Monday, March 10, 2014

The gentle breaking of the heart

"There is a breaking of the heart which is gentle....and there is a breaking which is violent and harmful, shattering it completely."- Mark the Ascetic
For Sufi's it is the rose which symbolizes the opening of the heart. As Rumi says,What was said to the rose that made it openwas said to me here in my chest.

And as UU's sing- I know this rose will open, I know my fear will burn away. I know my soul will unfurl its wings. We hold flower communions of color, joy and hope. 

For the Buddhists it is the lotus flower- The flower, as a closed bloom, is like the human heart. 
When enlightened with the teachings of the Buddha, it blossoms.

I think of Easter lilies in Christian resurrection- a symbol of new life. Lilies planted beside a cross...How many layers of the sun until we rise? 

Tonight I contemplate this garden of symbols as a way of imagining wisdom. We hold the seeds of contemplation...what new life shall emerge from its depths?  

Let me accompany this bursting forth.  From the depths of contemplation, may my heart break open gently, as from the seed emerges the flower of new life. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Ashes, Ashes

A few days ago I had a dream that I was at a local Christian church, standing in line to receive ashes.  But instead of receiving a tiny cross to the forehead, I leaned forward into a bucket of ashes and doused my face, neck and head with soot.

This dream- occurring two days before Ash Wednesday, and on the same day I had been googling 'funeral celebrant'- speaks of religious rite and passage. It is also symbolic of where I find myself year after year on Ash Wednesday, fully embodied and immersed in life in a season of contemplation.

Confession: I love this time of year, despite its bleakness. It's as if we have been climbing a mountain all winter, and especially this winter of heavy snows, and are almost to the peak.  While I have lost so many loved ones in February and early Marches past, their presence and love seem particularly close as the year winds round again this way.  The time of death and loss is coupled with the turning of the season- the signs of spring, nests and crocuses- beginning to peak through the earth. It's peak labor, and life is just aching to be born.

Grief too has an ache in it- and a tremendous love.  I know God so near in grief, the heart broken open and compassion knocking at the door in the face of a neighbor or friend. I know God in memory, and the beauty of a life well-lived. And I know God in emptiness, in the patience to hold still and simply be with the places I cannot bear to hold alone.

And what of religious rite?  I did not go to Ash Wednesday services at a Christian church, but spent the day living my life.  Cat litter, pen ink, granola bar crumbs, and street salt were the sacred objects of my daily rites.

The Sunday before I attended service at my Unitarian Universalist church; with a sermon my minister gave entitled 'Nuclear Numbing', ashes took on another meaning- stories of Hiroshima, incinerated bodies, the dehumanized other, atomic bomb earrings in the White Sands gift shop, and the blind eye...the lie.  Here perhaps, more poignantly, are ashes- our ashes. 'From dust you came, to dust you shall return'. And yet what speaks to me in the story of a dying Japanese girl giving to another child the lunch her mother made her? A final heartbreaking gesture of life, the precious human body and spirit, the life and pain and love in between.

Bearing witness. Awakening.  Opening eyes to what is, and to the deep call to respond from a place of inner truth.  With tears in the sanctuary, I found myself in our final song beside a lively elderly woman whom I adore, leaning with our arms around each other, singing 'We'll build a land'. Hugs on the way out with fellow congregants were warm and sustained. Petitions were signed, forums planned: to take a stand for nuclear disarmament.  From the broken heart and deepened awareness of devastation and threat emerged a call to action.

It was one of the most powerful worship services I have experienced, not only breaking open my heart but also connecting me with my call to ministry as a poet and spiritual director-- a call that urges me to honor the soul, to open the heart, and to support the fullness of human life.  Later I was struck with awe that I will be traveling to that same Southwest desert (a few hours from White Sands, in Santa Fe) a week after Easter, with teachers of many traditions and nations, with wisdom ancient and emerging, with hope for a better way.  It seems now that each day I live fully into my work of seeing the holy in the mundane and accompanying others on their journeys, I am answering the question I have asked so many times, the question that changed my life: What is the one thing you can do for peace? Answering not on my own, but as an instrument of the Spirit...

