Secret Work

Rumi fire and smoke secret

There’s a secret work going on. Collectively and personally.

At Jardin de Milagros, where I’ve started volunteering one morning a week, the planting is a good metaphor for this secret work. As I gently push the sweet potato seedling into the hole – one among a dozen rows of holes waiting for seedlings – I wonder how it will fare. Will this tiny thing survive?

I have no idea, but it’s not mine to know. Mine is only to do my part and surrender the rest.

It’s a lesson in non-clinging, in letting go of the outcome. Like a good spiritual practice, nature is teaching me that I must allow the work to unfold under the surface, without knowing what is happening. Yet I must fulfill my responsibility in this process.

On a larger scale, I see this unfolding in the midst of COVID-19. I am asked, as we all are, to let go of any attachment to how I think this is supposed to turn out, and, instead, to open to limitless possibilities. To be willing to step over this threshold in the liminal space in which we find ourselves. And leave our egos outside the door. So that we may enter with new vision.

This requires qualities we humans do not take on easily: patience, trust, non-resistance, humility, and self-emptying, or kenosis, as it’s known on the Christian path. Not easy, but we learn through practice. By waking up and stepping up.

For me, stepping up has meant to delve more deeply into body wisdom and other spiritual exercises and resources. To daily ground in my practice so that I don’t fall prey to the anxiety, fear, and negativity circulating. To listen more intently. And to more fully enter the heart space.

I know that I am privileged, even as I write this. I sit in my living room participating in online spiritual talks and programs. I am not suffering, not going hungry, or worse, starving to death, as so many people are in countries that were impoverished before this pandemic began.

Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich, the 14th century mystic who lived during the Black Death – a plague that wiped out one-third of the residents of Norwich – knew firsthand about the mystery of suffering and the unconditional love of a God she saw as Mother. Like all spiritual teachers, Julian recognized suffering is finite. Only Love is infinite.

And in that regard, I have a significant part to play in this cosmic evolution.

For we are in the midst of evolution. As scientist and Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio says, “Whether or not you want to accept evolution, you are in evolution.”

We need “science and spirituality to heal our divisions, deepen our compassion, and ignite the human spirit toward greater unity and flourishing,” says Sr. Ilia, who founded the Omega Center, based on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s teachings of the Omega Point, the concept of “deepening toward a more unified future. Teilhard was aware that the energies of creativity bring with them a certain terror, a not-knowing what the outcome will be. Hence, he advocated radical trust in the inner presence of God and the holiness of the world.”

She says that “Teilhard would view this pandemic as an opportunity to harness the energies of love in new ways. Every act of suffering in his view is an invitation to a new creative moment, a wake-up call that something old is breaking down and something new is taking place in our midst.”

Pierre-Teilhard-de-Chardin-after-mastering-the-winds

From mystics to scientists, from wisdom teachers to ecologists, all speak of the universe as evolving in a relational field that needs our conscious contribution in love. They use words like reciprocity, flourishing in mutuality, greater relationality, a new vision and a new world, a more unified Whole, and a Divine exchange – the practice of giving-and-receiving.

Spiritual teachers like Teilhard de Chardin and the Pathwork Guide speak of how we are “instruments” in the changes taking place in the evolution into Christ consciousness. In Pathwork lecture #233, we are told: “you need to realize the importance of your task from an inner place that is not ego-involved, not steeped in vanity or pride…for a higher cause of the deepest significance.”

These teachers give me hope, and they challenge me, too.

I’m learning more and more how everything I have, I’ve been given. And I am to give it away – not cling to anything – in this dance of reciprocity. A dance in which my ego moves further away from center stage.

Volunteering at Jardin de Milagros, the garden of miracles, is one way I have chosen to participate. Owned by a retired couple, the garden produces 3 acres of fresh fruits and vegetables. They donate all of it to a food pantry in El Paso to feed the hungry. A food pantry that normally gives 3,000 to 5,000 boxes of food a month to hungry families. Now they give 5,000 a week! The garden needs volunteers. This is something I can do as an instrument of giving-and-receiving.

