Sunday, July 31, 2011


The day on which one starts out is not the time to start one's preparations.  - Nigerian Folk Saying

In about thirty-six hours, I will be getting on a bus with twenty-two teens and two other adults.  We will be embarking on the biennial Coming of Age Boston Pilgrimage.   We have been preparing for this week for the past year.  Funds secured for our travel, packing lists, permission forms, reservations, itineraries planned, and deposits paid.

The last time I went on this trip, I was a lackey for Brian, the minister and leader of the pilgrimage.  At the time, I made notes:  cut back on free and shopping time - boys are bored;  try to incorporate spirituality or at least reflection in each day's experiences;  be more attendant to community building and including kids on the fringe; and finally, remember to put self in youth's place.  These were things I meant to talk with Brian about before planning this trip.  Then, last year, he resigned.  The trip became my sole pervue.  Hopefully, I have incorporated last time's notes in this year's trip.

I realize that I have some anxiety around this whole trip.  There is the usual, what if someone gets lost or hurt?  What if someone becomes seriously ill?  What if someone is totally opositional and defiant?  What if, what if?  I think I've planned for all the emergency contingencies.

Here's what I'm really concerned about:  transformation and transcendence.  Will the travelers come back more enlightened, better persons for this experience?   The motives for these travelers is as diverse and bewildering as each individual.  Some are traveling because their parents insist they have this experience, some because their older siblings or friends had this experience and it sounded like fun.  I doubt that any of them are going because they have the desire to grow spiritually and deepen their understanding of and connection to Unitarian Universalism.  In the past year with these students, I have felt I have played the role of the Greek god Kairos to them.  Kairos had winged feet and a septor, poised on a razor's edge, left hand inches away from the scales of Fate.  The invocation for Kairos was "Grab Him Swiftly, "  for opportunity does not always knock twice.  Always, opportunities are sweeping past, this moment in time will never come again.  Kairos teaches mortals that one must always be paying attention, always be listening for that moment when a choice is knocking on the door of your life.  The knock is often no louder than the beating of one's own heart, it is very easy to miss.  I do not purpose to say that I am of an age where I no longer miss any opportunities, but I can sometimes recognize the opportunities these young people are allowing to slip past.

Sure, they are all beginning to think of their futures, but they are pretty narrow thinkers in that regard.  I am reminded of the words of Robert Pirsig when I think of the youth (and, yes, even myself):  The truth knocks on the door and you say, "Go away, I'm looking for the truth," and so it goes away.  Puzzling.

Will these youth be able to hear the opportunities that will knock on the doors of their lives on this trip?   (Will I be able to hear the knocking?)   Will they be able to see past the tourist's trappings and know this could be one of their life's fleeting moments of inspiration?  Will they make the connection that the places and people we will be learning about share a common faith with them?  Will that matter to them as we travel?  Or next year?  Or when they are twenty-five?  Or fifty?  We will all know the answers to these questions in time.

As for now, I don't know what else to do to but get on the bus.

". . . . When we no longer know where to turn, our real journey has begun."  - Phil Cousineau

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Examen

Christianity today, in my opinion, is a much different path than it was back in it's humble beginnings.  The Desert Mothers and Fathers, the early mystics of the tradition, were more like the men and women of their time who practiced meditation and sought an inner transformation for themselves.  Long before the formal church was established, Christian mystics were seeking a moral and transcendent life that could be learned, known, and lived by all.  They were looking to find practices to re-create the healing, transformation, and unconditional love, that Jesus was able to manifest in the way he lived his life.  Eventually, some of the Christian practitioners thought it would be a good idea to get some things in writing, make some laws, and try to get all people to do what was imagined to be the best for the whole of humanity.  It's a huge task, rife with anxiety, fear, and corruption.   As the Christian tradition became formal and hierarchical, some people tried to remain more true to those mystic men and women of the first few centuries of the common era.  The legacies and works of many of these seekers and mystics are still evident today in some of the monasteries and convents of many Christian sects.  Today, I reflect on St. Ignatius, of Loyola that is.  Ignatius was a Spanish knight who lived over 500 years ago (1491 - 1556).   As he wandered around marauding and warring, he had time for contemplation between battles.  It was in this contemplation that he came to know that he desired a life that was more life giving than life taking.  It was because of this desire that he founded the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) so that he and those who chose to learn with him might be able to emulate the life of Jesus, in some small way at least.  Ignatius noticed an advantage to contemplation that followed a particular pattern and shared this method of contemplation with others.  To some people today, it is known as The Examen.  The five tenants are:

1.  Recall that you are in the presence of God.
2.  Look over the present day with a sense of gratitude for this day's gifts.
3. Ask God to send his holy spirit to help you examine your actions, attitudes, and motives with honesty and patience.
4. Now, examine your actions, attitudes and motives.
5.  Give your cares over to Jesus.

If you are comfortable with Christianity, this is a great way to do a daily assessment.  For those of us who, for one reason or another, do not embrace the Christian tradition - I offer a more open way of doing The Examen.  A good time to do this is midday and/or as you are going off to sleep at night.  When done at midday, you are able to catch yourself and redirect your actions, attitudes, and motives if necessary.  When done as a sleep time ritual, you can look at the day honestly and put it away or aside so that you can drift off to a restorative sleep.  Here is the more general spiritualistic way to do The Examen:

1.  Recall that you are a part of the whole Universe.  You are made from the same matter as the stars, the sun, the ocean, the mountains, the earth, and the trees - the same matter as all that exists in the Universe.  You rely on all other forms of life, human and otherwise, for your very existence.  Feel the sacredness of you, feel the sacredness of all of the Universe's creations, feel the sacredness of all that you have created.

2.  Look at today, where you are, with a sense of gratitude.  You are still alive in this incarnation.  You are still connected to the rest of humanity and the natural world in ways that are familiar and meaningful to you.  Give thanks for the lessons you can glean from today.

3.  Take several deep breaths and just Be in silence.  Listen for a word, a sound, a feeling, or a presence.   When you feel connected to this silence, you will know that you can reveal your deepest concerns,  sorrows, shame, or regrets.

4.  In your silence, lay out what needs to be examined and reviewed.  Be honest.  Do not allow your ego to become confused with ethics.  You are not entitled to anything that is not available to all living things.  Remember that you are no more and no less important than any other part of the Universe.

5.  In closing, breathe deeply again.  As you exhale, see each thing you have examined being released to the Universe.   As these things are sent out to the Universe, they will be transformed, expanded, contracted.  You can not know the potential of these things, so allow the Universe to hold them all.  Breathe deeply and become re-connected to where you are now, to the tasks and opportunities before you.

Take, Lord (Universe), and Receive

Take, Lord (Universe), and receive all my liberty, my memory,
    my understanding, and my entire will.
All I have and call my own.
Whatever I have or hold, you have given me.
I return it all to you and surrender it wholly
    to be governed by your will.
Give me only your love and your grace
    and I am rich enough and ask for nothing more.

St. Ignatius, from the end of the Spiritual Exercises

Life Changes

Many people my age talk about the grace of being able to accompany their parents on a journey of aging.  They share stories about the harsh parent who finally says "I love you" or a parent who apologizes for things that are difficult for them to talk about. I guess we all recognize grace when we see it.  I am actively searching for grace with my mom as I write this.  Maybe I need to start with recalling my experience with my father - where I found grace in his final months of life.  Here is an except from a spiritual autobiography I wrote a couple years ago:

As an adult, the only time I had a conversation, if you could call it that, with my father about the sexual abuse was during an early morning phone call.  About a month after I told my mom that I was not going to allow my children to be around my dad, he called me.  My phone rang one Saturday morning at 6AM.  “Lori, this is your dad.  I just wanted to say that all young girls provide men with opportunities and I am no different than any man.  That's why I've accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior.  Any sins I may have committed are in the past, they are gone.  I suggest that you ask the good lord to forgive you for what you did to me.”  That was it.  He hung up.  We never did have a real conversation, about anything, after that.  Even when reaching out to him at the end of his life, it was apparent to me that I would never get the conversation with him that I'd imagined in my mind.  But, I did get a great gift, a grace, the day I understood that conversation would never happen.

