Garden of the Spirit

Days of Uncertainty

In the midst of these days of uncertainty, I have turned to things that remain constant. I bake, knowing I can depend on yeast to create a well-risen, delicious loaf of bread. I plant seeds in my garden that will grow into lettuce and beans and cucumbers. The turn of the seasons is unchanging, and it is springtime. On my ancient sewing machine where I made children’s clothing many years ago, I make masks for my family. Sewing is the same as always though I’ve never sewn masks before.

Engaging in small certainties brings me comfort. My family has been fortunate in many ways. We continue to have work. We have known some who have been ill or died, but we have lived in good health. I know this could change at any time.

The reality of uncertainty, of not knowing what lies ahead, has touched us all, and created much anxiety and fear. We have lived in the illusion of certainty, the security of believing that we knew what tomorrow would bring. I never fully appreciated that blessing. Now I realize that I know less than ever before. Now I recognize certainty was always an illusion even when I trusted it.

Then I could say, “Of course I’ll meet with my book group on Mondays and my writing group on Tuesdays. Of course we’ll take a trip somewhere this summer. We want to visit our family in Seattle, and perhaps plan a vacation to my beloved England.” Then I could say, “Of course my worshipping community gathers together at 10:00 on Sunday mornings.” Then I could say, “I’ll be glad to meet with you for spiritual direction. My little office is on Columbia Ave.”

Now what do I know? Not much. The public discussion is focused on opening up, but no one really knows what we’re opening into–or how to do it well. While some make predictions confidently, the forecasts show little agreement. How do we live with such uncertainty? How do we live with the insecurity of such unknowing?

It’s natural to want to see further ahead. There is wisdom in planning for the future, but if we focus too much on peering through the fog of confusion, we may miss the certainties that we have. We may miss living fully alive now.

I remember Quaker George Fox’s words from the 17th century: Look not back, nor too forward. . . .For you have no time but this present time. All I have is this present time. To look not too forward means I have to accept living with a lot of uncertainty. I have to find a stable footing within the world’s instability.

A friend said recently, “So how do I live the rest of my life–COVID and all?” That’s the big question. We begin living the rest of our lives here and now in the middle of all the confusion and uncertainty. Now is the only certainty we have.

Wendell Berry wrote that It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work. Real work, real living, he says, begins with not knowing. This is where we are, confused and uncertain, so let us begin.

What do I know now? I know that seeds grow into fruit, that yeast expands into bread. I know that online visits with those I love encourage all of us even if we can’t hug. I know that laughter is healing, and so are tears. Perhaps my real work is planting seeds, baking bread, and loving my neighbors. Perhaps my real living is walking with others on the path of unknowing amid the angst of uncertainty.

This is our now. May we find gratitude and love on this path. May the Spirit guide us in our real work, the work of living fully alive in this present time.

Anchored in Place with Julian

As we enter the second month of Pennsylvania’s official shut down, my thoughts have turned to a woman who lived in England a long time ago. The words of Julian of Norwich have often spoken to me, and I believe her life and wisdom have a special message for us today. This is her story.

Julian was an anchoress, a manner of living quite foreign in our century. She literally anchored in one place and was ceremoniously walled-up within one or two rooms. She desired to give herself entirely to God and a life of prayer, and this was her way. While this extreme seclusion was unusual even in the 1300’s, she was not unique. The room of the anchoress (or anchorite) always attached to a church with a window through which one could gaze on the altar and join in worship. An exterior window opened to the street so people could come to receive guidance. A servant attended to her physical needs, and often there was a cat for company – and catching mice.

Julian and her cat

Julian lived secluded but she was not truly separated from the violent 14th century world outside her window. Norwich was a major seaport, and Julian’s church sat on a main street. She lived during a time of ongoing war, appropriately named the Hundred Years War. During her years as an anchoress, the bubonic plague repeatedly swept through her city. Starvation was not unknown, and fierce persecution of religious dissenters sometimes concluded with a burning.

