A Lifetime of Gratitude

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I don’t like the custom of sitting around the holiday table and sharing that for which I am thankful.  I always feel self conscious and believe I need to express something spectacular or worth mentioning.  Having heat in our home when so many go without shelter or the fact that we can afford to pay the utilities top my list of blessings.  The mere fact that I am alive and able to prepare some portion of the meal always seems like an obvious choice for sharing.  Yet when it comes to gratitude, I can think of a thousand things a day that inspire my awe and thankfulness.  Right now I see remnants of fall, tall oak trees retaining their leaves until new ones buds, shrubs that vary in color from a rosy salmon to deep plum.

I remember many years ago when I was nearing age 40, I decided to throw a party for myself.  It had become clear that I needed to learn to celebrate myself instead of bemoaning the fact that no one was surprising me with a celebration.  I diligently made a list of about 90 people, some friends, others colleagues to invite.  I showed it to my friend, Terry, who smiled and gently said, “Lerita, you cannot fit 90 people in your town home.  Why don’t you invite the 40 people who helped you to make it to age 40?”  I thought it was a brilliant idea.  Thus, a simple and elegant party with friends from my varied life of work, church, sewing, and book club became one of my most treasured memories.

Now that I am past the season that emphasizes shopping and baking I find myself yearning for more simple moments of gratitude.  Pausing for some reflection on this and the 22nd Anniversary of my heart transplant, I decided to make a list of the top five people or occasions that fill my heart with joyful appreciation.  These are moments of light or enlightened people who brightened me in the darkness and who made me the person I am today.  Here is what is on my all time gratitude list.

1) My parents, but not for the typical reason people give. Certainly, I wouldn’t be here without them but I thank my parents most for being so hard-working, devoted to their children, and self sacrificing so my siblings and I could attend Catholic or Christian school.  Catholic school is where I learned to be disciplined and to orient my day around the Great Spirit.  At an early age and in this setting, I became aware of an unseen but very present Spirit available for comfort and guidance.  Thank you Mom and Dad, for all of the financial, physical, and emotional sacrifices.  I wish you were still physically present so I could express my thanks with many hugs and kisses.

2) A heart transplant 22 years ago.  I cannot think of anything that is more transformative than to face death.  I realized that I had to shift from being a driven workaholic to thinking about something and someone other than myself and my career.  Despite the terror and outright physical suffering involved, my transplant triggered a spiritual awakening in me that is beyond measure.  The trauma demanded that I cultivate trust, create an awareness of the love and care from others and generate in me a totally different way of viewing life.  I now understand that life is about forgiveness, healing, love, connection, peace and joy.

3) Fall. The simple, elegant, and natural beauty of fall leaves me in awe each year.  It is by far my favorite season (with the exceptional beauty of spring following in second place).  Each October-December, I look outside of my bedroom or office window into a yard of varying colors of greens, yellows, browns, and fiery red leaves.  The Japanese maple trees were particularly spectacular this fall.  So many of them look like they were on fire.  I cannot believe that people rush past them or can drive down a tree-lined street without being moved by the colors.  Quite frankly, I pause, frequently because I find it disheartening to see something so beautiful without acknowledging its existence.  I suspect the same could be said for falling snowflakes and new snow.  But there is some special about yellow, orange, and tan leaves across a backdrop of green leaves and forest green pines.

4) My spiritual teachers.  I still remember when, Jan Willis (author of Dreaming Me: Black,  Baptist and Buddhist—One Woman’s Spiritual Journey) taught my college roommate and me, how to meditate.  We didn’t have any idea what we were doing as we sat cross-legged on the floor, with our beads, chanting a Sanskrit mantra for Dorje Sempa, the deity to end all suffering.  The practice of finding a way to quiet my mind, whether through chanting, focusing on my breathing or being still, opened me to an entirely new world of readings by wisdom figures from all over the world.  Since that time I’ve been moved and blessed by the teachings of Howard Thurman, Thomas Kelly, Rumi, Hafiz, Richard Rohr, Nan Merrill, Joyce Rupp and a host of others.  Now when I take my daily quiet time, I read a prayer or inspirational reading in English with the same intention; to heal, to be a healer and to end all suffering in the world.

5) An awareness that there is something more in the world than what I see with my physical eyes.  I know there is an energy force of Love that permeates everything and that Stillness holds it all together with a deep peace.  I feel happy that I can dialogue with Something more vast than my mind can imagine.  If I had to choose just one thing to be thankful for, it would be a growing awareness of the Presence and that I can turn inward at any time to access whatever guidance I need.

This deep sense of gratitude is what is motivates me in this new year and on this special day in which I honor my heart donor, Jody Goetz and her family as well as hold my kidney donor, Jennifer Lund in that gift of a heart.  During the holiday season I tended to rail against all of the commercialism, emphasis on gift giving, and seemingly temporary concern with those less fortunate.  Now I don’t have to focus on what I don’t like when I can concentrate on what easily pleases me.

I will always be grateful for my parents, heart and kidney transplants, fall, spiritual teachers, an expanding spiritual awareness, and the people who have helped me to remain alive and thrive.  I find the love sparks great peace and joy in my heart.

So what’s on your top five list of people, places or events that create a deep sense of gratefulness in you?  Can you nurture this spirit in yourself today and maintain during 2017?  Will creating an all time gratefulness list and sharing the spirit of gratitude bring you closer to the peace and joy in your heart?

Prayer of Patient Trust

I complete this series on cultivating patience and trust with a lovely prayer by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ.  These inspiring words spark a sense of hope in me especially on those days and in those moments when I feel weary on the journey.

Patient Trust

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.

We are quite naturally impatient in everything

to reach the end without delay.

We should like to skip the intermediate stages.

We are impatient of being on the way to something

unknown, something new.

And yet it is the law of all progress

that it is made by passing through

some stages of instability—

and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;

your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,

let them shape themselves, without undue haste.

Don’t try to force them on,

as though you could be today what time

(that is to say, grace and circumstances

acting on your own good will)

will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit

gradually forming within you will be.

