Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Buffy and Winter

I had high hopes the new year. I was going to have a renewed sense of purpose and focus on establishing some new practices. Only, that's not what happened. I just couldn't seem to muster up the motivation or the discipline.

Instead of focusing on practices and purpose, I spent the better part of January binge-watching the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I had never seen before. I spent any time I had to myself watching Buffy save the world a lot. After spending most of 2015 hardly watching any television, this was... well... a change from that.

I'm not saying it's good or bad. It's just what happened.

I did manage to stay with a couple of my old daily practices. I continued Morning Prayer, and, thanks to an overly-energetic puppy who joined our family in June, I still took walks in the woods every day. I admit I probably would've foregone the walks if the dog would have let me get away with it.

Since I couldn't find my way to starting any new practices, I placated my conscience by trying to use the time in the woods to be present and notice what was going on around me as the seasons made their way through the woods. Even as I experienced a growing sense of general disconnection due to my lack of motivation and discipline, I determined to look for what was still beautiful as the green of Summer and the colors of Fall gave way to the short, cold, gray days of Winter.

I always try to take at least a minute in the woods to close my eyes and breathe deeply, to make myself aware of my connection to the earth beneath my feet and the trees surrounding me. Right now, most of the trees are empty. Just trunks, really, with bare branches sticking out in angles.

I've been feeling a lot like those trees.

I began 2015 with anticipation. I'd been told my career was about to be upended, so I thought it would be a year of big, exciting, scary change. But then it wasn't. And now it's 2016 and I'm in seemingly the same place with nothing temporal to show for the transformation I thought was inevitable. Like a tree in winter, whatever shelter or beauty I had in former seasons is gone, carried away in the biting, Autumn wind. I have nothing to offer.

But surely something happened or is happening. Trees don't cease to exist in winter. Things are happening under the ground, right? I tried to reassure myself with those thoughts. But I've since learned that trees are dormant in winter. Almost nothing is happening. They wait out the season, drawing on resources they saved in the other seasons, trying to stay alive. Not especially encouraging to my analogy. But then I found this:

"It is possible to force a tree to evade dormancy if you keep it inside and with a stable temperature and light pattern. However, this is usually bad for the tree. It's natural for trees to go through dormancy cycles, and the lifespan of the plant is dramatically decreased if the tree is not allowed to go dormant for a few months. Trees have winter dormancy for a reason, and it's best to just let them run their course as nature intended."

I know I'm not a tree, but something about those words is reassuring. Seasons of dormancy are natural and healthy. I remembered that Parker J. Palmer uses the seasons a metaphor for exploring selfhood and vocation in his book 'Let Your Life Speak.'

Palmer writes that winter is a reminder that "times of dormancy and deep rest are essential to all living things. Despite all appearances, of course, nature is not dead in winter-it has gone underground to renew itself and prepare for spring. Winter is a time when we are admonished, and even inclined, to do the same for ourselves....Winter clears the landscape, however brutally, giving us a chance to see ourselves and each other more clearly, to see the very ground of our being."

Maybe I stumbled into this dormant season and maybe binge-watching an old TV series isn't the best way to renew myself and prepare for what's next. A part of me is a bit terrified that nothing is next. Terrified that the trees will soon be filled with leaves and new life and I'll still be dormant, with nothing to offer.

I guess that could happen.

But maybe recognizing the necessity of an occasional time of dormancy can bring me the perspective I need. I hope it will help me be more understanding of myself and others. And I pray I can now try to look clearly at the ground of my being and at least open myself to the possibility of a new season.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Love is Kind

If you’ve attended more than one wedding in your life, there is a chance you are at least vaguely familiar with chapter 13 from 1 Corinthians in the Christian Bible. It's the one with all those beautiful words about love. Even couples who aren’t especially religious often include these verses in their ceremony:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
I don't know about you, but a lot of what I see called “love” seems nothing like this. There are probably countless reasons for that, but one I’ve been thinking about specific to the Church is our tendency to idealize a passage for a singular situation or relationship, and in the process, hinder our ability to be transformed by it. It is one thing to parade out beautiful, poetic words for a day of celebration with a joy-filled couple. It is quite another to take those words down from a pedestal and give ourselves over to their life-altering truth.

