Friday, September 9, 2016

What makes a place special?

Two days ago I was at Nether Springs, the Mother House and home for the Northumbria Community in England.  The group of us had traveled from Germany, British Columbia, Western Colorado, California, and of course, Maryland to participate in a retreat on Celtic Sites and Saints. 

The morning exercise was to consider the question of what makes a place special, even holy or sacred.  We were asked to find somewhere on the grounds to settle into and consider what was special about that particular space.  I sat outside of the conservatory, which David recorded through the window.  I found a towel to lay on the ground still wet from the early morning rain, took off my shoes, and sat down next to the bird feeder. 

The first question was what stands out?  I realized I chose an enclosed outdoor space, with the conservatory on my right side, the outside wall of the library behind me, large butterfly bushes to my left, and the side of an outdoor retreat shed slightly ahead.  There was only a narrow entrance between some other bushes.  I chose a safe and comfortable space with hellebores and crocosmia, plants I know and love. 

At the same time, it was not totally isolated.  The rhythmic clanking of farm machinery came from the barn very close behind me, and there were whiffs of fresh, fragrant cow dung.  The world was still able to come into the space.  Looking through the bushes in front, the distant hills and new bales of wheat straw were visible.

It fit my introspective mood, my own sense of turning inward, my expectation for being on a retreat.  Yet, one of the questions posed by our leader was how a space might challenge us, take us out of our comfort zone.  Just the day before, I had walked through such a place.

The group walked along the Pilgrim's Way, a three mile long Medieval route across the causeway to Lindisfarne, the Holy Island.  As our leader noted, it is walking on the floor of the sea, with sand, seaweed, shells, deep pools of water and muck, and quick sand, if you stray too far from the marker posts.  It took around an hour to walk, some parts quick and easy, other requiring careful concentration to avoid sinking deep into something smelly and wanting to hold onto your foot.

That was a challenging walk.  About two thirds of the way, I looked up from carefully placing my feet, and had a sinking feeling that there was still much further to go.  Yet, it was good to have companions on the journey, and the experience together brought a deeper sense of companionship among us.  At the far end was David, who chosen to walk the road because of a sore ankle. I was thrilled to have him welcome me back onto solid, non-slippery ground.

Were either of these holy or sacred spaces?  As our leader noted, a space becomes touched by God because of an experience of an "other," outside of oneself.  I certainly was taken outside of myself, whether in the enclosed space or the exposed space.  But I wonder if either was holy or sacred.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Before a Pilgrimage

In several months I will be embarking on a pilgrimage.  No, that is not quite right.  I have already been on a pilgrimage, even though I have not left home.  There are already things happening within me and in my relationship with my husband and fellow pilgrim.  It was his decision to schedule a long delayed sabbatical that began the journey. 

Finding a block of time to step out of two busy schedules has been challenging, the primary cause for his delay.  There are always things that one of us needed to be doing.   So, we last summer we started looking for time in the autumn or winter of 2016.  We tried to balance possible destinations against the seasons of the year we could be away.  If he were to follow his dream to visit an ashram in India, we were told that winter would be the best time.  If we wanted to visit stone circles in Scotland, autumn would be the better time.  It was slow going, until there was an opening for the entire month of September. 

In September I will have completed my year as a CPE Chaplain Fellow with a hospice facility.  Taking the month on an external journey will also provide space for an inward pilgrimage of transition.  I will be leaving behind rich friendships, built in our work as a multidisciplinary team providing a joint ministry of caring for the dying and supporting those living through the death of loved family members.  I will still be carrying faces and voices of those who I came to know so briefly.  I will be facing a different kind of grief in letting go of those friendships, and a rewarding, demanding and often exhausting ministry.

As we focused on taking September for the sabbatical time, I saw an advertisement for In the Footsteps of the Celtic Saints: A Pilgrimage to Lindisfarne and Iona.  I sent an email, and waited to hear more.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Spiritual Direction in My Life

It is with a sense of awe and gratitude that in two weeks I will join a gathering of former and current members of the Spiritual Directors International (SDI) Coordinating Council.  The meeting is part of a year-long strategic planning process.

