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Posts tagged ‘Thomas Keating’

God’s Smile

I know it happens to everyone at times, but I have been way off balance for the past while. A few things have been going on, but one is work. We had student led conferences to prepare for. It’s always a lot of work, but what gets my nerves jangled is being “on stage”. I start getting all anxious about my performance and get tempted by the “not good enough” scripts which are ancient in my DNA. For me, getting off balance usually means that the headaches kick in and then it becomes a double battle.

These anxiety laden times come and I know it is not just the outer circumstances. I bring it on myself.  I was praying, and keeping an open eye for God in the midst of it all. Besides the prayers and support of Lyle and my community, two signs, like angel messages, came to me which were clear signs from God.

The first sign happened after school one day. Reviewing some student work and cleaning the class before leaving for home, I was feeling quite down about all the challenges of the day. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I heard a quiet but quiet clear message in my inner ear, almost as if it was audible. The voice was full of compassionate love.

“I’m so proud of you.”

This message came to me from outside myself. It’s hard to describe this experience and it probably sounds more than a bit kooky, but I had to admit, someone was saying it… to me. It honestly felt like it was from God.

“Proud? Of me?” I immediately wondered. I only saw before me my own self-doubts and feelings of failure. How could it be true that God would be proud of me? But I could not deny what I had heard, and began to reconfigure my perceptions of my day and my week. Maybe, just maybe, my perceptions weren’t to be trusted, and I felt strangely consoled.

Anthony De Mello, a Jesuit priest who died in 1987, wrote “Behold the One beholding you, and smiling.” God’s words, so unexpected and kind, were a smile from beyond that kept returning to me during the week, reorienting this wayward child. It was a reassurance of who I really am, beyond performance.

That evening, my friend Lorna asked if I had a poem about metamorphosis. She needed it for her writing class, and since I’m the “butterfly lady”, she phoned me. I emailed her a poem my friend Marilyn once wrote for me, but in the meantime, Lorna emailed me a story she came across thanks to Google.

It’s the story of someone watching a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis. Seeing it 342265_r9HMXdefstruggle, the person took a pin and helped it out, only to watch the new butterfly die after being released. The struggle had been meant for its own good, to strengthen it for its new life. Without the struggle, the new life could not be completed.

I’d heard this story of transformation and the value of struggle years ago, and didn’t think too much more about it until the next evening.

At our Wednesday study night, my other friend Cal told me he had a short story he wanted me to read. Knowing of my being off balance, he’d been praying for me. “It’ll just take you a minute,” he said. He passed me a book by Thomas Keating called Invitation to Love, and the story inside was the same story Lorna had shared! It was a synchronicity. I hadn’t heard this story in years and the fact that it came to me twice stopped me in my tracks. This too was God speaking to me. I was being reminded that struggle is not only ok, but necessary for growth. I’d forgotten this.

Keating writes that when we are in the midst of temptation and difficulties, God does not necessarily rush to our rescue. The struggle itself is opening us and preparing us for God’s divine energy of grace. In God’s world, struggles strengthen us. “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1:2-4

GodLovesyouSpring this year in Winnipeg has been slow in coming. Snowbanks in our yard are still higher than my knees, but I’ve noticed something. With the ever-lengthening hours of sunlight, the sun’s persistent smile is lessening the snow bit by bit despite the cool temperatures; despite appearances.

Many times our hearts are like this wintery spring, like C.S. Lewis’ description of Narnia, “always winter but never Christmas.” We hold an icy disbelief in our hearts that God could ever love us just as we are. I had a glimpse this week of God’s infinite smile, and I am so grateful. God never stops melting our resistance and breaking the barriers we hold.

I pray that spring will arrive fully and finally in all our hearts.

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Praying for an Open Heart

“Someone will come for you, but first you must open your heart.”

-Kate DeCamillo in The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

It’s an interesting process to decide on the topic for each week. I often find myself wanting to write about several experiences and ideas, but since I must choose, I sift through them, asking myself which one was the most real experience of God. More often than not, writing requires me to be vulnerable, exposing my weaknesses which is not easy to do. But always, I find they are taken up in God’s strength, so ultimately I hope this blog points to God. In some mysterious way, God uses weakness as a finger to point the way to God. Mining these experiences, while not easy, is always helpful to me and I hope to some who might read it.

