At risk of stating the obvious, I am a lover of words. Particularly the ones that shimmer and galvanize, the ones I repeat to myself because of the way they play on the tongue. Beyond that, I relish the power of pairing words with intentions. Maybe that’s why I’m such a fan of the New Year, when humanity collectively makes a conscious effort toward bettering itself. It is a time to use language to declare the type of people we desire to be and the type of world we long to inhabit.
This last Epiphany Sunday, my small congregation took part in receiving “star words.” Intended to echo the Holy Spirit leading the Magi to the Christ Child by way of a star, these words scrawled on the back of a five-pointed cut-out would invite the Spirit to lead our year. Each of us approached the altar both expectant and hesitant. What if we received a word we didn’t like? Could we put it back, choose another? For me, practitioner of many words, I was paralyzed by the thought of committing to just one that would define the next 365 days.
“The New Year is a time to use language to declare the type of people we desire to be and the type of world we long to inhabit.”
There was a palpable haste as we eagerly filed toward the wreath-laden altar, distinct from the methodical pace that characterizes the liturgy. We were hungry for a real, tactile hope—a portable kind that would fit in our pocket and buoy our days. When it was my turn at the altar, I closed my eyes and waved my hand around in a kind of mystical fashion, hoping my word would supernaturally find its way into my grasp. After settling on a star in the far corner of the table, I turned it over to reveal the word “perseverance.” At once satisfying and admittedly slightly foreboding, my star word stoked in me a curiosity toward all that my year would bring. It felt like an invitation: to meditate, to contemplate, to embolden my heart with the intention to stand firm.
“We were hungry for a real, tactile hope—a portable kind that would fit in our pocket and buoy our days.”
A great way to begin discerning your star word is to make time and space for contemplation. Thomas Keating’s method of centering prayer offers a powerful framework for using sacred words as symbols of intention. “The sacred word expresses our intention to be in God’s presence and to yield to the divine action,” said Keating. “[The word] should be chosen during a brief period of prayer asking the Holy Spirit to inspire us with one that is especially suitable to us.” In this process, we consent to the whimsy of the Spirit, wherever it may lead.
Once you’ve discerned your star word, write it on a piece of paper, post it where you will see it every day, and let it be your true north. Ask yourself, what is this word inviting me toward today? Rather than resigning to your word in a sense of finality, hold it lightly. Watch as it takes on new meaning throughout your year, much like how the Holy Spirit operates: always moving, shifting, refining.
“Ask yourself, what is this word inviting me toward today?”
Last year my word was “imagination.” A term that I initially understood to mean “exercising my creativity” ultimately proved much broader by year’s end. “Imagination” invited me to explore new constructs and ideologies that would expand my worldview. “Imagination” led me to pick up books I might have skimmed past before, plunging me into foreign perspectives and experiences. “Imagination” planted me in places marked by legacies of pain and implored me to envision what it must feel like on the other side of privilege. By one full turn of the sun, my journey with “imagination” ushered me into a state of becoming more enriched, curious, and empathetic.
“A good intention clothes itself with power,” says Ralph Waldo Emerson, and so this is my prayer for you: that you would let your star word anchor your year and embolden you to take a pilgrimage with the Holy Spirit. May your journey surprise, delight, and refine you along the way.