Driving down the road.
Putting wet laundry in the dryer.
Picking up a garden trowel.
The quiet moment before falling asleep.
A memory slips into your mind—their familiar whistle, particular look or smell, a phrase spoken…you remember and for a moment you re-member.
The Port William Membership…if you don’t know what I’m referring to, it’s time to be introduced to Wendell Berry’s fictional town in Kentucky, its landscape and people. How It Went: Thirteen More Stories of the Port William Membership is his latest (and hopefully not last) book. I bought it for myself for Christmas and quickly read it, but like each of his Port William novels and short stories, they stay with me long after.
Berry has a knack for describing the lived experience of the land and its people. Even if their particularities are not your particularities, you find yourself woven into their human experience.
Stories of small town & farm-life, a barber and his shop, being a child or a parent during a world at war in the 1940s…they pull you in and draw you like a threaded needle into the fabric of your own life.
With an ease that may surprise, you open your own memory box containing the people and places that have made you and many times, held you together.
This particular book centers on an old man, a writer, looking back (like Berry himself). “Memories of times and places he had forgotten came back to him, reached him at last as if they had been on their way for a long time. He realized how fully and permanently mere glances, touches, passing words, from all his life far back into childhood, had taken place in his heart…” (p. 76).
Andy Catlett remembers those no longer living and “yet by their absence his old companions have in a way come closer to him than they were when they were alive. They seem to involve themselves intimately in his life as he goes on living it” (p. 131).
He sounds a lot like Saint John Chrysostom in the 4th century: “Those whom we love and lose are no longer where they were before. They are now wherever we are.”
There are expressions of wit and wisdom that you have inherited.
There are people whose presence, whether still with you in body or not, continue to bring comfort, encouragement, or perhaps curiosity!
Pause for a moment:
Just now as I finished writing, my son opened a can of sparkling water and the sound of his pouring it over ice took me back to childhood. I’m in 4th grade, pouring a cold glass bottle of Pepsi over ice and running it out to my mom who is push-mowing the front yard. I knew she loved the frothy fizz and wanted her to enjoy it that hot day. Although little fizz was left by the time she stopped and knelt down to drink it, I remember her look of appreciation, her joy in being remembered.
To Get Started with Port William, look for these books:
Andy Catlett: Early Travels
A Place in Time: Twenty Stories of the Port William Membership
How It Went: Thirteen More Stories of the Port William Membership
Kasey Hitt is a co-founder and instructor for Wisdom Tree Collective. She’s been a spiritual director since 2003 and has been reading Wendell Berry novels and poetry for just as long.
You can also find this blog and others from the Membership of Wisdom Tree Collective here.
A week ago, Steve had an experience of God at the 4 day silent retreat at St. Meinrad Archabbey that he will never forget. Here's his story in his own words...
"It wasn't that I ended up or happened to be at the retreat, it was the retreat ended up happening to me!
I have a past that I hadn’t been able to deal with, in fact I let it define who I was. As a result I struggled with how God could love me. I read about His unconditional love in the Bible, it was preached from the pulpit, but I could never let it into my soul.
During four days of silence and total disconnect from daily life along with Spiritual Directors as God’s conduit, I surfaced deeper sins I had refused to look at and became aware that all these sins were not who I was, but something I did. Remove what I did and I am still the child of God He created.
In my silence focusing on listening to God I heard Him speak,
“Steve, I love you.”
And I melted. I cried. I felt lifted up.
My spiritual awakening could not have happened without the silent retreat and spiritual direction. It created the environment where I could actually hear God speak to me. I have been so blessed.
A couple of days later I awoke at 3:30 am giddy with life like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning."
The power of Silence and Spiritual Direction!
Many thanks to Sally Sharpe for joining me to provide spiritual direction at this silent retreat.
Note: Steve started to befriend Silence through Centering Prayer and a silent day retreat. You're welcome to join me online any Friday from 9am-10am CT for a Centering Prayer group. Beginners always welcome! Contact me for the Zoom link.
“I’ve always known God to be the 'God of Surprises'!” the twinkly-eyed 80-year-old woman said after I asked her to tell me about her relationship with God.
