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Overcoming fear

There are two bridges -- the old, lower bridge, and the new/current one that is high, high, high above the river. Portomarin, Spain

There are two bridges — the old, lower bridge, and the new/current one that is high, high, high above the river. Portomarin, Spain

I don’t often include images here, but this one make for a powerful visual concerning walking through fear and holding off utter panic. These are the two bridges into Portomarin, Spain — a part of the Via Frances Camino de Santiago de Compostella. Notice the older, probably original bridge. That’s not the one I walked across. As I understand it, the original town was located in nice green lowland near the river. It was destroyed by a flood and/or mudslide. The town was rebuilt on the high ground — they even deconstructed and reconstructed the church in the middle of town!

But, alas, when one walks into Portomarin, it is on a walkway alongside the traffic lanes on that high bridge. The water swirls below. There are railings… railings that laughed as I doggedly focussed in front of myself, trying not to think of tripping and falling into traffic or the river while carrying my backpack.  The walkway is slightly elevated, just in case I wasn’t high enough already to cause panic to push up so forcefully that I had to practice a breathing meditation to keep it in check.

Walking over Napoleon’s Pass and trying not to lose my footing on the descent into Roncesvalles was nothing – nothing – compared to this flat walk. I knew I might be the last on to descend, but I could take it slowly and hope not to turn an ankle. All would be well. But, successfully crossing this bridge — that was triumph over fear. Susan started ahead of me. No fear of heights for that woman, and even she admitted to feeling a bit dizzy when she looked over the edge at the swirling water. For the first half, I could focus on her backside. But, she got across and headed up the stairs to town while I was still in the middle of the bridge. Breathe! Breathe. Don’t look down. Don’t think what could go wrong. One step. One more step. It’s not slick. Your feet are steady. One more step. You can panic when you get to the other side! Several more steps. Will this never end? Should I climb down to the roadway? A few more steps.

At last, it is over. I feel safe. I feel proud and triumphant. I DID IT!

There are many times in life that I need to call on this memory, especially when I’m unsure of where I am going and if I can do it. (Whatever “it” might be.) If I focus on believing, if I tell myself that I can panic later if I need to, if I remember that I only have to take one step at a time, then I can move on down the road. Maybe I can see Jesus walking in front of me and focus on his backside, his stride to get me moving and keep me going. I can go places and discover all manner of things that fear would try to keep me away from.

Courage — not being unafraid, but crossing the bridge anyway.

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Emmaus

Aaahh! The cycle of the Easter season. First there is Holy Week topped off with the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday morning joy. Then we begin to roll through the season. Last week was not only Divine Mercy, but it is what I refer to as “Doubting Thomas” Sunday. And today is Emmaus — “Jesus — where are you? Oh! there you are! Where’d ya go?”

I seem to be in a valley of doubt these days. At times, I climb to a hill of “just not inspired.” It bothers me more that I don’t seem to be as bothered as I should be by all of this. I find growth in my walk on a yoga mat, not at mass. I question just how much I believe all of this Christianity stuff. And yet, I’m not drawn to give it up either. I have developed a great sense of apathy about it.

Along comes Emmaus. The people on the road, explaining to the man among them that they had such hopes, but fear they were wrong. They are disappointed and dismayed. He listens. He chastises them a bit. And, when they break bread (he breaks the bread) – they see! Joy! and then he disappears from their sight. Hmmm.

I suppose what I must learn to do is to be awake and never miss the insight, the vision that comes with breaking bread and seeing Jesus/Christ. I often think how it would be so nice if I could just show up for mass, and get my fix, get my glimpse. You know — head out to the store to pick up some faith. Pick my flavor as well. Doesn’t seem to work that way.

For now, Emmaus is a promise that if I walk the road, and stay awake and open to the breaking of bread, I will likely receive what I need to continue. In yoga class the instructors are always reminding us that it is a “practice.” I think that as a Christian, I must remember that it too is a “practice”  – it is never complete, or perfect or done. At least not in this world. Emmaus is hope that I will get enough of a glimpse that I continue to walk.