This week, I’ve kept going back to Monday evening. I have felt myself being drawn more and more in recent months, into the quiet places of reflection. Writing and reading are two of the things I most look forward to each day. On this particular Monday evening, Joel and Lyle were both out. It’s not that I don’t love their company, but a quiet house is also a treat, as I’m sure anyone with a busy life would understand.

Our community has been exploring a meditation practice called “Centering Prayer”, made famous by the Trappist monk prayer-spirituality-teach7_clip_image002Thomas Keating, among others. It is a method of silent prayer where one sits for 20 minutes in silence. Swirling thoughts are gently addressed with one word which the practitioner chooses, such as “love” or “peace”. Some in Watershed have been practicing it in recent months and talking about their experience.

This time of silence prepares a person to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, where the relationship with God is fostered. So often our minds and hearts are filled with fears, worries, busy plans, all of which get in the way of the deeper stillness where the mystery of God is found.

Many years ago now, I practiced yoga. My first teacher, Heather, introduced me to silent meditation. She loved meditation with a passion, and we would begin each class with 10 or sometimes even 20 minutes of silent sitting. Often the word “Om” was playing from the stereo, the chanting bringing a calm backdrop that I sometimes still hear in my imagination all these years later. I sat with Heather and the small group for years, but deep inside I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about, though I even practiced at home dutifully and with devotion.

It’s strange, but all these years later, I have felt drawn back to meditation, but this time with a Christian not Buddhist, entry point. I dug out my old meditation cushions. “Heather, you would be proud of me,” I said silently with a smile, and sat down.

Looking back on the week, this is where I experienced God the most clearly. No light beams from heaven shone on me and no voices from God spoke. I just felt that God was close. Some poet has said that God is always closer to us than our own breath and I think most of the time we put so much clutter in the way that we miss this.

I know that many times, prayer can seem like words hitting the ceiling, going nowhere, and that in the silence, sometimes all we hear are our own thoughts, but like an advertisement from God, this time felt like an invitation to come again. The rest of the week was a mixed bag of smooth and bumpy sailing, as always, along with a nasty cold to battle, but I kept having the sense that, like Julian of Norwich said, “All will be well. All will be well.” The sense that God was close stayed with me and is with me still.

I wondered what the difference that all these years have made. Why is my heart more open to sitting now? I think getting older has a lot to do with it. I am now the ripe “old” age of 51, and what I know now that I didn’t know when I was 31 is that I can not heal myself. Back then, I was trying a million things to cure my headaches and the underlying depression I would experience. Yoga was one of them. By now, I know, at least a little bit more than I did then, that there is no cure.

You might think me cynical, but I don’t mean to be. It just seems to me that in this life, we all must experience some kind of limitation, something that, despite our best efforts to fix, keeps coming back, nipping at our heels like a persistent dog. I used to think that I needed to be “better” before I could be happy, but there is something more true than being tumblr_lxtb54vJzk1rnql18o1_500cured, and that is being healed by Love.

One of my all time favorite novels to read to my students is called The Miraculous Journey of Eduard Tulane, by Kate

Things begin to go wrong for Edward

Things begin to go wrong for Edward

DiCamillo. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, Eduard is a stuffed rabbit who goes through a treacherous journey where many, many things go wrong. Like all of us, he experiences radical limitation. Without giving the plot away, he is not cured, but becomes healed by love in many forms.

My students absolutely love this book, and I can never read the ending without tearing up. I think that even in their young lives, these students understand that Love trumps all the bad news, and that like Edward, we are never left alone.

At one point, an old doll tells Edward amid his troubles, “Someone will come for you, but first you must open your heart.”

Like the Grinch and Scrooge and Edward Tulane, may God keep cracking open these hearts of ours.

Sabbath Rest

If you know me in person or through this blog, you’ll know I’m the type of person who is often driven by a list of to-do’s. While I value reading and learning, I have to confess that in past years, when the school year hits, my books start to collect dust. Each year I regret this. Reading typically gets squeezed in here and there, but kicking the hamster wheel lifestyle seems impossible. It can happen even in the summer when school is out. “Hi, I’m Lydia. I’m a workaholic and adrenaline addict.” You can all reply now: “Hi Lydia!”

Was I always this way? I’ve wondered about that lately. I seem to remember taking long bike rides as a kid, playing loads of neighborhood baseball and hide-and-seek games, and piling books up beside my bed to read in the morning on days off from school and loving every moment of it. As we become adults, do we start to feel the need to prove our worth, losing this sense of holy leisure?