And since I can no longer accompany immigrants at the border, I’ve been practicing a different kind of accompaniment. Daily I energetically accompany someone who is dying or has died alone in the midst of the coronavirus. I accompany this beloved stranger into another realm surrounded by love and gratitude for his or her life. It feels like powerful “work,” emerging from my heart space.

It’s true that I don’t fully understand or know the impact of anything I am planting or praying. But I am open to the mystery of it. And trusting the love at its center. A place from which I heard:

“Take up the secret work. The wisdom of the heart knows how.”

 

On Being a Midwife

egg nest-843231_1920Today is a special day. April 18th. The anniversary of David’s death.

But this year, it’s especially meaningful because that date falls on the same place in “time” that it fell on the day David passed. Easter Saturday.

Knowing that this sacred season is filled with special graces, I’ve been taking it slow, going within. Paying attention. And I’ve received one heck of an unexpected, insightful gift. From an unlikely source. The popular Netflix series “Call the Midwife,” based on Jennifer Worth’s memoirs of midwifery in 1950’s poverty-stricken East London

First off, I should explain that I’m always behind when it comes to watching anything on TV or otherwise. So, you’ll understand when I say I’m only on season 1. Last week I was watching episode 7, a Christmas story about a newborn being abandoned on the convent steps by an unwed teenager. But it was the scenes around the tragic life of Mrs. Jenkins that held my unexpected gift.

Years earlier, newly widowed with five children to feed, Mrs. Jenkins had made the excruciating decision of turning herself and her brood over to the “care” of one of England’s notorious workhouses. All of her children had died there, malnourished and mistreated. Now she lives in abominable conditions, neglecting her health and hygiene, and the midwife/nurse Jenny Lee is sent to care for her.

In one particularly moving scene, Nurse Jenny, joined by Sr. Evangelina, comes to her home to bathe her. Like a silent intruder, I watch as the two women attempt to remove Mrs. Jenkins’ shoes, stuck to her feet after all these years, and tenderly disrobe her for her bath. With her thin, naked back exposed, O Come, O Come Emmanuel plays over this intimate undertaking. Surely this is God dwelling with us and in us, so evident by the love and care with which these two women lower Mrs. Jenkins into the bath, cover her frontal area as they sponge her back so that she will not feel any shame or discomfort. She appears wide-eyed in disbelief over what they are doing for her.

I cry easily. This selfless act strikes my heart open. No doubt because it’s achingly beautiful.

But it’s something more.

Something deeper that I can’t yet express or identify. The removal of Mrs. Jenkin’s shoes, the tender touches the two women applied to her body. The water and washing.  The one who had difficulty accepting and receiving such care.

It’s all so familiar.

It takes a few days before I understand this scene’s personal significance. Before another tender scene involving water and washing surfaces in my memory.  A scene involving someone who also had difficulty receiving. My husband.

It’s January 2009. David is cashing in on a silly gift I’d given him for New Year’s Eve: a handwritten, magic marker-colored I.O.U. for a foot bath and massage.

David was the serious one in our relationship. I was the let’s-find-some-new-adventure half of our marriage. While he provided stability and focus, I dabbled in creativity and wonderment. Knowing that he would ignore this holiday, let it pass without any fanfare, as he would have so many others if not for me and Davis, I decided to come up with a novel idea. Create a stack of I.O.U.’s, each one a personal treat: a free backscratching, dinner at his favorite restaurant, homemade breakfast any weekend. He chose the foot bath and massage first.

foot-massage-2133279_1920It’d be an understatement to say I was surprised. David – agreeing to such indulgent treatment? David, the guy who could barely handle receiving attention on his birthdays?

But I was grateful. Grateful for this opportunity to lavish him with care.

