Topic Archives: spiritual connection

My interest in the spiritual dimension of the human person was fueled by seeing how important that aspect of life is for so many in the midst of ill health, mental distress, and towards the end of life. This exploration was part of the work I spearheaded in health research, which recognized the need to explore the many aspects of spirituality and the ways it was expressed in different religions, cultures, and in secular contexts. In the context of my research (in areas such as Aging, Disability, Pain, Addictions, Mental Health), I developed a scale to measure what I called “daily” or “ordinary” spiritual experience.

The scale is called the Daily Spiritual Experience Scale (DSES). It measures one aspect of the multidimensional construct we call spirituality/religiousness. It has been translated into over 30 languages and used in over 150 published studies and also in practice in fields such as counseling, business, psychology ministry and social work. I work with people all over the world advising on use and translations and consult on applications of the scale for evaluation and communication. Visit the DSES site.

poetry and music weblinks

Here are some web-links to poetry and music from the Spiritual Connection book that I gathered up to post. I hope some of them can help to provide fuel for you in these days.

Here is a sampling of the first few on the webpage link:

10   Had I Not Been Awake by Seamus Heaney

34   Postscript by Seamus Heaney

38   Dust by Dorianne Laux

48   Even in the Quietest Moments Supertramp

49   There Is Some Kiss We Want, Rumi

134  3055 by Olafur Arnald


space to reconnect

Sometimes we just need to disconnect and switch off in order to re-calibrate ourselves. Then we can fully dive back into the fray, refreshed and reoriented.

Do you disconnect from some things, people and newsfeeds every now and again?  What do you do?

I find drawing and painting helps me. It can be anything from doodling, to playing with colours, to sketching things around me.  When things are pulling me in too many directions, or overwhelming me, I find this gives me space to re-orient myself. Then I am more able to fully engage.


The poet WH Auden said that the artist feels the impulse to create a work of art when the passive awe provoked is transformed into a desire to express that awe in a rite of worship. To be fit homage, he said, this rite must be beautiful. We do not always achieve our goal to create something beautiful, but our desire to do so is good in itself.

speaking my mind

Art by Pawel Kuczynski – permission from the Artist to reproduce

For nine months now I have been re-composing and recording an audiobook of my Spiritual Connection in Daily Life book. It was published back in 2013, and needed extensive revision to work in audio. I took a lot of the research and quantitative material out and put it in the appendix, so it could be focused even more on the experiences that the listener had personally.  I wanted to narrate it myself, so set microphone and iPad up in the corner of the room I use for art, with baffles and pop-filter.  The whole process has been a labor of love. Editing out sounds, sending to an audio-engineer, re-recording and re-editing.  I am now working with Applelane Press to get it out on different platforms. For now, it is here:

I enjoy listening to audio-books and thought in this format people could allow the book to wash over them.  I developed a journal as a PDF included with the book so that people would have a space to write their answers and reflect on the questions throughout the book, a part of the paperback that many have appreciated.

One of the challenges in the process has been that I have had to listen to, and re-listen to, my voice. I felt it would be better to read it myself rather than have someone else narrate it, and I am hoping that adds to its value for the listener.

The picture here is by an artist I admire so much, Pawel Kuczynski. A picture can truly represent even more than a thousand words.  This picture encourages me to get back to doing my drawings and paintings, now that this audiobook is floating out into the world.

the spiritual practice of drawing portraits

drawing by lynn

When I draw or paint someone, I find myself exploring the heart of the person, and becoming sympathetic to their fears, their desires, their concerns.  We can never fully understand what another person is feeling or their circumstances or history, but we can stretch into that in our portraits.  We are limited by our skills. But we can still move in love toward the person, and see the fundamental value of another human being, when we draw them. For me, this is a spiritual practice.


art by lynn

Acorns are scattered all over my neighborhood. Their beautiful little rounded bodies with caps that fit so well.  It is hard to believe they can grow into oak trees. But what has to happen to that seeming perfection for it to become an oak tree? It gets covered with dirt. The cap falls off, the rounded body splits down the middle, an awkward brown substance emerges.  A green sprout pokes out and grows longer, up through the soil. Leaves unfurl, roots grow down. And in time a little tree starts to grow. And as water and sun nourish it, it can grow into a small sapling, and eventually an oak tree. A marvelous strong oak. A place for children to climb, and birds and squirrels to build nests.  When I think about my life, I am not a perfect little acorn. My cap has fallen off. My body has “cracks”, and changes over time in ways I don’t particularly like or approve of. But new growth happens, transformation comes from these changes.  I can hope that someday, given sun and rain and other nourishment, a sapling will emerge, and then, who knows?

joy nevertheless

drawing by lynn

I am fascinated by how we can experience joy even in the midst of tough times. I have seen time and time again that joy can be found in the midst of so much gunk. I have interviewed people and read research studies and other writing about resiliency and post traumatic growth, and have heard how people are thriving in the midst of trauma and disease.  I find it inspires me. I meet people whose lives seem much tougher than mine, and I find myself in awe of the joy they can find in the midst of it all, and am encouraged.

an advent calendar

Click here to link to my advent calendar:

The time before Christmas is soaked through with the excitement of waiting, beautiful music, tiny lights, candles, thinking about gifts, good food, good times with other people. When I lived in Germany the Advent calendars fascinated me.  Hanging in the window, light came through from outside through the thin paper images as each little door was opened on the consecutive days leading up to Christmas. When my children were younger I bought a new one each year. I finally found one with art by Martin Erspamer OSB that I have now re-used year after year.

With friends and family spread all over, I wanted to make an advent calendar online that people could enjoy. I wanted to make one to speak more widely beyond the Christian tradition, and I hope this will be a satisfying one for all, and bring with it the Spirit of the season. Each day in December is numbered, and cannot be opened until the day arrives. You may need to hit ‘refresh’ for each new day. Enjoy!

Here is a link to day 1.



moon language

“With That Moon Language” by Hafiz, a 14th-century poet from Iran

drawing by lynn

Admit something:
Everyone you see, you say to them, “Love me.”
Of course you do not do this out loud, otherwise someone would call the cops.
Still, though, think about this: this great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one who lives with a moon in each eye,
that is always saying,
with that sweet moon language,
what every other eye in this world is dying to hear?


drawing by lynn

Drawing can help us uncover distress in someone, and touch them tenderly. 


Can drawing fuel my love?

I had the wonderful opportunity to be in the LA area this past academic year on a research fellowship. During the many meetings and conferences, when I was not speaking myself, I tried to capture something of the essence of people by drawing them—a perfect drawing was not the goal.  Drawing people has continued to enable me to better engage with the topics.

Even more importantly for me, drawing people has continued to be a spiritual practice, stretching beyond the surface of the person and embracing them.  Can drawing people stretch our love towards them? For me, the answer is yes.


Moving places?

drawing by lynn

When we move to another place, what happens? I had to move a lot as a child, and have had to move as an adult too, mostly due to circumstances beyond my control. I remember wondering as a small child if the towns and houses we moved from disappeared, when we left them. I am heading to Los Angeles in a few weeks for a fellowship at a college there for the academic year, and I am really looking forward to the opportunity. To work on a project that has been on the back burner for so long and spend time with good people will be great. But I love being at home, and leaving it will be hard. I have tried to create welcoming spaces around me for those who visit my home, and even for the wildlife.

What relationships do we form with the things and places around us?  The internet, email, Skype, and phones lets me keep in touch with people at a distance. Maybe there are ways I can take a sense of the place with me too, expanding my sense of place to stretch wider.

memory and time

The events of our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order: the continuous thread of revelation. -Eudora Welty

I have a collection of objects sitting on top of my bookcase – with various things inside. Reminders with meaning. One basket bought while living in Belfast, another from Kalamazoo, one a gift from a colleague once full of fresh fruit. A hatbox that has held wide-brimmed hats that I once wore to keep the drizzle off my head or to shield the sun. Peeking out of one basket, a water bottle once full, mercifully purchased for me by my hosts on a car trip from from the airport at Cluj-Napoca to Targu Mures Romania. A box of note cards of leaf photos bought in the village of Einsiedeln, Switzerland at a meeting held at a Benedictine monastery in the Alps. I so often want to get rid of various objects, downsize my belongings, but these objects continue to live as part of a “thread of revelation”. When I did this painting, all of these events came back to me more vividly. The people, the interactions, the experiences and feelings. Perhaps this painting can now take the place of the objects, calling all to mind.

sculpting in time

“Art is a meta-language, with the help of which people try to communicate with one another; to impart information about themselves and assimilate the experience of others.”

-Russian film director Andrey Tarkovsky, from the book, Sculpting in Time

sketch by lynn

good conversation

“16 questions” by lynn

What makes for a good interview? I think Dr. Rachael Kohn has it nailed. I had the privilege of being interviewed by her on the Australian public radio ABC show The Spirit of Things, which aired on March 26. She is an exemplar of how we can help good conversations to happen in our daily lives. We can ask questions that bring out the other person, and sometimes stretch them in an accepting context. We can take time to listen to the answers, rather than thinking about what we are going to say next. We can find out about the other person, and engage with them, not use them as a vehicle to press our point of view. When in the course of research, I  interviewed people about the practices that were important for compassionate love, ‘really listening to the other person,’ was one of those practices.

Rachael engages in conversation with a perfectly lovely voice, and that helps this too. She sets the person at ease through her respectful and honest attitude. She gently asks probing and sometimes hard questions, which enable interpersonal connection and understanding to happen. Of course, a conversation that is designed to be broadcast, and happens between continents, can never be like one over coffee or at home, and because it was an interview I didn’t get to ask her questions, but nevertheless, this same kind of asking and listening can happen in our own living rooms or when we are in a variety of social situations.

The show, which includes a poem and quotes from the Spiritual Connection in Daily Life book, is now up on the ABC website, where it can be played or downloaded  Her balanced approach provides a model for us all for how to make a space for truly good conversation.

light through the crack


drawing by lynn

The birds they sang at the break of day
Start again I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what has passed away
or what is yet to be….