Give Our Lord the benefit of believing

that his hand is leading you,

and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself

in suspense and incomplete.

—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ

excerpted from Hearts on Fire.

Cultivating Patience III-Learning to Trust

As I yearn for more vitality and verve,  I remember that patience is also about trust.  It is trust that after all of the waiting, a healing outcome awaits me.  I believe that someday my full energy will return and I will use it for something that moves me beyond a life that necessarily focuses on my schedule, my personal needs and desires.  Waiting tends to highlight everything that isn’t working or feeling right without considering that it is likely to change tomorrow.

By accepting the call to the transplant journey and all of the lessons that it entailed, I learned to trust that whatever I needed would be provided.  I trusted that a new heart would arrive before the old one ceased.  I trusted that a kidney donor would emerge so I wouldn’t be tied to a dialysis machine three times a week.  I believed that somehow the bills would be paid even though I couldn’t work during my recoveries from various illnesses.

It is easy to lose patience, to get caught up in the “I want it now” world that whirls around me.  From the depths of a life absent of delayed gratification, I attempt to exert my own will over time and how it operates, over doctors and pharmacies and how they quickly they take care of me.  I desire cashiers to move quickly, to promptly take care of the people ahead of me in the grocery store line or at the local cafe.  I want people to hurry at the ATM, to fill their gas tanks at record speed.  I, like many people wish everyone and everything would move faster because my plans  do not allow for too much waiting.   Yet if errors occur I’d be the first to become outraged by a perceived incompetence.  I suppose I have not totally embraced the lessons I thought I had mastered about trust from my many years of waiting.

I wonder why I am so resistant to the trust inherent in the practice of patience, why I must rehearse it like a piano lesson or sports training.  Certainly to develop strong trust, I must engage in smaller acts of surrender.  I recall the times when the anesthesiologist placed the mask on my face in the OR and told me to count down from 10.  I  trusted that I would wake up somewhere and see the familiar faces of those I loved.  I hoped that there would be an end to my suffering and I would return to my normal schedule of waking up in my own bed, preparing breakfast, driving to work, or just sitting on my deck before a forest of trees and singing birds.

Last time I took a silent retreat, I stumbled across a book on the crowded book shelves of the large reading lounge/kitchenette, a room filled with overstuffed couches, padded lounging and rocking chairs with a window open to endless bird watching.  In Jesus, A New Vision-Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship, Marcus Borg states that faith must move beyond mere belief and become radical trust in God, an unprecedented reliance on the Force of Love that created me, us, and the universe.  Radical trust in something other than myself, doctors, and  medications is essential to my experience of peace and joy.  The idea of letting go used to be scary.  Now knowing that I don’t have to manage or take care of everything is comforting.

As I prepared for my first transplant I engaged in a series of conversations with my heart.  My old heart, so full of wisdom whispered to me one day that there were four things I needed to master to successfully survive a transplant and thrive for rest of my life.   “Listen, trust, patience, and surrender” it murmured.  Pause, be still and listen to the guidance that is always present.  Trust the still, quiet voice of inner wisdom over the many chanting voices that emerge from old wounds, fresh wounds, shortsighted family or friends and the media.  Be patient since my timing may not coincide with a Universal timing.  And surrender–give up trying to control everything because it is simply impossible.

Thus, surrender is essential to the trust required for patience.  It’s the relinquishing control over how and when the healing will unfold and accepting each day as it comes instead of creating relentless plans that are frequently uprooted by life.  Yes, life—traffic delays, a sudden phone call announcing that a loved one is terminally ill, a friend needing bail money or sobbing because a spouse has filed for divorce.  I cannot change circumstances but I am able to listen for my role in assuaging the suffering be it a loving and peaceful presence, a listening ear or temporary holder of anguish and anxious concern.

I don’t like suspense, a sense of not knowing.  I don’t like dwelling in the liminal space—not there yet but not here anymore.  I am more comfortable with predictability.  Yet I believe that some unseen Force is working somewhere, somehow with me to orchestrate my life.

Trust and patience—two interconnected paths that need nurturance and work, and hours of practice, going over the same ground again and again and again.  So in what areas do you need to cultivate trust?  Do you possess the trust that patience demands?  How can trust and patience help to eliminate or dissipate anxiety, anxiousness, or sadness and allow you to feel more of the Peace and Joy in your heart?

Cultivating Patience I

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I haven’t posted to my blog in a few months.  I miss writing about maintaining peace and joy.  I was forced to shift my attention elsewhere when I began a protocol to wean off of prednisone.

For organ transplant recipients, prednisone is a steroid used to suppress the immune system and prevent organ rejection.  When I first began taking prednisone some 21 years ago, I took a fairly high daily dose although for the last 10 years it has been reduced to 5 mg/day.

Over the years I’ve received the “prednisone blast” for various bouts of rejection.  In most transplant centers, a serious rejection episode elicits 1000 mg of prednisone I-V (known as solumedrol) for 3 days in a row.  Because my early rejection issues weren’t treated aggressively enough, in 2000 from January to June I received 13,000 mg of solumedrol.  My body, inundated with steroids felt like an overblown, bloated balloon.  Over a period of about four weeks, each day I could feel a tiny trickle of steroids slowly ebb from my head to my shoulders, passing through my back and abdomen, down my legs and finally seep out of my toes.  Unfortunately I’m allergic to contrast dye so each year for my annual heart catheterization, I receive a very high dose of prednisone as a way of quelling any reaction.  Such blasts led to debilitating fatigue because the adrenal glands are most susceptible to the prednisone beatdown.

I’d wanted to stop taking prednisone for a long time but was always fearful that discontinuing it would trigger another rejection episode and as a consequence I would have to take more.  Long term use of prednisone frequently causes weight gain, fluid retention, increased blood sugars raising the probability of developing diabetes, early cataracts and glaucoma, osteoporosis, mood changes and adrenal gland suppression.  I had experienced all of these and knew I did not want to become a diabetic, break any more bones, or undergo cataract surgery.  This year felt like the right time to intentionally change the course of my health by requesting that I eliminate prednisone from my medical regimen.

