I was a little over an hour away from Dallas, where I’d planned to stop for the night, when three warning lights popped up on my dash.
Panic. I’m on an interstate surrounded by nothing but ranchland. I still had about another 10 hours of driving to get back to El Paso. Plus, it’s Friday night of Memorial Day weekend.
After pulling over to peruse my manual and check my engine, I offer a prayer to get somewhere safely. Then I decide to calm down. I decide to trust that whatever happens, it’ll be OK. And I let go of any expectation to make it back to El Paso tomorrow.
This is not a typical response for me.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been getting a lot of practice in learning to trust over these past several years.
Maybe it’s the effects of listening to CDs on Meister Eckhart and the art of letting go while taking this incredibly long roundtrip drive from El Paso to Virginia.
Maybe it’s because, from the beginning, this journey has been about ridding myself of what is unnecessary. Of letting go of attachments and outcomes. Of learning to say yes to what is in front of me.
And there’s no doubt it’s because of what I’ve seen and experienced along the way.
Days earlier I had emptied out the extra bedroom at a friend’s house where I’d stored boxes I couldn’t get to before leaving Virginia last January. Sorting through years of family photos and other memorabilia filled me with gratitude for the blessed life I’d had.
A life I couldn’t return to. No matter how appealing it seemed.
And appealing it was. Visiting friends who were settling into a simpler life with their husbands, their kids now grown and out of college, yet still living close enough for family get-togethers in the beautiful rural countryside of central Virginia – I’ll admit, it was attractive.
This physical emptying out, I realized, was a metaphor for the internal releasing and emptying that has been going on. An emptying of attitudes as well as possessions, of the way I would like life to show up. The way I would like things to be.
Like not having car issues on the interstate, for example. Or not having my husband die so young. Or living so far away from my son who’s remaining in Alaska for at least another year.
Yet I also saw how, the more I “empty myself out,” the more I have room for God. And for “the other.” Room for true listening. For opening to the grace that’s right here.
The next day, as I sat in the customer service area at the Dallas Sewell Subaru, waiting to get the news about my car, I pulled out a letter I’d received from Martin, a 27-year-old Mexican journalist who’d come here seeking asylum because his life had been threatened. He was stuck in the El Paso detention facility, awaiting the results of his case.
I’d begun writing to Martin, hoping to encourage and visit him soon. I was considering my response to his letter when I received a text from a friend in El Paso saying that Martin had been denied asylum for the second time! Losing hope, he’d decided to give up his case rather than appeal and remain in our prison-like system. That means he’ll be returning to Mexico where at least half a dozen journalists have been killed in recent months. His young life is surely in danger.
Suddenly my minor inconvenience is irrelevant. My calling to follow my heart clearer than ever.
It may be that every time I step out in faithfulness, I’m taking a risk. But my risks are insignificant compared to the risks taken by those I’ve accompanied, my brothers and sisters running for their lives. People who live in constant fear and danger.
Living with an open-hearted stance is not easy. I feel the pain of the other as I grow in awareness that my life is not about me.
But this is what I choose. And I need grace to succeed.
“Grace leads us to the state of emptiness, to that momentary sense of meaningless in which we ask, ‘What is it all for? What does it all mean?’ All we can do is try to keep our hands cupped and open. And it is even grace to do that.” Richard Rohr
I hope that I am being “emptied out” so that I can be filled with the very fullness of that grace.
I’ve been missing Virginia’s spring. Luckily, I’m about to experience it once again when I drive back to Virginia next week to attend my niece’s graduation from George Mason University. Soon my senses will be filled with sweet-smelling blossoms, blasted with the color of azaleas, irises, dogwoods, and lilacs. And, of course, stuffed with pollen.
I imagine Davis is missing it, too. Up there in Nome where the earth is just beginning to thaw and show sprigs of green.
Like him, I’ve been having a different kind of spring.
As in Nome, spring’s arrival in the desert is slow and subtle. You have to really look for it.
So lately I’d been paying attention to the stirrings of the earth. Seeking changes in the landscape. Looking and listening. Trying to find what I thought I was missing.
