Little Caminos

My friend, Susan, recently read my book on walking the Camino and told me in an email how “the Confessions” in the book had woven their way into her life. I had mentioned to her that they were almost edited out at one point, but they survived the final cut. She wrote,

“And as to the Confessions in your book, I’m so glad you left them in, Marcia! I am benefiting from them even now. Lately, as I ride the Coastal Trail every day on my bike, I have started thinking of it as a mini-Camino, and doing my own Confessions. Biking that trail is such a joy and also the place where my most judgmental self often comes to the fore where I can SEE it: “Why can’t they share the trail?” / “They don’t care about safety enough to wear a helmet.” / “There is a leash law, for God’s sake!” and on it goes. So now, when I hear myself thinking those unkind things I make a Confession. It’s a help!”

Her story intrigued me and opened me to consider how my Camino pilgrimage was still being walked in this way. It led me back to my own Confessions on the Camino, also wondering what little Caminos are continuing in my life. What is it about confessions that are indeed “good for the soul” as is often touted?

Susan didn’t exactly say so, but something about her awareness of her judgment of others on the coastal trail led her to confess what she called an unkindness of thought. And that it was a help. I didn’t ask in what way it was a help, but putting myself on her bike on that trail, I could imagine those same thoughts easily; I had so many judgments of others on my Camino, and confessed them, particularly regarding the Germans.

It is a courageous act to SEE, as Susan said, where we are less than gracious. Having the humility to see it and “confess” it, is a mysterious cleansing. It is a returning to ourselves. Even if Susan had some justification in her judgment–there is a leash law, for instance, and loose dogs are a hazard for a biker–I sensed from what Susan wrote that in her core, it was her truer nature to forgive and to be kind. She could feel the discord and confession “helped” her remember. As she alluded to, there are so many chances in a day to consider oneself on a mini Camino, walking with awareness of what is going on inside as well as outside. And being opened to look at where it is hard to love.

In the book, I confess not only to the judgment of others, but often to the judgment of myself as well as I see my prejudices. Since writing the book, on this continuing “Camino,” I would write something more; I would write about being kind to myself as well, even as I will, no doubt, continue to have these relentless judgments. Compassion has to include ourselves in equal balance. If we not only confess, but also condemn ourselves, we have only shifted the unkindness, not eliminated it. Our prejudices and views of what is “right” in the world were shaped when we were very young, some of those beliefs even before what we can remember. By the age of six or so, psychologists say we have created an inner judge that tries to rule our behavior and thoughts, to keep us “in line” and to keep us alive (as the young one sees it.). And it’s one heck of a tough judge. Inner critic might be a good term that is used as well. Psychologists call it the Superego. I call it the Shamer.

I became aware of this tough judge over thirty years ago through the work of Julia Cameron in her book, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Greater Creativity. While her perspective was focused on all the ways we diminish our belief in ourselves as artists through inner criticism, skepticism and doubt, the message was loud and clear that healthy awareness is far different from any beliefs that make us feel “less than.” My understanding of the prevalence and the destructive nature of the inner critic was blasted open to me when reading the book, Soul without Shame: A Guide to Liberating Yourself From the Judge Within by Byron Brown about seven years ago.

It was sobering to say the least to become even more aware of my self-criticism, pretty much from the moment I awake. “You shouldn’t have slept in. You’re so lazy.” Not true, but a remnant of my father’s voice. To looking in the mirror. “Gosh, you look old. Isn’t there something you should do about those wrinkles?” The voice of culture, not Love. To “Well, what are you going to do today that is worthwhile/helps others/isn’t selfish/gets something done/produces a result? My father, my mother, my church, my Midwest culture voices from my early life. I’m going to say that if I am aware, that voice has a subtle commentary going all day long. All cause me some level of shame and deficiency. And all cause my body to contract and tense. As Brown writes,

” The heart’s direct antidote to judgment is compassion. Because the judge sees only what is wrong and what needs fixing, you know you will get no compassion from it. You will therefore be wary of exposing painful, scary, or negative parts of yourself, for you can be certain the judge will make you wish you hadn’t. Everything you think or feel is used against you. Its job is to maintain the status quo to protect you by maintaining a restricted sense of self.”

In my spiritual work, I have come to believe that this Judge is the primary barrier in the development of my soul into its fullness–and its freedom to create and to love. So I pay a LOT of attention to recognizing and defending against that voice. As one of my spiritual teachers once said, “So do you want a six-year old with a loud mouth running your life?” I laughed when I heard her say it, but I took it very seriously. No, I don’t! It is too young to have any wisdom for my life as a woman. It’s always afraid. It’s always trying to keep me without boundaries that as a child I saw was a way to get loved. But those boundaries are so false. I am loved and I love and am limitless.

