Transcript of episode 4: Spiritual connectors
Welcome to the Loved Called Gifted Podcast. This is your place to come for musings about spirituality, identity, and purpose.
I’m your host, Catherine Cowell.
In this episode, we’re going to think about prayer. In other words, how we connect with the Divine. The fact is that we don’t all connect with God in the same way. Some things that are really helpful for some people can be deeply unhelpful for others. Often, though, we are part of a spiritual community or a church which has a particular style of worship. And that’s great, if that style of worship and prayer really fits with our personality and the things that work for us.
What is not so good, however, is if we find ourselves within a community where the practices don’t match our personality, don’t match the way that we’re wired, and so quite often what can happen is that we find ourselves trying to connect with God in ways that simply don’t work for us. That’s not to suggest that, if the ways that if the ways that your church connects with God doesn’t work for you, you should immediately be heading for the door, but it is to say that if you haven’t spent some time working out what does work for you, you can find yourself thinking that you’re not very good at prayer, or you’re not a great Christian. That kind of guilt can be deeply unhelpful. It’s not that often that we take a step back and work out what it is that helps us personally connect with the Divine.
So what I’m going to do in this episode is just to think about some of the different ways that we might connect with God. The thing is that some ways of praying and connecting that work incredibly well for one person not only don’t work for somebody else but can actually sometimes get in the way. So what we’re going to do is to have a think about a whole range of different things which influence how easy we might find it to connect with God. And each of these, as I talk about them, you may think, “Yeah, that really, really suits me, that fits, that’s something that I find helpful.” Or it might be that as I talk about it you think, “Well, it doesn’t make a lot of odds to me really, I can take it or leave it.” And there might be some things that are, quite frankly, deeply unhelpful to you. So the things that help you to connect with God you might refer to as spiritual connectors; the things which get in the way you might think of as blockers. And the point of this is really just to help you to take a bit of time to reflect on the things which really work for you.
So the first thing I want to think about is whether you find being by yourself and having silence and solitude really helpful. Are you somebody who recharges, perhaps, by being by yourself? Do you find the idea of long stretches of time, just you and God, contemplating, praying, without the interference of other people, really helpful? Or does that sound like an unmitigated nightmare? Some people find solitude really helpful. Others don’t find it so helpful and would prefer to do their spiritual connecting with other people, through interaction and conversation and being with others. Of course, it might be the case that you like both. But quite often we will have a preference for one or the other.
I can remember quite a number of years ago now being sent on a Quiet Day with some women from the church that I was part of at the time. The idea was that we were going to go to a convent, nearby, and spend some time with the nuns there, getting silence and being by ourselves with God. I was really looking forward to this. And when we were sent out to wander the grounds, and spend time in prayer alone, I was really relishing the prospect of this. Quite a number of other people in my group evidently did not relish the prospect of this, and not only didn’t want to be silent, but seemed utterly incapable of being silent. So there I was finding my quiet spot, sitting down and praying, and was constantly interrupted by other people coming past and talking about how beautiful the convent was, and how wonderfully peaceful the convent was, and wasn’t it nice to be somewhere so tranquil, and I was sat there thinking, “well, it was tranquill, until you came along! And now quite frankly it isn’t tranquil.” So, for me, silence and solitude is often helpful. For some people it really isn’t. In fact it can feel like punishment. Conversely, there are some people for whom interacting with others and having conversation is really helpful, and there are some people for whom that feels like a bit of an interruption.
So have a think about whether it is that you like to be in solitude or whether you like company and interaction and being with others. And it may be that you like a bit of both, but you might really have a preference.
The other pair of things that tend to vary between people is whether you like discipline, spiritual routine, structure, predictability, or whether you’re somebody who thrives more on spontaneity. We do tend to fall into one of these two camps. So for some of us, and this is a personality thing really, having structure and routine, knowing what’s going to happen, knowing that we’re going to do our prayer in the same way every day, that there’s going to be some structure around it, is… freeing, actually. It feels as if, once you’ve got that in place, once you know what’s happening, once you know what the plan is, you can be free within those bounds. If that’s you, then you are likely to be the kind of person who, once you get into a routine, of maybe getting up in the morning at a particular time, then you will find it easy to stick to it, because it is giving you freedom and support.
