Compass Points for the Spiritual Life (Video)

How do we orient ourselves in the life of the Spirit? What landmarks, or directions, guide us along the way as seek to walk the path of God?

Here is a video that was recorded a while back — I believe it was the summer of 2012 (I still had a beard, which didn’t disappear until early 2015). At the time, I was playing around with the idea that spirituality functions as a kind of “compass” by which we orient our lives.

But just as a compass orients us not only toward north (the direction to which the magnetic needle points) but to the other cardinal directions as well, it seemed to me that the compass of the spiritual life helps to orient us to four essential qualities of spiritual living:

  • Reflect
  • Remember
  • Receive
  • Respond

Each of these orienting qualities calls us to a particular type of spiritual encounter or process:

  1. public-domain-compassReflect: Live the Questions. Life is surrounded and immersed in mystery, and in mysteries: Where do we come from? Where are we going? Is God for real? What about love? Can I trust the universe in which I find myself? Why must I (and those I love) die? Questions like these have no easy answer, but invite us into that place of wondering and unknowing where we can discover that life is not about how in control we are, but precisely the opposite: it’s about recognizing the blessings that we only find once we surrender to the fact we are not in control. Whatever we may think or feel about God, one thing is for sure: I am not God.
  2. Remember: Cherish the Exemplars. I may not be God, but I am human — which means I am a member of the family that includes Moses, the Blessed Mother, Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart, Mother  Teresa, John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich… from around the globe and in every culture and wisdom tradition, we find men and women who manifest tremendous wisdom, inspiring compassion, deep union with God, and other exemplary gifts and qualities that make them ideal guides for the spiritual journey. No two human beings are alike, so our job is not to imitate the great saints and mystics, but rather through their example to discover our own unique way of responding to the call of Divine Love in our lives.
  3. Receive: Accept the Charisms (Spiritual Gifts). One of the most foundational ways to respond to God’s love is by discovering who we truly are, which means embracing humility (I’m not perfect, I have limitations and make mistakes) but also embracing the ways in which we are gifted. Yes, we are all gifted in some form or fashion. That doesn’t mean we all have the abilities of a Mozart or a Michael Phelps — our gifts may be ordinary and down to earth, but still capable of bringing joy, meaning and purpose into our lives, and blessings into those with whom we interact. Part of living a spiritual life is discovering our vocation (life purpose), and that comes through knowing our gifts and putting them to good use. But since even the most gifted person still needs discipline, we are all called to…
  4. Respond: Embrace the Practice. Spirituality is not just a cosy feeling or a nice thought. It’s a way of life. And like any other aspect of life, it must be put into practice in order to be fully realized. This may involve explicitly spiritual disciplines (contemplative prayer, daily meditation), or something a bit more social or ethical in nature (a commitment to serving the homeless or teaching spiritual truths to youth). Practice is where the spiritual tire hits the material road: it’s the place where vision becomes reality. It’s a paradox, because spirituality is not just a matter of effort: contemplation and Sabbath-keeping are just two examples of spiritual practices that entail not-doing. But even the practice of rest requires intentionality and commitment on our part. 90% of life is showing up: and the same holds true for the spiritual life.

So there you have it: the compass points for a spiritual life. Ask the questions that lead you to the mystery; celebrate the stories of those who have walked the path before you; acknowledge the unique gifts and talents and cares that make you unique in your own spiritual life; and practice embodied, down-to-earth disciplines and devotions that put the gifts and questions to work in your life, helping you to truly live into the blessings that God has for you.

About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.