Thin Places

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I am thinking today about thin places, those moments when the veil between heaven and earth seems very thin, sacred moments that emerge from a spiritual practice or a deep conversation that pierces the soul. A thin place can be sharednwith another seeker, and, in fact, finding a thin place might be even more meaningful in the presence of a friend.

It seems that “thin place” is a term that was used for millennia to describe a place in time where the space between heaven and earth grows thin, a moment in time where the sacred and the secular seem to meet. In thin places, the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent, or the Infinite.

“Heaven and earth,” the Celtic saying goes, “are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.”

John Pavlovitz describes it like this:

Religious people have often talked about the thin places; those moments when the wall between humanity and divinity is like onion-skin. 

It seems that a thin place is a holy moment. It is a sacred moment, even without a hymn or a prayer or a pew or a minister. It a place of “God with us.”

Thin places can transform us or unmask us. Thin places are often sacred sites or buildings — like a temple or a mosque, like a shrine or a monastery, like a cathedral or an old country church. But thin places do not have to be sacred buildings or holy sites. A forest or a flowing stream can be a thin place. A thin place might be found on a mountaintop or in a verdant valley or even in your back yard.

Thin places don’t always have to be special places or “holy” times. We can experience thin places anywhere and every day.

And that’s what we need to do. In a world so filled with threatening events and people that frighten us, we need to rest in thin places where we might just find that we are in a place where the space between humanity and divinity is ever so delicate, thin enough to envelop us in the comfort of God’s grace.

Let’s stop “life” for a moment and rest in a thin place. Meet me there.

The Great Silence

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I struggle with the life of contemplation I most desire. I long to stand on the Holy Ground of God’s presence. And yet, I often fail in my attempts to enter that spiritual space. My mind is filled with thoughts, words, concerns, plans, worries. And with so active a mind, I am hard pressed to meditate on the divine presence of God. I simple cannot seem to find a way to enter the great silence that enables me to hear the whisper of God I so desperately need to hear.

In a recent meditation, Richard Rohr spoke of “the great silence” as he described the prayer of the contemplative. This is his thought:

The prayer of the contemplative is, essentially, an attention to the omnipresence of God. God is omnipresent not as a theological doctrine, but as the great silence that is present in every moment—but from which we are usually distracted by an overactive mind that refuses to wait in a humble unknowing for a pure wisdom from above.

As always, he nailed it, describing the kind of waiting in silence we must do if we are to encounter an omnipresent God. Certain ways of being can move us more fully into the great silence. 

The beauty of nature, the sound of a gentle breeze, the patter of a soft rain can lead us on the contemplative path. Intentional prayer, journaling, experiencing the healing of music, walking the sacred path on a labyrinth — all of these can encourage us into a more contemplative life.

Most of all, we need the longing, our deepest soul desire, to encounter God. The Psalmist expressed such a longing.

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God . . .

— Psalm 42:1-2 (NRSV)

Dangerous Contemplation

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This morning, I read a meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation as I often do to start my day. In it, Sister Joan Chittister explores the relationship between prophetic witness through compassion and contemplation. Sounds risky to me! And that’s very close to the point Sister Joan makes:

. . . contemplation is a very dangerous activity. It not only brings us face to face with God, it brings us, as well, face to face with the world, and then it brings us face to face with the self; and then, of course, something must be done. 

Something must be filled up, added to, freed from, begun again, ended at once, changed, or created or healed, because nothing stays the same once we have found the God within. . . . We become connected to everything, to everyone. We carry the whole world in our hearts, the oppression of all peoples, the suffering of our friends, the burdens of our enemies, the raping of the earth, the hunger of the starving, the joyous expectation every laughing child has a right to. Then, the zeal for justice consumes us. Then, action and prayer are one.

Bolder prophetic words were never written! Would that all of us who profess a relationship with God might rise from our knees and be ennobled by our prayers to do justice and love mercy! Largely, this is not the case for us. Our prayers feel empty, devoid of the compassion of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. After we have prayed, have we changed? Has our heart been softened by moments of communion with God? Does our heart move into a tragic world with the tenderness of a compassionate Christ?

