Sometimes some things don’t work! Like today as I am trying to insert the image for this post. It’s a watercolor painting I did a couple of years ago titled “Grays.” I don’t remember what was gray about that day or why I felt surrounded by gray, but I know that something was troubling about the day.
Like today! No, it’s definitely not gray outdoors. No gray skies above while the sun is shining brightly. Yet, I feel the “gray” closing in on me today, and for the past few days. News of the world’s hurt certainly has something to do about it. I can’t bear to hear of the spike in Covid cases, the danger of the Delta variant, exhausted health care providers gasping for relief, maltreated children at the overcrowded migrant center in Fort Bliss, Texas. I can hardly bear to hear another report about my friend who is very ill or about another friend I spoke to this morning who lost two love ones this week.
It feels gray in me right now. I think the gray feeling has a lot to do with the chat I had with my nephrologist at Mayo Clinic this week. He was beyond concerned about our current pandemic situation for his transplant patients. Of course, I am one of those patients. He was adamant that we immunosuppressed patients must begin isolating again immediately.
So again, the outlook for me is bleak. Not only am I one of his patients who are on high doses of immunosuppressant medications, but also I am one of the people for whom vaccines are not very effective. So while the general vaccinated public is around 90% protected from the virus, we are 50% (or less) protected. My doctor ordered an antibody test and, sure enough, it revealed that I have zero antibodies, which means I am not protected from Covid and that I can infect others.
I think that means retreating again from public gatherings — from stores, from groups of friends, from medical offices, from church. The time I was so looking forward to — seeing my grandchildren — is now a more distant possibility. All of that looks pretty darn gray to me!
I know in the depths of my soul that there are no simple answers for the gray times, the times when I am disconsolate and despondent. I know that I cannot change every adverse circumstance of my life. I know, too, that we cannot always change our soul’s response to those difficult circumstances. Sometimes, the “gray” of despondency simply has its way in me, and I cannot pull myself up and out. Sometimes I feel as if I am in a desert wilderness, and although streams of water may be there, I do not find them.
In such times, I have found that my ability to hold on to my very self comes directly from the Spirit, who is my sure and certain comforter. And I have learned that, while Holy Scripture and contemplative space do not always mysteriously rescue me or magically change my circumstance, I receive the peace and strength I need to live.
Jesus said to them: “I must leave you, butI will ask God, and our Mother snd Father God will give you another Comforter. This Comforter will stay with you forever. She is the Spirit, who reveals all that is true and real about God. . . . So when I go, you will not be left all alone . . . I leave my peace with you. I give my peace to you. So do not let your hearts be troubled. And do not be afraid.”
John 14:1, 16-18, 27 (my translation)
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
May you find that Spirit wind is moving gently within your spirit, and may God be the strength of your heart forever. Amen
“A soul in transit.” What does that phrase even mean? It sounds a bit ominous to me, like something bad couched in flowery language. Maybe like words of a poem that make little sense because they point to something otherworldly. Perhaps it means something related to a soul that lives, gets old, and dies — in transit from birth to death and beyond. Pondering!
I’m not up for those thoughts right now, because I am in the troubling place of feeling old sometimes. It’s something like aging anxiety, I think. Feeling old should not be so surprising to me since I really am kind of old. But sometimes I feel old in a bad way, the way that sends negative thoughts through my mind. Thoughts like . . .
I can’t do much anymore, I don’t feel well most of the time, my joints hurt, or even, I may die soon.
It is not helpful for my soul to entertain such thoughts, even though some of them are downright truth. Pondering! You have probably heard that “getting old is not for sissies.” It holds some truth, I imagine, for those of us who have come face to face with normal aging, aging that feels not so normal at all. But what about the great juxtaposition? What about the positive exercise that puts thoughts side by side so that we can see what is life-giving instead of what is troubling? For instance . . .
I am old. — I am wise.
I feel weak. — My spirit is strong and still vibrant.
My back aches when I exert myself. — I can still move.
So much for pondering juxtaposed thoughts. They may not be all that helpful, although re-imagining so that we recognize what is spirited and sparkling about ourselves can be very helpful. Still my words on this subject are pretty empty. I think I need assurance from someone else’s words, and I can’t help but turn to a very wise and insightful spiritual guide, Bishop Steven Charleston, whose thoughts are captivating, enlightening and filled with wisdom. And on top of that, the wise bishop is the one who offered up the phrase, “a soul in transit” in the first place.
We will not grow old, not in spirit. In mind and body, yes, we will age as all things age, all making the pilgrimage through time to find the place of sources. But in our spirit, no, we will not grow old. The child that was us will run forever through the fields. The dreams we spun from the fine wool of cloud watching will forever lead us to the next wonder that awaits us. The love we knew, so quiet, so life giving, will always be there to lift us up and hold us close. The spirit of life is eternal. It does not diminish. It does not forget. It does not alter. The spirit within us is the sum total of our sacred experience. It is what we were sent here to be and to do. Our spirit, a soul in transit, has a life outside of time. It will not grow old because it is on loan from a source more ancient than time itself.
