Prayer for Times of Tragedy and Trauma (from an Admittedly Christian Perspective)

God of the Wounded and the Healed

God of the Guilty and the Innocent

God of the Dark Night and the Shining Day,

You exist at the intersection of all extremes

In this tumultuous human journey.

We come to you broken into pieces,

On a painful and uncertain path,

Moving forward whether we feel ready or not.

During our journey

On the unexpected, hard road of grief,

Help us to know that

Like our ancestors in the wilderness,

You are providing for us

Day by day,

in the ways most meaningful for each of us.

Open our eyes and soften our hearts

To reorganize, and make space for

The new ways you will live and move among us.

Oh God, Remind us that

You are breathing our next Breath

When our lungs collapse in grief.

You can Touch the places inside us

Too jagged and tender to handle on our own.

You are the Bread of Life

When our appetites are lost, or hunger becomes a mindless distraction.

You are the Light which beckons from the other side of the door

When we cannot bear to get out from under the covers.

You are the soothing water mixing with our tears,

Blessing each one of them.

Holy and Resurrecting One,

Accompany us on the winding way to wholeness.

When we fall into despair,

Shine a glimmer of resilience.

When we realize we have had moments of joy, productivity, and optimism,

Keep us free from the harm of guilt.

Guide our Hearts and Minds only to Yourself.

In the name of the One who was lost to Death and found in Life

Who has both gone before us,

And remains deep within us,

Now and Forever.

Amen.

Maitri: Unconditional Friendship with and Acceptance of Oneself

Friends: Here is my second theological reflection, with some love from the wisdom of our Buddhist brothers and sisters.

Honoring the Personally Transformative Nature of CPE

By Employing the Four Qualities of Maitri

I began CPE with the specific expectation that it was going to focus on the Clinical Portion of Pastoral Care, essentially: how to go “be a chaplain” or “Do chaplaincy.”  I spent a good deal of my first unit totally confused about what we were actually doing.  Somehow I was so intent on learning some nonexistent rules about what to do and how to do it, I completely discounted the immeasurable value of the portion of CPE dedicated to Pastoral Identity and Self-Discovery that is at the core of a balanced chaplain and minister.  Perhaps for the purpose of an unconscious sense of self-preservation, I was blind to the Pastoral Formation and Reflection portions of the program, and fixated on the Pastoral Competencies, particularly as they related to performance with patients.  I met the HUGE body of work around self-awareness and peer group dynamics with great resistance.  I thought I knew myself to be incredibly reflective and self-aware.  In many ways this was true; but what was lacking, and what would leave a gaping hole in my ministry unless addressed, was self-love and acceptance.

Many years of serving in my family, relationships, and bodywork career as a poster child for co-dependency and people pleasing lead to an unconscious exhaustion and bitterness that would sneak out in vulnerable moments where I did not have the energy to control it.  Yet still I prized the Idea of what a good person, a good Christian, and a good woman Should be like, rather than actually stopping and feeling my emotions and desires, and offering them the time and energy I reserved for everyone else.  Then, along came CPE.  It was the pinnacle of service, the goal I have put high on a pedestal for 17 years. I was more than happy to focus on the other and even ranked the toughest, most gut wrenching cases as more valuable, feeling like a slacker if I was not “in the trenches” enough.  All along, this was a way of keeping the focus on others, never on who I was in the experience.  It just didn’t seem prudent, much less useful.  By the end of my first unit I had arrived at a holding space for what I called the Holy AND, a place of celebration of the existence of suffering and rejoicing at the same time, like the mystery of Christ being both on the cross and resurrected at any moment of our spiritual journeys.  It was a recognition of wholeness— so I thought.  But, it was only a recognition.  The Holy AND was about situations we encounter daily as chaplains; but what about our internal encounters? What am I feeling in these stories?  Why does it matter?  I completely missed that my lack of self-consideration showed a tremendous lack of faith and underestimation of who God is.

Finally, after years of listening to lectures and reading books by a Buddhist nun named Pema Chodrin which introduced me to the concept of maitri, just this unit I began to integrate the concept within the context of CPE!  Maitri pronounced “my tree” is a Sanskrit word that is translated as unconditional friendship with and acceptance of oneself.  Chodrin explains that maitri is about beginning a process of looking inside oneself for love and acceptance, with loving-kindness for whatever we see when we look within.  It is suggested to be the basis of compassion and the root to healing all suffering in the world.   The first of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhist philosophy is that suffering or discontent is Universal; and fully recognizing its existence is the first step on the path of awakening (Brach, 18).  Buddhist meditation teacher Krishnamurti teaches that “This moving away from comfort and security, this stepping out into what is unknown, uncharted, and shaky is called enlightenment and liberation.” (Chodrin,18).  Well congratulations all CPE students!  We are on the path to enlightenment here!  Somehow the answer to alleviating suffering is to go deeper into it and make friends with it.  I realize that I got into chaplaincy to help alleviate suffering in other people, lessen the existence of suffering in the world in general; but I never considered that this mission began with befriending my own suffering.

As humans we share a tendency to look outside ourselves- to others, spiritual practice, distracting behaviors and addictions for love and acceptance.  We use distancing behaviors as a primal reaction to avoid being open with and close to our own suffering, both physical and mental.  It is reflexive and self-preserving on many levels.  But on the spiritual journey, Buddhist philosophy and the CPE process invite us to sit with, go deeper into, and even honor the experiences that cause inner turmoil.  Chodrin suggests that this learning to feel friendly and at home with ourselves in whatever we discover under the surface sheds a Light on the dark and lonely places of life.  Pema suggests that we engage the spiritual process with the four qualities of maitri: steadfastness, clear seeing, experiencing our emotional distress, and attention to the present moment.

