Garden of the Spirit

A Song for Dark December

The darkness of the northern hemisphere this month seems longer and the days shorter than I remember from past Decembers. Perhaps my perception matches the world’s mood. Though we know the earth’s tilt will shift (and vaccines are on the way), it’s cold and dark now, and we are weary of our restricted lives and, yes, weary of crises.

In 1899, writer Thomas Hardy wrote of a bleak December in his poem, “The Darkling Thrush.” As he gazed out over a desolate December landscape that seemed to hold no potential for life’s revival, he suddenly heard a song. “An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small” was flinging “his soul upon the growing gloom.” And Hardy, grieving the world’s brokenness at the end of the century, wondered if there was “some blessed Hope, whereof he knew and I was unaware.”

Hardy ended his poem there so I don’t know if he grew more hopeful about the future upon hearing the thrush. What I do know is that a song of hope flung into dark times has a power out of proportion to the size of the messenger. If a little brown bird can sing hope, I wonder what hope is mine to fling forth.

Poet Edwin Muir also found treasure in dark times. In “One Foot in Eden,” he described how the world’s suffering, its “darkened fields,” brought forth blossoms of love and hope that mysteriously flourished best because they grew in the brokenness of the world. Great love and great acts of compassion are called forth in the midst of suffering. They are, he wrote, the “strange blessings” of a broken world.

Perhaps hope, love, and compassion do put forth their brightest blossoms in dark times of pain and hardship, but I don’t want to live in such times. I’d like to sing out hope and to bloom with love–without a pandemic, grief, great loss, and bitter division in my country. I want warm, light-splashed times!

But this now is what we have. If Muir’s “darkened fields” are a place of germination and growth for the human flowering of hope and love, what blooms can we bring forth? What soul song is ours to sing now?

This is a time of darkness to attend to the Loving One who nudges us to grow by presenting opportunities for practicing love. This is a darkness where we can see the needs around us, and we give as we can. This is the long night of winter when the energy for creating a better future can be strengthened through vision and faithful communities. This is the bleak season when we long to be together with those we love, and we are challenged to celebrate in new ways. Can we celebrate the hopeful song of the thrush in new ways?

A year ago, I wrote a piece for my blog titled “Puddleglum’s Hope.” (Link Here) Puddleglum, a figure from C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books, chose to live by hope in a time of darkness, even though he had no certainty that the Lion Aslan or Narnia itself were real. That still remains our challenge. Can we decide to live out of hope, to act out of compassion and love, even if we feel darkness inside us as well as outside us? If we choose hope and join with others, the song of hope will grow, but it’s not ever easy.

My mother loved to sing, and her beautiful voice often filled my childhood home with music. Her favorite Christmas carol was “O Holy Night,” and I remember the depth of feeling with which she sang “a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.” Like the thrush flinging his song into the bleak world, she offered her song into December darkness, and her voice soared with hope.

My prayer for this weary world is that we will find ways to sing of hope and offer it to others. My prayer is that hope, compassion, and love, the “strange blessings” of painful times, will deeply root themselves in us and bloom with great power and beauty.

Hanging Out With Trees

Exhausted, discouraged, and stressed, 
I turned to the forest
all aglow in morning light, 
and the tall trees drew me 
into their golden hearts. 

A few weeks ago, my husband and I stepped back from our daily life and all the turmoil in the country and world. For a few days, we stayed in a small cabin deep in the Appalachian Mountains and hiked the forests that surrounded us. I didn’t know how much discouragement and anxiety I carried until I began to shed it. I didn’t know how tired I was until the rhythm of my days slowed down, and I breathed easily again.

Far from the conflicts of a world threatened by civil unrest amid a flourishing pandemic, I focused on watching deer outside the window. Each day we walked leaf littered mountain trails, while, above us, the giants of the forest accepted our presence with quiet serenity. By the edge of a mountain pool, I lay back on the grass and stared through gilded branches into a blue sky. I wondered, how could I have forgotten such soul-restoring stillness?

I needed the trees. Walking a forest path was like walking into a cathedral, breath-taking and quieting, bringing me to tears with its beauty. I was inside a space that opened me to God. I walked down a leafy aisle, I climbed up the steep slope on sprawled root steps, and the trees embraced me and filled me with peace.

I turned to the trees,
burnished by autumn's palate,
and they breathed on me.
I leaned to their silent embrace,
comforted by deep rooted strength.

I turned to the trees
whose boughs, bending down,
brushed me softly with falling leaves,
and I was quieted 
by their feather light touch.

I turned to the trees,
and far above me I heard
a slow deep murmur,
"Welcome home, child. We are still here.
Come, and rest among us."

