That Mysterious and Mystical Reality

EC73BB1C-C3BB-4B52-8D03-279FE90ADEDE

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.

IMG_5744

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.

 

Leaving Our MAGIC Behind

EEAFAF51-CE51-42EA-9E96-881CDE08643B

Ugandan Washday at the River. Watercolor art by Kathy Manis Findley

When life moves on — from twenty to forty to seventy — you take into your inner place the ominous idea that if ever there was magic in your life, at some point, you left it behind. You know what I mean. The magic of your first love. The magic of the birth of your child. The magic of the time when you believed you could accomplish anything and everything you set your heart on. The magic that you actually did accomplish that thing, that sparkling thing that made you stand tall and celebrate yourself.

You might be wondering what in the world set my mind on life-magic this morning. I think it might have been carryover from my musings on yesterday’s blog post. But mostly, it came from reading a novel by one of my favorite authors, Sue Monk Kidd. This is the passage that captivated me, captured me as if it were some sort of sacred scripture.

There was a time in Africa the people could fly. Mauma told me this one night when I was ten years old. She said, “Handful, your granny-mauma saw it for herself. She say they flew over trees and clouds. She say they flew like blackbirds. When we came here, we left that magic behind.”

My mauma was shrewd. She didn’t get any reading and writing like me. Everything she knew came from living on the scarce side of mercy.. She looked at my face, how it flowed with such sorrow and doubt, and she said, “You don’t believe me? Where do you think these shoulder blades of yours come from, girl?”

Those skinny bones stuck out from my back like nubs. She patted them and said, “This all what left of your wings. They nothing but these flat bones now, but one day you gon get ‘em back.”

I was shrewd like mauma. Even at ten I knew this story about people flying was pure malarkey. We weren’t some special people who lost our magic. We were slave people, and we weren’t going anywhere. It was later I saw what she meant. 

— Sue Monk Kidd, from her novel, The Invention of Wings

Part of why these words so thoroughly captured me is in the very first sentence that mentions the place I so love, Africa. And even though the words don’t really have all that much to do with Africa, I found myself transported, walking among the banana trees in East Africa — Fort Portal, Uganda to be exact. Walking into a village brimming with people, and oh, the children! So many glimmering eyes, wide smiles and glowing dark faces that expressed everything from sheer delight to excruciating sorrow, and everything in between.

That was in one of my former lives, and pure magic it was! Because when you are able to make a child smile with a sweety (a piece of hard candy), there’s magic in that moment and it is a moment you carry through your day and through the rest of your life. Maybe that’s the grace of growing older — that you carry with you moments of magic from every place you have been, from every soul who touched your life so deeply.

In Sue Monk Kidd’s words, the magic was being able to fly, probably meaning to soar into the clouds above your troubles and woes. It hit me in my deep place, that the Ugandan people we came to know and love did soar into the clouds. Indeed, they left the agonizing hardships of life on the dusty earth below as their wings lifted them up, higher and higher to where life’s pain was replaced by pure exhilaration.

Back on the earth, in their world, not much was very exhilarating. Life was the same, predictable day after predictable day that disheartened them with hunger, malnutrition, thirst for clean water, oppression, soldiers with their machine guns and all the commonplace bad things that formed their lives. But there were better things too, like lush banana groves and children singing; like the music of drums at dusk; like the shimmering embers from their cooking fires rising into the night sky and reminding them that the day’s toil was not so bad when family could still gather together around a centering, comforting fire. There was magic in all of it. It was the magic of surviving war and embracing the loved ones who were still alive. It was the magic of celebrating the extraordinary lives of loved ones who had died and knowing that generations would move forward carrying the family’s magic into the future. It was the magic in their remembering, remembering the holy words they had hidden in their hearts . . .

“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord,
“plans for well-being and not for trouble, to give you a future and a hope.”

— Jeremiah 29:11 New Life Version (NLV)

Maybe you, like me, have forgotten that we brought our magic with us to this day from the scenes of our past, from the happenings and the people we have known. This kind of magic never leaves one’s spirit. This kind of magic is holy mystery, really. It is tucked away within us for the times when we most need to take wing. Still, it does take some courage on our part, some brave resolve that we can lift up our heads and embrace “a future and a hope.”

