Thursday, August 26, 2010

Doing The LegWork

Linda believed until the very end that she would be cured.

When breast cancer first arrived, my friend returned to the mainstream religion of her childhood. By the time both breasts had been removed and her hair had grown back, Linda’s Christianity had grown more conservative. With the third and final recurrence, a metastasis to the brain, Linda was certain that if she surrendered to God in all things and believed wholeheartedly, a cure would follow. She knew enough to label such an outcome a miracle, but claimed never to doubt that she would be able to parent her three young children into adulthood.

Others subscribe to the “make your own reality” perspective. While their belief system differs from Linda’s, they share a certainty that one’s intent and actions will turn around seemingly bleak situations.

Most of us would agree that the human mind, heart, and spirit are amazingly vigorous, endowed with resources not fully realized. Most of us, too, believe in unseen sources of assistance, though our words and conceptual frameworks vary greatly.

However, we humans seem partial to the illusion that we are in charge of this wild and wooly thing called life. How can we tell when we’re using lofty terms and valid theories to simply maintain a sense of control? We can’t. Our small wills are crafty things and regularly don guises~~egos in spirit’s clothing, so to speak.

When we believe, for example, that we will achieve our desired outcome if we pray faithfully or think only wholesome, life~enhancing thoughts, we make this world much simpler than it is and ourselves more powerful. We ratchet down our fear of the unknown to be sure, but at the cost of opening the door to self~blame. An intractable illness or a string of difficult experiences becomes our fault. We not only feel bad, but have managed now to feel bad about feeling bad. Counterproductive, at best, when we’re already reeling.

This approach also ignores the fact that our destinies are not independent, but entwined with others. We are not lone passengers on separate ships sailing partitioned seas. We are part of an integrated whole and are moved by many currents. In Linda’s case, these included a problematic medical system, a particularly virulent form of cancer, and an environment replete with toxins. Hers was not the only will involved.

Importantly, though, the cure she sought was not the only one out there either. Though Linda didn’t get the particular healing she wanted, I trust that when she died~~nearly 7 years ago now~~her unique and twisting path of surrender had mended her in ways I cannot conceive.

A clergy friend of mine suggested that folks often place God in the role of cosmic vending machine. You know, we pull the knob for the Snickers bar and become miffed when a bag of Doritos drops off the peg instead. As we age, our spiritual philosophies need to mature beyond such notions. Of course a positive and prayerful attitude affects reality and has far~reaching effects on health and happiness. But we can’t always choose the outcome. Our job is to do our part~~“the leg work” as Alyson, another old friend of mine, used to say~~and greet what comes with grace.

It’s also wise to trust that the cure coming our way might be just the one we need, even if we aren’t fond of its packaging. We can then commit to making it so. Now there’s a job that’ll keep us busy!

May you each have a productive time greeting with grace your own cures, no matter their packaging.

Loanne Marie

Sunday, August 8, 2010


Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest and seminary professor, begins her beautiful book, An Altar in the World, with the story of Jacob. In Genesis 28:12~18, Jacob dreams a ladder reaching into the heavens, with angels climbing up and down its rungs. After God speaks directly to him, Jacob awakens but refuses to brush this off as a mere dream. “Surely the Lord is in this place,” Jacob exclaims, “and I did not know it.” He proclaims that very spot holy ground, a “gate of heaven”, and sets a stone to mark it as such.

The author shared this story while telling of coming upon another stone arrangement beside a secluded tidal pool in Hawaii. Noting the palpable sense of the Sacred in that lush place, Taylor recognized an altar in the upright arrangement of three stones, the color of humpback whales, left by someone long ago.

While my dictionary defines an altar as “an elevated place or structure…at which religious rites are performed,” it can be so much more than that. An altar can signify our awareness of God’s presence, wherever we discern it.

In the Catholic tradition, an altar is a place where solid matter becomes infused with Spirit, as ordinary bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Yet if God is omnipresent, couldn’t such sacraments serve as reminders that matter is already infused with Spirit, though often we know it not? As the 12th century mystic, Mechthild of Magdeburg put it, “The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw—and knew I saw—all things in God and God in all things.”

For most of us mortals, such awareness does not come easily or remain for very long. We need to train our eyes to see. In her lovely book, Taylor offers practices for cultivating an appreciation of the Holy in the world around us. She urges us to create metaphoric altars within our own hearts to, “flag one more gate to heaven—one more patch of ordinary earth with ladder marks on it—where divine traffic is heavy,” whether we recognize it always or not.

Each moment, fully felt in this way, becomes hallowed. Whether amid nature or rush hour traffic, while eating or walking, at work or in play, alone or in conversation, the Divine can be recognized and honored. We can, to paraphrase the title of one of Taylor’s chapters, wake up to God. Whichever ordinary event we are engaged in thus becomes Spirit~infused and, in the terminology we’re using here, an altar is created.

For example, each time we smile at a stranger or a loved one, we can do so in recognition of the divinity imbedded within that exchange, of the God present there. And another altar comes into being.

As we grow in this ability, we begin to offer ourselves as altars, as places where matter~~in this sense, one’s body, ego, thoughts, feelings, etc.~~becomes imbued with Spirit. A place where God finds a ready home, welcome mat out in front. Our lives grow richer, the experience of living more vibrant. We begin also to instinctively respond to the many and varied altars that bless this world of ours.

Most of us are not mystics who live this awareness always. Without a doubt, though, we can expand our ability to live it a bit here and a bit there. Part~time mystics, all.

Oh, how this world will change!

And my gratitude goes out to each of you for the altars you create, the altars that you are, in this world! Namaste!

Loanne Marie