Ash Wednesday – Finding Ourselves in the Dust

Ash Wednesday will soon be upon us—literally, if we attend a service with the imposition of ashes. Receiving the mixture of oil and ash in the shape of a cross on one’s forehead comes with the reminder to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

These words are part of a ritual I have long found meaningful even as I resisted what I took to be its message. But my attitude toward the Ash Wednesday service, with its stark reminder of death, has evolved over the years. I’ve moved from rejection of what I perceived as a dark view of life and death, to acknowledgment of death’s inevitability, to appreciation of a ritual that honors the reality of our limited time on earth. But I’ve always thought of that return to dust as happening literally, at our physical death.

Last night I dreamed I was on my belly in a dusty yard, struggling to move forward without being able to raise myself up. I was without strength or power, in contact with the ground. I could see plants growing at eye level and I thought of the healing herbs I wanted to grow. Later in the dream I was walking, but cars zoomed by leaving me in the dust.

I woke from the dream with a sense of vulnerability, yet feeling oddly peaceful. As I worked with the images from the dream I felt a shift occur. My experience of dust in the dream opened a new way of understanding the dust proclaimed in the Ash Wednesday liturgy.

Returning to the dust doesn’t happen only at our death. We return to the dust over and over as life knocks us off our feet. It feels like a defeat, which it is: a de-feat (or even de-feet), not something we accomplish but something done to us, something we endure. Some power outside our control brings a new reality we wouldn’t have chosen. Our plans and expectations turn to dust, and life as we know it is over.

But in the dust we’re back where we came from, supported by our connection with the earth. The word humble has the same root as humus (Latin for soil) and human. In the humility of experiencing our limitations, we find ourselves supported by a greater strength.  Being humble puts us in touch with what Paul Tillich called the Ground of Being. Our vulnerability brings us into contact with the real support life offers, as opposed to the illusory supports we try to create for ourselves.

Finding ourselves in the dust is a blow to the ego but growth for the soul. It grounds us and helps us remember who we are. On the ground we’re in the place where life is rooted and healing herbs grow. We experience the solidity of the earth upon which we walk. We remember our dependence on it, our oneness with it. And throughout our time in this world, the earth strengthens us as we regain our balance and rise again.

The ritual of Ash Wednesday’s imposition of ashes is a reminder of how brief our lives are. But it also speaks to the many times we find ourselves in the dust over the course of a lifetime. In those times the dust can be a place where we encounter the grounding and strength always supporting us. In the dust we encounter the essence of life and of ourselves. Ash Wednesday isn’t the dismal ritual I once thought it was. Rather, it points to how the heart of life is often hidden in the places where we least want to look.

Marching and the Labyrinth

While marches were recently going on across the country, I was completing my training as a spiritual director at The Haden Institute. In connection with those marching, essentially, to affirm the value of human dignity and respect, we held a liturgy around a labyrinth.

One at a time, each person taking part in the ritual stood at the entrance of the labyrinth holding a lighted candle. After silently declaring our intention in making this symbolic journey, each passed the flame to the next person and proceeded to walk the labyrinth.

Many of us shared in this ritual of walking the labyrinth, which meant that some were on the way in toward the center as others made their return. We sometimes met another person on the narrow path and needed to yield so that both could continue on the journey.

It was a contemplative version of a march, appropriate for a group committed to doing our inner work and discerning how and where the Spirit is leading. In our training we have faced our own self-delusion, unhealthy patterns, and the hollowness of the ego’s demands. We have also experienced the wisdom and light available when we can get out of our own way and find the true center—the spark of the divine within.

People across the country are considering how best to live up to our civic and moral responsibilities. To choose where to invest ourselves, each of us needs to know more about our values than what we’re against. Outrage and fear are powerful motivators, but not a strong basis for setting a wholesome vision.  To build a better society, it’s important to go beneath our immediate emotional responses and act from a grounded center. We gather strength when we know what we’re working for. Then we can be clear about our vision, goals, and values and share them with others. We can help foster the vital, healthy communities that sustain our lives and work.

