I leave for Bolivia in the morning. And I’m excited! But not because I’m visiting a new country. Or having another adventure in the Andes. Although both of those are true.
It’s more about the anticipation of how this trip will speak to me.
We’re calling it a pilgrimage — seven other like-minded women and myself. We’re all from different backgrounds with different expectations. But each of us is going with the intention of listening more deeply to how the Spirit might be calling us as we visit a mission in an area of extreme poverty.
I plan to be awake, attentive, and as present as possible. I don’t want to miss anything.
I read recently that after Thomas Merton first visited Gethsemane Abbey, he couldn’t get it out of his mind. Surprisingly, this place had affected him so deeply that he saw that as a “signpost” — a signpost to which he should pay attention. He kept returning to what he called, “a persistent feeling and idea.”
Merton would eventually leave the secular world and return to Gethsemane to become a Trappist monk. Not exactly a mainstream decision. But he believed the signposts had revealed his calling.
Hmm. A “persistent feeling and idea.” That sounds a lot like what I’ve been experiencing. Ever since November 2012.
Already I’m noticing.
In November 2012 I was mysteriously drawn to an invitation to go on a border awareness trip to El Paso. That experience would change my life.
November 2013 I visited Peru. The earth-centered, rich spirituality of the people there opened me up to the desire of serving and following my heart. Two months later I would return to El Paso to volunteer at the border. With only the realization that I was following a “persistent feeling and idea” deep within that wouldn’t leave me alone. And then last November I received an affirmative response to my request to return to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Now it’s November again. And I’m leaving for Bolivia. Simply because I was attracted to a place. To a people. To the children. The moment I checked out the Amistad Mission website, I felt an inner prompting. Go.
So I am going. And I’m going with an important question on my heart. How do I move forward from here? Because the passion to follow my calling persists. But I have yet to determine the where, the when, and the how.
I’m hoping to pay attention to the signposts that will show up in Bolivia. To listen to my inner guidance. The guidance that’s always trying to get through to me: “See what I’ve put in front of you? Pay attention. There’s a deeper meaning here.”
Like Merton, I want to ask regularly, “What of God is being revealed in this experience?”
Even though I honestly don’t know what I’ll find in Bolivia, I fully expect that the voice of my Higher Self will be eager to speak to me through the “signposts.” Just as it did in Peru, in El Paso, and in Mexico.
Just yesterday morning, after my meditation, I was writing in my journal, reflecting on what I could anticipate on this trip, when I heard its voice pipe up:
“Come and see.”
I’m preparing to give a mini retreat at my house on Saturday. It’s about discerning with your heart. And it’s got me going through my journals from this past year’s journey. A year of tremendous uncertainty. A year of learning to discern with, and trust, my own heart.
Reading some of the things I’ve written, I’m realizing just how much faith I had. And the risks I took. Not knowing how I’d support myself when I decided to leave San Antonio and venture off to El Paso. Not knowing what I’d meet along the way. Nor what I’d face once I got there.
Yet I was willing to go. Because that’s where my heart called me. So I chose to let go of being in control.
That’s no small thing. Especially for me.
While reading the journal entries I came across this poem I wrote that about sums up the whole year. Much of the time I really had no control over anything that was happening. Except how I chose to respond.
I chose to trust.
Trust God. Trust my guidance and inner wisdom. Trust the Love that had brought me on this adventure in the first place and had guided me all along the way. So, that night, I chose to surrender and give up control over the outcome. And I understood, even then, that this very loss of control was leading me to freedom.
But it felt like an emptiness. As I let go of my ego’s need to control and to know what was coming next, I came up against an emptiness. And trusting in that emptiness, in that loss of control, I found something much greater.
During the night, in a semi-conscious dream state, I became aware of a vivid image of a white ball of light connecting everything and everyone to itself as it moved across the scene in my dream. I and everyone around me was united into this bright globe of light and love. As I watched, I recognized the light that lives in all of us. And these familiar words floated in, “You are the light of the world.”
Now, tonight, I’m remembering that losing control isn’t so scary. And maybe I needed to be reminded, too. Reminded that it’s time to surrender. Again.
So, here’s the poem I wrote in my journal that night. Turns out it was dated one year ago today. Funny how that goes sometimes.