Since that time, my listless adrenal glands so used to the prednisone working for them, have failed to secrete ample cortisol.  They have been unable to resume their role as producers of the natural steroids that give me the zip I need to get through the day.  Feeling extremely exhausted I’ve lacked the energy to write, sew, cook or do much more than read or rest.  Fortunately I haven’t suffered much stress lately because my adrenal glands are in no shape to mount a response to any kind of trauma.

In continuing my life-long recovery, I’ve learned many lessons, and the biggest is about patience. I’ve been reminded during this now more than two month ordeal that patience is about timing but typically not my timing.  Patience is about waiting and I, firmly immersed in our fast paced world, find the practice of patience exceedingly challenging.  Earlier in my life, when I pushed through college and graduate school, and even attempts to obtain tenure, I felt I had mastered delayed gratification.  As I’ve gotten older I still find I must muster up patience with myself, with others and the slow process of healing.

I thought I would have cultivated the art of patience by now especially since I’ve been presented with so many opportunities.  I think of the time I’ve spent waiting; waiting in doctor offices, post-op recovery rooms, and pharmacies.  I am grateful, however for the progress I’ve made from my initial days as a transplant recipient.  I used to sit in clinic, watching the clock, often growing resentful about what I could be doing with all that time I felt I was wasting waiting.  Sitting on the burgundy and navy blue leather chairs and couches, with lamps and indirect sunlight I pretended to read, but what I really wanted was for someone to call my name so I could finish the x-ray or speed up the echocardiogram and get on with my day.  Now I realize that waiting is just as important to life as the things on my preferred “to do list.”  When I reflect on my state of impatience, I feel the poignancy of my self-absorption, emotionally and cognitively.   I was thinking primarily about me, my time and my life.

But what about all the others who shared this waiting space with me in clinic?  What about the newly transplanted, anxiously awaiting news about possible rejection or those in heart failure wishing and hoping to just qualify for the organ waiting list that they might have to occupy for years?   It occurred to me one day that perhaps I could use the waiting time to encourage and uplift recent transplant recipients with my stories of triumph, I could demonstrate to those waiting for heart transplants that there is the possibility of a good life once they receive a new heart.  Often I elicit surprise and shock by my healthy physical appearance, at the spark I radiate after being a heart transplant recipient for over 21 years and a kidney recipient for over 11 years.

Now I wait with much petitionary (“Please somebody give me some energy!”) and contemplative prayer (being still and listening for guidance), and I’ve started to receive answers.  First I learned that cardiologists are not endocrinologists and although my transplant team believed they were weaning me off prednisone at a reasonable schedule  (2 months), I learned from an endocrinologist that people who have taken steroids as long as I have cannot be weaned so abruptly.  It actually takes more like 4-6 months.  She assured me that my adrenal glands would wake up eventually but I need to give them more time, time for a gentle stirring, a gradual awakening.  Yes, more waiting, a seeming metaphor for my life and my spiritual journey.

I am struck by this notion of a gradual awakening of something that has been asleep for a long while.  I suppose just like my adrenal glands lulled to sleep by prednisone many years ago, I am also waking up to a new spirit or sense of who I am.  Of course I want the spiritual awakening to move much faster, perhaps in a flash or overnight.  My arrogant ego wants to orchestrate the awakening perhaps thereby blocking something more intelligent and grander which may be working simultaneously to diminish my suffering.

I am comforted by the notion that I am not the only one resisting the liminal space, the only person sitting in a perennial holding pattern, waiting to wake up in a new expanse of Peace and Joy.  Whether it be hospitals or monasteries, war zones or prayer circles, there are so many communities of people, waiting.

What is it that you are waiting for right now?  How is patience being cultivated in your life?  As you pay closer attention, what is life showing you through the waiting?  What are you being called to do or be in the waiting time?   Perhaps there is some way to inspire and encourage others who share your path of waiting.  There is a reason why patience is considered a virtue and often its cultivation may help to uncover more of the Peace and Joy in your heart.

Photo by Columbus H. Brown of Candid Imagery Fine Art.

Quiet Day, Anyone?

Recently I led a Quiet Day at a local retreat center on Howard Thurman who was mentor and spiritual adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  What is a Quiet Day you might ask?  I describe it as a weekend silent retreat packed into a single day.  It provides each person in attendance an opportunity to disconnect from the world for a few hours, power down the electronic devices and get off the grid.  A Quiet Day allows for calming the inner chatter and just basking in the stillness that lies below it in our minds.  Actually I’ve noticed that most environments especially natural settings possess quiet, stillness, and serenity until we introduce noise into them.  A certain joy always emanates from the peace nestling in such places.

In preparation for the Quiet Day, I learned some new things about Howard Thurman and what brought peace and joy to his heart.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Thurman was an extraordinary mystic, theologian and preacher and his life and writings offer a number of suggestions about how to live in a world of turmoil yet keep a certain awe, peace and hope in one’s heart. I want to share a few examples from his life here.

Howard Thurman found great peace outside in nature.  He grew up in Daytona Beach so as a young boy he often heard the rush of the ocean, the tides washing against the rocks as well as the sea gulls adding a song each morning. There was something calming in the sound of the sea and he felt a certain serenity as he gazed at and rowed across the Halifax River near his childhood home.

Thurman also spoke of a favorite oak tree.  He gained great wisdom from just observing the tree.  He noticed that when big wind and rain storms came off the ocean, the tree limbs and branches would swing and sway in the storm, but the tree never toppled over.  There was something about having a strong foundation and deep roots that kept it upright even though tossed and turned in a storm.  Thurman knew the tree represented something about his center, a sense he possessed that as external events might appear chaotic, he could remain rooted and not be subject to the whims of life.  Thurman also talked to the oak tree.  He felt like the tree somehow listened deeply and carried some of his burdens for him.  Sometimes he felt if he sat below the tree in quiet, he heard an answer to some burning question or issue he lay before it.

