Category Archives: spiritual direction

Scraping at the clay of your heart

John O’Donohue writes in Anam Cara, “It is destructive to interfere with the rhythm and wisdom of [the soil’s] darkness.” He writes of the importance of letting things that rise up in your soul sit for a while. If you were planting potatoes and someone told you that you needed to plant them deeper, it wouldn’t be so good to dig them up and replant them. Even worse if the next day someone else told you that you planted them too deep, so you dug them up again and planted them more shallowly. Nothing will grow if you keep scraping at your garden.

“People in our hungry modern world are always scraping at the clay of their hearts. They have a new thought, a new plan, a new syndrome, that now explains why they are the way they are.” O’Donohue mentions that trees grow both up into the light and down into the darkness. “Negative introspection damages the soul… You cannot dredge the depths of the of the soul with the meager light of self-analysis. The inner world never reveals itself cheaply. Perhaps analysis is the wrong way to approach our inner dark.”

We must be kind to ourselves. We must live the questions we have, as Reiner Maria Rilke writes, without seeking the answers too soon. (See the quote HERE) O’Donohue… “Life itself is the great sacrament through which we are wounded and healed. If we live everything, life will be faithful to us.”

I have had to learn this through so many years, thanks to good mentors, spiritual directors, and teachers and many humbling experiences. As I look back on my writing from even five or six years ago, I see how much I tried to think my way through things. Questions, problems, faults, woundings… I was always looking for some answer that would make it all ok so that I didn’t have to struggle with it anymore. The hardest thing to hear was, “Ok, I will sit with this for a while” and then not hear anything for days or weeks. Or, “Well, Nate, I want you to stop thinking about what you should or shouldn’t do and sit with what your heart wants to do…”

I appreciate hearing people remind me to be kind to myself, but how did I do that? Even now, when I know I need to be kind to myself, it isn’t easy. Hearing it over and over, though, helps it to stick. And so sometimes, in the midst of the questions and the struggles, the best thing is some Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, or a morning with some really good coffee and bacon… or sometimes it is just going for a walk. If I can go to bed and remind myself, Nate, the problem will look different in the morning. Maybe better, maybe worse… but different. Let it sit and see what happens. This is how we keep from scratching too much at the surface of our souls. We live. We let up. We do something kind for ourselves. And we let  our hearts and our lives grow deep into the darkness and grow up into the light.


Have I really only come this far?!?

In times of transition, it’s only natural for me to think about where I have gone and how far I have come. I left Minnesota in 2007 with a Masters Degree and a school bus driving job. After living in Bend, what have I done? A temporary intern at a church, a ranch hand, an assistant to ginger brew and chocolate making companies, a sweets baker at Great Harvest, a substitute teacher, community director and co-owner of a yoga studio, a personal assistant to an acupuncturist, and now a school bus driver again.  Hmmm… so the career path doesn’t look that glamorous.

And what else? I’ve met my soul mate and best friend, Kat, gotten married, have the most perfect son named after two great Celtic heroes, Brendan Arthur, made some wonderful friends, did my Men’s Rites of Passage, served on the founding board of a global men’s organization, got an amazing new car (much better than the minivan), am less in debt that 6 years ago, got more education and certified as a Spiritual Director, and am starting my career in hospital chaplaincy.

It is all about what we choose to look at. I use the following model for development in my personal life and with almost all my directees:

plotkin's wheel In his book, Nature and the Human Soul, Plotkin writes about our survival dance and our sacred dance. All of us have both. The survival dance is the work and tasks that pay the bills. We have to start here. Most of the time we go to college and come out with a survival dance. Our sacred dance is the work that is written on our souls to do. We have to discover this through a lot of trial and error and a lot of self discovery. We usually don’t quite get it till stage 5 (above) and we don’t have it mastered till stage 7. This takes a long time.

Often, even after we have a sense of what our sacred dance is in life, we have to dance our survival dance as we put our soul’s calling to work. We don’t often get paid for our sacred dance in the beginning. As we keep moving down this path, however, our sacred dance and survival dance become one. See, God/the universe/the divine has written it on our souls that this is what we are to do in this life. The world is not right until we dance our sacred dance and it will support us as we live it in its fullness.

So to make a lot of words much less, as I look at the last few years (and as I sit with others on their journeys). it becomes so important to look at the bigger picture. What dance am I here to dance? and am I dancing it… even a little? Supplementary income and work is usually just fine, when we can answer that second question in the affirmative.

My Third E-Newsletter for Spiritual Direction

My anticipation has been rising in leaps and bounds for our upcoming Modern Monk Retreat at Breitenbush hot springs (October 26-28). If only my spiritual life was growing and expanding at such a rapid pace. I have been contemplating a possible slogan for our retreat. “Modern Monk – I’m not so good at this and so can you!” And isn’t this the case for so many of us? Yes, we have our shining days, but so often we just feel like we aren’t quite cutting it.

