Anvil journal of theology and mission
Treasure seeking: sustaining personal spirituality
by Caroline Kennedy
The other week, having dropped off my son for a train to London, I sat in the car for a few minutes sipping coffee and (unusually for me in the early morning) listening to the news. Radio 4’s Thought for the Day came on as I headed back to my desk and I heard Rhidian Brook, the Welsh writer and broadcaster, talk about teachers, priests and the connection between their vocations. As someone who is a priest and has been a teacher, this caught my attention and it felt like a gem; a gift. Brook used a phrase that resonated powerfully: “A good teacher knows where the gold is buried and is able to show others how to find it.” The ability to sense the gifts of others and to signpost what might help these gifts grow and flourish is important in the vocation of both teacher and priest. And the search for gold, for something of great value, is strongly connected to sustaining personal spirituality. In fact, for me, the process is akin to treasure seeking.
There are activities, abilities and attitudes in a human life that could be described as treasure. These are the things of deepest value on our journey. Jesus used the image of his father’s kingdom to point to them and said to his followers, “Set your mind upon his kingdom and all the rest will come to you as well.” For those of us today who might be termed pioneers, weighing up virgin territories beyond traditional church (and possibly without some of its resources), being sustained spiritually is vital. We may understand ourselves as trying to “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land” as Psalm 137 says. New lands have to be navigated carefully, and a spirituality to sustain us here needs to signpost God’s presence and keep us encouraged. What are the tools that can help us find treasure in task-filled days and keep us close to God under the pressure of productivity, even when the product is a fresh expression? I’ve identified some that quench my thirst and feed my soul.
The first is Attitude. Pope Francis says that “God acts in the simplicity of open hearts, in the patience of those who pause until they can see clearly”. An attitude of trust means that my shape is open to the action of God. I make a note to put this attitude on, like an item of clothing that is familiar, at the start of each day, and I verbally commit to being open to the unexpected and to trusting in the movement and encounters that the day will bring. I step out of the belief that I can control and nail everything down, however efficient I might be.
In connection with this I try to be intentional and discerning about my use of time, staying open to the fullness of the moment. In his book Four Thousand Weeks Oliver Burkemanhas some interesting things to say, including giving advice about letting go of the “limit-denying fantasy of getting it all done” and focusing on “doing a few things that count”. He also advocates deciding in advance what you’re going to fail at in order to give room for priorities! Time to think something through or to silently seek discernment is time well spent in the business of treasure seeking. Without the discipline of this, I could sink into discontent and lose my joy among the strong and seductive powers of the world.
Recollection, connection and reflection
In addition, the tools of what I call “Recollection, Connection and Reflection” work well together. I need and use them daily. “Recollection” defends against forgetfulness, reminding me of the story I’ve stepped into and the teachings I try to live among. In my own practice the tool finds a home in the shape of the Anglican Lectionary’s Eucharistic texts, read slowly in the early part of the day so that words or phrases can sink into my inner life. These have the power to surface unbidden later, doing their work of connecting and reminding. Taking communion regularly is another dimension of this. Yesterday I was at an ancient priory, noticing wells of stillness while waiting at the altar and sensing the deep faith and present struggles of those I kneeled among. I usually leave these services feeling humbled, gently nudged in direction, reshaped and anchored in a historic and living faith. Keeping a journal to record insights connected to the day’s readings and moments of encounter or change helps me to remember, reflect and spot attitudes that block love. Being able to access this when things feel tough can be a great encouragement, bringing the strength to hold to good decisions.
The tool I call “Connection” works effectively when I’m very present in the activities of the day and open to the possibilities of wonder. If I’d been the teacher of the Law in Luke’s Gospel who asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life, and was asked himself, by way of a reply, to reflect on his understanding of the Law (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself”), I think I would have preceded the lawyer’s question “And who is my neighbour?” with “And how do I love God? How will I know I’m loving in the right place and in the right way?”
The answer for me is connected to encountering treasure. When I love in the right places, my heart is opened and I feel joy and delight. I may also feel totally absorbed, either via wonder and awe or through a state of flow where I am challenged enough for my mind to be occupied with a task that is enjoyable and satisfying. I notice this “hit” with treasure when I connect with nature, feeling love and gratitude for landscape and wildlife. It also happens when I listen carefully, share in the concerns of others or act for good. I can access this heart-opening through music, playing sport, dancing, being part of community, writing, spending time with children or animals and using my abilities in a focused way. In all these activities, the God of life is present and I am loving him there.
