Light on the Path: Guiding Symbols for Insight and Discernment: Meeting God through Dreams, Sacraments, Stories, Meditation, and Spiritual Practice

Light on the Path: Guiding Symbols for Insight and Discernment: Meeting God through Dreams, Sacraments, Stories, Meditation, and Spiritual Practice

by Daniel L. Prechtel

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Light on the Path: Guiding Symbols for Insight and Discernment: Meeting God through Dreams, Sacraments, Stories, Meditation, and Spiritual Practice by Daniel L. Prechtel

• Easy-to-understand model of spiritual discernment for individuals and groups • Introduces an array of spiritual practices • Connects powerful spiritual practices with psychological understanding and social insight • Study guide included Dan Prechtel contends that the Holy One wants to—and often does—speak to us in language of powerful symbols from the depths of our individual and collective being. Symbols that emerge from our particular situations and are deeply connected with our spiritual tradition provide light on the path of our spiritual journey to illuminate our situation and give insight into God’s desire for us personally and in our common life. The book helps individual readers, small groups, spiritual directors, and counselors pay closer attention to those symbols that emerge from the deep source of wisdom and creativity within and around us to serve as guides. Offering examples from his personal life as well as from professional experience as a spiritual guide, Prechtel explores a practical model of spiritual discernment and discusses how tools such as contemplative spiritual practices, exploring the wisdom of dream symbols, and participation in sacramental rituals all provide powerful symbols to guide the discernment process. He looks at varying contexts for discernment, from personal situations to global issues. There are questions for personal and group reflection throughout the book, along with additional examples of guided imagery meditations and further discussion on dream work at the end.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819232960
Publisher: Church Publishing Inc.
Publication date: 10/01/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
File size: 836 KB

Read an Excerpt

Light on the Path

Guiding Symbols for Insight and Discernment Meeting God through Dreams, Sacraments, Stories, Meditation & Spiritual Practice

By Daniel L. Prechtel

Church Publishing Incorporated

Copyright © 2016 Daniel L. Prechtel
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8192-3296-0


Symbols and Their Kin

Signs, Symbols, Sacraments, and Stories

If you drive a motor vehicle and come upon a traffic light, you must know what those colored lights mean and respond accordingly. Green means go; yellow means proceed with caution and be prepared to stop if necessary; and red means stop. Those traffic signals are signs with one specialized meaning. The meaning is direct and exclusive as far as the laws concerning operating a motor vehicle are concerned. To go against the meaning, especially of the red signal, breaks the law and risks legal consequences as well as places those in the vehicle — and any other person or vehicle at the intersection — in danger. A sign stands for a single thing. A stop sign means the approaching vehicle must come to a full stop. However, there are times when a sign is not just a sign. When an image shows up in a dream or a meditation, it may be a symbol.

Symbols differ from signs. Symbols offer multiple layers of possible meaning. For example, I occasionally dream that I work as an orderly in a hospital. An orderly provides personal care to patients, takes vital life signs, and transports patients to various locations for medical treatment. The appearance of the symbol "orderly" might have something to do with assisting those in medical need, being a link to their well-being. The dream says something about that part of me that wants to help or is concerned about a physical problem (someone else's or my own).

I have some personal history of working as an orderly in a general hospital in my early twenties, so being an orderly in my dream might touch upon my young adulthood when I was beginning to make a living in the world. Because I spent two years employed in hospital jobs (including as an orderly), performing alternative service as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, there might be a layer of meaning connected to what I consider to be a religious, moral, and sociopolitical issue.

Of course, the wordplay on orderly may point to a feeling that things are somewhat out of balance or seem chaotic and that a part of me wants to get my life in order. That particular interpretation often rings true for me. Sometimes I even laugh with recognition when I awaken from an "orderly dream."

Symbols are multifaceted images, words, sounds, or actions with many potential meanings that can range from the physical and personal, to interpersonal, social, political, national, archetypal, religious/spiritual, global, and even cosmic perspectives.

On a religious level, I might be seeking the Divine as an agent of care and healing in the midst of the pain and suffering of the world or the chaos of the universe. I want God to bring healing from suffering, order out of chaos. Perhaps an "orderly" archetype — of someone who brings order — exists in various ways in different cultures. I'm sure that you can come up with additional meanings for the symbol "orderly" based on your own frame of reference and personal history.

Symbols are multifaceted images, words, sounds, or actions with many potential meanings that can range from the physical and personal, to interpersonal, social, political, national, archetypal, religious/spiritual, global, and even cosmic perspectives. Where signs have a sense of social consensus about them so that a sign has one meaning, symbols may be interpreted in many ways without consensus that one meaning is the only right or authorized interpretation.

