Being Quiet, Discovery, Fear of the Dark, Loss

History, Architecture or Spirituality?

St. Anne’s. Built by Crusaders in  Jerusalem in 1130

What accounts for our fear of seeing Notre Dame ablaze? For the French it is the national symbol of their lives in the past, not least, its surviving World War II, but also recent births, marriages, burials, anniversaries, and Holy Days.

Do we fear losing the building itself? Its form through the last thousand years? Or will we lose our memories of walking through its doors under the vaulted roof, awed by its majesty, height, and vastness, while on a momentary stop with a ragtag group of college students on summer tour?

Does she capture the elusive Spirit who beckons each of us into communion with the holy? Is this true even for those of us who do not darken church, mosque, or synagogue doors, who claim spirituality only in being alive, who do not take time to listen to the silent heart? And true even for those who aspire to be in such a stunning, outrageously beautiful edifice that promises prayer when they cannot bring themselves to go to any old house for worship?

Yes, I was there, astonished. On first walking under the vault, I remember holding my breath, hardly able to see the roof so high above me. The vastness stunned me to silence.

How could we endure the destruction of such a place? A place that symbolizes…God? Could it be God who speaks in such grandeur? A god most of us cannot imagine, a god we blame because we attribute the state of the world today to “His” malpractice.  But could it be that the thought and sight of such a cathedral in mortal danger suggests to us the danger of losing a god we do not know at all? That something is there, even so? Some spirit?

What was it in 1160, when it had hardly a form? Or one hundred years later when it was complete. How did Parisians feel about it then? In those years, cathedrals were the center of the community…the Christian community that included nearly every person alive. Not only were prayers heard within, but just outside there were markets and celebrations, feasts and gatherings. It was where everything happened; the center of town.

I wonder how many of us understand the incredulity of the French people that such an icon could be destroyed. The dread that it really was burning. And then, how many of us can empathize with worshipers in our own country when their churches, mosques, and synagogues are burned? While not icons of a nation, they are icons of their communities, the center where births and marriages are celebrated and lives mourned, where prayers rise like incense as if we can hear them gathered in by God.

If you have no such sacred place, what symbolizes holy silence for you? Where does hope reside? How can others reach to celebrate your life and comfort you in death?

Notre Dame is all these things. The history of a nation since 1160, steadfast—like God—decade by decade, centennial to centennial. An amazement of design, creation, and story-telling for more than 800 years. And spirituality. Notre Dame captures the spirit of millions whether we worship with her or view her from afar.

Maybe church buildings mean more to us than we realize. Maybe that’s why some confused people try to burn them down.

Being Quiet

Keeping the Faith

Keeping the Faith

I am loafing in an enjoyably warm, peaceful summer. Were it not for politics, war and my awareness of the inequity and poverty in our own neighborhoods, I would say I was content. But how can I be grateful for status or the wealth of my choices without the guilt that so many others suffer? There is no end of the need for us to be doing as much as we can to influence or correct these ugly realities.

The balance is very difficult to keep. Since Jan. 20, 2017 we get no help from a president who daily cries wolf. Nor freedom from wars and rumors of wars. In an “all hands on deck” mode, who is selfish enough to think our desires could come first?

And for us whose sympathies lie with the least, the last and the left out, who may also be tired, aged, ill or disabled so that, regardless what we do in our prime or what our lasting true gifts are, we do not have energy for the fight against the outrageous, heartbreaking need all around? My heart truly aches for the suffering. I do name them in my prayers. But is that enough?

Eventually, even the best known activists among us take time out. Some shift to mentoring, urging our younger, abler sisters and brothers to find their own passions among those who lack necessities like clean water, healthful groceries, ethical police, and children on our streets day and night.

We can do only what we can do, whatever it is, with God’s help. We plant seeds, water them, and every day, do what we can to lighten these burdens. We cannot “fix” homelessness, but we can decrease its numbers and improve our services. We cannot “fix” the juvenile justice system but we can continue to lobby for compassion and restorative justice. One of these priorities may exactly be your call.

We can imagine the realm of god, what it could look like, and talk about it, pray for it, and nurture faith and hopefulness. But we don’t have to work until we drop. Thomas Merton counsels us not to commit [ourselves] to too many projects, and thus succumb to violence….He continues, The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful. [Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander]

Discerning between our rush to help and our need for nurture is our primary, ongoing call. Not to decide is, of course, ironically, to decide. But to rush in every direction at once is to stall immediately. To put ourselves forward as helpers when we don’t have the mental, emotional or physical resilience, is to offer little.

Let’s lighten up and take in some love, friendship, summer laziness, sleeping in or staying up late, and visit the Science Center or a museum or two…not to mention parks, before this gorgeous summer again turns to rain. The world, the nations, and difficult people are always with us.

Cathy Fransson

 

Being Quiet

Starting in the Middle

After a long hiatus from my blog, where do I begin? How do I discern the central point I’d like to make? Or where find a pithy or poignant jumping-off place?

