Kathleen Hirsch | Blog and spiritual writings of Kathleen Hirsch
Blog and spiritual writings of Kathleen Hirsch including an archive of her columns for BostonGlobe.com and Cruxnow.com
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Spiritual Practicing: Towards Springtide

This post is the first of two as a new season, and hence a new way of seeing life, approaches —  for Christians the season of Lent (which means “springtide” in Latin).   Lent is associated with penitential practices, but it is mainly a season concerned with shedding worn-out coping mechanisms and defensive strategies, “dying” to the old in order to make room for the new.

 

Part I:  Flights of Fancy

 

What is to be more greatly valued: the object that startles us into suspending our ordinary mental frame?  Or developing the eyes with which to see wonder in everything?

This is one of the great spiritual questions.

The answer may seem obvious.  But because even our most diligent spiritual practices become static over time, I don’t think it is.

Honing the eye that sees freshness and hope in our days is part of the great and ongoing work of the spiritual life, to be sure.  In these times of wanton darkness in the public arena, sustaining our sightlines to the things of value is more important than ever.

But it is easy to start to believe that we know where to look.  When this happens, we start to choose where NOT look as well.

The great German mystic, Meister Eckhart, warned of this tendency repeatedly in his sermons and writing.  Once we think we “know” God, he writes, we have fallen into error.  Once we confine “spirit” in a building (a church, synagogue, meditation corner), or to the time of prayer itself, we have merely created our own mental construct.  Buildings wall “out” as well as “in.”

Grace and the glancings of the spirit, is always wilder than any categorizations or containments we construct.

The coming of spring brings to mind my own lesson in this wisdom.  This morning, I pulled out my field glasses.  And with them, I share a story of unexpected wonder, and joy in a dark time.

Several years ago, I enrolled in a morning bird-watching walk at the large park near my home.  I arrived (very early) at the gates to find an astoundingly large group gathered by the visitor’s center.  A number of them carried impressive field glasses and cameras, and came with obvious familiarity with the garden-variety species that they began to tick off for one another, seen in the air above our heads: orioles, yellow warblers, tufted titmouses.

I’d brought the post-war binoculars we had hanging around the house, clunky and outdated, but serviceable.

I was nearly paralyzed by the variety of bird species being identified by our guide and the more expert members of the group.  Until that morning, birds (except for the primer models: cardinals, robins, sparrows) had been specks of movement on the periphery of my awareness, sweetly singing or perching bits of animation; little more.

Now, I couldn’t see quickly enough, couldn’t seem to catch the flitting spots of bright color in my glasses.  My heart racing with excitement, I was in sensory overload.

There was an oriole, here a red-tailed hawk; in the boxes by the pond, staggeringly beautiful tree swallows, flashing their neon blue bodies over the realm occupied by the stately blue heron.

As the morning went on, I began to discover the language of seeing birds.  Slowly, but surely.  It took patience, and great care.  I could see from the faces of my cohorts, it was a work of devotion.  It required, too, a stillness and focus that I was not well practiced at in the out of doors.  To watch for orioles or pine warblers, to listen for a single song amidst the riot of overlapping calls, requires the upmost inner stillness.  I learned how to see a tree as a compass needle, and the birds in the uppermost branches,  as locations on a theoretical dial.

“There he is, at 1 o’clock,” our instructor would whisper, and all glasses were swerve in that direction — mine usually last among them, clumsy but eager.

Marvels, all of them, hidden in plain sight.  I had walked in the park every day for 15 years, but I had never learned to see!

This was prayer of a new kind, deeper and more abundant than my years of merely passing through.   I went home and put our Tory Peterson bird book in a more prominent spot.  For my next birthday, my husband gave me a new pair of birding glasses.

This story wouldn’t be complete, however, without telling you about the days and weeks that followed.  Or the lesson that I learned, having been bumped on the head by the the invisible flight of a Cedar Waxwing.

Until that morning in the park, I’d thought my life was more or less satisfactory.  I had lots to do, people to talk to, books to read, and classes to teach.  Life was full.  No one would have looked at me and felt that anything was lacking – even, I believed, in my spiritual life.