Hanging out with trees brings me other gifts as well. The long arc of tree life reminds me that trees measure time by centuries. Absorbing the deep-rooted, long wisdom of trees, I wake to hopeful possibilities behind my own ephemeral lifetime. When I recall tree time, I can live for a future that I will never see.

Like a tree whose living nurtures other life, whose dying feeds future blossoming, may my presence in God’s world nurture its healing. May my spirit be rooted in the Divine Spirit and contribute to a future where people offer the wisdom and peace of the trees — to each other. The Psalmist writes of such people: “they are like trees planted by streams of water which yield fruit in its season.” (Ps. 1:3) May we indeed bring forth such fruit!

My husband and I have returned home to our usual daily lives and responsibilities. Around us, the furious tumult of the world goes on. But the healing wisdom and quiet strength of the trees remain with me. I cherish hope again. I look ahead, and live for the lives of the children of my grandchildren — who may turn to the identical trees I turned to. And the trees will gift them, too, with peace and renewal.

Outside my window, a profusion of colorful leaves spreads across the grass. Even as the pine tree that stretches above my house retains its green, the maples surrounding it are preparing to release their last gold and red into the light wind. Shimmering in the sun, the leaves will float silently down to join the carpet below. The season is turning, and the skeleton of the maples is revealed in all its elegance and strength.

When wind-whipped, raucous storms
buffet our lives,
when fault lines crack ever deeper 
in our world,
I turn to the trees for healing, 
to the comforting patience of the forest,
to the long-lived continuity of trees.
I trust the passing seasons again;
my soul is restored.

The Challenge of Listening

I am a professional listener. As a psychologist and spiritual director, clients have literally paid me for listening to them. I should know something about listening after all these years, but I am still a learner. I do know that listening to another can be deeply spiritual, an experience that opens both of us to God. And I know the challenge is to listen with an open heart and mind, to be hospitable to the speaker’s story and truth.

Listening comes in many forms. Sometimes we listen simply for information. Sometimes we are semi-attentive to another’s story because we’re waiting for a turn to tell ours. During this strange Covid time, we gather with friends online or in person and masked to share how we are managing and laugh, or perhaps cry together. Our days provide innumerable opportunities for listening, and usually it’s not hard.

Some occasions for listening are challenging, however, and those we’d rather avoid. Maybe we are wrestling with family differences about handling the holidays. (“What do you mean we’re not going to do Thanksgiving this year unless we isolate first?”) Or we wish we could find a way across a political or cultural divide and really talk with a neighbor or family member. We want to ask “How can you believe that?” (or perhaps we want to set them straight), but we don’t want to risk disrupting the casually polite conversations we already have. Sometimes, of course, we’re bombarded with intense words when we lack the energy to listen at all.

When we enter a conversation desiring to listen deeply and understand the other person and their truth, we must prepare ourselves. We need to set aside our own agendas, the natural desire to express our point of view and show our knowledge. This is hard! Being truly present to another is a sacred event; the Spirit is present, too. Do we want to engage in listening as a spiritual practice that opens both of us to God?

These insights have helped me to listen deeply and be present to the Spirit:

1. Listening deeply uses more than ears. Heart, soul, and mind need to be open and welcoming to the other. To offer that kind of listening, I need to remain centered and grounded in God. I must remember God is present while we struggle through painful discussions and disagreements.

When I prayerfully center myself before the discussion, I begin in hope and love. Sometimes I consciously invite Love to be present. In the midst of the conversation, I can remember my hope by silently repeating a word or phrase, such as ‘love’, or ‘peace’, or ‘Spirit is here.’

2. Listening with love is hardest when I fundamentally disagree with the words I hear. Sometimes I can calm and re-center myself by attending to my breath or my heartbeat. If I picture the other person’s lungs rising and falling and the other person’s heart pumping, I remember she is made of the same stuff I am. We share a common humanity.

Not only is the person I am listening to a physical being like me, but she is of God and lives within God’s love. Early Quaker George Fox instructed us to”walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone.” When Fox wrote about answering, he clearly expected that we listened first. Fox’s tumultuous life included imprisonments, beatings, and fierce opposition to what he held as truth. Even so, he wrote that there is “that of God in everyone.”

It helps me continue listening in love to the other when I picture him living his best self, his most loving self. I can imagine him proud and happy at a child’s graduation, or pausing in awe at a sunset, or perhaps making an impulsive donation to a person in need.

3. I will never fully master this practice of deeply listening in love. All I can do is pray “help!” and be open to God as my listening companion. But learning to listen in love helps me grow spiritually. It enlarges my loving. Besides understanding the other better, I understand myself and my own resistances better. Sometimes, having listened, I speak my truth with more kindness. And I remember that I need more than my own abilities to truly listen.