And I also have come to know and trust that I need to stop that self shame or I will project it onto others. I heard in a psychology class way back in college that the thing you most hate/despise/avoid in another person is the very thing you most hate/despise/avoid in yourself. That sat me back in my seat. My first reaction? That’s not true. My second reaction? Guilt that it could be true. My reaction now? Hmm, better get curious about that. (not jump to self-judgment again), but have the openness to look at that and see if it’s true. To wonder. There’s tenderness there, compassion. Maybe I can learn to project that onto others.

So many little Caminos, as Susan has opened my eyes to see. So many opportunities to simply wonder about my judgment, instead of condemning others or self. Getting to know myself more deeply for the soul that I am.

At a conference I attended in May, I heard Coleman West speak for the first time. It will not be the last. (Was I living on a different planet not to have heard his wisdom until now? ) I may write a blog just on his presentation, but for now, I will end with the way he ended his talk.

“Find out what is GOOD–and you will be found; everyone will want a piece of your birthday cake.”

I’m considering many little Caminos of confessing the GOOD I find every day in me and in others to balance with confessing judgment.

Yes, I like the sound of that pilgrimage. I’ll start packing.

Ironically, It Was While Taking a Walk

When walking with a friend last week, she asked about what’s happening with the book. She meant the one I’ve been working on for a couple of years. It’s entitled The Long Walk Home: Confessions on the Caminoand has finally been released for ebook and on demaind printing. When she asked, I could tell her I was working with the publisher (Ember Press) to create a launch event or events. It’s exciting to think of sharing that journey with others, learning what interested them, confused them, challenged them or simply was enjoyed by them. Yet even as these are being planned, I was already seeing what more there is to be written on the themes my memoir explores. So I heard myself say to my friend, “It seems like the book launch is a also a launching pad for what has evolved since walking the Camino 15 years ago.”

 While what I wrote about then, and the insights and revelations that I was given were true then and are still true now, they were also bearing points, showing me directions for the continued walk to see more truth and understanding. There is more to the seeming duality of the masculine and feminine; there is more to learning to trust; there is more to being helpless; there is more about the reality of community; there is more about love in its many dimensions, and its relentless pulling of humanity into the reality that we are not separate. 

In all of that questioning, I am coming to an understanding of the need for balance in all of my life, for equilibrium and even equanimity in exploring these questions further. The writer, Kristoffer Hughes, even calls balance an alchemical act.

So what did that writer mean? I know that word alchemy.  I know its origins are in the medieval ages, almost a forerunner of chemistry. Dictionary definitions say it was based on the supposed transformation of matter, particularly that of other metals into gold or a universal elixir. It thus has a related meaning to the process of transformation or creation.  

So I am intrigued; How does balance transform and create in my further exploration?  As it is with all search for my truth, ultimately it must come from my direct experience. I can read, listen and observe others’ wisdom and truth, let it affect me and open me to new thought and action, but it must first resonate with not what my mind knows, but what my own heart carries, intuits and has experienced. 

With that caveat, I want to address one of the first imbalances I write about in the book– the history of the imbalance of the feminine in the Christian church. I called that particular feminine presence the Divine Feminine. While it survived in the stories of Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene particularly, this perspective has been subjugated, hidden and not valued in balance with the masculine perspective which ruled—the patriarchy.  

Fifteen years ago, I carried some righteous judgement against that patriarchy only to confront it face to face at the Santiago Cathedral on the very last day of my pilgrimage.  As the archbishop was trying to recess from Pentecost High Mass that had just ended, a crowd of pilgrims pushed me forward as they entered the sanctuary for the pilgrim mass that was to follow. I was thrown off-balance (there’s that word again) and was trying to not fall when I found myself standing directly in front of the Archbishop in all his robes, mitre and finery. He was justifiably annoyed at all this and snarled a little at me. You can’t make these things up.  God was going to have me look at my judgement face to face. Instead of anger or resentment, I saw him as a human being who was tired and frustrated, like I had been on the Camino. I realized in that momentous literal confrontation that we needed each other and always had. 

Much of my complaint has softened with that experience; now I see the masculine and feminine arguments as part of duality: us and them, black and white, right and wrong. I realize that being against something only perpetuates the judgement and aggression I want to stop. Mother Teresa once said that she would not join any organization or protest that was against anything.

 “Tell me what you are for,” she said.

What I am for is a balance of the values that make the world go round. How then would balance of the masculine and feminine divine look? I do not know. I don’t know, but I know it is the way.