No, we have not left our magic behind! It waits in us for a moment when we are languishing, when we feel sorrow or discouragement, fear or desperation — for a time when we feel disconsolate. It is in that moment we fly, by the grace-filled mercy of God, on the wings of the morning,* forever lifted above the troubles of the world.

I need that sometimes. Don’t you?

 


For your meditation time, I share with you this beloved hymn, “Come, Ye Disconsolate.”*


* Psalm 139:9

* “Come, Ye Disconsolate”
Lyrics: Thomas Moore (1779-1852); Altered by Thomas Hastings (1784-1872)
Music: Samuel Webbe (1740-1816)

Lingering . . . In the Presence of God

53189F0B-8EF7-4BDC-A66A-B9834A45C0F5

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.

“Within Reach of Our Full Personhood”

Nativity scene, Christmas star on blue sky and birth of Jesus, illustration
The Twenty-Fourth Day of Advent

Christmas Eve
December 24, 2019

As I near the end of Advent 2019, I am contemplating what these Advent days have taught me. Am I closer to God in deep relationship? Have I spent time in contemplation and prayer? Was I so preoccupied with my surgery and recovery to even think about Advent? Did I experience Advent as a time of waiting, expectation, preparation and hope in the coming of the Christ Child? Did I experience Advent at all?

You might ask yourself questions similar to these. They are questions all of us would do well to answer. As for me, I fully resonate with the statement in Ann Weems’ poem: “we are on our knees, where we are within reach of our full personhood.” Isn’t that part of what Christ’s coming was about — to place before us the hope of reaching our full personhood?

As you contemplate that, read a part of Ann Weems’ poem, “The Church Year.”

For no matter how long the darkness,
God will send the light.
In spite of cursing and violence and the massacring
of human dignity,
we will dance in the streets of Bethlehem,
for He will be born!

We search for something more.
And — of all unlikely places
in a stable
the Deity appears.

The borning of our Lord
bursts in upon our ordinary lives
like fireworks in the snow.
Only God would send a little baby King,
and we are on our knees,
where we are within reach of our full personhood.

— Ann Weems

What else can be said on this Eve of Christmas? We sit with a miracle story, an event marked by angels and the brilliance of an unusual star. We gather together in churches around the world, where we sit together in candlelight and contemplate the birth of the Christ Child, the One who came for us, the One who “became flesh and dwelt among us. We have seen His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.“ (John 1:14)

I wonder why we gather for candlelight services on Christmas Eve. I think it’s because we want to experience the holy; we want to contemplate the mystery of a young girl who gives birth to the Christ Child; we want to hear the singing of angels and see the sparkling beam of an unusual star in the night sky;  we want to be together in community because, in our heart of hearts, we truly believe that it is here, together, we will be “within reach of our full personhood.”

It is God’s holy mystery, and we are invited to enter and to see the Christ Child as if it were our very first time; to hear angel song as if it were our first time; to gaze upon Bethlehem’s star as if we had never seen it before. That is the mystery: that Christ is born unto us again and again — God Incarnate, the hope of all nations and hope for our hearts. My gift to you is a video of a beautiful Christmas carol, “Candlelight Carol” written by John Rutter. Particularly if you, like me, are unable to attend a Christmas Eve service, this lovely carol might speak to your spirit and give you peace. After the lyrics, you will find the video. Happy Christmas Eve to you all

How do you capture the wind
On the water?
How do you count all the stars
In the sky?
How can you measure the love
Of a mother?
Or how can you write down
A baby’s first cry?

Candlelight, angel light
Firelight and starglow
Shine on his cradle ’til breaking of dawn
Gloria, gloria, in excelsis dear
Angels are singing, the Christ child is born

Shepherds and wise men will kneel
And adore him
Seraphim round him their vigil will keep
Nations proclaim him their Lord
And their Savior
But Mary will hold him, and sing him to sleep

Candlelight, angel light
Firelight and starglow
Shine on his cradle ’til breaking of dawn
Gloria, gloria, in excelsis deo
Angels are singing, the Christ child is born

Find him at Bethlehem laid
In a manger
Christ our Redeemer asleep
In the hay
Godhead incarnate and hope
Of salvation
A child with his mother
That first Christmas Day

Candlelight, angel light
Firelight and starglow
Shine on his cradle ’til breaking of dawn
Gloria, gloria, in excelsis deo
Angels are singing, the Christ child is born.