Ash Wednesday – Finding Ourselves in the Dust

Ash Wednesday will soon be upon us—literally, if we attend a service with the imposition of ashes. Receiving the mixture of oil and ash in the shape of a cross on one’s forehead comes with the reminder to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

These words are part of a ritual I have long found meaningful even as I resisted what I took to be its message. But my attitude toward the Ash Wednesday service, with its stark reminder of death, has evolved over the years. I’ve moved from rejection of what I perceived as a dark view of life and death, to acknowledgment of death’s inevitability, to appreciation of a ritual that honors the reality of our limited time on earth. But I’ve always thought of that return to dust as happening literally, at our physical death.

Last night I dreamed I was on my belly in a dusty yard, struggling to move forward without being able to raise myself up. I was without strength or power, in contact with the ground. I could see plants growing at eye level and I thought of the healing herbs I wanted to grow. Later in the dream I was walking, but cars zoomed by leaving me in the dust.

I woke from the dream with a sense of vulnerability, yet feeling oddly peaceful. As I worked with the images from the dream I felt a shift occur. My experience of dust in the dream opened a new way of understanding the dust proclaimed in the Ash Wednesday liturgy.

Returning to the dust doesn’t happen only at our death. We return to the dust over and over as life knocks us off our feet. It feels like a defeat, which it is: a de-feat (or even de-feet), not something we accomplish but something done to us, something we endure. Some power outside our control brings a new reality we wouldn’t have chosen. Our plans and expectations turn to dust, and life as we know it is over.

But in the dust we’re back where we came from, supported by our connection with the earth. The word humble has the same root as humus (Latin for soil) and human. In the humility of experiencing our limitations, we find ourselves supported by a greater strength.  Being humble puts us in touch with what Paul Tillich called the Ground of Being. Our vulnerability brings us into contact with the real support life offers, as opposed to the illusory supports we try to create for ourselves.

Finding ourselves in the dust is a blow to the ego but growth for the soul. It grounds us and helps us remember who we are. On the ground we’re in the place where life is rooted and healing herbs grow. We experience the solidity of the earth upon which we walk. We remember our dependence on it, our oneness with it. And throughout our time in this world, the earth strengthens us as we regain our balance and rise again.

The ritual of Ash Wednesday’s imposition of ashes is a reminder of how brief our lives are. But it also speaks to the many times we find ourselves in the dust over the course of a lifetime. In those times the dust can be a place where we encounter the grounding and strength always supporting us. In the dust we encounter the essence of life and of ourselves. Ash Wednesday isn’t the dismal ritual I once thought it was. Rather, it points to how the heart of life is often hidden in the places where we least want to look.

Out into the Weather

I usually welcome the quiet routine that follows New Year’s Day. Early January brings a welcome balance after holiday indulgences. But this year’s unrelenting blast of arctic air made for a harsh transition back to everyday life. A car door handle, brittle from cold, snapped off in a friend’s hand. It was a tough start to the year.

I wanted the option to just hunker down against the weather—my favorite strategy for dealing with winter storms. I wouldn’t have minded hiding under the covers from the news, too, along with all the other uncertainty and difficulty life can bring. Yet as it turned out, it was during this coldest week I can remember that I had scheduled a change in office locations.

So despite the single-digit temperatures, I carted boxes and furnishings out of my former office and into my new one. One morning I was thwarted when my hatchback was frozen shut, even when I tried to thaw it with a hair dryer. Only the temperature rising to the teens that afternoon allowed it to open again. These are not the circumstances I would have chosen for a move, but they offered an interesting lesson.

With hat and gloves and layers I was able to work perfectly well in the cold. The physical work helped keep me warm. And being able to accomplish my task in spite of the difficult weather gave me a different way to see myself. Instead of being oppressed by the weather I felt an unexpected sense of vitality and empowerment. Meeting a challenge stirred some energy and excitement, feelings not available from my more usual approach of enduring and waiting for things to get better. I might not have chosen to go out and meet such weather, but I found that I could and that it wasn’t as bad as I might have feared.

Life urges us forward in different ways at different times. Fortunately, it also kindles in us a flame that fuels that movement. That life force will see us through if we can just remain connected to it. The circumstances of our lives sometimes include harsh weather I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. It can take courage just to step out the door and into the day’s demands. And sometimes storms come up that are more than anyone can navigate.

But whatever we face, we can be sure that life is more than our current circumstances. The weather will change. And when we have to contend with harsh weather, we can often find a source of strength that allows us to be stronger than we knew ourselves to be.