What I learned from the birds was that my life lacked color.  Also, song, joy, and pure serendipity.  It lacked occasions in which I made room for those unexpected wonders – beauty, surprise – and from unexpected sources.

Was it possible that my sincerest efforts to lead a purposeful life had walled me off from a joyful one?

It is a common pitfall.  And in our white-knuckle times, when we tend to strap ourselves into our agendas each day, adjust our helmets, and turn ourselves on to “high” (activity, pace, volume, earnings), we substitute our velocity and adrenaline for the joy of wonder.

I was lucky to see one of my weakness in such a gentle and lovely “calling out” as the birds offered.

I still work at this.  It’s easier to tick off my to-do list.  But countercultural though it is, one of my daily practices now is to leave my books and my work and head for the park, my field glasses at the ready, to point at whatever calls to me from the high boughs.

 

Stay tuned for Part II:  Homing

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Healing the Heart of Trauma

Who Shall Be Our Prophets?

A prophet gets the priorities right. 

She speaks the truth that we didn’t know that we already knew. 

I would like to think that a prophet turns us to an awakened and deeper state of perception.

A prophet is a breath of cool air, a goad, a truth-teller.

Speaking hard truths is never popular.  But women today know in a way that we haven’t in a long time that NOT speaking truth distorts everything – our thoughts, actions, dreams, nightmares, choices, freedoms.

Young woman – gymnasts, aspiring actresses, artists, those at mid-level positions in almost every profession — have become society’s prophets.  This amazing development is often referenced as “the MeToo Moment.”  But the reality is so much bigger than a hatch tag.

Because stories of predatory acts have been allowed out of hiding, we can witness the possibility of deep healing from trauma.

I know from my work as a spiritual director that victims can go years sucking it up, stuffing their angst and suffering and silence.  They can be world-class champions.  Multi-million-dollar earning talk show hosts.  Lawyers, financiers, priests, doctors.  The bruises and curses and nightmares can be relegated to the realm of the off hours, but they don’t go away.

This week in Commonweal Magazine, (online) I read one of the most articulate and nuanced essays I’ve run across, by a survivor of abuse, on the importance of others’ stories.  A literature and writing teacher today, she describes the ways in which literature availed her of the means to recognize, name, and begin to grapple with abuse that was decades old and existed only in the shadowland of the subconscious.

In “Bracing for Impact: Trauma, Triggers, and the Saving Power of Literature,” Cassandra Nelson writes that it was through literature, as a graduate student, that she began to realize what had happened to her as a young girl.  And it was through literature – its unflinching look at human nature and motives, its fearless facing into destruction as well as redemption – that she began to work through the layers of shattered self-esteem and trust and anger and outrage that had been eating away at her from the inside.

It wasn’t just reading novels that allowed her to recover, but it was novels that initiated the process.  Nelson’s excellent piece suggests something that we often forget, in this time when reading has become such a diminished activity:  literature uniquely releases the moral power of words, and it is these words and stories that guide us into worlds that have been cloaked in a miasma of abuse and denial, in our personal stories.  Great novels and great poetry – she mentions The Bluest Eye, King Lear, The Divine Comedy – offer us vivid constructions of the dark gestures that humans perpetrate on one another.  They name that darkness in ways we sometimes can’t, or aren’t ready to;  they provide space in which to move around in that darkness, and they offer wisdom that can begin to lead us into resolution, healing and light.

With the help of therapy, group work, supportive family and friends, writing, and her omnivorous reading of literature, she was able to reconstruct her life.

I encourage readers to seek out this essay, a work of quiet prophecy, and take the time to read it.  Like the literature that she holds up as a font of illumination and consolation, Nelson’s work gives the current revelations of celebrities and everyday women a dimensionality and that situates victims in a fully-developed and appropriate context, and offers deep insight into an unexpected pathway of healing.

When you are done reading, share your comments.

