I have needed to be compassionate toward myself when I was hurting. I have also needed to offer compassion and kindness to others. One of my best sparks for love and for forgiveness of old relationship hurts came from an image of myself at the Last Supper table, seeing my “enemies” seated next to me, all of us being loved equally by God. Another image that gave me courage and also freed me from mistakes and wounding behavior of the past was that of a beehive in my heart with golden bees making “honey of my old failures.”
Images have also reminded me how valuable a sense of humor is for healing. Mary Lou Sleevi portrays the widow Anna, in the Gospel of Luke, as the image of a woman who could laugh through the tough things of life: “Anna comes to Her Moment laughing. Those eyes have twinkled as she wrinkled…Her face the free expression of all that’s inside.” Perhaps, most of all, images have helped me to name my need to surrender and to trust God with my life. In order to be healed, I need a desire to let go, to get on with my life, rather than cling to the pain and memory of my old wounds. Some see surrender as negative because, for them, it implies a patriarchal approach to God, a giving in to a “higher power.” I do not envision it this way. I see surrender as a natural part of the cycle of life and, thus, it includes the spiritual path as well. I have learned much about having to let go of control by observing seasonal surrendering such as the plowed fields of spring accepting heavy rainfalls, summer’s fruitful days giving way to autumn harvesting, and winter’s wind whirling snowflakes into banks of beauty. My surrender does not seem passive to me. Rather, it feels like a strong trust in a loving One whose wisdom stretches far beyond mine. God can empower me, work through me, and weave patterns that I do not dream possible. I experience this as a great gift of love.
Dear Heart, Come Home (p. 127-128)
I shared this quote as part of a presentation I led last week with physician-fellows in palliative care. They are finishing up a year with their fellowship; they’ve come to palliative care from a variety of disciplines. For three years I’ve been shadowed by different fellows, working side to side to care, to listen, and to participate in the sacred sendings of patients.
Palliative care doctors are a good group of people, and our work as chaplains borders a neighboring region if I can put it that way. Unfortunately palliative docs are often thought of as last resorts and though that view is changing, their import is only beginning to emerge for addressing pain, discomfort, and the large matter of the unanswered. The affinity between their work and ours in spiritual care makes me think of the word integration.
My talk was on cultivating patience in the medical intensive care unit. The MICU is my primary pastoral context these days outside of my supervision of ministry students, and I pulled materials together for a similar group last year. Toward the end of our discussion, I was reflecting upon the wonderful work of Rachel Naomi Remen, whom I’ve quoted before on the blog.
Dr. Remen is among a small circle of life sustainers for me, especially from this last calendar year. She works with caregivers, teaches physicians of the body and physicians of the soul. And she helps me see better some of the portions of what’s ahead in my own future. That said, this quote was toward the end of my presentation with the staff from My Grandfather’s Blessings:
An oyster is soft, tender, and vulnerable. Without the sanctuary of its shell it could not survive. But oysters must open their shells in order to “breathe” water. Sometimes while an oyster is breathing, a grain of sand will enter its shell and become a part of its life from then on. Such grains of sand cause pain, but an oyster does not alter its soft nature because of this. It does not become hard and leathery in order not to feel. It continues to entrust itself to the ocean, to open and breathe in order to live. But it does respond. Slowly and patiently, the oyster wraps the grain of sand in thin translucent layers until, over time, it has created something of great value in the place where it was most vulnerable to its pain. A pearl might be thought of as an oyster’s response to its suffering…Sand is a way of life for an oyster. If you are soft and tender and must live on the sandy floor of the ocean, making pearls becomes a necessity if you are to live well.
I hope these words and anybody’s words which sit in your ears give you an anchor in the oceans of your life. Being an oyster, being a giver of hope, being a caregiver can irritate you until you release your own soft nature. Remen doesn’t likely mean by soft nature anything but a positive description of the best part of you and me.
When my training supervisor wrote my evaluation from February to September, he remarked upon my growth that he’d seen from two years, though he’s only supervised six months of that time. He gave a high compliment when he said that he’d seen me soften over these months, over these years. I had read these words but forgot about them until the other week. In working on this presentation, I reread that the oyster softened, too.
May your nature only soften. May it never harden. May you be as soft as you need to be to produce the pearls that await the context of your own soul. May every sand grain get used to your softness rather than your softness falling into hard, gritty sharpness. Don’t clamp your shell. Don’t give up. Don’t harden.
Making decisions when you’re under assault is a bad idea, especially if the decisions have anything to do with what’s assaulting you. To decide, you need the wind and wisdom of all your feelings, not just the ones pressing into you when you’re hurt or in trouble or when your personhood is called into question.
Decisions aren’t what you need. You need safety. You need repose. You need a harbor that you can attach yourself to in order to remain attached to the self that is you.
What you need to visit your spirit island. I learned this name when I was in Minneapolis for a conference. I was walking across a long, wide bridge, occasionally reading the descriptions of what I was seeing. I was struck by a brief description of a Lakota island, “Spirit Island,” and I knew that this place would be with me for a while.
Spirit Island was made of rock, was a nesting location for birds and a spiritually significant place for native people. One description I read said that it had no soil. It was removed in the 1960s when St. Anthony Lock and Dam were built.
I’m twirling around the notion of spirit island and how we all have one. It is the place where you sense your roots deepening. The spirit island is the place where you are at home, even when nothing around you brings peace or helps your heart reside. That spirit island is the home of your soul when your surroundings are chaotic, untrustworthy, or dangerous.
It’s, at least, in the inner chambers of your soul, where God speaks in definitive ways. Go in and find that island. Sit there. Wait there. Listen there.
A wonderful meal with a cast of pastoral educators the other week made me think of this. I’m grateful for the wisdom within Dr. Angelou because she hits all the notes here.
I think you are amazing. Already. Before you get it done. Before it succeeds. Just prior to the grand opening of your tomorrows.
You are already an exemplar. You’re faithful and caring. You’ve achieved a clarity in your soul that most people overlook.
You’ve prayed and centered on the things that matter, things that aren’t things at all.
Stay centered. Stay connected. Stay certain.
Yesterday stays with me, with us. And for some of us countless ideas run around in our heads, many of them from before.
For others of us the struggle is to start seeing anything at all. We have so much to do. It feels that way. Where do we start?
Grant us the ability to see when our heads are clouded, the ability to hear what’s just beyond our ears, and the ability to put enough form to our spirit’s hope.
Help us hold life gently. Help us appreciate and respect the models you’ve given our world, the idea generators, the storytellers who help us stay.
There is so much we see. Most of it overwhelms us when we don’t guard our eyes, when we take it all in without discriminating for our own good.
Excite us over tomorrow when today’s words and events have felt forced or tiring or dispiriting.
When we try but don’t quite finish, give us the skills associated with gratitude. Form us into thankful people, people who are grateful for life and its gifts.
Make us fearless. Grant that we might see you in the blankness of what’s next.
Press into us faith and imagination because today requires both. And may we, in some way, offer you all we do and are. And may our offerings entertain and please you.
Track the meanings of all our unwritten words. Hear our untold stories. Hold them gently. Keep them in front of us.
Make sense, especially when we can’t, of why writing, speaking, and listening matter. Enable us to hear ourselves. Enable us to attend to our own words, to choose our selves.
Make us unafraid of words, to you and to others. May we be patient with what we hear. May we make judgments slowly and carefully.
Help us to imagine words used well. Help us to use them well today. Amen.