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.

 

 

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!

Honestly Facing the Darkness

During the Festival of Faiths a few weeks ago in Louisville, Kentucky, Pastor Mike McBride posed a question that remains with me. He asked: Where is it that we have gone wrong as a culture in our theological formation of people?

Three Streams


It’s an essential question, asking religion to take a long look at its own shadow. The church has come to be seen as condoning questionable ethical, spiritual, and moral conduct. And for those who reject religion because of the darkness in it, the question remains for other cultural institutions and for the individual: What dark part of ourselves are we being invited to bring into the light for healing?

At the heart of this life, our soul’s journey is supported by a deep foundation of compassion. At the base of everything that is, is love. Love gives us the courage to look into the darkness and compassion gives us the strength to bring it into the light. That’s how we find healing and wholeness.

I’m looking within, asking whether I have been part of feeding the darkness. I’m holding in mind what is required of me: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly in the presence of the divine source of all life. Asking about my part in the institutions of our culture is more difficult, as is finding my role in bringing about change. But if we currently have the system we have asked for, then let me be clear. I’m asking for change.

Let us keep before us the ideal of a culture where justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner (standing), Panel Moderator (?), Jim Wallis, Rev. Michael McBride

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner (standing), Panel Moderator (?), Jim Wallis, Rev. Michael McBride

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

As Summer Ends

We had a cool snap here in Central Kentucky this weekend. Combine that with the start of school coming up and we’re on notice that here in the fullness of summer, fall will be upon us soon. Not that it comes as a surprise, but every year it takes more than store mannequins dressed in wool for the reality to sink in.

 

 

Another summer is slipping away, but I’m holding onto the fragrance of rosemary under the afternoon sun for as long as I can. Time passes but when it’s infused in red wine vinegar, thyme can linger a while.

How was your summer? It’s a natural enough question to ask during a season of transition. But there’s another question behind that one. What was your summer? Did it bring what you hoped for? Did you plant a garden—literally or figuratively? Did it thrive? What did it yield? Did you learn something, do something, enjoy something? Did you fight weeds, endure drought, manage to keep something alive?

For those who preserve their garden’s abundance, rows of canning jars or packet-laden freezers mark the summer’s accomplishments in a tangible way. I’m making herb vinegars this year, but summer’s end is more a matter of stocking the psyche’s pantry for the months ahead. It’s been good to spend time with those I love, pursue creative work, and clear out some clutter. I hope to keep those fruits of the season with me, and I hope you have a harvest to enjoy as well.

Is there anything else to do before summer ends? What shall we take on this fall?

Something Old, Something New

Lately I’ve been perusing local antique markets, flea markets, estate sales, garage sales, and second hand shops, looking at vintage costume jewelry. I’ve been having a great time exploring local places that have been in business for years, but hidden in plain sight from me until the antique bug bit. It’s a whole new world of old things.

The variety of beads and stones, charms and chains, colors and designs, are endlessly compelling. Some connect me to the past, reminding me of a pin I remember my grandmother wearing or beads for playing dress-up from my mother’s jewelry box. A cluster of beads on a clip earring or an elaborate rhinestone brooch evoke another era, while a strand of glowing pearls holds timeless allure.

Many of these pieces, separated from the women who once owned and wore them, are too lovely to be abandoned. So I find myself looking for ways to recreate and place them into the stream of life once again. They usually need cleaning up, and sometimes more—beads restrung, stones replaced. Some of the pieces ask to be worn as is, but more often they need re-visioning. The link from a bracelet can become an interesting element on its own, a single earring can be incorporated into a unique necklace, a pin can become part of a pendant. The amazing designs in these old pieces can find new life when they’re separated and combined in new ways. A worthwhile element from the past retains a sense of that era, even as it is fitted to live on in a new context.

One of the things I love about costume jewelry is its accessibility. I would hesitate to alter a valuable piece of jewelry, even if it were something I wouldn’t want to wear in its original state. The sense that what is valuable is untouchable is strong, like the childhood admonition to look but don’t touch. But such items, when they are no longer relevant, tend to be set aside. When objects or designs fall out of favor or use, they’re put away and may or may not be found again. The pieces that remain relevant to the lives we lead are ultimately the ones we’re able to keep track of.

The best of our ideas are like this. Our values, our faith, our commitments are not rarified notions kept apart from everyday life, untouched by our experiences. They are rather the things we take up every day, acquiring the patina of time and use, occasionally refitted to remain relevant to the life we currently live.

Fine jewelry, like a fine idea, enhances life only if we wear it. Those things we actually wear are part of how we’re remembered, and become part of who we are.

What kind of jewelry do you like to wear?

 

Learning to Change My Ways

I recently committed to a three-week experiment in following a vegan diet—a way of eating I had long regarded as extreme. No cheese? No eggs? No milk? Along with no meat? It seemed a lot like no food.

But I was intrigued when my brother, whose favorite meals include Wendy’s double cheeseburgers, said he was trying it. And less than a week later when he said he felt more energetic than in a long while, I ordered the book he had been reading. By the time I had read most of 21-Day Weight Loss Kick Start: Boost Metabolism, Lower Cholesterol, and Dramatically Improve Your Health, by Neal D. Barnard, MD, I decided to give it a try.

To take on that kind of change, even for just three weeks, is a major undertaking. It means learning to cook with strange ingredients from unfamiliar grocery store aisles. It means bringing new lenses to reading a restaurant menu. If nothing else, it’s gratifying to now know I can take on something new and make it work. But more importantly, I feel better for the changes I’ve made.

Given what I had read and heard, I wasn’t entirely surprised by that. The unexpected part of the experience has been the help I received from friends, which was an unanticipated pleasure.

As I first considered this three-week trial, I mentioned to a few people what I was thinking about. Not only were they supportive and interested in how things were going, those with more experience in this way of eating have shared books, recipes, tips, ideas for menus, and a great deal of encouragement. A dear friend even walked with me through the Good Foods Co-op, pointing out some of the items that would help me prepare satisfying meals.

I could not have anticipated the warmth, encouragement, and practical help offered by many different people in my life. Some I knew well, some were acquaintances. But all were eager to talk about the positive results of switching to a plant-based diet. I came home from a conversation at my hairdresser’s with a recipe carefully written by someone glad to offer help in learning a new way to eat. Even the owner of our favorite Chinese restaurant noticed the change when my family ordered all tofu dishes. He was happy to hear about the diet we were trying and urged us to stick with the vegetarian way.

I’m struck by the generosity and goodwill of those who have helped me learn a better way to nourish the body. All the people who care enough to offer their experience and knowledge have made this challenge so much easier. In their help and support for what they have found to be a better way of life, they have offered a kind of hospitality that reminds me of what churches try to cultivate. Change is hard and we all need help when it’s time to make a transformation in our lives, no matter what kind it may be.

This experience will certainly shape the way I eat from now on. It also has me considering how communities naturally arise when people find something so good that it’s worth sharing, and want to help others along the way.

Is there a community that helps you through the transformations that life asks you to make?