Garden of the Spirit

A New Year’s Prayer for 2021

Out of the depths, I cry to You, Lord. Ps. 130

As I sat at my desk to write this month’s reflection, I was given a prayer for the new year. It’s a prayer I needed to write, with hope for new beginnings in a new year.

O God, in this season of new beginnings,
may we choose our beginnings wisely.
May we choose to be open
to the journey of healing
here within this country of conflict.

In this season of new beginnings,
the journey of healing 
begins at the portal of grief.

We bring our grief for the pain we have caused,
for the hatred we blasted at each other,
for the blinders that narrowed our seeing 
and the indifference of our listening.

We bring our remorse,
knowing new beginnings are rooted
in the soil of remorse,
rooted in horror at the deaths
of those who should have lived.
They paid for our blindness,
 our disregard, our turning away.

O God, out of the depths of grief, 
we call to you, but we know
our lament has no power unless it pierces us.
Our lament has no power unless we weep,
acknowledging we are complicit
in the brokenness around us.
For our silence, our walking on the other side,
our shrugging lightly when it is time to tear our clothes,
for all this, others have paid.

In this season of new beginnings,
O God of love and mercy,
we desire a new beginning.
In the midst of our grief, may we birth love.
Surrounded by wreckage from the storms,
broken open by our lament,
teach us to live beyond our fears,
to embrace the other and love generously.

In place of our blindness,
may we give ourselves to the work 
of clear-eyed seeing, whole-hearted listening,
until the pangs of deep compassion stir us 
to live and love as if our souls depend on it.

O God, may walking the path of grief
bring us to the healing work
of a new beginning for this time.

The words of this prayer poem came to me as an unexpected gift, a response to a question I didn’t know I was asking myself. The question may be yours as well: How can I contribute to healing in this divided and struggling world as we move through 2021? I don’t have a step-by-step answer, but I do believe the attitude of my heart is the place to begin. I bring my heart’s grief and my recognition that I am involved in brokenness through silence. I bring my desire to be a presence of love through my being and my doing. Now is the time of beginnings.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Martin Luther King

A Song for Dark December

The darkness of the northern hemisphere this month seems longer and the days shorter than I remember from past Decembers. Perhaps my perception matches the world’s mood. Though we know the earth’s tilt will shift (and vaccines are on the way), it’s cold and dark now, and we are weary of our restricted lives and, yes, weary of crises.

In 1899, writer Thomas Hardy wrote of a bleak December in his poem, “The Darkling Thrush.” As he gazed out over a desolate December landscape that seemed to hold no potential for life’s revival, he suddenly heard a song. “An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small” was flinging “his soul upon the growing gloom.” And Hardy, grieving the world’s brokenness at the end of the century, wondered if there was “some blessed Hope, whereof he knew and I was unaware.”

Hardy ended his poem there so I don’t know if he grew more hopeful about the future upon hearing the thrush. What I do know is that a song of hope flung into dark times has a power out of proportion to the size of the messenger. If a little brown bird can sing hope, I wonder what hope is mine to fling forth.

Poet Edwin Muir also found treasure in dark times. In “One Foot in Eden,” he described how the world’s suffering, its “darkened fields,” brought forth blossoms of love and hope that mysteriously flourished best because they grew in the brokenness of the world. Great love and great acts of compassion are called forth in the midst of suffering. They are, he wrote, the “strange blessings” of a broken world.

Perhaps hope, love, and compassion do put forth their brightest blossoms in dark times of pain and hardship, but I don’t want to live in such times. I’d like to sing out hope and to bloom with love–without a pandemic, grief, great loss, and bitter division in my country. I want warm, light-splashed times!

But this now is what we have. If Muir’s “darkened fields” are a place of germination and growth for the human flowering of hope and love, what blooms can we bring forth? What soul song is ours to sing now?

This is a time of darkness to attend to the Loving One who nudges us to grow by presenting opportunities for practicing love. This is a darkness where we can see the needs around us, and we give as we can. This is the long night of winter when the energy for creating a better future can be strengthened through vision and faithful communities. This is the bleak season when we long to be together with those we love, and we are challenged to celebrate in new ways. Can we celebrate the hopeful song of the thrush in new ways?

A year ago, I wrote a piece for my blog titled “Puddleglum’s Hope.” (Link Here) Puddleglum, a figure from C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books, chose to live by hope in a time of darkness, even though he had no certainty that the Lion Aslan or Narnia itself were real. That still remains our challenge. Can we decide to live out of hope, to act out of compassion and love, even if we feel darkness inside us as well as outside us? If we choose hope and join with others, the song of hope will grow, but it’s not ever easy.

My mother loved to sing, and her beautiful voice often filled my childhood home with music. Her favorite Christmas carol was “O Holy Night,” and I remember the depth of feeling with which she sang “a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.” Like the thrush flinging his song into the bleak world, she offered her song into December darkness, and her voice soared with hope.

My prayer for this weary world is that we will find ways to sing of hope and offer it to others. My prayer is that hope, compassion, and love, the “strange blessings” of painful times, will deeply root themselves in us and bloom with great power and beauty.