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

These lines are from the song, Anthem, by Leonard Cohen, a great poet who expressed his words in song deep and resonant and spiritual. The words of that song, “forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” are so potent.

In an interview on his creative process, he said: “It’s very hard to really untangle the real reasons why you do anything. But I was always interested in music and I always played guitar. I always associated song and singing with some sort of nobility of spirit…. I always thought that this was the best way to say the most important things… I don’t mean the most ponderous or pompous things. I mean the important things — like how you feel about things, how you feel about someone else — and I always thought this was the way to do it.”

He struggled with depression all his life, and he commented on the effect on him of the poetry of Frederico Garcia Lorca, “the loneliness was dissolved, and you felt that you were this aching creature in the midst of an aching cosmos, and the ache was OK. Not only was it OK, but it was the way you embraced the sun and the moon.”

Here is a link to a performance by Cohen in Ireland of the song Anthem :

the human eye

The human eye is not the camera eye. Vision takes place in the depths of the mind, with the assistance of emotion, knowledge, and belief.” – Flannery O’Connor

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

to everything there is a season


drawing by lynn

Autumn has arrived here in the middle of the US. I am a lover of sun and warmth, but somehow this year, I am finding myself loving this season. As leaves leave the trees, they burst into such glorious colors. And this is also the time of apples and squashes and onions – such marvelous fruits of the earth. This morning it is rainy and cold, but I look outside and see the colors, and smell baked squash and apples, and I think, there is something wonderful happening in this time and place.

what’s it worth?

sketch by lynn

sketch by lynn

Someone has said that the lives of most persons are like jewelry stores where some trickster has mixed up the price tags. The diamonds are priced at next to nothing and some worthless baubles at thousands of dollars. Unless we stop business as usual and take stock, we are likely to end up in bankruptcy. So long as the store is crowded with people, there is no chance of taking inventory and putting things to rights. We must close the doors and take the time alone. Then we can check with the stock list, our list of priorities, and give the right value to the right object.

-Morton Kelsey, The Other Side of Silence


“To draw a tree, to pay such close attention to every aspect of a tree, is an act of reverence not only toward the tree, but also to our human connection to it. It gives us almost visionary moments of connectedness.” Alan Lee

sketch of dove by lynn

sketch of dove by lynn

For me, spiritual connection with God (or the divine or holy as expressed in other words), is part of why making art gives me such joy. I keep doing art for a variety of reasons, but one of them is definitely, for me personally, this spiritual connection that I see more clearly in the process – to the world, to God, and to the holy immanent in the world itself.

My friend loves looking at disintegrating buildings, and in paying close attention to those, something resonates deep within him. It is not just the obviously beautiful that can bring this sense of connection to us, but often things that do not look so great on the surface. When we look at other people with reverence and respect a sense of spiritual connection can be especially present. All of us are a mixed bag of the obviously lovely, and things that do not look that great. How miraculous that we can have reverence for one another nevertheless.



I found myself trying to find words and image to convey something of this tiny arm and hand full of promise.

Milagrosdrawing by lynnb



in the breeze of the holy


draw near

flow through

unclench –

no need.  New

power now.

Will of good pleasure

through my body

my arms

my hands.



seeing better

Ubi amor ibi oculus

A new dimension of seeing is opened up by love alone. And this means contemplation is visual perception prompted by loving acceptance.

–Josef Pieper, Three Talks in a Sculptor’s Studio

art by lynn

art by lynn

valentine days

photo of my daughter by lynn 2015

photo by lynn 2015

I received an email from a counselor/researcher in Kenya last week. He was researching what makes for flourishing marriages. And it reminded me of a study in the Science of Compassionate Love book that reported predictors of good marriages many years on. When people began their relationships with both a global adoration of the other, and an accurate picture of their flaws, they had a better chance of the relationship still being strong and good years later. Being loved by someone who knows our flaws, our weaknesses, and still thinks we are wonderful, ‘the bee’s knees,’  is so great. I think it has a divine source, a source that is ‘more than’. Some of us do not experience this kind of love in romantic relationships, but taste it in other human relationships and/or our relationship with God. To receive this kind of love requires vulnerability on our part.

In my Perspectives: Art, Science, and Spirituality class, one assignment is to select a piece of art — film, poetry, visual art, fiction — that represents compassionate love. One young man brought this one in. When he read it to the class, this poem gave most of us a taste of a kind of love that is truly nourishing. It transcends the romantic, helping us to inhabit eternal love.

Gate C22 by Ellen Bass



the beautiful unknown

drawing by lynn



There will be something,

anguish or elation,

that is peculiar to this day alone.

I rise from sleep and say:

Hail to the morning!

Come down to me, my beautiful unknown.


Hail to the Morning, by Jessica Powers, from The Selected Poetry of Jessica Powers, ICS Publications,1999.

Animated film: ‘Mother’

from "Mother" animation

from “Mother”

I have been a fan of animated films all my life. This recent student film is a gem. It articulates themes of the flow of love, compassionate love, in ways that words so often fail to do. It is not too sweet, and is nested in the complexity of life.

Here is a link to it on vimeo.

play and wisdom

art by lynn

art by lynn

One thing I especially enjoy during my yearly retreat at the monastery, is the celebration of the divine office at 3:15 AM. In the dark, in the middle of the night, half awake, I gather in the huge quiet space with the monks to celebrate the beginning of the new day. Once there was a reading from Thomas Aquinas, “The Contemplation of Wisdom.” As the new year begins, I find myself returning to this piece. And I always find it lovely that Wisdom is described as female.

“ ‘Run ahead into your house and gather yourself there and play there and pursue your thoughts.’ (Ecclus. 32.15-16)

“The advantage which the study of wisdom has is that it is to a greater degree self-sufficient in pursuing its business with us. When we are engaged in outward activities we need many things to help us, but in the contemplation of wisdom we work all the more effectively, the more we dwell alone with ourselves. So, the words cited above call us back to ourselves: ‘Run ahead into your own house,’ that is, be anxious to return from external things to your own mind, before anything else gets hold of it and any other anxiety distracts it. That is why it says in Wisdom 8.16, ‘I will enter my house and rest with her’, with wisdom, that is.

“The first requirement, then for the contemplation of wisdom is that we should take complete possession of our minds before anything else does, so that we can fill the whole house with the contemplation of wisdom. But it is also necessary that we ourselves should be fully present there, concentrating in such a way that our aim is not diverted to other matters. Accordingly the text goes on, ‘And gather yourself there,’ that is, draw together your whole intention. And when our interior house is entirely emptied like this and we are fully present there in our intention, the text tells us what we should do; ‘And play there.’

“There are two features of play which make it appropriate to compare the contemplation of wisdom to playing. First, we enjoy playing, and there is the greatest enjoyment of all to be had in the contemplation of wisdom. As Wisdom says in Ecclus. 24.27, ‘My spirit is sweeter than honey.’

“Secondly, playing has no purpose beyond itself; what we do in play is done for its own sake. And the same applies to the pleasure of wisdom. If we are enjoying thinking about the things we long for or the things we are proposing to do, this kind of enjoyment looks beyond itself to something else which we are eager to attain. If we fail to attain it or if there is a delay in attaining it, our pleasure is mingled with a proportionate distress. As it says in Proverbs 14.13, ‘Laughter will be mixed with grief.’ But the contemplation of wisdom contains within itself the cause of its own enjoyment, and so it is not exposed to the kind of anxiety that goes with waiting for something which we lack. This is why it says in Wisdom 8.16, ‘Her company is without bitterness”(the company of wisdom, that is) ‘and there is no boredom in living with her.’

“It is for this reason that divine Wisdom compares her enjoyment to playing, in Proverbs 8.30, ‘I enjoyed myself every single day, playing…’ each single day meaning the consideration of some different truth. So our text goes on, ‘Pursue your thoughts,’ the thoughts, that is, by means of which we obtain knowledge of the truth.”

There are many good suggestions in this piece, such as the need to “take complete possession of our minds before anything else does.” He describes the spirit as sweeter than honey… not something heavy to lift. And I am personally finding the centrality of play as he describes it, a helpful one in my own life right now. We often think we have to be serious, and somber, in order to pursue things that are worthwhile. But in this passage, Thomas urges a playful attitude. I am finding that this kind of attitude is necessary in my life just now. A new year of play and hopefully some wisdom – sounds good to me.

our bodies, ourselves

Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.” —James Joyce, Dubliners

We so often forget our bodies, ignore them, and even treat them badly. Bodies are literally wonderful, even when they are not behaving in ways that we like. Even in sickness, or when causing us grief. One of the reasons I love the Christmas season so much, is its reminder to me that the spiritual and physical aspects of our lives are linked. The Christmas story of the divine entering into the messiness of the human condition reminds me that the divine is also involved in my messy condition. The story does not describe some pristine scene, with everyone in their best clothes, pretending that challenging feelings are not there. It is a story where a pregnant woman arrives in a strange place, there is no room in the inn, and she ends up in a stable with dirt and animals and has her baby there. Having a baby is very physical – not clean and tidy. And the first visitors are the local shepherds, probably with some sheep. The whole scene connects with physical bodies and situations and messy emotions. There was lots of worry and pain and puzzlement, as well as joy and amazement.

During the Christmas season I sing with my body, eat good things with my body, hug and am hugged with my body, worship with my body. I suffer when things are not going so well – with people or physically. I find myself suffering on behalf of others less fortunate than I am. I feel the pain of this in my body. And the Christmas story keeps bringing me back to the reality of the divine in my physical being. Reminding me that if I leave my body out of the equation, I am not truly living life.

You will be entering this holiday season in your body—there is not much chance of doing without it! Can you think of how your whole being engages with the various aspects of the holiday season? In relationships, with food, with consuming, in giving, with music. Pay attention to signals that your body sends: of grief, distress, need – but also of joy, affection and delight. Don’t let your body just go on autopilot, but welcome it into the mix. Enter into the complexity of the holiday season with your whole being and see where that takes you.

drawing by Rembrandt

drawing by Rembrandt


drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

Deer often sleep in our front yard. They are not disturbed by me heading out the driveway, or the dog barking from inside. They are vigilant, however and can burst up and out on a dime if necessary. One of the Daily Spiritual Experience questions (DSES) that I developed is “How often do you feel deep inner peace or harmony?” (many times a day, every day, most days, some days, once in a while, never). A recent study looked at various factors that predicted survival for those with congestive heart failure, and more frequent experiences of deep inner peace as measured by the DSES question was one of the things most predictive of living longer. (Park CL, Aldwin CM, Choun S, George L, Suresh DP, and Bliss D, 2015. “Spiritual Peace Predicts 5-Year Mortality in Congestive Heart Failure Patients.” Health Psychology, doi:10.1037/hea0000271.)

