Where is God?

Texts between Sean and me earlier this week.

I figure two of the greatest questions in life are, Why do we suffer? and Where is God? Even further, if there is a God, why do we suffer? And further still, in our suffering, can we even find God?

Certainly, wiser people than I have grappled with these question for millennia. I am not here to strike down a proverbial gavel of truth to tell you I have discovered the answers.

I am, however, writing to share some brief thoughts, born out of study and contemplation and experience, that might be useful.

Father Richard Rohr teaches that, according to the Franciscan worldview, several tenets are true. First, all matter is evidence of the Incarnation of Christ. The Universal Christ (distinct from Jesus, whose last name was not Christ, by the way) is everywhere and in all things. The Divine permeates all matter. Following the way of St. Francis, Rohr states, “Let what you see…talk back to you. There is the discovery of the mutuality, the univocity, of being.”

Second, the particular leads us to the universal. In other words, the more we pay attention to the details of our own journeys by asking questions, going deep, investigating the workings of our own souls, the more connected we become to the universal issues of the same themes. Our micro leads us to the macro and, again, to the interconnectedness of every living thing and every larger, more comprehensive system.

Third, the only way to see the evidence of the Divine in everything, the Incarnation of Christ, is through suffering. This is the way to “experiential salvation,” as James Finley describes it. Only through pain and sadness can we truly know we are actually connected to the Divine. Only when we experience disconnection can we, at the same time, understand that we are inherently aligned with God.

If the Christian perspective and tradition resonate with you, I imagine you will be comfortable with using “God” in these contexts. But in truth, the veracity of these teachings is independent from the name we give to this greater presence. If Source or Source Energy feels more comfortable, then use that. Or perhaps you prefer the Divine or Spirit or Oneness Consciousness. It doesn’t matter. The only important thing here is that we agree we are part of a greater whole. At the same time we exist in form, we are also infused with spirit–with the “energy that creates worlds” (Abraham). As Jung explains, “God named or not named still is.”

All of this brings me back to my musings on all of this and specifically to a short interaction I recently experienced with Sean and his sisters. He received his First Holy Communion two weeks ago, and on the way to the church I explained this to his sisters and him. I told them that, according to our faith, we receive the Body of Christ for the first time when we are around 7 or 8. That before that, we are not permitted to receive. This is why it is such a special occasion and an important Sacrament.

But then I added this. Even though this is what our faith teaches us, I want you to know, as I tell you all the time, that God resides in your heart always. You belonged to God, to Source Energy, before you were born, and you were, are, and always will be one with the Divine, because He lives in you. So let’s enjoy and celebrate your First Eucharist. And at the same time, I personally choose, in accordance with the desert fathers, contemplatives, and Catholic Mysticism, that it is a reminder, an affirmation, of what is already true. You are already the tabernacle; you are already the vessel for eternal “One-ing,” as many contemporary mystics call it.

For the past 18 months, Sean has been my greatest teacher. His sweetness and sensitivity and kindness have always affirmed for me that the Divine resides in all things. But it was his experience through cancer that clarified my worldview. Sean’s journey affirmed for me how the particular and the personal lead us to the universal–how the details of our own lives resonate with others and theirs with ours and that the result, if we walk wholehearted and open, is our enhanced capacity for compassion and understanding. These months with Sean also revealed to me how suffering, unexpected, unwanted, and often blindingly scary, in its ability to break us open and expose us to vulnerability, is the very seed of, indeed an invitation to, growth and evolution.

My contemplation upon the Franciscan worldview, particularly its tenet on suffering, recently led me to this explanation from James Finley, which resonates deeply with me:

These struggles….remind us of [our humanity]. We are not exempt from the human condition. There’s a kind of humility in the willingness to walk with our limitations….But if we let them, [these struggles], they become our teachers. They help us hand [them] over to God–accept ourselves as we are. [For] we learn to do for ourselves with God’s Grace. God [helps] us by transforming us with His love. There is a heightened capacity to be spaciously present. This love is qualitatively richer than what we were capable of [experiencing] before. We can see the changes happening. And we can be more that way, [loving and open], with others.

James Finley, Turning to the Mystics Podcast, St. Teresa of Avila, Fourth Mansion

We may often remark how growth or learning is the result of pain in life, but here James Finley goes further in his explanation of how and why this is. It is not just that we become stronger from adversity–a true but in truth tired and obtuse expression. The process is a true “leveling up,” as Martha Beck calls it. First we must be willing to be humble in the face of struggle. Next we accept the love of Source and allow it to permeate and fill the spaciousness within us that was born of the pain. Finally, we are prepared for, and open to, true transformation. It is here that we find ourselves “qualitatively richer” than we were before the struggle came upon us.

All of this to conclude that, although words are useful for helping us express and share these ideas, as Richard Rohr often says, “Words don’t teach.” It is only through experience that we can become intimate enough with these ideas that we might then be able to integrate them into our personal worldview.

Sean’s answer to my question, Where is God? for me epitomizes experiential knowing and salvation. Yet still a child, his understanding of inherent goodness and his own alignment with the Divine are real and profound. Should we be surprised that such truth emanates from children? From those who are so much closer to the mystical and spiritual than most of us so-called learned adults?