And months later, I would be grateful for this memory.

As I prepared the footbath, David sat waiting quietly in his favorite easy chair. He wore his terrycloth robe – the one article of clothing I would hold onto longer than anything else he’d owned, as if his scent would never fade. I placed the footbath on the carpet before his feet. And now, this man, this devoted husband who’d given me so much through our years together, allowed me to kneel before him and lovingly wash and caress his tired feet, to gingerly massage his toes, bent and inflamed with diabetes, to rub lotion on his calloused heels, hardened by years of neglect. In giving this to him, I received in return his humble appreciation, visible in his moist eyes as he simply said afterward, “Thank you, honey. That’s the best gift you could’ve given me.”

It was the last gift I would give him. And it turned out to be his gift to me.

Less than three months later he would die unexpectedly. A heart attack taking him too soon on that glorious Easter Saturday morning. A morning not unlike the one I experienced today.

Call Jennifer shell broken

In the Midwife episode, after her bath, Mrs. Jenkins appears to be renewed. Wearing the new coat Nurse Jenny obtained for her, she walks upright, no longer carrying the weight of shame. She’s recognized something in herself through the eyes of love. Through their tender attentiveness, Nurse Jenny and Sr. Evangelina had practiced a different kind of midwifery.

A midwife is an intermediary, someone who meets you in the middle of what you’re expecting and assists you all the way through it to the other side. Hadn’t that been what I had done for David, without even realizing it? Holding that in-between space for him? Helping him to receive and accept the selfless, abundant love that awaited him over the threshold he would soon cross?

The irony is that David had been an arbitrator, a labor relations mediator. He had been the one who’d calmly held this in-between place for others, the place between what is and what is possible. He had taught me how to be that for him.

Eleven years is a long time. I no longer grieve as I once did, no longer fear that the well of grief is bottomless. It isn’t.

I have learned that love takes many forms. That it truly is stronger than death. That every act of self-giving love, of selfless service, brings us closer to the threshold of waking up into who we truly are. The Beloved in God.

Maybe I did walk David home.  Maybe I helped him cross that threshold.  And maybe once again, it’s David who’s given me the real gift.

walking each other

Global Lamentation

Wailing wall
A young girl leaves a prayer at the Wailing Wall

It seems we are collectively standing on a threshold. One that places us in the spiritual arena of liminal space.

A space in which there is much lamentation. Isolation. Confusion. Uncertainty. A growing frenzy of fear and helplessness.

A space, also, of much selfless giving. Willingness to be vulnerable. Suffering for and with others.

And a space of dying alone.

All of this strikes me as we enter Semana Santa. The holiest of weeks commemorated in the Christian tradition. I see how what is currently unfolding in our world, through the coronavirus pandemic, runs parallel to the growing fear and foreboding taking place in the life of Jesus, a life that will soon end in a brutal and humiliating death.

This is the path of descent. The path of kenosis. A self-emptying love that, far from making me feel guilty or fearful, is life-giving. It promises me freedom. Freedom from the fear of death. Freedom to love fully and extravagantly.

Poised on this threshold, I ask myself, am I willing? Am I willing to sit in the tension of what is present in this current reality? Am I willing to wait here in the place of not knowing? Of not yet fully understanding?

Yet willing to do whatever is mine to do?

Although I am not someone who is “on the frontlines,” able to physically serve others in the midst of this pandemic, I have a role to play. I can choose to be relational in my self-isolation. Just like so many of us are doing: choosing to stay home for the greater good.

I can stay connected, through prayer and meditation, holding the suffering world. I can hold the pain and fear of those living so close to the effects of this pandemic. Lamenting with those who will lose loved ones this week and cannot be with them as they die. Lamenting with the doctors and nurses and all healthcare and hospice workers who will experience these deaths, and have to steady themselves enough to go back into it again and again.

