Friday, March 30, 2012

Divine Innocence: Reflections on the Past


In listening to my “Loving the Two Halves of Life” mp3s Sunday (my personally designated day of house cleaning and spiritual mp3 imbibing) I was introduced to a wonderfully bright star of mysticism, theology, and wisdom–Edwina Gateley. She said a great many things that I will have to go back to again and again to fully absorb but she concluded her first session with the following questions. Which, serendipitously enough, I have been reflecting on a lot lately. So I thought I would answer them.

Who was God for you as a child?
God, for me, as a child was magic. It is probably more clearly described as mystery, but the word that came into my childish perceptions and imaginations was magic. He was everything-ness and nothingness, he was boisterous and secret, but close to my heart like a parent. He was the man I whispered to in nightly prayers, and the hidden “thing” behind the altar at mass–heavily guarded by the gatekeepers in their drapes of fabric and scepters of protection.

He was the thing I most wanted in the whole world, but I had no idea how to hold him. Trying to capture God in my imagination was like trying to catch fireflies in a jar–every time I thought I caught a piece of light, I would slap the lid on tight, only to realize that it had disappeared into the night.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Movies With Meaning: I Am?




“I Am” image via wikipedia

Film director and survivor of the excrutiating impact of post-concussion syndrome, Tom Shadyac, on becoming well, went on a mission via documentary to answer two great philosophical and theological questions from a variety of angles. The premise is the example that dark nights of pain–physical and emotional–can lead to transformation and an impetus to not sit still, sit silent, sit complacent in the world but move in a direction of goodness and change.

He asked these two fundamental questions of scientific, historical, and sociopolitical minds:

What is wrong with our world?
and
How do we make it better?

This director who made movies like “Ace Ventura”, “Bruce Almighty”, and “Liar, Liar”–two out of three which I think are implicitly morality tales in their own right–takes on the subject of humanity in much more direct, much less laugh-out-loud kind of way. This documentary is the story of a man looking for meaning out of trauma, which is what we all do after the worst happens and we make it out–beginning with the unforgettable Victor Frankel and his “Man’s Search for Meaning”.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Impermanence: Why the End of "Six Feet Under" Still Pisses Me Off


I adored the show “Six Feet Under” which aired on HBO for 5 seasons from 2001 to 2005 but the final episode always irked me and depressed me. The final minutes sequence through the moments of all the characters’ lives in fast forward–6 minutes to be exact for the bulk of their lives to run through with a melancholy soundtrack of a single song.

I know it has been years since the airing of that final episode but every time I see it, it gets to me. And for some reason, I keep watching it every so often over the years–grasping at the heart-wrenching pace of those last few minutes, rewinding and watching it again. Saturday it happened to be on HBO again and I did the same thing.

Then it hit me–why the ending drives me crazy. Impermanence. The end of this series highlights the impermanence of all our lives, but, of course, namely, the impermanence of my life. Isn’t the story of our lives mostly if not completely about us. And the idea that I am a blip on the cosmic radar, is, well, a blow to me. Ego, narcissism and all the yucks in me flare up in repugnance at that final episode because in the catalog of history my life is 6 minutes if I’m lucky.

I have been working lately to make my life less about me–which is, not surprisingly, a very hard task. Even though I spend much of my life in an experience as therapist which is really not about me at all, it is still quite hard. This survivalist, Darwinistic, human nature in me wants to scrounge for every part of those 6 minutes to matter. But to make them matter in spite of me rather than for me, that is difficult.

Back to “Six Feet Under”and the finale. It is a clear decisive statement (soundtrack and all) that reminds us how short life is, and how everything we do is a blip on the radar. The impermanence of “me”, while initially (and for years now) maddening, at second glance is a ticket to “letting go”. If I can get it, really get it–my life is short, then that can be an entryway to letting go of myself, letting go of the moments of extreme pain (physical and emotional), and begin to understand in a reality-based way that, “this too, shall pass.”

