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.

58138624867__5CC0708B-3DD0-4C13-A26D-1E34792E8D99 It was a picture of my new grandson smiling, sitting in a hotel room on his first vacation. He is six months old. Without much thought,I said that he doesn’t know he’s in a quaint coastal city or that he’s even on vacation, a meaningless idea at his age. He doesn’t even know what the next minute or the next hour holds. He doesn’t think about enjoying himself because the trip will be over in just a few days. He does know that he is with his parents and being taken care of right now.

After a few minutes of looking at that sweet face, I did think out loud, “We should be more like this little one.” I guess Jesus said that already. However, I never have been exactly clear about what that means for my life. Maybe the reason is that I want too much control or I don’t have that kind of courage.

Reading Embers, a book of meditations, I wondered if what Richard Wagamese says he has observed is related to that child-likeness.

It has been proven in my life that when your prayers are about gratitude for what is already here, creator and the universe ALWAYS send more. When you pray for what you WANT, creator and the universe only hear the wanting, and that’s what you create—more wanting.

 Sounds so straightforward, right? Yet, even when I try to disguise my desires, longing and belonging are mostly wrapped up in some form of material packaging.

Right now, I am not on vacation. In this past week, right where I live, on clear days (all but one or two this week) I’ve gazed regularly at snow-capped mountains in the distance. I’ve seen and touched the massive sinewy trunks of ancient Douglas firs that tower toward the sky. I’ve marveled at the gnarled red and green trunks of Arbutus trees and witnessed close up the wonder of the monkey-puzzle tree’s branches, so shapely and painful to touch. I’ve encountered more kinds of flowers and colors of green than one can imagine—stark black lilies and variegated begonias. I’ve viewed the ocean from craggy rocks and from sandy shores and traveled the harbour channel past yachts, rowers’ shells, mammoth barges, and abandoned sailboats currently occupied by shelter seekers.wa4KxpjySoyMDeRhqsflUw

And yet, in the Sunday newspaper’s Homes section, I thought about how I would like to live in a “house with a view” that I noticed in the seductive image that filled one page.

Wagamese goes on to advise,

Deciding is not doing and wanting is not choosing…move in the direction that brings you closer to creator in all things.

 “Know what is in front of your face,” Jesus said in The Book of Thomas.

It is early morning, and I have this day before me. Instead of wanting, how might I live in gratitude for what is in front of my face?

Like my grandson, be in the vacation without even knowing you are there…

Welcome Home Again

IMG_0067

Steps to my own back door.

Almost instinctively I did it again. While waiting in the dentist’s office, I picked up the shiny Capital Magazine, featuring “innovative houses and people” in the capital of British Columbia where I live. I skipped the people and looked directly at the charming character home, as they call houses from another era here in Victoria. It was steps from the ocean and one of this city’s most beautiful public parks. The owner was an artist who had filled the house with treasures that made it his own and held my coveting gaze.

I have already lived most of my life. I even live in a rented character home. Yet, I keep looking for a sense of home that seems elusive. Maybe I’m a little afraid that like Moses, I will only greet it from afar. However, I’m thinking that isn’t exactly the truth.

In The Return of the Prodigal, Henri Nouwen opens up a new way of thinking about homecoming. In his deep reflection, Nouwen moves between Jesus’ parable (Luke 15:11-32), his own close study of Rembrandt’s painting of the story, and his own lived experience with the understanding that we are all longing for home—of some sort. I joined a study group that spent several weeks using all three perspectives to engage more intentionally in this story for our own lives.

I know that I experience a bit of envy when I encounter people who have established themselves in a place. When I hear, “we’ve lived in this house for 25 years” and hear the stories connected with that life of seeming stability, I long for that sense of belonging. In my own reflecting, I wrote that Jesus’ parable of the return of a prodigal son offers me another opportunity to hope that those words from Deuteronomy 33:27 that “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms” is Jesus’ true idea of homecoming. Those words from the Old Testament framed my impending and unexpected relocation not quite a year ago.

