Sharing a Conversation About Things That Matter…While on the Journey Together.

The Gift of Pondering

In this season of life I find myself entering into a more contemplative life in the Spirit. I think this was brought about in part by a longing in my heart toward a deeper intimacy with God.  To be honest, I didn’t have the inclination to “ponder” much in my younger years:  I was full, I was occupied, I was preoccupied, I was working hard at “living the life.”  But now, a few chapters later in my life, I find myself drawn to pondering (which could be translated as “meditation”).

Jesus certainly invites us to “ponder” in his use of storytelling through parables.  You cannot grasp what he is saying without wondering about it, wandering around in it and swimming its depths.  Even his use of the words “Consider,” as in “Consider the lilies of the field and how they grow…” and “Consider the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns…”  invites us to stay awhile and allow the words to ruminate, resonate and re-form our lives and perspectives.

In our Western culture, we are not proficient in pondering.  We are so focused on the end product (our goals and objectives) that we fail to enter into the process it takes to get there.  We often miss what is in-between and in missing that, we have missed the point of it all…the living of our lives.  Being present to the life we are living and being present to the movement of the Spirit in our life.

Pondering 101:  I am going to suggest an exercise for those of you who don’t want to use the “Cliff Notes” approach to “pondering.”   I invite you to read the following scripture in a “pondering” way (take your time and be fully present).

“I will lead the blind by a road they do not know,

By paths they have not known,

I will guide them.

I will turn the darkness before them into light,

The rough places into level ground.

These are the things I will do,

And I will not forsake them.”         Isaiah 42:16

 

Some suggested “pondering” questions (but do not feel constrained by these):

  • What feelings come up for you as you ponder this scripture?
  • Is this scripture comforting or discomforting and why?
  • What would it mean to be blind? Is there any place where you feel blind?
  • What would it mean to be led? In what way is God leading you?
  • Is there a situation in your life that this speaks to?
  • What contrasts are present within (ie. Light vs darkness)
  • What mysteries are found in this scripture?
  • Where is the action and who is doing it?
  • Where is “non-action” present in this?
  • What is God saying to you through this?

Buen Camino!

Camino10Buen Camino!

That is what I heard every day for 37 days, from hundreds of people, as I hiked with my good friend, Art Kopicky, 500 miles across Northern Spain last May and June.

“Buen Camino.”  Have a good journey!  Have a good pilgrimage!

As many of you know, I have felt called to pursue Christ on an interior journey prayer and reflection, with same sort of intentionality I have tried to follow Him on an exterior journey of service the past 45 years.  I have been carving out more time for the spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude, as well meditation on Scripture (not just studying Scripture).

I heard about a pilgrimage in Northern Spain, called “The Camino de Santiago”  by watching a wonderful movie called “The Way” (starring Martin Sheen).  As I watched it something deep stirred in my heart.  I bought a copy of the movie and watched with friends.  Each time I felt a deep resonance.  So I began to find out more about this “Camino.”

It is called in English, “The Way of Saint James.”  It has been around for over 1,000 years and this year several hundred thousand pilgrims will hike 500 miles to the town of Santiago (James) de Compostela, where legend has it, the bones of the Apostle James are buried beneath the Cathedral.

I did not take the pilgrimage because of the relics, but because of an inner call to a serious (and strenuous) time of reflection. I knew nothing about the concept of “pilgrimage” but now see it woven all throughout Scripture and history- think of Abraham leaving his home to follow an inner voice telling him he would be led to a new land,  r of the nation of Israel leaving Egypt to spend 40 years in pilgrimage across a desert.

DSC02249Camino5Camino9

 

Compared to these, mine was minor-league.  But the components were similar to all spiritual pilgrimages:

  1. an inner call;
  2. leaving the familiar behind;
  3. commiting yourself to an arduous inner and outer journey;
  4. dealing with pain, and discomfort;
  5. having massive amounts of time to think, reflect, and pray and to ponder your life as it has been up to now;
  6. joining with other pilgrims who are on a similar journey;
  7. opening your heart and mind to new possibilities for the future.

People have asked me since I have returned, “So, what did you learn on the Camino?”  It is a well-intentioned question, but I find it impossible to answer in a few paragraphs.  I am also frequently asked, “What was your high point and what was your low point?”  Again, an honest question, that is impossible to answer easily.  The high point was simply doing the Camino.  Doing it.  I didn’t have a low point.  I had painful points, frustrating points, but no low point (disclaimer:  I think most pilgrims do have “a low point”… I just didn’t for some reason).

