The art of cultivating spiritual growth

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Article Spirituality

To the undiscerning seeker, the slew of spiritual books on bestseller lists and bookstore shelves these days can be overwhelming. Tantalizing titles promise much but often deliver only watered-down, feel-good messages or worse, abstract escapism. Not so with Joyce Rupp. This spiritual author is nothing if not grounded.

Drawing on her own Catholic tradition, the timeless lessons of nature, and wisdom from other faith traditions, Rupp-a member of the Servite community-guides spiritual seekers through the continual life-death-life process of transformation. She's not afraid of life's darker side and has written extensively about loss and grief-in prose, poetry, prayer, and ritual.

In addition to sharing her wisdom through her writings and cassettes, Rupp also gives talks, workshops, and retreats around the world and sees clients as a spiritual director in Des Moines, Iowa. Her most recent books are Prayers to Sophia (Innisfree Press, 2000) and Out of the Ordinary (Ave Maria Press, 2000).

You're involved with so many things. How do you describe yourself-as a writer, a retreat guide, a spiritual director?

I always ask people to introduce me as a farmer's daughter, because the older I get and the longer I write, the more I see that my writing really comes out of my roots on the farm. I am very wedded to the earth; that's where I find a lot of spiritual connectedness, with nature. This morning in my hotel room, I tried to "pray the city," and I found that very difficult. I'm not a city person. I particularly find a lot of wisdom from the earth from having grown up in the Midwest with the four seasons. It's taught me a lot about the cycle of transformation, seeing that whole process of life-death-life.

I also call myself a "spiritual midwife," because I see myself not as the person who does the growing for someone else but as nurturing, energizing, being a catalyst, caring for, and affirming the person in the growth process. I help them to know how to nurture and care for themselves just as a midwife would do in helping a woman prepare to give birth.

Basically, I see the spiritual path as one of constantly being in the process of growth and giving birth. My role is to accompany others, and I do that both as a spiritual director and a writer. Of course, I can reach more people through writing than at a conference or on a retreat. But another reason I write is because I love words and I love to connect words. I really value the search for meaning, and writing has been a wonderful way for me to find meaning and share it with other people.

Spirituality has become quite the buzzword these days, especially with the proliferation of books on the topic. How do you define spirituality?

To me, the spiritual life involves the whole of our life, every single part-no piece can be left out. I used to think of most of my life as one part and my spiritual or prayer life as another. In fact, I used to think that the rest of my life took me away from my prayer life. But now I see that nothing can be left out of a healthy spirituality.

Another piece is that it's always about relationship with the divine, but also with other people. So it isn't just a God-and-me kind of thing. True spirituality will always take me out of myself, and I do believe that authentic spiritual growth has to take me out into the world. It can't just be a feel-good pacifier.

The spiritual life is a call to be in transformation, to become our true selves. That means it has to have an openness to growth and change. The word spirituality sounds like something static rather than dynamic. I like the term spiritual growth because it implies that we're always in process. We can never say, "OK, I'm saved. I've made it. This is it. I don't need to do anything else. I don't have to listen to what's calling me to greater growth or greater spiritual depth."

What do you think about some of the "spirituality lite" that's out there, some of the New Age stu)?

In many ways, New Age has become the new enemy. That's unfortunate because some things about New Age are valuable, especially its enthusiasm in seeking spiritual growth. I think some church people are envious about New Age, because it does draw people toward spiritual growth.

But one of the things I find difficult about some New Age is in the area of control. With an authentic spirituality we can't control everything. New Age sometimes says, "Do this and everything will go your way," denying that pain and struggle are a part of the process.

Pain and struggle are common themes in your books. What role does suffering play in the spiritual journey? I first began writing about suffering with Praying Our Goodbyes, which came out of the death of my younger brother. I was struggling with my grief. That's how I got started, and then it just mushroomed. I met so many people struggling with pain and difficulty in their lives. I also met people who had really been transformed through struggles and suffering, people who had come through it and found new meaning.

I began to see that suffering is part of that life cycle, part of what I call the transformation cycle. Just as the earth goes through the autumn, the winter, and the springtime, so too we have to go through autumn, winter, spring before our summertime.

So much depends on our attitude toward suffering. If I can see it as a possible teacher, I can be more patient with my growth and it can help me be more compassionate with other people's difficulties. But if we don't deal with our suffering, our pain and anger, we become very bitter and closed, and all our energy goes in that direction. I know some people who get so caught up in negativity that it takes away all their energy.

But if we move through suffering, then we can take our energy to new life.