Coronavirus Sacramento
Mural for healthcare workers in San Jose, CA

I can do the work of remaining faithful to my daily spiritual practices. By remaining spiritually grounded, I am adding to the loving and healing energy being offered in the world at this moment. That seems particularly important.

I can respond to the injustices being played out behind the scenes. A particularly disturbing example is the continued incarceration of asylum seekers, nonviolent non-criminals, in detention facilities, putting them gravely at risk, while we release nonviolent criminals from our prison systems.

And there is something more asked of me.

Can I also face myself in the “other”? Those whom I find harder to love? Those who would support such injustices? Who choose to live in denial as the suffering from coronavirus rages on? Can I hold with love those living with blindness, refusing to see what is before them?

I am reminded of what Jesus did when he couldn’t change the hearts and minds of those who refused to see, who chose their comfortable blindness. He wept. He wept for what could have been. He wept for those who had closed themselves off from the voice of Love.  Jesus wept

Jesus wept.

Can I go down into the place where Jesus experienced that poverty of spirit?

Can I shed tears for those who are blinded by their own fears and illusions? And this includes myself. It can be painful to “see” my own blindness in this. But it’s here.

The Holy One reminds me that this Love laments with us, through us, and in us. As my teacher Cynthia Bourgeault says, “Where suffering exists and is consciously accepted, there divine love shines forth brightly.”

Divine love is shining forth in this moment. Through all the lamentations. All the pain and all the perceived darkness. Come Maundy Thursday, in the midst of our lamentation, we will again be shown how this extravagant “eucharistic love” desires to manifest in us. I want to surrender to it. Again.

A Conversation with the Moon

heart-moon

A spiritual connection can come so easily in nature. At least it does when I am open and trusting, like a child, to the mystery. That’s when I discover nature gifts me with answers to my inner questions.

Recently, it happened my last night in Paria Canyon – my last night sleeping under the Milky Way. I had left the cover of my tent off so I could gaze up at the nearly full moon and the preponderance of stars filling the heavens. Feeling comforted and secure, I asked the moon about a concern I had on my heart – a concern about suffering.

And I fell asleep with Sister Moon shining into my tent.

During the night, she gave me a powerful insight through my dreams. I scribbled it all down in my journal, and maybe I will write about it more in depth later on.

But journaling about that experience reminded me of another conversation I’d had with the moon.

Late March 2014.  I had just returned from my first time volunteering in El Paso. The two months I’d spent there had affected me in ways I hadn’t expected. I felt changed somehow.

Already, I was transitioning from my life in rural Virginia.

But I didn’t know that then.

I’d like to share that 2014 journal entry.  Because it expresses the uncertainty I felt about the way forward. It reveals how Love upheld me in my loneliness. And it affirms the benefit of listening inwardly.

God did speak to me in the silence of my heart. And I’ve learned how to listen.

overlooking great room
Looking out the windows from the staircase of my log home

March 2014: Last night I had a conversation with the moon.

It’s easy to do, where I’m living now, from my log home in the woods. Standing in my great room, its huge A-frame windows opening to the trees and sky, I noticed the misty white light pouring in, casting itself in great gulps across my country carpet with its images of bears and moose and acorns.

Through the floor-to-ceiling windows, the expansive sky filled with stars tried to soothe and remind me that I am not alone.

loft_sideview
The rafters in my great room

It feels so very different from my sojourn in El Paso – this place in the woods.  Here it’s absolutely still.

When I pause and listen, I hear complete silence. Only the occasional light tinkling of my wind chimes dangling from my porch as a breeze catches them. A gentle interjection. No freight trains blaring their horns as they cross intersections. The daily trains passing through El Paso are a distant memory now. The open, expansive sky hovering above millions of twinkling yellow lights dancing across two border cities – it too has faded. Replaced by a sheath of woods, concealing all neighbors.

So, I asked the moon – my most attentive neighbor – what am I doing back here? In the silence and solitude. Is it to regain my balance? Is it to truly learn what patience and trust mean?

