This is the third in a series of occasional interviews with people about their spiritual journey. Previous blogs in this series can be found by entering “Interview” in the search box.
David: If you were to divide your adult life into stages of your inner journey how would you describe those stages? I know that’s a big question but get us started on it.
Irene: I see my life divided into stages relating to my stance in spirituality and my relationships with others. As a child I felt called to missions so after university I joined Youth With A Mission. My focus for the next fifteen years was evangelism and discipleship. After leaving YWAM I returned to academia completing my doctorate in epistemic development. For those fifteen years my focus was on counselling. During the latter part of these years I was introduced to the mystics and to spiritual direction. I loved this deeper spirituality, and the emphasis on journeying beside fellow-pilgrims, rather than fixing or converting. Through these years also I have been involved in teaching in Asia each year, and the cross-cultural setting is part of the richness of my spirituality now.
David: What are the most important gifts you have received from the mystics?
Irene: The mystics named the deep longing I feel within. They have learned to God experientially in deeply personal ways. That has changed the way I encounter God. It has moved me from rational interest in theology to daring to trust inner experience. It has involved learning to consent to the wooing of God as Lover and encountering the God who takes the initiative to touch my life, to answer my questions – often with answers that change my questions!
David: You mentioned the richness of having a cross-cultural component to your spirituality. Knowing the love we share of the Sufi mystical poets, I sense this richness also includes an inter-faith dimension. Tell me a bit about what you receive from other faith traditions that helps you live your own more deeply.
Irene: Yes I remember reading Hafiz’ poems and thinking – he knows my God! To answer your question though, let me tell you a story. I was in Yangon, Burma where I go regularly. Burma is largely a Buddhist nation, and I was staying near the huge gold-plated Schwedagon Pagoda. Each morning people take flowers and incense, or simply pray towards the pagoda. I was crossing the road when I saw an older man standing at the traffic lights. He had taken off his sandals and was bowed in prayer in the busy street. I am still moved to tears by his simple devotion. I cannot help believing that God is moved too – and receives that devotion, whatever names we use.
David: What have you learned about how to be open to the transformational possibilities of the transitional moments in your life?
Irene: As I look back to my twenties and early thirties I think I conceptualized the spiritual life as getting it right, and growing more and more in the Truth. Somewhere in my doctoral studies this shifted and I began to see life more as journey of seasons with new and different understandings. When I finally read Fowler’s stages in my forties the Conjunctive stage named the paradoxes and different shades of grey I was discovering – along with the ‘sacrament of defeat.’ I realised failures were a means of discovering God at a deeper level. The more recent transition I have made out of organizational employment, and into journeying with others around their spirituality, has therefore been an embracing of paradox, of different perspectives, and most of all, of living in grace both to myself and others.
David: What things most dependably bring you life?
Irene: The beauty of creation and finding the Creator in creation. Journeying with others around their spirituality. It is a delight to me to be part of a safe place where someone can explore their spirituality – which so often means I see God’s presence, surprise, kindness, and invitation. And being intentionally in silence.
David: How would you describe your most essential spiritual practices?
Irene: Let me mention three. The beauty of creation and finding the Creator present might not seem like a spiritual discipline. But I find the intentional recognition of the Creator very life giving, when I’m out for a walk, or waking to a new day, or parking my car a little distance from where I’m going so I can be more contemplative. Another is centering prayer. I felt I was no good at it. My thoughts wandered and so I gave it up after a few months. But then later when my marriage was falling apart my spiritual director suggested strongly I try again. I used it to get back to sleep when I was awake in the night – which was almost every night. After a month I found a difference in my sense of self. It was only a few years later when I did an extended silent retreat that I began to begin my day with centering prayer. I still ‘fail’ but now I see the ‘failing’ as part of the practice, a surrender of my self and my efforts, a letting go and opening to God.
The final practice has to do with the imagination. I have come to agree with the 14th century Cloud of Unknowing that our rational minds are too small to perceive God as God is – a God we can only know through love. I have been reading the gospel stories since I was a child – but for a long time I thought about them rationally rather than imaginally. In the last fifteen years I have learned to imagine myself as one of the people in the story. Doing this I find that I encounter Jesus as a real person. It becomes an experiential encounter and a more intuitive knowing. I have written about that in Practicing the Presence of Jesus.
David: That’s my personal favourite of all your books – one I have recommended to many people. How have you embraced your imagination in other areas of life beyond the religious realm?
Irene: Over these last twenty years I have seen spirituality as more and more about intuition, heart knowing, relationality. The training I am involved in (counselling and spiritual formation) has a high emphasis on relational knowing, intuition, heart listening. My writing has more of an emphasis on inner experience, and imagined stories. It seems that many of us are finding stories as a way to ground our lives and to connect with others.
David: How have you ensured that your journey deepens your humanity? How do you help others stay grounded in theirs?
Irene: I have begun to live in intentional community and this is very grounding for me. Companioning others on their journey is also grounding. People talk about the nitty-gritty of everyday relationships as well as their deep meaning-of-life questions – and how these interact. Real life is far from all happy and sweet. I find the deeper journey to be very challenging. People stay in hard places that I would like to help them escape – but I trust their ability to find God in the hard places – and I trust God to be present to them. So I find that living this reflective life makes people more aware of their humanness – their failings and weaknesses, and yet learn to hold these more kindly and realistically.
David: At this point, what does it mean to you to be a Christian?
Irene: In her book, Christ in Evolution, Ilia Delio says “we need to rediscover Christ not only as healer of wounded humanity and of the earth itself, but Christ as the meaning and goal of this universe, the sacrament of unity in love, the one who is the integrating center of the cosmos.” Being a Christian means I can live my life as a fellow pilgrim journeying with others as we discover God’s presence and love in all of ordinary life.
David: I really like that, and I sense a central theme to our conversation and perhaps your life – finding God in all things. We need to wrap this up but let me ask a final question about what this means. What would you tell someone who asked how she is might discover God’s presence and love in ordinary life?
Irene: I think our Western rationalism has taught us to be sceptical of the inner knowing that invites us towards God. St John talks about God’s light that gives light to every person who comes into the world. Partly it’s learning to listen to that deep inner knowing. Again creation speaks to us of wonder, delight and beauty – when we slow down and are present. Many of us are seeking the union of everything instead of splitting the world into the material and spiritual. I see the longing of our hearts as an invitation into that oneness – whether that is openness to people who are very different from me, care of creation, or seeking social justice. A desire for connection with my deepest self, with others whether friends or strangers, a reciprocal connection with creation, with God (whoever God is for me), with the universe, with our history, with the wider human story. It’s in the opening of ourselves to life and love that we become more whole.
David: Thank you so much, Irene for sharing yourself, not just your thoughts. Out of a life of rich reflection you have given us all much to ponder.