As we begin this fourth week in Lent, I decide, as I have decided before, that I like the life of a pilgrim. I like to begin every week with preparations that will help me keep focused on one goal that is beyond my grasp. My goal is to allow myself to be transformed into my true self.
I like mystery because I am a mystery to myself and everyone I meet is a mystery to me. Karl Rahner, who was the Roman Catholic of the twentieth century, famously said that Christians of the twenty–first century would be mystics or they would not be at all. Rahner thought and spoke of God as ‘Holy Mystery.’
An adventure like a pilgrimage calls for some taking stock. This is my list of preparations for pilgrimage.
Take note of what your situation and surroundings are and of what you have at your disposal.
Be prepared to use what you have on hand. (You don’t need to go to a store.)
Do what you can.
Last weekend our clocks sprang ahead marking the end of a season of darkness here in Canada. I am glad to see more blue sky today. There is now more light and length in our days. I am glad of this, and yet, I am going to miss the winter long nights darkness with the nuanced sunlight and moonlight that sift through the clouds.
Darkness is part of what many of us have gone to for solitude and reflection on the terrors and disappointments of this time. Famine, war, lies and other breakdowns challenge our minds and hearts.
Meister Eckhart said in the fourteenth century that the ground of our souls is dark in a darkness that invites us to enter into depth. We hope that darkness is part of the transformation of our small egos into a closer resemblance to what is good. We remember that sometimes darkness is the mystery that allows us to see the light in the darkness.
This is darkness which we do not want to be lost to us. One of my friends, who is a Psychologist for children and adults, says that at this time, perhaps because it is springtime, also perhaps because we know the tradition of Lent, we are wrestling more than usual with our personal and also our collective shadow selves. The shadow which we all have is what makes us turn away from or hide from what we cannot look at because it makes us feel ashamed of ourselves and at times ashamed of our entire human race. We seem to have shadow in endless supply.
One variety of shadow that many of us wrestle with at this time is our personal and communal obsession with our phones and devices. This obsessive shadow habit of paying too much attention to our electronic devices keeps us from being in loving community with what Thomas Berry calls,’ our made of earth community.’
For me, the image of us as ‘hubs,’ perhaps like phone booths, is a dark image which stands against our hope to be full of transcendent light and moving towards our hoped for transformation. The ‘hub’ is truly shadow for me. I am aware of it and trying to remember that it is not a good thing.
In contrast to the image of our being ‘hubs,’ I like the image of our being like golden daffodils reaching towards sunlight that is beyond their reach, but is nonetheless life giving. This transcendent hope, for us and for our larger communities, is large and mysterious. It is transcendent hope because It takes us beyond our small egoic selves into a realm which is mystery beyond what we can imagine, the image of our‘ golden shadow.’
Every year I need time during Lent to learn how to carry the list of things which I try to hide from my mind and heart. I need help learning how to not turn away from what is surely part of my responsibility to hold up to the light . I need the strength of character to respond when there is opportunity to say or do something that will help another person or other persons to live their lives. The injustice and violence which keep people from life is both close to us in our communities and cities and also far from us – even across the world. Part of what makes this difficult for us is that we humans are mammals and, like all mammals, we are local-minded. It is a stretch of our hearts and minds to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. We need help with this.
One thing that helps me pay attention to shadow is what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says we should do. He says we should try to act on behalf of goodness as stand ins for God’s own goodness. . Isn’t that mystery!! It is too wonderful for me to understand but I see the golden hope in what he is saying.
Rabbi Heschel lived during the holocaust and was an active presence during the Civil rights movement, and beyond, until 1972. He was friends with Martin Luther King Jr. and with Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. Heschel spoke up and spoke out but he also listened carefully and thoughtfully to other voices who said that God has abandoned us. In response to this, Heschel reminded us that God loves us and made a covenant with us that gives us freedom to choose, a covenant in which God promised to give us freedom, even the freedom to destroy ourselves and each other.
He lived his life in the belief that the creator and all loving God will not interfere with our freedom. His stance and perhaps what Rabbi Heschel is most loved and honored for is this recommendation: ‘Praise before Prayer.’
He recommends that we respond to what we praise with awe and wonder.
This is solid ‘pure gold advice’ for us as we try to help God drag our shadow attitudes and behaviors into the golden light of transcendent transformation. May we help each other with this good work!
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. In the city where we live, priests and ministers were out on city streets this morning in the bitter cold offering to place ashes on the foreheads of those who wanted that for themselves.
The light in the morning sky is not bright here in late February. Here are the words said by the person who places the ashes: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.
I expect that the receivers of the ashes are reminded by these actions and words that they are alive, and that whatever makes them alive is akin to fire.
The burning bush through which God confronted Moses in Exodus 3:1-4 is a sign that holy flames are not extinguished.
I wonder what we, who see ourselves as walking through Lent into what will be Easter, can find to fan the flames within us that help us walk through the end of winter, through a garden where betrayal happens, and a graveyard, in order to reach what we are hoping for. I also wonder how we can kindle holy flames in those around us who are our neighbors and families.
