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Coming Home to Your True Self by Albert Haase

by davesandel on December 15th, 2012

Coming Home to Your True Self: Leaving the Emptiness of False Attractions

by Albert Haase, O.F.M., 2008

178 pages

Read 7-2012, re-read and reviewed, 11-2012   (also find at

Thoughts on Coming Home to Your True Self

With eloquent, simple sentences, Father Albert Haase distills his college-level class on the spiritual life into a form that will be helpful to many.  He explains the potentially confusing concepts of false and true self.  The four classical stages of the spiritual journey – awakening, purgation, illumination, and union – become accessible as Father Haase draws them out for us.

Father Albert writes elsewhere that on each Christmas Eve he re-reads one particular classic of the spiritual life.  That book, written in the early nineteenth century by Jean-Pierre de Caussade, is alternatively titled Abandonment to Divine Providence and The Sacrament of the Present Moment.

Over and over his writing points us to Caussade’s theme: that there is nothing to get in the spiritual life.  What we need is already here, in every moment of every day, and we can gradually become aware of that wonderful, liberating truth.  In this way God becomes our God, instead of merely our sugar daddy.  Our concepts about God are put away as we experience God’s presence: God on his terms instead of ours.  As Job said with such enthusiasm about his own encounter with God, “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you” (John 42:5).

Haase encourages his readers to practice being “present to the Presence,” which is a form of centering prayer meditation.  He explains this practice in detail and makes it attractive and available for anyone to try.

Haase mines his education in historical theology and shares stories and quotations from mystics and spiritual thinkers throughout the centuries, including, to name just a few, Athanasius and the desert fathers, Francis of Assisi, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila and Thomas Merton.

As he also does in another of his books, Living the Lord’s Prayer: The Way of the Disciple, Father Haase makes it easier for his readers to remember what they have read by compiling concise lists and simple summaries in each chapter.  They are gathered in the very helpful Appendix C of Coming Home to Your True Self.  Each chapter ends with several discussion or reflection questions.



What follow are quotations from Coming Home to Your True Self, sometimes drawn together over a few paragraphs or pages.  The book consists of a foreword, preface, nine chapters and a conclusion, then three appendices and notes.

Enjoy …

“God is at home.  It is we who have gone out for a walk.” – Meister Eckhart

Foreword (by M. Robert Mulholland, Jr.)

Here is a resource for Christian spirituality that effectively taps the wealth of the Christian spiritual tradition in a way that makes it accessible to contemporary readers. – p. 10

The essential purpose of the spiritual journey is a life of other-referenced love.  Through an abundance of real-life examples, Haase shows us how we live our spirituality in relationship with others. – p. 10


In 1992 I attended a ten-day centering prayer workshop under Abbot Thomas Keating at the Trappist monastery in Snowmass, Colorado.  Seeds planted here grew while I was in China.  Keating has strongly influenced my understanding of spiritual formation. – p. 11

First at Quincy University and then in a workshop, “Like the Air We Breathe: An Approach to the Spiritual Life,” I was intent on making the riches of the Christian spiritual tradition more accessible.  This book presents the content of that workshop in written form. – p. 12

The spiritual journey is a return home.  And home is the sacrament of the present moment.  It is only in living right now, right here, that we discover our lives and this world awash in the grace of God.  We can be loading the dishwasher or sitting in a board meeting, and still experience what the great spiritual mystics discovered behind monastery walls. – p. 12

 Chapter 1.  The True Self: Home Sweet Home

There are times in life when the present moment opens up like doors to a magnificent homecoming party.  Everything converges on a single, simple point – a newborn infant, a waterfall, the pronouncement of wedding vows, a selfless kiss.  We are wide awake.  We transcend “me” as our attention is riveted on “thee.”  Down through the centuries, Christians have considered such selfless moments spiritual. – p. 16

These moments can be quite dramatic, but they can also be quite ordinary.  Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, Jakob Boehme, Brother Lawrence, John Wesley, and Mother Teresa all discovered the divine Presence in the present moment.  These moments are initiated by God and broaden our God-awareness, whether it be in the morning tide or a tiny whisper, a burning bush or a transfiguration atop Mount Tabor. – p. 17

The focused and dependent disposition of a newborn infant, which experiences, lives in and responds to the present moment, is analogous to what some spiritual writers refer to as the true self. – p. 18

Newborns have not yet learned the behaviors of guilt and sentimentality about the past, or worry and anxiety about the future. – p. 19

As we come “home,” we all can become aware of a communion – a “common union” with God at the very core of our being.  In the words of Catherine of Genoa, “My me is God!” – p. 20

The divine Presence surrounds us like the air we breath.  It is the fishbowl in which lovers swim: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16). – p. 20

Human language always stammers, limps and collapses when trying to express or communicate the mystery of God.  Whatever is said or written about God will be off the mark and prone to misinterpretation or error.  As Eckhart said, “The hand that writes the true thing about God is the hand that erases.” – p. 20

There is nothing to “get” in the spiritual life because we already have it! – p. 21

This is hard for us Westerners to accept.  We learn to divide and compartmentalize our lives.  God is up there and we are down here.  But the Christian God turns such thinking upside down and inside out.  The transcendent God up there “became flesh and lived among us” (John 1).  Language cannot contain the truth of the divine, but the tabernacle of human flesh can.  God’s embrace of the body is a dramatic event of homecoming.  God is most certainly at home.  God is with us. – p. 22-23

What fruits are found in the life of someone who is aware of and celebrates the common union (communion) with God?  Here are ten traits of people who have come home to the present moment where God intends them to be: they are 1) relational, 2) self-giving, 3) unflappable and unthreatened, 4) focused on the here and now, 5) contemplative in their approach to life, 6) in wonder and awe, 7) trustful and surrendering, 8) compassionate, 9) aware of being a spoke in the larger wheel of creation, and 10) passionate for peace and justice. – p. 23-24

1) Like God is the trinity of Father, Son and Spirit, we exist in a trinity of relationships between God, others, and self.  Only in these relationships do we discover who we really are, inextricably bound together as a family with God. – p. 24