I tend to believe this prayer that I have been saying regularly: “I am exactly where I am meant to be.”  I whispered it to myself in the moonlight. And Sister Moon, she seemed to nod in agreement, reassuring me in the silence.

In the morning, I am greeted by a plump robin perched on a branch as I take my daily morning walk down my long gravel driveway. In the midst of the waning winter cold and these bare branches, I recognize the nourishment that’s been given this creature. She’s obviously been fed well and is quite healthy as she awaits spring’s return. Spirit has given me a gift this morning through this robin – an awareness of God’s providential care.

I begin to notice a few other signs of life.

The bird’s nest in the rafters on my porch.

The small stream of water that runs down the hillside of my property.

But no other human voice. No other sound to match the sighing of my breath as the day passes as it has like so many before it: soundlessly.

Is this how You are caring for me? Through the lonely, silent beauty of nature? What am I to make of this? Whom can I talk to, besides the sky and the earth and the moon?  I am seeking answers, and they come so slowly, so subtly, through these sources. Maybe that is the point. Maybe the answer I seek will come through the uncertainty in waiting. Maybe this is how You have been asking me to listen all along – in the solitude of nature, in the silence of my own heart.

“You will hear my voice in the silence”

A Pilgrim in #Paria

Tiny figures against red rocks

May I stay forever in the stream.”

These poetic words from Mary Oliver were the farthest from my mind while hiking in Paria Canyon recently.

In fact, my mantra had become two simple words: “Stay upright.”

A prayer I uttered to the heavens each day as I focused on my footing while keeping up with my more experienced comrades.

Because between avoiding shoe-sucking mud resembling quicksand, stepping in and out of a flowing stream strewn with glistening rocks, and learning to lift my own weight along with a heavy backpack onto rocks above knee height, keeping my balance was not guaranteed. Teetering on my own two feet is something I do on a good day when I’m walking on a flat sidewalk carrying nothing more than a set of car keys and a cell phone.

I actually did quite a bit of praying on this adventure.

Not that I was scared. My trepidation pretty much disappeared after the first day. That is, once I’d decided to stop listening to that voice in my head questioning what the hell I thought I was doing when I’d agreed to let this challenging, narrow canyon be my first-ever backpacking trip.

I had to make up my mind to get beyond the discomforts. Things like constantly walking in wet shoes with sand and silt that, by the end of the day, lay heavy on the top of my socks, and attempting to accurately use and carry “human waste bags” – these were completely new experiences for me. And they were a little disconcerting.

Outside my tent that first night, the repetitive rhythm of the stream running by and the innumerable stars overhead soothed me. Seeing the massive Milky Way again reminded me of the last place I’d seen it so visibly – my Virginia home in the woods. A place where, despite the challenges that came with living alone and so close to nature, I’d often received spiritual gifts and guidance.

Here, with the majestic beauty of the red canyons rising up around me in the darkening sky, I chose to fall into trusting the rhythm of this adventure, to regard it as a pilgrimage, for that’s what it was. A journey into a place of raw and glorious nature. A place where I felt small and insignificant.

20191015_093208 (1)

As I prayed to let go, I knew that in my insignificance lies the presence of the Infinite.

My prayer transformed my attitude overnight. I eased into the next day. Slipping on my still-wet shoes, I silently chanted my usual morning psalm, and off I went, both my head and my footsteps lighter.

In fact, I felt so light, I volunteered to carry an extra bladder of water, increasing the weight of my pack to about 30 pounds. Since fresh water springs were few and far between, this would become a regular practice, but for now, I happily took on this new experience. My two-word mantra ever present.

By late afternoon, my toes hurt, the heat of the sun bore down on my bare arms, and the additional weight of the pack on my back began to strain my right shoulder. A memory surfaced. Davis, 3 years old, plopping himself down in the dirt, whining and claiming he couldn’t make it up the hill we were climbing on our way back from a hike. I hoisted him up and continued on, stopping every now and then to readjust his weight on my back or catch my breath. How much did he weigh then, I wondered?

