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.
By the end of December, I was exhausted. The joy of journeying with the first cohort in Wisdom Tree Collective's School of Spiritual Direction (more about that next month!), was overshadowed by a deep weariness. And I was dragging..
My repeated tries to get away for a few days of rest and relaxation?--thwarted! So, I took a vacation from social media and spent a little time listening to my life (and body).
What I discovered was over-commitment and way too high of self-imposed expectations for any mere mortal.
You may know this feeling well.
I did not simply need a week away from my everyday life, I needed to change the rhythm of my life every day!
That became (and is) my prayer this month: to return to the "unforced rhythms of grace" that Jesus speaks of in Matthew 11.
With that prayer has come the awareness of how I'm out-of-rhythm:
Such self-awareness can leave me feeling overwhelmed. Creating space or learning anew seems like another responsibility.
A spiritual practice that helps soften the hardness and let go of the heaviness in the moment is writing haiku, a 17 syllable, separated into 5/7/5, poem. Here are two of the six I wrote last week:
When too many words
Are swirling within your brain
Pour them out in ink
Come, laugh a little
Release the seriousness
Everyone needs play
These simple poems helped me focus my overwhelming feelings into three simple lines revealing my soul's wisdom for the present: Pause, write and play.
Others revealed practical ways of shifting energy and attention, letting go and opening up.
Space was being created in me!
This allowed me to see the gifts being offered, like a friend suggesting a children's book on breathing (scroll down to learn more).
Maybe haiku is something for you, too.
It reminds me of Jesus' invitation to become like a child (especially when struggling under the weight of being an adult)!
With darkness falling earlier, I have looked forward to the growing number of lights as I drive through my neighborhood. The display increases with each passing day!
Childlikeness, anticipation, playfulness, joy, and magic are part of the season.
So is pressure, overstimulation, exhaustion, loneliness, anger, and grief.
Some years it is more one than the other, isn’t it? Other times it is a mix.
The good news is that God is with us (& found) in both—moments that look & feel light and those that look & feel dark.
Said the Psalmist (139):
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
Our culture does a good job celebrating God in the light, but rarely guides us to discover God in the dark, especially during Christmastime. For some, the idea of God seeing us in the dark inspires more fear than comfort! However, the Psalmist is extolling the wonder of being seen by God, even when he cannot "see" God.
When all is dark around us, God is still there, within and without. Do you have the inner eyes to see (& receive comfort)? Perhaps it is time to let yourself befriend the darkness or rather let yourself be befriended in the dark.
It had not even been 24 hours since she got the news her cancer was back.
Whenever I have a cancellation, I contact those who are on my waiting list to see if anyone wants the spot.
In October, a person I had not seen for a long while got in touch with me saying she just had a feeling she needed to begin spiritual direction again. I had no openings but promised I would contact her when one became available.
A couple of weeks later, I happened to have a cancellation and she was able to arrange her schedule to meet with me later in the week. She had no idea when we set that appointment that she would be sharing news about the return of cancer.
Last week I wrote about friends who have terminal illnesses and wake up happy and grateful. But when the news is fresh, that’s probably not how you’re going to wake up.
Scared and angry is more like it.
During our session of Reiki and guided prayer, I asked her if she could let God be angry with her about the news she had just received.
“God doesn’t get angry,” she said.
“Well then you haven’t read the prophets,” I replied.
“Really…” she said with a mix of surprise and sarcasm.
“Yes, really, I imagine God damning this prognosis to hell. I want to yell: God, damn it!”
She smiled wryly. And then her imagination began to unfold and tears mixed with words flowed, as she let God into her anger.
Sometimes we wake up happy and grateful. Sometimes we wake up scared and angry. God can join us in both.
Both can be holy as we allow God into every part of our lives.
Even though we may know God is always present, we often live as though God is far off and we are on our own. Or we might think that God expects us to be hopeful and happy so will wait until we have a bit more gratitude before joining us.
This simply is not true.
The Creator who endowed us with the full-range of human emotions, expects us to express them. And every single one of them can be pathways to prayer and to the very heart of the One who made us.
