Spiritually Fed

Sevenoaks Sanctuary
The “little sanctuary” at Sevenoaks in Madison, Virginia

I’ve recently returned from a week-long visit back east. My Virginia friends will probably wonder why I didn’t tell them I was coming. But this trip was solely for a reunion at Sevenoaks Retreat Center in Madison.

At least that’s what I thought when I started planning it. However, God had other plans.

Before long nearly 100 middle schoolers had entered the picture.  But more on that in a moment.

First, I need to express how spiritually nourished I felt being back at Sevenoaks. The minute I stepped on that 130-acre wooded property again, I began to remember the many graces I’d received throughout my years there.

Sevenoaks is a special place where I and these now very close friends had first met and gathered more than 10 years ago, to begin some deep work together. It was a journey towards healing and transformation.  With lots of pain, and pleasure, too, along the way.  The opportunity came at a time when I was ready, and in need of taking that journey. I started this program only months before David died.

Sometimes, because I lived only minutes away, I would come over just to spend time on the land. To be alone in the sacredness of nature. And to listen to God speak to my inner being. And it was there in the silence of nature and in the depth of that program that I had begun to understand that God had placed a new calling on my heart.

And now here I was again surrounded and held by Mother Earth, the forests, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the rich, red earth. Whether standing amidst a grove of cedars, meditatively walking the labyrinth under a canopy of trees, or praying in the little sanctuary in the woods, all of it filled my heart and soul with gratitude.

Sevenoaks Cedar Circle
Entrance to my favorite path at Sevenoaks

I thought I was spiritually filled up.

And then I headed to Raleigh.

My plan had been that, on the tail end of my trip, I would drive down with my friend Rob and spend the remainder of my time with him and his wife before flying out of Raleigh the next day. It was unusual for me to book an afternoon flight when traveling back to El Paso from the East Coast. Especially with the 2-hour time difference. But at the time I didn’t think much about why I hadn’t scheduled a morning flight.

Not until weeks later when the “coincidence” surfaced.

Rob discovered that Lucy, a family friend and teacher of World History and Language Arts at a private middle school in the Raleigh area, was offering her 7th graders a long-term program focusing on the various issues of immigration and refugees. When Rob told her where I lived and what I did, she wanted to know if I’d come speak to her classes about El Paso and my experiences at our border.

I didn’t hesitate to say yes.

What has been so difficult for those of us living in El Paso these days is not being able to do much in the face of the alarming and false anti-immigrant narrative and policies that are sending asylum seekers to wait in dangerous Juarez. Most Americans have no understanding of the border reality. I had been praying and asking God, what can I do now in the service of love? Making PB&J sandwiches didn’t seem to be enough. I had turned back to writing more.

And then I received Lucy’s invitation.

If I was willing, she wanted me to give presentations to all four classes, back to back, enabling me to reach all 7th graders. That meant I would have to be there the entire morning.

Now I understood why I had delayed my flight. I could say yes to Lucy. And yes to what I clearly felt was Spirit’s response to my prayer.

After standing before students for 3 ½ hours, my mouth dry, my mind feeling like mush, I realized I had never spoken so long in my life. And never so effortlessly and smoothly. Never had I taken follow-up questions so easily. Clearly I had gotten myself out of the way and let Spirit take over. Clearly it wasn’t “me” doing the talking.

I had simply asked to be a voice, an instrument, through which Spirit could reach the hearts of these youths.

And the best part was I could tell they were listening. They were engaged. By their surprised expressions and concerned questions, I knew that they were learning about something they had had no clear understanding of beforehand.

Afterwards, Lucy and her colleague Matt were so appreciative of my willingness to do this. But they have no idea how thankful I am for them. How grateful I am to know there are teachers like this who want to educate youth about all sides of such an important issue, help them think for themselves, and learn empathy along the way.

Certainly they have no clue how I was spiritually fed that morning. How they allowed me to be a voice for those God has clearly put on my heart. And to have had it be part of my journey back to Sevenoaks seems especially mystical.

El Paso star
The journey of following the star led from Sevenoaks to El Paso

 

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Gratitude, Grace, & Grief

Close up of tableset with colorful plate for Thanksgiving party.

Thanksgiving.

Soon Davis will be here celebrating the holiday with me. I don’t have to be told how fortunate I am.