Questions for Reflection

When I have difficult conversations, am I willing to be open and grounded in Love? Can I remember that Spirit will draw me towards love and tenderness as I listen?

Do I believe that God is in everyone, that we all have a best self? Do I want to remember this when I have hard conversations?

How am I challenged to practice listening in love?

Our Season of Fear

Last year at this time I wrote about gratitude in the abundance of my garden in autumn. While vegetable gardens still produce bountifully, this year the world is dealing with a very different kind of harvest. Our fruiting crops are fear, anxiety, grief, and even despair. These spread like weeds, and their tiny seeds float lightly through the air we breathe like deadly aerosols. Just like the virus we face, the seeds of fear can multiply and take us over.

When I talk with friends, I hear the fear. “I am afraid for myself and my family. How will we get through the winter? Will we be safe from Covid19? Will I have a job? Will my children ever go back to school?” Or perhaps it’s “I’m afraid for my country–so much turmoil and injustice and anger, and will the vote be fair? And now RBG has died.” Sometimes I hear, “The climate is in chaos, and is it too late? I’m afraid for the world’s survival.”

Rumi wrote of “the tangle of fear-thinking.” Such a tangle is a sticky web from which we struggle helplessly to free ourselves. The more we listen or read the news, the more those web-strands immobilize us.

I remember holding my young children in my arms when they woke frightened in the night. My arms and voice reassured, “Don’t be afraid; it will be all right. You’re safe.” That doesn’t work any more. I still want to offer the comfort of “it will be all right” but I won’t. Real and frightening events and possibilities are around us. We are anxious, grief-filled, despairing, and sometimes simply tired.

I have no security to offer today. I do not, however, believe we are powerless. We are not powerless in dealing with our fears, and we are not powerless in the world. When the psalmist wrote “under His wings you will find refuge” (Ps.91), he was reminding us of a more sure protection than Mommy’s arms. He was inviting us into the shelter of divine Love when we are frightened. From that shelter comes our help, our strength, and our courage (Ps. 121).

When someone said to my friend Marc “I am afraid,” Marc had an unusual reply. “Hi,” he said, “I am Marc.” Afraid was not his name, not his identity. You and I are not our fear. We have fear or anxiety that we can hold before us and examine. I can say to my fear, “Yes, there you are. You are real, and there are reasons for your presence here. But you may not take over and prevent me from thinking or acting.”

It may be intimidating to look at our fears and anxieties, but it is a first step in freeing ourselves from the web of panic and powerlessness. Fear limits our vision. In the midst of seemingly hopeless situations, there is no easy assurance, but there is more persistent strength and courage than fear permits us to see. We need to live from the deep place within us where God is, where we can draw strength and courage from the Spirit, even if we are not hopeful.

I have two questions for myself and for you:

1. Where can we find food for our spirits that will sustain us during this time? What habits of living, what spiritual practices help us to live grounded in God, bringing us to the shelter of God’s wings? I posted “Spiritual Practices in a Pandemic” several months ago. Such practices and others nurture us and strengthen us to live in love.

2. What is ours to do in this time, our witness to love in a pain-filled world? Perhaps, as Mother Teresa said, it is to do “small things with great love.” There are many small things to do, from listening to another with a tender heart to donating to an organization that helps people in need. Perhaps you are called to join others in creating change. You might feel a nudge to something very specific, like my friend who signed up to work the polls or another friend who began delivering Meals on Wheels.

We are all much more than our fears. We all have capacity to be light in a frightened world. Many years ago, the iconic folk group, Peter, Paul, and Mary sang “Don’t let the light go out; it’s been shining for so many years” (Peter Yarrow’s “Light One Candle”). As long as we live beyond our fears, are sustained by the Spirit, and choose to love, it will shine on.

A Love Story: Fianna and Samuel

Fianna and Samuel were my grandparents, and I’ve inherited a boxful of letters that tell their love story. It’s a simple story from a century ago, but their joy and their sorrow is timeless, a tale of love and faith in the midst of pain, a tale for today.

Their romance began in college. There they saw each other daily in classes and clubs, at chapel and in the dining room. She was slender and graceful with a quick smile, and he was handsome with dark curly hair. With similar family backgrounds, a similar sense of fun, and a shared religious commitment, they were well-matched. Samuel reflected later how their union was “the result of much prayer and careful thinking.

Soon after Samuel finished college, they married and began their life together. A year later a baby boy arrived, and, before long, he had a little sister. Samuel worked in a bank and farmed while Fianna cared for the children and managed home, garden, and chickens. Contentment and happiness filled their home.