Other people find that kind of routine and structure really mind-numbingly dull and unhelpful. If you’re like that you might find that what happens is that you start out with a really good intention of thinking “I am going to do this bible study course!” or “I am going to do this reading through the bible in a year”, or “I’m going to do this kind of meditation.” And you think, “I’m gonna really work hard at this, I’m going to be intentional.” And then what happens is that in the first few days that you start your new meditation/bible reading/prayer scheme, you really do quite well with it, and it’s interesting, and it’s exciting! Three days in, you’re kind of beginning to have to quite work at continuing to do this; it somehow doesn’t have the shine that it did to begin with. Five days in, it’s beginning to become mind-numbing, and you’re starting to think “why did I ever start this?” And you’re starting to think, “I must be lacking in discipline! I’m obviously not cut out for this spirituality lark! There are other people who’d be doing much better than me!” Two weeks later you’re either slogging away at it because you’re absolutely determined to keep going, and you’ve decided that this time you will, but to be honest, it’s like eating cardboard and you’re not getting much out of it, or you have given in and given up. And you’re thinking, “ugh, there’s another prayer plan that didn’t work!” If that’s you, it’s probably the case that you simply have the sort of personality that thrives on spontaneity, that likes being taken by surprise.
So for you, it may be the case that actually it’s really helpful to have a plan, then change it and do something different. Maybe have a number of different kinds of plans that you dip in and out of. You might be thinking, “well, if I’m just gonna kinda flit around from one thing to another, if I haven’t got that discipline, then how am I going to make sure that prayer happens for me?” What I would say is that if doing praying at the same time each day in the same way doesn’t work for you, if that kind of routine feels like a straightjacket, and you need to be more spontaneous, because that’s what works for you, then what you need to do is to swap routine for intentionality. If you can keep it high up your agenda, if you can keep it in mind and find ways of reminding yourself that this is something that you really want to do, then it is very likely that that intention, combined with the kind of spontaneity that you need, will be the thing that helps you to keep going and keep your relationship with the Divine fresh, and vibrant, and helping you to continue to be stimulated and interested. And in the end, that’s going to be much healthier, and create a much happier connection with God, than if you tried to carry on doing the thing which was really leaving you feeling terribly bored.
So that’s discipline vs. spontaneity. I wonder which of those most fits for you. And it doesn’t matter which it is, the important thing is to make sure that you structure things for yourself in a way that is actually life-giving and that helps and supports your spirituality and your journey with God.
Two other ways of looking at the world which can quite often influence how easy we find it to connect with God and to pray is whether or not we are the kind of people who like things to be practical and down to earth and based in facts and real life, or whether we’re more interested in imagination and possibilities and ideas. If the down to earth thing works for you, then you are likely to be listening to a sermon wanting to know what the practical tips are that you’re gonna get from this. What does this actually mean for your everyday life. If somebody is simply talking about ‘theology’ and things that feel kind of “airy-fairy”, and not connected to the real world, then you may well find that boring, and it may well be that you think, “This is just irrelevant.”
Whereas, if you’re the kind of person who really enjoys that sort of, thinking for the sake of thinking, and you’re not particularly bothered about things being rooted in ‘real life’, then it may well be that when you listen to those sermons that have got lots of practical, down to earth tips embedded in them, you actually begin to find that a bit dull. Coz you sort of think, “well, that’s obvious, what I want to do is to think about something interesting.” The biggest impact that this personality difference is likely to have, really, is in how well you appreciate particular kinds of sermons and teaching and preaching. It might also have an impact on the kind of praying that you want to do. And that’s absolutely fine.
It means that you don’t need to feel guilty if the sermon that you listened to last Sunday left you feeling bored, and didn’t really do anything for you. It’s inevitably going to be the case that because we’re all different, different things are going to suit different people. So maybe what you need to do, if it’s not a very down to Earth sermon and you’d like one, is think about how you might make it more down to Earth. And if it’s too down to Earth for you, then you might want to think about “what are the ideas that this is sparking in you?” We are all different, and we need all of those different kinds of personalities.
Ok, our next, and this is the last kind of set of sort of two things together, really. Our last set of two things together is the sort of, what I’ve referred to as ‘stormy weather’ vs. ‘blue skies’.
So some of us really like challenge and difficulty and hardship. That might sound unlikely but there are people who, if their life doesn’t already have challenge in it, are likely to go and find some. An example of somebody in the public eye like this would be Bear Grylls. If you think about the kinds of television programmes that Bear Grylls produces, they all involve things being flippin’ difficult. And there are people, you will notice, who volunteer to go and be abandoned on an island, or to go somewhere where they’re going to end up needing to drink urine, or to join a reality tv programme where there’s not going to be enough food, or they’re going to train with the SAS. There are people who genuinely want to do those things, and choose them, and think that that’s going to be good. And for those people, life can come alive when things are tricky. And if there isn’t trickiness, they will go out and seek it. I remember listening to somebody preaching a sermon, a few years ago now, and he talked about a camping trip, somewhere out in the wilds of… somewhere obnoxious, as far as I could tell. And he said that during the night, a crocodile came underneath his tent, and lay underneath him, in order to benefit from his body warmth. And then in the morning, it slithered away. And he was talking about this in raptures, as if it was the most marvellous thing, and said “Ohh, it was amazing!” And I sat there listening thinking, “that does NOT sound amazing to me. That sounds like a nightmare.” It does seem to be the case that some of us are more up for that kind of hardship and challenge than others. If that is you, then you may find that your spiritual life is at it’s best, when life is hardest. It may be that you quite like things like fasting, because that sort of works for you. That might not be your thing, but it might be.
