Saturday, June 24, 2017

Diamond Hill in Connemara Park, the Pilgrimage Lessons Begin

We made our way north of Galway to the Connemara National Park. The tiny road into the park is nestled at the base of stark limestone mountains covered with short grasses. The road travels along a stream that feeds into a series of dark lakes. Sheep make themselves at home along the tarmac, never moved by oncoming traffic. They are often nestled in the tall grass alongside the road or against short rock bridges. The new born lambs are never far from their mothers. One rather large horn adored sheep relaxed in the very middle of the narrow road. He never moved an inch as we slowed to move pass off the far edge of the road.

We traveled past the Elizabethan Kylemore Abbey, now a tourist attraction and home to a Benedictine Community. Our GPS led us to turn off our narrow two lane road onto a gravel road, which took us up to a grey aging building that looked like an old university dormitory. There were a handful of cars parked in front. As we drove up the entrance, Cathy saw some nuns sitting by a window. As we stopped, a nun in full habit came out the door and up the car. I rolled down the window and she asked if we were looking for the Connemara Park Center. She nodded to Cathy who was holding her phone, "The GPS always sending folks our way. We meet them from everywhere." We told her we are from Arizona and then she gave us directions to the park. Their Belgian order was founded in the 16th century and made their way to Ireland after World War I. They moved to their current residence near the Abbey in 1920 and founded a girl's boarding school. In recent years they closed the school and, as many orders, discerning what is the best future for their order.

With our new directions, and without the GPS, we found our way to the entrance of the Connemara National Park. I am always reminded by the free admission to the parks of how important these sites are to the Irish and how much they want to share their life and history with the world.

The Connemara is the world's largest outcropping of limestone. The hills are covered with low grasses and bog and barren of trees. We walked the 5 mile trail up 1500 feet to the peak of Diamond Hill. The trail was made possible by picking our way up the winding limestone wind swept "stairs."

Halfway up the hill, we stopped for a breather and a drink. A young man in his thirties nodded and walked past. Later we passed him as he was facing the mist that was rolling in off the Atlantic with arms outstretched. In broken English, with what sounded like an Italian accent, he said, "The smoke is the best." He moved on passed us again. We would trade spots with him a half a dozen times in our ascent.

As I neared the top, the young man seemed to be waiting for me. When I approached him he said, "Can you give me some advice." He came face to face with me. "How do you handle baby?" I told him we have two adult children and they have grown to be truly wonderful adults. Just be yourself, I told him. "As babies, they were ok?" He asked. "How?"

Be present to the baby with your mind, your heart, your body, all of yourself. "My whole being?" He said. Yes, all of your being. We introduced ourselves. He name was Stephan. I blessed him and told him all will be well. He thanked me and we departed. I didn't see him on the trail again.

This day started out simply as the desire to take a bit of adventure to see some new landscape and walk an unfamiliar trail. But it wasn't long before I was gently reminded that everyday is day of pilgrimage. Every step, every hill, every stone, every animal, every person on the pilgrimage is a guidebook with tiny maps for the way of life. The opportunities and markers are often subtle and easy to miss. Other times, they just step out and confront me face to face. And today's journey has made me happy to imagine what tomorrow will bring.


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Walking those Unwanted Painful Pilgrimages

The last few weeks people have been asking me if I’m excited about our trip to Ireland. That question usually is followed with, “are you packed?” A few will ask me if I’m ready to walk the 150 miles. And a few have asked me how have I prepared myself. The answer to those questions lie somewhere in the process of paying to attention to the mind, body, soul, and spirit.

I know I’m headed to Ireland. I know I’m going to walk the Wicklow Way with two groups. I’ve walked the Wicklow Way before; I know the terrain, and I know that the weather is unpredictable. But I don’t know how my body will hold up this time. I am walking with people who will be on their first walking pilgrimage. I don’t know how they will respond to the pounding of the trail. And for sure, I don’t know what will bubble up from deep within my psyche, nor do I know what the Spirit of God will bring my way. The power of the uncertain far out ways the familiar.

But pilgrimages come in many forms, those we intend to take, as well as those that are thrust upon us. I am always talking with people who are sharing their stories about dealing with life pilgrimages; the anxiety, the fear, and the unknown. The question invariably comes about how to prepare for the uncertain.

How do we prepare for a pilgrimage into the uncertain—the pilgrimage of health issues, the pilgrimage of life transitions, the pilgrimage of disappointments, and the pilgrimage of delving into the unknown realm of the spiritual world?

To find some answers to these questions, let’s take a look at the story of Abraham and Sarah, the founders of our faith and the original pilgrims. (Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7) How was Abraham prepared to go on what seemed to be an impossible pilgrimage?

