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Stillness and Quiet

Being in a Place

A couple of weeks ago I, in the company of my sister, Barbara, traveled to Laity Lodge, a retreat center generously supported by the Howard Butt Foundation, located in the Texas Hill country outside Kerrville. On this almost two thousand acre ranch are numerous camps which have provided summer experiences for thousands of underprivileged children for more than fifty years, camps used by church and civic groups, and the adult Laity Lodge, which has provided programs, hospitality, and the opportunity for powerful personal sacred experiences for decades. My husband and I have been privileged to be at Laity Lodge many times over the past fifteen or so years, and I took my mother there while she was alive and my sister has now gone with me twice. (You might want to check out their website www.laitylodge.org.)

ehn1.jpgOn the last visit to Laity, I also got to see again dozens of women with whom I have been deeply connected in our commitment to quiet time and prayer for many years. Our retreat together brought back wonderful memories and enlivened our relationships.

As always, I found the place itself—the canyon, the Frio River, the cliffs, the limestone, the gravelly roads, the stubby trees, the dips and rises—as familiar as a person, and as welcoming.

How is it that we connect with a place—and we all have those places—so deeply? What speaks to us that makes a certain location one of “our places?” (more…)

Having a “Silver Bells” Kind of Holiday

Hello and Happy December!

The closer December came this year, the longer my lists seem to get and the shorter my patience. I decided I needed to be proactive in taking things out of my schedule that just didn’t have to be there and in giving myself more quiet time just to be. Doing that made me think about the newsletter I wrote you for another December…with the subject of building some quietness into our lives during this busy season. I remembered that so many of you wrote about how much you enjoyed that newsletter. So—for my own sake—and, I hope, for your renewed enjoyment, I’m sharing that previous newsletter with you again. May each of us have quieter holidays.

Here is the earlier newsletter: (more…)

Remembering Sacred Moments

Finding balance in the hectic holidays season is a challenge for most of us, isn’t it? We want to be in touch and help those around be in touch with the timeless, the eternal, which is the only kind of center that can ever hold. But the hustle and bustle, the frantic goings and comings, the added commitments…all these work against our remembering what is most important of all during this sacred season.

I thought I would share with you the first chapter of a book I wrote a few years ago, A Sacred Primer. This chapter is about remembering sacred moments that each of us has had. Perhaps this December season will be the perfect time for each of us to get back in touch with those priceless times that we were in touch with the sacred.

And may each of you have a joyous Christmas.

Here is the chapter, called in A Sacred Primer, “Remembering Sacred Moments.”

We all have had those moments that felt sacred. We all remember them. Some deep, timeless part of us was touched. What is beyond became present. It was as if the Eternal, if ever so fleetingly, broke through to the earthly. A new dimension became present in our human life.But, for most of us, the gap between remembering those moments when the Divine broke through and dealing with the pressures and demands of everyday life seems huge. How can I be thinking about the spiritual in the middle of a traffic jam or when the kids skip school or when the boss expects the work of two employees for the price of one? Now that is another matter.

We are inspired by reading and discussing spiritual matters; we make resolutions about remembering, and acting on, spiritual principles. We want life to have meaning and purpose. But our good intentions evaporate as we rush out the door late for work or hunt for the time to help make a mask of a president for fourth grade social studies or hurriedly thaw last week’s casserole, hoping everybody will think it’s fresh.

To learn how to invite the Divine into our daily lives: that is the focus of this book. To explore how we who work in the marketplace, cook spaghetti for the family, go to school, balance the checkbook, and cut the grass can practice the spiritual life. How we can experience the Eternal, not only in special, fleeting moments but as a daily presence. How we can bridge the gap between reading and thinking about–even longing for–a fuller spiritual life and practicing this life in such a way that we have more peace, take care of our souls, and experience balance and equilibrium, even during the windstorms of our lives.

Perhaps you have intended to add a daily spiritual practice to your life for years now. You recognize that it is time to design and create a structure to support you in this intention. That is what you and I in the rest of this book will do together.

Childhood Memories

I suspect you and I keep returning to these moments when our hearts were first opened because they were experiences of meaning and connection. They have become the lodestars of our personal internal universe. In the memory of these images, we experience a reality beyond the mundane.

