Jane Roeschley is currently continuing to settle into early retirement, which is overlapping with COVID-19. She sees spiritual directees via Zoom, is grateful to be part of spiritual gatherings and seminars remotely, and enjoys sacred reading and going outside for contemplative walks in a nearby woods. She served on the pastoral team of Mennonite Church of Normal (Illinois) for 19 years.
I was introduced to the practice of choosing a “word of the year” by spiritual directees and others who were saying things like, “My word this year is ‘unfurl’” or “hope” or “surrender.” I didn’t immediately have interest, though I was intrigued by how the directees’ comments about their words suggested that they had found their words to provide a sort of framework for spiritual reflection. I also needed to let some inner-resistance melt.
Seeking a word — as a tool for spiritual transformation — has deep roots in ancient Christianity. In the desert tradition, when women and men fled into the wilderness to be more fully present with God, a common request these ammas (mothers) and abbas (fathers) received was for a word. This word or phrase would be something to ponder — for weeks, months, even years — for journeying deeper in their spiritual lives.
Christine Valters Paintner, of Abbey of the Arts, explains, “The practice is connected to lectio divina, where we approach sacred texts with the same request — ‘give me a word,’ we ask — something to nourish me, challenge me, a word I can wrestle with and grow into.”
When Abbey of the Arts announced by email last December that it could provide a 12-day email guide for choosing a word for the year, I decided to receive the emails and see what happened. I entered into it as an experiment and kept my expectations quite low.
I consider this post a status report of sorts — a reflection at a point about one-third of the way into the year, to see what I am noticing about this spiritual practice. How is it working? How is embracing the practice of a word of the year drawing me deeper with God?
1. Discovering my word of the year.
The 12 free daily emails that the Abbey of the Arts provided last December offered tremendous guidance on becoming acquainted with this practice and entering into the discernment process — even with hesitation. Each email included a beautiful photo evocative of thresholds, a quote from Scripture or a poet or spiritual writer, and a suggestion for one activity to engage in that could assist with choosing — or being chosen by — a word. The activities included lectio divina, a contemplative walk, listening to dreams, an embodied examen and breath prayer.
Paintner’s guidance was to be gentle and open while pondering and waiting to see if a word is made known. I found myself jotting down possible words, but at first, I could not discern any one word as the word. Paintner would counsel not to grasp or clench.
However, to my surprise, near the end of the series, a word did begin to “shimmer” (a favorite term Paintner uses to describe the spiritual energy of a word, phrase or image). My word of the year came: receive.
2. The word as a touchstone of trust.
The way the word ”receive” shimmered for me was as a counter-weight to how I had been frantically expending energy during 2020, as COVID-19 first began to develop worldwide and put many of us into anxious places, as well as upending our routines and relationships.
As someone who had planned to co-lead two Celtic Pilgrimages during 2020, I found myself on overdrive, constantly digesting the news and scanning the horizon for what was coming at us and how it would impact the travel plans of the 30 pilgrims I was responsible for. I was compulsively running toward the news and information, trying to understand and figure out how to be safe and what smart decisions looked like for myself and others.
Out of that swirl, the word ”receive” emerged and offered an invitation to unhook from the compulsive scanning. It invited me into the “now” that is God. It whispered a spirit-promise that I could “do” less and “be” more. It hinted that I could rely on God and be in reception mode. It has seemed to be an invitation to renew my trust in moving and living and having my being in God.
3. Fruit thus far.
We’re only partway into this year, but I am already grateful for the fruit of this word of the year experiment.
Anything that enhances the journey of trust in the divine is something for which to be grateful.
Additionally, putting myself in a less-responsible posture — more trusting of what arises, what comes, what surprises and trusting that these are of God or with God — has been re-orienting and refreshing. It has helped me climb off of a self-inflicted roller coaster of tension and practice more waiting and calm. It has also helped me to pay more attention to things — both from within myself and from outside myself — that arise and are worthy of my time and energy.
I have received several new directees during this time, Zoomed into classes and gatherings that I might not have tried otherwise, added a daily prayer practice during Lent, and joined the steering committee of an organization I respect.
I don’t view my word “receive” as a blank pass that anything goes. What to do with what comes is always a task of discernment. But it has been enormously refreshing to allow this word of the year to remind me of something that is very wise to always remember: God and I are in this together, and it can be healthier for me to allow God’s energy more space in my life. I am curious about how ‘receive’ will continue to give that guidance as the year unfolds.
Learn more about the Mennonite Spiritual Directors Network at mennosdn.org.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.