In steadfastness, we develop a loyalty to our experiences, including all sensations or thoughts and emotions of the wildest diversity, knowing that they are all a part of our intended practice- or as one CPE instructor would say: “everything is grist for the mill.”  Pema teaches that, just like in CPE, in meditation we must practice patience and maitri with ourselves. When we start to look closely and see everything about ourselves and our experiences clearly, we can become extremely uncomfortable and wish to flee or judge ourselves for what is coming up.  I relate this to how I feel in IPR and receiving feedback during verbatims.  It is such a closely magnified look, with witnesses to boot, that it can be excruciating.  Yet, with a gentle curiosity, a friendly affinity for ourselves and our fundamental nature- worded in my theology: honoring the inner dwelling of the Holy Spirit in ourselves and all creation- we can come to love ourselves into wholeness and freedom from the suffering caused by the desire to be different than we are.  We can share and model that liberating sense of friendliness, love, acceptance, and clear-seeing to others if we are willing to offer it first to ourselves.  (Chodrin 27)

As chaplains we have the unique opportunity to be reminded of most all kinds of human suffering on a daily basis.  Some of the worst suffering humans experience is a feeling of loneliness or abandonment.  Whatever pain we have physically, mentally, or spiritually is exponentially increased by the sensation of isolation in that suffering.  So as chaplains we offer to hold space for, sit in on, and dive into the empty darkness with our patients.  As CPE students we also do it for each other; and if we are really brave- ourselves.  Until I was willing to sit in my own uncertainty and squirm at my own self-recognition, forgive myself for mistakes, admit my shame and embarrassment, I was giving well intentioned, but ultimately inauthentic feedback.   Up until sometime last year my therapist who is a trained HeartMath instructor would always ask me where and how I felt a feeling.  I would use descriptions that were verbal, intellectual concepts; but I was absolutely terrified and repulsed by the suggestion of going into my heart and body where the pain was, and describing it in detail, allowing it, and breathing into it.  Then I realized that is exactly what I do when I am present with my massage clients and patients in extreme crisis.  I am not afraid to go towards it when the suffering isn’t coming from me, but when it is, I tend to resist it tooth and nail.

What I am coming to see in myself is a beloved daughter of God who at times also feels hurt, less than, unworthy, ashamed, weak, unprepared, unlovable, unattractive, fearful, lonely, misunderstood, eager, impatient, and a host of other feelings which I ate, talked, wrote, exercised, slept or helped other people in order to avoid.  I avoided them so much they got louder, bigger, more painful and expressed themselves in ways that were leading me farther from my path in God.  Using the second quality of maitri, clear seeing, we are watching our every tendency, and those to whom we minister care-fully (Patton 47).  Whether on the meditation cushion as in Buddhist practice, or in a pastoral caring moment, we are not trying to get rid of any kind of thoughts that may arise within us, or that we are observing happening in front of us.  “Rather, we are seeing clearly the defense mechanisms, our negative beliefs about ourselves, our desires and expectations.  We also see our kindness, our bravery, our wisdom,” (Chodrin 27-28).  We are offering ourselves and others the compassion of holding the space for both pleasant and unpleasant, powerful and vulnerable within in the same person or circumstance.

This practice of clear seeing often times evokes the third element of maitri- the experience of emotional distress.  Here is when we need to hold ourselves with loving kindness the most.   We are no longer just an objective observer of patterns and possibilities, we are engaged participants.  We are awake and poignantly aware.  We must engage that strength and steadfastness through faith in the viability of a program that asks us to stay where we would rather not in these moments, and see into the fourth corner of our Johari windows.  Buddhist teaching offers us this: “Transformation occurs only when we remember, breath by breath, year after year, to move toward our emotional distress without condemning or justifying our experience,” (Chodrin 28).  Meditation is suggested as a sort of training for staying with and growing from things we once tried to escape.  In CPE, the exercises of visiting patients, attending to crises, participating fully in group and supervision are all pieces of the obstacle course of this spiritual boot camp.  It is a delight to see that all we encounter has value, and to feel oneself expanding because of it.  It is empowering to find myself in personal relationships, with family, at work, or church, or even in conversation in my own head willing to slow down, get curious, offer words of loving kindness, and be willing to try again, and again, and again- knowing it may be just as painful, or it may open up an unknown world of possibility.

The final maitri factor that we cultivate in meditation or CPE practice is attention to the present moment.  In my mystical Christian theology, this takes on a particular brilliance, because it speaks to the presence of God.  I do not believe in time as we know it as an ultimate construct; only that as humans living on the earth plane we are temporarily and partially subject to its divisions.  Staying in the present moment is directly experiencing the fullness of God.  It is knowing for ourselves, as believers of the Resurrection of Christ, that Christ was yesterday, is today, and will be tomorrow.  In His death and Resurrection, all barriers of time and between diversity of the Beings He created, are destroyed.  Being in the present moment is honest, brave, loving, faithful, and transformative.  Staying present is a choice, often a painful one, when the moment we are in happens to be less than pleasant.  But by staying in the moment we are also empowered, as Quay Kestor instructs, by being perpetually at “choice-point.”  “Attending to our present-moment mind and body is a way of being tender toward self, toward the other, and toward the world.  This quality of attention is inherent in our ability to love.” (Chodrin 29-30).  When we seek to change the world we live in, first we must fully inhabit it, as Jesus did.  The practice of Christian Meditation called Centering Prayer suggests that every moment of suffering or distraction that we become aware of, is merely an opportunity to return to God (Thomas Keating).  So combining last unit’s awareness that God is in all experiences with the practice of maitri, this unit I have decided to be present in all my own experiences.  I decided to show up in the Dungeon and to supervision prepared to writhe in the naked truths of what I was feeling, hiding from, wishing to change, and watching in others.  Employing the concept of Radical Acceptance for all that is within in us, which sits at the heart of maitri, allows us to meet the God, the hound of Heaven, who seeks us wherever we may tend to run to or hide from Him (Psalm 139).