Walking the labyrinth is a beautiful meditation on the three-part journey. We go within to become centered and grounded. The circuitous route to the midpoint is full of the bewildering turns that life can take. Its confusing path shows us the need to connect to divine guidance. The still point in the center is a place of restoration and wisdom. In this place we find rest, and are given what we need. Finally, we take that inner peace with us as we navigate the complexity of our path back into the world. We repeat this journey again and again throughout our lives.

A balance of contemplation and action changes the world. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, and countless others have been able to generate change through action rooted in their connection to the Divine Center. The vision and work that emanates from this center is what will truly carry us forward.

My work is to help people connect with that same center of wisdom, strength, and peace. I’m grateful for the training that has prepared me to offer spiritual direction. Spiritual companionship is a natural a balm for our fragmented society. Now more than ever we all, regardless of our politics, need the ability to act from our highest and most essential self. We need the ability to make soul-level connections with others to create life-affirming communities. Spiritual direction is a healing force for just such a time as this.

My office is open and I would love to meet with you. Email me at: susan@mildlymystical.com

 

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 Stories that Feed Us

I’ve been thinking lately about what faith is, as practiced in community. And about the tension in religious life between nurturing faith and acting for social justice. Not that they’re opposed—they are yin and yang, a union of opposites. The truth, the full picture, transcends each and holds them together. Each at its fullest point gives way to the other, requires the other to continue, loses meaning without the other, whether in the life of an individual or a community.

Herbs on Serving Platter

But where do we put our energy? Feeding the hungry matters, but it matters both physically and spiritually. Soup kitchens and food boxes meet basic needs, but the spirit’s needs are essential as well. The world is hungry in a thousand ways. People must have food, but they are starved for meaning, for hope, for beauty and peace. We cannot live by bread alone.

This week’s radio show, On Being, is an interview with Avivah Zornberg, who explores biblical stories through the Jewish tradition of midrash. She makes the insightful observation that faith is about asking better and better questions.

During the seder meal in the Jewish celebration of Passover, the practice of asking and answering questions is part of the sacred ritual. Children at the table see unusual and interesting foods, placed before them in part to invite questions. Why is this night different from other nights? Why are we eating these herbs tonight? A child’s simple question echoes through layers of experience in the minds of the adults. We need more than simple answers as life goes on, but we continue to ask why.

In the Seder ritual, the answer to the child and to the adults as well, comes through story. There is richness in that kind of teaching. Open spaces with room for exploration are made present in the world of a story. There is wisdom in demonstrating to the young that when people gather around the things that matter, we create a place and a time for questions.

Those early questions usually have answers. Children need information; stories are literal. But when the information comes in the form of stories, the answers invite more wondering, more questions, as time goes on.

The true teachings may be less about what can be known than about the stories that shape our lives, and the questions we’re invited into. A story changes as we inhabit it, and we are changed, too. I wish I had understood this better when my children were young, but we’re all still learning. Still asking questions.

A Gift Just for Showing Up

If I hadn’t had a role to play in the service today, I would have skipped church. With family visiting all too briefly from out of town, another cup of coffee together sounded like a better plan. But since I was needed there I drove to church instead, listening to NPR on the way.

I’ve resisted the anniversary observances of 9/11 this year, wanting to avoid dwelling on the suffering in that event and the dismay at what has transpired since then. But the reminders are everywhere this weekend, and this morning’s coverage left me feeling the weight of the past ten years.

I found myself thinking that if I had to be going anywhere I was glad it was to church. If nothing else, I was glad to be offering up the events and emotions of this anniversary with others, as part of a service that makes remembering more bearable and perhaps even more meaningful because it is shared.

As I waited in back to follow a cherubic acolyte up the aisle during the opening hymn, I had a vision of the sanctuary I had never experienced before. The glass walls at the back of the sanctuary caught the light in just the right way to reflect the trees in the garden behind the church.

