Kathleen Hirsch | Writing
Writing and musings by author Kathleen Hirsch.
kathleen hirsch, writer, spiritual director, boston, ma, spiritual writing
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Advent, Day 4: Tools that Help Us Go Slow

Remember the birthday party game of long ago, before those events rivaled weddings?

Someone’s mother, perhaps ours, would bring out a small tray covered with homely and familiar household objects.  We would get 20 seconds to look at the array, then it would be whisked out of sight.  The game — contest, actually — was to see how many of the objects you remembered.

Those party afternoons were invariably warm, and we were keyed up and a little sweaty.  But not at that moment.  I will never forget the atmosphere then.  It was one of the few times that a gaggle of busy, antic girls grew quiet enough to hear the distant traffic.  We were swaddled in a concentration and focus that we’d created by ourselves, and it was delicious.  Who needed cake?  It paled in comparison to this pleasure.

I have no one to offer this diversion today.  Quite the contrary.  I face the menace of distractions at every turn.  “Faster” is the delusion that we can outrun the list of things that need doing.  If this were a 12-step moment, I’d be confessing that yesterday I imagined that I could bake a batch of granola cookies at the same time that I ran out to buy a toy for a Christmas charity, finished a book on Dante, and prepared for my final class of the semester.

I know that I’m not alone.  So today, I’ve taken matters in hand.

In lieu of the birthday party game, I have created a small mindfulness altar that I will look at every time I pass through my office.  It contains the following:

A wooden clothes pin.  A wooden spoon.  A pair of knitting needles.

Only these.  They are laid out on a simple wooden cutting board, along with an acorn given to me by a friend.

These objects tell me the truth about myself.  They require me to quiet down, to remember who I am when I am engaged with each of them.

I am focused, content, and productive.  I am simple and slow.

When I know such moments, I shift into a deeper center.  I can feel something in me unfurl and claim its freedom.

On this day, perhaps you might try a similar altar.  A photo will do.  A table top cleared of newspapers and magazines.  My wish is that all of us reclaim a few moments of freedom from “faster,” so that we can know our inner wisdom and move in something more meaningful than circles.


Advent, Day 2: The Journey

Some of us start journeys with all the details in place: we’ve signed up for pre-check, packed our plane slippers a good mystery, and the right maps; we have our museum passes.  And we’ve taken our dreams out of storage since the last big adventure.  These we tuck into what an old friend once called “God’s pocket.”

Without naming this, we hope to be changed.  But the secret of the journey is that change only happens if we hold the first set of travel tools lightly, and lead with the second.

I have known three people who’ve walked El Camino.  One was a young adult.  One, a recent retiree.  One, a middle-aged woman.

The first returned home having heard a call to become an Episcopal priest.  The second checked another hike off his long and impressive list.  The third opened herself to a collection of new friends and conversations, and, full of the unexpected stories and synchronicities along the way, found herself swept into a transcendent spiritual experience as she entered the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Unlike the countless transformations that feel forced on us as we go about “ordinary” life, journeys are intentional.  They require a sense of adventure, open eyes and ears and hearts, and should never be rushed.

How can we bring these pillars of transformation to the lives we are living in the present moment?

A relative of mine, in his prime, loved to map out marvelous trips for his family.  They traveled the world, but they never lingered longer than was fully necessary, in his view.  Which was: never long enough.  The Louvre got half an hour; Machu Picchu, half a day.  He was of the Instagram generation before there were cell phones.

These days, we disseminate every drink and flash-in-the-pan “high” to our friends in what often seems a substitute reality.  “See, I am living now!” the images say.  “Aren’t we having fun?”

But wait.  Maybe fun, and the self-marketing of our cool experiences, isn’t as important as giving ourselves the space in which to take in their full significance, to let them work their transformations in us before we pass them on.

What is we were to “do” this season differently?

What if we committed to watching, listening, taking in, digesting — gathering what stirs and surprises us each day in a spacious time of quiet at day’s end?  When we do this, we find much that we missed the first time around.  And herein lies their power to change us.