I would certainly not call myself enlightened, but a light has been shed on pieces of me and the common experiences of suffering we all share.  Now I can see more clearly how my own tendency to fix, fast forward, rescue and defend others wallowing in discomfort and uncertainty denies them the valuable experiences of resilience and growth.   God exists in all times, places and experiences.  I was refusing to meet God where God was, by refusing to sit quietly and lovingly with my own discomfort.  I was lashing out at Marla for beckoning me to come closer, and hiding from the group that was not trying to shame me into self-awareness, but rather love me into wholeness.  “Carl Jung describes the spiritual path as an unfolding into wholeness.  Rather than trying to vanquish waves of emotion and rid ourselves of an inherently impure self, we turn around and embrace this life in all its realness- broken, messy, mysterious and vibrantly alive.” (Brach 42)

Through maitri we can know that at any one time we too have been hurt, scared, angry, hungry, lonely, happy, in love, excited, brave, or peaceful.  We share this collective human experience and the planet on which we are having it.  We have to practice.  We have to trust the process.  We have to love ourselves first in order to love our neighbor.  Employing the qualities of maitri in CPE and life helps us not only sharpen our listening and communication skills, but softens and expands our hearts.  “When we carry our pain with the kindness of acceptance instead of bitterness and resistance, our heart becomes an edgeless sea of compassion and we become the compassionate presence that can hold, with tenderness, the rising and passing waves of suffering (Brach 216).

 

Works Cited

  1. Brach, Tara, Ph.D. Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha.  Bantam Books, New York, 2004.
  2. Chodrin, Pema. Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living.  Shambala Classics.  Boston, MA, 1994.
  3. Chodrin, Pema. The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times.  Shambala Classics. Boston, MA, 2001.
  4. Chodrin, Pema. Good Medicine: How to Turn Pain into Compassion.  Audio Lecture produced by Sounds True.
  5. Patton, John. Pastoral Care: An Essential Guide.   Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN, 2005.

Incarnation: the Holy AND

Thank you for the beloved art: Richard Hooks:  “Head of Jesus”

Dear Readers, It has been a long time since I wrote, as seminary has kept me busy.  I promised in my introduction that some day I would share more about the experiences which shaped my way of understanding and living in the world.  Here is a theological reflection I wrote following my first experience in Clinical Pastoral Education at a hospital.  As we approach Easter, I thought it appropriate.  It is long…. so if you are interested- get a snack and a beverage!  Peace- Gina

As a former Roman Catholic and family member of several mechanical engineers, my embedded thought processes and theology flowed easily into a polarized dualism.  I was either good or bad; getting A’s or anything else that was not as good;  I was either pro-life or pro-death, people go to Heaven or Hell, I needed to  do what other people want or I would hurt them.  There were many of what John Savage refers to as “life commandments” that I have been applying to myself, others, the way the world operates, and yes, God (Savage, 117).  Until CPE I was convinced that I had been doing a pretty good job of returning myself to the spiritually coveted non-dual thinking and functional self-awareness.  However, I realized that CPE is the ultimate crucible for Truth; and that it, Truth that is, is beyond all definition.  In its fullness, it is Mystery.  There is no greater mystery or representation for me of the CPE experience than the Incarnation, the Holy AND.

The mystery of the incarnation is that God who exists outside all boundaries and yet inhabits all possible spaces, times, and circumstances loved His creation so much that he made full communication and communion possible by inhabiting our very selves and cells.  Furthermore, the mystery of Christ is that this person was human and God simultaneously.  Christ’s part in the Trinity connects Him with the timeless, ubiquitous presence of God.  How can that apply to us at IU North?  It puts a framework around all that we humans live and know.  It puts the ministry of hospital chaplaincy and the evolution of our pastoral identities in a context.  It informs my ministry to the point that I can say with confidence to someone in immeasurable pain that the One who is without measure is present both in that pain AND on the other side of the crippling acuity it causes at the moment I am re-iterating Christ’s promise: “I AM with you always, even to the end of the age”  (Mt: 28:20).

The story of the person of Jesus, flesh and blood, connects humankind so completely with God that for me it bears the power to give all human experience a holiness.  The science and the hidden secrets of the biology and physiology of the body, shared by Christ are proof of God’s magnificence.  Seeing people whose wish in a particular moment is as simple as breathing unobstructed, being able to control their own bowels, being able to keep all of their original body parts, etc. is an exercise in Grace and gratitude.  The body simply working how it was originally designed is a miracle that I am reminded of each time I am on the medical units.   This clinical setting shows me the Grace of every-day life and health; and it also reminds me of the fact that nothing in our lives is outside of God’s awareness, and empathy through Christ.  The suffering, frustration, and feelings of abandonment Jesus experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane and passion encompass an extreme edge of experience that touches into some of the atrocities human kind has committed and faced.  AND accompanying that suffering in his life was forgiveness of those who betrayed and tortured him, and finally transcending the ultimate alienating experience, death.

