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Tara Brach and Pope Francis have something in common. They both support a “revolution of tenderness” based on “radical compassion.”
I’m thinking it couldn’t be a more appropriate time for this radical revolution to begin. It’s definitely needed. Wouldn’t you agree?
But I don’t mean this based simply on what we’re seeing in the news.
Last week I was asked to start helping accompany refugees again. And what I witnessed is what got to me. Got me looking for an answer to the pain we’re inflicting on one another.
So I scrolled talks from Tara Brach – my favorite Buddhist insight meditation teacher, and found one on “A revolution of tenderness.” I recognized this term Pope Francis had coined in a recent surprise TED talk he’d given by the same name.
In listening to Tara, it struck me how both she and Pope Francis call for us to connect with our capacity to be tender. And to identify with “the other.”
Long a promoter of “radical compassion,” Tara teaches that compassion begins with our capacity to be tender – towards our own heart. To see and feel our own violated self, our suffering inside ourselves. And then we can open the door to feeling the suffering of the other.
I’ve been practicing that, more or less, since my Pathwork days. But it was her next comment that I needed to hear.
“This quality of heart is our potential,” Tara said. “It’s cultivated by our opening to suffering and remembering the goodness and the beauty.”
Opening to both. That’s the key.
I needed to remind myself of the goodness and the beauty. Because I was getting stuck in the suffering. My heart was hurting for a mother in pain. Just one of many mothers I’d come to know.
When I was at this hospitality house, waiting to do intake after a handful of refugees had arrived, I noticed one woman with a little boy less than 2 years old. She was bent forward on the sofa, keeping her head down as we gave our usual welcome talk. Even when her child came over, seeking her attention, she brushed him off, putting her head in her hands, clearly distraught. My thought was, she must have had a very disturbing journey.
Because she only spoke Portuguese, it took us a while to find out the problem.
Turns out her husband had been traveling with their 4-year-old daughter and had arrived at the border a few days earlier. But the agent that admitted them had separated the child from her father – detaining the dad and sending the 4-year-old to a foster care-type detention center. This child who only spoke Portuguese, couldn’t communicate with anyone, was now in a strange country surrounded by strangers without her mom or dad.
I couldn’t comprehend this decision. And I couldn’t shake the thought of this frightened child. Alone.
Maybe the agent was having a bad day. Maybe he wanted to send a message, to deter others from coming.
Maybe he had simply closed off his heart long ago.
We numb ourselves in order to not feel the pain we are inflicting. We separate ourselves by identifying with dualistic thinking – “they’re wrong and we’re right; they’re bad and we’re good.”
Identifying with a separate egoic self keeps us from recognizing the truth. We belong to something larger. Larger than our small, fearful selves.
“Each and every one’s existence is tied to the other,” Pope Francis says. “The other is not a statistic or a number. The other has a face….Tenderness means to use our eyes to see the other.”
If this is true – and I believe it is – then what we are doing to hurt others will and is affecting us.
The future of humankind is in the hands of those who “recognize the other as a ‘you’ and themselves as part of an ‘us,’” as Pope Francis claims. It’s in the hearts of those who have the quality of compassionate presence that Tara promotes.
“Tenderness is the path of choice for the strongest, most courageous men and women,” Francis says. “Tenderness is NOT weakness. It is fortitude. It is the path of solidarity, the path of humility.”
Yes, it takes courage and humility to remain open to the “other.” To not close down or numb out when you see someone in pain.
How courageous are you? Are you willing to be part of a revolution of tenderness?
I am. And I hope you are, too.
As Pope Francis says, “It only takes one person, a ‘you,’ to bring hope into the world. And a ‘you’ becomes an ‘us.’”
And that is how a revolution begins.
That would be me.
For six weeks in Bolivia. I was a stranger at someone else’s table. Living with a family I didn’t know. In a country where I could barely speak the language. In the midst of a different culture. Where everything looked, smelled, and tasted different.
