Finding My Light in the Dark
Updated: Dec 21, 2020
My highest calling is to know
and to experience God
in ever-deepening ways
and to help others do the same.
God has always been the center of my life. Even during long periods of feeling abandoned by Him, I have known that He is the source, the reason, and the purpose of my life. Throughout my life, He has worked through me, preparing me to do His holy work.
At Home in my Inner World
As a child, I spent long hours by myself – drawing, painting, reading – all the while contemplating that which lies beneath the surface of this “human experience.” I had an ongoing curiosity about our inner world and about who God is. I felt deeply at home within.
This is a double-layered stained glass window created by my brother, Jeff Smith (www.archstglass.com), as a tribute to my tendency to see past the surface of things as a child. Within the outer panel of clear and textured glass are items from my childhood: a teddy bear, building blocks, crayons, and a fish bowl. Beyond that, in the underlying panel of glass, lies a beautiful field of color and light that brings the outer panel to life.
Checking Out my Outer World
When I was 12, I decided that I needed to become more involved in my outer world – make more friends, be more outgoing, not be such a homebody. I hung out with my classmates more and went to slumber parties and cotillions and such, but I was always hugely happy to get back home.
I also began to learn a lot more about God from an outer perspective. I completed catechism in the Presbyterian Church (“Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever” – I loved that), followed by confirmation in the Episcopal Church at age 13.
Lost Within and Without
Two weeks before entering the 9th grade, I learned that my parents were separating, and my mom, younger brother and I were moving to Dallas within the week. As I found my way to class on the first day in my new school, my previous sense of home – both inner and outer – began to fall away.
By the time I was a junior in high school, even though my mom and dad reunited and we had moved back to Pine Bluff, I no longer felt at home anywhere. I was experiencing a heartbreaking separation from God, from my family, and from myself.
The Search is On
During my junior and senior years in high school, I tried desperately to find some sense of home in my outer world – something that might reflect my previous sense of home. I read books on the Christian faith and spirituality. I found a box of my mom’s books on world religions, and I was fascinated by the perennial truths I found in their pages.
I tried to convey a sense of my spiritual home in paintings, such as this one, entitled "Trinity: Within and Without":
And the piece below, named "Essence Embodied," was my very abstract response to an 11th grade art class assignment to do a self-portrait:
I didn’t have the words to explain to my teacher and classmates why I had painted myself like this, but years later, I found those words in a poem by Robert Browning:
"There is an inmost center in us all,
where truth abides in fullness; and around,
wall upon wall, the gross flesh hems it in,
this perfect, clear perception---which is truth.
A baffling and perverting carnal mesh
binds it, and makes all error: and to Know,
rather consists in opening out a way
whence the imprisoned splendor may escape,
than in effecting entry for a light
supposed to be without."
In college, I continued to search for a connection between my inner and outer worlds. I was delighted to find rich clues in my liberal arts classes – from Western Philosophy (“A person is neither a thing nor a process but an opening through which the Absolute can manifest,” -Martin Heidegger) to American Literature:
In the greatest confusion,
there is still an open channel to the soul.
It may be difficult to find
because by midlife it is overgrown,
and some of the wildest thickets that surround it
grow out of what we describe as our education.
But the channel is always there,
and it is our business to keep it open,
to have access to the deepest part of ourselves. – Saul Bellow
My drawings and paintings also reflected my search. As an avid swimmer, I used the image of swimmers breaking through the surface of water to represent the movement of one’s everyday awareness to a more expanded spiritual awareness:
After graduating from college, I landed my first big job with Neiman-Marcus in Dallas as head illustrator for their newspaper and magazine ads across the country. It soon occurred to me that my work with Neiman’s did not restrict me to living in Dallas, so I moved to a little cabin in the mountains of Colorado. From my studio, with its inspiring view of the Continental Divide, I continued to produce haute-couture fashion illustrations:
The Search Deepens
While in Colorado, I began a seven-year intensive training in the Ageless Wisdom Teachings, as developed by Lucille Cedercrans. My teacher was Greg Tzinberg, one of her close students and a devout Tibetan Buddhist, providing me with a firm grounding in the mystical traditions and practices of both Christianity and Buddhism. I came to life with these teachings and was thrilled to have a remarkable teacher and other like-minded students with whom to interact. If not Home yet, I was at least beginning to build a bridge between my inner and outer worlds.
I also began to explore the area’s rich Native American traditions and spirituality, especially that of the Hopis. I was struck by the way in which they cultivated a deep awareness of the sacred within their everyday lives. I had the opportunity to directly experience the often seamless integration between their outer physical and their inner spiritual worlds.
