I am trying to decide whether there is tragedy in the discovery that contentment breeds silence. Granted, as the pieces of my life seem poised to draw together into a shining collective marked by peace and possibility, I feel largely protected from tragedy. The bits of me tinged with superstition and fear wonder when I will be cursed for such blithe naivety, such hubris, but in reality, I just feel incredibly fortunate to be walking through life with eyes opened wide enough to realize when I am moving through a blessed stretch of my journey. Caroline Myss was the first person I ever heard to use the phrase “field of grace”; I think I know what it is to have my star enter such a space.
We didn’t win the lottery. I didn’t lay a spread of tarot cards that predicted nothing but prosperity. My husband didn’t tell me I could forget about the money and quit my day job. I was not told that life would become any simpler or less full of questions.
After months of scurrying after fate, dreaming that the Divine would set my future ablaze next (sort of like really, really, really hoping you would get picked for the kickball team), it just seems that I have found an end to all of the franticness that has marked so much of my life. It seems time that I learn the difference between stagnation and stability, between laziness and contentment.
James Martin, SJ paraphrases Mother Teresa’s pronouncement that “you should find her own Calcutta” with the familiar “bloom where you are planted.” He suggests that you “discover sanctity in your own life.” We have decided to embrace that idea, but only after a roundabout interrogation of what seemed like every option, not (I hope) because we fear challenging the status quo or because it seemed easy to adopt a nice little line from a supportive priest. Suddenly, living in this beautiful valley full of progressive thinkers and going to work every day in a place that sets galaxies of information at my fingertips seems like the fruit of a sweetly conspiring universe rather than the consequences of a few unrelated accidents.
When the tide turns, as it invariably will, and we seem to be taking less advantage of this time of comfort (declared now to be a couple of years marked by conscious growth in a familiar world), I may blush at this sweet faced optimism. Perhaps the fear that I will sound foolish to the eventual jaded self that will read these words with derision keeps us from wanting to express hope and happiness. Somehow drowning in confusion and complaint is easier; there are so many more dramatic ways to describe misery than pain (isn’t that why modern fiction robs us of happy endings so often these days?). Or perhaps the truth of contentment is to be found in the stillness it begets, the ability to cease the need transmit an emote and simply be.
Listening to the podcast of American Public Radio’s Speaking of Faith the other day, I was introduced to Rachel Naomi Remen, a doctor who has pioneered the “integrative medicine” movement that pulls the modern medical establishment’s attention to the mind/body connection. I was reminded yet again that holistic healthcare is actually considered quite radical in most circles and that many well meaning doctors have been (and continue to be) surprised by the fact that a person’s experience of her illness is as important as the clinical symptoms she may demonstrate.
The airing of this radio show is yet another instance in which the Universe seems to be conspiring to make me think about wellness and infirmity, and the place of health and illness in my own life and the lives of those I touch every day. When I was trapped on the couch with another sprained ankle last week, I plunged into a bout of self pity while speaking to a friend, listing all of the ways that my body has betrayed me over the last handful of years, including six months when I was reduced to debilitating exhaustion most of the time due to a nexus of calamities. She suggested that I might be taking good enough care of myself that none of these health issues became insurmountable, long-term issues. That is a nice thought, but I really think that I am being taught what it is to be temporarily unable to meet the days’ challenges so that I can allow that knowledge to become empathy that will eventually be transformed into the power to help others heal. These days, I am working on developing my sense of perspective on the moments when my body does not perform exactly as expected, hoping to realize that I should just be overcome with gratitude for all that she accomplishes each day.
All of this is merely meant to be an introduction (that I will surely explore later) to a passage included on the program from Remen’s book’s Kitchen Table Wisdom:
The most important questions don’t seem to have ready answers. But the questions themselves have a healing power when they are shared. An answer is an invitation to stop thinking about something, to stop wondering. Life has no such stopping places, life is a process whose every event is connected to the moment that just went by. An unanswered question is a fine traveling companion. It sharpens your eye for the road.
At this moment, this quotation gives some shape to my thoughts about what I talked about yesterday, my struggles with conforming to the fullness of any particular church. I think one of the elements of the Catholic Church that I grew up with that leaves me so conflicted is that claim to the Truth with an absolutely knowable capital “T.” I am still in a place of delicious, torrential questions. Perhaps the reason we have religion in its modern sense is to find solace in a monolithic entity that seeks to comfort its flock with creeds and commandments and promises of the ultimate wisdom. The only answer I have received to all of my questions so far is that this is not my path.