Thurman’s experiences remind me of my own many years ago when I lived in Santa Cruz, CA as a college student.  I moved into a duplex my senior year that was located not far from the ocean.  I too, could hear the ocean at night and there was a definite calmness that was brought on by listening to the ocean.  In addition, I found a special large rock that I sat on and gazed out into the sea.  I would go there and share my joys, sorrows and even ask some questions of the vast ocean.  It’s the one thing I missed most after I graduated and left California.

Thurman was a lover of silence and stillness.  He observed that we need to stop the traffic in our minds sometimes just so we can get a grip on what is going in our lives, to better understand the people that we are, and determine what we want.  He advocated silence for everyone but especially for those who were on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement.  He felt that each one of us needs a sanctuary, a place to go where we could garner peace as well as inner strength.  For Thurman taking some time for silence was the human equivalent of refueling ourselves.  Thurman and Gandhi both (they met in 1936) felt that the vitality needed to change one’s circumstances whether they be personal or on a larger social scale came from feeding one’s spirit just like we drink and eat to feed our bodies.  That nurturing of spirit comes through stopping and being quiet as often as we can.  Some people might label this kind of lifestyle “contemplative living,” or a life of living in the present (practicing mindfulness ) and in the Presence.

Is there some aspect of nature that calms you?  Perhaps it is the sound of running water or the birds singing or the tapping of a woodpecker.  Maybe the wind gushing through the singing pine trees, or watching snowflakes gently kiss the ground gives you a sense of inner peace.  How has nature befriended or nurtured you?  Do you have a special tree, rock, lake, stream, park, garden, or place you can go to take your cares to?  Could playing calm music while you complete daily chores like getting ready for school, cooking or cleaning or driving to work create a more serene atmosphere?

I am certain Howard Thurman would be delighted to know that a Quiet Day was held to listen to a few of his meditations, walk around in nature and have contact with the stillness in our minds.  In fact, I am certain if he were still alive, the mere idea of a Quiet Day would make his heart sing.  Perhaps in the midst of the political turmoil dancing all around or during the doldrums of February, the deep days of winter, you might create a “quiet day” in your own home, allowing the songs of the birds to be your music, a crackling fire to provide you with beauty and healthy snacks to nourish your body.  I suspect like Howard Thurman, a day of quiet will kindle some deep peace and joy in your heart.

HT-Meditations of the Heart

Autumn Leaves

“Even if something is left undone, everyone must take time to sit still and watch the leaves turn.”

~Elizabeth Lawrence

I feel fortunate to sit at a window seat in my work room which overlooks a near forest of tall oaks, hickory, sweet gum and pine trees.  Even on a cloudy November day, I perch and view the autumn leaves, a few still stuck on the branches as if someone hung them there with sticky tape.  I love the beauty of fall and could spend hours just watching nature in action.   Trees with multiple shades of green, yellow, burnt orange and red just make my heart sing.  Everywhere I look outside it is as if my eyes are strolling through a gallery of masterpiece paintings.  Ah but the autumn season signifies change, a period of transition that prepares me for the upcoming winter season of deep rooting, hunkering down and cuddling up.

Although autumn leaves is the name of a famous jazz standard, the falling leaves of autumn provide an apt metaphor for such a liminal time. Perhaps it signals for me my desire for change because I have similar feelings about spring.  I love trees with buds popping open like popcorn to an absolutely gorgeous new green.  Spring green energizes me, stimulates me to move beyond the slower pace of winter.  Budding growth spurs me to start new projects, plant seeds, flowers, cook less heavy stews and soups and prepare my palate for fresh veggies and salads.  Perhaps it is the dramatic shifts of winter to spring and summer to fall that capture my attention since summer feels like a warmer spring and winter feels like a colder fall.

According to the Chinese medicine calendar that a friend shared with me some years ago, the seasons represent very meaningful symbols for the cycles of life.  Fall is a time for letting go, winter a period for quiet germination and deep rooting, spring the season for new growth and summertime an opportunity to nurture that new growth signaled by warmer temperatures. The Chinese calendar also includes a late summer stage for harvesting (completing those projects initiated during spring).  I can actively attune my life to the seasons or realize that I am sitting in or even stuck in one of them.  Occasionally with my writing or sewing I notice a number of unfinished projects suggesting that I am unable to move from spring to late summer.  I also struggle with symbolic winters lacking the patience needed to let ideas or plans germinate.

I have fond memories of autumn.  I remember walking home from elementary school kicking the leaves scattered over the sidewalks.  I liked to hear the crunch when I stepped through them.  I also fondly recall the school assignment of selecting certain leaves and pressing them between wax paper so as to create a semi-permanent piece of art.  When was the last time I did that?  Unfortunately, most of the leaves in my yard right now are the soggy yellow and brown ones assaulted by numerous rain storms during the past few weeks.

I love to see the changing trees no matter where I live or visit.  Of course the entire experience of admiring fall colors was accentuated when I lived in New England where the trees yielded a tapestry of breathtaking colors.  I looked forward to the foliage reports urging me to contemplate leaves colored olive, gold, fire red, and brown especially light golden tans and deep oak which painted an amazing mural against the varying hues of blue skies. I suspect once trees feel the dramatic shifts in temperature and as the sun’s heat loses its intensity, they know it is time to shake off the leaves in preparation for winter.

In releasing their leaves, trees trust that new life will return in the spring.  Why don’t the leaves hold on in an attempt to keep their inevitable demise at bay?    Maybe they know that they will provide new energy as they are recycled as mulch for their tree’s own nourishment.  The falling leaves symbolize that change is cyclical, natural and letting go is liberating.  Like autumn and similar to what the Chinese medicine calendar suggests, I also have seasons of change, periods of transition in my life and when I trust that they will lead to new growth, I feel joy in letting go.

