Tag Archives: spiritual life

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

The Difficulty Before Delight

I recently experienced a phenomenon in our homeschool that offers great parallel truth for our spiritual lives. “Handiwork” is one of our school subjects, and for this year I wanted to focus on knitting, with a lesson once a week. One of the goals of formal handiwork instruction is that in time the students are able and eager to pick up that work whenever they desire during their leisure time. I learned to knit a couple of years ago, and I have found such delight in the occupation. It is both relaxing and rewarding to be in the middle of a piece of knitting work, slowly seeing an object begin to take shape with the repetition of every rhythmic click of the needles. To me, this creative occupation is a delight, and it is one that I wanted my children experience for themselves.

However, as you would imagine with 8- and 6-year-old boys, it’s a skill that doesn’t come without effort…tedious effort in the training of fine motor skills. In fact, for the beginner, especially children, the delight is not immediately experienced. There is some pleasure in being able to “cast on” a few stitches to begin a project, but then comes the part that my boys found quite challenging–learning to make the knit stitch. It is the most basic stitch in knitting. In fact, there are many different items one can make using the knit stitch alone. My boys were eager to create their first project, but they couldn’t even begin until they had learned how to make this basic, yet vital stitch.

They quickly became discouraged–and rightly so! To be able to make this stitch, you have to make your hands do several things simultaneously: hold the needles steady in each hand, maneuver the right needle through a stitch on the left needle, pull the working yarn taut with one finger while looping it round the needle, then pulling the wrapped yarn back through the same stitch and slipping it off the needle while holding all the other stitches steady and preventing them from flying off with the one. If you watch an experienced knitter working away, this looks easy as pie. But for the beginning adult, let alone a child, it is extremely hard! It requires such attention, precision, patience, gentleness–all virtues we want to develop in ourselves and our children–but also things that require great effort to attain. In short, the delight of knitting is delayed by the great difficulty of training fine motor skills and practicing patience and perseverance.

We had been working at the knit stitch for a few weeks. I had them watch some videos of people doing it over and over. I also explained and demonstrated it several times. But there are really no short cuts. They had to have the work in their own hands and keep trying over and over again, until they would get. In the lesson this past week, I was sitting at the table with both of them, my hands over their hands, slowly helping them work through each step. Gradually (and with a great deal of testing to my own patience), I was able to let go and let my 8-year-old make the movements himself, until finally he shouted in triumph–“I made a knit stitch!” What satisfaction was his! The thing that had been incredibly painstaking for so long only moments ago had suddenly brought great joy to his heart. In fact, as I had hoped, once he had made a few more stitches successfully, he was eager to spend some of his free time working on it again.

I probably don’t need to draw the parallel for you. As difficulty precedes delight in many rewarding occupations, just so with our own spiritual growth. There are painful seasons of hardship when we have to learn or re-learn virtues, where trust needs to be renewed, or when faith needs strengthened. Delight comes in our spiritual lives when we are able to rest in the love of our faithful Father and abandon ourselves to trust in his divine providence at work in our lives. But we don’t get there without effort, without difficulty. We will experience the tedious work of the spiritual life throughout this pilgrim journey, but we can be assured of the delight that will be ours in the presence of our Lord, as we continually seek his face and surrender to his loving, perfect will.

Copyright 2019 Jessica Ptomey

Guest Post: Decluttering and the Spiritual Life

I’m excited to welcome a guest post on the blog today from author Mary Elizabeth Sperry. Mary has worked for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops since 1994, and is the author of five books. Mary’s brand new book, Making Room for God: Decluttering and the Spiritual Life, was just released two weeks ago. Anyone who knows me knows that I can get quite excited about *decluttering*. 🙂 I appreciate Mary’s perspective on the topic, and I’m happy to have her on the blog talking about decluttering in our spiritual lives. Enjoy!

There’s no question that clutter is a real problem for a significant number of Americans – whether they need to rent a storage space, pay late fees on the bill, lost in the pile of unopened mail, or leave the car out in the weather because there’s no room in the garage. Decluttering has become a social trend. (For once in my life I’m part of a trend! Who knew?) Books about tidying up and Swedish death cleaning (!) sit on the best-sellers chart. With the beginning of Lent, my newsfeed is full of people taking the challenge to give away forty things in forty days. Some go even further – seeking to remove forty bags of possession from their homes during the Lenten season.

But using Lent as a reason to declutter doesn’t make decluttering a spiritual practice. People of any faith – or no faith at all – can decide to deal with the stuff that they trip over every time they need to do laundry. Does decluttering have a spiritual side? Does the state of our closets have anything to say about the state of our souls? Does God really care that we’re storing half-finished craft projects in the dining room?

Of course, he does! The God who has counted every hair on our heads and who knows when a sparrow falls cares deeply about the things that matter to us and that shape our daily lives. The most fundamental claim of Christianity is the Incarnation, that in Jesus, the all-powerful God who is the source of all beauty and goodness became a human being – just like us, except for sin. Jesus entered into the messiness of everyday life, preparing and eating food, learning a trade, and doing the chores necessary to keep a house running. Because of that, even the humblest task has meaning in the eyes of God.

Being a person of faith isn’t something you can keep in a box, taking it out for an hour or so on Sunday mornings, when it’s time to say grace before meals, and on the occasional holiday. The relationship with God that is at the heart of the Christian faith has to expand so that it reaches every aspect of our lives, even what we keep in our closets and what we give away. It’s more than saying a quick prayer before we begin decluttering or praying for the strength to finish (and to get the box of unused toys out of the house before the kids decide they are favorites – despite the fact that they haven’t been outside the toybox in eight months).

Decluttering as a person of faith means setting the reset button on our relationship with our possessions. We have to look honestly at what we’ve accumulated and humbly recognize the sinful tendencies (envy, greed, etc.) that lead us to acquire more than we need. We need to nurture gratitude for the things we have, regarding them as a gift of God that we can share generously with those in need.

Changing our relationship with our possessions will change the way we interact with other people as well. When we break the pattern of acquiring more than we need and tossing things away when they are no longer useful, how much easier will it be to recognize that people aren’t disposable and that they always take precedence over things? Freed from the race to acquire more and to protect what we have, we can take more time to be with others, to listen, and even to be silent. And as we learn to be more generous with what we have been given, we learn to trust that God will provide for all our needs.


Copyright 2018 Jessica Ptomey