Patterns of the Spiritual Life

Knitting is a hobby of mine. I’m currently working on a shawl that is probably the most complicated thing I’ve made so far. It’s not terribly difficult, but it involves some stitches that were new to me. I’ve had to follow the pattern very carefully. Even with that, I wasn’t paying attention one day and knit half of a row backwards. It took me awhile to figure out where I went wrong. I ripped out three or four rows before I finally discovered where I had made my mistake, which was honestly due to lack of attention at the moment. Once I got back on track, I was careful to double-check my work at regular intervals.

Photo by Sarah Claeys on Unsplash

However, after some time of paying close attention to the pattern, the sequence of stitches began to become intuitively apparent to me. The complexity of the pattern started to make sense, and I found myself being able to guess what was coming next more quickly. I’m still checking the pattern carefully as I go along each row (as anyone who has made a mistake knitting or sewing knows how discouraging it is to rip out your work and start over). But the pattern’s intricate design is starting to become much more apparent and predictable to me as I see the stitches take shape together to make a beautiful whole.

As I was reflecting on all of this with knitting in hand this morning, I began to draw parallels within the spiritual life, specifically regarding the patterns of habits, behaviors, and spiritual disciplines.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve gotten pretty good at predicting how my day is going to go with a lack of sleep. I also know just how I will end up feeling and the kind of thoughts I will find swirling in my head when I haven’t gotten up early enough to spend time with God in silent prayer and Scripture reading. When I miss my regular time for the rosary a few days in a row, I don’t get to Adoration one week, or I wait too late to examine my conscience at night and just can’t keep my eyes open, I can tell that my spiritual intuition and sensitivity to the voice of the Holy Spirit is not in sync.

The truth is that healthy behaviors and a properly ordered rule of prayer and devotions operate similarly in my life to that knitting pattern. If I drop a stitch every once in a while, it won’t be as noticeable; and small mistakes are easier to correct if you catch them quickly. However, if your entire pattern gets off track, it doesn’t take long for the whole design of the creation to become blurry and lose its unique and intricate beauty. And then…it’s time to rip out stitches and start again.

By “rip out stitches” in the spiritual life I mean that bad habits and harmful impulses have to become unlearned, and the spiritual rule of life reinstated. When you knit, each row builds a foundation for the next. In fact, the design being creating in one row is dependent on whether you followed the pattern correctly in the previous row. And just so with the spiritual life. The spiritual tools and gifts we invest multiply and grow. If we leave off the spiritual rhythms of life, then over time the tapestry of our lives will take a very different shape; we may end up in a long time of spiritual repair to undo the damage that we did since going off track.

If we stop putting God first, it gets easier to put Him second. If we stop praying, we are less able to hear His voice. If we veer off the path of the contemplative life, engaged in regular wonder and love of God and His benevolence, then we become easily immersed in the surrounding culture of consumption and despair. Just as each stitch is the foundation for another, each spiritual act strengthens our will for the good, restores our mind in truth, and anchors our souls in the hope of God’s promises.

Copyright 2020 Jessica Ptomey

Shedding the Spirit of Scarcity

Not enough.

For many of us, these two words may well describe how we regularly feel in our out-of-balance, “consumer” culture. We struggle with a constant feeling of lacking something. We don’t think that we have enough money, enough things, enough social status, enough pleasures, enough resources…and maybe the biggest one…enough time. 

I call it the “spirit of scarcity.”

It’s a spirit that’s holding people captive in perpetual inaction. We fail to move, or we feel tense in our limited movement, because we constantly feel like time, money, resources, energy, etc., won’t go the distance. We are like the servant in the parable who was given one talent and did nothing with it. The spirit of scarcity can manifest itself in many ways, but here are some examples of the types of thoughts generated under its rule:

“I want to answer that phone call from a friend, but I have so many other things to get done.”

“I would love to make my home pretty, but all the home décor items I like are over my budget.”

“I wish that I could learn how to do that, but I’m not that talented…plus, when would I find the time??”

“I want to take extra time to play outside, or go on a walk, or read a couple of picture books aloud with my kids…but when will we possibly fit that in with all of our commitments?”

“I’m drawn to join that women’s Bible study, but what if it ends up being on a night that my kids might have sports practice.”

Each of these thoughts, in various ways, reveals the progression and impact of a spirit of scarcity: when a good desire of the heart arises, it is suppressed by the argument that some lacking resource makes its fulfillment impossible. When we allow this spirit to govern our choices and behaviors, we see that we either fail to pursue good desires altogether or struggle in our movement to do so by the constant feeling that such efforts are not possible. 

God wants to free us from the bondage of such a mindset and heart condition. The spirit of scarcity that keeps us from living with freedom and peace is nothing less than the voice of the Evil One. The devil loves to tell us that we are not enough, and that the resources that we have are not enough either. He’s usually telling us one of two different kinds of lies. He’s either lying about the goodness of something, or he’s lying about our capacity to experience or receive something that is good. Either we are not enough or what we have is not enough. But we have the truth we need to reject his lies. We know that we are good because our worth comes from being children of God, and we know that He has given us everything that we need to live according to His will.  