“Me and Jesus” is an aberration in Christianity.  Love, charity, and hospitality are essential, expected and required.  As one fourth century desert hermit taught, the charity shown to a sick brother is worth more than lifetime of penance. – p. 25

2) The great temptation for beginners in spiritual formation is to hanker after the spiritual buzz.  But John of the Cross calls this desire “spiritual lust.”  When all is said and done, the spiritual journey is into selfless love, not personal experience.  Love is the acid test of spiritual growth. – p. 25

For a number of years, I was the spiritual director of Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s sisters in Asia. – p. 26

4) Those who return to where God has placed them recognize that the past and the future are mental constructs that refer to the nonexistent.  “There’s nothing like a fresh strawberry!” they are prone to say, even in the most uncertain of circumstances.  They take off their shoes and develop the habit of living right here, right now. – p. 28

5) Hasidic Jews believe that angels enter our lives one hundred times a day.  Mary was a great contemplative, intensely focused on each individual who entered her life.  She looked beyond the veil of human flesh and offered hospitality to each person as a messenger of the divine.  She was a woman totally aware that everyone she encountered was a God-bearer.  So when the angel Gabriel entered her life to announce the birth of Jesus, she recognized him! – p. 28

Meister Eckhart said, “Be in all things a God-seeker and at all times a God-finder.”  If I am “looking” for God, I am not living in the here and now, where the present moment is pregnant with the Presence.  So where, pray tell, am I living? – p. 29

6) This contemplative stance combined with living in the here and now gives birth to lives of wonder and awe.  The true self knows only too well that “the God of all grace” (1 Peter 5:10) dallies and sometimes dances within every moment and situation.  The awareness of this fact drives these people to their knees in adoration. – p. 29

Margo, dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease said to me: “I’ve gotten really good at letting go and surrendering to the present moment.  I suspect when death comes, it’s just going to be another moment to let go and surrender.  I suspect it will come quite naturally to me.”  Trustful surrender is natural for those rooted in the true self. – p. 30

We know the burning bush blazes so brightly at times that we might experience it as darkness.  Then the moment we surrender, pain becomes praise.  Weakness becomes strength. – p. 30

All emotional stress and suffering in life are self-imposed.  Our obsession and need to control and manipulate life, others, and sometimes even God are the primary reasons we are frustrated and stressed.  Those who have come home simply surrender to the mystery of the Presence.  Like floating in water, they simply give themselves over to the here and now and float in the stream called daily life.  This is not a weak, passive resignation.  It is in fact an active choice to trust. – p. 31

 Chapter 2.  The False Self: Leaving Home

The false self is obsessed with “me,” with what I have, what I do and what people think of me.  We are born with something missing in our lives.  Call it the hole in the heart.  Our culture and up-bringing send us on a wild-goose chase for things we think will fill the hole.  But these things are trifles and trinket and do not satisfy.  Our stuffed lives are like the bloated stomachs of starving children.  They betray our hunger, not our satisfaction. – p. 38-39

In my false self, I turn to the Empty P’s: Pleasure, Praise, Power, Prestige, Position, Popularity, People, Productivity, Possessions, and Perfection. – p. 39

John of the Cross states that those who seek the satisfaction of desires (pleasure seekers) are like starving people who open their mouths only to taste the air.  And the very act of opening the mouth makes it dry, since air is not our proper food. – p. 40

When I am chained to the high chair of my false self, I scream for praise.  At this point I am incapable of truly coming to know myself because I am too busy pleasing others.  My opinions and actions change like the weather.  I feel weak and shallow as I capitulate to the whims and dictates of others. – p. 41

I lived in Taiwan when my first book was published in the United States.  I was a little disappointed that I could not walk into a bookstore and see my book for sale.  Six months later I flew to Phoenix to witness a friend’s marriage.  While there, I visited a bookstore.  It had the latest books and on top of that, a very helpful Franciscan friar who could offer recommendations and reviews upon request.  The books were in author’s names alphabetical order, and I instinctively headed for H.  Lo and behold, there it was: Swimming in the Sun: Rediscovering the Lord’s Prayer with Francis of Assisi and Thomas Merton by Albert Haase, O.F.M.  I was tickled to death.  I picked up the book and headed toward the cashier.  I thought I would squeeze a compliment out of the helpful friar who managed the store.

Without telling me who I was, I said, “Excuse me, Brother.  I have ten dollars to spend on a book, and I was wondering if this book would be a good investment.”  The friar looked at me, grimaced, took the book from my hand and replaced it with a book by Henri Nouwen.  “Sir, if you have ten dollars, here’s a better investment.  It’s a wonderful read.”

I was crestfallen.  And, sad to say, those final days in the States were ruined as I nursed my bruised ego and reminded myself of Jesus’ words, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled” (Luke 14:11). – p. 41-42

As simplistic as it sounds, there is a psychological reason for our obsession with the Empty Ps.  Often what we think we lacked in our childhood or, in fact, actually lacked, becomes the fixation in the adult. – p. 47

Our false self also requires that we avoid any form of pain, blame, criticism, disgrace, or loss.  There are many techniques and tools: justification, denial, rationalization, defensiveness greed, finger pointing, and shaming others all provide wiggle room for us to slip out of any situation that might be painful, hurtful or stressful to us. – p. 48-49

Attachment to the Empty Ps and adoption of this Avoidance Agenda transform us into control freaks who are our own worst enemies, when we refuse to accept what is out of our control, namely, what life is presenting us at this very moment. – p. 49

Jesus sweated blood in the Garden of Gethsemane as he struggled to accept what life was presenting him at that very moment.  The point of this story for us is as obvious as it is surprising: never flee from the present moment, even if it is painful, confusing, sorrowful, distressing or heartbreaking.  “Surrender to suffering as if it were a loving energy.” – Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. – p. 50

Jesus challenges our distaste for pain, penance, disgrace and renunciation.  Time and time again he stresses the importance of humility and self-sacrifice.  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross, then follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16). – p. 50