The reflection of their trunks blended with the wood of the pews on the other side of the glass, so that the trees seemed to have taken root in the sanctuary. A canopy of green appeared to shelter the worshipers and the center aisle was like a tree-lined garden walk. As a breeze lifted the branches and rustled the leaves outside, the reflected movement seemed an image of the holy spirit, stirring gently among the congregation.

Knowing I couldn’t possibly do justice to the scene, I pulled out my phone and snapped a photo anyway, just to help me remember. It’s the picture you see here, the photographic equivalent of an illegibly scribbled note.

I’ve written about trees in a church before—something I find to be a meaningful symbol. That’s why this scene of a worship service overlaid with the life of a garden felt like a gift. In the fullness of late-summer growth, brought to life by a gentle wind, the reflected image of the trees spoke of suppleness and fruitfulness, deep roots and new branches, life and hope.

At its best, that’s what a church is all about. And because I showed up today, I was able to experience a reminder of the good that can come from people gathering together. On today, of all days, I’m glad I was there.

I’ll leave you with a verse from the opening hymn we sang:

Yes, on through life’s long path,
still singing as you go,
from youth to age, by night and day,
in gladness and in woe
Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice give thanks and sing.

 

 

 

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?

 

Green and Growing Faith

The power of ceremony and ritual was evident in the British royal wedding this weekend. It offered a wealth of archetypal images—of union and strength, new beginnings and promise, grandeur and reverence. Many of its elements seemed straight out of a fairy tale. But what I keep remembering is the sight of English Field Maples lining the aisle inside Westminster Abbey.

It was lovely to see life that was fresh, green, and growing inside a sacred space a thousand years old. We have a need for the sturdy structures of the church and its traditions. They can help us contain and interpret the most important moments of our lives. Ideally, religious rituals and teachings help lift our joys to the light and bear us up under the weight of our sorrows. But to fulfill their role to the fullest those practices must meet our lives, and the culture and climate in which we live them, in a meaningful way.

For this to happen we must take responsibility for engaging with the traditions and leaders of the church. We need the courage to express our genuine questions, needs, longings, and aspirations. And at the same time, the church needs to respond with openness, granting a blessing upon our willingness to wrestle with angels in the dark. Where this is possible, the church will be a shelter for green and growing faith that transforms the world. But where we just go through the motions, all that remains is ritual drained of life.

The church helps us live into the truth that our lives are part of something greater than ourselves. But the trees in the abbey speak a message as well: the church is charged with fostering something more important than its traditions; its role is to foster life.

What can we do to live a green and growing faith, and to help build a church that fosters it?

 

 

A Box for Prayers

Thinking back over the week, it’s interesting to recall several conversations about prayer. Not a subject that typically recurs so often. With life moving quickly along from one thing to the next, I didn’t notice this thread weaving through the past few days until I stopped to reflect on what the week has brought.

This is a reason to write a blog, by the way. It helps me pay attention. The blog becomes a box for reflection, and its presence is a constant reminder to place something in it. A box for prayer can work the same way.

To one of these conversations from the week a friend brought a gift she had received—a beautiful handmade wooden box, shaped something like a medium-sized apple. The lid lifts off with a long stem-like handle to reveal a rounded interior, sanded smooth, the grain visible in the dark wood. It has just enough heft to feel solid in the palm of one’s hand.  After living with the gift for a few weeks, she realized that it would be a box for her prayers.

All sorts of prayers can be placed in such a box. Prayers for others can be held there, represented by a name written on a slip of paper. A gift that the day brings, a worry we can’t let go of, a feeling of fear or grief or longing—the concern and gratitude and pleas that color our spiritual life all have a place in a box for prayers.

To give our prayers a tangible expression is a comfort. A similar practice happens on a larger scale in Old Jerusalem where the Wailing Wall, or Western Wall, holds the prayers of visitors who tuck their written words into spaces between the ancient stones. The space is considered holy because of the Jewish tradition that the Divine Presence remains there. More than a million notes are placed there every year. Semi-annually the notes are collected and buried on the Mount of Olives.

