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
Spiritual writing, Kathleen Hirsch, crux, cruxnow
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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?


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.






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


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


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


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


a remote important region in all who talk:

though we could fool each other, we should


lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the


For it is important that awake people be awake,

or a breaking line may discourage them back to


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

should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.


William E. Stafford


Sharon’s Christmas Prayer

She was five,

     sure of the facts,

     and recited them

     with slow solemnity

     convinced every word

was revelation.

     She said

they were so poor

they had only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches

to eat

and they went a long way from home

without getting lost.  The lady rode

a donkey, the man walked, and the baby

was inside the lady.

They had to stay in a stable

with an ox and an ass (hee-hee)

but the Three Rich Men found them

because a star lited the roof

Shepherds came and you could

pet the sheep but not feed them.

Then the baby was borned.

And do you know who he was?

     Her quarter eyes inflated

     to silver dollars.

The baby was God.


     And she jumped in the air

     whirled round, dove into the sofa

     and buried her head under the cushion

     which is the only proper response

     to the Good News of the Incarnation.


John Shea


A blessed Christmas to all.


Blue Christmas

My best writing time is just as the sun is pressing its way up through midnight skies and a scrim of gorgeous winter trees — a Chinese painting, with its indigos branches and its delicate, sand-colored dawn.

Yesterday was the Solstice, and the sun made its briefest appearance of the year.  Barely a flicker, it seemed, in the busy last hours before Christmas Eve, and then darkness again enclosed the house.

It was also, in some traditions, the day known as Blue Christmas,  when churches light candles and open themselves for those who grieve at this time of year, who have lost a loved one and cannot enter into the high spirits and excesses of the season, the Times Square of the mind.

Like children we long for the light, because the darkness is always so close at hand : the mystery of suffering, the weariness of destructive situations that don’t end despite our best efforts.

To repeat the litany of global suffering these days is to diminish it.  Our sweeping references to refugees, war, racial violence too easily become caricatures, and we grow numb to the lived reality of those whose lives fall beneath the dull umbrella of our words.

It often takes a private suffering to pierce the heart and renew the compassion that flows from the heart of vulnerability. This morning as I sit beside the unlit Christmas tree laden with a lifetime of cherished ornaments, my own home has entered a time of mourning, with the death of one whose life was an emblem of spirited presence and endurance in the face of a lifelong chronic illness.

And so, today, I want to look a bit more closely at the journey that enable us to live with gratitude and creativity precisely at the razor’s edge between light and darkness — between hope and despair; between perseverance and surrender, between fealty to our commitments and a giving in to distractions.

A great modern theologian, Ronald Rolheiser writes that we need to learn to live with the tension between the world that we long for and the world as it is.  We need to do so without falling off the rails, and tumbling into depression or, on the other hand, inflation.

When we hold our tongue at an out-of-line comment; when we don’t stalk out when someone has manipulated a situation to our disadvantage; when we absorb hatred instead of returning it; don’t reject those who disagree, but rather engage with mutual respect, and when we love through painful behaviors rather than create walls and distances – only when we do these things, make the choice to stay in relationship with the imperfection and brokenness of the world, do we have any real chance of personal transformation.

A woman I know has planned a beautiful Blue Christmas ritual for all those who are weary of heart and cannot find the joy of Christmas outside of their own darkness.  She is calling it:

Advent for the Weary Soul

She plans to keep her small church dark, just lit with candles, a little music. Those who gather can welcome Christmas not with brass quartets and white poinsettias, but with the wrung hearts and irresolution that may well have been more a part of the original event than our dolled-up festivities would suggest.  Certainly, the broken places in us have as much a claim on new hope as do our childish longing for the light.

My best writing time is the hour of growing light, but my best prayer arises in the dark.

And so my prayer this longest night of the year has been for the souls of all beloved departed, those suffering from illness that won’t get better, for the weary.

Recently I wrote a series of “Mary poems.”   As the light ever so slowly begins to build again in the east, I share one today, my meditation on the light and shadows of a woman’s faith that bore, as in a small bowl, all the tensions of this life.



The Bowl


Some days I fear the bowl

that God has willed for me
Not the clay that

thrusts a child into daylight,

but a secret, hidden thing


Thin as eggshell,

narrow as fate,

borne by an angel I’ve never seen

who visits

only at night and only

when I sleep without tossing.


Stitching, gathering herbs,

sometimes I sense this bowl

will break, a new sun spill

over God’s flawed earth.

Then I pray that I might catch it,

as mist that wakes the roses,

or as oil from their pressings.


What woman doesn’t wish

the fruit of her days

her risen bread,

her songs before sleep,

to be as light-bearers

to wisdom,


to the mystery?


But my linen is coarse,

my roses, rangy and wild,

my work far humbler:

to greet the angel when he comes,

to witness to Being,

to bear with the breaking.



Layers for the Solstice

Life is lived on so many levels simultaneously.

My friend, the book artist Susan Porter, has taught me how it is possible to live simultaneously with sorrow and joy.  She steps into each day in total trust that her imagination will lead her from the ever-present pain of loss into the energies of celebration and gratitude.

This is the great spiritual lesson of paradox.

This isn’t a wisdom that a person can think her way into.  It arises from hard experience, perseverance, and a wild kind of faith, that most days seems hard for us ordinary mortals to come by.  In spiritual traditions, it is the highest peak of maturity.

Susans images are magical utterances from out of her awareness of life’s layers and levels.  She paints her pages long before she returns to work them by applying hand-embellished papers that she cuts and collages and glues down. The final stage is her free writing, often done with dazzling metallics and colored inks, around and through and over the ground of her images.  Her process is a perfect expression of her life experience: the journey is never simple or straight, but always nuanced, and full of unexpected movement and turns.

When I watch Susan move around her studio, or in a room full of students, inspiring with her energy, her extraordinary gift for color and forms, and her sweet willingness to let imagination have its way, I am humbled and moved, for I know that a part of her still grieves the untimely loss of her husband some years ago.  Her art is her way of moving forward, in an irrepressible hope and trust.

As we come to the end of this season so marked by swatches of darkness and small points of light, Susan is a beacon who shows me that it begins by placing one foot in front of the other, with a delicate alchemy of acceptance,  an open heart, and gratitude.

For happiness is not what makes us grateful.  It is gratefulness that make us happy.

David Stendahl-Rast