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.

Safe Places

Yesterday after work I went shopping in the local sprawling shopping center. On the weekend I will worship with others of my faith tradition. In two weeks my grandchildren start back to school. I loved the concert I attended last week with my husband.

These are ordinary life activities, and I relax in the safe familiarity of them. Schools and churches and stores and concert halls have been safe places where good things have happened throughout my life.

There are many places in the world where the daily activities of shopping in the market, attending school, going to work, or worshipping in church or synagogue or mosque are life-threatening. There are many places where violent death is a daily danger.

I grieve that my country, with its great beauty and its great potential for creating safe lives for those who live here, has become less safe, more fearfully dangerous. I grieve that, within the last few years, other countries have issued travel warnings to those considering visits to the United States. Warnings have have come from countries whose people might be targeted for violence because of religion or race. But travel warnings have also come from such countries as Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, Canada and New Zealand. “Be aware of the potential risk of gun violence and terrorism anywhere” is the general message.

Gunfire is not an unusual sound here in my rural Pennsylvania area. I hear the neighbors practicing target shooting, and, in late November, I hear the hunters who help control our burgeoning deer population. But no one has pointed a gun at me, and I have not been afraid. Life does not come with a safety guarantee for anyone, but in my life I have lived in safe places and felt that I was safe from violent death. I know that I have been privileged.

For me, violence and its accompanying tragedy has been secondhand. I have seen the powerful, painful pictures and read the heartbreaking stories, but I have not suffered as others have who cry out and live the pain and the loss. My heart has wept, I have been angry and horrified, but I have not known the agony of realizing my child will never come home, that my lover is gone forever. I have not carried such burdens through the years.

What is to be done with such privilege? How am I called to live? I have searched for answers, and I invite readers who have been similarly privileged to search for themselves. So far, this is my answer:

I must never become inured to the suffering of others; I must not look away from pain to protect my own comfort. I will try to live safely but never to live a shuttered, locked-down, self-protected life where the illusion of safety appears to be something one can capture and possess.

I have visited the room where cynicism and despair live, but I must not remain in that bleak and hopeless place. I am called to be bold in speaking or writing truths I believe, and to join with others, however I can, to create more places of safety for all.

There are many ways in which violence explodes into the lives of ordinary people. When a culture protects the potential and the means for violence, it can become a norm. Like a plant pushing to grow into a stone wall, trying to change a cultural norm is very hard work. Not impossible, just hard, long, discouraging work. I will, as I am able, show up for this work.

This is what the Lord says:  Do what is just and right. . . Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.  (Jeremiah 22:3)

H

Needing the Quiet

I recently spent a weekend being quiet. My Quaker Meeting sponsored a “Silent Retreat,” a whole weekend in which participants gathered for morning and evening worship and sharing, but were in solitude and silence the rest of the time. Disconnected from the internet and our phones, we read, wrote, played music, created a craft, walked in the woods or sat quietly. Some of us took a nap.

Both Muslim mystic Rumi and Christian mystic John of the Cross wrote of silence as God’s first language. This weekend was space for listening to the silence. It was time for simply “hanging out with God,” as one friend commented.

I had agreed to guide this event months ago. Unfortunately when the time came, I didn’t want to go on retreat! I had too much to do at home. I had a garden to weed, people to talk to, work to do. I was behind on all my tasks, and felt as though I’d never catch up.

The blessing for me was that I couldn’t change my mind at the last minute. I was committed to show up–and so I discovered once again the quiet stillness that is my soul’s deepest need. Lost within the stress of tending my “to do” list, I had forgotten that we humans were created for stillness as well as activity, for restful reflection as well as bustling achievement.

This retreat was a counter-cultural adventure. We slowed down and paused to pay attention. What we received would come as a gift, and, in our pausing, we created space to notice the gift. Perhaps it felt like a new deep breathing, perhaps like a flash of lightning suddenly illuminating the night. We may have named an insight, discerned a next step, or discovered new questions. And sometimes we were simply still and aware of the presence of the Holy.

Many years ago, in need of spiritual renewal, I took a retreat entirely on my own. After settling into the cabin, I took a walk in the woods, read a bit, went for another walk. In a little while, I began to question: God, why isn’t anything happening yet?” It took me a full day to shed my impatience. It took another day to release my questions and simply open my heart and mind to whatever would come. In letting go, I opened to receive.

Taking a retreat away from daily life is one way of honoring our need for quiet and stillness. But our greater need is to build spaces for quiet and stillness into our daily lives. It can seem almost impossible to claim “retreat time” at home, surrounded by tasks and people and many concerns.

In my Quaker tradition, we gather together in the quiet. We engage in silent worship every Sunday. It’s an expectant waiting worship, trusting that the Spirit is present, expecting that we will receive something through spoken messages or from deep within us. But there, too, the noise in my head can be clamorous and jangling. I need the community’s silent support, gathering me up in a group experience of opening to God.

In some Jewish traditions, there are detailed rules for Sabbath regulating travel and acts of work. Those who observe the rules are building opportunity for quiet, for a pause in their lives. I need a Sabbath practice to help me remember how I want to live. Could I be internet-free and refrain from text or email one day each week? Would this help me build space in my life for quiet?

There are many practices that open us to the Divine. There is music and the spoken word, there is fellowship and service. All these are important. The path we too often ignore is the way of silence and stillness.