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.
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.
As I stepped on the shovel, I couldn't help but smile.
On Sunday, I joined other members from Wisdom Tree Collective as we partnered with Blessed Earth Tennessee, to plant 12 trees at Jones Brummett Elementary School. Why?
Wisdom Tree Collective is a nonprofit that I helped co-found this year (after 3 years of planning!). My main branch of WTC is its School of Spiritual Direction and our very first cohort of students just started their third month of a 2-year online training program to become fulltime Spiritual Directors or bring a Spiritual Direction lens to their current callings.
I continue to be amazed by those who are going through the program (from around Middle TN; Joplin, MO; and Tacoma and Seattle, WA) and the Spiritual Directors who are mentoring them!
While it's a lot of work this first year, as I am developing both the content and rhythm, to say it's exceeding my expectations would be an understatement. Already I can tell you that I will whole-heartedly send people to each one of our current students for spiritual direction next year.
Back to the trees...
Part of Wisdom Tree Collective's commitment is to give back to the Earth by honoring our namesake and the ways we have experienced and continue to experience Divine Wisdom through trees. How have trees been a gift to you? Do you have any early childhood memories associated with trees? To read some of ours, go here.
For every person who participates in our training program, classes, or retreats, we will plant a tree in their name. This year we planted 12 trees—9 for each of the students in the spiritual direction program and 3 on behalf of the 3 founders, the 6 spiritual direction mentors, and the Triune Dance of Love in which we find ourselves!
And Heather Bennett of Blessed Earth Tennessee, found us the perfect location for our first tree-planting day—a brand new school in the Lebanon Special School District here in Wilson County, TN. She had no idea how much symbolism there was in planting trees around a new school's playground.
As we dug the holes and planted the Sycamores, Sweet Gum, Tulip Poplar, Red Maple, White Oaks, Live Oak, and Southern Magnolia, I felt a sense of awe. Both of us are in our first year. A new elementary school has been planted in our community and trees have now been planted by the new Wisdom Tree Collective's School of Spiritual Direction.
Looking up at the playground I smiled as I recalled all the times over the years I have talked about "the playground of God" or "the playground of the Holy Spirit" during classes and in spiritual direction. What a holy surprise! Clearly God was joining us in celebration on this crisp and sunny day!
Are you interested in joining me for the 2022 fall cohort? The Certificate in Spiritual Direction Application can be found here. And be on the lookout for both online and in-person retreats and classes offered by Wisdom Tree Collective next year!
By the way, if you're in the area, let me know if you drive by Jones Brummett Elementary and see our trees.
To learn more about Blessed Earth Tennessee, go here.
And for more information about Wisdom Tree Collective, go here.
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?
There are those poems and prayers that one returns to again and again. This is one of those for me. Patient Trust was written by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit biologist, philosopher, and paleontologist.
Paleontology is the study of ancient life and its changes through the fossil record. Fossils take a long time to form. The processes Chardin observed in nature, he also observed in the soul. Let's not forget that we, too, are part of nature! And the Earth has wisdom to share with us who are often hurried and harried.
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability--
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you.
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
-Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 1881-1955, French Jesuit, paleontologist, biologist,
and philosopher. Found in Hearts on Fire: Praying with Jesuits, p. 102-103.
Live with this poem-prayer for an extended amount of time. Notice if you are drawn to the same word or phrase or different ones. What is Patient Trust's impact on you? Do you detect any soul shifts (even if subtle)?
Cats should be the mascot of contemplation.
They have resting awareness down.
Some people think contemplation is laziness, but this is far from the truth. “Doing nothing so God can do everything” is hard work!
It takes an active, yet relaxed, vigilance to stay present rather than follow the mind into the past or future where regret and worry reign. But like a good Zen master, the cat can teach us.
"Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God. Every creature is a word of God," Meister Eckhart proclaimed in the late 13th century. I find this to be true as I spend time with my cat. Listening and watching with the ears and eyes of my soul, I discover she has a lot to teach me. Here's some advice she offers...
5 feline tips for contemplation (also known as "contemplative catnaps"):
Cats make contemplation look simple. While simple, it can be challenging. Surrender and serenity are daily exercises that may look different each day! A routine-loving cat still changes nap spots, so how do surrender and serenity look for you today?
Watch a cat for a while and allow the Spirit of God, which enlivens both you and the cat, to speak to you through this furry part of Creation.
A couple of weeks ago, I walked into the bedroom, closed the door, and collapsed on the floor in tears.
I was done in that moment. My inner storm clouds were too heavy and calling for release.
There's a lot going on in our world, isn't there? For many, there is a lot going on in their personal world as well.
Adding virtual school to my mix and constantly hearing, "Mom!" so many times that I've begun to hear it even when no one's calling, was my breaking point.
Conversations with others who are feeling the weight of the world and going through their own personal crises have revealed a "grin and bear it" attitude. Trying hard to ignore the tension and anxiety they continue on even as they feel the inner storm clouds growing more and more each day.
One thing I've learned from my indoor cat is that if she doesn't get her playtime in, she doesn't get her anxiety out which leads to other issues (i.e. not using the litterbox). She's got to release the tension of the day through leaping, running, and chasing.
Following her lead, I've tried to be mindful about moving anxiety out of my body, too—shaking, squeezing, twisting—through at-home Zumba, barre workouts, and yoga. This release is helpful but one thing is missing...cleansing.
Crying is physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually cleansing.
It needs to be added to our personal self-care practices. It already is an ancient spiritual practice for individuals and communities called lament (though you may hear of few congregations who practice it).
It's as natural for us to cry as clouds to rain. So why do we often "hold it in"?
When I offer Distance Reiki, in the majority of my sessions, I have tears come to my eyes at some point. As parts of a client's body release, I feel a rush of energy in my own body, causing the common "lump in my throat" followed by tears. What was released inside is ready to be released outside. Upon mentioning it to the client afterwards, they always shake their head, "yes." For they either began to cry during the session or felt the lump in the throat, knowing they need to give themselves permission for a good cleansing cry sooner than later.
I once had a client that wept and shook mightily during an in-person Reiki session (with eyes remaining closed but tears streaming). Afterwards they had no idea they were shaking so much but said they weren't surprised, for they came desiring long-held trauma to leave their body and it had.
So is it time for a good cleansing cry for you? Or will you continue to hold it in and put it off?
Imagine clouds getting heavier and heavier and refusing to let go and rain...can you feel those clouds in your body?
After a rainstorm, everything feels lighter.
That's what happened for me. An hour after light crying with intermittent gut-level sobbing, my head was clear, my body relaxed, I felt at peace. I opened the door, now ready to walk out and tend to whoever called, "Mom!" first.
"Look deep into nature, and then you
will understand everything better."
This may very well be one of the reasons Jesus prayed outside so much!
Whether on a mountain or on the side of one, in the wilderness, desert, or garden, Jesus found quiet places in creation to be alone with God the Father. He also encouraged people to observe nature to discover the deeper messages and invitations of God, instructing them to "notice how the lilies grow" or "look at the birds in the sky." (Matthew 6:25-34)
All of nature is speaking! Whether individual parts or the rhythms and cycles of creation, if we observe using all of our senses and spend some time reflecting, we can discover what nature knows.
With notebook or journal in hand, you might try the following prayer exercise and see what the Spirit of God has to say to you about your particular worries, stresses and concerns. What wisdom for your life is to be discovered in a single acorn or the falling leaves? Find out!
How would you describe your November and December?
Now shift your attention from your own experience of November and December to nature's experience.
Give thanks for God's gift of (and the wisdom found in) nature! If there's a way to bless and care for creation, do it!
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.