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. 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.
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)!
For some of us, Christmas is not experienced as "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year."
For all who find themselves in this place, my husband, Russ, and I have offered The Longest Night of the Year Service on or around the Winter Solstice. A friend suggested it to us and after the first gathering in a small, country church over a decade ago, we knew it was something we wanted to continue.
The service offers a safe space to acknowledge mixed feelings surrounding the holidays, to join together in lament and longing, and to simply step away from the rush of the season and breathe.
Usually Russ offers only instrumental music during the short, 30 minute service but last year we offered the service via Zoom and he created a video with his only song with lyrics, "Some of Us," on his album, The Longest Night.
Click on it below, listen and watch. Perhaps there's an image or lyric that connects with your own lament and longing, something that speaks to your soul.
As to this year, we are offering the service online once again knowing more people can participate this way. I invite you to join me and a handful of others from Wisdom Tree Collective and Friday Morning Centering Prayer as we allow instrumental music, art from local/regional artists, laments and longings from Scripture, and Creation's own rhythm to companion us in the dark.
Tuesday, December 21st
Email me for the Zoom link.
Spiritual practices, like meditation and even church-going, can become spiritual bypass—ways of bypassing reality both outside and inside of us, dissociating from wounds within and without, ignoring the healing work that needs to be done in our inner and outer world.
But spiritual practices can also be vehicles for transformation of both ourselves and our world.
How?—by giving us new ways of seeing and being (which is the whole point of authentic spiritual practice).
Let’s take a look at a few practices...
Conscious Breathing: With as little as 10 slow, complete exhales and 10 full, relaxed inhales, we can calm the fight, flight, freeze survival impulse, allowing us to move from a reactive, closed off, defensive place to a receptive, open, deeper place.
Centering Prayer: Through daily practice of 20 minutes of silent surrendering to God’s presence & action, we let go of our ego-drivenness and receive inner healing of compulsions and soul wounds. Not only does this bring personal freedom but it releases us from projecting our compulsions and wounds on others and passing them down to our children.
Lectio Divina: Spiritual reading allows a word or phrase in a small portion of inspired text, whether sacred Scriptures like the Psalms or a poem, to speak to us. Rather than bringing what we already know or studying it, we allow the text to study us! As we bring our story, our lives, to it, we humbly listen for the wisdom and guidance being offered (which may be encouragement to see a counselor or write a letter to your senator!).
Awareness Examen: Looking over our lives at the end of the day through the eyes of God helps us become aware of God’s life-giving presence and action (and the times throughout the day when we were unaware or resistant). The patterns of what is life-giving and life-draining help us discern who we are and what we are to offer this world.
Silent Retreats: Extended time in silence and solitude creates space for our souls to rest and play which opens us to better hear the “still, small voice” which may be drowned out by the external noise of daily life or the internal noise of comparing ourselves to others.
There are so many practices I could list here but the point isn’t the practice itself, it’s the “fruit.”
Seated meditation may not fit you. You may desire some kind of moving meditation, like dance or qigong. Or you may prefer to spend time in nature or doing art.
What practices have you found that cultivate love in you? What helps you have eyes to see and tend to the suffering both inside yourself and in others? Which ways of wisdom help you discern what is yours to offer this world (not out of compulsion but compassion)? A Spiritual Director can companion you on this journey of discovery of spiritual practices.
But remember, it’s not necessarily the practices, it’s the humans who are transformed by these practices, that this world needs. What do spiritual practices like Centering Prayer offer a hurting world?—YOU!
Being Holy Week, let's allow the art of German priest and artist, Sieger Köder (1925-2015), to lead us in meditation. "The Eucharist" or "Communion Table" is the subject for these two paintings that will receive our contemplative gaze.
Look closely at the first, depicting Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper found in Mark 14, Luke 22, and John 13.
Look: What or who catches your eye? Let your eyes rest there for a moment.
Notice: What stirs in you? Feelings, bodily sensations, thoughts/questions/curiosities...
Ask: "God, what are you saying to me through this painting?"
Listen: Pay attention to any words, images, memories, scriptures, songs, feelings, etc. that may arise. You might choose to journal.
Now look at the second painting below with those from the 1940's WWII-era with the risen Christ. A Jew, prostitute, beggar, clown, scholar, rich woman (maybe a widow), and wounded African guest worker with Nazi concentration camp pajamas have been invited (and have come!) to the table. You might repeat the above questions or focus in on a particular person at the table.
Look: Who catches your eye? Or, who do you most identify with or feel resistance towards?
Notice: What does this person stir in you? Feelings, bodily sensations, thoughts/curiosities...
Ask: "God, what are you showing or saying to me through this person?"
Listen: Pay attention to any words, images, memories, scriptures, songs, feelings, etc. that may arise. You might choose to journal.
Now let both paintings dance together. What do you notice? Is there a theme in what is being communicated to you through the paintings? Are you aware of any invitations?
Like parables, Sieger Köder's paintings contain many layers of meaning. There are endless ways to engage them, like entering one or both of the paintings through your imagination as an observer, one who joins Jesus at the table, or is the face of Christ for those present. What happens next?
Whatever happens next, may your time at the table speak to your soul and lead you further on the path of and toward Life.
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.