Lenten Walk Series 7 (Mountain)

My spirit soars in swelling praise as I rise in altitude.  I come before these vistas as approaching the Lord’s table; the nourishment of sky and terrain feed my soul.  The cry of hawk and eagle are hymns directed by the whistling wind.  It is within the sky-blue walls of this sunday school classroom where these sainted sierras show me the grandeur of God.  Here, surrounded by and in the mountains, I find my many-steepled sanctuary.

2013-02-21 17.59.38

O tall mountains
of confidence in God,
you never surrender when the Lord tests you!
Although you stand far away from me
as if in exile, all alone,
you remind me that 
no armed power is strong enough to best you.
Your trust in God is wonderful!

-Hildegard of Bingen2013-02-21 18.01.29

The mountain opens its secrets only to those who have the courage to challenge it. It demands sacrifice and training. It requires you to leave the security of the valleys but offers spectacular views from the summit to those who have the courage to climb it. Therefore, it is a reality which strongly suggests the journey of the spirit, called to lift itself up from the earth to heaven, to meet God.

-Pope John Paul II2013-02-21 18.02.49The pale flowers of the dogwood outside this window are saints. The little yellow flowers that nobody notices on the edge of that road are saints looking up into the face of God. This leaf has its own texture and its own pattern of veins and its own holy shape, and the bass and trout hiding in the deep pools of the river are canonized by their beauty and their strength. The lakes hidden among the hills are saints, and the sea too is a saint who praises God without interruption in her majestic dance. The great, gashed, half-naked mountain is another of God’s saints. There is no other like him. He is alone in his own character; nothing else in the world ever did or ever will imitate God in quite the same way. That is his sanctity.

-Thomas Merton

Lenten Walk Series 6 (Fire)

We walked our prayers along a Big Sky catwalk on this night.  The children had all fallen asleep and we left them in grandparents’ care while we went to crunch our way through the chilled, still winterscape.  What was immediately evident was the sensory experience of our supplications.  Every prayer was unleashed on a ribbon of breath while the cold night air stung our every lung.  With every step there echoed the crunch of Montana-high-country snow, which has its own taste and scent, too.  Everything seemed so still.  So absolutely frozen and lifeless.  Yet, it only took the mere twinkle of a star to remind us of how much dynamic movement there really was going on all about us: our very own earth planet was in cycle, as was the celestial sky above.  Every tree contained a dormant energy of growth and renewal.  So this became our prayer:

That when our lives appear stagnant and still, we know you are moving, O Lord.
That when we feel cold and dark, we know that You are our internal life-force.
That when we feel nothing moving in our dreams, You are there to light up our inspirations.

2013-02-19 22.17.54

And then we came back to the warmth of our Big Sky home and were immediately struck by the presence, warmth and dynamic movement of the fire within the hearth.  Its dancing, hot flames were in contrast to Winter’s silent setting just beyond the door.  This fire, this energy was a display of exuberance and reminded me of Annie Dillard’s wonderful words:

If the landscape reveals one certainty, it is that the extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation. After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness…. The whole show has been on fire from the word go. I come down to the water to cool my eyes. But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn’t flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames. 

Lenten Walk Series 4/5

Gratitude for legacy and heritage have been on our praiseful lips these past two days  as we have made our way to Big Sky, Montanta for a week of skiing with family.  We overnighted in Butte, MT the birthplace of both of my parents and a landscape both sets of my grandparents intimately knew and loved.  My paternal grandfather, Knute Plate, immigrated from Sweden to Butte and worked the mines here in what is known as the “richest hill on earth.”  And, my maternal grandfather advocated and proponed any project or proposal that would keep this motto socially and theoretically true.

2013-02-18 20.45.03One of the projects in which my Grampa, Don Ulrich, was critically involved was the restoration of Blacktrail Creek, which runs through the mid-line of Butte.  This stream corridor, highlighted by the majestic presence of the nearby Continental Divide, had suffered adverse affects by “channelization” (or the straightening of the stream), livestock overgrazing, highway construction, and other urban development.  A primary restoration goal of this project was to improve public access and use of the stream corridor as well as 2013-02-18 20.45.49improving ecosystem function and biodiversity habitat.  The restoration resulted in a healthier stream and made a valuable natural resource more accessible to the public.

The pedestrian trail was renamed the Ulrich-Schotte Nature Trail and is now a two-mile segment of a Greenway system in Butte.  Named after my grandparents, Don and Kathryn Ulrich and their dear friends and civic leaders, George and Jennie Schotte, The Blacktail Creek Restoration Project was completed in 1998. These visionaries believed that this landscape could be more than what it was.  They believed that they didn’t have to be content with the status quo: a sickly stream that was a regular dump site for neighbors’ trash.  Over the years, the project grew from a stream restoration project to include a recreational trail used by thousands of area residents and visitors.  This grand vision resulted in something that would serve the greater community, humans and creatures combined!

Considering the stewardship work that we are currently about in Seattle’s Rainier Valley, I2013-02-18 20.48.11 was struck anew with the realization of all my grandfather did on behalf of Other and the Future.  In this context, he spoke on behalf of the healthy biodiversity that hung in balance depending on the health and well being of this stream corridor.  He had the insight and clarity of mind to foresee that healthy and vibrant ecosystems would result in a native, beautiful landscape that would mutually enhance the health and well-being of Butte’s people and generations to come.  It became clear that we do this work in our lives out of a great 2013-02-18 20.47.34hope for the future, but also because of the legacy and heritage of my family’s DNA.