A friend recently shared this bit of Swedish wisdom: “There is no bad weather. You’re just wearing the wrong clothes.” Oh please, is one response. But actually there’s some truth in that saying, and it’s helpful when life requires being out in the weather. The right clothes are available, even if it means putting on a mindset we’ve never worn before. And the flame within is always there, a source of warmth and encouragement that never leaves.

 

 

Longing for Hestia

The holiday season doesn’t typically bring the pantheon of Greek gods to mind, but the goddess Hestia has something to teach us about the heart of our celebrations. Hestia isn’t as well known as the other Olympians, as we don’t have stories of her exploits, and she was rarely represented as a human figure.  Instead, she was identified with the hearth fire of a home or temple. When the fire was lit she was understood to be present, and tending her flame was a sacred duty.

 

 

Hestia offers wisdom for creating and maintaining the social structures of family, community, and state that sustain human life. The sense of warmth and comfort we feel at a fireside is her gift. On a larger scale, her influence yields a society that provides peace and security for its members. Hestia’s presence is quiet; Hestia’s absence is devastating.

We’re in the midst of a season when the longing for Hestia colors the activity all around us. The Greeks showed restraint from trying to define her in terms of human characteristics, but our culture doesn’t hesitate to offer specific images for capturing her spirit in our individual lives. Advertisements encourage us to invoke Hestia’s presence not by kindling her fire in the hearth, but by presenting gifts or meals or décor or events. All of these things can be lovely, but when we believe they are necessary—or worse, that they are sufficient for a joyful holiday, we are misled.

The holiday season places home and family at the heart of what we celebrate, idealize, and long for. Over the next few weeks we’ll be subject to thousands of images promising to satisfy our desire for peace and connection. But a longing as deep as the one we bring to the season isn’t met by anything out there in the world, or even by the home and family that can be such blessings.

Addressing the longing for Hestia happens in our own hearts. Her hearth fire is kindled inside, with loving acceptance of ourselves and of life as it is. From that centered place we can lovingly embrace others, bring out the best in them, and create an environment in which to flourish. Invoking the presence of Hestia brings a different kind of perfection, joyful and satisfying. And in the warmth of her light, everything else we bring to the holidays glows as well.

 

 

Becoming Peacemakers

I’ve been re-cultivating the discipline of push-ups against the door frame lately. Fifteen was a challenge to start with, and now I can do thirty. I’m stronger, but it wasn’t entirely my doing.

I did stick with the activity, remembered to take time most days, persevered in pressing my weight away from the door frame until my muscles complained, endured the sense of weakness as I reached my limit. That much I could do.

But the getting stronger part is a mystery. It happens quite independently of anything I can direct. The body’s own wisdom and intelligence is knit into how we’re made.  It repairs the tiny fissures in the muscles in a way that leaves them more powerful. I invite that repair by exercising enough to stress the muscles without overstraining them. But the growing strength is the body’s own doing. That potential is built into the design of this miraculous embodied experience.

We do our work—physical, mental, emotional, spiritual—in co-operation with the universe. Hopefully over time we learn to make space for the greater wisdom and power available to us. Into that space enters a transformative life force beyond anything we can put there. Trusting that process is what faith means. We aren’t alone; it’s never up to us alone.

Just before I fall asleep at night I know I’m being carried and I can let go. In fact, only if I let go can I sleep. Such a mystery, this space that opens up when I step back from thinking, planning, reviewing, worrying. In that space is an unnameable reality more real, more enduring, than all the plans and work and details that pass away. In that space is the experience of safety, wholeness, and love.

We’re part of the magnificent flow of life. We do our best to do our part, whatever that may be. Whether we’re in the calm before the storm or the storm before the calm, we’re carried by something bigger.

Making space to connect with that source of wisdom can change our perspective. As we rest from our labors, it knits us together stronger. And when we take up our tasks again, the strengthened source of wisdom within helps us offer the peacemaking presence that this world sorely needs.

 

What We Learn and What We Perceive

One of the intriguing ideas I encountered at the recent Dream & Spirituality Conference is that we are able to perceive only what we have learned. The more I think about this idea, the more I find it to be true.

Physicist Doug Bennett offered the example of bird watching to make the point. I don’t know much about birds. For me, a walk through the woods might mean seeing a few indistinct brown birds, and that’s if I’m paying attention. But a birder who has learned to recognize and identify details of shape, size, color, and behavior will notice distinct species that I simply do not perceive.  I would have to learn a lot more about birds even to see them.

