Two weeks ago, I looked out a bus window at a sand-strewn landscape with rocks and cliffs in shades of brown and ochre rimming the horizon. A few camels wandered by. We were traveling through the Negev Desert, one of earth’s driest environments. During the weeks we had traveled in Israel, I had been awed and grieved, moved to tears and to laughter and love. I grew more aware of the country’s complexity, of its peoples and their stories.

Most of all, I was deeply aware of water, its presence and absence and my need for it. At home surrounded by the green farms of Pennsylvania where rains usually arrive on time and the mountains and the valleys are green, I don’t think about my need for water. When I am thirsty, I fill my glass and drink. It is always available.

On our hiking pilgrimage through Israel, however, when the waves of heat regularly soared above 100 F, we paid attention to water! Our guide David repeatedly reminded us, “Fill your water bottles” before we set out to walk. And whenever we paused, he said, “Did you remember to drink?” Hiking up and down dry hills where only thistles and thorns flourished, climbing canyon walls where sand-colored stone reflected the sun’s burning heat into our faces, we drank, and then drank some more. Water was at the center of our experience, the underlying, unifying theme touching everything else that happened.

Water, I realized as I never had before, is life; it is sacred. While it can be destructive by its fierce presence or by its decimating absence, water is still sacred. Islamic tradition teaches that God created all creatures out of water. Some waters are sacred places of pilgrimage, like the Ganges River in India and the Jordan in Israel. Christian pilgrims come for baptism in the Jordan where Jesus was baptized. In these waters, people hope to experience forgiveness and a new beginning, a re-made life.

In Celtic Christianity, wells and springs are often sacred places for purification and healing. I visited St. Winifred’s Well in Wales a few years ago and dipped my hands in its water, open to its blessing while remembering Winifred. Jewish ritual bathing (mikveh) and the Muslim practice of washing before prayer both reflect our human need to bring our cleanest, purest selves into Divine presence. To be physically alive, we need water within. Water on our skin can help us be spiritually alive.

Israel’s parched landscape is marked by wadis, old dry riverbeds, and it is also marked by thin green lines deep within rocky canyons where water flows from hidden springs like a secret blessing. Scrambling down trails into the canyons, we found the streams. Sometimes we crossed a stream multiple times until we arrived at a small waterfall and a pool in which we were gladly refreshed. Or we waded down the green-bordered stream, grateful for the cooling flow against our legs on a searing hot day. We were thirsty for the touch of water.

In this Biblical land, I better understood water metaphors. I knew why the prophet Amos passionately declared, “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream!” Our need today for justice and righteousness is as great as in Amos’ time, and we need Amos’ passion, too. Borrowing from Psalms and Isaiah, I wrote:

Holy water.
Dry wadis in a thirsty land
longing to be filled,
dry people under a hot sun
needing to drink;
the dry land longing for green pastures,
the dry people needing to dwell
beside still waters.

Holy water.
Immersed in the cold wet stream
that pours from above,
sweet pleasure for a searing day;
then emerging from the waterfall,
freshly baptized and alive,
blessed like a well-watered garden
like a spring whose waters never fail.

May we be attentive to the touch of water and to the water we drink. May we open to the Spirit through water’s blessing.

Hands and the Holy

Namaste, they said.

On my desk is a circle of polished black prayer beads. I brought them back from Nepal after trekking there with friends. Remembering Nepal, I especially recall the little children, and how they ran the steep Himalayan trails, easily passing us panting hikers. As they ran past, they brought their palms together at heart level and greeted us. Namaste.  We responded, holding our hands as they did. Namaste. I bow to the Holy within you.

I bring my hands together again in that movement and whisper namaste. How essential my hands are in opening me to the Holy! All faith traditions use hands in their practices. In the Jewish tradition, one touches a mezuzah on the doorpost, a reminder of the covenant with God. There’s the Christian gesture of the sign of the Cross, and, of course, the worldwide use of prayer beads to guide prayer.

Much as I talk with my hands in ordinary conversation, expressing gladness or pain, enthusiasm or doubt, my hands also participate in my conversation with the Divine. My prayer may be the open hands of “God, here I am,” the folded hands of childhood’s “Now I lay me down to sleep,” the clenched fists of “Help, God! I am in pain.” I express gratitude and remorse, awe and yearning in my prayer simply by using my hands.