 Chapter 3.  Coming Back Home: Breaking Free of the Pigpen

One of the challenges of spiritual formation is breaking free from the conscious and unconscious hold that our passions and avoidance techniques have on us.  In the history of spirituality, this has traditionally been called “mortification of the appetites” and “detachment.”  It is death to self, the false self, stripping off the bogus to return to the authentic.  Then we can bask in the Presence of the present moment with no thought or worry that there is something else to get. – p. 57

But renunciation and sheer willpower do not take away self-centered craving, desires, and tastes – this life-support system of the false self. – p. 59

And in fact, of their very nature, cravings, desires and tastes are sacred, given by God to foster the true self’s characteristics of self-giving love and being in relationship.  They are intended to open us up to Thee and thee and to forget “me.” – p. 59

The Song of Solomon renders in beautiful poetry Christ’s yearning for the soul of each believer and the soul’s almost painful longing for Christ. – p. 60

Cravings, desires and tastes are the raw emotions that leap out of the hole in the heart.  When properly focused on their intended objects, God and others, they truly are a grace.  But our upbringing causes us to get our wires crossed.  The grace gets hijacked and becomes a dis-grace, and we start stuffing the hole in the heart with the Empty Ps. – p. 60

Indifference can break the stranglehold of the false self.  Indifference is the malleable, surrendering disposition that allows the Presence in the present moment to shape, mold and sculpt who we are.  Indifference is also one of the most challenging keys to forge.  Awareness and the acceptance of desire, not brute renunciation, are keys to developing the spiritual skill of indifference. – p. 62

The English word doesn’t do the tradition justice.  It connotes a lack of emotion, apathy and listlessness.  This does not reflect the spiritual tradition accurately.  The Chinese translation, bu guan xin, does a better job.  It literally means “no relationship to the heart.”  It suggests a centered heart, a single-hearted heart.  This is a heart focused on the sacrament of the present moment, not something else to get. – p. 62

Spiritual indifference suggests a clear vision, inner freedom, committed engagement, truth, and balance.  It draws its nourishment from the life and teachings of Jesus. – p. 62

In the desert Jesus, the incarnation of the true self, encounters the devil, the incarnation of the false self.  The devil taunts Jesus, entices Jesus and goads Jesus with three temptations.  Jesus does not wander off in search of any of the Ps.  He chooses consistently to stay home in the present moment.  This is our model – p. 63

The strength to do this lies in God’s sufficient grace (2 Corinthians 12:9) and confronting the false self with the awareness that things are not what they seem to be.  Now we can properly order our priorities.  Single-hearted passion, fueled with desires focused beyond “me,” makes us indifferent to the agenda of the false self.  We are engaged with God and related to the world. – p. 64

In the Beatitudes at the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Jesus highlights the truth that grounds and nourishes indifference: things are not what they seem to be.  This is the liberating insight that experience ever so gradually teaches us: external “stuff” cannot bring happiness. – p. 64

Jesus’ suggested prayer is illuminating with its clear focus on the hear and now: “Your kingdom come,  Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread …” – p. 66

In his Confessions St. Augustine wrote, “Late have I loved you, O Beauty, so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!  And behold, you were within me and I was outside, and there I sought for you, and in my deformity I rushed headlong into the well-formed things that you have made.  You were with me, and I was not with you.”  Augustine already had what he desperately wanted: the divine Presence in the present moment. – p. 68-69

We embrace our desires and yearnings for fulfillment and focus them on Thee.  With the open hands of a newborn child and a spirit of surrender, we enter into the interior hole in the heart.  And suddenly we discover it to be the birth canal to new life and the path toward home.  We are born again as we experience the divine Presence, which dwells within and in which we dwell. – p. 69

 Chapter 4.  Graced Guilt: How Our Sin Can Bring Us Home

Don’t look for a destination in the spiritual life.  If you do, you will constantly get discouraged by your lack of progress.  Instead, treat the spiritual life as a process of awareness, as a gradual stepping into the light. – p. 71

Instead of treating your sinfulness and its guilt as a dead-end street, approach them as teachers who are instructing you about yourself.  We can gain so much self-knowledge if we honestly listen to them.  If you give them the attention they deserve, they will point you in the direction that leads into the light. – p. 72

Many of us can’t believe we commit the same sins over and over.  Will I ever outgrow this?  What’s wrong with me?  But what to do?  Feeling guilty over and over is just plain useless.  It leads to nowhere but the false self, which thinks it’s in total control of all perfection (one of the Empty Ps). – p. 72

Grace can become a wonderful teacher in the spiritual life.  Paul neither forgot his past sin nor let his guilt weigh him down.  Francis of Assisi, befriended his guilt about the self-indulgent agenda of his early life.  He listened to it and discovered that his own journey home led down the path of poverty and solidarity with the lepers of his day. – p. 74

For Margaret of Cortona, guilt pointed her in the direction of penance.  Martin Luther’s guilt prompted his famous tower experience, when he came to the realization that holiness is a gift that depends on the gift of faith.  Vincent de Paul was renowned for his irascible temperament.  But no doubt learning from the guilt of anger time and time again, he was to become a tender and affectionate man, sensitive to the needs of others. – p. 74-75

The seven deadly sins are devastating to the spiritual life.  Pride, envy, anger, greed, lust, gluttony and sloth can paralyze us and keep us in our pigpens. – p. 75

Pride constantly seeks approval from others and yet, at the same time, doesn’t respect them.  Humility defeats pride.

Envy often turns an innocent situation into a competition, because we feel threatened on our staircase of comparisons.  Acceptance overtakes envy.

Sinful anger is the womb from which feelings of revenge and retaliation are born.  Often it refuses to recognize the presence and dignity of the other.  Jesus’ call to meekness challenges and overcomes sinful anger.

Greed is the bottomless pit of craving more of some thing.  Greed calls us to the true self’s characteristic of trustful surrender to God.

Gluttony squeezes us tightly whenever we have a driven need or insatiable appetite for any activity, be it feast, famine, exercise or dressing up.

