In the quiet..

Sharing a poem that came this morning when snow has fallen and hushed the earth. Wishing you quiet and the deep hope that underlies this time of uncertainty.

Don’t say, don’t say there is no water
to solace the dryness at our hearts.
I have seen the fountain springing out of the rock wal
land you drinking there.
And I too before your eyes 
found footholds and climbed
to drink the cool water. 
The woman of that place, shading her eyes,
frowned as she watched-but not because
she grudged the water, 
only because she was waiting
to see we drank our fill and were
refreshed. Don’t say, don’t say there is no water.
That fountain is there among its scalloped
green and gray stones, it is still there and always there
with its quiet song and strange power
to spring in us, up and out through the rock.
   ~ Denise Levertov  

Ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust

It’s Ash Wednesday today in the Christian tradition and marks the beginning of the Lenten season. For several years, this was the Wednesday that I would mix olive oil with burnt palms, dip my thumb into the mixture and make the sooty sign of the cross on the foreheads of my parishioners as they knelt before me, reciting the words to each of them, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” But the last year that I did this, I said the words, “Ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust.” For me, this more adequately summarized how we as human beings have come into being–and where we shall return. We are not just of this earth; we are of the cosmos.

On this Ash Wednesday, I was with my 95 year old mother, sitting at the table in a skilled nursing facility with 3 other women near 90, telling stories of their lives. Although recent memory is foggy for them, they could easily bring up those from childhood– churning butter, washing clothes in a wringer washer, eating only beans and corn during the Depression, the kind words of their mother, the pranks played by a brother or the Christmas Eves when Santa would come down the stairs with presents. They had lives full of hardship and pain, loss of sisters to scarlet fever, loss of a son in a car accident, the loss of three brothers in the war. As I sat with them and with the other 20 or so women who slept in chairs and pushed walkers around the room, I could see that it could look depressing with one set of eyes. But with another set, I could see how they were still shining even as their lives are waning.

Starlight yet.

We are such “perishable miracles” as Maria Popova says. I follow a her blog called Brain Pickings. This week (February 23, 2020) she explored the marvel of our existence by saying, “the central animating force of our species, the wellspring of our joy and curiosity, the restlessness that gave us Whitman and Wheeler, Keats and Curie, is the very fathoming of this fathomless universe — an impulse itself a marvel in light of our own improbability(my emphasis). Somehow, we went from bacteria to Bach; somehow, we learned to make fire and music and mathematics. And here we are now, walking wildernesses of mossy feelings and brambled thoughts beneath an overstory of one hundred trillion synapsese.”

I often ponder that we know a lot more about our universe than ever before; we can peer into space back billions of years. We’ve identified millions of stars, planets, nebulas, solar systems, black holes. And yet so far, there isn’t a blue and green planet where life as we know it exists. I have heard it said by cosmologist Brian Swimme that if Earth was tilted just a few degrees differently, life on Earth would not exist. I sense more and more how much I don’t get it—I and every other being is simply a cosmic miracle.

The physicist and mathematician, Brian Greene writes, (from the same blog by Popova), “Even so, to see our moment in context is to realize that our existence is astonishing. Rerun the Big Bang but slightly shift this particle’s position or that field’s value, and for virtually any fiddling the new cosmic unfolding will not include you or me or the human species or planet earth or anything else we value deeply.We exist because our specific particulate arrangements won the battle against an astounding assortment of other arrangements all vying to be realized. By the grace of random chance, funneled through nature’s laws, we are here.”

And yet we are perishable. Ashes to Ashes. Stardust to Stardust.

Greene goes on to say, “In the fullness of time all that lives will die. For more than three billion years, as species simple and complex found their place in earth’s hierarchy, the scythe of death has cast a persistent shadow over the flowering of life. Diversity spread as life crawled from the oceans, strode on land, and took flight in the skies. But wait long enough and the ledger of birth and death, with entries more numerous than stars in the galaxy, will balance with dispassionate precision. The unfolding of any given life is beyond prediction. The final fate of any given life is a foregone conclusion.”

