The Rules

The rule teaches us to listen to the circumstances of our own lives. We have to begin to face what our own life patterns might be saying to us… When we are afraid, what message lurks under the fear…? …When we find ourselves in the same struggles over and over again, what does that pattern say…?

Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily

 In her book about living the Rule of St. Benedict today, Joan Chittister is explicit about the possible patterns that the circumstances of our lives might reveal. Am I terrified of failure? Am I trying to cover up my weakness? Do I panic at the thought of public embarrassment or the sense of valuelessness that comes with the loss of approval?   Do I always begin things with great enthusiasm and abandon them before I am finished? Am I reluctant or afraid to change no matter how good or right the changes might be? Do I keep imposing the same unsatisfactory relationships with people from my past into the present ones? Have I ever really given myself, down deep, to anything except myself? What patterns do the circumstances of my life reveal?

In the quiet of my morning, I have times of insight, repentance, and gratefulness—then I go back to being the person who gets stuck in my own solitary world and am irritated or afraid when other’s inadequacies mirror my own. I ponder and even plan the perfect life I will live—in the near future, when I have established my house or have landed in a particular setting.  I long for a beautiful view and a big table to engender conversations and welcome for all kinds of people that just happen by. I imagine a life where I will have meaningful work to do at leisure. You know, that’s what I kind of thought before I moved here, to this place and house and people where I live now, at this moment.

I remember over 30 years ago, we lived in a newly built house with light blue carpet, south of a large metropolitan area. I remember writing in my journal that I wished for a house with hardwood floors on the other side of the city. Aside from the wooden floors, the houses on the other side of town were older, smaller, and required sweat equity to match the ease of lifestyle to which we were accustomed in our suburban neighborhood. I’m not sure what I was really searching to gain.

My last three houses have had hardwood floors: one with worn-out narrow oak planks, the next one gleaming newly refinished, and now the pine floors where we live have comfortable dog scratches already built in. Listening to the circumstances of my life might tell me that I sometimes imagine my life looking toward the next stage or location or configuration, particularly when those circumstances are challenging. I could also surmise that the substance of the floor I walked upon had little impact on how I lived beyond that surface.

I continue to encounter parallels between the wisdom of spiritual traditions that similarly require living the paradoxes. My life of faith moves unevenly between life and death, promise and struggle, solitude and community, and this present moment and the next. In his insightful look at The Promise of Paradox, Parker Palmer writes

Contradiction, paradox, the tension of opposites: these have always been at the heart of my experience, and I think I am not alone. I am tugged one way and then the other. My beliefs and my actions often seem at odds. My strengths are sometimes canceled by my weakness. My self, and the world around me, seem more a study in dissonance than a harmony of the integrated whole.

Dissonance. There is an attitude of mystery in the universe that guides every conversation and every common act. A contemplative awareness is possible that sanctifies the here and now when we accept the complexity and contradictions of our lives in contrast to the illusion that things are simple and we are in charge. Parker goes on to reflect that God sees through our illusions and delusions and meets us on the other side when it becomes clear that something has been leading us all along.

I’ve encountered this wisdom, over the years, in different forms. The Rule of Benedict challenges me to expose my ideas to the critical voice of wiser hearts, to seek community beyond my quiet morning reflection. In solitude and into community, we work out our connectedness to God, to one another, and to ourselves. The last few months I’ve been reading the words of an Ojibwe author, who has extended my community.  In one of his memoirs, One Native Life, Richard Wagamese recalls teaching from his Spiritual Elder:

Through the ceremony of the medicine bowl, he taught me how to pray in gratitude, to ask for nothing, to be thankful instead for all that was present in my life right then and there. Then he told me to take the spirit of that ceremony out into the world with me.

Anyone can be spiritual in a quiet room, but out in the world is where the challenge presents itself.

It’s the knowledge and acceptance of the mystery that surrounds us—and the awareness that allowing it to remain a mystery, celebrating it rather than trying to unravel it, engenders humility and a keen sense of the spiritual.  

Sister Joan Chittister adds to this mystery that the real monastic walks through life with a barefooted soul, alert, aware, grateful, and only partially at home.

Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to me—the very contradictions in my life, the dissonance, are evidence of God’s mercy and mystery. Blessed am I when I wait; when I don’t strive to manage, figure out, and react to the noise of the world. My teacher will not hide. My eyes shall see my teacher, and my ears will hear a word behind me saying, this is the way, walk in it (Isaiah 30:21).

Listen and celebrate the mystery.

Listening for Home

img_0722It is easy to know what is good for someone else. It is difficult to listen and let them define themselves.

Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily


The Walton’s.  I faithfully watched the show growing up, longing for a John-Boy, or maybe more truthfully, hoping that I was the John-Boy in my own family. I wanted that multigenerational experience that celebrated the bond of love despite each member’s individual expressions of living. Contrary to that close-knit household on television, in my mind, I separated myself from the woes of my own family. While I pretended large with my Aunt Bessie’s discarded elegant dresses and high heels, spray painted silver for my garage variety shows, I was suspect of her vivid storytelling, and the way she arrived at our house: her hulk of a car carelessly pulled up on the curb and her fifth of vodka safely tucked into her generous purse. As a teenager, I never wanted to not be in firm control of my life, as I perceived those closest to me who, like my Aunt Bessie, reacted to or escaped life’s tenuous balance.

It is easier to watch the show that is someone else’s life and to think that I know for certain how I would live that life, while not giving attention to my own.

I’ve been slowly working through Joan Chittister’s Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today and reflecting on the weeks I’ve spent with each of my adult children over the past few months. The Rule involves listening to others needs and also teaches us to listen to the circumstances of our own lives.

I know how to meet life’s basic needs. I cooked and cleaned and consoled the weeks I stayed with my son and then my daughter during their own transitions. I also admit that I struggled to not say how I would manage any number of daily dilemmas that inevitably surface when you spend a few weeks with someone else. I am also aware of how I listened to the other person’s account of his or her day and made hidden judgments about the why or how or when or how much and all the while I was struggling to figure out my own why and how and when and how much.

Now that I have returned to the other world of my own house, I don’t quite know what to do with myself. I anticipated coming home and renewing my intention to live in the abundance of this, my new home.  I was reminded of the beauty of this island as the plane circled before landing. I thought I was ready.

I had (and have) plans to explore this unique city, to visit the Benedictine sisters on Shaw Island, to pursue a volunteer opportunity at The Contemplative Society, and to inquire how I might respond to a request to support the youngest readers at the Chinese church preschool. I do relish the opportunity for my own reading and writing and pondering, but also recognize the inwardness that I’ve hidden inside instead of seeking community.

All is not lost, though, in the days since my return. I have rearranged our dresser drawers, cleaned out and organized one kitchen drawer, did the laundry, and cooked one suspect and one glorious new recipe.  We attended our first Rabbie Burns Day Dinner (Scottish immersion) on Saturday and I was enveloped in the care of church folk who celebrated my return on Sunday. I’ve been invited to coffees, dinners, and an artsy group in the coming weeks. Yet, the truth is that I don’t know how to lean into this new life I’ve been given.

My truth is that I know how to keep knocking on the closed doors of the past year and  I know how to worry about the definition of my family that has also been re-invented in recent months. I’ve been trying desperately to survive the changes. I’ve been figuring out what is good for other people instead of listening and letting them define that for themselves. I’ve been figuring out what is good for other people because I don’t know quite what to do for my own life—this isn’t the same path I have coerced my way through the past few years.

One my plane trip home on Thursday, I was astonished by words that I’ve read before, yet heard for the first time. I cannot define or live another’s life and I am perplexed, again, how my human best tends to be at odds with the holy best.

To do for yourself the best that you have it in you to do—to grit your teeth and clench your fists in order to survive the world at it’s harshest and worst—is, by that very act, to be unable to let something be done for you and in you that is more wonderful still. The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from. You can survive on your own. You can grow strong on your own. You can even prevail on your own. But you cannot become human on your own… the one thing a clenched fist cannot do is accept, even from le bon Dieu himself, a helping hand.

The Sacred Journey

I cannot manage nor imagine  “more wonderful still.”

I wasn’t just the oldest child in my family, like John Boy Walton. I thought I was the only adult, many times. I had to take charge of my own life.

Maybe it’s time to soften my jaw, to unclench my teeth, and to listen to and let be—all kinds of relatives.

