That Mysterious and Mystical Reality

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Watercolor art by Kalliope, Holy Ghosts

You might be thinking that both mysterious and mystical are the antithesis of reality. If you are thinking that, you might be wrong. So might I. But in my experience, life itself is a mysterious and mystical reality. That reality fills my spirit with hope in my darkest moments. Dark moments, hours of grief, dark nights of the soul, lamentations of the spirit — all have been part of my life journey. My pathways have often been rough and rocky. My life’s travel has often taken me to disconcerting forks in the road and confusing crossroads. I have known times of despairing and times of uncertainty — reluctance, despondency, angst, heartbreak, fear — “break-out-in-a-sweat times” that forced me into dangerous depths of anguish. For me, taking my own life was not something I could consider. Yet there was that one day — that span of just a few moments — when I was alone, afraid and very far from home.

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Japan’s Aokigahara Suicide Forest

One of the most thoughtful and intriguing movies I have ever experienced is The Sea of Trees. I was captivated by the film that tells the story of a despondent professor. After the death of his wife, he despaired of life and searched for a way to end his. His reflective, angst-filled search led him to Aokigahara, a forest in Japan known also as The Sea of Trees or The Suicide Forest. Aokigahara Forest has been home to over 500 confirmed suicides since the 1950s. It is called “the perfect place to die” and is the world’s second most popular place for suicide.

Don’t worry. This post is not about suicide. Rather it is about the people who loved us in life and continue to love us in death, those who watch over us in our times of deepest anguish. It is about the mysterious and mystical reality that between us and our loved ones in heaven, there is but a thin separation. Heaven and earth,” the Celtic saying goes, “are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.”

To know that my sweet Yiayia (grandmother in Greek) and my Thea Koula might still be protecting me from harm and life disaster is soul-comforting for me. Perhaps the strength and hope I felt as I was chaplain to disheartened hospital patients came from them. Perhaps they sent me the staying power to comfort, protect and advocate for thousands of abused women and children. Maybe the deep grief of losing my brother to cancer was eased by their prayers from heaven.

I often wondered if my mourning of the loss of the life I knew — replaced by daily dialysis — was lightened by their loving presence with me in a horrible time. I wonder, Yiayia, were you watching over me on November 12th when I closed my eyes in the operating room to receive my kidney transplant? I wonder, Thea Koula, did your intercession save my life on those times when my life literally hung in the balance?

This life is not an easy one. No person gets through life unscathed. No one travels a path smooth and straight. Like me, you have more than likely walked on a rough pathway with stones in the road, dangerous curves and life-altering crossroads. Robert Frost wrote eloquently in his poem, The Road Not Taken, about someone standing at a fork in the road pondering a life-altering choice:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth . . .

Then took the other, as just as fair,
and having perhaps the better claim
because it was grassy and wanted wear . . .

Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

My life is filled with “roads not taken,” some not taken by my choice, others thwarted by chance or fate or maybe even God. It is almost like traveling through a “sea of trees” that hide our view of the way ahead, causing us to lose our way. For my art today, I chose one of my watercolor paintings. A few years ago, I painted this “sea” of leafless trees against an ethereal, melancholy wash of color. Interspersed among the trees are ghost-like figures hovering. Actually I titled the painting Holy Ghosts. The painting was inspired by the words of a friend.

When the dead come to mind, they are like holy ghosts, as real as hope or faith, as tangible as trust and love.  – Ragan Courtney

This painting was never meant to be disconcerting or morbid. It represents just the opposite for me. It represents the souls who hover over me for protection, those with whom I shared love and life. It represents my aunt and my Yiayia and my brother because I am certain they protect me, pray for me, lift me up and cheer me on.

Who knows! Maybe my brother Pete, who died of renal cell carcinoma, hovered above me in a kind of holy kidney disease kinship and protected me when I was diagnosed with end stage renal disease in 2014. Maybe he prayed for me during my transplant surgery in 2019. I can, of course, never know that for sure. The veil between heaven and earth, between the dead and the living, is a mystery we simply do not understand. Our understanding does not reach that far, but what we feel in our spirit does reach that far.

In the end, my spirit senses that between us there is but a thin separation, that the spirits of my loved ones are are connected to mine, especially when I am disconsolate and in despair.

In the comfort of that mysterious and mystical reality, I can heal. I can rest. I can continue my journey of dangers, toils and snares. I can know the amazing grace that comes from sacred connections. I can know peace after sorrow. And so can you.

