Yoga with Jesus

Maybe it is true. Waiting is generative even when it seems like willful inaction or slovenly procrastination. I wanted so much to share something about my yoga with Jesus at the end of the summer, but I could not seem to put it into words. Maybe I didn’t try hard enough or maybe I wasn’t ready to write it.  Now, in the arrival of Advent, I have a frame for it.

Mitch was teaching for the week at Montreat and I went along hoping to rest in a familiar place. I am not usually the one who seeks out the church when I don’t have to when I’m away on a kind of vacation. However, my hope was to meet God in these Appalachian Mountains: in the forest, the gurgling stream, and amid the majestic rock face of the mountain exposed. I also longed for the ritual of the Anglican expression of faith that I regularly participated in before we moved to Canada. I wasn’t expecting the Christs I encountered.

51989125_10156824646220390_5861940780565790720_nI met this image of Jesus when I attended the early Sunday Eucharist at St. James Episcopal Church in Black Mountain. As soon as I entered the sanctuary, I was confronted with this Jesus towering above the chancel, bringing his human presence to center stage. He was larger than life itself; Jesus with his hand outstretched toward me, beckoning me, while his other hand is open and receiving. He has a kind, compassionate gaze, easy to look toward. So intimate, I sensed the unexplainable tears about to come; I hoped they aren’t noticed. I didn’t look too intently even though I wanted desperately to look deeply into that face.

Saying the name “Jesus” makes me feel self-conscious, I will admit.   I usually choose to use God or Spirit more often from the trinity of names. I remember (not fondly) my Dad often said, thank you, Jesus. My sisters and I felt some embarrassment for the trembling tone and mismatched care between my Dad’s Jesus and us. As I grew up, God seemed more dignified, godly even, a divine presence that seemed more inclusive and a safe distance away.

I know that this Jesus I encountered at St. James was, as Frederick Buechner says our unexpected tears are, “speaking to me through the mystery of where I’d come from and was summoning me to where, if my soul is to be saved, I should go to next.”

 My next was a “contemplative yoga” class that met at St. James on Wednesday. I wished I had, had the courage to ask the kind Priest about the class as she greeted us as we exited. Of course, I didn’t. But I did have the courage to show up, after checking online to make sure anyone was welcome and found they even provided yoga mats.

The class was in this very sanctuary. A couple more mature than I and two other people set up their yoga mats on the floor around the communion railing. And yes, we were lying at Jesus’ feet. In fact, that is what I could see, his bare feet and the hem of his garment as I grounded myself on my mat. And that is where my eyes stayed; all I needed to do was touch the hem with my gaze.

Since that day, I repeat Come Lord, Jesus, at the beginning of each yoga class and occasionally even at church.

I didn’t remember at the time that this was an Advent mantra. I suppose I should have known that but I was literally lying at an adult Jesus’ feet. I desired the intimacy, to see and know that Adult Jesus, whose very name challenges my ego.

This is the image I am waiting for this Advent – a bigger than life Jesus, not a little baby that is to me an abstraction of hope and requires little response from an adult me.

Richard Rohr says that it is to the adult and cosmic Christ that we are saying, Come, Lord Jesus. The Advent mantra means that

.. all of Christian history has to live out of a kind of deliberate emptiness, a kind of chosen non-fulfillment. Perfect fullness is always to come, and we do not need to demand it now. This keeps the field of life wide open and especially open to grace and a future created by God rather than ourselves…

When we demand satisfaction of one another, when we demand any completion to history on our terms, when we demand that our anxiety or any dissatisfaction be taken away…we are refusing to say, “Come, Lord Jesus.” We are refusing to hold out for the full picture that is always given by God.

Come, Lord Jesus is a leap into the kind of freedom and surrender that is rightly called the virtue of hope. The theological virtue of hope is the patient and trustful willingness to live without closure, without resolution… our Satisfaction is now at another level, and our Source is beyond ourselves.

Jesus will come again, yes, this bigger than life Jesus that has been ever-present even when that presence seemed too intimate to publically acknowledge.

Come, Lord Jesus.

