Everyday for 7 Years

Again and again, rain or shine, through ice or humidity! JebTheDog has faithfully taken me for a walk virtually every afternoon since 2011 along Minnehaha Creek. Nothing I post on Facebook is as popular as photos from these outings. Friends consistently remark about how they look forward to seeing the latest in the “creek series”.

At first, the walks were a duty I accepted as part of dog “ownership.” Self-interest motivated me during bleak February freezes — why else would I get out for a 30 minute walk in the depths of Minnesota winter? …it was good for me! Hassles were not limited to obligation or inclement weather. In 2017 I tumbled over a granite boulder on an idyllic summer afternoon. Surgery, screws, plates and physical therapy over a couple months were required to return my left wrist back to normal.

What happens when we do the same ritual time and time again over a considerable period of time? I now annually await the bluebells on the north slope. These are followed by an explosion of violets. Unintentional comparison of water levels are noted from year to year. JebTheDog remembers where to look for the snapping turtle each June in case I forget. Worried curiosity wonders what’s happened to the coy white squirrel. The rotting stump of a ginormous willows plucks a cord of grief, followed by grateful memories for what remains and for all that has been.

Beyond the uniqueness of each day and incidental occurrences, something cumulative and and rhythmic takes hold. Shifts in motivation creep in over time. Obligation morphs into anticipation. Laughing water reliably softens a knot of worry. Trees become faithful sentinels. Field mice consistently entertain and confound Jeb. The migration of mallards and the cyclic flow of seasons nudge us to notice patterns in our lives.

After seven years, the creek no longer presents itself as a destination. Rather it has become an extension of home, a harbinger of relationship, a sanctuary of wisdom, a grounding in matter — and in what matters. The Shakers had it right:

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
It will be in the valley of love and delight

Seven years of mentoring by my faithful companion, JebTheDog, casts a gentle glow on my 68 years of “occupancy” on this planet. I recognize how so many years and relationships have been characterized by action/reaction, effecting change, leading the charge, not simply being driven but being the driver. Perhaps a certain intensity needs to characterize seasons or transitory roles in our lives — they too can reveal the bulwark of a life well-lived. Yet, these can too easily come to dominate. In dire cases we accept them as our destiny — such is the death rattle of stifling monotony!

The demise of leonine willows, the laughter of rollicking water, the tenderizing cycle of seasons unmask my patterns of foolishness. A smile begins to replenish worry lines framing my eyes. With a spiritual master extraordinaire leading my way, doing the same thing everyday for seven years nudges me to awaken, let be, listen, allow and behold — recognizing we are in the place just right and precisely where we ought to be.

I’ll be glad for another seven years of dog-duty!

___________________

The familiar Shaker quote is from “Simple Gifts”, composed in 1848 by Elder Joseph Brackett.

I am indebted to Martin Laird, O.S.A.; An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation, and Liberation; Oxford University Press, 2019 for the distinction between reactive and receptive mind as well as the perfectly prescriptive words: let be, listen, allow and behold (p. 94).

Letting Go

Those who love me do so despite my over-sized ego, propensity to confuse my considered opinions with objective truth, and a dogged commitment to “my way” of doing things. This is not a new insight and some especially good friends have been able to reflect back to me some of this truth, if ever so cautiously.

At 67 I’m trying to accept a certain “fixed-ness” about my personality. I’m trying to live with a turn on the popular phrase, “What I see is what I get it!” On this Thanksgiving weekend I am increasingly aware of and grateful for those who look beyond my faults and failings to love me for the jumbled mixture of good and bad that I am.

For awhile now, my “sacred word” in a sputtering practice of Centering Prayer has been rapha, meaning to be weak, to let go, to release. Given my challenge outlined above, there should be no surprise that its grounded in “Be still, and know that I am God!” (Psalm 46:10). Some more learned than me suggest my “sacred word” might better be translated as “cause yourselves to let go” or “let yourselves become weak”.

Many days I struggle (a more honest verb might be avoid) fitting in my 20 minute meditation period. While the house is quiet this Thanksgiving morning and my husband makes pies for our family feast this afternoon there are no distractions from climbing the stairs to my prayer “cave”. As always, Jeb the Dog dutifully follows and positions himself on the rug behind me.

Rapha … rapha … rapha … settles my breathing as I attempt to be still, let go, release from my over-sized ego-self. Thoughts and distractions vie for attention much like frenzied fans yell, “me, me, me; here, here, here” to the stadium attendant tossing wiffle balls into the stands before a game.

As my iPhone timer silently ticks off the assigned 20 minutes, more pious thoughts wedge their way into an array of flashy images being cast onto the scrim of my ego. From Philippians 2: “Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped [now there’s a huge ego distraction for you!] but humbled himself.” The Annunciation… “Be it done unto me according to your will.” Or Jesus in the Garden… After expressing his opinion to the point of sweating blood, it was not his ego-self mustering a reluctant “But not my will but yours be done.”

Rapharapharapha … soon even such piously occluded projections fade as the distraction they are from a much needed nudge to become weak, to truly let go, to actually release my 67 y/o ego-self to the One who is truly God.