This was why, back in the day, people kept travel journals.  It is why so many I know today do the same.  If a journey is an act of intent, the journal is a practice of mindfulness that supports the intent.  It affirms the essential (and so easily lost) dimension of interiority in our lives.  We can succumb to the checklist mentality, to our Google calendars.  Or we can hold our journey in the broad and spacious dimension my friend dubbed, “God’s pocket”.

How will you journey today?


Advent 1: Awake! Die!

This morning my inbox offers me two seemingly conflicting Advent meditations.  The first, taken from the Psalm 57, encourages me to “Awake and sing.”  The second, to prepare for a good death.

How can these two concepts coexist on the first day of Advent?

Once when I was young, my parents hauled the four of us children to a resort in the Adirondacks.  It was a beautiful spot and we exhausted ourselves the first day exploring the lake, canoeing, playing tennis, and stuffing ourselves with blueberries.

We fell into bed in the cabin that night, spent and ready for deep slumber.  I shared a double bed with my younger sister, a night-time dervish.  Near dawn, not nearly rested enough, I was violently jolted from a dream when her arm came sailing full force across her body and onto my face.

Waking is painful, more often than not.  All over the world as I write this, people are being pulled from safety out of cars to be shot, women sexually assaulted, people evicted from their homes into the winter cold.

Power wields its unconscious arrogance like a modern-day Grendel, devouring the best among us.

Hunkered down in heated homes, with candles and wreaths to light, is a rare privilege.  And the truth is, even with these privileges the pain of awakening is as life-changing among us as it is elsewhere, even if we succeed in keeping it out of the news.

The Buddhist teacher famously whacks his pupil with a stick of wood during his meditation.

A poor Jewish girl finds herself pregnant by a man not her betrothed.

This waking is a kind of death.  The death of security, conformity, and ease.

It comes to us all.

We wake, and have a choice.

Will we resist that with which our rude awakenings confront us? Will we wallow in self-pity and narcissism self-absorption?   Or will we take one step after another, bracing ourselves to face into darkness, determined to bring our best to bear against what would defeat us?  To heal and to bring the light of our new strengths back to the world that needs us?

My prayer is that we come to share the journeys through the dark, and as we do, discover the wisdom and power and honesty that is in us, waiting to be revealed.


Advent Is Up for Sale

If you haven’t yet purchased your Advent calendar, you may be pleased to know that Advent has gone high market.  You can buy a calendar with daily “treats” ranging from marijuana to whiskey, beef jerky, hand-tied flies for your fishing expeditions, Legos characters, or, for a mere $495, a daily pair of cashmere socks.

Why wait for Christmas for the stampede of commercialization to begin, when you can do it now?

Or, consider this.  On Sunday, I will join thousands of other households around the world when I light the first of four candles on my Advent wreath, to mark the start of a sacred season in the Christian calendar.

Wreath traditions descend from the earliest peasant communities of Europe.  When the light seemed to abandon them after the harvest, they brought boughs indoors, fixed them to wagon wheels, and hung them from the rafters.  These wreaths were a symbol of hope that the sun would return in spring to nurture the crops they needed to survive.

Their form, and the meaning behind them, hasn’t changed much to observant Christians.  Advent is a journey through darkness, in faith that at the end of it, God will “return.”  Goodness will assume the form of a human being, so that we who so easily lose sight of it can see for ourselves what it looks like to live with compassion, routinely practice forgiveness, and do what we can to heal the world’s innumerable wounds.

Advent is about anticipation.  This, of course, makes the immediate gratification offered by the Advent-for-sale market absurd, as crass as so much of what passes for “culture” in our land today.

I came to an appreciation of Advent somewhat late.  In my twenties, I distained the deeper resonances and meanings of the season — already jaded by Christmas catalogs that filled my mail box before Thanksgiving.  I balked at repeating medieval hymns, and wearied of what seemed worn-out re-enactments that I deemed to be fairy tales.  But by the time I arrived at my mid-thirties, I’d discovered that intelligence, and even worldly success, didn’t go the distance.  Life could advance, but then be sent spinning backwards so fast you could stop breathing for months. Trustworthy friends became shameless exploiters.  People who appeared to be getting their lives together actually took their lives.  Virtue and talent were not, inevitably, their own reward.

In other words, life became life — as full of darkness and grief as it is of light.  I needed more than knowledge.  I needed deep sources of wisdom.