We have the truth we need to help us practice shedding this spirit of scarcity. I say “practice” because it requires paving new habits—inviting God to free our hearts and actively listening to His Word in our minds. This spirit of scarcity is one that has been constructed out of habit. It has become part of us like a skin, a skin that we desperately need to shed if we want to step out and bask in the joy of the good things that we are being invited to by our Lord.

There is one piece of additional discernment required here though. Do we feel scarcity because we have actually dissipated our resources? Is it possible that we are responsible for taking on tasks and expectations that God never meant to be ours? Is it possible that we don’t feel the capacity for the good God is holding out to us because we have taken up many things that are not good for us, things contrary to God’s will? Are we feeling a lack because we’ve drained our resources on things that God does not mean us to attend to or bother with? Have we drifted along with the current of a consuming culture rather than remained anchored in the contemplative life for which God designed us? If so, we will certainly feel the crippling grip of scarcity even more acutely. We cannot receive good things from God if our arms of full of lesser things. We have to empty our arms and our lives of such things before we will be able to accept the good desires he is placing on our hearts. 

The next time that you encounter a sense of “lacking” rise up within you, recognize it for what it is. Discern whether it is of your own making or if you have adopted the lies from the enemy. Ask God to reveal the truth to your heart and open up your eyes to the “yes” he is making possible for you. When next the devil tries to squash good desires or deflate the Holy Spirit’s imaginings in your heart, see that moment as an invitation to co-operate with God’s plan for your life. God doesn’t want His children to live with a spirit of scarcity. In God’s economy, in His contemplative mode of existence, there is always more than enough. There is abundance. The well does not run dry. Jesus said to us, “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)

Copyright 2020 Jessica Ptomey

Faithful, Not Perfect

Much of my writing stems from an internal call I’ve been hearing the Holy Spirit speak to my own heart. Lately, His still small voice has been reminding me what it is that I’m actually called to in daily life, and that is faithfulness. When I hear that reminder, it feels like a soothing balm to a soul that can quickly become infected with an external pressure toward perfectionism. By perfection, I’m not talking about the biblical call of Christ to “be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48); because we know by that our Lord means for us to surrender our weakness to the power of His strength and grace, which will be made perfect in us (2 Corinthians 12:9). 

I’m talking about a mindset that measures success—in all areas of life—by whether or not my responsibilities have been done exactly according to an objective standard and process of human perfection. Self is savior where the perfectionist mindset takes root. Such a mindset is the antithesis to which the Father calls His children, for it moves us away from relying on His will and His gift of grace by which we are able to accomplish our work. 

A heart aimed at the goal of faithfulness, rather than perfection, is daily in tune with the voice of the Father. Our God is never saying to us, “Perform, impress, excel, earn my love.” Instead, His call is to “rest, obey, listen, love, surrender, give, receive.” We serve a faithful God who calls us to a life of daily faithfulness. I emphasize “daily” because I believe that God is only ever asking us to live one moment at a time. 

In fact, faithfulness has everything to do with the present moment, not all of the possibilities coming down the line. We see this truth echoed again and again in the lives of the saints. These faithful men and women kept their eyes on Jesus in the present moment. Certainly, they brought Him into plans for the future; but they didn’t live consumed with what was coming next. They lived day-by-day, knowing well that they were not promised tomorrow and that today contained enough with which to occupy oneself (Matthew 6:34).

If we are to be faithful stewards to our Lord, and experience His peace in that endeavor, then we must walk ourselves back to living more in the present moment. I think that when we do this, we are much more inclined toward His plan, rather than our own. We are able to let go of all expectations that we place upon our own shoulders. We simply ask, “What have you given me to do today, or in this moment, Lord?” He will reveal it. We may need to apply the process of discernment and quiet listening to His direction. Living moment-by-moment with our faithful God, we become more faithful. As we are being transformed, we more readily recognizing the contrast between a faithful life and one imprisoned in the confines of perfectionism:

  • Perfectionism tries to control; faithfulness surrenders.
  • Perfectionism piles on unrealistic tasks; faithfulness asks God what He means us to carry.
  • Being bound by perfection, we always feel like our efforts fall short; drawn by a faithful God, we give simply what we have to give.
  • The perfectionist holds tightly to the desired end result; the faithful servant puts the result into God’s hands.

God is only asking us to be faithful with the specific task He means for us to do in the present moment. We will realize peace and contentment when we surrender to that act for love of Him and place the result in His hands. We are only asked to be faithful with what we have to give; our faithful God is in charge of the rest. We will certainly have days where we fail, when we listen to the wrong voice and fall prey to the desire to control. Thankfully, our God’s faithfulness is steadfast (as we are told repeatedly throughout the Psalms), and He never fails us. His mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23). We are called to faithfulness, not perfection. Let us walk in that calling; and may that truth pull a burden off our shoulders and put a peace-filled smile on our faces.