This is a story that I need to tell myself. I have experienced this message before and I’m sure I will again and now I’m including you. I use my writing to read again my evolving stories and remind myself what faithful presence might look like.

Every Monday and Thursday, Carrie, a Naturopathic Doctor, teaches the yoga class I attend. Her class reflects her deep knowledge of anatomy and explores the connection between sensation and experience. She guides us to make connections between those sensations (often unimaginable ones like the edge of your right foot or the muscles around your ribs) to explore and expand our mobility. According to her bio at the college where she is full-time faculty, she has a great interest in the connections between somatic sensing and the mind.

Yes, I realize this yoga class affords me an amazing opportunity for practice. However, what I took away from a recent class was an embodied experience beyond Carrie’s guidance.

On this day, the focus of the class was stability. Carrie skillfully guided us through a progression of poses to build capacity and awareness of how our bodies support us through small shifts in where we put weight; how we transfer weight through hands, feet, or even the slightest shift in our hips. We moved from standing (mountain pose) to a high lunge (crescent lunge) and eventually to a very challenging balancing pose (half-moon) over the course of the 75-minute class using foam blocks and sensing variations of moves throughout our body.

As I focused on the micro-movements and shifts, I was amazed at the ease of my transition between positions when I followed her lead. Even with all this expert guidance, there were a couple of moments when I wasn’t able to sustain that ease.

No matter which pose, I noticed that if I even just glanced in front of me or beside me to see how someone else in the class was moving, I lost my way. I wobbled, fell out of position, and had to reset my body and my mind to maintain the posture. In other words, I lost the stability that Carrie guided me to experience that required all of me.

As I’ve heard it said about embodied practice: that might be one that I take off my yoga mat and into the rest of my life.

The Clean Edge of Change

Things do change, maybe even me.

It is the idea of a gradual instant again. The moment, a shift, that comes by living into imperceptible insight.

In one of my wanderings down a rabbit hole of my own recent history, I happened to gaze upon pictures of my old house, the one I left as the perfect and blessed welcome—that physical structure that was both the pinnacle and holder of my vision for a life. Oddly, even with some of the furniture I still sit on every day, the rooms looked like someone else’s, someone older and out of touch. The layout and furnishings seemed so perfect when we lived there for making many people who came to visit feel comfortable. I felt comfortable having them there. However, this time when I looked, I didn’t recognize the welcome or the vision that that place once held for me. Maybe, I have made a slight shift; maybe, I am, even for a moment, living in the present.

I always say I wish people would just drop by so I don’t have to think about getting everything “right” when we have visitors. Just a few days after seeing those pictures, I welcomed another kind of group where I wasn’t at the center. My husband had decided to have an evening work meeting at our home in the hope of easing some tensions in a more hospitable space. I didn’t have to do anything, he said.

The afternoon sun heated up our small living room where I’d taken out tables and pillows and unnecessary ware to make room for chairs from the bedroom, the kitchen, and even the yard to accommodate our guests. That morning, I decided that I would make something for the group to eat after the meeting. I made cookies, a quick bread, and cut up some fruit—all things that I already had on hand. I put the food on the kitchen table.  I put some pitchers of cold water and small glasses right inside the front door.

The dog and I spent the evening in the backyard. It didn’t matter that the food was hastily prepared and served in a menagerie of dishes. It didn’t matter that I had forgotten to buy paper napkins or make coffee or tea. It didn’t matter that we had only a small fan to circulate air or that the windows in our living room didn’t open on this unusually warm day. The cold water was enough.

What happens next is nearly weightless,
The opening where we stand breathless,
On the clean edge of change.      
Carrie Newcomer

And yet…

I happened upon one of Wendell Berry’s poems from Sabbaths 1998 when I was actually looking for something else. And just like Krista Tippett says, there was “the same wild gratitude I know inside myself when poetry intrudes and demands I let it take up space.” Space to muscle out my clenched jaw and heavy chest, one more time.

Wendell Berry has a way with words. His poetry demands to be read more than once and lived with for a time. His words amplify both an overwhelming sadness and unearth a well of joy at the same time in me. Living is not true in only one telling.