It didn’t take long to realize, “I’m not in Kansas anymore.” Or Virginia.
Or anywhere that even resembled the home I knew. Everything felt different. And I felt so alone.
True, that was months ago. But the memory of those feelings has stayed with me.
I actually think the mother of the house where I was living in Bolivia had a preconceived image of me as an American. And maybe she had a little attitude too.
Now the tables are switched.
I’m the one with a little attitude toward foreigners.
You might find that surprising. After all, why would I travel so far from home to return to the U.S.-Mexico border to serve migrants and refugees if I had an attitude?
Truthfully, I’m happy to be back serving at the Nazareth migrant hospitality center. It feels right to be here.
I knew it the first day I walked through the door and was among “the people” again. I found myself smiling for no particular reason throughout the day.
Even though I never stopped moving from the moment I stepped inside the place. And was exhausted by the time I left.
The thing is, so many people are coming. More than I’d ever seen when I was serving here last year.
It’s not so easy to spot those in desperate need this time. It’s not black and white. If it ever was.
Immigration is such a complex issue.
What got me was I was noticing some conflicting feelings arising. A judging, critical side.
I mean I’m aware that I have this side of me, but I didn’t like the fact that it was coming up here, in relation to the migrants whom I’ve felt such compassion for. In a place where I’m serving alongside some of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever met. The people of El Paso. People who still, after more than two years, continue to fully operate this center through their donations and volunteer hours.
So, the other night I went to bed with these questions on my heart.
“How do I keep my heart open and let go of trying to be judge and jury? How does love respond to this situation? What do you ask of me?”
On the verge of sleep, an image of Jesus in his passion came to me. The pain and suffering he endured. The terrible loneliness.
Then I “heard” his question: “Did I do this only for those who deserve it?”
Such a powerful and humbling response! The truth of it hit me hard.
Because I knew. I certainly don’t “deserve” this gift. In fact, I often take it for granted. And I doubt I fully appreciate it.
In that moment, I understood.
Love has nothing to do with fairness or with who deserves it.
Love invites everyone to the table. No one is excluded. And preconceived images are left at the door.
Granted, it’s challenging to love as Christ loved.
I don’t know if I can do it. But this is my practice.
This is why I am here.
It’s the early morning hours. The day before the memorial service for the Dallas police officers.
I awaken in a hotel room just outside the city. Photos of the five officers and two African-American young men who were killed appear in my mind. And tear at my heart.
I think of their families. The ones who’ve loved them and are left behind to grieve.
My heart breaks for the pain we cause each other, for the violence we resort to so easily to resolve our differences, to make our voices heard.
There is another choice.
But it’s harder. Because it involves letting go of our own agenda.
It means putting aside our pride and our judgments. And our preconceived notions about who is “right” and who is “wrong.”
It means being willing to see and listen to the other person.
And letting Christ’s love guide our steps.
That option seems so far away. Especially in the midst of the ongoing onslaught of hate-filled insults, of angry words and demeaning lies raging over social media and throughout this political campaign.
So I do the only thing I can do. I offer prayer. And ask where God is in this.
A familiar question pops up.
“Have you been with me all this time and still do not know me?”
It’s a question Jesus asked of his disciples along their journey together.
And this is the response that comes.
I am African-American. I am Mexican American. I am Native American. I am Muslim. I am Christian. I am Buddhist.
I am the police officer who risks his life every time he protects yours.
I am the youth calling for peaceful protests after his father is killed.
I am the man with knotted hair standing at the stoplight with his cardboard sign asking for help.
I am the undocumented little Guatemalan girl languishing with her mother in a Texas family detention center.
I am the young mother in Bolivia who abandoned her baby because she could not feed yet another child.
I am the 10-year-old boy stolen from his family and forced to become a soldier.
I am the Syrian who fled his home with his young son after their lives were threatened.
I am the family in sub-Saharan Africa unable to eat tonight because there is no food.
I am in you. I am in the neighbor next to you. And in the neighbor across the ocean whom you have yet to meet.