This was an ideal, which Grampa had to champion with both shovel in hand and policy papers in the other to get the City to support this intrinsic value proposal.  But I understand now that he had a vision that was rooted in justice.  It would be socially irresponsible to allow that stream to dry up due to the City’s mismanagement of resources.  It would also be a 2013-02-18 20.46.39holistic loss for both the creature’s depending on that landscape for life, and the inherent health benefits that would be available to the people if allowed to enjoy this native feature.  Peace is the presence of justice, Martin Luther King Jr. once said.  And the peaceful place that is experienced along this vibrant stream attests to the justice advocated on behalf of systems greater than our own.

For the past couple days we have been walking segments of this trail.  We have offered prayers of thanksgiving for our heritage and ancestors, the lives that link us to a lineage of justness and action.  It has also caused us to reflect more on our own “legacy work”–that great work of making an impact on something greater than, and beyond, ourselves.  We prayed that our children would be impacted by a need outside of themselves that would cause them to cry and subsequently stand up and fight for a better way.  We prayed that they too would continue to walk in our heritage’s path of faith, always looking to the mountains, from where comes our help (Psalm 121:1), for the vision to reimagine a better way on behalf of something greater than themselves.

2013-02-18 20.49.22

Lenten Walk Series 2

Today’s prayer walk was under cloudless skies, which is a rarity for Seattle in February.  And instead of 10 prayerful feet, it was simply my own and Anna’s.  Funny thing how as soon as you draw your line in the sand around an intention, circumstances immediately set themselves up against it.  I’ve learned to identify this as the Pilgrim’s Path, others may call it Murphy’s Law; be it as it may, the boys were unable to get in on the practice today.

Whatever laws were against our family participating today in our Lenten commitment, Anna had clarity of purpose and firmly directed our route.  These pictures represent the prayers for our community, on Anna’s Spirit-led route.

————–

Creator of every country, color and kind,2013-02-15 20.49.31

Forgive us when we see difference instead of commonality.

Forgive us when we we react in fear of Other instead of celebration of diversity.

Give us the eyes to see the intrinsic beauty of cultures other than our own, and develop in us a posture of learning, 2013-02-15 20.48.51gratitude and respect.

Guide us away from judgement, misunderstanding and offense and bring us to the holy grounds of community and neighborly care.

Amen.

————-

We pray against fences and barriers of all types.2013-02-15 20.46.28

We pray against the fences that keep people out…and the ones that keep far too many others in.  We pray against the chain-links that mark something that some may have, but others may not.  

We pray for the sense of safety that can only come from you, O God-that people so desperately need-because there is so much fear in the world and in our own neighborhood.  

We pray against the violence that fences are 2013-02-15 20.47.34want to proclaim through graffitied messages of hate, intolerance and territory.  Bring peace and freedom to those who rally against the barriers in their lives; may their fists shake their confines with justice, and not bloodshed. 

Amen. 

 

Pilgrim’s Path: Bringing Home the Boon

It is a strange thing to come home.
While yet on the journey, you cannot at all realize how strange it will be.
-Selma Lagerlog (1858-1940)

We’ve been home now for a little while; our Easter arrived and our journey through Lenten landscapes appeared complete.  With celebrations and feasts, we marked the homecoming of our pilgrimage– grateful both for the cross and the completion of the journey it represents.  But it soon became clear, perhaps a day or so into the return into the daily rhythms of the Eastertide calendar, that the time apart had changed us.  The intentional space created by a journey of abstinence or abundance had not only left a mark on our lives, but elbowed out new permanent places in our spirit.  So, while home once again, the hearth is not how we left it.  And it will stay in a state of  strangeness until we are able to assimilate our learnings and experiences into stories of transformation and actions of justice.

The one thing the pilgrim returns home with is wisdom and the responsibility to share the truth gleaned from the profound pilgrimage.  The story that we bring back from our journeys is the boon. There is a universal code of sorts, which requires the pilgrim to “share whatever wisdom you’ve been blessed with on your journey with those who are about to set out on their own journey.”[i] The challenge and bitter truth of coming home from a pilgrimage is that we soon learn that what is a pearl to us is mere pennies to others. How can we even begin to describe the depths to which our soul has traveled?  Ultimately, it is our changed life that must tell the story of our journey; no picture slide show or souvenir will scratch the surface of the truth found at the sacred center.

In Joseph Campbell’s popular book of essays Myths to Live By, he described something pertinent to our theme of sacred journeys: “The ultimate air of the quest if one is to return, must be neither release nor ecstasy for oneself, but the wisdom and the power to serve others.”  This parallels the belief of the ancient wisdom teachers that the ultimate answer to the sorrows of the world is the boon of increased self-knowledge.[ii]  Interestingly enough, this responsibility resonates with Frederick Buechner’s definition of vocation as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  It seems clear that the great value of a pilgrimage is to return with a knowledge of self that will enable one to engage the world’s needs in an authentic and passionate way.

