Category Archives: spiritual formation

Winter – little deaths, seasons, and the end of life

“Transcript” from a talk I did. Another from the series is on Dying well.

What I want to do today is get into winter. Really get into it. Last week we talked about our dying time and how we might see it as one of the most important things in our life we can undertake. I received a question, “How do you help?” Tied with it is another question, “Do we have a choice in how we die?” While I don’t think we have a choice in what we die FROM, I do think many of us, if we are so lucky, will INDEED have a choice as to how we die… or another way I would answer this is that we have a choice in WHO WE ARE WHEN WE DIE. Does that make sense?

So who we ARE, at our own dying time and who we ARE when we are with others at their dying time really is how we help. This is how we HEAL and how we help others HEAL… and actually how we help the community and the EARTH heal, too. See it’s bigger than just us and our little lives! We help and are helped by getting into the NATURAL way of things. I said last week that dying happens to all healthy, mature, and connected to the Earth beings.

This is why I think reflecting on WINTER can be so helpful. Winter happens, well at least around here (not so much in California), every year, and it has happened for thousands and thousands of years. It is a necessary part of the cycle of life. The plants, the animals, the land, the water… they all depend on winter. Dormancy, hibernation, cold, death… these are part of the circle. And just as it happens to the Earth, so it happens to us. And our life cycle as well… birth/the new growth and becoming of spring, early adolescence/the fire, consumption, and excitement of summer, late adolescence and early adulthood/the shadows and mystery and preparation of fall… and adulthood to elderhood/the maturity, work, embracing, and then winding down of winter.

“December finds himself again a child
Even as he undergoes his age.
Cold and early darkness now descends,
Embracing sanctuaries of delight.
More and more he stares into the night,
Becoming less and less concerned with ends,
Emblem of the innocent as sage
Restored to wonder by what he must yield.”

~ Nicholas Gordon 

But what does our modern world tell us is good? If you were to consider a season that gets highlighted more than any others, what would it be? Summer. Movies, music, adolescent culture. And is it reasonable to think that this then affects how we view the later part of life… or how we idealize certain aspects of the NATURAL way of things?

So what can we do? How can we live into winter more deeply? I want to take some time to talk about this as a group. But first a reflection or a letter to the garden in December.

“It is December in the garden,
an early winter here, with snow
already hiding my worst offenses —
the places I disturbed your moss
with my heavy boots; the corner
where I planted in too deep a hole
the now stricken hawthorne: crystals
hanging from its icy branches
are the only flowers it will know.

When did solitude become
mere loneliness and the sounds
of birds at the feeder seem
not like a calibrated music
but the discordant dialects
of strangers simply flying through?
I have tried to construct a life
alone here — coffee at dawn; a jog
through the chilling air

counting my heartbeats,
as if the doctor were my only muse;
books and bread and firewood —
those usual stepping-stones from month
to freezing month. but the constricted light,
the year closing down on itself with all
the vacancies of January ahead, leave me
unreconciled even to beauty.
When will you be coming back?”
–  Linda Pastan, The Letter

Group reflection:

What are some of the rituals that you find restorative, or that you might try, to make your way through the “winter?” Literal OR Figurative

 “On the first day of winter,
the earth awakens to the cold touch of itself.
Snow knows no other recourse except
this falling, this sudden letting go
over the small gnomed bushes, all the emptying trees.
Snow puts beauty back into the withered and malnourished,
into the death-wish of nature and the deliberate way
winter insists on nothing less than deference.
waiting all its life, snow says, “Let me cover you.”
–   Laura Lush, The First Day of Winter

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To be rooted to the land you walk upon

It means something to be where you are from. And not just your family, not just your culture, or your religion or your country… It means something unequivically significant to be an occupier of the land you live upon. I am quite certain that most do not have this sensibility, at least not consciously but perhaps when really pressed, would affirm how important it is to them.

What I am getting at is an extra level down into a deeper sense of one’s place in this world, one’s sense of self, one’s spiritual life, and one’s connection with all that is.

There is meaning to the old saying, “You are what you eat.” In a quite literal sense, our bodies our composed of the food and water that goes into us. What other way is there? This is why, when we lived in Oregon, we drank our water, straight from the land, straight from the spring. No filter, no chemicals. And food… Where is your body connected to if your food comes from thousands of miles away or is processed to the extent that it can only be called, as Michael Pollen terms it, “edible food-like substances.”

