The Wisdom of Gratitude

At the site of a friend’s silent retreat this fall, a ginkgo tree happened to shed its leaves on the same weekend. She was drawn to the gentle drama unfolding over the course of a day, the air so thick with fluttering yellow fans they sounded like rain as they pooled on the ground. Had the retreat not offered the kind of presence that happens through silence, she might have seen them drop but missed the sound, the music, of falling leaves.

Loretto Retreat, et al 071

It’s a mystery how life can hold such beauty at the same time it holds so much pain. The world is hurting. Each of us is injured from violence inflicted far and near. Wrenching scenes repeat on our screens as we attempt to grapple with unfolding events and respond to the world we live in. As the news cycle continues, fear and hate seem quickest to find their voice, filling the world with noise and making it harder to listen for wisdom.

Yet reminders of wisdom rise up like seedlings through concrete. Teachings on compassion become part of the conversation as people share those scriptures that serve as compass points for their lives. Discussions of the values that shape the identity of our nation are held in earnest. People are sharing and responding to heartbreak in a way that compels action for the sake of justice.

I am grateful for those giving voice to generous and searching hearts. I am grateful for models of resolve shaped by wisdom, strength, and love. They remind us of what is good in this world, and help show us the way forward.

Into this milieu, with perfect timing, comes Thanksgiving.

It is literally good for the heart to be thankful. A daily practice of naming two or three things for which we are thankful actually improves our physical health—this report on those findings is not only fascinating, but encouraging. In a previous post I talked about making space in our lives, giving ourselves breathing room by easing up on our expectations and allowing something new. Gratitude helps to do that.

In remembering to be thankful we make space for something more than the worries that beset us. We open ourselves to other possibilities, and perhaps to seeing new ways to meet the concerns and challenges of our world.

Centuries ago the Sufi poet Rumi wrote:

But listen to me. For one moment
quit being sad. Hear blessings
dropping their blossoms
around you.

May this Thanksgiving be an invitation to wisdom. May we listen from the quiet center of the heart, and rest for a moment in gratitude.

Making Space in the Holiday Season

The vase where I keep my pens is a pleasure to use. Not only is it beautiful, it reminds me of the friend from whom it was a gift. And it keeps my pens from rolling away, or being buried under papers and books.

Vase of Pens

Yet I recently found myself finished using one of my favorite pens and placing it beside rather than in the vase, hoping it wouldn’t roll off the tabletop. The vase was jammed with writing implements I never use—pens with dried or blotchy ink that won’t improve with time—and there was no room for the one I truly cared about finding again when I needed it. It was a lot like having no pen holder at all.

It’s easy not to notice as trivial items encroach on limited space.  Because the change is gradual, it’s almost invisible. The same thing happens as our days, our conversations, our thoughts, grow cramped from holding too many unimportant things. Noticing that feeling of constriction is the first step in making a change. We need breathing room, space for something that would better serve.

I’m thinking about that welcome (and welcoming) space as the holidays draw near. I look forward to traditions that mark these days as special, set apart. Yet some years are so filled with events and obligations to wedge into the holiday calendar there’s scarcely time to simply enjoy the season.

Our lives are already full, and when we add in the seasonal celebrations it’s easy to jettison the things we need most—the chance to relax, have a conversation, take a walk, read something inspiring, make something beautiful, enjoy good music, to name a few—can be harder than ever to fit into the day.

For a variety of reasons, this holiday season will be different for my family from years past. Change is unsettling, but it also brings a sense of spaciousness. I want to be able to appreciate this particular year, this celebration, without imposing too many expectations from holidays past. Our psyches can become so crowded with old expectations we can hardly be present to what actually shows up.

Now, before the season begins, it’s a good time to consider what aspects of our celebrations we really care about, what helps us connect with something greater than ourselves, how we can best show our love, what gives this season meaning, and where in it we find beauty and light. Maybe it’s possible to let go of the pressure we put on ourselves to produce wonder and delight, and be more open to the real experience of it.

The darkness in the world weighs on all of us. We need the restoration, the healing, the renewal, that the holidays—the holy days—can bring. The best chance of experiencing those gifts is if we make room for them.