Rather than running and hiding through self-sufficiency, self-loathing, or a smile, when the Divine Presence asks, “Where are you?” let’s be honest.
“Here I am!” we can say and then name where and how we really are—angry, sad, scared...
Let God in, for God knows it’s not good for any of us to be alone.
Or maybe both.
Whatever length, from 90 minutes to 4 days, I always offer these words at the beginning of a silent retreat: "Some of you have come here to rest, some to wrestle. You will probably end up doing both and both are holy."
Many people think the purpose of a retreat, especially a silent one, is to rest. And that's true...but sometimes what brings rest doesn't feel like it at first.
The pace of life can leave little time to slow down or stop for a while. A silent retreat offers one an opportunity to do just that...there's nothing one has to do. There is no food to prepare, no lawn or children to take care of, no work-related tasks that need to be done...ah freedom! Slow walks, naps, sitting by a pond, taking time while eating, these can be a welcome change of pace.
But the pace of life can also leave little time to tend to feelings of grief and anger. A silent retreat offers on an opportunity to do just that...there's plenty of space in your schedule to welcome what has not had time (or permission) to surface.
For those who have been in survival-mode from one day to the next, whatever the cause, a cleansing cry may bring the kind of rest most needed. A prayer walk or talking to a spiritual director about one's anger rather than continuing to hold it in may bring the freedom most desired. And where better to wrestle than a safe, quiet, and beautiful place of prayer?!
One retreatant pointed out how the word "rest" is found within the word "wrestle." Fascinating. We do not need to fear wrestling, for within it we find rest!
Is it time for you to come away to a quiet place by yourself to rest and wrestle?
I've got an opportunity for you! A couple of rooms have become available for October 28-31, at Saint Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, IN. Scholarships are available. Register here.
"Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace" is this silent retreat's theme. And peace may just begin with some wrestling!
I’ve grown weary of all the talk about the heart in contemplative prayer.
Sounds terrible, doesn’t it?!
After all, the heart is the focal point of contemplative prayer!
But after a while, my heart started getting angry, feeling the burden of such attention and expectation.
Nineteenth century Russian mystic Theophan the Recluse said, “To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all-seeing within you.”
Teachers of prayer and contemplation, like Theophan the Recluse, have emphasized the heart and taught various ways of guiding us to pray from it. I have learned and offered others various ways of integrating such prayer, especially through the imagination as we bring our attention to the heart.
But I did not realize how much modernity was still operating under the surface.
Contemplative prayer was such a welcome relief for me after prayer that emphasized the “head” with its words, whether thought or spoken. With the latter, once one had invited Jesus into or given Jesus their heart, the focus was on knowing the right beliefs and acting accordingly. All that was needed for prayer was found from the neck up (and the rest was not to be trusted!).
This disconnect was not unexpected. When modernity ushered in a time of dissecting in order to discover, the heart became associated with a particular organ in a particular location. Where is the heart? It’s in the chest, of course! It’s job is to pump blood (and woe to the person who trusts any feelings associated with it!).
The earliest Biblical people did not think of the heart (lev) in this way.
The “heart” of a person referred to the “seat of all of life.” When told to “love God with all of your heart,” this included one’s mind, soul, and strength. For the ancient people, the heart was the whole of a person—feelings, thinking, understanding, will, and wisdom. Since the heart was the center of one’s existence (physically, mentally, and emotionally), to love God with one’s heart was to allow God to be at the center of one’s whole self (body, mind, and soul).
What is at our center directs our life. Tapping into and resting in that center with God is the playground of contemplative prayer.
However, modernity broke up this inherent unity to study and evaluate the diversity of the parts and it elevated the mind above all else. Contemplative prayer with its emphasis on the heart, invited the mind to descend from it's place of self-sufficiency and recover humility. But, if modernity is still the framework, the draw is to elevate one part over the others, this time placing the heart on a pedestal rather than locating it within the whole.
During a time of meditation with a Buddhist, I was not guided to focus on my heart, but to discover any place of openness or peace within. Hearing her words offered me an unexpected ah-ha moment! I immediately was transported back to the Hebraic view of the heart. As I listened to the whole of my body and not just one part, I discovered the burden on my heart and tension in my chest began to dissipate. (Last week I mentioned this inner co-dependency with the heart.)
