As I walked with Gibbs the other day the sun was really attempting to shine! We had had what felt like weeks of gray days, people all around me were in desperate need of some vitamin D to boost their moods, and the walks we had taken were ones where we were searching for beauty rather than being stopped in our tracks by it. So on this day, when there were small breaks in the clouds and the sun was trying to work its way through them, the trail we were on was a hindrance to feeling its effort. This particular trail started off in the trees with fairly thick cover, closed in on both sides, snow crunching underfoot. Gibbs and I walked down it, barely noticing the struggling sun. But then, all of a sudden, the path came to a crossroads and opened up to an expansive view of a frozen pond in front of a large meadow, brown grasses standing tall above the snow, a line of birch trees surrounding it…. and the miracle of blue cloudy sky above! Even though I know this view is there, I still felt my heart open up, my breath deepened, my eyes blinked to take it all in, and a smile crept across my face. Ahhhhh.
As I was reflecting on this full-bodied flood of expansion, I was reminded, maybe strangely, of flashbacks, both my own and ones I have sat with clients through. For many of us, when a flashback to a past trauma happens, especially if it is a trauma from childhood, or from repeated trauma where we have been helpless, the response is to freeze. Many people understand the flight or fight responses, but for those who have experienced repeated trauma, disassociation is a common. Leon Seltzer Ph.D describes the three states as follows:
“Here, in brief, is how the survival-oriented acute stress response operates. Accurately or not, if you assess the immediately menacing force as something you potentially have the power to defeat, you go into fight mode. In such instances, the hormones released by your sympathetic nervous system—especially adrenaline—prime you to do battle and, hopefully, triumph over the hostile entity.
Conversely, if you view the antagonistic force as too powerful to overcome, your impulse is to outrun it (and the faster the better). And this, of course, is the flight response, also linked to the instantaneous ramping up of your emergency biochemical supplies—so that, ideally, you can escape from this adversarial power (whether it be human, animal, or some calamity of nature).
Where, in what you perceive as a dire threat, is the totally disabling freeze response? By default, this reaction refers to a situation in which you’ve concluded (in a matter of seconds—if not milliseconds) that you can neither defeat the frighteningly dangerous opponent confronting you nor safely bolt from it. And ironically, this self-paralyzing response can, in the moment, be just as adaptive as either valiantly fighting the enemy or, more cautiously, fleeing from it.”
When the body freezes, or disassociates, the freezing state is not just an outer state of being. It temporarily shuts down the internal organs not vital for life. It shuts down the emotional state of being. It shuts down the feeling of physical pain. It can save a life as a resilient coping strategy, disengaging the body from what is happening.
So when a flashback occurs and someone re-enters the memory of a trauma, the body can once again freeze. The breathing slows, the digestive system shuts down, the mind can go blank, speech can be hard or impossible, and mostly flat lined in affect. It is as though the memory frozen within our cells… and, indeed, it is trapped in our body, takes hold of us once more. But with help, the memory/flashback can be worked through and healed, piece by piece, allowing the body to re-incorporate the feelings and event.
So how did my path remind me of this? When someone is coming out of a freeze state, the body opens up once more. There is an expansion, often witnessed by stomachs gurgling, breath deepening, yawning, eyes blinking… all signs that the body is, once again, alive. Just as my body reacted to the sight of the meadow, so our bodies react to a coming out of a freeze response. There can also be shaking and emotions that come at this point, all signs that the body is waking up and restoring itself. And while my body did not do all of these things as I stepped into the open, the feeling of expansiveness was a familiar one. The way I felt spaciousness within my heart and lungs, the ways my eyes teared at the beauty, the way life flooded through me once more… yes! I was alive! I was restored! And the sun was almost shining!
As you go about your week this week, I invite you to pay attention to these moments of expansion, the moments that make you feel most alive. Think about what came before them and how that helped you feel this way. Give thanks to God for the times where you can feel more deeply, embodied and heart-filled.
And if you need someone to walk through those frozen places with you, reach out for help to someone you trust. Allowing the healing to take place, piece by piece.
Since I began focusing full time on my spiritual direction and healing practice in November, I’ve found myself having more time to create… not just for the business, but for my own healing/prayer/reflection time. I’ve done a few paintings, written a little more, almost finished making curtains (that have been 16 months in the waiting to do pile!), and more. And it’s felt like the beautiful breathing whoosh of the Spirit blowing into my life.