Advent Listening for a New Year

2018 was a year of change. I turned 65, I lost my job, and we sold our beloved home, moved 4 times, welcomed and lost close family members and communities – events that offer an opportunity for deep listening.

I’m learning about my new home in British Columbia. Cascadia, the Pacific Northwest region of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, boasts that residents are spiritual and not religious, a distinction that shapes a way of life with the natural world. I also discovered that The Contemplative Society, that encourages Christian wisdom tradition, is based in Victoria, BC. I attended an Advent Silent Mini-Retreat this group co-sponsored with the Interfaith Chapel at the University of Victoria on a recent Saturday.

Being a bit cautious about riding the city bus for the first time to the University from my house and thinking the retreat started at 9:00 instead of 9:30, I arrived about 8:45. As synchronicity would have it, I helped Liz and Henri, who were leading the retreat, get the space ready. They welcomed me as an insider rather than as a first-time participant. We set up the kitchen area for a break and a light lunch, arranged tables in the outer areas, and carried chairs and pillows to the chapel space. Liz even asked me to greet people as they arrived when the time came, thus encouraging me even more to belong.

I risked entering into the day in this spirit of welcome and brought my most inward practices into community. And in that unfamiliar sense of community, I did newly experience familiar patterns I’ve cultivated over the years. I participated in chants in the style of Taizé, which were new to me, and familiar centering prayer and contemplative reading. A prayerful and reflective walk through the exposed shapes of the winter garden next to the chapel expanded my understanding of possibility in a season not usually associated with growth.


Snowberries in Finnerty Garden, University of Victoria

I’ve nurtured a way of reading and meditating on scripture, Lectio Divina, for many years. On this retreat, sharing that experience with others, I had to consciously listen, since I wasn’t the one reading to myself as is my usual custom. Liz, one of the retreat leaders, read Luke 1: 26-28. Slowly and deliberately, she read the scripture multiple times. I didn’t have the opportunity to see the words, so I noticed more acutely the ideas that stood out to me as I listened to this Advent story of Mary’s visit from an angel foretelling her role as the mother of Jesus.

I heard that Mary was favored by God and asked to do something she had never done before. For maybe the first time, I heard Mary question how this could be so, she wasn’t even married yet. Then I heard those familiar words, nothing is impossible with God, which I usually associate with Sarah’s, Hannah’s, or Elizabeth’s stories of the miracle of conception when that was their deepest wish, prayer, and impossibility. I heard clearly Mary’s answer, “Here I am Lord, let it be done to me according to your design.”

In the penetrating gift of silence that followed my hearing, I was able to attend to my own life alongside Mary’s experience. Here, in my new place, I also am being called to something else, something I’ve never done before. I said that, in so many words, last November and December and January and February and even March when I knew I wouldn’t be continuing in my job at the University. I knew my loss forced me to embrace newness.

But then, I lost sight. I got bogged down in the uncertainties when I knew where we might be going. How crazy is that to have that awareness of newness when I didn’t know where I would be—but then to lose that sense when the way became clearer that Mitch would take a job in Victoria.

When my last semester was completed in the spring, I was disoriented. I went through both the pain and great hope of graduation as my own ending. I was thankful for Tom Long, the graduation speaker, whose words were life-giving: go deeper, abundance, reversal, and confrontation.  I was thankful for colleagues who acknowledged my sadness with steadfast care and respect. I was thankful that I had the foresight to decide to do what I knew was right even at the last minute, to have the courage to go to graduation when I said I wouldn’t because I thought it would be too painful.

And then, in that quiet place, my heart wasn’t quiet as the veneer of anticipating newness began to buckle under the weight all that unknown—significant life changes for both our adult children, revisiting Victoria in anticipation of moving, the agony of planning another physical repositioning. I met these changes with brace rather than surrender to the newness being offered.

I lived the uncertainty anxiously, perseverating over the details of planning an international move. As I pondered what to give away or keep, what parts of life, as I knew it, would be coming along, my decisions were uncertain. I continue to second guess and hold old visions too tightly. I am still somewhat unwilling or unable to claim this place as our own—my own—my dwelling place for this time. The freedom to be able to make unplanned trips to be with family in their own states of change and challenge has actually made the separation of things and place even more acute—the unsettledness and disorientation renewed.