I chuckled as I noticed the openness was in my face, particularly my cheeks. Another time the openness was in my gut, still another behind my eyes.
All of these places were open to God but I was unable to see them for my inner eyes were focused on one place! So much wisdom just waiting to be discovered.
When God infuses all of oneself, all of oneself is a channel to experience God. The heart is found everywhere, not simply in one physical location.
Where am I best able to listen to the heart of God today? I notice an openness in my hands. Through my hands, the heart of God has something to say to the heart of me. Through my hands I listen and offer a prayer.
There are some poems & places where the images stay with you. When September arrives, Postscript, by Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, is one of those poems for me. Read or listen and watch below.
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you'll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
I remember being at a Nebraska rest stop during a wind storm on my way to Seattle from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, a cross-country move fraught with break-downs, both literal and metaphorical!
As I was getting out of the car, the wind caught my driver's side door and blew it wide open. In that moment, all the stress, frustration, and anger that I usually succeed in keeping under wraps stormed to the surface. Much to my surprise, I started raging into the wind as my hair whipped all around! For any witnesses, I am sure it was a sight to behold. I felt both powerful and powerless.
It’s a moment I will never forget.
And while I have no desire to return to that rest stop in Nebraska, I return to the story quite often!
There have been other times my heart has been caught off guard and blown open by unexpected beauty, love, and goodness.
Sometimes they have been ordinary moments, sometimes extraordinary—from receiving a tender touch from my spouse after a fight (and it relaxing my defenses) to experiencing an ecstatic vision of being swept up in the Wave of Love (and it changing everything).
Whether ordinary or extraordinary, surprises like these are heart-softening and heart-opening.
There are places I make a point to return to because they are the places of these heart-softening and heart-opening moments. I had not been expecting anything (or at least I thought I knew what to expect) and suddenly something unforeseen and unplanned happens to “catch the heart off guard and blow it open,” changing that time of year, that place, and me, forever.
I cannot help but encourage others to go and see (& experience) these places for themselves—from monasteries to places in nature--especially in September and October.
How about you?
What are your moments that have caught your heart off guard and blown it open?
Where would you suggest someone make time to go to during September or October?
“Wake up!” they shout. “Pay attention! Turn around!”
These are words of prophets. And I have heard from three of them this week alone.
With the shouting and weeping of Isaiah and Jeremiah, health care workers are sounding the alarm. Are we listening?
They have the “inside scoop” of “reality as it is” rather than what we would like reality to be.
COVID is not over.
Social issues of the day and people’s selfish lack of response to them fired up Old Testament prophets. But their audience was a “stiff-necked people,” not listening to those who God was speaking through.
These nurses and chaplain came to Spiritual Direction fired up about people’s lack of response to this social issue of our day. They are watching a preventable illness kill people of all ages while most seem to go on as though nothing is happening (or simply have decided to due to pandemic fatigue).
The fruit of “false prophets” (like a pastor in my town who is preaching against and even punishing parishioners for wearing masks or the government and local leaders playing politics) is fear, division, isolation, hate, and death. They may speak the “right words” even use religious-sounding language, but “you’ll know them by their fruit” taught Jesus.
The fruit of these health care prophets is lived-out compassion and the saving of lives.
A vaccinated chaplain holds the hands of unvaccinated patients on the COVID floor of the hospital, putting her own and her young family’s health at risk to offer comfort. A nurse recovering from her own break-through case of COVID feels like she’s at the breaking point as she continues to tend to so many patients. A neonatal nurse watches as her pediatric hospital begins to fill and warns that the most vulnerable are suffering due to a view of freedom divorced from the common good.
These health care workers are fired up with anger that shouts, “Something must change!” They are fired up…and they are exhausted.
“Last year we were everyone’s heroes,” one told me, “this year we are ignored and at times even hated. I don’t understand. We’re seeing so much death and no one is listening to us, no one seems to care about us. Any cards of encouragement sitting around are from last year.”
“I don’t know how long I can do this,” another said.