I also notice that leaves gently fall to the ground.  It is not like a machine comes along to tear them off and leaves don’t drop until they are ready.  Sometimes a windy, blustery day facilitates a cascade of falling leaves but those that are not ready stick to the trees through rain and wind.  I wonder what I am willing to let go of as lightly as most leaves drift from the trees or am I like the few remaining leaves that seem to hold on no matter what?

Drifting autumn leaves also remind me that it is time to give away clothes that no longer bring me delight, books that others could be reading, and to shred old papers that are cluttering my desks and file cabinets.  It’s also a time to re-assess new and old relationships.  Oh it can be so difficult to let some people go even though they never call and are often too “crazy busy” to get together.  What are the trees showing me about holding on, about life?

Falling leaves prompt me to examine other aspects of my self in flux; do I still need to feel special, unique or extraordinary, to become famous or rush to cross off everything on the “to do” list?  I am ready to release unnecessary stress and a lesson in A Course in Miracles focuses squarely on this subject.  “It is but myself that I crucify” with all of the crazy, anxious thoughts about completing my much too long daily “To Do” list.

“The autumn leaves drift outside my window, autumn leaves of red and gold…”

I love when autumn leaves fall…when autumn leaves must fall…. What signs let you know that it is a time for change, for letting go?  Are you like the remaining leaves waiting for a shocking frost, a crisis to let go, to change?   In autumn, the season of release, what inner and outer items can be cleared from your life so that an inevitable spring, the new growth can take root?  Like the falling leaves what else do I, do you need to let go of——that will allow us to experience more of the peace and joy that lies within our hearts?

Can’t Get Enough of Howard Thurman

HT-Meditations of the Heart

I think I have Howard Thurmanitis.  Yes, my last post was about him and I made up that name. But after giving two workshops on his writings in the span of three days, one at a conference devoted to his life and work, it fits.  I love talking and writing about Howard Thurman, about his love for nature, stillness and silence.  I resonate with the fact that as a young boy he was a contemplative and a mystic.  He felt called to something deeper and he followed that call throughout his life.  In some ways it feels like a betrayal of sorts, expressing love for a man other than my husband.  Yet my guilt is lessened by the fact that Howard Thurman has been dead for more than three decades.  He continues to speak to me, though, through his writings, his lectures, his sermons, his love for the Sacred everywhere.  His quest for a profound experience of the Presence, of connection to all living things acts as a role model for me as a spiritual pilgrim stumbling along what sometimes feels like as an unknown path.  On occasion I sense that I am wandering away from the Peace in my heart and at other times I march steadily toward it.  Thurman’s writings, lectures and sermons feel like worthy companions to take along the way.

I remember wandering around in my mind pondering what I could write about.  In order to complete my spiritual direction training at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation I needed a subject for my final project.  Fulfilling the requirements could involve a creative work, like building a labyrinth, composing sacred poetry or planning a silent retreat.  Another option was to write about someone, a mystic or spiritual person.  I wanted to research and write about a specific person, someone I could get to know intimately, to learn about how his or her spirituality unfolded.

I enjoyed reading about many of the mystics especially St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross but they felt so ancient and far away.  I also knew there were more contemporary figures like Thomas Merton and Evelyn Underhill.  Yet most mystics were typically nuns or monks, basically religious who lived in community.  I was curious if there were “ordinary mystics” as Marsha Sinetar refers to them in her book, Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics: Lifestyles for Spiritual Wholeness, regular people who communicated about their everyday mystical experiences.  Was there anyone out there who wasn’t living in a religious community but seemed to have contact with a Presence they couldn’t logically explain?  Were people having “peak experiences” as William Maslow labeled them?  Was there anyone listening to or following his or her heart?

I frequently experience mystical moments in the quiet of the morning or when I awake from a nap.  Sometimes a feeling of Oneness engulfs me when I view a gorgeous sunset or a vista of mountains.  When I find myself in the “thin space” as it is sometimes referred to—that place where heaven and earth appear to merge if only for a moment—my connection to a larger whole is palpable.  For a split second, I feel like the sun, the moon, and the trees all at once.

I continued to badger my spiritual comrades about ordinary mystics until a pastoral counselor friend asked if I had heard of Howard Thurman.  Given all of the spiritual material I’d read over the years and for my spiritual guidance program I was embarrassed to discover that he was unknown to me.  After perusing his autobiography, With Hand and Heart-The Autobiography of Howard Thurman, I learned he had written over 20 books, served as a spiritual adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr.  and was a “godfather” of sorts to the Civil Rights movement.  I was crestfallen to learned that he died in 1981.  I could have met him several times had I known about his existence earlier.

As a boy, Howard Thurman lived near the ocean in Daytona Beach, Florida and as he listened to it, he felt a Presence that held and embraced him.  In addition he became attached to a tall, solid oak tree in his backyard.  Thurman noticed that when the storms came off the ocean, while many trees toppled, the old oak tree stood firm.  Like the tree, Thurman sensed there was something inside of him, strong as that oak tree that could withstand the tempest and storms of his life.

My favorite Thurman books besides his autobiography include Jesus and the DisinheritedMeditations of the Heart, The Centering Moment, and Deep is the Hunger.  Clearly there are many more books, articles, lectures, and sermons on a variety of topics ranging from building and sustaining a beloved community to listening for the “genuine” in one’s self, in others, and in the world.  I especially savor his meditations and work that emphasize the power of silence and stillness and the gift of pausing more frequently to obtain spiritual renewal.  Here is one of his meditations:

How Good to Center Down!

How good it is to center down!

To sit quietly and see one’s self pass by!

The streets of our minds seethe with endless traffic;

Our spirits resound with clashing, with noisy silences,

While something deep within hungers and thirsts for the still moment and the resting lull.

With full intensity we seek, ere thicket passes, a fresh sense of order in our living;

A direction, a strong sure purpose that will structure our confusion and bring meaning in our chaos.

We look at ourselves in this waiting moment—the kinds of people we are.

The questions persist: what are we doing with our lives?—what are the motives that order our days?