Because of the journey to the sacred center, and the perils experienced to get there, you are transformed.  And because you have changed, so will your home. You have encountered the Holy-experienced God in a fresh new way-and as a result of your epiphany and your struggle, you will not relate to your world or those in it as you did before.[iii]  Your challenge is to now live into the new edges of your life, inhabiting the new spaces created by pushing through the trails of your inner-soul landscape.  These are the places where dynamic opportunities lay for you to share your wisdom and bring back the boon of your journey.

————-

Since you have been home from your Lenten journey, have you had the opportunity to share with anyone about your experiences?  Have you identified the ways in which you have changed?  What were the waymarkers that truly transformed you?  In what ways can you continue living forward out of these places of transformation? 

————-

Set up waymarks for yourself,
Make yourself guideposts:
Consider well the highway,
The road by which you went.
-Jeremiah 31:21


[i] Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage, (Boston, MA: Conari Press, 1998), 216.

[ii] Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage, (Boston, MA: Conari Press, 1998), 217.

[iii] Sarah York, Pilgrim Heart: The Inner Journey Home, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001),149.

Arrival: Holy Week

We ride into our beloved Jerusalem, the sacred destination of our wanderings these past many weeks.  Here we will shout our hopeful hosannas, weep with unexpected sorrow, and celebrate our ultimate Answer.  As we look about this place of our arrival, do we feel compelled to echo the behaviors of Jesus as he walked through the expectant streets towards Calvary?  What do you feel when you look across your living landscapes, when you touch your city’s wealthy and impoverished walls, when you are carried away in the lofty cathedrals?  Do you feel joy? Do you pray?  Do you weep?

Jesus, you wept for the city you loved – in your words and actions the oppressed found justice and the angry found release…. (prayer heading used on Iona)

The traveler has important tasks upon arriving to their final destination.  Because the entire journey has been intentionally marked and prayerfully pondered, so must the arrival.  This is the time to surround yourself with prayers, poems and hymns that anchor your place and provide the touchstone for this final experience.  Phil Cousineau speaks to the essential task of “feeling the thrill of completing your pilgrimage…If we remember that the word thrill originally referred to the vibrations the arrow made when it hits the target, than the pleasure is compounded.  There is joy in having arrived, moment by moment.”  We have come far on this Lenten pilgrimage; we have sacrificed, we have given, we have changed.

There is deep value in going through this seasonal process for what began in our winter, has now come to completion in our spring.  With fresh, vibrant colors surrounding us, we too see the contexts of our lives with fresh new eyes.  We hear with a new kind of clarity.  With this sense of lucidity, comes both gratitude and responsibility.  The appreciation for the lessons learned on the long journey translates to a new sense of obligation, a fresh response of advocacy.  We have come to love more deeply in this season and like Jesus, we weep with the depth of this love for Others and we know we cannot return to pre-pilgrimage ways.  We have been changed by the wintery road, and subsequently, so will be our home-lives.  New growth has sprung from the soil of the sojourn. How to respond to our changedness may seem overwhelming; in these moments we must pray and pray according to the lessons learned.

Today I share with you a beautiful Holy Week prayer written by the Iona Community’s Neil Paynter.  These beseeching words seem a fitting response to the Lenten Labyrinth where we have seen and witnessed the pain and suffering of our deepest selves, which is the pain of so many others.  May this prayer be yours today as you anchor into the ancient and present meanings of these most holy days.

—–

Visionary God, architect
of heaven and earth,
unless we build in partnership with you we labor in vain

Help us work to create cities
modeled more faithfully
on the plan of your Kingdom –

Communities where children are respected and encouraged
where young people can express themselves creatively
where the experience of old people is called on
where the insights and gifts of all God’s people are fully realized
where shared gardens and plots bloom in once derelict places
where all cultures and traditions are honored and celebrated
on soulful, carnival streets
where gay couples can dance to the beat of their hearts
homeless people are received with loving arms and open borders
news vendors cry Hosanna!
All are fed and loved and set free…

O God, our maker, open our eyes to new possibilities and perspectives,
organizations and projects, structures and outlooks…

Help us to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem:

to break down the barriers in ourselves that
prevent us from reaching out to neighbors and making peace;
to rebuild communities based on understanding and justice,
illuminated with the true light of Christ.

Amen

-Neil Paynter

Pilgrim’s Path: Roadside blessings

This is the great moment, when you see, however distant, the goal of your wandering.
The thing wich has been living in
your imagination suddenly becomes a part of the tangible world.
-Freya Stark

In a few weeks time, thousands of people from all over the world will gather outside of Boston’s city-skirts.  Individuals committed to a cause, a question, a challenge, with hundreds of miles of distance carried in their limbs, will congregate, and celebrate, in this  community.  Lithe, strong bodies will arise before the sun to lace up shoes and participate in the consummation of months-yes, even years-of training for The Boston Marathon.

While it is no Delphi, to argue that this notable race isn’t a sacred shrine would be to miss the enormous effort and journey it has taken everyone to get there.  The rewards of participating in this race are immediate and life-altering, as are the hours of sacrifice it took to reach the point of being able to simply look at the starting line.  And while the last 26.2 miles may seem to others the beginning and end of a great race, this really is the final stage of a pilgrimage that one was called to long ago.  For one doesn’t enter into the rigorous training and sacrificial lifestyle of marathon-preparation without carrying a deep and heavy question about something in their life.  And the pilgrim-runner inevitably carries this question or concern with them every single training mile and all the way to the starting line.  The race itself sets the stage for the soul-stirring vision and provides the sacred encounter, which can replenish the runner’s life.

