The Interior Castle in Disney’s “Frozen 2”

frozenLately, I’ve been giving myself to a study-exploration of St. Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle – and commentaries thereof.  Hers is a variation of – perhaps, we might say, a forerunner to — current “stages of faith” conversations.  In keeping with other mystics of (and before) her time, she defines the contours of the spiritual formation journey from “awakening to God” to “union with God” — via processes of illumination and purgation.

Given my bent towards seeing spiritual themes in film and culture, an evening of watching Frozen 2 with my granddaughter gave way to a time of seeing Teresa and her message—particularly pronounced in a scene when Elsa, the protagonist in the story, advances into an ice cave (or castle) – singing the song, “Show Yourself”:

To make sure I was on target with my impressions, I asked my
(thirty-something year old) daughter, Katie, about the song and it’s meaning. Through no coaching from me, her response was confirming:
“She’s calling to her ‘higher power’ to reveal itself—
only to realize that that ‘higher power’ is within herself.”
(In other words,
as she cries
for that which she thinks is out there to “show itself,”
there is the realization that “It” is within.)

Even so with Teresa and her Castle… and her understanding of the journey of spiritual formation.  (And here, I draw a few choice snippets from a chief, contemporary translator of Teresa’s works, Mirabai Starr.)

  • There’s “a magnificent castle inside our own souls, at the center of which the Beloved himself dwells” (Interior Castle, pg. 21f.) (Is there an echo of this castle in Anna’s “Crystal Cathedral”?!?)
  • “The extraordinary thing about this castle where God lives is that it is inside of us. The journey to union with the Beloved is a journey home to the center of ourselves. The human soul is so glorious that God himself chooses it as his dwelling place. The path to God, then, leads us on a journey of self-discovery.” (Ibid)

“There has never been any serious theological quarrel with this ancient Christian understanding,” writes David Benner.  But, he continues: “it has been largely forgotten by the contemporary church. We have focused on knowing God and tended to ignore knowing ourselves.”  (Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery, p. 22)

More positively, he writes:
“Christian spirituality involves a transformation of the self that occurs only when God and self are both deeply known. Both, therefore, have an important place in Christian spirituality. There is no deep knowing of God without a deep knowing of self, and no deep knowing of self without a deep knowing of God. John Calvin wrote, ‘Nearly the whole of sacred doctrine consists in these two parts: knowledge of God and of ourselves.’”  (Ibid)

Important as this affirmation is
(i.e., that soul and God are intertwined),
it is not enough.

It’s another dimension
of Anna’s quest (and ours):
that It takes courage —
to plunge into the interior,
to be more open
to experiencing
God and self.

Embracing the “Discipline of Disturbance”

discipline of disturbanc (rotate)A recent meeting (focused on the promise and potential of disorienting-transitional moments) directed me to a book by Dr. Hud McWilliams, entitled Discipline of Disturbance: Stop Waiting for Life to be Easy.  Some title, huh?   I have yet to really dig in but early gleanings may suggest that it’s exactly what this soul needs (maybe what we a lot of us need) – not just at this juncture of Lent but at this juncture of the ”wilderness” into which we have all been plunged (during these days of quarantine and physical distancing).  (Here, I am grateful to my extrovert friend, Rev. Vickie Simons, who rightly distinguishes between “social distancing” from “physical distancing” — so that we can respect physical distancing without becoming socially distant!)

Writes McWilliams, early on…

The process of growing into wholeness is messy and brings its own discomfort. Deep in the psyche of the first-world [or American] perspective, it seems that our built-in urge to grow is stalled by the more immediate desire to be comfortable, to be safe, to be sure and certain. In other words, we want to be in control no matter what it costs us. And as we will see, it costs us dearly.