There was no boxed set for this.  It turned out that those ancient sources – the psalms and rituals and humble practices of reflection — were the best go-tos for understanding how evil behaves, and what goodness looks like in the face of abuse, violence, cruelty and grinding despair.

This is what Advent is all about.  When we make room for the vivid realities that dwell beyond commerce, politics, and endless news bites (note, well: beyond the realm of empire) — when we light a candle and allow ourselves to sit in the darkness of all that we don’t know and can’t fix or control, we eventually discover a bit of insight and a new metric of value.  Sitting with the still small voice within, we can learn where we need to go.

Advent isn’t for sale, and never was.  We can forgo the gaudy calendars altogether this year.  There is another way to do this.  Here’s my recommendation: release a bit of random kindness into each day.  For the 24 leading up to Christmas, act as if goodness is something free.  Compliment someone you dislike.  Forgive an obnoxious relation.  Feed the birds.  Send a gift to a foster home.  Tape chocolate bits to the cars in a local parking lot.  Christmas carol door to door (remember that)?

In a very dark time, lend the world around you a bit of your own light, and watch it grow.





My Private Session with Thomas Moore


I am grateful to have been granted a breakfast meeting with one of my all-time living wisdom teachers, Thomas Moore, a month ago.  The interview was just published in the journal, Anchor.  Enjoy!

My Personal Session with Thomas Moore


Twenty-five years ago, in his best seller, Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore gave mainstream America permission to use the word “soul” and not get laughed out of the party. Offering an avuncular conduit to the inner world, the monk-turned-psychologist became a catalyst for a holistic vision of human potential. His book re-energized the mindfulness movement, the re-discovery of the body as source of sacred wisdom, and an activist stance towards psychological inquiry. Outlier practices like yoga, meditation, and reiki became du rigueur.

My personal copy of Care of the Soul joined my collection of writings by Jung and Jung’s luminous descendants, Marie von Franz, James Hillman, Marion Woodman, and others. What set Moore apart was his kindly approachableness. Drawing on the writings of his Renaissance muse, Marcilio Ficino, Moore encouraged over-committed westerners to attend to our dreams, create daily rituals, and practice conviviality. Moore saw us as essentially good, if uptight, materialists in need of a more holistic vision of the self in order to live lives of true dignity, intent and joy. For a generation, his voice was a warm welcome out of the wilderness.

Even as he moved into the role of columnist (Spirituality Today) and guru (a regular at Kripalu and Omega), with his Van Dyke beard, bright eyes, and compact, natty mien, sharing workshop billing with Deepak Chopra, Joan Borysenko, and the like, he continued to spin out books—some two dozen since 1992, on topics ranging from sex to bathing to golf.

Now, at the age of 75, he has taken up the topic of aging.

I found myself wondering what he makes of his legacy. How do those of us committed to consciousness and restorative justice reckon the results of our work in these troubling times? Where has mindfulness gotten us? And what remains to be done?

We met for breakfast in Cambridge, MA a few weeks before Ageless Soul was scheduled for publication (St. Martin’s Press). Moore arrived in a navy blazer and a plaid shirt, easeful, relaxed, and prepared to be interested. I felt as if we were old friends just picking up a conversation left off a while back. After ordering berry smoothies and a bit of small talk about his recent New Testament translations, we turned to my questions.

Care of the Soul gave us a language for the vitality of the inner life in the culture’s public space. What can we say about its contribution to our advancement in the intervening 25 years? Was our progress an illusion?

“We haven’t improved,” he admits, by way of understatement.

“The forces arrayed against the humanity of the person permeate every aspect of our lives.

“Simply put, it is the quantification of life. Materialism, treating the body as a mechanism, a system of chemical reactions, and the ‘mind’ as an object that is somehow ‘fixable’ by Big Pharma, have taken hold so completely that alternative views go nearly unheard. We have fallen, if anything, even more under the sway of materialism than we were two decades ago.

“We live in this insane society that treats everybody like a thing. Even in psychology, now, we are quantitative. The validation for the inner voice is almost non-existent.”

In the bleak context of these materialistic time, Moore speaks of age as much more than just the last stand against the abyss.