In my new home, I have passed over the signs of new life. The beauty of the island is muddied by my old dream of hardwood forests on old mountains that soothed my mind’s eye. Even with the fast and sure friendship of two women my same age and the unusual cast of characters who have generously shared their stories with me in my new home, I don’t know if I’ve given in—let my guard down so to speak. I lack the surrender to newness that keeps me apart and uncertain.

And now I come to this day, facing my impossibility. What do I hear? What is God’s word to me as I listen? I reread that scripture with my own eyes in the shadow of that new contemplative community I experienced at the retreat.

But she was greatly troubled… (v. 29)

Another translation says Mary was perplexed. Mary’s response bears similarities to my own of this last year – disorientation, not knowing, being afraid, even wondering how this can be.

How can this be since… (v.34)

Mary, too, is giving God a reality check. This thing you are telling me can’t be possible and here is the reason—this doesn’t make sense. However, it

…will be holy… (v.34)

What is happening to me is holy, of God, and not entirely my own doing.

Nothing is impossible with God. (v. 36-37)

The angel gives evidence of Elizabeth’s impossibility taking shape. Notice and lean into what God is already doing.

Here I am…let it be done to me… (v.38)

Mary simply was willing, available, and consented to God’s presence and action in her life. I’m reminded that these mothers celebrated the impossible that was right in front of them even though they could explain none of it. Even though I have not done so simply, am I able to let old certainties make way for the impossible?

The lesson is not new. In this life situation, whether I view it as a threat or an opportunity, I responded with brace, hardening, resisting and blinding myself to the unknown. Mary’s response was to accept the impossible as a willing and available participant in newness.

The chimes in the chapel garden called me back to the community following my listening walk. Keep listening.

Have Courage

An Angel or messenger of God usually begins with some form of these words: Do not be afraid. Must be a common response to facing whatever life presents.

Parents from well-worn Bible stories are among those who heard these words. Jesus’ mother Mary, Samuel’s mother Hannah, John the Baptizer’s mother and father and even Jesus’ earthly father Joseph were confronted with impossible circumstances that were beyond easy explanation when the angels’ message came. Some of the stories actually say the recipients were afraid. I, too, know fear from unknown and known circumstances (and from some I merely imagine could be true).

For me, being a parent to adult children is one particular kind of challenge. I have spent the majority of the past two months and now in the month ahead with my adult children in life-altering circumstances. While the circumstances are very different for each of them, I see how that being afraid causes me to get stuck, to react, or to act seeking my own way. It doesn’t seem like fear, though, on the surface. My fears are masked as helping, rescuing, and managing circumstances that are not my own.

What can I learn from these stories? Is the response simply to not be afraid? Or, is there something more to the ubiquitous request?

I took notice when the strong women in the book I just finished reading, Dream Wheels by Richard Wagamese, define a mother’s courage in a contemporary setting. Johanna’s son’s life has been radically changed by calculated physical risk-taking to chase a dream. Claire’s son’s life has been radically changed by a lifetime of oppression and searching for hope in all the wrong places. The women learn from one another and a greater power for good in their lives to provide space for their own and their sons’ way toward wholeness and healthy parent/adult child relationships.

Johanna grinned. “The natural thing would be to worry, fret over him, try to make things easy for him, coddle him. But that wouldn’t solve anything. In the end it would only hurt him more. So I have to choose to let him walk the path he wants to walk. Choose to be confident that I raised him with the principles that will save him. Choose to believe in him. And ultimately choose to not worry—the ultimate unnatural act for a mother.”

“Faith,” Claire said.

“Courage,” Johanna said. “Faith is what we earn when we have enough courage to face what is in front of us.”

 Maybe that is what the ancient people did when their angels came with the news— they had enough courage to face what was in front of them even when it was scary.

 My friend Randall lived that notion of courage to faith in front of me. Randall’s not so old, older brother died last week. I didn’t know his brother. I did witness the way that my friend faced the great struggle that was his brother’s life. Somehow he stood beside him and yet allowed his brother to walk his own path. Even when it didn’t seem on the surface that things worked out, Randall noticed the ways his brother gave and received grace. He was able to eulogize the principles that his brother lived that gave me a glimpse of another way of facing fear in relationship with courage.

