A Balm for Hurting Souls

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On this Monday, prayer seems difficult to me. It feels as if I need it so much, yet cannot seem to connect with the holy. I need a quiet place, a place of peace and serenity. I need a personal retreat that enables me to touch all that is anxious within me. I need a place that can help me reach into the palpable anxiety just below the surface. I need a place that calls forth my tears so that, without fear, I can let them fall. I need a place that helps me to get to that lump in my throat that lingers with me. At my retreat, I need a person with spiritual insight and wisdom to gently guide me to my emotional and spiritual place of longing.

For many reasons, this kind of retreat is not possible right now, so I carry on. That’s what most of us have to do day in and day out, struggling to touch the holy and falling short of that. And then, on occasion, we are graced with a touch, a word of hope, a friend who understands, a prayer that reaches the heart. Today, I received that prayer from Anne Fraley. It is “a balm for hurting souls,” a word of hope. I hope it lifts your spirit as it has lifted mine.

Blessed One,

who colors our days with the glow of fireflies and the roar of the ocean,

carry us this day on the breath of your love.

Invite us into the nooks and crannies of delight,

where dreams are born and disappointments released.

Tend the bumps we suffer at the hands of the careless and the words of the thoughtless, and soothe the rough patches we inflict on others.

May our prayers resonate with the needs of the world, and our hearts connect to those who hunger for companionship.

May our song bear the imprint of all who seek you, and our chorus be as balm for hurting souls.

In all things, help us to weave the thread of love and light through the worlds in which we move, and raise our voices with joy to proclaim your name.

Amen

 

Anne Fraley is rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in South Windsor, CT. A life-long dog-lover, she escapes the demands of parish life volunteering for animal rescue groups. She occasionally succeeds at reviving her blog at reverent irreverence. Her prayer today is published at https://revgalblogpals.org/2019/06/24/monday-prayer-214/

 

 

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

 

 

Inner Warrior

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I got in touch this week with my inner warrior. She was in me all along, in a deep place inside, just waiting for the summons that I needed her. If you have read many of my blog posts, you know that I have been terrified at the thought of having a kidney transplant. For almost five years, the frightened part of me was able to put the transplant possibility away, tucked in a place inside that kept it off my mind. When I did consider transplant — like the times when my nephrologist told me that it was by far the best treatment for me — I reasoned that it was not something I was willing to do.

Why would I want to change anything? Dialysis has been good to me and, most of the time, I have felt well. So I have struggled with the transplant decision, but at the same time, I went through the medical evaluation that kept me on the transplant list. My nephrologist has insisted for years that I would feel better and live longer with a transplant. I remained unconvinced, and then I participated in a webinar that pushed my decision. The physician who was presenting said something that got my attention. He said that patients with end stage renal disease must be on dialysis, and dialysis is essentially end of life care that includes palliative care. If a patient has an illness that cannot be cured, such as end stage renal disease, he explained, palliative care keeps the patient as comfortable as possible by managing pain and other physical challenges, and by providing psychological, social and spiritual support. He went even further by saying that patients who stop dialysis live about two weeks on average.

I have been on the transplant list for five years, and in that time there has been no movement toward a transplant. The last time I went to the transplant center to update my medical evaluation, they told me that a transplant was not likely to happen in the next two years. I was okay with that. Nothing to get anxious about. The transplant decision was not going to happen in the near future. 

And then, out of the blue, I hear from an old friend who tells me he is contemplating the possibility of being a living donor for me. That was March 12. As of Monday, April 15, he had completed the thorough donor evaluation at Piedmont Transplant Institute in Atlanta, and by Wednesday of that week, Piedmont had called me in for testing.

My heart began to race this week and has continued, on and off. I would describe my current state as much, much more than anxious. I texted this week with a friend of mine and shared my fears. She told me about her multiple back surgeries and about how frightening surgery was for her. Then she said this: “I was really afraid before each back surgery, but I somehow dug down deep to a warrior place inside of me.”

Oh my! How well she described my current emotional place! I am certain that, indeed, there is a warrior place inside me. I reached it this week after the racing heart episodes eased up a bit. It is a surprise to me that now I find myself in deep peace, with a sense of calm. Not always have I been able to let God take control of my path. I am a person who will do almost anything to stay in control, to the point of fairly powerful wrestling with God for the proverbial reins of my life.

Not this time. This time, in this season of my life, I have taken a hands off approach, replacing my tendency to hold tightly to the reins with a sense of trust that has covered me like a soft blanket. I have thought in the last few days of the many passages of scripture about trust, but the one that stands out is the simplest one, the short one that we learned to recite as young children.

What time I am afraid, I will trust in you.