 

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This morning, Susan, over at Creo en Dios asks “What difference does Easter make to you?”

I’ve not exactly been pondering that question, but I’ve come close. This is the first Easter season in decades that I have not participated in the full Triduum; I only showed for Good Friday and Easter Sunday morning. I have been questioning “Did I miss it in my soul? Why did I skip out this year? What is different in my life and my faith?” I can say that I know that in part, I opted out of the Vigil (which is by far my favorite liturgy of the year) because I wanted to be at home and be with my son and his family. Baby Avery is only 3 months old, and it was her first road trip.

I’ve made some changed this year. I retired from being THE English language music minister in my parish. There were many factors in that decision, and many that will not be aired in this forum. But, I finally just said, “I’m retiring. I cannot carry this alone any more. I don’t want to. I believe that while I am important, I am not so essential that parish life will fall apart without my presence.” I thought that it was a sabbatical. I figured that by Easter, I would be back. Instead, the weight lifted from my shoulders has been such a blessing. The freedom from feeling bound to the schedule has given me room to breathe and grow. If I ever go back, which at this point seems unlikely, I will only do so if I can do it with joy and a positive attitude. It will be a choice not a something I do because I would be afraid that folks might be angry if I didn’t do it. For now, I have let go and that seems to be good. Far better than doing the right thing for all the wrong reasons.

I’ve continued to bring myself to my yoga mat and take the time to breathe and be and let go of outside expectations. I have taken to heart some of the practices of a meditation grounded in breathing and just being with God.  I have learned better to laugh gently at myself when my body and my mind make different decisions about what I can do. Isn’t that so true in our Christian walk?  I mean, there is so often a disparity between what I think I should do and be and what this body can and will do. It is a learning process to pay attention to the emotions and what they are saying to me — without falling prey to being absorbed by them. In my seventh decade, I believe I am getting a glance at the fact that I am not my emotions (or my hair color, or my body shape). It’s about time.

Maybe next year I will be back at the full Triduum. Maybe not. I just know that at this point, my current focus seems to be more strongly on Jesus among us than on Holy Week.  That is not to put down the importance of Holy Week. I just need to treasure and explore the Presence of the [Risen] Lord in my every day walk. Maybe, even treasure the presence of Jesus, who put on bones and blood and muscle and was a human, like me. And rest in the love that brings to my consciousness.

Happy Easter!

 

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Burden of Myself

Ran into Fr. Gary over at Holy Trinity Sunday… well, he almost chased me down when I walked past him. I thought he was busy, and didn’t want to disturb him. Guess I was wrong.

Reminded me of the prayer he laid on me last spring:

Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will.

or maybe he says

Relieve me of the terrible burden of  myself, that I may better do Thy will.

Yup. Last year, it made a little bit of sense. This spring, it runs deep. I struggle with letting go of the bondage of protecting myself. I am more and more aware of the times I do so.  As I practice yoga, especially Yin, I find how difficult it is to let go physically. Move into a pose — a pose that requires you to relax and let go so that you can get a deep stretch. Sit with it. Do a self-check while you locate those muscles that are holding on tight to protect other things. Relax, let go and allow the earth beneath you to support you. Breathe. Oops! those same muscles start tensing up again. They don’t really accept that it will be ok to relax and be supported. The cycle repeats, each time with a bit more success.

How does that apply to the prayer? For me, it is the physical embodiment of my spiritual and soulful life. Can I find those things that hold me tight and protect me from God’s love and support? Can I then let go and rest in God’s love and presence? It’s not easy for me. I might let go a bit and rest, only to discover that I have picked up that baggage again, and am using it to insulate me from freedom. The physical practice has given me a way to work through these things, to experience the letting go and the picking up and letting go and picking up and letting go… I seek to move with this experience and apply it to my emotions and my prayer life.

Jesus came to earth and walked among us as one of us. That must mean that God experienced life in the physical body of Jesus. The physical body is animated by the spiritual and emotional self. I’m doubtful that they can be separated successfully. Incarnation, to me, means that God is indeed here, in muscle and bone as much as in spirit. The experience of one must integrate with the experience of the other.

Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. 

And help me to live fully and freely. Amen.

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Falling

I hate falling. It scares me. I hate that loss of control, the moment of panic when my mind races worrying about what will hurt, what will be broken, where the bruises will be.

I hate falling: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. But, I find the most vivid descriptions of Why in the physical form.

I’ve barely been out of the house for 2 days now. There was ice and snow. Not a lot by many standards, but enough to make walking tricky and at times treacherous on our iced over driveway. I’ve fallen on ice a few times, and they stand out vividly in my memory: once, wearing ski boots at a ski resort in Boone NC and another on the St. John’s campus in New York. Both proved painful, and extremely unpleasant. Neither resulted in anything being broken. I’m not sure about bruises. But, I remember, in my gut the sensation of falling and the pain upon hitting the ground.

My balance is not as good as I would like. I can recount stepping through the ceiling in the attic (a fall stopped by the ceiling joists) which resulted in bruising from the back of my knee halfway up my butt. Or two falls on the Camino. Or falling and cracking a rib running to get out of the rain on campus; falling in the Chili’s parking lot in pouring rain causing a rotator cuff tear.

And there is the grandaddy of all falls in my memory — falling off of the front porch (four steps high, no railing) into a pyracantha bush. I must have been 5 or 6 at the time. To this day, I am very timid about leaning out or jumping ditches or anything where I might fall.

Get the picture? We haven’t even gotten to mental, emotional or spiritual falls… but, let’s just say I’ve had a few. Some of them, I am only now beginning to understand as falls. I’ve miss opportunities because of this fear of falling. There are times I simply cannot or will not let go (and let God) because I am so terrified of falling. Even in battling depression, it seemed impossible to let go and fall to the bottom, trusting that there was indeed a bottom to stop the fall.

Funny thing is that when I do let go, when I do allow myself to risk falling, I don’t always fall. And, so far, I’ve been able to get up again when I have fallen. But, still, it holds me back. What if I don’t bounce back? What if I lose it all? What if I lose something? What if I speak the truth and you never talk to me again? Or you laugh at me? Or write me off and pretend I don’t exist? What if I sell everything to buy the field where the precious pearl is buried, and then discover I hate pearls? Butch and Sundance had to jump and fall into the river to escape. Me? I would probably have died on the cliff out of fear of the fall into the river.

I really hate falling. And yet, it seems that to move forward, to growth, to love, I’m going to have to risk falling, even if I am scared.

 

 

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Watching

Watch your thoughts, for they become words
Watch your words, for they become actions
Watch your actions, for they become habits
Watch your habits, for they become character
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny

One of my 30-something friends posted this on Instagram and FB this morning. I’ve seen it before. But, today the word(s) that leapt off the page was WATCH.

When I pause in my day and take the time to pray I find that some sort of contemplation or meditation is my mode. When I make time to try to sit quietly and clear my mind and listen, I find that the thoughts still come. WATCH. Those who are far better at these practices than I, often remind us that we cannot control those thoughts. Therefore, as they wander through our minds we can allow them to come and go without attachment to them.

And so, I Watch my thoughts… they tell me a lot about what is going on with me. They tell me where I am uncomfortable and where I relax. I don’t have to make them turn into words (which lead to actions, habits…) I can do that, but first I must watch them and learn to let them go and let them be.

I certainly cannot control my thoughts! If I could, I wouldn’t think of my friend Henry every time I buy a lottery ticket, and I might win! Henry told me once that he had bad luck, and that even thinking of him when buying a lottery ticket would insure that it was not a winning ticket.  Bingo! I seem to have no control over thinking of him when throwing my money away on the lottery. I’ve tried replacement (think of something else) but Henry always shows up. I have to let the memory of him walk into my mind and then walk on by.