Age in these times—perhaps in every time—becomes, for Moore, the opportunity to counter empty busyness, acquisition, and the domineering ego (the cornerstones of materialist philosophy), and instead embrace a deeper spirituality. If we accept this challenge, and its attending renunciations, age can serve as the threshold into one of the great transformational archetypes, that of elder and sage.

“When you are older, what you do is extremely useful. The young need the refined intelligence of age. They need our mentoring, our modeling, and our life wisdom.”

This journey demands nothing less than the transformation of the ego.

“We have fallen, if anything, even more under the sway of materialism than we were two decades ago”

“Jung moved close to it when he said we need a new kind of center. Not the ego. It’s something that’s more at home in the unconscious. Hillman called it ‘an imaginal ego,’ by which he meant, a poetic ego, one that sees layers in everything. Layers and depths. Whatever you look at, no matter what it is—a thing, an object, an animal, a person, a plant. You see these layers. A poet always sees layers.”

This is the “work” of age.

“It isn’t about productivity, but a different kind of work. When the outer world becomes less pressing, the inner world ‘increases.’”

The way into this work, for Moore, lies in grounded acts of creativity, activities that engender reverie and an opening to the imagination.

“I think Jung would suggest that what we need to do is find a way to be more comfortable with intuition, divination, artistic expression, with image and metaphor. All the things that aren’t taken seriously in this culture. Jung was trying to suggest that we need to develop an ego that can live that way, on a deeper intuitive level, trusting intuition, reading poetry, reading the signs.

“There is a natural spirituality that comes with age, a natural contemplative attitude that doesn’t have to be some system or formal ‘way.’”

In a public sphere overtaken by cell phones and angry speech, it is helpful to remember the special alchemy of simply being with others in a state of receptivity. Travel, knitting, spending time with friends for the pure pleasure of it are all contemplative activities.

“Whatever we can do that allows the inner matter of our souls and imaginations to take form in the outer world in ways they haven’t until now is the process of soul-work. This is the invitation of age. It is an alchemical process, this work on our ‘beings.’ If we could do that, we’d be a different kind of person.”

It is clear that Moore is more concerned with individual consciousness than he is with social critique. Or, to put it more precisely, though he passionately rues the materialism of western medical practice, and the obsession with “fixing” symptoms that rules much modern therapy, his concern is less with repairing broken systems than with continuing to live out his life’s work of lighting the journey of souls.

“In the monastery, I learned that ‘to work is to pray.’ What you do is prayer. That got through to me. I’ve always viewed my individual work as drawing out a person’s inner excellence. This was what the Greeks meant when they used the word, ‘therapy,’ which they did quite a bit. Plotinus added the element of beauty. These are my sources. And my writing is my personal daily spiritual practice. As soon as I wake in the morning, I go to my desk.”

“Be curious; follow your own path to meaning.”

I reflect on the humble, hidden nature of growth and transformation. It is so easy to jump off the rails into a sort of sociological analysis of matters that are essentially sacramental. It is, indeed, one of the temptations of the times. Moore is mindful, gentle, corrective, ever concrete, ever grounded.

The conscious man and woman needs to locate those guides and images that can enable them to do the essential inner work.

“You can do things when you are older that you can’t do when you are younger. If you travel, don’t be just a world traveler. Travel because you really want to have an experience. Paint. Make music. Write. These are all pretty good options. Be curious; follow your own path to meaning.”

I am reminded of Hillman’s observation: “Aging is a mystical struggle between the progress of a civilization forward and ‘the little man at the end of the road.’” If the human task is complete insofar as we have committed ourselves wholly to a cultural good larger than ourselves, then Moore has made a good journey. As we finish our smoothies, I think perhaps we reckon best the gift that has been our years on earth not in the marquis issue of “legacy,” but by remaining in conversation with one another, sharing what we have learned and loved with those we befriend along the way. §


Kathleen Hirsch is the author of A Sabbath Life: One Woman’s Search for Wholeness (North Point Press, 2001), Songs from the Alley (Anchor, 1990), and several other books. She currently teaches social justice writing at Boston College and serves as a spiritual director at Bethany House of Prayer in Arlington, Massachusetts. She blogs at kathleenhirsch.com.