Visit the Abbey of the Arts online retreat platform to access your programs:

Messy Spirituality

I freely admit that I crave a certain degree of order in my life.  On the Myers-Briggs I am an INFJ with a fairly strong organizational J.  That J serves me very well in work and thrives on deadlines. It is certainly what got me through a PhD program in under 6 years. I love my home to be neat and I have a hard time getting to work if its not (okay, so maybe it helps me procrastinate sometimes).  I can be the queen of planning and every day make lists of things to get done (although I often don’t accomplish everything on the list).  I have a friend who is high on the P end of the scale who envies me greatly and wants to know my secret for getting things done.  This way of doing things can certainly be a gift.

But in the last few years there have been some big shifts inside of me. I find myself being invited, especially through prayer and dreams, to hold my plans much more lightly and live into whatever is emerging in my life.  I call it “organic spirituality,” this path of listening to my own unfolding.  Following what seems to be most life-giving in this time and place.  Trusting my own longings.

I had a dream recently: I walk into my spiritual director’s office and the couch I usually sit on has been folded out into a bed and the sheets are rumpled. I am invited to sit down, but feel confused, maybe a bit anxious.  I laughed to myself at this image when I woke up–these delightfully rumpled sheets that represent my longing for a spirituality that is willing to get messy, that doesn’t always need the bed perfectly made to feel at ease.

I have often thought that if I lost my agenda I would be even more distressed than if I lost my wallet.  Identity theft notwithstanding, credit cards and ID’s are easily cancelled and replaced.  My agenda however, contains all the places I am supposed to be from now through the whole of next year.  To reconstruct spiritual direction appointments, classes, workshops, groups, and more would be a frightful task.  And yet, I have a love-hate relationship with this carefully scheduled life.  It’s not that I’m not spontaneous or flexible–in fact I am much more of a “P” with regard to my personal life–it’s just that I have realized many of my friends and other people I am deeply fond of I see at pre-arranged times, for example in my women’s group, my writing group, my dream group, my supervision group, and so on.  And while these groups provide me with essential support and feedback for different parts of my work, I realize I am longing for my relationships to start getting a little messier and spill out of their neat little boxes on my planner pages.  I want friends to meet friends from different parts of my life, or to meet my husband, or to just be able to call one morning and plan lunch or a hike one day.  I do this occasionally, but far less than is necessary.  I expressed this over the summer to one of my group gatherings to a warm and enthusiastic response.  We were talking about what shape our group might take in the fall and I said I wanted to get to know spouses and celebrate things together and just let out lives overlap more and get a bit messier.  Part of it are the crazy times in which we live. People are so very busy, sometimes if we don’t plan ahead several weeks will go by before we get to see a dear friend.

Really though, for me this is about much more than lunch dates and putting aside my agenda. It is about the journey I think we are all called to–the letting go of plans, the exploding of our boxes, the recognition that God is so much bigger than our plans–bigger even than our widest imagination.  It is a lifelong journey, because we naturally think in boxes, wanting to categorize and make sense of things.  Even when I think I have allowed God as much room to be who God is, I suddenly bump up against a limit I have imposed unconsciously and I wonder, why haven’t I let the sacred into that part of my life?

It is the kind of spirituality that makes decisions that don’t always seem logical or practical.  Like adopting an almost ten-year-old dog after my previously beloved ten year-old dog died, simply because of a longing to bring some healing to her wounded heart. Or doing something despite the mental list of reasons not to, simply because it feels like the most deeply life-giving thing I could do in this moment of my life and when I do it, my heart grows wider and my imagination soars.

Do you have any rumpled sheets in your own life?  Where are the places your plans have gotten in the way? What is emerging in you now, wanting to have a voice, despite how impractical or silly it sounds?