Walter Brueggemann reflects that Advent is a time of struggle between the poem that opens the future—that God will work – and the memo that keeps us thinking we are in control. We know about endings and the old scripts that bind us. Brueggeman says that we know the weariness that comes from propping up old realities.

Courage involves a choice as Johanna says. So I have to choose to let him walk the path he wants to walk. I choose to be confident that I raised him with the principles that will save him. I choose to believe in him. And ultimately choose to not worry and not to get caught in the old realities.

In this season, free us for a new beginning – to have the courage to face what is in front of us even when it is scary. Faith comes from the courage to face new realities with trust. Whether in death or life, have the courage to believe in the person—no scripts attached.



If  I didn’t have a dog that would surely develop an untenable morning habit, I might try it—just getting up at 3:00 a.m. for the day.  I could quit trying to wrestle my body and my mind back to sleep, being careful not to stir too much. Let one sleeping dog lie. I heard an interview with Dolly Parton, who said she does get up at 3 am and gets more work done from three until seven in the morning than most people do all day.

I used to wake up fairly regularly at 3:00 a.m.

I would read a good novel for 15 or 20 minutes and eventually fall back asleep until a respectable time to wake. Over the last couple of months though, the times I wake up in the deep of the night are multiple: 12:30, 1:45, and 2:30. And, reading for a while doesn’t seem to work; my mind is too full and it is an endless chore to sort through the worries.

I came upon this poem written by Julie Elliot, a Spiritual Director at Pacific Jubilee Associates. I don’t know Julie, but she knows me. I was struck by the truths for my experience that this poetry can evoke.

When You Can’t Sleep at Night – by Julie Elliot

You wake in the night,



thirsty for something you cannot name.

You’ve been worrying again.

Mistaking worry for love,


Trying to control others’ lives.

Forgetting your own.

It dries you out like the pine needles

that scatter themselves outside your bedroom window.

Brown and lifeless they fall to the ground,

in every season, every weather.

An inevitable carpet growing under the old Ponderosa.


You wake to the choice.

Will the falling needles be an endless chore?

You’ll rake them constantly even as they drift down

to settle in your hair and on your shoulders.

Or will you let them fall the way they do,

noticing the beauty of their changing patterns,

a lacy mat under your feet

becoming part of the holy ground

on which you stand?


You wake up to your life

as it is.

Call it Presence.

Call it God.

Call it Love.

Immovable reality.

It’s yours. It’s in front of you.

Suffering grows when you worry

against it.

One truth is the power of poetic language to give images and words that illuminate my experience. After a particular wakeful night, Mitch would ask me, “What were you so anxious about?”

Sometimes, I honestly didn’t know. But, there was that feeling that Julie figuratively describes as “parched, anxious, and thirsty for something you cannot name.”

Last night I was caught worrying again, like Julie’s truth to tell, mistaking the thoughts for love or prayer and they are neither. My concern is one of an urgent need to change, rescue, or convince a life that is not my own.

The second truth is even more demanding—waking to a choice.

Lately, I have been able to name my worry. Maybe that is because I have been more intentionally naming my fears in a challenging situation, out loud, in the regular daylight.  However, in the morning light, what I worried about in the dark doesn’t always make good sense. I gain a new perspective when I confront the error of my nighttime assumptions that seemed so real hidden in the covers of my bed.

What would it be like to let my worries fall the way they do and just let them be?

What would it take to notice the beauty of the changing patterns they make and to recognize those patterns as part of the holy ground on which I stand?

Suffering only grows when you worry against it.

Outrageous Possibility

So what can I be grateful for in the past 24 hours?

Mitch, who steadily calls me back from worry, from ignoring my own life, and from dictating what is possible.

In his sermon, recalling the Advent story of Zachariah and Elizabeth, Mitch said that it didn’t take Zachariah long to play the card of impossibility, to offer God a reality check when confronted with the news that he would soon have a son (Luke 1).  Zachariah was afraid and silenced. Some of us think we know all too well what is possible, or not, and even what can or needs to happen.

I do that. Many times, I act like it is my job to sort out what might and can happen in the situation before me, thus deciding what is possible or not in my own life. Mitch’s Advent question is still with me:

How do we prepare ourselves to again birth the impossible into our lives and into our world?