I no longer see that as a grim statement. Yes, there is yet a part of me that shies away from death–that part of my primal brain whose role it is to survive. And I don’t want to lose friends, let alone my children or grandchildren. I don’t want to lose my mother. Yet it is the truth. We live and we all die. We can blind ourselves not only that we are miracles, but also to this–that we are “perishable.”

Ash Wednesday serves to mark us physically with this remembrance. The black cross on the forehead of the congregation reminds them of the death of Christ, not the resurrection. It links our humanity to the story of God’s in human form. To be human is to die.

My desire is to grow in acceptance of that. To even be content with it. And let it fuel my gratitude, my fire, my creativity, and my utter awe.

Ashes to ashes. Stardust to stardust.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey

Have you noticed that sometimes it’s hard to go back to a book you’ve already read? Some of it is already knowing the plot, already relishing your favorite parts, already surrendered to the ending whether it’s the one you wanted or the one you didn’t. I was surprised that I felt this way about going back to review, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey by Rachel Joyce.I think it was such a tender story that I wanted to keep those virgin feelings, not analyze them post-read. 

But I also see what I missed now that I’m going back through the chapters. The book is loosely organized around three letters. Both this book and it’s companion (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry), begin with the letter that Queenie writes to her former co-worker, telling him that she has cancer and there is nothing left to be done. She thanks him for his friendship and assures him she is at peace. But for both of them, there is a part of their story that has no peace. The book recounts all that has been left unsaid and untold in their relationship and all the regrets that still linger. 

This is the substance of most of the book, contained in the form of a second letter to Harold. In this second letter, she writes to make a full confession of how she feels she has wronged him. She has to write as the cancer surgery has taken her tongue and the ability to speak. She is intent in this endeavor as she waits for Harold to arrive on his pilgrimage to her, always wondering if he will make it before she goes.  Assisting her in completing this second letter is the enigmatic French Sister Inconnu, one of the nurses at St. Bernadine’s Hospice in Berwick-Upon-Tweed. Whenever she wants to give up, Sister Inconnu is there to give her strength and wisdom. The following is a passage from the book as Queenie is entering her last days and has been taken out to sit under the shade of a tree. 

Suddenly Sister Mary inconnu let out a hiccup. She slapped her hand to her mouth but another one followed and another. I realized that what she was doing was laughing. ‘

“What is it?” I asked. Something like that.

  A further  laugh erupted from her with a gigantic splutter. She had to grip her stomach and lift her feet. Rocking this way and that, she pointed upwards. HOO HOO HOO, she went, while still pointing up at the tree. That was all she could manage in the way of communication. “Look at the branches, Look at the leaves. When you really look, you see how fantastic it is. It’s so perfect you have to laugh!” She guffawed. 

Now that she’d said it, I couldn’t see how I hadn’t noticed before. The tree above us was a canopy of bright lime leaves, each one shaped like an eye with perfect crinkle-cut edges. Where the sun caught them they shone luminous, while those in shade hung a deeper green. I took in the solid torso of the trunk, the curls and brindles in the gray bark, the milky covering of moss where the sun could not reach. I gazed at the exuberant bow of the five central branches, like sturdy shoulders, and then I moved my eye to the entanglement twigs and leaves….It was the most marvelous thing, that tree, now that we sat and took notice. It was hilarious.  

We sat, weeping with laughter.  Ha, Ha went the tree, look at those funny ladies. One with a wimple. One in a wheelchair. Look at the beauty of them. 

This particular passage at first puzzled me; I thought the first response to recognizing the beauty of nature is awe, not laughter. In fact, laughing seemed to discount this moment of recognition when we realize we are not separate from creation. But then I began to appreciate this response, if not from the viewpoint that it is hilarious that we think we are! (Especially trees—see my prior post on the Overstory.) Yet also in my experience, that One-ness does take on pure joy and laughter. Particularly when I remember having a gray whale come up beside the small boat I was in so that it’s eye was just below the surface of the water and we stared at each other for a timeless time. Afterwards I laughed and laughed and laughed at the beauty and joy and surprise of it all. It was so natural to laugh, so compelling to laugh, so precise to respond in exactly this way. I think this passage is poignant simply because Queenie is going to die in a day or so. That here at the end of her life, when there are so many choices, she “sees” the beauty that was there–and laughs.