All lives matter to me. Because I am all life.
I am compassion. I am understanding. I am love without borders.
I am peace in a world that does not know peace because it does not know me.
I wait for you in the stillness. In the silence. There you will see me.
And know me for the first time.
I’ll miss the trees.
White and pink dogwoods. Towering oaks. Weeping willows with fairy land canopies.
Since childhood I’ve had a thing for trees. Summers you’d find me on our backyard lawn mesmerized by the sun dancing on the tips of leaves. I’d watch the morning light trickle down like a waterfall as it slowly engulfed entire trees, turning everything a sparkling, vibrant green.
I love green.
But there aren’t many trees in the desert. And certainly not much green where I’m going.
There won’t be any rolling green hills dotted with black cows and red barns.
No sweet smell of freshly mowed grass on a late spring morning.
No moss-covered stones jutting from brooks, their soft surfaces slippery and smooth like a carpet.
There won’t be much water anywhere in fact. No streams or rivers.
I’ll definitely miss the ocean.
And April’s ruby red azaleas. Pear and apple tree blossoms, too. The orange tiger lilies stretching out to meet me as I drive the back roads home. With the Blue Ridge mountains as the backdrop.
But most especially, I’ll miss my community. My friends.
Those who’ve walked with me through the birth and rearing of my son. Friends who cheered and howled along with me and David at all the soccer games and swim meets.
(Well, maybe not as loudly as David. Even I had to walk away from him shouting in my ear sometimes.)
Friends who showed up at my door with ham biscuits and casseroles and tears I couldn’t shed the afternoon David died. Friends like Deborah who accompanied me to the funeral parlor to make all the necessary arrangements. Kathy and Janet who helped clean my house when I didn’t think I had enough energy to get through another day. Whitney who mowed my acre of lawn whenever the grass grew too tall.
So many friends who helped me through all of it. Held my hand. Embraced me. Let me cry when I needed to. Or scream.
Friends who’ve accompanied me on this spiritual journey. A journey that took root, deepened, and blossomed here. And eventually veered off in a direction I never would have anticipated.
Now it’s time to leave. After 30 years in Virginia.
It’s far from easy.
I’ve come to understand that “poverty of spirit” really is about detachment. About letting go. But not only of possessions. It’s also detachment from what I thought was important. From what no longer serves me. From the fears and images and illusions I’ve falsely believed and carried.
And here’s a big one — detachment from trying to anticipate the outcome. From trying to control and plan and have everything in place. Because I can’t step out in faith otherwise. Or trust the voice of God within.
And follow where I know my heart is leading.
So, yes, Virginia, I will miss you. All your natural beauty. All your trees and greenery. All those special people you hold for me. But I will carry the memory. I will carry all of them.
And in my experience, memories of love never fade.
(Lyrics from The Memory of Trees, by Enya)
I walk the maze of moments
but everywhere I turn to
begins a new beginning
but never finds a finish
I walk to the horizon
and there I find another
it all seems so surprising
and then I find that I know…
I’ve been away for a while. From writing, that is.
Even though my heart’s been brimming with all I want to say. And I find myself at yet another crossroad. A crossroad where I’m being asked to surrender it all.
I find this to be a hard post to write. Because how do you express the inexpressible?
Maybe an image will help.
The other day, Emma, the director of the orphanage where I volunteered in Cochabamba, emailed a couple of photos of the babies I’d cared for. We weren’t allowed to take pictures of the children while working there, so this was the first time I’d seen their precious faces since I’ve been back home.
I cried when I saw them.
Especially little Teresa. She was my favorite. But I loved them all. And not only for the short time I was with them. I still carry them in my heart. I suspect I always will.
It’s easy to love babies, isn’t it? Even when they’re crying inconsolably. I mean, for the most part. We just love them. Inexplicably. Even though they’re totally useless. They can’t do a darn thing for themselves. Completely dependent. Open and waiting. Helpless and vulnerable. They’re surrendered to us. And yet we love them even more.