I have discovered, over the years, that for me creativity is an end product of something that inwardly takes place. A painting doesn’t happen unless I have received an image of it from the Spirit, seen my hands using the brush, choosing the colors, imagining the strokes of paint filling the canvas. Likewise a piece doesn’t get written until I have thought and received most of the words that are asking to appear. It’s like the birth of something that has been nurtured and fed and grown in the womb before it is ready to be presented to the world. Mostly it doesn’t turn out exactly the way I had imagined it, but, if I’m faithful to the process, it comes out right. And the only time this has been a problem is when I’m sermon writing and Sunday morning is fast approaching!
But as I walked this morning listening to the swirling of a new painting that is forming in my heart, I realized what a luxury it is to have the time and space, on multiple levels, to be creative. For me, there has to be an inward safety, an openness, a level of energy, time to listen to the Spirit, time to allow the unfolding and imagining of what might come, in addition to more earthly things like physical time, money for paints and canvases and brushes, a place where a painting can sit and be undisturbed while it’s drying. Or money for fabric and a way to sew.
Maybe, not everyone creates in this way, some may begin to paint and then listen to the paints and canvas and see what’s being formed. Some may write or speak or sing and wait for the next phrase to appear once they’ve started. And I do some of this too, but the bulk of the imagination and research and thinking and feeling my way into it happens first. And it’s obvious to me when I’m not in a place where creativity can be conceived.
In addition to the feeling of great gratitude that arose in me for the luxury of this time in my life, I also began to wonder how creativity is a justice issue. If all creative people need this space to imagine, to be, to wait for the Spirit, to allow the movement to grow, how many people are denied it? When long hours are worked in meaningless jobs, or people are fearful about where their next meal or rent check is coming from, when people are living in fear of ridicule and abuse, when children are filled with homework and unreasonable expectations of busy-ness…. How can creativity spring forth? How can feelings be expressed in healthy ways? How can hope find a way to the surface?
As I sit here with my laptop, a new painting beginning to emerge in my consciousness and paints nearby, curtains ready to be finished on Monday when some people at church share their sewing machines and knowledge, how can I forget that it is, indeed, a luxury? And how can I give thanks in such a way that my creativity may, somehow, bless the world? How might my creativity be a step toward justice for all?
And while I struggle with the answers to these questions, I know that, somehow, it is indeed true. That when we listen to the depths of the Spirit, when we bring something new and beautiful into the world, when we trust that what we are seeing and hearing and creating is from the Divine, that somehow, just somehow, the world around us is blessed. I liken it to living into my calling, which, in turn, can help others live into their calling or wholeness.
So may we each, in our own ways, listen to what we are being invited to bring into the world to touch those around us with beauty and hope and truth, and allow it to emerge and be a blessing to all.
In the prescribed readings for the Christian church, many of us have been hearing stories known as the Baptism of the Lord scriptures. This is a time in our calendars when we remember Christ being baptized by John in the Jordan River, and also a time when many of us are invited to remember our baptisms too. One of my favorite parts of the Biblical story is this image of the heavens opening and voice coming from them calling out to Jesus, “You are my beloved child in whom I delight!” as Jesus rises from the waters. What a gift to him…. And to all of us, to hear these words spoken about one who is baptized, about one who is coming up from deep waters!
At church this last Sunday we celebrated the baptism of two toddler aged boys. The children present all went to the baptismal font and got the water for the baptism and sat around to witness this act. And the first child, a boy around three years old, watched intently as the water was poured into the bowl and blessed. He looked like he was ready to climb inside this small bowl of water to fully claim his baptism! A bunch of words were spoken, and still this boy was looking into the bowl of water. The pastor invited him to be first, and she took her hand, filled it with water, and placed it on the child’s head, three times. Then his mom and sponsors all placed their hands on him to say a pray for him. The pastor then moved on to the second child, but my eyes were caught on this first boy. He was standing as still as could be (a first for this wiggler!) and there was a look on his face that was hard to describe. He had a small smile, his eyes were soft and unfocused on anything we could see, and he appeared to be listening to something inaudible to the rest of us. It was both serious and joyful, these words he was hearing. He stood there for a full minute or more, basking in what he was feeling and hearing. Then he gave a small nod and decided he was done, looked up at his mom, and the moment was gone.
As I watched him, my eyes filled with tears. His beatific look had touched me deep inside. It was as though he were hearing those words from the Divine…. You are my child. With you I am well pleased. In you I delight! He looked like he knew he was loved, and well loved in that moment. He was both at peace and a place of surety that this was true and would never change. The softness that came from him was filled with love. He seemed surrounded by angels whispering “in you I delight. You are beloved,” over and over to him, hoping that he would remember this for the rest of his life.