In what feels like another life-time ago, I had the great opportunity to participate in Boston’s 100th marathon.  It wasn’t necessarily something that I set after, per se.  As it often is with the great seasons of life, it calls to and names us, even before we are significantly aware.  I had started running with a bit more focus while living abroad in Sweden.  After a handful of minor successes at small neighborhood races, I was encouraged (by my mother) to consider training for the Stockholm Marathon.  With youth and unfettered responsibilities on my side, I was able to train and prepare well for this race.  I wanted to participate in something that would give me a real, temporal perspective of the Apostle Paul’s words to the church in Corinth: Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.  Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever (I Corinthians 9:24-15).  When an athlete decides to run a marathon, he or she commits to serious training. Why would it be any different with my spiritual life?  I was reminded of the many stories in my faith tradition that involved transformational journeys, all of which included a road of some sorts and an encounter with the Almighty.  I wanted this training to transform me.  I wanted to be touched by God and be changed in return.  I wanted the milage put in on the road to be full of meaning.

I crossed the Stockholm Marathon’s finish line with a time that qualified me for Boston’s heralded race.  I shook my head in both confusion and surprise as my father this time, nodded his head emphatically:  You’ve got to run Boston, I recall him saying, This is a chance of a lifetime!  What I thought was the end of my running race, that which I imagined was the source of divine inspiration for me, turned out to be just the beginning of a greater pilgrimage towards knowing myself and subsequently, knowing God.

Drizzled, fog-filled back-country roads became my training ground.  I found mountain’s foothills and ran repeats up and down their curves to ready myself for notorious aspects of Boston’s course.  My dad would drive me 20 miles east into the North Cascade mountain range, drop me off, and meet me at home. I ran in the mornings.  I ran in the afternoons.   I read articles about running.  I studied maps of Boston.  And I dreamt of my finisher’s jacket.  My time, my energy, my life was focused and centered on preparing well for this event, and I believe I truly did what I could to make ready the road.

—–

The morning of Boston’s finest race had sparkled with diamond dew and turquoise skies.  My strategies to gain ground had worked, my stamina was strong and I was on the clock to PR this race and qualify again for the following year.  I was doing great by mile 20.  The almost half mile ascent up the infamous Heartbreak Hill began.  My feet kept a steady pace, my heart and spirit felt strong and determined: this is what I had trained for all those miles up and down Northwest woodland roads.  I crested the mighty climb!  The rest of the race was downhill; the finish line was almost palpable!  Soon enough I would be drinking beers and eating an amazing pasta dinner somewhere in the city with my family-I could almost taste the joy of that delicious finish line!

But then, at the high descent point, blew a wind so strong, that even my down-hill pace was slowed and swayed by its force.  And this easterly gust, being channeled by narrow streets, carried with it a chill for which I could never have prepared myself.  My once wet head, a mixture of both hot sweat and hastily poured road-side water, was quickly drying and taking with it my body’s crucial temperature and energy reserves.  I didn’t have additional layers and I was getting so cold.  Soon enough, I recall not being able to feel my hands and feet; that sensation moved through my extremities as I began to navigate the tunnel my vision was presenting me.  I was staggering.  And suddenly, alongside me came an upholding embrace and a warm, gentle voice offered me their top long-sleeve layer and gloves.  Somehow, while still running, I was helped into these items, and this loving arm stayed around my side until my vision began to steady and open up again.  When I turned to thank this benevolent fellow runner, there was no one there.  I mean, yes, there were thousands around me, running past me, not seeing me, but there was no one who had just just stopped and gambled away their race time on ministering to me.

Bewildered and blessed, I tried to keep running and just finish the race.  My personal record was shot, as was my chance to run Boston again the following year, but I knew I still must cross the finish line.  As I did, my state must’ve been like a siren, as medics immediately brought me to the first aid tent.  I had hypothermia and had I not had these great layers and gloves, I could’ve been very badly off, I was told.  My body lay wrapped in emergency blankets for what felt like hours processing this experience.  My heart was warmed by the memory of whomever-or whatever-it was that covered and comforted me on the road.  My spirit was stirred by that service; I knew that God had brought me through the race and I now began the work of pondering the wisdom of the finish line.

That ultimate sense of wonder within the experience is what drives so many people to engage in these rigorous trials.  Father Stephen Canny, an Irish priest who leads a parish in Santa Rosa, California, believes strongly in the effectiveness of pilgrimage.  He has climbed Croagh Patrick, a popular pilgrimage site and storied mountain in Ireland, three times himself and has seen it work wonders on the devoted. “You are more alive after you have overcome something difficult,” he says.  “You’re changed by the mountain and the fact that you have confirmed your faith.  It’s a remarkably effective way to answer the question, What is my purpose?”

Tomorrow, Palm Sunday, marks the beginning of Holy Week for Christians around the world.  In the accounts of the four Gospels, Jesus road into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, whilst the gathered crowd waved the branches of palm branches and laid them on the ground before the mounted Christ.  An incredible journey had brought Jesus to this point, this final stretch of dusty road.  His riding into the sacred city proclaimed his purpose, and people blessed him with shouts of Hosannah.  His entire life time–nay, all of time–had led him to this pivotal point in the Greatest Story ever told.  He would climb the most important hill in humanity’s history in the upcoming week.  And it would be a heart breaking hill.

