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.

 

 

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.

 

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!

Why I do Dreamwork

For years, I have benefited from sharing dreams and exploring their interpretation in a dream group. In my ongoing training as a spiritual director, the art of working dreams is an important aspect of my education as well. This is not because dreams offer simple answers—there is rarely a clearly definable “meaning” of a dream. But nonetheless dreamwork puts me in touch with the issues at the heart of my life, showing me what’s going on beneath the surface and helping me to grow in spirit.

flowers-by-lamplight

Dreams offer access to a place of wisdom within. This quiet center, present in all of us, offers a clear perspective on what’s happening in our lives. It perceives how emotion colors what we see and understand, and how old patterns of thought and behavior affect the ways we live. This place of wisdom is tuned in to the forces that drive us—forces that have power over us, in part, because we are not consciously aware of them.

Our everyday awareness filters our experience. The waking mind often ignores details it deems irrelevant to our conscious priorities. But the unconscious mind takes everything in, and processes our lives at a depth we can’t manage consciously. The wisdom of the unconscious notices what our everyday awareness overlooks. It makes connections between current situations and events from the past. Its insights have found expression in art and religion throughout human history. Just as our lungs know how to breathe, our inner wisdom knows the way forward. It is always urging us towards health and wholeness.

Every night in our dreams, we have access to how this inner wisdom reflects on our experiences and points in the direction we need to travel.

Yet dreams can be bewildering because they speak to us in the language of symbols. Dreams come through a part of the brain that generates images rather than words. Rather than offering a discourse on our way of moving through life, a dream will put us in a car. That car might be going too fast, or toiling up a winding road. It might be dilapidated and in need of replacement, or have a driver who isn’t listening. As we explore the dream symbols and our associations with them, we learn the vocabulary of our unconscious. We sometimes gain insight by asking ourselves whether something in waking life feels like the situation presented in the dream.

Dreams do their work regardless of whether or not we consciously engage with them. But when we invite the insights of our dreaming mind into waking life, it’s like opening a window to a fresh breeze. Dreamwork helps clear the air of our stale patterns of thought. As we notice how a dream describes, interprets, or responds to our experience, we grow more attuned to what’s going on around and within us. To be more open to the message of our dreams is to be more open to the flow of life.

Our dreams can be an important tool for growth. They show where we might need to pay attention. They meet us where we are, allow insight into what we’re ready to see, and always come in the service of health and wholeness. Dreams offer a natural and accessible bridge between the wisdom of the unconscious and our waking life. This allows our conscious awareness to become broader and deeper, and helps us live a more full and abundant life.