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)


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.


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