I struggle with how to respond to words and actions that strike at the heart.
“They’re criminals. They don’t deserve consideration and compassion.”
“We have lost our soul.” These last words from Ruben Garcia at the recent Voice of the Voiceless fundraising dinner for Annunciation House, with the theme “If the World Knew,” especially struck my heart. “Our country has lost its soul,” he told us.
Is it true?
I don’t know how to respond.
I wonder how do I convey, through my words, the haunting wails of a child separated from his mother? Or the pain expressed by a woman whose husband – her sole supporter – is forcibly taken from her without her being able to say goodbye? What words exemplify the distress I have been feeling that these “deeds” are done in our name?
What could I possibly write? And how is God asking me to respond?
Part of my assignment with the Living School of Contemplation and Action is to read mystics like Thomas Merton. This morning, I spontaneously opened his book, New Seeds of Contemplation, and discovered the words I was searching for.
So I will let him write this post for me.
Just as a forewarning, having written this in 1961, Merton uses a lot of male pronouns and nouns. I have occasionally added “woman” to this excerpt, and I have italicized and boldened some text that especially speaks to me, but his message shines through nonetheless.
“If you want to know what is meant by ‘God’s will’ in man’s life, this is one way to get a good idea of it. ‘God’s will’ is certainly found in anything that is required of us in order that we may be united with one another in love. You can call this, if you like, the basic tenet of the Natural Law, which is that we should treat others as we would like them to treat us, that we should not do to one another what we would not want another to do to us. In other words, the natural law is simply that we should recognize in every other human being the same nature, the same needs, the same rights, the same destiny as in ourselves. The plainest summary of all the natural law is: to treat other [men and women] as if they were [men/women]. Not to act as if I alone were a man, and every other human were an animal or a piece of furniture.
“Everything that is demanded of me, in order that I may treat every other [man/woman] effectively as a human being, ‘is willed for me by God under the natural law.’ Whether or not I find the formula satisfactory, it is obvious that I cannot live a truly human life if I consistently disobey this fundamental principle.
“But I cannot treat other men as men unless I have compassion for them. I must have at least enough compassion to realize that when they suffer they feel somewhat as I do when I suffer. And if for some reason I do not spontaneously feel this kind of sympathy for others, then it is God’s will that I do what I can to learn how. I must learn to share with others their joys, their sufferings, their ideas, their needs, their desires. I must learn to do this not only in the cases of those who are of the same class, the same profession, the same race, the same nation as myself, but when men who suffer belong to other groups, even to groups that are regarded as hostile. If I do this, I obey God. If I refuse to do it, I disobey Him. It is not therefore a matter left open to subjective caprice.
“…Christianity is not merely a doctrine or a system of beliefs, it is Christ living in us and uniting [men/women] to one another in His own Life and unity. ‘I in them, and Thou, Father in Me, that they may be made perfect in One…And the glory which Thou hast given me I have given them, that they may be One as we also are One.’” (New Seeds of Contemplation, pp. 76-77)
I leave for Bolivia in the morning. And I’m excited! But not because I’m visiting a new country. Or having another adventure in the Andes. Although both of those are true.
It’s more about the anticipation of how this trip will speak to me.
We’re calling it a pilgrimage — seven other like-minded women and myself. We’re all from different backgrounds with different expectations. But each of us is going with the intention of listening more deeply to how the Spirit might be calling us as we visit a mission in an area of extreme poverty.
I plan to be awake, attentive, and as present as possible. I don’t want to miss anything.
I read recently that after Thomas Merton first visited Gethsemane Abbey, he couldn’t get it out of his mind. Surprisingly, this place had affected him so deeply that he saw that as a “signpost” — a signpost to which he should pay attention. He kept returning to what he called, “a persistent feeling and idea.”
Merton would eventually leave the secular world and return to Gethsemane to become a Trappist monk. Not exactly a mainstream decision. But he believed the signposts had revealed his calling.
Hmm. A “persistent feeling and idea.” That sounds a lot like what I’ve been experiencing. Ever since November 2012.
Already I’m noticing.
In November 2012 I was mysteriously drawn to an invitation to go on a border awareness trip to El Paso. That experience would change my life.
November 2013 I visited Peru. The earth-centered, rich spirituality of the people there opened me up to the desire of serving and following my heart. Two months later I would return to El Paso to volunteer at the border. With only the realization that I was following a “persistent feeling and idea” deep within that wouldn’t leave me alone. And then last November I received an affirmative response to my request to return to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Now it’s November again. And I’m leaving for Bolivia. Simply because I was attracted to a place. To a people. To the children. The moment I checked out the Amistad Mission website, I felt an inner prompting. Go.
So I am going. And I’m going with an important question on my heart. How do I move forward from here? Because the passion to follow my calling persists. But I have yet to determine the where, the when, and the how.
I’m hoping to pay attention to the signposts that will show up in Bolivia. To listen to my inner guidance. The guidance that’s always trying to get through to me: “See what I’ve put in front of you? Pay attention. There’s a deeper meaning here.”