May God make it so. Amen.

 

Lingering . . . In the Presence of God

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I have observed, at this year’s beginning, as in past years, that humans are more introspective than usual. It may begin with intentions or resolutions for the new year. What I observe is that people are revisiting the past, trying to reinterpret it, digging for the meaning the past held for them and trying to find ways to heal the wounds of the soul theyp have hidden inside them for a long time. Those woulds live in us so long that they become scars, hardened in our spirits and thus more difficult to heal.

Until we have done this spiritual and emotional inner work, we are hesitant, unwilling to move into the future. So we linger in the present and re-live the past. Usually what we  revisit are past sorrows and losses, past disappointments and perceived failures, past pain that continues to pierce the soul. Seldom do we revisit past joys, because joy does not pierce like sorrow does.

It is a positive thing to linger in life review at the beginning of a new year. Just as the year is new, all of us hope that in the work of lingering, we will find newness in ourselves. The work of introspection is important for our well being and we have so many choices about how to strengthen ourselves, body and spirit. Many people use self-counseling, which may include searching their deep selves through personal contemplation and prayer. Others engage in spiritual direction, life coaching, trauma therapy or counseling. Still others tend to their souls through silent contemplation, labyrinth walks, yoga, nature walks, strenuous exercise, reading scripture, self-help books or poetry, and singing hymns or listening to music.

I want to suggest one other form of self-counseling that is unfamiliar to most people — working with Healing Runes as a part of your quiet time. Your first question probably is, “What are Healing Runes?” I want to begin by sharing an invocation written by Ralph H. Blum from his book, The Healing Runes.

Invocation

Practice the Presence of God in all ways,
Both in your coming in and your going out.

In your prayers, invoke God’s Presence.
In your aspirations, stay mindful of the Presence.
In your meditations, breathe in the Presence.

Above all, let the Presence be reflected in your attitude,
For surely then God will sing in your thoughts,
Speak in your voice and shine through your acts.
Let the Presence of God be the medicine
To heal your life, lift your heart and renew your spirit.

Practice the Presence of God in all ways,
Both in your coming in and your going out. Amen

To answer the question, a Healing Rune is a tool that provides a way of deepening  reflection and stirring the soul where we find life meaning and buried emotions. There is an interpretation of each healing rune in the book, The Healing Runes, written by Ralph Blum and Susan Loughan. They offer interpretations presented in graceful and sensitive language that allows the reader to take to heart what is appropriate for their own meditation and leave the rest.

A4B9545F-D3B1-40D5-AC08-23DF8FD547CAThe book adapts the sacred use of Runes as an alphabetic script used by the ancient Germanic and Norse peoples, creating a tool that could be helpful in the healing of body, mind and spirit.*

I suggest that we not fear the Healing Runes by considering them to be some sort of pagan artifact or something that seems like magic. They are more like mystery, something to guide our reflection and introspection. I suggest the we see Healing Runes as one way to guide us deeper into ourselves and into the presence of God, the ultimate healer of our souls.

I would like to choose a Healing Rune for us from my bag. Its meaning may not mean anything to you or to me. It may not open up any places in your soul that need attention. Or it may awaken us to a wound that we need to give some reflective time, some time for healing.

328A8B00-83F2-418F-BFC5-29960E0C06C7The Rune I have randomly chosen is the Rune of Trust. It is the Rune of restoration that calls for the rebuilding of belief in yourself, in your life and in your relationship with God. For some, drawing this Rune asks you to show trust in a present situation. For others, it calls for embracing the changes you are facing with trust and wisdom. In relationships of the heart, remember that I love you and I trust you are two stones for crossing the same stream. Most importat is that you ask your soul if Trust has something to teach you or somewhere to lead you.

Thomas Moore writes, “We separate, each from the other, the sicknesses of body, emotion, meaning and connectedness.” The soul must be moved, touched and healed, and that is why we linger at the door of our pain, trying every way we know to reconcile it, heal it, eliminate it (or just blast it with a sci-fi laser gun!) Thomas Moore has a better remedy than a sci-fi laser gun, a much more informed remedy:

I am convinced that all healing ultimately comes from a shift in deep imagination, grounding our own lives and anchoring our decisions in the very quick of the heart . . . not just relief from anxiety, but profound gifts that signal the presence of soul — intimacy, pleasure, beauty, love and piety.

