Garden of the Spirit

Coming Together: An Invitation

Just over a year ago, I took a deep breath and clicked “publish,” thus sending out my first Garden of the Spirit reflection. I called it Advent Adventure, a fitting title with which to enter the world of posting!

And this last year has been an adventure. Apprehension and anticipation are both part of adventure, and I’ve experienced them in full. I still don’t click “publish” with ease; it still takes a deep breath, but I do click.

My intentions for this writing are the same as when I began. I hoped to share experiences of the Spirit, trusting that my stories would resonate with you, and help you to honor your experience of the Spirit. I’ve written about spiritual practices that help me be aware of God’s presence in my life, implicitly inviting you to join me in the practice.

I receive from you, too. Every time I’ve sent out a monthly reflection from Garden of the Spirit, I have heard from readers, telling how my story reflected their experiences, and sharing their openings to the Spirit. I have learned that my experience does resonate with others. Our spiritual paths are interwoven, touching each other, even while each is unique. Often we don’t know how much we are together. We feel alone.

A pastor friend said to me yesterday, “I feel alone even when I’m not alone.” We are not alone on this journey, but it can seem very lonely. This felt aloneness need not be overwhelming, however, when we join with others.

In Will and Spirit, Gerald May, spiritual director and psychiatrist, wrote:

The spiritual journey seems lonely. . . .There is a dimension of delicate pain in this, but even in our aloneness, we are together for we each have it. At the deepest level of our hearts we are all aching, for each other and for the same eternally loving one who calls us. It would be well, I think, if we could acknowledge this more often to one another.

I have been a spiritual director for over two decades, and a therapist and listener to others for much longer. I’ve seen repeatedly how much our human journeys are similar, even though the details are unique. And I’ve noticed how much we want to share our experiences of the Spirit.

At my Quaker Meeting, we occasionally offer a program called “My Spiritual Journey.” This is simply one person telling of experiences that shaped their relationship with God, both the rocky times and the fulfilling times. It is always one of the best attended events of the year. As May wrote, “at the deepest level of our hearts, . . .we are all aching” for such sharing.

I called this blog post “An Invitation,” and here’s the invitation! Two invitations actually.

With this post I have opened the “comments” section of the blog. I invite you to respond to my Garden of the Spirit reflections by sharing your insights with other readers through “comments.” (I will still respond to notes from those who want to write just to me; simply hit “reply” on email.)

We need companions on the spiritual journey. I hope you will share your experiences of the Sacred, your uncertainties and your discoveries, with others through my blog or through face-to-face friendships.

Here’s my second invitation. Begin the adventure of this new year by reaching out to someone who is not already close to you. Is there someone whom you see regularly but don’t really know? Or someone who needs an outstretched hand – and you haven’t yet offered yours? Give a thank you to someone, embrace someone, visit someone, forgive someone, reach across boundaries.

In Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor wrote:

What we have most in common is not religion but humanity. . . .encountering another human being is as close to God as I may ever get, in the eye-to-eye thing, the person-to-person thing, which is where God’s Beloved has promised to show up. . .

This year may we be more open to truly see and treasure each other, to honor our universal human journey, and our journey with God.

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For the Descendants

I stood on the windy hill and looked down at the old farmhouse, the barn, the fields, and on beyond to the long stretch of Appalachian Mountains. I was standing in a small family cemetery surrounded by modest tombstones that had cracked and tilted over the years.

This land had been farmed by my family for over two centuries; my ancestors were buried in these graves. I bent down and read: Samuel Oberholtzer Meyer. That would be great-great-great-grandfather. I tried to read other tombstones but the old German was barely legible.

Who were these people of my blood? What were their lives like? What did they love, and what did they live by? I wished I could travel back in time and interview them.

As I stood there, trying to look into the past and see more than dim outlines of ancestors moving away from me, I suddenly discovered my vision had reversed itself, and I faced the opposite direction. I am an ancestor, too! have descendants! Will someone one day look at my name and wonder who Nancy Meyer Bieber really was? What did she love, and what did she live by?

I decided to meet with a quartet of my descendants and invite them to ask me questions. A few weeks ago, these descendants (also known as granddaughters) and I plopped on a big bed, they with long hair, long legs, and irrepressible energy, and we began.

This favorite foursome (aged 12 to 15) live far from each other, but when they are together they have splendid adventures. I remember watching four little girls splashing in a bathtub. A few years later, they were hiking in the Rockies, then snorkeling among the Galapagos Islands. I remember them zooming downhill on a zipline, and also dressed in their best for an afternoon tea party (complete with fake British accents) for which they had baked and iced all morning. Now they’d gathered to question Oma.

I promised I’d answer a couple of their questions here and create a blog reflection for them. Of course I was asked “who was your first boyfriend?” but I’m skipping that and going for the big ones.

What message do you have for us, Oma?
Live loving-kindness.
Keep on learning your whole life.
Remember to play.
Pause, take in, and enjoy God’s amazing world.
You come from family who lived with integrity and truth.
Continue the tradition.