Bishop Steven Charleston
Still pondering! I see more clearly that the “soul in transit” has “a life outside of time.” Eternal! That is what our faith has taught us for generations, for ages, always. But it is a truth that we can barely fathom, much less find comfort in. It’s not so easy to accept a truth that ultimately represents death, even if it includes that timeless and stunning place that is called eternity. The introductory words of 1 Peter give us a most glorious glimpse of eternity, a living hope.
May grace and peace be yours in abundance. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
— 1 Peter 1: 2-5 NRSV
Pondering still as I ask, “what does it all mean for me, the words, the images?” I feel much like the Psalmist who said, “my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.” (Psalm 131:1) And yet, I do search and struggle with the thought of aging, of what it means for me and of what comes next. I hear the words:
“. . . in our spirit, no, we will not grow old. The child that was us will run forever through the fields. The dreams we spun from the fine wool of cloud watching will forever lead us to the next wonder that awaits us. The love we knew, so quiet, so life giving, will always be there to lift us up and hold us close. The spirit of life is eternal. It does not diminish. It does not forget. It does not alter. The spirit within us is the sum total of our sacred experience.”
I hear the words, and the spirit of me understands, even if my mind does not. When I write, I ponder deeply. In my pondering this day, I am compelled to admit that I definitely feel the sting of aging. I am very human, after all! But I can usually move from anxiety to a good kind of awareness. That good awareness shows me that it is comforting to hold on tightly to the thought that the spirit is eternal, that my spirit is eternal. Dwelling on aging isolates me, but knowing in my heart that my spirit is eternal is a grace-gift that sets me free to really live.
I know from experience that pondering can be hurtful, leading me through all kinds of unpleasant scenarios. But sacred pondering, the kind that allows one’s faith to sit with a problem until it seems acceptable, can open the mind and heart to the eternal and empower us to see the plans for good that God has for us, “a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
So, after a time of sacred pondering, I am blessed with a fresh awareness. I can see more clearly God’s truth that my spirit will remain with my grandchildren, always. My spirit will hold on to the sweet love I have known. My spirit will immerse itself in the beauty of nature that has always been present. My spirit will run through the fields like a young person, and through the forests, it will love the trees I have always loved.
My body will do what bodies do, but my spirit will not die and will not grow old!
She described herself as an unruly woman of God — Mechthild of Magdeburg. “I want also to circle higher still,” she wrote in one of her mystical poems. She had her first vision of the Holy Spirit at the age of twelve. As a young woman, she left her home and “renounced worldly honour and worldly riches.” She was an ascetic, a writer and a mystic who viewed God’s will in unorthodox ways. Her criticism of church dignitaries for religious laxity and claims to theological insight aroused so much opposition that some called for the burning of her writings. Her words seemed to have kept her in deep trouble!
Her story reminded me of Sue Monk Kidd’s book, “The Dance of the Dissident Daughter,” a book that set me on a pilgrimage in 1996 that changed my life. This was a book that screamed out to me, “Find your own soul! Nourish it! Protect it! Bind it closer to God’s soul and, for the first time, live out God’s call to you!”
Sue Monk Kidd said this as she reflected on writing the book’s first edition:
“The Dance of the Dissident Daughter” sparked heated, sometimes scathing reactions, including public accusations of heresy, boycotts of my lectures, and a plethora of derisive letters in my mailbox. One of the more memorable began: Dear Whore of Babylon. It was the “Dear” part that made is so indelible.
This statement rings true when I contemplate the life of Mechthild of Magdeburg. Before we get back to her, though, let’s look for a moment at The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, the book that left me with these nuggets of wisdom I will always hold close.
How many times have I denied my innermost wisdom and silenced this voice? How many times can a woman betray her soul before it gives up and ceases calling to her at all?
We must wake up, journey, name, challenge, shed, reclaim, ground, and heal.
When someone tries to put you back into a box from which you’ve already escaped, you might recall a line from the Indian poet Mirabai. She said, “I have felt the swaying of the elephant’s shoulders and now you want me to climb on a jackass? Try to be serious!}
As women we have a right to ask the hard questions. The only way I have ever understood, broken free, emerged, healed, forgiven, flourished, and grown powerful is by asking the hardest questions and then living into the answers through opening up to my own terror and transmuting it into creativity. I have gotten nowhere by retreating into hand-me-down sureties or resisting the tensions that truth ignited.