Similarly, until I’ve learned to identify types of trees, the woods are simply an undifferentiated expanse of foliage. Insects are just bugs, stones are only rocks, and a foreign tongue is merely babble if I haven’t learned to discern the meaning in the details.

Certainly we are able to learn, and we do this by relating new things to what we already know. Is a new bird bigger or smaller than a robin? Is the leaf of a new tree pointed like a maple, or rounded like a sassafras?

When new learning breaks into our consciousness, it wraps itself in the form of what we already know so that we can take it in. That’s why Mr. Miyagi gave the Karate Kid his tiresome “wax on” and “wax off” chores when he first asked for lessons. The familiarity of that task readied him to counter a punch with a martial arts move like the circular motion of waxing a car.

For any of us to recognize a new possibility, it has to show up connected to something we’re familiar with. Einstein’s mind-bending ideas of space and time began with his imagining himself riding on a beam of light. Facebook was conceived as something like an electronic version of a class yearbook.

Likewise, if we’re able to recognize the suffering of another person, it’s because we can connect something about their experience to what we know. Whether it’s from hurts we’ve experienced, or from taking in another person’s story, what we’ve learned is part of what prepares us to be compassionate.

Our learning predisposes us to see, or to not see. What we learn matters. What we don’t learn has consequences. The information and ideas we take in have a direct effect not just on what we think about the world around us, but on what we are actually able to see of the world. Our choices of media have moral consequences.

If we can’t see what we haven’t learned, then there is all the more reason to look at the world together and share our perceptions. I need to know what I’ve missed, and the only way that is possible is if you’ll share with me what you see.

When we put our two perspectives together, perhaps we can both acquire a more three-dimensional view of reality. If we can see the world more clearly, perhaps a way to tackle its challenges will become more clear as well.

 

 

Cynthia Bourgeault and Practicing Presence

When Cynthia Bourgeault introduced the contemplative practice of centering prayer at the Festival of Faiths in Louisville last week, she spoke of different practices and traditions as being like colors of the rainbow. Each color is part of the one light, a unique and beautiful aspect that informs our understanding of the light.

I was eager to attend Bourgeault’s talks because her book, The Wisdom Jesus, has been so important in opening my reading of scripture. She is tiny, a package of concentrated energy. Calm and unassuming, with a delightful sense of humor, she bristles with life as she teaches.

Meditation is like putting a stick into the spokes of the monkey mind, she said. It’s all about noticing our thoughts, seeing our patterns of thinking, and letting them go.

Whether we call this practice meditation, centering prayer, or something else, it’s a practice of making ourselves available to a higher mind. It’s an intention to move beyond the machinations of our calculating ego.  As Bourgeault puts it, centering prayer is a practice of returning to God whenever we notice a thought arising. How does one let go of a thought? She demonstrated by standing onstage with her arms outstretched, holding a stick in one hand. She opened her hand and allowed the stick to fall to the floor. Just like that. Let go.

This inner action of letting go becomes the outer action of letting be, she told the audience. It’s hard to value this spiritual practice at first. What can it possibly accomplish? What’s the point when there are so many other things that need doing?

But in this practice of gently releasing the mind’s tyranny, we open ourselves to another way of perceiving. We practice another way of being. For a brief time we allow a higher wisdom to move through us, and slowly learn to permit that flow in more and more aspects of life. We get beyond how the ego thinks things should be, and learn to be present to what is.

Bourgeault describes this as putting the mind in the heart, yielding a new way of perceiving. She calls it the key to practicing compassion. This deep sense of compassion, beyond what she terms ego and activism and do-goodism, is putting on the mind of Christ. From this place true transformation happens.

As we practice this way of being, we place ourselves in the presence of God. As we get out of the way we allow God to flow through us. As we let go of our ego’s agenda we become available to the flow of our authentic life and experience our connection to others.

The energy in the room was palpable as Bourgeault led us in a silent session of centering prayer. I understood for the first time where the phrase “tugged at my heartstring” comes from as I experienced just such a tangible sensation.

Sitting in meditation it looks like nothing is happening. But there’s more to our lives than what meets the eye.