As we are praying, children and families still languish at our borders, suffering in living conditions that seem impossible in America. And we hear the distant echo of Jesus asking for the children to come to him.

As we are praying, the ever-changing climate exacts its harm on oceans and rivers, having significant impact on ecosystems, economies and communities. Rising average temperatures mean balmier winters for some regions and extreme heat for others. Flooding, drought and violent storms take a dangerous toll on our beloved earth.

250ACCE1-377E-4980-9A7B-546C7B31A8FEAs we are praying, gun injuries cause the deaths of 18 children and young adults each day in the U.S. And every day, 100 Americans are killed with guns. Can we ignore the fact that nearly 1 million women alive today have been shot, or shot at, by an intimate partner?

 

 

All the while, we comfortably rest in our own kind of contemplation. Yet, contemplation must be redefined. We must learn to experience it as a change in consciousness that forces us to see the big picture, to see beyond our own boundaries, beyond our denominations, our churches. Sister Joan again says it best:

Contemplation brings us to see beyond even our own doctrines and dogmas and institutional self-interest, straight into the face of a mothering God from whose womb has come all the life that is.

Transformed from within then, the contemplative becomes a new kind of presence in the world who signals another way of being. . . . The contemplative can never again be a complacent, non-participant in an oppressive system. . . . From contemplation comes not only the consciousness of the universal connectedness of life, but the courage to model it as well.

Those who have no flame in their hearts for justice, no consciousness of personal responsibility for the reign of God, no raging commitment to human community may, indeed, be seeking God; but make no mistake, God is still, at best, only an idea to them, not a living reality.

So we struggle, Christ followers in a world of cruelty and insanity. Our struggle is about what exactly we can do when we face the world after our contemplative practice. Isn’t contemplation and compassion a pilgrimage to the heart, my own heart and God’s heart? When our moments of contemplation reveal a clear-eyed view of a suffering world, what does Christ’s love and the Holy Spirit’s prompting move us to do?

I often refer to the words Tikkun Olam, the Jewish teaching that means repair the world. Tikkun Olam is any activity that improves the world, bringing it closer to the harmonious state for which it was created. So how does our contemplation lead us to practice Tikkun Olam, to repair the world? What is it that “must be filled up, added to, freed from, begun again, ended at once, changed, or created or healed?”

It is a critical question for all of us and each of us. Indeed, each person must find her own answer and must follow her own path. The way ahead may lead to U.S. border towns. The way ahead may lead to phone calling or letter writing. It may lead to community activism or bearing witness in places where injustices occur. It may lead to protesting and marching or teaching and preaching. It may lead to deeper communion with God through even more time spent in prayer and contemplation.

It will, beyond any doubt, lead us to the places in our world where compassion touches pain. Dangerous contemplation will most definitely lead us to those places.

May God make it so!

 

 

Teresa of Avila

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The saints have left us a legacy of wisdom, inspiration and challenge. I often browse through readings by the saints and find myself enthralled in the words, wondering what in their lives prompted the words they have written. Most often, there is a back story that offers a glimpse into their lives.

One of the saints that calls for my attention is Teresa of Avila. I became especially interested in her life during the years our progressive Baptist church worshipped each week in the chapel of Carmel of Saint Teresa of Jesus in Little Rock, Arkansas. I was the pastor of a church where Baptist congregants worshipped in a beautiful chapel cared for and consecrated by Carmelite Sisters, thirteen of them at that time.

How rich an experience it was for us! As we lived out our spiritual commitments in the world, we were blessed immeasurably by the inner life the Sisters modeled before us . . . a life of silence, reverence, prayer and contemplation.

Recently I came across a quote by Saint Teresa of Avila, also known as Saint Teresa of Jesus, that touched my heart.

Close your eyes and follow your breath to the still place that leads to the invisible path that leads you home.