And if I can begin to let go of the grasping, clawing, ego-driven me, then I can begin to see more God, make room for more God, and make space in myself for more than the “star of the show of my life.” Ahem, that’s me, in case you were wondering.

So, as I continue to struggle with the impermanence of myself, and trying to be a better more useful me in this short life I have, I thought I would insert the video that started this post and spurred my writing about this innate struggle. View, enjoy, and see how it makes you feel.


Sunday, March 25, 2012

Movies With Meaning: X-Men + Religious Division


photo from the X-Men Wikipedia 
The first X-Men movie begins with a scene from a Nazi Concentration Camp which sets the metaphor boldly in the air for the premise of the first movie and all the follow up films to come. The “mutants” are ostracized, alienated, and persecuted by the mainstream public. In return, a faction of the mutants decide to fight back, with violent measures, against their oppressors. Their nonviolent counterparts pay the price, being labeled as lumped in with the extremists who would murder the rest of the world to further their “righteous” cause.

Violence begets violence, hate begets hate, until many are dead and many others blinded by their rage. Sounds like every Holy War in the history of the world. Sounds like much of the history of Christianity and the present day issues in most of our religions worldwide.

“An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” And we are quickly headed to the edge of global blindness.

Especially moving to me is the most recent film “X-Men: First Class” which goes back to the origins of a friendship, a common “evil” enemy, where Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Eric Lensherr (Magneto) are together, fighting for good (I’ll be it still with some violence). Charles has a more idyllic background while Eric suffered through the Holocaust and loss of his beloved mother–the viscousness of Eric’s past has clearly shaped his present, as violent trauma often can.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Prayer of Union: Anthony DeMello on "Body Awareness"



Bombay born Jesuit priest and psychotherapist Anthony De mello is a kindred spirit hidden only a generation away from me, all this time. He is a man after my own profession, both being a trained psychotherapist, influenced and informed by the teachings and trainings of his home country, India, he makes cross-cultural dialogue of faith a seamless exercise. I was able to see a video of him, at this past week’s contemplative prayer group (the one I participate in, not facilitate) which focused on “peace”.

He depicted an exercise, what is called a “body scan” in yoga and mindfulness practices, as “a prayer of union.” This simple recognition, for me, was a permission to enliven a practice I do daily, and teach to clients regularly, into not only a conduit to prayer, but with intention, the prayer itself. Given that this past week my spiritual capacity to focus on the practice of centering prayer in my centering prayer group seemed impossible as my body spasmed with pain, the simple permission and this wisdom of Fr. De mello opened my prayer life immensely in a single drop.

Body awareness as a “prayer of union” is a beautiful teaching. One that I will carry with me on the days I lack the mental capacity for more intensive prayer exercise and something I will carry with me each time I teach this practice to others. The value of it increased exponentially with one phrase.

Step by step, let whatever happens happen. Real change will come when it is brought about, not by your ego, but by reality. Awareness releases reality to change you” Anthony De mello, ”Assorted Landmines”

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Illness, The Mystics + Finding the Way to Humility


“Sometimes the most grateful pilgrim is the one whose road has been the rockiest.” James Martin, SJ

One pattern I have seen in the lives of many of the saints I admire, adore, and aspire to emulate are that they had some form of chronic, often debilitating, and always painful, illness. In this small thing we have something in common. I don’t think this is true because my illness is divine, or that my pain is sacred, only that there is room to grow towards divinity and the sacred in my pain.

I know, from experience, that pain is a crossroads. We are given the choice to take the path to bitterness, anger, resentment, and withdrawal, or the road to openness, humility, “dying to self”, and surrender. I can say, quite often, in the course of the day, I do both. Even though I struggle to do the latter more than the former I can see that the way to a deeper faith and relationship with God is in surrender and humility.