So ashes, ashes... I turn to the humus of the sacred earth, and mold it into clay.  I cover my face and hands in the dusty symbol of entering a time of spiritual contemplation and preparation.  I repent for the times I have been blind, numb, dull, asleep to the preciousness of human lives and forgotten my ancient mother earth.  And I bury myself like a bulb beneath her soil, turning inward for a time until I am bathed by light and love, and resurrected- called to go forth into action- with the spring.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Mini-Blogging Experiment

As the Christmas season approaches, I will be offering a min-blog experiment which I hope to share more widely with friends others.  While stores have opened their doors on Thanksgiving evening (and earlier in many cases), and customers have lined up for early shopping and Black Friday sales... many of us are seeking a deeper and more meaningful way of experiencing this season...a slower and more contemplative way of celebrating. 

Tonight, the candles of the menorah are lit- in deep respect to another tradition- and in honor of religious freedom, gratitude, mystery and miracles.  And on Sunday I will light the first candle of the Advent wreath- the candle of hope.  A Christian tradition with Pagan roots (German peoples were said to have spun a wheel decorated with evergreens and adorned with candles, to bring on the light in those dark winter days...), the Advent wreath is a tradition I have cherished and made my own over the past several years, offering prayers and meditations with each morning's candle lighting. 

My personal re-creation of the Advent ritual is neither Pagan nor Christian, though it draws on the spirit of ancient peoples who longed for light in the dark cold winter, and of those who have found hope in a powerful story of divine love incarnated. Bowing to the wisdom of our religious traditions, I offer a personal ritual for our human story that is centered on the spiritual pillars of those five candles.  While candle meanings and colors vary depending on who you ask,  I have chosen hope, love, joy, and peace- with patience at the center- as the attributes around which I will reflect in the coming weeks.  Love, joy, and peace are what we hope for and long for most fully in our lives and in our world.  May we in this season of Advent create a space for the soul, a space of preparation and openness, of patient and expectant waiting, of hopeful possibility for the birthing of our lives into fullness. 

I invite you to join me in walking this Advent Journey over the 25 days of Christmas. To follow, please visit:


Monday, November 18, 2013

The Gift of Brokenness and Vulnerability

With tears in the corners of both our eyes, she told me how my vulnerability was a gift to her.  How seeing me full of emotion, sometimes with tears even as I spoke from the pulpit, had brought comfort and allowed her to open herself more.  She wasn't the first person to tell me this, and as she spoke I was reminded too of my minister in a former congregation I attended a few years back.  I was reminded of how her frequent tears and emotional expressions were for me a salve, an expression of our common humanity.  They provided a compassionate connection between people, a link from minister to congregant, a knowing that my spiritual leader was not a superhero or a savior but a human being filled with a brokenness and pain similar to mine.

I am not an ordained minister.  But I have been told by many that they look to me as a spiritual guide.  It was this affirmation and repeated asks for companioning that allowed me to recognize my call as a spiritual director.

As I consider my own emotional fragility, I recognize that I might be a little embarrassed.  I have made great strides into living a more whole and integrated life. I have done this with the aid of many good friends, counselors and spiritual guides....  But I still have pieces that are in need of healing.  As I've grown closer to integrating parts of myself into more public light, I have not wanted to be seen as broken, never fully getting this one piece of my life that needs healing into balance. I have not wanted to be continually weak and dependent, and have been embarrassed that I cannot step fully into the person I imagine myself to be. I have not wanted anyone to see me as less than that image- that persona- a spiritual guide, full of light and life and wholeness.

But can there be wholeness without the recognition of shadow? And there is a shadow.  I see that shadow, I know her.  She is not everything, but she is a part of me.

In recent weeks I have pulled away from some of those good friends, counselors and spiritual guides who have helped me. I have felt I must learn to rely on myself because in the long run I am the only one I can depend on.  I recognize the unhealthiness of this thinking and write it now simply as a way of catching it in action.

In fact I write all this now as confession, as ways of acknowledging the foolishness of pride.  I notice this false thinking that has everything to do with ego and a lack of self-acceptance.  I notice and I catch it and I seek to redeem it with a written act of contrition that embraces the wholeness of who I am.

