A Journey into Love

NIÑOS de Salomon Klein
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.

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You’ll Never Be the Same

Thomas-Merton-our-job

It happened to me again. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.

When the subject came up, I felt a familiar passion rising in me, seemingly out of nowhere.

And it wasn’t like I had instigated it.

The incident happened  last weekend.

I was at a gathering of people from my church community when a woman I hadn’t seen in about two years came up to me. She wanted to know how my “mission” at the border had turned out.

Wow. The border. After just having spent several weeks in Bolivia and being back home in Virginia for a year, that experience seemed so far away. And yet it didn’t. Because as soon as I started to talk about the border, I was right there again.

I didn’t know where to begin. How to tell her everything I had witnessed. How to share the stories of the people. How to explain the misinformation and downright lies that have been spreading across this country about immigrants.

But her friend cut in. “I don’t have anything against immigrants, as long as they come here legally.”

And I could tell by looking at her face that this woman had no interest in what I had to say on the subject.

Our mutual friend — the woman who’d engaged me in this conversation — looked sympathetic. But then she admitted that she agreed with her friend.

I felt myself reacting to such a blanket statement that puts the problem in a neat little box. “If they want to come here, they should follow the rules.”

I started to argue that, yes, we need rules and regulations but do you know what it takes to get here legally? And how impossible it is for many people who are desperate? That what we really need is immigration reform to fix our broken system. But I’d lost her, too.

So, I stopped talking.

But inside, I felt the fire again. I experienced again the injustices of what’s happening.

And how ignorant we are of our role and responsibility.

And how American companies — privately-run detention facilities are just one example — benefit off the backs of immigrants.

And how the migrant poor, who have clearly suffered a lot, have more faith and generosity than I’ve ever had. I remembered their stories and their faces.

And I remembered again why I say that I can’t be at peace with a completely comfortable lifestyle anymore.

And why I can never not listen to my heart again. I’ve experienced too much to go back.

Recently, when I was on the plane heading from Bolivia to Miami, I discovered one of the Maryknoll priests I knew from Cochabamba was on the same flight. We chatted for a while about Bolivia, the people, the culture, the poverty.

“You will never be the same,” he said.

Little did he know. God had already awakened my heart. Three years ago. In the border town of El Paso.

I haven’t been the same since.change-the-world

La Música de la Vida

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Blind musicians outside cathedral in main plaza

Another full day on the streets of Cochabamba where women openly bare their breasts for their hungry children. They breastfeed while walking, talking, carrying groceries, crossing the traffic-filled avenue, sitting on their mats selling their wares — whatever is needed while they tend to the most natural every-day activity of nursing their little ones.

Most people don’t even notice.  I do.

But that’s because I seem to notice everything here. It’s as if I have recently regained my sight. And all my senses for that matter.

I’ll be walking along and all of a sudden some unusual scent fills my nostrils. Maybe it’s the sweet smell of unidentifiable flowers. Or the overpowering odor of raw sewage that affronted me one afternoon. Worse than anything I’ve ever encountered. I literally couldn’t take a breath until our vehicle was a few blocks away. And the sewage was located right up the street from an elementary school!

Then there are the colors that pop into view at every turn.  Quechua women wearing bright pink shawls with multi-colored stripes that bulge with the weight of their cargo– usually a baby. The school girls in their sparkling white uniforms that look like doctors’ coats. Yellow, pink, and red hibiscus plants that line neighborhood streets. Grand green weeping willows that hang so low their delicate branches brush my forehead as I pass.

Green. It’s definitely the predominant color in this city. Islands of trees and green grass flow through the middle of main avenues. Parks filled with topiaries and vibrant plants appear everywhere I venture. Palm trees tower above the street life.

And what life there is in Bolivia!

It came to me one day while I was sitting in the garden at the Maryknoll language school. What the richness of life here is like for me.

It’s like a full symphony playing inside of me. Not just in my head. In my entire body. And it’s waking me up to the music of life. I pray my eyes remain open.

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Life as a House

My home

I watched Life as a House again recently. It’s both one of my favorite movies and a great metaphor for life. It reminds me of my own dream house — this log home in the woods. How it manifested through my imaginings. What happened in the building of it. And of my decision to now let it go.