Most of us can’t place our prayers in the Wailing Wall, but we can set aside a sacred space of our own. It might feel right to ask a blessing on that space, or it may be enough to let the blessing come from the prayers with which we fill it. They may be in the form of written words, or in a simple nonverbal prayer such as lighting a candle.

A box for prayer might be a metaphorical one as well. It can be a place to visit that feels set apart. It can be a time of day. It can be the experience of sacred writings, or music, or art. It can be a ritual that helps to place us in the presence of the divine. It can be anything that helps us see that we are standing on holy ground.

What have you found that serves as a box for prayer?

Seeing the Picture

I’m remembering a dear uncle this week. Tall, gentle, and soft-spoken, his careful tamping of tobacco and patient lighting of his pipe fascinated me at family gatherings when I was a girl. Back then he was the only adult I knew who painted pictures, and I was confused when he said he didn’t think of himself as an artist.

One of his paintings was of a tree, which I remember him saying was out back of some building, in the parking lot. That was even more bewildering. How could something as special as a painting be made of something that sounded so ordinary? I would have learned an important lesson much earlier if I had been able to articulate that question, but I was a child with a thousand things I didn’t understand and no way to determine which I needed most to learn about.

Fortunately, I was able to know him long past childhood. He gave up his pipe in later years, and eventually failing eyesight took painting from him as well. But his sensibilities remained, and he appreciated the goodness of life. To talk with him was to share in a beautiful perspective on the world.

I took a break in the middle of the morning yesterday, from both the household chores I was taking care of and the writing I’ve been obsessing about for the past few days. Weary of all of it, I decided to just have a cup of coffee. Not to read or write, not to think or analyze or plan, but just to sit and look out the window and drink my coffee.

It was a beautiful day. The bright snow on the ground, the white-trimmed branches against a bright blue sky—“pretty as a picture” was the phrase that came to mind. It’s an old-fashioned idiom from a time when pictures were rare, special in a way utterly foreign to our image-flooded culture. But the phrase still evokes that sense of attention and value that comes with placing a frame around a scene. Making a picture is a way of saying this is worth noticing.

That’s what an artist can do. It’s what my uncle did when he saw something beautiful in an ordinary scene. Appreciating beauty doesn’t require a literal frame, but it helps to have some kind of reminder to pay attention. The frame could be the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. It could be a particular place to be at a regular time of day. It might take the form of a ritual, like lighting a pipe.

It might even be a conversation with someone who can help you pay attention. Talking with Uncle Guyles often helped to frame something worth noticing. I’ll miss him.

What helps you frame the things you want to notice?

Winter Solstice and Rebirth

We’ve reached the Winter Solstice, shortest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere, bookended by the longest nights. Oh my. Last night brought a lunar eclipse as well, though the heavy cloud cover discouraged me from getting up in the middle of the night to watch.

I’ve observed other eclipses of the moon, fascinated to see the shining orb slowly overtaken by shadow. In spite of understanding the phenomenon, it’s an emotional experience to see it happen. There is a kind of visceral drama in its disappearance and the wait for that first sliver of its return.

The eclipse is similar to the drama of the winter solstice, but in condensed form. The light slowly disappears and we anxiously await its return. As with every kind of darkness, we need the gift of faith and the reassurance of ritual to make it through.

The sun at its farthest point from us, the winter just beginning, we have a long way to go. For the most part we accept the rhythm of the seasons, adjust to the routines shaped by shorter days and longer nights. And in celebrating the completion of these longest nights we know that this, too, shall pass.

The light returns incrementally, but the cumulative effect of those small changes transforms the seasons. Tomorrow the earth and sun begin their course toward summer—a marvelously hopeful thought, however long the journey may be.

It has me thinking of the power of committing to steady movement in a particular direction over time. Apparently it’s natural to remember that this time of year. The rebirth of the sun through the Winter Solstice, the rebirth of divinely inspired possibilities for human life through Christmas, the rebirth of the year and all that it contains through New Year’s—the idea of renewal is a thread weaving through all these holidays. Here in the dark of winter is energy toward rebirth. Hallelujah!

What kinds of new possibilities might be germinating in the dark?