But because of this great ascent, and the cross at the crest, we have the potential of knowing our uniquely created purpose in ways that only can occur through a cosmic lens!

——

This week, as we move through the last leg of our Lenten journey, reflect on these questions as a means of bringing you to your place of pilgrimage, your Easter-place:
What sacrifices have you made to get this far?
What has the inward experience been for you while you have traveled the outward road?
What are your recollections of images of humbleness on your journey?
The call that has brought you thus far was the call to pay attention to the sacred source in your life.  What is your response? 

Labyrinth: The Darkest Wood

“Meg suddenly finds herself alone in complete darkness. She has no idea what is happening to her. She seems to have vanished into nothingness. She is lost in a void. Then she hears Charles Wallace saying that they have had quite a trip. Calvin reappears too. Meg finds herself in a sunlit field, where everything is golden with light. There is an atmosphere of peace and joy. …They arrive on a mountain peak, from where they can see a moon of Uriel. As the sun sets, they see a faint shadow of darkness that seems to have a life of its own. The stars come out, but the dark shadow remains. Meg feels how terrible the shadow is,
and is afraid.”
Madeline L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time


Afraid of the dark
.  How many of us have known that feeling, either as a child in a dark bedroom,  or running up an ink-black stairwell, always fearing that someone is coming up quickly behind you to grab at your ankles and pull.  Or, even having to take the trash out on a dark night-that skip of the heart, that dread is real and rarely do we dally there.  Meg’s fear in A Wrinkle of Time is one based on the immediacy and darkness of evil.  But even in her quest to journey to, and confront, this ominous presence, she is brought to a place of self-knowing and light; a kind of self-knowledge to which we can only arrive when we have journeyed through alien lands.

What we call these alien lands in our life may have many names and metaphors, but common themes, however, hinge on the images of wilderness and woods, deserts and darkness.  The journey through these themes is often equated to a pilgrimage.  Phil Cousineau describes sojourns such as this as “a transformative journey to a sacred center full of darkness, hardships and peril.”  We are brought through the wilderness-through the labyrinth, which is often the long way around-to our sacred destinations, to our places of divine answers and self-knowledge and understanding. If we are to arrive at the heart of our pilgrimage, sometimes this means we must enter that dark wood and go into that lightless labyrinth.  But we mustn’t believe that we are destined to be lost there.  Darkness is just part of the trip.  This is the typical point of panic and precariousness. For when are we ever really encouraged to BE in the dark? You know, to be okay with it?  At night there are street lights everywhere.  In our homes we likely have night lights in the hallways. We are never completely in the dark.  But to be well with it is to allow it to be a holy-dark and to surrender to it enables us to journey to the real light.

Dante spoke truly of this journey in the following passage from The Inferno:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell
About those woods is hard—so tangled and rough
And savage that thinking of it now, I feel
The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.
And yet, to treat the good I found there as well
I’ll tell what I saw…. (Canto I)

Traveling through times of darkness will ultimately bring us to that sacred center – full of light and joy.  While darkness is not the whole of the story, as pilgrimages often have vistas of beauty and happiness, it is often the part of the story left untold.  Parker Palmer writes prolifically about these obscure seasons and offers a mandate that we share with others about our journeys. He wisely recognizes that in telling what we saw in our dark woods, we cross an essential threshold into a place of selfhood and regenerative new life.  Furthermore, there is a sense that to tell the whole of one’s story-to illuminate one’s life journey– can actually help to keep us out of the darkness.

I need to tell my truth, my story, for another reason. Many of you today are journeying through the wilderness and traveling without the knowledge of company or solidarity.  That kind of isolation can eclipse all hopes in ever leaving the labyrinth.  Those of us who have gone before you would be false if we withheld the shadowy parts of our own lives.  We have the power to provide community and comprehension for others when we share authentically about our own story.

The tale of my journey through barren wilderness is no more or less important than anyone else’s.  Mine is simply mine, and therefore the only context from which I can speak.  My dark night began when I was a university student. I was sexually assaulted by someone I knew and called a friend. The darkness of that particular night became that of an endless, starless season. I became pregnant as a result of the rape. Horrified doesn’t even begin to touch the emotional state in which this realization spun me.  For so many varied and vulnerable reasons, my overwhelming shock hunkered into my deepest, softest places and alone, in quiet confusion, I made the decision to terminate the pregnancy. I soundlessly screamed against a God who could allow this to happen to me.  I reticently raised my fists at systems that seemed to condone such manifestations of mysogony and misappropriations of power.  I was in shock. I was in denial.  I felt I like was dumped at the trailhead of a trek for which I would never in a lifetime have signed up.  But like it or not, my life was taking me into the darkness of a journey that called me to wrestle with dark angels and beg me to ask this question: toward what newness is God calling me?

This assault brought me to my knees, my spirit to the ground. I felt alone and alienated in my pain, and completely unknowable in my experience.  This isolation later contributed to factors that diagnosed me with clinical depression.  Wise counsel helped me understand that instead of perceiving these attacks as being crushed by the enemy, I could see this rather as an invited time of being laid down on the ground, a place where it would be safe to curl up and cry, but to ultimately stand up tall again as well.  I had to discover the ground of my own truth, my own nature, my own mix of darkness and light.  This wilderness journey, this labyrinth, wasn’t leading me to hell, but was journeying me towards God.