Those words were intriguing to me, calling me to a still place. Calling me to allow my breath to lead me to the still place on the invisible path. I contemplated the meaning and what the meaning might say to me. I could not help but wonder what prompted Saint Teresa’s words. And then I looked at her back story. 

It seems that Teresa of Avila was a reformer of the Carmelite Order. The movement she initiated was later joined by the younger Spanish Carmelite friar and mystic, Saint John of the Cross. It led eventually to the establishment of the Discalced Carmelites. A formal papal decree adopting the split was issued in 1580. Throughout her life, Teresa founded several new reformed Carmelite Orders.

Saint Teresa experienced years of excruciating pain and serious illness. Her  spiritual life was one of dreams, visions and mystical experiences. Unfortunately, when her mystical experiences, including visions, became widely known, she was treated with ridicule and even persecution. Her religious ecstasies caused jealousy and suspicion. She lived in the period of the Spanish inquisition, a time in history when any deviation from the orthodox religious experience came under strict observation and scrutiny. 

So her experiences of spiritual ecstasy subjected her to the investigations of the Inquisition. In 1576, a series of persecutions began on the part of the older observant Carmelite order against Teresa, her friends, and her reforms. Pursuant to a body of resolutions adopted at the general chapter at Piacenza, the “definitors” of the order forbade all further founding of convents. The general chapter condemned Teresa to “voluntary” retirement to one of her institutions. 

But prior to her forced retirement, Saint Teresa devoted her life to traveling around Spain setting up new convents based upon ancient monastic traditions. Her travels and work were not always greeted with enthusiasm, as many resented her reforms and the implied criticism of existing religious orders. She often met with criticism, including the papal nuncio, who used the rather descriptive phrase “a restless disobedient gadabout who has gone about teaching as though she were a professor.”

Saint Teresa of Avila most assuredly had a great deal to teach us about the importance of an inner life of deep contemplation and an outer life of immersion into the hurt of the world. What a lesson we could learn about doing the inner work that enables us to do the outer work in a suffering world!

So the one who spoke those words about a “still place” had so much more to say when we readthe entirety of her writings. The following are but two small glimpses into her depth of devotion.

This magnificent refuge is inside you. Enter. Shatter the darkness that shrouds the doorway. Be bold. Be humble. Put away the incense and forget the incantations they taught you. Ask no permission from the authorities. Close your eyes and follow your breath to the still place that leads to the invisible path that leads you home.

Christ has no body now, but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth, but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which
Christ looks compassion into the world.
Yours are the feet
with which Christ walks to do good.
Yours are the hands

with which Christ blesses the world.

Saint Teresa was a contemplative mystic that showed us a life of silence and prayer. But she was also a brilliant revolutionary in the best sense of that word. We would do well in our quest to follow God to emulate her life that spoke so eloquently of our hands and feet being those of Christ on earth. She showed us deep contemplation and revolution. Our world needs both.

 

 

Hallelujah!

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Those of us who are Jesus people should take note that there are only two days left for “Hallelujahs!” Ash Wednesday is upon us, and that marks two significant things: first, Jesus begins his journey to his crucifixion; and second, we, if we choose to, will join Christ’s journey by traveling our own spiritual journey through the forty days of Lent.

Each of us finds his or her own spiritual path through these Lenten days. Some might enter into a time of self-reflection. Others want to realign their lives to a clearer focus toward God. Some choose to give up things while also taking on life-giving practices. Still others focus on repentance, and others intend to rid themselves of distractions and selfish desires. Some of us just need to take these Lenten days to breathe, slow down, contemplate life, listen for God’s whisper.

How we spend our Lenten days may include prayer, fasting, meditation, Bible reading, taking focused labyrinth walks, service to others, reading poetry, and many other disciplines that can draw us closer to God. 