To have these experiences in our lives is not dependent on whether we are feeling happy or depressed or anxious. Although it may be easier to feel this in certain circumstances, this sense of deep inner peace or harmony depends more on our attitude or orientation in the midst of things. When I described themes in the Spiritual Connection book, the sense of deep inner peace or harmony was linked to “Saying Yes”, being at ease in our own skins, knowing that somehow good is present even though it may be invisible in the midst of tough times. This sense of deep inner peace and harmony can keep us feeling more balanced and calm. This can affect our physical being and our relationships with others. I am blessed by the peaceful presence of the deer in our yard, munching on the plants. They contribute somehow to feelings of peacefulness in me.



from Scaffolding: Selected Poems, by Jane Cooper, Tilbury House, 1993

Our relationships with others challenge our sense of ourselves, and our perception of the spaces we live in. How do we listen? How do we make space for each other? How do we envision the places we live in together?

art and love

…To see in contemplation, is not limited only to the tangible surface of reality; it certainly perceives more than mere appearances. Art flowing from contemplation does not so much attempt to copy reality as rather to capture the archetypes of all that is. Such art does not want to depict what everybody already sees but to make visible what not everybody sees….

To this end we have to consider a certain aspect of the term “contemplation”…. The ancient expression of the mystics applies here: ubi amor, ibi oculus — the eyes see better when guided by love; a new dimension of ‘seeing’ is opened up by love alone! And this means contemplation is visual perception prompted by loving acceptance…affectionate affirmation.”

-Josef Pieper, Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation, Ignatius Press 1990. pg 74

painting by lynn

painting by lynn

art and receptivity

Trying to externalize experiences by painting, writing, etc. helps us to understand them and to be more receptive. Being receptive and willing to change and grow makes one most alive I think – more vulnerable to both pain and joy. – John Busby (Drawing Birds, Christopher Helm Publishers, 2004)

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn


Ode to Things

The objects in our lives are made up of particles of the universe, and they can also unite the past and present for us.  The most ordinary things can speak of life to us. How can we tune in to feel, taste, or see the ‘more than’ in the mundane objects around us? Teilhard de Chardin, paleontologist, geologist and priest, said that his first ‘feeling of God’ was when he held a piece of metal.

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

I love things with a wild passion,


not only the grand,

but also the infinite



from Ode to Things, by Pablo Neruda, from Neruda’s Garden: An Anthology of Odes, selected and translated by Maria Jackett, Latin America Literary Review Press, Pittsburgh Penn,1995.



Not the one who takes up his bed and walks
But the ones who have known him all along
And carry him in –

Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked
in their backs, the stretcher handles
slippery with sweat. And no let-up

Until he’s strapped on tight, made tiltable
and raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.
Be mindful of them as they stand and wait

for the burn of the paid-out ropes to cool,
their slight lightheadedness and incredulity
to pass, those ones who had known him all along.

By Seamus Heaney from Human Chain (Faber and Faber, London 2010)


art by lynn

art by lynn

too many

art by lynn

art by lynn

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times.” – Thomas Merton


A song is unfixed in time and place (as distinct from the bodies it takes over). A song narrates a past experience.

When it is being sung, it fills the present. Stories do the same, but songs have another dimension which is uniquely theirs. A song, whilst filling the present, hopes to reach a listening ear, in some future somewhere. It leans forward, further and further. Songs lean forward. Without the persistence of this hope, songs, I believe, would not exist.

The tempo, the beat, the repetitions, construct a shelter from the flow of linear time. A shelter in which future, present and past can console, provoke, ironize and inspire one another.  Most songs being listened to across the world at this moment are recordings, not live performances.  And this means that the physical experience of sharing and coming together is less intense, but it is still there, it is present in the heart of the exchange and communication taking place.”

This is a quote from a BBC Radio 3 Documentary program essay by John Berger (I have an old book on my shelves by him: On Seeing.His writing has been described as “a listening voice”) Other art forms do what he is describing here, but music has special qualities.  It can surrounds us in a way that can be like an embrace, or touch us directly like the most intimate words of a friend.


For many people the word ‘God’ is the perfect word, and others are put off by the word and head towards the hills.  I came across this provocative passage by Wendy Beckett that seems to grasp some of the issues so well.

…I am wary of using the word ‘God’. Essentially, this is a meaningless word. No thoughts can encompass God. There is no box into which you can put Him. He, or for that matter, She, completely transcends any human concepts. When we say ‘God’, we are doing no more than pointing a finger. It is a directional word. Forced to give a definition, all I could say is that God is Reality so absolute that all other realities are relative.”

And she goes on to say later in a section entitled ‘Admirable Atheists’: “Sometimes I blush for those who think themselves Christian, and yet the God they worship is cruel, suspicious, punitive and watchful. Who could love such a God? If that is your idea of God, you are obliged by all the rules of morality and common sense to become an atheist.   I have the greatest admiration for atheists, because by definition they have rejected a false ‘God’. The true God, if you have the privilege of knowing, you cannot reject. Anybody who truly understands what God is cannot but believe and love.  There are no lapsed Catholics, no lapsed Christians, but there are very many, far too many, who thought they were Catholics, or Christians, but did not have the good fortune to be taught the truth about God. They looked at this hideous image and said that if it was true, they refused to believe. Too few move on to the next stage and wonder if, in fact, their image of God is not true, or to the stage beyond when they realize that, in actuality, it is not true. If they could accept that the picture they have is wrong from the start, it would bring them to search for the truth.” (Sister Wendy on Prayer, W. Beckett, Harmony Books, 2007, NY. pp 77, 83)

Religions, religious teachings, have much to be held accountable for, in the way ideas are presented.  But each of us also have responsibilities. We have taken easy shorthands or caricatures to represent reality. They may have worked at one time, but do not hold over the long haul.  And then we are disappointed when they do not work, and get fed up with the whole thing. We need to be willing to throw out the dirty bathwater, but save the baby.

spice of life

art by lynn

art by lynn

“When the artist is alive in any person… he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature…. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens ways for better understanding.” – Robert Henri

I am currently doing an ‘every day in May’ drawing challenge together with others. They suggest ordinary objects and challenge you to draw on one a day. Doing art seems to always slip to the bottom of the pile, even though I know it is vital to me.  I started the challenge late, so I was catching up by combining the blossoming cherry tree out my window and two spices – one a jar I made up of cinnamon sugar – yum… and the other a bottle of spiced salt from time in Madrid that I have saved from a grocery store expedition years ago.  As I drew and painted, I found that bits of my life and the wider world opened up and came together in the midst of my adventure with watercolor and ink.


good friends

Good friends have been such a blessing in my life. The notion of friendship mines the deep content of mutuality that stretches beyond tit-for-tat and natural affections, and duties. I have been reading a book by Aelred of Rievaulx, a Cistercian monk of 12th century Britain. He puts this so well:

“…[F]riendship among the just is born of a similarity in life, morals, and pursuits, that is, it is a mutual conformity in matters human and divine united with benevolence and charity.”

And later he goes on in more detail: “…[F]riendship bears fruit in this life and the next. It manifests all the virtues by its own charms; it assails vices by its own virtue; it tempers adversity and moderates prosperity.”  And he describes how important it is to have someone “to rejoice with him in adversity…to unburden his mind if any annoyance crosses his path, or with whom to share some unusually sublime or illuminating inspiration.”

He continues: “What happiness, what security, what joy, to have someone to whom you dare to speak on terms of equality as to another self; one to whom you need to have no fear to confess your failings; one to whom you can unblushingly make known what progress you have made in the spiritual life; one to whom you can entrust all the secrets of your heart and before whom you can place all your plans! What therefore is more pleasant than so to unite to oneself the spirit of another and the two to form one, that no boasting is thereafter to be feared, no suspicion to be dreaded, no correction of one by the other to cause pain, no praise on the part of the one to bring a charge of adulation from the other.  ‘A friend,’ says the Wise Man, ‘is the medicine of life.’ For medicine is not more powerful or more efficacious for our wounds in all our temporal needs than the possession of a friend who meets every misfortune joyfully…. who carries his own injuries even more lightly than that of his friend….’[F]riends,’ says Tullius, ‘though absent are present, though poor are rich, though weak are strong, and – what seems stranger still- though dead are alive.’

from Spiritual Friendship, by Aelred of Rievaulx (translated by Mary Eugenia Laker) Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, MI 1974, pp. 61,73-75.

My questioning was my attentive spirit

My questioning was my attentive spirit, and their reply, their beauty.

seashells, drawing by lynn

seashells, drawing by lynn

-St Augustine, Confessions X.6,9

Art that changes

How do we view visual art, and what happens to us when we view certain works in a contemplative way? Sometimes art with religious themes can transport even those who do not agree with the faith tradition of the artist. Pelagia Horgan wrote about the art of Fra Angelico and others.  She refers to a photograph in the article, a photo of the inside of a monastic cell in Florence. Fra Angelico did frescos on the walls of this monastery, and the photo is of the inside of one of the monastic cells, of its walls, its window, and the fresco. Horgan in her article grapples with the apparent incongruity of being touched by religious art when she does not hold a set of cognitive beliefs that are the same as the beliefs of that particular religion. She writes:

Samaritaan by VanGogh

Samaritaan by Vincent Van Gogh

“It struck me that this is what faith is – not a set of propositions you hold to be true, or a set of rules you follow, but an atmosphere you live in, that changes your experience of the world, your sense of what and how things are.”