With each vignette of the different hospice patients, with each struggle to survive another day, with each small way the Sisters take to make each day comfortable and enjoyable for the hospice patients, an overall story of love is told, as well as Queenie’s love story. Even the grand story of the pilgrimage and all the attention it draws, fades in the more telling story of how life is lived in the moment, what is noticed, how our souls respond. Queenie comes to see that what she thought was lost in her love of Harold, was always there.

I don’t want to spoil the ending as there is a surprise, or two. All that is contained in the Third Letter that Sister Philomena writes to Harold after Queenie dies. 

It is possible to go on a long and transforming pilgrimage without ever leaving the place you are. 

What Life Brings

I had hoped to do a lot of writing on my second week in Mexico, but strangely my computer refused to turn on, even though it was fully charged. The humidity? The salt air? Divine intervention? Writing in my journal had to suffice ( by the way, I love that word and someday I’m going to write a whole blog on words I love). I diagnosed my computer as homesickness and miraculously, it seemed to be true. When I got home, it worked perfectly the next morning and henceforth.

But the other unexpected turn of events actually began when we were still in Mexico. My close friend of 35 years began to get stomach symptoms. We weren’t too worried; it was Mexico and probably there was some bacteria here that didn’t agree with her. A Mexico Bug was our diagnosis. Sadly my diagnosis this time was woefully wrong. When she went to the doctor the morning after we returned, she was sent to the ER, had a CT scan and called me that night. Metastatic ovarian cancer. Exploratory surgery scheduled three days later. Chemo started two days after that. All this was a 9 days ago now. I’ve spent most of that time with her either at the hospital or her home, taking steps one at a time on a path where you can’t see around the next corner. The rest of the time I’ve been texting, calling and emailing the web of friends who love her. That has been my writing practice this past week, but the content is much the same each time. The news. Acknowledging the shock. Encouraging them that it sounds bad but there’s a good prognosis–80% remission, even a 5% chance of cure. Not a death sentence anymore but a chronic illness that can be managed with quality of life.

When I was 9, I was told my two year old brother was going to die from a rare form of muscle cancer. My response then was to shout out, ‘NO!” and run away. When I was 19, the same news, only this time my 15 year old sister and bone cancer. I crumbled. The same news at 34 when my dad was was diagnosed with lung cancer. I froze and felt helpless. Another sister with breast cancer and brother with kidney cancer but less serious prognosis. So cancer and I are no strangers.

I’ve been watching myself this time; shock yes. Numb for a while. Very tired. But I’m not falling apart. I’m not running away. If anything, this past week has opened me up to such love and gratitude. These new eyes are not just for my friend, but it’s as if I have new eyes for everyone, as if I can see their beauty so clearly– or as Thomas Merton once put it, “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

I can only attribute this change to the years of being with what life brings. And to some of the spiritual work I’ve engaged in with a whole heart. My current path is the Diamond Approach and a recent teaching by Rosanne Annoni on acceptance has seeped into my soul and given me some of this new vision. In it, she acknowledges that from the ordinary perspective, acceptance feels like the opposite of rejection. So if I’m going to accept my friend’s diagnosis, it must mean I can’t reject it and I have to bring it closer. I assume it’s something I need to do. Or acceptance means that passive acquiescence of “Oh well, that’s how things are; I just need to accept it.” Again, something I do. Yet true acceptance isn’t what I do. It’s an openness, a willingness to simply be with what is without judgment: “Can I gently, kindly be with the immediacy of my experience without saying “yes” or “no” to it?” We can’t make ourselves accept or decide to accept. “It’s a perspective of just being with what is unfolding.”