From my reading of the Christian mystics I know that the tradition that has its most obvious manifestation in the one-way communication of Sunday mass (all priestly answers, it seems), also has guided centuries of questing souls who have interrogated issues more deeply than I can possibly imagine. I am just left to wonder how to reconcile these two expressions of communion with the divine.
Reconciling, ever reconciling…
The wise, wise Painter of Blue at Art of the Spirit posed the question:
“How much natural creativity would flow out of us if we just opened completely to the One?”
Immediately I felt the power of that question, the way in which, if followed to its conclusion in the depths of my being I might reveal a new face of possibility I had never dared envision. At the same time, perhaps because her site is graced with such amazing artwork, I could only imagine fulfilling that vision with a paintbrush in hand. Though I suspect that buried somewhere inside me there may be a creature who could fill canvases, she is generally too afraid of making a mess and spoiling a perfect white plane with mistakes and wasting money on paints and paper. This fear seems to be related to the same sort of mysterious trepidation that made me afraid of ruining my shoes when I was young, causing me to leave too many trees unclimbed and too few mud puddles explored.
Of course I know that deciding that such a flow of creativity did not apply to me is just another way that I obstruct the flow of the Divine through my life. I was able to only see my chosen mode of expression – these written words – to be instantly limited and less. Words are cheapened currency – used to curse and abuse and sell fabric softener and describe nuclear missiles. Instantly I longed for a more profound method of conveying whatever it was that the One was trying to say through me, because clearly I had chosen an inferior medium. It had nothing to do with a basic refusal to just open myself up and listen, to become liberated from distractions like my addiction to my own inferiority. No, no, I just careened off in the direction of all I ought to have done: should have stuck with dancing, or the violin of the flute or the saxophone, or invested myself more in art classes, or reveled innocently in nature when I had the chance. And off I wander down a path of regret, negligently slamming the door of my heart shut with a thud that reverberates all the way back into this gloomy past of my own creation.
But I can spot such foolishness and avoid such wasted thought, right? I am too smart to be enticed by such dark detours now that I read the right books and dabble in a new vocabulary of the soul. Sure.
If I have learned anything so far is the intense difficulty and absolute simplicity of opening myself to the One. The process can be forgotten the instant I leave the books or meditation chair. So today I am going to try something simpler and less plagued with the wisdom of the ages. I take a cue from Christine Kane who talks about delight.
How much more creative could I dared to be if I let myself truly feel overcome with delight at:
– kittens finding new comfortable contortions to sleep in
– snoring creatures in my bed (husband included) who just prove to me I am surrounded by trusting love
– a stretch that makes me sigh “ahhhhhhh”
– an unexpected letter from a friend
– the smell of snow
– the glow of the rising sun on my tea kettle
– discovering a new love of classical music and cellos
– the poem that suddenly makes everything clear
– a smile of recognition in a face I barely know
– those free flowing moments of joy when I forget I am on any sort of a journey at all
As one might expect, my blog has been coming up on a lot of people’s Google searches and the like since today is the Feast of the Epiphany. I hope that a few people were not disappointed to find that my sorts of epiphanies include Rumi and Irish poetry and talk of global warming and will venture back here even after January 6. Truth be told, my knowledge of this date on the Christian calendar is limited to my Nanna’s tradition of giving us a little gift and taking down the tree on this day.
I wished that this day upon which Christians celebrate the revelation of the one they considered to be infant savior to the Magi, Christ’s baptism, as well Jesus’s first miracle when he turned water to wine at the wedding in Cana seemed to offer more epiphanies to me. On this day at home we were taken with dogsitting for my folks’ wonderful fool of a black lab, Saoirse, and with discussing the shape of our lives in the year(s) to come. Undoubtedly we were planting seeds for eventual bursts of wisdom, but it seemed to simply be a day of snow melt and the sense of standing at the beginning – or perhaps the middle – of a great transitional state.
* * *
In the last moments of daylight I took the dog for a walk, the sense of feeling largely bereft of epiphanies heavy my mind. Instantly I was grateful for the excuse to walk the soft snow in the gloaming, the path glowing white through the gathering gloom. It was yet another moment of deep recollection, the glory there is to be found when disconnected from flickering screens and long lines of words, the uncharted space in my head beyond recorded language that longs to be explored. A body kept bound by obligation and injury and forbidding weather remembered what it was to move, to feel an expansion across her shoulders, an opening of her heart from an unexpected place in the middle of her back.