Some people are already friends, such as the current Council members in this photo from our meeting last November.  We get to know each other well by working hard, sharing our personal life and spiritual stories, and embracing periods of contemplative silence.

In preparation for the upcoming meeting, we were all asked to write an essay about what spiritual guidance we are receiving to be a person of contemplation, a person of action, and a person who builds community.  Here is what I wrote:

A few years ago my spiritual director noted I was experiencing the longest dark night of anyone she had known.  Any sense of God was fleeting and nebulous.  My work at a national association had become poisonous to my emotional and spiritual health, and I focused on surviving. I saw no alternative, while yearning to be in ministry as a spiritual companion for more than a few people.

Like many middle managers, a corporate restructuring two years ago eliminated that work, and I was handed a three month severance package.  Within weeks I followed a newly emerging curiosity about being a hospice chaplain.  Doors quickly opened to my starting Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) as a volunteer chaplain.  Within the first two units of CPE, I moved through my grieving the loss of a career, while learning to be with those at the end of life.  My time with Kathy, my spiritual director, turned from the desert of the dark night to surprise and hope, mixed with anxiety and fear.  As Kathy wryly noted one time, God gave me what I wanted, though not the way I expected.

Weeks after losing my job I was also invited to join the SDI Coordinating Council, after being turned down just months earlier.  It was affirmation in the middle of desolation.  I began integrating two parts of my life that had been kept separate, applying over two decades of experience as an association manager to a new and very different organization, SDI, which has been central to my growth as a spiritual director.  

Taking a third unit of CPE last autumn I explored the differences and overlaps between the roles of chaplain and spiritual director.  Dan, my supervisor and I had numerous discussions about when and how my responses pointed to one or the other role.  Dan challenged me to stop asking questions because they led the other person to move into his or her head.  My image of how to be a spiritual director has been deepened and challenged.

After that third unit Dan invited me to apply for a CPE Chaplain Resident position for a 15 bed hospice facility.  My first response was “Yes!” followed by an immediate “Oh Shit!”  Taking that to my spiritual director, Kathy pointed out my resistance to the call, which I had been unwilling to admit.  I did apply and will start in August, earning money after two years using up savings.

Now I am able to be more fully available and vulnerable to those whom I companion.  I am aware of how much brokenness I experience with each person, each one seeking in her or his own way, to know how to be in service to the broken world around us.  The two years of deepening into my own vulnerability, pain, and brokenness allows me to offer a safer place for those I companion to express, name, and begin healing their own brokenness and pain.  I am full of gratitude to be God’s presence for them.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Let Go

Earlier this week I was reading Robert Alter's translation of Psalm 46, and was struck by his alternative version of verse 11, which begins "Let go, and know that I am God."  This was a surprise. I know that verse which begins in the Book of Common Prayer with "Be Still." However, this time it is prefaced by the command "Let go."

I use Robert Alter's The Book of Psalms because of the cadence of the translation and his extensive commentary.  Reflecting on the verse, Alter notes that the Hebrew verb used literally would translate to "relax one's grip on something. . . to unclench the warriors fist."  As I read those words, I could feel them sink into me.  The common thread of my life at this time is how I need to practice letting go, relaxing my grip on things.

Much of my learning in Clinical Pastoral Education has a foundation in the ongoing need to let go.  In order to be extend an open hand in ministry, to extend vulnerability by coming alongside, I must unclench my hand and let go of behaviors and feelings that become barriers.  I am learning to recognize when I hide behind particular habits or attitudes.  I am breaking out of those shells that block my growth and limit my freedom to be with others in their time of struggle and need.

Later in his commentary, Alter comments that "The eschatologically triumphant God speaks directly, declaring His supremacy over all the world."  I struggle to remember through my letting go I am opening up to the possibilities and demands of God, opening to the Holy Spirit so that it can move through me as compassion and healing for those broken in body, mind or spirit.

It can be very scary letting go, going against all instincts of self-preservation.  Yet, as my first spiritual director would often remind me, "scared" and "sacred" are the same word with just two letters in reversed.   

Monday, December 22, 2014

Two Josephs

Janie has collected hundreds of nativity scenes from across the world, but there was a special one that she wanted us to see. 

