Wholeness as a Spiritual Practice
Several dying trees in the cemetery that faces my house were cut down and removed this past fall. Before the process was complete, I had ample time to show my three children how a stump can tell the story of a tree, that each ring is a year of the tree’s life, that wider rings mean wetter and productive years, while thin ones indicate drought and scarcity.
Examining a tree stump shows us how natural growth pushes outward from a given center. I find this is a useful pattern for understanding how to come alongside others as a spiritual director in seasons of drought and fruitfulness. Architect Christopher Alexander writes of his observations of nature and life-giving built environments, “the new structure is arrived at by intensifying the whole—not from a fragmented portion of the structure, but from a process that embellishes and protects the whole.”
Many times, the temptation to solve or fix a problem can be disruptive to the whole person. I may become overly focused on a specific problem or trauma to such an extent that it changes how I see the spiritual directee. Instead of seeing the full human, I may only see the problem. Ironically, in focusing on the problem, I potentially neglect the whole person.
Spiritual direction is an opportunity for a directee to be seen and treated as an entire human being. The center must be fully known to support a process that “embellishes and protects” the whole. In this way, the spiritual director focuses on coming alongside, observing, and reflecting.
In practice, this looks like inviting the seeker to embrace contradictory emotions, to allow expressions of gratitude in the midst of pain, or to identify pain during seasons of growth. Remember the image of the tree. Wholeness is supported by the center. It would harm a tree to eradicate rings that indicate sickness or drought. The same is true for us.
Wholeness also makes room for stillness, while recognizing stagnation. Stillness means leaning into the silence as a support for the directee's center. Stagnation on the other hand, resists healthy growth. In spiritual direction, this looks like perseverating on a particular aspect of one’s life without considering God’s presence or noticeable absence. It is a tendency to respond primarily to life situations out of fear or safety. Stillness requires risk, while stagnation is resistance or avoidance.
There is a tree in a park near our house. Many years ago, someone hung a (now antique) roller skate over one of its lower branches. The skate was left there, and the tree grew around it. The skate is now imbedded in the tree, and to remove it would damage the branches. Wholeness, like Mechtild of Magdeburg’s veriditas, continually pushes outward. Barriers are overcome as they are enveloped by the center. When life is nurtured it has the potential to subsume any obstacle, not by removing the obstacle, but by growing into it. Growth presses into difficult places, to sustain the entire person.
Wholeness is not unique to people. During spring, it seems as though every living thing echoes patterns present in the spiritual life of the human. As spiritual directors, we would be wise to follow the teaching revealed in the world around us by not focusing on a directee’s problems, but by seeing the whole person; by allowing for seasons of plenty and seasons of less; by embracing contradictions in others; by leaning into stillness when it feels most risky; and by growing through difficult places.
Lauren Carlson lives outside Dawson, Minnesota, USA, with her husband Pastor Erik Carlson. In addition to parenting her three boys, ages five, four, and two, she is currently enrolled in a certification program in spiritual direction at North Park Theological Seminary. In her spare time, Lauren enjoys writing about rural life and raising goats and chickens on her family's hobby farm.