Compassion, Hospitality, and Beauty

At the Spiritual Directors International conference in Louisville this year, Krista Tippett spoke of beauty as a core moral value. She noted the connection of beauty and vitality, and described God as being present in beauty. She mentioned mathematicians who say that if an equation is not elegant and beautiful, it is likely not to be true.


UCC Washington, DC - Fountain


Influenced by the late John O’Donohue, she spoke of his distinction between beauty and glamour. O’Donohue taught that Beauty is that in the presence of which we feel more alive.

As a seminary student I came to love Vermeer’s “Woman Weighing Gold” aka “Woman Holding a Balance” because the print hung outside the office door of one of my professors. During my years in school, as I stood in the hallway waiting to talk with him I was given that rich image to contemplate.

Waiting brings particular attention to our surroundings. The places where we are required to wait speak clearly about the respite beauty can offer, or the grimness of its absence. The intentional creation of welcoming space is a sign of true hospitality. A thoughtfully chosen object or image can infuse a time of waiting with beauty and grace.

Individuals and organizations who understand hospitality find ways to offer nourishment for the soul in the arrangement of their physical space. In this quiet way, they make the world better. In his book, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, John O’Donohue says:

[beauty] calls us to feel, think, and act beautifully in the world:

to create and live a life that awakens the Beautiful.

The places where we wait are often filled with stress. We wait to be seen by the doctor, the government official, the interviewer. As we take in the space around us, we feel the presence of compassion. Or its absence. Unfortunately our culture has come to accept television screens as a way of offering hospitality in waiting areas. What a different environment we could create if those funds were spent on works by local artists. Yet far more spaces are arranged without any thought beyond offering a chair.

Where people have a choice about entering, spaces are generally more welcoming. Where people are required to show up, the setting is more likely to be utterly utilitarian, holding neither warmth nor tranquility. If, as John O’Donohue describes, we feel more alive in the presence of Beauty, then the palatable sense of beauty’s absence creates a space in which we die a little.

Buildings, and the spaces within them, are expensive. They require work and attention just to maintain. Given the investment already made in the physical facilities, why not use them well? Particularly when people are required to wait in a particular space, why not cultivate a peaceful environment that might carry through the entire workplace? Why not offer something beautiful to experience, granting a moment of tranquility in the midst of the day?

The UCC (United Church of Christ) in Washington, D.C. is an example of an intentionally hospitable space, not only for those who enter but for everyone who walks by. In the midst of a busy city, the walls of the church are made of glass so that passersby can see a small fountain inside. Simply to observe the flow of water across the stone disk and into the pool below is to feel a space opening in one’s psyche. What a gift, as well as an indication that this may be a rare place for the soul to thrive.


Knowing the River

Every day, I fill a pitcher with water from the tap. I appreciate being able to drink when I’m thirsty, and sometimes remember to be grateful for the rain that fills the river. Water sustains my life. It becomes part of me; I am intimately connected to its source. But sipping from my glass does not allow me to claim the river.


Red River Gorge


Going to the river is an entirely different experience. In Kentucky there are hundreds, thousands, of places where I might walk along the banks or step among the stones above the water’s surface. Where the water flows clear I can look through to pebbles lining the riverbed and fish darting among them. Where stones are slick with algae there’s always a chance of falling in. I can wade in the shallows or perhaps swim in a few places. The deeper, swifter water requires a vessel and some companions. A guide is helpful where the river churns white.

A close-up look at water’s edge is unlike the changing perspective from a boat, or the wider scene from atop the palisades. Even with a view from the air I can see only part of the whole river. Its long path is too much to take in at once, and yields infinite variations according to time, weather, and season. A blue line labeled on a map is easily found, but tracing the map is not the same as knowing the river.

It’s terrible that many rivers are so polluted we can’t swim or fish in them. Individually and collectively, our hubris has sullied what we need to survive. Yet even these tainted waters remain essential. We filter out the toxins the best we can, reclaiming the water we must have to live.