By contrast, some of us find that a bit of comfort works quite well. It might be that life going well, or… having a few luxuries around, actually helps you to get into a place of peacefulness where you find it easier to connect with God. And I have to confess that that’s definitely me. One Lent I was thinking about this. I had been spending some time looking at spiritual connectors and blockers and doing some writing about it, and I sat there and thought, “d’you know, every single Lent –“ – well not every single Lent, that’s not true, but often, at Lent, I would give something up, and it really didn’t help very much. I remember on one occasion I decided to give up coffee; I don’t know what possessed me, but I did. On another occasion I gave up lunch *chuckles* I gave up lunch for the whole of Lent, and was miserable and hungry most days. And I thought, “What is it? Where is it when I most connect with God? If I was going to do a Lent that involved me connecting best with God, what would that be?” And I thought about it, and I thought, “d’y’know, one of the times when I feel that I’m closest to God is when I’m sat in a coffee shop.” So I decided to organise my Lent around that. So I had the discipline of going to a coffee shop as often as I could manage it. Once a day. I didn’t beat myself up if I couldn’t manage it, I thought I will just make up for it the next day by having coffee AND cake. And do you know, that was one of the most blessed times that I’ve ever had? I really felt that I connected with God. And it was about the fact that I had done something a little bit nice for myself. And I had gone somewhere where I felt comfortable. And I think the truth is that when things are difficult, and sparse, and what I would refer to as “unpleasant”, I almost feel like I’m in trouble. That doesn’t help me to connect with the fact that God really loves me.
I suspect that there are some people who would find overmuch comfort just not particularly helpful, it just might not be the thing which works for them. They might not care that much.
Ok, another thing which really helps some people to connect with God is beauty. Arts, creativity, excellent music, beautiful things. Some people find that looking at paintings can help them connect, they just have a real sense of transcendence, and connection with the Divine in the presence of beautiful music or art or paintings or just being around things that are well crafted and well done. And if that’s you, well then go and find them and expose yourself to those things, because it’s going to be helpful to you.
For some people it’s nature, and being outside. It might be that you like watching the birds, or it might be that you like romping over mountains. If you enjoy nature and you’re also one of those people who likes hardship and challenge, then your kind of nature might be hanging off a rockface somewhere in the cold. If you’re somebody who likes comfort, then you might prefer gentler walks, through more clement weather and nicer climates. It may be that you just enjoy growing flowers or watching the birds, or simply being outside. And that’s something that often we don’t do that much of together when we’re very busy doing church. But if nature is something that helps you to connect, then get out there and be with God in those spaces.
For some people, actually being active, doing things practically to help people, having a sense that they are making a difference, so getting engaged with things, often is the thing which helps them to know that God is there, that they are connecting with God. And they have a real sense of God’s presence in those times and in those places.
For some people, it is fighting for a cause. Fighting for justice. Having a real sense of what God’s heart for justice would mean in terms of what’s happening in the world.
It may be that the thing that really helps you to connect with God is thinking. Studying, learning new stuff, gaining new and fresh understanding. It might be that it’s the bible that you like to study, or it might be that simply learning more about the world, or learning more about, for example, psychology and how people think, that might be the thing that works for you. And if it is, then you can regard your studying as a sacred thing. And consciously invite God into that time and into those spaces.
Ritual and ceremony, tradition, help some people very much. It might be ancient tradition, that’s often the case. It may be that going somewhere where the service follows a liturgy and you think “this has been spoken by people for generations” or “this is being spoken by people all over the land today, everybody is following the same liturgy.” That might be the thing that really helps you. Ancient sort of embodied practices like lighting candles and kneeling and walking up and down the church when the bible’s being read and the robes and the incense, all of that might be the thing for you. Or it might be more kind of modern traditions, it may be that there are particular things that you like to do at particular times of the year or in particular seasons. You might have created your own traditions. It may be that lighting a candle or having a particular kind of meal at a particular time really means something to you. It may be the fact that the church always has a barbecue in August is something that really helps you to connect with the rhythm of life and you appreciate that. And if that’s the case then get more tradition in your life.
