Friday, February 24, 2012

Ash Wednesday Part II: A Field Trip

     I like being a tourist. I know that is no longer a popular concept, and it is more acceptable to talk about being a traveler. I know there is an unflattering "camera around the neck" image of tourists, especially American tourists here and in other countries, but the truth is when I am visiting an unfamiliar place,  no matter where it is, I am a tourist. I do hope I am a polite, nonoffensive, and discerning tourist, however.  
     I like going on field trips and have fond memories of school field trips, such as the 6th grade class trip from Mankato, Minnesota to the State Capital in St Paul, and when we lived on Long Island going into "the city" with my high school choir to see a play and visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My family moved frequently in my growing up years, and I recall one of our first Sundays in New York going on a sightseeing boat around Manhattan and being awed by my first view of the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building.  When my husband and I moved to Cleveland, we loved nothing more than exploring the city and roaming the surrounding areas. Work colleagues and new acquaintances were amazed by all we did and all the places we discovered. "Have you been to Amish Country?" they would ask, and we responded with stories about our Sunday drives on country roads. We knew more about Ohio than people who lived there all their lives.
Being a Tourist in Your Own Town
     When we moved to Madison about 4 years ago, we became tourists once again. Part of it is natural, for everything is new and just deciding which grocery store will be part of your loop of life requires exploration, and part of it is filling the time when you don't yet have a social network and haven't yet filled your time with activities. The first year we lived in a small and unsatisfying apartment before our farm in Ohio sold.  I laughed about the 7 minutes it took to vacuum the place, but trust me, I had lots to time to discover my new city! 
     Most days I set a goal for myself.  One day I went to a small town with a new library built in Mission style. Another day I visited a fancy cheese shop on Capital Square and then walked State Street from beginning to end, enjoying the university atmosphere. I walked the trails at the Arboretum, and I drove up and down the streets of neighborhoods imagining what it would be like to live there. I enjoyed afternoons at the UW Memorial Union sitting on the terrace overlooking the lake, writing in my journal and reading. I planned weekend events and jaunts for my husband and myself--new restaurants to try, concerts to attend, and neighboring towns to visit.  
     I enjoyed it all, but it didn't take long to establish a routine, to have an established loop of life in place, and while I have no problem setting out on my own, I enjoy my solitude at home even more. I ceased being a tourist. My desire to unearth, to discover, diminished. But then Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent nudged me to awaken my pilgrim self. 
Lenten Tourism 
     One of my guides this Lent is Margaret Guenther, an Episcopalian priest, a spiritual director, and writer whose many books I have treasured. Currently, I am reading Walking Home, From Eden to Emmaus in which each chapter is a meditation on the "walking stories" in the scriptures.  I decided Lent would be a good time to set out on some new walks or even old walks, but survey the sights with new eyes. One aspect of Lent is to retreat, but perhaps another part is to seek a new path; to follow a quest, even if it is just around the corner. 
     My first walk was down the street from where I attended the Ash Wednesday service, the Chazen Museum of Art, home to Wisconsin's second largest collection of art. I had been there before, more than once, but not since a new building had opened. I had been intending to visit the new space, but ..... On their website I encountered this quote describing an upcoming lecture, "When your outer eyes stop working, what happens to your mind's eye?" What better way to expand one's eyesight than to expose them to art? I went on an art walk. 
     And what did I see? Charming watercolors by a UW art faculty member, Elaine Scheer. Claes Oldenburg's Typewriter Eraser. Collage drawings of planned projects by Christo. Tiger Sitting Under the Moon, a Cantonese scroll. Lots of nudes, including many in paintings by John Wilde which I found very disturbing.  A large work composed of colorful, narrow aluminum strips by a Ghanaian artist. So much more. I was most comfortable among the Thai and Indian Buddhas and least comfortable when a piece depicted violence. I laughed at myself as I stood in front of a large canvas painted only in solid black. I could have done that, I thought, but I didn't and why did the artist do it?  I sat on a bench and enjoyed the view of the campus pedestrian mall leading to Lake Mendota through a brightly colored glass sculpture called Cornucopia by Tashima Etsuoko . Glorious. Another walk I will take. 
     I wandered the galleries and missed the company of my artist son. I remembered the last time I was there when I brought my granddaughter who sat on the floor and sketched. I thought about other museums I've visited, and all the great art I have been privileged to see, and I was grateful for all those who have used and developed the gifts God entrusted to them. I thought about walking the skyway system in downtown St Paul recently and wondered why those walls were so bleak and how they could be a blank canvas for someone's imagination.  I shuddered at how much I don't understand, and I rejoiced when I my heart lifted at the beauty in front of me.  
     The headline on the Chazen's website says, "What will inspire you today?" Perhaps it will be a piece of art or something you read or hear on the radio. Perhaps it will be a conversation you overhear or the view out your kitchen window. Perhaps you will be inspired by going on a walk, following a path, being a tourist.   