Lust entices us to say more with our bodies than we could ever imagine saying with our hearts.  Lust’s guilt challenges us to accept deeper dimensions of ourselves that we might be afraid of facing.  It calls us to foster life-giving, joyful and deeply loving relationships appropriate to our commitments in life.

Sloth, often confused with laziness, involves a weariness and dissatisfaction with the world, others, and mostly oneself.  Some people willingly become sluggish, indifferent, apathetic and passive, while others restless flit from here to there, sometimes even in an aggressive way, with no definite purpose.  Sloth’s guilt calls us to rediscover the true self’s joy of self-giving and that life can be enjoyed, not simply endured. – p. 75-80

The Chinese word for crisis, weiji, consists of two Chinese characters, one suggesting “danger” or “peril,” the other used in the Chinese word for “opportunity.”  For the Chinese, every crisis, danger or peril presents another opportunity to achieve life’s goal.  It opens new doors and often brings with it blessings in disguise. – p. 81

Our guilt reminds us to admit the sinful danger and peril we have freely chosen as we buy into the agenda of the false self.  We ponder the sources, roots and circumstances surrounding our sins.  We may see character defects and deficiencies which present a new opportunity for coming back to ourselves.  This is what conversion is all about. – p. 82

 Chapter 5.  Present to the Presence: How Prayer Makes Us Prayerful

My spiritual director told me, “Prayer should make us prayerful.  Our prayer should make us attentive to the presence of God in the here and now – not just during our scheduled time of prayer but during the rest of the day as well.  We begin to live with the growing awareness that grace is everywhere, that ‘right here, right now’ is where the action is, because his present moment is pregnant with the divine Presence.” – p. 83-84

My spiritual director taught me a simple technique which I call Present to the Presence.  The alliteration of Ps is deliberate and serves as a subliminal challenge to the Empty Ps of the false self’s agenda.  Done for a very short period, such as while standing in a grocery store’s checkout line, or for a prolonged period of prayer, this technique strengthens sensitivity to and awareness of God.  It helps us to become prayerful. – p. 84

Present to the Presence takes its inspiration from Brother Lawrence.  In The Practice of the Presence of God, he encourages a person to consciously call to mind God’s abiding presence, deliberately practicing this until the awareness becomes habitual and second nature. – p. 85

Present to the Presence also takes its inspiration from the contemporary and popular form of prayer called centering prayer, which has its roots in the fourteenth century spiritual classic The Cloud of Unknowing and is very similar to John of the Cross’s “practice of loving attentiveness.” – p. 85

Present to the Presence requires the apparently contradictory stances of focused attention and open-ended awe.  It is like the concentrated wonder of a new parent holding a firstborn, an astronomer peering into deep space, or a child playing with her first puppy.  When practiced selflessly, Present to the Present engenders and enkindles the flame of adoration. – p. 86

We choose a sacred word that is not heavy with meaning or emotionally charged significance.  Examples are “presence,” “here” or “now.”  We use the word to call us back home when our concentration is districted or when our wonder becomes fuzzy or unfocused.  Present to the Presence is not about thinking or feeling.  It is being lovingly attentive to Thee without thoughts or feelings from or about “me.” – p. 86

Because Present to the Presence is simple, it catches the false self off guard.  The false self then raises objections like “You’re wasting your time.  Are you finished yet?”  During these challenges, we can remain faithfully attentive to the divine Presence. – p. 87

Settle into sitting comfortably and alertly.  Gradually collect the scattered pieces of awareness and attention, and focus them in a simple, loving gaze on God in the here and now. – p. 87

The sacred word is a caring nudge that brings our awareness to the sacrament of the present moment.  We are not repeating the sacred word as if it were a mantra; we are not beating it as if it were a drum; we are not thinking about it or trying to arouse emotions about it.  We simply use it to get us home and then, once there, we gently leave it at the door as we enter in. – p. 87

Each of us must find our own rhythm with this practice.  What is important, as my spiritual director suggested, is that our focused time of being present to the Presence should make us prayerful during the rest of the day. – p. 88

Jean Baptiste Marie Vianney, French priest in the 19th century, noticed a man praying.  He asked the man what he said to God during his long visits in the church.  The man answered, “Oh, I don’t say anything to God, Monsieur Le Cure.  I look at God and God looks at me.” – p. 88-89

Shortly before she died, Thérèse of Lisieux was asked what she was doing as she lay in the infirmary, unable to sleep.  “I am praying.”  “And what are you saying to God?”  She replied, “I am saying nothing.  I am loving him.”  According to John of the Cross, this silent love is the language God hears the best. – p. 89

There are five common distractions Abbot Thomas Keating highlights in his centering prayer workshops: idle daydreaming, emotionally charged thoughts, “Eureka!” breakthroughs, self-reflection and interior purification. – p. 89

Interior purification can be the work of Jesus the divine physician during which, in Keating’s words, “the undigested psychological material of a lifetime is gradually evacuated.” – p. 91

Present to the Practice can sometimes be uncomfortable, grueling or downright painful.  But if we abandon the practice, the false self strengthens its stranglehold on us.  Instead, when we find ourselves caught in the details of our day, or suddenly concentrating on painful memories or emotions, we simply stop, turn around and gently repeat the sacred word as a sign of our intention to return home and be attentive to the divine Presence that dwells within and in which we dwell. – p. 91

According to the mystics, there are rare moments when our senses are momentarily suspended during prayer.  We are beyond thinking, images and emotions.  John of the Cross refers to this grace as “oblivion.”  The tide of awe rolls in as a stunning sacred silence descends on us.  Such moments are pure gifts that cannot be forced or manipulated.  We simply accept them in gratitude.  – p,. 92

Our very awareness of such a moment is itself an indication that the special grace has already passed.  To desire its return would be another thought, another distraction.  In fact, such a desire would turn this technique into a lust for pleasure, a P of the false self’s agenda. – p. 92