Turns out, I found something. Something within myself.
One day I ventured out to a park located not far from my apartment. So close, I’d wondered why I hadn’t been there before. Sinking my feet into the grass – real grass – I strolled across the lawn and finally settled down under a tree. A wide-trunked tree. Placed my back up against it and took in the energy of one of my favorite forms of life. Right away I started missing the greenery of Virginia. The red cardinals and indigo buntings. Even the squirrels.
Suddenly a slight breeze stirred the leaves above me, as if to say, “Hey, we’re here. Can’t you see us?”
And then – I’m not kidding – a squirrel scampered across the hillside. The first I’ve seen since arriving in El Paso. He was quickly followed by another chasing after him. All along I’d thought squirrels didn’t exist here!
In the silence I sensed God saying, “Everything you need is here.”
I smiled as I was shown once again that I have everything I need. That “everything is everywhere” – to use a title of a lovely Carrie Newcomer song I recently came across. That I am never separated from my Source.
And I remembered why I am here.
In this desert, at the border, I am finding my heart, my compassion, my voice. What was planted in me is thriving. And I’m discovering that the changes I seek in the landscape are happening within me.
Just as Davis discovered something stirring within himself in the dark of winter. Something that called him to remain in Alaska and be a voice for the people there.
It’s part of the sacred pattern of life. This rhythm to the cycle of the seasons. A sacred rhythm that’s playing out within us, too. If we can only have patience to allow it to unfold.
Whether it’s under the deep, dark, frozen earth or the dusty, dry landscape, life is stirring within. Seeds have been planted. Seeds that will miraculously burst forth at the appropriate time.
It’s all part of the cycle. A cycle you can trust.
And you can trust the Source that’s fulfilling what has been planted within you.
Whether you’re at the Bering Sea, the Arabian Sea, or a place like El Paso that’s never seen the sea.
Because, as Carrie sings, “Miracles are everywhere. Love is love; it’s here and there. Everything is everywhere.” (from “Everything Is Everywhere”)
It’s a message we need to remember. No matter what season we’re in.
To listen to this beautiful song by Carrie Newcomer, find it at
We are grieving our loss. My fellow volunteers and I – the women and men who worked alongside me at the Nazareth hospitality center.
We know we’ve lost something special.
Several weeks ago, our center for migrants and refugees closed. We were told it was due to staff transitions in the main health center that owns the wing we were using. We thought it was temporary. So far, it hasn’t reopened.
But even before the center closed, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) had been bringing us fewer and fewer refugees. In mid-January, our daily numbers began dropping to single digits.
The interesting thing is, all of this happened soon after I’d closed on my house, packed up all my belongings and moved here – lock, stock, and barrel. Suddenly, what I loved doing most and fed me spiritually had disappeared.
You gotta wonder what the Universe has planned.
Still, I know without a doubt this is where I am meant to be. Living close to the border. Living, as I call it, “close to the bone.”
I’m not questioning my heart’s guidance.
But I am grieving. And I’m not the only one.
I realized this last week when I unexpectedly ran into several of my fellow volunteers at a Taize service.
Volunteers like Martha. Every Tuesday, she and her friend Cuki would come to Nazareth to prepare breakfast and lunch for our “guests.” When our daily numbers jumped to well over 100, they enlisted other friends to help. They spent their entire day there, every Tuesday.
And they’ve been doing this for nearly three years.
Martha and I were so happy to see each other that night. With moist eyes, we shared how much we missed Nazareth and “the people.”
Without really having words to express why, we both knew the fullness of this experience had touched our lives.
Other volunteers joined our conversation. And that’s when I realized, we all were grieving.
Grieving because we missed interacting with the people who had clearly given us a gift by their presence.
Grieving because we know the tragic and violent situations that existed in these people’s lives – the reasons they fled their home countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – have not changed. They’re still subjected to death threats, extortion, and gang violence. But where are they are fleeing to, we wondered?
Grieving because we know that human rights abuses are increasing – at detention facilities, at ports of entry, and elsewhere. And we don’t expect it to get better soon.