This question swiftly turned my attention to other memories. Memories of stories from others who journey across uncertain and uncomfortable paths. Across sand and desert carrying, not 30-lb backpacks, but 30- or 40-lb children on their backs.

As I walked, I carried the stories of the people I have accompanied. The story of the mother who carried her disabled child. The story of the 19-year-old who carried a pregnancy caused by her rapist in a homeland where no one could protect her. The story of the boy who carried nothing, except the pain of badly blistered feet.

I also carried the story of my privilege, to be able to take this journey for pleasure. A story that would end in a few days, with a hot shower and a cheeseburger with fries and a beer waiting for me at Marble Canyon Lodge.

I forgot about my feet. My prayer turned to the people. For their journey.

I cannot separate myself from them. Any more than I could separate myself from the mud always at my feet or the clumps of tiny red and violet flowers that popped up along the path or the towering red sandstone.

Gorgeous view

This is the collective story. It belongs to the Infinite. And I must honor it all.

“I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family; and there is no decency or sense in honoring one thing, or a few things, and then closing the list. The pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves – we are at risk together, or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each other’s destiny.”
Mary Oliver, Upstream: Selected Essays

This is what it means to be a pilgrim on a journey.

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

 

#Voices

whispering children

Sometimes the voices can be so clear.

I consider myself incredibly lucky to be able to live the gift that has been given to me. At a deeper level there has always been a deeper truth that this is what I am supposed to be and to do. We all want that sense of meaning and purpose in our lives….Don’t let your life go by without hearing what God is asking of you. Make sure you listen.”

This voice is Ruben Garcia’s.

He spoke these words five years ago. I had been interviewing him by phone for an article on his faith journey. And although he hadn’t been offering this advice to me personally, the voice was clearly speaking to me.

I got off the phone and cried. Spirit had accessed my heart.

At the time I had recently returned to Virginia after volunteering in El Paso. I was trying to settle into a daily routine while discerning what was next. Feeling uncomfortable and uncertain. I wanted to know what God was asking of me. I wanted to have Ruben’s certitude.

For that to happen, I knew I needed to be still and listen.

I began to pay attention.

Las Cruces cloud formation
Coming upon an unusual cloud formation above Organ Mountains

 

If you’re a regular reader, you know by now that listening more deeply is what inspired me to make this grand move to El Paso.

But what keeps me here? After all, it hasn’t been a once-and-for-all kind of message.

There are moments of doubt, moments in which I’ve wondered where this is all going, what it is I think I am doing. In those challenging moments, I’ve tried to listen more deeply. Tried to pay more attention to my Higher Self and give less credence to the distrustful, worrisome voices.

And sometimes that still, small voice accesses my heart through the voices of others. Like it did that day through Ruben.

Like it does through my border community and fellow volunteers.

The voices of Joe and Linda, for example. They leave their home in California periodically throughout the year, to come to El Paso for several weeks at a time to volunteer with us.

When Joe says, “This is church – this community. It’s lifegiving,” his words resonate in my core. Yes, Joe, I truly get that.

When Linda says, “We all know that this horrible immigration system is broken, and until something is done to change that, this is what I can do,” I know this is why I am here, too. To do something positive to counter all the ill and hate being heaped onto immigrants.

2_Linda accompanying family at EP airport
Linda accompanying mother and child at airport

And when Janet, an El Pasoan who has been with us since the early days of Loretto Nazareth, says” “This has been my most powerful experience of God in others,” I hear the truth of that. Because it has been for me, too.

I’ve experienced it in the simple gratitude of the migrant women. Voices that humble me and remind me again that something greater is holding all of this: “Muy amable, gracias.  You have been so kind. You have given us back our dignity.”

