Young Adults and Contemplative Spirituality

by Andrea Noel

Today, millennials are investigating themes in spirituality more willingly than formal religion. Across many religious traditions absentee young adults are no longer an exception. They have become the norm. I suppose this shift exists because young adults express disappointment in relationships with families and institutions. More than ever, young adults are alive to the inconsistencies that occur between what they are told to do and what they are shown to do by example. Furthermore, with millennials, dissociative behaviors are customary. This new way of being could have several influences: parenting styles, non-traditional familial structures, technology, social pressures, and or mental health issues.

Additionally, post-modern, global situations have millennials searching for deeper meaning, beliefs, values, and relationships that can offer greater support for self-integration in this convoluted world. Young adults do not only want to cope with the realities of post-modernity, but seek opportunities to thrive in it.

Contemplative spirituality can help enhance the spiritual lives of young adults. Practices in the contemplative tradition offer young adults a path toward prayer, depth, and awareness of the presence of God. When young adults regularly engage practices within the contemplative tradition they can:

  1. Discover and understand their distinct relationship with the divine.
  2. Empower themselves, draw out and build up their overlooked innate strengths and spiritual resources.
  3. Help themselves notice what encumbers and sustains their awareness and reaction to the divine.
  4. Cultivate their spiritual lives through these practices and communal worship.
  5. Interpret or simply be present to their lived experiences of the divine.
  6. Be a witness to the transformation of their perceptions, responsiveness, and overall ways of being in the world.

Since 2009, I have engaged young adults with practices from the contemplative tradition. While I prayed, listened, and responded to the presence of God among young adults, I witnessed how contemplative practices breathed energy into their spiritual lives. Some practices included: meditation, lectio divina, labyrinths, examen, journaling, chanting, collaging, body prayer, group and individual spiritual guidance.

My hope is that exposing young adults to these practices invites them to a deeper encounter of God. I want to empower them with the ability to see their intrinsic value, strength, and connection to God. Contemplative spirituality allows young adults to express their own lived experiences of the divine without judgment, qualification, and with genuine freedom. I believe these practices help to cultivate a regular prayer life, encourages self-discovery, and knowing self in relation to God.

Disordered Affection: Finding God in all the wrong places?

The phrase “disordered affections” captured my attention while I was reading James Martin’s The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. St. Ignatius of Loyola first described disordered affections in his Spiritual Exercises as whatever keeps us from being free. It is an “affection” because we find it appealing. We are drawn to it. It satisfies a hunger – a need within us, and, after a while, it becomes an “attachment.” We think we cannot live without it. Thus, it is “disordered” because it is not “life giving.”

As I chased down its meaning, I uncovered how I use disordered affections in my life to distract myself from my path and growing closer to God. In pastoral counseling, it is easy to identify the disordered affections and attachments that are obviously not “life giving” and cause harm: substance abuse, alcoholism, hoarding, obsessive-compulsive disorder. But what about those disordered affections that are seemingly harmless like watching television, the Internet, reading, exercise, work, and, um, chocolate?

So, I did a little research and found a definition on This Ignatian Life :

 “Disordered attachments are those things (objects, experiences, activities, even other people) who become the focus of our desires and, consequently our time on this earth, rather than seeking the will and companionship of God.”

Hmmm. This might mean that my job qualifies as a disordered affection . . . but we’ll deal with that later. Here are some questions This Ignatian Life recommends we ask to identify disordered affections:

  • Does the object of your affection distract you from your focus to be closer to God? (Only after lunch and only when it involves chocolate.)
  • Is more of your time spent attending to these affections rather than the work you need to be doing? (No, I can eat chocolate and answer e-mail at the same time.)
  • Do you have a fear of feeling empty if you do not attend to your affections? (Darn it . . . yes! Only chocolate will fill that emptiness!)
  • Is your time spent trying to accumulate more time with or material objects surrounding your affections? (Hmm. I purchased the party-size bag of M&M’s® and carry it with me. At first, I thought I would just carry a serving size but what if it was not enough and I want more? It doesn’t make sense to BUY more when I already have $11.99 worth at home.)