Some observations that I find myself continuing to reflect upon and trying to implement upon my return:

  • go slower;
  • beauty heals;
  • breath deeply;
  • take care of your feet;
  • appreciate all that is around you;
  • appreciate all that is in you;
  • don’t be so hard on yourself;
  • never live without margins (space);
  • never exclude anyone;
  • God is not “out there” ….. God is always coming toward us in love through everything right now;
  • we are God’s beloved daughters and sons;
  • God is well-pleased with us;
  • much that we have believed, is partial at best….and some of it is simply wrong…. continue pondering the life of Jesus for its corrective value;
  • spend less time in the past (regretting or blaming) and less time in the future (worrying or even planning)…. and more time in the present- where God and others are most obvious.

I could go on and on.

You don’t have to go to Spain, or hike 500 miles, to be a pilgrim.  We all are….. already.  We are on a pilgrimage.  It is called called life.  And God is always present and in everything.  The only thing missing is our attention, our awareness.

By the way, did you know the average speed a person walks in 3 miles per hour?  A fellow pilgrim gave me the quote below from a Japanese follower of Jesus.  It helped me immensely:

“God walks ‘slowly’ because he is love. If he is not love he would have gone much faster. Love has its speed. It is an inner speed. It is a spiritual speed. It is a different kind of speed from the technological speed to which we are accustomed. It is ‘slow’ yet it is lord over all other speed since it is the speed of love. It goes on in the depth of our life, whether we notice or not, whether we are currently hit by storm or not, at three miles an hour. It is the speed we walk and therefore it is the speed the love of God walks.” (Kosuke Koyama. Three Mile an Hour God. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1979, p. 7.)”

Perhaps we could all slow down a bit…. to 3 miles per hour…

Perhaps we would experience God more often, since God only goes at that speed.

Camino3Camino8Camino2

 

To Everything There is a Season

The movement between the Seasons always stands as a reminder that our life is not static but dynamic. Like the sea, there is always a movement toward and a movement away from something. In Ecclesiates we are reminded “There is a time and purpose for everything under heaven.”  It takes a certain amount of attentiveness to notice the subtle movements of God in our lives. Author, John O’Donohue writes:

 “To live a truly creative life, we always need to cast a critical look at where we presently are, attempting always to discern where we have become stagnant and where new beginning might be ripening.  There can be no growth if we do not remain open and vulnerable to what is new and different.  I have never seen anyone take a risk for growth that was not rewarded a thousand times over.”

Although the motivation and inspiration for change might be pressing in on us, we often commit to a new beginning in our life only to postpone it soon after we have started.  We live with the illusion that, if it is God-given, it will quickly fall into place, we will know each step and the road will be easy.  Although this occasionally occurs in unfolding events of amazing synchronicity, more often than not, we will experience many different steps of faltering, confusion and second-guessing after we have begun, causing us to doubt that we “heard it right.”  We never imagine the seasons we need to endure to reach our heart’s desire…Seasons of Autumn where we find ourselves having to release our hold (or control) in one big splash of color and death; Winter, where the seeds scattered in the Fall lie dormant underneath a covering of composting, discarded material…where the sense of aloneness haunts us, the cold has gone on too long and God can feel distant or absent; Spring, where amid the muddy mess of cleansing rain and warming temperatures, what was buried, arises, visible, and we are stirred with hope and relief; and finally, Summer, where the product of our new beginning begins to bear fruit and we enjoy a season of gratitude and celebration.

Take a moment to ponder what might be stirring within you.  This may come in the form of a “holy discontent” brewing or a sense of longing for something different, often accompanied by imaginative ponderings of what could be opening up.  Both of these are equally important in our attentive process to what may be a new season. Ask yourself what is this “longing” or “discontent” telling me?  When did it start?  How is God speaking through it?

As you approach the New Year, perhaps you can take some time to think about what Season you are presently in your spiritual life and what gifts might be bestowed through this season.

Today

Today, I caught a glimpse of my true self

Uncovered by accident

Through searching for God.

My self,

So hidden

So deep

Un-free

Tangled in the mess of expectations and voices,

One could hardly recognize it

Trying to chip its way out.

 

Today, I thought I heard a song escape

From my guarded heart.

It took off and penetrated the air

Like the sweetness

Of a long-fulfilled dream

And others heard it

And entered in.