Several months before beginning CPE I attended a series of lectures on Discernment which re-introduced me to some of the language St. Ignatius of Loyola used to describe aspects of our faith journey: the terms consolation and desolation.   Consolation refers to that which enflames the soul with love, increasing joy, faith, hope, charity, faith and tranquility in one’s being and a feeling of closeness and movement towards God.  Whereas desolation refers to the opposites of those feelings such as turmoil, agitation, loneliness, temptation, listlessness, unhappiness and feeling generally separated from God (Martin, 308-309).   That which fills the space between these two experiences with meaning and possibility is the mystery of the Incarnation, the IAM.

I AM is outside of time and without limitations, yet chooses to be with us.  In John’s Gospel and Revelations, Christ defines Himself with several bold titles including alpha and omega (Rv: 22:13) using the well known “I AM” statements.  Of the various proclamations Christ makes about who he is, and how he relates with us in the books by Matthew and John, the one common denominator is the “I AM.”  In my Trinitarian theology, this is the same “I AM” as the One who named Himself to Moses: Ex: 3:14 “I am who I am,” and the same God who spoke in Isaiah 41:10 “Do not fear, for I am with you.”   I experience an undercurrent of consolation that is steady and unwavering, when the rapids of desolation are the loudest.  I have been thrown into the depths of desolation with my early verbatim subject asking “why her?” and fearing death from cancer; to the high’s of consolation with one of my last verbatim subjects being filled with joy and tranquility and stories of God’s blessings in his cancer journey.  These are the AND’s made accessible through the Incarnation.

In the hospital setting and in our personal lives and global community we witness great suffering on a regular basis; AND we are privy to some of the most sacred, intimate moments of life where miracles and conversions take place and Eucharist is shared.  My favorite representation of this at North is the fourth floor. There, we have peds nurses who are treating kids with terrible injuries, handicaps and disease and still choosing to get pregnant themselves.  We have the sickest people in the hospital between peds and adult ICU in one wing; and just down the hall is labor and delivery.  The fourth floor is the AND floor.  As professional chaplains and or ministers, we are the representative AND’s in the world we live in.  We must be vehicles moving with such mass and force down the highway of life that we create a draft around us strong and steady enough for people to follow when they are out of gas or have lost their ways.  Also, we must be surrounded and supported by others who can get us to the next gas station and take the lead when we lose our way.  We are not called to fix or change anything that is shared with us, or that we are present for, we are called only to be a witness and a presence.  We are called to sit in darkness and see, if not just remember the existence of other side of feelings of darkness and separation from God.

Having the Ignatian notions of consolation and desolation named before I entered CPE has given me such normalization while I struggle to “trust the process” of all these aspects of spiritual and personal development into which I have been called during CPE, the ordination process, and discerning lay association with the Sisters of Saint Francis simultaneously.   Another piece of work which was pivotal to my application of the Incarnation in accepting the process, and searching for peace within tension as it relates to CPE comes from Cynthia Bourgeault’s TheWisdom Jesus.   The way Bourgeault interprets the period of Jesus’ narrative between his Death and resurrection when he descended into Hell, describes what happened there in a way that emphasizes the constructive value of what has been painful for me in CPE.  She offers that Jesus just sat there among the faces of the collected false self who were the darkest, deepest, most alienated, and in the most constricted states of pained consciousness.  He sat there “in the midst of all this blackness, not judging, not fixing, just letting it be in love.  And in so doing, he was allowing love to go deeper, pressing all the way to the innermost ground out of which the opposites arise and holding that to the light.”  A harmonizing love infiltrated the deepest darkness in a way that didn’t override them or cancel them, but gently reconnected them to the whole, (Bourgeault, 123).  This sitting in non judgement, inviting people back into consolation with love and presence is the essence of supervision, peer group work, and chaplaincy.  One of the most challenging parts of the peer group and supervision portion of CPE has been accepting the tension of being the one feeling tortured by my inner “constricted consciousness” and egoic tendencies, and having people witness it, care-front me in it and still love me through it.  We have been Jesus to each other: the teacher, the shepherd, the brother/sister, the pastor, and Elton Trueblood’s “AND” (Savage, 105).

God is in all experiences now, because he was, as and through Jesus.  I have used the Garden of Gethsemane time and again with patients to assure them that fear, doubt, abandonment and generally negative places of suffering are places God has been and is with them.  The Incarnation gives us stories like this, gives us God’s first hand account of faith in times of suffering and fear, of divinity within humanity.  But what about those who are not Christian?  As an acknowledgement of my learning goal involving the honor and understanding of diversity and offering witness outside my chosen Christian, Trinitarian models, I offer the cycles of nature and the body as ways for us to know the movement of God without naming God.  Imagine how people watching the sky seeing the moon grow and disappear over and over, and the sun rise and set day in and out felt before they knew what it was and how it was happening.  We have so many tools that teach us the need for growth, movement and detachment in addition to faith.  My love of contemplation in nature, and Buddhist philosophy show me that while the experiences of suffering and desolation may be inevitable parts of human life; they are not the only parts, nor are they permanent.  That is a law of nature and physics to some degree, but some patients show me that that they can die scared and angry.  So, I return then to my faith to comfort me and survivors of those painful deaths, that healing may not come on the earthly side of existence but that death returns us to our origins in God and to wholeness and love.