Some of my friends are knitters who find the repetition of stitches centers their prayerful meditation. One person told me she washes dishes and prays for people in her life with each piece she washes. One plate; one friend. I remember the father who prayerfully lifted his children into God’s love as he folded each child’s clothing fresh from the dryer.

What other hand activities could open us to the Holy? Could texting or emailing become openings to the Holy? What if I began and ended these activities with a gesture expressing a desire to be loving and wise through my communication? We could create a new hand prayer by holding our hands quiet for a moment and offering the next email, the next text to God.

Planting my garden this spring has been prayerful. As my hands extracted each plant from its tiny pot and pressed it securely into its new home, I gave thanks. As I planted a row of cucumber seeds, as I lightly covered a row of beet seeds, I was more aware of the tiny holy miracle I touched.

The use of beads is a very familiar way of praying by hand. Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims all use circles of beads on a string. Each religion has traditional prayers to repeat as one passes the beads through one’s hands, traditional words that express something of the heart of the faith tradition. Repeating the same phrase or sentence over and over again can engrain it within our hearts and renew our intention to be open to God. When our attention drifts away from the prayer, our hands can draw us back again.

I often use non-traditional words with beads. I pass my circle of prayer beads slowly through my hands as I name people and situations for which I am grateful. I hold each bead and give thanks, then pass to the next bead. One grandchild; one bead. At times, I focus on people and situations about which I feel great concern, naming my desire that there may be healing as beads pass through my hands.

Our hands are magnificent tools for prayer. May they continue to open us to the Holy.

Among the Bulbs

Returning home from a trip recently, I was delighted to discover that the annual miracle had happened once again. Springtime had arrived and daffodils were blooming! Their golden heads joyfully bowed and waved at me from all corners of my garden. I remembered how these cheerful flowers had taught me a lesson many years ago.

When my daughter Diana was in seventh grade, she needed a project for the science fair. After much discussion, she decided to explore what happens when daffodil bulbs are planted upside down. Would they still grow? And would they grow up?

With Dad’s help, she built long, narrow planting boxes, one side made of glass with a removable flap for observation. She carefully planted a lucky right-side up control group and an experimental group turned toes-side up. After a month, she ruthlessly created a second experimental group, turning some of the containers of the right-side up group up-side down after they’d already started to grow.

Then she observed them. While the lucky control group took off running, the others were uncertain. The bulbs planted up-side down paused to get their sense of direction clear before their growing tips curved around through the soil and headed toward the surface. Those unfortunate bulbs who were turned after they’d started to grow actually made a u-turn and plowed through the soil toward the surface, too.

How awesome is the force of a bulb, how strong and urgent the drive to grow, how amazing the sense of upness!

Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote “the force that . . . drives the flower drives my green age.” Thomas was right. Like bulbs, we too have been created with a deep drive to thrive and grow. And, like Diana’s bulbs, we’re usually trying to grow in conditions far from ideal. Up-side down planting, harsh setbacks and tragedies happen to us, too. We may struggle through the darkness of our soil mix, searching for cues, looking for a compass. Not all Diana’s bulbs bloomed – even though the need to put forth leaf and flower was so powerful that a couple tried to bloom while they were still underground.

But we’re not bulbs. We have much more freedom than bulbs to shape our growing. Though up-side down planting and painful reversals are real and have lasting effects, we can make decisions that aid our flourishing.

I believe the Creator placed in us a deep desire to burst forth into the fullest flowering that we can as well as the capacity to make decisions that will help us. Sometimes that means even growing out of the container in which we’ve been planted. I believe the God of love is not a neutral observer doing a science experiment. Instead God is for us, longing for us to find our way and to reach toward the Light that can help us be the being we most truly are.

Gerard Manley Hopkins didn’t include daffodils in his poem but he does say it well:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; . . .
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells:
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

When we’re struggling in the darkness, it can be hard to respond to Hopkins’ vision. But holding on to its truth may encourage us as we find a way to the surface, as we become “that being [that] indoors each one dwells.”

May we be awakened to the deep inner desire to bloom. May the Light illumine our way as we discover the flowering that is ours.

Diana’s planting boxes

Holding Lightly

My granddaughters and I went shopping for new school shoes recently. As we wandered down the aisles searching for just the right pair, I came to a halt before this sign:


Wow! What a beautifully concise expression of the consumerist progression in our culture. I love it, I want it, and finally I really need it! How easy it is to slide from one stage to the next. And then, buying it, we are satisfied — or not.