Sometimes the voices pose questions. Questions that don’t require an answer, yet cause me to go deeper.

 “What are our souls longing for, that we would do this work for the immigrants?”

Sr. Missy asked me this more in amazement than anything. She’d opened her congregation’s house on Grandview Avenue to board the countless volunteers who came from out of town to help at our hospitality sites over the years. She wondered aloud about the dedication of so many.

Her question stayed with me.

In listening, I discovered that what my soul longs for – the God I long for – is right here, hidden in my encounters at the border. It is here that God continues to access my heart.

But do you realize how few people listen to that voice, much less follow it?”

This question is Peter’s, my spiritual companion. His voice carries Spirit’s desire for me to acknowledge and honor my faithfulness. And I pause, and take that in.

This Saturday, many more voices will access my heart as I attend the Voice of the Voiceless, Annunciation House’s annual fundraising dinner. It’s an opportunity to honor those who speak for the least among us. But this year’s dinner is unusual in that Ruben is honoring those who don’t normally have a voice – refugee children.

Many of us have heard these children’s voices. We’ve heard their cries for their “mami” and “papi” (mommy and daddy). We’ve heard the tapes after their separation and witnessed their pain close up. These are clearly the most challenging voices of all to hear. And they are still crying out.

Will we let God access our heart through these voices?

Annunciation VOV

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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.

We Have Awoken

Standing Rock orange

We faced the fear with love. Our spirit is not broken.

That was the message of the film “Awake” that my new Native American friends presented to the public this afternoon. A film that was more than disturbing. I felt sickened as I watched the events unfold at Standing Rock in North Dakota – the site of protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

We all heard and saw the news reports last year as the protests persevered and expanded, well into December. We know how the story goes.

And, sadly, how it ends.

But to see it unfold in real time, in this documentary…to see peaceful people standing in prayer in the river pepper sprayed and hosed down with water cannons in freezing temperatures…to watch as unarmed Native Americans fell to the ground after being hit with rubber bullets…

It hurt my spirit.

Sadly, this is not new to indigenous people. They have been fighting for land rights, for nature, for the environment, for hundreds of years.

Funny to think that English-speaking people were actual immigrants to this country. And they were welcomed by these natives. Without visas. Without knowing the language.

Coming without jobs or ways to support themselves.

As Rudy, one of the elders of the tribe that has befriended me, explained, “Community is most important to us. We are taught to be gracious hosts, to welcome all into community.”

And that they did. And still do, despite how they were treated in the past.

I can vouch for this based on how they have welcomed me, a white-faced stranger, into their community.

So, why do indigenous people still fight to protect the land?

“What we do is for the next seven generations,” Rudy explained. “It is for our children and our grandchildren. We must protect our earthly home and keep a balance in all of life. Honor what is sacred.”

The Missouri River – which the DAPL travels under – is the longest river in North America and the water source not only for the Sioux Nation, but for 17 million Americans.

Missouri River
Missouri River, South Dakota

Not only was the pipeline built, but in the process, sacred sites were desecrated. Elders were arrested. Tepees slashed. People brutalized.

But something else happened as well. Something positive.

A movement began. Many people – around the globe – heard the truth the indigenous people speak.

They understood the message of DAPL protestors: “We belong to the water. We belong to the air. We belong to all creation. We are all guests on Mother Earth. And we must honor her.”

They realize the truth of these words: “We will pay the consequences for desecrating Mother Earth.”

And more people have joined these water protectors. These global protectors.

DAPL is not the end.

Hundreds of pipelines are being proposed all over the United States. But now millions of people have awoken.

“Will you join us?”

I’VE BEEN WOKEN

by the spirit inside that

demanded I open my eyes

and see the world around me.

Seeing that my children’s future

was in peril. See that my life couldn’t

wait and slumber anymore. See that I was

honored to be among those who are awake.

To be alive at this point in time is to see the rising

of the Oceti Sakowin. To see the gathering of nations

and beyond that, the gathering of all races and all faiths.