When the pursuit of comfort determines how we live, a move to grow toward wholeness will merely be tolerated and endured (perhaps in the wake of crisis). But it will not be sought out. And even when we experience a moment of genuine growth toward maturity due to loss, grief, betrayal, or some other setback, we hope the process of growth will soon be over. We want more than ever to return to the seeming ease of being in control of our life. We want to complete the process of suffering so we can put it behind us and return to the patterns and routines that pass for safety and comfort.

We are driven to resolve issues, and usually, it’s a good thing to want closure. When you sign up to take a class, you want to complete it. When you enter a race, you want to cross the finish line. However, this mindset overlooks the fact that we are alive. As long as we are alive, things can’t be finished. There is no endpoint. There is no graduation ceremony that certifies we have arrived. Living things always are growing. If they are not growing, they are dead.

Growth is a reality, while quick resolution remains a tantalizing fiction. We create our own confusion when we overlay the idea of completion on organic growth.

–Hud McWilliams, Discipline of Disturbance: Stop Waiting for Life to be Easy, (pp. 16-18)

Here, McWilliam’s words and thesis are fitting complements to some of the other spiritual formation discussions we’ve been about at Zoe-Life Explorations.

  • Most immediately, I am drawn to the [true] story of the Associate Pastor who was reprimanded for a Mother’s Day prayer (inclusive of all forms of being/having a mother and not being/having a mother) – a prayer that did not hit the mark of making everyone feel good.  (To engage that post, click here.)
  • More fully, though, “stage of faith” discussions come to mind – especially as they are illuminated by Janet Hagberg’s Critical Journey.  Among the dynamics she spotlights are the ways that – whether out of comfort or a fear of change — we can (and do) get stuck or caged at each level of our spiritual development.  It’s especially pronounced at a key juncture halfway the spiritual journey of a lot of folks called the “Wall.”  It’s not just a hard time in life that constitutes a “Wall” experience.  But, it’s a hard time in which the solutions and “answers” of former stages feel empty.  It can be a real time of conversion and renewal in a person’s life and faith – so long as they don’t run away from it.  The problem is (and here, McWilliams quote asserts itself): a lot of folks do run from the Wall.  That, or their churches are hard pressed to help people at the Wall – as they themselves perpetuate (and baptize) the cultural myth that life is all about comfort and safety and certainty.  (See related review of article from Pastor David Terpstra at Christianity Today by clicking here.)

Maybe instead of running from the “Walls” of life and living–
maybe instead of enthroning control and comfort in our lives,
we should see and embrace
disturbance and disorientation
for the things that they are or could/should be:
reminders that we are living organisms
(able to respond but not in control)
whose growth and maturation
demand change and promise “growing pains.”

Maybe,
instead of seeing disturbance and disorientation
(and this Lenten “wilderness” we’ve all been thrust into)
as the enemies of happiness and living,
we should see them as the standard features of life that they are–
embracing the lessons they promise to provide
to those who don’t run away.

“Creative Waiting:” An Invitation of Lent (and the Times)

ruminations, liminal cover (wider margin)Ruminations
is the name we have given to a Seasonal/Quarterly Spiritual Formation Resource especially designed as a guide for personal or small group retreats-devotions.

Our first issue in December, 2018 focused on “Advent’s Call to ‘Creative Waiting’” — with a focus on the inevitability of “liminality” in our lives… and how we might best navigate these threshold times.  The bigger issue is yours, free by clicking here.  Still, a “sound bite” from the cover article might convey our reason for returning to that issue at this time of the year – at this time in our lives:

Liminal.  Though the word was foreign to me (at least up until a few years ago), the concept is one I know all too well—even if I don’t really enjoy it.  From the Latin word, limen (threshold), it captures the notion of things “in between,” of the space between the old and the new.

Writes Richard Rohr:

[Liminal space is] a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them…  It is when you have left the “tried and true” but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are finally out of the way. It is when you are in between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer… If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait— you will run…  Anything to flee from this terrible “cloud of unknowing.”