In the movie, Kevin Kline plays George, a washed-up architect who gave up on his dreams years ago. He’s divorced from the woman he truly loved, has become alienated from his son, and when the movie begins, he is let go from the architectural firm he’s hated for some time. To top it off, shortly afterwards George discovers he’s dying.Life_As_A_House_movie_image

That’s when George actually begins to live. He finally decides to build the house of his dreams. A house he knows he will never live in. But a house that will bless all who have a part in it. The building of this house is about redemption. It’s about transformation. It’s about letting go of what you love. Even as you let yourself love more deeply. And that’s where true freedom comes.

I’ve been reflecting on this as I get ready to leave behind my own house.

Soon I’ll be headed back to Bolivia to immerse myself in Spanish language school and improve my options to find work back at the U.S.-Mexico border after I return. By summer, I expect I’ll be gone.

It’s hard to think of letting go of this house. Anyone who’s ever visited has remarked on how beautiful, peaceful, and special it is. That’s certainly true. But even more than that — this house has redeemed me. Through its absolute silence and solitude. Which has been both a gift and a curse. In this house, I’ve come to understand the term, “a deafening silence.” I’ve learned the real meaning of loneliness. I’ve also had wonderful conversations with the moon and spent nights praying under a star-filled sky. And I’ve sought and discovered, out of the solitude, a Love that sustained me even, and especially when, I didn’t think I could support myself.

Before this house was built, my friends gathered in a fire ceremony to bless the land and my future home and all who would come. Anyone who has passed through its doors has felt the energy of those blessings. I truly believe I’ve been spiritually protected here.

Something else that will be hard to let go of — the life I’ve known, the friends I’ve made over the years, my community.

Like George, I’m experiencing my own little death. My own bittersweet feelings as I gather with friends I love and inwardly whisper my goodbyes. My recognition that I am going from what is known and comfortable into the unknown.

And, like George, I am leaving behind a house that is part of me. A house that is filled with blessings and positive energy for those who will come after. A house that has its own life.

But my heart is calling me elsewhere. I choose to follow that call.

Sometimes you manifest your dream, only to have to let it go.

For reflection, I share this excerpt from David Whyte’s poem “House of Belonging”

This is the bright home
in which I live,
this is where
I ask 
my friends
to come,
this is where I want
to love all the things
it has taken me so long
to learn to love.

This is the temple
of my adult aloneness
and I belong
to that aloneness
as I belong to my life.

There is no house
like the house of belonging.

With Hearts Broken Open

BeautyInDarkness1

Davis arrived from France a little over a week ago. Looking more like a man than ever. If that’s possible.

On the long car ride home from Dulles Airport, he chatted away. About the friends he’d made. His love for the language. How he missed speaking French already. And the food. He went on and on about the food.

You’d think he’d be exhausted after traveling for two days. But he was on fire. I could hear the passion in his voice.  Already he talked about going back. About the offers of places to stay whenever he chose to return.

He reminded me of myself and what I’ve been feeling after returning from my recent adventures in Bolivia and at the border.  Like me he’s expanding his outlook on life. Opening his heart to more people. And making exciting choices that can be both painful and risky.

Recently a friend sent me a link to Parker Palmer’s May 2015 commencement address on the six pillars of the wholehearted life. So much of it resonated with me. But in these lines in particular, I recognized myself and Davis:

“The good news is that suffering can be transformed into something that brings life, not death. It happens every day. I’m 76 years old, I now know many people who have suffered the loss of the dearest person in their lives. At first they go into deep grief, certain that their lives will never again be worth living. But then they slowly awaken to the fact that not in spite of their loss, but because of it, they’ve become bigger, more compassionate people, with more capacity of heart to take in other people’s sorrows and joys. These are broken-hearted people, but their hearts have been broken open, rather than broken apart.”

Hearts broken open. That’s what Davis and I have. Hearts broken when we lost the best husband and father we could have had. But hearts that remain open. Because we’ve chosen to keep them open. To not close ourselves off to the pain. To let ourselves be vulnerable and loving to those we don’t yet know. And that has made all the difference.

And there’s something else that Palmer said about brokenness. About being willing to go down into the tough, painful dark shadows within ourselves.