What is the end of our doings?  Where are we trying to go?  Where do we put the emphasis and where are our values focused?  For what end do we make sacrifices?  Where is my treasure and what do I love most in life?

What do I hate most in life and to what am I true?  Over and over the questions beat upon the waiting moment.

As we listen, floating up through all of the jangling echoes of our turbulence, there is a sound of another kind—

A deeper note which only the stillness of the heart makes clear.

It moves directly to the core of our being.  Our questions are answered,

Our spirits refreshed, and we move back into the traffic of our daily round

With the peace of the Eternal in our step.  How good it is to center down!

(from Meditations of the Heart, p. 28)

Sometimes just reading one of Thurman’s meditations renews the Peace in my heart.  Google him, view one of his videos and see if his commanding voice does the same for you.

Have you ever come away from a “mystical or peak experience “ with a greater sense of Peace, a sense that Someone or Something loves and cares for you?  Have you ever found yourself out in nature—listening to the ocean crashing against the rocks or the chirping birds in early morning or felt awe at the sight of the green leaves of tall trees against the backdrop of a blue sky?  Just for a moment were you touched by a Oneness with everything that gave you a deep Peace and abiding Joy?  Next time you have an opportunity to pause and be present— to feel that sense of unity with everyone and everything, grab it.  See if it might lead you to uncovering more of the peace and joy in your heart.

Contemplative Spirituality for Everyday People

HT-Jesus&Disinherited

Last summer in a meeting with some fellow Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation graduates in Atlanta, we prayed and pondered about ways to expose more people to the gifts of contemplative spirituality. Our prayer centered on the impression that most major spiritually oriented events, whether speakers, workshops or retreats, are expensive. Hence, many everyday people whose yearnings for spiritual deepening echo our own simply cannot afford to participate. How could we share the gifts of contemplative spirituality we’d received from programs like Shalem with more people, our congregations, our worship services and bible studies or even our workplaces? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and offices created more opportunities to pause and bask in the loving Presence of our Creator?

I turned to my spiritual and ancestral mentor, Howard Thurman, mystic, theologian, and spiritual adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who shared this same sentiment. He wanted to introduce masses of people to the wonder, peace, and joy of contemplative experience and he wrote about this desire and other topics in Jesus and the Disinherited. Thurman found it both intriguing and inspirational that Jesus chose to conduct his ministry with everyday people, the poor and outcast like himself, and not with the aristocracy or even middle classes of Jewish and Roman society.

Jesus and the Disinherited became a favorite of Dr. King’s and whenever he marched he carried this classic book. Thurman encouraged Dr. King and other organizers of the Civil Rights movement to utilize contemplative spiritual practices. In particular, he stressed the importance for marchers to examine and cultivate their inner lives before being thrust out into nonviolent confrontation.

A strong advocate of seizing moments of Presence—whether in nature, walking down the street or sitting in church—Thurman also knew that introducing silence into a worship service would be a mighty challenge in the 1940’s and 1950’s. So he wrote meditations (Meditations of the Heart, The Centering Moment—see recommendations) for this very purpose. What better way to ease people into a contemplative practice than by anchoring them with a written piece that orients them to the Presence? Stressing the necessity for silent contemplative prayer, he circulated the meditations for that time in the service when members could quiet their hearts and hear the messages always abiding in the Presence.

Yet the questions linger. How do we feed those who hunger for spiritual connection, for stillness, for peace? Where and in what ways can we insert openings for moments of quiet reflection, communion with nature, and tranquility of mind that engender a contemplative atmosphere and expand the awareness of Presence?

A few years ago my former pastor asked me to conduct bible study when she needed to travel. I prayed and sought to present relevant topics such as, “In God We Trust?” “Practicing Forgiveness,” and “Putting God on the ‘To Do List’.” However, I also felt guided to begin each session with a short meditation by Howard Thurman or Henri Nouwen or Mother Teresa, followed by two to three minutes of silence. Everyone loved it and asked for more. Likewise after organizing a faculty/staff retreat at a local monastery, several people inquired about how to maintain at work the inner peace they obtained. Out of this desire emerged a “Friends of Silence” group on campus so faculty/staff of all spiritual persuasions could sit together for 20 minutes each week.

Now as I reflect on those actions and the work of Howard Thurman, I wonder what each of us can do to nurture the contemplative longings of the everyday people we live, work, or worship with each day. What more might you and I do every day?

Would reading or listening to some meditations or lectures by Howard Thurman bring more peace to your heart?  Look him up on the web and read more about his life and writings by borrowing or purchasing one of the many books he wrote—listen to the wisdom in his audio recordings and YouTube clips that are sure to awaken the Peace and Joy in your heart.

“Surrounded by all of the memories and the dreams and the hopes and the desires of so great a host of witnesses, we still ourselves in the presence of God, gathering together all of the things that are needful for our peace. The mood of thanksgiving overwhelms us when we remember how good and great is our fortune, even as we are mindful of the ways that are hard and difficult for so many whose names are known to us and whose pictures are vividly in our minds. It is so great a privilege to experience the watering of one’s roots at a time of such dryness in the world.”

Howard Thurman The Centering Moment

A version of this article was previously published in the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation e-Newsletter, October, 2014.

Healing Current Hurts

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom.  I know if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind I would still be in prison”…Nelson Mandela

The doorbell rang and there stood Jill.  Her long blond hair tied back in a ponytail flailed in the gentle early spring breeze.  Missing were her brightly colored workout clothes replaced by a pair of faded jeans and a t-shirt.  Next I observed that her typically ruddy complexion lacked a certain radiance.  Jill did not look like her bubbly, positive, effervescent self.  A certain dimness shaded her eyes and her mood was considerably more subdued than normal.  I sensed that she was either sad or depressed.  I smiled, welcomed Jill into the foyer and gave her a tight hug. I asked if she wanted water or a cup of tea.  “Tea,” she replied.  An exercise fanatic and strong advocate of drinking eight glasses of water each day, tea was uncharacteristic for Jill.  I knew our meeting today would be different.  We would soon listen to her sacred story during our spiritual direction time.