I imagine Julian’s prayers interrupted by the rattle of corpse carts past her window, by the marching of soldiers, by the wailing of the bereaved. I imagine Julian was often called to the window when someone came in search of her wisdom and comfort. Julian lived in the space between two windows, between the suffering world and the holy space of the sanctuary. Anchored in that place, grounded deeply in God, she gave herself as a channel for God’s love in times of plague, starvation, and war.

What did she offer those who came to her window in such times? We know some of what she offered because Julian passed on her experience and understandings through Showings, the first book in England written by a woman. She wrote

He did not say, ‘You shall not be tempest-tossed, you shall not be work-weary, you shall not be discomforted.’ But he said, ‘You shall not be overcome.’

Yes, Julian wrote, you will be in pain, exhausted from the storms that rage and toss you in their midst. But, in the end, you will not be overcome.

Perhaps the most famous Julian quotation is All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. These have always been difficult words for me. How can she say “all shall be well” when it clearly isn’t, when pandemic, economic collapse, and war, like fierce storms, rage around us? It wasn’t “well” in her century, and it’s not “well” in ours! But Julian told a story for times like ours:

God showed me in my palm a little thing, round as a ball, about the size of a hazelnut. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and asked myself: “What can this be?” And I was answered: “It is everything that is created.” I wondered how it could survive since it seemed so little it could suddenly disintegrate into nothingness. And I was answered in my understanding: “It endures and always will, because God loves it; and in this way, everything has its being by the love of God.”

In this little thing I saw three properties.
The first is that God made it,
the second is that God loves it,
the third is that God preserves it.

Today, when it seems our world could “suddenly disintegrate into nothingness,” Julian invites us to deeper intimacy with God, or, as she described it, being one-ed to God. Anchored in the space between all that is Holy and a world of pain and fear, Julian calls us to anchor more deeply. In some mysterious way we don’t need to understand, God is still creating, loving, preserving. The power of Love is still greater than the power of disintegration.

May this time of sheltering in place also shelter and anchor us within God. May we, trusting the mystery, echo all shall be well.

Spiritual Practice in a Time of Pandemic

Today I emailed a friend and cancelled our lunch. Yesterday I called those who meet with me for spiritual direction and offered Skype or Zoom conversations. The news changes hourly, and I check it at least that often. I’m concerned about those I love who work in health care. I’m concerned about those I love who are in the older adult, high-risk category, and then I’m shocked to remember that “older adult” includes me, too.

In the midst of uncertainty and fear, we need each other more than ever, but we need to remain six feet apart. We want to actively combat the threat, but we are asked to remain passively at home. We don’t know what normal means any more. Normal has been spinning so fast that we’re dizzy and unbalanced. COVID-19 has curtailed our usual lives, and we wonder if we’ll ever get them back again. Of course we’re confused and panicky and afraid.

We need a strong foundation to live through a time when so much is unknown and uncertain. We need to be grounded more deeply in the One in whom “we live and move and have our being,” as Paul wrote. (Acts 17)

Can this time of pandemic bring an opening, an invitation, instead of just a curtailment? There’s a challenge here to deepen spiritually, to live from an enlargement of love and compassion rather than an enlargement of fear. Let us take up the challenge.

We need spiritual practices for a time of pandemic, practices to strengthen our grounding in God on this journey. Here are some possibilities:

1. Practice gratitude. I have found no better disinfectant for fear than a steady application of gratitude. Pausing to reflect on what I am thankful for, especially when I write it down, moves my spirit into an entirely different space. I am grateful for medical professionals, the arrival of spring flowers, money to pay the bills, my purring cat, my refrigerator, the beauty of the sunrise. The list goes on.

2. Pause and breathe deeply every three hours, becoming awake to the present moment. (A phone chime can provide a timely reminder.) Notice something of beauty. If possible, step outdoors and walk around, attending to the miracles of the natural world. Be aware of messages coming from body and senses. Here, now, this moment of this day, I am alive.