I can’t simply fill a glass with water as a way to know the river, much less hold the river in my hand. Neither can I quote the Bible and expect a scriptural sound bite to convey its teachings. Discernment is an important aspect of grappling with scripture; it’s not as simple as fishing out a pertinent chapter and verse.

The Bible is not a code of law or a constitution from which we draw off rules as we would draw water from the tap. Scripture is a conversation, an exploration that began thousands of years ago. It contradicts itself. It speaks in different contexts. Scripture is rich and varied, and to engage with it is to create an opening for wisdom.

To wield the Bible as a debate tool is to miss being part of its life-giving flow. Scripture can be experienced in a thousand ways throughout a lifetime, but to use it against others is to waste it. It would be absurd to throw a glass of water in someone’s face and declare that I’m acting on behalf of the river.

A line of scripture can offer hope or inspiration. It can be a reminder of the richness to be found in the entirety of the Bible. But separated from its context the passage eventually becomes a stagnant pool. Water separated from the flow of the river grows foul and breeds pestilence.

I am grateful for a glass of water. I am humbled and in awe of the river from which it flows.



What Happens When We Pray

I’ve recently spent time wandering through some of Ireland’s ancient monastic sites, and I continue to think of those monasteries and the beautiful settings where they were built. The buildings are in ruins now, emptied by war and worldly powers. Yet for a time these sites were a refuge for books and learning, and a place where Christianity met Celtic culture in a way that strengthened both.

Who could have anticipated the value of these sanctuaries to the centuries that would follow? The books copied by the monks in their scriptoriums salvaged Western learning after the fall of the Roman empire. Today, the religious impulse that gave rise to them permeates the walls that remain standing.

Clonmacnoise Ruins, Ireland

The stone structures with roofs open to the sky are beautiful remnants, the outward form of an encounter with God. Even more, the sense of divine presence in places like Clonmacnoise and Glendalough invites the pilgrim to seek his or her own encounter with the Source.

I happen to also be reading an exploration of prayer by Ann Belford Ulanov and Barry Ulanov, called Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer. It’s an encouraging and inspiring description of what prayer can be. The divine intersection of my travels and of reading this book is something the Ulanovs would see as an answer to prayer, with God’s response often found in the small events of our lives.

In Primary Speech, Ann and Barry Ulanov offer insight into what happens when we bring our full selves to prayer—all our thoughts and feelings, our dreams and regrets, our best selves and our worst. Through prayer, whatever we bring to God is transformed. In bringing everything to prayer we open ourselves, and our lives, to being shaped by the divine—not in a way that denies our individuality but in a way that brings out the brilliance of the gems we were created to be. Prayer opens us to be healed and strengthened, our lives made larger and more joyful.

Primary Speech by Ann and Barry Ulanov


We can’t transform ourselves, but we can allow God to continue creating us. When we act on our deep impulse to pray, we experience the God who is always at work in our lives and who responds to our prayer in a variety of ways, which we will notice if we pay attention. Prayer opens a window to the stuffy room of our limited mind, and God is the fresh breeze that enters.

Paul Prather’s recent column on prayer in the Lexington Herald-Leader underscores this lesson for me. In his eloquently straightforward way, he says that even pastors are subject to forgetting to pray when life gets busy. But his recent recommitment to spend quiet time with God every day, even for just a few minutes, has brought him refreshment in the midst of a stressful life.

Prayer changes things. It changes me and it seems to affect the world around me. I’m a novice at prayer and may always be so, but beginner’s mind is not a bad thing. Who knows what might be possible?


Positive Energy and Prayer

Some of the important people in my life ask for prayer when things are difficult. Others ask for positive energy or healing thoughts when they are in need of support. Both are asking for spiritual support, but in different ways.

Bumblebee in Flight with Redbud Tree

There are good reasons for not using each other’s terms. Religious language may be associated with a world view so painful or constricting that a person rejects the language, the church it came from, and even what it refers to. Yet someone who rejects “prayer” may respond with warmth and love when the request is to “send good thoughts.” The value of the spiritual connection remains, it just needs to be seen in a different context, with a new way of being expressed.