In two days, some of us might choose one of these Lenten disciplines. But until then, we can fill our hearts with hallelujahs as we contemplate the many life graces we have received. So today, I want to proclaim “hallelujah!” for a caring and loving husband . . .

for a family that is present for me when I need them, 

for a place to live that is more than just a house, 

for a church family that is community for me, 

for my medical care team who take such good care of me, 

for friends from afar who make the effort to continue to build our friendship in spite of the many miles that separate us, 

for friends nearby who listen and love and care, and then listen some more. 

Hallelujah!

Hallelujah for all of that. And Hallelujah for a good and graceful God who gives us life and breath!

Hallelujah!

So I invite you to shout out a few hallelujahs for all the graces of your life. And after the hallelujahs, may you take your journey through a Holy Lent, and on the journey, find quiet joys and a peaceful path. Amen.

 

 

I invite you to listen to a beautiful arrangement of Michael Cohen’s “Hallelujah” performed by Pentatonix here:

What’s Underneath?

A07A5421-F042-40D4-A143-32391BBC79FBToday, a friend’s blog posed a provocative question. It was provocative enough to stop me in my tracks. Likely, I was right in the middle of a tirade of complaints when this question challenged me. This was the question: “If I let go of my complaints, what might be underneath?” *

The question presented a plethora of thoughts for me. It opened up that place underneath just for a second. But then I quickly moved back to the complaints. I have many. Or at least I believe I have many reasons to complain. But I’m realizing that complaints are surface things. They live outside of us and do not always reflect the inner emotions we are truly feeling.

A complaint develops easily and blurts out what’s on the surface of our lives. It flows easily off the tongue and falls upon any willing listener. The empathy we receive from that willing listener keeps the complaints alive. If someone listens to us and responds with caring about our complaint, it is then cemented. We have given it life, perhaps life beyond what it deserves.

This brings us back to the probing question: “If I let go of my complaints, what might be underneath?”

If gratefulness for the obvious graces that we have received replaced the urge to complain, we would be surprised at the result. If, instead of lodging a complaint, we spent some time exploring what lives “underneath,” we might well gain true insight into our emotional state. 

So we would do well to ask ourselves what’s underneath the complaint we speak out loud? Is it true that our complaint rises from a deep place inside of us but hides the emotion there?

If my complaint, for instance, is that I am overworked, perhaps underneath is the constant feeling that I’m being taken advantage of. If my complaint is that I have to endure an illness, perhaps the feeling underneath is that I fear suffering, even death. If I am terrified of death, perhaps I am not certain I left a good and lasting legacy. If I’m languishing in retirement, perhaps the emotion “underneath” is that, now that I am not “ministering,” I am questioning my self-worth.

You might be asking why this is important. It is important because whatever lives inside of us holds the power to harm us physically, emotionally and spiritually. What could we do instead of complaining? 

  • We might begin with silence that moves us a bit towards serenity.
  • Next, we will practice mindfulness that helps center us.
  • We woukd do well to contemplate gratitude for the graces of life. 
  • Then we should pray for insight, comfort and healing, not only praying for what we need from God, but also listening for God, abiding for a while in God’s presence.
  • Then we must take time for what might be the most important practice of all: introspection and self-reflection.

One of the primary goals of introspection is to better comprehend our inward life and to learn to focus it towards fulfillment of self. To go there is to invite vulnerability, healthy vulnerability that softens the hard places inside me that are wounded. Then we need to pull up from our inner resources just a little bit of courage.

When all is said and done, each of us is given a critical choice: do we complain about all that is not right? Or does courage enable us to look underneath our complaints and discover what our true emotions are?

For myself, I have to ponder these questions: What am I grieving? What have I lost? What do I fear? Underneath my whining and complaining (which I am very apt to do) I will find a gift, a treasure that is my very soul and spirit, and the emotions that abide there.

And as a bonus, I will have found a better way to live my “one wild and precious life.” **

* From A Network of Grateful Living

** From a poem by Mary Oliver. 

Find the Stillness

25BC8CF9-6462-4461-A6AE-1746BCFC9B73“I have calmed and quieted my soul.” Words from the Psalmist.