— Psalm 56:3

I am certain that there is a warrior place deep inside me. It brought me out of my year of life-threatening illness in 2014. It pushed me to get stronger. No doubt, it will be in play as I move closer to a kidney transplant. I am grateful that my friend reminded me this week of that deep, down warrior place. But I am also comforted in the assurance that, along with my inner warrior, there is in me a heart that can still trust God.

Breath of Wonder

69175F90-305B-48F5-9797-D4F4BA54C428I cannot give you a better thing today than this prayer shared by Anne Fraley, rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in South Windsor, Connecticut. “Listen” to her words and find yourself in them. Let grace from God refresh you as you live into peace and serenity. And as Anne writes it so eloquently, may faith carry you on the delicate breath of wonder and discovery, calling you forth beyond your wildest dreams.

I know these things to be true.

The sun dances and rainbows shine through pearls of water.

The coos of infants elicit contented sighs and gut-deep gladness.

Music stirs and tempers within the beats of its own rhythm.

The earth is rich with nourishment and holds sacred story with gentleness.

Hearts break and find renewal in healing.

Love sustains, encourages, emboldens, and makes us silly.

Divinity is everlasting.

Comfort is found in meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Or maybe sweet potato fries.

We sag and thrive, ponder and muddle through confusion.

We persist.

My prayer this day is that the best of these things will rise and claim their place on our horizons, and that the least of these things will recall our need for each other.

My prayer for this day is that faith will carry us on the delicate breath of wonder and discovery, calling us forth beyond our wildest dreams.

Amen.

 

Reprinted from https://revgalblogpals.org/2019/02/25/monday-prayer-these-things/.

What We Need Is Here

4b9b65d5-ca25-48fa-af5e-a741d86146e3I want a new microwave oven, a new disposal and a new dishwasher — the newest and best models. I want to see my son. I want to hug my grandchildren. I want to go to my church in Little Rock. I want a new dress.

I have most often gotten what I wanted in my life. From the most intense need for human connection to the frivolity of a new frock, I have gotten what I wanted. Chalk that up to being spoiled throughout childhood, or stubbornly persistent until I got what I wanted, or just being a jerk, or maybe having white privilege. 

There is no shortage of gurus telling people how to get what they want. Good health. A slimmer frame. A better television. A nice house in a nice neighborhood with a nice, lush lawn. And just this week evangelist-turned-Trump-advisor Paula White told us that sending money to her would result in riches for us!

The stark reality is that, right now, I don’t have what I want. Most people don’t. It is easy for me to lament over what I am lacking. It is common for me to feel disappointed with my life, disillusioned about my inability to secure all the things I want and think I have to have.

Like my sister and brother consumers in a consumer-driven world, I have survived on things. More and better things.

But when I stop — really stop — and look around me in wonder at this stunningly beautiful world and everything in it . . . When I catch a passing glimpse of the sweet and pure love my husband gives me every day . . . When I feel God’s gentle gift of grace on my life . . . When I stop to count the stars and watch the moon peeking around the clouds, something very surprising happens. My thoughts of the things I want turn to serene gratitude for the things I have. And in that instant, I have peace.

Recently, my pastor shared a poem by Wendell Berry. The very same poem, oddly enough, kept coming up in the things I was reading, and it touched me in the serene place within. Let me share it.

Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.

Oh, to be quiet in heart and see clearly that “what we need is here.”

May God make it so.

 

 

Forgiveness

3904e2f4-b048-4bf3-83f1-bccdd2592165I have long pondered forgiveness, for years! It’s something that confuses me. Like forgiving my abuser. Like parents standing at their child’s graveside and considering how to forgive the shooter. Like a little girl forgiving the people that snatched her from her mother’s arms at the border.

Forgiveness can be confounding and elusive. It is not a merely a thing, or a conviction, or an emotion, or a firmly held belief. It is an act of the heart that can seem all but impossible. But the Bible seems very clear about forgiveness. When you have been wronged or betrayed by another person and you are in a tug of war with yourself about forgiveness, the words of Scripture face off with you as a challenge, perhaps even a rebuke.

Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:31-32)

Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Collosians 3:13)

And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. (Mark 11:25)

For so many years, these and other Biblical admonitions troubled me. I felt as though the words stood in judgement before me. I would pray to be able to forgive. I would pray for light that could shatter the darkness around me. I would pray again, and again. Waiting. Hoping.

Eventually, I shared my inability to forgive with my spiritual director, hoping for guidance and wise counsel. We talked about it at length. I bared my most vulnerable places and revealed the unresolved anger that lived inside of those places. I mined the depths of my spirit and unearthed long-standing wounds of the soul. Our conversations were gently pushing me to a better place and shedding light on the reality that my inability to forgive was not disobedience, but unresolved pain. And then my spiritual director shared this quote with me.