Like Merton, I want to ask regularly, “What of God is being revealed in this experience?”
Even though I honestly don’t know what I’ll find in Bolivia, I fully expect that the voice of my Higher Self will be eager to speak to me through the “signposts.” Just as it did in Peru, in El Paso, and in Mexico.
Just yesterday morning, after my meditation, I was writing in my journal, reflecting on what I could anticipate on this trip, when I heard its voice pipe up:
“Come and see.”
Find your way. When a flight attendant uttered these words yesterday on my return flight from a brief visit to El Paso, I stopped reading my book mid sentence. Maybe she had some words of wisdom for me.
But no. Apparently “Find Your Way” is simply an American Airlines website that helps you make your connections and get to your destination. Just check the Internet and “find your way.”
If only life were that easy.
Finding your way can be a lifelong journey. Sometimes you wonder if you got on the wrong flight!
If you’re like me, you’ve realized you might as well relax and give in to not knowing where the journey will end. Or when.
But you can go forward with a willing spirit, an open heart, and a mind a little less engaged in trying to “figure it out.”
Which brings me back to El Paso.
I had to return this past weekend to attend the last module of my Capacitar training. Otherwise I wouldn’t have received my certificate acknowledging my year-long study and application of these body-mind-spirit practices. Practices that are helping people in over 40 countries, including Israel, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, who suffer from trauma, violence, or any type of stress. Practices that I have been using myself and hope to use with those I will serve in the years ahead. Wherever that may be.
I still don’t know for certain where I’m going next. But I do know I haven’t lost my way. Nor have I lost an awareness of the grace available to get me there. Grace that seems to appear as I need it. That happened a lot on this trip.
Like the frequent flyer miles I unknowingly had acquired that helped me “afford” the flight to El Paso. Like the offers of rides to and from airports, of meals, and of places to stay while there. And, most especially, the unanticipated grace of the very warm and genuine welcoming I received everywhere I went. They sure made me feel like I was home.
For the four nights I spent in El Paso I slept in three different homes. And at every one of them, I was offered a room should I decide to return to the border. I admit, it certainly feels tempting. Something about being with people who have a heart for mission — for this mission of serving the migrants and the marginalized — just feels right. But lots of questions remain.
On the table in one of the bedrooms where I stayed, a postcard-sized greeting caught my attention. A pretty picture of blue sky and birds in flight. A quote I can’t now recall.
“That’s nice,” I thought. But then I turned the card over.
As soon as I saw Thomas Merton’s name at the bottom, I knew what it was. Merton, a well-known Trappist monk, author, and contemplative, has a famous prayer, found in his book Thoughts in Solitude. It’s my favorite. And one that’s shown up at various times in my life when I needed to hear it. That’s what was on the other side of this card.
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me. Nor do I really know myself.
And the fact that I think I am following your will
Does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
Does in fact please you.
And I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this,
You will lead me by the right road
Though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always
Though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death
I will not fear for you are ever with me.
And you will never leave me to face my struggles alone.”
― Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude
A prayer of surrender. Of trust. Of humility. From a man who dedicated his life to seeking union with God. I immediately knew this prayer was yet another grace. A gift to my heart.
I figure if Merton wasn’t sure about the way forward, I don’t have anything to worry about. I’m in good company. In more ways than one.
I’ve been experiencing growing pains. Yes, at my age. But I’d call them spiritual growing pains. The kind you get when you sincerely say, “Your will, not mine, be done.”
If you know me, you know I’ve been praying for some time to fulfill my longing to serve something greater than myself, and to deepen my connection with the Divine. Now I find myself asking, “Am I willing to pay the price?”
Because I’m finding that letting go of my little self-will’s desire to have things be as I want them to be is not easy.
Like this situation in San Antonio, for instance. Some things haven’t quite been turning out as I’d hoped or expected. I’m facing challenges in several areas. And in the process, I’m being shown just how much I struggle against what is present when it goes against what I’d prefer or what I think it should be.
The other day I came across some notes I’d scribbled during a Tara Brach weekend workshop I’d taken last year. Tara Brach is a Buddhist Insight Meditation teacher and presenter in the Washington, D.C., metro area who gives excellent talks available free of charge online. Her sage teachings have often helped me. Now, this particular line of hers popped off the page:
“Peace is this moment without judgment— that is all.”
This moment, in my heart space, without judgment. Completely open to what is in front of me. No matter whether my little ego likes it or not. No matter whether my self-will would like to change it into something else. That’s peace. It’s also the meaning of surrender.
A wonderful model of this for me, in the Christian tradition, is Mary. Her total surrender to God with the words, “Let it be done unto me,” are an example I find hard to replicate. Yet, I’ve said “yes” to a calling, and this is where it’s taken me.
At least for now.
And I do believe I’m here to learn and to grow in preparation for the next step on my journey. Whatever that may be.