What do you wish you’d learned when you were our age?
To love is a decision we make again and again.
To forgive is a choice we grow into, usually not overnight.
Boldly stepping forth and trying the new enriches our lives.
We need wisdom from a loving community to make good decisions.

What’s important to you now, Oma?
You are.
I believe the Spirit placed within you so much strength, beauty, courage, and capacity for goodness that you’ll never run out. You have that of God within you. My hope is that you will respond in love to that of God within all that is.

You are precious in my sight and honored and I love you.
(God’s message in Isa. 43:4.)

Holy Reading

I sat in a circle with my friends, each of us holding a paper filled with poems, prayers, and Bible quotations. We were going to read them silently and slowly to ourselves – with the clear intention of not finishing! We hoped to be so moved by a phrase or word that we would need to stop and prayerfully reflect on the meaning it held for us.

This is a very adventurous and mysterious kind of reading. Our usual habit of reading for information is turned upside down. We are not reading to learn something about current events or new technology; we are not reading to solve a problem or analyze a situation. We are not even reading to discover how a story turns out. Instead we’re reading for the purpose of opening to God, of paying attention to the Loving Spirit so we can grow spiritually. We read to be spiritually formed, not informed.

In Christian tradition, this way of reading is called lectio divina, or holy reading. For centuries, this prayerful attending to words has used the Bible as its sourcebook. Today other meaningful writings are often included, especially poems or written prayers.

Our group began lectio divina by pausing a few moments to consciously welcome the Spirit into our experience. Then we began to read silently to ourselves, attending to each word and phrase, looking for the words that would stir us and stop us. We didn’t know what we would find. And we didn’t know what we would discover in our prayerful reflection on the words.

I began to read the first passage:

I have called you by name and you are mine.  When you walk through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.  When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. . . You are precious in my eyes and honored and I love you.

But I never read to the end of these verses from Isaiah 43.  The first six words stopped me. These words were speaking to me; this “I” was calling me. This is where I needed to stop. I closed my eyes to reflect.

I wondered why these particular words moved me, what feeling or experience was in them. Suddenly I saw myself standing at the edge of a small stream, hiking poles in hand. There was a figure on the other side of the stream, extending a hand and inviting me to come over. The crossing was quite safe but I’d need to take off my shoes and wade. I wasn’t scared to cross but I was a little apprehensive about what I’d find on the other side. Even so, I was glad to be called.

I wondered what particular opportunity or invitation these words, this image, held for me. My image of crossing a stream was powerful but I didn’t know why it had come or what invitation it represented. What kind of metaphor was it? Perhaps I would only discover the opportunities on the other side after I’d said yes, walked through the stream, and began to look around. Entering the territory across the stream would be venturing into the unknown.

In our daily lives, as in the spiritual practice of lectio divina, we don’t know what we will notice that will make us pause. We don’t know what will move us, what invitation will come to us if we are mindful and attentive in our living. It may seem strange or unusual (like a vision of being beckoned across a stream) or it may continue a familiar path. May we always choose to live attentively. May we always respond in love to what arises.

Sacred Walking

With my face tilted into the fresh autumn sunlight and my poles in my hands, I gazed toward the mountains. Mt. Kazbek loomed high above me, its snow-covered peak shining with light. Before it, rooted on a rocky promontory, stood Gergeti Trinity Monastery whose church had lifted its tall steeple in this place for over six hundred years.

I was traveling with friends through Georgia, a beautiful small country on the Black Sea with the stunning Caucasus Mountains slicing it into many valleys and languages. One day we walked from the village at the foot of Mt. Kazbek through woodland and meadow to the Gergeti Monastery. It was a breathless climb up the slope to the church where expansive views lay before us–from the small town below to the rim of mountains that surrounded us. We entered the church and looked in awe at the icons covering the walls, saints whose steady gaze held our own, offering us a bridge to the Holy, inviting us into an experience of God.

Every day we walked. Some days our goal was a crumbling fort or a distant alpine lake. Another day our destination was an isolated, abandoned church where the stone cross still hung above the altar space, and where I could imagine prayers and incense lingering among the half-broken walls. We trekked through the mountain landscape, past grazing cattle and their herders, through steep, forested hills and high, grassy meadows. We clambered across rocks, waded streams, and had lunch by hidden lakes.

The mountains, I discovered, were inviting me into an experience of the Holy. The Celtic tradition describes the world of nature as “God’s other book.” Written in God’s inimitable handwriting, the icons of nature were inviting me to a grand arms-outstretched “Yes!”

I realized that I was a pilgrim, that my walking was pilgrimage. Most religions recognize and encourage pilgrimages to the holy sites of their tradition. Pilgrims bring to their journey a desire to grow closer to God, a quest for spiritual deepening. Whether the goal is circling the Kaaba in Mecca, praying at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, visiting the place where the Buddha died, or walking the Camino in Spain, the journey itself is a sacred one.

There is a blessing for the pilgrim in reaching the holy site, but the inner transformation is actually happening all along the way. Each step renews the pilgrim’s desire to open to the Sacred; each step subtly invites the pilgrim’s heart into deepening.