The answer that I have been hearing so clearly from Spirit these days is how little performance really matters compared to my desire. It is desire that  the divine wants from us, not performance. So I ask myself daily, what do I really want? What do the things I say, the way I spend my time, the things I put in my body say about what I want? I hope to ask this every day of my life… and at least be honest when maybe I don’t want to be so disciplined or pray right now. What do you want? A good question for the modern monk.

The other thing I have really been led to by the Spirit lately is gratitude. My family and I have started to go to church this last month… WHAT?!? Church? It’s been a long time, but I am seeing that sometimes gratitude and worship of the Creator can be the last rope to hang on to when things get shaky. If we can’t express gratitude, I am quite confident that we are far too attached to our own wish for control or our own self focus.

Please check out my 3rd Spiritual Direction E-Newsletter HERE… Enjoy the articles and links below. They have been challenging and special to me this last month.

And if you want to  receive my monthly newsletter, please follow this LINK.

Starting to Sound like a Fortune Cookie

I was in the middle of a good catch-up text session with a dear long time friend from MN the other night when I realized how easy it is for the things I say to sound like catch phrases and trendy self-help lines I might find tucked inside my Chinese take-out desert.

“Things happen as we walk the road towards them…”

This after:

“Take risks, do what you love, and don’t compromise. One step at a time…”


“I’m not in a rush to claim more than life has to teach me.”

I suppose in any regular face-to-face conversation, these might be taken at face value and as wise words, however in the context of text messaging (and probably emailing, blogging, or small talk), I was rolling my eyes at myself.

My roommates used to say I was an old man in a young man’s body. That probably had to do with my enjoyment of smoking a pipe, reading old smelly books in rocking chairs, and watching birds. Another friend recently told me my sweater looked like something Mr. Rogers would wear. As a trained spiritual director at 31, I have to be aware of what I say. The things that come out of my mouth may not have the same weight as if I had a bit more gray hair or more wrinkles. Gravitas comes with age… try putting that one in a fortune cookie.

I am trying to surround myself with influence that encourages a bit more creativity and originality to my voice. Swearing helps too.

A mentor of mine has, in the last 10 years or so, started simply going by “…parker” and hosts pub conversations called The Shepherd and the Knucklehead (or the Knuckle and the ShepherdHead, as I call it after a few beers). He uses periods between words and joins them together in ways that are sometimes near incomprehensible. He writes things like,

heyNate.. scratch.the.itch.. that is living into the fire.. might get hot.. white hot.. whewBoy

.you must “take” time.. the thread is yet thinner. SundayAM.. Wanna talk..

You get the idea. Anne Lamott, who I love, writes about working through anger:

At times like these, I believe, Jesus rolls up his sleeves, smiles roguishly, and thinks, “This is good.” He lets me get nice and crazy, until I can’t take my own thinking and solution for one more moment. The next morning, I got on my knees and prayed, “Please, please help me. Please let me feel You while I adjust to not getting what I was hoping for.” And then I remembered Rule 1: When all else fails, follow instructions. And Rule 2: Don’t be an asshole. (from Plan B)

This is influence I can use. I’m finding my voice… In fact, I’ve probably already found it. A bit quirky at times, maybe sounding like something an old man would say sometimes, probably some good swear words thrown in there. But my own. I wouldn’t really fit in a fortune|cookie. I don’t like them that much anyway.

Helping others without knowing how to help myself

The biggest questions that have plagued me lately cut deep in my soul:

  • How can I help people, when I can barely help myself?
  • How do I provide hope for others, when I myself feel very little hope ?
  • How do I heal, when I am so broken?
  • How do I offer spiritual direction, in the dark night of the soul?

It’s a painful query and I don’t really know the answer. The best I can do is remind myself that when things get basic, I have to get basic as well. How can I take care of myself in this time? I know, in part, how connected our minds and our bodies are to our soul’s… how to even disconnect them? So when I don’t have answers to the existential questions, at least I may find some clarity in my body.

What am I eating, what am I drinking, am I moving (exercising is good, but at least I should be moving), how much sleep am I getting… there is a need to get clean.

Because we are still called to be present with those around us… to hold space in their suffering… and so often we really don’t have a choice, we come with our broken selves and we listen. How difficult it really is to be brutally honest about how I’m doing and not take all the attention on to myself. We learn as we go, and we remember especially in these times how equal we all are as human beings.

I am also reminded by the ancient mystic, John of the Cross, the one who first wrote so extensively on the dark night of the soul:

“When we begin our spiritual journey we often want God to desire what we want, and become dejected if we have instead to learn to desire what God wants. We measure God by ourselves and not ourselves by God, which is quite contrary to the gospel. For our Lord says that those who lose their lives for his sake will gain it, but that they who desire to gain their life will lose it.”

What does “losing your life” mean to you? How do you help others when you are at the end yourself?