It is the woman who told me what my tears meant to her who reminded me... that there is room- and often necessary space- for a broken heart.  There is room for my vulnerability and pain- not to get lost in my story- but for the compassion to shine through.  It is compassion built on seeing that recognizes a kindred soul that has known its own  brokenness and loss, and risks connection.

And so it is, as this woman's words remind me, that the vulnerability and brokenness that I have been trying to hide are in actuality the gift- the gift to myself and to others, waiting to be opened, to be revealed, to be seen.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Growing Edges

Today I completed my final training session in the Art of Spiritual Guidance. The past fifteen months of training have opened so many doors in my soul.  Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned is to listen to my inner truth and to grow in integrity.  I am listening...and I am growing still.

Tonight it occurred to me that I may be afraid of some of those growing edges, and it may be time to move beyond a particular comfort zone.  There is nothing innately wrong with the comfort zone- like the fire at the hearth, it creates a place of home and belonging.  But at what point does a comfort zone start to hinder my own growth?  Perhaps my place of service is now in new territories, not yet explored, and the challenge is to say 'yes' to what is before me, to what I am walking into, to what might scare me in its uncertainty...but ultimately to what I am being called to do.

So today I practice exploring those growing edges.  I begin simply with observing my reactions: to notice what irks me, what causes me to cling tighter, what leads me to fear.  And how am I responding?  That is the next step.  But if I can notice and name what I am afraid of, then I can clear space for for the still small voice within. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Gift

A poem (below*) was posted on large white paper on the wall of the dining hall at work today.  I am not certain how the retreat group that posted these words planned to use them...but they were certainly meaningful to me as I am in the midst of preparing for my final weekend of spiritual direction training.  So many questions still remain, and yet it is in holding with gentle hands each individual's story and questions that I discover with wonder the gift...the blessing I have been seeking.

This lesson- the gift of another human being's presence- struck me on Sunday when attending the memorial service of an older man in my congregation who recently died.  The service was held at a nearby synagogue.  I remember this man, named Hal, telling me about his Jewish tradition and how he liked to attend services there on the high holy days.  He also had a Jain guru, in line with his vegetarianism and animal rights activism. Hal was a seeker, and found a camaraderie in the Unitarian Universalist community... in one of our last conversations I remember standing before a large framed poster of historic Unitarian and Universalist figures that hangs in our fellowship hall, and chatting about these famous members of our living tradition  .... together making some connection to these seekers of truth and activists for justice.

I am thinking about this poster in the context of my interfaith spiritual direction program. One of the assignments I have been given this past year has been to visit houses of worship from the world's religions and to observe with my senses the sacred symbols, imagery, sounds, around me. I am reminded of the Kwan Yin statue at Blue Cliff Monastery and the sound of the mindfulness bell; the high altar and Hebrew lettering on a plaque at Temple Beth Shalom and the Kaddish read around a grave.  I close my eyes and see the Christian cross and sing along with a communion line- "One Bread, One Body".  And my mind drifts back to my Muslim encounters- a Sufi retreat day and visit to a Sufi mosque- the prostrations, the dancing,  the music of the Turkish neys.

But what are the holy symbols and sounds of our Unitarian Universalist congregation?  The chalice of course holds the sacred flame.  And beyond this we appear quite busy, as a gallery of art graces the walls of the sanctuary.  We share our space with a school, so their belongings and supplies fill our classrooms.  The large poster board of people like Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, and James Reeb is our living legacy and religious symbol- the lives of people who have gone before us and left their footprints of brave lives on this earth.  It is an inspiring symbol, and also calls each of us to notice and uphold the power of our own choices and actions.

It is also inspiring to me that our faith is best represented in the lives of human beings.  Each of us flawed persons is a gift, and we do not need to be famous or celebrated on a poster to .  At the memorial service, I heard person after person describe Hal with humor, caring, and love.  I heard stories I did not know about him- about his care for clients as a social worker, his work with soldiers on issues of depression and spousal abuse, his tender care for friends, homeless people and cats. Tears mingled with laughter, and I saw and held my few short memories of Hal in a larger celebration of his life.