I have been writing my heart out, pulling together a memoir of the last years of my parents’ lives. Who knows whether these 345 pages will meet the trials of today’s book market. But never mind. I have said all along that I want to writeIMG_0040 this—to write it, period. To feel as if I have captured my mom and my dad as the three of us negotiated the seven years between their independent living in their home and their deaths.

Mom died before Dad. And Mom and I got along well, pretty much in sync. So when she was gone, I needed to face my rigid, distant Norwegian father. How many men born in 1904 change their personalities in their late nineties?

The answer is in my manuscript. It takes willingness and work. Getting along with my dad after Mom’s death was something akin to loving my enemies.

With the manuscript now in the hands of an agent, I miss working on it because it has been part of me for some 15 years. But too many slips between pen and print can, and often do, occur. So I’m not holding my breath. The theme of the book is the more we try to wrench our agenda into a vision of holy peace, the more peace eludes us.

So now I read, read, and read more. Scott Malcomson, Kathleen Dean Moore, Brian Doyle—I just loved Mink River. Soon I’ll turn to Donna Leon’s next book for a change of pace.

But the heart of my life is to stay at peace with myself, at peace with the others in my life, and at peace with—yes—the state of the world. Because of the myriad tragedies unfolding all around us, both distant and close, and the tragedies in our own lives and in the lives of those we love, it would be easy to despair. It is not as easy to find peace when we are full of pain, deep sadness at the wounded world, its peoples and the Earth, and perhaps even sorrow for God. Long ago Karen Armstrong in a touted webcast on God commented in a sympathetic tone, “Poor God.” For sure: poor God, putting up with our failures, persistent anger, and soap-opera lives as if we were children while ignoring the needs of children worldwide.

I have learned that trying to wrench my agenda into something more peaceful just worsens the problem. In order to be wise, practical, and compassionate for others near and far, I need to stop, practice what I know opens my heart to myself and to others, and let in the peace I already have.

Being Quiet, Grace Happens, Lavish loving, Ordinary Miracles

Here’s the Deal

My cat Sugar’s presence often invites petting—because I need a hug. She’s a 10-year-old tuxedo with elaborate white whiskers and silky thick black fur. Sometimes she tries to ignore me. Sometimes she accepts me with stillness, then purring, other times a tail warning that she is not available just now. Often, in the evening she comes near eyeing my lap, testing my tolerance. It is a balance. We are respectful of each other’s being, listening inwardly both to ourselves, and then to each other. When Sugar comes seeking togetherness, she is pure gift, the soul of our home.

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Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed—to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.

 This belief of Parker Palmer’s is the wisest advice to those wanting to help others. We have many, many other skills, such as attentive listening, and reflecting the emotions we detect behind the words, but the basic gift to be offered to the sacred being of another is our attention. I experienced the touchy-feely 70s and the needy 80s, encounter groups, trust exercises, and probably too late for some, boundary lessons. We experimented with hugging everyone, then giving others distance, then asking permission to hug, which today, comes fairly naturally to most. I learn when I meet someone what her preferred distance is.

I learned to pay attention at home. I paid attention to my dad who ruled the roost. I paid attention to my mom because she had a lot to share and considered me her best friend. That first obligation, to listen without any limits, led me into a world of unbalanced relationships. When would I have the time to be heard? How would I know?

I hadn’t learned to listen to myself.

God asks us to love the Holy One with our whole heart, mind and strength, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. It is this last clause that we too often overlook. We reach out to those who suffer without asking basic questions: how am I doing right now? Do I have what I need for myself, or am I reaching out reflexively from an old habit of doing for others what I, myself, need—a certain route to self-denial.

To be honest, we all do a little of both. But as long as we’re aware of our balance point, and not exceeding what we know we can afford to give, to sacrifice, even, for our neighbors, then the joy of giving, of listening to a friend who needs to share with us, will replenish the energy of our giving.

 

Being Quiet, Ordinary Miracles, Soul Work

Other Dimensions

 

I began my day with a 30-minute swim. A time when I lose sense of time and even space, except for the tiled lines of my lane. The gym complex is near, although its nearness doesn’t make getting there much easier. Now that I am retired inertia can prevent me from lots of obligations, including Sunday worship.

Faithfulness was a prized church behavior in the “old” days. Remember the gold pin we won for perfect attendance? I had several of those. Because of this obligation in our home, Dad turned up the temperature on the hot water heater every Saturday night so that all five of us could take a bath. (Baths, only once a week!) We’d polish our Sunday shoes, help to wash and vacuum the family car, then all drive together, sometimes picking up Mrs. Duchine on our way. Not all women then had learned to drive. As near as we lived to the center of town where the church was, we could easily walk. And Mom and I often walked to town to shop.

When I was ordained a Baptist pastor in 2000, Rev. C. Elroy Shikles, the minister who baptized me at eight, commented, “My, how many sermons you’ve heard!” I still remember some. I remember when he used my Howdy-Doody marionette to illustrate to us children that God does not operate us with strings from heaven. And he’s the one who taught me with a collection of various-sized sieves how to screen what I say to others: only what is true, kind, and necessary. I learned early that I made my own choices and was responsible for them.