The examination of conscience, traditionally done in the evening, consists of reviewing the day’s events and honestly asking ourselves where we could have responded in a more Christian manner.  We can ask ourselves, “What do I need to stop doing?  What do I need to begin to do?  What do I need to do in a more intentional way?”  And we can ask which is the Empty Ps raised their ugly heads today, thereby confronting the false self head on, swallowing hard and confronting our pride head on. – p. 92-93

The examination of consciousness lets us look over the last twenty-four hours (or other period of time) and ask ourselves: When was God’s presence peeking through the clouds?  When did the angels enter into me day?  Was I attuned to the divine Presence in that particular person?  Was I attentive to God in this specific circumstance?  How did God’s abiding presence manifest itself to me today?   This is an excellent complement to the practice of being Present to the Presence. – p. 93

Chapter 6. Penance: Preserving Relationships

Lent, which literally means “springtime,” originally lasted only one or two days.  During this time, those preparing for baptism fasted.  The fast was a way to ritualize and enter into the death of Christ, with the hopes of sharing in the resurrection. – p. 97

Emptying oneself in service of another, whether through fasting or some other specific action, was also a disposition for daily living.  Lent was gradually lengthened and finally fixed at forty after the fourth century conversion of Emperor Constantine. – p. 97

In the fifth century, when Christians started the practice of infant baptism, Lent was the time when public sinners showed in action their desire to repent and turn again to being the people God called them to be.  Penance, initially associated with Christ’s self-emptying in death, was now associated with coming home. – p. 98

Penance is a way to ritually experience in our own lives the self-emptying of Christ.  After all, the waters of baptism make us Christians, or literally, “little Christs.”  Penance is therefore an attitude and mindset that celebrates our truest identity. – p. 98

Penance is not exclusively bound to the three traditional forms of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – it depends on which of the empty Ps we mistakenly think will make us happy.  For me, self-emptying might mean doing something with greater intentionality.  Or it might mean making a concerted effort to stop doing something.  Or it might mean starting to do something that I have not done in the past.  In whatever I do, I express my identity as a little Christ. – p. 98

Traditionally, penance has had a strong social dimension, which has been forgotten.  The Chinese belief in feng shui offers an analogy.  In Chinese culture, before someone builds a house or decorates a room, the feng shui expert is called in, using the words of an ancient Chinese text, “to ensure harmony in the middle.”

As a building is constructing with respect to the harmony of creation, then what goes on inside it can be positively influenced by qi, the powerful energy arising from the harmonious relationship between feng (wind) and shui (water), between the feminine yin principle and masculine yang principle.

Sin violates the natural harmony of the soul.  It deliberately skews the God-intended trinity of relationships between God, neighbor and self that are characteristic of the true self.  It slams the door of the heart in God’s face.

As I experience penance, it as as if I become the feng shui expert of my own soul.  In self-reflection and brutal honesty, I re-establish relationship with myself.  I admit to myself that things are not what they seem to be.  And I am on the road home, to re-establishing relationships, bonds and connections with God, others and self. – p. 99-100

Penance is experiencing the spiritual energy – grace – that comes with maintaining and developing healthy, balanced bonds with God, others and self.  Penance is not about external actions; it must get underneath the skin and convert the heart from stone to flesh.  The heart, not the hands, needs to be washed. – p. 100-101

The true self is relational.  Jesus makes it blatantly clear that our relationship with him is verified through our solidarity with others (Matt 25:40, 1 John 4:20).  Paul too (Romans 14, 1 Cor 8 and 10) – p. 102

Adopting the traditional corporeal or spiritual works of mercy as a form of penance is an explicit way of reinforcing and bolstering God-intended bonds.  The corporeal works of mercy include feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, giving shelter to the homeless, visiting those in prison and burying the dead.  The spiritual works of mercy consist of instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, admonishing the sinner, comforting the sorrowful, forgiving offenses willingly, praying for the living and the dead and bearing wrongs patiently.  Both corporeal and spiritual works promote the relational character of the true self. – p. 102-103

Acts of penance or a penitential disposition should never call explicit attention to itself.  When it does, it plays right into the hand of the false self. – p. 103

Prayer, fasting and almsgiving have been consistently revered in the Judeo-Christian tradition as practical ways to build religious character.  They reestablish and foster the trinity of relationships, the natural harmony between God, others and self. – p. 104

Our individual time of prayer makes us aware of God with us, and that awareness should spill out into everything we do – in this way, our prayer also makes us aware of the divine Presence among the hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick and imprisoned (Matt 25).  Prayer, focused on Thee, leads us to thee.  Our great challenge with adopting prayer as a penance is to live our prayers, not simply to say them. – p. 105

One of the best ways to prepare for a moment of prayer, worship or the liturgy is to watch the evening news, read a newspaper or check breaking news online. – p. 106

Prayer speaks volumes about our own self-awareness and self-care.  It often brings us face-to-face with our sometimes chaotic and divided hearts, how far we have wandered away from the sacrament of the present moment. – p. 106

Fasting, not just from food, but from the injustice, oppression, greed and insensitivity of the false self are ways to restore the God-intended harmony with our neighbor.  In the eyes of the true self, standing with sinners on equal ground, sharing bread with them and forming a bond of solidarity with them are more important than fasting. – p. 107

Fasting from our habits of wasting food, paper and water can help heal the very fragile relationship we have with the physical creation God has entrusted to us. – p. 108

Fasting can be a stern teacher, reminding us that we have damaged or severed the most basic of relationships, the one with ourselves, and allowed our lives to spin out of control. – p. 108

Almsgiving is the third traditional form of penance.  Derived from the Greek word for mercy, it restores to the world the harmonious order intended by God in a very practical way.  We share with one another and with the wider family of creation a very real interdependence, and we are called to give from our poverty, not merely from our abundance. – p. 109-110

Chapter 7: Discernment: Becoming a Dream Keeper

I was taken aback by my friend’s suggestion that God might have a master blueprint or predetermined script for his life that he was challenged to figure out and hopefully “get right.”  That sounded to me like the pagan notion of fate.  After all, don’t we have free will? – p. 112

