Notes from Squirrels' Leap

Contemplating contemplation

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The Problem of Pain

After a conversation with two of my student-friends yesterday about the effects of suffering on a person’s life, I remembered a newspaper column I wrote about this years ago. Here it is, an old dusty column from 2008. May it be a blessing to somebody…

Having just celebrated my 52nd birthday a few days after Christmas, I’m well into the last quarter of my life, even if I’m given man’s allotted “three-score years and 10.” I hope I’ve acquired some wisdom along the way. I want to — I long to.

Along my journey, I’ve made many foolish mistakes, poor decisions, done things that have hurt myself and those I love along the way. One of my prayers for this new year, and for the rest of my life, is that I will grow in wisdom, in good judgment — that I will be able to look at life through a clear lens of truth, not one sullied by selfishness or made foggy by foolishness, and that my steps will be firmly planted in the footprints left behind for me by the One who goes always before us.

One part of the search for wisdom, for me, is struggling to make sense of sorrow and pain and loss. It’s a huge question, one that much wiser and more expansive minds than mine throughout history have fought to make sense of and explain, but one, I think, that we all have to come to terms with if Life is to be anything but a fool’s pinball game to us.

I’m helped along the way toward a new grasp of what C. S. Lewis called “the problem of pain” by the gift of meeting people whose stories I write. I have the privilege to meet and talk to people who have lived through much greater sorrows than I have been asked to bear, and who walk through them with great grace and courage, because they have achieved an understanding of the transforming power of pain that only comes from walking through the fire.

People like Peggy and Wesley Bushnell, who lost their only son Billy in combat in Iraq last spring. Knowing how deeply my own two sons are woven into my heart, I asked them how they bore this loss. They told me each of us has to decide if we believe that God is in charge, and if He is, whether or not we believe He’s a God of love.

And if we do, we go from there, believing there is a loving wisdom holding us up and helping us to bring some semblance of sense into our sorrow.

I’m learning, by seeing it played out over and over in flesh and blood, that Love can not only make pain bearable, but by divine alchemy can change the pain — redeem it. Can blossom through it, like a rose blooming in a heap of trash and shards of broken glass. Can make it into something usable, something creative. Love can transform pain into a catalyst for growth in a human soul that can happen no other way.

I once read that pain is like a knife. What kind of scars that knife makes on a human life depends upon whose hands hold it. In the hands of a man made desperate by drugs or despair, a knife can maim or even destroy a life. But in the hands of a skilled surgeon, a sharp, sterile scalpel can cut away the malignant tumor that’s choking the life out of a loving mother, or repair a damaged heart valve in a much-loved child.

Pain, if put into the hands of Love Himself, can be redemptive. In fact, I believe there’s nothing more redemptive in a human life than personal sorrow and pain and loss and disappointment and illness and suffering can be, if offered into the hands of Love.

I’ve seen it over and over again, and I know you have, too. How the biggest heartbreak, the most heart-rending loss, the most difficult struggle with disease or disability, can result in the greatest growth as a person. People who have suffered the most have the most compassion for others’ suffering. Their hearts, having been stretched on the rack of pain, are made larger. That’s why it’s been said that those who have suffered most have most to give.

Thornton Wilder wrote, “In Love’s service, only the wounded soldiers can serve.”

The way I see it, in this life’s journey, we’re all wounded soldiers. What we do with our own personal allotment of pain is up to us. We can cling to it, hoard it like a miser’s coins, and let it warp us and make us sour and bitter and self-pitying and crooked and small — or we can offer it to the One who suffered for us — the One who is the embodiment of Love — and let Him use it to make us kinder, more compassionate, more giving, more tender-hearted.

To make us bigger people.

(Published in the Harrison (Ark.) Daily Times in early 2008. Copyright Neighbor Newspapers).

Walking with my Shadow

My shadow and I took a walk together along Crooked Creek today.

It was fairly late on this short winter day, just two weeks from the Solstice, so the shadows were long and eastward-facing as the sun dipped toward the western hills.

As I gazed toward the creek to soak in its sweet peace, my shadow kept appearing, reminding me of Carl Jung’s shadow teachings that Richard Rohr often refers to:

“One of the great surprises on the human journey is that we come to full consciousness precisely by shadowboxing, facing our own contradictions, and making friends with our own mistakes and failings. People who have had no inner struggles are invariably superficial and uninteresting. We tend to endure them more than appreciate them because they have little to communicate and show little curiosity. Shadow work is what I call ‘falling upward.’ Lady Julian of Norwich (1342–1416) put it best of all: ‘First there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall. And both are the mercy of God!'”