Rapharapharapha … as the iPhone chimes gently invite me back after the assigned minutes it is not the psalmist, Mary of Nazareth, or even Jesus facing crucifixion that grounds my consolation. Surprisingly, but ever so graciously, May Sarton’s AutumnSonnet gives voice to that which is anything but a distraction: “cause yourselves to let go”; “let yourselves become weak”.

With the suggestion that “my ego” be substituted for “you” in the first and last lines, I offer her words to you…

If I can let you go as trees let go
Their leaves, so casually, one by one,
If I can come to know what they do know,
That fall is the release, the consummation,
Then fear of time and the uncertain fruit
Would not distemper the great lucid skies
This strangest autumn, mellow and acute.
If I can take the dark with open eyes
And call it seasonal, not harsh or strange
(For love itself may need a time of sleep),
And, treelike, stand unmoved before the change,
Lose what I lose to keep what I can keep,
The strong root still alive under the snow,
Love will endure — if I can let you go.

———————-
AutumnSonnet by May Sarton, from “Selected Poems of May Sarton” 1978.
John J. Parsons provides a marvelous reflection on “surrender” and more fully explains the Hebrew origins of rapha. I encourage you to take a look at:
‪http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Meditations/Be_Still/be_still.html ‬

Beyond Comfort

Here’s a really insightful and poignant paragraph from Richard Rohr’s daily post from the Center for Action and Contemplation:

Those who rush to artificially concoct their identity often end up with hardened and overly defended edges. They are easily offended and may become racists, overly patriotic, or remain entirely tribal—afraid of the “other.” Often they become codependent and counter-dependent, living only in reaction to someone or something else. Being over and against is a lot easier than being in love. If your prayer is not enticing you outside your comfort zones, if your Christ is not an occasional “threat,” you probably need to do some growing in the ways of love.

When Prelude Becomes the Symphony

Yesterday Kate was leading a brief meditation prior to a group of us visiting with residents at Episcopal Homes, a residence for seniors. She began with a centering exercise quite common and helpful for entering prayer. Kate invited us to settle comfortably into our chairs, quiet from the myriad of sounds, breathe in/breathe out, attend to the beating of our hearts.

In the past such “centering” has been a prelude to prayer, dispositional, setting the stage. Yesterday was perceptibly different.

The generic straight-back chair morphed into the myriad of people — the web of generations past as well as present companions — who hold and support our life and efforts.

Letting go of the cacophony of muted sounds in our urban environment, a feeling of reassurance arose. We could disengage for this time because the “buzz” was testimony to a web of activity providing for our well-being.

Breathing opened to something beyond a reflexive physical rhythm. The movement of air — in and out — carried the assurance of bounty that continuously flows to us, unmerited, gratuitous.

The beat of my heart spoke quietly of God’s own life which imperceptibly carries us — each of us, all of us, every bit of creation, holding all in being as a loving parent remains bonded with a child.

Yesterday was gift. It need not be analyzed, explained or idealized. It is meant to be simply received, our exhale whispering gratitude.

An Ordinary and Honest Disposition

Though we’d like to think we are simply ordinary folks and “middle class” by economic standards, the truth is we’re privileged! Simply by virtue of the fact that you are viewing this post defines you as more technologically savvy than most, have the discretionary income to afford an iPad and WiFi connection, and the leisure if not intellectual curiosity to reflect on musings such as these.

Being privileged in these ways comes with a whole set of hazards and pitfalls. Most of us are too sophisticated to fall into blatant arrogance, snobbery or condescension. No, most of us have polished our self-regard into respectable forms of social acceptability. Or, we skillfully retreat to our very own safe-place of silent superiority. An excellent barometer for whether this “fits” may be to ask how satisfied or protective we are of the status quo or self-assured we are of “how things ought to be.”

I’m certainly not immune to that of which I write! My political views are not only well-informed, they are most assuredly correct. I am certain of moral truth and clearly understand what the Gospels teach. I’m even confident in my opinions about what careers others should pursue, the persons they should marry (or not), and how they are to raise children. It’s all quite obvious to us average, ordinary folks!

No, it’s not! Truth does not come easily. Rarely is it ever obvious. Life is hard. Wisdom isn’t cheap. Rather, life has a way of tripping us up, turning us inside out and upside down. As the Buddha discovered, “Life is suffering!” So much for our protective obsession with the status quo, our blissful preoccupation with stocking our pantries and filling our days with gadgets or endless forms of entertainment!

Here’s where the actually poor, those on the “underside” or the “outside” have an advantage over us average, middle class folks. They know their powerlessness. They don’t have the privilege of holding their suffering at bay. They don’t need a 12-Step program or years of expensive therapy to wrestle with the truth of their lives.

No, the poor are not saints any more than the rest of us “privileged” types. They are subject to the same pitfalls, addictions and sins as the rest of us. They simply know better than most that “the way things are” ain’t okay.  This seems to give them an inside track on the truth — we are powerless. Theologically speaking, we are not God — so get over it!