Leads to surrender
Loss of control
Leads to a choice
Choosing to fight
Against what is before me
Or choosing to surrender
To what I can’t yet name
Loss of control
Choosing the only choice
That makes sense to me now
To let myself fall
Hoping in the Promise
To catch and embrace me
In this void
July 1st would have been Esther’s 75th birthday. This post is in honor of her.
The night I moved into the house on Grandview Avenue in El Paso, I questioned myself. Again.
What am I doing here, in this little bedroom? In yet another new place amidst strange surroundings? What can I bring to this situation at the border? What difference can I possibly make in the lives of these migrant families fleeing their desperate lives of violence and poverty?
It was December 14. Both Gaudete Sunday — the third Sunday of Advent marked by joy in the midst of darkness — and the beginning of Las Posadas — the reenactment of Joseph and a pregnant Mary seeking shelter the night her baby was to be born. Earlier I’d joined Esther and the Latino community in downtown El Paso, going door to door, asking the same question that was on my heart: “Do you have room? Is there a place for me here?”
The irony of the situation didn’t elude me.
But it wasn’t like I didn’t have a place to stay. Granted, it wasn’t “home,” but Esther had agreed to take me in, after all. All she knew was that I wanted to serve the migrants and refugees. She took a chance. She agreed to support me.
I looked out from my bedroom window — a high-paned glass that ran the entire length of the wall. Thousands of yellow flickering lights spread across Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, reaching toward the mountains. How many people out there are suffering tonight, I wondered? How many face a future desperately more uncertain than mine? How many are unsafe? In that moment, my life, my concerns, felt small by comparison.
And in that moment I realized, this isn’t about me. My being here in El Paso. It’s not about me striving to make something happen. To succeed at whatever it is I think my purpose is. No. This is about being willing and open. Willing to allow Spirit to use me. Open to whatever wants to be born in this situation. Open to allowing things to be as they are. I simply need to take my small self out of the equation.
Later that night I sat down on my bedroom floor and wrote this poem:
The Midwife of God
God with us
Grasping my hands
As the hot pains of labor
Sharp and prolonged
Cry for relief
Searching my eyes
For the answer to one vital question:
Am I willing
To take on this labor
To be present to all that comes?
Am I willing
To support the life
Struggling to be born?
Day and night
The pain continues
Sweaty brow, clammy hands,
a raw dryness in my throat
Still I stand alongside
the moaning laborer
Rooted in solidarity
Committed to the cause
Until what emerges
Elicits a glorious light
Erasing the memory
And exuding hope
In the familiar darkness.
Months later, questions remain. And I remember to look for signs of the Source of life in the uncertainty. Signs like Esther, who stood by as midwife to the seed planted in me in El Paso. Signs like the words of encouragement and praise from friends who’ve been inspired by my journey. Possibly inspired to give birth to their own seeds of longing sprouting within.
Signs like the light that came to earth so many years ago, that shone in the darkness of an otherwise ordinary night in the desert.
Images that have inspired. Words that have settled into my soul. People who have humbled, and reminded, me why I am here.
Always, when I look, I see something more. When I listen, I hear what I missed before.
As I prepare to leave El Paso in a little more than one week — God, I can’t believe I’m saying that — I am looking and listening as deeply and as intently as I ever have. The way forward is still not clear. The lesson of dependence on God, ongoing. If I have shown courage along the way, it’s come from a deeper place that remains a mystery.
But what is clear are the images along the way. And the impressions they have made — indelible on my heart.
Here are some I’d like to share. Images from my nearly 2-mike walk to the Columban Mission Center where I work three days a week, from the Nazareth Hospitality Center, from the house on Grandview, which sits atop a hill offering an impressive view of downtown El Paso and spreading out across Juarez, Mexico. Images from simply paying attention.
In the segundo barrio — the poorest section of El Paso, where homeless men loiter in the mornings and early evenings waiting for the Opportunity Center to open its doors for coffee and a meal, where fast food containers and crushed beer cans collect in gutters, where barred windows and bail bond shops proliferate — the people paint their fences lavender and robin’s egg blue and plant rose bushes and gardens on their tiny plots producing an amazing array of yellows and reds and purples that rise up in defiance of anyone who would call this place poor.