Hanging Out With Trees

Exhausted, discouraged, and stressed, 
I turned to the forest
all aglow in morning light, 
and the tall trees drew me 
into their golden hearts. 

A few weeks ago, my husband and I stepped back from our daily life and all the turmoil in the country and world. For a few days, we stayed in a small cabin deep in the Appalachian Mountains and hiked the forests that surrounded us. I didn’t know how much discouragement and anxiety I carried until I began to shed it. I didn’t know how tired I was until the rhythm of my days slowed down, and I breathed easily again.

Far from the conflicts of a world threatened by civil unrest amid a flourishing pandemic, I focused on watching deer outside the window. Each day we walked leaf littered mountain trails, while, above us, the giants of the forest accepted our presence with quiet serenity. By the edge of a mountain pool, I lay back on the grass and stared through gilded branches into a blue sky. I wondered, how could I have forgotten such soul-restoring stillness?

I needed the trees. Walking a forest path was like walking into a cathedral, breath-taking and quieting, bringing me to tears with its beauty. I was inside a space that opened me to God. I walked down a leafy aisle, I climbed up the steep slope on sprawled root steps, and the trees embraced me and filled me with peace.

I turned to the trees,
burnished by autumn's palate,
and they breathed on me.
I leaned to their silent embrace,
comforted by deep rooted strength.

I turned to the trees
whose boughs, bending down,
brushed me softly with falling leaves,
and I was quieted 
by their feather light touch.

I turned to the trees,
and far above me I heard
a slow deep murmur,
"Welcome home, child. We are still here.
Come, and rest among us."

Hanging out with trees brings me other gifts as well. The long arc of tree life reminds me that trees measure time by centuries. Absorbing the deep-rooted, long wisdom of trees, I wake to hopeful possibilities behind my own ephemeral lifetime. When I recall tree time, I can live for a future that I will never see.

Like a tree whose living nurtures other life, whose dying feeds future blossoming, may my presence in God’s world nurture its healing. May my spirit be rooted in the Divine Spirit and contribute to a future where people offer the wisdom and peace of the trees — to each other. The Psalmist writes of such people: “they are like trees planted by streams of water which yield fruit in its season.” (Ps. 1:3) May we indeed bring forth such fruit!

My husband and I have returned home to our usual daily lives and responsibilities. Around us, the furious tumult of the world goes on. But the healing wisdom and quiet strength of the trees remain with me. I cherish hope again. I look ahead, and live for the lives of the children of my grandchildren — who may turn to the identical trees I turned to. And the trees will gift them, too, with peace and renewal.

Outside my window, a profusion of colorful leaves spreads across the grass. Even as the pine tree that stretches above my house retains its green, the maples surrounding it are preparing to release their last gold and red into the light wind. Shimmering in the sun, the leaves will float silently down to join the carpet below. The season is turning, and the skeleton of the maples is revealed in all its elegance and strength.

When wind-whipped, raucous storms
buffet our lives,
when fault lines crack ever deeper 
in our world,
I turn to the trees for healing, 
to the comforting patience of the forest,
to the long-lived continuity of trees.
I trust the passing seasons again;
my soul is restored.

The Challenge of Listening

I am a professional listener. As a psychologist and spiritual director, clients have literally paid me for listening to them. I should know something about listening after all these years, but I am still a learner. I do know that listening to another can be deeply spiritual, an experience that opens both of us to God. And I know the challenge is to listen with an open heart and mind, to be hospitable to the speaker’s story and truth.

Listening comes in many forms. Sometimes we listen simply for information. Sometimes we are semi-attentive to another’s story because we’re waiting for a turn to tell ours. During this strange Covid time, we gather with friends online or in person and masked to share how we are managing and laugh, or perhaps cry together. Our days provide innumerable opportunities for listening, and usually it’s not hard.

Some occasions for listening are challenging, however, and those we’d rather avoid. Maybe we are wrestling with family differences about handling the holidays. (“What do you mean we’re not going to do Thanksgiving this year unless we isolate first?”) Or we wish we could find a way across a political or cultural divide and really talk with a neighbor or family member. We want to ask “How can you believe that?” (or perhaps we want to set them straight), but we don’t want to risk disrupting the casually polite conversations we already have. Sometimes, of course, we’re bombarded with intense words when we lack the energy to listen at all.

When we enter a conversation desiring to listen deeply and understand the other person and their truth, we must prepare ourselves. We need to set aside our own agendas, the natural desire to express our point of view and show our knowledge. This is hard! Being truly present to another is a sacred event; the Spirit is present, too. Do we want to engage in listening as a spiritual practice that opens both of us to God?

These insights have helped me to listen deeply and be present to the Spirit:

1. Listening deeply uses more than ears. Heart, soul, and mind need to be open and welcoming to the other. To offer that kind of listening, I need to remain centered and grounded in God. I must remember God is present while we struggle through painful discussions and disagreements.