This school year, however, something has been changing. I think it began with the September weekend in Vancouver, when I decided to forego last minute school prep for a fun trip with Lyle. It actually took discipline for me to just “be” – hanging out in Stanley Park, walking around Granville Island, taking in the Josh Garrels concert (the whole reason we went) or hiking on a gorgeous walk to the ocean.

I say it took discipline because my natural tendency is to be an activist. All weekend, I was twiddling my thumbs in a good way, but it was almost like I had to act like another person! Lyle and I spent several hours on the ocean shore “just” reading and staring at birds through our new binoculars. Loads of good jokes, coffee, walking and reading marked our days. Who knew the world could turn without me, or that the school year would unfold without too much toil a few days later?

Hanging out with Lyle in Vancouver

Looking back, the holiday is a gift that keeps expanding even into October. I think I made a decision that weekend to try to “waste” time more often. Taking up my friend Cal’s example, I decided to put aside one evening a week to read before doing any school work. One hour after supper on Monday nights. Didn’t sound like much, but it was a start.

Scripture talks about the importance of keeping “Sabbath”, a time of rest. When I was a kid, stores were still closed on Sundays and my religious upbringing dictated that we were not to work. Sewing (for my mom) and other work was discouraged. Church in the morning and the evening was the rhythm of our lives then, with an afternoon of trying to be quiet so as not to wake napping adults. I imagined that Heaven would be like one long Sunday, and I shuddered.

Looking back, however, there was wisdom in the weekly rhythm of stepping out of the normal pace of life. I am coming to crave rest – not an exhausted collapsing at the end of the day but true soul renewing rest. In fact, I have been longing for it more and more. It’s not so much that I need another vacation as I need a vacation from myself!  A vacation from the hamster wheel where urgent to-do’s and self-thoughts often dominate me and make me a driven person.

I know I am not alone in this, for our society urges us to be efficient and productive with our time. I always thought I couldn’t find room within my “busy life” for consistent holy leisure but I don’t want the old ways anymore. As Bruce Cockburn sings, “I’ve proven who I am so many times, the magnetic strip’s worn thin.”

Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk who has written and practiced a method of contemplation called Centering Prayer, talks about our thoughts being like a whirling wheel.  Anyone who has been unable to shut off their mind and go to sleep will understand the tyranny of this state of mind. Keating says that meditation and prayer helps a person to put a stick into the spokes of our whirling wheel and stop for a while.

Taking time to read or write in the evenings has been acting like this stick, and I have been noticing its calming effect, as I wrote about in last week’s blogpost. “Silence is God’s first language”, wrote the 16th-century mystic John of the Cross. Entering into this  silence is difficult at first because usually all I’m noticing is my whirring mind. It almost always takes me a while to get into reading or writing. I am usually preoccupied with something from the day but invariably the text before me, whether it’s studying scripture, reading a good novel or typing away at my next blogpost, has a lot more depth. As I begin eliminating hurriedness from my life, a larger perspective starts to creep in and strangely the to-do’s feel a lot less urgent. More often than not, by the end I can barely remember what felt so pressing a few hours earlier.

These days, I’ve expanded my hour of reading to Friday night as well, and now here it is, Thursday night, and I’m taking time to begin my blogpost.  I look forward to my “hour” all day long. I know it is not a magic wand to create warm feelings, but somehow I have a hunch that God uses it to heal broken people like me.

Workaholism has at its root the assumption that we can never do enough and, worse, that it all falls on our work weary shoulders. Sabbath is an ancient practice and began to remind us that it’s not about us doing enough. The ancient Hebrew word “Shabbat” literally means “to cease and desist”. Sabbath invites us to stop the endless striving that characterizes so much of modern life. I’m afraid I fell prey to this striving for many years, but I’m beginning, perhaps, to grow out of it. At any rate, I’ve grown very tired of the toil it’s brought me and I long for holy leisure once again.

What a restful thought to remember that the universe will turn without me. I can let go of my grip on the constant need to accomplish and prove my worth because I am already loved, as I am, in God’s eyes, just as I love my son as he is.  Just as I was loved as a child. I can let my life – past, present and future – rest in God and trust that I will receive what I need when I enter into doing mode once again. My future doesn’t depend on my accomplishments, but on God’s unconditional love in Christ, who accepts me as I am today.