Recently, a man shared with me a heart-wrenching story about the bottom falling out of his life as a result of his abuse of alcohol. We could easily substitute any story about our worlds collapsing or our dependence on “the way things ought to be” crumbling — a debilitating medical diagnosis, floods in Louisiana, the death of a loved one. This man is one of the lucky ones — he readily acknowledges his addiction, his idolatry.

The first step is to admit our powerlessness. It’s the hardest step by far. None of us want to take it. There are an infinite array of ways we distract and divert ourselves into denying this truth. But then, and only then, do we learn how to pray. Then, and only then, do we really learn how to live.

My friend shared his simple prayer with me. I have heard none better: I can’t! You can! Please help! He then substitutes Thanks! for what’s become an all too average and anemic “Amen”.

We would all do well to pray and live more like this extraordinary and exceptionally honest man!

A Prayer for the World

Came upon this today and it gave expression to my heart’s longing.  Perhaps it will touch yours as well…

A Prayer For The World
Let the rain come and wash away the ancient grudges,
the bitter hatreds held and nurtured over generations.
Let the rain wash away the memory of the hurt, the neglect.
Then let the sun come out and fill the sky with rainbows.
Let the warmth of the sun heal us wherever we are broken.
Let it burn away the fog so that we can see each other clearly.
So that we can see beyond labels, beyond accents, gender or skin color.
Let the warmth and brightness of the sun melt our selfishness.
So that we can share the joys and feel the sorrows of our neighbors.
And let the light of the sun be so strong that we will see all people as our neighbors.
Let the earth nourished by rain, bring forth flowers to surround us with beauty.
And let the mountains teach our hearts to reach upward to heaven.
AMEN!

Rabbi Harold Kushner – 2003

Jeb the Dog, Spiritual Mentor

When claiming an upstairs bedroom for my personal “cave” I envisioned a place reserved exclusively for spiritual practice. No using the writing table to pay bills. No sitting in the comfortable rocker to read about current events. The room at the end of the upstairs hall would be far removed from casual visitors, especially those with merely a voyeuristic curiosity or any who may judge my hunger for sacred silence to be a bit eccentric if not peculiar.

Much has softened over the past few years. My initial intention to religiously leave my shoes at the door has given way to practicality. Though I remain grateful for its isolation from the flow of everyday-life, it is no longer off-limit to house guests or friends. Surely the greatest evolution has been the welcome of Jeb the Dog within the cloistered walls.

With a beginner’s naïveté and hyper spirituality I had envisioned training Jeb never to cross the threshold. Along with street shoes, “secular” reading and mundane social correspondence, he would remain on the other side of the threshold. Jeb already enjoyed full reign over the rest of our house. He didn’t need to trot uninvited into my inner sanctum.

Training Jeb never to cross the threshold now serves as a perfect metaphor for how I erect and defend boundaries within my spiritual life. He’s helped me recognize how disposed I am to define who or what is or is not “holy.” In fact, I would say Jeb the Dog has become my primary spiritual mentor, not just on our daily walks along the creek but also within the intimate sanctuary which my cave has become.

Long ago, Jeb made clear the wisdom that great apostle Peter had to learn (Act: 10). Who am I to judge anything God has created either ritually clean of unclean? All has been created by God, manifests God’s goodness and offers praise by virtue of fully being what it or whom it was created to be.

We guess Jeb is about seven. When he came to us in 2011 he was said to be “about 2” according to the Human Society. Still, he follows us around like a puppy-dog. Wherever we are he wants to be. Now when he follows me upstairs for my 20 minute meditation — trust me, best intentions always surpass my actual practice — Jeb trots right along and takes his preferred place aside the prayer rug. Lesson #1: Would that I were as eager to place myself in God’s presence as Jeb is so easily disposed to be in mine.

Unlike me, Jeb neither fidgets nor fixates on the clock. He simply takes his position and is content to rest in the present moment. At times I wonder whether he was Eckhart Tolle’s ghostwriter for The Power of Now.  A Zen master would be pleased to cite his audible exhalation as the proper method of “breathing” in prayer. Lesson #2: Would that I were as docile before God and attentive to sacred silence as is Jeb.

Outside meditation time Jeb is the master of getting his needs met. He possesses an uncanny ability to turn a pat atop his head into a full blown tummy-scratch. Clearly he knows what he wants but is never demanding or insistent. Rather, he is transparently honest and always available to whatever might come his way. Lesson #3: Would that I were as grateful for everything that comes my way and receive everything — absolutely everything — as gift!

Many more lessons have come via Jeb’s mentoring. These examples seem sufficient to clarify something Jeb did today. He trotted upstairs to the cave this morning having discerned I wasn’t delivering laundry or merely cleaning house. Taking his position aside the prayer rug, he exhaled deeply as is his wont and there quietly remained for the duration.

Here’s what made me smile in awe and amazement — upon my tapping the prayer bell which marks the end of each prayer session, Jeb promptly got up from his position and trotted back downstairs. His knowing attentiveness to the moment and our common ritual brought a chuckle that came from way down deep.

Perhaps that is the greatest lesson of all… Whatever our spiritual practice, ultimately it is to be judged by whether it brings forth a deep and abiding gladness.

As WC Fields wisely concluded, “If dogs don’t go to heaven, I want to go where they go.”