The cycles and inevitabilities of life are ever present in the hospital.  Patients have a way of bringing me down and holding the light, volleying me back and forth between rooms.  CPE calls me to keep going and to keep using my supervisors and peers to help get me balanced, refreshed, normalized, and safe.   I came into the hospital setting with the idea that wearing a badge that said “Chaplain” communicated the very presence of the possibility of God in all places and experiences, pleasant and painful.  I still believe that passionately on a good day; but honestly a lot of days I believe it more in concept.  I still fight to know viscerally, with certainty that I can feel, the Truth of this.  I have to choose it again and again.  I want this deeply for every person I meet.  I have to admit that agenda.  I do not attach to one set concept of what it means to know God viscerally, but I have attached completely to its potential.  CPE has challenged what I thought I knew about who I am and how to implement my calling.  I have polarized so many times.  I want to know it all and do it all perfectly.  I want to forgo my humanness and be one with only divinity.  I find myself feeling abandoned between the polarity of my egoic desires and my actual life.  CPE reminds me that just as when I put a hot glass dish in cold water, it will shatter; if I try to learn and be too much too quickly I will get broken.  The AND is not just to offer in ministry; it is to live as ministers.  Incarnation means what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin taught us, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”  It was good enough for Jesus, so I might as well keep working on it.

Works Cited:

  1. The Harper Collins Study Bible: NRSV. Wayne Meeks, General Editor.  Haper Collins Publishers, New York, New York, 1993.
  2. Bourgeault, Cynthia. The Wisdom Jesus.  Shambala, Boston, 2008.
  3. Martin, James, SJ. The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.  HarperOne Publishers, New York, New York, 2010.
  4. Savage, John. Listening and Caring Skills.  Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN, 1993.

 

Silence Between Movements

Silence Between Movements

I was listening to the Amazon music station Classical Focus while I was cooking.  When I noticed spaces of silence I found myself momentarily irritated that the connection had been lost or that Alexa had stopped playing for some reason.  Then, seconds later, I realized it was just the space between movements.  I grew up playing flute in band and orchestra for years, hello!  I know about this!  Impatience and Western cultural norms had gotten the better of me.  That soundless space is to prepare listeners for shifts in tone, tempo, or emotion within the next movement of the piece.  It is not an end, merely a transition which begs our attention.

Sometimes we can have those moments when, after running, and running, and performing, or over-functioning for long periods we find ourselves uncomfortable in silence and stillness, when it happens upon us unintentionally.  We may have that sudden drop in our guts like Wiley Coyote when he was running so hard he doesn’t realize he had run off the edge of a cliff.  The expression on the coyote’s face of panic and fear can be awfully familiar.

Barbara J. Winter says, “When you come to the edge of all the light you know, and are about to step off into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing one of two things will happen: There will be something solid to stand on, or you will be taught how to fly.”  When we find ourselves suspended in thin air after a particularly intense period in our lives, it may feel empty, like God has suddenly abandoned us.  We become so accustomed to striving and generating that rest feels static or unstimulating.  Some of us literally become addicted to the heightened state of adrenaline caused by chronic stress.

Perhaps more periods of intentional stillness and silence during which we set our focus inward  on the still small voice of God in whatever methods the Holy One chooses to communicate with us, we will be more seasoned when life presents us with those phases of the calm between the storms.  Silence and periods of calm, rather than being a time of dry abandonment or stagnancy,  can become a soothing restorative space in which we prepare ourselves to muster our faith and gather our resources for the next movement of the score of our lives.  They are also a wonderful opportunity to reflect and practice gratitude on the elements of life that made the recent periods of trial or chaos possible to survive.  God has written and is directing all of it, including the parts of the other instruments for which we never see sheet music, that somehow in the end all blend together into beauty beyond comprehension.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is widely recognized for the powerful declaration, “Music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.”  We know that rest notes and pauses between movements create an affect that truly gives music life.  I believe God gives us calm and quiet, whether we seek it or not, to allow us to be more present in the movements of our own songs.

Find a piece of music that makes you absolutely stop in your tracks and consumes you.  Listen to it, and then sit in silence afterwards, bathing in the affects on your mind and body.  In that listening and feeling, know that you have been in communication with the Holy!

Here’s a song I work and meditate with:

Peace,

Gina

Journey into the Unknown

Journey Into the Unknown

A prayer of St. Brendan

Help me to journey beyond the familiar

                and into the unknown.

                Give me the faith to leave old ways

                and break fresh ground with you.

                Christ of the mysteries, I trust you

                to be stronger than each storm within me.

                I will trust the darkness and know

                that my times, even now, are in your hands.

                Tune my spirit to the music of heaven,

                and somehow, make my obedience count for you.           

This week I began classes at a seminary with people from all over the world, bravely opening ourselves to the call, contemplation, and action of the Holy Spirit within our lives and communities.  Many of us were already in the middle of some kind of ministry or another, with the hope that this further education will deepen and enhance it.  Some of us take the risk of being completely thrown off courses we thought were God’s will for us, and onto an unexpected new path.

I am aware of the heartache associated with attachment to what we think our calls are.  I am aware that we can be both passionately involved with pursuing goals, and lovingly open and curious to new ways to arrive at these goals.  That balance is one I hope to grow more skillful at maintaining as more and more experiences even out the edges of my course.

 What expectations for yourself and others in your life do you hold closest to your heart?

Does pursuing them give you endless joy; or does gripping to them exhaust you?

When was the last time you sat in the quiet and asked the Holy One what was yours’ to do in this moment?

Can you imagine a gentle flexibility in yourself that might leave an open space for new ways to reveal themselves, and new people or resources to guide you to appear?