“Take you for instance,” she went on, “I woke up in the night a few weeks ago and heard God say, ‘Spiritual direction would be good for you,’ and I said, ‘Yes, Lord, I’m listening, who do you want me to see?’”
She paused then said, “And immediately your face came to mind! I remembered you and it didn’t even matter to me that you weren’t Catholic!”
I didn’t know her too well and hadn’t seen her since before the pandemic began. In fact, I was amazed she even remembered me at all!
“But then you told me you had no openings,” she said incredulously, “So I said, ‘Well, Lord, I’ll trust you anyway.”
Her eyes lit up as she said, “And now here you sit!”
Three days after I told her I had no openings, I wondered what spiritual director would be able to go see her as she no longer was able to drive. As I thought about who lived close to her, I realized that she lived near the place my daughter took fencing lessons, so I actually did have space in my monthly calendar when I could go see her!
We laughed and I said, “God of Surprises for sure!”
She told me that while it had been close to a decade since she’d seen a spiritual director, God had always brought the right ones to her at the right time. “Every single one I have connected with and they have become dear to me,” she reflected.
Then I asked her where she grew up (it's not a question I usually ask but I did that day).
She leaned forward (as to let me in on a secret), “A little town called, Pick-way, O-hi-o!”
“You grew up in Piqua, Ohio?!” I said laughing, “Not only do I know where that is, but that’s my hometown, too!”
“God of Surprises!” we both exclaimed.
We reminisced about Piqua, the streets we lived on and schools we attended. I told her that my parents still lived there and also had a tiny cottage up on Lake Loramie. “Do you know where that is?” I asked her.
“Of course! It’s on State Woot 66 and the reason I say "Woot" is because I had a coach for a teacher who had a speech impediment—”
I leaped forward in my chair, interrupting her excitedly, “You had Coach Heil!”
“What?!” she exclaimed, “You knew him, too?!”
“I did because he was my Health teacher AND my Drivers’ Ed instructor! Wow, you had him when he was a young pup in his 20s at Piqua Catholic and I had him when he was in his 60s at Piqua High School!”
“God of Surprises!” we gleefully shouted in unison, now both of us suspecting we were part of a Divine secret.
We sat in silence for a few moments just marveling, shaking our heads.
“I tell you, I would never have guessed in a million years that I would be sitting here in Nashville, Tennessee, talking to you about Piqua, Ohio, and Coach Heil!” I laughed.
“I know it, God of Surprises, I told you, it's always been true!" she responded, "I need to call my sister in Ohio because she is never going to believe this!”
Believe it or not, there were even more surprising revelations of connection that she shared with me that first session!
The hour came to a close and we hugged. I could tell I had already become dear to her and she had become dear to me. There was no doubt the Holy Spirit was the true Spiritual Director!
I crawled into my car and couldn't help but cry tears of gratitude all the way back to the fencing club, full of wonder and awe at the God of Surprises.
I Had a Blog I Was Going to Share...
I had a blog I was going to share then decided not to...yet.
As I read what I had written, my supervisor's wise words echoed in my head, "Sometimes a spiritual insight or experience is meant to nourish you for a while before you offer it to others. Given away too soon and it loses some of its potency for your own heart & soul."
So I decided to savor the experience and insight for now and share her words instead.
In this age of social media, "sharing" can become compulsive (those of us who teach have this tendency as well)!
Here's some encouragement to savor a moment or insight without sharing a photo or post...yet.
I couldn’t go to sleep.
Spending time in a crowded hospital with a dear friend who was dying left me restless and lying awake looking for God in the dark and finding nothing.
It was the proverbial last straw. Too much.
“What the hell?!...Does God even exist?!” I bitterly thought in the emptiness. The absurdity of being a spiritual director seemed to mock me in that moment.
Every image of God I ever held did nothing to comfort me and the absence of images and comfort left me in a place of nihilistic rage and deep sadness.
Even though I had read John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich by her hospital bed, recalling conversations we had enjoyed over the years about their (and our) experiences of love in the darkness, here I was struggling in my own dark night.