I copied the first and the almost last stanza of the poem in my commonplace notebook, thinking that those were the words that made sense for me. I wanted to skip the middle, even though I don’t believe that is an honest practice. The last stanza had a bit more resolution than I was ready to bear, just yet.  And so Wendell Berry begins,

By expenditure of hope,

Intelligence, and work,

You think you have it fixed.

 And I thought I knew what I was doing, being brave, taking a risk. leaving my career, as I knew it. It seemed right, even freeing to go—to pursue the pinnacle of degrees and experience an academic life that I thought more fitting my gifts. It was a wild and crazy idea that seemed to work.

Things fell into place. I was offered a teaching assistantship that paid my way. A house in an ideal spot landed in our lap. Mitch had a challenging interim for a few years and then another one followed literally blocks away from our house. We fell into the rhythm of that place. I finished the degree and opportunities eventually unfolded.

I found a job, or maybe a job found me, in a series of events serendipitously linked. A Frederick Buechner Writing Workshop, the integration of faith and learning, the lull of picturesque academia, the call of the mountains, the move to a perfect house, the friendly neighbours…

It is unfixed by rule.

Within the darkness, all

Is being changed, and you

Also will be changed.

 What I thought I had fixed, wasn’t, even me.  I’m not actually sure what the rules are. I am sure it might not matter. The truth is that nothing stays the same.  All is being changed. In the land of words, I believe this is aptly called a continuous tense that is both in progress and ongoing.

Then another miraculous turn, this place where we are now finding us—that’s how it happened. We didn’t look; we did take a leap, Mitch more easily than me. I agonized over each step that I made steeper by looking too far ahead, trying to micro-manage each part that required I let go of that security. I tried again to fix things, to meld them into something I didn’t know.

That’s the beginning of the middle of the poem for me, the part I wanted to skip over.

Now I recall to mind

A costly year: Jane Kenyon,

Bill Lippert, Philip Sherrard,

All in the same spring dead,

So much companionship

Gone as the river goes.

 And my good workhourse Nick

Dead, who called out to me

In his conclusive pain

To ask my help. I had

No help to give. And flood

Covered the cropland twice.

By summer’s end there are

No more perfect leaves.

*

Notice that asterisk.  Wendell Berry penned the asterisk between stanzas. I think that is where the author, the wise man, suspected I might continue to fill in my own recalling of a costly year. This is where the unspeakable pain, the deaths of illusion and relationship had promised a fix. This is where the unspeakable joy of sharing deep sorrow and the promise of new life illuminates sadness in the midst of possibility. I’m learning to name those names, as Wendell Berry is able to do, but I’m not quite ready for the last stanzas, yet.  Yet, they continue:

But won’t you be ashamed

to count the passing year

At its mere cost, your debt

Inevitably paid?

 

For every year is costly,

As you know well. Nothing

Is given that is not

Taken, and nothing taken

That was not first a gift.

 I, too, am recalling a costly year, from the end of October through the next October—so much change. So this middle, the gifts that are given and taken, darkness and light all mixed together is my life.   Scott Russell Sanders reminds that these gifts cannot be summoned; pain and suffering are measured against the sheer exuberant flow of things. 

 The gift is balanced by

Its total loss, and yet,

And yet the light breaks in,

Heaven seizing its moments

That are at once its own

And yours. The day ends

And is unending where

The summer tanager,

Warbler, and vireo

Sing as they move among illuminated leaves.

And yet. And yet…

risky and holy business.

Read again poem VI from Sabbath 1998 and skip my own story in between. Read the words more than once and live with them for a time. Maybe you are ready to hear the song.

Holy Holes

Out of 463 pages, one sentence, on page 181, captures my little corner.

In a room with a ceiling height of 66 inches, just enough to clear my height of 5’3”, there is a built-in L-shaped desk that is quite handy for spreading out—papers, books, or fabric projects. A large bulletin board, lined with colourful fabric supporting black and white peace signs, brightens the pale yellow wainscoted walls. A rod iron bookshelf, a 70’s era small cabinet, and the inner workings of our central vacuum system line the other walls. But the part that is captured in that one sentence is in the corner.