It is time to stop dissociating. The path of and toward Life can be hard (& long) sometimes. But as my good friend, Linda says, “We do not do things because they are easy, we do them because they are important.”
Listen to what the health care workers are saying is important. Here’s one right here in Tennessee.
Now if you are a health care or front-line worker, an adult or child surrounded by people who refuse to heed the prophetic voices of our time, but prefer to “listen to what their itching ears want to hear” (see II Timothy 4:3), I want to offer some observations from a Spiritual Direction session this week. With her permission, allow these insights from a Florida chaplain of a big hospital to speak to you. First, let's begin with some Lectio Divina.
35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are drowning?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?
After listening to the story read to her three times, the chaplain spent time with two phrases she was drawn to: “On that day” in verse 1 and “the cushion” in verse 38.
These details held precious wisdom for a way through this pandemic storm. Here is what she discovered:
This may be figurative for you as in, “There’s no going back to church as it was before the pandemic.” Or it may be literal, as in, "I'm not going back…period."
I have heard both. Pastors and parishioners come to spiritual direction wrestling with what the future looks like for their particular church and the Church as a whole.
Others come with the discovery that church attendance was part of a checklist they found relief from during the pandemic when it was no longer something they “had to do” because they couldn’t do it!
But things are beginning to open up. As more people receive vaccines and mask-mandates are lifted, some are feeling a growing pressure to figure out what they’re going to do when it comes to church (this includes pastors!).
Some tell me how much they miss being with their congregation and cannot wait to go back to in-person worship without the worry of virus spread. While these folks have regularly tuned-in to online worship, just thinking of returning to the building brings joy. It will be a type of homecoming to a family and place they long to see and be.
Yet this is not the sentiment of everyone.
Two months into the pandemic, a long-time church-goer said to me, “It’s astounding how little I miss church. That's definitely saying something to me.”
This person regularly comes to spiritual direction and regularly helps those in need, yet they have experienced a growing disconnect with their church over the past few years. The pandemic only heightened, or brought to the surface, what was covered by obligation and comparison. While those around them seemed to be enjoying and feeling nourished by the Sunday morning service, everything felt forced and inauthentic to them.
In spiritual direction they recalled continuously leaving spiritually starving and angry. They recounted every positive-thinking, heart-opening spiritual practice they have tried…and nothing changed. Their discontent and disgust just grew. The pandemic was in some ways a grace, offering a break from the inner turmoil of whether they should stay or leave.
Overly-simplistic truths like “Church is the people not the building” offer little help because church and church-going can be complicated depending on one’s personality, childhood, personal beliefs, and present experience of church-going and church-people. I know this, because I, too, have wrestled for decades, and continue to wrestle, with all that is intertwined with church/Church.
It’s been a long, liminal space for everyone. This threshold, or in-between time, can lead to deep questions or the acceptance of a clarity that has been clouded over by a sense of coerced duty and/or loyalty (whether the pressure comes from within or without).
Could leaving church actually be a sign of spiritual growth? It just may be.
My directee craves more than their congregation can offer. They want to go places theologically and spiritually their congregation is unwilling—perhaps unable—to go. Conversations have failed to lead to Shalom (peace and wholeness).
Even after many years, they may need to heed Jesus' call in Matthew 10, to “shake the dust from your feet” and leave. No need to demonize the pastor or congregation, it’s simply time to move on and continue one’s journey on and toward the path of Life. It’s not easy. There’s no one-size-fits-all way of leaving a place and people one had hoped would be life-giving.
It requires a lot of trust.
As my directee has wrestled with their discernment, I have never given them reasons to stay or leave or suggestions on how to stay or leave. I just listened. Ways of wisdom always arise as we release our stranglehold and wait for God's guidance (for the Holy Spirit is the true Spiritual Director, after all!).
So whether you are joyfully anticipating resurrection through returning to a beloved congregation or grieving the realization that you need to let something die for belovedness (including beloved community) to be born again, spiritual direction is a safe place during the in-between.
In spiritual direction, you will find permission to let your own inner wisdom be your guide. Allow the feelings of pressure and dread to speak. Listen to what your body has to say. Pay attention to the images your soul is offering. Become aware of patterns in the ways God has been at work in your own life story.