 

Integrating Masculine and Feminine Energies

I’m still humming with the energy of a recent conference entitled Losing Myth: The Price of Losing Feminine Wisdom, hosted by Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Lexington. Joyce Rockwood Hudson and the Rt. Rev. Larry Maze spoke about the vital role of personal and collective myth—eternal truths expressed in symbolic language—in helping us gain perspective on the events of our lives. They also pointed out the urgent need for integrating the feminine with our culture’s primarily masculine perspective in order to find health, meaning, and balance in our world and in our individual lives. I see the church-sponsored discussion of integrating the feminine within the church as sign of life and health, often overlooked in popular media.

Sol and Luna, from the Rosarium philosophorum, reproduced in The Hermetic Museum: Alchemy & Mysticism by Alexander Roob; 2014, Taschen.

What does it mean to integrate masculine and feminine? It’s not as simple as having equal numbers of men and women at the table, because it’s not simply a matter of gender. All of us, men and women, can exhibit characteristics understood as “masculine” or “feminine.” To be receptive is a feminine quality, but not a quality that belongs only to women. To take action is a masculine quality, but not one exhibited only by men. The inner work of self-awareness and spiritual life is feminine; the outer work of problem-solving and attaining goals is masculine. A mature man or woman draws on both masculine and feminine traits. We need both to understand when to be open to a new idea, and when to act on what we know.

Perhaps a clearer way of delineating masculine and feminine aspects is through the Chinese terms yin and yang. Yin energy is hidden from view, as when new life is gestating before being born into the world. It is connected to what is mysterious. It has to do with relationships, intuition, creativity, connection to the natural world, including the body, and with inner growth. Yin is the characteristic of night, the moon, the unconscious, and the sorting out that occurs in darkness. Yang energy is outer-directed and goal-oriented. It is analytical, decisive, and articulate. Yang orientation claims an ideal and works to achieve it. Yang is the quality of day, consciousness, and the sun. It is the light of reason, and clarity of thought. Wholeness comes through integrating the inner wisdom of yin, or feminine, energy and the outer action of yang, or masculine, energy.

We live in a culture that easily recognizes the value of a yang orientation, and tends to be more dismissive, if not downright suspicious, of yin. A patriarchal culture means not just that men are in charge, but that a masculine orientation edges out an appreciation of the feminine. Women can be just as patriarchal as men in their orientation and values. The remedy is not to denigrate the masculine in favor of the feminine, but to create balance between the two. We need both creativity and productivity, clear thought and intuitive perception, problem-solving and relationship-building.

Joyce Rockwood Hudson and Larry Maze spoke of how the church, not unlike Western culture at large, has done a great job of teaching about the masculine aspect of God, but has lost touch with God’s feminine side. Likewise the culture teaches us as individuals to measure our worth in terms of outer accomplishments and measurable achievements, ignoring for the most part our inner life.

But it is the still, small voice within that tells us which actions hold meaning. We need the guidance of inner wisdom to be fully alive. The feminine side of God gives us that, and we need her.

 

 

Glimpsing the Lady Within

I recently made the early morning flight to New York City, leaving Bluegrass Field in the dark and approaching LaGuardia with the sun just high enough in the East to set the city aglow. Passengers on the left-hand side of the plane leaned into their windows as the iconic outline of Manhattan came into view in the distance. Its bristling skyline appeared to rise straight out of the water.

“Do you see it?” the woman behind me asked her traveling companion.

“Not yet.”

I could feel their expectancy. And then, “There she is!”

Standing apart from the mass of gleaming towers was the lady of whom they spoke. Lady Liberty, of course, whose circular island pediment and graceful stance contrasted with the hard lines of the city. Whose form lacked the height of those structures behind her, yet whose singularity made her recognizable, accessible, beloved.

Window shades snapped open along the length of the plane as others claimed the view. Lady Liberty, like nothing else during the flight, enticed passengers away from their phones, their books, their reverie, and their sleep.

She matters. Because of the immigrants she welcomes to this country, yes. But she is more than our ambassador. Our connection with her is deep and visceral because she welcomes each person, including us, to be part of this nation. She invites the weary to take heart, she upholds the dignity of the oppressed, and encourages the heartsick to persevere.

She reminds us that we are strong enough to be compassionate and wise enough to follow her light. She is the best in us, and we rouse ourselves from slumber to catch a glimpse of her because she is how we will meet this day.

Marching and the Labyrinth

While marches were recently going on across the country, I was completing my training as a spiritual director at The Haden Institute. In connection with those marching, essentially, to affirm the value of human dignity and respect, we held a liturgy around a labyrinth.

One at a time, each person taking part in the ritual stood at the entrance of the labyrinth holding a lighted candle. After silently declaring our intention in making this symbolic journey, each passed the flame to the next person and proceeded to walk the labyrinth.