As you and I explore what hides in our souls as this new year beckons us, may we not be afraid to linger directly in the presence of our fear or woundedness. Instead, let us consider that we are lingering in the comforting presence of God, in the gentle protection of Spirit. It is safe in that sacred space of Presence, safe enough for us to unearth whatever lies deeply in us and allow it to surface into the healing light.

God may be gently, lovingly calling us to do that work of healing and, in that introspection, to reveal our truth — the truth that will set us free!

 

* The Healing Runes, Ralph H Blum and Susan Loughan; Preface by Thomas Moore; St. Martin’s Press:New York, New York; ©️1995 by Ralph H. Blum.

Swampy, Murky Places

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October Hunter’s moon rising over Arkansas’ Mallard Lake. Photography by Debbie Marie Smith.

Life can be swampy and murky at times, with not enough light to see the way forward. Not to mention the danger of being mired in the mud unable to move! You have probably been there. I know I have, and when the journey has taken me through those murky waters, I have despaired. So many circumstances can take us through rough places, but the circumstance that immediately comes to mind for me is indecision.

Indecision is that uncomfortably in-between place where you have no idea how to find the way forward, yet you cannot stay in the place you are. Waiting is born of indecision and waiting can be excruciating. Right about now, I wish I could report that one must simply pray and God will instantly change indecision into forward motion, out of any murky swamp. 

I cannot say, however, that a single prayer can make that happen. At least for me, there have been no instant-miraculous-life-changing answers to my prayers. Not even once in my faith journey of many years! What I can tell you with deep assurance is that, although no single prayer has changed my life, continual prayer has changed my life. It is not the prayer of occasional consolation that changes the course of one’s life journey. It is the life of prayer that seeks God in prayer, abiding in God’s presence, for as long as it takes. Richard Rohr says this wise thing about prayer:

The only people who pray well are those who keep praying! In fact, continued re-connecting is what I mean by prayer, not occasional consolations that we may experience.

No doubt, life’s journey will take us through murky, swampy places without enough light to find our way through them. The murkiness of indecision is real, and with it we may experience confusion, fear, despair, desperation. We may even lose hope and question our faith. But we cannot stay there. People of faith are people of resilience and courage. We have within us all the resilience and courage we need. So we must believe in ourselves enough to take a step forward and out, through the mud and the sludge, trusting in faith that God’s light will light up the dark places and give us the strength to move through to the other side.

That’s what I have to believe about painful, oppressive places of indecision. That’s what I have to believe about getting through swampy, murky places. That’s what I have to believe about God.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

— John 1:1-5

Mine Is a Lonely Road

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Into the Blue, Painting by db Waterman

Mine is a lonely road on a journey of one. 
To be sure, I have a dear, dear life partner
And a family
Friends all over the world.

Yet, I am making this journey all by myself.

All around me, friends are working, vacationing, writing, preaching

All those things I long to do 
Simple things, but out of my reach.

In the meantime, I am dialyzing for hours every day
Willing myself to eat less, much less
Focusing on healthy 
Exercising through pain

And waiting for a kidney transplant.

Friends are still working, vacationing, writing, preaching
All those things I long to do, still out of my reach.

Waiting for an organ transplant is lonely.

No one I know is doing the same thing.
But everyone knows someone who had one
And died
Or did poorly
Or maybe they even did great
But I never hear much about them.

Waiting for an organ transplant is lonely.

I cannot help but second-guess myself
Why the risk?
Hard decision.

A Good decision about a dangerous thing takes time
Maybe years
Info rattles around in your head for a while
Moves on as it discerns the rhythm of your spirit
Then listens for the whisper of God
And at last finds its rest in your heart

And then you know.

Friends are still working, vacationing, writing, preaching
All those things out of my reach.

They stop their busyness long enough to give me counsel
Everyone knows someone who had a transplant
And died
Or did poorly

And so they tell me that
With all the medical details they know
And mostly they don’t know

But I am holding the good decision in my heart
The right decision 
The one with all the risks
Just like life
Full of risks.

Mine is a lonely road.

But I am ennobled to move forward in good hope
My mustard seed faith is enough
I leave them in the dust
All those who are working, vacationing, writing, preaching
All those things out of my reach.

I  leave them in the dust
All those who knew someone who had a transplant
And died.