Free will is one of the most precious gifts God has given us.  Gift that it is, free will is never violated by God.  – p. 113

Discernment has a lot to do with making good decisions, which demands listening to the head, the heart and the gut.  What we experience as a deep desire could very well be the invitation of God.  This, of course, can be tricky since the heart is sometimes in the clutches of the false self.  But ignoring what the true self wants or desires in a particular situation violates personal integrity; it also threatens one way that God communicates divine hopes and dreams to us. – p. 114

Ignatius of Loyola, the great master of discernment, writes of sentir, the felt knowledge of the body.  He calls the positive feelings of peace, joy, hope and confidence “consolations” and indicates they point home to the true self.  He calls the negative feelings of doubt, fear, anxiety and discouragement “desolations” and indicates they point to the false self’s pigpen.  A decision might make all the sense in the world but still not “feel right.” – p. 114

Five components have shaped and made us the persons we are today: past history, our potential, our present identity and our hopes, dreams and desires. Add to that our baptismal commitment. – p. 115-116

Thomas Merton used to ask the young novices of the Abbey of Gethsemani two important questions: “What do you really want out of life?” and “What’s stopping you from getting it?”  These questions can help make explicit our motivating dreams and desires and challenge fears, doubts and obstacles that the false self throws at us to frighten and frustrate us. – p. 116-117

Good decisions blossom in the sacrament of the present moment.  They require that indifference – bu guan xin, “no relationship to the heart” – that washes us over us as we confront the agenda of the false self with the realization that things are not what they seem to be.  Far from apathy, complacency or disinterest, this indifference shows a heart that is focused and engaged.  It also is an expression of inner freedom, openness and balance. – p. 118

With their sin, Adam and Eve lost the immediate awareness of God’s all-embracing presence in the present moment; it would now have to be “practiced.”  And God’s paradise became a fuzzy memory as Adam and Eve were driven from their home (Gen 3:24). – p. 120

One’s baptismal incorporation into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – we are little Christs – is a public commitment to keep God’s dream alive; to empty ourselves and mend the bonds and relationships broken by the false self; to build God’s kingdom of peace, justice and love; to come home to what we already have and who we really are, the true self.  Hence, this baptismal commitment should affect and inform every process of making a decision.  This is what transforms the decision-making process into the Christian discernment of the will of God. – p. 122

In this light, these questions pertain to decision-making: How can I uniquely contribute to God’s kingdom in this situation?  How can I best make God’s dream a reality here and now?  How can I foster the kingdom’s peace, justice and love?  – p. 122

Through our upbringing, talents, abilities and deepest desires, God presents us with canvas, paint and brushes to freely shape the gift of life.  We become the artists of our own lives.  Discerning God’s will is nothing more than responding to a situation with our unique, gifted contribution to God’s dream for creation.  And the portrait of our lives becomes our gift back to God. – p. 122-123

Catching the dream of God is the goal of spiritual formation.  Our will comes into communion with the will of God.  This communion is not slavery.  We are instead freed – head, heart and gut – from bondage to the false self.  Our new self-emptying lifestyle is the greatest glory of humanity and reveals our identity as little Christs. – p. 125

Chapter 8.  The Spiritual Director: A Companion on the Road Home

“What is God up to in my life?”  That question, as mysterious as an apparently unanswered prayer, as exhilirating as the arrival of a new child or as riveting as one’s first love letter, has been the sole topic of spiritual direction down through the centuries. – p. 130

When we commit to spiritual direction, we are dedicating and devoting ourselves to a process of attention, discovery and articulation of God’s grace in our lives..  The spiritual director acts as a witness and sounding board. – p. 130-131

There is nothing to get in the spiritual life; the challenge is to become aware of what we already have. – p. 131

Speaking of the near occasions of grace as well as the near occasions of sin is countercultural.  Spiritual direction truly stands out as a unique and sacred discussion.  It revels in the closeness of God’s action in life, even as it reveals some of our less-than-laudatory actions and feelings. – p. 132

The very act of naming occasions of grace is a way of growing in deeper awareness and gratitude for them.  Francis of Assisi called this attitude of awareness the “spirit of prayer and devotion” and urged his friars never to lose it. – p. 134

In the early 19th century, Jean-Pierre de Caussade wrote to a directee, “Every moment we live through is like an ambassador who declares the will of God.”  He refers to exhilarating, happy moments, and also to moments of pain and separation.  In spiritual direction, we learn the saintly art of surrender and trust in the mystery of grace. Such surrendering trust is characteristic of the true self. – p. 135

With grace comes the responsibility of a response.  This leads to the topic of discernment, the holy task of deciding how to live life as a dream keeper. -p. 136

We might fear the recurring exposure of our sinfulness.  Most of us have three or four temptations that we often or even consistently give in to.  It is humbling to return time and time again to the same near occasions of sin.  We might mistakenly think that the spiritual director believes we have no willpower or real interest in repentance. – p. 139

Spiritual direction is not similar to short-term counseling.  It is not the “trap door into the Promised Land.”  It is a lifelong commitment to the process of attention, discovery and articulation of God’s grace. – p. 140

People in the throes of any kind of addiction need to address their addiction first.  Once the addiction is admitted and addressed, spiritual direction provides a marvelous compliment to any twelve-step program. – p. 140

In the midst of emotional pain or trauma, counseling rather than spiritual direction helps us develop coping mechanisms to function on a daily basis.  Only then does the person have the self-possession to confront the agenda of the false self and the stillness to be present to the divine Presence.  Self-possession and stillness are essential qualities for finding one’s way home. – p. 141

Being a spiritual director is a calling, a charism, a vocation.  It is called forth and validated by others who intuit in this person a presence, judgment and heart that knows something of the divine Presence.   – p. 141

A spiritual director has 1) the ability to listen, 2) is nonjudgmental, 3) is not angry, and 4) has experience with the midlife transition. – p. 141

From the fourth century desert where spiritual direction first began taking shape, we learn that the director should not have an angry personality.  Angry directors struggle to be objective and humble during the time of sacred listening.  Though they might be able to hear what we are saying, they are incapable of wise listening. – p. 142

