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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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!

Encountering the Tarot

I recently took part in a Tarot workshop called “Exploring the Tarot – A Tool for Insight and Contemplation,” led by Brian Relph. I expected it to be an interesting intellectual exercise. The images on the cards have spoken to people for hundreds of years, and I looked forward to delving into their symbolic meanings. But the workshop turned out to be an experience not primarily of the head, but of the heart.

This card has to do with juggling, keeping things in balance, and play

This card has to do with juggling, keeping things in balance, and play

 

The images came to life as they addressed the ongoing concerns of the workshop participants. We considered the feelings that arose from looking at a card in response to questions such as “What phase of life am I in now, and what awareness would be helpful to me?” or “What supports me in meeting this particular challenge?” Wisdom and insight emerged from considering how the energy and meaning of a card intersected with a particular aspect of life.

Having worked extensively with dreams, exploring images from the Tarot felt somewhat familiar to me. It was noticing that these images sometimes turn up in dream work that inspired me to learn more about the Tarot. These shared archetypal images represent universal patterns of human existence across time and throughout the world. We manifest these archetypes in our individual lives, but each of us lives them out in our own unique ways. The meaning of a dream element, like the meaning of a Tarot image, comes from the intersection of the universal and the particular.

There is ancient Judeo-Christian precedent for seeing dreams as messages from the divine. In both the Old and New Testament, dreams are a way of receiving heavenly insight and guidance. While it may not be common these days for Christians to work dreams as part of their spiritual life, it is part of our spiritual lineage. Tarot, however, is an unfamiliar tool in the Christian theological world view. We may believe that divine wisdom is available all the time through prayer, but if that wisdom arrives in an unfamiliar way it is often seen as suspect. It’s simpler and easier to reject the unfamiliar.

Yet people of faith find many different ways of becoming ever more aware of and attuned to the divine. We rely on the spiritual structures we put in place to encounter the help and guidance that are available to us all the time. Some look for insight conveyed through scripture or in worship. Some invoke the help and protection of the saints, carrying a St. Christopher medal when traveling, for example. Wisdom visits us through signs in the natural world, or a book that suddenly calls for attention, or the sudden resonance within a conversation.

Working with the Tarot is another way of paying attention. It’s not about fortune-telling. This misconception about (or misuse of) the Tarot as if it were for predicting events is similar to a common misunderstanding about the Old Testament prophets. Isaiah and Jeremiah and others were not trying to foretell events that would occur hundreds of years into the future. They were speaking clearly and directly about Israel’s current situation. The prophets were able to do this because they were deeply connected to the wisdom of the divine, able to anticipate the outcome of Israel’s ongoing actions. Yet when later generations look back at their divinely inspired words for guidance, their insights are so keen they offer a lens for interpreting current-day experience and seem to anticipate future events.

In processing my experience of the Tarot with my spiritual director, he asked where I thought the wisdom was coming from, or what it was I encountered through working with the images. The best answer I have for the time being is that the archetypes depicted on the cards open the door to a wisdom that comes from deep within. Yet this insight originates beyond my individual experience; it taps into the universal experience that connects us all. It’s what Carl Jung called the collective unconscious, or what is recognized in the greeting Namaste—the divine in me acknowledging the divine in you. It is the Source of all life, available in every moment, offering itself to us if we will just pay attention.

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.”

 

The Wisdom of Gratitude

At the site of a friend’s silent retreat this fall, a ginkgo tree happened to shed its leaves on the same weekend. She was drawn to the gentle drama unfolding over the course of a day, the air so thick with fluttering yellow fans they sounded like rain as they pooled on the ground. Had the retreat not offered the kind of presence that happens through silence, she might have seen them drop but missed the sound, the music, of falling leaves.