This is an enriching view, it seems to me. Not that beliefs have no value, but I spend a lot of time in the borderlands of those who assert set beliefs and those who disagree with them.  Certain art can step beyond those boundaries if we let it, changing our experience of the world, our sense of what and how things are…


The House at Rest

How do we create the space for silence in the midst of the busy-ness of our thoughts, our activities, our feelings – a space of deep rest within, where we can draw strength for our actions and our effective presence in the world? So often our days consist of constant reaction to various things without a sense of a center from which we act. How do we hush the busy house of our minds and bodies so that our actions flow out from that inspired core in good and effective ways? This poem by Jessica Powers, from The Selected Poems of Jessica Powers (ICS Publications, Washington DC, 1989) captures this imaginatively.

The House at Rest

On a dark night

Kindled in love with yearnings

Oh, happy chance!—

I went forth unobserved,

My house being now at rest.     

– Juan de la Cruz

How does one hush one’s house,

each proud possessive wall, each sighing rafter,

the rooms made restless with

remembered laughter

or wounding echoes, the permissive doors,

the stairs that vacillate from up to down,

windows that bring in color and event

from countryside or town,

oppressive ceilings and complaining floors?


The house must first of all accept the night.

Let it erase the walls and their display,

impoverish the rooms till they are filled

with humble silences; let clocks be stilled

and all the selfish urgencies of day.


Midnight is not the time to greet a guest.

Caution the doors against both foes and friends,

and try to make the windows understand

their unimportance when the daylight ends.

Persuade the stairs to patience, and deny

the passages their aimless to and fro.

Virtue it is that puts a house at rest.

How well repaid that tenant is, how blest

who, when the call is heard,

is free to take his kindled heart and go.



compassionate love

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

St Kevin and the Blackbird, by Seamus Heaney is part of Chapter 6, “The Flow of Love”, in my Spiritual Connection in Daily Life book.  I wrote:

 I think about love for my daughters and how it feels. I wonder about how it influences their obvious care for others. Where did it come from? What keeps it going?

An Irish legend about St. Kevin forms the basis of a poem by Seamus Heaney. The poem describes St. Kevin kneeling in his monastic cell, praying with arms outstretched, one out the window through the bars of the cell. A bird settles in his outstretched hand and makes a nest there. Because of his compassionate love, Kevin just stays in that position until the eggs hatch. It must have been very hard, and he would have become very tired and wanted to stop. Not even reflecting on the logistics, where did he find the energy to continue holding the nest while the eggs hatched? Heaney in his poem touches on the eternal and rooted wellspring of love in the midst of difficulties, and how care for the bird allows that wellspring to flow through Kevin.

Are you holding any birds that have begun to nest? Do you ever find yourself stuck in the midst of commitment and care, in distress yet still desiring to love? Do you find yourself overextended in some way or another? And then what do you do? How do you sustain this love and care? How does that feel? ….”

This drawing of mine was inspired by the wonderful poem. Here is a link to Heaney reading it with his soft Northern Irish accent.


What is a spiritual experience after all?  Sometimes we can have a sense of what it ought to be and that can get in the way. I find that the poem, Veni Creator, by Czeslaw Milosz, a Lithuanian-Polish poet, from the book, Collected Poems, 1931-1987, speaks to me.


drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

Wedding by Alice Oswald

From time to time our love is like a sail
and when the sail begins to alternate
from tack to tack, it’s like a swallowtail
and when the swallow flies it’s like a coat;
and if the coat is yours, it has a tear
like a wide mouth and when the mouth begins
to draw the wind, it’s like a trumpeter
and when the trumpet blows, it blows like millions . . .
and this, my love, when millions come and go
beyond the need of us, is like a trick;
and when the trick begins, it’s like a toe
tip-toeing on a rope, which is like luck;
and when the luck begins, it’s like a wedding,
which is like love, which is like everything.

This poem, Wedding, by Alice Oswald, is from The Thing in the Gap-stone Style (Oxford University Press)


Joseph Brodsky, Nobel laureate, wrote a poem for Christmas each year for 18 years. When asked if he was a religious person, Brodsky, a Russian Jew, responded: “I don’t know. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.” He once referred to himself as a “Christian by correspondence.” As the poet Michael Collier wrote, “Brodsky’s religious uncertainty keeps his Nativity efforts clean of tinsel and commercialized sentiments.” These poems can bring us closer to what it means, no matter what our actual beliefs, that God took on human form and really knows how it feels to be like us. Here is one of them.

Star of the Nativity by Joseph Brodsky from Nativity Poems (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2001)


In the cold season, in a locality accustomed to heat more than to cold,

to horizontality more than to a mountain,

a child was born in a cave in order to save the world;

it blew as only in deserts in winter it blows, athwart.

To Him, all things seemed enormous: His mother’s breast,

the steam out of the ox’s nostrils,

Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior—the team of Magi, their presents heaped by the door, ajar.

He was but a dot, and a dot was the star.

Keenly, without blinking, through pallid, stray clouds, upon the child in the manger,

from far away—from the depth of the universe, from its opposite end—the star

was looking into the cave. And that was the Father’s stare.


melted joy

art by lynn

art by lynn

Last week I went into the attic to find the decorations for the season. This candle was a gift that has been a household fixture since the children were little. But this time it has brought more joy than ever as we continue to laugh at it, as it sits there on the table.  Is it dancing, or is it totally exhausted? It was definitely melted from the heat of the attic and shaped by its cramped position.  Like we all are at times.

Jolly and “fine” are not ideal goals, and they are subject to melting in the heat.  I look at the world around me, and there is so much suffering – so many are facing heavy challenges. Me too, in my own way.  Joy cannot be plastered on. Joy is challenged by relationships that are not going smoothly, by health problems, by grief and mental distress. But the kind of joy that feeds us draws on a deeper well. That joy helps us to laugh in the face of difficulties and keeps us going.

art by lynn



Every so often, I awaken and find

lynnunderwood.spirconnect-flame2dThe world both vivid and lit, each element

–far as I can tell—lit from within. And yes,

like you, I may have assumed this radiance

to be a trick of morning sun upon the sea,

or the fortunate effect of ambient or

of manufactured light, of dumb or less

dumb luck….

I may have been jogging, or

yammering on before a yawning class,

writing something or other on the blackboard.

I may have appeared more or less awake

right along, but suddenly, with little warning, I become

for the moment more fully awake, and I see

that there—along the path, among the bracken

or the pine, or just there, only now opening

within each forlorn face before me—a glistening,

a quality, a presence of light so profound

I can’t but close my eyes to see.


Excerpt from the poem Somnambulant, by Scott Cairns, from Idiot Psalms: New Poems (Paraclete Press, 2014)

Tools for life

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

If you ask yourself how often you have felt deep inner peace or harmony recently, it can call to mind those places, people and situations that promote that sense in you, and that can help you to seek them more.

When I developed the set of 16 questions in the DSES it was originally for the purpose of research and evaluation. More frequent Daily Spiritual Experiences have been shown to be connected to many good things in life in over 200 research studies. But asking the questions has also become a practical tool for people – helping to notice the presence of the transcendent in daily life. When I ask myself if I have found strength in my religion or spirituality, that reminds me that strength can be found there, and reminds me to look for it and draw on it.

I am presenting at a meeting at Harvard School of Public Health in a couple of weeks on how one might research the role of spirituality in large scale studies of health in diverse populations, seeing if and how it might influence gene expression. (Not all 16 questions speak to everyone, but the average of the set addresses the variety of ways we experience the spiritual, the transcendent, in our lives and provides a number score.  They provide a wide variety of questions that address the depth and diversity of our spiritual experiences.)  At Harvard I have been asked to present on my 16 questions, the DSES, as ones that might help in studying the relationship between spirituality and gene expression and health in diverse populations.  One of the reasons the DSES questions are good for research is that they show statistical correlations with good things like relationships and well-being; and it is also then reasonably easy to enhance this aspect of spirituality, giving us a tool for enriching our lives in significant ways.

the effect of our being

 “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” – the final sentence of Middlemarch, by George Eliot

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

I just returned from a few days consulting and speaking with those who work for and lead a social services organization. The people they serve, many of them young people, are in such difficult situations in life. Those that work in these settings give ‘water from their well’ again and again, and I hoped to provide them with some ways to fill the well and find ways of caring for themselves and communicating about things they value.  I found myself feeling so respectful of the work they do, and so thankful that they are doing this work, and being who they are.


delusion of total self-sufficiency

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

It is delusional to think that we are fully self-sufficient. Last Saturday I led an all-day retreat on “Flourishing in Difficult Circumstances.” One thing we  talked about was how the sense of total self-sufficiency is a delusion, one that is prevalent in our western culture. One of my Power Point slides was this drawing I did long ago….I found it folded up in my files, and I recently hung it up in my study. Of course the importance of personal responsibility cannot be undervalued, but difficult circumstances can vividly remind us of how we all do need help.



art by lynn

I had the privilege last week of presenting/facilitating a day-long workshop for professional caregivers on the Daily Spiritual Experience Scale and the ideas in the Spiritual Connection book in Michigan. It provided a space for them to reflect and share, and nourish their own lives.  These many men and women are working in areas such as hospice, addiction services, ministry, counseling, nursing, prisons, hospital administration, hospital chaplaincy, and long-term care. I came away so appreciative of these individuals, and thinking how glad I am that they do this much needed work. The value of what they do far exceeds the remuneration they receive. I thought of the poem, Higdon Cove, from the book Gourd Song by Coleman Barks, about a man who helps the author get his car out of a ditch with his tractor, and quietly refuses any praise or payment, especially the final few lines…

There is a huge holly tree next to where I glided to a stop,

A solid thigh-trunk white-splotched

And stretching deep under the ditchwater.

Beauty, but not such as this man is,

beyond any tree.”