The main thing is to stop struggling and nourish yourself. When you nourish yourself, your creative energy is renewed. You are able to pick up your lyre again and sing.
— Sue Monk Kidd, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter
Yes! Sing, and even dance your dissident dance! Your song may sound to all those around you like a revolutionary song, discordant to their ears. Your dancing may scandalize your observers. Still — Sing! Dance! — to the stirrings of Spirit within you!
That’s exactly what Mechthild of Magdeburg did and the religious world labeled her unruly. In her book, Das fließende Licht der Gottheit (The Flowing Light of Divinity), she described her visions of God. She could not read and write in Latin, but she is known for being the first mystic to write in German. Her confessor, Heinrich von Halle, finally persuaded her in 1250 to write down her visions and spiritual experiences. She did this in her own hand, in the conviction that it was God’s will.
By 1270, six of the seven books of the “Flowing Light” were brought to parchment, collected and given chapter titles by Heinrich. Mechthild saw her book as a message to both believers and clergy, for she feared the church was in danger of being hollowed out from within; she called the powerful church officials, who often enjoyed worldly luxury, “stinking billy-goats.”
Thus, Mechthild was known as a very unruly woman of God — a defiant, dissident and radical rebel! “Stinking billy-goats!” No wonder she became known for her “rebelliousness and unorthodox ways.” The community she was a part of, the Beguine order, was known for the same kind of unorthodox rebelliousness.
The Beguine order was a Christian religious movement active in Northern Europe during the 13th-16th centuries. The Beguines were women who lived as nuns in semi-monastic communities. Through their intense devotion to God and their somewhat ascetic lifestyle, they came to be known for their acts of rebellion and their unorthodox ways.
Mechthild of Magdeburg definitely danced to her own music!
With her order, she was part of a great spiritual revival movement of the thirteenth century, a time when the Catholic Church was falling into disfavor. The Beguines sought to imitate the life Christ through voluntary poverty, care of the poor and sick, and religious devotion.
With advancing age, Mechthild was blind. She was alone, still the object of much criticism. With singing silenced and dancing impossible, she was left to sing songs in her heart and dance the dances of her imagination, always seeking Spirit promptings.
Some scholars have speculated that, due to increased persecution and failing health, Mechthild was forced to retire to the convent of Helfta around 1270. There, she met three other notable writers of the time, Gertrude of Hackeborne, Mechthild of Hackeborne, and Gertrude the Great. Helfta was a good place for a writer such as Mechthild. Under the leadership of Gertrude of Hackeborne, Helfta had become a hub of learning and writing for women and a center for book collecting, copying and illumination.
Still, Mechthild portrayed herself as a reluctant writer urged on by God and her director to continue her work. She calls her director “my dear schoolmaster,” who taught her, “simple and stupid as I am, to write this book.” About the urging of God she said, “I cannot nor do I wish to write “unless feeling the power of the Holy Spirit.” At one point, Mechthild wondered why God did not choose a priest rather than herself for this work, and she is told that God always seeks out the lowest and smallest so that “unlearned lips can teach the learned tongues of the Holy Spirit.”
In spite of the fact that Mechthild was unable to read and write in Latin, these are some powerful quotes by the graceful mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg, from her book Das fließende Licht der Gottheit (The Flowing Light of Divinity), where she describes her visions of God.
The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw and knew I saw all things in God and God in all things.
If you love the justice of Jesus Christ more than you fear human judgment then you will seek to do compassion. Compassion means that if I see my friend and my enemy in equal need, I shall help them both equally. Justice demands that we seek and find the stranger, the broken, the prisoner and comfort them and offer them our help. Here lies the holy compassion of God that causes the devils much distress.
From suffering I have learned this: that whoever is sore wounded by love will never be made whole unless she embraces the very same love which wounded her.
A Light of utmost splendor glows on the eyes of my soul. Therein have I seen the inexpressible ordering of all things, and recognized God’s unspeakable glory — that incomprehensible wonder — the tender caress between God and the soul . . . the unmingled joy of union, the living love of eternity as it now is and evermore shall be.
I cannot dance, Lord,
unless you lead me.
If you want me to leap with abandon,
You must intone the song.
Then I shall leap into love,
From love into knowledge,
From knowledge into enjoyment,
And from enjoyment
beyond all human sensations.
There I want to remain,
yet want also to circle higher still.
— Mechthild of Magdeburg
Like her, I want to “circle higher still.” I want to escape from chains that shackle the highest expression of my spirit. I want to sing the songs God placed in my heart! I want to dance to the Spirit’s rhythm hidden in my spirit!
Without fear! Without fear . . .
taking the journey set before me to follow Christ into places of poverty, fear, sickness, desperation. Breaking the rules if I must. Taking criticism if I must. Being persecuted if that is in the cards for me. I want to move forward into my calling with the Spirit of God upon me . . .