At the time that Nouwen became invested in Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal, he was giving up (my words) a prestigious and productive life as a teacher at Harvard Divinity School and moving toward a communal life of ministry with mentally challenged people in an L’Arche community founded by Jean Vanier. Nouwen intimates his own risk to make this leap that upended the familiarity and the control that teaching and writing afforded him. He surmises:

I had never before given much attention to people with a mental handicap. Much to the contrary, I had focused increasingly on university students and their problems. I learned how to give lectures and write books, how to explain things systematically… I had little idea as to how to communicate with men and women who hardly speak and are not interested in logical arguments or well-reasoned opinions. I knew even less about announcing the Gospel of Jesus to people who listened more with their hearts than with their minds and who were far more sensitive to what I lived than to what I said.

For years I had instructed students on the different aspects of the spiritual life… But had I, myself, really ever dared to step into the center… and let myself be held by a forgiving God?

 Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities is a spiritual giant in Canada where I now live. Vanier’s father was Canada’s most beloved 19th Governor General and his family revered even to this day. Jean Vanier died recently and I found myself drawn even more into his life story and with my own understanding of Henri Nouwen’s transition to the L’Arche Daybreak community. I could learn from both men’s experience of homecoming at a pivotal time in their adult lives. I wondered how their leap of faith intersects with my own longing.

In a news article in The Globe and Mail, Ian Brown, whom I know personally as a Christian contemplative, wrote about Vanier’s life in quite a different light than the traditional obituary of accomplishment. Confronted with his recognition of the “cry for friendship” of men he met when he visited a psychiatric hospital in France, Vanier’s leap of faith transformed his initial fear of the disabled into the future mission of L’Arche that established the unique value of every person through communities of communal living.

Similar to Nouwen’s life trajectory influenced by his encounter with this mentor, Jean Vanier left his work as a popular professor at St. Michaels College at the University of Toronto to live in a small house with two men who were patients at the psychiatric hospital he had once visited. Vanier recalled that the men didn’t care about his knowledge or ability to do things, but simply desired his heart and presence as they shared everyday living. Brown states that unlike his parents, Jean Vanier was “shedding status.” L’Arche history records that Vanier “has been very intentional about going down the ladder of success. He believed that is what Christ asked of him.”

Maybe I’m fortunate to have my idea of “settled-ness” upended. Maybe my life is blessed because I have been forced to “give up” ways that were known but increasingly filled with unrest. In that life, I thought I had some control. I was familiar with what I thought was possible; I had decided the kind of life that I wanted but didn’t actually live that life of abundance. I had… but…

I’ve written before about using the right tools of life for the wrong reasons. Maybe that is what is compelling about both Henri Nouwen’s and Jean Vanier’s stories. Their trajectories speak of moving beyond accomplishments like education and profession and even family expectations. They both were welcomed home in the heart of God.   Have I really ever dared to step into the center… and let myself be held by a forgiving God?

 In the last place we lived, I spent a great deal of energy getting my physical house in order to welcome other people and even Mitch and I home. Even though our recent move has been miraculous, I haven’t “felt” that settled-ness or security. Even though I may not have overtly recognized God’s presence, deep inside me, I know that Jesus recognizes me. Jesus has looked for me and walked a little way along this road to welcome me. Just like the welcoming prayer I’ve been attempting to mean, The Welcome Practice invites me to notice and let go of that sense of security that I attach to home. I simply need to be open—open to the divine presence and action in my life.

I have been wishing and maybe am still for a physical place to belong. Yet, over and over, I keep running into another possibility for home, a place I can’t actually sit down in—or can I?

Have I missed God’s welcome? I’ve been very reluctant to settle in here, imagining I have to be the one to find my place. Maybe, instead, Jesus is searching for me.

Spaciousness. A word and idea I’ve been hearing a lot lately.

IMG_0987

View of Olympic Mountains from a high point just a few blocks walk from our house.