“Take everything that’s bright and beautiful in you and introduce it to the shadow side of yourself. Let your altruism meet your egotism, let your generosity meet your greed, let your joy meet your grief. Everyone has a shadow… But when you are able to say, “I am all of the above, my shadow as well as my light,” the shadow’s power is put in service of the good. Wholeness is the goal, but wholeness does not mean perfection, it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of your life.

Davis is learning to embrace his brokenness. So am I.

Still.

And in doing so, I’ll be better able to be present to someone else facing her own darkness.

As  Joan Chittister explains:

Only the experience of our own darkness gives us the light we need to be of help to others whose journey into the dark spots of life is only just beginning. It’s then that our own taste of darkness qualifies us to be an illuminating part of the human expedition. Without that, we are only words, only false witnesses to the truth of what it means to be pressed to the ground and rise again.

So, on this eve of the winter solstice when we will face the longest night of the year, I celebrate my choice to embrace the darkness. With a heart broken open.parker_palmer_on light and dark

Don’t Miss the Signposts

signs

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.”

Small plant on pile of soil, part of it reflected
Small plant on pile of soil, part of it reflected

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.”

Losing Control

surrender1
I’m preparing to give a mini retreat at my house on Saturday. It’s about discerning with your heart. And it’s got me going through my journals from this past year’s journey. A year of tremendous uncertainty. A year of learning to discern with, and trust, my own heart.

Reading some of the things I’ve written, I’m realizing just how much faith I had. And the risks I took. Not knowing how I’d support myself when I decided to leave San Antonio and venture off to El Paso. Not knowing what I’d meet along the way. Nor what I’d face once I got there.

Yet I was willing to go. Because that’s where my heart called me. So I chose to let go of being in control.

That’s no small thing. Especially for me.

While reading the journal entries I came across this poem I wrote that about sums up the whole year. Much of the time I really had no control over anything that was happening. Except how I chose to respond.

I chose to trust.

Trust God. Trust my guidance and inner wisdom. Trust the Love that had brought me on this adventure in the first place and had guided me all along the way. So, that night, I chose to surrender and give up control over the outcome. And I understood, even then, that this very loss of control was leading me to freedom.

But it felt like an emptiness. As I let go of my ego’s need to control and to know what was coming next, I came up against an emptiness. And trusting in that emptiness, in that loss of control, I found something much greater.

During the night, in a semi-conscious dream state, I became aware of a vivid image of a white ball of light connecting everything and everyone to itself as it moved across the scene in my dream. I and everyone around me was united into this bright globe of light and love. As I watched, I recognized the light that lives in all of us. And these familiar words floated in, “You are the light of the world.”

Now, tonight, I’m remembering that losing control isn’t so scary. And maybe I needed to be reminded, too. Reminded that it’s time to surrender. Again.

So, here’s the poem I wrote in my journal that night. Turns out it was dated one year ago today. Funny how that goes sometimes.

Emptiness

Leads to surrender

Loss of control

Leads to a choice

Choosing to fight

Against what is before me

Or choosing to surrender

To what I can’t yet name

Emptiness

Loss of control

Choosing the only choice

That makes sense to me now

To let myself fall

Hoping in the Promise

To catch and embrace me

In this void

Next Stop, Bolivia

cochabamba

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

Amistad sisters

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In Love’s Flow

Sevenoaks view
View of Blue Ridge Mountains from Sevenoaks Retreat Center, with St. Francis in foreground.

I spent the weekend at Sevenoaks Retreat Center in Madison for a reunion with some very dear friends. Sevenoaks has special meaning for me. It’s the place where I dived deeper into the courageous and challenging spiritual journey of knowledge of self and God through the Pathwork program. It’s also where I began to trust the overpowering and overwhelming experiences of God’s love flowing through me. And Sevenoaks is where I first made a serious commitment to use my gifts and talents to serve community.

Being there again this weekend only affirmed that commitment.

I know I have a mission. Or, I should say, the mission has me. That’s what I was told during my missionary service orientation in Mexico City last August. And I know these words are truth.

I also know this passion for my mission did not come from my ego mind. It came from what I would call the Spirit of divine love. A love that has awakened my heart to the needs and the pain of the “other.”