For many of us, the transcendent moment when our heart was first opened occurred when we were children. Perhaps we were sitting with our friends around a camp fire under a canopy of bright stars, singing simple melodies. Perhaps we were running across the grass or attending a funeral or celebrating a religious ritual. Perhaps we were alone, looking out at the shimmering heat or at rain falling on the pavement. Perhaps our grandmother was in the kitchen singing.

Dr. Robert Coles from Harvard, whose engaging book, The Spiritual Life of Children, records dozens of first-hand accounts, suggests that such spiritual moments are normal, frequent, and ubiquitous for children. Talking to adults about their spiritual memories, I have been struck by the lasting power of these childhood spiritual experiences. One woman in her late seventies remembered the moment–she could not have been more than five, she said–when she was enveloped with a rush of love after saying her nightly prayer. She described the color of the bedspread, the way the light from outside played on the wall. The image in which the heart is first opened. “It was such a sweet moment,” she told me. “I knew from then on that it was a wonderful thing to pray.”

As I survey my own past, an experience that occurred when I was a preschooler stands out as the first time I experienced a conscious connection to the Divine. It was one warm August night in South Georgia. The conversation was about seeing and being seen. And it was about love.

The soil was sandy with patches of grass where sunlight managed to slip through the dense branches of tall, skinny pine trees. Rubber-soled Sunday shoes crunched on the sand. Voices rose and fell with the familiar rhythms of unimportant talk.

Dr. Lisa Cain painted this picture and gave it as a gift to me after reading in my book A Sacred Primer about my looking at the moon and the moon looking at me. Dr. Cain’s folk painting hang in museums and galleries in many areas of the United States

I, an always-moving four-year old, entertained myself while the adults conversed by swinging, left to right, right to left, holding onto my father’s knee. While I swung this way, then that, I held my head way back so that I could look up through the dark night, past the fans of pine needles, to the bright, bright moon overhead.

I chanted aloud as I swung.

“I see the moon. The moon sees me.

God bless the moon. And God bless me.”

There were three people in my private conversation that Sunday night. Me. (A four-year-old, naturally, comes first.) The moon. And God.

The moon and I were paying attention to each other. I noticed her. She noticed me. (The moon has always been a woman for me–a fat mama sometimes, a sultry silver dancer sometimes, other shapes in between.) Then there was God. Some power different from both the moon and me. Approachable. Available. Generous to listen and generous to bless. I wanted the moon blessed, as well as myself. I was speaking to a God who would see and bless us both.

This, I realize today, was my first spontaneous conversation with the Divine. I have no memory of learning the rhyme, although I suspect my Grandma Willie taught it to me. But I have such a vivid memory of this particular scene that it has followed me my entire life. I can still hear the sand under my white leather Sunday high tops, feel the delicious dizziness of swinging on my father’s knee, remember the sense that I was really having a conversation with God: The image in which the heart was first opened.

A Transforming Moment

For others of us, the memory of connecting with something outside ourselves happened when we were adult, perhaps when we were in dire circumstances. My husband had such an experience on a small boat crossing open seas. A friend who had been an educator took his retirement savings and bought a thirty-three-foot craft that had long ago seen its better days. He asked Jerele, who had never been on a sailboat, to be mate for an overnight passage across ocean waters. They would leave St. Kitts-Nevis at sunup and dock around daybreak the next day at Tortola in the British Virgin Islands.

A storm blew all day, bringing thirty knot winds and fifteen foot waves breaking over the side of the boat. Both men became sea sick. But the worst was to come. Doing ship-watching duty shortly after midnight, Jerele reported that he could see both starboard and port lights, which meant a vessel was moving straight toward them. There was no way to make contact. Either their small craft would be spotted on the approaching ship’s radar, or they would be struck.

Jerele reported that the next few minutes were among the most clarifying of his life. Distinctions became crystal clear: what brought meaning and purpose to his life, what did not. What mattered; what did not. Where his allegiance belonged; where it did not. Where he got fulfillment and where he did not.

The approaching vessel–a Norwegian cruise liner–did finally spot the tiny boat and turned to avoid the collision. But the experience for Jerele was no midnight conversion, to be forgotten in the morning. Major changes occurred over the months, following his return home. He deepened his commitment to a daily spiritual practice. He started teaching a Sunday School class for eleven year olds, even taking our new pound puppy, Dusty, to class one day to use in a lesson on caring for others. And he initiated the process that eventually resulted in his leaving a successful business which he had created and owned to work in a different field in a position that he felt was truer to his life’s purpose. Ten minutes on a boat in dangerous seas: An image in which the heart was first opened.