A lot of good can come from suffering. We can gain freedom, clarity, meaning, kinship, and hope.

What have you learned about suffering and death through your work in hospice?

When I started doing volunteer work, I thought the last thing I wanted to be involved in was hospice. I had studied grief, but once I did the hospice training, I realized how much more I had to learn and what a privilege it is to be with people when they are in the process of dying. It really helped me overcome my own fear of death. Now I see how the soul ripens for the journey home. The body weakens and becomes less than it was, so the spirit is free to go.

How can people "pray their goodbyes, "as you titled your book?

I list four steps for praying a goodbye. First, you have to recognize and acknowledge a loss. That's difficult in our culture, because we're so obsessed with being happy, being optimistic, and having hope. We're so uncomfortable seeing people not be OK, seeing people who are struggling. We want everyone to feel good. We don't like to deal with pain. I remember a woman who apologized to me for not being happy because her mother had died the week before. She thought she should be over it!

After my father died, I learned how difficult it is in our culture to be depressed. I kept denying I was depressed, even though every indication was there that I was. Around that time, I made a wilderness retreat in British Columbia, where I stayed in a tent, hiked, and met with my spiritual director. It was there that I finally admitted that I was depressed, and then I started to make a turn. What really healed me was when I acknowledged my depression and tended to it. Then the peacefulness and energy gradually returned.

The second step for praying a goodbye is reflection, which is very difficult in a culture that is so busy. It's so hard to choose silence or solitude. But we can do it. It could mean turning off the radio while driving to work or being intentional and taking time at home, in the shower, in the bathroom, or anyplace. Reflection is vital in healing our grief

Next is ritual, you need to ritualize the loss. Ritual for me means using some kind of symbol or metaphor and some kind of movement, whether it's lighting a candle or taking a photo of someone I love and placing it on my desk.

Then the fourth and last part is reorientation, which means we've come to terms with our loss and we choose to move on with our life.

Your books contain a lot of examples and ideas for ritual. Why is ritual so important?

For so long when we've prayed, we've prayed out of our heads, with our thoughts and our words. We've had a "neck up" spirituality, and we've really neglected our bodies, to our detriment. It seems we've forgotten that we can 00rify God with the body.

So it's good when we do ritual. I like doing things with posture, such as facing the four directions or standing in a circle. Even "breath prayer," just paying attention to our breath. It really helps us to center and focus. When I invite people at retreats to participate in ritual, they love it. It makes everything more meaningful. People are craving ritual because it's been a missing piece in our culture.

What about the rituals from our Catholic tradition? Are those meaningful?

They have a lot of potential, but they've gotten very rusty and dusty. People have just taken them for granted. They are bored with them. But we could revitalize and revisit how we use the body in our rituals-the gestures and postures-if we were willing to adapt them and be open to other creative options or substitutions.

For example, instead of always blessing ourselves with the sign of the cross, we could pause and hold our hands over our heart as a reminder of the deep union we share with the Trinity, or we could turn and look silently and kindly at those on either side of us, remembering how God dwells within each one.

That isn't to say we don't believe in the value of the sign of the cross, but rather that we are refreshing our attention to the indwelling God we name in the signing of the cross over ourselves. Then, when we use the sign of the cross in the future we may have a fresher awareness. You also draw upon rituals from other faith traditions. Which ones are you particularly drawn to and how do you reconcile that with your Catholic tradition?

I see it as all adding to my foundation as a Roman Catholic; it doesn't take away. I once took a course on Native American spirituality from a man named Eagle Cruz, and he talked about using Native American spirituality in a positive way, while also being faithful to our own spiritual tradition. He said, "You can't go down a river with your feet in two canoes." You can stop along the way, visit other places, and learn from them. But you have to go down the river in one canoe. I agree with that.

I am in tune with a lot from Native American spirituality, partly because of the way it connects with nature. I also like it because it brings the body into prayer, for example, standing and praying toward the four directions.

I've also learned a lot from the Buddhist perspective about compassion, and it has greatly enhanced my Christian compassion. And I resonate with the Sufi tradition, the mystical branch of Islam. I find that it connects very much with the Roman Catholic mystical tradition of lover and beloved. The Sufis started the Dances of Universal Peace, which have been very important in my spiritual life. They are simple movements with prayers from different traditions that are chanted and danced in a circle. I find that very compelling and a wonderful way to connect with people.

From Buddhism, I value the practice of mindfulness, being aware and present to the moment. At a retreat I was giving in Australia, I gave the retreatants a slice of apple, a slice of orange, and a raisin and told them to take 10 minutes to eat them. I suggested that they look at the fruit, touch it, and chew it slowly.

