An Illusion Of Control
Karen Fields extends an invitation for us to explore our season of limitations as an opportunity rather than just a crisis.
Spiritual Director, Vineyard Coaching Network Team Member
The last few months of “sheltering in” due the COVID-19 pandemic have awakened all of us to the limitations inherent in being human.
I’ve commented often in conversations with directees that I experience this season of limitations as more an opportunity than a crisis. What kind of opportunity, you ask? Many of the people I have spoken with over the last few months have said that adhering to COVID-19 restrictions have, in actuality, allowed them the very “quality time” with loved ones that they secretly craved!
Not being able to do the normal, everyday occupations that previously consumed our lives has brought us all up short. These same limitations have also provided an opportunity to experience firsthand the distress, hardship, and suffering of our brothers and sisters throughout the world. “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for Him…” (Philippians 1:29, NIV).
Over the last few months, I have been especially impacted by French Jesuit priest Pierre Teihard de Chardin’s essay The Meaning and Constructive Value of Suffering. He described suffering as those ‘diminishments’ that are actually the source of transforming energy to make a positive difference in our world:
“Human suffering, the sum total of suffering poured out at each moment over the whole earth, is like an immeasurable ocean. But what makes up this immensity? Is it blackness, emptiness, barren wastes? No, indeed: it is potential energy. Suffering holds hidden within it, in extreme intensity, the ascensional force of the world. The whole point is to set this force free by making it conscious of what it signifies and of what it is capable. For if all the sick people in the world were simultaneously to turn their suffering into a single shared longing for the speedy completion of the kingdom of God through the organizing of the earth, what a vast leap toward God the world would thereby make!”
Linked to the ‘energizing’ forces of limitation, diminishment and suffering is the positive impact such human experiences can have on our own spiritual transformation. We must continually proclaim that Thy will be done on Earth… not my will!
I especially appreciated, and meditated on, another observation on the nature of suffering by Fr. Richard Rohr:
“If we understand suffering to be whenever we are not in control, then we see why some form of suffering is absolutely necessary to teach us how to live beyond the illusion of control and to give that control back to God.”
How do we embrace this opportunity for spiritual growth? May I suggest that our natural preoccupation with the consequences of COVID-19, both personally and in our churches, is not the way to combat fear and anxiety or regain control over our lives? What if, instead, we embrace the opportunity most of us still enjoy – that is, being able to take walks alone outside – by bringing our limitations, diminishments, and suffering directly to God as we seek His presence in His creation?
African American civil rights activist, educator, and philosopher Howard Thurman understood this deeply through the connection he felt with nature. It provided him with “a certain overriding immunity against the pains in life.” In his youth he found solace in a relationship with a tree near his home. In his autobiography With Head and Heart, he writes:
“Eventually I discovered that the oak tree and I had a unique relationship. I could sit, my back against its trunk, and feel the same peace that would come to me in my bed at night. I could reach down into the quiet places of my spirit, take out my bruises and joys, unfold them and talk about them. I could talk aloud to the oak tree and know that I was understood. It too, was part of my reality, like the woods . . . giving me space.”
M. Amos Clifford, in his book Your Guide to Forest Bathing, describes a meditative practice of “forest bathing” (I love that term!) that has much in common with the practice of centering prayer. Another description perhaps more commonly used is that of a ‘contemplative walk.’
The invitation is simple:
“Walk slowly (or sit still), while silently noticing what is in motion in the forest. There is always movement, even when things seem perfectly still. Strands of a web drift in the air, trees move in the breezes, birds fly by, squirrels scramble in the branches, grasses bend, insects crawl… Until you become accustomed to it, walking slowly for more than a few minutes is, paradoxically, stressful… Because the mind and body are a single entity, slowing our body will also calm our mind… The eternal movement of the forest gives our minds something to engage with. Just as with sitting meditation, the breath is always there and available for watching, in the forest there are always things in motion. Your mind will drift, and many other thoughts will arise. When they do, gently bring your attention back to noticing what’s in motion.
When you find you have automatically sped up, come to a complete halt for a moment. It’s an opportunity to fully give your attention to one thing, noticing how that thing is in motion. After a brief pause you’ll be ready to continue your slow walk.
I recommend that you walk like this for at least 15 minutes. That’s enough time for your mind to go through several cycles of distraction and calming.”
Could the invitation presented by the limitations, diminishments, and suffering of COVID-19 be to sit under a tree or to gaze in silence out a window or to listen to the rain falling or to work in the garden (my favorite ‘bathing’ in April in California!) or to walk in solitude through a forest (or perhaps through your neighborhood), embracing the larger reality that God IS at work during this challenging season? Might we come to grips with our illusions of control by ‘bathing’ with Him in the solitude and silence of His creation? I think this is an opportunity not to be missed!
The Church is posed to participate more fully in what Teihard de Chardin characterized as God’s “Divine Project” – His eternal plan for the personal and collective spiritual transformation of the human race.
Could the limitations, diminishments, and suffering of COVID-19 actually represent the potential energy to fulfill God’s purposes, prompting us to pray: Thy will be done on Earth?
Karen Fields is a Spiritual Director, and Team Member of the Vineyard Coaching Network.