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Emptied Out

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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.

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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.

A Promise in Post-Election Pandemonium

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Hope. Love. Commitment.

I’ve settled on these three qualities. They’re what I will be carrying with me as we go forward into the next four years. Along with a promise, which I’ll get to in a minute.

Throughout the day following the election, I felt unable to completely focus. My heart laden, my mind racing with legitimate concerns.

For the vulnerable, for the marginalized. For the migrants and refugees whom I serve and for those who will be denied a much-needed haven here. For Muslims, especially Muslim Americans. For African-Americans. For the LGBT community. For women. For Mother Earth. For those who already face lives more difficult and painful than most of us will ever experience – in this country and far beyond.

Did I leave anyone out?

I prayed to be able to say yes. To all that I was feeling. To all that I was fearing.

The only prayers I could get out were, “Help.” And “Not my will but thine be done.”

Then I found myself remembering someone else who’d surrendered with those words.

I imagined the fear and helplessness Jesus must have felt.

And I realized I was looking at this from a smaller lens. Like a child fearing the next wave while missing the grandeur and beauty of an entire ocean that could lift her up.

And I began to hope.

Not the kind of hope that wants to believe everything will turn out the way I think it should.

Spiritual hope.

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The kind of hope I remembered insight meditation teacher Tara Brach describing in one of her wonderful talks. The kind revealed to 14th century Christian mystic Julian of Norwich who asked for an understanding of the suffering in this world.

 

There’s no mistaking. Donald Trump has brought to light the dark shadow of this country. A shadow that has been lurking under the surface all along. He did not cause it. He certainly triggered it and capitalized on it. And he seems to live unaware of its existence within himself.

But unless we bring what is hidden in darkness into the light, it cannot be healed and transformed.

I find hope in that possibility.

I also pray for its realization.

Last night I gathered with my newfound Mexican indigenous “sisters” for a “supermoon” full moon prayer ritual. We came together with a prayer intention of sending love and light to our president-elect Donald Trump, to his team, for our country, and our world. It truly was a light-filled ceremony of releasing and surrendering. Of opening to Spirit’s power and love.

Pray.

That’s something we can all do going forward.

And I feel I must do more. Given the dangerous, divisive attitudes in our country and the groundswell of hate that has erupted.

So, I have made a post-election promise:

I will keep my heart and mind open.

I will be devoted and committed to self-introspection, to paying attention to my own shadow.

I will listen to those with different views and engage in nonviolent dialogue and behavior.

Yet, I will not stand idly by while someone of a different race, sexual orientation, or religion is insulted or threatened.

I will not be indifferent.

I will not be silent in the face of injustice, bigotry, or worse.

I will continue to serve those in need, to do the work I do for migrants and refugees, no matter the consequences.

I will be quiet enough to listen to God within me, and act from that wiser, contemplative place.

Most importantly, I will live by the law of love. The spiritual law of brotherhood.

Love God. Love neighbor. That will always come first. Before any law of the land.

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As Richard Rohr said in his post-election message: “We who know about universal belonging and identity in God have a different form of power: Love (even of enemies) is our habitat, not the kingdoms of this world.

“Only a contemplative mind can hold our fear, confusion, vulnerability, and anger and guide us toward love. Let’s use this milestone moment to begin again with confidence and true inner freedom and to move out into the world with compassion.” (Rohr’s full article is available on the Center for Action and Contemplation website at cac.org)

I go forward with compassion, empowered in my true identity.

With hope in the One who loves us beyond our current understanding.

Committed to speak out and to stand by all my brothers and sisters.

Because we are One. And all lives matter.

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In Their Shoes

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Used children’s shoes  waiting for their new owners to find them at Nazareth Migrant Center

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.

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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.

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A Journey into Love

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My little darlings at el orfanato in Cochabamba

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.

Next Stop, Bolivia

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Mission. The word won’t leave me. It keeps showing up in unexpected ways.

Like through an invitation from a special friend. She asked me recently to consider joining her on a pilgrimage to Amistad, “the Friendship Mission,” in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where more than half the population live below the national poverty line.

I decided to check out their website (see http://www.amistadmission.org/).

As soon as I saw the children’s faces, the Andes mountains, the indigenous women donning wide-brimmed hats and colorful scarves, tears sprang to my eyes.

I had to say yes. With no clear indication why. I simply felt a pull on my heart. A pull to be with the poor of Latin America.

Who can explain such things?

I’ve no idea what I’ll discover there. It’s only for a week. But I know I’ll come back with much more than I could possibly give. Just like what happened with the migrants in El Paso.

Last week Richard Rohr used the word “reverse mission” in one of his daily reflections. His words say exactly what I’m trying to say.

“An overly protected life—a life focused on thinking more than experiencing—does not know deeply or broadly. 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 our 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.’ The ones we think we are ‘saving’ end up saving us, and in the process, redefine the very meaning of salvation!”

Here’s where I’ve experienced “the real” while on mission:

  • In the sound of children’s joyous shrieks as we play a simple game of Uno at the health center in Anapra, home to Mexico’s poorest of the poor.
  • In the migrant woman, who after being paid a meager $15 for a day’s labor of housecleaning, gave $5 to someone “less fortunate.”
  • In the mud-caked, sole-flapping shoes of the little Guatemalan girls who showed up at our hospitality center with their mom.
  • In the airplane drawing of a six-year-old “undocumented” boy assigned to a Texas detention center who sees God as that plane, ready to whisk him up and reunite him with his mother.

Wherever this mission is taking me, it sure is a slow process. But that’s OK.

