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.

 

 

Echoes of Advent in the New Year

Despite my best plans it’s not until now, when we’re on the quiet side of the holidays, that I can fully appreciate Advent. I meant to spend those weeks leading up to Christmas with Kathleen Wiley’s wonderful book, New Life: Symbolic Meditations on the Birth of Christ Within. A good idea, but Christmas gains speed in December and my contemplative intentions scattered.

Ideally, Advent is a season of quiet waiting, preparing for the birth of God into the world and the birth of our highest self into being. The four weeks leading up to Christmas focus on hope, love, joy, and peace as we invite the divine child to be born in our hearts and in our midst. But it’s only now, in the silent nights following the holidays, that there’s time to reflect on how to claim those gifts and live them out in the new year.

Hope, love, joy, and peace speak to the deepest needs of our soul. We need them so much that we’re almost afraid to ask for them, much less trust that our longing will be fulfilled. Yet the message of Christmas is that our hearts’ desires will be met if we allow it. Grace truly abounds, if we can let ourselves be open to it. This is what we are trying to show our children through the gifts we place under the tree. But we forget that grace is ours as well. The tree itself is there to remind us of life’s evergreen gifts and the light of hope, love, joy, and peace.

Back in December, as the solar calendar wound down toward the longest night and the social calendar filled up with holiday festivities, the church calendar brought us through four weeks of meditation on these gifts of the Spirit. Now as the days slowly grow longer and the sun begins its return from the far point on the horizon, I’m ready to retrace the steps through those four weeks. We’ve turned from the innermost point of the spiral, and as we wind outward again into a new year, those mediations await like a trail of breadcrumbs. The challenge is to stay in touch with how these gifts are manifest in our lives, and to find a way to give them expression.

Hope, love, joy, and peace are ours. We don’t have to create them or earn them. We don’t have to craft them or bake them or buy them. They aren’t the result for a perfectly executed holiday, they are the gifts that make our imperfect celebrations beautiful. They aren’t a reward for a perfectly lived life, they are the compass that orients us in how to live. For the next few weeks, I hope to rewind my way through the lessons of Advent and consider how to carry its gifts forward into a year in which we desperately need them. I’ll be listening for the echo of those longings shouted into the canyon of Advent, as they reverberate through these quiet days and carry us into the new year.

Walnut Season

Earlier this week I took an evening walk under a canopy of beautiful old trees. The light was golden, shining through the sheltering limbs. But as the breeze stirred, the walnut trees did what they do in the fall. Suddenly I was surrounded by the force of heavy green-husked globes pelting the pavement and splitting open. Hoping to avoid a knock on the head, I scurried to the other side of the street.

walnut-in-hull

Last week on a retreat at Loretto, I also found walnuts wholly or partially encased in their hulls scattered across the grounds and walkways. I had to watch where I stepped to avoid stumbling. These gifts from the trees can trip you up, but at the same time they offer themselves to whomever will gather them.

The retreat was led by Lisa Maas, whose ability to lead Spirit-centered groups has enriched my life again and again. Over the two days we spent together, our group talked about the fears and self-protective habits that get in the way of fully experiencing life, love, other people, and the presence of the Divine. Using the tools of the Enneagram, we looked at our personal types according to our primary coping strategies. We considered how, though they may have served us well long ago, those patterns of behavior eventually interfere with living a full life.

Coming face-to-face with how we limit ourselves through long-held patterns is a moment of truth that can be very painful. Yet that is the human condition, and seeing it is how we come to maturity. The path to our transformation is through our weakest aspects. In our encounter with the inadequacy of our approach to life, we invite the divine healing that turns our limitations inside-out and reveals the gifts, and the strengths, that are uniquely ours to share with the world.

I was thinking of all these things as I walked the campus of Loretto. I considered gathering the walnuts lying about, but that black inner hull meant unavoidably staining my hands and clothing. I love walnuts, but there is no way to get to them without encountering the messy blackness surrounding the nut. On the other hand, the intact hull is beautiful, and bowl of those green spheres would make a lovely display. But what a waste it would be to never get to the real treasure inside.

I’m glad to find walnuts at the grocery store already hulled and shelled. But in our authentic spiritual lives we are not spared the messiness. The way to spiritual maturity leads through dismaying truths we don’t want to contend with. But this is simply how growth works. If we can bear to be present with them, our shortcomings show us what we need. They break open our husk and reveal our vulnerability, our need for guidance, and the way forward.