In the last few days, I’ve been looking at pictures that Mitch, my beloved partner in life, takes in the park, in the woods, or on the shore of the Pacific Ocean in the city where we live. We want to enlarge a few. When I am looking at them I am reminded of the spaciousness of the landscapes we view here. The expansiveness of very old cedar trees that have towered toward the sky for hundreds of years, the expansiveness of our ocean view that even stretches to the Olympic Mountains that are another country away, or the sea of flowers that take our breath away in a local yard or park open us up to the breadth of the natural world. That sense of spaciousness cannot be captured. The pictures only remind me of the awe I experienced at the moment when I was standing at that spot.

The spaciousness of this place is tangible and being open to what is beyond my physical surrounding is a kind of spaciousness, too. I am narrowed by my thinking that I don’t do the right thing or I waste the time I have. I am narrowed by expectations that cause me to think less of my own life or the lives of others.  I am expanded when I cultivate another view from the inside as well.

I’ve read the verses from Phillipians 4: 6-7 thousands of times. I’ve repeated over and over, days on end, “with prayer and supplication, with gratitude” to remind myself how not to be anxious about living. A few days ago, I used these verses for Lectio Divina, and I learned again that the spaciousness of God reverses the narrowness of trying to figure everything out when I am anxious. The time I spend in silence and gratitude cultivates God’s spacious presence.

The lesson came in an unexpected way last Saturday.  My friend traumatically lost her husband a couple of weeks ago. As we gathered at her house for a meal after the celebration of his life, I witnessed the kind of roominess that is engendered by God’s opening of our spirits.

My friend is known for her baking—supplying, in this case, a most elegant chocolate cake that was filled with memories for this family. Her 10-year-old nephew reminded her that he would “decorate” the cakes. She gently replied that there might not be any decorating on this day.

But then, when the time came for the cakes to be served, I witnessed her and her nephew Matt standing side by side at the kitchen counter that faces out on one of those expansive views of the Pacific Ocean.

My friend removed the chocolate cake from each springform pan and placed it on a plate. She loaded the top with hand-whipped cream and fresh raspberries.  I supposed that was probably her intent for readying the cake for serving on this difficult day.

However, Matt stood beside her with the professional pastry bag with the fluted tip in place. He loaded the bag with more of the whipped cream and deftly decorated the top of each cake with another layer of sculpted cream. The pair seemed to work effortlessly through 5 cakes lovingly prepared for gathered family and closest friends.

Maybe at some point in time, she showed him how to do this task—but I saw none of that at this time.  I watched her just seamlessly offer him the next step to finish what she had started, without saying a word. No “good job” or checking to see if he needed more cream or directing in any way; just giving space to be in that moment.

To live in spaciousness, our responses aren’t reasoned out, even in the most challenging circumstances or in the daily hum. Thomas Kelly, in Testament of Devotion, says that the Light within revises our reactions to the world so that they are “spontaneous reactions of felt incompatibility between the world’s judgments of value and the Supreme Value we adore deep in the Center.”

There is a wideness in God’s mercy from this spacious view.

The Hum of Home

I heard someone on the radio say that just as Hebrew is to Judaism and Arabic is to Islam, the body is the language of Christianity. I’ve been sitting with that wonder for a few weeks.

A sacred language is the particular language of revelation. In An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor says that wearing our own skin is not a solitary practice but one that brings us into communion with other embodied souls. She goes on to assert that God trusted, and I would add still trusts, flesh and blood to bring divine love to earth, maybe even using a body as an instrument of divine revelation.

What would it be like to know “more God” instead of “more about” God in our bodies?

 The Word incarnate. There is something precious and non-negotiable about this world and a divine heart within it. There is something profoundly to be noticed here, wonder’s presence. There is another way of conceptualizing the Word incarnate.