A couple of weeks ago a black bear surprised me. Showed up on my deck seeking the origin of that bird seed he must have gotten a whiff of down in the woods. It was my fault really. It’s late spring and the thought had crossed my mind that my neighbors, the bears, would be out of hibernation by now. And looking for food. But I hadn’t yet taken in the feeder.
When I heard the heavy thump, thump, thump up my deck stairs I thought my son, who was home from college, had returned home for the evening. But it was only 11 o’clock, so that was unusual. Even more unusual — when I peeked out at the front door, Davis didn’t appear under the porch light. I waited. No Davis. That’s when I got scared.
Although I feel safe here surrounded by trees, this was one of those rare moments when I wasn’t feeling too secure. I turned on the deck lights, phone in hand, just in case. A tall, black figure stood on my deck, facing out towards the woods.
“Someone’s out there,” I thought. “And he’s wearing a black cape!”
For a brief moment, I wondered if a deranged person had found my hideaway in the woods. But then it struck me that he hadn’t turned around when I’d flipped on the lights. I stared just a bit longer before realizing it was a black bear intent on figuring out how to get to the bird feeder hanging from the iron hook extended off the deck. He finally wrenched that hook right off the railing, plunked himself down, and proceeded to take apart my squirrel-proof feeder that had so far survived the jumping and swinging antics of numerous rodents, fierce windstorms, and just about every other force of Nature. That is, until Mr. Bear came along. And Mr. Bear had none of the protocol I use when carefully unwrapping a present, hoping to reuse the bow and paper. Within minutes, he demolished that feeder and made himself comfortable as he feasted on sunflower seeds.
Perched on my spot on the living room rug with its floor-to-ceiling windows I had a wide view of the action. I watched until Mr. Bear finished his meal. Just wanted to be sure he didn’t intend to join me inside after he was through. The thing about it is, it was exciting to watch him. I’d never been this close to a bear. I’ve occasionally spotted bears on my hillside, but always from a safe distance. None of them have ever dared venture onto my porch or deck. Until now.
Once again the writer in me grew curious about the metaphor. I discovered that in Native American culture, the bear has the qualities of being free in spirit and unpredictable. It symbolizes protection, strength, power, courage, motherhood, and discernment — this last quality a surprise to me, but it comes from the bear’s cautiousness. And, despite its size, a bear prefers peace and tranquility and is therefore considered a symbol of harmony and balance.
I recognize these qualities in the steps I’ve taken in this journey of my heart, especially that of discernment. Certainly my days of quiet and solitude here in the woods have provided a necessary time for discernment. Not that it has been easy to spend so much time alone over the past couple of years, questioning my purpose, seeking the next steps on my journey. In fact, at times it’s been downright painful. But I believe that Spirit brought me to this isolated place because it’s where I needed to be in order to seriously question, to truly seek, and to listen to the inner voice of love guiding my heart forward. There are times when going underground is necessary.
Two of my favorite more contemporary spiritual writers, Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, valued solitude and considered it a necessary part of “conversion.” Nouwen called solitude “ the furnace of transformation” — a path that offers spiritual guidance in rediscovering “the way of the heart.” For Merton, solitude was a necessity in his hunger for intimacy with God. Through solitude he discovered the path to compassion and empathy.
I believe that I, too, have begun to discover my capacity for compassion through solitude, which led me to discern to serve in El Paso and recently to San Antonio. Could it be these times of solitude have freed my spirit to follow the way of my heart? To gain inner strength and be more courageous in going where I do not know? To simply pray for guidance and follow?
It’s been a hard place to stand — this in-between place — teetering on the threshold of the life I’ve known on one side and the who-knows-what life on the other side.
It can feel lonely to be in that in-between place, not sure where home is anymore. And yet I don’t feel lonely. I feel as though I am waking up to an aliveness stirring within me.
Alive. That’s what I felt living on the border. Alive with the people and the presence, the dirt and the heat, the simplicity and the generosity. Alive in the recognition of my gifts that showed up in surprising ways. Just like Mr. Bear.
Alive. It’s the same word I used to describe my experience in Peru last November. During one of the native sacred rituals I participated in, the first word that popped out of my mouth was “alive!”
And, just like Mr. Bear, I’m ready to venture out. Out of the woods. Out of the dark cave. Awake. Alive. Ready to follow the scent of what feeds me.