I walked into the living room with a tray filled with our tea cups and saucers, honey, small pitcher of cream and a pot of brewing tea.  “I think the tea might need about 3 more minutes” I said as I set the tray on the coffee table filled with burning candles and an array of spiritual icons.   I always placed a wooden box with a sacred dove carved into it, lots of hearts and bowl filled with water on the table I set for spiritual companioning.  A vase of daffodils picked from the backyard completed the arrangement.

“Let us begin today with a very brief reading by Howard Thurman called, ‘I Let Go of My Accumulations’ from his book, Deep is the Hunger and then we will take a minute or two for some silence.”  I began most spiritual companioning meetings with a short reading and some silence to help both of us center ourselves in the present moment.

As Jill opened her eyes after a few minutes and began to speak,  I saw they were brimming with tears.  “So as you know I married Rob, a man with adult children and I didn’t think it would be this difficult.  I mean I haven’t ever treated his children with hostility or negativity, in fact I’ve tried to be a good stepmother.  Actually I could hardly be their stepmother.  After all, they were in college when we married.  Well, anyway let me get to the point.  So my stepson, Chase and his wife, Alicia, live in Arizona and they announced last year that they were going to adopt a child.  Rob was a little lukewarm about the idea initially but I persuaded him otherwise.  What a miracle to have a child and to love this wondrous, beautiful baby.  Then, Chase emailed me and asked if I would write a letter, kind of a recommendation, to the birth mother.  You know this adoption thing is so different now.  I mean with some adoption agencies, couples and birth mothers connect, they sort of match them and the adoptive parents can be present at the actual birth.  There wasn’t a lot of time and they really needed a letter so I just dropped everything and worked on it—for almost two days.  I don’t know Alicia at all and I find it a little strange that we haven’t had much contact but you know I didn’t want to say anything that might upset anyone.  These relationships in blended families, I don’t understand them.  I feel like there are layers of complexity and sometimes I don’t know what’s going on.”

I nodded and poured the tea in the cup.  “Would you like cream?”

Jill shook her head “no”  and continued.  “Anyway, little Conner was born in June and we were scheduled to fly out there in July but I caught some God awful cold and I didn’t want to give it to sweet baby Connor so Rob flew to Arizona without me.  I was a bit envious when I saw the pictures but we re-scheduled for August.  Then on the weekend we were to go, Alicia threw out her back or something and the trip was postponed.”

“I see.  So just for clarification, how old is Connor now?”

Jill burst into tears and I reached for the kleenex box I keep under the coffee table for such moments in spiritual direction.  She started sobbing.

“That’s the problem.  They were supposed to come for a visit next week but they canceled and there hasn’t seemed to be a “good time” (using her fingers to indicate the quotes) for me to see the baby.  Now we’re invited to his first birthday party next month!  Can you believe that?  I am supposed to be a grandmother and I haven’t held or kiss this sweet grandchild of mine—I’ve seen him on a few FaceTime calls.  How is it that in a year there was never a “good time” for a short visit?  What kind of priorities do these young people have?  And I am the one who wrote them the damn letter.”

I had never heard Jill curse so I knew she was pretty upset.  “You’re pretty angry, aren’t you, Jill?

“Yes I am!  I mean they rarely call and wish me a Happy Birthday even though my birthday follows Rob’s’ by three days.  They manage to call him.  They would be hurt if I missed their birthdays.  It’s like I feel so disrespected and used.  I really don’t get it because I’ve never done anything—I’ve always supported Rob’s children like for graduations, weddings, even made certain all of the college tuition was paid on time even though I didn’t have any biological children of my own.  I know that God would want me to be forgiving but I am having a hard time with this one.”

As Jill sipped her tea she continued to sobbed.  “This crap has been going on for about 15 years.  Like I said I’ve  have always been kind to Rob’s children and I swear at times, you would think I was the Wicked Witch of the East or the ugly Stepmother.  Actually I could care less if I saw any of them again, really.”

“And Jill, under that rage, it sound like you are hurt, too.  You know hurt typically resides beneath all of anger, rage and resentment, “ I said gently.

Moving closer to Jill who sat on the other side of the long red jacquard covered couch which sits in my living room, I grabbed her hands and held them as she cried.

“Let’s take a moment and pray.  Let’s be still and listen for what the Spirit has for us in the pain you’ve brought to share today.”  We sat in silence for about three minutes.

As I opened my eyes, I sensed Jill relax a bit.  Her lip had stopped quivering and her eyes brightened.

“Did you hear anything in the Silence? “ I asked.

“I think this stuff is about their mother.  They’ve had quite a bit of difficulty with her, some emotional issues or something from their childhood.  I think they have limited contact with her.  I guess I heard that I shouldn’t take this so personal.”

“Yes, being aware that their behavior may not be about you might help a lot especially if you have been a loving stepmother or spouse of their father.  Quite frequently people project things on to us that have nothing to do with us or the current incident.”

I paused a moment before proceeding.  “I heard that perhaps you have some healing to do around feeling excluded, slighted or disrespected.  Have you ever felt this way before?”

Jill pulled out her journal and started to take notes.  “I’ll have ponder that idea some.  I am certain I have.  I don’t know what their behavior is reminding me of.  I’ve always felt different, even as a little girl and well into college and beyond.  I am a deep thinker, intellectual, very spiritual and lots of people don’t like to engage in those types of conversations.  I know in college sometimes girls would exclude me from parties because I often sat around with the guys and talked about politics, current affairs or sports.  I didn’t join a sorority or participate in cliques.   I think I intimidate insecure people who then try to create situations to exclude or ridicule me.   I will journal about it some more later so I can get to the bottom of this.”  She started to smile for the first time today.