In a reflection on John 1: 1-14, Father Thomas Keating contemplates a material all-powerful vibration of the Eternal Word of God,

Now that creation has evolved and life itself has occurred, it seems that this initial vibration of the Word is still going on at the deepest level of everything that exists. This is the Word with whom every human being from the beginning of time has been in contact. This is the Word whose body, so to speak, is the universe, and in a more particular way, the human family. The eternal creative Word penetrates all creation as a kind of primordial “hum”. (You can almost hear it if you are quiet enough.)

Over the years, several physical practices have deepened my communion with God and my own body in this world. I write every day on paper using pencils and pens of varied colors and millimeters of ink that change the sensation and emphasis of the script. I write out each letter by hand, thoughtfully cross out the word that doesn’t represent what I am discovering, decide where to leave white space and page breaks, and mark up an emerging insight that I didn’t intend.

When I walk the dog, I stop to touch the smooth red and green underlay of the peeling bark on the arbutus trees that are native to this area. I pay attention to the unusual royal blue flowers that line the walk of my neighbor’s house. I pick up wooden rose pinecones and take them home for safekeeping before passing cars crush them. These seemingly ordinary things are, borrowing the words from Barbara Brown Taylor, “drenched in divine possibility.”img_0051.jpg

 

At the Luminous Wisdom School retreat I just attended, I’m thankful that Fiona, a participant like me, shared what seemed like a simply personal and particular physical challenge—that she was experiencing tinnitus and found herself filling each moment at home with music or a podcast to deaden the annoyance. The leader of our retreat and teacher of contemplative practices suggested that Fiona use the ringing in her ears as her “sacred word” during centering prayer. In centering prayer, one chooses a sacred word or another symbol of consent to God’s presence and action within. Returning to the word when our mind wanders and physical distractions occur. Fiona wondered aloud what it would be like to make sacred something that she found debilitating. I wondered what it would be like to imagine that sound as God’s presence.

In my case, I first noticed the cicadas in my ears several years ago. Initially, I only heard them later in the evening when I was reading in bed. I thought the sound might be some kind of utility buzz from the inner workings of the 50’s era house where we lived or maybe an odd noise from the decades-old television antenna that towered near my bedroom window. It wasn’t long before the ear insects showed up in church, too, in the beginning silence of prayer.

Over time, I’ve normalized the sound I hear that is always there, especially in the quiet. Most of the day, I don’t pay much attention to the gentle hum. When my mind is engaged in listening to something else, like the voices in my head, I don’t even know it is there. So, when Cynthia suggested that that sound could be the sacred word for prayer, I decided to try that alongside Fiona.

Astonishingly, the usual strain I experienced to choose and keep my focus on one sacred word melted away. I could physically feel the nano-second of release of other thoughts that my mind chose to grab and the seamless return to the noise that is always there awaiting my return. The insect-like noise doesn’t hold hidden meanings like my own wordsmithing of a sacred word does. Often, when I repeated my sacred word I found that more thoughts rushed in to further elucidate the meaning or justify my choice and both undermined the intention of centering prayer—to let go of distractions and to abide in God’s presence.

Could I listen, really listen, to that hum in my physical body to know “more God” instead of “more about” God?

In Richard Wagamese’s final novel, Starlight, the protagonist, Frank, is nurturing Emmy’s relationship with nature in which Emmy learns “to walk into the land fully open” and for the land to enter her. To me, the idea is akin to abiding in God and God abiding in me. After lessons on seeing, Frank expands the lesson to include deep listening.

…when you push your listenin’ out you can hear everything, I kinda figure it’s on accounta ya open yourself up to it all…

You get connected to what you hear. You become a part of it. It becomes part of you.

 In the deep listening, Emmy finds her calm center. God’s presence is a place to belong. That hum I can hear in my body is a tangible place, a spacious place to rest.

Listening to ringing in my ears is simple but not easy. This kind of listening requires no judgment, no analysis of what God is saying; it is simply consenting to and resting in the presence and action of the spirit. Maybe that is the ending of my story of the hum for now—that listening to whatever is God in us is to seek that presence in our body and to experience the spaciousness of creation. I can hear the hum.