At the same time, I’m also aware that many will be missing a loved one at their Thanksgiving table this year.

Those who are still seeking news of a family member among the 700 or more missing in the California fires. Those whose loved ones were among the dozens of victims of mass shootings in the past several months, from a bar in Thousand Oaks to a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Sometimes it all feels like too much. We turn away. We turn off the TV. We find something else to occupy our minds.

Thanksgiving. Grieving. The two don’t quite go together.

Or do they?

Although we don’t have any control over when tragic, painful circumstances will strike our lives, our world, what I’ve discovered is what I do have control over – how I respond.

And, inadvertently, how grieving and gratitude can occupy the same space.

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I remember reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl years ago. One of the many things that struck me was a scene in which this man in the concentration camp is out working on the rock pile in the gray, predawn hours, concerned about his wife, and he turns to see the glory of the sun beginning to light up the sky as it rises in the distance. Even in what seems like a hopeless situation, he recognizes this as a moment of grace.

Etty Hillesum, in An Interrupted Life – her diaries written during WWII – wrote: “I am in Poland every day, on the battlefields, if that’s what one can call them. I often see visions of poisonous green smoke; I am with the hungry, with the ill-treated and the dying, every day, but I am also with the jasmine and with that piece of sky beyond my window; there is room for everything in a single life.”

Etty found herself in the midst of a frightening era of unspeakable atrocities. She also found herself on her knees, giving thanks for unspeakable beauty and grace-filled moments.

It seems when I, too, am brought to the edge of raw grief, I go to my knees. In surrender. In vulnerability and humility. Calling upon my Higher Self, the Holy dwelling within.

And then I discover the grace in my situation.

The grace that was there all along but I didn’t have the eyes to see. Until that moment.

Gratitude, grace, and grief can indeed occupy the same space.

I’ve learned this. And I am still learning it.

Learning it from my spiritual teachers, in Pathwork, the CAC Living School, Insight Meditation, and others, who continue to remind me that whenever life’s “disturbances” pull me down, I can pause and choose what to focus on.

And I’m learning it from our “guests” at the Loretto Nazareth hospitality center. Even after the kind of suffering they’ve experienced, they are still filled with gratitude for small kindnesses.

And every once in a while, I catch a glimpse of a parent and child on their knees before the crucifix displayed in our common area. In prayers of thanksgiving for their safe journey. And for their long journey ahead.

Something beautiful alongside the sorrow.

There is room for all of it.

And, in every moment, something to be grateful for.

Breaking Bread on the Journey

bread chunk

Pan. It’s the universal symbol,” Ruben tells us. “What better way to celebrate Annunciation House’s 40-year history than to share this bread together?”

It’s not exactly your ordinary dinner table. Or your typical Catholic Mass.

We’re gathered in a small parking lot outside a deteriorating building in the Segundo Barrio of El Paso. The oldest and poorest section of the city, only blocks away from the U.S.-Mexico border.

Exhaust fumes dissipate into the air as a city bus drives by. Passing motorists slow down to gawk. What could be going on here, they wonder?

Sitting on hard benches and stadium folding chairs, we listen to Ruben explain the importance of sharing this “meal.” A Eucharistic meal in thanksgiving for 40 years of being able to welcome migrants and refugees.

In celebration, Fr. Bill has created an “altar” covered by a colorful shawl from a women’s cooperative in Juarez. Momentarily, we’ll be sharing Eucharist together.

People of all ages and faiths surround me. Twenty-something-year olds mingle with retired sisters. Couples have brought their children. A toddler paddles past me, followed by her mom, who was once an Annunciation House volunteer.

This is a community unlike any other. I call it community at its best.

The faces of mostly everyone in this gathering are familiar. And those I don’t know are not strangers. We share something quite simple – in some capacity, we all have volunteered to accompany the migrants and refugees who have come through Annunciation House. And we all share a passion for justice for immigrants.

Every one of us has stepped out of our comfort zone in some aspect of our lives to follow that passion. Many have left other parts of the country, like myself, and eventually moved here. Others, who were raised in El Paso, have responded just as faithfully.

Each of us has chosen to accept an invitation to follow a “call.” And each of us has been deeply affected in the process.

For that reason, tonight, being in this unusual space breaking bread together feels especially powerful.