That’s how we get to the heart of life. That’s how we grow into who we really are. Our frailties make us part of humanity and teach us compassion—for ourselves and others. As Leonard Cohen says, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Looking deeply at what is can be messy, like a walnut hull’s black interior. But that’s not the end of the story. If we keep going we find what is nourishing and delicious. We’re surrounded with reminders and invitations to take this journey. Walnuts are falling all the time, trying to get our attention.

Look out!

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

 

 

 

Light at Christmas

The reasons to grow jaded about Christmas are all around. The world seems as troubled as ever for these two thousand years, and the demands of the holiday season itself can feel more like pressure and stress than comfort and joy.

Fontanini Nativity

Yet we keep telling this story of a birth in a stable, the angels and shepherds, a star in the heavens and wise men bearing gifts from afar. We know the story from childhood, but it’s more than a children’s tale. This familiar scene pulls at us because it holds something we need to remember.

Heaven and earth meet in the Christmas story. They come together in the physicality of childbirth and the visitation of angels, the earthiness of the stable and the portent of the star.

A young mother bears a child and God is born into the world. In wisdom we recognize the sign set in the heavens, and in wonder we heed the message that comes to us in the fields. Human life is infused with the divine. The dark world is visited by angels of light. There is more to this life than we can sometimes see.

Nativity Angels

Our celebrations hold the desire to echo that story, to make love and good will manifest in the world. We look to our traditions for embodying that spirit, sometimes to the point of serving the traditions themselves more than the spirit they are meant to convey. But being with people we love and enjoying the things that make life good are at the heart of our preparations.

Christmas Story Nativity

When the night is longest and we need it most, the Christmas story draws the curtain aside. It reminds us that heaven and earth are closer together than we think. During Advent we light candles for Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love, which banish the dark.

May that light shine out from the heart of all our celebrations.

 

The Stories that Feed Us

I’ve been thinking lately about what faith is, as practiced in community. And about the tension in religious life between nurturing faith and acting for social justice. Not that they’re opposed—they are yin and yang, a union of opposites. The truth, the full picture, transcends each and holds them together. Each at its fullest point gives way to the other, requires the other to continue, loses meaning without the other, whether in the life of an individual or a community.

Herbs on Serving Platter

But where do we put our energy? Feeding the hungry matters, but it matters both physically and spiritually. Soup kitchens and food boxes meet basic needs, but the spirit’s needs are essential as well. The world is hungry in a thousand ways. People must have food, but they are starved for meaning, for hope, for beauty and peace. We cannot live by bread alone.

This week’s radio show, On Being, is an interview with Avivah Zornberg, who explores biblical stories through the Jewish tradition of midrash. She makes the insightful observation that faith is about asking better and better questions.

During the seder meal in the Jewish celebration of Passover, the practice of asking and answering questions is part of the sacred ritual. Children at the table see unusual and interesting foods, placed before them in part to invite questions. Why is this night different from other nights? Why are we eating these herbs tonight? A child’s simple question echoes through layers of experience in the minds of the adults. We need more than simple answers as life goes on, but we continue to ask why.

In the Seder ritual, the answer to the child and to the adults as well, comes through story. There is richness in that kind of teaching. Open spaces with room for exploration are made present in the world of a story. There is wisdom in demonstrating to the young that when people gather around the things that matter, we create a place and a time for questions.

Those early questions usually have answers. Children need information; stories are literal. But when the information comes in the form of stories, the answers invite more wondering, more questions, as time goes on.

The true teachings may be less about what can be known than about the stories that shape our lives, and the questions we’re invited into. A story changes as we inhabit it, and we are changed, too. I wish I had understood this better when my children were young, but we’re all still learning. Still asking questions.

Memento from a Retreat

Something within us knows the value of a new perspective. It comes through when we get the sense that it’s time to get away. One person’s restorative weekend might be another’s tedium, but whether it’s a shopping excursion, a sports event, a hike in the woods, a visit to a gallery, a hobby convention, a mission trip, or simply being any place but here, sometimes a change of scenery is exactly what we need.

A retreat is another kind of getaway. It isn’t about activities or entertainment, but comes from the desire both to find rest and to be awakened through quiet time in peaceful surroundings away from everyday life.

Recently a friend and I spent a couple of days on retreat at the Sisters of Loretto campus near Bardstown, Kentucky. On my own, I probably wouldn’t have made it happen. Unlike so many other events and commitments, a retreat doesn’t clamor for its place on the calendar. But once we started talking about the idea, we created enough momentum to make a plan and see it through. I’m glad about that, because the effort resulted in a lovely experience that is all too rare.

