Readers, I’m privileged to introduce you to Karen Beattie, the author of Rock-Bottom Blessings—Discovering God’s Abundance When All Seems Lost. (I damaged my copy of the book in the very best way: dog-earing pages, underlining tons, constantly scrawling notes in the margin.) Here Karen joins us to talk with me a bit about joy. . . and how (and even if) it fits into life’s rock-bottom seasons.
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Welcome, Karen. Can you tell my readers a bit about yourself?
I’m a writer who lives in Chicago with my husband and 3-year-old foster daughter and a needy, geriatric cat. I write about faith, doubt, and, well, life. I don’t settle for easy answers. I write in order to try to understand, or at least have peace, about the difficult parts of life.
This month we’re talking about joy on my blog. What’s the first thing that comes to mind for you when you think of joy? Is it an image? A memory? An experience?
My 3-year-old foster daughter exudes joy. She has been through so much loss in her short little life, but still, she is joyful 90 percent of the time and her giggle is music to my ears. She is teaching me what it means to find joy in difficult circumstances. Seeing her leap and skip down the sidewalk with a huge smile on her face, to me, is the pure definition of joy. She just loves everything—the robins she sees on the sidewalk, the woodpecker we hear in the park, the moon. Oh, to have that child-like joy again!
Your book, Rock-Bottom Blessings, tackles such a critical question: What does it mean to live the “abundant life” when all seems lost? Why did you want to write this book?
In 2009, like thousands of Americans, I lost my job. That was devastating enough in itself. But it had ramifications far beyond the fact that I had to find a new job in the middle of a recession. My husband was in graduate school, without my income we had to put everything on hold, including an adoption. We were wondering if we’d ever become parents. And it brought up all of my doubts about whether or not God loved me…and if he was even there.
Author Parker Palmer said he became a writer because he was born baffled. I can relate. I was baffled by why all of these bad things were happening to me, and I wrote the book to sort through it all. I also wrote try to discover what I still believed about God, and if there was a God, what sort of relationship I had with him. Some of my old beliefs about God and my faith – such as what it means to be blessed – were not working any more. People throw the word “abundance” around, but what does it really mean to have abundance? In the process of writing the book, my idea of what it means to live an abundant life was turned on its head.
How do you think the idea of “joy” is related to living an abundant life?
I think living an abundant life is about finding deep and inner joy, which is more than finding just temporary happiness. But living an abundant life is also experiencing the depth and richness of all of life’s experiences, including the dark times. I used to believe that the verse in Scripture said, “I came that you might have abundant life.” . . . Well the scripture actually says, “I came that [you] might have LIFE, and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). We tend to skip over the “life” part and go right to the word “abundance.” But experiencing life in all of its richness includes the joy, grief, suffering, the boredom. I discovered that during those times when joy is absent and life seems dark—if we look closely enough, we will find treasures. The poet Rumi wrote, “Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure.” In my experience, that has been true.
Are there particular practices, habits, or experiences that you’ve found helpful in cultivating a greater sense of joy or a greater sense of living in God’s abundance?
Definitely. During the 3 or so years that we were going through a financial crisis, and I was having a crisis of faith, I decided to participate in an Ignatian retreat at my church. The Ignatian retreats are based on the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. The Jesuits go through this retreat when they become Jesuits. Typically it lasts a month, but lay people stretch out the retreat to 34 weeks instead of 34 days. So over the course of almost a year, I was praying through the spiritual exercises, and found it had a profound impact on my life.
The Daily Examen, which is a daily prayer where you go back through your day to try to see God in it, was particularly helpful in finding my way back to God. I think often we look for God in places where we think he’s supposed to work in our lives, and when we don’t find him working in the ways we expect, we think he’s gone – that he’s left the building. But in reality, we don’t see him because he may be working at the margins where we don’t often expect him to be. It’s not that he’s not there . . . but we’re just missing it because we don’t have the eyes to see.
Of the many things I underlined in your book, one was a conversation with Terry, a friend from your church. Terry talks about receiving life and circumstances as a gift, saying that mindset “lends itself to a posture of trust to the author of the gift.” He asks, “What if it’s all a gift? Then the impulse in response to those gifts is reverence and gratitude.”
So what “gifts” from God are you particularly thankful for right now? What are you learning to receive with gratitude?
Well, I’m thankful for our 3-year-old foster daughter, who we’ve had in our home since July 2012. She’s so joyful and fun, and she has enabled us to experience parenthood. My husband and I never thought we would have that experience. We are hoping to adopt her later this year. But I’m also grateful for all of the “rock-bottom blessings” that have come about because of our difficult experiences in the past several years.
What encouragement would you offer to someone who’s reading this right now who may feel she’s at rock-bottom. . . discouraged, hopeless, frustrated, pessimistic, doubtful, alone?
Oh, look for the treasures . . . and the resurrection. You may not feel it, or think it’s even possible, but resurrection will come in some way. Have hope. If you believe in God and the gospel story, this is the hope we have – that we participate with Christ in life, death, resurrection every day.
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Thank you, Karen, for your honest and profoundly encouraging words. Friends, I highly recommend Rock-Bottom Blessings which is a candid and thought-provoking spiritual memoir. You can also learn more about Karen on her blog, KarenBeattie.net.
If you want to explore more about praying the examen that Karen mentioned in this interview, click here (and then scroll down past the interview) to read some of my blog posts on this important spiritual practice. Or to read a blog post about Ignatian devotional reading, also part of his Spiritual Exercises, click here.