I want to share a story that I use with the incarcerated women I teach. It applies to all of us, particularly during these dark times.
One evening an old Cherokee Indian told his grandson about the battle that goes on everyday deep inside the gut of people, the battle that ultimately decides your destiny, the way you feel, the way you act, the way you think and the way in which you live your life.
He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves.”
One is Evil. It is anger, envy, fear, greed, meanness, arrogance, jealousy, resentment, lies, false pride, superiority and ego.
The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, truth, compassion, generosity and faith.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins the battle?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
A year begins, though what will unfold is not yet clear. Acknowledging the uncertainties in our country, I admit that fear, anxiety and even anger accompany me into each new day.
And so I turn to my prayer stone ritual which has helped to anchor and sustain me over the years whether my faith was dry or my heart broken open. When I want to remember someone in prayer, I inscribe a name on a small beach stone before placing it into the pottery bowl on my altar. Stones carry the earth’s memory and are ancient reminders of faithful endurance. During my daily meditation/prayer practice, each stone is warmed in my hands while I send loving kindness and healing thoughts to that person. The days pass; weeks turn into months and my prayer bowl fills and becomes a holy chalice. When the New Year arrives, I gather my stones and make a pilgrimage to a rugged outdoor seaside chapel. Inside the open entrance facing the sea is an altar made from a massive boulder on which hundreds of offerings are placed. There among the coins and candles, photos, flowers, prayer beads, charms, and dozens of notes and letters, I humbly consecrate my stones by laying them on the altar as a way to feel connection with all the faithful others who came before me seeking prayer, petition and hope.
The yearly ritual completes when my stones and their prayers are released, one by one, into the wintry sea to the whisper of every name. The prayer bowl is now empty awaiting more stones and prayers as the year unfolds.
Today I wrote “PEACE” and “LOVE” on the year’s first stone. When turbulence, uncertainties and conflict arise, may I remember to resist and stand in peace and love. Imagine the possibilities if each of us across the nation wrote “PEACE” and “LOVE” on a stone and warmed it in our hands every morning as our intention for the day. Together, aligned with truth and infused with hope, may we live love and be peace.
All the world waits in December darkness for a glimpse of the Light of Christmas. Behind locked doors and inside dismal, bleak prison walls is where I find my “Bethlehem”. As a spiritual director and group facilitator for incarcerated women, I am all too familiar with the way inmates are stripped of their identity. Addressed only by their last names or the identification number stamped on their wristband, they are mothers and daughters, sisters and grandmothers who have been separated from their vital connections and discarded by society. Most of the women believe they are defective at their very core and feel shame for what they have done, what has been done to them, and most of all for who they are.
The Christmas story is a celebration of Mercy incarnate, born in a dark and dirty stable long ago to reveal the shared essence of Love inside everyone. Each of us is the baby in the manger, no matter what. We come into the world precious and pure, chosen and blessed by the gift of our birth. Again and again, I find myself humbly kneeling in Bethlehem as I bear witness to the transformation that is possible when the human meets the Holy. It isn’t anything I say or do. I simply offer my heart-felt presence and a safe place for the women to speak the stories of their lives, knowing that each story could be mine had I been born into the circumstances of their lives. There are times when faces soften, bodies relax and a glimmer of light comes into despondent eyes as the God-seed within the compost of their lives begins to open and reach toward the Light. Like the pull of the sun on a flower, they begin to remember who they are and glimpse the Goodness that has always been inside them before they lost their way. The Light of Christmas comes each time a new heart finally knows that they, too, are beloved. Where do you find your “Bethlehem”?
I was awakened this morning by the weight of my golden retriever sleeping soundly while stretched across my legs. Glancing out my window, I was surprised by the beauty of an unexpected first snowfall that covered the ground with a crystal carpet of light. For the past many days since the presidential election, my mood has been dark and despairing. It has been two weeks since I went to the polling place, so very excited to cast my vote. Standing in front of me in line was a young mother who had brought her 10 year old daughter with her so that she could witness a ballot cast for the first woman President of the United States. Moved to tears for that child, and for the little girl inside me who would never have believed that possible, I cried like a baby as I cast my ballot, privileged to be alive and see this historical day.
However, in the middle of the night, shocked by the unexpected election results, disbelief, anger, fear, grief and confusion moved in like unwanted guests. I have veered towards blaming and complaining over all that is wrong and unmended in our country. But something shifted inside me this morning as I gazed across the snow fallen landscape illuminated by light. I remembered Maya Angelo’s words of wisdom in her poem, “I Rise.” And so today, I rise by putting away my darkness and my mourning clothes, and vowed to stop bewailing these difficult times. My dog and I walked thought the wintry wonderment and etched the word HOPE in the snow. Now I turn my intention toward noticing with gratitude countless moments of goodness throughout the day. In the days ahead, I will stand up and show my soul by speaking the truth of what I believe and acting mindfully and kindly. I encourage you, gentle you, to stand up with me and be fierce as you show the light of your soul in these shadowy times. Be quick to love and make haste to be kind. Kindness is contagious.
It was during October a few years ago when I traveled throughout India on a guided spiritual tour to many of the holiest sites in the world. We visited an extraordinary “wonder of the world” in the towns of Ajanta and Ellora where ancient Buddhist caves were carved out of a mountainside nearly two thousand years ago. We chanted mantras inside the dimly lit cavern beside the towering stone Buddha and marveled at the cave paintings and stone carvings intricately crafted by candlelight. However the deepest impression that remains with me was not of the caves, but that of a young boy, perhaps twelve. The boy stood hour after hour outside the entrance to the cave holding a large, heavy mirror that he struggled to brace against his body. The mirror captured the sunlight and reflected the light into the entrance of the cave to illuminate the Buddha statue inside so that it could be seen. The boy’s devotion took my breath away as he used himself to catch the light and become the light, thereby reflecting the light for others. When offered payment by well meaning tourists, he politely refused and bowed with a greeting, Namaste, which means the God in me honors the God in you. Whether we travel to mountaintops and ancient shrines or traverse the inner landscapes of our own journey, each of our lights can shine and reflect the light we see in others. We are more alike than different. Together our lights intensify and help to heal our aching world.