My sister and I found the retro rocking chair in a second-hand store. We sat in it and tried it out, both she and I recalling one of an almost identical style but with soft grey leather that sat in our living room for the years we were growing up. We used the ottoman, turned on its end, for the pulpit when we played church, arranging kitchen chairs in rows for the congregation of my sisters and me and an assortment of dolls and stuffed animals. We took turns giving announcements, caring for our ‘children,’ and my sister sang with spit on her eyes to evoke the emotion of a singer we’d observed. So, we brought the retro chair and the memories home to my little room.

Every morning and most afternoons, I sit in my chair.

IMG_0128.JPGIn other houses where I’ve lived, it’s been other seats and other corners. The oversized red chair and ottoman that sat near the fireplace and looked out toward our big oak tree; the tiny basement room with no windows, lots of bookshelves, and a black chair with wheels and a shifting seat; and the twin bed DIY’ed as a daybed in the “prayer room” as my husband called it, where every morning I met the day before the sun was up. I have steadily shown up and at the time it may not have always seemed like much was happening. But something did and does happen here.

Michelle Obama, in her memoir on page 181, recalls how her husband carved out a similar space for himself in every place they’d lived or even vacationed that she called “the Hole.” Whether a corner or a whole room, the Hole seems to hold the same respite and promise as my corner chair in a room that is mostly my own lair. Michelle writes,

For him, the Hole is a kind of sacred high place, where insights are birthed and clarity comes to visit.

I’ve been working with a trusted friend whose expertise is leading me to do significant soul work. She asked me in our last conversation if I had a place where I can be; I imagined my own “hole” to notice and surrender, to see circumstances anew and rest. In my corner chair, I lay down the pretense, the worries, the “outside,” and internal physical senses that cloud my vision. I open to the presence and work of a loving spirit. For those moments, that old chair is a sacred place, where insights are birthed through the stillness. Clarity comes to visit, wonder unfolds, and gratitude abides.

God’s Wisdom spun by the Desert Fathers, Yoda, and Michelle Obama.

I’d just missed the bus, watching it go by as I walked briskly toward the stop. So, I had a few minutes to wait. I’ve taken a more leisurely view of my surroundings, riding public transportation here—whether the bus, the ferry, or even a water taxi. You see the city (and the people in it) differently when you take transportation that slows down your time and attention.

A couple of days ago I came across these words from Henri Nouwen’s book, The Way of the Heart, and since then, the ideas have turned up in other forms all around me.

In my morning Lectio Divina, I contemplated the story from the second chapter of Luke’s gospel. Jesus asks a tax collector, Levi, to be his follower.  Jesus goes to Levi’s house for dinner that evening where there are other tax collector kinds of people in attendance. And the neighbor’s say Jesus shouldn’t do that.

I suppose you might conclude that the neighbors are just considering the facts—that tax collectors are not nice people (in the time that Jesus lived) and Jesus is supposed to be, so he shouldn’t be having a casual dinner with them. The neighbors are coming to a logical conclusion, forming an opinion, and that is what the dictionary says it means to make a judgment.

Henri Nouwen seems to also see how this might be how our “modern” minds think differently than the earliest Christian monastics, our Desert Fathers. (My emphasis added.)

If you would ask the Desert Fathers why solitude gives birth to compassion, they would say, “Because it makes us die to our neighbor.” At first, this answer seems quite disturbing to a modern mind. But when we give it a closer look we can see that in order to be of service to others we have to die to them; that is, we have to give up measuring our meaning and value with the yardstick of others. To die to our neighbors means to stop judging them, to stop evaluating them, and thus to become free to be compassionate. Compassion can never coexist with judgment because judgment creates the distance, the distinction that prevents us from really being with the other.   

The Way of the Heart

And then, words about judging others came up as I waited for the bus.

You see I’d been impacted by Nouwen’s insight as I struggle with my own continual “evaluation” of others, especially those closest to me, my family. Taking time to wait and watch, as I did, letting Nouwen’s troubling words sink in over a few days and just standing open to the moment at that bus stop yielded new insights.