When I prayerfully center myself before the discussion, I begin in hope and love. Sometimes I consciously invite Love to be present. In the midst of the conversation, I can remember my hope by silently repeating a word or phrase, such as ‘love’, or ‘peace’, or ‘Spirit is here.’

2. Listening with love is hardest when I fundamentally disagree with the words I hear. Sometimes I can calm and re-center myself by attending to my breath or my heartbeat. If I picture the other person’s lungs rising and falling and the other person’s heart pumping, I remember she is made of the same stuff I am. We share a common humanity.

Not only is the person I am listening to a physical being like me, but she is of God and lives within God’s love. Early Quaker George Fox instructed us to”walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone.” When Fox wrote about answering, he clearly expected that we listened first. Fox’s tumultuous life included imprisonments, beatings, and fierce opposition to what he held as truth. Even so, he wrote that there is “that of God in everyone.”

It helps me continue listening in love to the other when I picture him living his best self, his most loving self. I can imagine him proud and happy at a child’s graduation, or pausing in awe at a sunset, or perhaps making an impulsive donation to a person in need.

3. I will never fully master this practice of deeply listening in love. All I can do is pray “help!” and be open to God as my listening companion. But learning to listen in love helps me grow spiritually. It enlarges my loving. Besides understanding the other better, I understand myself and my own resistances better. Sometimes, having listened, I speak my truth with more kindness. And I remember that I need more than my own abilities to truly listen.

Questions for Reflection

When I have difficult conversations, am I willing to be open and grounded in Love? Can I remember that Spirit will draw me towards love and tenderness as I listen?

Do I believe that God is in everyone, that we all have a best self? Do I want to remember this when I have hard conversations?

How am I challenged to practice listening in love?

Our Season of Fear

Last year at this time I wrote about gratitude in the abundance of my garden in autumn. While vegetable gardens still produce bountifully, this year the world is dealing with a very different kind of harvest. Our fruiting crops are fear, anxiety, grief, and even despair. These spread like weeds, and their tiny seeds float lightly through the air we breathe like deadly aerosols. Just like the virus we face, the seeds of fear can multiply and take us over.

When I talk with friends, I hear the fear. “I am afraid for myself and my family. How will we get through the winter? Will we be safe from Covid19? Will I have a job? Will my children ever go back to school?” Or perhaps it’s “I’m afraid for my country–so much turmoil and injustice and anger, and will the vote be fair? And now RBG has died.” Sometimes I hear, “The climate is in chaos, and is it too late? I’m afraid for the world’s survival.”

Rumi wrote of “the tangle of fear-thinking.” Such a tangle is a sticky web from which we struggle helplessly to free ourselves. The more we listen or read the news, the more those web-strands immobilize us.

I remember holding my young children in my arms when they woke frightened in the night. My arms and voice reassured, “Don’t be afraid; it will be all right. You’re safe.” That doesn’t work any more. I still want to offer the comfort of “it will be all right” but I won’t. Real and frightening events and possibilities are around us. We are anxious, grief-filled, despairing, and sometimes simply tired.

I have no security to offer today. I do not, however, believe we are powerless. We are not powerless in dealing with our fears, and we are not powerless in the world. When the psalmist wrote “under His wings you will find refuge” (Ps.91), he was reminding us of a more sure protection than Mommy’s arms. He was inviting us into the shelter of divine Love when we are frightened. From that shelter comes our help, our strength, and our courage (Ps. 121).

When someone said to my friend Marc “I am afraid,” Marc had an unusual reply. “Hi,” he said, “I am Marc.” Afraid was not his name, not his identity. You and I are not our fear. We have fear or anxiety that we can hold before us and examine. I can say to my fear, “Yes, there you are. You are real, and there are reasons for your presence here. But you may not take over and prevent me from thinking or acting.”

It may be intimidating to look at our fears and anxieties, but it is a first step in freeing ourselves from the web of panic and powerlessness. Fear limits our vision. In the midst of seemingly hopeless situations, there is no easy assurance, but there is more persistent strength and courage than fear permits us to see. We need to live from the deep place within us where God is, where we can draw strength and courage from the Spirit, even if we are not hopeful.

I have two questions for myself and for you:

1. Where can we find food for our spirits that will sustain us during this time? What habits of living, what spiritual practices help us to live grounded in God, bringing us to the shelter of God’s wings? I posted “Spiritual Practices in a Pandemic” several months ago. Such practices and others nurture us and strengthen us to live in love.

2. What is ours to do in this time, our witness to love in a pain-filled world? Perhaps, as Mother Teresa said, it is to do “small things with great love.” There are many small things to do, from listening to another with a tender heart to donating to an organization that helps people in need. Perhaps you are called to join others in creating change. You might feel a nudge to something very specific, like my friend who signed up to work the polls or another friend who began delivering Meals on Wheels.

We are all much more than our fears. We all have capacity to be light in a frightened world. Many years ago, the iconic folk group, Peter, Paul, and Mary sang “Don’t let the light go out; it’s been shining for so many years” (Peter Yarrow’s “Light One Candle”). As long as we live beyond our fears, are sustained by the Spirit, and choose to love, it will shine on.