All sorts of ”doorway” moments qualify here—where we engage all sorts of questions about what’s next, what’s on the other side, what we need to leave behind,…  There’s pregnancy, the loss of a loved one, marriage, divorce, a mid-life crisis, a radical medical diagnosis and treatment, an empty nest, graduation, career discontent and/or transition,…

Truth is, by its very nature, life in this world is liminal.  Much as we’d like to ignore it, we all live on the threshold of Death.  And then, there are the myriad, lesser deaths we navigate — each thrusting us into a waiting room. 

Given this “in between” nature of our lives, it’s no surprise that the architects of our Faith would choose to elevate seasons and saints whose witness would be, in part, a healthy navigation of the liminal in our lives.  In their wisdom, for example, the early church preserved a rhythm and sense of waiting in its calendar.  While there are certainly high, holy days (marked by outward flair), the bulk of our days are ordinary–marked by a less spectacular devotion that works at deeper recesses of heart, mind, soul…

If, from current events, there’s anything to add to the issue and its discussion, it is that threshold moments are not just a personal (or a family) thing.  Some times of liminality are thrust upon us as a total community – as we are now experiencing in a pronounced, world-wide–village way… in this day of settling into a “new norm.”  The majority of ancient Israel (among so many other cultures of old) knew and experienced it – as their daily norm.  Now’s the opportunity for us to live in their skins a little.  Now is the time to confess with songwriter Rich Mullins that “we may not be as strong as we think we are.”

But, if such times of disorientation provoke songs of lament (as Bruggeman reminds us in his exploration of the Psalms), we are not left without hope… or songs thereof.  Here, I leave with you with what I’d call a modern “Psalm of Reorientation” from Richard Rohr in a 2002 sermon, entitled “Days Without Answers in a Narrow Space” [printed in The National Catholic Reporter]:

Liminality is a special spiritual place
“where all transformation happens.”
It is when we are betwixt and between,
and therefore by definition “not in control.”
Nothing new happens
as long as we are inside
our self-constructed comfort zone.
Nothing good or creative emerges
from business as usual.
Much of the work of the God of the Bible
is to get people into liminal space,
and to keep them there long enough
so they can learn something essential.
It is the ultimate teachable space,
maybe the only one.

Exploring Meaningful Theological Discussions at the Movies

Prefacing Note:
We are most grateful to Lindsay Peyton and the folks of the Texas Annual Conference’s Communications department for this recent article in their “Cross Connections” — spotlighting our work through the Exploration which we call “Reel Theology.”  (As mentioned in the article, we’ll be taking 2 of the next 3 Tuesdays discussing Lent-related movies at First United Methodist Church in Somerville, Texas.  We’d love to have you join us!)


Rev. Jim Reiter looks for Jesus everywhere, as founder of Zoe-Life Explorations, a ministry dedicated to spiritual formation. Reiter often discovers spirituality on the silver screen – and will share the deeper messages in the movies in an upcoming Lenten Film Festival at FUMC Somerville, just 90 miles northwest of Houston.

Take the Godfather trilogy. “It’s a great story about one man’s fall into sin,” Reiter said.

At first, he explained, Michael Corleone has no interest in joining the family’s business inside the Mafia. “But then he just gets sucked in,” Reiter said. “The last scene shows him alone. It’s a powerful transformation, a decline into sin.”

That’s a message worth exploring – and the cinema has a powerful platform for telling stories, bringing them to life. Reiter explained that films normally considered secular can have still carry a deep spiritual message. He enjoys the way they can surprise him and catch him off guard.

Once Reiter recognizes a moral or a message in a movie or a TV series, he often shares them in a sermon or presentation. In the past, he has joined congregations on deep dives into “Breaking Bad” and “Stranger Things.”

Reiter’s passion for film became the basis of the Zoe-Life Explorations series, “Reel Theology: Focused Discussions at the Intersection of Hollywood and Divine.”

