In the last several years, a new tradition has developed in my life that has been profoundly meaningful.
I cannot really say that I began the tradition as much as that I was drawn into it and now it carries me in unplanned directions, much like a river winding its way unpredictably through the countryside.
I first learned of this practice, among many others, from Christine Valters Paintner, a Benedictine oblate at abbeyofthearts.com. As each New Year approaches, she invites her readers to choose a word (or allow a word to choose them) to ponder and “wrestle with” for spiritual growth in the coming year. This is intended to be similar to how people in the past, fleeing to the desert to seek God, would ask a spiritual Father (or Mother) for a word or phrase to guide them.
The first year I considered doing this, the word “yes” leapt out at me immediately, even though I wasn’t altogether sure what I was saying yes to. I knew, initially, that it was “yes” to a commitment to give of my self at a point when I felt I had nothing more to give. But I also sensed that there was much more to this “yes” – and, of course, there was.
The following year, the word “obedience” chose me. There is no way I was choosing that one for myself. But it clung to me until I assented – and I am so glad it did. This past year, 2014, “humility” naturally fell into place as a continuation of the theme and I obeyed with a bit less struggle.
One of the many interesting things about this process is that I have found that none of the words ever seem to let go at the end of their year – because, of course, I can never be finished with them. One deepens into the other, pulling me further and further into a process of transformation. I am not designing the transformation nor am I in control of it. I simply find myself continuing to say “yes”.
As 2014 started drawing to a close, I began to ponder what my next word might be. Several worthy candidates came to mind and I had almost chosen one – when a totally different word chose me.
It is hard to explain the experience of having a word “choose” you if you have not undergone this, but indeed it does happen. Though it might sound rather grand if I say that the word came to me in a dream, its appearance was more like a burr that gets stuck in your sock and keeps prickling until you pay attention to it.
In the dream, I was overhearing a brief conversation between two people and one of them said that he was “chastened” by Christ. That word has not left me alone since. And that is how I know it has chosen me, even though I certainly might have preferred one of the ones of my own consideration.
I seldom if ever encounter the word “chasten” in either my spiritual or secular circles. It has a bit of an antiquated sound to it, with some Biblical translations now rendering the word as “discipline” in its most famous passage (Hebrews 12:6):
“…for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges.” (New American Bible Revise Edition)
“For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.” (King James Version)
In any event, whatever the translation, the meaning is disturbingly clear. I am to be chastened, disciplined. I must be.
Despite the Scriptural reassurance that it is done out of love, I must admit that I find the idea a bit frightening. And most likely it scares me because I still have considerable work to do with regard to obedience and humility. (The obedient and humble do not fear correction.)
How I love C.S. Lewis at moments like this! The Chronicles of Narnia are replete with images of a Lion who growled at minor infractions, had a long conversation with Edmund that he never forgot and painfully de-dragoned Eustace Scrubbs. These “chastenings” were never portrayed as comfortable in the least but who could have turned them down, coming as they did from Aslan?
Certainly not I.
Thus, I can only continue to say “yes” to the loving Father who wants to correct and discipline me, who wants to free me from all of my sin and brokenness, that I might be fully His.
And so, with the rest of the created world, my word and I stand at the threshold of 2015, pondering the year ahead with hope and trust.