May the Spirit of all that is, and all this is possible feel close at all times and in all places!

With Love,

Gina

Red Carpet Faith: Reaching Out and Letting Go

(Thank you to  https://rippoffthedisguise.deviantart.com/art/Holding-hands-167975370 for the beautiful artwork.)

“Let go…” I say, gently giving my massage client’s arm a little jiggle.  “Be like a wet noodle.  Just lay there and let me do all the work.”  Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t; and I continue to be met with resistance and holding in every new position I move to, or body part I pick up.  This is very normal in massage for first-timer’s, type A personalities, or just really tense people who have an unconscious need to stay in control in some small aspect or moments in their lives which tend to feel mostly out of control.  I get that.   Ask anyone who has worked on me… I used to be that.  I would lay on the table with my fists clenched and not even realize it until my therapist picked up my hand.

The key for me as a therapist, and now as a student of self-awareness, is the unconscious nature of this holding.  It is not just in session that people hold their bodies and their breath.  It often takes someone pointing it out before we ever know we are doing it.  Even then, a few seconds later, we can reflexively return to this state of chronic low grade tension.  As the therapist I experience two reactions to a client who “fights” me without knowing it.  One, a compassionate awareness that many things are pulling at this person, and they are in need of comfort and freedom of space.  Two, a frustration that we could do so much more and work so much deeper if he or she would just LET GO.

This morning in spiritual direction, I was reminded of something I have heard and said so many times it could be a cliché; but later in the day when I was the one saying, “let go,” it became the most poignant wake-up call I have had in a while.  I have been struggling with my process of discernment and formation as an Episcopal priest.  Apparently, this is all very “normal.”  How irritating… 😊  In these past blogs I have been writing about feeling like I am more able to move through difficult feelings and fears in my every day life; yet lately this one HUGE aspect has been met with clinging and resistance.  I worry what it will be like when I am ordained.  Will I be more or less of myself- who God has made and called me to be?  Is there some other way I should be living out my call?  I have been “shoulding” and “what-if-ing” all over the place about this one huge decision.  Well, it is not a decision, it is a PROCESS; and it is one I do not face alone.

As my director, who is an Episcopal nun, spoke of how nervous she was taking her final vows until she looked into the chapel and saw all her family and friends sitting there supporting her, I remembered not being nervous at all on my wedding day, because I was surrounded by people who loved me and had traveled every step of the dating and commitment process with me.  Still today, in the struggles that marriage brings, I am supported by a community of other married people.  Being a priest, living out any call in this life for that matter, is done in community.  Additionally, I was reminded to ask God for more help, not just the people around me.  (I abhor asking for help!  “I am the helper.”  You can see what I mean about the control and the holding….)   But, when I put this concept in terms of being on God’s table (yes massage—but maybe communion too!) you see that, like me feeling frustrated that I could be doing so much more, so much better if the person on the table would just let go, perhaps God feels that way about me sometimes!

God knows and loves us beyond any human concept of love.  When I work on people and God works through me, I get just the tiniest, but still extremely powerful side benefit of that love moving through me on its way to my client.  At times it is truly overwhelming and takes my breath away and brings tears to my eyes.  I think to myself, “I hope you are feeling this!  Even if for one moment everyone could feel this tremendous love wash over and through them, they could hold that sensation for the rest of their lives.”  Over and over I have felt that.  And just like with my clenched fists or stiff arm, I still need a reminder.

My director said to take the hand of God and let God lead me instead of trying to figure it all out.  I have seen what God can do even in the worst tragedies, which is why I want to be a chaplain and a priest.  Yet, I admit when it comes to what I think is most important I struggle to let go and trust.  I need the reminder that God knows better, more beautiful, productive, efficient ways of serving more people than I ever could.  I like all of those things; and I love God!  “But,” my director said, “Remember, in order to take God’s hand and let God lead you, you have to be willing to reach out to God and let God hold you.”

You have to reach out and let go.  It is almost unbearably hard at times to let go of attachment to outcomes regarding something in which we are so deeply invested.  What does that look like?!  God is WAAAAY more capable and creative than I am.  Always I want what is best in any situation for the most people.  So always what I want is God’s will, not my limited version of planning and anticipation.  This is not to diminish personal gifts and abilities, it is to Glorify the One who gave them to each one of us and has Ways beyond our wildest imaginations.  Thank you!

How does it feel to be vulnerable enough to reach out to God, knowing that as far as the future goes, we are blind folded and every day is a trust walk?  I am reminded of the Footprints in the Sand story.  But instead of looking back at how God has worked in my life, I take that comfort and spread it before me like a daring red carpet! 

May we each know that our every step and every breath is known and inhabited by God whether we are conscious of it or not.  May we have the faith and courage to let God do the hard work through us, and just take one step at a time onto the red carpet of faith.

 

Present Moment, Perfect Moment

In his book Being Peace, and in his meditation instruction, Thich Nhat Hanh says,

“Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment I know this is the only moment.”  

I don’t know if it’s true for all of you, but I suspect that a few of you out there share the tendency to worry, analyze and plan.  I have learned over the years that this can be a wonderful gift when it helps me anticipate the needs of others well and succeed in my professional and personal service.  On the other hand, when it causes me to make the bold and useless attempt to pre-grieve; inaccurately displace words, thoughts or feelings onto other people; or totally miss the good that is happening right now; it is more of a curse than a blessing.