Chapter 9. Continuing Home: The Ongoing Work of the Spirit

In spiritual growth and maturity, our challenge as adults is to become like children and rediscover our interdependence.  We are called to return to the very place we left – the sacrament of the present moment that is the home where our Father waits for us. – p. 145

We tend to believe that living the spiritual life with intentionality will provide immediate, consistent results.  There is a definite sense of moving forward from darkness into light and from slavery into freedom, but this is not always experienced as clearly and distinctly as we would like. – p. 147

There are seven identifiable principles of spiritual growth that influence our journey:

  1. Each person’s spiritual journey is unrepeatable and unique.
  2. God chooses to bow in submission to human free will.
  3. God is not bound by or restricted to any “approved” map.
  4. The place of divine encounter is right here and right now.
  5. The spiritual journey gets more difficult the further along a person travels.
  6. The traditional four stages of awakening, purification, illumination and union are more like ongoing, cyclical processes than linear stages.
  7. The final destination of the spiritual journey is nowhere but the sacrament of the present moment, the here and now.  – p. 147

God will never violate the gift of free will.  God entices.  God coaxes.  God allures, attracts and invites.  But God never forces or coerces.  Some of us are fence-sitters and do not decide to follow the tug of grace.  We choose life on the sidelines as bystanders.  Even after growth we might hesitate, backtrack and return to the obsessions of the false self. – p. 148-149

God patiently waits and eagerly hopes.  God keeps an eye on the path leading home.  God’s ears listen for the sounds of those familiar footsteps.  God’s arms are anxious to embrace and lead us by the hand  into the homecoming party and sacrament of the present moment.  But it’s up to us to place one foot in front of the other. – p. 149-150

In a single instant, responding to grace, Mary was transformed from a maiden into a mother. – p. 150

On occasion God picks someone to buck the system: one things of the fourth-century desert fathers and mothers, Francis of Assisi and Clare of Assisi, Quaker John Woolman, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Desmond Tutu, the controversial theologians of South America.  When it comes to the spiritual life, God remains as radically free as we are. – p. 151

We do not have to get to a certain stage before we can experience the presence and grace of God.  Grace is never achieved or earned.  It is given freely and lavishly, right here, right now.  Every single moment is a sacrament. – p. 151

Grace is like the air we breathe.  It is within us.  It surrounds us.  And at any moment, in any situation whatsoever, be it sinful or sanctifying, we can make the choice to respond to this generous gift.  God is humble enough and eager enough to meet us wherever we are. – p. 152

As we respond to grace on more and more different levels, we see how the agenda of the false self has gotten us off track in a variety of different ways: physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual.  This is a continual process.  The traditional four stages of awakening, purification, illumination and union are more like ongoing, cyclic processes than linear stages. We could be in a combination of stages, and even all of the stages to some extent, at the same time.  – p. 152-153

Awakening is characterized by a loss of control.  We begin to realize that life is not simply about “me” but also include God and others.  The emotional pain this causes helps us to wake up and realize we are in a pigpen, not at home.  We have been trapped in the false self’s trappings of success. – p. 155

In purgation we respond to the call of moral integration.  We see just how committed we have been to pursuit of pleasure, praise, power, prestige, position, popularity, people, productivity, possessions and perfection.  – p. 156

We look at how much time we’ve wasted avoiding pain, blame, criticism, disgrace and loss.  These crosses are meant to be embraced, not rejected.  Surrendering to them shapes us more and more into little Christs. – p. 156

In the purgative stage our next task is to move beyond childhood religiosity and adolescent religiosity.  With the former we attempt to control God with good deeds.  With the latter, we decide what God can and must do.  We question God with authority: “How can God possibly allow all the suffering in the world?” – p. 157

Both stages of religiosity must yield to mature faith, characterized by trust in God and God’s ways. – p. 157

The final task is the commitment to daily prayer.  This is our gift to God.  It is also God’s gift to us.  We meet Jesus in prayer, and he becomes our friend, companion and lover.  Suddenly, we begin to see how our prayer spills over into self-emptying acts of charity and compassion.  We begin living our prayers. – p. 157

The prayer of the beginner is often chatty, filled with intellectual words and images.  Monologues with god, chewing on a Scripture passage, a long list of petitions, an examination of conscience and consciousness.  This prayer, in which we do all the work, is traditionally known as discursive meditation. – p. 158

Teresa of Avila says that within three months we will find the prayer of discursive meditation hard to maintain.  We will experience boredom and dryness, and we will be tempted to abandon the practice.  Prayer can become another P – and it does the minute it is supposed to satisfy ourselves. – p. 158

Dryness and boredom in prayer are not signs of failure.  They are clear signs that “something is cooking” inside us.  They are cyclic recurrences in which God’s grace purifies any enduring, interior semblance of the false self.  And so we surrender to them in faith and trust.  Fidelity, fidelity, fidelity.  We are challenged to stay faithful to the daily practice.  It gets us at the station and on the platform where we WAIT for God’s express train called amazing grace. – p. 158

The beginner’s dryness in prayer is an invitation to simpler prayer.  As we grow and become more and more comfortable with God, we become more and more comfortable with silence.  This silence is not empty or dead; it is a silence pregnant with a loving history between lover and beloved.  So we should always follow the silence whenever God’s grace offers the invitation.  The practice of being present to the Presence is a good technique to use in response to God’s invitation to a simpler form of prayer. – p. 158-159

The stage of illumination is marked by deepening sensitivity to the light of God.  We realize that there isn’t anything to get in the spiritual life.  At this point we stop looking for God and begin nurturing awareness and sensitivity to the presence of God within us and in which we dwell. – p. 159

We undertake responsibilities with new zeal.  We search for new and creative ways to proclaim the gospel with the enthusiasm of Pentecost.  Acts of charity are no longer seen as obligations but rather as natural, spontaneous responses to the need of the present moment.  What we “should do” becomes “who we are.”  We’re returning home to the true self. – p. 160