I hear friends — good and caring people — voice concerns about how the influx of Hispanic immigrants is affecting our economy, affecting our lives, and I wonder, how can I explain what I’ve experienced? What I’ve seen in the Other? What I know about how our country has contributed to the economic situation in Latin America? How our economy would falter without the contributions of these hardworking immigrants? About what it really means to be hungry and in danger?

Mostly, how can I explain that when we look at the other and feel fearful or lacking, we are in illusion?

Yes, my heart has awakened.

Sometimes it feels impossible to hold it all. To know the pain of others in my heart. But this weekend at Sevenoaks I was reassured that I am not holding it alone. All I need do is listen and follow the call. Take the next right step. But it’s not easy.

The question I must ask myself time and again is this: In whatever I am doing, thinking, or expressing, am I in love’s flow? Or am I in my fear? Will I spend my life worrying about whether there will be enough? Or will I trust the transformative Love of God to support me and give me what I need as I listen and follow as best as I can? The kind of trust I witnessed in those I served.

I choose to trust.
i-see-the-divine-in-you
I trust that if enter the flow of seeing the divine in the other and open my heart, I will in turn receive much more than I have given. I’ve already experienced this. Especially in Texas and Mexico. Why wouldn’t it continue?

How about you?

Will your soul be enriched by the other?

How will your heart respond?

Will you allow yourself to look into another’s eyes, listen to their story, feel their pain, and recognize your Self?

This weekend I was reminded of the Prayer of St. Francis. It’s a tough one to live by. But I say it anyway, trusting that it’s quietly transforming me. Along with those whose lives I touch.

I share that prayer here.
prayer of st francis

 

Midwife to a Soul

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July 1st would have been Esther’s 75th birthday. This post is in honor of her.

The night I moved into the house on Grandview Avenue in El Paso, I questioned myself. Again.

What am I doing here, in this little bedroom? In yet another new place amidst strange surroundings? What can I bring to this situation at the border? What difference can I possibly make in the lives of these migrant families fleeing their desperate lives of violence and poverty?

It was December 14. Both Gaudete Sunday — the third Sunday of Advent marked by joy in the midst of darkness — and the beginning of Las Posadas — the reenactment of Joseph and a pregnant Mary seeking shelter the night her baby was to be born. Earlier I’d joined Esther and the Latino community in downtown El Paso, going door to door, asking the same question that was on my heart: “Do you have room? Is there a place for me here?”

The irony of the situation didn’t elude me.

But it wasn’t like I didn’t have a place to stay. Granted, it wasn’t “home,” but Esther had agreed to take me in, after all. All she knew was that I wanted to serve the migrants and refugees. She took a chance. She agreed to support me.

I looked out from my bedroom window — a high-paned glass that ran the entire length of the wall. Thousands of yellow flickering lights spread across Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, reaching toward the mountains. How many people out there are suffering tonight, I wondered? How many face a future desperately more uncertain than mine? How many are unsafe? In that moment, my life, my concerns, felt small by comparison.

And in that moment I realized, this isn’t about me. My being here in El Paso. It’s not about me striving to make something happen. To succeed at whatever it is I think my purpose is. No. This is about being willing and open. Willing to allow Spirit to use me. Open to whatever wants to be born in this situation. Open to allowing things to be as they are. I simply need to take my small self out of the equation.

Later that night I sat down on my bedroom floor and wrote this poem:

The Midwife of God
Emmanuel
God with us
Within me
Grasping my hands
As the hot pains of labor
Sharp and prolonged
Cry for relief
Searching my eyes
For the answer to one vital question:
Am I willing
To take on this labor
As midwife,
To be present to all that comes?
Am I willing
To support the life
Struggling to be born?
Day and night
The pain continues
Sweaty brow, clammy hands,
a raw dryness in my throat
Still I stand alongside
the moaning laborer
Rooted in solidarity
Committed to the cause
Until what emerges
Elicits a glorious light
Erasing the memory
And exuding hope
In the familiar darkness.

midwife_John-ODonohue-quote

Months later, questions remain. And I remember to look for signs of the Source of life in the uncertainty. Signs like Esther, who stood by as midwife to the seed planted in me in El Paso. Signs like the words of encouragement and praise from friends who’ve been inspired by my journey. Possibly inspired to give birth to their own seeds of longing sprouting within.

Signs like the light that came to earth so many years ago, that shone in the darkness of an otherwise ordinary night in the desert.