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"I Invite You to the Discipline of Lent."

     Today is Ash Wednesday in the Christian liturgical year. The first day of Lent. Lent, which comes from the English word lenten, meaning "spring," referring to the season and to the rejuvenation of the soul, is a period of 40 days leading to Easter. (Counting Sundays, there are actually 46 days.)
     I have not attended an Ash Wednesday service for many years, but because I have been exploring the idea of intentions this year, it seems natural to think about spiritual disciplines during Lent.
     As a child, I recall hearing friends talk about giving up candy or sugar or tv or another routine pleasure, but that wasn't something we did in my family. I was raised Lutheran and even though Lutheran churches seem to now practice the imposition of ashes, I don't remember the ritual being part of Ash Wednesday services of my youth. We went to church and confessed our sins, and it was all very solemn, but only in church. Nothing changed in my daily routine. Perhaps my parents prayed more or read the Bible more, but my life moved on steadily toward Good Friday and the prettiness of Easter. I became a convert to Lent in later years. And then I lapsed, which brings me to today.  
     Sitting in an unfamiliar church, I heard the words, "I invite you to the discipline of Lent," and I processed up the center aisle to a pastor I don't know and as he said the words, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," he made the sign of the cross on my forehead with soft ash. I have ashes smeared on my forehead, but am I ready to enter Lent and what exactly does that mean anyway?

Lenten Resources
     This morning I gathered a stack of books from my library to help illuminate what this Lent might hold for me.
     A Benedictine monk, Brother Victor-Antoine D'Avila-Latourrette gave me some practical direction in A Monastic Year, Reflections from the Monastery as he outlines the principles of Lenten practice found in the Rule of St Benedict: refrain from sin, pray sincerely, read the scriptures, repent and repent, and fast. Daunting!
     Joyce Rupp in her book Inviting God In, Scriptural Reflections and Prayers Throughout the Year, quotes from the Hebrew Testament, "Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing." Joel 2:13. I like her term "re-turning" and wonder what the implication might be for me. She says "...there is always a part of one's heart that has not yet been given over to God..." Perhaps my Lenten discipline is to probe the ways I have not surrendered.
     "Outward Bound for the soul," is Barbara Brown Taylor's term to describe Lent. "Forty days to remember what it is like to live by the grace of God alone and not by what we can supply for ourselves." ("Lenten Discipline" in Home By Another Way)
     Finally, I read these words in In Wisdom's Path, Discovering the Sacred in Every Season, by Jan L. Richardson: "The season begins with ashes and invites us into a time of stripping away all that distracts us from recognizing the God who dwells at our core, reminding us that we are ashes and dust. God beckons us during Lent to consider what is elemental and essential in our lives."

The Task of Aging
     Lent is a sacred time for Christians, but the invitation to know and live one's essence knows no religious or spiritual boundaries. In fact, this is the main task of the wisdom time of aging. I will do my best to accept this invitation. If not now, when?

An Invitation to Comment 
What have you given up for Lent now or in the past? Or what spiritual practice or discipline have you added to your life during a Lenten season? 
OR if Lent has not been part of your tradition have there been times in your life when you deliberately eliminated a habit that interfered with your relationship with God? I would love to know. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Silence and Writing as Spiritual Companions.