“What a waste of my life! What a charade!” I thought as I recalled my life of being devoted to God and tending to the spiritual life, both mine and others, only to stare into the void of meaninglessness (and not for the first time).
Furrowed brow, eyes squeezed shut, the rest of my body now as tense as my face, silently shouting—"Where is God in this chaos?” “Why even ask? Life is showing me there really is no God at all.”
After a while, somehow, something small slipped in through the tightness and whispered, “God IS Chaos.”
Before I could think, my brow and eyes started softening.
My body noticed the truth before my brain could think about refuting what had just been spoken to me in the dark.
Then an image appeared in my mind’s eye—Kali.
I couldn't remember much about her, only that she's the Hindu goddess of chaos and destruction leading to life. Images of her can be quite disturbing (especially for those of us Westerners who don't know the symbolism) and here she was showing up in the stillness of night! Later I would read that in Hinduism, she is the ultimate manifestation of Shakti, the primordial energy, the mother of all (watch this video for more). Kali’s dark skin stands for this chaotic, life-birthing energy.
"Hearing ‘God IS Chaos’ and remembering the Hindu goddess, Kali…there was something strangely settling in that, and I was able to fall asleep,” I later texted a friend, a nurse experiencing burnout in a crowded hospital (she went on to write a piece of prose for her doctoral class assignment based on our text thread).
The next morning, I walked outside in my pajamas. The stifling heat, sticky humidity, and earsplitting cicadas continued the conversation— I was surrounded by the sound and sensations of chaos.
I forced myself to sit in the discomfort.
From that place I wondered if I had written anything down from the Icon-Writing Retreat my dear friend and I had attended together a couple of months earlier.
I went inside, grabbed my journal, then returned to the front porch to find the dates of that weekend retreat.
In the first place, I had no time to go on that retreat. Life had been exhausting and the thought of painting anything in that state added to my overwhelm. In the second place, I wanted to spend time with my dear friend, knowing that stage 4 cancer was eventually going to rob us of time (by the way, Kali's name means both "darkness" and " force or fullness of time"). So I picked her up on a Friday morning in May and went.
There it was, May 13th-15th, along with a short entry for each day (the last one being, "I am so glad I went."). I was grateful that I had written down a few things, even though they had been forgotten in the rush of life’s challenges.
I recalled how my friend and I sat side-by-side looking at the blank wood that our icons would be painted on and while she felt excitement, I felt dread. How was I going to do this?!
The instructor told us to fill our brushes with paint and then said, “Relax, because the first stroke when it comes to painting an icon is called The Chaos Stroke!”
Immediately I softened and a hint of excitement even found its way inside my weary head.
The Chaos Stroke is named so because it represents the primordial energy at the beginning of Creation found in the first chapter of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible.
Our spontaneous swirls and waves echoed the Spirit (or Wind or Breath) of God, moving over the surface of the deep, dark waters. And like the Genesis account, step by step, day by day, things started appearing where before there was nothing but potential in the eye of the Beholder.
From the chaos within me, from the chaotic swirls on my wooden panel, emerged a rendering of Rublev’s Trinity from the 15th century!
I smiled sitting on the porch, in awe of the synchronicities…chaos, Kali, cicadas, a journal entry about the Chaos Stroke from an icon retreat attended with this friend whose impending death had ushered in another layer of chaos...
Nothing had changed. It still felt awful to know my friend was going to die (and she did, less than 24 hours later). And the things that were a mess in my life, were still a mess. Nothing had changed this, and yet…
Being open to “God Is Chaos” had strangely allowed comfort and brought the awareness that God was also “With Me in Chaos.” The latter recalls the message gifted us through the person of Jesus the Christ, who was called Emmanuel, God-with-us.
Light began shining in my darkness once more.
Holding the paradox of "God Is Chaos" and "God With Us in Chaos," I remembered the expression that emerged on the face of the center figure, the Christ, in my friend’s painting of the Holy Trinity—we laughed and called him the “Mischievous Jesus.” He knew something we did not...yet.
Even now, words fail to describe how, in darkness and in light, I keep being beckoned into the at-times-difficult, divine dance that Rublev painted years ago, his brush beginning with Chaos.