My new appreciation for 1 Corinthians 13 began when I came upon these words in Psalm 69 some time ago: “Answer me, O LORD, for your love is kind; in your great compassion, turn to me." The phrase for your love is kind captured my attention.

Throughout my life, I’ve heard God’s love described many ways, but “kind” is not one I remember. Kindness as a general concept isn't especially revolutionary, but this was completely new way for me to understand God’s love. I've spent a lot of time reflecting on the idea and asking myself what it means to profess faith in a God whose love is kind. What beliefs do I hold that are incongruent with this concept? What are the practical implications for my life?

In light of 1 Corinthians 13, I’ve come to understand that it’s not only God’s love that is kind. Real love is kind. My love needs to be kind.

This truth is not just for a wedding day and is not only for a person’s relationship with their spouse, as important as kindness is for those partnerships. There are also no qualifiers such as “Love for fill-in-the-blank is kind” or “Love is kind unless….” I’m made uncomfortably aware of all the times I’ve acted in an unkind way in the name of “tough love” or “speaking the truth in love” when what I was really doing was reacting out of anger, judgement, fear, or self-righteousness.

The first way I began to incorporate “love is kind” into my life is in my relationship with my children. It has changed the way I parent. When I struggle over how to respond to new challenges, I do my best to ask, “What is a kind response?” Lately I’ve even added in, “Am I being patient? Am I insisting on my own way?” My kids are different people from me. They have different perspectives, ways of understanding, and getting things done.  It is loving (and kind!) to be patient and not always insist they see or do things my way. Of course I still have moments when I give in to irritation, impatience, and rudeness. I’m human. But the words “love is kind” have forever altered the way I experience parenthood.

And what of Jesus telling us to love our enemies and to love our neighbors as ourselves? No matter how I try to spin it, I can’t free myself from the realization that this includes kindness.

When I’m facing conflict, when I feel deep dislike, or when I’m baffled at the actions of another, I often struggle with an urge to react. What I’m coming to see is that when I react with judgement, blame, disgust, shaming, or self-righteousness – anything other than love and kindness – I still have work to do.

Others have had different lives and experiences from mine. I can rarely know why people do or say things I find baffling or appalling. I admit I have a hard time not being rude or resentful if someone dismisses my idea in a meeting or insults me for a belief I hold, so I'm still wrestling with how to experience true loving kindness toward someone who does far worse. I am learning to see that even even when I feel incredulity or outrage or fear, I'm not exempt from the truth that love is kind. That has to be what I’m working toward, even when I fall short.

I cannot change other people. What I can do is allow the truth that love is kind to transform me and pray that I will continually learn to live it better. I can recognize unkind, unloving behavior for what it is. I can purpose to learn how to better respond in the face of all that I don’t understand. I can ask questions. I can offer kindness. I can be love.

Love is kind.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Gifts of Silence

My word for 2014 was Silence. I practiced this mainly in daily centering prayer (which is basically time in stillness and silence dedicated to being totally present with God), but I practiced it in other ways as well. There are few things I can write that will convey my experience with Silence, because it was so much more difficult and beautiful and isolating and connecting than I could have possibly imagined. What I can do is share with you some of the gifts I discovered in Silence. These are not gifts to me only, but are gifts I've come to understand are waiting for anyone who is able to make space and time in their life to practice Silence regularly. I imagine each of us would experience these gifts in a different way and that these gifts I'm writing about now may not be the gifts others would recognize most from Silence. Yet I do believe that in a regular practice of silence, most of us would find these and other gifts in one way or another.

One gift is a growing realization of connection with others--past and present--who have made a practice of silence part of their lives. I see now that over the past few years, I had been striving to express all my thoughts and ideas and experiences and inner turmoil, but could not find sufficient words. Through my previous experience and resources, I tried to flesh it out, but always fell short. I felt increasingly frustrated by a complete lack of my own understanding of the faith crisis I was experiencing and the void in my vocabulary preventing me from explaining myself.