As I finish up these reflections, it’s Sunday morning. It has been so fitting that this topic came to me because I have more “to-do’s” than usual this weekend. Assessments are due tomorrow along with regular school planning. The demands crowd in my brain and start to make me feel crazy, but I’m so blessed to have God’s perspective to contemplate all weekend in this blogpost. Is it true? Can I rest? These can’t just be ideals I am writing about.

I know I don’t always live this way, but it is my hope to let every moment become characterized more and more by Sabbath. A restful living in whose I am.

“Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10

Watching the Boats Pass By

Last Sunday I ran one leg of the Manitoba Marathon. Almost-five miles, that’s all it was. Myself and 4 dear friends each took a leg to make up the 26.2 miles. Cal came along to cheer and our friend Lorna was the driver, making sure each person got to their spot on time. 

This is my fourth time around for the marathon and this year I noticed a common theme from last year. Like last year, I found myself smiling the whole time and as I ran. When else do you get to run surrounded by cheers and the occasional bagpipe band?

I also noticed something else. Since this marathon is at the end of the school year, I found myself praying, like last year, thanking God for being with me and sustaining me all year.

Gratitude might seem like the most obvious thing in the world. Seen from a distance, it is always clear to me how generously God has provided for my every need. However, when I am neck deep in report cards, or endless lesson planning, or putting out the behavior fires that come up every day, it’s easy for me to get discouraged and forget.

Isn’t it like that for all of us? Don’t we all forget how rich we are when distracting troubles come our way? Troubles such as health, interpersonal problems, insecurities, frustrating situations at home or work, our own monkey mind… the list goes on. If you are like me, a pity party can start up pretty quickly. It’s like we start inhaling our troubles, over-identifying with them, all while forgetting the resources surrounding us.

One study group at Watershed is going through a book on contemplative prayer by Thomas Keating. Keating teaches a way of prayer called “centering prayer”. He has a great image that has helped many people when all these distractions come up.

Imagine a river with boats drifting along by on the surface. Imagine that you are sitting on the shore, watching. The river is your consciousness and the boats are all the random thoughts and problems that seem to spring up unwanted out of nowhere. Keating uses this image and says we are to just watch the boats go by without getting embroiled in them.

It’s ok to watch the boats go by, 

we just do not want to climb aboard and inspect the cargo.” 

This has been a helpful image for me in recent weeks. Taking a deep breath (or many deep breaths) is one of the best ways I know to pray wherever I am. Whatever I find myself getting caught up in, if I take a breath and remember it’s just a boat passing by, then I can pray for help not to climb aboard the boats. Then I can remember the great river I am actually part of, the one I’ll notice every year at the marathon relay as I remember all the ways God was with me during the year. (For a good, short article on this practice, check out this link.)

Despite these hectic year end days, I’ve found myself more reflective lately. Like the plentiful monarch eggs which we’ve been watching in my class since May (check out my class blog here to see pictures and videos!), I’ve been reminded of so many evidences of God.

  • I’ve seen God in the kind and generous people I work with, who always try to see the best in each other and in the children.
  • I’ve seen God at work in my fellow soul mates at Watershed: answered prayers, hope in the place of worry or despair, and people revived by the Great River that is God (who also practice not climbing aboard the boats).
  • I’ve seen God at work in the many times I’ve been encouraged and restored to sanity by the above people. (not to mention people I rarely or never see but who connect with me via the Internet – Mel, my top commenter on this blog, Karen Cook, my former student teacher, now a teacher herself and still a dear friend, Bill Howdle who writes another blog, to  mention just a few.
  • I’ve been encouraged many times by my mom and dad, and especially my dear dad as he writes back to me, always encouraging me and letting me know he’s a fellow pilgrim on this walk of faith. It means more to me than he knows. (Happy Father’s Day Dad)
  • I know I’ve said it lots, but this blog keeps me pondering the Great River. I write contemplatively with an eye to the bigger Story in these Internet pages, and it helps me immeasurably each week.
  • There are many community events that keep me grounded each week: Wednesday night studies, Sunday mornings, movie night, walks with friends – all events part of our faith community that keep me focused.

For all of you reading, my prayer is that you too will be steeped in awareness of God and whatever gives you life and hope and let the boats pass by without climbing aboard.

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