The sacred body

Spring is struggling to arrive. Purple and yellow flowers poke through brown earth and then shiver in frigid winds or are covered with an unexpected snow. The dance between spring and winter, mild days and biting cold, will linger until the seasons settle in on their true place in nature.

As I walked the other day, I was aware of how I struggle. To arrive. At my true nature and self.

Of how at times I accept the mystery and uncertainties of life with ease and grace and just as quickly, fall into a space of worry and angst.

What is life about? Why am I here? How am I meant to serve and a myriad of questions that leave me hanging on a cliff of unknowing.

Asking the questions takes courage, as does being human. And as I walked, I thought how brave we are to take on these human bodies.

We are, as mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote concerning the hero’s or heroine’s journey, embarking in a strange world where we are tested again and again.

I admit, I’ve always been more comfortable with my spiritual being than my earthly one. Being human is messy. Aches and pains as we age, grieving at the loss of those we love, battling with illnesses. And yet, it is also about aliveness.

Sue is a neighbor who is 90. She is vibrant, always smiling. I saw her yesterday with her adult daughter who had taken her grocery shopping.

“My mom was in the hospital on Thursday and Friday,” she said. “But then we celebrated my brother’s wedding on Saturday and there she was, dancing at the reception with the rest of us.”

Sue smiled at me. “I wasn’t going to let my body stop me. I was going to have fun. You have to do that in life, you know.”

Then there’s Grace. A neighbor of my brother’s I met years ago, she was always dashing here and there. In her 80s. Yoga. Biking. Meditation. I called her “amazing Grace” because she was.

“I’ve traveled to many countries,” she shared. “Alone. And I’ve loved it.”

These women were reminders I needed. That I still need every blessed day. Life and the human body may have its limitations but it’s also about aliveness. Sue and Grace both embody that effervescence and zest even as frailties encroach on their physical form.

When I visited Ireland many years ago, I was in awe of its raw wilderness, its unexplored places that were filled with so many possibilities for aliveness. These spaces were sacred invitations to slow down, to listen to my own breathing in the stillness, to discover a deeper sense of my own being and body.

In fact, Buddhist author Reginald Ray describes the body as “the last unexplored wilderness.”

Our body offers infinite wisdom and yet, we rarely pause to reflect on the rich and vibrant possibilities in this physical form. We fail to stop and ask what our bodies might need — sleep, rest, play, exercise, quiet?

And in a world that is body-obsessed and many times makes us feel “less than,” we can choose perhaps to enter the body’s wisdom with mindfulness.

In her book The Wisdom of the Body: A Contemplative Journey to Wholeness for Women, author Christine Valters Paintner writes that we can follow a balanced path where we don’t try to go to extremes in our spiritual practice.

“The sense that everything is holy, for me is the heart of the monastic path and so points to our bodies as sacred vessels as well,” she says. “The Celtic tradition has such a body and earth-honoring sensibility to it, and the desert monks taught me much about how to be with difficult thoughts and judgments as well as how to cultivate a capacity for presence to my experience as an expression of love.”

We can stay grounded, she says, by tending to our breath and tracking our inner experience.

So, I am learning, as I always am. As spring struggles for balance with winter, I, too, am learning to find balance between my spiritual body and earthly body. Both are important. Both needed. Both sacred.

And I am learning, with the seasons, to embrace my body for the gifts it offers. To see my body as an expression of love.

To come home to myself. Again and again.

 

 

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A Sabbath snow

I was 10 years old when I saw my first flakes of snow. My father’s work had transferred our family from humid, tropical South Texas to the harsh, cold winters of Philadelphia.

As those bits of crystalline magic fell from the sky, I was in awe. How could God create such a miraculous thing?

Those winters in the early 1960s when I was a child were filled with blizzards. Mounds of snow blocked the front door, drifted into the corners of the windows panes, and outside, my brothers, sisters and I created snow forts and mazes.

My mother bundled us in snowsuits that made us look like aliens or Robby the Robot. After awhile she would call us inside, and even though we could no longer feel our toes, fingers or faces, we begged to play a little more. We laughed. We had fun. We couldn’t get enough of the white stuff.

Now, we are in the midst of a northeast blizzard wailing outside my window. And I’m wondering where that little girl went, the one who loved snow, who couldn’t wait to build snowmen and snow forts.

By the time you are reading this, hopefully the snow has departed and out to sea. But while in it this moment, I look out at tree limbs bending in mercy to the winds and walls of white whipping by in sheets. The distant landscape is a muddled blur, with only vague silhouettes of houses or hills poking through the blinding haze.

I am thankful to be inside, with warmth and food, praying for those who have to be at the mercy of this weather. Those who must be outside because of work or emergency services.

I am also thankful for snow as a spiritual teacher.

Snow is God’s way of making me slow down. To stop. Snow doesn’t care about my to-do list or where I have to be. It only invites me to be with it, in the present moment. Snow forces me to stop doing. When the snow is deep, I can’t drive around for errands, can’t be about my busy schedule.