If any of the many who were there happen to read this blog. Thank you for what you do, but even more, for who you are.

listening to the evening

I went to a concert by some local musicians outdoors with a friend. The music was not the kind I might seek out on my own. But as I found myself looking for things to appreciate, I found them all around. Creative piano improv, enjoying how the double bass sounded and looked, some great trumpet riffs – moments of beautiful gutsy female voice.  And then the summer clouds were this glorious pink on the walk home. The atmosphere in the convenience store filled with so many different kinds of people. The feel of the soft ice cream on my tongue. Hearing the details of my friend’s life and enjoying the congeniality of being together. Divine messages.

happiness and contemplation

“Contemplation does not rest until it has found the object that dazzles it.” – Konrad Weiss

photo by lynn

I am currently reading a book by the philosopher Josef Pieper. In the middle he writes that it is in perceiving reality fully, in contemplation, that happiness is found. I was recently at the shores of Lake Michigan. The evening was glorious. This photo I took only begins to capture what was there, the fullness of reality.

Pieper writes in Happiness and Contemplation:

The ancients conceived the whole energy of human nature as a hunger. Hunger for what? For being, for undiminished actuality, for complete realization—which is not attainable in the subject’s isolated existence, for it can be secured only by taking into the self the universal reality. Hunger is directed toward the real universe, and the universe in its literal sense, toward the whole of being, toward everything that exists…. The word “hunger” should be understood in its most drastic and literal sense. In so far as he exists spiritually, man desires satiation by reality, he wants to “have” reality; he hungers for “the whole,” longs to be filled to repletion….

“Knowing is the highest mode of having because in the world there is no other form so thoroughgoing.  Knowing is not only appropriation which results in “property” and “proprietorship.” It is assimilation in the quite exact sense that the objective world, in so far as it is known, is incorporated into the very being of the knower….One’s existence as a spiritual being involves being and remaining oneself and at the same time admitting and transforming into oneself the reality of the world.”

It must be somewhere

By Juhan Liiv

It must be somewhere, the original harmony,
somewhere in great nature, hidden.
Is it in the furious infinite,
in distant stars’ orbits,
is it in the sun’s scorn,
in a tiny flower, in treegossip,
in heartmusic’s mothersong
or in tears?
It must be somewhere, immortality,
somewhere the original harmony must be found:
how else could it infuse
the human soul,
that music?

Translated from the Estonian by H. L. Hix and Jüri Talvet  Source: Poetry (June 2011)

dorothy sayers wrote:

In the image of [the artists’] experience, we can ‘recognize’ the image of some experience of our own…. When we read the poem or see the play or picture or hear the music, it is as though a light were turned on inside us. We say: ’Ah! I recognize that! That was something which I obscurely felt to be going on in and about me, but I didn’t know what it was, and couldn’t express it. But now…I can possess and take hold of it and make it my own and turn it into a source of knowledge and strength.’

photo by Ron Ables

photo by Ron Abeles

This is really true for me. Listening deeply to certain poems, or viewing visual art, or listening to certain music can provide nourishment in my morning time of silence and contemplative prayer. It continues with me into the day. In a recent public talk, I was amazed at the deep hush that came over the room while I was reading the poems (by Heaney, Levertov, and Collins) . When I wrote the Spiritual Connection book I found myself constantly reaching for poems by good poets to illustrate ideas and experiences of the ‘more than’. And recently when doing a day of retreat for professional caregivers, reflection on the poems opened up conversations, and provoked us in new ways. Visual art, music, drama, fiction and dance all have the capacity to do what Sayers describes.

art and seeing

As I get ready to attend a workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to revive my life-drawing skills, I was reminded of the following excerpt from the book Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation by the German philosopher Josef Pieper:

“How can man preserve and safeguard the foundation of his spiritual dimension and an uncorrupted relationship to reality?  The capacity to perceive the visible world ‘with our own eyes’ is indeed an essential constituent of human nature. We are talking here about man’s essential inner richness…. To see things is the first step toward that primordial and basic mental grasping of reality, which constitutes the essence of man as a spiritual being.”

One of the things Pieper suggests is that we become active in artistic creation. ”Before you can express anything in tangible form, you first need eyes to see. The mere attempt, therefore, to create an artistic form compels the artist to take a fresh look at the visible reality; it requires authentic and personal observation. Long before a creation is completed, the artist has gained for himself another and more intimate achievement: a deeper and more receptive vision, a more intense awareness, a sharper and more discerning understanding, a more patient openness for all things quiet and inconspicuous, an eye for things previously overlooked. In short: the artist will be able to perceive with new eyes the abundant wealth of all visible reality, and thus challenged, additionally acquires the inner capacity to absorb into his mind such an exceedingly rich harvest. The capacity to see increases.”

In one of the classes I teach we end each semester with an art project – they have a chance to express something that reflected the spiritual and/or compassionate love, through a piece of art they would make (music, poetry, fiction, film, photography – one person even chose to create a meal for us). They are graded on effort and conception rather than skill. I wish I could share them all here, as most of them were so inspiring. Although many of the students initially resisted doing the project, most of them really enjoyed it in the end, and especially sharing their creation with others in the class.

We all have the capacity to create art – maybe some of it is pretty primitive- but the process of doing so can greatly enrich our capacity to see, and this can help us clearly perceive the world as it is in all its depth, spiritually infused, and that can enrich our lives.

Is there some kind of creative activity that you can begin to develop, or one that you have already developed but can continue to do more of? When we loosen the constraints of excessive critique, joy is there for us, and in the process we can become more in touch with reality.

resting places

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

We find rest in those we love,

and we provide a resting place in ourselves

for those who love us.

-Bernard of Clairvaux


jean vanierJean Vanier inspires me. He started the L’Arche communities. They bring people who are marginalized and restless from lack of community and care, together with those who learn to care for them. They especially create small caring communities for those who have developmental disabilities.

I met Jean Vanier over 30 years ago while living in Belfast, Northern Ireland.  A small room of about 20 people had gathered to hear him speak and talk with him. Meeting him made a strong impression on me, and I followed up by reading anything by him I could get my hands on. He was from an important political family in Canada, had served in the Navy in WWII, and then pursued a PhD in philosophy.  It was after this that he came to establish the L’Arche communities. As he spoke of the gift that those who had mental developmental disabilities were to him in his life, it helped me to see that what I had most valued in myself up to that time, my intellectual abilities, were not the most important thing in my life. The communities he started were based on mutual respect – those with developmental disabilities have things to share with us, things they can teach us, things they can give us. His life demonstrated how he really valued all people. We all have different gifts, and discovering those is an opportunity for each of us.

In addition to his writings on disability and community, he has also described human freedom in ways that I have found worth pondering.  In his book, Being Human, he wrote:  “Aristotle talks of our passions as being like a horse which has a life of its own.  We are riders who have to take into account the life of the horse in order to guide it where we want it to go.  We are not called to suppress our passions or compulsions, nor to confront them head on, nor to be governed by them, but to orient them in the direction we want to go….We set out on the road to freedom when we no longer let our compulsions or passions govern us.  We are freed when we begin to put justice, heartfelt relationships, and the service of others and of truth over and above our own needs for love and success or our fears of failure….”

music, time and spirituality

In my Art Science and Spirituality course I share an interview with the South American composer Oswaldo Golijov. He describes the effects of certain kinds of music on spiritual experience in his life, and describes his response to Monteverdi’s Vespers. One of the concepts I address in that class is how both the arts and the sciences inform our understanding of time. How we envision time has a practical effect on us. Do we leave space for a more nuanced and eternal view of time?  This interview is only seven minutes long and is well worth listening to, and it contains excerpts of the music.

He also describes inhabiting music like a cathedral, and how the way music and words are combined can enable the words to penetrate more deeply.


out my back window

out my back window

Let us come alive to the splendor that is all around us, and see the beauty in ordinary things.

-Thomas Merton

Silence and light


photo by lynn

Simone Weil, a French philosopher and activist from the mid-twentieth century commented that one major, if not the major failure, is “our inability to feed on the light.”  I have just returned from my yearly weeklong silent retreat, something that has been a mainstay of my life for 15 years. I really needed it. I am much better able to feed on the light now, than before I left. And so many subtle and not so subtle changes have happened inside me. I know that for me the time in solitude and silence in the context of a monastic setting, routine, spiritual readings, nature and rich liturgy, not only revives and renews me, it re-sets my compass. Swaths of time in silent prayer/contemplation and hikes in the hills, are important parts of my retreat too. The effect continues to amaze me. Aaaah.

The Smile of the Soul

patience_ lynn underwood 2010In the Yes theme chapter (8) in the Spiritual Connection book, one of the things I reflect on is how we need to receptively allow life to unfold. In many ways, I think of myself as a patient person, but when I carefully look at my attitudes, I see impatience with myself in abundance. I did this piece of calligraphy a while back, a saying by Philippe Obrecht – “Patience is the soul’s smile…”  We can say yes to life as it is, ourselves as we are, as we wait in preparation for what is to come in its own time.  I am getting a strong message of patience right now – loud and clear.  I hope I can listen.

People on a parallel way

young man_lynn_underwood_cropcondensed

art by lynn

“There are people on a parallel way. We do not see them often, or even think of them often, but it is precious to us that they are sharing the world. Something about how they have accepted their lives, or how the sunlight happens to them, helps us to hold the strange, enigmatic days in line for our own living.”—William Stafford

One of the things I have found over the years in interviewing people about their ordinary experience of spirituality in daily life, is how different and varied each person’s experience is, even though there are definitely common threads.  Yet just being aware that others are feeling and experiencing the same light in different ways than I can, somehow illuminates my days.

Eternal moments


art by lynn

This Much I Do Remember
by Billy Collins
It was after dinner.
You were talking to me across the table
about something or other,
a greyhound you had seen that day
or a song you liked,
and I was looking past you
over your bare shoulder
at the three oranges lying
on the kitchen counter
next to the small electric bean grinder,
which was also orange,
and the orange and white cruets for vinegar and oil.
All of which converged
into a random still life,
so fastened together by the hasp of color,
and so fixed behind the animated
foreground of your
talking and smiling,
gesturing and pouring wine,
and the camber of you shoulders
that I could feel it being painted within me,
brushed on the wall of my skull,
while the tone of your voice
lifted and fell in its flight,
and the three oranges
remained fixed on the counter
the way that stars are said
to be fixed in the universe.
Then all of the moments of the past
began to line up behind that moment
and all of the moments to come
assembled in front of it in a long row,
giving me reason to believe
that this was a moment I had rescued
from millions that rush out of sight
into a darkness behind the eyes.
Even after I have forgotten what year it is,
my middle name,
and the meaning of money,
I will still carry in my pocket
the small coin of that moment,
minted in the kingdom
that we pace through every day.