Singing, dancing, that kind of thing, can be really helpful for some people. And not for others. If it’s simply the singing that you love, then it may well be that you’re not that fussed how good the music is. Or how well written the song is. It might simply be the case that singing to God just lifts your soul and helps you to feel close. It may be that you like to sing in a fairly traditional way, it might be that you like to sing with clapping and dancing. There’s a modern worship song that has a lyric that goes something like, “I feel alive, I come alive, on God’s great dance floor.” And I listen to that and I think, that is definitely somebody who’s spiritual connector is singing and dancing.
If you’re someone who loves beauty, we were talking about earlier, and excellent music, then it may well be that singing and dancing which you think is musically poor, really turns you off. If you do like the singing and the dancing, then you may not, as I say, you may not care about the quality of the music.
Equally, you might not like the singing, at all. It may be that the worship at church drives you nuts if there’s too much singing. It may be that if you’re singing the same song many times, you sit there thinking, “When? When is this going to end? Can we please move on? Can we not have some quiet?” If you go to a church where that kind of singing is something which is highly prized, then that can be really difficult. If you feel that you’re surrounded by people who are connecting with God in a big way through that and you’re simply not. It does not mean that you’re not a good Christian. It just means that there are ways of connecting with God that you prefer to singing the kinds of songs that are sung in the place where you go every Sunday. It’s absolutely fine. It may be that you need to do other things in your week, that are more helpful to you.
For some people, their connection with God is sort of a heart connection. It may be that you have a real sense of love and affection for God; that expressing that love and affection, possibly through journaling, or some kind of drawing, or simply contemplating, being in awe and being with God is the thing that works for you. And if that is you then build on it.
There are some people who kind of like the charismatic stuff. Y’know, the speaking in tongues, and having prophetic words, and having a real sense of the tangible presence of God. Doing things which other people might regard as frankly, weird. For some people that’s a real connection. And if that’s you, then it’s worth finding opportunities to spend time with other people for whom that is also the case.
And finally there are some people who like real simplicity. Kind of a monastic sort of way of being in the world. Where simplicity and fasting and silence and a quiet, perhaps slightly austere, inner life is something that you really value. Obviously there are people who give their whole lives to that kind of being with God and that sort of way of approaching things. Again, if that’s something that you value, then there will be ways of incorporating that into your everyday life.
In summary, really what I’m saying is that we all connect with God differently. For all of us there are some things which really help us to feel close to God and to make that inner sense of connection with the Divine. But those are not the same things for all of us. There is something incredibly freeing about just taking a bit of time to think, “what is it that works for me?” What that does, is that it enables you to really think about, “how is it that I could organise my life and my prayer life in a way that means that I get a little bit more of the stuff that really works for me?” It also means that if you’re surrounded by people who do things differently, you really don’t need to worry about it. If, sometimes, the kind of church service that you’re in, doesn’t work for you, then you can simply say, “that service wasn’t the kind of thing that I find particularly easy. That wasn’t something that enabled me to quickly connect with God.” Which is much better than saying “I’m a bad Christian, because that worked for everybody else and it didn’t work for me.” So it’s freeing in that sense. This is not to say, of course, that God won’t talk to you through things which are not your preferred way of connecting with God. It’s also the case that sometimes, as we get older, as we walk through life, in different seasons of life, different things will work for us. So I remember the first time that I went to Spring Harvest, which if you don’t know is a big kind of Christian conference-y type thing, they used to divide their morning sessions into different styles for different people. And the first time that I went, the one that really worked for me was the very intellectual, theoretical one. And I went to that every morning, and thought it was absolutely marvellous. I went back to Spring Harvest, a few years later, thought “right, I know what I like!”, and I went along to sit in the very intellectual, theoretical, theological session, and I sat there and it absolutely left me cold. Things had kind of shifted for me, and what I was really looking for was something much closer to the kind of heart contemplation, affection for God, something more spiritual in an emotional way, in fact. Which was surprising to me, because definitely the mind and thinking and study is a really key thing for me, it’s one of the main ways with which I connect with God. But at that point it was really interesting that things had shifted. And now I would say that both of those things work. So I hope that’s been helpful to you and it’s given you some food for thought. DO the stuff that works. And don’t feel guilty if you need to leave behind the stuff that doesn’t. Happy Praying.
Hope you enjoyed this episode of the Loved Called Gifted podcast. If you’d like to get in touch, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org You can find a transcript of this podcast at lovedcalledgifted.com and that’s also the place to go if you’re interested in the Loved Called Gifted course, or if you’d like to find out about spiritual direction or coaching. Thank you for listening.