-Christine Valters Paintner @ Abbey of the Arts

You might also enjoy

Hildy Tail: The Weary Prophet (1 Kings 19:1-10)

This week we are featuring one of our Hildy Tails. This series of essays were composed last year for our Sustainers Circle. They were dictated to John by the Abbey’s mascot, Hildy the Monk-ey. Hildy is a bit of a free spirit who likes to

Read More »

Monk in the World Guest Post: Roy DeLeon, OblSB

I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series from Roy DeLeon. Roy is a fellow oblate at St. Placid Priory, dear friend of the Abbey, and presenter in the self-study retreat Exile and Coming Home. Read

Read More »

14 Responses

  1. Great post. My life is pretty messy so I’m always striving for a little more organization. It always goes both ways, you know.

  2. Thanks for all of the great replies, I have been out all day so only now catching up with comments!

    eileen, I love the name “Book of Life”

    Suz, I don’t know much about MMPI so you have me curious. I agree, a tightly packed schedule makes me crazy to just look at!

    Bette, I love you new acronym!

    Cathleen, I love the way animals are so free to just be in whatever way feels natural, Tune is a great teacher for me.

    lucy, fun to read your post today! We are sharing a parallel journey these days, aren’t we? :-) Thanks for the dream connection, she does remind me of those rumpled sheets too.

    Wendy, I agree, order can be a very good thing, its just that we live in such a scheduled society we need to find balance. I like the image of letting life into it.

    blessings to all of you! Christine

  3. Small world Christine, i’m an INFJ as well, though i’m very borderline on the P.

    The thing about losing your agenda list fear, i had to laugh…i lose it my sanity if i misplace so much as my grocery list lol…so i know the feeling lol.

    Yet there is something about it getting stifling sometimes, frozen. I like your phrase Organic Spirituality a lot. I think maybe the thing is not about 86ing the order, so much as its just about letting life into it to do what it will as life takes root. The former would terrify me, its just pullling something precious away, but the latter sounds healing…



  4. can i just steal your post and put my name on it??? this reminds me of your words on “peregrinatio” in praying with the elements…see my post today (done before i read these lovely words of yours.)

    tune is a definite beauty! her silkiness reminds me of rumpled messy sheets :-)

  5. Tune’s photo reminds me of the position my kitties often take – an invitation to just be, in what direction the legs fall. I recall an article entitled “The Freedom to be a Mess” ~ it’s essence was that we don’t have to have it all figured out, the sometimes God is most active when we “are a mess.” But it’s a challenge for those of us wanting order, and it’s an invitation to trust even deeper. Blessings!

  6. i’m a PPWUP – “Playful Procrastinator who Works well Under Pressure”. I can be extremely organized or a total slob. I confuse myself most of the time :) But seriously, I like your idea of opposite spirituality, which for me would be to have more structure. Such as, scheduling meditation and prayer time. That photo of Tune is the most precious photo of the century.

  7. Oh, beautiful Tune. What a sweet picture. I love sleeping dogs!

    I really enjoy the Meyers/Briggs, even though my psych program bashed it ribbons (this is MMPI land). And I love hearing people’s types.

    I enjoyed this post, too. I am an E/INFP…and I live with two ENFP’s and believe me, we could use someone like you two around here. We are very good at “processing ad nauseum” but we have a hard time getting anything done. We have all been or are pursuing some area of psychology. We like to active listen :-)

    When I was a working psychologist, I pretended to be an ENFJ (survivor skills)…I really had people fooled…they thought I was so organized. In reality, it took me TONS of work…kind of like an person with ADD trying to organized.

    And this is probably why I am ABD, though illness also intervened. Now that I am not able to work, I love having an open schedule that I can fill in as I want and hate to see a week that is too busy…I am so irritated when I see I have scheduled myself too tightly. I do keep a calendar…memory is getting weaker all the time.

  8. I loved reading your post this evening, Christine. I am an ENFJ!
    What a sweet snoozer, you have there – our dog Sunny was to be well-trained and never be allowed to sleep on the bed … oops, oh well! I am a planner and keep a calender I call: My Book of Life. However, I can switch gears quickly when the curve balls are headed in my direction. God’s Book of Life is way bigger than mine – and as long as I can remember who the ultimate authority is and be cooperative (rather than behaving like a spoiled brat), things always have a way of working out.

Comments are closed.