So, indeed: Watch. Be awake. But, don’t hang on to those thoughts like you own them. Don’t believe you actually control them. Control what you do with them? Oh, yes. Open yourself up to transformation so that the Image and Likeness of God shine through more easily? Oh yes. Those thoughts tell me a lot about where I am on my journey, but the are not ME. I can learn from them, but I cannot hang on to them.

 

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Every Valley…

It is hard to believe, but Advent is here. Time flies, it seems.

When I was walking the Camino back in October, I would often sing to myself to get me through. On mornings when the fog was so thick that I could barely see 10 feet in front of me, I would hear in my head: “We walk by faith, and not by sight…” complete with various instrumental accompaniment. And, when climbing or descending steep slopes, several songs of Advent would pop into my head. You can imagine: “Every valley shall be exalted, and every hill made low” type of thoughts. So, it should be no surprise that I chose an opening song for mass this morning that begins “Let the valleys be raised and the mountains made low.”

Normally, people in my neighborhood [, town, state, country] travel from place to place in motorized vehicles. We travel mostly by car. And, in traveling that way, we lose touch with the ground beneath us. We are no longer acutely aware of hills versus flat areas. We lose consciousness about changing landscape and the energy required to ascend or descend a hill, or walk on uneven ground, cracked sidewalks and paths littered with twigs, leaves, acorns and pecans (or walnuts or chestnuts). We forget just how much easier it can be to travel a smooth, flat road. Boring maybe, but still generally a more gentle ride or walk. Only when we get out of our comfortable space, get on foot or some human powered form of transport, do we begin to be awake to the world around us. And only then can we begin to appreciate the proclamation of valleys being raised and mountains made low so that our God has an open, direct way to approach us.

While walking the Camino there was a space to open up and feel the road. There was a way to be grounded in the present simply because my feet were definitely grounded on the road that I walked. I was awake and aware of the world of my present moment and I could journey more easily than usual, letting the past and the future fade as I concentrated on the present. I get a lot of that when I run or practice yoga as well, but somehow walking The Way created a special image in me of being present in the current moment. It is an image that I hope to maintain and enhance.

In Advent, we are making a journey to the place where we receive God’s love in the form of a new life — Jesus is born as one of us, with all of the wonder and joy and tears and difficulties that we will face. I hope to walk this Advent rather like the Camino — one step at a time, in the present moment — and to arrive at last at Christmas with a sense of wonder and thanksgiving a bit like the joy (and sorrow and excitement) of arriving in Santiago de Compostela. To stay with the present and simply experience it.

 

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Find it wherever it is…

Just as those yellow arrows appeared in so many different places along the Camino, God’s arrows can come be seen in some very unexpected, not-traditional places. You just have to be open to seeing them wherever they appear.

This summer, I took up a yoga practice. The physical stretching is good. The physical challenge in even beginning to attempt some of the poses is excellent. The deep physical calm that comes at the end of a practice is much needed in my life.

More than that, I find the emotional and mental practice to be a way to open up. It is, for me, truly an occasion of prayer. To get the benefits of a Yin Yoga practice, I must learn to stay where I am and stay with a bit of discomfort. I must learn to relax into the present moment and allow my entire self (body and mind and soul) to relax and sink deeply into whatever is being asked of me. I must listen to my body and learn what is pain versus what is discomfort. Sharp, shooting pain does damage. Staying with discomfort gives me a way to learn to be here now, to listen, to progressively relax and accept the limits of my current condition while pushing ever so gently to new depths.

To me, that is such a picture of my relationship with God and myself as a child of God. It is a picture of prayer. Learning to rest in God’s love. Learning to see from a new place. Being transformed into someone/something that is more than I knew before. And trusting that  I can stay with the discomfort and not run from it.

I had a chance to practice that on the Camino. One step at a time — just one more step. I might have had a name for my goal for the end of a day, but I had to trust that this would be a good place. I had to take one step at a time and travel to places unknown. There were times when that was easy because the sun was shining, the view beautiful beyond belief and the light a photographer’s dream. And there were days when it was cold, blowing rain, slippery rocks and many hours of solitary walking. Each involved one step at a time. Each involved being open to what was happening in the moment and trusting where I was being led. And each involved an openness to being transformed by Presence.