As our interior realm of heart, mind, memory and imagination are purged and illuminated, desires and cravings do not command the attention or interest they once did.  We no longer find it interesting or amusing to dwell on outlandish fantasies.  Painful memories might arise and even try to scare us away from the present.  Fidelity, fidelity, fidelity. – p. 161

The guilt we felt about our sin is now transformed into sorrow.  Our love for God deepens.  God is forging a deeper relationship with us in spite of our infidelities. – p. 161

At some point we are called to accompany Jesus on the road to Calvary.  It is similar but much more intense than the dryness and aridity of our prayer in the purgative stage.  John of the Cross calls it the “dark night.”  The dark night is the interior dismantling of all that we hold near and dear.  Some of us experience it just once in life while others have multiple experiences.  – p. 162

Job’s dark night was an interior purging of any and all deep-seated self-reliance, pride or claims of being a self-made success.  Under the guise of an earthly disaster (physical or relational), it is a grace in disguise. – p. 162

John of the Cross (in Dark Night, Book Two, Chapter 10)  writes about fire and wood.  First the fire dehumidifies the wood, dispelling any interior moisture that prevents the wood from catching fire.  Second, the fire turns the log black, charring it and making it dark and ugly, even emitting a bad odor.   Finally, by heating and enkindling it from without, the fire transforms the wood into itself and makes it as beautiful as itself.  The dark night has a similar effect on us. – p. 163

As the result of a dark night of Calvary, we are transformed into who we are called to be, little Christs, children of God. – p. 163

Our images of God as loving and compassionate are stripped away during this experience.  In deep darkness, confusion and doubt we find no God to whom we can pray.  We feel pushed aside and abandoned.  We lie in a ditch, half dead … of course, God has not abandoned us.  But the last vestiges of the false God we have constructed over our lifetimes are being smashed.  – p. 163

The living God of all grace is now staking claim on our lives and running toward us in a way we could never before have imagined or experienced. – p. 163

No matter its length, the dark night requires a heroic act of surrender.  Fidelity, fidelity, fidelity.  We allow it to consume us as wood is consumed with fire.  Like Jesus on the cross, we continue to live the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, and we forgive any whom we might blame for this incident in life.  If we surrender, like Job and Jesus, to this passion and crucifixion with faithful trust, in all humility, God will meet us right where we are. – p. 164

In occasional flashing moments of the fourth stage of union, we suddenly find ourselves wrapped within the bosom of a loving God.  We walk hand in hand with God, our divine companion.  When grace opens us up to the unitive stage, we find ourselves naturally receptive to the thoughts and attitudes of Christ.  We have great control over our behavior with little or no effort.  Our lives are intentionally and naturally lived according to the Sermon on the Mount. – p. 164

Being dream keepers, our self-understanding and identity are blazing with the awareness of being little Christs.  We are who God intends us to be.  We have returned to the true self.  Our lives are placed irrevocably and unequivocally at the service of God.  Downward mobility keeps us centered here and rooted in the now.  We know in our bones that it’s all about Thee and thee, not “me.” – p. 163-164

We have an intuitive understanding of Paul’s statement, “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake” (Col 1).  We live with the expectation that the union we experience with God now is just a foretaste of the eternal banquet awaiting us in heaven.  We wait peacefully and with joyful anticipation for that day.  Until then, we continue to move and out of deepening awakenings, the need for purification and experiences of illumination.  We are home with God. – p. 165-166


So much of the spiritual life is simply about awareness.  Awareness is the key that opens up the sacrament of the present moment.  Why would we ever want to walk away?  – p., 167-168

Appendix A: Designing a Rule of Life

A rule of life might include:

  • A period of daily prayer and reflection.
  • A weekly worship celebration with a Christian community.
  • Nourishing ourselves with the Word of god and the wisdom of writers.  The history of spirituality offers an amazing buffet of literature.  A few examples are the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers, the Rule of Saint Benedict, the lives and writings of Francis and Clare of Assisi, The Cloud of Unknowing, Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, Imitation of Christ attributed to Thomas a Kempis, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim Progress, Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life, Edward Taylor’s Preparatory Meditations, Jonathan Edwards’ Treatise Concerning Religous Affections, Therese of Lisieux’ Story of a Soul, Richard Baxter’s The Saint’s Rest, Walter Rauschenbusch’s Prayers for the Social Awakening and Carol Houselander’s Reed of God. Modern writers include Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Ruth Haley Barton, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Anthony de Mello, Emilie Griffin, M. Robert Mulholland, Jr., Richard Rohr, James M. Houston, Ruth Burrows, Basil Bennington, Mary Margaret Funk, David G. Benner, Joan Chittister, Thomas Keating and Paula Ripple.
  • Performing self-emptying acts of charity.
  • Making an annual spiritual retreat of two overnights.
  • Prayerfully preparing for a spiritual direction session by having a specific topic to consider and discuss.

Appendix B: Finding a Spiritual Director

Contact local retreat houses and spiritual life centers.

Contact training programs for spiritual directors like the Shalem Institute, Institute for Spiritual Leadership of Chicago, North Park Theological Seminary of Chicago, Christos Center for Spiritual Formation of St. Paul, MN, Weston Jesuit School of Theology of Boston, and Ecumenical Seminar in Spiritual Direction of the Chiara Center, Springfield, IL.

Use the “Seek and Find” page of the Spiritual Directors International website (  Here you can also find questions to ask any spiritual director you may be considering.

 Appendix C: Charts and Lists

  • The Great Insight
  • Characteristics of the False Self
  • The Empty Ps of the False Self
  • Avoidance Agenda of the False Self
  • The LIberating Insight
  • The Seven Deadly Sins
  • Distractions While Being Present to the Presence
  • Components of Discernment
  • Why Commit to Spiritual Direction?
  • Characteristics of a Spiritual Director
  • Seven Enduring Principles of Spiritual Growth
  • The Spiritual Journey
  • Awakening
  • Purgation
  • Illumination
  • Union


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