I believe that the reason there are so many mystics with early, persistent, and lifelong illness is because when given the option of whether to seek the devil (to use a word sort of colloquially for the baser, least of our human qualities) or the divine, they were able to transform their pain into the humility necessary to really know God. I see, more and more, the path to knowing God is only through abject, repeated, and complete brokenness. One thing chronic illnesses give you plenty of is brokenness.

This week, and beyond that this month, has been a struggle towards something greater to be gained from my pain–in a time, for me, of Lenten experience–I have found a great deal of desert and a whole lot of devilish temptations of my spirit. I have found a great deal of brokenness. I try to think of the saints who made their way to grace by way of lifelong pain, physicalized but also psychic. I try to live up to the task of seeking better than my “self”–seeking God in the worst of me.

As I write this, my hand aches through my fingers and shooting up my arm, under my elbow and creeping toward my shoulder. It delays the process of this post, and in it, increases in my frustration. The pain radiates further from my shoulders into my neck, down my spine into my hips, and through my hips throbbing into my knees towards my toes. It feels like someone is compressing my body from the inside, like large fists tightening over every inch of me.

I seek the words of others who have done this better, as a means to some variation of a better me. I am on my knees, not asking for relief from the pain, but for a stronger soul to bear it. I hope that these others can guide the way. Pain is not, like self-flatulation, the origin of divinity–but it can be a conduit. And for those who have taken the riskier path, “It has made all the difference,” (the latter excerpted from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken“).

Quotes from those I honor the words of, who suffered and suffer from chronic pain/illness:

“The stone that the builders rejected, has become the cornerstone.” Psalms 118
“Suddenly, it was so obvious! God was in the midst of the suffering. I suppose I had “died to self” more than I had realized. While I knew that God hadn’t caused the suffering to make me receptive to those things, my openness seemed an outgrowth of my experience during the past few years…Was it possible that the suffering was helping make me a better Christian, a better disciple?” James Martin, SQ, My Life with the Saints

“It is encouraging to see that trials which seemed to us impossible to submit to are possible to others, and that they bear them sweetly. Their flight makes us try to soar, like nestlings taught by the elder birds, who, though they cannot fly far at first, little by little imitate their parents.” Teresa of Avila,Interior Castle

Suffering, pain, and things that test us do not have to come in the literal package of physical pain. Most recently, my humility, my cross, my challenges have been very much physicalized…which led to emotion pain, and psychic struggle. The wars of the soul can come in many forms. What are your battles for divinity in the pains of human reality? What are the graces that help you get through?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Culture, Pop + Otherwise: 5 Reasons I Like Blake Shelton


When my husband became a mild to moderate fanatic of “The Voice” I audibly groaned in his general direction. “Et tu?” I thought, believing he had becoming engrossed in something akin to “American Idol II”. One day, out of boredom and curiosity, and after a previous season of my husband’s deeply intent conversations about the show’s weekly going on with one of his guy friends, I sat down to watch it with him. Surprise, surprise, I liked it. It lacked all the cruelty and weird catch phrases of “American Idol” and retained a quality of respect for the fledgling voices putting themselves on vulnerable display for the world to view. The thing that finally sold me was the authenticity of one of the hosts, Blake Shelton.

I am an unlikely closet country fan, hailing from the not-so-capital of twang, New Jersey. I was saddened, after three years of living in Colorado, to return to my home state to find the one country music channel had been zapped off the airwaves. My brother and I joked it was because we their two dedicated fans and one of them had left the ratings area. So, given my country fan-hood I know Blake Shelton and his songs. But to see his personality, a clear departure from Hollywood savvy and sheen (in a good way), I was a bit smitten. Not in a romantic way–like my obsession with Anderson Cooper (we’ll save that for another time)–but in a “I could hang out with this guy” way.  I thought I would touch the surface of this intrigue with a few Cliff’s Notes on why I like this guy:

  1. The way he can say, with all honesty, things like :”I feel so stupid, I don’t know that song,” (about “Heart-Shaped Box” by Nirvana–a personal historical favorite).
  2. How he can follow the former statement with an effortlessly genuine, “Gosh dang it.”
  3. The way he can tell contestants he wants to see them succeed even if it’s not with him (that’s sportsmanship).
  4. How almost everything he says makes me laugh or smile–and makes this surprising show interesting in ever-revealing down home country ways.
  5. That his song, “God Gave Me You,” was found in the hacked itunes purchases of Syrian dictator Assad. I mean, how many people can tout that fact.
Thank you to Blake and “The Voice” for an unexpectedly entertaining hour of my life. Also, kudos to Cee Lo for pulling of the white cat petting monologues–ala Austin Powers “Dr Evil”.

CHECK OUT the “Heart-Shaped Box” Video Below, care of Youtube. I loved it–ah, for the days of Nirvana and the timely paired painful experience of high school existence.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Knowing Versus Understanding


I sometimes have a intolerance for intolerant people, and my issues are utterly clear to me in their irony. I have realized, recently, that I cannot push people to where they are not, or make them see things how they cannot (yet). And, I must understand that for every level of understanding I have, there is still much “knowing” to unlearn as I grow in my own faith.

Something about casting stones is resonating in my mind.

So, whether more obvious or more subtle, we are all working our way from places of “knowing” to “understanding”–and my intolerance for intolerance is one of my big ones. Also my impatience for results, in my life or others, is a really big one.

It is funny, because in my secular role as a therapist I am, daily, living in the phrase: “Start where the client is.” Then, in my spiritual life, I try to push the limits of where people are on their journey, and just as often, where I am in my journey.

I need to listen to the voice in my head– the calmer, more assured, wiser-than-me voice–which whispers from eternity: “Slow down.”

I need to slow down in my expectation of myself, slow down in my expectation of others and know that we are all on a journey which takes us through the land of “knowing” to a place of “understanding”.

For the purposes of what I am discussing, I see “knowing” as concrete facts, the tangibles, the black and whites, the certitude, and often a big dollop of ego on top. When we “know” there is no room to grow–or space for ourselves to evolve, or others to evolve.

I see “understanding” not as another cognitive fact or certitude, platitude, or absolute, but rather kindness, humility, and the authenticity of a deepening presence with God.

I have to understand that wherever we are on the journey, wherever other people are, it is equally as applicable to say “start where you/they are at” because you can only build outward. And to build outward we have to learn, know, and grow enough before we can move to a wider understanding, which no longer requires as much of the training wheels of “knowing”.

I have to accept that journey in others, be patient and humble in myself, and then expect fumbles and falls on both counts.

What do you “know”? What happens if you consider letting go of the “know”? What is the resistance to letting go? What is the freedom in “unknowing” as the ancient mystic said in the title of his book (The Cloud of Unknowing)? 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Chronic Illness + The Sermon I Needed



Richard Rohr talks often about something he calls “shadowboxing” which is the internal battles of self (the petty, ego-filled, narcissistic, and falliable self) versus divine (goodness, kindness, patience, willingness and humility) we struggle through and necessity of battling our “self”-ishness to become better conduits to something more divine.

I have been battling hard lately–not just the shadows of my own invention but those that seemed physiologically preordained by a mixture of weakened immunity and impoverished DNA.

I am a person not just chronically human but also chronically pained. I have found there is nothing so fully human than pain. And nothing so great a challenge to humility and divinity but the task to deal with daily reverberating crescendos of pain.

Friday night was burned by a physical low point, as the crescendo had reached it’s highest octave and then just stayed there–like a tireless opera singer with lungs for days. With that physical aria came a well of deep self-pity and venom. I decided, rather than expose anyone else to the vitriol of my humanness exposed I would get a lot of sleep, something I had needed a great deal of and had made the mistake of not prioritizing the week prior.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Writing as a Spiritual Exercise



The prolific spiritual writer and Zen-inspired Christian monk, Thomas Merton, said: “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”

Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, directs us that,“What writing practice, like Zen practice does is bring you back to the natural state of mind…The mind is raw, full of energy, alive and hungry. It does not think in the way we were brought up to think-well-mannered, congenial.”