The sky was neither iron nor pewter – none of those usual winter words to describe these dense clouds that seemed to glow from a place deep within as the snow reflected back the last of the dying light. It was infinitely softer, a sweeter canopy over this temporary thaw. The first image that occurred to me was that the world was lying beneath a great wizard’s cloak – a magical garment made of sun and snow and atmosphere in silver and gray that hinted at blues and pinks and a place beyond color. Then I recalled that there are in fact three wizards abroad this day: the three magicians, the Wise Men of the east who were said to have followed a star that must have glinted like an even more mysterious prism than this northern evening ever could.
After toying with whispers of despair as I felt this day to be devoid of concrete promise, lacking the sort of thoughts and realizations worth committing to a page, it seemed that hope refused to be denied. A day about which I assumed I knew so little, whose name I have used so liberally revealed itself to me in a symbol that enveloped my entire world. I am left to understand the constant, universal journey toward Epiphany.
After a long drive home in the snow this afternoon I spent a while glancing through other blogs and websites as I waited for the plows to come by (only then would it make sense to shovel the driveway so my husband could park when he got home from work well after dark). Out of the tangle of ideas that flickered over the screen, one word kept rising to the surface: Advent. Even as my interest in Catholicism has resurged over the past year, I don’t think I even remembered that the Christmas season used to mean something other than the mall was open later and the cats would invariably get into the wrapping paper.
Glancing at my post from yesterday, I realize that I included a photo of a single candle flame and spoke of “inner light.” I am amazed both by the dancing, overlapping layers of meaning that flow through all aspects of this life and by my own obliviousness to a tradition that would have been interlaced throughout my childhood. The anticipation of opening another window on the advent calendar… Vague recollections of purchasing an advent wreath engraved with Celtic knots for a high school boyfriend’s parents… The circle of candles at the right side of the altar every December… I suppose because it is about celebration rather than deprivation, Advent was easier to forget. “I’ll give that up for Lent” has been a catch phrase for years (I generally stick to my grandmother’s abstention from watermelons), but Advent? That’s kids’ stuff.
I will not demean this time of religious observance by drawing too many parallels to my own life, lest I seem to co-opt the anticipation of the birth of Christ only in order to explicate my own sense that I am waiting for something (something that is much less universal than the arrival of the savior, I must admit). Instead, I will simply celebrate the fact that the light that so eluded me yesterday and left me to see only the limitations of my situation has filtered down today despite the snow choked sky.
Two guys who jumped out of their pick up to push my less than intrepid vehicle up a hill. Enjoying a few hours outside of time when the world has to stop because the Mother declares it time to cover all of creation in a blanket of white peace. Returning to my sources of inspiration and finding them more valid and enlivening that ever.
Yes, it is indeed possible to believe that a light that is the presence of the Divine dwells within us all and can shine as brightly as one might wish – in fact, I think it just might be the only way.
I have been trying to collect my thoughts and find a way to describe the trough between hard won realizations and the invariable upswing when all that knowledge is assimilated into my being. But really, is there a point to describing stumbling around with one’s eyes half open and forgetting to see the possibilities in the world through those narrow slits? Such moments call for silence to allow it all to integrate, to ground itself in life so these new lessons can become practice rather than rhetoric.
If you are seeking words and wisdom, I invite you to have a look at this beautiful place called HearthTalks created by a Catholic nun named Kathryn Knoll. “The whole of creation has been waiting for you to finally put your feet on the road to greatness.” I think my eyes are shining a little brighter already…
I spent a few quiet moments during the boisterous Thanksgiving holiday reading David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous by my parents’ fireplace, completely captivated by his description of the Aboriginal people’s concept of Dreamtime. The landscape is fully mapped by the trail of the ancestors, each hill and valley associated with Kangaroo Dreaming Man, or Tortoise Woman, or one of the many other animal spirit beings that are thought to have preceded the natives of Australia. Individuals come to be connected with an ancestor and they learn the stories and songs associated with the “songline” of that being. The songline is one of many trails that cross the country, taking a route through areas most rich in resources. It seems that the ancestors marked the paths that could sustain the people in times of scarcity as these trails would lead the singers of the songline to ample food, water, and shelter.