Forgiveness isn’t telling someone it was okay to hurt you. 
It’s telling yourself  it’s okay to stop hurting. 

It doesn’t mean you have to trust them again. 
It means you can learn to trust yourself again. 

It doesn’t mean you have to give them a free pass back into your life. 
It means you are free to take your life back again. 

Forgiveness is simply emptying your past of its power to empty your present of its peace. 

― L.R. Knost

That experience was many years ago, but to this day, I live in the peace I found then. There is no doubt that my past did indeed have the power to empty my “present of its peace.” Reclaiming my peace made forgiveness possible, though it did not happen instantly. It’s not so easy to forgive a person who was never sorry.

Still, it was a process — a journey really — that I had to travel with God, praying all along the way that I would have the strength I needed. The journey was long and sometimes arduous. God was ever-present — patient and persistent. At journey’s end, there really was light, shining brightly where darkness had been. 

Was I healed of my sin of being an unforgiving person? After this journey, do I now forgive every person who hurts me? Sometimes!

Thank you, God, for your patient persistence. Amen.

Peace on Earth?

40423F94-5BC6-4413-84AC-3413C238897B“Dozens of institutions across the country 
received email threats Thursday afternoon, 
prompting evacuations and sweeps of buildings.” (CNN)

This troubling news juxtaposed with the words of the music playing as I work. 

“Peace on earth, good will to all people . . .”

“The glories of His righteousness and wonders of his love . . .”

“All is calm, all is bright . . .”

It is a contrast for us. The songs of peace, hope and joy sung during this season are in conflict with the acts of violence and hatred we see in the world. And thus we are conflicted. As people of faith, we search for our place in being agents of change. We believe that our faith calls us to scatter love wherever there is hate. But we don’t know how.

We are powerless and paralyzed, and the songs of the season just make it more pronounced. I remember singing the compelling words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem that eventually became a carol:

“And in despair, I bowed my head. ‘There is no peace on earth,” I said. ‘For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth goodwill to men.’”

For now, peace on earth is elusive. The email and bomb threats have been sent to places throughout the country: Pennsylvania, Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, Utah. Threats were also emailed to locations in New York City and Atlanta; the Charlotte News & Observer and the Raleigh News & Observer newspapers in North Carolina; and to three sites in Miami.

Over these terrible signs of hate, we have no control. But we do have control over what we will allow into our hearts. To be sure, we should be informed by the events in the world. We should be persistent in raising our voices in the face of hate, denouncing it, and praying for its end. But we must not choose to dwell completely on the violence all around us. We can give our souls a break from the harsh reality bynfinding ways to meditate on the peace and love of God. Even when hate triumphs, we have full access to the Prince of Peace who will visit us and dwell in our hearts. 

Still . . . “Hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth . . . “

These words are as true today as on the day they were penned on Christmas Day, 1863. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem, “Christmas Bells” during a time of personal despair and in deep concern over the American Civil War. The poem was set to music in 1872, and Longfellow’s references to the Civil War are prevalent in some of the verses that are not commonly sung. This is the entire text of Longfellow’s poem:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play, 
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom 
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South, 
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said; 
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; 
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.

What the poet concluded is truth: “to God is not dead nor doth He sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail . . .”

May God make it so.

 

 

Tender Mercy

E8260192-9BC4-47D0-B6F8-7DECCE4828F0Such is the tender mercy of our God,
who from on high
will bring the Rising Sun to visit us,
to give light to those who live
in darkness and the shadow of death
and to guide our feet
into the way of peace.

Luke 1:78-79 (NRSV)

There is no better time to breathe in these words from sacred Scripture: “the tender mercy of our God.” What we see around us compels us to cry out for the tender mercy of God — for the people who are living with agonizing need at our borders, for children taken from their parents, for families running from the effects of tear gas, for the changing of the climate and its devastating fury on communities, for people losing their lives because of gun violence, for young black men incarcerated for small crimes with long sentences, for people suffering through illness and poverty and homelessness. 

Cover them, God, with your tender mercy.

There is still more in this Scripture. Some translations say “The Dayspring from on high has visited us.” But in this New Revised Standard translation, we hear words that remind us anew of God’s tender mercy. Moving words that remind us of our hope in the “Rising Sun who has visited us!”

Tucked in this brief text is the divine reason for the visit. The words are not ambiguous at all, not hard to understand, not veiled in mystery. The Rising Sun’s visit has brought “light to those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death.” And finally the Sun has shone “to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

And so we live in the light of this promise, knowing that the Rising Sun will visit us again and again, whenever darkness covers us with the struggles of life. God will not fail. In our times of difficulty, no matter how serious they are, we will feel — fresh and new — the tender mercy of God who will most assuredly send light to us when we find ourselves in life’s darkness, when we need to be guided in the way of peace.