Imagine the wildness of a raw mind, without structure, context, or plot-making in mind. Imagine the practice of writing, primarily as spiritual exercise in the expansion of the self. Secondary is the finessing of the wild vines of life and words as one, into a story that is readable to anyone else. Maybe writing as a spiritual exercise will become a crafted story, but allowing it to be nothing but an exploration of the soul frees your mind, your words, and your life to enjoy “a prayer of words.”

INTRODUCTORY STEPS for Writing as a Spiritual Exercise:
  1. Pick a passage/quote from a spiritual text of your choosing. It can be a sacred text, a spiritual autobiography, or a poem that explores or evokes a faith journey. Write that quote at the crisp, blank top of a new page.
  2. Find a quiet, peaceful place where you can go uninterrupted: in the shade of a blossoming tree near a river, at the beach in the early morning or evening, or a nook in your house where you can see and feel the light of the day flicker through the blinds. Anywhere that calms but also satiates your senses.
  3. Take a few, deep, cleansing breaths. Breathe in through your nose, and out through your nose. Do this 3-6 times (or as long as you need to feel a little space between yourself and the frenetic, racing world).
  4. Read and re-read your chosen quote like a mantra. You can play with the formula. Read it aloud 2-3 times; read it in your head 2-3 more. Notice how it may resonate in different ways brought to your brain in different packages.
  5. Set a timer for yourself for 10 minutes.
  6. Free write on whatever the text inspires you to write until the timer goes off (ideally a gentle reminding hum, not a bullhorn-size sound).
  7. Read what you have written–without judgement, criticism, or a writer’s critique.
  8. See if any of your inspirations have surprised you, ignited a new idea for a story, or just brought you to a new sense of awareness about yourself.
  9.  If it did none of these things–no worries! This is not about production, it is about process. Writing as a spiritual exercise is all about the process.

Has writing ever been a spiritual outlet for you? Has it ever felt like a private prayer or meditation? How does it feel to think of writing this way–comforting, resonant, frightening, or off-putting?


The prolific spiritual writer and Zen-inspired Christian monk, Thomas Merton, said: “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”

Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, directs us that,“What writing practice, like Zen practice does is bring you back to the natural state of mind…The mind is raw, full of energy, alive and hungry. It does not think in the way we were brought up to think-well-mannered, congenial.”

Imagine the wildness of a raw mind, without structure, context, or plot-making in mind. Imagine the practice of writing, primarily as spiritual exercise in the expansion of the self. Secondary is the finessing of the wild vines of life and words as one, into a story that is readable to anyone else. Maybe writing as a spiritual exercise will become a crafted story, but allowing it to be nothing but an exploration of the soul frees your mind, your words, and your life to enjoy “a prayer of words.”

INTRODUCTORY STEPS for Writing as a Spiritual Exercise:
  1. Pick a passage/quote from a spiritual text of your choosing. It can be a sacred text, a spiritual autobiography, or a poem that explores or evokes a faith journey. Write that quote at the crisp, blank top of a new page.
  2. Find a quiet, peaceful place where you can go uninterrupted: in the shade of a blossoming tree near a river, at the beach in the early morning or evening, or a nook in your house where you can see and feel the light of the day flicker through the blinds. Anywhere that calms but also satiates your senses.
  3. Take a few, deep, cleansing breaths. Breathe in through your nose, and out through your nose. Do this 3-6 times (or as long as you need to feel a little space between yourself and the frenetic, racing world).
  4. Read and re-read your chosen quote like a mantra. You can play with the formula. Read it aloud 2-3 times; read it in your head 2-3 more. Notice how it may resonate in different ways brought to your brain in different packages.
  5. Set a timer for yourself for 10 minutes.
  6. Free write on whatever the text inspires you to write until the timer goes off (ideally a gentle reminding hum, not a bullhorn-size sound).
  7. Read what you have written–without judgement, criticism, or a writer’s critique.
  8. See if any of your inspirations have surprised you, ignited a new idea for a story, or just brought you to a new sense of awareness about yourself.
  9.  If it did none of these things–no worries! This is not about production, it is about process. Writing as a spiritual exercise is all about the process.