Some Customs and Border Patrol agents are turning away asylum seekers without consideration of their claims. Cases have been documented of people with credible fear being turned away at the border, like the mother who fled Guatemala after gang members killed her two sons and threatened her life. Turned away, even though those who are fleeing violence have a legal right to seek asylum in the U.S.
Or, in some cases, ICE is locking up asylum seekers. Sticking them in detention for the duration of their case, even though they pose no threat to our society. Even though they have passed their “credible fear” interview. Causing them more pain, more harm, more trauma to their children.
Here’s a recent example. Martín Méndez Pineda, a 25-year-old journalist from Acapulco, Guerrero, was detained and denied parole after seeking asylum here in El Paso. Pineda had received death threats and police beatings for his critical reports of the Mexican federal police. Only a week earlier, a female journalist had been murdered in Mexico. Rather than assist this young man, we threw him in detention like a criminal.
Yes, we are definitely grieving over the direction our country is taking towards migrants and refugees.
Because for us, this is not just a controversial issue on the 6 o’clock news.
We have come to know “the people.” We have listened to their stories. We have accompanied them and been transformed by the encounter.
And we know they are human beings. Worthy of being treated with dignity and compassion.
Please, no matter where you stand on the issue of immigration and refugees, let’s remember that these are human beings. That human rights abuses should not be part of our protocol.
And it is absolutely inhumane to separate mothers from their children as a deterrent to immigration.
All that we will accomplish by such inhumane treatment is more grief. And the loss will be much more extensive and personal than we can anticipate.
For more practical and humane suggestions for curbing the flow of illegal immigration, listen to award-winning journalist and author of Enrique’s Journey, Sonia Nazario’s TED talk at https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#search/sonia+navarro+ted/15ada9caf1939193?projector=1
Davis’s hair is thinning.
We were sitting across from each other in a restaurant in Nome when I first noticed it. The hair draping his forehead wasn’t really covering his forehead.
“Are you losing your hair?” I asked incredulously.
“Yeah,” he said disgustedly. “And I’m only 23, Mom!”
But Davis knew, just as I did, the sad reality. He’s inherited his dad’s hair genes.
When I met David, he was 28 and already balding. It made him appear way too serious for me. Only 21, just out of college, I wasn’t ready for someone who looked like he could have three kids, a dog, and a minivan! And it didn’t help that he smoked cigars and liked expensive wine.
But luckily, we stayed connected. It took me a while, but I finally realized what a treasure David was.
Fortunately, bad hair genes isn’t the only thing Davis has inherited from his dad. He’s also got David’s level of maturity and generosity of spirit. His compassion. His ability to thoughtfully weigh a situation before he speaks.
And, observing him in Nome, I noticed something else.
Faced with an unusual and challenging environment, Davis adapted. Very well.
Better than I would have to such a harsh, frigid climate in an isolated place that gets down to as little as 3 ½ hours of daylight in December.
I certainly admired him for that. I probably would have hibernated in my room and slunk into a depression.
But not Davis. He immersed himself in the culture and the community. Joined their indoor sports teams. Helped out at community functions. Accepted invitations for traditional outdoor activities.
And he got to know the people. To pay attention to their customs and their culture. To their traditions. Their way of living.
While interviewing me for his audio blog, he shared that what had most impacted him about Alaska wasn’t the difficulty of living in the darkness. Or living without his active social life and cable TV.
It was the people. The folks in the communities and villages he’s visited.
Many live with very limited income. In the outlying villages, many are poor. They live without even basic infrastructure. Some have difficulty finding potable water. Yet they share with him whatever they have.
He says that, going forward, it’s the generosity of the people and their simple way of living that have inspired him to do something meaningful with his life. To live more simply and appreciate the little things. To recognize that consumption at the expense of others is not the answer.
Of course, Davis is my son, too. And a lot of what he described sounded like words that came out of my mouth not that long ago in describing the poor I’d met at the U.S-Mexico border.
The generosity and simplicity of people who have so little. Their faith and joy of living.
Oftentimes they are people living in the shadows. The poor. The undocumented. Those living on the margins of society. Or in tiny villages in western Alaska.