I recently read (I wish I could remember where!!) a story about a man who learned through life’s early hardships to protect himself emotionally from being too happy, in an effort to prevent too much sadness in the future.  So when he eventually found the partner of his dreams, he did fall in love; but in anticipation of how much pain love could bring, tempered his expression of that love.  As it turned out, when she finally passed away his pain was extremely intense and overwhelming.  And, in addition, there was guilt and sadness that he had missed the counterpart times of great happiness, enjoyment, and closeness when he had the chance; all in an effort to protect himself from the pain he was feeling in her absence.  We absolutely cannot prevent ourselves from pain and suffering.  It is part of the mix.  It’s a human thing…

It is not helpful for us to try to skip over or fast-forward through feelings.  I have tried several times unsuccessfully!  😉   It is helpful to be deeply present exactly where we are, when and with whom living or dying is happening.  As that last anecdote reminds us, avoiding the fullness and vulnerability of closeness and joy certainly does not rescue us from hurting; it only robs us of the greatest gifts of life- the memories that float us through the rapids of challenges.  The only way to be sure that we are not missing anything- which ironically is the intended purpose of all the worrying, planning, and anticipating- is to be mindful and aware.

Be aware of your thoughts and feelings.  Breathe in and ask yourself and Spirit, “In this moment, what is mine to do?”  Sometimes (pay attention helpers and overachievers!) the answer is “nothing, it’s someone else’s business.”  Other times the answer might be, “Just be there.  There is nothing to say or do.  Just be there.”  It is in those moments that we are often faced with feelings of helplessness, loss of control, sadness, anxiety that we want to skip to the next experience.  We can do it with music, TV, electronic communications, but not face to face rawness!  Those raw moments when nothing else feels real and possible force us to surrender to the present, and in the Present is where God is!   That means- in the fullness of intimacy and ecstasy, as well as the dungeons and vacuums of despair- in the moment- God is there.

Sometimes God is there in the flesh- in us being there for each other; for ourselves even.  Being exactly where we are and feeling exactly what we are feeling grows the soul, and engenders compassion for other people when we notice them in places we remember.  We can more freely celebrate with them; and more genuinely support them through hardship, because we too have visited those places.  This kind of mindfulness and compassionate self-awareness increase our ability to discern and act with grace when it is necessary; and when to Be Still on Know God is there (Psalm 46:10).  Practice, practice, practice.  This breath.  Now this one. Now this one…

“Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile.  Dwelling in the present moment I know this is the only moment.”

― Thich Nhat HanhBeing Peace

Suburban Wilderness: Perspectives on Gratitude

The Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament) speaks often of “wilderness”.  Spiritually, the wilderness is understood as a time of separation from one’s geographic home, community, physical and emotional comforts; often with no idea when that separation will end.  Whether it is literally a desert, like the ones the Jewish people were forced to call home throughout long intense years of exile, or psychological and biological as with grief and illness, it feels dry and desolate in many ways.  It is often associated with a time of testing.  Despite many biblical references to it, in my personal understanding of God, I do not believe God tests us.  I do not believe that hardship is personally directed; but I know Love is.

This time of year, more than any other, we are inundated with the reminder to be joyful and fill our homes with food, music, decorations, gifts, and hopefully family and friends.  There are so many people for whom this constant public call to joy is a dramatic emphasis on the absence of all of those things; whether it be due to a lack of employment, grief, mental illness, physical illness, transition, separation due to military service, or a host of other challenges and disappointments.  It is Both: for many a time of great Joy, and for many a time of great suffering.  As a Christian I use the dichotomy of the Incarnation, for which we prepare and celebrate in churches this time of year, to give flesh and continuity to the two drastically different ends of the spectrum of human experience.  Just as we celebrate the miraculous mystery that God came into the world as a fully human being to Love us ever so particularly through this unique experience of the flesh, God is with us in every moment- mountaintops and desert wildernesses.  God was with the Jewish people in the desert, and is with the mother who is bereft of her still-born child when she should have been celebrating their first Christmas together.  Likewise, God is celebrating with families for whom Christmas is a fun and beautiful time to make happy memories.  Life really is that dramatic- high, low, and everything in between.

This year I find myself frustrated with doing things that are not fun to set up a house in a new place, not to be able to visit friends and loved ones like in past years, missing my home church and the friends I made there, not to be able to make left turns (silly New Jersey), having to buy or get water delivered instead of drinking out of our own faucet.  Ahh, the First World, Suburban Wilderness!  How incredibly fortunate I am that these are the struggles I move through this year.  Always there are more and deeper things moving in the undercurrents of our lives, but often these get our attention.  I have noticed the things that are hard about settling in a new place far from all that is comfortably familiar and my personal team of supportive people.  I am really feeling the tension and hardship.  Each time I come up with a new complaint is an opportunity to take a breath and realize, the excitement of making new friends, the amazement at how many people I love enough to send out an inordinate number of holiday cards, that no one is trying to bomb my quiet neighborhood on a regular basis, how fun it is to “church shop”, the fact that I have reliable transportation at all, and finally– that I am not in Puerto Rico or parts of Africa where there is no clean water at all!

Every disappointment or irritation is an invitation back to gratitude.  God is big enough and loving enough to comfort me in my Suburban Wilderness and to get in the trenches with those in total life threatening crisis.  THANK YOU!!!  As Centering Prayer instructor Thomas Keating teaches, every time our minds wander during prayer or meditation is an invitation to return to awareness of the presence of the Holy in our lives.  Just so, during a time that is a Dark Night and a Wilderness for some, and a Winter Wonderland for others, it is a time for Gratitude for all.  The more we practice in times of evenness and contentment, the more it is there to support us in times of turmoil.  Consider keeping a Gratitude Journal.  At some point each day, write down a Minimum of 5 things for which you are grateful.  On a good day it may take up a page and be wonderfully descriptive.  On a challenging day it may be things like the names of family members, clean water, air conditioning, a car.  Those may appear to be small, mundane things—until they are gone.  But knowing you are committed to acknowledging and tracking the moments of grace, gratitude, and ways which you see God working in your life each day may just change your awareness to begin intentionally focusing on the Blessings in your life.