Has writing ever been a spiritual outlet for you? Has it ever felt like a private prayer or meditation? How does it feel to think of writing this way–comforting, resonant, frightening, or off-putting?

Movies With Meaning: The Way


The Way DVD
I adore movies and when I find one that resonates with me on a level of mind, body, and spirit I am swept away in a symphony of senses. THE WAY with Martin Sheen (directed by his son at his request, Emilio Estevez) is one of those movies. I watched it a few days ago and it has lingered with me, the scents of the Spanish countryside mixing with my own nostalgia of the (often not-so-pleasant) smells and sounds of backpack life in hostel dorms.

The Camino de Santiago (or the Way of St James) has mythic history as the route St James (the Apostle James) body took back to Spain to be buried at Santiago de Compostela in the Galicia region of Spain.

As a young backpacker in my late teens/early twenties I had heard about the route and spent a couple of years fantasizing about taking the journey but the memory faded into the background of different travels to other continents and the busyness of life and winding, crooked paths.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Quotation Inspiration: Storytelling + the Sacred


” With storytelling we enter the trance of the sacred. Telling stories reminds us of our humanity in this beautiful broken world.” by terry tempest williams
Writing and reading, for me, have always been like entering into communion with elements of the universe far greater than myself. It is like a prayer.

When I was a child I would be so engrossed in a book, deep in meditation on words, that if someone came up behind me they would have to tap me hard on the back for me to even notice their presence and like being shaken out of a vivid dream I would startle.

When I write I go someplace inside and am touched by that “trance of the sacred”. Sometimes I finish and read what I have written, not certain whose inspiration it was that would ever think to pair together those two adjectives, verbs, nouns or that particularly tasty alliteration.

When I was younger I was prideful about the inspiration, as if something particularly particular about me had created the “good stuff”. Now, I realize, that most of the mindless, meandering, preening drivel is what comes when I am in control of the literary wheel and when it is something transformative or transcendent of that, something that might actually touch or help or heal…it is wholly God’s doing.

How humbling it is to be given the touch of something precious and realize it is not yours at all. How important it is to not try to own words, language, or meaning but just to understand that we all have the potential to be conduits to something greater than ourselves in whatever form of humanity-inducing art God has graced us with.
We are the brush, but never the painter.

We are in communion with the prayer of poetry, but we are not the genesis. This knowledge is both humbling and freeing–like all prayer.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Not-So-Great-Divorce: A Lineage of Faith


Divorce is never easy, especially on the children. As a child of divorce, or so I had always heard, you try to please one parent and then the other, always wanted to love and be loved by both, and not wanting to have to choose, which one is better–but always being put in the position of being asked to do so.

When the Protestant Reformation happened and Luther’s rules were posted on walls throughout England, people picked sides. You either love mom or you love dad–mother church or father (of Protestantism) Luther. Sitting in the courthouse before God, children were given the option to choose only one parent for custody. There were those that were dedicated to their Mother and the certainty and regimen she provided under her wings, others were exuberant over the way Dad was shaking things up and making everyone look at things with new eyes.

I see some Christians today becoming curious about the “Father” or the “Mother” they never knew. So, what happens to kids where one parent has soul spiritual custody, and what would shared custody look like?

When I joined my Episcopal church, having been a previously baptized, confessed, and confirmed Catholic, according to the rules of the Anglican communion all I had to do was “reaffirm” my dedication to God and church. My husband, a Protestant by birth, had to be newly confirmed, which was equally interesting to me.