A number of years ago a friend who imported handcrafts from around the world called her in despair.  A nativity set had arrived that did not have a Mary, but had two Josephs instead.  Our friend quickly said she would be happy to buy it, and had set it up for many years in her home. 

Upon seeing it in their living room, I impulsively told Janie I wanted her to put my name on it if she ever decided to give it away.  So, a few weeks ago, she asked me to walk with her out to her car after church, and presented the set to me.  I don't know what the original craftsman would think about it, but it gives me great joy!

Friday, August 8, 2014


In the late 1990's we returned from summer vacation to find the back basement door hanging open.  Someone had broken into our house and had time to dig through everything, stealing many thousands of dollars of items.  The sense of invasion of our personal space, coupled with the loss of many family items caused pain and insecurity that carried forward in our lives for many years. 

One item that became a symbol was a Hall teapot that my partner planned to give me as a Christmas present.  The teapot had been dumped on the floor and broken, except for the lid which was intact. We listed the teapot in our insurance claim, and looked through local antique stores to find a replacement.  We did find one teapot in the same style, however, it was a bright, fire engine red; not what we wanted.  We finally settled for a cash payment from the insurance.

I kept the lid, hoping to find a teapot missing its lid.  I searched Ebay, and for over 15 years wandered through antique stores, with no matching blue pot.

This summer, visiting the same place we had been visiting those many years ago, we were wandering through a large antique barn.  I saw the same Hall teapot design, missing a lid, for $5.00.  It must have been used as a flower pot because there was a crust of soil still on the inside near the top.  I walked away without buying it because it was that same fire engine red, and didn't match.  But the more I thought about it, the more I knew it was time to bring the two unmatched pieces together.  With a soaking and scrubbing, this is what they look like together.

Over the years, we still remember stolen family items, such as a grandfather's pocket watch and a wedding ring.  They were tangible connections to people important to us. 

This combination of these two pieces, worthless by themselves, into a usable and visible presence for everyday use reflects our healing from that time.  It is not the way I wanted the healing to be, yet it is what is possible. And that is enough.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Waiting While Letting Go

It has been more than a year since my job was eliminated in a corporate reorganization.  The first three months were a time to allow feelings to move through, to let go of old patterns and habits, and to imagine new possibilities.  The next eight months focused on training as a chaplain through Clinical Pastoral Education, serving as a hospice chaplain.  The last three months I have applied for jobs, interviewed multiple ways, been rejected, and waited for new openings. Waits that always seemed long whether they were days or weeks in between.

When I started this process, I expected something like taking a hike on a trail. I pictured a trail like the one to Chimney Rock, Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, that my friends and I hiked one afternoon.  Not all a wide pathway as seen in this photo, the trail at times became only a foot wide, with drop offs on each side; a misstep would have meant tumbling dozens of feet down.  Other times it seemed to fade away into the rock and sand.  But there was always a clear goal, the destination that made it all worthwhile.

Time has shown that "hiking a trail" image has many problems. This transition has no clear destination, and often no continuous path. 

As much as I try to let go of being too attached to a potential job, I am still trying to picture what it would be like to be working for that particular company or in that particular location.  Every time I am told someone else has been offered the job, I have to let go of the combined hope and anxiety that that job offered. 

Another problem is the sense of a continuous path.  Often there is no path, no clear sense of useful direction, just open space every direction.  I begin to wonder if I am even pursuing a realistic option?  How long will I have to wait until I can find the right job? How will I know when to give up trying to find a job, and do what is necessary to cut expenses and live on savings?

Those are the times to stop working on all of the "what if" scenarios, and practice letting go.  When I am very anxious, I start with another spiritual practice such as the Jesus Prayer or walking a labyrinth. Each practice begins to settle me down for either meditation or Centering Prayer, deliberate processes of letting go of thoughts and distractions. 

What I did not anticipate was the way strong memories or emotions would arise during those deliberate periods of letting go.  Even with all of the work I have done in therapy, Clinical Pastoral Education, and in meeting with my spiritual director, surprisingly intense stuff arises.  In the moment, I know I need to let go of that stuff; there are others times to deal with it.  Usually I can let go of it and sometimes it jolts me out.  Each time new stuff appears, I need to respect its power and work out what is means for me now.  It is something to do while waiting.