Becoming comfortable with silence allowed me to spend necessary time listening and finding others who were expressing what I was experiencing in words that meant all the things I'd been longing to explain. I’ve discovered in books and lectures the wisdom of a host of teachers and guides far ahead of me on the Spiritual journey and more in-tune with the process. I've also connected with a few beautiful souls whose journeys have allowed us to meet and support each other as we walk new paths.

Another gift is the acceptance that change in relationships is part of life and that growing apart isn't always someone's "fault." I’m coming to understand that some connections with others are for a season, when our paths intersect and are aligned in some way. When our paths diverge, the love and support shared in those close times still exists as part of the beauty of our lives, albeit in a different way than before. It’s still difficult for me to see this as a gift, because the pain of accepting change is hard, but I know that it is a gift. I know that the love I received while I was walking closer with some people was a balm to my heart when I was floundering, and I pray that the love I offered was the same for them. I pray that somehow our paths will bring us to a new closeness in the future, yet whether or not that happens, I hope with all my heart that they find just what and who they need in all the transitions and intersections that lie ahead.

One of the most profound gifts I found in Silence is summed up in this quote:
"With grace I am led to see that the only person I can judge, with God's help, is myself. I slowly come to understand that part of what is keeping my community from being all that it can be is my own lack of love, my own carelessness with God's love and the love and struggles of [others]. Seeing us in process and being able to value our incompleteness has been for me a great means of grace." - Macrina Wiederkehr
This reminder that we are all in process is a beautiful, beautiful gift. We are all incomplete. We are all at various stages on our journey. Of course I still experience my own ego and self-righteous judgment welling up when others react or respond in ways I disagree with or when they make choices I don't understand. Yet from my time in silence I sense that I am becoming more in-tune to the knowledge that many of my own actions, choices, and responses may bother or confound others. I can recognize this and soften my heart. I can accept that there is only so much change and progress humans can make in a single day or interaction, so I must be patient with myself and with others. I can work to set aside judgment, to be a peaceful and loving presence even in the midst of what causes me confusion, hurt, and anger.

Silence is a gift, which opens our hearts to many other gifts. I am so thankful for the gifts of Silence. I am so grateful for the transforming work continuing in my life, which has its roots in one word in 2014.


If we fill our lives with silence, then we live in hope, and Christ lives in us and gives our virtues much substance. Then, when the time comes, we confess Him openly before men, and our confession has much meaning because it is rooted in deep silence. It awakens the silence of Christ in the hearts of those who hear us, so that they themselves fall silent and begin to wonder and to listen. For they have begun to discover their true selves. If our life is poured out in useless words we will never hear anything in the depths of our hearts, where Christ lives and speaks in silence. - Thomas Merton

Sunday, September 21, 2014

A Meditation on Psalm 63

"O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you." Psalm 63:1


Psalm 63:1 has become a bit of a mantra for me. I say it silently each morning as I quiet my thoughts before I begin my Centering Prayer, and I find that I return to it throughout the day. I don't always repeat the full verse; sometimes "O God, you are my God" is all I need to re-focus my thoughts.

Several months ago, I realized that as I focused on the words, I would hear "O God, you are my God" as "O God, you are *my* God." I know this may seem minor, but as I considered what it means that I was emphasizing the word "my," I determined there may be a better way than subconsciously putting the focus on my own thoughts or feelings of God.

I realized the better way to hear the phrase was: "O God, you are my God." As in, God IS my God, not God is MY God. God -- who is so intimately present to each of us every second, who created each of us in God's image, who is "being" itself and yet who exists so completely other and separate from anything we can think or project on that Being -- that God is my God.

I've also come to see that if God is my God, then nothing else can be. Of course I would have said this, but it struck me that if I truly, in the depths of my being believe "O God, you are my God," then I need to be consciously aware that:

My loved-ones are not my god.

My roles of daughter, sister, friend, wife, and mother are not my god.