She also acknowledges that “What’s hard is how do I accept reality when reality sucks? This quality of acceptance is not a condoning, but a finding that inner sense of tranquility when we face a reality that is distortion of Being. We can respond, but not react.” All that is hard for the ordinary mind to get around. Yet somehow without me doing anything, I’ve absorbed a sense of it. Just being with this without reacting.

Reality of this cancer in my friend sucks. I’m just being with that. But it’s not all of Reality. I want to write more about this in my next post when I review a book that is a companion to the book I reviewed on The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. This book is The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey which recounts what happened on the other end of Harold’s pilgrimage as she awaits his arrival in a hospice hospital, dying of cancer. Stay tuned. It’s also worth a read.

It’s good to get back to writing on my blog. And in these cold dry winter days in Alaska, I don’t have to worry that my computer will refuse to turn on due to humidity or the salt air!

An Unusual Book–If Not For the Title Alone

I admit that it was the title that caught me eye as I was looking for another book online: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (Hachette Books, New York; 2012.) Even then I probably wouldn’t have bought it except I bumped into it at a bookstore just a few days later–and it was on sale. With no expectations, I ended up reading late into the night–and laughing out loud as I read it, rousing my sleeping husband. That’s not something I often do! I want to pass it on as sometimes we need a book that makes us laugh, feel good, allow the preposterous and have a happy (and preposterous) ending.

Originally written in Swedish by Jonas Jonasson (the name a giveaway), I’ve started referring to it as a Forrest Gump take off. It begins with Alan Karlsson’s on the run from his own 100th birthday party at the Old Folks’ Home. The bad-tempered Director Alice won’t let him drink his vodka anymore, and he decided there must be some other place to die than there. What follows is saga of being on the run from drug dealers, the law (someone gets killed accidentally), and the media who take up the story. And slowly the story of his life is told as well.

Like the Forrest Gump film story, Alan is a man who grew up quite ordinary and unremarkable in the ways the world values, yet went on to meet world leaders and affect the course of history, primarily because of his understanding of the use of explosives– Albert Einstein,, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Mao, and Winston Churchill to name a few. As he runs into a host of colorful characters who join him on his getaway–and all who understand and join him in his love of vodka–the story deepens into one of growing possibility that a man of 100 thought was over for his lifetime.

And like Forrest Gump, Alan Karlsson takes the world as it comes, yet refuses to be anyone other than who he is–which is the real strength of any of us. Read the first chapter, if it doesn’t make you smile, let it go. But if it does, enjoy it. I wonder if you will laugh out loud.

Sweet Corn Ice Cream

Sometimes I think the world is getting a certain sameness as I travel–and certainly there were McDonald’s and Starbucks stores that made the landscape of Puerto Vallarta Americanized. But in this little town of Sayulita where we are staying, I’m delighted in how different it still is and how this culture is alive and well. Not everyone is trying to immigrate to America and today I met a man who lives here instead of Los Angeles. “I wanted to get away from the crime and heliocopters and sirens and violence. It’s so peaceful here and quiet and no violence.”

There are the many ways I need to adjust: no toilet paper in the toilet; the water warmed by a tank in the sun, an open air kitchen, living and dining room, the water from the faucet undrinkable, and all the code violations on the buildings that Steve can pick out. And probably the most challenging is not speaking much Spanish. I always feel badly that I haven’t tried harder in my life to master Spanish–I got closer when on my pilgrimage, but then I didn’t use it again and it’s all rusted away. Even this morning I wondered if I might try once more.

What I enjoy again about Mexico is the friendliness of the people, the likeliness of smiling and joking, the respect of elders and ancestors, the bright colors and the music. Oh and the food. I love that the menu last night had items not found in our local Mexican restaurant in Eagle River–marlin stew tacos, octopus enchiladas, and sweet corn ice cream. They were all so good–but perhaps it was the sound of waves, the sand under our feet or the full moon rising.

