Transformed by Emptiness

It’s important for us to learn that imperfection is our natural state. For if we don’t, we will forever seek to fill the emptiness that cannot be filled with all manner of things, and mistakenly assume that we’re supposed to do something to change it. But what this emptiness calls for is acceptance and gentle perseverance with the lives we’ve been given. With acceptance comes peace and greater capacity to love.
+ Maryann Edgar Budde

We may not like it, but Lent is that necessary season for us to get in touch with our emptiness, fallibility and finitude. Sound too pessimistic or depressing for our feel-good culture? Well, perhaps it does — unless we grasp the great human paradox of death/resurrection. That’s the invitation!

As St Francis of Assisi — certainly the most popular Christian saint of all time — said so eloquently: “It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” Francis was not just referring to our ultimate end-of-life demise. He was speaking about the seemingly infinite opportunities and requirement to “die to self” that consistently come our way.

Our friend, the current Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington DC, expresses this invitation so well in the quote above. We got to know Maryann when she was the rector of St. John’s Church in Minneapolis. Today I can do no better than to recommend her reflection [here] for your prayerful consideration.

Live the Life You’re Given, Not the One You’re Not

Laparoscopic surgery ranks right up there with GPS as a marvel of modern life. Just had the procedure a couple of weeks ago for a hernia. But as marvelous as it is, I’m learning it provides no miraculous return to “as good as new.” There are some things — like a bit of arthritis in my hip — that are a function of age and will not change.

What are we to do? Well, within the range of options I’ve chosen to smile. Yes, smile! Seems like a new companion has arrived to stay so the best thing to do is to become friends. The temptation to complain and play the “poor me” card surely pops up. I’m skilled at playing the sympathy card!

But as my parents, and other elders deserving of emulation have taught, we really are about as happy as we choose to be. Somehow they smiled, spoke mostly of what is good and praiseworthy, cultivated gratitude. Their sage advice might be: Smile anyway! Live the life you are given, not the one you’re not!

Are episodic hurdles like hernia repairs and chronic conditions like arthritic hips misfortunes, a tragedy of our inevitable diminishment? Or, can we smile? Can we befriend these physical inconveniences as the companions they are, even befriend them? Can we receive them — even invite them — as reminders and bearers of true wisdom?

Just wondering… do we fear death to the degree we fear living, really loving, being truly alive, fully human? In the much loved Canticle of the Sun Francis of Assisi speak of “sister death.” It is said the last words he spoke were: “Welcome, sister death!” What’s that all about?

Yesterday, returning about twenty freshly washed plates from Thanksgiving dinner to a shelf over my head I wondered, “Should I be doing this?” A cautious fear of falling accompanied my navigating an icy driveway. Can such new-found cautiousness lead to an ever greater curiosity rather than some debilitating concern with diminishment?

Yes, we are about as happy as we choose to be. As my parents used to say, “life is pretty much what you make of it!” I first remember them saying that when I was a disgruntled adolescent. Now at 65, a renewed curiosity about what they were trying to pass on accompanies me.

I wonder… is our fear of death commensurate with our fear of living, really living life as it comes to us, not as we wish it to be? Are we free to really, fully live only to the degree we embrace our finitude, our finality? What is the wisdom of true elders?

More and more, I’m curious about whatever comes to us as a function of age with enduring truths that will not change.

Thanks for Everything, Even Death

Ending! So many endings! The end of the year is fast approaching. My scooter went into storage a few weeks ago. The patio furniture has been returned to the garage rafters. Trees are barren now. Even our Thanksgiving gatherings are primarily focused on gratitude for what has been.

Brittle brown stubble, a bit frost touched, marks once lush pastures at Wellsprings Farm. Sunset encroached on my days at the hermitage while dawn’s laboring toyed with my eager, expectant eyes. Ice settled the lake’s surface to a silent sheen, a blanket of white crystals acccenting nature’s somnolence.

Call it culmination, fruition, fulfillment, ending, whatever! There is a certain finality built into all things. Ultimately, we all die. Once death leered on the horizon, frightening, tragic, to be fought and denied, or simply ignored. Eventually, a certain silence dawns. Our eyes eagerly pierce and parse its darkness.

An enduring gift of these recent hermitage days echoes still, blanketing my anxious questioning, casting light beyond my fears. The gift? A poem by Michael Dowd:

Without the death of stars, there would be no planets and no life.
Without the death of creatures, there would be no evolution.

Without the death of elders, there would be no room for children.
Without the death of fetal cells, we would all be spheres.

Without the death of neurons, wisdom and creativity would not blossom.
Without the death of cells in woody plants, there would be no trees.

Without the death of forests by Ice Age advance, there would be no northern lakes.
Without the death of mountains, there would be no sand or soil.

Without the death of plants and animals, there would be no food.
Without the death of old ways of thinking, there would be no room for the new.

Without death there would be no ancestors.
Without death, time would not be precious.

What, then, are the gifts of death?

The gifts of death are Mars and Mercury, Saturn and Earth.
The gifts of death are the stardust within our bodies.