Now here are where the paradoxes of our faith come into play.

Now, clearly I don’t believe that God willed and allowed me to basely suffer at the hands of that man. That happened because our world is fallen in nature.  Nor do I believe that God wanted me to have an abortion and become depressed.  There is deep and distracting theology around both those points; here is not the place to delve into either.  However, what I do believe is that God inhabits the perilous places in our pilgrimage.  The Bible often uses darkness as a metaphor for sin and the absence of God.  On the other hand, there are references to darkness being a place where God dwells and seems to take comfort.  In Psalm 18:11, the Psalmist describes it this way: “God makes darkness his hiding place, the covering around Him, the dark rain clouds of the sky.”  The image of the Creator of the Universe shrouded in darkness with images of distended, dark rain clouds is not our normal frame of reference; the Psalmist’s perspective, though, has sufficiency and solidarity all over it.  God in the dark.  God living your darkness. Therefore, darkness can feel strangely nurturing, swollen with the mystery of becoming.  All of life first incubates in darkness.  New development follows and life begins.  Darkness indeed is a necessary condition for development.  Whenever a new life begins and grows, darkness is crucial to that processes.  Whether it is the caterpillar and the chrysalis, the seed and the soil, the wee one in the womb, or the true self and the soul.  There is always a time of waiting. In. The. Dark.

In John’s Gospel, there is a story of when Jesus tells a high ranking Pharisee named Nicodemus that in order to see the kingdom of God, he must be born again.  This did not mean reentering his mother’s womb; rather, Christ was talking about a spiritual transformation.  As Christians, we often just focus on the-life-everlasting after the rebirth and forget to recognize the inherent (and necessary) gestation period.  Sue Monk Kidd describes this as a time of “incubating darkness.”  I believe that Jesus selected this strongly feminine metaphor not just so we could grasp the power of new life but also to engage in the implications of the womb that precede every birth. If we want to enter the kingdom of God, we will have to enter a place of waiting, of darkness and of incubation. We will have to walk the wilderness. Julian of Norwich wrote that “our wounds become the womb.” This touching image points us to the awareness that transformation hinges on the ability for us to turn our wounds into a fertile place where life is birthed-the womb.

Gustav Klimt 1909

I have now been out of these dark woods for many years now.  That devastating time in the desert slowly began to change to seasons of oasis; the shadowy woods became my own personal Tree of Life.  I now have a loving, supportive husband and three beautiful children who daily teach me so much about life, our world and how to live well into it.  And I have a life that would not be what it is had I not sojourned through that dark, wild forest. The wound of that trespass so many years ago is now the site of great life and fertility.  The darkness of that decision and depression has given way to new perspectives on life and the Christ-light.  My threshold for empathizing with another’s story and listening without judgement has increased in depth and breadth because of that journey.  There is a great sense of light in my life these days and this certainly isn’t to say that I won’t once again travel in the hard, rocky places.  It is simply that I have such a clearer understanding that out of death, comes life.  We only know light because of the darkness.  I walk in the woods now and I witness a fallen tree on the forest floor and I smile and understand a little bit more; for this wizened wood has now become a nurse log, a fertile place which will provide life, and company, for a gazillion little creatures for a long, long time.

And so today I ask this: let the Christ-life incubate within the darkness of your wilderness.  Share your dark journey with a safe-someone else, for it is in sharing our story that we invite others to be light, to be grace, to be hope, and to be Christ to us; thereby bringing us out of the darkness or simply being there to illuminate it.

 

Labyrinth-The Lorica as Light

13th century image of pilgrims at sea

As we journey through life, we each come to, and through, seasons of great challenge and often despair.  From the time we are children, we face the fears of monsters-real and imaginary-and the dark.  We come up against the things that cause us to cringe and curl away from our castles in the air.  And we are reminded that in many ways, we are very much like Max, the cajoling, contrary little boy in Maurice Sendak’s story Where the Wild Things Are.

In this tale, through a sequence of events that tend to happen to parents of young children between the hours of 4:00-6:00pm, our protagonist, Max, finds himself sent away to his room without supper.  That night, a forest grew up in his room, and an ocean roared by, and Max boarded a boat and “sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks…to where the wild things are.”  These wild things “gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws,” but Max tamed and ruled over them, becoming their king.  Ultimately, it is clear to Max that it was time to return home.  He sailed back over the same vast ocean, in the same little boat, reappearing in his same childhood home…only he found that he was immeasurably changed, even as he ate his hot supper.

Our journeys will not be without trial and darkness.  What we have marked as a pilgrimage will most definitely bring us to-but always through!-turbulent oceans of fear and doubt.  Just this week, popular author and pilgrim, Phil Cousineau tweeted, “When you’re following your passion, threshold guardians will try to hold you back. Getting past them depends on how deep your passion goes.”  The image of the labyrinth is an ancient symbol for the meandering path of the soul that goes from light into darkness and emerges once again into light.  The soul emanates transformed. This darkness (the wilderness) is the heart of the pilgrimage and always involves an element of inner conflict or struggle. It is the time spent within the wilderness where you meet your fears and confront them-where you come up against whatever prevents you from hearing the voice of God or living a life of compassion and generosity.[i]

We may have not be sent to our room, but we have been sent on a soulful sojourn with the promise of sacred encounters along the way and a bounty beyond belief upon our homecoming.  But these “threshold guardians,” these wild things, will do their best to frighten and influence us away from our goal.  Young Max was wise to use power to command his fears.  As we progress through the pitchy places of our pilgrimage, we find St. Patrick’s timely prayer, The Lorica, and use it as a lantern to light our way.