From Billy Collins, Picnic, Lightning. University of Pittsburg Press, 1998. (This book is full of gems like this.)

Holidays, holy-days, wholeness


art by lynn

The word ‘holidays’ comes from holy-days.  That’s hard to believe, as so much of the seasonal pressure and frippery seems the opposite of holy. Holy and whole in English are derived from the same root word.

The bustle of the holidays can be fragmenting, pulling us apart rather then enabling us to exist in an integrated whole.  What do you do during daily tasks and demands to “pull yourself together”?

I find that music helps.  Unfortunately the repetitive and commercial use of music at this time of year has weakened its ability to draw us towards unseen yet vital aspects of life.  But we can reclaim the music, find pieces that inspire us to see the holy, and feel whole in the holidays.

For many, the religious aspects of the holidays are not relevant, and the language of many of the songs does not speak to everyone in a literal sense, and can provoke reactions of alienation. But can you nevertheless find, sniff out, pointers to a wider mystery in some of the music? Many of the writers and performers are coming from a deep place within, beyond theological and religious and cultural constructs.  Notes of peace, joy, love, generosity, in the midst of ordinary life. Can you allow the music to wash over you and stir where it will?

I play music of the season on the piano from books that are dissolving with wear. My book of international carols especially connects me to the past and other parts of the world at this time of year. Participating in making music and singing stirs my heart.

Does some music of this season help you to find transcendent wonder buried in your days? Reminding you of wholeness, reminding you of the holy, here, now.



art by lynn

I am easily able to see problems and flaws.  This can be a strength, and it has saved me from falling into some big holes.  But for some of us, problems seem to speak louder than beauty. Our attention is so often drawn to the one thing that is out of whack. It can take extra effort to notice the beauty shining in the midst of our days.  After an ice storm, this little branch was lying on the ground and I brought it home with me. This is a much needed reminder to me.

There are so many things during the holiday season that can seem not quite perfect:  family, travel, finances, not enough time for this or that.  I know that I need to give extra attention to the light on the snow, how cosy my warm sweater feels, the best of the music, good memories, the smell of good food, the people who are here now with me.  Question 14 in the Spiritual Connection book asks how often you experience joy that lifts you out of your daily concerns.  There is enough of our day dedicated to the flaws and problems – doesn’t joy deserve some of our time?

Stained Glass

art by lynn

are living stained glass windows
Beautiful in ourselves.
for color-bathing others.

Marlene Halpin OP

Healing Balm

In the midst of famine in Sudan in the 1980’s, everything was dry – grasses and foliage. To keep from focusing on hunger and distress, the women began to weave baskets from the dry grasses, beautiful baskets.  This weekend I heard, live, a beautiful piece of music. The Famine Song, by Vida, arranged by Mathew Culloton, that describes this. I find listening to this song deeply soothing somehow. It touches within me places of injury and distress and provides a healing balm.

Here is a link to a group singing this


Some of the beginning words of the song are :

Ease my spirit
Ease my soul
Please free my hands from this barren soil

Ease my mother
Ease my child
Earth and sky be reconciled


And at the end :

Weave my mother

Weave my child
Weave your baskets of rushes wild
Rain, rain, rain, rain, rain, rain

What are blessings anyway?

art by lynn

art by lynn

One of the questions in my Spiritual Connections book asks how often you find yourself being thankful for your blessings. When something horrible that I might have expected doesn’t happen, I find myself especially thankful. For example, when I have a close shave in traffic, and I come out unscathed. Or I find myself thankful when something that seems particularly nice happens to me. But I see people who are in such difficult circumstances still being thankful – circumstances of poverty or disease that I don’t think I could bear.  I am amazed at their continual appreciation of small things in life, and it is important for me to have that reminder.

Just think of the close shaves we all have each day that we are unaware of – the escapes from trouble that we don’t even see.  And even buried within the tough times are blessings we may never completely comprehend. What looks like disaster can somehow pave the way for future good for ourselves or others.

And we are alive: we taste food, we feel the softness as we touch a cat’s fur, we hear music that touches us.  All the lovely little things of each day.  Being alive, even when life is tough, has lovely moments – more of them than we can keep track of. They often go by unnoticed, like unwrapped presents. I am going to unwrap a few more today.

Compassionate Love: I, thou, and we

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

“The encounter between two people which leads to mutual recognition and the serious exchanges of friendship or love abolishes between them the third person which is the normal form of regard for another, and each becomes for the other a second person, a thou, and thenceforth they are together in the first person, a we. Each is present to the other and promises to be with the other always.  The intimate being of each is present to the other, and fidelity is the active cultivation and enjoyment of that presence always. Absence and even death does not destroy this presence, but is rather the proof of its veritability. For when one dies whose presence I have enjoyed in friendship or in love, either he becomes less than an object or else his presence (not a mere image or memory) remains as active within me as before. It depends on my willingness to continue to be truly present to him.”

Blackham, H. J. (1983). Six Existentialist Thinkers (Reprint.). Routledge. Chapter on Gabriel Marcel. P 76. Artwork Lynn Underwood

Conflict Resolution and Spiritual Connection Podcast

georgemasonlynnunderwoodThis summer I was invited to give a presentation on the Daily Spiritual Experience Scale at the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University.  One of the uses of the 16 Daily Spiritual Experience Questions is in opening conversations to bridge differences in beliefs, and help in community building.  After the presentation and the lively discussion, Jacqueline Greiff, the Executive Director of their Center for Peacemaking Practice, invited me to be interviewed. You can listen to a podcast of this by scrolling to the bottom of the page at

It excites me to see how useful the 16 DSES questions are for those from so many religions, as well as those who are not comfortable with religion.  The specific experiences that people have can bridge differences in belief and culture, often creating connections at a deep level between people. The resulting conversations do not reduce spiritual experience to mush, but create space for the marvelous variety and depth of experiences that sustain and enrich so many different people’s lives.

Leaves on the Ground at our Feet

leavesanna24lynnunderwoodcompressed  I noticed these leaves while out walking today, and picked up these two from the grey pavement to take home. I drew and painted them to help the beauty stick with me longer. As they sit here on the table together, I also find myself thinking about my relationships with those I am close to.

opening windows with art


“Art in the spirit opens a window onto these transcendental realities of which the ancients called the Passio Entis, the “accidents of Being.” They are the Holiness of all that is. And from these transcendental involvements flow all the other humanizing values of our existence: love, compassion, simplicity, fidelity, forgiveness, freedom, justice, peace. For you see it is the function of art to open the human heart.”

Some food for my morning contemplative time these past weeks has been a beautiful book, Creation out of Clay: The Ceramic Art and Writings of Brother Thomas

(Ed. Rosemary Williams, Pucker Art Publications, Boston 1999, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids)

It is a large book full of luscious pictures of Brother Thomas’ pottery that make me want to touch them, and full of his essays, which include wisdom that feeds me.


A high spot of summer for me is going to farmers’ markets. When I get there I become quite focused: What I will buy for what meal plan? But despite this focus I usually find that I get lost in the visual beauty of the fruits and vegetables and in taking in the smells. I bought these beets that looked rather ugly, yet when I got home, it was the beets I felt drawn to draw. At first they just looked brown and muddy, but as I painted/drew them, I detected the subtleties. I thought about the Yes! Chapter in the book, about how things that do not look great on the outside in our lives, can reveal beauty nevertheless. And I haven’t even cooked them yet.

heaney and the beauty of creation

The first of the 16 questions my Spiritual Connection in Daily Life book explores is, “Have you been spiritually touched by the beauty of creation?”

A favorite poet of mine, Seamus Heaney, died last week, and it seemed a good time to offer this  excerpt from my book, which includes part of one of his poems.

“Experiences of wonder are there for the taking. They are around us every day. Awe-inspiring colors and sounds and touch-sensations. Signs of and pointers to the transcendent. When we have these experiences, we touch the transcendent as obviously as we touch the chairs we sit on. It may seem even more real. These feelings can provide encouragement to us. When I look out over a lake, watch a sunset from a balcony, see the bud of a flower in a vase in my apartment, watch the flame of a candle, there can be for me a vivid sense of the “more than.”

“What do you see as the beauty of creation? Can you see it in tears? In faces? In the rough and the smooth?

“Poetry, through expert use of language, can capture this well, and call our attention to these experiences.”

Seamus_Heaney Seamus Heaney’s poem “Postscript,” is a great example of this, and I quote it in the book; you can read it now here on line.

After Heaney’s quotation, I continue in my book,

“If we live in the countryside or near water or spectacular scenery, this can seem easier. But even in an urban environment, evidence of this is there for the taking. Parks, the sky, plants in our apartment, the sound of water, the beauty of people’s faces. And on the other hand, we can miss the chance even in the midst of the obvious. While living in a village on a mountainside in Switzerland, the Alps were usually in view, but I could be so consumed by my own preoccupations that I just did not notice this awe-inspiring beauty. These experiences are not defined by the setting, although it may be easier to feel in some places. You may want to go somewhere that helps you to see this beauty. Do you find space in your life for “wow”? There is something about the very substance of life itself that can inspire us, keep our hearts from drying up. When are you aware of it?”

Study Guide for Groups Using Spiritual Connection in Daily Life

This is a 6-week model, with each session being 1-2 hours

One individual should take the lead for each session, and take responsibility to move the others through the spectrum of topics in the time available. (If it fits with the tone of your group, beginning with relaxation and silence, and ending with silence will help to bookend the sharing, and invite the ‘more than’ into the time you spend together.)

I am hoping to add on the website different models for groups over time as I get suggestions from others.

Week 1

To prepare:

  • Read Chapter 1 and Chapter 2.
  • In Chapter 3, read, answer and respond in notes to Questions 1 (and 2).