Namaste.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This Day and Its Offerings

Cold blue

the Arctic sky

a wand of golden sunrise

strokes the cylinder of seed

swaying in the wind

(a frigid -15)

and the red-headed woodpeckers

faithfully appear,

the finches, puffed to twice their size

to warm their gilded wings.

The day is entered

before my dreams

have fully laid to rest,

such that I watch an icon

taking form, the visitation

of gold and angels and altar,

the eye of God in a snowbound,

merciless world,

attending ever to the gifts:

Epiphany.

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From dying, a lesson in letting go

Death has come to set up shop in the “rag and bone shop” of my heart this month.

We buried an extraordinary woman last week – we, the friends who’d known her since we were 12, the doting husband who gave the past five years of his life unstintingly to her journey through illness, the children who will go into full adulthood without her voice and laughter, advice, and the constant fuel of unstinting support.

There have been other jolts of friends and relatives who’ve died too young.  They all crowd into the room together, and define this January as an in-between time – a pause that separates those solid shores of regularity that we call “normal life.”  From this place, I’ve been able to see the ordinary — commerce, conversation, errands, meetings — for what they too often are, the means of preserving my life, but not necessarily of breaking it open.

Death has done this breaking.  It has cast up bits of the past I’d thought were long buried, and offered wisdom that at other times just blows by me.  I’ve had little choice but allow the deeper rhythms and realities of life to move in with their heightened presence, their questions.

This has been an unexpected gift.

Every atom in our beings resists loss, and the visceral aftershocks linger for years.  But this winter, perhaps because death has been such a relentless visitor, I am much more aware of the mystery of rebirth and resurrection that lies at the very heart of death.

The creative life, lived over many years, has taught me what I know best about death and transformation.  Any new venture — writing, or piece of visual art — demands that I surrender totally to its unexpected emergence, and all of the accompanying unknowns.  The “me” who first steps up to the page remains only as artifact: a distant referent, a source.  Ego and even the self-awareness that is essential to the more walking-around parts of life, must be completely suspended if authentic creativity is to happen.  There is no shortcut and no bypasses.

Whenever I sit to compose a poem, or create a collage, I must consent, inwardly, to cross a threshold into liminality.  “I” as the world knows me dies.  Bring me back to “reality” too soon, and the poem is stillborn.

Most of our actions are organized to buffer us from the demands of the liminal.  If only we are competent enough, in control, if only we stay productively occupied and “moving forward,” we won’t have to experience any kind of death.  But this robs us of the possibility of new life, and real connection with the Creative Source – the divine, God, the cosmic heart.

The hard truth of wisdom is that when we try to protect ourselves from incompleteness, uncertainty, and death, we wall off the possibility of epiphany and joy.

This, I suppose you could say, has been my chief “epiphany” this Epiphany season.  New life emerges from even the most wrenching and painful deaths.  It can be no other way.

Our friend, Laurie, taught us all this in her own confrontation with transformational mystery.  As soon as she was diagnosed with cancer, she avidly pursued alternative therapies, visualization, prayer, and pilgrimages.  Over and over, she asked God what was being asked of her in this ultimate sacrifice of her life in an untimely death.

Finally, last spring, she applied for and was accepted as a pilgrim to Lourdes in the company of the ancient order of the Knights of Malta.  When she returned, we met for lunch.

She told me of the pageantry and care extended to the traveling ill on the part of the support teams that travel with the pilgrims.  She recounted the anticipation, and hope, and the prayers that literally walked alongside her as she was shepherded to the shrine.  And then she told me about standing in the waters where pilgrims for centuries have prayed for cures.

“I didn’t feel the magic of healing,” she told me.  “Suddenly the years of struggle and resistance fell away, and for the first time, I cried.  I cried and cried and cried, knowing at last that I was mortal, that I would die.”

When it was over, she realized that she had been liberated from a huge boulder that had weighed her down.  She had fully surrendered her resistance to what it was that would happen, whatever that was.

With that surrender came a new surge of energy and presence.  In the final six months of her life, she hosted dinner parties and teas, shared images she’d collected of great sculpture and paintings, went out to lunch, had as many visitors as her strength allowed.

Her creative spirit was on fire, and all of us who knew her were indelibly effected by it.

