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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Remembering What Matters

The velocity of events in our public life feels like a low-grade form of violence some days.  I notice this when I am alone, in the early morning, on walks in my neighborhood or writing in my journal.  Then, I become aware of how defended I am, ready for the next blow. Without my wishing or willing it, my better, deeper capacities for empathy and insight have gone into hiding.

How much of our life is lived like this?

Last Sunday was a time to look again.  It had snowed during the night.  The roads were wet, the skies low and very dark, when I set out.  Crows darted out of trees, sharing a secret.

The week had delivered its payload of appalling accusations, rebuffs, and retreats on the part of our so-called leaders, with no sign of any accountability in sight.

As I walked, I began to think about how this works on us.  What seems to happen is that moral repugnance festers.  It takes on a life of its own.  We get caught up in argument, labyrinths of justification.  The urge to have the last word.  And reaction robs the essential self of its freedom.

The price is a blindness to my own heart, a total white-out of what’s Real, what is right before my eyes.

It wasn’t yet 7.  I walked past the local hospital, down a street of few structures, a farm, and a nursing home. I enjoy walking the grounds of the nursing home – the “Independent Living Facility” — because they back into woods, and sometimes I see deer, or rabbits, or hawks and remember the existence of all that doesn’t participate in our sorry human constructs.

This morning, I happened to look up at the five-story high complex, where the residents’ windows were still dark and sleep still held peaceful sway.  Directly in front of me, on the fourth floor, a reading lamp was on. By its light, I saw an old man, alone, bent over a book.

I wanted to believe that he was reading Scripture, or poetry. His intent gaze and bent head had something of reverence to it.  In a grey dawn, in his dwindling days, he sat studying the mystery of his life’s journey.  Its wonder and magnitude.

There is, still, this, I realized. This is still available to us. Reverence, wonder, a kindness of the self to the self.  How could I have forgotten so completely that it is this that we most profoundly need?

Then I noticed the black women who were driving round to the back of the facility. Women who had left their families on a Sunday morning to start their work days, tending to these frail lives. They park at the rear and enter through the service door. They prepare to be the face of kindness and hope for another day.

We need these glimpses of our better selves, every day, not just on Sundays.  Especially now.  Go out and look for crows.  Embrace rainy mornings.  Take solitary walks.  Thank your chances to be with children, and to observe the slow unfolding of the daffodils.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The All New “Attention Collection”

I spent some time this week with a smart, provocative book by David Dark.  It’s called life’s too short to pretend you’re not religious.

Dark is an unlikely prophet for yours truly – an evangelical former English teacher turned theology professor in Nashville.  But since he teaches college-aged seekers as I do, I was interested in his take on things.

If you like being challenged to consider the autopilot mode that keeps sending you back to your church, or the Starbuck’s on the way to work, or the Internet – that self-satisfied voice that keeps telling you you have it all together – this is a book for you.

His best wake-up call is one I want to give a shout-out to here.

Dark tells us that we all need an Attention Collection.

I love this.  It makes me think of the little figurines my grandmother gathered when she had a few extra pennies.  The quarters from every state my son once painstakingly collected (he never quite got to all 50).

Dark says that we need to see what we see.

Easier said than done.

We need to pay better attention than we do just hurrying through our daily lists and hop to the addictive techno-twitches that offer instant gratification and long-term emptiness.

We need to notice the hawk on the bough, remember the inspiring poem we heard on the radio, the look in the eyes of the 10 year olds along for a college tour with the sibling they would too soon have to say goodbye to.  What we truly attend to seeps into our beings and forms the mind and soul that we are.

As a lifelong keeper of writer’s notebooks, a hoarder of overheard conversations, lines written on the back of receipts, I can’t say enough about this concept.

Dark writes,  We have an obligation “to make sure you’re still taking on this business of being awake to yourself – to be a witness to your own experience, to listen to your own life, to see what you’ve seen…What could be more socially essential, more sacred?”

Once we begin to see the sacredness of the smallest particular (Blake’s great cri du coeur), we start to have a better sense of how good work gets done.  (As opposed to a lot of the work we actually do, by the way.)

Attention is a miracle.  It is the gift we are given, first, to see what we see, and then to share it.  We get to sift through our grab bag of impressions and insights each and every day, and decide which items are worth passing along.  In the process, we get smarter and better about what we don’t need to erode our precious, miraculous attention on.  A major fringe benefit.

Sharing our “attention collection” is the ultimate act of collaboration with the great project of consciousness.  We give little gifts of goodness, value, hope by sharing what we have been fed by.  Daily bread.

I’m seeing what I see much more vividly, thank to Dark.

“The surest evidence of what we believe is what we do,” Dark writes.

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Warm Words in a Cold Season

Dear Readers,

I have received such an outpouring of beautiful notes after my piece, “Civics at the Yarn Shop” appeared on The Boston Globe’s Opinion Page yesterday, that I need to thank you all for your words.

We live in a time when conversation, dialogue, meeting one another however we can — face to face, face-time, and using the tools of our sometimes-overbearing technology — is the essential business of each day.  To share comfort, questions, and images of hope.

One of my favorite notes came from a woman in Australia, who asked me to continue to share my own stories of hope.  This is the objective I aim for each day when I get up from my desk and enter the stream of the day.

Yesterday, hope appeared in several shapes.  First, your letters.  Second, my church is about to launch a concerted effort to support refugees.  Third, a relative in need of ongoing support found someone to act as a guide.  Fourth, but by no means last, my overweight cat — after a month-long regimen of low-calorie gruel — appears to have lost half a pound.