We can speak to the need of the strength of feminine values of non-hierarchical structure, of compassion, of tenderness, of nurture, of resilience, consensus, community, relationships and vulnerability as just a few. And we can acknowledge the masculine values of physical strength, decisiveness, assertiveness, structure, logic, taking charge, protection, guidance, survival, and loyalty.  What is the alchemy of the balance of these traits? I can only guess it would bring a peace we have never known, a joy that would out-rule discontent, and a creative catalyst for solving world needs that would astound. There would be equilibrium. Equanimity.

For me, the traits of being masculine or feminine are less important than a nondualistic way of being—moving beyond gender to personhood. The equanimity is honoring the distinctions and values and uniqueness of the masculine and feminine, but seeing beyond these differences to the fact that we are not separate from each other or anything in creation. We can be curious about our differences, and try to understand their value, but not to let them prevent us from loving each other, forgiving each other, honoring each other and most curious of all, being transformed. 

At the end of our walk that day, my friend told me a story about her former male boss who broke down in a staff meeting and cried because of the recent school shooting of children and teachers in Texas. The room was stunned and silent; this was completely out of character for this owner of a large construction company, embodying hierarchy, toughness, logic and assertiveness as his style. But the boss was unapologetic. His tears were real and justified. AND it allowed everyone else in the office to go back to their desks, to grieve these senseless deaths themselves and to talk to each other about this transformed boss and how the shooting had affected him and them. There was deeper community. There was vulnerability. There was strength and there was leadership. 

And a balance of feminine and masculine. I think it would look something like that.

My Sabbatical is Over—and I Didn’t Even Know I Took One

When I stepped down as a director of the Listening Post in October of 2019, I didn’t know what was next. But I trusted that I was to make space for new leadership, and to do that I would need to distance myself for a while. Since I had helped start that dynamic and evolving organization eleven years prior, I noticed others were reluctant to step forward since I was “founder.” But I was aware of  that syndrome in which the organization dies when the founder does. I didn’t want that. I knew the Listening Post had a life of its own.

            I wondered if this then was the time that I would really “retire.” Little did I know that I was on the cusp of two and half years of what would be my version of the Dark Night of the Soul—the time recognized by all spiritual seekers marked by not knowing and particularly not knowing where God is. 

 I have written of this time in prior blogs: the agonizing slow dying of a best friend, the mental decline and eventual death of my mother due to Covid, the more sudden death of my spiritual teacher, and the discovery that I had breast cancer and the surgery that followed. My last post was just after that time. And of course, I joined with the rest of the world in the shadow of the pandemic, the isolation, the loss, the uncertainty and the chaos. A coup attempt on our government. The killing of George Floyd, more mass shootings. We all have other griefs to add.

            Yet the Dark Night is also called “luminous.” That alluring and illuminating light of a full moon that can lead us into the unknown. For myself, it illuminated a way, a time, and the support in those two and half years to write my book. And then spend an equal amount of time editing it and learning about the publishing process. It has recently been published and starts a journey of its own.

            In all these experiences, the over-arching gift of this Dark Night was this: I learned how to receive. I glimpsed in that luminous light, that I had a considerable pride and self-identification in being the Giver. While giving is a beautiful gift too, in my case, it was not balanced with the art of receiving. It was humbling, in the best meaning of that word, to see that by being  the Giver, I could feel in control, even manipulate situations to get approval and of course, under that, love. 

            I have learned to find that love by receiving it in the past two and half years. I let myself feel my needs and to ask for what I needed. Uncomfortable, strange and wary, I’ve discovered that even when God seemed hidden, the Love did not. It was ever-present, abundant, free and attuned. In my case, I learned the reverse of that Bible verse, “It is better to give than to receive.” I found some balance in the luminous darkness and I had the courage to receive calls, cards, books, food, listening ears, hugs, help getting up, supporting pillows, medical advice, pastoral care, offers to assist with designing and publishing the book and the presence of friends and family—without needing to even the score. 

            My energy is nearly back now. My heart has healed much from the losses. And by healing, I mean it has become more vulnerable and in this, found strength, not weakness. I see God again not so much in everything, but everything held in God–held, held, held.  

            There is talk of the Listening Post beginning to listen in person this summer. It has been on hold during the pandemic as the world watched and waited for a time when it was safe again to gather. When it does, I sense I will listen again, but with a new heart, ready to help others, but also in larger part, to receive what those on the margins have to give to me. Or as Fr. Gregg Boyle says, “We don’t so much reach out to others, as we are reached.” My sabbatical time has done its work.