My hopes and dreams and wants and wishes are not my god.

My religion is not my god.

My nation is not my god.

My political views are not my god.

My identity not my god.

My social status is not my god.

My physical appearance is not my god.

My reputation is not my god.

My thoughts are not my god.

My earthly possessions are not my god.

My ideas are not my god.

My opinions are not my god.

My self-worth is not my god.

My life is not my god.

Only God is my God.

I've even begun to insert these sentiments into my mantra when I feel myself identifying too deeply with a thought or emotion that distracts me from a better way to handle everyday situations. For example, I will try to pause and think, "God, YOU are my God. The results of this effort are not my God. You are my God." Or "God, YOU are my God. This person's approval or esteem is not my God. You are my God." Sometimes just the act of stating both who should be my focus, along with who-or-what should not be, is enough to help me navigate frustrating situations with grace.

It has only been a few months, and I'm not perfect at remembering every time, but I'm thankful this is becoming a practice for me. God is my God. Everything thing else is simply part of life, to either be enjoyed or endured.

It really is as simple and beautiful as that.

All I have to do is keep practicing.




Note: for more resources and information on Centering Prayer, I encourage you to check out the  Contemplative Outreach website and/or listen to some of Thomas Keating's work on Audible. Another resource I've discovered recently is Gravity Center, which lists several wonderful resources and offers some excellent videos on contemplation. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Like Nothing

I've been learning silence for over five months now. I am working to overcome the constant temptation to fill my life with the consumption or production of noise. I find I more often leave my iPod or the television off, instead of leaving one or the other on for background sound. I've taken intermittent breaks from social media. I've hardly written. I've been practicing centering prayer. I've been sitting with process. I've been letting go. So much letting go.

Richard Rohr says that even though he regularly attempts to do so, trying to talk about the letting go we do in silence and presence seems impossible because it "feels like nothing." I have to agree with him. It's like the feeling of a sigh. It's like nothing and everything. It's inexplicable and yet I want so desperately to explain it because maybe then I would have a better understanding of it.

I've only scratched the surface of what silence can teach me. I'm still unmooring, letting go of things that hinder my process. I am still on the threshold between "before" and "after," but just barely. I know what the before was like, but I'm not yet in the after. Actually, I'm not even sure there is an after. All I can sense is a before and a now.

Before I started sitting with silence, my life was all reaction. It was frantic tending of squeaky wheels or dogged avoidance of things that overwhelmed. It was ill-thought responses born from a fear of missing opportunities, not meeting expectations, or leaving things unsaid. Before this experience with stillness and silence, time meant scarcity and urgency and finitude. Before, I constantly measured myself against other people's standards and absorbed their "you should"s as judgement on my life and my performance and my self. I spent time worrying why things that worked for other people didn't seem to work for me and wondering what might be wrong with me that I couldn't keep it together or make people like what I thought or get them to agree with me. Life felt like conflict and striving and opposition much of the time.

Now, the time I spend in silence each day feels like taking a long, indulgent breath. Now, I've realized that I don't have to react to everything because it is okay to step back to formulate a response. Often I find that a response is not even necessary. Time, now, seems like an abundant gift stretching in both directions in a beautiful excess of eternity. I'm not even sure I believe in "missed opportunities" anymore; I believe in what happens. Now, I realize that it is impossible to control the way others respond or how they feel about me or if they ever agree with me. I have to follow my path because it is right for me. I can allow others to follow their path. I don't have to be in conflict or striving or opposition, because I can look for what there is to learn in the now.

I am acutely aware of how my own opinions, indignation, and expectations hinder my ability to love, understand, and be compassionate. I am realizing we are all in process. I can see that it is all grace, and that no one needs grace more than I do. Of course, awareness and realization are just the beginning and I am a long way from practicing any of this perfectly.

And yet, all of that is internal. I can't possibly prove any of it. To anyone else, it probably looks like nothing.




