The Better Part

I have long wrestled with the story of Mary and Martha* in the gospel of Luke. In my reading, Martha is a worker; Mary is a listener. Martha is active; Mary is contemplative. As the two sisters host Jesus in their home, Martha is busy with the tasks of running a household while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet absorbing his teaching. Martha is angry about doing all the work herself, and insists that Jesus have Mary help out with the chores.

Mary and Martha with Jesus, St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin

I understand Martha. It takes work to keep a household or anything else running smoothly. Martha wants to offer the finest hospitality to this amazing teacher. Perhaps she would have liked to sit and listen, but it takes work to provide a clean bed and a good meal.

Jesus responds by speaking kindly to her, noticing that she is worried by many things, and offering a different perspective. He points out that the work she thinks is necessary is actually distracting her from what is most important. Whatever standard Martha is trying to meet, it isn’t set by Jesus. He wants her to know that she is made for more than the treadmill she has put herself on. Jesus didn’t show up just to add to her chores.

I understand Mary. She is drawn to the wisdom of this new teacher and the power of his presence. She sets aside her normal activities, recognizing that this is no ordinary guest, and gives him her full attention. Yet following her heart means not living up to others’ expectations for what she should be doing. It’s not easy to disappoint Martha, who doesn’t share Mary’s priorities, and lets Mary know that she’s not doing her part.

Mary and Martha in stained glass, St. Patrick's, Dublin

I have long wished the story would show Jesus inviting Martha to sit down and listen, then have everyone pitch in with the chores.

We all have mundane tasks to do. But it’s important to recognize what merits setting them aside. Jesus refuses to send Mary back to her usual tasks just as she is beginning to hear his life-changing teaching. Mary has chosen the better part, he tells Martha. Jesus doesn’t want us doing more chores, he wants us to be transformed.

Mary and Martha both live inside me. There’s nothing wrong with Martha wanting to get the job done. The world is in need of a great deal of work. But the world needs Martha to lend her strength and skill to the most important tasks. In a world of “shoulds,” how to discern what truly is the better part is a question always before us. We need Mary and her ability to recognize what is genuinely life-giving.

Carl Jung offers an insight regarding his patients’ growth that applies to the tension between Mary and Martha:

All the greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally insoluble . . . They can never be solved, but only outgrown. This “outgrowing” proved on further investigation to require a new level of consciousness. Some higher or wider interest appeared on the patient’s horizon, and through this broadening of his or her outlook the insoluble problem lost its urgency. It was not solved logically in its own terms but faded when confronted with a new and stronger life urge. (as quoted by Matthew Fox in Original Blessing)

We need both Mary and Martha, not in opposition but in a complementary partnership. We need a higher level of awareness that incorporates them both. I like to think of Martha spinning a cocoon, Mary yielding to the transformation that happens within it, and through the work of the Spirit, a new creation emerging into the world.

 

*The text of the story is brief, found in Luke 10:38-42. Here it is, in its entirety:

Now as they went on their way, [Jesus] entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

 

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.

 

 

Impermanence

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

 

Returning,

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.

 

 

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?

 

 

 

Compassion and Ourselves

I keep thinking about an article I read from the Atlantic recently, “Alcohol as Escape from Perfectionism” by Ann Dowsett Johnston. Its poignancy comes from Johnston’s ability to put her finger exactly on the place where the determination to live up to an impossible ideal leaves us vulnerable.  Intellectually, I know that unreasonable expectations are unhealthy, but I didn’t expect to be so deeply touched by the place in life she describes.

Third Street Stuff Wall Ishiguro  2013-11-19

My children are young adults now, and I have grown since they were children. But as if it were a coat hanging in my closet, I can still wear the sense of responsibility from those years, and I can easily wrap myself once again in a state of mind that said I was never doing enough, or doing it well enough.

I thought there was a right answer for how life should be lived, and my job was to reach that answer, claim it, and make it work. That applied to having a family, making a home, serving the community, and somehow finding my own work. There were standards for living a good life, a worthwhile life. They had to be met. I couldn’t have told you that’s what I believed, but it was the water I was swimming in. There were things I was supposed to do. Whatever it took, I had to find a way to accomplish them all. Except, of course, it wasn’t possible.