In the group:

  • Briefly discuss feeling, sensing, and “knowing in your gut.” Mention that comparing scores with others is not very useful and can get in the way, yet looking at changes in your scores over time can be useful. There are no right answers. The scores are for your personal use and to help you to find specifics. The details of your experiences or the feeling of lack are much more important. I would suggest not mentioning your scores in the group discussion, but rather focusing on the details of experience. You can use the check-list method. (E.g.: “Recently, have you have this experience? If so, describe how it felt, and the circumstances where it happened.”)
  • Share your responses to Question 1 (Awe) in Chapter 3: I am spiritually touched by the beauty of creation. And if time begin to share some on Question 2.

Week 2

To prepare:

  • Read Chapter 10: How and Why to Communicate Using Daily Spiritual Experiences.
  • Answer Chapter 3: Questions 2, 3, 4, 5. Jot down some notes.

In the group:

  • Briefly discuss Rules of the Game from Chapter 10: How and Why to Communicate.
  • Share the experiences you thought of when you answered questions 2 (Presence), 3 (Connection), 4 (Closeness), 5 (Desire).

Week 3

To prepare:

  • In Chapter 3, read and answer Questions 6, 7, 8 and 9.
  • Read Chapter 6: The Flow of Love, and take notes on your answers to the invitations to respond.

In the group:

  • Share your responses to Questions 6 (Love directly), 7 (Love through others), 8 (Selfless caring), 9 (Acceptance, mercy).
  • Share your responses to various invitations in Chapter 6: The Flow of Love.

Week 4

To prepare:

  • In Chapter 3, read and answer Questions 10, 11, 12 and 13. Jot down notes.
  • Read Chapter 8: Yes! and take notes on your answers to the questions there.

In the group:

  • Share your responses to Questions 10 (Strength), 11 (Comfort), 12 (Guidance), 13 (Help).
  • Share your reflections in response to Chapter 8, Yes!

Week 5

To prepare:

  • Read or skim Chapter 4: Why Numbers and Chapter 5: “Studies Have Shown.”
  • In Chapter 3, Answer Questions 14, 15, 16.
  • Read Chapter 9, Translating God Share your answers to the questions there.

In the group:

  • Share about your answers to Questions 14 (Joy), 15 (Gratitude), and 16 (Peace).
  • Reflect on your responses to Chapter 9, Translating God.
  • Do you think Chapter 5: Studies Have Shown, contains any implications for your life?

Week 6

To prepare:

  • Read Chapter 7: Connection vs. Alienation and take notes on your responses.
  • Read Chapter 12: What Now, What Next, reflect on what next for you.
  • Answer the full set of questions and reflect on any changes from when you first took them.

In the group:

  • Share your reflections and responses to Chapter 7: Connection vs. Alienation.
  • Do you think there is a way you personally would like to use the questions in the future? If so, share about that.
  • Look at the full set of questions and share particular experiences for you as you revisited them that you have not shared with the group before.



Check-List and Open-ended Versions of the 16 Questions

Some people find that giving themselves number answers on the questions just gets in the way. If you are one of those people, remember that you can go through the book without even bothering with the numbers. You can use the items as prompts to explore the questions in an open-ended way. The book is the best resource for the open-ended approach, with its spaces to respond and prompts to do so, including possible ideas from other people’s experiences.  After answering each question, if you had this kind of experience, you can jot down some notes about what it felt like for you, and where and when it occurred.

Just noticing the experiences has been shown to be linked to many good things in life, and can be uplifting in an of itself.  The checklist version is another way of using the DSES questions that is beginning to be used in research and in practical settings. Below find this version and also a strictly non-theistic version.

Regarding scoring of this version, a simple yes/no: 1/0, should be adequate.

Recently . . .

1. Have you been spiritually touched by the beauty of creation?

2. Have you felt God’s presence, or the presence of the divine or holy?

3. Have you experienced a connection to all of life?

4. Have you felt close to God, or to the divine or transcendent as expressed in other words?

5. Have you desired to be closer to God or in union with the divine?

6. Have you felt God’s love or divine love for you directly?

7. Have you felt God’s love or compassionate love for you through others?

8. Have you felt a selfless caring for others?

9. Have you accepted others even when they have done things you think are wrong?

10. Have you found strength in your spirituality or religion?

11. Have you found comfort in your spirituality or religion?

12. Have you felt guided by God in the midst of daily activities?
Or: Have you felt divine guidance in the midst of daily activities?

13. Have you asked for God’s help in the midst of daily activities.
Or: Have you asked for help from a higher power as you go through the day?

14. During worship, or at other times when connecting with God, have you felt joy that lifts you out of your daily concerns?
Or: At times when connecting with the “more than” have you felt joy that lifts you out of your daily concerns?

15. Have you felt thankful for your blessings?

16. Have you felt deep inner peace or harmony?

A more strictly non-theistic version of the checklist version is:


__Have you been spiritually touched by the beauty of creation?

__Have you experienced a connection to all of life?

__Have you felt compassionate love for you from other people?

__Have you felt a selfless caring for others?

__Have you accepted others even when they have done things you think are wrong?

__Have you found strength in your spirituality or religion?

__Have you found comfort in your spirituality or religion?

__Have you felt divine guidance in the midst of daily activities?

__Have you asked for help from a higher power as you go through the day?

__At times when connecting with the “more than” have you felt joy that lifts you out of your daily concerns?

__Have you felt thankful for your blessings?

__Have you felt deep inner peace or harmony?

__Have you felt the presence of the divine or holy?

__Have you felt close to a divine or transcendent presence?

__Have you desired to be more in union with the ‘more than’?

__Have you felt love for you directly from a divine or transcendent source?


© Lynn Underwood. For personal use only. Contact Lynn Underwood for permission to duplicate or distribute. and to register for non-profit use at no cost.


Books for further reading

Here are a sampling of non-fiction books I have on my shelves that are relevant to the book, and might be useful for further reading and resources for exploration.

  • Lost in Wonder by Esther de Waal
  • I and Thou Martin Buber
  • Hidden Beauty: Microworlds Revealed by France Bourely, Laurel Hirsch
  • French Cooking in Ten Minutes: Adapting to the Rhythm of Modern Life by Edouard De Pomiane
  • Modern Spirituality: An Anthology, ed. John Garvey
  • I Wonder by Marian Bantjes
  • Reason, Faith and Revolution, by Terry Eagleton
  • The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues on His Way
  • Six Existentialist Thinkers HJ Blackham
  • The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Laurence
  • The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist
  • Descarte’s Error by Antonio Damasio
  • Showings by Julian of Norwich
  • The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Laurence
  • Care for Creation: A Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth by Ilia Delio, Keith Douglass Warner, Pamela Wood
  • Grace and Necessity, Rowan Williams
  • The Oxford Companion to the Mind
  • Degowin and Degowin’s Bedside Diagnostic Manual
  • Complete Guide to Guys, Dave Barry
  • Leisure the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper
  • Bergan and Schwann Ignatian Exercises Series
  • Formative Spirituality by Adrian van Kaam
  • Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation by Josef Pieper
  • A Balm for Gilead, Daniel Sulmasy
  • The Greatest Works of Western Art, Thomas Hoving
  • The Natural Way to Draw, Kimon Nicolaides
  • Ways of Seeing, John Berger
  • Art and Soul, Hilary Brand and Adrienne Chaplin
  • Science and Poetry, Mary Midgely
  • Open Hands Henry Nouwen
  • Personal Knowledge, Michael Polanyi
  • The Limits of Language, ed. Walker Gibson
  • Open Mind, Open Heart Thomas Keating
  • The Music of What Happens, John J O’Riordian
  • On Sharing Religious Experience, Gort, Vroom, Fernhout, and Wessels
  • The Four Loves, CS Lewis
  • Passionate Women, Elizabeth Dreyer
  • Love, Human and Divine, Edward Vacek
  • Seeking God, the Way of St Benedict, Esther de Waal
  • Sadhana by Antony de Mello
  • Christian Mystics Ursula King
  • Simone Weil – Attention to the Real, Robert Chenavier
  • The Far Side Collection by Gary Larson
  • The Mystical Now: Art and the Sacred by Wendy Beckett
  • Collected Works of Thomas Merton
  • Desert Wisdom Yoshi Nomura

Web Links from the Book

There are lots of references in the book to websites: music, poetry, articles and essays, art work. This page gives you those links live, so you can click on them and get to the referenced site.

Page 10   Title: Had I Not Been Awake  Author: Seamus Heaney

Page 33   Title: Hubble Photographs  Author:

Page 34   Title: Postscript  Author: Seamus Heaney

Page 38   Title: Dust  Author: Dorianne Laux

Page 39   Title: Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey  Author: William Wadsworth

Page 47   Title: Longing  Author: Stevie Smith

Page 48   Title: Even in the Quietest Moments  Author: Supertramp

Page 48   Title: Hymn 101  Author: Joe Pugh

Page 49   Title: There Is Some Kiss We Want  Author: Rumi

Page 52   Title: Our Lady of Vladimir  Author: Theokotos of Vladimir

Title: Patience  Author: Rabindranath Tagore

Page 78   Title: Vespers  Author: Monteverdi

Page 78   Title: Trío para piano, violín y violonchelo en Sol mayor K496  Author: Mozart

Page 78   Title: King without a Crown (Live from Stubbs)  Author: Matisyahu

Page 78   Title: The Cave  Author: Mumford and Sons

Page 78   Title: 2080  Author: Yeasayer

Page 78   Title: In the Morning  Author: Nina Simone

Page 79   Title: Landscsape: Wheatfields under Thunderclouds  Author: van Gogh

Page 79   Title: Kadinsky Art  Author: Wassily Kadinsky

Page 79   Title: RichD Dancing in the Rain Oakland Street  Author: Yak Films

Page 86   Title: Spiegel im Spiegel  Author: Arvo Pärt

Page 86   Title: Claire de Lune  Author: Debussy

Page 86   Title: Köln Concerts  Author: Keith Jarrett

Page 121   Title: St. Kevin and the Blackbird  Author: Seamus Heaney

Page 125   Title: Mercy  Author: Jessica Powers

Page 130   Title: In Our Talons  Author: Bowerbirds

Page 134   Title: 3055  Author: Olafur Arnald

Title: On Being Called to Prayer While Cooking Dinner for Forty   Author: Patrick Donnelly