That is the message of Advent.

Around the Bend

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Photo by Steven Nawojczyk

I wonder sometimes what I might find around the bend. “Around the bend” is an apt metaphor for the twists and turns of life’s pathway. No matter how long I have traveled my journey, no matter how much life wisdom I have gained, I never, ever know what what’s around the bend.

The pathway before me can frighten, even while I strain to see as far as I can into what lies ahead. The bend is sharp most times, and the angle hides my view. As I age, fear on the journey looms large, for I am completely aware of the dangers I might encounter around the first bend, and the next, and all the bends that are ahead of me. And yet, I am constantly graced with flashes of hope and faith whispering that what is ahead of me could be even better than what I have left behind.

The beautiful photo above by Steven Nawojczyk is a gift of calm waters bending in a gentle flow at the foot of a mountain, lightened by the golden rays of the sun. The image makes me believe that whatever is around the bend is lovely, peaceful, comforting, safe. And that is exactly what God would want me to believe, and woukd want us all to believe. I cannot help but think of the Psalmist’s affirmation that God “leads me beside still waters.”

In so many comfort-filled passages, the Psalmist offers sure and certain comfort. Hear the Psalmist’s words . . .

Keep me safe, my God, for in you I take refuge.

Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure.

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
Surely I have a delightful inheritance.

I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
   Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure . . .

You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

— Psalm 16:1, 5-6, 8-9, 11 (NIV)

And hear the words of the Prophet Isaiah . . .

Even to your old age and gray hairs, I am he, I am he who will sustain you. 
I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.  

— Isaiah 46:4 (NIV)

And so “around the bend” is not so frightening after all. In God — “who makes known the path of life” —  there is comfort, safety, protection, constancy, and even joy. Thanks be to God.

Beauty. Serenity. And a Spark of the Divine

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Loon Park on Arkansas’ Lake Maumelle. Photography by Steven Nawojczyk. Entitled “Beauty. Serenity.”

In the middle of the natural beauty of Arkansas, my friend took a photograph and entitled it “Beauty. Serenity.” It prompted me to ponder that for a few moments.

Beauty. Serenity.

I wondered what in my life brings beauty and serenity to me and to those around me. The questions trickled through my mind slowly as I tried to place qualitative and quantitative strictures on beauty and serenity. (As if one could really quantify the whole of what beauty is or see pure serenity through a human lens.) My quest to try to interpret beauty and serenity went on into the night and into the rise of a new day. Still I could not nail it down. It is as elusive as a butterfly in flight, defying explanation.

As for beauty, it seems to be something I can see, something I can look at and see what lies beneath shapes and colors and texture and form. It is when something I see takes on life, and in it, I see a spark of the Divine.

To truly see beauty, I must intentionally expose myself to it and to its full potential. The blossom of a flower. The trees in a verdant forest. The ocean waves moving gently upon the shore. The sparkle of a flowing stream. The majesty of a range of mountains and the vibrant green of a valley.

In each of these visual images, I might very well see a spark of the Divine. But I must first look, and see, and linger before such beauty long enough to see its depth. I must look into a blossom and into the leaves of a forest. I must gaze upon the glory of a mountaintop and walk slowly through a valley of green. I must sit at the edge of the sea and watch the waves greet the shore.

And then there’s serenity, the state of being that always seems to escape me. Serenity is the peaceful sense of calm that envelops a person’s soul and spirit. But I must first allow it, embrace it, and welcome it. When I can do that — and I readily admit that I seldom can — the spark of the Divine I will see most clearly is the light of the spark within myself. I love the wonderfully positive affirmation written by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee.

We have in us a divine spark that you can see. It’s a Light that shines in the human being. It’s our direct access to truth, our direct access to God. The purpose of all the spiritual practices that exist are to awaken that spark, to give it life, to give it energy, so that it can transform you. 

God, I would be transformed. Awaken that spark within me, so that its light will become a part of my very soul, Enliven in me the spark that brings transformation to every part of me that yearns for your Divine impulse.

The spark of the Divine is beauty and serenity all at once. It is in the moments that stop us in our tracks that we can truly see the beauty around us and within us.

It is in those unforgettable moments of life’s splendor, when we allow serenity to fully embrace us in gentle arms of peace, that we finally know deep rest.

It is when beauty and serenity link arms to surround us that we can truly know the spark of the Divine within. I recognize that spark, ever so often, in just a handful of my best moments. Even for that seldom-experienced grace, I am most thankful. 

So I wish for you the same kind of grace, that you might see beauty, know serenity, and visualize, within yourself, the spark of the Divine. The blessing I leave with you is best expressed by the 14th Century Persian poet, Hafiz.

I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in the darkness, the astonishing light of your own being.