Tonight, Annunciation House is Eucharist. So are the quarter of a million people who have been welcomed and fed in this place. They, too, are Eucharist.

In her book, One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully, Ann Voskamp reminds us of the meaning of the word Eucharisteo – to be grateful, to remember with thanks.

Ann Voskamp_1000gifts

“Thanks feeds our trust,” Ann writes. Gratitude is “opening the hand to receive the moments. Trusting what is received to be grace. Taking it as bread.”

Bread for the journey.

This is the “bread” that feeds me. This is what I am remembering to give thanks for.

I open my hands and take what is blessed, broken, and shared, in thanksgiving for this moment. In thanksgiving for these people with whom I am sharing this Eucharist tonight. And in thanksgiving, most especially, for the people who have passed through these doors. With so little – and sometimes with nothing – they come and they teach me about real trust and gratitude. About the real meaning of sharing your bread, your brokenness, your blessings.

They teach me what Ann means when she says that Eucharisteo – thanks – “always precedes the miracle.”

Ruben, our executive director, has taught me that, too. He learned long ago what I have taken years to discover – you give thanks for the little you have and it multiplies. You give of yourself, and you get what you need when you need it. People show up to help. Supplies are replenished. Food multiplies.

Miracles happen.

ann-voskamp-quote-gratitude-precedes-the-miracle

I’ve witnessed such miracles time and again.

At Annunciation House and the temporary hospitality houses associated with it, the “work” and the needs seem to never end. At the end of a long day there is always much more to be done. Lately, the number of people seeking asylum has drastically increased. We all seem to be feeling overextended. Yet we know we will be given what we need to get up the next morning and face it again. Nourished for another day. With trust and gratitude.

Sharing this simple, sacred bread tonight fills me with that awareness and assurance.

We are indeed blessed. This simple “meal” is indeed a feast. A feast of compassion and mercy and gratitude. For the blessings and the brokenness.

May I continue to learn the meaning of Eucharisteo. To practice gratitude in every moment. And, as Ann recommends, to “…eat the mystery of the moment with trust.”

Quotes_Creator_Gratitude

“If you oppress the poor, you insult the God who makes them; but justice shown to the poor is an act of worship.” (Proverbs 14:31)

Contradictions in Costa Rica

Tortuguero-National-Park-boat
A trip up the canal along Tortugero National Park

I experienced paradise for nearly two weeks. Every morning in Costa Rica I’d wake up happy.

And that’s despite getting up much earlier than usual.

The cacophony of birds greeting the dawn just wouldn’t let me sleep. Nor would the howler monkeys. With their loud calls seemingly so close to my window, I felt as though someone had planted my bed smack in the middle of the jungle.

But I’d jump up, no matter the hour, excited and eager to get out there and see what amazing colors and species of bird, animal, and plant I’d find today.

Costa Rica defines abundance.

For such a small country – it accounts for only 0.03 percent of the earth’s surface – Costa Rica has nearly 6 percent of the world’s biodiversity. An overabundance in my book. I couldn’t even keep up with the numbers. Something like 600 species of birds – more than the United States and Canada combined – at least 150 species of frogs, over 500 species of trees.

Every day was an adventure in joyful exploration. An encounter with tremendous beauty.

Daily, I found myself expressing gratitude for this incredible earth we’ve been placed on.

But everything wasn’t perfect. Neither in Costa Rica nor elsewhere on the planet.

While on vacation I wasn’t watching the news, but I couldn’t get away from what was happening at the U.S.-Mexico border. I continued to view emails and messages from friends and reliable news sources.

So, I was aware that the caravan of Central Americans had been denied entry to the U.S., with the claim that Border Patrol had reached its capacity and was unable to accept and process the asylum seekers, most of whom were mothers and children. I knew, too, that this was a charade. The caravan had been anticipated. It had been in the news for days. There was no reason, other than political, as to why Border agents weren’t prepared to receive them.

Meanwhile, back in El Paso, my fellow volunteers were helping an unusually high number of migrants. Texts and emails were coming through, rapidly and daily, for more volunteers, as ICE delivered more than 400 asylum seekers to our “hospitality houses” during the week I was gone.

It was such a contradiction. One border outside Tijuana unable to process a little more than 100 people who had been expected to arrive while another port of entry was taking in an unexpected 100 or more a day.