First, Abraham listened. He used his six senses to hear what God was saying to him. To go on any kind of pilgrimage—those we intend to go on and those we do not want to traveled— we have to prepare ourselves by listening. Typically, our first response is to do something; make plans, buy tickets, buy new boots. We want to rush around and do things; all good things, all things we eventually need to do.

The same usually happens when we get thrust into a pilgrimage we don’t want to take, things like illness, divorce, loss of a job, death of a loved one.

We want to do something, get on the internet, do research, read a book about how to solve our problem, talk to our friends. All things are good, but they are distractions from the reality of how to start a pilgrimage. The first thing we must do is listen—to take information using all our senses. Look around and see what’s happening. Smell the air. Taste the situation. Touch the circumstances. Listen.

Abraham listened. What he heard was awfully challenging. God told him to leave his home. God told him he would be traveling to some unknown place. And when he arrived at this promised land it would be occupied by another tribe who wouldn’t want to give up their land. And God told him that one day, in the far away future, he and his wife, though seventy-five and childless, would bear a son, and Abraham would become the father of many nations.
Before we head out on one of life’s pilgrimages we first have to listen to the Divine, realizing that what we might hear could be irrational and not make sense. It’s often those callings that are truly the voice of the One Holy Living God. By listening, we are then able to make intentions for our pilgrimage. By listening, I have set a specific pattern of spiritual practices that I intend to follow each day. I bought a red journal for the journey. I intend to follow the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius. I am going to read the poetry of W.B. Yeats and the prose of James Joyce. And I intend to be open to what the Spirit of God presents to me along the way.

Second, Abraham and Sarah traveled by stages; they took time to think about what they were doing. A pilgrimage has many parts. The preparation, the travel, the walking, the reflection, and then adjusting to the changes the pilgrimage has brought about in our life.

Abraham went through several wild experiences on his pilgrimage. At times, he didn’t know where he was or where he was going. He put his wife’s life at risk. His own life was threatened. His plans had not worked out very well. But he was still on his pilgrimage.

The pilgrimage of life can leave us feeling frustrated, angry, and confused. The most difficult thing to accept about the pilgrimage of life is that more often than not we really don’t know what the outcome will be. We have to let go of our need to control. And from that point, we must simply follow where the Spirit of God is calling us to go. If we avoid the calling, if we deny what is happening in our life, if we refuse to embrace what lies ahead, if we refuse to walk, then we will not be able to fully experience the gift of life. We must journey by stages and think through the process in order to experience the pilgrimage.

Third, Abraham rested under the oak; he checked in with his feelings. When you’re on a walking pilgrimage you can’t walk 24-hours a day, seven days a week. At some point, you have to sit down, take off your pack, rest, and reflect on your experience.

Abraham sat down under an oak, which became known as the Tree of Abraham, synonymous with the Tree of Life. It was there that Abraham reflected upon his pilgrimage. I have a favorite tree on the Wicklow Way. It’s a giant oak that has grown around a rectangular stone about six feet long and two feet high. By growing around the stone, the oak has created an opening to itself, which, when climbing onto the stone, you can fully stand up inside the tree. Sitting on the stone, inside the tree is a beautiful place to check in with my feelings.

And now, when I’m not in Ireland, I can sit on the ground an imagine myself inside the great oak. In the pilgrimage of life, we need those quiet, safe places, where we can check in with our feelings and reflect about our journey.

Finally, having gone through the process the comes with being on pilgrimage, Abraham imagined; he had a vision. And not only did Abraham have one vision, he lived his life in a state of visioning. In other words, his pilgrimage work effected how he lived his life; what he sensed, what he thought, what he felt, and how he imagined living the remainder of his life.

We are all on the pilgrimage of life. Some of the pilgrimages are wonderful and filled with joy—and some are not. The painful journeys maybe are where we learn the most. What we learn from the life of Abraham is that a full complete mature life will have both types of pilgrimages. The key is how we process them. Do we listen? Do we process the pilgrimages by stages? Do we set aside time for reflection? Are we willing to imagine a new way of living? Such is the work of living life as a pilgrim.








Thursday, June 08, 2017

When the Trinity Becomes Four

Being the week of Pentecost, Deacon Gay and I were talking about the difficulty of trying to explain the work of the Spirit of God. The explanation, she said, is found in the story. She said that this week she was with one of our parishioners during the final days of her life. On her visit to this person’s home, the family unexpectedly gathered around the bed for communion. Gay said she could feel the presence of the Spirit of God as she shared the bread and wine with these people. It was a mystical moment that defied words, but the experience was shaping her life in such a way that it demanded she tell the story. Later, Deacon Gay had the opportunity to tell this story to the women at Perryville. In the context of a life of so many deaths and so few resurrections, the women of Perryville were deeply touched by the movement of the Spirit of God in Gay’s life.

Within a few days, the person Gay had visited, died. As I talked with the family, one of them recounted the story of sharing communion. With tears in their eyes, they told me how meaningful this experience had been for them. The Spirit of God seems to be at work in those moments when we are the most vulnerable and willing to take the greatest risks; when the veil between life and death are the thinnest.