The gifts of death are the splendors of shape and form and color.
The gifts of death are diversity, the immense journey of life.

The gifts of death are woodlands and soils, ponds and lakes.
The gifts of death are food: the sustenance of life.

The gifts of death are seeing, hearing, feeling — deeply feeling.
The gifts of death are wisdom, creativity, and the flow of cultural change.

The gifts of death are the urgency to act, the desire to fully be and become.
The gifts of death are joy and sorrow, laughter and tears.

The gifts of death are lives that are fully and exuberantly lived, and then
graciously and gratefully given up, for now and forevermore. Amen.

Yes, for all that was we give thanks. For all that is and will be we give thanks. For all endings, even death, we give thanks to the One in Whom we all finally abide.

_________________
“The Gifts of Death” by Michael Dowd taken from Evidential Mysticism and the Future of Earth, Evidence: Oneings, A Publication of the Center for Action and Contemplation, vol. 2, #2; 2014, pp. 22-23.

November’s Singuilar Brilliance

The Burr Oaks are bare now. A solitary hackberry, much like a petulant younger sibling, vies for our attention from the kitchen window. It is no match for the sentinel oaks’ black knurled limbs cutting sharp furrows across November’s grisaille sky. Long winter looms though our larder is full.

Life is no less rich but registers differently, satisfactions more somnolent, gratitude more easily recognized as gratuitous. Example? On Wednesday we celebrated a dinner marking a young friend’s birthday. Five of us filled the table: our host, the 23 y/o honoree, her boyfriend, my husband and me.

Now well into our maturity we reveled in Grace’s vitality, potential and dreams. Yet, they are not ours. We vicariously share her eager enthusiasm for all that will open before her and everything which awaits her savoring and creativity.  Still, we will never witness Grace in her full stature as the woman of consequence she will certainly become.

When fickle November sun, filtered by the looming oak, pierces our kitchen window we feel only its light — bright, blinding luminance. Summer’s radiant warmth is now gone. We grow content with singular brilliance penetrating our shuttered eyes. Like barren branches that have yielded their fruit, color and sheltering foliage we stand exposed without shame, in our nakedness.

No longer do we ask Grace’s question: “Where am I called to go?” Rather, in full stature of our knurled maturity, our question becomes: “Where am I called to let go?”

With the brilliance only November yields, we take stock of an abundant harvest. All that remains is gratitude for everything that has been given. Yes, everything!

Unrelentingly True to Life

2015 will be remembered for its unrelenting display of October splendor, truly spectacular! Bright blue skies consistently frame brilliant yellows and blazing red landscapes. This morning softens the exuberance with an array of gray which Hopkins so aptly dubs “all a world of wet.”

Yes, October is the most honest month, the one most true to life. We are given the opportunity to rehearse and prepare for what lies ahead with vigor, gratitude and prudence — the wisdom garnered from all that’s gone before.

Our annual harvest is not limited to earth’s bounty. We are nudged by this seasonal reminder to embrace the fullness of our nature. A poem recently discovered expresses why October has become my favorite time of year…

If we could,
like the trees,
practice dying,
do it every year
just as something we do—
like going on vacation
or celebrating birthdays,
it would become
as easy a part of us
as our hair or clothing.

Someone would show us how
to lie down and fade away
as if in deepest meditation,
and we would learn
about the fine dark emptiness,
both knowing it and not knowing it,
and coming back would be irrelevant.

Whatever it is the trees know
when they stand undone,
surprisingly intricate,
we need to know also
so we can allow
that last thing
to happen to us
as if it were only
any ordinary thing,

leaves and lives
falling away,
the spirit, complex,
waiting in the fine darkness
to learn which way
it will go.

___________________
“Learning from Trees” by Grace Butcher. Text as published in Child, House, World (Hiram Poetry Review Supplement No. 12, Hiram College, 1991). I am grateful to Parker Palmer for introducing me to this poem.

October’s Honesty

My sister Claudia hates autumn. “Everything is dying, coming to an end.” Me? October is my favorite month of the year! Yes, it can be fickle. Sometimes it even disappoints by failing to deliver. This year, however, it has been spectacular!

Of course, October marks a season of diminishment , a time of dying. Morning walks with Jeb the Dog are now begun in darkness. Though we have not yet had what our Dad would have called a “killing frost”, it is past-time to retrieve sweaters from the cedar chest.

But the blue of an October sky is never more crisp. Yesterday, foliage along the Mississippi demanded an audible gasp. Is there anything more whimsical than the varieties of squash awaiting us at the market? And, the air… a fire-tower sentinel along Lake Superior is likely to see all the way to the Alleghenies.

Still, Claudia is not alone.  Perhaps she represents the majority.  At 65 — certainly the autumn of my years — the sufficiency of harvest is now tempered by the harsh necessity of winnowing.

Parker Palmer, an iconic elder for my generation, also laments the way “summer’s abundance decays toward winter’s death.” He confesses to being “drawn down by the prospect of death more than [being] lifted by the hope of new life.”

