Wonderment

Dogwood

In less than 24 hours I’ll be back in Virginia. Yay!!!

And in one short week I will attempt to visit all my friends, my sister and her family, maybe catch blooming dogwood trees, hike Shenandoah, and soak in as much of the beauty of the greening Virginia countryside shot through with the colors of spring as possible.

Oh, yes, and Davis will be there, too.

It seems improbable – all that I have planned. And I’ve not even finished packing yet!

As I flit from one preparation to the next, I can’t help but consider the contrast of all this juiced activity from the Southwest Sangha silent retreat weekend I just completed at a Franciscan retreat center — a beautiful connection for me. Two days of relearning the art of slow, focused movement. Of sitting, walking, and eating in meditative silence. As our Dharma teacher, Michael, reminded us from the first moments of our arrival, we have no place to go and nothing to do.

Then, from that place of being as still and silent as possible, I jumped right into a flurry of activity, beginning Sunday afternoon, as I repacked and headed to El Paso to meet friends and walk over the border for margaritas and a bite to eat. I planned to spend the night in El Paso since I was scheduled to be at Casa del Refugiado early Monday morning, which meant Monday was a full and tiring day at the center.

Now here I am, in between unpacking and repacking, getting some writing in, and making sure the bathrooms are clean before I head out tomorrow.

Although it may all sound frenzied and stressful, that’s not what I’m feeling.

On the contrary.

Despite the to-do list and the fullness of the three days following the retreat, I am feeling rather pensive and content. I’m remembering the significance of the sacred art of pausing during my day. The gift of being able to be quiet and still enough to recall who I am underneath all the inner chatter.

An interesting question Michael posed this weekend was, how much time do you spend in silence each day? Many of us were committed to two 20- or 30-minute sits a day. Michael sits for 6 hours each day! Of course, he lives at a lay monastery where he has devoted his life to this practice. Still, he recommended we work towards it.

Really?

But, kidding aside, his suggestion made me reflect on just how much of a priority is my spiritual practice? How often do I simply pause and allow myself “to be” in sacred space?

In reality, it is all sacred space. The key is, am I still enough to pay attention? How receptive am I to God’s ever-present “murmurings” throughout my day? To being still long enough to recognize that I – my little ego – am not the one who is in control?

I’ve been reflecting on this even more so since I’ll be returning to Virginia tomorrow. A place I love. A place I left precisely because I listened within the silence.  And what I discerned in that receptive silence were “the murmurings of God” calling me to the desert.

To trust enough to surrender to what I couldn’t understand.

Coming across these words by Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche who died two weeks ago, reminded me about this sacred inner space. And how it can inspire someone to make drastic life changes – as it did for Vanier.

Many of us are not aware of the sacred space within us,
the place where we can reflect and contemplate,
the space from which wonderment can flow
as we look at the mountains, the sky,
the flowers, the fruits and all that is beautiful in our universe,
the space where we can contemplate works of art.
This place, which is the deepest in us all,
is the place of our very personhood,
the place where we receive the light of life and the murmurings
of the Spirit of God
.
It is the place in which we make life choices
and from which flows our love for others.

Of course, it takes practice, to allow myself to trust this place of “nowhere to go and nothing to do.”  It is, after all, countercultural.

But I have come to recognize that the God of my longing is right here, in the wonder of this contemplative moment. Being faithful to the inner stillness is what makes the difference as to whether I will catch the “wonderment” of God’s presence, or push on, grasping the reins tighter.

Like Michael did on this retreat, my Pathwork teachers, Living School teachers, every spiritual teacher I’ve ever had, recommends fidelity and surrender to the stillness in order to deepen our union with God. They call us to move beyond our culture’s preferences, to surrender to something not of our own making.

That’s what Jean Vanier did. And how powerful, how amazing the result! Truly he taught us how the “wonderment” of love can flow through us.

Jean Vanier L'Arche
Photo credit: Elodie Perriot. Courtesy of L’Arche

Whether it’s the Christ path, the Buddhist path, or some other spiritual path, when we are still and aware, we cannot but be moved by the presence of this infinite love, calling us to wonderment.

So, I will remember, as I prepare for yet another vacation in which I have more to do before leaving than I have time to accomplish, that what’s left to “accomplish” at the end of the day is not important. But how I pay attention to the wonderment of the God of love that wants to flow through me – well, that is essential.