I was invited to lead an ongoing workshop in Sedona, Arizona, on Native American spirituality. It involved tours to the places considered most sacred by the Natives, where I taught such things as the cosmology represented by their Medicine Wheel and meditation for experiencing the subtle earth energies that the Native Americans knew so well:
My Search Becomes My Calling
In 1992, after many years of spiritual study and practice, and still seeking answers, I returned to school and earned a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology.
I studied the Zen Buddhist approach to death with Roshi Joan Halifax, with whom I explored spiritual, contemplative and psychological issues surrounding dying and death. I also worked with Dr. Jeanne Achterberg and Dr. Larry Dossey to become certified as a Body/Mind Wellness Counselor.
During the final year of my Master’s program, I began my training as a counselor at the Institute for Personal and Professional Development in Irving, Texas, as well as at the Gestalt Institute of North Texas. In 1993, I collaborated with Dr. Gail Thomas and Dr. Thomas Moore to create and launch the first national “Searching for the Soul in Business” conference.
As part of my Master’s thesis, I wrote a book, Into the Heart of the Matter: A Process for Inner Awakening, which I used as the text for workshops that I began teaching. This course gave students the means to develop a deeper connection with themselves and with God. My premise was that the more fully we can know ourselves, the more fully and intimately we can connect with God. I was teaching what I most yearned to know.
Through these workshops, I built a successful private practice in psycho-spiritual counseling, under the supervision of Dr. Bill DeFoore. I was trained as a hospice counselor and volunteered my time visiting with the terminally ill through Vitas Healthcare. Over the next four years, this experience provided me with the opportunity and privilege to serve as a kind of “midwife to the soul” as patients and their families grappled with their impending deaths.
I noticed that, as people move closer to death, there seems to be a subtly powerful, natural process of transformation unfolding – a shift from the depths of despair and fear to expanding meaning and spiritual awareness. They often become imbued with a new sense of hope, one that deeply enriches the quality of their remaining lives – not a hope based on any exterior circumstance or expectation; rather, a hope that emerges from their deepening, expanding sense of their own spiritual nature – a shift in perspective that allows them to view their mortality within the context of their immortality.
The Call Deepens
Having witnessed this profound transformation at the end of life, my intrigue turned to exploring ways in which such a transformation could be encouraged earlier in life. I noticed that other crises, such as the diagnosis of a serious illness or the death of a loved one, provided rich opportunities for the deepening of one’s spirituality.
So in 2000, I returned to school to earn a PhD in Psycho-oncology, whereby I could research and develop a model of emotional and spiritual care for people dealing with grief and life-threatening illness. I studied near-death experience research under the tutelage of Dr. Kenneth Ring; psycho-spiritual care of the dying with Dr. Kathleen Singh; and spiritual direction with Rev. Dr. Ron DelBene.
I wrote the book Healing Pathways: Finding Inner Strength in Times of Crisis to provide people with the most effective tools for tapping their powerful inner healing resources as they make their profound journeys through illness and grief. And to make this level of care more convenient for patients and their loved ones to access – anywhere and anytime they needed, I created a prototype for Luminas: an online virtual retreat community.
In 2004, I completed my dissertation and earned my Ph.D. Exhausted but eager to explore how my academic discoveries could apply within “the real world,” I became a chaplain resident at Baylor University Medical Center. This year-long experience was intense, invaluable, and I was drained.
The Call Expands
In 2005, in His perfect timing, God blessed me with the love of my life. Chris and I married later that year at HPUMC. As word trickled out that I was a PhD psychologist who specializes in grief and end-of-life counseling, I was asked to facilitate grief groups at the church and invited to present at Sunday school classes. I began receiving client referrals and my private practice sprung back to life. I was delighted and felt as though I were coming back to life as well.
I pray each day that God “help me help others” and I seek to be a clear and open channel for His Holy Spirit into and through me.
I still paint whenever I can, and my art continues to explore the celestial dance between our earthly existence and that of our unseen transcendent realms:
Transcendence, oil, 36”x36” Of Sea and Sky, oil, 36”x36”
I have learned so much during my lifelong search, including: (1) asking for and opening to God’s guidance, however and whenever it may come, (2) responding to whatever emerges, and (3) being grateful for the outcome, regardless of whether it’s what I expected or thought I wanted. God is my loving guide and I will follow wherever He leads me.
God has shaped me. He allowed me to lose myself, He compelled me to let go of myself and surrender, and He launched me into the depths of His Holiness. It is from this place that I continue seeking to come ever more fully to life, to use the gifts and abilities He has given me to do His work, and to glorify His name.