  I'm itchy to write.
  Yesterday I answered a multitude of emails, wrote several pages in my journal about centering prayer, composed my Letter of the Day, and started three different posts for this blog. False starts.
   What's the problem? Obviously, I am writing, but it's not enough, I think.  I'm besieged with ideas. I have a small stack of little pieces of paper with hastily scratched ideas: "taking on what's hard for me," "Meditations For and By an Introvert," "Growing my World as I Grow Older." Ideas galore, but none have gelled -- yet. Instead of feeling blocked, I feel noisy, jumbled, piled up to the brim with ideas, thoughts to pursue and explore. I feel exuberant with words. Not a bad problem to have, I tell myself. Better than being itchy to write and having nothing to write about or better than not wanting to ever write anything again. 
     When I taught classes on journal writing, I would say, "The more you write, the more you find to write about, and the more you find to write about, the more you want to write." That still feels true. For years I have heard the advice if you want to be a writer, write every day, but I always interpreted that as writing seriously every day and seriously meant working on a project headed towards publication. A good day was one in which I worked on my essays on grief and loss or another writing project. 
     Well, my New Year's intention to write a letter every day is changing my view of myself as a writer. I AM writing every day. I AM a writer because I write, and in fact, I am writing every day. My writing is serious because I think about my audience. I open and reach into my heart and pray I will find clear and loving words that will speak to my recipient. I sit at my Lady's Writing Desk and light a candle and select stationery or note cards, and remove the cover of my fountain pen, and I write. 
     More and more I realize that what supports this desire to write and the actual practice of writing is silence. I need to sit in silence more and to actually silence the words. I receive a newsletter from a nonprofit group called Friends of Silence ( and quoting from T.S. Eliot's poem, "Ash Wednesday," they ask, "Is there enough Silence for the Word to be heard?" It is in the moments of centering prayer that I am able to release the jumble and the noise.   In the silence I  am somehow reminded that the act of writing itself, whatever the content or the forum, is an expression of my essence. Writing is how I connect with the Divine and how the Divine connects with me.  

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Heart Intentions

What a good day to attend to one's heart! I am not an artist, as you can see, but over the years, particularly at times when I've been in emotional or spiritual pain or a time of heightened spiritual discovery, I've drawn a picture of my heart. One time I envisioned my heart fallen over on its side with thick, black walls closing in on it. The drawing startled me and led me to do the necessary work to revive my heart. Another time, as pictured here, I imagined my heart upright and large, spacious within, with butterflies emerging from the dark boundaries. This is what I wrote then: "The butterflies flutter their wings and are attracted by the beating heart as well as the free, air-filled space. Soon the heart will feel the power of their transformative whispers of energy. A green stream of new life, of refreshment, of restoration runs through the heart and the surrounding space. The heart presses against the the upper boundaries, the thick cords of old limitations, and pushes to make more room, to create God space." I had drawn my heart and therefore, the new hope I was feeling seemed more tangible, but at the same time the drawing compelled me to manifest that hope through my actions. 
     This morning I sat and listened to the messages of my heart. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply into my heart area and felt it accepting and absorbing all the love and life and light around me. I imagined my heart expanding and the love and life and light I received flowing through me and extending far beyond my own boundaries. I imagined that love and life and light touching all those I love, and then I imagined that love and life and light touching all those who need love and compassion. I crossed my hands over my heart. I bowed my head towards my heart and listened to its request. "Surrender to me, and I will be your wise and compassionate guide."
     What does your heart look like today? What is your heart whispering to you? Attend to your heart.  


Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Empty Becomes Full.

    I attend a class that focuses on the contemplative practice of centering prayer, and the other night one of the facilitators mentioned the concept of kenosis or self-emptying. I remembered first learning about kenosis when I was in training to be a spiritual director. We were encouraged to develop a spiritual practice that would help us renew and be open to what we were created to be.
     Relying on God has to begin all over again every day, as if nothing had yet been done. 
C. S. Lewis

     Get thy heart as clear from the world as thou canst. Wholly lay by the thoughts of thy business, troubles, enjoyments, and everything that may take up any room in thy heart. Get it as empty as thou possibly canst, that it may be more capable of being filled with God.
Richard Baxter

     One of the practices I have used to empty myself and therefore, be more open to God is T'ai Chi. As I move through the T'ai Chi choreography, I clear the space, I become present, I smooth the rough edges. I find calm.  When I taught T'ai Chi, I always mentioned kenosis, and students seemed to appreciate the connection between body, mind and spirit.  But not always. 
     Once upon a time I was asked to offer an introduction to T'ai Chi at a woman's retreat. I didn't know the retreat leader well, but she had  attended an earlier event where I taught T'ai Chi. I also didn't know the retreat participants, and I knew very little about the content of the retreat itself. I just did what I always did, confident they would love it, too. When I introduced the move called Clearing the Space, I mentioned kenosis as an act of self-emptying. I talked about having a pitcher of water and if it is filled to the brim, there is room for no more. It is only by emptying that we can refill. Almost immediately I felt a shift in energy. Not everywhere in the room, but still, I sensed some discomfort.  I continued with my instruction, leading the group through the moves, trying to be alert to what might be happening, and soon I saw one woman stride quickly from the room. The retreat leader followed her. I finished my teaching, and all seemed to go well. Many, as I packed up my things to leave as had been planned,   indicated how much they enjoyed the session.  
     Days later the retreat leader called to tell me what had happened. The woman who left the room felt if we emptied ourselves, we left room for the devil to enter our hearts and take up residence. We needed to be ever on the alert and not leave any open space for the devil. I was stunned. Naively, that had never occurred to me. Knowing this perspective has not changed the way I feel about kenosis, but it furthered my awareness of how everything has shadow and light. I was saddened by the woman's fears that seemed to dominate her faith, but I respected her ability to act upon what was real for her. 
      I have continued to incorporate spiritual practices into my life that help me empty in order to know the movement of God in my life, and kenosis as I first understood it has been a staple in my spiritual life. Until this morning when I encountered this passage in the very challenging Awakening the Energies of Love, Discovering Fire for the Second Time by Anne Hillman.