Sometimes we have to get out of the fray for a few minutes. We have to turn off the political rancor, close our eyes to the evil in the world, forget for just a moment that children have been taken from their parents at the southern border, shut out the images of refugee mothers with their children traveling miles to get to safe refuge, and finally, find the stillness that gives us strength.

Sometimes we have to leave the difficult stuff behind as we enter into a sacred place of communion with God. It is God, after all, who calls us to help those in need. So in the silence, God might just tell us how to do that.

How long has it been since you spent time in a quiet and calm place? Since you lingered in a place of holy, sacred beauty? Since you waited in silence hoping to know the healing that comes with stillness?

I must confess that I do not often calm my soul. Instead, I keep myself busy with life things. I get worked up over various injustices and, before I know it, I have spent hours signing petitions, writing my representatives in Congress, or composing opinion articles. But I never stop long enough to hear from God and, in listening, to discover how I should respond to the needs I see.

“I have calmed and quieted my soul,” the Psalmist tells us. And the Psalmist also instructs us to find the stillness: “Be still, and know that I am God.” 

It is such a brief thought, a simple injunction, and yet a part of Scripture that has been quoted again and again to instruct those of us who need to find stllness in our lives.

So what is it that we do that keeps us so busy? What is it that so thoroughly prevents us from stilling our souls? Have we determined that the busyness is worth the effort we give it? God calls us to acts of compassion and justice. God might also be calling us to stillness. 

One of my favorite hymns is Be Still, My Soul.* The author of this hymn, Katharina Amalia Dorothea von Schlegel, was born in Germany in 1697. Very little is known of her life though some hymnologists suggest that she may have become a Lutheran nun. Her hymn text appears at the time of German pietism, a movement led by Philipp Jacob Spener (1635-1705.) Although Spener was not a hymn writer himself, he inspired a revival in German hymnody characterized by faithfulness to Scripture, personal experience, and deep emotional expression. Katharina von Schlegel is thought to be the leading female hymn writer of this period.

To reach us, the hymn must, of course, be understandable in our own language, so it comes to us through a translation by Jane Borthwick (1813-1897), a member of the Free Church of Scotland.

Here are the moving words of the hymn:

Be still, my soul; the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul; thy best, thy heavenly, Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul; thy God doth undertake
To guide the future as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence, let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul; the waves and winds still know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.

Be still, my soul, though dearest friends depart
And all is darkened in the vale of tears;
Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe thy sorrows and thy fears.
Be still, my soul; thy Jesus can repay
From His own fulness all He takes away.

Be still, my soul; the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord,
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul; when change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

Author: Catharine Amalia Dorothea von Schlegel, 1752 – ?
Translated by: Jane Borthwick, 1855
Composer: Jean Sibelius, b. 1865, arr.
Tune: “Finlandia”

 

In the stillness, we find God’s comfort, presence, faithfulness, grace. And with that, we are able to go into a world of need with resolve, commitment, compassion and mission. The world waits for us. The people frightened and oppressed wait for us. The stillness prepares us for the task.

May God make it so. Amen.

*During your quiet time, you may wish to listen to the hymn, Be Still My Soul. You may do so at this link:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=cHNT6G9ZKik

A Mother’s Emotions

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What a holiday whirlwind! I survived it, but I did go through the predictable path of cooking and baking, wrapping packages and decorating, entertaining family and friends, and leaving a heavy dusting of glitter behind . . . all through the house!

I managed to work in the slightest bit of contemplation, reflection and drawing nearer to the God-child in the stable. I managed to reflect on the young girl who would give birth to the Messiah, to think about her emotions throughout her most miraculous ordeal. I thought of her joy, her surprise, her confusion, her sense of wonder, her fear — emotions that began after an angel appeared to her.

I contemplated the angels all around — Mary’s angel and Joseph’s, Zachariah‘s angel, the angels that comforted the shepherds. I wondered how the angel visits must have seemed, especially to Joseph who communed with an angel multiple times.

Most of all, though, I related to the mother Mary, and the things she discovered along the way about being a mother to this particular child. It’s appropriate, I think, to reflect on the mother’s emotions, to compare them with my own mother emotions. 