We are adjusting to the 100 degree rise in temperature quite well since leaving Alaska two days ago just in case you were worried : )

“What’s Your Passion?” I Used To Hate That Question

I was listening to KTNA while up at our cabin near Trapper Creek and heard bits and pieces of a Ted Talk on creativity. I’m sorry I can’t credit the source exactly (it may have been Elizabeth Gilbert), but this person said, “Whenever someone asks, ‘What’s your passion?’, and you can’t immediately come up with an answer, it leaves you feeling bad, deficient or somehow lacking.” I couldn’t agree more. When I’m asked that, I hesitate simply because I’m not sure how that term is being used!

It’s first known use was in the 13th century Middle English, from the Anglo-French, from Late Latin, passion-passio suffering, being acted upon, from the Latin Pati to suffer. The Merriam-Webster dictionary goes on to define passion in this myriad of ways: (merriam-webster.com)

  1. (often capitalized)a.the sufferings of Christ between the night of the Last Supper and his death and b. an oratorio based on a gospel narrative of the Passion
  2. (obsolete) suffering
  3. the state or capacity of being acted on by eternal agents or forces
  4. a. emotion and in plural (passions), the emotions as distinguished from reason, b. intense, driving or overmastering feeling or conviction or c. an outbreak of anger (crime of passion)
  5. a. ardent affection: LOVE or b. a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object or concept or c. sexual desire or d. an object of desire or deep interest

So yes, I feel justified in hesitating when asked that question! Do I feel ardent or intense or driven enough about something to call it my passion? And how is it all related to the old use of it as suffering, particularly the suffering of Christ? As I reflected on what I might call my passion I could come up with several “maybe’s.” Maybe listening in all the forms it takes in my life. Maybe hiking in the mountains. Maybe grandmothering. Maybe writing. Maybe reading books. Maybe meditating or following my spiritual development path? I care, love and do all these things, but is it passion? As intense as making love? Dying on a cross?

The definition that saved me from confusion and I could use a test came from another website tucked in the Google list: embracepossibility.com by Robert Chen. He in turn attributes the definition that he uses to the author, Kevin Hall and his book, Aspire: Discovering Your Purpose Through the Power of Words, Harper Collins, New York, 2009. ( I haven’t read it but it’s now on a list.)

His definition is this: A Willingness to Suffer for What You Love.

Now it would be easy to fall into needing to define the word “suffering” as well! Traditionally, the suffering of Christ on the cross is one extreme form–and some passions may involve that level of suffering. But I’m going to say that extreme is not a requirement of my definition of suffering. Suffering as I’m using it is any pain, effort, discomfort that just naturally occurs as you pursue something (or someone) you love. And perhaps the emphasis should be on the word willingness- maybe there is no suffering in pursuing a particular passion but if that was a result of pursuing that which I love, I would be willing to endure it. It wouldn’t matter, and perhaps I’d barely notice because the love is so much greater.

So applying this test–am I passionate about listening? I think so. It sometimes causes me pain to listen to the some of the stories I hear. I can feel the discomfort of feeling helpless or having no answers to what I’m hearing. It takes effort for me to stay present, to not judge what I’m hearing and to not advise. And yet, listening with others is what I love.

Am I passionate about hiking? I think so. It takes effort, there is often physical pain during and after, but the simple act of moving through nature, noticing the small things, seeing the vast view at the top of a mountain, is certainly something I’m willing to suffer for.

And so it goes as I apply that to all my maybe’s…(except maybe reading books which seems like no pain or effort at all. Perhaps I’ll name that my recreation.)

Which brings me back to the first definition of passion as the suffering and death of Christ between the Last Supper and his death. I don’t have a traditional view of why Christ died on the cross anymore. It seems to me that he died not as some replacement for me because of my sins, but simply because he upset the politics of the powerful. Truth is a dangerous thing and is not often tolerated in our world. But I do ascribe that it was his passion in that he was willing. For those familiar with the story, he does have that very human moment, knowing what it would mean to be arrested and brought before both church and Roman leaders. He knew it would mean death. So he prays in the Garden of Gethsemene these words: “Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me,” meaning “please change this path that is me.” But in the same sentence he says, “yet, not what I want, but what you want.” (Mark 14:36 NRSV) A willingness to surrender to a higher will that he couldn’t fully understand.

