newberg calls this "orientation area" because it orients you in time and space: those lobes tell you where your body ends and the rest of the world begins. That is why Sister Celeste (and countless other mystics) described a unity with God, or as she put it, 'God permeating my being' It was the neurological reason that Michael Baine felt a "deep and profound sense of connection to everything, recognizing that there was never a true separation at all." (p. 174)
Later that day, I received some books from my Amazon wish list that I had ordered using a gift card from my birthday. It was a little like Christmas, getting these packages several days in a row. That night, I took a stack of my new books up to bed, and decided to a read a chapter from each - sort of a literary nosh, if you will. In the introduction of one of them, SoulTypes: Matching Your Personality and Your Spiritual Path, I read this passage:
A group of scientists interested in exploring whether there are brain-based differences that determine our religion are using the type of prayer described there to define who is and isn't "spiritual." In all religions, these neuroscientists say, mystical, spiritual moments happen when parts of the brain (parietal-lobe circuits) go quiet, turning off your ability to distinguish between the body and its surroundings. Without sensory data, you feel a sense of being part of infinity or, for the religious, being "one with God." They use SPECT scans to determine whether the person is having such an experience. Building on this research, books such as The God Gene describe how we either are or aren't wired for faith. Kenneth L. Woodward, a religion journalist for Newsweek, points out the problem with this approach:
"The chief mistake these neurotheologians make is to identify religion with specific experiences and feelings. Losing one's self in prayer may feel good or uplifting, but these emotions have nothing to do with how well we communicate with God. In fact, many people pray best when feeling shame or sorrow, and the sense that God is absent is no less valid than the experience of divine presence."
As I read that, I had an emotional experience - not of the presence of God, but of excitement over him having clearly communicated with me. He didn't do it through my feelings, an audible voice, or a supernatural sign - he did it through my life. He did it by leading me in one day to two books dealing with spirituality, which otherwise were totally unrelated, yet intersected at this one specific point, from whence they each went in very different directions. God used the second book to reassure me by validating/confirming the very thoughts that had come to my mind while reading the first book. It was especially powerful because it was merely a sidebar, so to speak, in the second book, and I therefore had no way of knowing that topic would be addressed, let alone that I would discover it just at that time!