In stark contrast are teachings from the great religious traditions of the world. Most familiar to me are Jesus’ words, Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth. And a bit later, Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. (Matt. 6 NIV)

And here is the quandary. Jesus’ teachings may work well for an itinerant preacher who walks the countryside with only the clothes on his back and has followers who provide food but what about me?

I live in a material world and have many material possessions. I own a house; it has furnishings. I travel, and bring home souvenirs. My closet is filled with clothes, my attic with family mementos and Christmas decorations, my basement with garden tools, an old sofa or two, and my husband’s motorcycle. How should I live with these things? How much is too much? How do I decide?

Sometimes the quantity of material objects that fills the space around us is burdensome, and we know it is time to de-clutter. Perhaps it’s time to downsize. There are books and guides to help us, and we freely donate useful objects to appropriate non-profits.

But many times we just want to live more cleanly and simply in relationship with our possessions and we don’t know how to do it. Once I tried writing a material autobiography, sharing my story through significant material objects. I didn’t get very far but I did consider why I treasured them. I remembered William Morris’ dictum to possess only those things that we “know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” And I added another category: things that tell an important story.

These guidelines help us see our possessions and honor them for the role they play but they don’t help us negotiate our day-to-day relationship with them. They can still feel burdensome.

The challenge, I believe, is to appreciate the things we have without clutching them, to hold them lightly rather than tightly. The only difference between lightly and tightly is a small horizontal line – and a basic orientation to the material world.

Holding lightly does not mean we value our material things less but it means we carry a willingness to release them, recognizing they are ours only for a time. Perhaps they will be given to another, perhaps they will wear out. Perhaps we will be the ones worn out, and the release will be an involuntary release at the end of our lives. Possessing our things while being willing to let them go transforms the relationship.

I know a woman who decided to give away one thing she owned each day in Lent. Forty days, forty releases. She not only released some possessions, but she learned to hold everything more lightly. Holding lightly and releasing was more than an abstract idea for her. It was a powerful spiritual practice that created more space for God in her life.

I would like to replace the shoe store sign with another:


Fianna’s Witness: Two Pieces of Toast

two pieces of toast and a cup of milk

I’m holding a letter Fianna wrote over a century ago. The year was 1915 and she wrote from a mountaintop tuberculosis sanatorium. Fianna was a gentle young mother, dressed plainly and wearing a prayer covering on her head as was the custom for women in her church. She’d never been so far from her rural Pennsylvania home before. She was lonely and homesick, and very sick.

At that time there was no cure for tuberculosis. Large sanatoriums isolated the victims of this frightening disease and provided ineffectual treatment for them. The sanatorium dormitories were filled with patients, many from crowded cities with varied languages, faith traditions, and ways of living.

Fianna had her Bible and her hope for healing and her faith in prayer. In the midst of all the strangeness, she was determined to follow Christ’s teachings in this hard, strange place. But it was not always clear how best to do that. Fianna wrote:

Yesterday morning while taking my milk I said to my roommate “I wish I had a piece of toast to eat with this.”  Before I knew it she went out in the kitchen and stole two pieces of toast with butter and brought  them to me.
Well I didn’t know what to do.  My conscience told me it was wrong to eat it as she had stolen it and I knew I would offend her by not taking it.
After a while I said “I couldn’t do it.”  She asked why. I said my conscience won’t let me.
She started to scold me, called me a foolish thing, etc.
I left her talk but resolved in my heart not to take it.
After she had cooled down,  I said,  “Maybe the Lord will let me get well on my conscience and if I don’t have so much in my stomach.”
After a while she said “Of course it’s stealing.”
It was a little thing but I am sure that toast would have been very hard to digest had I taken it.   There are so many chances to let your light shine in a place like this.

Fianna wanted to follow what she knew was right. But she also wanted to be a good roommate. I wonder what I would have done. Would I persuade myself it was so small it didn’t really matter?

It’s one challenge to know what is right to do. It’s another challenge to discern how to do it with both integrity and kindness. Bearing witness in small neighborly situations can sometimes seem harder than boldly bearing witness in the larger world.

May we be quiet enough to attend to the Spirit, the Guide that will show us if we are to eat the toast–or not. May our neighborly witnessing rise from our desire to be both truthful and kind.

Although Fianna was my grandmother, I never met her and I only have her letters. She died a few months after she wrote this. Her witness still lives on.