An Experience of Joy

Still another type of experience may have brought the Divine into an ordinary day: an experience of quiet (or maybe wild!) joy. Perhaps you were deeply moved by awe and wonder. Perhaps you revved with new energy, soared in exhilaration. I remember such a moment of awe and mystery the first time I held my niece Amanda. She was only days old. My husband and I had flown from Texas to California just to see her.

There was the white crib trimmed in crisp ruffles, the small white pillow with its simple white-on-white embroidered case, the light coming in the window. I remember reaching to get this tiny person out of her crib. She was asleep and moved ever so slightly to settle into my arms. Looking down at her sweet face, I felt the insignificance of all I could ever know and understand about human life. Here was a new person, a new little individual with her own DNA, her own combination of genes, her own version of the continuation of the families of her father and mother. New Life. How marvelous, how inexplicable the round of it all, the way Life moves, lives, continues. If I had to find one word today to describe that first meeting with little Amanda, I would have to say that moment of quiet joy was holy.

Verena Kast, the Swiss philosopher and writer, talks about the wild joy we human beings also fall into. “It is my opinion,” she asserts, “that the entire body can beam. In true delight, the entire body beams.” The source of this kind of delight is deep and unfathomable. Listen to this story of a woman’s dream that resulted in a kind of beaming in both her inner and outer life, a delight which came from somewhere outside herself:

I had been in despair for several months, feeling no hope, no joy. One night I had this dream. I was walking along a residential street. To my right was a lawn that sloped gently upward toward someone’s home. On the edge of the lawn, near to the road, I saw a plant that looked as if it had been pulled up and just left there. In the dream I went to the plant. When I picked it up, I saw that the plant had roots and that the roots were still alive! I became ecstatic in the dream, joyfully running along the road calling, ‘The plant can be planted again. The roots are alive. The roots are alive.’ When I awoke the next morning, I felt light and enthusiastic for the first time in months. I had energy. Joy rose in me like bright colored balloons. From that moment on, I was back in the land of the living. The Divine had intervened; healing had occurred.

A Gradually Increasing Perception

For others, their recognition of a connection to the sacred increased gradually, perhaps almost imperceptibly. My mother, Rachel, was one of those persons who could never put her finger on one defining moment when the Divine became real for her; it seemed, she said, that she had always known God. “Even when I was just a little girl, living in Atlanta during the Depression, I would pray,” she said.

My family didn’t go to church at that time, but I knew that God was someone I could talk to. Once when we needed money, I convinced my parents to let my brother and me bring back buckets of pears from the country when we went to visit relatives. We had a whole bathtub full. Eliot and I went up and down the streets in our neighborhood trying to sell those pears. We didn’t sell a one. But, back on the swing on the porch, I told Eliot I was going to sing a song anyway, that I knew God would help us, even if we couldn’t sell the pears. So I made up a ditty about two country kids who came to the big city and were so poor they couldn’t even sell pears. I taught it to Eliot, and we sang it in our loudest voices. I felt a source of security even then, felt that we human beings are cared for and loved by God even when we have to live in tough circumstances. And that security and certainty have only increased during the years.

Spiritus Creator Blowing Like a Wind

What do these different-and-yet-similar experiences have in common: a four-year-old communicating with God as she chants “I see the moon”; Jerele, on a small boat, getting clear about his priorities; I, standing in awe and wonder as I held my new niece Amanda; the dreamer, depressed and lifeless, finding the plant whose roots are still alive; Rachel, experiencing a deep sense of security even while she was singing her song about not being able to sell the pears?

They are all examples of an intangible yet undeniable characteristic of human life: our ability to connect with Something Other. This connecting takes us out of the ordinary and puts us into the extraordinary. The memory of this connecting becomes the source of wonder, comfort, inspiration, and direction. When the impact of the connecting moment is strong enough, we may even trace to that event the start of a journey of transformation of the very way we think about and live our lives.

This Something Other with which we connect is generative, always at work in our lives, always underlying our conscious thinking, if only we knew it. It’s a thrust toward cohesion and completeness. A drive toward roundness, toward wholeness and meaning. Even when we are unaware of it, this Something Other is striving to make for us a solid center that holds, a force field around which the filings of our scattered lives can adhere and shape themselves into a meaningful pattern. Kierkegaard, the nineteenth-century philosopher, characterized our relationship to this generative Something Other–this Spiritus Creator, he called it–as a “transparent” grounding in “the Power that posits the self.”