Already, Davis knows that life isn’t just about him and his needs or wants. He has an ability to see “the other” and be open to those who are different from himself. To open his mind and heart to understand their lives. And to want to use his gifts and talents to make a positive contribution.
What more could a mother ask for her child?
So, yes, Davis did get his dad’s genes. He’ll have to deal with the premature hair loss. But he’s gotten so much more out of the deal. I believe he’s gotten the best of both of us.
NOTE: You can catch Davis’s interview of me on his audio blog at: http://www.knom.org/wp/blog/2017/03/03/impressions-of-nome-from-a-visitor-a-majestic-place-pauline-hovey-says/
Leaving Nome is hard. Literally.
A fog rolled in during the wee morning hours on the day I was supposed to leave and it never lifted, cancelling my flight out that evening.
Finding another flight that would get me all the way from Nome to El Paso? Well, let’s just say, it ain’t easy.
The end result? Another full 24 hours in Nome.
Not that this was a hardship by any means.
I spent the morning as I had every day since arriving – walking on the frozen Bering Sea as the sun rose, turning the snow and ice various shades of blue and violet while golden light danced across the landscape.
Western Alaska is a special place.
Honestly, it was not on my list of vacation spots, so I’m thankful to Davis for being there to give me an opportunity to visit. Even in the coldest season.
But, truthfully, I didn’t mind the cold. Dressed in layers every time I ventured out, I barely noticed it. That is, until Davis took me out on a snow mobile.
I asked him to take me, so I have nobody to blame but myself. It’s just that I hadn’t taken into account that zipping across the frozen Bering Sea at nearly 40 miles per hour – I asked him to take it easy on me – was going to make the air just a little bit colder.
Somehow, frigid air managed to make its way up the cuffs of my coat, chilling my wrists and arms, while the wind whipped against my legs as I sat on the back of that machine, holding onto Davis as tight as I could. Wearing my thick, insulated gloves, it was hard to even feel his waist. Whenever we’d hit a bump of ice, I’d pop off that seat and pray that I’d land safely back on. By the time I told him I needed to stop, my knees and quads felt like blocks of ice.
It felt exhilarating and a bit frightening at the same time.
Not only was this my first time on a snow mobile, but I’d never raced across a frozen body of water while my breath fogged up my sunglasses and ice crystals formed in my hair.
Here are some other first-time experiences I had in Nome:
Cross-country skiing on the Bering Sea. This was a rather awkward and slow event since I’ve not been on skis since I was 22.
Snow shoeing up Anvil Mountain – although I didn’t make it all the way up. I had to yell to Davis, who was far ahead of me – no need to wait for mom, after all – to stop and wait up.
I tried to explain that trudging up a snow-covered mountain in heavy snowshoes, in sub-freezing temperatures, while bogged down with extra layers of clothes, is not the same as climbing the dry, dusty Franklin Mountains in El Paso in 70-degree weather. Nor like hiking in Shenandoah National Park. Nor like anyplace I’ve ever hiked, for that matter. I suggested we stop and take in the view.
Paying double and triple the usual amount for an onion, bananas, tomatoes, and spinach at the market. Produce gets shipped in from the lower 48, and it’s costly.
Eating freshly caught Alaskan King crab. The plentiful amount of fresh crab, salmon, and halibut more than make up for the above inconvenience.
Hearing a language I couldn’t recognize. Inupiaq – the native language of the region’s Eskimo people – is spoken on the radio and even sung in church.
Constantly seeing heavily-bundled Eskimo children playing outdoors, whether climbing mounds of snow, throwing Frisbee with their dogs (no kidding), or ice skating down the middle of the street. You can do this when the streets are covered in slick coats of ice and the main mode of winter transportation is snow machines.
But my undebatable favorite was capturing sight of Aurora Borealis – the northern lights. Two nights in a row I was lucky enough to venture out after midnight and see this majestic, mystical, surreal event. It looks and feels like a spiritual presence hovering above the dark images of the mountains as the light eerily changes shapes and glides in and out of view.