On the other hand, shared language is part of what forms the bonds of a community. Within a community for whom prayer is a positive and meaningful shared experience, to ask for prayer is to make reference to what is held in common. To use another term would be to place oneself outside that shared experience and strain against the community’s identity.

So the language we use says something important about who we are. The difference in language reflects a difference in where we find meaning and belonging. But despite our differences, we share a need for the spiritual support of others. Regardless of how we express it, we know that we are connected in a spiritual way and that our connection matters.

I don’t know how prayer works. But I trust that we are connected to a level of reality beyond the physical world. Even the physicists tell us that beneath the appearance of things the world is made of energy. Some of that energy manifests as material objects, but matter is not the solid reality that we think of it as being.

Physics is offering us new ways of understanding creation and new metaphors. We are energy, we are connected to the energy around us, and connected to others through this energy. Our actions, our thoughts, and our love have an effect on the web of reality, the field of energy, beyond us. When we pray for others we are connected to them. Prayer directs our thoughts, our actions, and our love toward where they are needed, and puts more than we can know into motion.

There may be additional things we can do for the people we pray for. Thoughts, actions, and love can be directed in many practical ways. But prayer is an important means of putting energy into motion, of being connected. Many things can be prayer, or can be done prayerfully. Packing a box of supplies for people who need them as we direct our compassion toward them can be prayer. Bringing love and concern and hope for those who are suffering as we prepare food, or visit a hospital room, or write a note, can be prayer.

Whether we call it positive energy or prayer, this way of sharing love and strength is an important part of caring for one another. It helps to know what kind of language is meaningful to the person we’re talking to. But whether we say, “You’re in my prayers” or “I’m sending positive energy your way,” we’re talking about a spiritual effort. Making that commitment means we care, we want to help, and we will add our energy to the spiritual network that sustains them. Its workings are a mystery, but the spiritual help we offer matters.

You might be interested in an earlier post, “What It Means to Say ‘You’re in My Prayers,” or in “How to Pray for Another.”


As part of the Spiritual Directors International conference in Louisville, April 14-17, 2015, these monks from the Drepung Gomang Center for Engaging Compassion  and the Drepung Gomang Sacred Arts Tour created a sand mandala for the sake of wisdom, compassion, and healing.


The monks lean across lines and arcs

like the funnels they wield,

Tibetan Sand Mandala 1

as if tilting a column of sand

up the spine

to pour from a third eye.


The grains trickle in rivulets

between skeletal lines

penciled onto a blue field.

Tibetan Sand Mandala 2

This gold, this red,

in precisely this place—

the design takes flesh

in lavish detail.

Tibetan Sand Mandala 3


This work is prayer

begun with chant

from which the air yet hums.

Tibetan Chant Ritual

Ringing metal, rubbed like a firestarter,

sings as it coaxes sand

from the tiny mouth of a ribbed silver cone.

Tibetan Sand Mandala Detail

For days the sand pours,

Tibetan Sand Mandala 4

the chants rise,

Tibetan Sand Mandala Detail

the mandala widens.

Tibetan Sand Mandala Nearly Complete


Each morning a ritual:

with one hand the leader rings a bell,

with the other he holds a blade.

Tibetan Ritual Table

Beside the completed design

sits a white flower

in a silver bowl.

Tibetan Sand Mandala with Lotus

Atop the lotus of sand

in the mandala’s center,

the bowl becomes a mirror.

Now the blade, ever-present

through all the days of creation,

cuts from the points of the compass

to the center—

destruction from every direction.

Tibetan Sand Mandala Silver Bowl

A brush sweeps the careful work

into swirls of muddied color—

Sweeping Away the Sand Mandala

a heart-sob—

for all the careful tending vanished,

Sweeping the Sand Mandala

for every thing of beauty gone.


Tibetan Sand Mandala Brushed Away




Tibetan Monks in Headdress


Behind four monks clad in gold,

Tibetan Monks Walking to the Ohio River

a quiet crowd walks to the river.

As if in tribute,

four golden planes fly

in formation overhead.