‘The Loving Gaze’

“…Christian contemplation means finding God in all things and all things in God. Brother Lawrence, the 17th century Carmelite friar, called it ‘the loving gaze which finds God everywhere.'” (metanoia.org)

Those closest to me over the past year have heard me talk about my “new spiritual path.” It’s not truly a new path, but an ancient one.

I’ve been thinking, reading, talking with friends, praying — in ways that are different for me. And I’m excited about delving deeper into things that are, in some ways, very new for me, but also, in some essential ways, things that I’ve been acquainted with since I was a young girl. I feel like I’m coming home to something that’s always been part of me — to a way of seeing, to a way of thinking, to a way of praying, to a way of living, to a way of loving — that feels very familiar, but at the same time, very exciting and new. It’s like things that I’ve always known in my heart to be true, but didn’t think must be very important because nobody else I knew seemed to talk or think about them — have been validated.

Or — it’s like a lens that I’ve been looking through all of my life, but thought that I was a little bit crazy because I soon realized that everybody didn’t look through a lens like mine — turns out to be a legitimate lens that other really neat people much smarter and wiser than I am have also looked through.

This lens is contemplation. Some call it “mysticism,” but that word has, in some sections of the Christian culture, gained a connotation of unnerving things like occult practices. Since there’s nothing occult at all about this ancient Christian path, walked by believers since Jesus himself walked the earth as one of us, some prefer to avoid the word “mysticism” and just call the path something like “contemplative Christianity.” Personally, I love the words “mystic” and “mysticism,” and would be honored to ever be considered a mystic myself. When I think of Christian mystics, I think of amazing saints like Dame Julian of Norwich and Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.

When I first read Thornton Wilder’s powerful play Our Town in the eleventh grade, one section jumped out at me, so I copied it into my journal, and have often quoted it over the almost 40 years that have gone by since I first read it:

Emily asks, “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?”

And the Stage Manager replies: “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.”

I can remember being thrilled by the idea of “realizing life” while I lived it. I wrote poems about it. I longed to be one of those “saints and poets.” I think the Stage Manager was talking about mystics. The saints and poets. The people who “find God in all things, and all things in God.”

I hope to write regularly about what I’m thinking about, reading about, learning about, on this contemplative path. I invite you to come along with me as I try to develop the “loving gaze which finds God everywhere.”

Ducklings and Deuteronomy

Getting back into my summertime routine of walking the trail around our downtown lake first thing in the morning makes me happy. As soon as I get up, I jump into comfy clothes and walking shoes, grab a cheese stick and a bottle of cold water, and head out – even before my first cup of coffee.

Walking by myself is usually a prayerful, meditative time for me. It’s an interlude in my life, an in-between time, when I can often hear the voice of the Holy Spirit whispering to me through the natural beauty around me.

Today, two mallard ducklings were my tiny teachers.

They walked out in front of me, following their bold mama across the sidewalk in a little feathery parade. Mama had apparently led them from the lake earlier and across the sidewalk into the grass to graze, but now it was time to head back home to the water. As I waited, Mama waddled quickly across the walk, followed by her two little guys, who lagged a little behind her. When Mom reached the top of the steep manmade rock embankment about two feet above the water, without even looking back at her babies behind her, she jumped off and half-flew right into the water. Obviously slightly distressed when she disappeared from their sight, the two little ones fluttered a little bit and hopped closer to the edge to peer over the little slope. I imagined their conversation as they scuttled:

“Where did Mama go?”

“She’s back in the water!”

“But these rocks are sharp, and it’s a long way to the water!”

“I scary of jumping off!”

“But we’ve got to get to where Mom is!”

They only hesitated a minute, then each one took the plunge – a big one for them – and splashed back into the water, then paddled as fast as they could to fall into line behind their serenely swimming mother. As I walked on past, they were already neatly back in line behind Mom, paddling busily to some new spot she had her mind set on.

As I walked on around the lake, it occurred to me that God goes before us, just like that mama duck went before her babies. We’re told, “The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” (Deut. 31:8 NIV) The mama duck went ahead, expecting her little ones to follow – and they did. They were scared – they were hesitant – they were fluttery – but they still jumped in after her.