Archetypal psychologist James Hillman writes about going beyond interpretation in the interaction with powerful symbols (he calls them "images"):

There is an invisible connection within any image that is its soul. If, as Jung says, "image is psyche," then why not go on to say, "images are souls," and our job is to meet them on that soul level. I have spoken of this elsewhere as befriending, and elsewhere again I have spoken of images as animals. Now I am carrying these feelings further to show operationally how we can meet the soul in the image and understand it. We can actively imagine it through word play which is also a way of talking with the image and letting it talk. We watch its behavior — how the image behaves within itself. And we watch its ecology — how it interconnects, by analogies, in the fields of my life. This is indeed different than interpretation. No friend or animal wants to be interpreted, even though it may cry for understanding. We might even call the unfathomable depth in the image, love, or at least say we cannot get to the soul of the image without love for the image.

The Cross

Certainly in the Christian faith, the cross of Christ provides the most universally recognized symbol. While sometimes bare and plain, at other times the cross appears with flourishes, such as in the design of a Celtic cross. Sometimes the cross includes the figure of the risen Christ clothed in priestly vestments or crowned and adorned in royal majesty. Sometimes it bears the crucified body of Christ. Innumerable poems, hymns, meditations, and theological treatises focus on the cross. The symbol of the cross offers a source of profound devotion, inspiration, humility, compassion, forgiveness, and mystery. For some people, however, the cross can be the cause of painful confusion or outright abuse. A long and terrible history of Jewish persecution and anti-Semitism due to falsely or ignorantly condemning a whole people as "Christ killers" provides one example of such abuse.

In my spiritual direction practice, I sometimes sit with people as they struggle to find an adequate personal understanding of the meaning of the cross and Jesus's suffering and death. Various atonement theories have been offered over the span of Christian history, but none of them seems to fully comprehend the meaning of the cross. The "satisfaction" or "substitutionary atonement" theory developed by Anselm in the eleventh century is particularly subject to criticism for the way it portrays God the Father as demanding a sacrifice that is sufficient to redeem humans from their sinfulness. In this theory, God sends Jesus the Son of God as the sacrifice that satisfies that demand. Many people in our era may find such an image of "father" repellent or even monstrous, although it might not have been viewed that way in earlier centuries.

Other atonement theories emphasize other possible meanings. Jesus's faithfulness to God and finding the right way to live even in the face of the threat of death can be seen as the "moral exemplar" for our own struggles in living moral, purposeful, faithful lives that are compassionate and self-giving reflections of a loving God. Or we might view Jesus's crucifixion as his triumph over all the powers of evil, breaking the hold of evil and death over humanity (Christus Victor).

"Coming to the cross" can provide a profound devotional practice. For some it is a ritual practice at a special time of penitence, such as the veneration of the cross on Good Friday. Others may use the imagination in prayer with a contrite heart. One of my most powerful experiences as a spiritual director was as a companion for several years to a pastor in an Anabaptist tradition. At the end of each session he asked me if I would accompany him "to the foot of the cross," and then, as I sat with him in humility, he poured out his heart and soul before Jesus there on the cross of his imagination. It was one of the most beautiful and moving spiritual practices I have participated in.

Language and imagery about the nature of God are highly symbolic and metaphoric. We never fully capture God in conceptual terms; the Divine will always be beyond the language we use. However, symbolic terms help us understand the role of God in our lives and in human history. Many Christians use the symbolic language of the Trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit point to the communal nature of God and how God acts and reveals aspects of God's self in human history and the cosmos. This language runs the danger of becoming encrusted and rigid over time, or of being experienced as an oppressive tool of patriarchy if the understanding of God becomes limited to male gendered attributes. "Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit" and other ways of naming the Trinity help us break away from the gender-restricted language in our perception of God. Many other metaphors expand upon our understanding of God — often drawn from poetic images in Holy Scripture — and show up in prayer, theology, and liturgy. Metaphors of rock, mother hen, protective eagle, judge, healer, living water, good shepherd, and Wisdom are just a few symbols used to expand our images of the Divine and describe aspects of our relationship to God. What language and symbols we use about God reflect the way we relate to the Divine and affects whether we wish to turn to God for discernment. This is crucial, because if I am relating to a judgmental and potentially wrathful God, I may not want to seek "God's will" for me. I probably just want to hide and keep out of God's sight for fear that I will provoke disappointment and anger. If my metaphoric language for the Divine expresses a positive and loving relationship, I am much more likely to seek what God desires for me.

What has been your own experience of rituals and symbols? Do you recall any situations when a ritual or symbol powerfully affected you? If so, what occurred?

Have you had any experience of baptism or Eucharist or other sacramental rite that produced a profound change in you? If you are not Christian, what religious or spiritual rituals are important for you?