     This silence--'the mind's empty room'--is not the emptiness our intellects define. This emptiness is full. Emptiful. To me the word I coin is resonant with the word beautiful.
     To enter this kind of Kingdom, we shift our attention from the mind's knowing and drop into what seems like emptiness inside. Then, we begin to dance with Life. We ask, What now? and are amazed to discover that the emptiness is full! New possibilities, all kinds of new responses to the situation at hand, arise out of the stillness within us--another way that spiritual practice 'breaks the mind.'  

     The difference is subtle. Instead of thinking about how emptiness leads to change, including fullness,  I contemplate emptiness AS fullness itself. I am not sure yet what that looks like or even feels like, but I am challenged to update, to deepen what I have up till now accepted. And to live it. Hillman continues,

     When, instead of reacting from our gut, we drop in to the silence and ask, we are offered spiritual gifts just waiting to be received: courage, reverence, awe, patience, restraint, gratitude, and more...
     Sometimes this is how I experience it: In the middle of a spat. I 'step back' from wanting to be right, then ask from some place deep in my body. What now? What rises is usually a response that is exactly right for the occasion! I don't think up this response; it is offered. In this situation, what might rise in awareness is forgiveness. If I am feeling stubborn or afraid, the suggestion might be willingness or courage. When I am trapped in judgment, what occurs to me is compassion. All of these responses from the "empty room" are nonviolent; all of them, a softening. And any one of them--if I receive and act on it--returns me to the present moment.

     How much I have yet to incorporate kenosis, the emptying and the fullness, into my life was clear to me this week when I realized how overbearing I had been in a specific situation. I did not pause and  and enter the empty room. Instead of softening, I hardened, judged, and got stuck in my own ego.  I am grateful my apology was accepted, but a real apology means greater devotion to contemplative practices, including centering prayer.  A greater exploration of emptiful.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Flexible Intentions

     My intention today was to clean the house. The entire house. Top to bottom. I intended to clean, not because Monday is cleaning day, but because the house needs to be cleaned. Unlike my mother, I don't have a regular cleaning day. Mom cleaned on Thursdays, and I must admit I sometimes dreaded coming home from school on Thursdays, knowing she had been working hard and would be tired and who knows what I would track in or mess up. Nope, no regular cleaning day for me. I clean when the house demands it, and the schedule allows it. Today is the day, I announced to myself, for the winter sun is shining unrelentingly on thick dust, and too many nights of having supper in the den has taken its toll. Fortunately, I generally enjoy cleaning.  
     So how has the day proceeded?  Well, first I decided to go downstairs and do my morning emails and then I wrapped the Valentine presents that should go in the mail tomorrow, and as long as I was in the wrapping mode, I might as well wrap our grandson's birthday presents. Then I put away the stack of books on my desk that looked like a library's RETURN HERE section, leading me to do a general reshuffling of my bookshelves.  One thing led to another. Eventually, I told myself I would clean the lower level first and then head upstairs by noon.
     It is now nearly 4:00 and here I still am in my office on the lower level. I have dusted, and I have vacuumed, but the first and second floors remain untouched. I haven't even taken a shower yet today, but am still wearing my morning exercise clothes, and my hair needs washing.  Please, no one ring the doorbell this afternoon! And I have no idea what we are going to have for dinner because I have yet to go to the grocery store. 
     That's the thing about intentions. Sometime they aren't the real thing. Sometimes they are meant to be changed. Sometimes it is important to be flexible. I recently read a book called Aging as a Spiritual Practice, A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser by Lewis Richmond in which he writes about the importance of being flexible and not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally. "Rigidity reduces pleasure and possibility in our life and closes doors that need to remain open for aging to blossom." I decided to blossom today!  I decided to listen to what I really wanted and needed to do today, and I have followed those whispers one after the other.  
     I emptied my bulletin board of the happy accumulation from 2011 and made my year-end collage with those items. The nearly empty board now awaits this year's cards and pictures and Chinese fortunes and who knows what else will be welcomed there. I went through a small pile of notes and discarded or redirected. I found a stash of cards that have been sent to me over the years, including one from my mother written in 2001 and for a moment I sat quietly and enjoyed her presence. I did quite a bit of this and that, but not what I intended to do. Oh well. Some intentions are looser than others.
     One of my daily intentions is to practice centering prayer, and before I fixed myself lunch I sat in the living room in the quiet and rested in Spirit's presence. Later on today I will keep another of my daily intentions: I will write today's letter and even though I don't yet know who will be the recipient, I trust I will know when it is time to write.  Those intentions carry more weight than the intention to clean today. However, my intention tomorrow is TO CLEAN! 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Healthy Gratitude