Deacon Gay’s story made me reflect on my own encounters with the Spirit. I thought of those times when I’ve sat with parents who were grieving the loss of a child; those times when words are meaningless and only tears have voice in the conversation of silence. I thought of those times when I was discerning a life changing decision; those times when the mere thought of the options brought on a migraine. I thought of those times when I had to sit with my own grief and I couldn’t distinguish between the waves of anger, depression, and honest grief. In each of those times, the Spirit of God appeared in a variety of ways—a singing wind chime, a subtle breeze, the innocent question from a child, a voice spoken from the dead. The Spirit of God speaks in the ways we are open to hear; but only if we are willing to listen and then act.

The Spirit of God is the interplay, between God the Creator and Jesus the Christ. To use Richard Rohr’s words—the Creator, the Christ, and the Spirit are involved in an ongoing Divine Dance into which we are invited to participate.

Cynthia Bourgeault expanded Rohr’s idea of the Divine Dance with her explanation of the “Law of Three.” This law of the Universe states that the interweaving of three agencies always produces a fourth, which is then displayed in a new dimension. In other words, when God the Creator, Jesus the Christ, and the Spirit of God are harmoniously at work in our lives, something new, a fourth, will emerge in an unimaginable way, the new dimension.

Let’s use Deacon Gay’s story as an example. There was some backstory to the event. Gay told me that on the way to visit the person, she got lost. She was running thirty minutes late and worried about finding her way. The spouse of the dying person called to ask if she was still going to come to their house. Gay could have gotten embarrassed, or frustrated, or given up, or tried to reschedule, but she didn’t—she trusted that this was “the time” she needed to be at this person’s home. Arriving late, she was told that most of the family had left in order to provide some private time for Gay to visit the dying person. But because she had been late, the family returned within a few minutes.
This window of vulnerability opened the way for the Spirit of God to engage everyone present in a deeply spiritual experience. The interweaving of God the Creator’s call on Gay’s life as a deacon, her willingness to follow Jesus the Christ even though she was embarrassed about being late, and the Spirit’s movement in the life of this family who were open to share communion across their various denominational differences, produced a fourth agency in a new dimension—that fourth was a healing experience in the life of a family that was facing death and now grief.

This story is a microcosm of the biblical story; a story about God being in relationship with all of creation. The biblical story of Jesus reveals to us that this relationship between God and creation is oddly reliant upon human interaction. The Spirit of God, then, is the provocateur, the straw that stirs the drink, the bag that holds the tea in the hot water, the pot that keeps the soup on the stove, the needle that weaves the fabric of the interaction between God the Creator, Jesus the Christ, and us.

You and I are capable of being in the Divine Dance with the Holy Trinity. But to be in the dance, we have to be willing to participate and be consciously aware of the opportunities as they present themselves to us.

Jesus is the model for how to live our life this way. He was the most consciously aware human being to walk the earth. In his consciousness, he knew that death to the ego would create a resurrected new True Self, which will be lived in unity with God.

To model Jesus, we must take up our own cross in order to find our own moment of resurrection. Death to our ego, death to our agenda, death to our embarrassment, death to our expectations, death to our demands, death to our beliefs, death to our illusion of being in control—these deaths must happen on our own cross in order for us to be open to the resurrection movement of the Spirit of God in our life.

God will not force the way of Jesus on us. God will not operate unilaterally. The Spirit of God will not make something happen singularly. We must be willing to participate in the Divine Dance. Jesus the Christ’s power in death was resurrected in the life of his disciples, who willingly became his agents in the world. He breathed the power of the Spirit into their lives. And they took that breath deep into their souls.

The breath of the Spirit of God brings a power so great that the disciples could hold the raw naked fire of forgiveness. But, being given the agency of the Spirit of God comes with a warning: Danger, you might find yourself holding someone else’s demonic snake and it will only let go of you if you grant both the person and the demon forgiveness. The only way to activate the Spirit of God is to love so much that you can let go of control; to forgive so much you’ve forgotten the sin; to empty yourself so much you’ve crawled up on your own cross to die to your ego. The fire of the Spirit of God does not move accidentally nor without purpose and not without a human agent that is willing to follow the path of the Christ.

To be actively involved in the Divine Dance we must open ourselves to the difficult process of becoming spiritually mature human beings. We must work toward becoming as consciously awake as was Jesus. How? By, opening our spiritual eyes to see the creative action of God that is still taking place in the world today. By opening our spiritual hands to receive the nail prints of the Christ when we risk being his servants. And by opening our mouths to receive the breath of Spirit of God into our very souls. By living into these spiritual actions, we will find ourselves involved in the intoxicating dance with the One Holy Living Trinitarian God, where three will become four.