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?

The Challenge to Become Wise

“Where shall wisdom be found?” is an ancient question that remains as relevant as this week’s New York Times. An interesting article in Sunday’s paper provides a glimpse of how some researchers in our time understand wisdom. The attributes they discuss bolster quality of life in any circumstance. But in particular this article looks at how traits of wisdom foster positive, meaningful lives as people get older, and help in coping with serious physical decline.

Job 28 12

One aspect of wisdom has to do with the ability to accept change, including changes in ourselves. Psychotherapist Isabella S. Bick points out that if we reject our current selves for not remaining the same as we were in the past, we cut off our ability to grow wise. Yet in different ways, and at different levels, this is exactly what we do. We spend a lot of energy trying to argue with what is.

One inevitable change, of course, is aging. In a culture that reveres youth as much as ours does, it’s hard not to feel diminished by age. But deep change happens in many ways, pushing us out of our comfortable places. Activities and relationships that gave life meaning go away. Involvements and priorities that once mattered no longer seem important. We are dealt new challenges.

Theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965)* calls this “the shaken and devastated surface of [our] former lives and thoughts,” and says that facing it is how we grow. We are meant for a life of greater depth, and greater joy, but “the road runs contrary to the way we formerly lived and thought.” It’s a dismaying thought—all those miles in one direction just to turn around and go the other way.  And who wants to disrupt a life, or a world view, when we’ve worked so hard to get where we are?

Tillich answers by reminding us that too much of the time “we talk and talk and never listen to the voices speaking to our depth and from our depth. We accept ourselves as we appear to ourselves, and do not care what we really are. . . We miss, therefore, our depth and our true life.”

People who have looked beneath the surface and “found that they were not what they believed themselves to be” know something of the depth of things. No one wants to endure a painful disruption, but it moves us toward wisdom, something most of us do hope to have in some measure at the end of our lives.

Tillich clarifies what we’re looking for. He says, “the name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, or what you take seriously without any reservation.”

The heart of things lies beneath the potholed surface of our lives. But life’s challenges are real, and we need more than social research to help meet them. We need insight from beyond our current time and culture to help us become wise. Interpreting the spiritual wisdom of the ages is part of what we need from religion, and we stand in great need of theologians like Tillich who could bring a rich intellectual and spiritual life to his ministry.

He challenged his flock from all walks of life to deepen their existence. He told them, “the mark of real depth is its simplicity. If you should say, ‘This is too profound for me; I cannot grasp it’, you are self-deceptive. For you ought to know that nothing of real importance is too profound for anyone. It is not because it is too profound, but rather because it is too uncomfortable, that you shy away from the truth.”

The quality of our existence, individually and collectively, depends on meeting that challenge.

 

*The quotes from Paul Tillich are from “The Depth of Existence,” in his book entitled The Shaking of the Foundations.

A Different Way to Fight

“Everyone talks about fighting cancer,” a dear friend in the midst of that struggle tells me. “They talk about it as a battle. The doctors say you have to fight.” But she goes on to say that “battle” isn’t the best way to describe what she has to do.

Labyrinth Covered in Leaves

 

A battle implies a clash in which the enemy can be vanquished. It suggests a singular foe. But my friend understands that her challenge is to continue living her life with the people she loves, even as she endures treatment and manages its details. The cancer she contends with is a chronic condition that will, in some way, remain present in her life. The hope is less for a victory than a truce.

For someone who does not want the disease to define her, making it the primary focus of her life would be a kind of giving in. To cultivate the discipline of mind and strength of heart to live and love, even through the ongoing demands of cancer treatment, is an entirely different mindset.

My friend is required to spend a great deal of time caught up in the medical machine that is our health care system. Even with the support of family and friends, she has a difficult task in trying to bridge the gaps between the realms of the different physicians involved in her care, and in navigating the labyrinth of the way our doctors and hospitals practice medicine. All of that is on top of the myriad details in keeping everyday life on track. It would be easy to allow those challenges to take over.

But she continues to be involved in the lives of her family and friends. She spends time with her grandchildren, works on her poetry, has coffee with her writing group. She maintains her interest in politics as well as her walks around the park, and lends a sympathetic ear to others. She remains grounded in her life even as she undertakes the requirements of her treatment.

Her battle is for her life, at least as much as it’s against cancer. She tries to avoid being consumed by the fight, so she can enjoy what is precious to her. She resists being focused only on treatment, not wanting to put off her life until later. Her fierceness is in her determination to live, even now.

She is like a birch tree, rooted in her life, bending with the force of the strong winds blowing and straightening when they subside. I respect her strength and courage, and I appreciate her wisdom. I am blessed to have her as a friend.