How interesting that I read part of this chapter on a bus full of college students all plugged into more electronic equipment per square foot than the average Best Buy. No one spoke as screens flickered in nearly every seat and we crawled through towns that couldn’t imagine scarcity. Now I write this back in the mountains of New York, thinking about a book I read not far from the waters of Cape Cod. I have traveled much in the last few days, but I never gave the act of moving across the land a thought (beyond taking a bus instead of renting a car). What is it to move not because the journey was informed by traditions deeper than memory, but simply because of the cut of the highways and a holiday dictated by calendar and national decree? (It is not as if we were all hiking home because the full moon indicated it was time for the harvest, after all.)
One of Abram’s central theses is that the alphabet, written language, made it possible for humans to essentially live without concern for the natural world that sustained and informed all aspects of our own ancestors’ experience. Certainly the excess of food on a Thanksgiving table produced in countless forgotten corners of the planet and the massive migration of Americans in their quest to be reunited for family and football is a time in which we generally forget our allegiance to the planet as we contemplate traffic, getting along with relatives, and the shopping season ahead.
But then again, in its own way Thanksgiving itself is a tradition deeper than memory since we celebrate it not because of a children’s tale of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a meal in some remote context, but because the ancestors who inform us of who we know ourselves to be have taught us to feast together at the end of each November. It may be an event less than four hundred years in the making and it may not tell an origin tale that is quite as fundamental as Adam and Eve, but it comes close. In reading Abram’s book I have worried over what we may have lost in the translation of capturing life on a page (or a screen). The indigenous societies he describes all sound idyllic and all of their myths sound pure. But perhaps their stories that we now idealize made some of the tellers cringe because they knew survival of their world came at the cost of other races and species, just as the story of this country often makes me shudder even as I recognize its inherent beauty and revel in its bounty. Perhaps after much happiness enjoyed with my family marking a day that forms the national consciousness, I am able to see beyond the romance of times irretrievably lost to the demons of progress and understand the joy there is to be gained in living right now.
A japa mala is a string of prayer beads used in meditation that help count the number of times one has chanted her mantra. I was first introduced to this Hindu practice by my yoga teacher and I use it on occasion when my mind is too buzzy to find stillness on its own. There are 108 small beads and one larger one that I was told was not used for the mantra but to thank your teachers.
I never was initiated into a mantra by going to the local ashram as I intended initially; life got in the way and then it became less of a good idea to align myself with one tradition in such a manner. It seemed rather suspect that I could stop at the Tibetan store in town and essentially buy what looked like a necklace and then step fully into a new spiritual practice because I though Saraswati was neat. At this point my mantra is not even in Sanskrit and it has its own sort of ritual beginnings.
When I first learned about offering thanks to my teachers, I hesitated. Thanks to the guy on the cover of a book whose only chapter I had read was specifically on the mala? Thanks to Mrs. Clark from first grade? Thanks to my yoga teacher who was a friend of mine, a real world person? I knew just enough about the guru system to know that I had never encountered a teacher to whom I wished to offer that kind of fealty (though the professor who taught us that “Yeats was a genius” came close).
Beyond being concerned that the lack of alignment with any specific tradition separated me from a significant teacher/student relationship, I was deathly afraid of becoming an adherent, a groupie, a fan, someone who abdicated her own individuality in the face of another’s wisdom. Perhaps this was born of the fact that I had never found something I could embrace unquestioningly or that I wasn’t ready to make that kind of commitment. Maybe it was because I was afraid of endorsing another’s beliefs by becoming her student and then later finding out she was in fact human and flawed and just in it to make a buck or to revel in the power of it all.
I am coming to understand that a healthy resistance to placing my fate in another’s hands does not necessarily exclude me from acknowledging my teachers and offering them my gratitude. Certainly the authors that I have read over the past few months have shaped me in profound ways. The works of Andrew Harvey, Caroline Myss, Stephen Cope, and James Martin S.J. are incredible, and I can state that freely even if I have my reservations about aspects of their philosophies or business models. Naming those whose works have been filtered through publishers and editors is to recognize only the most obvious form of knowledge, of course.
The only answer to all of this worry about “who will guide me?” is to realize that I am guided by every experience in this life, both positive and less so. The luxurious stretch of a cat. The friendliness of the mailman. The closed bud of a rhododendron in the cold. The love of my family. My curiosity to understand it all. I can only hope that I can come to realize that my meditative state is not so fragile as to have to exclude all of these little daily examples, because what is meditation if it is not rooted completely in the pedestrian beauty of life?