Golden Eagles Flyover


Standing in the current,

the silver-haired leader

tilts a vessel,

Tibetan Ceremony Pouring Sand

yielding to the river

the sand,

the work,

the prayers,

the loss,

the acceptance.

Tibetan Monk at the River

The river carries this embodiment

of compassionate understanding

out into the world.

Tibetan Monks at the River



the four walk with ease,

smiling, their shoulders relaxed,

Tibetan Monks

while I keep taking

photographs to keep.

Lotus After Sand Mandala Ceremony


Susan Christerson Brown










The Artist’s Way as Spiritual Exercises for All of Us

Over the past few weeks I’ve been immersed in The Artist’s Way, leading a group in the shared experience of reconnecting with our creative lives. Each week brings a different focus, but in general we practice making space in our days for things that bring true joy and delight. We learn, or relearn, to trust those sparks of life. They are the source of divine encouragement and inspiration.

2015-04-01 13.00.45

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron is presented as a program for people blocked in their creative work, but it is actually a spiritual practice that enhances the life and the work of anyone who wants to live more fully.  It offers a way of recovering the “something more” that we long for, which empowers us to bring creativity to our lives in all kinds of ways. It helps us open to new possibilities rather than remain in the constricted space that we long ago decided was safe.

In the sixteenth century Ignatius of Loyola developed The Spiritual Exercises, which the Jesuits (the order to which Pope Francis belongs) have used since then as a guide for spiritual formation. The exercises are grounded in the gospel stories, and are undertaken by those seeking a meaningful and even transformative spiritual experience. They can be the focus of an intense thirty-day retreat, or worked through by setting aside regular time in everyday life for a few weeks. If you’re interested in a simple version of the exercises, an excellent book is Moment by Moment: A Retreat in Everyday Life by Carol Ann Smith, SHCJ and Eugene FR. Merz, SJ.

I have come to see The Artist’s Way as a practice of comparable value. It marks the trail of an authentic spiritual journey, tailored for the culture in which we live. It is not a specifically Christian path, though it makes reference to ideas and occasionally quotations from the gospels. It is very much a God-centered path, inviting us to think of God and to find God in new ways. Working through the twelve weeks of The Artist’s Way is a transformative experience for many people, both within and outside of the church.

The readings and practices create an opening for the Spirit. The discipline of The Artist’s Way helps clear away the debris that covers over the clear spring of our creativity. We open ourselves to the flow of life, of energy, of creativity, of delight, of hope, of optimism, of generosity, of abundance, through taking on some simple practices. We gain a better sense of the spiritual path and the creative work that we are uniquely called to.  We allow what is most essential, most alive, most truly ourselves, to find an outlet in our lives.

But don’t take my word for it. Try it. Write out your answers to the questions this book poses. Take on the practices of morning pages and artist dates. See what happens. You don’t have to buy into new beliefs or set aside old ones—although you might find yourself considering new ideas. For an investment of thirty minutes to an hour a day to work through a chapter a week, you might find your life infused with new energy.

In my experience, and that of many others, The Artist’s Way can be an opening to the creative Spirit that hovers over the waters of Genesis. Its practices blow gently on the ember of the divine in each of us, and helps rekindle the creative fire at the heart of a life fully lived. Right now our group is finishing up Week 6, and I’m excited to see what emerges in the second half of the journey.



Where is God Hiding Out?

Over the weekend I attended a talk by Ann Belford Ulanov, sponsored by the Greater Cincinnati Friends of Jung. I’m still absorbing and processing the ideas she shared in her presentation, which shared the same title as her latest book, Madness and Creativity. She also drew from a previous book, The Unshuttered Heart: Opening Aliveness/Deadness in the Self, as well as unpublished work in progress. I can’t begin to summarize what she had to say, but following are some of the points she made, and some of the questions she asked, that remain with me.

Spring is Coming

Spring is Coming

Ulanov spoke about the difficulty and the rewards of being fully alive, when we risk “living with openness and engagement, bringing a sense of expectancy to our days, paying attention to our lives, and appreciating the ways we are touched by kindness.” A Buddhist might call this a state of being awake. “Our living fully alive makes oxygen for other people,” Ulanov said. “We make something of our experiences and let them make something of us.”