James Martin, writing about the life of Thomas Merton, says: “The most important spiritual insight I’ve learned… is that God calls each of us to be who we are. ‘For me to be a saint means for me to be myself,’ said Thomas Merton.” When we are being most ourselves, God is there and we are loving him. Realising this can take away the habit of comparison that Roosevelt described as the thief of joy. And it can help us to prioritise activities and tasks that bring this heart-opening experience to us.
So I spend some of each day outside, whatever the weather, and make time to stand and stare. Early this morning I watched a stream bounce and flow in clear waves over red and brown stones and tonight I saw a deer on a path to my left. We watched each other for a few moments before it moved silently to a barley field. I also took in the round curves of Scottish hills in the distance, crowned with pink. For me this is the opposite of a waste of time. It might sound hard to justify to your archdeacon but I’m pretty sure mine would understand, especially if I link standing and staring to the practice of mindfulness or becoming more present. I believe focusing on beauty contributes to building what might be termed headspace, and that this in turn strengthens awareness of a gap between thought, action and speech in which there is time to make choices about habits and decisions. Living in a rural location I don’t have to dig hard for the treasure of nature, but without understanding it as illuminating I could easily pass it by, charging on through the task of exercising our crazy Border collie or burning calories.
Being open to encounters is another priority. These are the heartbeat of my work as a chaplain and they often spark long-term connections and give rise to ideas and activities. I understand the unexpected ones not as unwelcome obstructions on my worthy way to efficiency but as gifts and opportunities to exercise imagination and compassion. They are places of learning and sometimes healing, and the experience of being allowed a glimpse into the life of another is a great privilege. I may not be able to put encounters on my CV but I know they hold life, and that when I’m engaged in them I am being myself and bringing powers of concentration and receptiveness to bear.
The tool of “Reflection” is something I use frequently and it works in tandem with Recollection and Connection. Reflection can find hospitality in the wells of stillness I described in communion services and it can be comfortably at work during walks outside and as part of the Examen, which is itself an important tool in Ignatian spirituality. In this exercise, events of the day are allowed to surface and are sifted for clues to the presence of God. Reflection oils and waters the process of treasure seeking and learning, and the Examen, used regularly, can build skill and resilience.
If sustaining personal spirituality is about being able to grow into the people we really are, periods of rest will help our growth. Where are the places of sanctuary for you? Where can you sleep peacefully? Identifying physical locations that promote a sense of rest and a feeling of being closer to God can be a real resource. Learning from Ignatian spirituality and spending time with guides at St Beuno’s has brought me rest and a new way of seeing. On silent retreats there I’ve received the wisdom of others who are more experienced, and I’ve connected with the story of St Ignatius. I’ve also been able to access the Exercises coming out of his teaching. The Scottish island of Iona is another place I return to annually. The story of St Columba, who journeyed there from Ireland in the 500s and set up a monastic community, speaks to my context. As a chaplain working in a multi-campus university, I identify with the shape of Columba’s life: stillness and contemplation equipping him for movement and encounter in the lands around.
Both Iona and St Beuno’s are places of rest and possibility for me, but we can probably all identify places much closer that do a similar thing in short bursts. I know a priest who regularly drives 15 minutes to a stretch of coastline for refreshment and connection; another who sits in a favourite coffee shop beyond his parishes. And there is benefit in a designated space at home for prayer. I’ve been going to the same corner for years and associate it with stopping and receiving. Are there places in your house (or garden) that lend themselves to this more than others?
I began by referring to the kingdom and its treasures, and I’d like to end there too, thinking again about that place of new horizons and flourishing life. Jesus said to his disciples:
When… a teacher of the Law has become a learner in the kingdom of Heaven [he] is like a householder who can produce from his store both the new and the old.
Sound anything like a pioneer?
About the author
Caroline Kennedy is chaplain to the northern campuses of the University of Cumbria. She was the first ordained chaplain at Trinity School, a large 11–18 academy in Carlisle and before ordination taught French in comprehensive schools as well as rural primaries.
More from this issue
 “Rhidian Brook – 26/07/2022,” Thought for the Day, BBC Radio 4, 26 July 2022, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0cp3234.
 Luke 12:31 (NEB).
 Ps. 137:4.
 Pope Francis and Austen Ivereigh, Let Us Dream: A Path to a Better Future (London: Simon & Schuster, 2020),61.
 Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It (London: Vintage, 2021), 44.
 Luke 10:25–30 (HCSB).
 James Martin, SJ, Becoming Who You Are: Insights on the True Self from Thomas Merton and Other Saints (Marwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2006), 71.
 St Beuno’s Jesuit Spirituality Centre, St Asaph, North Wales.
 The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius.
 Matt. 13:52 (NEB).