Today twice-weekly swims keep me flexible. And the rhythmic strokes and breathing are calming. Weekly worship engenders less tangible results. But its very familiarity and repetition are like rest to a hummingbird. It isn’t my brain that worships. It’s my heart. When I keep my attention focused, I transcend time and space into another dimension. My breathing slows; my heart fills.

In the midst of song and silence something in me lets go. I remember I am not alone. I rejoice in the reminders of God’s faithfulness even in the midst of trial and loss. I lean into the everlasting arms and relax, rememberP1010168ing the examples of the many disciples I have known who have traveled ahead of me.

I miss those gifts when I skip church for the NY Times, which does not nurture me anywhere near the love that will never let me go. But the silence of the pool during my swim gives me similar time to reach and stroke, aware from shoulder to toe, moving in ways I cannot accomplish in gravity. I let myself down into the water trusting its buoyance in much the same way I let go into the silence of prayer.

Even though I have to make myself get out of the house, I am glad I have done it. I feel rested, refreshed, in the center of my real reality. The news that strikes fear in my heart during the week has somehow found a context. Less harried, less worried, I breathe deeper, and feel confidence I can’t always create for myself. It’s a dimension just a breath away.

Being Quiet, Discovery, Grace Happens, Ordinary Miracles

Wandering on Purpose

It is true that media, over-programmed days and American work hours are hard to avoid. If we work hard, we also play hard. And judging from my recent retirement I know I am not the best person to suggest our work need not be all-consuming and endless. Before you jump to defend yourselves, hear me out. Twenty-four hours can also include the luxury of trying to wrest meaning within the chaos of busy-ness.

Of course, for me, days go by without meetings, or someone asking me to do something, or my contacting my friends or their me, doing some or no work at all (housework, laundry, gardening, reading, writing, grocery shopping), and napping when napping feels like the best thing at the time. I cherish separation from the world of work and relish the conversations that surprise me on the path.

I retired at age seventy-two. I can hardly remember when I didn’t work except when I hadn’t yet begun piano lessons: so I was 7. I worked in high school and all the way through college and university, and then after hours after I had begun to teach full time in public school. I taught English all day and played the organ for churches on weekends between shifts of taking evening and summer coursework toward advanced degrees. I’m one of the rare (old) persons who paid for their entire university career themselves. In these varied “careers” I learned many roles, some of them unawares, because I was a willing listener, too. As I became more skilled, listening itself became my vocation.

It was listening to my day at a deeper level that invited me to contemplate the larger realities in the many events I was thrown into. Parker Palmer admitted to no scripted contemplative techniques in The Active Life (1990). Instead he wrote, “life compensates…by providing moments of unintentional contemplation….life makes contemplatives of all of us.” He lists four such invitations: feelings of disillusionment, pain, dislocation, and unbidden solitude.

It is easy to turn to busy-ness simply to avoid facing painful feelings. In churches some people identify as do-ers because they’re proud they get so much done for the rest of us. While they’re indispensable, they rarely risk finding time to sit with others to discern a new path, or attend a small sharing group.

In the familiar parable of Mary who sits listening to Jesus teach, Martha has several choices. One is to continue to do what she’s doing and NOT complain, another is to join Mary so that the two sisters can get the meal together afterwards. Instead she triangulates with Jesus, asking him to get Mary to help her. Instead, Jesus rebukes her for her anxiety that prevents her from making a better choice.

If we spend all our time dashing about from home to work to errands and house keeping and back again ourselves, how can we be thoughtful about anything? When can we be quiet and solitary? When do we think? Or do we simply react to circumstances? Parsing over life stories and the dilemmas our lives so easily create can be done while running, or at the gym, or even occasionally, sleeping in. Watching less television. Squeezing one fewer activity into the day. It is not so much the way we choose to contemplate as it is to choose a way when we must.

I continue to find deep conversations, contemplation. A rest from action—a necessary balance to action in fact, lest in any calling I go off in all directions at once. Listening has been part of every position I have held. Many times, even though I didn’t know what I was doing, listening was my chief gift. When I felt called to seminary in my mid fifties, my whole life was walking toward this door. When I opened it I believed I would never need to retire again. The calling (a strong spiritual attraction to prayer, the interpretation of scripture, and listening) felt the most like me, the most appropriate of my gifts.

Now after nearly seventeen years serving the church, I am exploring who I am anew. My denomination calls me a “ wandering minister.” Imagine! Permission just to wander. Wandering I understand. Putting one foot in front of the other, often turning to draw near to a curious thicket of leaves in the eddy of a stream, or a knot of words among individuals, become walking meditations. Both require my attention to everything from dust motes floating in a beam of winter sun, to the half-heard sounds of laughter in the room next door and the inner messages that keep me tethered to the Mystery of living in this age.

So, I wander. Listening for sparks of thought, the messages that recreate me over and over again for the years ahead. Life beckons even as it grows shorter, tantalizing, summoning, gesturing, “Come here! Come and see!” There will always be time for our heart’s desires to spring forth, or burble up, or slowly dawn on us. Even death is a portal to the undiscovered.

           Look, I am about to do something new; even now it is emerging. Don’t you see it?