 

Today, I found myself believing

That I lived for a reason;

That I spilled out

Of the imagination of God

And He said “It is good!”

And then smiled,

And then laughed.

We both did.

 

Wall of Love

 

“Sure….. sure, Jerry….. I’ll be happy to meet with him….. what is his name again?   Oh, okay- Tom.”

Why am I meeting with this guy?” I think to myself.  “I guess he loves orphans, and that is a good enough reason.  Plus, my friend Jerry thought it would be good.  Friends help friends.”  I reason.

A few days later I walk down to the Starbucks a half a mile away from my North Arlington, Virginia home in the hopefully-soon-to-be-thawing East Coast weather in early March.  I am dressed casually (usually a mistake in the D.C. culture) and sure enough when I walk into the jammed and cramped Starbucks there he is- in a beautiful suit, tie, complete with a briefcase.

“Hi…. I am guessing you are Tom.” I say as I extend my hand.

He smiles and greets me warmly, and then loosens his tie.  I am glad that my California-side helped him relax!

I get my coffee and we sit down facing each other at a small table for two.  He launches into his story as though I were his trusted therapist, or priest, or best friend.  I am somewhat stunned by his instant vulnerability.

Jerry said I could talk to you and tell you anything…… so that’s what I’m going to do.  OK?

He doesn’t wait for a response from me.

Well, I’m an East Coast person.  All my life.  You can probably tell by my name I’m a Catholic….. well, sort of…. I used to be….. I guess I still am, but not really practicing.  I’m not actually sure what I am or what I believe.

The information is tumbling out of him.  It has its own tide and he is being swept along in it.  He is nervous.  He talks fast.  There is no doubt that he is from the East Coast- his mannerisms, accent, dress.  Everytthing.  East Coast to the bone.

Well, something happened to me.  I don’t understand what it was…. and Jerry said you might be able to help me understand it.  It’s kinda weird.  But before I tell you about “it” – let me give you a bit a background on me, so you have some context.

I grew up a Catholic and like many young men in the 70’s I was deeply immersed in my own religious tradition.  It was an exciting time.  We used to have “young people spiritual retreats” at a Monastery, and I never missed one.  I loved them.  We would meet for a whole weekend and share from our hearts.  It felt very safe…. and caring…. and loving.  And we would sing songs….. spiritual songs….. with guitars accompanying us- and it just felt so good.  So right.  Then on Sunday we would have Mass, and the young priests (who really related well to all of us) would lead us in worship and Eucharist…… I’m sorry, do you know what “Eucharist” is?

“Yes, isn’t it like a communion service for Christians?”  I offered.

Yes…..exactly.  Well during Communion, or what we call Eucharist, I would also feel such a deep peace and love in my heart.  It is hard to explain- but it felt like everything was right with the world, and I was accepted as I am….. and more than accepted…. loved…. deeply.  I could feel it literally in my heart.”

And here, he touched his heart as he said it…… staring intensely into my eyes to see if I was understanding the depth of what he was trying to explain.

“That’s wonderful.”  I said.  Somehow he knew I actually did understand.  His words tumbled on, and somehow the clank or cups, and whirring of the Frappacino machines faded into the distance.

Well, then as time went on I lost contact.  With the Church.  With God.  With myself. I became very successful as a businessman and thought a lot about myself!  I was completely self-absorbed.  I lived a frantic life.  I got married.  We had children, one of who was severely challenged and took lots of care.  My wife gave most of the care while I was working 80 hour weeks and traveling around the world.  A distance began to grow between us.

I took a trip to Romania, and somehow during the trip I wound up visiting an orphanage.   You probably know that under the Communist Dictator, Chaucheskou there were many orphans.  They were put in horrible orphanages and suffered terribly.  As I was standing there in one of the orphanages, with ragged little children all around me grabbing and holding on to my legs….. something broke inside me.  I knew what I needed to do with my life.  I knew it beyond a shadow of a doubt…. in an instant.  I needed to quit my job and help these kids…. and kids like them.

I called my wife from Romania and told her about my experience and that I had to quit my job (which gave us a very comfortable lifestyle) and dedicate myself to advocating for children like this.  I expected her to be resistant- but she wasn’t.  In fact, she encouraged me to follow my sense of what I was being called to do.

So I did.

And then eventually I met Jerry- who, as you know, has been caring for the plight of orphans around the world for a long time.  And now, I am the CEO of the largest advocacy group on behalf of orphans in the world.  I speak at the United Nations, and before Congress-about the desperate need of these little ones.