In this state of wakefulness we find the clarity to engage with the important questions. “To what do we all belong?” is the question of our century in Ulanov’s view. Perhaps by this she meant the question of what we truly share in common, or what is most important about human life and identity, or what is the nature of this universe in which we find ourselves. Neither the church nor the state can answer it for us, and the question permeates our lives at different levels.

It occurs to me that during this tournament season we answer it at one level by wearing the colors of our favorite teams, enjoying a sense of identity with a school or a region. The passion of sports fans shows how relevant the question of belonging is. But when we consider what we might all belong to, the inquiry is more difficult.

As we look around at the world in which we live, and look within to wonder at what we are and what our lives mean, we often find more questions than answers. Ulanov condenses those questions to “What are we living for, and what is worth dying for?” “What is the something more?”

Perhaps an alternate way of considering where we might find the “something more” is in yet another question posed by Ulanov: “Where is God hiding out?”

She suggests that our answer to where we might find God comes through the clues that the psyche offers. If we pay attention to what’s happening in both our inner and outer life, we find instances of resonance and meaning. From beyond the borders of the small version of our lives come new ways of seeing the world and ourselves. Growing beyond our old habits of thought we experience the renewing of our minds, and a renewal of life in accord with what really matters. The spark of life we sense in a conversation, in the spirit of a particular group of people, in the power of a certain image, or in the energy surrounding a certain kind of work, can be an arrow pointing us in the right direction.

We are looking for where we can “plug in,” Ulanov said. How can we access the energy of engagement with life? We miss living with a sense of aliveness and wonder. When we feel exhausted, deadened, cut off from our creativity, we know life can be more than this. “Where is the ignition switch?”

Ulanov posits that we find aliveness, and find God, “in the tiny scintilla that appear in the darkness; the dots of light, bright and hopeful; in the scraps, in the small.”

In this way the deadness, or even the “madness,” that burdens our lives has a positive side. It drives us to find and cling to those scraps of aliveness, to connect the tiny points of light. Even the bleak times come to us in service to the fullness of life and point us toward wholeness. Deadness can point to aliveness, and madness can burst into creativity. The desolation that spurs us to investigate and address its cause takes us to a place Ulanov likens “to the edge of the map of the known world, looking for a connection to the monsters beyond. Crossing this bridge between the known and the unknown is aliveness.” At its best, religion can serve to stabilize this bridge.

Following our own path as wholeheartedly as we can, noticing the places where we feel most alive, is how we find the “something more”—the small places of encouragement where, for us, God may be hiding out.







A Stealth Version of Lent

The season of Lent slipped in quietly last week while folks around here were distracted by monumental snows and plummeting temperatures. Ash Wednesday was cancelled—the whole week was cancelled. Snow and ice along the streets are now the color of the ashes we didn’t wear. Surviving the weather felt like enough of a Lenten practice, and people joked about wanting to give up winter for Lent. This week the snow has melted enough to reveal the tips of daffodil fronds, but Easter still feels a long way away.


Maple Shadow and Robin on Snow 2015-02-28


But in spite of this stealth version of Lent, somehow a Lenten practice found me. Or rather, a constellation of practices both inner- and outer-directed. They balance each other. Some fill the well for me. Some are ways for me bring water to others.

I’ve been reading some excellent books, practicing meditation and doing “morning pages.” Complementing those inward disciplines are some outer commitments I’ve made. Through them I’ve been meeting some wonderful people, doing meaningful work at my church, and leading a group through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.

I can’t take credit for arranging this rare balance; I’m simply grateful for it. Lately I’ve been trying to notice and respond to what life/God/the universe is putting in front of me, and what is arising within. “Synchronicity” is another way of describing this sense of things coming together. I think Paul refers to the same experience in Romans, when he talks about all things working together for good. Being open to the question of how God is working in and through my life seems to be leading to a place of balance and wholeness. At least for now.

There is much to be concerned about in the wider world. But in the midst of it all, my hope is to continue paying attention to the work that is mine to do.

What are you noticing these days?