Palmer asks, “Faced with this inevitable winter, what does nature do in autumn? She scatters the seeds that will bring new growth in the spring—and she scatters them with amazing abandon.”

Yet, the recognition that I will not live to see to maturity the oak I planted last Spring sends an autumnal chill through my bones. Recognizing the same chill, Palmer admits he is rarely aware that seeds are being planted.

The courageous elder that he is, Palmer explores autumn’s paradox of dying and seeding, and discovers a deep reservoir of hope and purpose. We easily fixate on surface appearances—on decline, decay, finally death.  Mature reflection throughout his 76 years moves Palmer to assert, “On the surface it seemed that life was lessening, but silently and lavishly the seeds of new life were always being sown.”

He poses the inevitable, urgent question: “How shall we understand autumn’s testimony that death and elegance go hand in hand?” With the compassion, wisdom and clarity garnered only by a true elder, Palmer offers more than an answer. He frames the truth of our lives:

In a paradox, opposites do not negate each other—they cohere in mysterious unity at the heart of reality. Deeper still, they need each other for health, as my body needs to breathe in as well as breathe out. But in a culture that prefers the ease of either-or thinking to the complexities of paradox, we have a hard time holding opposites together. We want light without darkness, the glories of spring and summer without the demands of autumn and winter… But if we allow the paradox of darkness and light to be, the two will conspire to bring wholeness and health to every living thing.

Yes, October is the most spectacular of months. Fickle, but full of promise.  No other month is as honest in its portrayal of life.  As foliage falls a penetrating vision reveals the truth of what lies ahead.
____________________
I encourage you to read Parker Palmer’s fuller reflection which inspired me.  They may be found of the Fetzer Institute website [here].

Sufficient to Our Need, Despite Ourselves

It just feels relentless. Maybe this is simply what its like to be in your mid-sixties — at that ripe time in life where really painful stuff happens with regularity. Here are three current examples, all involving dear friends still in their fifties…

  • Divorce proceedings linger after nearly two years for a friend whose husband announced he hadn’t loved her since 1984!
  • The youth director at our local church returned early from leading a service trip in Guatemala after experiencing two minor heart attacks.
  • A mother of teenage daughters installs railings throughout her home and keeps a cain near at hand as an auto-immune disease steals her physical mobility.

Turning away with a smug gratitude for one’s own good fortune is not an option. With family, friends, neighbors we are bound in relationship. At times it is a painful “binding” for any with a heart that cares.

We can plant seeds in the young that we hope will bear fruit decades from now. Transformational encounters like “Outward Bound” can take our youth beyond self-imposed limits of endurance. We can wax eloquently about every athlete’s career ending in defeat — unless you are among the very few lucky enough to be on a league championship team during your final year of competition. But we just plant seeds. The harvest comes only when we are tugged kicking into our elder years.

All spirituality worth anything will nudge, coerce, entice us to embrace this confounding mystery. Mainline Christian churches too often ignore if not insulate us from pain, loss, suffering. More concerned with filling pews and feel-good sermons, too many of our faith communities have bought into the soft pastels and warm fuzzies of Easter and effectively ignore Good Friday. Too many seek a superficial solace in Sunday communion, forgetting that Christians gather for the breaking of the bread — offering stone, not bread.

Maybe because it is not my tradition, Native American spirituality has much to offer. Limited exposure to Lakota rituals such as the sweat lodge, vision quest and sun dance assures me that every human heart is indelibly imprinted with a greater wisdom. Tugged, pushed, coerced beyond our puny selves and self-referential egos, we are “birthed” kicking and screaming into a life beyond our imagining.

Like it our not — and if it’s the real deal, we won’t “like it” — every spiritual tradition worth our consideration will ultimately provoke a crisis in us. That’s not all it should do, but it is futile to expect a shortcut and foolish to short-circuit it. What good is a spirituality if it stands powerless to offer wisdom and counsel amid an onslaught of human suffering and inexplicable loss? Like the temptations Jesus endured in the desert, we too are called to reject the allure of idols.

Andre Louf (1929-2010), abbot of the Trappist monastery of Mont-des-Cats in the north of France expressed our condition in an especially poignant manner.  He counsels, it is the “holy ruse of God” to allure us through poverty, weakness, radical powerlessness and evident uselessness beyond anything we could imagine or suppose. Dom Andre describes where we will be taken, certainly beyond our will, to that place of ultimate grace:

…precisely where I am at my most vulnerable, stripped of my defenses, where I am totally diminished to an almost fatal extreme of weakness, where there remains but one single hope: that of finally laying down my arms and capitulating before God, that is to say, the hope of exposing myself, of casting myself upon his mercy, of allowing myself to be retrieved by grace at the place and at the precise moment where I was at the point of foundering.

To our ears so well attuned to feel-good, consumerist, self-anesthetizing pop-spirituality, this cannot be good news. Nevertheless, it is the only gospel worthy of the name or capable of addressing the inescapable truth of our lives.

_______________

Quote is from In the School of Contemplation by Andre Louf. Cistercian Publications. Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN. 2015., p 75.