Sometimes we need reminders that it’s okay to be human.
Reading through a thrift store find, I was introduced to a story of a zookeeper who trained (and then untrained) an otter.
I was expecting a feel-good story.
And I was not disappointed as I read the beginning and middle with all of the magical moments of taming and training the female otter. How fun! Who wouldn't want a pet otter?!
But one unfortunate encounter with a chimpanzee undid all the training and showed the zookeeper that the otter needed to return to being the wild animal it had been...how sad! It was not the ending I (or the zookeeper) expected.
In It’s a Jungle Out There, Gary Richmond's insights from his experience still stay with me because they offer universal wisdom (remember, any authentic wisdom is universal, whether Christian, Buddhist, Taoist, agnostic, etc.). Here's what he learned that can speak to any of us, whether zookeepers or not:
Have you had an experience where you did all the right things only to have it backfire or lead to an unfortunate outcome?
This doesn’t mean you "didn’t have enough faith" or didn’t do things "right enough," or any of the variety of “shoulds” that may ring in your ears.
Sometimes things go wrong (no matter your best efforts). It’s part of being human.
Everyone has experienced a story with a sad ending. It’s part of being human.
Sometimes the sadness is so great, we want to demonize and dismiss the whole story, labeling it an utter failure. We tend to be too attached to our preferred outcomes (as Buddhists wisely point out). That, too, is human.
But, it is also okay to remember the happy middle and good beginning.
While things did not turn out as he had hoped (& efforted), Richmond was still able to celebrate the fond memories of the process of befriending the otter.
Is there a story of yours that by remembering the happy middle and good beginning may be good for your soul?
Let’s give ourselves permission to be human today, especially when things don’t go as planned (no matter our best efforts).
Howard Thurman: Life Goes On
During these turbulent times we must remind ourselves repeatedly that life goes on.
This we are apt to forget.
The wisdom of life transcends our wisdoms;
the purpose of life outlasts our purposes;
the process of life cushions our processes.
The mass attack of disillusion and despair,
distilled out of the collapse of hope,
has so invaded our thoughts that what we know to be true and valid seems unreal and ephemeral.
There seems to be little energy left for aught but futility.
This is the great deception.
By it whole peoples have gone down to oblivion
without the will to affirm the great and permanent strength of the clean and the commonplace.
Let us not be deceived.
It is just as important as ever to attend to the little graces
by which the dignity of our lives is maintained and sustained.
Birds still sing;
the stars continue to cast their gentle gleam over the desolation of the battlefields,
and the heart is still inspired by the kind word and the gracious deed.
There is no need to fear evil.
There is every need to understand what it does,
how it operates in the world,
what it draws upon to sustain itself.
We must not shrink from the knowledge of the evilness of evil.
Over and over we must know that the real target of evil is not destruction of the body,
the reduction to rubble of cities;
the real target of evil is to corrupt the spirit of man
and to give his soul the contagion of inner disintegration.
When this happens,
there is nothing left,
the very citadel of man is captured and laid waste.
Therefore the evil in the world around us must not be allowed to move from without to within.
This would be to be overcome by evil.
To drink in the beauty that is within reach,
to clothe one’s life with simple deeds of kindness,
to keep alive a sensitiveness to the movement of the spirit of God
in the quietness of the human heart and in the workings of the human mind--
this is as always the ultimate answer to the great deception.
Excerpted from Meditations of the Heart by Howard Thurman, published by Beacon Press, 1953.
The words of this spiritual mentor of Martin Luther King, Jr., can still offer us wisdom during times of rising anger and increasing hopelessness. We often reflect on the writing of Howard Thurman in Wisdom Tree Collective’s School of Spiritual Direction.
He was a civil rights leader, a theologian, author, academic, and pastor who was a mystic at heart, finding solace in nature—a favorite oak tree was a spiritual friend, a nonhuman elder & mentor. Thurman also co-founded the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, the first racially integrated, intercultural church in the United States, which also valued the creative arts as a way of sharing the Good News. He was familiar with suffering. Let his words speak to your soul today. Read more of his wisdom in his book Meditations of the Heart.