I am attaching the link to the Globe piece, in case any of you missed it and want to take a peek.

http://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2017/03/09/civics-yarn-shop/uFp95rutuafbekz7rS7uII/story.html

Have a hopeful day.

Kathleen

 

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Writing in the Dust

My house just now is covered in a fine layer of dust.  Plaster dust.  The long-awaited paint job to freshen things up after a long winter.

And so it is with the writing life and the life of prayer.  Long periods of waiting, little change in the horizon, showing up, keeping things dusted and in a state of readiness….when suddenly one day we can see something like dust settling over the familiar, and can run our fingers through a substance that holds our mark — for an hour or a day.

This, the legibility of the soul in the life in time.

Yesterday, my experience of this gift was a day spent with a group of young writers and their faculty in the Creative Writing Program at The College of the Holy Cross.

The earnestness and energy was palpable.  I gave my craft talk, and then the writing began.  The students were given little slips of paper, containing a word or two as prompt which the novelist Julianna Baggott and I had come up with.  The students let it rip, creating spontaneous, anonymous writings that were then placed into three little mason jars, mixed up, and aloud, one by one.

The effect was mesmerizing.  It was as if we were hearing chant, ancient shards of scripture unearthed from clay jars and recited to the assembly.

What worked about this was its rawness and authenticity.  Nothing premeditated, polished, tailored.  As pure as prayer, and not unlike.

How beautiful, in a world of overworked cant.

And so a fine dust settled over my familiar, and gave me this inspiration:

What if we were to make such a practice during Lent?  A daily “short” — inspired by the newspaper, or a poem, scripture, or an image that arises while we feed the cat?

Just that.  On a small, 4 x 4 square of paper, or an index card.

Try it.

 

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Remember the Butterflies

It is good to remember that there are seasons in which the butterfly seems to disappear.

Leaves wither, the sere ground catches the last of the roses like a cold uncle at the wedding; ice and snow drive into the ground.  Then when we think we can’t wait another minute, mud oozes up, and from its dank surprise, fragile shoots of green.  If we think of the butterfly at all in these cold months – and mostly, we don’t – it is as a vacancy in a bleak visual landscape, a joy whose name we have quite forgotten. READ MORE

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A New Kind of Pilgrimage

I have been thinking a lot lately about pilgrimage.  And exile.  Most days, it feels as if an invading force has entered the sanctuary of all I hold dear and pitched the icons over the city walls.  For the first time in my life, my government no longer feels benign or representative.  The “business” being conducted in the corridors of power looks a lot like that of the Third World countries whose people I used to pray for as a child at the end of Sunday Mass – mass resignations, egotistical posing, saber rattling at the opposition.

I have a choice.

If I assume the mantle of exile, I am able to feel more acutely the lives of refugees who have lost country, homes, roots, stories, holy shrines.  But I trade the crucial knowledge that I can still vote, write, speak out — and yes, pay taxes.

If instead I choose to see my life and that of many friends, students, local activists – as a new kind of pilgrimage, alienation takes on the coloration hope.  And with hope comes traction.

Each day brings more news that is almost impossible to absorb into our pre-existing democratic constructs, the political discourse and open process I so recently took for granted.  Executive orders that have the affected agencies reeling in confusion, the arrest of journalists, the bullying of trade partners, the gag orders on environmental personnel.

A dear friend leaves next week for her own pilgrimage — a trek up Kilimanjaro.  She will pass through five climate zones, scaling 19,000 feet, to summit the highest peak in Africa.  She is 67 years old.

For months, she has walked every day. Where there is a steeper grade, she will take it.  Stairs, she’s there.  She has watched documentaries and read about the climb.  Now, she is starting to pack her lightweight layers, stock battery packs, choose her journal.  She will travel in a reputable tour group with skilled guides.

She reminds me of all that goes into a good pilgrimage.

A pilgrimage starts with commitment – often to something that we don’t fully understand.  It is a primer in genuine sacrifice – of conveniences, comforts, assumptions, familiar landmarks.  Easy, on an unknown trail, to fall behind; in fatigue, to forget why you started, get sick, lose time and companions, run out of food.

 

Caring for ourselves as we move into new realities will entail the kind of attention my friend is bringing to her trip.   We need a huge daily dollop of mindfulness, remembering what we love and hold dear.  We need guides, not fellow amateurs — adults who have faced similar challenges, know the trails, and the wild things we might encounter along the route.  We need trustworthy map readers, whose quiet expertise and calm under any number of conditions we can trust.

And then — and this is the hardest part — we need to admit our ignorance.  We need to know what we don’t know, and be prepared to learn things we never imagined.

The great pilgrimages were journeys of conversion, undertaken with unlikely fellow travelers.  Survival depended upon staying focused and alert to current conditions, the prevailing winds, the height of the sun, one’s own energy and resources.  The greatest danger, on mountains or on pilgrimage, is to think so exclusively about the destination that you lost track of putting one foot ahead of the other in good faith.

My personal Kilimanjaro includes loaves and fishes: safety, health, good work, educational opportunities, kindness and inclusion, and the special care of children.  But I need the voices of experience to help me figure out where to place my feet, how to listen and observe well, how expend my limited energy, to hew to the good trail.

The sky is large.

At the moment my guide is Thomas Merton, but I’m always in search of others.  If we share our journey bread, our wisdom and good will, we can get there.

Intention is everything.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

Namaste.

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