I don’t want to get wrapped up here in the image of God that this verse implies and what God requires and atonement theology. What I want to emphasize for my working definition of passion is that I think it still fits as it’s applied in a capital P–Christ’s Passion. His passion was always to love–primarily those that were otherwise rejected by society, but also those in power, those who believed, those who did not, even healing the ear of the soldier that arrested him, even forgiving the soldiers as they cast lots for his clothing at the foot of the cross–“for they know not what they do.” (Luke: 23:34) He walked his path doing what he loved–healing, teaching, preaching in the name of love– willing to suffer the consequences.

I may not be done with this definition. When I define my own passion, I want it to include not only a willingness to suffer for what I love but also the act of surrender to a greater Will in doing so. Not in a the way of a martyr, but in the way of living life with a basic trust in how things are unfolding– no matter how chaotic or depressing or out of control the world may seem. There is a way of being in this world, but not of it. And there my real passions lie.

When someone asks me that question, I believe I have an answer. Now I’ll make YOU uncomfortable–what’s yours? What’s your definition? How do you know that it is?

Pondering Pilgrimage

I just finished listening to the novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (2012) and wish I had a paper copy to linger over. Not only did I enjoy it and recommend it to you, but I had so many flashbacks to my own pilgrimage in 2007. Even this year, now 12 years later, I had some revelations of what that journey revealed to me, taught me and inscribed in my soul. Harold Fry’s pilgrimage lay 500 miles across England from south to north, started in hopes of curing cancer in his friend, Queenie. Mine was also 500 miles, but in Spain on the Frances route of the Camino de Santiago, begun in hopes of curing my confused soul, having just resigned as a parish pastor, unsure of church dogma and history. Yet a pilgrimage is a pilgrimage in so many of the ways he described.

There is the compulsion to keep walking. It’s so strange, but once embarked, it’s hard to rest. It’s as if the road pulls you onward, even when tired, discouraged, disillusioned and sore. The simplicity of the day was the practice: Eat, walk, sleep. Eat, walk, sleep. Eat, walk, sleep. As Harold did in the book, we checked our feet often, we began to notice the smallest of things around us, and it seemed that cars were going by us so very fast. We met up with all sorts of people, as did Harold–a woman pushing her newborn baby in a stroller across Spain to be baptized in Santiago, a Japanese couple who spoke no English but always waved at us shyly and cooked their meals over a little stove each night. Two Dutch couples who loved to laugh and smoke cigars, a rich young woman who was the niece of Robert De Niro who was walking to grieve the recent death of her mother, a Brazilian grandmother who was walking it alone to ponder her time of aging, an ancient yellowed priest who made us garlic soup and 4 English women who were out of shape but trudged along and drank whiskey at night to relieve the pain.

Like Harold, I was disoriented, confused and disheartened by the end of the pilgrimage. It hadn’t been what I expected. And in most of the goals of my spiritual pursuit, I failed. I was impatient, worried, anxious, judgmental, angry and doubting much of the time, hastened by the cold and rainy weather that dampened most days of walking. I went with such a virtuous agenda, so much like the familiar plan to be as perfect as I could, kind to others, allowing things to just unfold, going with trust in God, open to enlightenment, not hurrying. But the road wears that ego down, down, down to the point that God can actually take over. I didn’t see that for a long time. But I see it now. It was a turning point when I came face to face with the inadequacy of my egoic attempts to cope. In that deep humility, I also saw so many miracles, synchronicities, and moments of pure beauty.

Like Harold, I was reluctant once we drew close to the end of the 500 mile journey. I was so used to the routine, to the daily ritual of looking for the yellow scallop shells or yellow arrows to guide the way. My soul was soaked in the rhythm of just walking. And maybe I was afraid that I had done this thing I set our to do but I had missed the point. Maybe I wasn’t ready to enter the square of the Santiago Cathedral. Maybe I didn’t deserve this ending. Maybe I had done it all wrong, and if I lingered, I would finally see what it was I seeking.