Then came the hard times. Fianna became mysteriously ill. She coughed a lot, had a persistent fever, and lacked energy to care for the children or do her work. The doctor called it pleurisy and advised rest, but she didn’t improve. Eventually they consulted another physician and discovered the truth.

Fianna’s trouble was one of the world’s oldest killers: tuberculosis. In the early 1900’s there was no cure or effective treatment. A few people survived though, and that kept hope alive for others. (Even with today’s antibiotics, this disease yearly kills a million and a half.)

Fianna and Samuel decided that she’d go to White Haven Tuberculosis Sanatorium, an isolated mountain facility far from their home. There, with rest and a special diet, she might have a chance. The regimen there (sleeping on the balcony in the snow! raw eggs and milk!) and the life among strangers was hard for Fianna. She remained cheerful, but she longed for her family. For Samuel, life at home without his beloved was painfully lonely.

Samuel’s first visit was at Christmastime. He brought gifts, their little son, and all his love. What joy it was to be together again! Although Samuel thought Fianna looked better, the doctors were not encouraging. Filled with both fear and hope, Samuel turned to prayer. “I walked out one day and back of the Sanatorium I found a path leading to the top of the mountain which overlooks the highest hills far and wide. When I came to the top, the occasion and quietude moved me to kneel on the pure snow and pray earnestly for the recovery of her who brought so much sunshine in my life. What more can I do than to pray, Lord I believe help thou mine unbelief.

Fianna remained at the Sanatorium for three months, but her health steadily declined. Finally, the doctors told Samuel she would not recover. They encouraged him to take her home where she could be cared for by her family and surrounded by a community that knew and loved her.

Together Samuel and Fianna prepared for the long separation. They discussed how Samuel’s life would unfold without her. “She took much interest in my and the children’s future.”

Fianna’s gentle gratitude for the care she received and Samuel’s tender steadiness as he cared for her touched those around them. After a house call one day, her family doctor spoke about “her cheerful spirit” that continued in the midst of pain. Fianna’s sister wrote that “a day before she died, she said to me, “If there is an ideal home ours was one.

Fianna’s last words were to Samuel. “I am going to my beautiful heavenly home.” He responded that he and the children would also come sometime, and Fianna whispered, “I will wait for you inside the gates.

In The Prophet, poet Kahil Gibran wrote, “Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.” But I say unto you, they are inseparable.” May we, like Fianna and Samuel, face our grief and pain with courage and steadfastness, recognizing such times are woven into the tapestry of our lives as surely as is joy. May we trust, as Samuel wrote, “our God who can see both the sunshine and the shadows.”

NOTE: Moved by the joy and sorrow I found in my grandparents’ letters, I have written their story into a book, Fianna’s Story. It is available from Masthof Press or through Amazon. Click here to learn about it.

Lives That Are Linked

Life is short. We don’t have much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk this way with us. So, be swift to love and make haste to be kind. Henri-Frederic Ariel

Fifty years ago I was fresh out of college and learning to teach English to rooms full of ninth graders. My challenge was to interest almost 150 teenagers in books and reading, to teach them spelling and grammar, and how to write an essay. Some students were enthusiastic, especially when we borrowed play swords and acted out famous scenes from Romeo and Juliet. Others, I think, simply waited for the bell to ring.

I’ve forgotten most of the faces, but a few rise before me now, and I can even remember where they sat. Mary, for example, sat in the first row on the right. She dressed plainly and wore her dark hair braided and pinned on her head. A Japanese American, she was one of the few students with non-European ancestry. I remember Mary’s smile and friendliness, and how she sometimes hung out in my classroom after school had ended. She was an excellent writer and responded thoughtfully during class.

I moved away after a couple years and left my teaching job. I never lost Mary though. Intermittently through the years, we’ve been in touch. I met with her when she was editing a magazine. Then I heard she had moved west and was passionately engaged in anti-war activism through art and poetry. She hosted music programs on public radio and found her home in Albuquerque’s art world. I read the poems she posted on her website. Once she told me about helping lost street kids rebuild their lives. Reclaiming her Japanese heritage, Mary continued to develop her strong sense of self and her calling to poetry.

And then, almost ten years ago, Mary asked if she could dedicate her first published book of poetry to me. Yes! What an honor! When the book arrived, I opened it eagerly. Under my name was written “my ninth grade English teacher who saved my life.” I did what??