I do not often find this type of prayer in a church, or in a mass or other organized group. But, I feel it is essential to my growing in love and wisdom and living the call I feel as a baptized Christian. I will look for these opportunities wherever, and however God puts them in my path.

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Yellow Arrows

I’ve been back stateside for 2 weeks now… the trite, but oh so true, feeling is “so long ago and far away, and yet, only yesterday.” I spent 5 weeks walking the 500 miles from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. My job, as it were, was to walk — walk about 15 miles (25km) every day with a pack on my back. To walk in rain and sun, heat and cold, light and darkness and to be present in every moment along the way. And, that way was marked by yellow arrows.

I smile when I think of those arrows. Sometimes they jumped out at you. Sometimes, they had to be sought out. You might find a yellow arrow on a street or a sidewalk, or the side of a building. You might find a yellow arrow on a bench, a rock, a wall or a lamppost… on a tree trunk or a stone marker. They showed The Way.  And, if you hadn’t lost your way, it seems that a yellow arrow appeared just at that moment when you began to question if you were on the right road.

We missed a yellow arrow one morning in misty darkness. The way felt “not right” but since there were few, if any options for turning or not once we had veered off the path, it took us more than a kilometer to find the path ending in a field. Yup. We missed an arrow. By this time, there were 3 of us headed in the wrong direction. Nothing to do but climb back up the hill until we found an arrow. Oh, and then follow it. Back on the path.

How many times in life have I just kept going despite strong misgivings and no arrows to validate my path? How hard is it to admit that I was wrong, and go back to a place where I can see the arrows? Hard to admit taking a wrong turn. Hard to hold back from blaming someone else for my error. So easy to say “Well — I wouldn’t have gotten lost if YOU had painted that arrow bigger, or brighter, or in a slightly different spot that would have been easier to see! Not my fault!”  Hard to say — “Oops! That was a lovely path, but it seems it wasn’t the one I wanted/needed.”

Since my return from the Camino, I find that I must continue to look for something akin to those yellow arrows. I must follow these instructions, even if I don’t know much, if anything about what I will find on the path, exactly where it will lead or how far I will go today. I know that they will lead me to my goal and I really don’t have to know every detail of the path before it happens.  And, if I miss one and find myself lost, then I must go back and find an arrow, and begin again.

 

 

 

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Shared Prayers

Each month when our Ultreya group meets, we put our names in a basket and then each of us draws one out to find out who we pray for (in a special way) for the following month. So, Bryan – you get a really good month!

pilgrim-profiles

I leave for Spain tomorrow for my Camino. I have only one real expectation: I expect to complete the 500 mile walk. Other than that, I have some hopes such as hope of finding a deeper connection with God, hope of leaving more than a few extra pounds of myself behind, hopes of meeting new people, seeing new sites, visiting interesting places and churches, and forming new friendships while coming to know my walking companion better.

My basic approach is to treat this as an active, walking prayer — could be meditation, could be contemplation, could be intercession for those who have asked for prayers, and even for those who have not. At least parts of this journey will be a prayer for men and women here in Alabama who are working as team members for the fall Cursillos, and for those new pilgrims making those weekends.

I’ve considered this prayer aspect enough that I have been very pleasantly surprised by those who say “I’ll be praying for you.” — It becomes shared prayer. I pray for so many here at home, and in turn, so many here will pray for me. It seems that perhaps I a part of a large community, even as I am pretty much alone. That seems rather like our journey to find the god within: I must do it myself, but I must do it as a part of the community. Not either/or but both/and.

And so, I spent my 75 minutes struggling to stay focused at yoga practice this morning. I try to sit still and breathe and rest in God; I will run with my other buddies in the morning before loading the car and heading to the airport. Yoga practice and running — those are my regular forms of moving meditation… walking the Camino will have to become that moving meditation for the next few weeks.

And to you who will walk with me vicariously (through thoughts and prayers) – thanks for the shared prayer.

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