Spiritus Creator has a wind-like quality; it often takes us by surprise and leads us where we would not otherwise go. I, the highest and fiery power, have kindled every living spark and I have breathed out nothing that can die/And by means of the airy wind, I stir everything into quickness with a certain invisible life which sustains all…

The blowing of the generative “airy wind,” has enormous integrity–the integrity of nudging us toward those activities and ways of living that are right for us, that fulfill our longings and satisfy us, that use our abilities and talents. (Didn’t the essayist Emerson remind us a long time ago that our talents are our calling?)

There’s a wonderful example, in the book of Exodus in the Old Testament of the Bible, of Spiritus Creator stirring individuals in ways that use their talents and bring them personal fulfillment. God instructs Moses: Make a sanctuary for me, that I may dwell among you. Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you.

This sanctuary and its furnishings were to be beautiful and sensuous. A chest of acacia wood overlaid with pure gold…a lamp stand with flower-like cups, buds and blossoms all carved of pure gold in one piece…ten curtains of finely twisted linen and blue, purple and scarlet yarn…perfume and incense made of myrrh, sweet cinnamon, oil of the olive. The writers of Exodus describe the connection between Spiritus Creator and human beings like this:

Those whose hearts were stirred by God’s Spirit returned with their offerings of materials for the Tabernacle, its equipment, and for the holy garments…Men and women came, all who were willing-hearted…the women skilled in sewing and spinning prepared blue, purple, and scarlet thread and cloth, and fine-twined linen and brought them in. Some of the women gladly used their special skill to spin the goats’ hair into cloth. So the people of Israel–every man and woman who wanted to assist in the work given to them by the Lord’s command to Moses–brought their freewill offerings.

The writers go on to say that so many creations came in that Moses sent a message throughout the camp announcing that no more donations were needed, that those creating the sanctuary had more than enough to complete the job.

The Meeting of Human and Divine

Someone once said that all of life is meeting. If so, there is no more important meeting in our entire life time than the meeting between us as human beings–who have the capacity to question and who are free to choose to take responsible action–and Spiritus Creator that pulls us toward an ever-receding horizon of infinite mystery and our own deepest longings for fulfillment. Martin Buber, the great Jewish theologian whom we probably remember best for his profound discussion of the distinction–and the relationship– between the I and the Thou, once said that the great images of the Divine come into being not simply as a projection of our imagination but as an awakening from the deep abyss of human existence through a real encounter with divine power and glory. This encounter, this meeting, not only evokes the Divine but also brings us to birth as persons. For it is out of such encounters that we become more and more who we really are, who we really want to be.

Personal Sacred Stories

Images that opened our heart stay with us. They tell us what is important in our own inner life. They speak with a personal integrity that no one else can question. When we remember the sacred images and experiences that brought us insight, ecstasy, confidence, awareness, joy, a sense of mystery and awe, we connect with a Self that recognizes an eternal relationship with the Divine. The honoring of that connection, thousands of individuals from many cultures over hundreds of centuries have told us, is what brings contentment, satisfaction, and peace.

A few years ago I began to reconstruct my personal sacred story by listing the images and experiences that have stayed with me over the years, moments when I was blessed by an encounter, a meeting, with the Divine. The earliest was the prayer for the moon and me; but there are many others, scattered throughout my life. The first time I viewed Mesa Verde, the ancient cliff dwelling of the Anasazi, and felt glory run throughout my body. An exquisitely beautiful moment listening to the choir in church one Sunday morning. The Good Friday I joined with Greek villagers to ring the bell in their churchyard–sorrowfully, they coached, yet joyfully. The first day I was back home after my mother’s funeral when the red Texas star hibiscus that grew in my backyard in Texas–and which had been a favorite of hers even though she lived far away in Tennessee–burst into bloom with not one blossom but with more than a dozen. You, too, can recall your own list of sacred moments.

Someone once said that the great value of reminiscence is that it tells us something did happen. Our memories are not mere abstractions but are still present and available to us: as sources of awareness, learning, and wisdom; as reminders of our deepest desires; as part of the context we have for making decisions in the present. It is the aliveness of past sacred moments and the potentiality of future ones that draws you and me even to consider taking the time and giving the energy each day to commit to a spiritual practice.

The image in which our heart is first opened.

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