A large painting hangs in the stairwell leading from the front door of our home down to our studies and our recreation room. We have hung this painting in prominent places in our past four homes. We bought it in Santa Fe New Mexico when we knew we were moving from Toronto to the south-west of the US. This is the painting that receives more comments than anything else in our home. For me and my husband, this painting is a precious reminder of our hope for our participation in holy things which do not burn up.
The predominant colors in the painting of sunshine yellow and sand colored pueblo houses with air tones of pink and turquoise are reminiscent of the colors of the Sandia (‘watermelon’ in English) Mountains. At the center of the painting and moving up the mountain away from us is a single file of people on horseback. They are wearing brightly colored ponchos or what might be middle-eastern cloaks. The glorious light spreading out and over us from the pueblo-like dwelling at the top of the mountain gives the entire painting a glow that feels like glory.
The other features in the landscape going up the mountain are wonderfully open to our interpretation. The way up the mountain is steep. There is a dark shadowy strip which extends into brighter colors as it slashes across the path about one quarter of the way up the mountain. Someone told me that this could be an abyss. Perhaps the eye of the beholder of the painting sees what they need to see. Further up the path is a structure that some people have said reminds them of an open tomb. Further up still are groups of shadowy figures which may seem like groups of ancestors who are accompanying the other more brightly colored figures on their climb up the mountain. One person saw these shadowy mauve figures as possibly ‘the shining ones’ that John Bunyan, in The Pilgrim’s Progress, said could be seen by people in the higher vistas of the journey.
The artist who created this painting, which is called The Ascent, is B.C. Nowlin. Look him up on Google,–‘BC Nowlin Paintings’ and also see his website. Glimpse more of his paintings and hear him speak about his work. He says that his focus is always bright in the distance, a place he would like to view. He also says that he has always been, and he hopes that we too, are traveling for love towards a hopeful future. B.C. Nowlin is not an indigenous person. His family’s land formed the southern boundary of The Sandia Pueblo Reservation and he is steeped in both Hispanic culture and Puebloan Mysticism. He grew up in Alameda, New Mexico. He says, and I agree with him, that we are all tribal people
Look at the poem, ‘Towards Phoenix ‘ on page 10 of Poems Poemas.
The game of baseball has a special place in my heart. The crack of a bat connecting with a baseball invites dreamy memories.
In the 1950’s, when I was a young kid, my busy mother took me, just me, to watch baseball games in Labatt’s Memorial Park in London Ontario. I looked it up and see that it is the oldest continually operating baseball grounds in the world. My mother probably went to games there when she was a child.
My brothers and little sister stayed home with the housekeeper while my mother and I talked about the game, the players, the crowd, the fading daylight and the thrill we felt when the stadium lights flashed on.
I never played anything but school and neighbourhood pick up baseball. I was not a fan of particular players or teams. But — I have always loved the ‘laid-back’ look of baseball players. As I grew older I assumed that they drank beer together and slouched on sofas while they watched TV.
The other thing that I have always liked is the way time is mysterious in baseball. There can be ‘time- outs’ and, every year no-one knows when the World Series is ‘over’ till it’s over.
Below is the first sestina I ever wrote. I wrote the first part of it while I was studying theology and spirituality and our children were mostly at home with us. I wrote the last three lines, which make it a true sestina, just a few years ago.
This time of year makes me think of my own teachers and how they have affected my understanding of awe and wonder. I hope that this year’s teachers, whoever and wherever they are, will encourage and value whatever awe and wonder their students or they themselves experience.
I hope that we all will have more transcendent experiences, exceptional experiences that are really impossible to put into words and will remember what such experiences feel like. For me, this means moving out of our small selves into our larger selves which are part of a different sort of time which is sometimes called ‘God’s time’ or ‘Kairos time.’
Some of my teachers made me aware that transcendent experiences are large, the way joy and love are large. One of these teachers was my teacher of spiritual direction, Donald Grayston. Don began The Jubilee Program in Spiritual Formation and Spiritual Formation, a training program for people who feel called to be soul friends or spiritual directors. As he told us, ‘Good teachers teach themselves.’ I think he meant that they teach us what the teacher’s own life is like. Don was my spiritual director as well as my teacher and he, with gentle humility, showed me what his life was like.
I graduated from the Toronto jubilee Program in 1994. In the years from 1990 till 1994, Don allowed me to write whatever I had in my heart for the many assignments in the course, as long as I made good use of the assigned reading material.
I was grieving. My father, eldest brother and mother all had died, one at a time, in the period just before I began the course with Don. I graduated from Emmanuel College, University of Toronto, with a Master of Divinity degree in 1991. The spaciousness with which I was allowed to write those papers for Don was one of the best gifts I have ever received.