Several people walked by me and one lady’s t-shirt startled me.

Judge me by my size. Do you?

For days, I’d been trying out how to write about my own melee, not only of judging others, I’ve been working really hard on being aware of that, but of evaluating others. And here was this lady’s t-shirt shouting at me.

She was maybe five feet tall, probably just past middle age, and weighed slightly more than her ideal body weight. Where I live, people of all ages walk and bike often. It is a bit unusual to see someone markedly overweight and this lady wasn’t exactly what her t-shirt hinted at either.

Not until I got home did I find out that the quote, Judge me by my size. Do you, is one of the 10 most popular quotes of Yoda from Star Wars. When I noticed the lady plodding past me, head down and determined, I thought she was making a statement—and on my ride home I considered the breadth and longevity of judging and the pervasive culture of evaluating…everything.

I covertly judge family members, when they don’t do things the way I might do them. I disguise the “judging” as helping, you know, I am older, have more experience, and see that their choices might not work out. And I similarly judge my enemies. I didn’t really think I had any real enemies, however, I am painfully aware of how much I am at odds with some public figures that I actually do not even know personally, yet this distance creates a safer and less informed judgment that seems harmless, right?

This is what this pretense sounds like. Is it true? Is it clear? Is it possible? Is it the best course? And then, Nouwen says STOP—give up measuring meaning and value of others with the yardstick that I’ve created to make sense of my own fears.

I’m almost finished reading Becoming, Michelle Obama’s memoir. On page 313 are these words.

As a kid, you learn to measure long before you understand the size or value of anything. Eventually, you learn that you’ve been measuring all wrong.

 And sometimes, it takes lots of practice to learn.

Sharing Home

I’ve decided to read the gospel of Mark, a few verses each day, using the practice of Lectio Divina. That means I read a few verses out loud, slowly, two times and notice what words or phrases catch my attention or stand out in some way. I read the passage one more time to contemplate the words or phrase that stood out to me. Often what I “notice” is an idea that in some way links to something I’ve already been reading in another place or a circumstance I’ve been mulling over. Sometimes the words are ones that are very familiar but take on new significance.

One of my readings last week was Mark 1: 12 – 20. After Jesus’ public baptism by John the Baptiser, the story goes on to say that “the spirit immediately drove [Jesus} out into the wilderness…” That wasn’t necessarily something I hadn’t noticed before, however, the connection between being in the “public eye,” so to speak, and then retreating fit with my own experience right now.

I’ve had family staying for a time and I’ve depended on even a brief respite that reading and pondering provide. I struggle with the effort it takes for me to have people visit; yet, I want it to not be so. When visitors are sound asleep in the guest room, I am awake in my bed, as even daily tasks get co-opted into dilemmas. On the morning that I read these verses from Mark’s gospel, I knew that I, too, need time “inside” myself to be able to go outside—to get a different perspective than what the distorted night time brings when my small self looms large.

Almost every day, I do some kind of reading as meditation. I use scripture and/or other writings by regular people whose names you might know too. Almost every day, I write to become aware of my life with God and in my everyday world. For many years, my notebooks have also and continue to function as a “commonplace book” where I record quotes from scripture, all kinds of books or articles, and even quotes from movies or songs. I weave other peoples’ words with my own words and experience. When I don’t do that, it shows, inside and outside.

So, I guess I’m wondering why I was surprised that what caught my attention reading the first chapter of Mark was that Jesus needed that time, too. It sure makes me feel more understood.

Then I read a passage from Richard Wagamese’s book of meditations, Embers.

Home is a feeling in the centre of my chest of rightness, balance and harmony of the mind, body and spirit. Home is where the channel to Creator and the Grandmothers gets opened every day and where life gains its focal point. …in that is the sure and quiet knowledge that home is within me and always was.

That is what my time alone, spent in the knowledge that God is my dwelling place, brings. Especially after a restless night or anxious response to whatever is going on outside, the time inside brings rightness, balance, and harmony of mind, body, and spirit. It is where I open a channel to my Creator and friend, in the presence of other people who have and continue to surround me. That is my home.