The morning of the last day of walking was on the church feast day Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit. That was coincidence–was never planned. We only discovered it because other pilgrims began referring to Whitsunday, the English name for the day. Now I can feel the presence of the Spirit so clearly 12 years later on that day. We got only 2-3 hours of sleep the night before due to a church youth group who giggled all night in the hostel. So we gave up and got up at 5:00 a.m. when they did to begin our final day of 34 days of walking.

It was pitch black out and as it would happen, both our flashlights gave out. Scrambling in my bag, I found a tiny LED light someone had given me that fit on a key ring. It was just enough light that we could cast it around and find the yellow signs in the road to point the way. We could only see just as far ahead as the beam of the light. Exhausted and yet exhilarated to see we just had 28 km to go, we walked on in the dark, led by the light. And it was enough.

In the novel, Harold reaches the end of his pilgrimage with questions and exhaustion and certainly not knowing himself the way he once did. His old identity didn’t fit anymore and his old way of being the world seemed meaningless. And yet the pilgrimage ended. And there was grace. Walking into the pilgrim service at the Santiago cathedral that morning of Pentecost, I literally came face to face with the bishop in his tall mitre and flowing gilded robes. The prior High Mass was just ending and the long line of clerics were recessing. He was obviously annoyed by the surge of pilgrims who rushed into the church before they had finished the recession. I didn’t see him in the crowd until it suddenly parted and I bumped into him– and his scowl. In that moment, all the parts of a patriarchal, hierarchical, judgmental church were encapsulated. It was this confusion of love of church, disillusion with church that had propelled me onto the journey. And here at the end, the Spirit brought me into direct confrontation. We looked each other in the eye. And I didn’t apologize. Neither did he.

Moments later, I was swept up in the beauty of the service, the sound of a thousand pilgrims chanting together, the simple service, the feeling of belonging to this sweaty, dirty, smelly group of peregrinos, who stumbled to the end like me. The Church is the church, has been and will be. Imperfect and in need of change, just like me.

In the end of the novel, Harold and his wife are sitting by the sea, looking at the waves hit the shore, finishing their journey as well. My husband and I took a short bus ride to the coast from Santiago to Finisterre–the end of the world–because at one point in Spanish history, it was considered just that. There was only blue water stretching out as far as the eye could see, waves lashing the rocks and spraying us with foam. I was not at peace. But in that moment, I could abide the paradoxes of my faith and live with the questions I still held. That was, and is, enough. I keep walking.

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An Inner Advent

At this time of descending darkness toward Winter Solstice, it’s a perfect time for dark dreams. The author, Jan Richardson, calls them Night Visions in her book by the same name. My dream a few days ago was full of Night Visions, shadows and fears, anxiety and frustration. Good fodder for an inner Advent. As Richardson says, “The season of Advent means there is something on the horizon the likes of which we have never seen before.”(xiii)

I am at the airport and my flight is leaving. I suddenly see that I’ve brought the wrong bag and instead of my clothes, it’s full of heavy tools. I’ve lost my purse, and thus my money and my I.D. My eyeglasses are gone and the only ones I can find are ones with an old prescription. The ticket agents are busy laughing among themselves and won’t help me. The flight is called. And the person who has been waiting in the shadows watching all this is my sister who died 30 years ago. She passes me to get on the plane unconcerned. “Don’t worry. You will figure it out.” I wake, so glad it was a dream… but then I enter the dream again. This time I let myself feel the fear and allow myself to stand in the shadows. Expecting the worst, trembling to sew what else may happen, the fear, once met, melts away to my great surprise. I feel it run down my body like thick honey, relaxing my shoulders, easing my heart. Then the strangest thing of all. I turn to look at the entrance to the long hall that will take me to the plane. Security guards in black uniforms are standing on both sides of the check point. But I walk confidently past them and they are unconcerned as well. They do not stop me. The hallway is bright and I am walking freely, my arms swinging, no bags to carry, my heart awake and alive.

