Spiritual director and author Becky Eldredge has a special term for “the sacred space within us where God resides.” She calls it “the inner chapel.” And as a practitioner of Ignatian spirituality who seeks God in all things, she prays over the highs and lows of her life in her own inner chapel: from lighter moments, such as learning to make her grandmother’s Crawfish Étouffée, to darker times, such as accompanying her grandfather through his battle with terminal brain cancer.
The inner chapel, however, is available to anyone who yearns to find comfort, guidance, and communion with God, so Becky has created a guidebook to help you find your own way there. It’s appropriately titled “The Inner Chapel: Embracing the Promises of God,” and we discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below).
When Becky was a junior at Louisiana State University 20-something years ago, she took part in a Busy Person’s Retreat, where she met Sister Ily Fernandez, CSJ. Sister Ily taught her how to pause in her daily life to make time for stillness and prayer.
The nun never used the words “inner chapel,” but as Becky nurtured her spiritual life year after year, she started unconsciously using the term herself. It wasn’t until her friend and fellow retreat leader Stephanie pointed it out to her that she began actively studying the history of a sacred interior space both in Scripture and in the writings of the saints.
Making time for stillness, Becky learned, is key. She explained, “What [being still] does to our body…is take all those heightened emotions and…adrenaline, and it starts calming it. So it does something to us physically. Then, it’s the gift of…coming into this silence and knowing it’s not an empty silence. Knowing that in our Christian tradition, we believe when we come to the silence that we’re coming to be with someone…It’s making daily time to be with the one who completely loves us unconditionally, who offers us mercy like we can’t even fathom. It’s the Christ, the one we belong to.”
Though many might think their lives are too busy to find moments of stillness, Becky has helped people discover they have more time than they realize. It can be the few minutes where you’re taking a bath, or waiting for your kids during baseball practice, or taking a walk during your lunch break. “It’s helping people name those times that could be pockets of prayer,” she said, “moments where instead of picking up my phone, I can pause and go to my inner chapel.”
Immersed in Ignatian spirituality both at school and at home growing up, that’s where Becky finds her faith life fit naturally. She said that it gave her an “understanding that God was not far off, that God was intimately involved in my life, personally right there within me…A big piece of Ignatian spirituality is noticing the way God works in all kinds of ways. Not only in the building of a church or in the sacraments and or in scripture, but also how God is using the entire world – people, creation, our work – to teach us about something.”
One of the great teaching tools given to us by St. Ignatius of Loyola is the Examen. Becky said, “The Examen is simply a review of our last day. It’s asking God to show us our day the way God saw it, not the way we actually want to see our day. Ask God to show you, number one – what are you thankful for, what are the gifts of your day? Number two – where have you experienced moments of consolation? …moments that we felt or experienced one of the fruits of the spirit, [such as] peace, love, joy, kindness, gentleness, generosity.
“The third thing we look for is where did we feel the opposite, which Ignatius names desolation? Instead of peace, where did we feel anxious? Instead of love, where did we run into some version of hate? Instead of joy, where were we feeling sadness, sorrow? Then, he says, after we looked at those three things with God, how do we live our next day differently? So that type of prayer grows an awareness of God working in all kinds of ways. We understand that when I experienced love when I was with this person, that’s an experience of God.”
Though God was initially hard to see after Becky’s beloved grandfather, whom she called Boppy, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, she was able to discern His presence as time passed.
She recalled, “It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, walking with him, but a great gift was witnessing God preparing him and readying him. Boppy and I had some pretty profound conversations in the wee hours of the night in the hospital… There comes this moment where everything is stripped away., where he knew death was coming and nothing physical or tangible could come with him. He came up out of complete poverty and had created his own business. And when it comes down to this, none of that actually matters. What matters is [his observation], ‘God is with me, and God has my loved ones when I leave.'”
One particular moment of joy stands out for Becky. After one surgery to remove a tumor, her grandfather began belting out Kris Kristofferson’s classic song of gratitude “Why Me, Lord?” in the hospital.
She said, “He was singing it, I was singing it, and it was this moment of him understanding that God is here. This is what the resurrection is…Even though [Boppy] still had a few months to live after that moment, it was literally like watching the new life in Christ, right in front of me. It was this new understanding of hope, of all the gifts of his life, all God had done for him, and it propelled him through those last moments with this spirit of generosity unlike I’ve ever witnessed. It was generosity of time, of letting people know how he felt about them…I got to ask him,
what do you want people to understand? He said, ‘To be giving. First, for us to learn to be gracious receivers, and then to be generous givers.”
Becky’s grandmother has been another generous giver in her life, both in terms of spirituality and practicality. For instance, Becky wanted to learn to make her grandmother’s Crawfish Étouffée, so she asked her for the recipe. But her grandmother is one of those women who automatically know the amount of ingredients to put in without measuring anything, so the recipe she gave Becky was a little too freeform to turn out edible.
So Becky decided to take another approach. She went over to her grandmother’s house to cook the Étouffée with her, and measure everything as they went along. This time it turned out great, and Becky even saw the experience as a metaphor for prayer.
She said, “When I think about how we often learn how to pray, it’s similar. We learn, there’s not this exact formula that we can give, spelled out like a recipe. There’s some foundational elements. But then the rest is like learning Cajun cooking. It’s an art to learning the ways God invites us into new seasons of prayer. And we need people to come alongside us sometimes and teach us a new way.”
Reading “The Inner Chapel” might be what you need to teach you a new way and give your prayer life a spiritual boost. Summarizing her hopes for people who read the book, Becky concluded, “My hopes would be they have a deeper understanding that they’re not alone, that God is always with them. And second would be that maybe one of the prayer exercises in it brings them a little deeper in their walk with Christ, that they understand a little bit more one of these promises that’s available to every one of us.”
(To listen to my full, two-part interview with Becky Eldredge, click on the podcast links):