It is truly a gift it is to be human with all our questions and yearnings- and to witness and hold another's human life is blessing, a glimpse of the divine.  While we may do this naturally and well in a memorial service, the challenge is also to behold the gift of each human being we encounter with attention and presence in daily life, to see and to celebrate each person's fullness. I pray that I may create the space and take the time to unwrap the gift of the human life and to honor it in the many encounters with divinity that fill my days.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                * The Gift, by Denise Levertov                                                          

Just when you seem to yourself
nothing but a flimsy web
of questions, you are given
the questions of others to hold
in the emptiness of your hands,
songbird eggs that can still hatch
if you keep them warm,
butterflies opening and closing themselves
in your cupped palms, trusting you not to injure
their scintillant fur, their dust.
You are given the questions of others
as if they were answers
to all you ask. Yes, perhaps
this gift is your answer.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Learning to Trust

I have been struggling with trust a lot lately, and the question- Who can I trust?- resounds.  My spiritual director cast the light back onto me- But do you trust yourself?

It was an interesting way to cast the light, and when cast that way, the shadows appeared.  I noticed the way I have been holding some individuals in judgment because I have felt let down or hurt by their actions. I've become distracted away from self-examination and cast my gaze outwardly. And in doing so, I've lost sight of that inner knowing that guides me.

Trusting myself means listening to the voice of conscience- the voice that says I must do something difficult because it is the ethical thing to do.  Because I cannot be a channel of light if I am impeded by lies- lies I tell to myself or to others about who I am.

Do I trust myself?  Today I made a difficult decision to open up about some of my shortcomings in a clear and honest way.  This was very hard for me to do.  I so wanted to reach a goal that I could simply not attain.  But there are no shortcuts, and speaking from the heart, I saw the ways in which I had missed the mark.

I give credit to much of my spiritual and ethical growth to my faith community as I am encouraged and challenged there to become my best self.  The idea that Unitarian Universalism is an 'anything goes' religion is misleading, I think. There is a perception that the UU path might be an easy one- with principles instead of commandments, covenants instead of creeds, sources instead of one sacred text.  The choices seem so endless that it might appear that a person could pick and choose his/her own morality without accountability.  In our Unitarian Universalist faith there is no ritual for confession, no season of atonement....nor is there a set of spiritual disciplines or a particular contemplative practice that one might follow as a clear straight pathway to God (however a person might choose to define- or not define- that concept).

And yet- I believe- the view that 'anything goes' is misconception. As a religion, the faith path I have chosen provides a clear and real way forward from contemplation to action, from mysticism to prophecy, from spirituality to justice. While there is a rich history to call upon, a great deal of the way- or ways- is yet to be defined, and lies in the hands of our spiritual leaders and communities to pave. Commitment in community is the ingredient that moves us from spirituality to religion. If we get stuck in the highs of our individual spiritual experiences and are unwilling to let go, we have encountered an ego trap.  It is in letting go of our attachment to that joyous encounter and learning to become it in the center of a world that is constantly shaking with injustice, rupturing with chaos, and overrunning with brokenness that we help create the goodness we seek.

This is also the path that helps us to lead moral lives. What is morality but authenticity, a mirror into wholeness? And if we might look at sin that way also- not as some breaking of human-made laws, but as a transgression against our own deepest conscience and inner knowing- than a ritual of confession in community might bring us closer to wholeness.

Knowing that I can express my shortcomings and still be held and loved and encouraged to a better way allows me to trust others. Trusting myself means listening deeply to the voice of conscience and honoring that in me which is most good- that which yearns for truth and acts from a place of deeper honesty, humility, kindness, and truth.  Then and only then can I be a vessel for light.

These are thoughts I have come to as I walk this path.  It isn't exactly the path I thought I would be walking.  But all paths have their turns....and sometimes- as I discovered quite literally recently on a 'contemplative walk'- their forest fires!  Perhaps the fire is a signal that it is time to get back onto the road, a wake-up call to walk in the world, not out of it, but to carry that inner knowing and clearness as I live from the place of good within me.

So I am learning to trust myself by learning to live with greater authenticity...and I am accountable to a community and living tradition that encourages me into being my best and fullest self as an integral piece in the collective work toward restoring the wholeness of our world.