The next day I asked one woman how the retreat was going. She said that when she held those three pieces of fruit in her hand, she saw a whole community: the person who planted the seed, the one who grew it, who harvested it, who bought it here, the one who prepared it. Then, when I was telling another person about her response, she said she saw another whole community-the community of the earth, the soil, the sun, the rain.

I thought that was amazing. If we can be present to something so simple as a piece of food, this can help us be more attentive to how God is revealed to us in all parts of our life.

What about Catholicism? What nourishes you from our tradition? Oh, a great deal. Certainly, our mystical heritage that has to do with a deep and intimate relationship with God. The mystics connected the spiritual life with all of life, as did the Franciscans.

I also resonate with our contemplative tradition. I naturally lean toward contemplation, and I feel helped and supported by that heritage, as well as by the monastic tradition. Today many people have a romanticized view of monasticism, but the reality is that monasticism really ties together work and prayer. True monasticism is about integration. I draw strength from that.

With scripture, I find meaning in its images and by connecting those metaphors to my own life. I had a changed attitude toward scripture that was part of my midlife journey. When I was in my 20s I always used scripture for my meditation, but as I got older it no longer worked for me. It's like the words got in the way of being with God. So I started to move more into contemplative prayer. I still appreciate scripture and learn from it, but I don't use it for my daily meditation.

Your book Dear Heart Come Home talks about the spiritual journey in midlife. What's so special about that time oflife?

Midlife is a turning point, moving from a focus on the outer life to a focus on the inner life. Psychologist Carl Jung said that what works in the first half of life ought not to work in the second half of life. Our approach to life needs to change as we age. In the first half of life we are naturally oriented toward being active, productive, successful. In the second half of life, there is a call to greater solitude and reflection.

It's like the Hindus say: The first half of life we're supposed to be in the marketplace, while in the second half we're to be the forest dweller. It's that reflective nature, it's taking what we've learned from life and applying it. I see that as coming into our wisdom.

In the second half of life we also ask ourselves the big questions: Who am I? What do I believe? Who is God for me? What gives meaning to my life? Is this the person I want to spend the rest of my life with? Does this religion still work. for me? What helps me to be more alive? It seems your work really speaks to many women. Any idea why?

Well, I have noticed that mostly women come to my conferences. I think that's because I write from my own experience, and they can relate to this. Women have not trusted their own spiritual experiences because the church for so long told them-and all of us- what to do and how to act. We were always told to go to the ordained clergy for guidance.

But women are waking up and discovering they have a mind and a heart of their own, and that their life experiences are valuable. For example: Who talks about pregnancy being a spiritual experience? Or about relationships? I write and speak a lot about relationships, and I think women naturally resonate with that.

I also make an effort to use inclusive language. I just believe there's no excuse for using exclusive language. I never make a big deal out of it and say, "Now I'm going to use inclusive language the whole weekend." But women appreciate it. A lot of times women feel excluded by language, not just by their exclusion from ordained ministry.

But, while inclusive language is important, there's a bigger problem. Our eucharistic liturgy, many times, does not speak to people's lives in a meaningful way. There's nothing for them that enlivens them spiritually. So people are not coming. They are saying, "This isn't where I'm nourished."

Do you think that's why there's such a booming market for books on spirituality now?

We're seeing a paradigm shift. There's a powerful movement of spiritual growth happening. I see so many people searching, reading, and talking about how God is present in their lives. But the old structures are just not working for them. Many times, the church just doesn't get it.

Some people say you should go to Mass not for what you get out of it but for what you put in. I disagree. I think it's both/and. I really believe people deserve to be nourished. It's terrible that they come and don't hear a homily that speaks to them, energizes their lives, and sends them forth with renewed spiritual vitality.

A lot of people think adult education in parishes is so important. But I think the most significant thing parishes can do is to be with people during significant times, like a death in the family, illness, marriage, Baptism. When we're really with people during these vital times in their lives, they experience church in a beautiful, loving way. It's not just about doctrine; it's about meaningful experience.

Is that a word you would use to describe your spirituality-- experiential?

I'm not an academic theologian. I write about ordinary life, about the emotional life, our struggles and joys, and I try to see how the divine is part of all that. I try to use images, symbols, and metaphors to connect our outside life with our inside life. People appreciate that. They often say to me after reading my books, "It's just like you were in my kitchen. How did you know about my life?" I always say the deeper down we go, the more alike we are than different.

This article appeared in the April 2000 issue of U.S. Catholic magazine (Vol. 62, No. 4, pg. 26-31).