Measured by the distance from where I thought I should be, my life fell short.  I fell short. All I could see was the gap, what wasn’t done, what I hadn’t achieved, where I hadn’t reached.

Where did that come from, that certainty about what I was not? The dismissiveness about what I was? Who pointed to that place out of reach and said that was where I should be? Who insisted that nothing else mattered as much? I don’t know why I was so unkind to myself.

As a young mother, Johnston would sip wine to ease her transition from the day at work to the evening and its responsibilities at home. It was a pleasant ritual, then it became a necessary one. She wouldn’t give herself a break on what she expected of herself, but she would pour herself some wine. Genuine self-care wasn’t part of her world, but she kept wine in the fridge. Until little by little, the wine took over.

I didn’t rely on wine, but I nonetheless recognize the state of the soul that Johnston describes—the refusal of compassion for oneself. I turned my back on myself and accepted what the world said: Just get it done. All of it.

I wish I could have told my younger self that I was good enough, that my needs mattered, that kindness to myself was not the same as self-indulgence. But perhaps I can pass that message along to someone else who needs to hear it.

It doesn’t always come naturally to show ourselves the kindness we would offer to a good friend, but there are good resources that help. My thanks to Lisa Gammel Maas for pointing out the work of Kristin Neff on self-compassion.

May you be well.

* The wonderful artwork above is by the inimitable Pat Gerhard, and is found on the wall of the warm and welcoming Third Street Stuff and Cafe in Lexington.

Story and Spirit

Lately I’ve revisited stories from the Bible in a new way, serving as a storyteller for children’s worship at church. Following the “Children, Worship, and Wonder” program we rely on, I’ve learned to present the stories in a ritualized way.

 

Worship & Wonder Beside the Sea of Galilee

 

During Worship and Wonder, children experience sacred space created especially for them. Influenced by Montessori practices, each story has its own materials, stored neatly on a wicker tray and placed in its particular spot on a low shelf. Once the story has been told, it is available for the children to work with on their own for the rest of the year.

As in the Bible, these stories are told using relatively few words. They are acted out with simple but beautiful materials crafted from wood and sanded to a natural finish. There are quiet pauses to allow the parts of the story to sink in.

 

Worship & Wonder 002

 

The action of the story might be played out on an expanse of felt representing the Sea of Galilee or in the sand of the desert box. The characters move, they make decisions, they speak, they react to what happens, things change.

 

Worship & Wonder Jesus and Levi

 

In telling stories this way—mindful of the setting, allowing pauses between lines, showing a character’s response through action—I’ve become aware of the spaces within the story. There are moments when the action might have played out differently, where a person might have responded in another way, or where other conversations might have occurred. The drama grows, the questions multiply, the possibilities increase.

It’s a contemplative way of entering the story, leaving room for something new to appear. It brings an element of Ignatian spirituality, a practice established by Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. In Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, a practitioner places himself in a scene from the Bible, brought to life through the imagination. She imagines taking part in an episode from the life of Jesus, watching to see what happens and listening for what might be spoken to her.

 

Worship & Wonder Jesus Eating with Tax Collectors and Sinners

 

Children easily and naturally use their imaginations to enter a story, offering ideas of what people might have said, how they might have felt, or what they might have done next. This way of dwelling in a story creates a sacred space where the spirit can work. Seeing this happen is a reminder of the power of story for all of us.

At the end of the hour, the storyteller gives each child a blessing before they leave. It’s a quiet moment, one-on-one. On a recent Sunday I knelt at the door to speak to a child at her eye level. I told her I was glad she was there at Worship and Wonder today. “I’m glad you were, too,” she whispered.

I hadn’t expected to be the one blessed.

 

Room for the Spirit

Last week, workmen installed a new hardwood floor at our house. Preparing for that work looked a lot like moving—books packed away into boxes and furniture carried out. When the room was empty the old carpet looked even worse; this project was long overdue.

Two and a half days of noisy work followed: an electric saw wailing on the front walk, hammers pounding the planks into place, sporadic shots of a nail gun driven by a compressor that reverberated through the entire house. But in the midst of it all was the encouraging scent of fresh lumber and the satisfaction of seeing good work in progress.