Page 135   Title: Ubi caritas et amor  Author: Maurice Duruflé

Page 135   Title: Ubi caritas et amor  Author: Taizé

Page 136   Title: Shoveling Snow with the Buddha  Author: Billy Collins

Title: To the Mistakes   Author: W. S. Mervin

Page 146   Title: Wrong Day-Go Back  Author: Richard Tipping

Page 155   Title: How to Truly Listen  Author: Evelyn Glennie

Page 156   Title: A Spiritual Journey  Author: Wendell Berry

Page 165   Title: Dear God  Author: Monsters of Folk

Audio of Lynn reading from the Flow of Love chapter

Here is Lynn reading part one of the Flow of Love theme chapter from the audiobook of Spiritual Connection in Daily Life. The audiobook, published in has been substantially revised and enhanced from the 2013 print edition.









the dses and inter-religious and religious-secular dialogue

Presentation at the George Mason School for Conflict Resolution and Analysis

April 2, 2013

The Daily Spiritual Experience Scale: Uses for Inter-religious and Religious-secular Dialogue


The kinds of things that help to give life meaning, purpose, and satisfaction are often grounded in concepts we term religious or spiritual, a sense of the “more than” in daily life. This can be the case for those who find roots in religion as well as those not comfortable with religious language. Spiritual and religious attitudes and values help to shape: how people view the world, what they consider important, what they do, how they act, how they feel, identity and affinity, and also why they may mistrust or hate other people.

The Daily Spiritual Experience Scale (DSES) is a set of 16 multiple-choice questions, psychometrically validated, which can be also be used in an open-ended way. It measures ordinary experiences of relationship with, and awareness of, the divine or transcendent. It measures experiences rather than beliefs, and the ordinary rather than the extraordinary. It has been used in over 150 published studies, linking it to many good outcomes for many kinds of people. Tens of thousands of people have taken the test, and it has been translated into over 30 languages. It has proven useful for most religions and in secular settings for those not comfortable with religion. The DSES is proving to be helpful for assessment, personal exploration, and communication in interpersonal, therapeutic, organizational settings.

This presentation and the subsequent extended discussion with faculty, students, and fellows, explored ways that the questions might be useful for communication between people of different beliefs, allowing them to share about things that are important in their daily lives. Exploring answers to the questions can allow people to connect with others about things that have value and meaning to them without coming up against the walls that discussion of beliefs can lead to. Common ground can be found in the depths of the discussion, even when beliefs differ. This can be helpful in the resolution of conflict, and building bridges in peacemaking process. DSES scores have also been linked to less burnout in practitioners of various kinds.

invited speaker united methodist association national conference

Presented “Spiritual Connection: A Resource for Professional Caregiving” as an invited plenary speaker at the 73rd National Conference of the United Methodist Association in Orlando, FL on March 5, 2013.

ethical implications of dses research

Ethical Implications of the Daily Spiritual Experience Scale, Bioethics Grand Rounds, Cleveland Clinic, September 11, 2012.


Recent research has asserted the value of incorporating the spiritual orientation, concerns and needs of the patient into the healthcare relationship, and accreditation requires attention to this aspect of the patient. Doing so raises a number of ethical issues, however. Use of the 16 questions from the Daily Spiritual Experience Scale (DSES) can help the health professional avoid some of these ethical problems by 1) focusing on experiences rather than beliefs, 2) using questions validated cross-culturally, 3) opening avenues for communication and understanding, and 4) emphasizing the spiritual aspect of life as a part of the whole person, rather than reducing it to a tool for improving physical health. The DSES questions also assist the professional in better delivering competent care that addresses this complex component of the human person.

The DSES is a 16-item, psychometrically validated scale, used in over 100 published studies and translated into over 20 languages. It measures reported frequency of such ordinary spiritual experiences as awe, compassionate love, mercy, divine closeness, sense of spiritual support, gratitude, and deep inner peace in daily life ( The research involved in its development used ethical principles such as respect for diversity to construct a scale that would reach many people substantively. It was based on extensive international qualitative research in multiple cultures, ages and socioeconomic status. It functions well for people from the various major religious traditions as well as for those who call themselves spiritual but not religious, and atheists. Higher scores have been linked with happiness, life satisfaction, less addictive behaviors, less depression and anxiety, better health behaviors, self-efficacy, less burnout, and improved relationships.

Return to “Recent and Current Presentations”

using the dses to improve patient care

Using the Daily Spiritual Experience Scale to Improve Patient Care. Psychiatry Conference: Sympozion National al ARSP cu Participare Internationala. Lynn Underwood. Sponsored invitation to speak. Targu Mures, Romania. 31 May – 3 June, 2012.


Spiritual and religious issues and values can influence how people cope with disease, make decisions, and behave in ways that affect their health. Spiritual and religious attitudes help to shape how people view the world and what they consider important. They can provide resources for patients to draw on. These may be particularly salient for them in the midst of mental illness, chronic disease, addiction, times of medical crisis, and at end-of-life.  It is often challenging to communicate with patients about religious and spiritual values and issues without running headlong into beliefs that may polarize conversation and empathic understanding, and limit the caregiver’s capacity to attend to patient needs and desires.

The Daily Spiritual Experiences Scale (DSES) is a 16-item psychometrically validated scale that measures the frequency of ordinary experiences such as awe, compassionate love, mercy, divine closeness, sense of spiritual support, gratitude, and deep inner peace in daily life ( ).  The DSES was constructed based on extensive qualitative research in multiple cultures, religions and secular settings.  It has been used in over 100 published studies, answered by many thousands of people, put on longitudinal health studies, and translated into over 20 languages.  It is linked to outcomes such as less addictive behaviors, better mood, improved relationships, decreased hospital stays, positive health behaviors, and diminished burnout.  It has been used extensively in medicine, psychiatry, psychology and social work research.   It functions well for people from various major religious backgrounds as well as for those who call themselves spiritual but not religious.  It does not reduce the spiritual to vague positive features, rather it allows for the kinds of experiences that encompass religious and spiritual depth. It is not only a potential mediating variable but also a measure of a significant component of quality of life for many.

This presentation will discuss ways in which the scale can be used in health-care settings to enhance the caregivers’ capacity to communicate with the patient and to help those who are ill to mobilize their own spiritual and religious resources to better cope with illness.  Another use of the scale is as a self-exploration tool for caregivers themselves using a structured method to enhance self-understanding and their ability to communicate with others different from themselves.  Scores have predicted less burnout in a large hospital system in Hong Kong, as well as in a study of those in the US working in palliative care.

In addition to describing its use in research, and how spiritual experience interacts with biology, this presentation will describe how this psychometrically validated set of 16 questions can be used as a clinical tool to improve patient care.

Return to “Recent and Current Presentations”

enhancing spiritual connection through poetry in a secular context

Enhancing Spiritual Connection through Poetry in a Secular Context. Lynn Underwood. University College London. Institute for Advanced Study, Senate House, June 29, 2012.


Poetry can open the mind to better grasp the complexity of the divine, the holy, and help make connections in down-to-earth ways, integrated into daily life.  The language of poetry and the use of metaphor and apparent paradox can expand our conceptual understanding.  The concreteness of poetry can also help ground this in the substance of our days.  This paper will give examples of specific poetry from Seamus Heaney, Billy Collins, Rainer Maria Rilke, R.S. Thomas, Jessica Powers and others, and point to specifically religious poetry from a variety of faith traditions, describing how they have been useful in the classroom for enriching capacity for sense of communication with the divine for those from specific faith traditions and those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.”  Poetry provides words that can open doorways without reducing the spiritual to a meaningless common denominator – leading instead to the depths and richness of religious traditions.

Poetry can help those of faith and those not comfortable in a religious tradition to enhance sense of connection with God and become increasingly aware of that connection in daily life. It can bridge traditions and beliefs and has been used effectively by the author of this paper in a variety of secular college classroom settings and in small group work.  Approaching poetry in a contemplative rather than analytic way facilitates this engagement, and journaling encourages direct encounter with the poems themselves in written conversation.  Structured group discussion of personal responses to the poems can also provide mutual illumination of contexts and invitation.

Return to “Recent and Current Presentations”

compassionate love publications by lynn underwood

The Science of Compassionate Love: Research, Theory, and Applications. Fehr. B. Sprecher, S, Underwood, LG, eds. Oxford England, Malden Mass: Wiley-Blackwell. 2009.

Altruism and Altruistic Love: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in Dialogue Post, SG, Underwood, LG, Schloss, JP, Hurlbut, WB, eds., Oxford University Press, 2002.


“Interviews with Trappist Monks as a Contribution to Research Methodology in the Investigation of Compassionate Love.” Underwood LG Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 35:3 (September, 2005), 285-302.

“Altruistic Love – Compassionate Love”. Underwood, L. In Harry T. Reis & Susan Sprecher (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Human Relationships. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. (2009)

“Chapter 1: Compassionate love: A framework for research” Underwood, Lynn G. in Fehr, Sprecher and Underwood The Science of Compassionate Love: Theory Research and Applications, Blackwell. Wiley- Blackwell. Malden Massachusetts, Oxford, England 2009.

“Giving of Self for the Good of the Other: Science Research on Compassionate Love and Spirituality” Underwood, Lynn G. in The Love that Does Justice, Edwards, Michael and Post Stephen (eds), Cleveland, Ohio 2008, p 133-138.

“Compassionate Love,” in Post, Stephen G. ed. 2004. Encyclopedia of Bioethics, 3rd edition. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 483-488.

“The Human Experience of Compassionate Love: Conceptual Mapping and Data from Selected Studies”, in Post, SG, Underwood, LG, Schloss, JP, Hurlbut, WB, eds. Altruism and Altruistic Love: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in Dialogue, 2002. New York City: Oxford University Press. 72-88.

“Concluding Summary and Future Research Needs on Altruism and Altruistic Love,” with Post, SG in ibid. 3-12, 379-386.