I love what I do, but I still felt an blank spot in my core.  Then a few months ago Jerry called me and said, “Hey, Tom, you need to meet me at the National Prayer Breakfast next week in DC and I will set up some important meetings where you can share about the needs of the orphans.”

It made me a little nervous, to be honest….. I mean, to go to some “religious” event with a bunch of “religious” people mixing with politicians….. it just wasn’t something I was naturally drawn to….. it just made me nervous.  I tried to get out of it, but you know Jerry.  He is a force to contend with….. so on a Thursday in early February I found myself in front of the Hilton Hotel near Dupont Circle in Washington D.C.  Even though it was cold outside the large revolving door at the front of the Hilton-I lingered.  I didn’t want to go in.  I smoked a couple cigarettes trying get up courage.  Then I just decided, “I have to go in.”  So I walked straight toward the revolving door, briefcase in hand.  I went around and stepped into the lobby and the “it” happened.

Wham!  I hit something.

As he said, “Wham!” he clapped his hands together loudly and all our fellow coffee drinkers in Starbucks looked over.  It didn’t deter his story.  He was on a mission.

I hit something!

“What?  What did you hit?  The door?  Did it get stuck?”  I asked, now rapped up in the story myself.

He looked at me like I must be crazy.

No!  Not the door.  I made it through the door and took one…. maybe two steps into the lobby!  Then I hit “it!”

“Hit what?”

I don’t really know!  It….. it felt solid…..it’s hard to get words on it…. but, it felt like I ran into a “wall of love.”  Honest.  A “wall of love.

We sat there in silence, staring at each other.  Letting it sink in.

Then he continued more quietly.

I know it sounds crazy, but that is what it was like.

“What did you do then?” I asked, truly wondering if I was with a mystic.

I went right back outside and smoked a cigarette!

We both laughed and relaxed a bit.

Actually, I smoked a few.  Then I went back in and went to the meetings Jerry had set up for me.  They were very high-level and I was supposed to talk about orphans, and I did, but I was like a zombie.  I mainly listened to the others and took in what this thing was about.

Then he stopped, realizing that I might have no idea what he was talking about, and he asked,

Do you know anything about the National Prayer Breakfast?  Do you know what I am even trying to say?

“Yes, I know some about the Prayer Breakfast…. I have been to a few…. I know the context you are describing.”  In actuality I had been to about 28 years worth of Prayer Breakfasts, and that particular year I had been a speaker at some of the side-events around the Prayer Breakfast itself.  I had served as a volunteer most of those years, but now had some semi-official role in hosting all of the guests from Latin America.

Tom was content that I understood the event.

So….. do you know what happened to me?

“Well, yes….. I think I do, actually…. but let me ask you something.  Had you ever felt anything like that before?
He paused and looked up and away, thinking….. or feeling….. trying to remember if he had ever felt something like this before.

Yes!  he said in triumph, as if an ancient memory had just come back to him full-force and unexpectedly.

Yes!  At the Retreats….. when I was a young man….. at Eucharist!  That’s it.  I felt the peace, the love, the……. acceptance.

I smiled.  A smile from deep down inside.  We sat in silence.

Many years later I found myself telling this story to others and feeling the same impact that I felt when I heard it fresh from the lips of an astonished Tom.  And two things hit me.

He had hit a “wall of love.”  It was a wall of relationships dating back at least 60 years (and perhaps two thousand).  Friendships attempting to be centered in the Person and Teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.  I had been a part of those friendships the past 25 years and had (by in large) benefited deeply from them.  Imperfect friendships, to be sure….. but friendships founded on a deep Center and well-intentioned, if flawed.

And second, I realized that I may have been in that very lobby at the very time Tom stepped out from the revolving door and hit this “wall of love.”

And I hadn’t felt a thing.  Not a thing.  I was probably running around trying to fix some problem in the programming for the event.  My filters were clogged.  My mind was fixated- but not on a wall of love.  Probably on a task to accomplish.  And yet…. there it was…. without question….a wall of love right smack-dab in the middle of the Hilton Hotel Lobby.  A wall of love which just about knocked Tom down, and clearly woke him up to a reality that he had known since he was a child…. but had apparently forgotten, or misplaced in the course of living his life.

Yet there “it” was.  There it still is.

