Monday, February 20, 2012

Time Away: A Photo Essay on Theological Reflection

A disclaimer: this essay begins with some colorful pictures and ends with some pretty dense reflection on what I learned and experienced at this retreat, particularly what I learned and experienced this morning. I wanted to get this down in writing because it was so extraordinarily valuable to me just now. It truly helped me to work through a lot of the pain I've been carrying around for many, many months now about my mother's deterioration. And it did so in some surprising ways. I want to outline the process for you because I believe it to be a true gift from God when life feels fuzzy, painful, puzzling, overwhelming, mysterious. SO...if you don't want to plow through some pretty dense stuff, then just scroll through the pictures and call it a day. But if you want to follow along a bit - and then maybe engage in conversation about all of this - leave me a comment and we'll talk.
It was cool and crisp on the central coast this holiday weekend. 
Skies varied from blue to hazy to deep clouds.
Over fifty of us gathered at the Mission Renewal Center 
of the Old Mission of Santa Barbara,
to re-connect, to re-center, to learn, to worship.
 St.  Francis was in his usual place, raising hands to heaven.
The grass was green, the flowers were blooming.
The architecture did its usual number on me,
reminding me of the history of my state,
our strong ties to Mexico over many generations.
The topic for the weekend was Forgiveness for All and we approached it in different ways, some of them intense and challenging. We looked at the mind-blowingly intricate and beautiful theology of scientist and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. And we viewed large chunks of a PBS documentary entitled, "Forgiveness: a Time to Love and a Time to Hate." All of it was challenging, thought-provoking, convicting, enlarging.
I am both grateful and exhausted.

This morning's wrap-up session involved the practice of reflecting theologically on these two very different resources; I was powerfully reminded today of how probing and life-changing such reflection can be. There's a book about this process and it's called - surprise! - "The Art of Theological Reflection," by Killan & de Beer. It outlines a methodology for integrating faith and life by reflecting on an event or experience in these basic ways:

1. Writing a brief, 5 sentence narrative paragraph about something you have read/seen/experienced (we did it about the documentary film).
2. Reading what you have written and identifying the primary emotions elicited. Sit with the feelings until they become visceral.
3. Move next to visual images and brainstorm a list of the first pictures that come to mind.
4. Choose one image that best captures the feelings and explore this image by asking these questions, slowly and reflectively:
       a. How is God present? How is God calling?
       b. Using active imagination, get inside the image and ask: what is life like here?
       c. Look again at the image, even more closely, and see what is broken and sorrowing there.
       d. Continue to look at the image in your mind's eye and ask: what are the possibilities for healing or renewal, either actual or implied? 

Now, re-read everything you've written to this point.

You are now ready for the second set of reflections. This first set was deeply personal - finding an image out of your experience that resonates and touches your own psyche.

In this next section, you are asked to connect with something within the Christian tradition - scripture/liturgy/theological study you  may have done (we did it with the work of de Chardin).

Now, return to the image and allow it to be very present to you. Again, prayerfully brainstorm - this time generating a list of ideas from scripture or tradition that come immediately to  mind.

Choose ONE idea from your list to sit with for the same kind of reflection questions you worked through with the image originally:
       1. How is God present and calling?
       2. Try to 'get inside' of the idea you've chosen from the tradition and reflect on what life is like there. Jot down what comes to mind.
       3. Gaze at your mental image of this idea/verse/picture and ask if there is anything broken or sorrowing there.
       4. Finally, ask what the possibilities for healing and renewal might be.

NOW - invite a conversation between the image you selected in the first part of this exercise and the piece of the tradition you have chosen in the second part. 
Do you see any:
Any common theme

Re-read everything you've written and try to respond to these questions:
       1. What emerges for you in the conversation between the image and the piece from the tradition?
       2. What insights do you find?
       3. What questions are raised for you?
       4. Does anything from this conversation shed new light on the narrative you wrote out at the very beginning of this process?

This takes time - but Oh!, the rewards are so rich! I am indebted to Father Steve Coffey for his excellent synthesis of both de Chardin 
and the Theological Reflection process.
This is something I want to do more faithfully,
to invite reflection, deep reflection, on the intersections of what I believe with what I experience in the dailyness of life. 

It is fascinating to go back and read your original narrative - the writing that spurs the entire process - and see where you end up in the final conversation between personal and traditional images.
Without going into any great detail or discussion on the pros and cons of either the film we viewed or the theology we discussed, I will just say that I began to weep quietly with the first set of reflection questions (which were read aloud to us while we worked individually and quietly - it took about 45 minutes to do it all).
My original narrative had nothing to do with my mom, but the images that came to me centered on her.
And the image from de Chardin's theology?
BIG surprise for this Protestant pastor -
the sacred heart of Jesus, 
as re-interpreted by de Chardin in his astoundingly expansive view of the Risen Christ as the ground, meaning and end of all creation.
Seeing my sinking, sobbing mama enclosed by the pulsing heart of a loving Savior - well, it just finished me.
It truly did.
In a very, very good way.
Thanks be to God.

Joining this very strange post with a lot of friends whom I hope will be open to a little different kind of writing tonight: with Michelle, as she mourns the loss of her father-in-law; with Jennifer, as she gets ready to go to Haiti next month; with Jen and the sisterhood at soli deo gloria - such a praying bunch!; and with Ann, as she continues to count out gratitude.