Don had no favorites among his students. He treated all of us with respect and tried to give us what we needed to become the best versions of ourselves. ‘Spacious’ is perhaps my favourite descriptive word for the transcendence I experienced in writing those papers. For me, transcendence means that we get out of our own way, out of our smaller ego-selves and into our larger-selves, which choose to reach for heaven and stretch joyfully. ‘Lightness’ and ‘light’ are involved but so is thoughtful reading and understanding. It is creative spaciousness.
Don was a learned teacher, a scholar and an Anglican priest. He was the most important and most well educated soul friend I have ever been privileged to work with. He defined what the terms meant to me.
Don wrote at least two books of memoir and many learned scholarly papers which were published. He wrote and spoke about social justice issues in ways that mattered. He was a beloved teacher and mentor to many.
About five years before his death in 2017, Don wrote what he called, ‘A Heart Will.’ I believe that he sent this out to all his students, or as many of us as he could find. I keep my copy close to me. He calls what he has written ‘insights.’ These are the words he sent to us with his ‘Heart Will.’
‘I bequeath them to you now, dear friends, at the end of my life, in the hope that they may shed some useful light on your path. As I do so, I send them out with profound gratitude for the help you have given me as I have walked my own path. Love, Don Grayston.’
I believe he would bequeath these insights to any people who want to become the best versions of themselves. I think he would be glad I am sharing them with you.
All Don’s insights in the ‘Heart Will’ are wonderful but my favourite is: #3. Include and Transcend.
The gist of it is : ‘… I include my Christian identity in a larger spiritual identity which permits me, with Thomas Merton as a tremendous model, to encounter others primarily as human beings rather than persons identified in a limiting sense with their traditions of origin.’ (A Heart Will,’ by Donald Edward Grayston.)
I cannot tell you how many times this insight bequeathed by Don has enabled me to transcend myself to be someone larger and wiser than I otherwise might be. It is a very light-filled and spacious insight.
Don encouraged me to write poems and also to work at getting them published. A few months before he died I showed him, ‘The Way Things Are is Large,’ in Poems for the Journey, on page 19 and ‘There is an Opening, a Door,’ on page 25. He was supportive and thanked me for sharing with him.
Many of the poems in Poems~Poemas and Poems for the Journey came out of my feelings of awe and wonder. I hope you honor your own feelings of transcendence wherever you go.
All good things to you as the school year begins and always.
There is exciting understanding coming into our consciousness about what many people call ‘Our New Creation Story.’ The talk is about the film footage coming across our television screens from the James Webb Space Telescope this past summer. The talk is about elementary particles, flashing then fluttering into existence out of a realm of nothingness. We are talking about the attraction called allurement between particles, which can also be waves. We are amazed that fluctuations give rise to the formation of atoms, which then come together as stars which then create all the elements of the universe and release them. We wonder at the meaning and implications of the words ‘radiance’ and ‘allurement.’ We wonder how we can participate in interrelationship with our fellow earth community of brothers and sisters.
Do you remember or know about the song Joni Mitchell sang at Woodstock :
‘We are stardust, billion year old carbon… We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden?’
In the mid 1980s, I and my friend and seminary classmate, Valerie, attended two summer workshops over a period of a very few years, at what was then the Roman Catholic Passionist Retreat Center at Port Burwell on Lake Erie. Cosmologist, Brian Swimme, Theologian, Thomas Berry and then Dominican priest, Matthew Fox, gave talks over a week-end. These three eminent thinkers and leaders were there just hanging out with each other and also with some people lucky enough to know about them.
I was one of the lucky persons. My husband and our family lived in North York, Toronto, a few blocks from the Passionist Centre there which was called ‘The Centre for Creative Ministries.’ Port Burwell is just down the road a few miles from our family summer cottage at Port Stanly. The Centre was sold to a private family a few years later. When my friend and I were there, the group all ate our meals together, no more than 35 people. The sleeping accommodations were separate small cottages spread out over the sandy landscape.
My wonderful spiritual director for many years, Eldon Shields, and his wife, Marcella, worked out of ‘The Centre for Creative Ministries’ in North York. Through an enormous stroke of Grace, Valerie and I were welcomed into the group those two weekends.
All three of the presenters at those workshops have been major contributors to the movement towards ‘Ecological Consciousness,’ which Brian Swimme calls ‘Integral Consciousness.’ He and others say that we are in the process of waking up to ‘Cosmic Consciousness.’
All three of these leaders are writers contributing to the growth of our understanding of ‘The Cosmic or Integral Consciousness Movement.’ Here is a list of the most recent of their books which I have read and recommend heartily:
Hidden Heart of the Cosmos: Humanity and the New Story Revised. by Brian Swimme, 2019.
Matthew Fox: Essential Writings on Creation Spirituality Selected with an Introduction by Charles Burack. by Matthew Fox 2022.
The Great Work: Our Way Into The future. by Thomas Berry.
In my book, Poems for the Journey, 2021, the little poem, ‘Waves,’ on pages 13,14, uses some of the words of Particle Physics in a playful way. I hope you enjoy the poem.