     I had a colonoscopy this week. Please don't stop reading--I will share no details! Routine colonoscopy, except that I have them every five years, instead of every 10, thanks to my mother who died of colon cancer and my own cancer history. All is well, I say gratefully. I am aware of how more time is devoted to routine maintenance procedures, such as a colonoscopy, as we age. Later this month I will have a routine check with my gynecologist and then a routine mammogram. This past fall I had routine check-ups with my internist, ophthalmologist, and dermatologist. And there are the ongoing visits to the dentist--routine cleanings and not so routine crowns. Let me say loud and clear how grateful I am for the excellent insurance coverage we have through my husband's work and the superb health care providers on our team. 
     Still, there is much to think about while my body remains healthy and strong. Therefore, I offer the introduction to my as yet unpublished essay, "Sacred Sickness, An Invitation to Grow Spiritually During Illness." 

     Yesterday I had a routine mammogram. In all the years of enduring annual mammograms only twice has there been a concern. I have little memory of the first time, but the second time, which was six months after surgery for uterine cancer, an ultrasound was ordered and then a biopsy, which, thankfully, revealed no cancer. Even though that false alarm is now years in the past and even though I had no reason to suspect a current problem, I still felt a tickle of anxiety the day of my appointment.
     During my meditation time the morning of my appointment, I folded my hands across my breasts and thanked God for the nurturance they provided our babies and the sexual pleasure they have known. I offered thanks for their health and prayed, "May it be so." I offered blessings to all who have confronted breast cancer in their lives. "May your journey be filled with love and support." I remembered a long-ago friend who was always nervous about having a mammogram. We scheduled our appointments for the same time and then treated ourselves to chicken breast sandwiches afterwards. A sweet memory, and I hope all her mammograms in the years since we knew each other have been uneventful.
     I give thanks for today's technician and for all those trained to squeeze, lift, press, arrange and handle this mass of tissue. I imagined the technician's routine words. "Remain still and don't breathe." I even prayed for a technician of pre-mammogram age who many years ago brought tears to my eyes with her less than tender skill, causing lingering pains for days following the procedure. Perhaps she was having a bad day, but as I sat in my car afterwards and rocked my body, hoping to relieve the soreness, I thought less than compassionate thoughts. "May you know what it is like to be treated so coldly, so impersonally. May you cringe. May you grimace. May you dread your own mammogram appointments. May you exhale a deep sigh of 'Thank God, that's over.'" I asked for belated forgiveness and hoped I have grown in compassion since then!
     As I sat waiting to be called for my appointment, I closed my eyes and breathed deeply and widely and recalled the decision I made years ago when I was diagnosed with uterine cancer. I knew then I would do what I could do physically to eliminate the cancer from my body and to prevent its return, but I also knew my soul needed attention. How could I prevent the cancer from metastasizing into my soul?
     I called upon Spirit to accompany me on that journey. I opened myself to the experience of illness as a time to deepen my spirituality, to grow wider, deeper into my relationship with God and to live a spiritual life, healthy or sick.
     Now that I have been cancer free for many years, I say with the most grateful of hearts, I recognize that my experience with uterine cancer was a major practice session, a dress rehearsal, offering hints of what might yet be around the corner on this journey. The Buddhist tradition talks about "little deaths," or experiences that prepare us for bigger losses, including the loss of our own lives. My aging body has occasional aches and pains, and already I require more time in the health care system than when I was younger and when illness reappears, as more than likely it will in some form, I hope to meet it with a strong and wise spirit. 
     Therefore, as I sat in the waiting room, I took one more deep breath and filled my chest cavity with calm and repose and exhaled the whisper of anxiety and allowed myself to be present to this moment; a moment of health and life.