Because I am not moving toward death.
I am moving toward life
And light.

Alone.

Still lonely.

Determined to persevere
Until the road ends.

I Need No Wings

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When accusers declared that the thoughts of Joan of Arc were figments of her imagination, she frequently answered them with this shrewd and sensible retort: “How else would God speak to me?”

This is one of the BIG questions most of us have asked ourselves again and again: How does God speak to me? 

And these big questions follow:

How will I know when it is God who is speaking?
Could this strong intuitive thought inside me be God speaking through my inner self?
Can God speak to me through other people?
How do I find God, hear God, feel God?

Richard Rohr, arguably one of the wisest thinkers of our time, wrote this in response to some of our big questions about God:

Intuitive truth, that inner whole-making instinct, just feels too much like our own thoughts and feelings, and most of us are not willing to call this “God,” even when that voice prompts us toward compassion instead of hatred, forgiveness instead of resentment, generosity instead of stinginess, bigness instead of pettiness.

Rohr goes on to explain that mystics like Augustine, Teresa of Ávila, Thomas Merton, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Thérèse of Lisieux, and so many others seem to equate the discovery of their own souls with the very discovery of God.

But to be honest, this post is more about me than it is about the people I admire as spiritual giants. This post is about me making hard life-altering decisions. I admit that making decisions frustrates me, especially at the most critical turning points in my life when I have felt most intensely the need for God’s guidance in the decision. It was easy, as a younger minister, to be confident that whatever I was thinking was “God’s will,” that God had complete control of my thoughts, decisions and actions, that every sermon I preached came “from God’s own lips.”

The passing years brought doubts, questions and the determination to hear God ever more clearly. In the past few years, my most daunting decision was whether or not to have a kidney transplant. My thoughts fluctuated between deciding to leave well enough alone and live my remaining years on dialysis or taking a risk on transplant surgery that has the potential of either making me worse or making my life infinitely better. This has felt like a life or death decision, and I prayed many times, “God, you have to tell me what to do this time. I don’t trust my ability to make this decision.”

Which brings us back to the BIG question: How will I know when it is God who is speaking?

How will I know when “God has spoken” about this decision? 

So let me go ahead and say this out loud in the vernacular of my Bible Belt inspired religious training . . . How will I know “God’s will?”

Now it’s out there where I can really see it. I can theologically skirt around it, but the bottom line is about that errant teaching ingrained in me that if I try hard enough, I will know God’s will about every important matter, and even about not-so-important matters, i.e., “We both wore blue today. It must have been God’s will.” And then there’s the other faith statement declaring that one has (spiritually) reached some decision, a much better statement actually: “I have a peace about it.”

Running as fast as I could from such theological beliefs, I ran way past a simple, quiet faith in a God who wants only my best. I ran past the faith that once told me not to let my heart be troubled or afraid and that the grace-gift I had received was a Comforter who would be with me forever. I ran past the simple truth that I really can have peace about a decision. I ran past the promise of Jesus:

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another comforter . . . to be with you forever. You know him, for he lives with you and will be in you . . . You will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.  (From John 14)

I’m still not certain I have mastered all the questions on the matter of hearing God. And I definitely do not have all the answers. But relying on the promise of scripture is a start. And listening in on the experiences of holy people — people who seem to have a more direct line to God than I ever hope to have — is of immense value to me. The beautiful Carmelite saint, Teresa of Avila, is one of my go-to holy people. This is one of her thoughts that speaks to me powerfully in times of indecision and confusion, times when I doubt my ability to discern God’s direction, times when I wonder if God even hears my prayers.

However quietly we speak, He is so near that He will hear us: we need no wings to go in search of Him but have only to find a place where we can be alone and look upon Him present within us.   — St. Teresa of Avila

I need no wings to go in search of God. 3B5858AA-997E-4D5C-8695-5D41049B2B90

When I can sense God present within me, I can believe in my own decision about a transplant, and any other decision for that matter. But I know that it takes a lifetime, and a lot of life experience, to be able to trust in a spiritual — perhaps mystical — union with the mind of God. It takes a lifetime of relationship for most of us to trust our intentions and our purity of heart enough to believe that our thoughts are God’s thoughts, that our decisions and actions are God’s. But when that day comes, I have an idea that it will feel like a “peace that passes understanding,” like a calm ability to quietly trust myself and trust God at the same time. 

May God’s Spirit make it so in me.

Amen