I am inside, cocooned and stilled.

As a spiritual teacher, snow invites a silence that I believe we all need and crave. It makes of the world a hushed, contemplative space — a monastery of the heart — where we can truly listen to the Divine. In that stillness, we have the opportunity to truly connect with the essence of our soul.

We also may discover the gift of nurturing ourselves when we otherwise might not. Reading a good book. Curling up with a blanket and the dog. Mindless daydreaming. Naps. All can be savored as snow falls outside.

Snow also shows us beauty, blanketing the world in a soft, shimmering white. And light. That light reveals to us the beauty of God and reminds us, on a deep level, how much we yearn in our being for that light and beauty.

As snow drifts down in lazy flakes, we can also be reminded how it is like God’s grace, covering everything. Nothing is left untouched. Snow makes rough edges, smooth, and makes beautiful those objects we consider ugly. And it falls on everyone and everything.

Tomorrow, and perhaps the next few days, we will be digging out from under. Shoveling the walkways and plowing out our cars. There will be time for this.

There also will be time for play, for re-connecting with that young girl who once loved snow.

Crunching through it on a walk. Savoring the clean, bright purity of a world made new around me.

But for now, as the snow continues to fall, I am called to Sabbath time. A day of rest. Listening. Being. A gift from God.

 

 

 

Waiting

I’m still waiting for results from some medical tests. I’ve never been good at it. Waiting. I get anxious. Uncertain.

So I went back to read a blog post I wrote in 2015 about “waiting” and what I still need to learn. It seems a good time to share this again.

It’s also Ash Wednesday in the Christian tradition, a time to remember we are simply passing through here, and that in some sense, we are always a waiting people — waiting to return home.

And may we know, in the waiting, we are never alone.

*****

The schoolyard felt vast, a desolate ocean of concrete, as I sat there, waiting.

A five-year-old, I clutched my Cinderella lunch pail to my chest as I saw buses leave, parents pick up their children. And my insides churned. Where was dad?

As he pulled up in that 1950s station wagon, I jumped in the front seat and fretted in sing-song style, “I waited and I waited but you never came.”

Dad told me in later years he raced and rushed from his job so he could get there in time to pick me up after kindergarten. But sometimes, his work delayed him or traffic was heavy — and he was late. And while I waited, alone, I was filled with an overwhelming loneliness and anxiety.

Of course I healed from that experience and as an adult, it became a private joke between dad and me, especially if I was running late for some event with him and he would say, “I waited and I waited ….”

pain and sorrow womanI share this story because it seems we are always a people of waiting. And yet, we often see it as an inconvenience.

Let’s face it. Waiting is not popular, especially today.

Stuck in heavy traffic, at the airport for a delayed flight, at a doctor’s office, waiting for the cable repairman. You name it, and we wail and bemoan all this “wasted time” when we could have been doing something else.

The truth is, waiting is not lost time, but valuable if we choose to make it so. Waiting can be rich, inviting us to live in the present moment and to trust in the process of life — to surrender our timetable to the agenda of a Higher Power.

In other words, when we are forced to wait, we are no longer in control. The Divine is.

girl by oceanBut waiting is not all drudgery. It can often be filled with hope. And promise. In the Old Testament, the Israelites waited 40 years in the desert to reach the Promised Land. Mary waited for the birth of the Christ. The Buddha sat under a tree, waiting for enlightenment.

In this way, waiting is not passive — but active. Spiritual writer Henri Nouwen puts it this way:

“Active waiting means to be fully present to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening. A waiting person is a patient person … impatient people are always expecting the real thing to happen somewhere else and therefore, want to go somewhere else. The moment is empty. But patient people dare to stay where they are. Patient living means to actively live in the present — and wait there.”

Without this period of waiting, whatever wants to be “birthed” cannot be fully formed. Some examples that come to mind are the chrysalis of the butterfly. A child in a mother’s womb. A work of art or book in process. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, writer Annie Dillard quotes poet Michael Goldman:

“When the muse comes she doesn’t tell you to write. She says, ‘Get up for a minute. I’ve something to show you. Stand there.”

If we were not to “stand here” and wait to see what is being shown us — to cut short any of our waiting time — we thwart whatever wants to take form and shape.

When we patiently wait, however, we are gifted and graced. One of my favorite authors, Sue Monk Kidd, writes:

“When the time is right, the cocooned soul begins to emerge. Waiting turns golden. Newness unfurls. It is a time of pure, unmitigated wonder.”

transformationI have to admit that I’m still not good at waiting. But I’m getting better. I have come to understand that the things of God don’t come suddenly. Often, the Divine is more of a mid-wife than a rescuer, one who patiently guides us through the process to new life.

And yes, like many of you, I wait. For many things. But I also know, as Jungian analyst James Hillman wrote, that “our soul is the patient part of us.”

So I try to listen to my soul more often, to sit with it in silence. But this time, unlike the little girl, I know I’m not alone. The Divine is always with me and within me.

With this inner knowing, with this sense of presence, I trust. In stillness. In anticipation. Waiting.