Whether my intent was to reach a mountain view, an ancient fort, or a church, the gift of the walking came as I was open and alive to all around me. I treasured the wonderful variety of my fellow travelers, their adventurous persistence in walking, their laughter, and their questions. I drank in the richness of “God’s other book,” the jutting shafts of rock, trees beginning to turn color, rippling grass, and cascading streams. The present moment filled me, the contemplative moment of “Here, now, this, yes.”

A pilgrim returns to daily life, and I have returned to my home. The gifts of the journey are lived out in daily life. I wonder how I can continue being awake to the miracle of “God’s other book” when around me are only familiar hills and fields. Can I remember to pause and see them, drink them in? My home life is busy with schedules and responsibilities. Can I pause and attend to the beauty at the heart of the familiar people who share my everyday life?

We are all called to be pilgrims who are transformed through the journey. We don’t need the exotic and new for transformation. Our everyday journey is an invitation into the Holy, perhaps the most challenging pilgrimage of all.

Harvesting

Where I live, September is a time of harvest. My garden, noting the morning coolness that foretells the end of the growing season, is surging into one last big effort to produce. I can almost hear the whispers in the breeze among the tomatoes, beans, and squash: Ripen up! Grow bigger! Now is the time!

My vegetable garden invites me into a particular kind of aliveness. Growing food in the earth requires me to attend to the rhythms of the seasons, to sun and rain, to the soil. When I carefully place into the soil those tiny miracles of possibility that we call seeds, I have begun to participate in their life story. I watch them sprout, then I water and weed as needed. And when they are ready to harvest, I kneel before them in homage, thankfully plucking onions from soil, beans from bush, cucumbers from vine.

Harvesting brings delight and gratitude. In fact, I think we need an early Thanksgiving Day to celebrate our garden harvest. I celebrate and give thanks for cherry tomatoes that explode into flavor when picked and eaten right from the sprawling plants, and for the very different sweetness of red and gold raspberries sampled fresh off the bushes. There are cucumber sandwiches and salads, beans sauteed with a little lemon juice, and summer squash to prepare in as many ways as I can invent. I delight in the flavors and textures and colors unique to each. I am grateful beyond words for the rich soil, the warm sun, and the rain that created such abundance.

Working in my small square of earth, I feel joined to a multitude of gardeners, all of us tending our individual plots, alive in our own ways to their miracles. Throughout the summer we’ve observed their needs and rejoiced in their growth. We rejoiced in the harvest but we have also noted the vulnerabilities of our plants. Destructive insects can attack squash and beans; cucumber vines can wilt. Visiting deer can eat almost all the sweet potato leaves in one short night. Being alive in the garden includes attentiveness to these realities of the natural world.

Deep within, I’m still a farm girl whose summers were filled with growing, eating, and preserving produce from our big garden. Three generations gathered in the kitchen to freeze vegetables, to can peaches and applesauce, to make pickles and jams. I took it all for granted when I was a child, but now I am awed by these treasures from the earth. Now it is I who fills the shelves with jars of applesauce and tomatoes, with pickles and jams. Onions are braided and hung from the rafters while beans and peaches wait in frozen splendor for a winter summons to the table. Sweet potatoes contain their lumpy orange goodness on trays in the basement until their turn.

Being alive in my garden, being alive to the food I eat and its journey to my table, I overflow with gratitude. I am glad to be an integral part of this journey. I am grateful to the One who created these treasures of the earth, and I am grateful to join in this creative work.

When winter comes, my garden will still live — through the produce stored in my house and through my summer memories. Remembering the garden and the harvest, I wrote these lines:

Down in the cellar
a huddle of onions
rustles in flaky brown skins.
    Spring dew chills my bare feet,
I run to see if the onions are up
bringing spring’s fresh bite.
In summer’s heat, a fat old fellow
pulled from his earthy home
for a dinner stir-fry rewards me
with tears.

Rough unpainted shelves
hold rows of applesauce.
A hot summer day
and a house heavy with the smell 
  of apples cooking;
my hands know the touch
of Grandmother’s colander.
Its pores ooze the steaming sauce
that trickles down its sides
and drips into a bowl.

Behind the freezer door
stiffly at attention stand
boxes of beans both yellow and green.
A midday sun warms my back
and fuzzy leaves cling to my shirt.
I’m squatting with aching knees,
lapped round by a low green sea.
Short fat lima pods
and long dangling pencil pods
wait to be picked.
Fresh cooked beans blush deeper green,
crunch tenderly on my tongue.

Tucked away treasures all over the house;
quart jars bulging with Big Boys,
tomato red for a winter night stew.
Under them, cucumbers
sour sweetly into pickles.
Of jams and jellies, three neat rows;
strawberry and raspberry
glowing softly in their corner.

Like the squirrel, my sister,
in the seasons of ripening
I gather.
All canning and pickling,
all drying and freezing
are mine.
As long as earth bursts with banquets
in sensuous abundance,
so long will I lay up its gifts,
store up my memories,
and, in the cold days, the dark months,
bring them forth in gratitude,
these treasures of the earth.