Lately the image of those babies has been really speaking to me.
It’s a metaphor. My relationship with those babies. An image of something much deeper. A metaphor for my relationship with a God who is always loving me. A God who loves me most especially in my helpless, vulnerable, open, and completely surrendered place. And this love has been overwhelming and powerful and hard to fully take in.
And also a bit scary.
Because if I surrender completely, let go of all my roles and my self-images, my thoughts and ideas about who I am or who I should be, then what? Then who will I be?
It’s a place of naked vulnerability. Of meekness and humility.
And the “little me” wonders, Do you really want to go there?
All alone in my precious prayer time, when I go down into that deepest, most silent place within me, I know that the answer to that question is yes.
I know I am here to surrender to love.
And I know it’s OK that I can’t get there on my own.
As Richard Rohr says, “Authentic prayer is always a journey into love.”
I want to take that journey. Again and again and again.
This is not my room in Cochabamba. But, it is basically all I have: a window with a desk lamp, a desk, and, of course, a bed. I wish I could say the view was this spectacular — and it certainly is from the street – but not from my bedroom. My room overlooks a walled-in area of housetops that allow me to spy down through curtainless windows into the imagined lives of my neighbors. If I step out onto the tiny balcony off my room, I can see the sky. But only if I look up.
Many times over these past two years all I’ve had to call my own is one room — that, and the familiar touchstones I’d brought along with me. You’d think it would get easier. But each time, I have to find my grounding, get centered in remembering who I am underneath any doubts, insecurities, or concerns that arise. And remember to trust what brought me here.
This time I’m adjusting not only to living in a stranger’s house, but to a different culture and country that speaks a language I know barely enough to get by. It feels huge.
And it also feels right.
The Bolivian culture is beautiful, alive, spiritual; the people warm and friendly. My host family lives in a middle-class neighborhood that boasts several parks with flowering plants, huge trees, and lush lawns. Yet I also witness much poverty around me as I walk to the Maryknoll language school every day.
All that I am witnessing reminds me that I have so much back home. Many more choices for a healthy diet. Much more space — and gorgeous space at that — to move around in than just one small and simple room. Yet each time I leave my home, I become more aware of how much I need to let go of that physical space in order to be free to fully live this calling on my heart.
Do I know what I’m doing? Not really. Or where I’m going? Heck no.
Do I trust what I’m doing, and where I’m going? Yes!
Let the adventure unfold.
In less than one week I’ll be on a plane to Cochabamba. Off to immerse myself in language school and get better prepared for the next step on my journey. Whatever that may be.
It’s crazy that I’m sitting here writing in the midst of all that I have to do before leaving, but this post feels important. Important to the journey that I am on. Because it keeps me honest. And vulnerable. And humble. All qualities I need.
I’ve had a lot of alone time over these past several months since returning home from El Paso. Lots of quiet time for reflection. And, as a result, for some painful stuff to show up too. Recently even more so when we had a foot and a half of snow and I really felt isolated in my house in the woods.
One thing about living in the midst of all this quiet — my shadow’s bound to show up. All those painful voices of my lower self that try to keep me small, hidden, and defended. Voices that try to make me believe that what my mind is telling me is true. That this is who I really am. Then my pride chimes in and says, I can’t believe you’re still dealing with these issues. They should be gone by now. Over and done with, thank you very much.
But that’s not how it goes.
I know from my years of studying with the Pathwork Transformation Program and with spiritual teachers of the past and present, like Teresa of Avila (14th century Carmelite nun and mystic) and Pema Chodron (contemporary Buddhist nun), that the secret is not to reject these parts of myself, but to embrace them. Yes, embrace them. And in doing so, find the gift they offer.
I’m still learning how to do this. That’s why I’m exactly where I’ve needed to be. In the silence and the solitude.