I know how unlikely this is though, both through my own life and from sitting with others as they share their longing to feel accepted, loved, perhaps even unconditionally loved. At some point in our lives (sometimes before we are even born) we begin to doubt this fact… we learn that we can (maybe) be loved if we act a certain way, be quiet at the right time, do a certain thing, become a certain person, earn a certain salary…. The list goes on and on. Day after day we are told we can be beloved if….
Yet God tells us something different.
We are Loved.
We are delighted in.
There is nothing we can do to stop this.
AND it’s so hard to believe, to trust, to hold on to. We may catch it for a second, or for a day even. But to live into this in our life is a constant struggle, not to mention being counter cultural!
I believe, in this day and age, we have to remember. We have to reclaim this belovedness. We have to stop trusting what the world tells us and, instead, tune in to the small whispers of the Spirit singing our story and origin based in love back to us, back to our heart, back to our spirit, back to our center. For when we can live out of this place with humbleness, even if we just believe it less than 1%, we will live differently. We will see the world as a more gentle place. We will see other people as divine sparks of love. We will work for the world we can glimpse and believe in. And, in time, the world will change to become a place we, in our beloved state, can live in once again without feeling the fractured dissonance that surrounds us.
So will you join me in listening to the whispers? In paying attention to the song of the angels? In stopping for a moment each day to believe it?
You are beloved.
In you the Creator of All delights!
WARNING…. This is NOT a comment on your driveway. Please don’t read it as such! J
Towards the end of last winter a neighbor, who I don’t know well and have only said “Hi,” in passing to, came by as I was shoveling my driveway. In a somewhat disparaging tone he commented, “Your driveway is always cleared. It’s the only one where you can see cement.” I wasn’t quite sure how to respond…. Should I thank him, even though it didn’t seem to be a compliment? Should I apologize? Should I challenge his tone? In the end I didn’t say anything as his dog pulled him down the street to continue her walk.
Last week, as I was chipping an inch of ice off the driveway before the next snowfall, I remembered his remark, and wondered why I do keep my driveway clear. The first, easy answer is that I have people coming to my home for spiritual direction and healing sessions, so of course I want it to be easy for them to get to my front door. And if it’s not clients, then friends, delivery people, myself! Who wants to slip and slide on a driveway? As a Benedictine Monastic, hospitality is one of the tenets of life. Can I treat everyone I interact with, as Christ himself? Whoever is coming to my door? Can I create a clear path for them as a first indication of welcome?
But as I was working on that ice, I realized a deeper understanding of why I was scraping this ice away, even knowing the snow was coming that night. I was reflecting on the overwhelming climate news… fires burning out of control, the many ways we are destroying God’s creation, the apathy that seems to settle on us collectively as we buy the belief that our little acts don’t make a difference. So what if we boycott disreputable companies, use cloth toilet paper, eat vegetarian, recycle and reduce consumerism. The world is still burning around us. This feeling of inadequacy can settle on me as a heavy weight, and I wonder why I try to do my best for our planet. It would be easier not to be informed than to know and feel this way. It would be easier to fall back asleep to the harm we humans are inflicting on the world.
So I felt, in that moment, as if clearing my driveway is a sign of my refusing to turn my back, a statement of my care for Nature, my re-commitment to doing something to show care for creation, to worship this beauty God has given us stewardship of. It seems like an act of rebellion, of refusing to fall to the standard of the lowest common denominator or not shoveling driveways, and to say to the world: I STILL CARE. It is a message to God that here, on this little strip of land, I am doing my best to be a steward of what I have been given. That the rabbits and squirrels won’t have to work quite so hard to move around. That people will have an easier passage. And even if it doesn’t matter or make a difference in the world, it makes a statement of love right here.
So when you see me, cheeks bright red from the cold, shovel in hand, a smile (or grimace) on my face, know that it is an act of gratitude and staying awake to the world around me, of me acknowledging that little things make a difference, that I’m mindful of what I have, that it takes hard work to do the work of change, and see each shovel as a prayer of love for the world!
I was driving with a friend last week, Christmas music on the radio, gentle conversation happening, when they said something along the lines of, “I really try to enjoy Christmas…. I really do.” While the subject was quickly changed, the comment stayed with me, as I pondered what pressure there is on us to “have a merry Christmas,” or sing “Joy to the World,” with our heart in the words. So much of Christmas seems to be focused on this message… it is a time of great joy… sing loud hallelujahs and hark the heralds and glorias.