3. Select a picture or painting, a sacred writing, or a piece of music that will open your spirit to God. Gaze quietly at the image, slowly read the words, listen to the music. Allow it to sink deep within and refresh your spirit through a time of meditation and prayer. Is there an invitation in the picture, the writing, or the music for living in this time?

4. Create a prayerful ritual through movement. Our bodies can offer the prayer of our hearts, can literally in-corporate our spirit’s yearning. Going for a run or a walk can be a spiritual practice. Dance can be a prayer. Our hands can express our prayer through their position or movements. Prayer beads can guide our devotion, our intercession, and our gratitude. My friend washed dishes as he prayed; each spoon, fork, or plate representing someone held into God’s love. What wisdom for these days rises through my body?

5. Touch others with love and compassion daily. This is the essential practice. Even when we self-isolate or socially distance ourselves, we still need to connect. Make use of text, email, or Skype/Zoom/Facetime, and also remember those who need a phone call or a written note. I pledge to touch with love at least five people beyond my home every day. Whom will I reach out to and touch with my heart today?

6. Close the day with these questions for reflection: Where did I receive love today? Where did I give love today?

I received love today from my daughter whose concern for me kept her from visiting, from those in my Quaker Meeting who are organizing online meeting for worship, from my friend who suggested a visit through Zoom with a cup of tea. I gave love today with a letter to my immune-compromised sister-in-law, with a care package to my homebound Seattle granddaughters (cookies, books, and a jigsaw puzzle), with a phone call to check on a friend.

May we grow more steadily grounded in God in the midst of the frightening realities of this time. May we be rooted ever more deeply in the Spirit of Love.

Puddleglum’s Hope

Many of us are familiar with C. S. Lewis’ well-loved books about Narnia, the country where Aslan the Lion rules, and people and speaking animals live together peacefully. I wonder, however, how many remember the Narnian named Puddleglum. He appears in only one book, but he offers us an important message.

This is the story. In The Silver Chair, two children visiting Narnia seek for a lost Prince who was captured by a Witch and imprisoned in a dark underground world. Puddleglum is a truly glum character, always expecting the worst, but he faithfully supports the children on this quest.

Eventually the seekers find the Prince, free him, and prepare to journey out of the underground world when the Witch suddenly shows up. She pretends to be puzzled by their desire to leave the underworld and travel to Narnia. The children and Puddleglum try to explain the wonders of Narnia and the majesty of Aslan the Lion, but she insists that her underground world is the only world. Using her magic, she tosses a mysterious powder into the fire, and the air fills with a sweet scent. As they breathe it, the children begin to fall under her spell and repeat after her “there is no Sun, there is no Aslan.” But Puddleglum resists! Stamping out the fire with his leathery feet, he says to the Witch:

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things–trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. . . .We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.

Puddleglum’s words, I believe, express the essence of hope. He’s not certain any more that Narnia exists, but he decides to live as though it does and try to return to Aslan’s country. They do find their way back to Narnia eventually, but when they start, they have only the hope to guide them.

Hope is not wishful thinking. (I hope I get X for my birthday; I hope it snows–or doesn’t snow.) Hope is not optimism or expectation that things will work out. Hope is stronger than all that. It’s a decision for how to live.

Novelist Barbara Kingsolver wrote “The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope.”

Living in hope means we acknowledge the present reality, but we put our energy toward something more. As my houseplants lean toward light on a gray winter day, so I lean into my hope. I put my energy into the possibility that the deepest human desire is to live in peace and love with each other, and that love can outstare fear. I don’t know if it’s true, but I hope.

If we live in hope, it shapes our life’s activities. I have friends who pour their energy and time into building more understanding between peoples, into creating bridges in a divided world. Their hope shapes their lives. What is your hope? How does it shape your life?

Hope lives in the gap between a dismissive “there’s no problem here; it will all work out” and the despairing or cynical “it’s beyond saving.” This is a hard place to live, and we can easily drift away in either direction. We need companions if we are to remain in that sacred place of hope. I choose to walk with Puddleglum and hold his hand. I invite you to join us.

. . . those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; . . . (Isa. 40:31a)

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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