Note: This is a guest post written by Kate Gungor, Pastor of Spiritual Formation at Good Shepherd New York. She is a practicing spiritual director both with individuals and in groups, and also works as a coordinator with the Center for Christian Spirituality at General Theological Seminary.
When Becca (The Christian Minimalist) asked if I would write a guest post for Christian Minimalism, my first thought was “Uhhh, me, a minimalist?!” Those who know me would probably have a similar reaction.
I am a mother of four children and one sweet, fluffy dog living in New York City. If you asked me to describe our family’s apartment, I might say “cozy,” because that sounds a lot nicer than “cluttered.” Our living room floor is often scattered with toys, balls, backpacks, and never-ending piles of laundry. Cluttered, maybe; definitely cozy.
But minimalism isn’t just about how many sweaters you have, or whether your stacks of books consist only of the ones that make your heart sing with joy. We can also think about minimalism as a spiritual orientation. When I shift my gaze to spirituality instead of simply looking at my “cozy” living space, I return to a sense of a time in my life when I was moved to simplify, and the lovely ease that flowed from that.
A COVID Spiritual Slump
When COVID-19 struck in the spring of 2020, my physical orbit drastically shrunk and my spiritual life felt as though it was shriveling up like a leaf on an autumn stem. It seemed as though every effort I made to wake before my children, sit in 20 minutes of silent prayer, listen to a guided meditation, and write out prayers in my journal was being constantly thwarted by some kind of interruption.
Many times, I slept through my alarm because I stayed up way too late watching way too many episodes of whatever show we were engrossed in at the time. Often, my newfound COVID insomnia would cause me to lay in bed twisting and working my thoughts like a well-worn worry doll, and I just couldn’t pull myself out of bed the next morning.
On the mornings when I did manage to rise early and begin my intentional spiritual practice, there was a 50/50 chance that my 5-year old snuggle bunny would tiptoe into the living room, climb into my lap as I was sitting on my pillow, and entwine his sweet, chubby fingers around my neck. Consistency evaded me.
I was becoming tired, frustrated, and completely overwhelmed by what felt like a lack of space for the life-giving practices and disciplines I was trying so hard to include. If I could only find a way to wake up earlier, find some solitude, and maybe master the art of tuning out distractions– then I could find the deep spiritual grounding for which I longed.
At a point when I was feeling more and more discouraged, the day came for my monthly call with my spiritual director. It could not have come at a better time. I was ready to burst with frustration and impatience at myself, my circumstances, my complete inability to be “spiritual.”
On our call, I let a steady stream of complaints flow. I shared the ways in which I was struggling to hold space for spiritual practice and reflection.
After a good, long rant, the call tapered off into a full silence—the kind where the dust slowly settles as both listener and talker realize that their energy has been spent. I had residual tears in the corners of my eyes. I felt empty, but relieved. Now my director could point me in the right direction by offering me some encouragement, maybe a solid point or two that I could implement in my life to help me get to where I needed to be.
Instead, she opened her mouth, and with a laugh, said, “Kate. It’s not work.”
Noticing the look of confusion on my face, my director laughed again and repeated: “It’s not work!”
My furrowed brow melted into a smile, and then we both broke into laughter. The immense relief I felt made way for a palpable shift of energy in both of us.
It’s not something to check off a list.
It’s not something that earns me a failing grade if it doesn’t get done.
A spiritual life is not a job.
Spirituality is a Gift
Our spirituality is messy and convoluted and glorious. It’s hilltops and valleys, summits and plummets. And it’s all a gift. That has become one of my touchstones of spirituality, and a phrase I return to regularly: “It’s not work. It’s all gift.”
This small shift made a big difference. When I learned to let go of my rigid expectations, I began to feel at ease in my spirit. The places where before I had only felt constricted now felt unbound. I found more moments than I thought I had, every day, of Spirit and presence and beauty.
Psalm 16:11 says:
You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
This truth is becoming more tangible to me than ever. Instead of stewing over the lies of lack that I had been telling myself, I started to focus on practicing gratitude for the gift that was already there, that is always there.
Remember this truth the next time you’re beating yourself up over your failure to be as “spiritual” as you think you should be, or your inability to maintain a consistent spiritual practice, or even the discomfort of trying to sit in silence. Whenever you find yourself starting to cast judgment on your “spiritual shortcomings,” take in a long, deep breath and exhale this simple saying to help you move towards gratitude: It’s not work.