Yes, life is challenging in Nome, but the generosity of the people and the freedom of the open landscape, the closeness to Nature, and their simple, sustainable way of life, offer something unique. Something precious. Something that despite the challenges, not only makes the natives want to stay, but brings visitors back to settle.
The day I finally flew out of Nome, I spotted a young man in the airport wearing a hooded sweatshirt depicting an outline of the state of Alaska. The words “Life Below Zero” were plastered in the center.
Whereas before coming to western Alaska, I would have seen those words and thought they represented something harsh, unappealing, a sort of penance. But not now. Now, I knew. I’d discovered yet another secret about what makes life worth living.
“Five members of my family were killed.”
He tells me this several times during our conversation. He even holds one hand in the air, spreading his fingers apart. “Five,” he says, to be sure I understand.
“They shot my brother in the face,” he adds.
But I can’t fully understand what Hector has told me.
How could I? I’ve never even witnessed this kind of violence, let alone have it happen to five members of my family.
I met Hector recently at the Loretto-Nazareth migrant hospitality center when my shift coordinator asked me to help him. “He’s very anxious,” she told me. “Could you make him a cup of tea?”
Besides losing five family members to violence, Hector has risked traveling more than 2,000 miles with his 13-year-old daughter to escape the violence in Guatemala, left his wife and two other children behind without knowing their fate, and endured several days in a holding cell after presenting himself to Border Patrol at the U.S.-Mexico bridge to seek asylum. Soon, he and his daughter will get on a bus to travel to his sister living in Los Angeles. He doesn’t know what he will encounter along the way or whether he will be deported once he arrives.
No wonder he’s anxious.
Stories of extortion, death threats, disappearances, and worse are common among our refugees, who mostly originate from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – the most dangerous countries in the Western Hemisphere.
I do more than make Hector a cup of tea. I teach him some deep breathing and emotional energy release exercises. As I watch this man, eyes closed, his body relaxing with each breath, what strikes me is the gentleness of his face. Traces of a lost innocence.
As Hector shares more of his story, I realize that he is only one of millions who have lost that innocence. Millions whose fate is now being determined at the political level. With no thought to the human lives involved. Or the loss.
According to the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, measured against the world’s population of 7.4 billion people, one in every 113 people globally is now either an asylum seeker, internally displaced, or a refugee – putting them at a level of risk for which UNHCR knows no precedent. Many of them are children.
This troubling fact has been cast aside so easily.
Under the illusion of fear.
“Not my problem.” “We can’t open the doors to everyone.” Typical arguments I’ve heard that justify not getting involved. Remaining silent.
Meanwhile, the innocent are dying.
Maybe it’s this loss of innocence and senseless death that brought to mind the novel-turned-movie To Kill a Mockingbird. Maybe it’s the integrity and sense of morality and justice that Atticus Finch portrays. His willingness to “walk around in another man’s shoes.”
Qualities we so badly need right now.
I find myself wondering, have we lost our integrity? Our willingness to allow a stranger into our hearts? To recognize that what we do, or don’t do, to help these refugees does matter?
“The willingness of nations to work together not just for refugees but for the collective human interest is what’s being tested today, and it’s this spirit of unity that badly needs to prevail,” Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said recently.
After visiting the ruins of Aleppo earlier this month, Grandi, shocked by the devastation, said, “These ruins speak for themselves. When you see children’s clothes hanging out of windows, kitchens cut in half by shells and rockets, the real lives of people interrupted by war as it was happening, I think this will weigh very heavily on the conscience of the world for generations.”
I think it will. Because when we allow innocents to suffer and die, we pay the price.
We lose the music of our soul.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve been feeling it again lately.
On December 2nd, David’s birthday, I found myself crying. That’s unusual. Several birthdays have passed since his death and they haven’t caused such a reaction in me.
But that day I missed him.
I was feeling particularly tender and vulnerable. Continuing to live in this uncertain, “in-between” place was affecting me.
And there was something more.
A little over three months ago, in the predawn hours, I awoke to a message on my phone from a good friend from the past. Lisa had reached out to me because her husband had just died. Shocked out of my groggy half-awake state, I texted back that I was here if she wanted to talk.