Oh Advent, may all this come to me! May my many fears of needing security, keeping my old identity, not wanting to see things anew for the change that will come–may they find rest this season. May all the heavy bags of old guilt and being responsible and on time and the old trying trying trying to be perfect, lay down beside still waters. Restore my soul this Advent, dear season of darkness. Lead me in trust to walk in shadow, not knowing the path ahead. Help me take flight to “the likes of which we have not seen before.” Give me Night Vision, O God. It feels to be my way now.

“We often find ourselves at times in the dark–good or evil or in between of our won or another’s making. Our work is to name the darkness for what it is and to find what it asks of us; whether it is darkness that asks for justice to bring the dawn of hope to a night of terror, or for a candle to give warmth to the shadows, or for companions to hold us in our uncertainty an unknowing, or for a blanket to enfold us as we wait for the darkness to teach us what we need to know.” (Night Visions, p. 3)

Dawn is at 10:03 today. Sunset at 3:39. Eleven days to Solstice. It grows darker–more mysterious, with intriguing invitations to take flight.

Thinking about Thanksgiving

I was asked by a friend who hosts Hometown Alaska to be a guest on her radio talk show regarding the topic of being grateful. As she prepared the show for the week of Thanksgiving, it seemed to her that we live in such partisan, strident, even insulting times — it can seem very hard to have a grateful mindset.  

It is easier to be grateful when things go our way–the medical tests come back negative, a new job offer comes through, a trip goes as planned, an ill loved one gets better, your candidate wins, the weather is great, you get a thoughtful gift from a friend, someone takes you to dinner. It’s an almost natural response to be thankful–and this also builds a relationship between you and another person or what you may understand to be the Source or the Sacred.

What intrigues me now is those individuals that can be truly grateful when things go wrong, get difficult, fall apart. What intrigues me first, is that they can do it at all. Who can be grateful when a child is commits suicide, a divorce happens, a job is lost, an illness lingers, war breaks out? I remember the first time one of my teachers in my spiritual direction training suggested that no matter what, give thanks. My first response was to be insulted! How could he suggest such a thing.

But I respected this teacher and I as I slowly opened my mind to this possibility, I realized two things: one, he wasn’t saying I needed to discount the pain, grief, trauma of a difficult event. But to accept and allow that this was the reality and not reject it. It’s true. This is what is happening. Then, and perhaps in time, begin to see what there is still there to be grateful for, for there always is. A seminary professor said, “God can work for good with anything that happens.” It isn’t a Pollyanna response, because the reality isn’t rejected; yet the reality of gratitude is the antidote, the perspective, the edge on which the choice lies. Because if you are grateful, this coined phrase “attitude of gratitude” will always bring happiness. It is impossible to not in that moment at least to find some peace and resolution, and a kind of happiness. A setting right. And it will also compel us to do what we can the best way we can. The alternative response is at least cynicism, skepticism if not resentment, hopelessness, anger and the most crippling–fear.

  As a young girl, my 2 year old brother had a rare form of cancer in his upper arm. It had to be amputated at the shoulder– and then we were given the bleak prognosis of a 0% chance of his living to his teens. As a 9 year old, any vision I had of a fair world evaporated and my understanding of God was very conflicted. But my mother, in her grief, said gently, “We just have to allow that these things happen and then do our best to have faith.”  When my brother came home from the hospital with his shoulder bandaged where there was once an arm, we all didn’t know what to say at first, but it was time for dinner and as we always did, my mother said, “Bow your heads and fold your hands to pray.”  Then my 2 year old brother said, “I can’t fold my hands.”  There was a brief pregnant pause, then  we all started laughing–that’s just the way it was now. That night we could pray that we were grateful for food and grateful that the family was all back together again at the table. Not grateful for the cancer, but grateful for how the experience brought us closer as family– because my mother allowed what is and stayed grateful. It set my life as seeing we always have a choice–to be bitter and resentful or see what some call the silver lining on any cloud. By the way, my brother is now 60.

I knew of a man once who whenever anyone asked how he was doing, his only reply would be “Thankful.” Living a life of gratitude implies not being in control, but it does always give us a means to live life well. I smile at our greeting of this holiday: Happy Thanksgiving–it’s true in my experience–if we’re giving thanks, we can be happy.