After not seeing my father for several years, I heard from my brother that he had a terminal illness and was not expected to live much longer.  I was worried that if I didn't at least go and see him one more time, I might have regrets when he passed on. So, I made the drive to see him.  I walked into his hospital room to see a man that I did not even recognize as my father.  Instead of the tall, handsome man in my memory, I saw a small, shriveling, gray, and balding being that had had one of his lower legs amputated.  The gasp that formed in my throat almost choked me.  “Dad,” I finally managed to gasp.  I felt like somehow something I had done or not done caused the state he was in.  He acknowledged me by holding up his hand.  As I got closer to the bed, I could not stop myself from crying, even though during the entire journey to this moment I told myself I would not cry when I saw him.  I held his hand and he greeted me like we'd just seen each other a short while ago and I was here for a casual visit.  He asked how the weather was, what kind of car I was driving, if I was working, if I'd gotten a hair cut.  Things that made no sense in the context of the visit.  When I was able to compose myself, I quit giving yes, no, or one word answers to his questions.  When I quit answering his trite questions, he quit asking them. I wanted to blurt out that I was sorry for everything in our past, to say those things didn't matter, but I couldn't because it wasn't true.  I realized I wanted to say those things to ease the tension, to make things more bearable for us in this moment, if that was possible.  I also knew that was not what I'd come to do, to make him feel better.  I also knew I had not come to make him feel worse, either.   Finally, holding his hand I said, “Oh dad, there's so much we've never talked about.”  As I spoke, he nodded his head and quietly agreed.  He looked like he was thinking about what I was saying, perhaps even feeling a bit of sorrow or regret.  He just kept nodding and saying, “yup, yup.”  Finally, he let out a large sigh and said, “Yup, what are you making then?  About $700 a week?” 

I felt as if something inside of me physically snapped.  It was like a moment of crystal clarity.  I no longer had any hope of, or even any desire for, an apology or acknowledgement from him about our sordid history.  In that split second when clarity came, I realized that I was the only one that could totally rid myself of the rope-like remnants of sexual abuse that so often seemed to intrude in my adult life.  Even though I began sobbing, I felt a joy that was one of the most mystical, loving embraces I'd ever known.  In just a few moments the tears stopped.  The rest of the visit, much to my surprise, I was able to just sit with my father and feel a sort of compassionate empathy for him.  On the drive home I was by myself in the car, but I'd never felt more in the presence of something, or someone, that exuded a love I'd never known. 

My father did not die soon, as was expected.  He lived several months, hospitalized, on dialysis, and needing frequent surgical procedures to control more gangrenous extremities or ulcerated intestines.  I was able to go and visit him a few times during those last months.  I never hoped for a deep, healing conversation and we never had one.  We talked weather, sports, politics and a bit about relatives.  After each visit, it felt as if there was reaffirmation that the gift of clarity during the first visit was, in fact a real and authentic gift, if not from him, from the Universe.  

So, here's sending out a request to the Universe, again, that another moment of grace is in store.  May we all be molded and formed in healthy and healing ways by the love and experiences that our lives have in them - even when we can not see or feel them.

Our true home is in the present moment.
To live in the present moment is a miracle.
The miracle is not to walk on water,
The miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment,
to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.
Peace is all around us -
in the world and in nature -
and within us -
in our bodies and our spirits.
Once we learn to touch this peace,
we will be healed and transformed.
It is not a matter of faith; 
it is a matter of practice.
                                                                                                        -   Thich Nhat Hanh