For God has been and always will be fully present to you and in you. The fullness of God's presence is equally with the person who worships in a church building (with 15 or 5000 people) as with the person who worships in ways that do not include a church building and its congregation.
To a group of young men, 13th century mystic, scholar, and Dominican priest, Meister Eckhart, said: "Whoever truly possesses God in the right way, possesses him in all places: on the street, in any company, as well as in a church or a remote place or in their cell…” (Walshe, 2008, Talks of Instruction, 6). He also once said,
Some people prefer solitude. They say their peace of mind depends on this.
May the wisdom of Meister Eckhart give us the boldness to listen to our own—and to stay and leave as the Spirit beckons.
Imagine you are being photographed and interviewed for Humans of New York. What story do you tell?
“We are the stories we tell about ourselves,” proclaims Rabbi Rami in his Guide to Forgiveness (p 65). If this is true (and our love of stories, as evidenced by the popularity of Humans of New York along with Netflix and novels, show it is), then it’s important that we know what stories we’re telling.
If the stories you share with others and the stories that live in you were turned into a movie, a series, a novel, or a HONY Facebook post, I’m curious what they would reveal as to who you are (at least in your own mind or who you want people to believe you are!). It’s worth consideration, so let’s ask some questions:
If you were to share 3 life-defining stories, what stories would you tell? When you start thinking through your stories, maybe you discover there are more you want to tell, so try 7-12 stories. Maybe you write down the titles or a brief synopsis to begin with, then take a look at them. Notice how your collection of stories define who you are and how you approach and move through life.
How many of your stories include tragedy and/or suffering? How many of those stories also include redemption and/or resurrection? Notice any elements of surprise or suspense.
Who are you in the stories you tell? What role do you play? Are you cast as the victim? savior? hero? rebel? fool? Is your soul happy with that role? We may not realize that we are playing a role someone else has written for us. Or, we might discover we are typecast in a particularly unfavorable role.
Thinking of stories of harm, hurt, anger, and resentment that continue to burden you…
Are there any stories that need to be edited or re-storied? Which ones are crying out for a rewrite?
Even as strong feelings exist around them…
Is it time to assign new meaning or step out of a role that no longer fits? As Rabbi Rami reminds us--feelings come and go, stories can last a lifetime. (p. 79). We do not have to wait until our feelings are all resolved before we move forward with our life. Sometimes feelings resolve as we move forward with more wisdom and creativity than before.
Your stories matter. Are you beginning to see how that is true?
The story that lives in you shapes who you believe yourself to be (as well as who you believe God and others to be). It also shapes the way you tell stories about yourself to others.
Says Gertrud Mueller Nelson, in Here All Dwell Free, “Know your story, or your story will live you.” If we don't know the story we are living, we can easily get caught up in or be entrapped by our feelings of resentment, bitterness, and anger. They can define us by becoming the soil out of which our story grows.
Misunderstanding, hurt, harm, suffering...they are all a part of life. Everyone’s story includes them. But not everyone allows them to be transformed.
Maybe it’s time to revisit your stories or to write down the names of people in those stories who have caused you harm. Then consider what God has done and is doing with and through those stories. You might be surprised.
A beautiful re-storying is found in the book of Genesis in the story of Joseph and his brothers (a powerful retelling is found in Stephen Mitchell’s book, Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness). After being sold into slavery by his own brothers due to jealousy, years later a famine forces them to seek food in Egypt, where Joseph, who was once a slave, has risen to power and is now in charge of the food supply. He recognizes them, though they don’t recognize him so he plans a creative way for the revelation to occur. His God’s-eye view of his own story allows the present story to unfold with compassion and creativity rather than revenge. Or maybe that is the best kind of revenge!
After the surprising reveal, Joseph invites his brothers into God’s larger story of redemption when he tells them, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20). He does not pretend the harm did not happen, he just transforms the harm.
Harm happens and usually people don’t mean to harm you (you’re just in the way of their happiness) but sometimes people do. Either way, you are not condemned to your story of suffering, a new story awaits. Will you join in the ongoing work of the Author of Life in transforming your story?
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.