Pastor Victoria Simons read about Reel Theology in “Ruminations,” a quarterly publication from Zoe-Life Explorations, which offers resources for spiritual formation. It was just the type of outside-the-box experience she wanted to include in her plans for Lent.

“To be able to offer this fresh perspective is really cool,” Simons said. “As a pastor, you’re always looking for that angle, that approach that will resonate with people’s hearts.”

With Reiter’s help, FUMC Somerville planned “A Lenten Film Festival” for March 3, 17 and 31. Each event is scheduled from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., opening with a 30 to 40-minute screening of a film synopsis, which includes key scenes. A discussion follows, raising questions and offering time for reflection on the movie.

On March 3, the Festival kicked off with “Tender Mercies” a film from 1983, featuring Robert Duval. “It’s a powerful film of the slow redemption of a man, but it also engages the mysteries of God’s will,” Reiter said. “The tender mercies of love’s redemption change him.”

The film festival will continue on Tuesday, March 17 with “Chocolat,” a 2000 film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. “It’s a real parable of the Gospel,” Reiter said. “You have this free spirit coming in with the wind. That’s like the Holy Spirit.”

The fun continues on Tuesday, March 31 with the 2010 film “The Way,” starring Martin Sheen and directed by his son Emilio Estevez.  The movie, Reiter explains, follows the main character’s walk on the Camino de Santiago. “It’s a great story about a man making a journey to who he is, not who he is supposed to be,” Reiter said.

The Lenten Film Festival, Reiter explained, is fun and provides a safe space for discussion. “The movies become a faith-neutral territory to start talking about spirituality,” he said. “I’ve always felt that when a movie stirs something in my heart, that’s because it’s rattling the eternal inside me.”

He is available to provide film festivals for other congregations, he added, and will return to FUMC Somerville in the summer to create a series for children, finding the Gospel in Disney films.

Jesus was a master storyteller, Reiter said, and would create parables where meanings and morals could be discovered and become the basis of discussion.

Stories are at the heart of film as well, Reiter said. “It’s all about taking time to digest and process what went on in the movie I just saw,” he added. “We should stop, look, listen and process. And it’s not just with cinema. Develop a pause button. That kind of pause and awareness plays throughout the process of spiritual formation.”

Reiter said the same skill for searching for meaning can be developed at church and at the cinema – and particularly in daily life. “Learn to be still and to see and believe that God is in this moment,” he said. “Then ask, what is God saying to me?”

Pastor Simons agrees. “It takes God’s grace to open your heart for a new approach,” she said. “When you’re in the presence of the Lord, it doesn’t matter where it comes from. It could be under an apple tree — or at the movies.”

For more information about Reel Theology, visit zoe-life.net.

“Gather Me Now” (a prayer [for spiritual formation] by Ted Loder)

shattered sanctuary.jpegO God,
gather me now
to be with you
as you are with me.

Soothe my tiredness;
quiet by fretfulness;

curb my aimlessness;
receive my compulsiveness;
let me be easy for a moment.

O Lord, release me from the fears
     and guilts which grip me so tightly;
from the expectations and opinions
     which I so tightly grip,
that I may be open to receiving,
     to learn something refreshingly different.

O God, gather me to be with you as you are with me.

Forgive me for claiming so much for myself that I leave no room for gratitude;
for confusing exercises in self-importance with acceptance of self-worth;
for complaining so much of my burdens that I become a burden;
for competing against others so insidiously that I stifle celebrating them
     and receiving your blessing through their gifts.

O God, gather me to be with you as you are with me.

Keep me in touch with myself,
with my needs,
my anxieties,
my angers,
my pains,
my corruptions,
that I may claim them as my own rather than blame them on someone else.

O Lord, deepen my wounds into wisdom;
shape my weakness into compassion;
gentle my envy into enjoyment,
My fear into trust,
my guilt into honesty,
my accusing finger into tender ones.

O God, gather me to be with you as you are with me.

–Loder, Guerillas of Grace