All too often scared, hesitant, and fluttery myself, I’m afraid I often stop at the edge of the embankment, afraid to follow my leader, afraid to jump off into the lake and swim, and just stand there, frozen. I long to be brave enough to jump off. Maybe this blog will be one way I can splash into the lake this summer!

ducks

Woods, river, and blue sky revival

woods 1After weeks and and weeks of gray skies and bitter cold over the Christmas break, the blue skies, sunshine, and warmer temperatures of the past week have been like water for a woman dying of thirst! D and ran away to Buffalo Point Sunday with a picnic lunch and restored our souls by walking in the winter woods and alongside the green-blue Buffalo under the bright-blue sky.

woods 3

blue sky and rocky riverbank

bluffs and green water

Being out in God’s creation renews our spirits like nothing else can. I’m so thankful to live in such a lovely part of the world with Nature’s beauty all around us, free for the taking!

Offering up our brokenness

Here’s a wonderful quote that I remember from the first time I read Gail Godwin’s Father Melancholy’s Daughter several years ago. I just happened upon this tonight and didn’t want to lose it, so I thought I’d post it here for safekeeping  – and in case it might be a blessing to someone else tonight:

“‘Let us pray,’ said my father. ‘Oh, Lord, who on Maundy Thursday didst say to Thy disciples, ‘This is my body, broken for you,’ permit us to use this occasion to offer Thee all our broken parts. We ask Thee to take our broken friendships, our broken dreams, our broken promises, promises we made both to others and to ourselves; take the broken bodies of some of us, and the broken hearts of all of us. And take unto Thee everything about us that we may not know is broken, or is going to be broken, and make all things whole again in Thyself. Amen.'”

 

Angel with broken wing

 

What a wonderful prayer. It speaks to me – does it to you?

 

Godwin, Gail. Father Melancholy’s Daughter. William Morrow & Co. Inc. New York: 1991. p. 311.

 

Contemplating contemplation

This morning I picked up a book from my living room bookshelf that I bought several years ago and never read. It’s ended up standing on a shelf with other “spiritual” books, gathering dust. While reading a novel whose theme is spiritual things – Father Melancholy’s Daughter by Gail Godwin – I felt moved to delve into a non-fiction book that deals with the deeper things of the spirit. After flipping through several on my shelf, I chose Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation.

First of all, let’s take a look at who Thomas Merton was. I always like to have some idea about the author I’m reading so I’ll know how seriously to take him.
primary-merton

According to Wikipedia:
“Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O. (January 31, 1915 – December 10, 1968), was an Anglo-American Catholic writer and mystic. A Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky, he was a poet, social activist, and student of comparative religion. In 1949, he was ordained to the priesthood and given the name Father Louis.

Merton wrote more than 70 books, mostly on spirituality, social justice and a quiet pacifism, as well as scores of essays and reviews, including his best-selling autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), which sent scores of World War II veterans, students, and even teenagers flocking to monasteries across the US, and was also featured in National Review’s list of the 100 best non-fiction books of the century. Merton was a keen proponent of interfaith understanding. He pioneered dialogue with prominent Asian spiritual figures, including the Dalai Lama, the Japanese writer D.T. Suzuki, and the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Merton has also been the subject of several biographies.”

Merton’s credentials satisfy me – what do you think?

I regret to confess that Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain is also on my shelf, untouched. In my lifetime, I’ve often longed to read more serious spiritual books, but usually don’t find the self-discipline needed to put down my novels and read something that involves a little thought. Maybe immersing myself in graduate studies for my master’s in English has taught me a little more intellectual discipline – and now that I’m between semesters, I have a little time to read something more meaty in addition to my beloved fiction.

Merton starts off New Seeds of Contemplation by saying:
“Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source. It knows the Source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes both beyond reason and beyond simple faith. For contemplation is a kind of spiritual vision to which both reason and faith aspire, by their very nature, because without it they must always remain incomplete….
In other words, then, contemplation reaches out to the knowledge and even to the experience of the transcendent and inexpressible God. It knows God by seeming to touch Him. Or rather it knows Him as if it had been invisibly touched by Him….Hence contemplation is a sudden gift of awareness, an awakening to the Real within all that is real.”

poppy

At first glance, I didn’t think I’d have much in common with a Trappist monk other than our Catholic faith, but in beginning to read Merton’s book, I find myself thinking, “I kind of get what you’re talking about here.” I think that, for me, losing myself in Nature is a form of contemplation. I seem to be able to deepen that experience best by shooting photos along the way… or by writing about it later. Merton’s given me lots to think about today. I’m going to ponder what I’m supposed to do with it when I’m given “a sudden gift of awareness, an awakening to the Real within all that is real.” I am pretty sure that I’m supposed to share it somehow. Maybe this blog will become, not only a spiritual discipline for myself, but an avenue for sharing some of the “gift of awareness” that I may be given along the way.

Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation. New Directions: New York,1972. pp.1-3.

