Credibility and Wild Grace at a Black Pond

Jun 14 / Terri Conlin
It is easier to listen to the surface of life where things are obvious, loud, literal, fixable, shiny, controlled in one way or another. Deeper listening takes grit, a slower pace, and spiritual practices that hone our credibility.

Learning to listen deeply is where we meet the Holy Spirit opening a whole new world beneath the surface where things are hidden, quiet, nuanced, redemptive, authentic, and wild.

This soul-listening is not rushed or generalized, but generous and deeply personal. Parker Palmer describes waiting for wildness,

“The soul is like a wild animal – tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal,
the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods,
shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree,
The creature we are waiting for may well emerge,
and out of the corner of our eye we will catch
a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek. [1]

A few years ago, I stumbled into the back gate of a community golf course. I originally came to linger with robins and warblers, soaking in the view of Mount Hood, snow-tipped at sunrise.

For a time, the high vantage point was enough. But stirring underneath the shining beauty was a desire to explore the hidden workings of the golf course - a compost heap where the deer nestle in the rising steam, a culinary garden, a row of bee boxes, and a Mary Oliver-style black-bellied pond [2] on the valley bottom. Not wanting to trespass, I didn’t venture farther.

One day I followed a delicate deer to a black pond fringed with cattails. I stood silently at the murky waters. Every day, I ventured a little closer and stayed a little longer. There was life here, more than I expected – red-winged blackbirds swaying on the cattails, ducks, turtles, thrumming bullfrogs. In the spring, a goose pair arrived with seven goslings, then six. There were hawks and coyote pups nearby. I had seen them.

I sensed an invitation to look deeper into my own pond – places I’d rather not see. Old memories, grudges I held on to, unforgiveness. Recently, I had noticed being a bossy big fixer with too much advice for my little sister, rising hackles at the suggestion of gossip, taking sides in a local drama, and scarcity ruling the day.

I was embarrassed by my bossiness, defensiveness, and stinginess. I wanted to push it all back under the dark waters and skip away. Yet, I longed to know and be known by our good God. I desired to walk boldly and unashamedly in his beautiful presence, to make my home there. (Psalm 34:5)

Parker Palmer again,
“If I am to let my life speak things I want to hear, things I would gladly tell others,
I must also let it speak things I do not want to hear
and would never tell anyone else! My life is not only about my strengths and virtues,
 It is also about my liabilities and my limits, my trespasses and my shadow.
An inevitable though often ignored dimension of
the quest for “wholeness” is that we must embrace what we dislike or find shameful about ourselves as well as what we are confident and proud of.”[3]

Exploring the entire life of the soul is what Thomas Merton calls “delicate resonances”. Sincerity is precisely our invitation in spiritual direction, both in the space we hold for others and space held for us. Merton writes, “[Our] director is interested in our very self, in all its uniqueness, pitiable misery, and breathtaking greatness.” [4]

The spaciousness to bring our full humanity into God’s gaze is one of the gifts of our crucified God. Paul reminds us Jesus conquered our humiliation on the cross because of his joy that we would belong in him. (Hebrews 12:2) Richard Foster describes the hidden gifts of God’s higher love, “As God hears your prayer, he will let you see your heart. Then he will show you in entirety the spirit to which you belong.”[5]

When we are accustomed to looking at surfaces, it can be uncomfortable to bring our unexplored regions into God’s loving light. Of course, He already knows our shadowy self. It is only us who are unaware. The truth is, in avoiding our deeper selves, we also miss how deeply and wildly we are already known and loved.

We need spiritual practices that invite us to be more honest, sharpening our growing edges deep within. Such practices help us to genuinely encounter God with our true interior and not merely how we appear. These are the practices that lead to transformation in our relationship with God, ourselves, and others. Jean Stairs suggests our honest soul care and the credibility it creates are substantial dimensions of our pastoral leadership.[6]

What practices help you bring your shadow into God’s loving light?
How does your body feel when you are being honest with yourself in the presence of God?
How does that honest encounter help you love and companion others?

Cited Works:
[1] Palmer, Parker. Let Your Life Speak. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publisher, 2000, p. 7.
[2] Oliver, Mary. Upstream. New York City: Penguin Press, 2016, p. 50.
[3] Palmer, Parker. Let Your Life Speak. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publisher, 2000, p. 6.
[4] Merton, Thomas. Spiritual Direction and Meditation. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1987, p. 34.
[5] Foster, Richard. Renovare. January 2000. (accessed June 1, 2021).
[6] Stairs, Jean. Listening for the Soul. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000, p. 107.

Terri Conlin

Terri Conlin is a certified Spiritual Director, writer, and occasional preacher. She has a BA in Architecture from the University of Texas at Austin and a MA in Spiritual Formation from Portland Seminary. She thrives when creativity and resilience flourish together in God’s sheltering places. Terri and her husband live among the rainy firs of Oregon. They have four grown children and seven feisty grandchildren she calls the Wonders. Most days you can find her outside walking or writing about spiritual formation while sipping dark roast coffee in a thrifted mug.