"With grace I am led to see that the only person I can judge, with God's help, is myself. I slowly come to understand that part of what is keeping my community from being all that it can be is my own lack of love, my own carelessness with God's love and the love and struggles of [others]. Seeing us in process and being able to value our incompleteness has been for me a great means of grace." - Macrina Wiederkehr

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Unmoored

I am a word person. There are words I love simply for how they look in written form. There are others I love for how they sound, and still others I love for what they mean or who they remind me of. Sometimes I think about situations for much longer than necessary, for the sole purpose of figuring out a single word to describe how I feel about or perceive it.

I am also a writer. Not the kind who is gifted with words crying out to become books or columns or academic papers. No, I'm the kind of writer who uses writing as a way to work through things in her head, regardless of how many people may or may not read it. For as long as I can remember, when I have things I need to process, I write them out.

But I'm currently finding elusive both words and the ability to write things out.

I want to write more about Silence, and maybe I will at some point. Right now, however, I feel too fragile to try to put words around where it is taking me. I can't even seem to write about it privately without feeling a sense of betrayal, as though I need to only hold the experience and let it be what it is without analyzing or searching for explanation.

And when it comes to trying to share any of this with people I know, words may as well not exist. There is almost no one who seems safe enough for me to attempt an explanation of what is going on or how vulnerable and exposed I am. I feel disconnected from just about everyone at present.

By habit, I was contemplating this experience and attempting to come up with a word for it. Maybe I can’t write about all the details or explain myself out loud, but if I could at least identify a single word to encompass it all, I’d be able to put this phenomenon into that word and hold that word in the midst of what is unfolding.
 
Unmoored.

That’s the word I kept coming back to every time, even though I wasn't entirely sure what it meant. Sure, I knew it was a nautical term and I had an impression of its meaning, but had never looked it up in the dictionary. In my mind I associated “unmoored” with “adrift,” but "adrift" didn't entirely fit. So I looked it up.

un·moor  [uhn-moor]
1. to loose from moorings or anchorage.
2. to bring to the state of riding with a single anchor after being moored by two or more.

That's all I have at this point. I’m not even going to attempt to explain how entirely accurate the definition is for what I’m experiencing. Perhaps someday I will have more words and be able to write a beautiful reflection on my unmooring season. Maybe, but not today.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Inexplicable

This is a short reflection on some of the words I've encountered and have been sitting with as I explore what silence means for me this year. I use "sitting with" because stating I'm "learning" or "understanding" could give the impression that I have a better grasp on any of this than I actually do. The following may not seem to scream "silence," but it's there.

In a series of talks with Fr. Thomas Keating, Fr. Richard Rohr speaks of how our ego or "false self" is what causes us to define ourselves in terms of what we dislike or what we are against. This "contrariness," as Julian of Norwich terms it, closes us off from experiencing deeper levels of faith and life, "because it’s always defining itself in terms of analysis, critique, judgment, labeling, or positioning, and this game of positioning is a mind game." Rohr says this mind game is "entirely an inner system that makes [us] feel important," but actually leads us into conflict with ourselves and others. It is necessary to let go of our false self in order to be who we truly are, but he explains that letting go of how we've learned to define ourselves can be incredibly distressing:
It’s all about letting go... It’s not about controlling or achieving or promoting or attaining…  it feels like dying in the first instance, because you've spent so much time living out of this mind and this ego that you think is you.... It will feel, in the first instance, like losing and like dying…these “little dyings” that have to become an art form and that you have to go through once, twice, several significant times to know, as the poet said, “What did I ever lose by dying?”
As I'm sitting with these words and others from Keating and Merton, what I'm experiencing does seem, at the risk of sounding a bit dramatic, "like losing and like dying."

In the midst of that, however, I think I might also be just beginning to catch infinitesimal glimpses that I am someone aside from all the ways I've previously defined myself - aside from what I do or don't do, what I like or dislike, how others approve of or disapprove of me - and apart from any labels or judgement that could be applied to me by myself or others.

I don't know how else to explain or define any of this. I know that it feels quite humbling and somewhat lonely.

And yet, inexplicably, also like becoming known.