Joan Chittister says that “Silence is the gift that throws us back on ourselves. Which is exactly why there are so many who cannot bear the thought of it. Without external distractions, we are left vulnerable to the voices within that demand that we come to grips with all the pieces of the self we have so carefully concealed.” (Between the Dark and the Daylight)
That’s definitely been true for me. I’ve certainly been vulnerable to these voices, and some days it’s pretty challenging. But if I don’t jump up to turn on the TV, call someone, or dash out the door to go see a friend, if I can sit with the feelings and stay with the pain, I finally surrender. In this place of pain and helplessness, I surrender to my absolute need for God.
John Welwood writes in his book Journey of the Heart, which coincidentally is the same title as my blog:
“The profound question love poses is, ‘Can you face your life as it is; can you look at all the pain and darkness as well as the power and light in the human soul, and still say yes?’”
I know that if I am to promote love and compassion “out there,” I must first have them for myself. That means being able to say ‘yes’ to all the pain and darkness. Yes to embracing and loving all the parts of myself.
But in those tough moments, without an awareness of God’s loving Presence, I simply can’t do it. That’s when solitude is a gift. Because in the absolute silence, Love makes me aware that there is nothing I need change or reject. I am the Beloved. I am already healed and whole. And everything is gift.
I watched Life as a House again recently. It’s both one of my favorite movies and a great metaphor for life. It reminds me of my own dream house — this log home in the woods. How it manifested through my imaginings. What happened in the building of it. And of my decision to now let it go.
In the movie, Kevin Kline plays George, a washed-up architect who gave up on his dreams years ago. He’s divorced from the woman he truly loved, has become alienated from his son, and when the movie begins, he is let go from the architectural firm he’s hated for some time. To top it off, shortly afterwards George discovers he’s dying.
That’s when George actually begins to live. He finally decides to build the house of his dreams. A house he knows he will never live in. But a house that will bless all who have a part in it. The building of this house is about redemption. It’s about transformation. It’s about letting go of what you love. Even as you let yourself love more deeply. And that’s where true freedom comes.
I’ve been reflecting on this as I get ready to leave behind my own house.
Soon I’ll be headed back to Bolivia to immerse myself in Spanish language school and improve my options to find work back at the U.S.-Mexico border after I return. By summer, I expect I’ll be gone.
It’s hard to think of letting go of this house. Anyone who’s ever visited has remarked on how beautiful, peaceful, and special it is. That’s certainly true. But even more than that — this house has redeemed me. Through its absolute silence and solitude. Which has been both a gift and a curse. In this house, I’ve come to understand the term, “a deafening silence.” I’ve learned the real meaning of loneliness. I’ve also had wonderful conversations with the moon and spent nights praying under a star-filled sky. And I’ve sought and discovered, out of the solitude, a Love that sustained me even, and especially when, I didn’t think I could support myself.
Before this house was built, my friends gathered in a fire ceremony to bless the land and my future home and all who would come. Anyone who has passed through its doors has felt the energy of those blessings. I truly believe I’ve been spiritually protected here.
Something else that will be hard to let go of — the life I’ve known, the friends I’ve made over the years, my community.
Like George, I’m experiencing my own little death. My own bittersweet feelings as I gather with friends I love and inwardly whisper my goodbyes. My recognition that I am going from what is known and comfortable into the unknown.
And, like George, I am leaving behind a house that is part of me. A house that is filled with blessings and positive energy for those who will come after. A house that has its own life.
But my heart is calling me elsewhere. I choose to follow that call.
Sometimes you manifest your dream, only to have to let it go.
For reflection, I share this excerpt from David Whyte’s poem “House of Belonging”
This is the bright home
in which I live,
this is where
this is where I want
to love all the things
it has taken me so long
to learn to love.
This is the temple
of my adult aloneness
and I belong
to that aloneness
as I belong to my life.
There is no house
like the house of belonging.
This post is for my friend Sue, who finds herself on the threshold of a new beginning. Uncertain of what’s ahead. Yet daring to risk. And she’s a little scared.