Loretto Retreat, et al 071

It’s a mystery how life can hold such beauty at the same time it holds so much pain. The world is hurting. Each of us is injured from violence inflicted far and near. Wrenching scenes repeat on our screens as we attempt to grapple with unfolding events and respond to the world we live in. As the news cycle continues, fear and hate seem quickest to find their voice, filling the world with noise and making it harder to listen for wisdom.

Yet reminders of wisdom rise up like seedlings through concrete. Teachings on compassion become part of the conversation as people share those scriptures that serve as compass points for their lives. Discussions of the values that shape the identity of our nation are held in earnest. People are sharing and responding to heartbreak in a way that compels action for the sake of justice.

I am grateful for those giving voice to generous and searching hearts. I am grateful for models of resolve shaped by wisdom, strength, and love. They remind us of what is good in this world, and help show us the way forward.

Into this milieu, with perfect timing, comes Thanksgiving.

It is literally good for the heart to be thankful. A daily practice of naming two or three things for which we are thankful actually improves our physical health—this report on those findings is not only fascinating, but encouraging. In a previous post I talked about making space in our lives, giving ourselves breathing room by easing up on our expectations and allowing something new. Gratitude helps to do that.

In remembering to be thankful we make space for something more than the worries that beset us. We open ourselves to other possibilities, and perhaps to seeing new ways to meet the concerns and challenges of our world.

Centuries ago the Sufi poet Rumi wrote:

But listen to me. For one moment
quit being sad. Hear blessings
dropping their blossoms
around you.

May this Thanksgiving be an invitation to wisdom. May we listen from the quiet center of the heart, and rest for a moment in gratitude.

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.

 

Time Suspended

Paging through the WSJ Magazine today, I happened upon this charming piece. It seems that the people at Hermès have been thinking about time and longing, expressed in a limited edition watch design celebrating the company’s 174th anniversary. Part of the Arceau collection, it’s called Le Temps Suspendu, or “Time Suspended.”

The slant of the numerals suggests the ceaseless motion of hours and minutes on the watch face, but these 174 specially made timepieces offer something to counter that momentum. They include a feature designed to evoke the sense of stepping outside of time. Press a button and the hands stop their motion to strike an impossible pose (from a timekeeping perspective), holding the “12” between them. Something like prayer position, perhaps. The date pointer hides away beneath a raised level of the face.

Voilá. If time hasn’t actually stopped, it has at least become irrelevant for the time being, which is much the same thing.

And since the time we can allow for not measuring time is limited, the wearer is reassured that a hidden timekeeper within continues to keep track. Press the button again and the watch returns to the correct time. There’s no mention of an alarm to remind you when to rejoin the scheduled world, but perhaps that would defeat the purpose.

I love the idea of a symbolic act that suspends time, shedding the schedule-driven concerns that clutter the mind and crowd the spirit. We’re at our best when we’re fully present, focusing all our skill and intuition on the thing that engages us. That timeless and exhilarating state is described beautifully by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. A ritual that invites that state of mind is invaluable.

When we reach it, time’s movement and measures fall away. The passing of time neither forces nor impedes; we move effortlessly through it. Later, once again inhabiting everyday consciousness, we look around blinking, wondering how long we spent in that heightened state. When was I last aware of the time? What time is it now? How long was time stopped? Only after the fact do we realize that we experienced an escape from time.

For those of us who don’t have $36,200 to spend on a not-watch, or who aren’t among the first 174 people in line to get one, there are more pictures and musings about the watch here. But we’ll need a different ritual for setting aside time.

Simply taking off a watch is one way to have such a ritual. It’s a sign of inhabiting a different mental space, outside of ordinary time. Another way might be to turn off the phones that claim so much of our attention. They’re a door to a wonderful world, but left open all the time they invite too much interruption.

Entering a ritualized process is another possibility: making a cup of tea, digging in a garden, participating in worship, engaging the imagination. We benefit from anything we can do to set aside time in a way that allows us to live well—to enjoy a meal or a conversation, to take a walk, to lose ourselves in something we enjoy, to create something new.

What kind of ritual helps you to suspend time?