I began to think about the world Jesus was born into. Political strife rampant, with a census taking place so the king could make sure he was receiving all of his taxes so his wealth could increase. And Jesus, himself, was born in a traumatic situation; his mother forced to journey a long distance at nine months pregnant, shunned by the inn keepers in the town, giving birth far away from her family and support system, and then having to flee to save Jesus’ very life. I’m sure hallelujahs and joy were far from this family’s hearts (even though there was probably a deep sense of joy at the birth!). The trauma and pain and injustice surrounding the whole story must have been overwhelming.
Sitting with theses two juxtaposing images of joy and trauma, I felt more grateful for this story. How would we feel if Jesus had been born surrounded by aunts and midwives and been loved and safe from the very beginning? Sure, it would make a nice tidy story. But there is something deeper and more reassuring about the story we know.
None of us go through life unscathed. All of us are threatened, hurt, sick, anxious, grief filled, and so much more, at some stage in our lives. All of us experience some level of trauma at some point. And while we would not wish trauma on anyone, how comforting it is to know that Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, came into a life that began and ended in a state of trauma. That God With Us knows how it feels to walk this earth with the scars of fear. That the Prince of Peace has experienced a time where there was no peace and even became a refugee to save his life. That the Mighty God came to us, unwelcomed in a strange city.
If, this Christmas, you find yourself struggling to find joy, to feel merry and bright, to sing hallelujahs, don’t worry. Remember that God came to be with us, to experience pain and trauma and sadness. That God came to be with us. Just sit with this part of the miracle. That Emmanuel, God With Us, was born. To be right here with us. In and through all of what is happening in and around us. Allow this drown out any ‘should’ about how you feel, and just know Emmanuel, born in a stable in the midst of trauma and dis-ease and conflict, here with you. For this is enough…. This is more than enough. Emmanuel. God is with us. May we each know the truth of this one fact deep within. And may this be our guide through Christmas this year.
I have had a hard time recently with the world. There is so much injustice and division surrounding us that it can feel overwhelming. I get to a point where I either want to stop and give up, curling in a corner with a blanket over my head, or to shine a spotlight on every issue with a megaphone pressed up to my mouth as I yell angrily, “Can’t you see what we are doing?” And neither of these feel very productive responses. So when I have conversations with God about this, I can get frustrated by the seeming lack of response God has for the world. A few well aimed lightening bolts, or some angelic interventions on a large scale would not go amiss at times! And some clear direction on what I can do to bring about a better world would be nice too.
After the last big snowfall I dug a spiral in the snow, and decided I was going to walk it each day, praying for peace, for life, for hope. Just to do something to bring a better world. And each day, no matter how cold it has been, I have walked the path, sometimes with a candle, sometimes in the darkness of night, sometimes at sunrise, sometimes with the cool winter sun low on the horizon, walking the path of peace and praying.
Last week I spent a day on retreat, and at the beginning of the day we were offered a Langston Hughes poem as part of the opening gathering:
In the dark,
Brighter than many ever see.
Through the soul’s own mastery.
And now the world receives
From her dower:
The message of the strength
Of inner power.
I was really struck with this…. That in the dark this mysterious “she” found her inner power to share with the world. But it had to come from the dark. It could not be discovered any other way. And it had to be drawn out from her depths, her center, her true, inner being. (Later I found that this poem was written in honor of Helen Keller, but I spent the day not knowing this.)
As I sat with the words of the poem I thought about the darkness of the world, and the goings on. And I thought about the light each of us has within us. I heard a message from God that said, “Your job is to shine your candle light. Not a spotlight, but your candle’s light. That’s all you need to worry about. And as you shine it, others will feel the strength to shine theirs too. Soon the gentle light will glow stronger and stronger. But the gentle light, welcoming and inviting, is your light to shine.”
So while it seems like a small thing, it feels absolutely right. The world has enough angry, sharp spotlights vying for attention, throwing everything not in the center into deeper shadows. But it doesn’t have enough gentle lights glowing from within with warmth and love and welcome and gentleness. And it feels appropriate in the Advent season, when each week we add a new light to the wreath, that candlelight was the image I received.
There is a song I learned a decade or more ago with these words:
No deep darkness in the world,
Can overcome the light,
If but a single candle flame
Is burn, burning bright.”
Will you join me in shining your gentle, welcoming, loving light in the world, overcoming the darkness by allowing your true loving nature to shine?
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.