Interestingly, St. Ignatius offers a way to overcome disordered attachments that might sound a little familiar to pastoral counselors:

  • Begin by naming the disorder. (Chocoholism.)
  • Admit that the disorder impacts your life and relationships. (Sigh . . . see the 3 out of 4 “yes” answers above.)
  • Remember your desire to move closer to God and your commitment to serve others. (St. Ignatius also reminded me that my desire is also God’s desire to be closer to me, and I never share my M&M’s® with anyone.)
  • Seek the grace to be strong and committed to your path. Rather than completely deny the object of your attachment, seek only to hold it openly, in ways that free your soul from fear. (I was inspired to purchase an M&M® dispenser and place it on the desk in my office. Now, people trickle in for a handful of candy and stay and chat for a minute or two.)

Ignatian spirituality calls for us to find God in all things. Even within a disordered affection, if I seek to find God and His grace, I will find my freedom and perhaps a few other souls along the way.

When Feeling Bad is Good

When feeling bad is good for you

Barbara Kass

Just as our bodies signal us to tend to our physical well-being, so our emotions act like messengers to mind our emotional well-being. When we are rested and energized, we can take on life’s challenges with ease. Feeling tired indicates we need to retreat and relax. Likewise, feelings of joy, contentment, and love say “everything is fine” while feeling angry, anxious, or depressed make us uncomfortable and think “something is wrong.”

The happiness road beckons all of us yet trying to follow that path by avoiding painful emotions is a gateway to living a less-than-authentic life. Meeting difficult emotions face-to-face is the foundation of resilience and can help guide our lives. When struck by a spark of rage or held immobile by despair or fear, we must ask ourselves: What purpose does this emotion serve for me? What am I trying to tell myself? How can this emotion best guide my decisions and actions in the next moments?

In his book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, author James Martin points out that any emotion can overwhelm us. We might feel a joy out of proportion to a particular event or moved to tears for something insignificant and wonder: What is wrong with me? In those distinct moments, we don’t quite feel right. There is a certain emptiness, a longing, a desire to connect with a larger understanding that seems just outside of our reach. Martin calls those moments invitations from God asking us to communicate with the greater power of our origination. And if we connect with the power that gave us this life – the power that wants us to have a good life – we know we are getting the best counseling available.

I frequent a blog, Domini Canes, where a recent post reminded me that we look to God for answers through prayer, but prayer is not a man-made action. Rather, prayer is a gift, a door eternally open to connection with God. We are both the seeker and the sought.

Our lives shout at us through our feelings and in the silent circumstances of our deeds. Your emotions will tell you everything you need to know about your journey. As you sift through the results of your decisions and actions, look at how your trials made meaning in your life and know the presence of God within you.

A Jesuit’s Journey: Maryland by way of Zambia and Lusaka

Excuse me, please” a voice called from the back. “What you are explaining, it is the one way ANOVA?” The voice came from an International student, Nicholas Penge. The class, Statistics and Research Methods.

Nicholas Penge

Nicholas Penge

Nicholas Penge is no stranger to education. His father, a teacher, first worked in the schools owned and operated by the Coppermines in Luanshya, Zambia.  At ten, Nick’s father moved the family north, as he changed his employment by working for the government as a teacher in the Primary school.

Nick loved learning. He admits that even from his earliest years, he also felt drawn to the priesthood. Thus he entered the minor seminary secondary school, and later joined the Franciscans. After two and a half years, though, Nick believed the fit not right and left.

Nick then enrolled in the University. But unrest and riots caused the government to shut it down, and again, he headed home. He could not help but wonder where his life-work lay. As he thought about this question, he found himself again attracted to service, and with the encouragement of his parish priest, he went to a “Come and See” hosted by the Jesuits in Lusaka.

“The ‘Come and See’ event really grabbed my heart,” Nick says now. He entered the congregation and was sent to Zimbabwe for his first studies. This time the fit felt right.

As Nick went through the various stages of his studies, he found that psychology interested him quite a bit.  When he went on to minister to various people, whether it was as an assistant in a parish, director of vocations, chaplain to prisoners or vulnerable mothers, he could see that he needed more when dealing with the cases brought before him. “I could see that the cases were not totally spiritual, but psychological as well,” he admits.

And so Nick began his search once again, this time for a program that would not only combine spirituality with psychology, but would offer him a Master of Science degree. He consulted with friends and colleagues, and found many who recommended Loyola University of Maryland’s Pastoral Counseling program. Nick applied and came to the United States in 2011.