I’m learning that each slow step is a piece of the puzzle. And everything is fitting together nicely, just as it needs to, in order to fulfill my unique purpose, my heart’s calling. All I have to do is listen. And not let myself get too comfortable. Something I doubt will happen in Cochabamba.

Truthfully, I don’t really know why I’m going to Bolivia. But I do know what I hear in my heart: “If you want to live a truly fulfilling life, you must follow me.”

As John O’ Donohue writes:

Once the soul awakens, the search begins and you can never go back. From then on, you are inflamed with a special longing that will never again let you linger in the lowlands of complacency and partial fulfillment.

These pics were taken from the Amistad website

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Picture of mother and child taken from Amistad Mission website

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Wake Up! Don’t Go Back to Sleep

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Don’t go back to sleep.

You must ask for what you really want.

(Rumi) 

It hasn’t escaped me — the parallel between what’s happening in my life and this current season of Advent. Both are marked by expectant waiting and preparation. Of hope and anticipation in the darkness.

But my experience seems to be lasting a lot longer than one season!

Since my last post, I’ve made it back to El Paso. With a writing assignment waiting for me at the Columban Missions’ border ministry, I didn’t want to “wait it out” any longer at my cousin’s until housing for volunteers became available. So, I decided to make a couple of calls. An El Paso friend took me in for two nights, and then I moved back temporarily with the School Sisters of St. Francis, where I lived when I started this journey at the beginning of the year. It may sound funny, but I’ve slept in so many places over these past several months, it’s been hard to keep track.

Guess it’s not unusual I’d be feeling displaced, uprooted, unsettled. Yet again.

And I’d not anticipated the sadness I’d feel upon leaving Incarnate Word Missionaries and the deep connections I’ve made there. Sometimes I think I’m too old for all this uprooting and moving around. This lack of routine and daily schedules. This inability to anticipate what’s ahead on the path. Even in the slightest next step. It requires a keen watchfulness. An attentiveness to the clues — signs visible only to my spiritual senses.
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Seeing as it’s Advent, I was reflecting on another journey: the journey of a couple who, many years ago, also found themselves uprooted, displaced, and wandering. The young wife, pregnant with her first child, traveling away from home, her mother, her midwife, all that was familiar, was guided only by her new husband and the hope of a promise, which, to tell the truth, hadn’t been laid out very clearly. All she knew was her willingness to respond to a call she didn’t fully understand.

That’s really the metaphor for Mary’s life, isn’t it? How one’s willingness to say yes to the unknown, to something that doesn’t make sense in a logistical, material world, gives birth to something well beyond our expectations? Something that can only be envisioned in the imagination. The place where Spirit is experienced, and born.

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Still…I think Mary must have been at least a little scared and unsure. Did she question her decision? Did she wonder what she had said yes to?

I know I often have.

Franciscan Richard Rohr’s reflections this week have been on “Presence.” He’s been reminding me exactly what I need to be aware of — the Presence in this moment I am living. Not in the moment I am waiting for around the next bend when everything, hopefully, will become clearer.

“The key to all spirituality,” Rohr writes, is to be conscious, to be awake, to be alert, to be alive.”

To know that I have everything I need in this moment.

I had one of those “a-ha” awakening moments a few weeks ago while staying at Alison’s house in the suburbs of San Antonio — yet another temporary abode. One morning, as I searched among my half-unpacked belongings for something to wear, feeling frustrated over the constant moving and trying to find a place to land, I said aloud, “This can’t be my life!”

It felt so crazy.

But then I paused. And a new thought slipped right in.

“But this is my life! And it’s OK! It’s perfectly fine just as it is. I don’t need to wait for it to be anything different. I’m serving my purpose right where I am.”

Just for a moment I felt as though I had awakened. It’s not that I won’t go back to sleep. I need reminders. Be alert! Stay awake! Be present to your own life!

And know that it is good, just as it is, however it shows up. Because that’s where God is.

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Sure, I’d like to have more clarity about where I’m going. Assurance that I’m making the right decisions. But even more, I want a deeper awareness of this abiding Presence. An awareness of this Love guiding all my choices.

Rohr says, “This is what it means to be awake: to be constantly willing to say that God could even be coming to me in this! Even in this!”

Even in the things I don’t like or don’t understand. Even in what I would prefer to change. Or at least be able to anticipate.

Like Mary, can I recognize and hope in the Presence that abides in me? In the here and now?  As I wonder and I wait?

Trust the Flow

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 Trust the flow of the river.

As I teeter on the edge of this threshold, preparing to step into something that remains unclear and uncertain, Richard Rohr’s daily reflection speaks to my heart. Just as so many of them have these past several weeks, reflecting on liminal space and trust.

Röhr says, faith is “the ability to trust the river, to trust the flow and the Lover…

“It’s a process we don’t have to create, coerce, or improve. We simply need to allow it to flow.”

Not so easy when the river is dense with fog. You are listening within and believe you are following your heart, but you’re a bit anxious of what’s in front of you. Like Röhr says, “That takes an immense confidence in God.”

Since I arrived in San Antonio I certainly have been refining that faith and confidence, along with a deeper trust in my inner knowing. I have learned — with slowly improving skill — to hold “a certain degree of uncertainty, ambiguity, and tension.”

It’s all part of the adventure. Of the journey of realizing a personal calling. And of realizing that “the river is God’s providential love.”

As I prepare to move on, I’d like to share images from my favorite places in San Antonio: Brackenridge and Woodlawn parks and the grounds of the Oblate School of Theology.

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