Bare Wood Floor

After the oak was stained, the guys brushed the finishing coat over the wood, working their way toward the front door. They stepped backwards onto the porch, leaned in to close the door, and wished us well.

It was quiet. And beautiful.

An empty room with a glowing oak floor has a Zen-like tranquility. Waiting for the finish to dry meant it had to remain bare, and I enjoyed seeing this kind of space in the house. Later, even as I missed the comfort of the room’s furnishings, I was reluctant to move everything back in. The openness invites a sense of expansiveness, of possibility, that I didn’t want to give up.

Not allowing everything to return means making some decisions. It means sorting through shelves and baskets deciding on what’s worth keeping. And it means not letting things pile up once that paring down is done.

But I’ve been here before. And before that. It’s a cycle that continues. But in this case the change started at the foundation, and the decision is not what to carry out but what to bring in. Maybe that will make a difference. I keep having to learn over and over again that changing your space and changing your life seem to go together.

That expanse of uncluttered space, anchored by the warmth of natural wood, made me think of meditation. Maybe it seemed a perfect room for meditation because the open space, both restful and expansive, is like the mental and spiritual uncluttering that happens through meditation and prayer.

It’s also a physical embodiment of what the Sabbath is meant to be—an opening of time for what we value most, a space that allows some perspective on what’s most important. Sacred space and sacred time seem to be two sides of the same coin, and both help make room for the Spirit.

There’s a sense of renewal in transforming this room, just as meditation and prayer renew mind and spirit, as Sabbath renews the week. Creating it gives rise to the question of what is worth allowing into our space, and offers a reminder of how much choice we have in making that decision. It’s a practice worth repeating every week, or even every day.

 

A Sense of Order and Sacred Space

Lately I’ve been learning about creating sacred space and leading worship for young children. Familiar rituals, an unhurried presence and clear focus, quiet voices, a space arranged in an orderly way, and a tranquil and consistent way of doing things—all of these are part of infusing the space with a sense of sacredness. The insight of thoughtful people who understand both children and worship has me thinking about the connection between a sense of order and sacred space, not only for children but for adults as well.

 

Sanctuary

 

Our world is messy and the days bring disorder of various kinds. Interactions between people go awry; the systems that should facilitate our lives often put up roadblocks instead. Our bodies, our plans, and the myriad details we juggle are all subject to breaking down. In ways both large and small, we are continually reminded that life is out of our control.

Especially when life feels chaotic, we need to find a sense of order somewhere. Within ourselves, if nowhere else, we need a sense of stillness and peace to move through the day with any grace at all. Nature can be a refuge, but we also need beautiful and tranquil spaces indoors, sheltered from the elements. From the most exalted to the most humble, the sanctuaries we create offer a place apart from the disordered world. We hope they will be infused with meaning, order, and beauty. When done well they embody sacredness beyond any particular beliefs associated with them.

A sanctuary with meaningful rituals offers a place and time for finding order in the midst of confusion. It creates a clearing where we can regain perspective, remember our priorities, and pull ourselves together to face whatever comes next. Sometimes we encounter the divine, other times the reassurance of a familiar practice is enough.

But in either case our impulse to seek order and ritual, and to find in it a connection to a higher order, puts us in touch with the holy. Our instinct to create sacred space is itself a divine gift. Whether or not we feel we’ve encountered God, the sense of finding order and tranquility is restorative. It helps us to act more effectively, live more compassionately, and appreciate life more fully.

Of course order alone doesn’t make a space sacred. A shallow kind of order can be imposed on all kinds of spaces, and preoccupation with order can crowd out vitality and creativity. There’s nothing sacred about oppression or stagnation. Faith communities and their places of worship can be a rich source of ordering one’s life and clearing the way for growth, or they can impose world views that are stifling and limiting.

Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light,” but so many oppressive claims are made in the name of Christian religion that many folks have given up on Christianity and on religion in general. That’s unfortunate, not only because many Christian communities are loving and inclusive, but because few other places are prepared to offer the sacred spaces and rituals that human beings need. People at all stages of life need somewhere to find order and tranquility. Are there places outside of religious communities to offer it?

Where do you find sacred space? What helps you to sort things out and find a sense of order and peace?