In this liminal time, I think of her and those others who, as the prayer book says, “we see no longer,” and I hear the question that they ask across the great divide:  are you letting the Creative Source break into your life?  Are you willing to die a little, in order to become?

2

The Zen of Snowflakes

On a very cold morning recently, my yoga instructor told this story.

Snowflakes are born when a drop of water strikes a speck of dust high up in the atmosphere.

They begin, as almost everything in life begins, with a collision.   Think of the last time you bumped into something unwanted.  Perhaps just last night. Remember that sense of well-being crashing into the heavy solidity of the insoluble – a story, a problem, a quandary.

Once the encounter has occurred, there is no undoing it.  Water and dust particle, (or mind and external event) are now fused into a single crystal, tumbling through time.  The ice crystal, to earth.  Our challenges into the darkness of worry, sleeplessness, disorientation.  As the ice crystal falls through the atmosphere, it continues to expand, so that by the time we see it on the ground it has metamorphosed into a beautiful piece of frozen lace.

We should be so lucky.

Change demands that we move through times of upended expectations, with no clear end in sight, no guaranteed outcomes.   The spiritual challenge is whether we close down into a defended inertia, determined to hold onto the past at all costs, or become pliant enough to withstand a process that demands a letting go, growth we didn’t ask for, and as much affirmation as we can manage.

As I lay in corpse pose on my mat, my yoga teacher continued his meditation.  “We do not grow without challenges,” he said.

Hmm.  I affirm this with my mind, but I fight it with my instincts.

Change often appears in our lives disguised as failure.  But what if, as the New Year approaches, we could learn to see change for what it really is:  not failure, but the breakdown of order, of the familiar.   Maybe it has less to do with our ability to control things, to avoid the catalysts that would make us see our lives in a new light.  Maybe change has more to do with the needs of persons and situations to become something different from what we had in mind.

In this sense, our “failure” is guaranteed.

As I lay on my mat, absorbing the new flexibility that an hour of vinyasa brings to my limbs, I am grateful  for a refreshed inner openness to my own journey as well.

Starting on New Year’s, I begin my first ever sabbatical from teaching.  The decision to do this didn’t come from an experience of failure.  But as my drops of dewy enthusiasm hit specks of dust — weariness and wonderings — I did do a dance of resistance for some time.  It took some nudging and long conversations to become willing enough, receptive and curious enough, to step away.  I hope that my time in the familiar realm of an open schedule will be the beginning of — well, a snowflake.

At the moment, the months ahead of me stretch out in a fullness that feels like vast tracks of untrammeled snow.  I know that this won’t keep, that the bills will arrive, my hair still need cutting, the cat her annual (traumatic) visit to the vets.

But I am removing as many mundane obstacles as I can to make room for this tumble into whatever wants to become, for new patterns that will form as I release control, reading lists, and assignments, and instead let the time teach me what I need to discover.  Already, I find myself reaching for long-neglected books on my shelf, and contemplating the unblemished paper that awaits new thoughts and words in a field of open time.

Poised as I am on the cusp of this journey, on the eve of the New Year, I wish all of you, too, journeys that continue to form you into souls as complex and unique as the crystal wonders that are latching onto my windows in this morning’s growing light.

 

 

 

 

6

A Blessed Christmas

It is only right to greet the dawn of this new day with another poem, this one that is wholly mindful of the work that we are called to do and the people be in the new year.

I send with it my prayer that you may discover a blessed and peaceful season of new life in your hearts.

 

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

 

If you don’t know the kind of person I am

and I don’t know the kind of person you are

a pattern that others made may prevail in the

world

and following the wrong god home we may miss

our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,

a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break

sending with shouts the horrible errors of

childhood

storming out to play through the broken dike.

And as elephants parade holding each

elephant’s tail,

but if one wanders the circus won’t find the

park,

I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty

to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something

shadowy,

a remote important region in all who talk:

though we could fool each other, we should

consider—

lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the

dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,

or a breaking line may discourage them back to

sleep;

the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —

should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

 

William E. Stafford

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