Statue of St. Patrick

The Lorica is also known as St. Patrick’s “Breastplate” Prayer.  These powerful words call out to God to protect those parts of the soul and body that would be preyed upon by evil throughout the day’s ventures.  These words become likened to the necessary armor that guards, but they also provide guidance as one explores their private seas.  Inevitably darkness and dismay will descend on your journey.  It has been said that “patience, silence, trust, and faith are venerable qualities of the pilgrim, but more important is the practice of them.”  Along with these virtues, this strengthening prayer becomes the light that will illuminate the darkness and reveal that which is at your sacred center.  Godspeed!

The Lorica (St. Patrick’s ‘Breastplate’ Prayer)

I bind unto myself today
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this day to me forever.
By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation;
His baptism in the Jordan river;
His death on Cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spicèd tomb;
His riding up the heavenly way;
His coming at the day of doom;*
I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself the power
Of the great love of the cherubim;
The sweet ‘well done’ in judgment hour,
The service of the seraphim,
Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word,
The Patriarchs’ prayers, the Prophets’ scrolls,
All good deeds done unto the Lord,
And purity of virgin souls.

I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the starlit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea,
Around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today
The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, His might to stay,
His ear to hearken to my need.
The wisdom of my God to teach,
His hand to guide, His shield to ward,
The word of God to give me speech,
His heavenly host to be my guard.

Against the demon snares of sin,
The vice that gives temptation force,
The natural lusts that war within,
The hostile men that mar my course;
Or few or many, far or nigh,
In every place and in all hours,
Against their fierce hostility,
I bind to me these holy powers.

Against all Satan’s spells and wiles,
Against false words of heresy,
Against the knowledge that defiles,
Against the heart’s idolatry,
Against the wizard’s evil craft,
Against the death wound and the burning,
The choking wave and the poisoned shaft,
Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three,
Of Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.



[i] Sarah York, Pilgrim Heart: The Inner Journey Home, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001),12.

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are, (Harper Collins Publishers), Copyright 1963 by Maurice Sendak.

St. Patrick’s Breastplate  is traditionally attributed to Saint Patrick during his Irish ministry in the 5th century.

The Pilgrim’s Path: Seeing the Sacred

If the journey you have chosen is indeed a pilgrimage, a soulful journey, it will be rigorous.  Ancient wisdom suggests if you aren’t trembling as you approach the sacred,                     it isn’t the real thing.  The sacred, in its various guises as holy ground, art, or knowledge, evokes emotion and commotion.

– Phil Cousineau

As soon as you mark your journey as a pilgrimage, you are drawing a line in the sand transforming how you move through the world-how you see, hear and taste the world around you.  And inevitably, because of this manner of intention-and because the Powers that Be know what you’ve done (that whole line in the sand act)-there will be things that go wrong…terribly wrong.  That is simply the nature of the Pilgrim’s Path; no longer can you just simply curse at an inconvenience or change in plans.  There is Some One speaking to you now through the chaos.  There is a Force that will derail all your best laid undertakings and ideals for this journey just so you will see things anew, afresh; just so you will see the Holy, the Mystery that is present.

The purpose of the pilgrimage is to ultimately make life more meaningful.  It is regarded as the universal quest for the self.  Though the form of the path changes, one element remains the same: renewal of the soul.  The essence of the sacred way is “tracing a sacred route of tests and trials, ordeals and obstacles, to arrive at a holy place and attempt to fathom the secrets of its power.”[i]  The act of listening is emphasized here.  The way of the pilgrim is one of an inner-quiet, an inner ear tuned to the subtle sounds of the Spirit while on the sacred road.  And every road is sacred, as is every sidewalk, every aisle, every stoplight.  You have chosen to listen and to see the life that moves around and through you, no longer overlooking the beauty and the blessings that surround every minute of every day.

Once the acts of intention and attention are completed, the pilgrim is ready to cross the threshold.  The threshold is more than an architectural detail; it is a mythological image that evokes the spirit of resistance we must pass through on our journey from all we’ve known to all that is unknown.  It is the first step toward renewal.[ii]  Once on the other side, Pilgrims move from ordinary time and space into sacred time and sacred space.  In this reality, the meanings we associate with our normal everyday experiences are turned upside down.  This isn’t necessarily to over-spiritualize everything; I mean, you may really have run out of gas simply because YOU didn’t fill up the tank.  But, maybe…just maybe…you did run out of gas because that person who helped you…needed you as much as you needed them.  Or maybe that call from a friend, or the bank, or the doctor, or the school, while inevitably inconveniencing you to whatever extent, is an augury- demanding that you slow, stop and SEE the Sacred that is on the move in your life.