Whether you are in the Wilderness, the desert, or suffering a Dark Night of spiritual separation; or on the Mountain Top brimming with spiritual epiphanies and Creative Abundance- you matter, and you are Loved deeply.

(Please visit https://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/fr-thomas-keating for more information about the healing practice of Centering Prayer)

Sensory Comforts Can be Soothing while Grieving a Mom

There are many ways to mother.  And, some of us know there is a huge difference between being a mother and being a mom.  Some have been traumatic; and some have been life giving and affirming in every way.  For those of you who were closely linked with your mom and may be experiencing loss quite profoundly, I offer this reflection inspired by a conversation with my dear friend Lolly who is bravely and openly moving through the loss of the deeply touching and talented woman and brilliant mom: Edie Kellar Mahaney.  Speaking of invigorating sensory experiences… Enjoy her work at the above link!  🙂

The comforts of sensory experiences- music, family recipes, uplifting smells from aromatherapy oils or teas, can be very soothing to draw us out of dark, lonely intense periods.  You may surprise yourself by feeling perfectly fine one minute, and then quite suddenly after seeing a picture or an item of clothing pulled into an abyss that feels too expansive and exhausting to extract yourself from.  It is our bodies, our humanness, that needs saving in the wake of the loss of a mom.  Somewhere our best, purest selves which are everlasting, are connected with the Spirit who created us and certainly with the person and her spirit who physically birthed our particular incarnation into the physical plane.

Our spirits, which are perfect unique pieces of the One God, are always connected to the same pure and unending essence of our moms; but in death it is our physical lives, our earthly identities which are greatly altered in the absence of our mothers.  It was from this one body that we became incarnate into this life.  The first intersection between body and soul.  One end of the threshold between heaven and earth that we passed through to begin our worldly existence has closed.  It was the earliest introduction our spirits had to the physical life that came from our mothers.  Until we make our own journey towards releasing the physical world, the absence of that bond will be intensely sensed.   This is why these small physical comforts go such a long and gentle way to offer moments of respite and connection.

The best part ourselves holds the wisdom of the divine and can draw on the Spirit for strength and comfort.  But our fleshy, vulnerable physical lives are dramatically altered.  Who are we?  How shall we spend our time?  From where will stability, meaning, and comfort come?  In addition to snuggles and kisses, it was through the textures of cuddly blankets, beds made, food prepared, and clothes made or lovingly chosen that care was given to our bodies, emotions and souls as we struggled to grow into this world.  So of course reaching out for those things which we were taught so early to associate with love, belonging, security, and joy makes perfect sense.  Find those things.  Celebrate the woman who shared them with you!  Incorporate them into your life intentionally.

Know that you are loved- always without exception.  You were created, born, and will be welcomed again by Love.

Roller Coaster Breathing

When I was a teenager and started to ride roller coasters, I realized I didn’t like the feeling of that stomach leap that happens just over the crest of the big hills.  After a few drops, I discovered that if I breathed in as deeply as possible instead of screaming or holding my breath, it kind of held my internal organs in place and relieved the intensity of the dropping feeling.  It was a great trick that really helped me enjoy the rest of the amusement park rides.

The last year or so, my husband and I have been the emotional roller coaster of a nationwide job search which involved us being separated for almost six months (down), discovering a new place (up), leaving friends and places I have known for nearly my entire life (down), and being close to very special extended family for the first time (up), and so on…  The feelings were an intense mix that kept me up many nights.  It was a blend of deep uncertainty, sadness, anxiety, eagerness, and curiosity.  It was neither good nor bad all together, but a composition of a wide range of emotions.

The last night I spent in Indiana, my friend Ruth who gave me a comforting and beautiful home during the transition asked what she could do to help me.  I said, “Meditate with me.”  So we did. It was daunting, to sit in silence with the waves of all those emotions so poignantly present, knowing that the next morning I would leave the only place I have called home, and would finally be with my husband again after a long separation.  I needed a little  back-up so we used the Tara Brach “Opening and Calming” guided meditation on you-tube.  At one point we switched from being aware of body sensations to watching whatever came to mind and heart and just being with it.  Instead of trying to return to a mantra or making the feelings clouds that float away, exercises of non-attachment, Tara instructed us to be fully present with what surfaced.  It felt like there was not enough room for the depth and breadth of some of the emotions and physical sensations, or for trying to accommodate them into and through my body and awareness.  I felt like I would explode, or start crying and never stop.  Months of semi-mitigated stress and not yet grieved goodbyes, several major disappointments, and a final precipice of relief were undulating through me.  I was on the roller coaster.

With Tara’s invitation not to move around those feelings, but through them,  I BREATHED With and Into them.  I breathed again.  The sinking feelings of the drops was actually manageable.  It became safe to enter more fully into the course of reality again.  After we finished this session  I thought to myself, that if only I could remember that sensation of Relief through Breath the next time something really gut wrenching occurred, how Empowering it would be.  But I know now that it will continue to take much practice.  Breathing and staying, and Loving Into What Is…

Peace to you wherever you are at this moment…