Eastertide is the festival season between Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday.
While Christmastide is 12 days, Eastertide is 50 days! I like celebrating the “tides” because it gives you more than one day to celebrate. And practically speaking, that is really helpful. Especially if you’re a pastor or someone who works on Sunday (or you’re recovering after 12 days of vertigo, as thankfully, I was this past Sunday).
Heart-wise, we need to recover “seasons of celebration.” We can be so quick to get to a holiday and so quick to leave it—going at such a dizzying speed, it can feel like a kind of vertigo of the heart!
I don’t know about you, but I want to celebrate the reality of resurrection for more than one day!
If you feel like you “missed Easter” or didn’t get to do what you wanted to this year, there’s still time! What would it be like for you to celebrate the reality of resurrection for 50 days? Not only the final triumph of life over death that Jesus Christ’s story announces, but all of the “little deaths” you’ve experienced…all of those times it felt like the future you desired was over, dead & buried…and yet new life came.
God at work in your story, the ways you have been raised from the dead…it’s worth celebrating for more than one day!
What a strange Holy Week! Episodes of vertigo and dizziness have lingered for ten days now.
The kind of vertigo I am experiencing (BPPV) often has no known cause, although it can be triggered by stress. I happened to be stretching my neck at the time. I also happen to be in a season of stress, marked by both positive & negative events.
In this uncomfortable and disorienting place I find myself in, I cannot help but think of that first Holy Week long ago and how that one week stretch must have been so disorienting for those early followers of Jesus! Heads left spinning, wondering what was going on...
From Palm Sunday to Good Friday and then to Easter…to go from what seemed overwhelmingly positive to overwhelmingly negative to overwhelmingly positive again…what a whiplash of a week! The human mind & body can only take so much (as I am being reminded).*
A swirl of activity and inactivity. A dizzying array of events. A murky clash of praise and blame.
Movement at warp-speed through the wisdom pattern of order, disorder, and reorder.
Currently in disorder, I am being forced to slow down, to wait and see. When I don't, here comes the lightheadedness, as my body offers a warning that I am not to interrupt the healing process, so stop and be still.
It feels like the in-between time of Holy Saturday.
When one is trying to grasp what has and is happening to cause such a state, when waves of strong feelings and sensations come and go, exhaustion sets in from the strain.
In such a place, trying harder eventually runs its course and one is invited to surrender. And remember.
It’s usually in looking back that I see the transformation or wisdom gained through a disorienting period of time. Sometimes there is no clarity about a lesson learned or gift given, just an ever-deepening invitation to trust in the healing, transforming presence and slow work of God.
The same was (& is) true of the followers of Jesus.
Holy Triduum blessings to you (even if it feels more like a disorienting rather than a blessed time).
*Allowing for help during overwhelm is important and is part of surrendering (letting go of the "I can do it on my own" mentality). I am grateful for access to healthcare, like a walk-in clinic and a physical therapist specializing in vestibular rehabilitation, a reminder that once well, to find a simple way to encourage such accessibility for others. And I am thankful for the grace & support of my supervisor, counselor, directees, friends and family members.
As I was sitting in silence with someone in spiritual direction, a rendering of St. Francis of Assisi by Daniel Ladinsky, came to mind. I reached over, found the little poem and read it. A smile grew on my directee's face and tears of gratitude began to flow. After ending the silence she said, "Kasey, how did you know I needed that old squirrel?!"
Maybe you need Saint Francis and the old squirrel, too!
I once spoke to my friend, an old squirrel, about the Sacraments--
he got so excited
and ran into a hollow in his tree and came
back holding some acorns, an owl feather,
and a ribbon he had found.
And I just smiled and said, "Yes, dear,
-St. Francis of Assisi,
rendering by Daniel Ladinsky,
Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West
Kasey is a scarf, ball and club juggling spiritual director just outside of Nashville, TN. Play helps her Type-A, Enneagram 1 personality relax, creating space for poetry and other words to emerge. She also likes playing with theological ideas like perichoresis, and all the ways we're invited into this Triune dance.