In the meantime, I find San Antonio to be more of a desert experience than El Paso was. These are some of the temptations I’m facing in this desert:
- To desire clarity and understanding over living with mystery and “allowing”
- To doubt my faith and my discernment
- To want to turn back when I don’t understand or I feel scared or I don’t have control
- To want to mold and make what is present into something different
- To take back my “yes” and resort to my more comfortable self-will
I’ve been humbled more than a few times as I’ve recognized these places within myself. It’s humbling to come up against my ego’s demands and my “no.”
Can I wait it out for a while? I think so. Because I truly do see this as an opportunity for growth.
Since I started this journey, I’ve been keeping a file of inspirational quotes that speak to my heart. Here are a few that especially speak to me now:
“In this well ordered universe, the perfect vehicle for our spiritual growth and unfoldment is exactly our present situation.”
“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith, and hope.”
~ Thomas Merton
A couple of weeks ago a black bear surprised me. Showed up on my deck seeking the origin of that bird seed he must have gotten a whiff of down in the woods. It was my fault really. It’s late spring and the thought had crossed my mind that my neighbors, the bears, would be out of hibernation by now. And looking for food. But I hadn’t yet taken in the feeder.
When I heard the heavy thump, thump, thump up my deck stairs I thought my son, who was home from college, had returned home for the evening. But it was only 11 o’clock, so that was unusual. Even more unusual — when I peeked out at the front door, Davis didn’t appear under the porch light. I waited. No Davis. That’s when I got scared.
Although I feel safe here surrounded by trees, this was one of those rare moments when I wasn’t feeling too secure. I turned on the deck lights, phone in hand, just in case. A tall, black figure stood on my deck, facing out towards the woods.
“Someone’s out there,” I thought. “And he’s wearing a black cape!”
For a brief moment, I wondered if a deranged person had found my hideaway in the woods. But then it struck me that he hadn’t turned around when I’d flipped on the lights. I stared just a bit longer before realizing it was a black bear intent on figuring out how to get to the bird feeder hanging from the iron hook extended off the deck. He finally wrenched that hook right off the railing, plunked himself down, and proceeded to take apart my squirrel-proof feeder that had so far survived the jumping and swinging antics of numerous rodents, fierce windstorms, and just about every other force of Nature. That is, until Mr. Bear came along. And Mr. Bear had none of the protocol I use when carefully unwrapping a present, hoping to reuse the bow and paper. Within minutes, he demolished that feeder and made himself comfortable as he feasted on sunflower seeds.
Perched on my spot on the living room rug with its floor-to-ceiling windows I had a wide view of the action. I watched until Mr. Bear finished his meal. Just wanted to be sure he didn’t intend to join me inside after he was through. The thing about it is, it was exciting to watch him. I’d never been this close to a bear. I’ve occasionally spotted bears on my hillside, but always from a safe distance. None of them have ever dared venture onto my porch or deck. Until now.
Once again the writer in me grew curious about the metaphor. I discovered that in Native American culture, the bear has the qualities of being free in spirit and unpredictable. It symbolizes protection, strength, power, courage, motherhood, and discernment — this last quality a surprise to me, but it comes from the bear’s cautiousness. And, despite its size, a bear prefers peace and tranquility and is therefore considered a symbol of harmony and balance.
I recognize these qualities in the steps I’ve taken in this journey of my heart, especially that of discernment. Certainly my days of quiet and solitude here in the woods have provided a necessary time for discernment. Not that it has been easy to spend so much time alone over the past couple of years, questioning my purpose, seeking the next steps on my journey. In fact, at times it’s been downright painful. But I believe that Spirit brought me to this isolated place because it’s where I needed to be in order to seriously question, to truly seek, and to listen to the inner voice of love guiding my heart forward. There are times when going underground is necessary.
Two of my favorite more contemporary spiritual writers, Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, valued solitude and considered it a necessary part of “conversion.” Nouwen called solitude “ the furnace of transformation” — a path that offers spiritual guidance in rediscovering “the way of the heart.” For Merton, solitude was a necessity in his hunger for intimacy with God. Through solitude he discovered the path to compassion and empathy.
I believe that I, too, have begun to discover my capacity for compassion through solitude, which led me to discern to serve in El Paso and recently to San Antonio. Could it be these times of solitude have freed my spirit to follow the way of my heart? To gain inner strength and be more courageous in going where I do not know? To simply pray for guidance and follow?
It’s been a hard place to stand — this in-between place — teetering on the threshold of the life I’ve known on one side and the who-knows-what life on the other side.
It can feel lonely to be in that in-between place, not sure where home is anymore. And yet I don’t feel lonely. I feel as though I am waking up to an aliveness stirring within me.
Alive. That’s what I felt living on the border. Alive with the people and the presence, the dirt and the heat, the simplicity and the generosity. Alive in the recognition of my gifts that showed up in surprising ways. Just like Mr. Bear.
Alive. It’s the same word I used to describe my experience in Peru last November. During one of the native sacred rituals I participated in, the first word that popped out of my mouth was “alive!”
And, just like Mr. Bear, I’m ready to venture out. Out of the woods. Out of the dark cave. Awake. Alive. Ready to follow the scent of what feeds me.