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.
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.
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
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.
I’m tired, so I’m giving myself permission to not write much this week. What can you give yourself permission to not do this week?
Instead, I'm going to let another voice speak by offering 2 poems from a book I’m revisiting called I Heard God Laughing. Reading it is like water to my weary soul. I hope you enjoy these two renderings of the Persian poet, Hafiz, by Daniel Ladinsky.
Pulling Out the Chair
Pulling out the chair
Beneath your mind
And watching you fall upon God--
What else is there
For Hafiz to do
That is any fun in this world!
Tripping Over Joy
What is the difference
Between your experience of Existence
And that of a saint?
The saint knows
That the spiritual path
Is a sublime chess game with God
And that the Beloved
Has just made such a Fantastic Move
That the saint is now continually
Tripping over Joy
And bursting out in Laughter
And saying, “I Surrender!”
Whereas, my dear,
I am afraid you still think
You have a thousand serious moves.
Two people in my life are facing a terminal illness. And here’s what else they have in common: gratitude.
Every time I talk to them, whether a simple conversation or in spiritual direction, I am amazed at the depth of their gratefulness.
Their faces light up.
It is like their diagnoses gave them new eyes to see life. And they are overwhelmed by the beauty right in front of them. Even more so, they are overwhelmed by the peace of God inside of them. The windows of their souls reflect it in such delightful ways.
“Every day I wake up so happy!” one exclaimed to me (without a single relationship or situation changing in their life).
How is this possible?
Much of it is pure gift. Grace.
And some of it, I am sure, is because both have done inner work in the years leading up to this moment.
They learned how to listen deeply to God and how to listen deeply to others. They entered into meditation and mindfulness. They learned to play and be playful. They sought out spiritual direction and a precious few others to accompany them along their inner journey.
Now their outer journey reflects what they cultivated within. Awe. Humor. Peace. Kindness. Joy. (Just to name a few)
I am honored to be a witness. They are teaching me a lot.
One of their gifts is reflected in the Sufi poet, Rumi's words, “I saw grief drinking a cup of sorrow and said to it, ‘Tastes sweet does it not?’ Grief confessed, ‘You’ve caught me and ruined my business. How can I sell sorrow when you know it’s a blessing?’”
If you have no idea how sorrow can be a blessing and if you do not wake up happy, maybe it is time for an inner journey of your own. There is so much to be grateful for in this life.
Choices can be difficult.
Wanting to make the perfect one, I can struggle with “buyer’s remorse.” It can be about a purchase or any decision I have made or need to make (especially if others are concerned).
Did I take enough time to make the best choice? What if I didn’t? Was I right? Was I wrong? I will replay the options.
Especially if my choice does not please others, I will replay it even more. Sometimes it can become compulsive, stuck on a loop in my brain. We all have experienced the stress that comes from obsessive over-thinking.
Over the years, I have tried a variety of ways to “throw a stick in the spokes” and stop the constant thought-cycle. The practice of Centering Prayer has been one thing that, gradually, has made a difference.
Centering Prayer can be a challenge as one gets to discover all the places the unruly mind wants to wander instead of stay in the present (it is certainly not interested if the present has feelings it doesn’t want to feel!). As I have grown in acceptance of the brain’s (sometimes bizarre) escapades to do anything but feel reality and rest in God, I have grown in awareness of when I am joining its invitations to run away to the circus of compulsivity.
Here are two simple ways of returning home:
The keys to both are patience and gentleness (two indicators or “fruits” of the Holy Spirit as described in Galatians 5:22-23). It may take a while, but with gentle persistence old compulsive paths will be less and less traveled. And relief will rise with your every return to the pathways of peace.
writes Mary Oliver at the start of “If You Say It Right, It Helps the Heart Bear It” in Evidence.
Language is important.
Every area of life has its own language whether the world of science or business, music or 12-step groups, the same is true for the world of spiritual direction.
One of the first things people notice when coming to spiritual direction is it offers a new kind of language.
For those suffering from religious abuse, the language itself can be a balm for the soul. After her first session of spiritual direction, a woman said to me, “The words ‘deep permission’ and ‘invitation’…I’ve just never considered Jesus offering me those, it feels extravagant. But I feel such relief to think that God would be giving me permission and inviting me into something so healing…those words alone have been a revelation today.”
No language is perfect, but it helps convey something of essence or experience. Words like hospitality, authenticity, curiosity, allowing, and stirring, offer a different way of entering into a conversation about God and with God.
A youth and children’s pastor started using this language of invitation and curiosity during spiritual direction. He has come for a while so has become familiar with thinking about and entering into the spiritual life in some different ways. Hearing him talk warmed my heart, because I knew he was integrating this language of the soul into his work with children and teenagers.
As we enter more deeply into these words and find them life-giving, we cannot help but integrate them into our own vocabulary where or when it seems right. However, the irony in all of this, is that spiritual direction isn’t about words at all!
We spend a lot of time helping people befriend Silence and the One Who is Beyond All Words. When we and others do speak, the words can be very powerful because they begin with God in Silence. And they can be equally powerful when we do not speak the words, but embody them.
I’m reminded of a woman who told me she saw a symbol of another religion in her adult daughter’s home that made her cringe. Usually she would have spoken her mind right away. As she felt her daughter’s eyes on her, she resolved to bring the matter to spiritual direction instead.
“Way to go!” I told her, “Way to wait and take it into the Silence with God!” By the end of our session she exclaimed, “Praise God, I’m so glad I didn’t react because it would not have been the right response but one full of fear and judgement. Instead I want to invite her to tell me about it. I want to hear her story.”
“And you may learn something really interesting!” I added. Then she asked if there was anything she could read in order to expand her own thinking. After suggesting a book, I said "What a beautiful conversation this is going to be with your daughter! I can't wait to hear about it!"
What a wise mother of an adult daughter she is!
So words can welcome and invite connection, and words can help us name, describe, and discover even more. But there is no final word—whether it be about God, ourselves, each other, or spiritual direction. We're always growing and expanding...and that’s part of the fun!
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.
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.