As he finishes his first year, Nick says that this program is important to him. “Before, people came to me with problems that were psychological as well as spiritual. I felt my lack of psychological understanding did them a disservice.” Nick hopes he may continue on to the PhD program, but admits, that decision will be down the road.

Shamanic Revelations

When you hear the word “shaman,” what image pops up in your mind:

  • A short skinny guy wearing a grass skirt dancing dangerously close to a fire?
  • The dark hidden face of an ancient medicine man or woman chanting softly to the spirits?
  • Jesus? (Gasp! Yes, Jesus was a shaman . . . probably the best ever.)

In fact, the Society of Jesus and shamanism have common ways of being in the world. Before you stone me as a heathen, read on.

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary has a woefully antiquated, inadequate, and unenlightened definition of a shaman: “a priest or priestess who uses magic for the purpose of curing the sick, divining the hidden, and controlling events.”

Yikes. Uses magic? Nope. According to the Foundation for Shamanic Studies:

“In a holistic approach to healing, the shaman uses the spiritual means at his or her disposal in cooperation with people in the community who have other techniques such as plant healing, massage, and bone setting. The shaman’s purpose is to help the patient get well.” (Shamanic Healing: We Are Not Alone).

Jesuits come from all walks of life. Shamans can be anyone and rarely use a title such as priest or priestess. I personally know of one shaman traipsing the halls and classrooms of Loyola University with the title “student.”

Like shamanism, Ignatian spirituality is incarnational – God is not “out there” somewhere; God is right here in ALL things: people, events, objects, elements, animals, insects, and the stars. Jesuits are “contemplative in action” and take their meditative and reflective way of being into the world to guide their actions. Shamans converse with the spirits of plants, animals, and divine beings and apply that guidance in life and administering to the sick.

A shaman does not “cure” anybody but instead provides the energy and knowledge that support healing just as a Jesuit might bring the presence of God through prayer to help people heal. Divining the hidden in shamanism is no more than providing something for a person to reflect on and respond to which is similar to pastoral counseling.

Although Jesus could control events, his primary interest was letting life unfold in accordance with God’s love, even when this resulted in his crucifixion. Almost 2,000 years later, today’s shaman will follow his lead and consult him as a spiritual teacher when it comes to life’s events.

Just ask me.

More than Lip Service | Obama, Gay Marriage, and Unconditional Love

Fall and Spring are so nourishing at Loyola.  I find myself excited by the things I learn, the challenges I’m given, the classmates and professors who help me grow.  Then summer comes.  I take one class, maybe two, and the thrill of it all is packed into a few short weeks before I have no choice but to take a break.  And yet!

Last week Barack Obama spoke up in favor of gay marriage.  In that moment of his standing up for those who are marginalized, the excitement that normally comes to me through my courses set my heart once again on fire.  Why?  Because I saw a man who has been given great power – and with it, great responsibility – use that power to give voice to the voiceless, to show respect to those who are outcast, to preach acceptance and love not in a sermon but in his simply choosing not to discriminate, not to hate.

This is what Loyola is teaching me.  It is what Jesus – and the Jesuits who founded Loyola University Maryland – have always taught:  love unconditionally.  No wonder my heart is aflame when class is in session!  Learning to love is essentially getting to know God, Who is love.  The disciples asked regarding Jesus, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He talked to us on the road… (Luke 24:32)?”  I often refer to my experience at Loyola as my journey…I am walking with Him on this road and my heart is indeed burning.

Yet this summer my heart is burning again as I watch a man with so much power over others attempt to give that power to those without.  I took Intro to Pastoral Counseling a few semesters ago with Dr. Stewart-Sicking.  He had us not only reading about empowering others through our counseling but also through fighting the systems that keep others on the margins.  We were compelled to do service learning – I did mine at Bon Secours Hospice in Richmond, VA – so we could better understand those who are most in need of compassion – and action.  It gives me hope to see the leader of the free world risk so much (it is, after all, an election year) in favor of compassion.  Perhaps the citizens of his country will be inspired to risk the same.

I am taking only one course this summer although I dare say I am immersed in a second.  It is the course of Life, prerequisite:  Love.