The Book of Common Prayer describes sacraments as "outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace." So a sacrament is a special kind of sign, a ritual activity with an external, visible action that we see and in which we participate, but that also carries multiple symbolic meanings. A sacrament, then, is an effective representation of — and a vehicle for — God's favor (grace) acting upon us. Many Christian worship traditions recognize two sacraments that were commanded by Jesus in Scripture: holy baptism and holy Eucharist (Mass, communion of the Lord's Supper). Some branches of the Christian church recognize and celebrate additional sacramental rites: holy matrimony, reconciliation of a penitent (confession and absolution), holy unction (healing), confirmation, and ordination. Any ritual provides a process for change. Religious rites focus on intentionally bringing people into the presence of the Divine with prayer and holy symbols, and we are affected by that encounter. Sacraments use powerful symbols embedded in divinely graced transformative rituals, intended to move people from one state of grace to another. For example, with holy baptism, in which a person is ritually sprinkled or fully immersed in water, grace is conveyed that has multiple powerful and transformative meanings:

* the purifying effect of the ritual washing away of sin

* the participation in Christ's death and resurrection, dying to an old self and taking on the new self in Christ

* the initiation of the newly baptized into the body of Christ the church, sometimes with a new name

* the receiving of the Holy Spirit and being marked as Christ's own forever, sometimes signified by applying chrism.

In truth, the reservoir of symbolic meaning in these primary sacraments of baptism and holy Eucharist runs so deep that we may never be able to fully comprehend the vastness of God's love for us shown in these unitive rites. There will always be something more that the rites can tell us about divine love, just as there is always something more to the holy mystery we call God.


Within the sacraments, stories provide powerful symbolic images and actions that convey various meanings and interpretations. The sacrament of holy Eucharist, for example, contains a retelling of the story of Jesus's last supper with his disciples and his command for them to receive the bread as his body and the wine as his blood whenever they gather in remembrance. This sacred story is often cast within a broader narrative of the history of God's saving actions drawn from Jewish scripture as well as Christian Gospels and Epistles.

In many Christian liturgical traditions, remembrance is not just of something that happened once upon a time, it also actively links the past sacred story with our present situation, with Christ present with us now in our ritual participation in the breaking of the bread. Bread and wine become powerful sacramental symbols of Christ's Presence, and in eating the sanctified bread and drinking the holy wine there is a level of interpretation in which we are renewed as the holy people of God and become Christ-bearers in the world.

Other sources of stories and symbols prove useful as we reflect upon meaning, wisdom, and direction. Dreams contain stories — or fragments of stories — that include symbols that become objects of interpretation, adding additional levels of possible meaning. Guided-imagery meditation provides a story that elicits symbols and actions. Reading Scripture may entail imaginatively engaging sacred stories. And I (as well as you) bring my own unique story, my life narrative.

When I go to see my spiritual director, I often tell stories about what is going on in my life — situations that challenge, fascinate, or frustrate, stories that feel like a special gift to me, bore me, or that call forth some other feeling or desire. Often I try to understand these parts of my story more deeply. We look together at the narratives and the symbols within the stories, exploring their possible meanings and the spiritual invitations and directions God may have for me in my unfolding life.

What happened to you recently that seemed sacred or holy in some way? What does this say about the presence of the Divine in your life?

I provide this discussion about signs, symbols, sacraments, and stories to help us understand the power symbols offer. Symbols give rise to thought and feeling. They elicit reflection on meaning and interpretations on multiple levels. In this book we explore how symbols emerge and guide us in deepening our spiritual lives and in discerning our most authentic direction amid the multiple forces that call for our attention and the choices and possibilities on our life journey. Symbols that deeply connect us with our spiritual tradition and our own particular life circumstances provide a light on the path.

Guiding Symbols and Divine Communication

Wisdom lies deep within us. Its source is the Holy One who resides within the core of our being as the indwelling Presence. We are each a tabernacle for the Presence, though we are frequently dulled to this incredible gift through our attachments, the tugs of our little sins, our ignorance, and our self-absorption. And yet, from our depths, the Divine beckons us through the language of symbols to attend to its guidance, as this Presence desires that which is truly best for us and for our fullest participation in the unfolding unity, destiny, and joyful fulfillment of all things in God.

In the Christian faith, we speak of God the Holy Spirit who dwells within us as our advocate, counselor, and guide, and who gives us gifts that we exercise for the benefit of all. We remember in the final chapters of the Gospel of John Jesus's assurance to his disciples that he brings them into the abiding unity of the Father with the Son, and that the Holy Spirit will come to lead them into fuller truth (see John 14–17). The second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon 120 men and women gathered in an upper room in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. Peter grounds this experience of the coming of the Spirit in the foretelling of the prophet Joel:

In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.

Acts 2:17–18; Joel 2:28–32


Excerpted from Light on the Path by Daniel L. Prechtel. Copyright © 2016 Daniel L. Prechtel. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: Symbols and Their Kin,
Chapter 2: Spiritual Guidance and Discernment,
Chapter 3: Practices for Inviting the Emergence of Guiding Symbols,
Chapter 4: Contexts for Discernment and Guiding Symbols,
Chapter 5: Participating in God's Dream,
Additional Guided Meditations and Dream Notes,

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