Lisa and her husband Kevin had been good friends of ours in the early years of our marriages when we lived in Connecticut. We’d stayed in touch after moving away and even wound up living in the neighboring states of Virginia and North Carolina. Occasionally we’d meet halfway for family camping trips.
We had this history together. We’d begun our marriages around the same time. Had both experienced the years of longing for a child and waiting and hoping and waiting some more. Finally rejoicing in each other’s gift — a son for me, a daughter for Lisa. Our friendship was comfortable and comforting.
Listening to Lisa that morning, my own grief came back to me just as clearly as if I were reliving it with her. I remembered how I’d felt as if a hole had been ripped through my heart. How else can you describe losing your best friend and most intimate partner? The person you tell everything to, share everything with. The one who knows you better than anyone. The love of your life.
Yes, I understood that pain. I could empathize. But what surprised me is how easily I felt this grief again. I remembered how bottomless and debilitating it had felt. How at times I’d thought I couldn’t possibly heal.
More than anything in that moment, I wanted to take that pain from my friend. Even if it meant I had to relive it for her.
Because I have crossed over this threshold, I know I can survive it. And much more than that — I know that joy and love and fullness of life exist even in the midst of such pain. I already know this.
But Lisa doesn’t. At least not yet.
I got off the phone that morning asking, why so much pain? Why must we experience so much pain?
I don’t really know the answer to that question.
But I do know that if I close my heart off to feeling as a result of my deep loss, I will close myself off from the greatest adventure and fulfillment of my life.
Here’s what is clear to me:
That grief and the healing power of transformation are connected.
That compassion has grown in me because of my own grief.
That grieving is not a singular event . The door to my heart has been broken open; I can’t go back to allowing myself not to feel.
That all of it is sacred and trustworthy. Even the painful stuff.
And I can trust the One who remained with me through the deepest darkness of my grief.
Many of us are grieving at this time of year. Some of it is due to the upcoming Christmas holiday, which can magnify our loneliness and pain, especially when we’ve lost loved ones.
Some of the grief, I believe, is due to this recent presidential election. I know I have felt anxiety and a real sadness for those who are vulnerable, including Mother Earth. There’s a collective grieving happening. I’ve heard this from others as well.
For me, the call is to live with greater compassion. Even, and especially, if it means feeling the pain of the other.
As insight meditation teacher Tara Brach explained in a recent talk on Bodhisattva for Our Times, going through your personal grief brings you to the universal.
She says, “Let grief transform you. Then make a conscious choice to be a light.”
That in itself is reason enough for me to allow myself to feel the pain of grieving. I want, and I choose, to be a light in the darkness.
“We’re all in it together and we can trust that even in the long, dark nights of winter our hearts are turning toward the light.” (Tara Brach)
The man sitting on his cot, head bowed, eyes closed, catches my eye as I pass his room. His toddler son, wriggling on his back beside him, gleefully plays with some imaginary toy held high in the air. But the child doesn’t disturb his father. The man prays silently, deeply entrenched in a place far beyond this room.
I pause in the hallway. Quietly take in what I have just witnessed.
Granted, pausing is unusual when I’m working at the Nazareth migrant hospitality center. Most days I barely have time to gobble down a spoonful of yogurt or finish an apple.
But, I sense the beauty and preciousness of this scene. It’s worth taking a moment.
And in that sacred, tender moment, a door opens. A door through which I catch a glimpse into the life of another. A door that further opens my heart.
And I understand why I do this work.
A job that no one in her right mind would ever accept from an employer. The pay is lousy (non-existent!). No company perks. You don’t get a half-hour lunch break. In fact, you have to force yourself to remember to sit down and eat. No 15-minute coffee breaks or gathering in the company kitchen to choose a K-cup of your favorite coffee. No time for checking emails or text messaging. Not even time for friendly banter with your coworkers.
But the reward is priceless.
A connection that takes me far beyond my self-preoccupation. Beyond my judgments of how I “think” things should be.
This act of witnessing, and being with, the migrants and refugees who come through our doors – makes me forget my petty concerns.