To miss my son who lives hundreds of miles away. 

To long to see my grandchildren opening their Christmas gifts. 

To think about all the joy, and all the pain, of being a mother.

And from that contemplative activity, to learn and grow, to gain a fresh understanding about mothering, and to learn what mothering has to do with faith.

When all is said and done — with Christmas wrappings in the trash and glitter all vacuumed up — I recall the wise words of Meister Eckhart about mothering:

“We are all meant to be mothers of God for God is always needing to be born.”

 

 

 

Advent’s Invitation

ABA52B53-DF36-418D-BD71-FE6891967598What is Advent’s invitation to me? What does this season want to  teach me? What will I see in a new way as a result of Advent’s opportunities for reflection? So many questions!

“Wait,” the wiser ones tell me. “Wait for it.“

“This is the message of Advent — endure the dark places of this season knowing that the Messiah is coming again to bring light to your world and to your heart. Just wait.”

So it seems that Advent is not for impatient folk, the ones who want to get on with it, to get on to the lighthearted joys of Christmas. Advent’s call to ponder, to be mindful of the moment, and to wait catches the busy ones off guard. Our souls sing the adagio strains of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and the mellow hopefulness of “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus,” while feeling in our waiting hearts the great need to belt out “Joy to the World.”

What exactly is Advent’s invitation to me? What is it that Advent promises that makes waiting worthwhile? What is it that this season has for me to learn?

These are questions I cannot answer, at least I cannot answer them at this moment. My hope is that if I am faithful in the waiting and the pondering, the answers of Advent will become clear to me. Until then, it is just one of those life mysteries that eludes me. 

In the meantime, Barbara Brown Taylor offers a wise word about it all

Advent invites us to awaken from our numbed endurance and our domesticated expectations to consider our life afresh in light of new gifts that God is about to give.

— Barbara Brown Taylor

Wait for it!

Pondering through Advent

23DCD324-DEFB-436C-8942-C4ADA60DA52AYesterday, I mused on the tenderness of this season of Advent. The waiting. The darkness. The need to linger in the season with a sense of mindfulness.

To be honest, I want to shop with reckless abandon and find fun toys for my grandchildren. I want to bake all manner of Christmas cookie. I want to decorate every corner of my house, and if I had my way, ours would be one of those houses that people drive by at night to see all the twinkling lights.

But on that outdoor winter wonderland, I definitely do not have my way. My husband’s days of hanging lights on the gutters, placing a Santa on the roof, and wrapping the trees in tiny, twinkling lights are over. He has happily passed out of that season of his life.

For me, yesterday was baking day, and I made a new discovery about mindfulness and cookie baking. The two activities pair well. Dropping cookie dough by the spoonful onto a baking sheet is slow work. It gives one time to ponder. And pondering a is a good thing to do in Advent days. Good lesson learned, with the added bonus of having 200 cookies in the house!

While dropping cookies, one by one onto an old, scratched up baking pan, I pondered. Some thoughts hinted at my inner sadness. Other thoughts were of friends who are very ill and are walking this Advent journey in darkness. Other friends have lost people in their lives, and on this day, they find themselves in mourning.

As I do in most Decembers, I find myself, along with others in my family, feeling the sadness of having lost my youngest brother, Pete, to cancer. It happened many years ago, yet the hurt remains.

No doubt, this Advent journey can be a tender time. Yet we journey into the days ahead, not with a spirit of despair, but with a glimmer of hope. Even in the darkness, we begin to awaken, knowing that something new will be born in us just as it has every Advent. This is the season when we wash our faces and rub our sleepy eyes until we wake up, eyes wide open to the Light that sleeps in a manger.

Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

— Luke 2:19 New International Version (NIV)

Like her, I am spending my Advent days pondering — moving in mindfulness while holding tender feelings, heart longings, mourning in the soul.

And, of course, I’m waiting in the darkness. But I know, without a doubt, that light will shine. It always does.