The tricky part of going on retreat is that the mindset that puts it in place—the planning and packing and logistics of getting there—is exactly what needs to be set aside once we arrive. A to-do list pretty much defeats the purpose of relaxing and spending time away from our schedules. So I tried to go without an agenda, and with the idea of listening for whatever it was I needed to hear. But I also tried to be ready for anything. I took books and writing paper, my computer and journal, good walking shoes and my camera, along with the scarf I was knitting. Maybe someday I’ll master the art of traveling light.

The sisters have a library available to guests, where I found a book by Richard Rohr that turned out to be perfect for reading during my time there. Everything Belongs is a meditation on God’s presence. (Below is a note that one of the sisters left about the rearrangement of their shelves.)

But the ideas I encountered in Rohr’s book found their most eloquent expression after a storm on the first night. Through hours of darkness I had heard the wind tearing through trees and battering the brick and old wood outside my window. Yet the next morning broke chilly and clear. The night seemed almost a bad dream, except that the wind had brought down thousands of pecans from trees all across the grounds. Along the walkway to the guest house, on the path to the pond, among the stations of the cross, around the cemetery, they were everywhere.

“Take some with you,” the sisters urged. And I did. Like a chipmunk stuffing its cheeks, I filled the pockets of my jacket until the fleece could stretch no further. Abundance. Enough for the woman I met, kneeling on the ground, filling her bag as she remembered the shelled pecans that were her grandfather’s gift of love and work at Christmastime. Enough for the two who filled the hood of a third friend’s sweatshirt, worn like a bulging backpack. Enough for others who would stroll the grounds after we left.

Now that I’m back home, the pecans I gathered remind me to breathe and remember that God is present. They remind me of abundance—gifts stumbled upon in the wake of the storm, a harvest to crack open and enjoy through winter days to come.

Christianity’s Next Stage

This week of Pentecost, celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit that launched the church, seems to me an especially appropriate time to consider new possibilities for what the practice of Christianity can be. An insightful book that helps in doing exactly that is Paul R. Smith’s Integral Christianity: The Spirit’s Call to Evolve.

Sometimes the right book crosses our path at the right time, and for me this is just such a book—one that articulates a vision of a more inclusive and spiritually oriented church, at a time when I’m asking how church can be better at fostering spiritual growth, and what might help it in moving forward. It is written by a pastor who cares deeply about his own congregation and about the church at large.

Smith begins by looking at the stages of religious understanding, recognizing the gifts and strengths of each stage while noting the limitations to be overcome. Each level builds on and incorporates some of those previous understandings about God and faith, while moving toward greater spiritual insight. His description of these stages is available in a series of articles here.

He then looks at the ways in which we can experience the Divine—as God around us encompassing all of creation, as God beside us in close relationship, and God as a divine spark within. He then explores ways of seeking connection with the Divine, an experience available at every stage of spiritual development.

He sees Jesus as a model of what human life can be, exhibiting the divinity at the heart of human beings, and revealing how we can live when we transcend ego, connect with God, and live according to our true Christlike self. The Bible shows faithful people moving through various stages, being led by those with greater understanding and experience. The kingdom of God is a term for a higher stage yet, when we are better able to move beyond ordinary, everyday awareness and into the spiritual reality in which we are one with Christ and with each other.

Smith sees the church as a place to deepen our thinking about God, to heighten our experience of God, and to be transformed by how we see ourselves in connection with God. He takes seriously the mystical experiences described in the New Testament, which mainline churches such as mine tend to overlook. Thinking people are suspicious of such visions and visitations, associating manifestations of the spirit with distasteful public spectacles and primitive theology. Smith points out that experiences of God or visitations of the Holy Spirit can take many forms, some dramatic and some more subtle. What’s more, we interpret those experiences according to our various stages of understanding. Experience of God is not something that we outgrow, nor is it relegated only to religion that denies the value of reason. He quotes Karl Rahner as saying, “The Christian of tomorrow will be a mystic, or not a Christian at all.”

He sees the role of the church as helping and encouraging people to grow spiritually, both in understanding and experience of God. In a healthy church, the members are encouraged to grow into the next spiritual stage of understanding, and to experience increasing closeness to God. It is from this transformation that good works will emanate.

We are best able to love and serve others when we operate in a climate of health and wholeness within ourselves. We need the loving, healing presence of God, and the world needs the love and healing we can offer out of that experience. These are the most valuable things that the church can offer, the source of all good gifts that the church and its members can share with the world.