Will you wake up and dream with us?

Will you join our dream. Will you join us?”

FLORIS WHITE BULL, ADVISOR AND CO-WRITER OF AWAKE, A DREAM FROM STANDING ROCK

If you’re interested in a screening of the film, go to: http://awakethefilm.org/

Standing Rock

Coming of Age

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Over the weekend I spent the night in a tepee. Experienced my first coming-of-age ceremony.

And I felt incredibly honored to be included in this spiritual rite of passage for a young woman of Mexican-Indian heritage.

As I participated in this powerful and sacred ceremony, I found myself imagining the possibilities.

What if all girls greeted the threshold of womanhood supported by the kind of love, wisdom, mirroring, and honoring I witnessed these indigenous women showering upon this very blessed 13-year-old girl?

What if every girl learned that her body was something to be honored, not ashamed of?

That she is beautiful, inside and out, just as she is? Without needing to change anything.

That she does not need to fear expressing herself? Or be afraid to learn from making mistakes?

That she can listen to and trust her inner wisdom?

Wow!

It has taken me years to learn these lessons.  Years accompanied by much struggling and pain. And often feeling I was on my own in the process.

Yet 13-year-old Trinity already knows who she is.

Grounded in the sacredness of her people’s earth-honoring ceremonies, empowered by the love of her community, and centered in an awareness of the Creator present in all life, she is entering this stage of her life totally prepared. Her humility, maturity, and sensitivity impressed me.

Even her name impressed me.

Only weeks ago I had been a stranger to this community. Until I met Carlos, and, without hesitation, he invited me.

The abuela (grandmother) of their tribe wasn’t so sure. After all, she didn’t know this white-faced woman. But she welcomed me. As did every member of the community. They welcomed a stranger into their circle.

I couldn’t help but think that this was the Gospel message of “welcome the stranger” in action.

Later that evening, we gathered around a lantern in the tepee, setting up our cots and sleeping bags. After settling in, we told coming-of-age stories, while outside the darkness deepened.

We shared some of our most embarrassing moments, to let this young woman know that, yes, you will have these moments. You will make mistakes, too. It’s inevitable. And you will survive.

moon cycle

As I listened to these women share their wisdom, the moonlight poured in through the opening in the top of the tepee. The beauty of this spiritual ritual deeply touched me. And I wished I’d had such a ceremony to welcome my menses, my “moon.”

In the circle we shared our gifts for Trinity. Mine was a poem I’d written and a beautiful broken seashell—a whelk—I’d found on Atlantic Beach while vacationing with special friends. At first I hesitated to part with it.

But I knew it was the perfect gift.

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And my words for Trinity are words for all girls coming of age, especially those who don’t have a circle of wise women guiding them forward, as I did not have. I share them here.

Learn to trust your inner guidance, the wisdom that resides within.

As a girl, no one told me this.

As a woman, it took years to discover the truth.

Our inner authority is the voice of God within.

You can trust it.

Don’t be afraid to be seen.

Don’t shrink under the power of others.

Be all that you are,

Empowered by your unique gifts.

Know that all that you are is gift to the world.

Be grateful always for this gift.

This broken shell I found on a beach in North Carolina

It spoke to me of my woundedness, my brokenness.

And how, even with these broken places within me, I am whole and perfect and beautiful.

This is the message I want to give to you.

Become the woman you were meant to be, fully alive

Not holding anything back, not afraid of your gifts or your power

Not afraid of your broken places.

Strengthened by the challenges, the hurts, the sufferings

Be grateful for the pain and suffering along the way.

They are your teachers.

They may take pieces of your heart,

But they will make you shine like a shell in the sea.

May we learn from the wisdom of native cultures. May we honor this gift called life as we cross each threshold. May we give thanks to the Creator for all of life.

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Sun rises over our campsite as we prepare for a day of ceremony