Turning to Mary for an answer, I learned of the other side of her ninth grade life. Behind the gifted writing and her ready smile lay a home life of religious fundamentalism and white supremacy, a place of cruel abuse from which she escaped as soon as she could. I had seen the surface and never guessed what lay beneath. How did I save her life when I was just figuring out how to live my own?

Affirming her gift for writing, enjoying her conversation after class, sending her a postcard from England–these were small things, not life-saving actions. But Mary recounted another small event, one that I don’t remember. Once she was hanging out in my room after school when a couple of the big guys came swaggering in to see me. As she was leaving, they made a disparaging joke about her. Mary remembers me fiercely telling them: You just wait. Mary is the kind of person who is going to change the world!

I wish I remembered saying that, but it doesn’t matter. The only person who needed to remember was Mary, and she did. Her life has been about changing the world, using her gifts and her energy, her compassion and her wisdom to make the world better.

Mary is my teacher now. What has she taught me? I’ve learned that our lives are profoundly linked to others, and the ripples from our small actions and words extend further than we would ever expect. We are never a neutral presence in another’s life. We can do harm, even through ignoring another. (Whose raised hand gets recognized in the classroom?) Or we can be attentive and experience the other as an equal, as another child of God. We may not always save a life, but we always have an influence.

Mary has taught me that gratitude travels two ways. I may have saved Mary’s life through means I will never understand, but Mary has deeply blessed my life by inviting me to participate in hers. In the end, we have both given, and we have both received.

Last week I heard from Mary again. She has been named Poet Laureate for the city of Albuquerque, and she invited me to watch the online ceremony. I watched, I remembered, and I filled with gratitude.

       from I am a poet
i am a poet to reclaim humanity from the ravages of war
not to count the casualties but to heal them

i am a poet and my task is immense
i cannot do it alone
but an army of poets can kiss the world awake
                 Mary Oishi
       from you are here
you should have died
you should have died so many times
i cannot count them all
you should have died but

here you are
still here
still here
still dancing.
                ---Mary Oishi

Justice and Love

Justice is what love looks like in public. Writer Cornel West’s words have been haunting me the last few weeks.

One of my frequent prayers is “God, may I be a channel of your love today.” Sometimes it’s more of a cry for help. “God, I need your loving wisdom to guide me to love today. I can’t do it on my own.” This prayer rises from the heart of my faith and theology: God is a God of love, and I believe actions of loving-kindness are the most important thing we do. Whether through simple friendliness to those I pass on the street, reaching out to someone in need, or giving patient attention in difficult situations, I want to honor others as beloved of God.

My prayer to be a channel for love has focused on individuals I interact with, but Cornel West’s words challenge me to a larger understanding.

Injustices happen to individuals, but injustice categorizes groups of people by such things as skin color, place of birth, sexual orientation. A person is no longer an individual but a category. When we stand for justice, we are not blind to our varied humanity, but we see and honor the uniqueness of each person. We want respect, fair treatment, a life free of fear for all people, regardless of categories. Love, wearing its public face, pours its energy into creating that reality.

My prayer to be a channel of God’s love has taken on new meaning as the world once again confronts embedded racism. The work against the sin of racism must involve me–if I am to be a channel of God’s love. Justice is what love looks like in public. I need to acknowledge the public, pervasive wrong of how our world has created categories of people who are automatically seen as less than. I need to help change this.

As a white, middle class woman, my life has not been limited by racial prejudice and injustice. I have not needed that extra alertness to danger for myself or my family as a basic life skill. If I decide on a road trip with my family this summer, I don’t need to plot a route with safety in mind. I have never been trailed by a suspicious security person as I shopped. As my white husband hikes the country roads near our house in his t-shirt and old backpack, his presence has never been questioned. Racism wears a variety of guises, both subtle and brutal, but I have not been required to pay attention to them simply in order to live.

If I want to be a public face of love, I must look at myself and learn how living in a world where racism flourishes has influenced me. I must be willing to pay attention. When my 13-year-old granddaughter sent me a link to her school project on environmental racism, she taught me. Last week I researched “redlining” and found an old map online that showed the official redlining of my town of Lancaster. More learning.

If I want to be a public face of love, I must never look away from the whole reality of other lives. When I see injustice, I must be willing to speak out and to bear witness in whatever way I can. I must be willing to do what is mine to do. I want to be a channel of God’s love through being for justice. How will you join me?

Suggestions for learning and doing appear on Pendle Hill Quaker Retreat Center’s website: https://pendlehill.org/support/news-and-notes/suggested-readings-on-understanding-and-addressing-racism-and-white-supremacy/#action and in this list: https://medium.com/equality-includes-you/what-white-people-can-do-for-racial-justice-f2d18b0e0234.

Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream. (Amos 4:24)

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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