I couldn’t help but think about it. I imagine a hard stone wall, filled with anger, fear, and prejudice, stacked up against some people’s hearts, to keep from feeling their humanity towards immigrants. It is this wall, I suspect, that keeps us from feeling the pain and outrage over our government’s practice of now separating children – as young as 2 years old – from their mothers at the border. Mothers who have fled their country in order to save their children. Now suffering even greater heartbreak.

It felt like such a contradiction within myself, too.

One minute I was telling a co-traveler how Costa Rica makes my heart happy, and the next, I was explaining to another how the tragic and troubling situation at the border hurts my heart.

And both were true.

I don’t pretend to understand why there is such pain in an abundant universe.

This is the world we live in: one that can be both paradise and prison, both filled with immeasurable joy and immense sorrow.

And my faith lives in the midst of these seemingly contradictory experiences and emotions.

When I ask my inner being, what am I to do, I hear that my task is simply to learn to love. Love those in sorrow and pain, and love those who wound and hurt them because of their own pain and ignorance. Learn to hold all of this suffering and let my heart feel and expand in the process. Which really isn’t that simple, is it?

But this is what connects me to the One who has created such inexpressible beauty in nature and such vulnerable hearts capable of unimaginable pain.

It may seem contradictory, but both are gifts – treasures hidden in plain sight.

Graces in Greene

 

snowy-full-view-jan-2017
My cocoon in the woods

No, I’ve not disappeared. I have a good reason for taking a month off from my blog — the sale and closing on my beautiful log cabin in Greene County, Virginia.

With all the details to handle for this long-distance move, my 12 days of Christmas went something like this:

12 hours on the phone working out the details of this major move (most of them spent on  hold with Direct TV). Eight friends helping me pack, bringing me food, transporting stuff to storage and Goodwill. Six days driving 9+ hours a day (from El Paso to Virginia and back again). Four trips to a storage unit with some items Davis will surely not know what the heck to do with. Two weeks packing, sorting, and discarding. One light snowfall blanketing the woods and mountains. And a cardinal in an oak tree.

It’s been bittersweet, to be sure.

Finding  myself back in that special place brought up a lot of memories. It gave me a new appreciation of my friends, of my Greene County community, of the privilege of living in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and, most especially, of the spiritual significance of living in the silence and solitude of this log home that I envisioned and manifested.

Although two weeks was barely enough time to get everything done and moved out, I managed to pause each day. Take time for contemplative silence. Note the blessings. And be grateful.

That practice helped me remain focused. It calmed me, gave me clarity, and assisted me in letting go of my last tether to Virginia. Not an easy thing to do. Because I love that home. I love my friends. I love Greene County.

snowy-goodbye-jan-2017
I experienced one last snowstorm in this magical place.

Still, I knew it was the right decision.

And I experienced, much more clearly than I had before, just how much Spirit had upheld me, kept me safe, supported and loved me in this space. Through the questions and doubts, the loneliness, the seeking, as I attempted to listen more and more deeply to where my heart was calling me.

I felt such profound gratitude.

Gratitude for the graces of both the peaceful and tumultuous emotions that surfaced here. For the healing that took place as well. For the Love that never left me.

Gratitude for the community of friends who have showed up whenever I needed them. For those of you who are reading this, I can’t even find sufficient words to thank you.

Greene County is an amazing place. I think of the friends who appeared at my door within minutes after David died. Your countless meals, offers of physical and emotional support, and prayers carried me through that stage and beyond.

Three years later friends again appeared to help me move from our family home to this dream home in the woods. And now, again, you have come to support me.

I know I could not have made this transformational move without you.

Now I’m back in El Paso, settling into an apartment. I haven’t lived in apartment since before I got married at 24 — a very long time ago!

Yes, it’s an adjustment. Another practice in letting go. Daily I am learning to say “yes” to life as it shows up. To accept a life that’s rarely on my terms. And, I hope, paying attention to the graces.

Graces abound.

When I’m in the flow of life, I recognize them. Just as I did these past two weeks in Virginia. They show up in various forms, in unexpected places. They come in different shapes and even in colors. My favorite happens to be Greene.

 

snowy-road-jan-2017
Mountains flank my snowy, winding driveway as I prepare to leave Virginia.