Late-night, late-April thoughts

Soon and very soon, I’m going to be walking into something I haven’t experienced in a long time – a whole long summer of no work! Because I’m a member of the faculty at North Arkansas College, I only work nine months a year, and so will be off from the beginning of May until about the third week in August.
I’m making plans for creative summer projects, and at the top of my list is to work on the novel that I’ve been mulling over for the past several years. At least right now, it’s going to be based on experiences from my great-grandmother’s life back in Mississippi around 1900, in my mother’s family’s hometown. I’ve already started jotting down some ideas, and even worked a little while on a character sketch today. I’m very excited about trying to write a novel, after having told myself my whole life that I can’t write fiction. It finally occurred to me that I have probably CONSUMED more fiction than almost anybody I’ve ever known, so surely that should count for something! Maybe all of those stories that I’ve devoured since I was six years old have been percolating around in my subconscious and are ready to be brewed into a nice strong story of their own.
Hmmmm…..

My birthday camping trip!

Doyle and I ran away for two nights to Table Rock Lake State Park, just about 40 minutes from our house, to celebrate my birthday and our first mutual Christmas holiday from school. It was wonderful!

Image

We were one of only three campers at the whole campground, and got a great spot overlooking the marina, with a western view of the lake out our “breakfast room” window, so we could watch the sunset!

We got all set up Tuesday afternoon, and relaxed with an easy supper and our books and my knitting. We’ve both loved having time to read over the holidays, and I’ve taken advantage of having time to do a little writing and a lot of knitting, too.


fter sleeping in and having a big bacon and egg breakfast, we ventured out on the super-nice walking trail around the lake. There are some beautiful picnic spots that we loved and said we’d have to remember to come back again for a Sunday afternoon picnic, or a family get-together in warmer weather.

We walked out on the pier by the boat launch and spent a few minutes enjoying the feeling of being out on a dock again. Sometimes I miss “messing about in boats.”

We wandered off the trail down to the lake’s edge and lost ourselves in beach-combing. I’ve always loved to beachcomb in Florida, and since moving to the Ozarks, I’ve learned to love looking for pretty rocks along the shores of our lakes and rivers in the hills.

Being outside in the sunshine and fresh breeze, watching the sun sparkle on the lake, was just delightful. Having time off from work this time of year is such a treat, and running away for my birthday with my sweetheart wonderful!

As we walked back to the camper, we stopped to admire another picnic spot … what a beautiful place! When we walked by this place earlier, a lady was sitting on one of the picnic tables, facing the lake, and totally absorbed in writing in a notebook. She had made a special trip to her lakeside writing spot, prepared with her blanket, a cushion, and a hot drink. I wished I could’ve peeked at what she was writing! I also longed to come back and write there myself …

I wish I had remembered to shoot some photos on my birthday evening, when Jamie drove up and joined us for a steak cookout and a little birthday celebration that included apple pie and ice cream! It made my birthday camping trip even more special to have one of my sons there to share it with us. I wish we could’ve zapped Alex in from Boulder, too!

Our Tree of Angels

This is our sweet little Christmas tree that stands on a desk in our upstairs sitting room at Squirrels’ Leap. It’s a special tree, full of mostly handmade ornaments that have special meaning to us. Most of the little angels are handmade by the ladies of the Ozark County, Mo., PEO Chapter, and given to me by my dear friend Janet. Many of them have been set aside as special memorials to dear ones who have already crossed the River. The snowflakes were crocheted by my sweet mother-in-law Ruby years ago, and the little quilt around the base of the tree was stitched by my sweet Mama, not long before she died, as a special gift for me.

This curly-headed angel hangs in memory of Daddy’s mother, our dear “Grandmarie” …. Marie Alice Aubert Taylor Bailey of Gulfport, Mississippi.

 

 

 

 

 

This is my “Poppy angel,” in memory of my dear Poppy, my mother’s mother, Henrietta “Polly” Holt Adams Elkin of Macon, Mississippi.

 

 

 

This sweet angel reminds me of my beloved Aunt Mimi, Mary O’Lena Adams Ketchum of Macon, Mississippi, my Mama’s older sister who was a second mother to me during my years with her in Mississippi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is my newest angel, made by the Missouri ladies this year. She is on our tree in memory of one of the dearest friends of my life, my cousin Barbara Hardin Crespino, who died in early summer. Barbara, who loved to sing, is singing Christmas carols in Heaven this year.

 

Our tree of angels is very dear to me, and grows dearer each year. These little Christmas angels make me smile as they sweetly remind me of the love that these dear women each poured out on me during their lifetimes, and remind me to try to walk in the light of Joy, as they each did.