So it means something very literally in regard to our physical make-up. But what does it mean to be from the Fox Valley in WI? To have grown up on a farm and lived there your whole life? As a chaplain, living in one of the most “homegrown” cities in the country, it means something to talk to my patients about where they are from and wehter their parents grew up here too. For a person living in city and never having left, to never found one’s self in green space, with one’s hands in the dirt or toes in the sand… This means something to that person. Maybe an ungroundedness or a sense of nature as “enemy.”

There is a profound teaching in observing the greatest tai chi masters (watch a video of one on YouTube). Where do they draw this life force from that allows them to move people without even touching them or to be unmovable themselves?

Helping others without knowing how to help myself

The biggest questions that have plagued me lately cut deep in my soul:

  • How can I help people, when I can barely help myself?
  • How do I provide hope for others, when I myself feel very little hope ?
  • How do I heal, when I am so broken?
  • How do I offer spiritual direction, in the dark night of the soul?

It’s a painful query and I don’t really know the answer. The best I can do is remind myself that when things get basic, I have to get basic as well. How can I take care of myself in this time? I know, in part, how connected our minds and our bodies are to our soul’s… how to even disconnect them? So when I don’t have answers to the existential questions, at least I may find some clarity in my body.

What am I eating, what am I drinking, am I moving (exercising is good, but at least I should be moving), how much sleep am I getting… there is a need to get clean.

Because we are still called to be present with those around us… to hold space in their suffering… and so often we really don’t have a choice, we come with our broken selves and we listen. How difficult it really is to be brutally honest about how I’m doing and not take all the attention on to myself. We learn as we go, and we remember especially in these times how equal we all are as human beings.

I am also reminded by the ancient mystic, John of the Cross, the one who first wrote so extensively on the dark night of the soul:

“When we begin our spiritual journey we often want God to desire what we want, and become dejected if we have instead to learn to desire what God wants. We measure God by ourselves and not ourselves by God, which is quite contrary to the gospel. For our Lord says that those who lose their lives for his sake will gain it, but that they who desire to gain their life will lose it.”

What does “losing your life” mean to you? How do you help others when you are at the end yourself?

One year ago… Unanswered prayer… a response and a theology

As I am sitting here at George Fox Sem, I am reminded of these posts from last year. Enjoy!

Folks, I want what I do to be for the village… the community… the place where the spiritual unites with the physical.

So, for me, taking classes at George Fox Seminary to get my certificate in spiritual formation is about more than just me. I am doing it because it is what I must do… for the community and for God.

I recently finished my semester paper for my class on prayer and as I wrote it with the community in mind it is important for me to share it here. I will be posting it up in sections over the next week or so. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

To read part 1, Starting with Prayer,  GO HERETo read part 2, Prayer and it’s place in the Spiritual Life (pt 2), GO HERETo read part 3, The difficulty of sustaining our prayer life, GO HERE

Unanswered prayer… a response and a theology

Perhaps the one of the most difficult reasons for maintaining a sustainable prayer practice and perhaps one of the most painful parts of being in relationship with a God who is so much greater than any of us. How do I respond to someone who prays for healing of a loved one and does not receive it? How do I respond to someone who prays in his infertility that God would give him children and yet still remains childless? So much pain and so many unknowns…

I do believe that God calls us to compassion and presence, but not necessarily answers. Compassion is entering into the suffering of another, as Jesus entered into our suffering. This is being the presence of Christ to my community. Compassion may very well be just sharing the tears and the burdens while so deeply dwelling in the terrible, “I do not know…” So someone who’s prayers are not answered? It is the spiritual leader’s responsibility to provide compassionate presence… whether it be from myself, or from the community. Again, there are no good answers as to why or how or when or what… It is so much easier to go into this as a leader, even slightly. How much more difficult it is to allow someone to be in their pain, their anger, and their blame! Walter Wangerin, in his beautiful book, Mourning into Dancing, says that we MUST let the griever blame God. Better God blamed than others because God is the only one that can so lovingly take on this blame. This is hard for the spiritual leader trying to give the “right” kind of help.

Unanswered prayer part 2 can be found here.

When we suck again

I may be the master of self-deception and not even know it. See, we can be wise, we can value all the right things, we can study and pray and serve and meditate… And then all of a sudden we realize we are just a big Shit. There is always something… Always something. And it builds up and builds up and BAM!! We suck again. I guess this is why grace is so important. This is what all the saints keep telling us… Without God we are nothing. We need him. It’s why so many of the mystics in one breath talk about union with God and in the next are saying, ”God save me” or “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

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