“And if you are seeing a therapist right now, that sense of sadness that was triggered by the incident with Chase and Alicia is a perfect topic to discuss with her as well.  My suspicion is that the hurt, the sadness that you brought with you today didn’t begin start with Chase and Alicia.  It may be something you’ve been carrying around in your heart for years and you may want to explore it in a deeper way.”

“Maybe so.  I am not seeing a therapist right now but I promise you if I start to feel more depressed, I will contact her.  I am just feeling kind of sad.”

“I know you mentioned that you like to paint.  Have you thought about painting about this incident or your sadness about it?  It might be great for you to utilize your hurt and anger in another way.”

“That is a great idea!  I need to get back to my brushes and canvas.”

“Also, I know it may be a little early for this but have you thought about cultivating a forgiveness practice?”

“Forgiveness practice?  What is that?” Jill inquired.

I learned about it through a book, Making Peace with Your Parents, I read many, many years ago written by a guy named, Harold Bloomfield.  I needed to forgive my father because at age 30 or so, I couldn’t stand to hear his voice on the phone. That’s a whole other story but I started this practice each morning and evening, by saying, “I forgive you, Dad” and each time he came to mind during the day, I would say the same thing,  “I forgive you, Dad.”  It took nearly three years but I finally got to a point where I could think of him and feel neutral or positive.  I learned a lot about him during those three years that helped me understand why he acted domineering and distant.  Once I felt a certain peace when I thought about him, I knew I was done.  Perhaps when you are ready, you can begin the practice with Chase and Alicia.  I think Spirit will be able to heal some things about you and them in the process.

Jill’s smile grew broader.  “Wow, I wasn’t anticipating talking it through like this, I mean I don’t quite know what I expected.  I do feel better already.  And maybe after some journaling I will try the forgiveness practice.”

“It is vital that you start where you are so if you have to say, ‘I forgive you, you damn Chase’ then that’s where you start.  It is important to acknowledge everything you are feeling—that includes the rage as well as the sadness.  Whatever words you choose, if in your heart you want to let go of the resentment and hurt, you’ll discover that it will happen.  It may take some time.  Eventually, you will be able to feel more peace and joy in your heart.”

Jill stood up and began to walk toward the door.  She turned to me and we hugged for a moment.  “Thank you and thank God for spiritual direction.  It is truly transforming my life.”

“You’re welcome, Jill.  I look forward to seeing you next month.  I’ll be praying for you.”  I waved as she walked down the brick stairs on the path past the rose garden toward the driveway and her car.

This fictionalized portrayal of a spiritual companioning meeting illustrates how it can facilitate the uncovering of Peace in one’s hearts.   As Nelson Mandela points out, if you carry around hatred and bitterness in your heart, you might as well be in prison.  Quickly new or current hurts can become smoldering resentments if they remain unacknowledged.  Is your heart imprisoned by some new hurt that is ripe for developing into a bitterness?  What do you need to do to relinquish it from your heart? How can you let your heart be free to feel the Peace that lies within?

Cousin Louise

I awoke to a voicemail this morning informing us that my husband, Walter’s 106 year old cousin passed away in her sleep overnight.  What a blessing it was to peacefully let go of her body in the comfort of her own home.  No unfamiliar facility or beeping machine with doctors and nurses hovering around or even a long list of medications.  “Cousin Louise” as we referred to her lived a long and fabulous life.  In many ways I am not sad.  In fact I want to stand up and give her a standing ovation for the kind of living she modeled.  I want to applaud her for the peace and joy I am certain she felt and expressed with her heart.

I often wonder about the ways in which people “transition.”  I purposely choose the word “transition” because I am not certain if our spirits, that essence or energy that gives life to bodies ever “dies.”  Yet I understand that the human body like all other kinds of bodies—birds, dogs, horses, fish, insects die.  I suspect death occurs because bodies serve as the vehicles that allow our spirits to move around in the physical world.  But why do some people leave this place as a result of an automobile accident, drowning, sustained illness, or shot by a family member or in a war?  Why aren’t more people able to die peacefully in their sleep like Cousin Louise?

I also believe Cousin Louise passed away with a happy, peaceful heart.  In the few years that I knew her, I never heard her say an unkind word about anyone.  She was full of stories many of them from the Civil Rights Movement in which she and her husband played active roles.  Although I am certain she encountered some frightening situations and in some cases, downright hostility, she seemed to hold a positive attitude about it all.  Cousin Louise felt bad for hateful people instead of being outraged by them.  She understood the relationship between ignorance and fear that quite often leads to bigotry and discrimination.

In addition, Cousin Louise taught English Literature to college students.  She loved poetry—Shakespeare, Tennyson and Chaucer and tried to ignite that love of literature in her students at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, GA.   She also loved playing the piano and continued to do so until she was 105.  When Walter videotaped her on that special birthday, he asked her how it felt to be 105.  She replied, “ Splendid.  It is just splendid!”

Her favorite scripture was Psalm 139, which she repeated often.  She was certain that she was held by some Presence no matter where she ventured.  Active in civic and social groups and her church as well, Cousin Louise rarely missed a Sunday at Big Bethel AME Church in downtown Atlanta until she became too fragile to attend.  Grateful for visits from her pastor that connected her to a church family, she also continued her monetary support until the end.  Her legacy includes her love of helping people especially encouraging young people.  She realized early that life was about service to others and living became even sweeter when her passions were combined with her desire to give.

Cousin Louise drove until she was much beyond age 95, in part because she fudged her age a bit.  It’s not clear if her husband, a few years her junior ever knew that she was older.  Yet because she was raised with Walter’s grandmother, the two being born just 2 weeks apart, we always knew her true age.  So when Cousin Louise turned 100, Walter and I took her dinner on her birthday and she admitted that it might be time for her to reveal her true age.

I’m not sure if I will live to 106 or if I want to.  But I know that in whatever time I have remaining on earth, I want to maintain the poise, elegance, and attitude of this great woman with a heart brimming over with love for others, a desire to help, and the radiant joy she emanated in living with a peaceful and grateful heart.

How might you describe your heart right now? What is it full of?  How do you think you would feel at 106?