Every time I hear one of our “guests” tell me he hasn’t eaten much for days and is thankful for the meals we’ve offered him.
Every time a mom says how happy she is to be able to finally take a shower.
Every time a child’s face lights up when she’s given a used pair of shoes.
Every time someone says I’m kind — “muy amable, gracias,” — when I hand them a jacket or a bag of food for the journey ahead.
Every time I put myself in their shoes, I forget about my own unknown future.
But I am remembering something much more important.
Last April, at a James Finley retreat on Meister Eckhart, I wrote down these words. They struck me, because I knew this was how I desired to live my life:
“Find that person, that community, that act, that when you give yourself over to it with your whole heart, unravels your petty preoccupation with your self-absorbed self and strangely brings you home to yourself.”
That’s what I’ve found. That’s what this “work” is giving me.
The opportunity to come home to my Self.
Richard Rohr writes: “Jesus did not call us to the poor and to the pain only to be helpful; he called us to be in solidarity with the real and for own transformation. It is often only after the fact we realize that they helped us in ways we never knew we needed. This is sometimes called ‘reverse mission.’
“Only near the poor, close to ‘the tears of things’ as the Roman poet Virgil puts it, in solidarity with suffering, can we understand ourselves, love one another well, imitate Jesus, and live his full Gospel.”
In truth, I can’t really walk in their shoes. But I can pause. Be present. Keep my heart open. As I walk in solidarity alongside them.
Thursday I found myself praying in a mosque. For the first time. Hopefully, not my last.
Although a Christian woman, I chose to be here. To join my friend Rob, whom I am visiting in Raleigh, and his friend Steve – also Christians. Rob and Steve have been visiting this mosque every Thursday for months. An expression of solidarity.
It was Steve’s idea. As anti-Muslim rhetoric grew more vicious, and frightening, he felt the need to do something positive. So they come at 5:30. One of the five times daily that Muslims gather to pray.
They sit among Muslim men in folding chairs spread out on bright green prayer rugs. And they pray. Silently. Respectfully.
The people have noticed their presence. And welcomed them. It doesn’t matter that Rob and Steve clearly are not Muslim.
On this particular night, I take a seat in the back, where the women gather. A shawl draped over my head covers my shoulders and bare arms. As I sit, I become aware that this might be risky. Associating with Muslims these days can be dangerous. Innocent people have been killed. Simply for being near a mosque. Or appearing to be Muslim.
A smiling man walks over to hand me literature entitled “What Is Islam?” I leaf through the pages as the women wander in with their children.
I read things I did not know. For instance, Islam means to be at peace with God and His creatures. “Being at peace with His creatures implies living in peace within one’s self, with other people, and with the environment.”
I consider this statement – that one of the aims of Islam is “to emphasize the oneness of humanity as a whole and the Oneness of the Creator….”
Hmm. The Oneness of all. That’s the reason I am here.
I pray silently for that Oneness to be realized. For unity. For compassion. For peace.
I watch the women demonstrate their own prayer to this Oneness.
They stand, arms stretched out before them, palms raised in worship. They utter words I don’t understand. They kneel, bend forward, forehead to the floor.
An act of surrender. A humbling expression of devotion.
Present. Open. Surrendered.
That is what I see. That is what I experience. And I mirror it back to them.
I remain in contemplative silence for awhile. A passage from the gospel of John surfaces: “God is love. And he/she who abides in love, abides in God, and God in him/her.”
In this space, I recognize our connection to the One whose power surpasses all.
That connection is Love.
I like to think that this choice that Steve and Rob have made, and I along with them on this Thursday night, delights God. That in choosing to be in love and solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters, we are co-creating a world of love, beauty, and truth. For more years than I can remember I have prayed to co-create such a world. Thanks to Rob and Steve, I am being shown how.
Gerald May once commented while sitting in a prayer circle on a winter retreat when the electricity went out, “Here in this darkened room we are saving the world.”
A bold statement? Maybe.
But on that Thursday night, in a brightly lit room, with green prayer mats, I, too, experienced that possibility. Abiding in love with one another, we are saving the world.
One sacred moment at a time.