Many of us shared in this ritual of walking the labyrinth, which meant that some were on the way in toward the center as others made their return. We sometimes met another person on the narrow path and needed to yield so that both could continue on the journey.

It was a contemplative version of a march, appropriate for a group committed to doing our inner work and discerning how and where the Spirit is leading. In our training we have faced our own self-delusion, unhealthy patterns, and the hollowness of the ego’s demands. We have also experienced the wisdom and light available when we can get out of our own way and find the true center—the spark of the divine within.

People across the country are considering how best to live up to our civic and moral responsibilities. To choose where to invest ourselves, each of us needs to know more about our values than what we’re against. Outrage and fear are powerful motivators, but not a strong basis for setting a wholesome vision.  To build a better society, it’s important to go beneath our immediate emotional responses and act from a grounded center. We gather strength when we know what we’re working for. Then we can be clear about our vision, goals, and values and share them with others. We can help foster the vital, healthy communities that sustain our lives and work.

Walking the labyrinth is a beautiful meditation on the three-part journey. We go within to become centered and grounded. The circuitous route to the midpoint is full of the bewildering turns that life can take. Its confusing path shows us the need to connect to divine guidance. The still point in the center is a place of restoration and wisdom. In this place we find rest, and are given what we need. Finally, we take that inner peace with us as we navigate the complexity of our path back into the world. We repeat this journey again and again throughout our lives.

A balance of contemplation and action changes the world. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, and countless others have been able to generate change through action rooted in their connection to the Divine Center. The vision and work that emanates from this center is what will truly carry us forward.

My work is to help people connect with that same center of wisdom, strength, and peace. I’m grateful for the training that has prepared me to offer spiritual direction. Spiritual companionship is a natural a balm for our fragmented society. Now more than ever we all, regardless of our politics, need the ability to act from our highest and most essential self. We need the ability to make soul-level connections with others to create life-affirming communities. Spiritual direction is a healing force for just such a time as this.

My office is open and I would love to meet with you. Email me at: susan@mildlymystical.com

 

Hope

One of the things we need most as we move into this new year is Hope. Not an expectation of wishes coming true, or anticipation of ease, but the indwelling of life energy that refuses to check out in the face of adversity.

A friend recently shared Jan Richardson’s new meditations on hope for this year’s “Women’s Christmas” retreat. (Women’s Christmas is an Irish tradition of Epiphany as a day for women to take a break from family and domestic obligations, gathering to relax and celebrate together.)  Richardson’s insightful observations are a testament to the journey through grief and faith she has walked for the past few years.

True hope beckons us to do more than wish or want or wait for someone to take action. It asks us to be the one who acts. It calls us to discern what lives beneath our wishes, to discover the longings beneath our longings, to dig down to the place where our deepest yearning and God’s deepest yearning are the same. When we find that, when we uncover those deepest desires, hope invites and impels us to participate in bringing about those things for which we most keenly long.  – Jan Richardson

Our deep and true longings are placed within as a gift. They are a spark of the divine that urges toward what will bring us into health and wholeness. It is painful when what we love or value is taken away, yet the longing for what we know is good continues to call us into life. This energy that pulls us forward is cause for Hope.

Hope has work for us to do. It asks us to resist going numb when the world within us or beyond us is falling apart. In the height of despair, in the deepest darkness, hope calls us to open our hearts, our eyes, our hands, that we might engage the world when it breaks our hearts. Hope goes with us, step by step, offering to us the manna it holds. – Jan Richardson

Trust is a close relative of Hope. When we don’t know how to make things better, when the way forward is dark, being able to trust that we’ll be given what we need allows us to keep going. It helps to remember times in the past when our needs have been met and we have been led forward. We can recall events from our individual lives or from our collective life together.

Hope is not always comforting or comfortable. Hope asks us to open ourselves to what we do not know, to pray for illumination in this life, to imagine what is beyond our imagining, to bear what seems unbearable. It calls us to keep breathing when the world falls apart around us or within us, to turn toward one another when we might prefer to turn away. Hope draws our eyes and hearts toward a more whole future but propels us also into the present, into this day, where God waits for us to work toward a more whole world now.  – Jan Richardson

Hope is a kind of strength, though not a strength that we have to cultivate alone. As we share our disappointments and longings, honoring the authentic yearning of our hearts, we hold space for the new life that wants to come through us and be born into the world. The energy of that life force will not be denied. When we experience its flow we cannot help but dwell in hope.