Not unlike me. I too will be making a huge move in 2016 and I’m not sure where I’ll land.
So, maybe this post is for both of us. And for anyone who is beginning again.
You know who you are.
Like us, you’ve decided it’s time to leave behind the familiar and the comfortable. Maybe it’s a meaningless job you’ve had for too many years or a relationship or situation that has suffocated you, yet you’ve feared moving on. Maybe you can no longer deny what has been “quietly forming” deep within your soul. Kindling this growing awareness, you’ve decided to take the risk and step out into the unknown because the “sameness” of your life no longer serves you.
Recently my dear friend Rob sent me John O’Donohue’s poem, “For a New Beginning.”
Rob knows how this poem speaks to my heart. And maybe he knows, too, that I need this reminder in the midst of dark winter days as I take the next small steps towards following my heart’s calling.
And, Sue, I think that you might need this reminder, too.
Because it’s not easy — beginning again. Leaving the security of what you’ve known for the risk of what is unknown.
But I can tell you from experience. Your soul knows the way. Trust that voice. Trust “the promise of this opening.” Soon you will know the grace that “is at one with your life’s desire.”
For a New Beginning
In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.
For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.
It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.
Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.
Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.
Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.
— John O’Donohue —
I’ve been wanting to write about love. It seemed like something I needed to do in response to the growing hateful, fear-filled outlandish messages bombarding the news. Especially from our political candidates.
My heart hurts as I hear entire groups of people being lambasted. For their religion. Or their race. Or the color of their skin. Based on misconceptions and downright lies.
I wonder where are the voices of reason and common sense? Where is the voice of love?
I’ve been thinking about Pope Francis and his visit to the U.S. It’s hard to believe he was here only months ago. Addressing Congress with words of tolerance, acceptance, mercy, and compassion. People seemed to embrace him and his message. Members of Congress were suddenly quoting him. Including my own Congressman Robert Hurt from Virginia.
Back in late September, Congressman Hurt was saying what an honor it was to meet the Pope and how his message, “reminded us of our obligation to help those who are in need, treat our fellow man with respect and dignity, and do our best to pass on the great blessings we have receive to future generations.”
Apparently my Congressman has forgotten his own words because these days he’s proposing anything but that. Maybe he thought Pope Francis was referring only to our obligation to care for American children and America’s future. That somehow closing off our borders to desperate refugee children and their parents is acceptable. That opening our hearts to those outside our borders escaping extreme violence and life-threatening situations — like the refugees from Syria and Central America — is not our obligation.
Many have joined him. Some voices have been shouting: “We have to take care of our own first.”
Well, I’m not getting on that bandwagon.
Because this is not about me and mine. This is about us. The human race. It’s about learning the lesson of meeting people where they are. With tolerance. Acceptance. An open mind. And love.
It’s not easy. But it’s why I’m here. To learn to love. And to follow the One who came to earth over 2,000 years ago to teach us about love. If I proclaim to follow him, then I have to be love in this world. As best as I can.
I came here to love. That is all. It is the hardest thing. And it is everything.
Funny thing. Pope Francis mentioned four famous Americans in his remarks to Congress. Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day. Each of them had something to say about love when they were alive. Their words speak to what’s happening now in our country. And to why it’s important that we speak out and be the voice of love in the world. Read some of their quotes below.
Then ask yourself, as we come upon this season of Christmas, what does the birth of Love Incarnate mean in my life?
It is only love that can overcome the fear that is at the root of all war.
“Love and ever more love is the only solution to every problem that comes up. If we love each other enough, we will bear with each other’s faults and burdens. If we love enough, we are going to light that fire in the hearts of others. And it is love that will burn out the sins and hatreds that sadden us. It is love that will make us want to do great things for each other. No sacrifice and no suffering will then seem too much.” (From Dorothy Day, Selected Writings)
“We must cry out against injustice or by our silence consent to it. If we keep silent, the very stones of the street will cry out.” –Dorothy Day