Every encounter, every eye contact, every handshake is now imbued with the potential and possibility for a sacred encounter–and rarely does God disappoint. The structures we use to define who we are in ordinary life become irrelevant.  Pilgrim space has no regard for class, race, or social/economic standing.  There are no more random run-ins with strangers; there are no more lucky or misfortunate moments.  In sacred travel, every experience is uncanny; every contact attests to some greater plan.  No encounter is without meaning.  There are signs everywhere, if only we learn how to read them.  Peculiar people turn into much-needed messengers.  “From now,” advised Epictetus, “practice saying to everything that appears unpleasant: ‘you are just an appearance and by no means what you appear to be.’” Use the powers of your sacred imagination, the old Roman sage is saying.  See behind the veil of things.  Listen to the message that is between every spoken word, every gust of wind.  Everything matters along the road, but what matters deeply is what is invisible and must be seen with the inner eye.[iii]

In August 2009 I, along with about 20 undergraduate students from Seattle Pacific University, were pledged to make pilgrimage to Iona, Scotland.  We had departed from SeaTac airport with ease; the sun seemed to be shining upon us and our ventures.  In fact, I rode the light rail to get to the airport and the station where I embarked, Columbia City Station, had an icon next to the station sign that, while overseen many times, I finally looked and it spoke to me: the image was that of a dove.  Columbia  City…Columbia…Columba…Colum Cille…”dove of the church”…and patron saint of Iona.  Could an omen be any clearer?  My heart was thrilled to begin this sacred journey!  However, as it has to be with pilgrimages, this ecstasy was relatively short lived.  For while we were to have but a brief layover in Philadelphia prior to our Transatlantic flight, we were stuck on the turmac for HOURS as Hurricane Bill raged all around us; lightning rods reaching from the dark sky and striking the black asphalt upon which our plane sat.  Throughout this drenching downpour, our luggage sat, open to the skies…uncovered.  When we picked up our backpacks in Glasgow, they were soaked, as were their contents.  As were my meticulous memorandas for our retreat.  Every paper of pre-planned retreat material?  Saturated. Could I have cried tears of frustration?  Sure!  But I knew that there was a message for me in those great winds and in between each of those heavy drops of rain.  I chose to laugh, and begin to listen.

Part of the importance of the road are the ones whom you happen upon along the way.  It is critical to understand that while you may be on a personal pilgrimage, that you may be doing something ever-so-unique-to-you-alone during Lent, you are surrounded by others. These friends and family, yes, even these strangers will be the harbingers of many important messages to you on your way.  You are not journeying alone.  Shoulder up to these voices, these presences, and seek their wisdom and response.  Undoubtedly they have something important to pass along your way.  They may be sent to redirect you, to provide you new instructions.  But you must first be able to extend a hand, make eye contact and then, listen.

Since last week’s writing and sharing of my Lenten intentions, there has been something being proclaimed-nay, SHOUTED-in my ears; and quite honestly, I welcome any help from you, my journey-partners, in deciphering what I’m already supposed to be seeing.  For, soon after I wrote of my love and need for the impartation of ashes, my middle son -River- became ill.  Our youngest, Anna, was quickly at his heels.  By our rice and bean dinner time, we were making home-made ash from remnants in our fire pit for our own house-ritual and rubbing troubled tummies at the same time.

The flu had landed at 2809 and was merciless.  By Friday, Orion, our eldest, was head to toe covered in hives as his body battled the virus.  By Saturday, it was evident that River had become severely dehydrated and needed to be taken to the hospital.  Anna, clung to me in her lethargy, and whimpered whenever put down.  It was as if a hurricane had hit our house and was pummeling us with all its worth.  Sunday had us over its knee in exhaustion; this was supposed to be our Feast Day and I hadn’t once worked out for 30 minutes since Lent began!  This wasn’t what I had intended for the start of my holy-journey at all!  Despite the counters laden with crackers and cures, Joel and I had continued to eat our rice and beans and, heck!  I was frustrated, tired from the unceasing vigils, and ready to feast and I had absolutely no energy to put into anything except warming up the vat of Lenten victuals in the fridge.

And then there was a knock at the door.  Our associate pastor was on our porch with prayers and Pyrex in hand: hot, home-made Beef and Broccoli in Oyster Sauce was being brought to us for dinner.  He extended us his hand, he looked into our eyes.  He blessed River and attended to Anna.  He brought care and concern from our congregation. He was a messenger. Look for the Sacred.  Listen for the Message.  Tears streamed down my face as love was ladled onto our plates.  I leaned into the strength of someone else in my kitchen, someone else standing at my sink.  I ate.  I was nourished-oh so very fed!

I am freshly struck with how we just simply cannot get by in this life on our own.  We cannot be parents, parishioners, pilgrims or priests without a community of care around us.  This network IS our guide.  These hands, these voices, these hearts, help us find our direction when the way has stormed over.  When our backpacks have become too heavy from the torrential rains of the Pilgrim’s road, we must find relief from other’s who are sharing in this journey with us.  They are here for this reason.

God has placed them on our path to provide and point the way.

———

Does the road wind uphill all the way?                                                                                     Yes, to the very end.                                                                                                                 Will the journey take the whole long day?                                                                                     From morn to night, my friend.                                                                                                 -Christina Rossetti, 1867


 [i] Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage, (Boston, MA: Conari Press, 1998), 96.

[ii] Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage, (Boston, MA: Conari Press, 1998), 83.

[iii] Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage, (Boston, MA: Conari Press, 1998), 98.