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More Than Enough in Bolivia

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I admit it. The food we were served in Bolivia was different than I and my seven companions were used to. No greens to speak of. Few vegetables. More starches than I’d ever need in any lifetime. From the staple of papas fritas (French fried potatoes), to the serving of two kinds of potatoes and a huge dish of cheesy rice all in one meal.

Too much to take in. But every dish that Esperanza (“Hope”) and her sister-in-law Marta served us during our week-long stay was freshly prepared and plentiful. They gave the best of what they had. We had more than enough to eat. And we were grateful.

Like the food, the love and graces I experienced on this pilgrimage were unusual and plentiful. Not my normal daily diet. After a few days, they began to feel extravagant. Like too much to take in. Maybe it’s because a constant flow of positive energy and selfless giving permeates the Amistad mission where abandoned and orphaned children have found a home for more than 30 years.

Its founder, Fr. Will, who now lives in the U.S., just “happened” to be staying at Amistad’s guest house while we were there. Every morning we’d gather in the chapel for silent reflection and meditation and then he’d offer us Eucharist, along with gems of wisdom that sprang from the depth of his decades-long contemplative practice. I’ve met few people in my life who were as visibly close to God as Fr. Will.

Then there were the mamás and tiás who care for and give of themselves to the children 24/7. Each mama is assigned to one of the eight houses where up to 10 children can live. Not a small undertaking for anyone, but these women do it with patience and, from what we witnessed, a simple and deep faith.

My fellow pilgrims and I wanted to give the mamás and tiás a day off, so we planned some special pampering and creative activities for them. One by one, Mary Lou washed the women’s feet and then I massaged them. I doubt any of these women had ever had their feet massaged. They could barely look at me while I rubbed lotion into their blistered toes and heels. This intimate act turned out to be as much a gift for me as it was for them.IMG_1512

And that was only our first day.

Then there were the children. We visited and played with these precious little ones at their family-style homes at Amistad. As soon as we arrived, the children ran over to hug us. One little girl after another entwined her arms around my waist whenever I was within range. Their hands clasped mine and wouldn’t let go. On the playground I pushed the girls on the swings and spun the boys around and around on the merry-go-round. They laughed and squealed, calling, “Amiga, amiga! Mira! Mira!” “Look! Look at me, my new friend. Look!”

Their love and desire for attention filled me. I felt my heart opening wider and wider. The children “wrecked” me — a term my friends and I used every time our hearts broke open.

By mid week I began feeling overwhelmed. Had a hard time taking in all the core goodness, vulnerability, and the letting down of all defenses that was happening. The skeptic in me kept jumping in. Challenging what I was experiencing. Arguing against it. “This can’t be real. Life can’t be this loving and selfless. People can’t be this joyful, supportive, and accepting.”

I began seeking out the flaws, the imperfections, the hole in the tapestry. But what I came up against instead was the tough stuff within myself. My own flaws and imperfections. Rather than lovingly accepting myself in this, as I knew I needed to, I plunged into a momentary darkness.

And then we went to the remote hillside village of Aramasi. Where I really got wrecked.

At Aramasi, we stayed in individual tiny stone hermitages with outhouses nearby. Each of us had a single, threadbare mattress laid across a plank of wood. We had to sweep the dead bugs off the floor and pray no live ones were hidden anywhere else. None of my fellow female travelers complained about the accommodations. Unusual for Americans, I know. But then these are unusual women.

If prayer is standing naked and vulnerable before the Source of all Being, then I prayed an awful lot in that little room. My bed was placed alongside a window overlooking an unobstructed night sky filled with stars. All night long I entered in and out of sleep and gazed out the window, occasionally spotting a shooting star. Somewhere in the sacred solitude of that hermitage, I encountered an extravagant love that washed over me and helped me reclaim my belovedness. And in that tender place of recognition, I was shown the power and beauty of my own preciously imperfect heart.

One night Mary Lou read to our group from Henri Nouwen’s book, Gracias, which recounts his experiences during a six-month long ministry in Peru and Bolivia. Nouwen suggests that what we have to offer is our “own human brokenness through which the love of God can manifest itself.” He reminds me that I am broken like glass, and it’s the brokenness that lets the light shine through.

It’s the best I have to offer. And it is more than enough.