Lessons from Moses

“Moses was living his simple life as a sheepherder, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro.  He was going about his daily task and had led the flock to the far side of the desert which brought him to Mount Horeb when he saw a strange sight…a bush that was on fire, yet did not burn up.  Moses was curious and went a little closer to see if he could figure out why the bush didn’t burn up.  God, seeing that Moses had moved closer, called to him from out of the burning bush.  “Moses! Moses!”

And Moses said, “Here I am.”

God said.  “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”

Then God begins to tell him that He sees the misery of the Israelites who are in bondage in Egypt and that he is sending Moses to go before Pharaoh to bring His people out of slavery.

Moses says to God, “Who am I?  I don’t have the gifts to do this?  I can’t even talk without stuttering.”

God replies, “I will be with you.”  

(paraphrased)

So why am drawn to this story and what does it have to do with my experience in Spiritual Direction? I think this story about Moses gives words, at least in part, to what I’ve discovered about the unfolding life of the Spirit as experienced in Spiritual Direction.

These are a few things that stand out to me:

  • First, we most often encounter the Holy in the ordinariness of life.  It was in the midst of his normal routine that Moses was surprised by the presence of God.
  • Secondly, it is our awareness and curiosity that awakens us to deepen our experience of God. Moses stepped closer toward that which he did not understand.  He let his own curiosity lead him and his life was changed.  In Spiritual Direction we learn to pay attention to our own curiosity, our questions, and our longings and let them lead us.
  • Thirdly, it is when we begin to seek God, that we will find God.   It is when Moses follows his desire to understand what is happening to and around him that he encounters God.  He hears God speak his name and answers “Here am I.”  When someone seeks Spiritual Direction, they have begun to be in touch with a desire to be closer to God.  In their seeking, they discover that the One they seek is also seeking them.
  • Lastly, in the midst of his seeking, God reveals to Moses that the ground on which he is standing is Holy.  In the process of Spiritual Direction I have felt that the ground we are standing on is Holy.  In this place, at this time, the thin veil blows open and we discover that, in the presence of one another and the Beloved One, we are not alone.  We find that we are loved.

When I first began the Stillpoint program, I went through a time of insecurity.  Like Moses, I was asking “Who am I?” Was it my role as a spiritual director to direct people to the burning bush?  “Follow me!  Burning bush over to the right!  Take your shoes off…you are approaching Holy ground!  Come to me to discover your true calling!”  But time, prayer and my own humbling has taught me that I cannot program encounters with God.  There is a mysterious unfolding in the spiritual life that I can only be open, awake and present to.  I have found that I am called to show up, to pray, to love and to listen.

When Moses argued with God that he was not capable of what was being asked of him, God simply replied, “I will be with you.” In the midst of my own journey in Spiritual Direction, when I find myself at times still asking, “Who am I?” I have begun to trust the voice that tells me “I will be with you,” and that is enough.

God and Our Frailty

I was listening to a former Monk teach and I was gripped by what he said.

“The ungraspable truth, is that God makes our very frailty to be the place He most delights in surprising us with His nearness.”  (James Finley)

We work hard to stay oblivious to our own frailty.  We hide it from God, others, and  ourselves.  We don’t want to be frail, and we don’t want to appear frail.  This may be why seeing Jesus hang on a cross can be such an affront to our senses.

Frailty in others can create sympathy or repulse us.  But frailty in ourselves frightens us.  This is why we work so hard to stay blind to it.  The birthplace of defensiveness is our fear of frailty.  And when others (less blind to us than we are ourselves) correct our us…. we can easily lash out, dismiss, or argue with them.

But we also have moments of clarity.  Flashes when we see ourselves as we actually are…. and when our defenses and denial are not quick enough to save us from our actual frailty.  At these moments the heavens hang in the balance.  When our own humanity, so long submerged, longs to peak out into the sunshine of actuality, we will either turn back to our automaticly defensive ways, or launch ourselves into a new journey; one that is frightening…. but fraught with possibility. What is that possibility?  To live as Jesus lived- with the Heavens open.

What if we lived with a God so loving that He made “our very frailty to be the place He most delights in surprising us with His nearness?”  Wouldn’t this help us to find ourselves as we are, while also opening us to discover others as they are?  And why would we ever think that God would not delight in surprising us with His nearness  in the center of our deepest frailty?  Perhaps, because we have an idol for our god….. and not the God of Jesus.  The last words of John’s 1st letter are:  “Little children, keep yourself from idols.  Idols need to be smashed.  Only then there will be room for the true God;  a God of love, light, and truth- woven into a fabric of forgiveness and a fresh start.