One lesson from Zachariah’s story might be to dedicate more time for silent waiting. Maybe not being able to speak out loud was a gift for Zachariah. For me, that silence also includes quelling the voices in my head where I offer my own version of what is possible in my real world.

Walter Bruggeman proposes another tactic in his advent study. He calls my attention to the poetry of Isaiah 65:17-19 and the possibility of newness found in these verses. In response to this audacious possibility, he says,

The new world of God is beyond our capacity and even beyond our imagination. It does not seem possible. In our fatigue, our self-sufficiency, and our cynicism, we deeply believe that such promises could not happen here. Such newness is only poetic fantasy.

For me, I know that things don’t always turn out all right and at the same time, there are turns of events that I notice only after I’ve lost my way.

Cynthia Bourgeault says that synchronicity—a kind of miracle I most often experience—is the by-product of surrender, not the main event.

To more deeply hear and surrender to God what is possible, I might do what Walter Bruggeman suggests, to read and re-read this poem in Isaiah to let it seep into my bones and heart and vision.   As I read and re-read, I began to re-write the poem to hear God’s words in my own heart.

For I am about to create

new reality for you.

The former things you fear will

not be in the forefront or

readily come to mind.

Be glad and rejoice forever

in what I am creating;

for I am about to create this new way of seeing as a joy,

and its people as a delight.

I will rejoice in the newness

and delight in my family.

No more will fear be my dwelling place.

Me, adapted from Isaiah 65: 17 -19

The poem in Isaiah is outrageous, Bruggeman says, and mine is too. I am not the one who decides or orchestrates what is possible, in my life or anyone else’s. Bruggeman reminds me where this power rests.

In Advent, however, we receive the power of God that is beyond us. This power is the antidote to our fatigue and cynicism. It is the gospel resolution to our spent self-sufficiency, when we are at the edge of our coping. It is good news that will overmatch our cynicism that imagines there is no new thing that can enter our world.

 My cynicism is rooted in fear, where I decide what is possible. For this day, may I live in the outrageous possibility of the power of God to prepare me to again birth the impossible into my life and into our world.

To Be Carried Away from Fear

Advent is preparation for the demands of newness that will break the tired patterns of fear in our lives.                         Walter Bruggeman

I’ve been riding a rollercoaster of fear for a while– maybe a lifetime.  About 2:30 AM this morning, mostly in the dark, I was writing in my journal. There I was again, unable to stop my mind from going to all the places I cannot change. Based on a few assumptions and fueled by nighttime anxieties, I re-enacted just one of the tired patterns of fear in my life. The dark makes it easy to imagine scenes laced with a few well-placed “facts” that prove why I must rescue, protect and manage a life—not my own.

I’m having trouble letting go of that dark, the fear of what might be, that Buechner says I wrap myself in like a straightjacket. Even after wise counsel from my partner, a sermon this morning (by the same partner) that said we don’t orchestrate what is possible, and pleading prayer, the dark still lurks. But, there is a glimmer of light. My husband said I need to live my own life.

Listening anew to the Advent stories in Luke’s chapter 3, Luke says that Jesus will come to baptize me with the Holy Spirit and fire. I’ve lived a long life seeking God’s presence. I’m not sure that this has ever happened to me and I am sure I really don’t know what that means.

My friend Walter Bruggeman told me in my reading this morning. He says that means

…we may be visited by a spirit of openness, generosity, energy, that “the force” may come over us, carry us to do obedient things we have not yet done, kingdom things we did not think we had in us, neighbor things from which we cringe. The whole tenor of Advent is that God may act in us, through us, beyond us, more than we imagined…

 And then there is that part about Advent being preparation that will break the tired patterns of fear that I so desperately need to do.

 What Walter describes would be a far better example for both of my children, and my husband, rather than the maligned ‘help’ I think I must give. I’ve asked God for guidance to let go of the fear that undergirds the subtle things I do and say in my desperation to protect and rescue and manage that teardown people and relationships rather than build them.

So I begin this Advent asking God to come near to me so that I might get carried away from my fear to do obedient things that I haven’t done before—kingdom things that I didn’t think I had in me.