With That Moon Language by Hafez
Everyone you see, you say to them,
Of course you do not do this out loud;
Someone would call the cops.
Still though, think about this,
This great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one
Who lives with a full moon in each eye
That is always saying
With that sweet moon
What every other eye in this world
Is dying to
As far back as I can remember, I wished for a sister. While listening to the radio one night during my early teens, I heard an ad for Big Brothers and Big Sisters and was certain it was God’s voice speaking directly to me. Soon I was connected with an 8 year old freckle-face young girl named Cee Cee who lived in the orphanage near my high school. I spent every Tuesday afternoon with her, and holidays at my home where she shared the extra bed in my room. We played together, shared stories and told secrets late into the night like real sisters. Cee Cee was an answered prayer.
Although living at a distance from each other, Cee Cee and I have stayed connected for over fifty years and always spend a day together every summer. Her life has been one of constant struggle to make ends meet; yet what little Cee Cee has she generously shares with others. Over the years, she opened her heart and her home as a place of refuge for many who found comfort and safety from the violence in her neighborhood.
Yesterday we sat in her living room looking at photos of her grandchildren and catching up before going out for lunch. Cee Cee asked if we could go to a restaurant with table cloths. So off we went to an Italian café with red checkered cloths and a vase of flowers on every table.
Cee Cee’s manner is a bit rough and her husky, hardy voice was loud as we entered the restaurant. She was all dressed up for lunch wearing a shirt that said Eat It spelled out in giant colored sequins across her back. Looking at Cee Cee with disapproval, the hostess coldly escorted us to an out-of-the-way table in the back. As we walked through the restaurant it seemed like all of the diners stopped talking, silverware suspended in mid air, and a silence descended on the place. With her boisterous intonation, Cee Cee said, “Everybody’s looking at us!” She was right. They were, and anger bubbled up inside me.
But our waitress was an entirely different story from the frozen reception we got from everybody else. She affectionately patted Cee Cee’s shoulder, called her Sweetheart and Honey and kept bringing refills of the lemonade she had ordered. Cee Cee’s seafood fettuccini arrived on a huge plate with Italian bread. When it was time to leave, the waitress kindly packed up extra bread, more fettuccini for Cee Cee to take home and threw in a slice of chocolate pie as well. When we got into the car Cee Cee remarked, “That lady treated me like I am somebody.”
“That lady” was God wearing an apron, and I, a witness to a moment of Grace.
So much of parenthood is invisible. No one sees all the blood, sweat and tears that happen behind the scenes as we tend to our families. With a passion fueled by love, we show up day and night at a job that is never completed. And no matter how old our kids are, we never stop worrying.
My heart ached for my daughter as she moved through the pain of divorce, and for my son-in-law, who courageously lives each day with brain cancer and the haunt of uncertainty. My son and his wife are anxiously awaiting the birth of their daughter, while remembering the desolation and grief they suffered at the agonizing loss of their stillborn son. All these things are just too big for me to hold.
Whenever I notice myself worrying about things I cannot change, I have begun to practice simply praying “amen” and releasing my burdens to God. “Amen” literally means, “So be it” or “Let it be,” and is the one word that ends every prayer, trusting that nothing more needs to be said. Imagining before me two outstretched hands, palms up, and hands that come together as if cupping falling water, I visualize laying my worries into the hands of God. From the radical stance of praying “amen,” no matter how many times during the day, I feel lighter and more able to surrender and let everything be, just as it is, in God.
Grace – those ordinary moments with ordinary people in ordinary places when the veil of the familiar parts to reveal the movement of God. Grace surprises and comes unsolicited. But it always comes as Gift whether we expect it, believe it or deserve it. I cannot make grace happen, but I can ready myself for receptivity, thereby making space for grace to be revealed.
I don’t recall when I first began the practice of sitting in my prayer chair each morning before dawn. Most likely, my practice was born out of necessity for peace and quiet in my busy household with the demands of 4 young children. It was a place to nurse the baby, sip coffee, make grocery lists and write in my journal. I don’t remember which child first called the old tattered chair my “prayer chair” or which one named the living room the “loving” room. But somehow we all knew that in that room, sitting in that chair, we were in sacred space.
It is now many years later. My children are grown, my home is quiet, yet my prayer chair practice continues to be an anchor for the faith that sustains me through the seasons of my life. Over the years, I have learned that my soul is nourished by my daily spiritual practice of stillness, meditation and prayer. Emptying and quiet waiting provide a way to take root in God. No matter what my troubles or what has kept me tossing and turning in the night, the holy exchange of simply sitting in my chair and showing up for God offers opportunity each morning to begin anew. My practice grounds me, provides form and regularity and supports me when my faith is dry, my heart is cracking and I am not sure whether to run for the glue or let it break wide open.
We live in a frenzied world. Our souls are parched from spiritual deprivation as everyday pressures drain us. We need to close the doors on the chaos so that we don’t miss the whispers of grace in those moments when holiness is revealed before us. The great Sufi poet, Hafiz, said it best: “For God to make love, for the divine alchemy to work, The Pitcher needs a still cup.”