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free.
I have been reflecting on a phrase I read this morning in Father Richard Rohr’s meditation— Uncreated Grace. It is an intriguing phrase and makes me wonder why I received it at this particular time and place on my journey. I have had a very long journey — many miles of life —- and, in fact, there have been many other forks on the path that seem more sacred places to contemplate uncreated grace. But here it is, today, brought to me at this place on my journey.
As I did some processing on this phrase, I thought of one of my dear friends from ages past, seminary days to be exact. Often, he would share his favorite quotes. This was one of them, an intriguing and thought-provoking quote. This quote always stayed in his favorites file. It hints at a long journey we all must take . . .
We shall not cease from exploration
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.
— T. S. Eliot
We were always left with the question “What do T.S Eliot’s words mean?” Sitting in small groups, the seminarians discussed but never reached an answer, to the question. I imagine that, like me, some of them took the words along with them on their journeys, hoping to discover the meaning at some place of enlightenment on their path.
On my journey, Eliot’s words came to mind many times. Never quite discovering a finite meaning, I did discover infinite applications that touched my life in ways simple and profound. Most always, I came away from reflecting on the words to a better place inside myself and a better space in my world. Still, I wonder why these T.S. Eliot words were brought to my mind today.
The power in these words, I think, is that they are not a directive, not a call to mission, not words of piety, not gleaned from scripture. They are words meant to be understood individually rather than offering a universal message. I identify these words as an invitation, and so today I am left alone with them to intentionally create space for reflection and understanding.
When I do that, I hear many, many other words from different places — from scripture, hymn, poetry, prose and from within myself. It feels like a Spirit encounter, the presence of “another comforter” who will be with us forever, who will, as Jesus promised, “teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.”
Spirit teaches us and helps us remember. Spirit grounds us so that our circuitous journey will not frighten us. We are free to never “cease from exploration,” because we are comforted to know that we will “arrive where we started . . .”
And know the place for the first time . . .
When the journey leads us back to where we started, how is it that we “know the place for the first time?” I urge you to not take my interpretation as the correct one, because I believe that a “correct” interpretation comes from the soul of each person who chooses to explore. But here is an understanding based on my own musings . . . we can take what comes in our lives, or we can explore places on the journey — our encounters, our joys and sorrows, our events and calamities, our crises and emotions, our disappointments and betrayals, the chance and the wonder.
For me, there is no doubt that exploring all of these life events brings that sense of getting back to the beginning and truly knowing the place for the first time, not necessarily because the beginning place has changed, but that I have changed. The Spirit’s holy breath transformed me with gentleness again and again, transformed by the blowing of Spirit wind into my being.
Father Richard Rohr says that “the Holy Spirit is never created by our actions or behavior. It is naturally indwelling, our inner being with God. In Catholic theology, we called the Holy Spirit “Uncreated Grace.”
How I love those words . . . Uncreated Grace! Perhaps that’s what we all hope for in our explorations on the journey — that in us and through us, there is Uncreated Grace. If we present to the Spirit our selves as uncreated grace, I wonder if Spirit then creates grace within us again and again and again, all along the way. If we never cease from exploration, presenting ourselves as uncreated grace, the Holy Spirit will breathe on us and we will be transformed!
No wonder we know the place where we started for the first time! The place hasn’t changed, we have changed, transformed in our deepest places!
Thanks be to God and to the touch of Spirit breath. Amen
Come now Spirit of power.
Come now quickly and seize this moment.
Come Spirit from all four sacred directions,
from every color and culture,
come and use this sorrowful moment for good.
Very often, the prayers of Bishop Steven Charleston become a part of my meditation time. His prayers have a way of calming my heart, comforting my spirit and inspiring me to greater works. His words are expressive and full of energy. He paints pictures of things as they are and things as they should be.
In response to the tragedies in El Paso and Dayton, Bishop Charleston speaks of the deep divisions in our nation and the old wounds that have been opened. Indeed. He is right. But then he calls us to better things, to a time for love that has the power to heal.
So let us pray this prayer today, in this moment, as we long for healing.
Come now Spirit of power, come now quickly and seize this moment. The conscience of our nation teeters on the edge of change. Old wounds between us have opened. Deep divisions have been revealed. We are stunned by the cost of our own behavior.
Now is the time. Now is an historic opportunity for love.
Pull prejudice from us like a poison.
Draw out the fear that breeds our racism.
Open our eyes to behold our common humanity.
Silence the justifications and the denials before they begin and keep our eyes fixed firmly on the prize, not on the politics.
Come Spirit from all four sacred directions, from every color and culture, come and use this sorrowful moment for good. Heal our racism now.
May God make it so. Amen.
Art: “Four Sacred Directions” by Drea Jensen, 2002