Yes, Sean. God resides in your heart. May we all take the time to be still, go within, and understand this eternal truth and mystery.

Another Look at Choosing Stillness over Action–and What Happens Next?

I first published this piece in February of 2019, a little over one month before our lives forever changed in the face of Sean’s diagnosis. I wanted to present it again now, in May of 2020, as we both celebrate Sean’s wellness, and also discern how to manage macro and micro fear and anxiety in the face of global pandemics.

As I write this introduction, I experience a kind of almost inexpressible strangeness. It’s somehow ominous, reading the words I wrote a year ago about worry and adversity, literally on the brink of being hurled into suffering I had never even imagined would touch my experience, let alone shape it. It’s the kind of feeling we have when we’ve been in a car accident and recall what we were doing or saying or what music we were listening to on the radio just moments before everything changed. This is an eery, strange sensation. Maybe we look there to try and make sense of the trauma. Maybe we are trying to control our reaction. Maybe we are even trying to change the outcome–as if that were possible.

What I am able to understand now, though, as I revisit what I was pondering on the eve of Sean’s diagnosis, is that the movement towards greater clarity and discernment is the very essence of life. We break open, fill the emptiness or the wound with salve, heal, and then break open again. And we do this, not at the same place, not at the place of the most recent wound, but at a different one. It might feel like the same one, but it’s not, for we have grown since the last breaking open.

When I wrote these words, searching for clarity and understanding in 2019, I of course, had no idea of what was to come. But what I am able to see now is that I was, even then, undergoing this continual reaching and leveling up, breaking open and healing. When Sean was diagnosed, I wasn’t prepared for adversity, but I was ready for it. In a strange, beautiful, mystical way, I was indeed ready. And as Abraham says, living an awakened, conscious life is the willingness to “be ready to be ready to be ready….”

That’s all we can really do, isn’t it? And so this is what I commit to everyday: staying open, living open- and whole-hearted. I’m not always successful and don’t actually want to be. The contrast is the seed of evolution. So we continue to face forward and choose alignment whenever possible. Who knows what will come of that?

I have been thinking a lot lately about how to manage my desire, and feeling like I need, to act in the face of adversity versus just being. Sometimes I call this surrendering. Sometimes I call it just accepting the “as is.” Regardless, though, of what I name it, the ability to be still in the midst of chaos comes from embodying the essence of the “I am.”

To be able to rest in the “I am” is to identify with Divine oneness, God, Source, light that lives in all of us. From here, we can choose to take action, which is sometimes warranted, or we can remain still and silent.

The latter choice is the one I’m pondering now. The desire to react and even respond in the face of an attack or criticism or unkind deed by another is so strong. We want to retaliate, to speak up, to be right. But here’s the thing; just because we’re right, or feel we are, doesn’t necessarily mean we should take any action at all. And this is the tough part, because we live in a world in which we are defined by our doing, not by are being.

In light of this desire to further understand stillness in the presence of chaos, this passage shown here from the Tao resonates deeply with me.

“Because [the Master] doesn’t display himself, people can see his light.” The one who remains still is enlightened. Even in the midst of others’ loud or aggressive egos, the Master rises above the din, not because he is louder, but because he is quiet.

“Because he has nothing to prove, people can trust his words.” Again, when he acts or speaks out of his essence rather than ego, he is trustworthy, because he accepts the “as is;” others’ approval of is inconsequential.

“Because he doesn’t know who he is, people recognize themselves in him.” In other words, because he is not fixed to any dogma, belief, or institution, others can easily identify with him and thus feel an intimate connection, a oneness with him.

These passages are elegant and deeply inspiring. As I continue to evolve into my own wholeness, as my triggers lessen, as my desire to be right and to react diminishes, the Tao comforts and inspires me. This is the way.

Self-Care Revisited

I first published this piece in May of 2019–two weeks after Sean began radiation treatment for medulloblastoma. Every day for six weeks, Sean and I drove an hour each way to and from Philadelphia. Once at CHOP, after we checked in and Sean was prepped for his treatment, I used the 90 minutes or so during his radiation to meditate or write or catch up with a friend on the phone. Most times, though, I used that time to go for a run by the river.

At first, I was self-conscious about exchanging my clogs for running shoes, putting on my knee braces, and strapping my running belt around my waist. By the time I walked through the revolving doors out of the hospital, having added my baseball cap, sunglasses, and earbuds to my ensemble, I looked pretty goofy. But once I reached the running trail, I not only didn’t care, I felt great. I felt like myself. I felt free.

Taking the time to get outside, run, and listen to podcasts became my time for learning, for educating myself about all sorts of things: nutrition for cancer, meditation, conscious parenting, spirituality and Catholic mysticism. I have learned so much since I wrote this piece a year ago. I have so much more to share and to explore with you. But I hope these thoughts will encourage you to find ways, however small, to care more for yourself–now and always.

Self-care, self-love, conscious attention to spirit, whatever we call these practices, are essential to maintaining our alignment with Source and abundance. They are not optional. Living a rich, conscious, connected life requires this kind of attention to self. All wisdom teachers and mystics emphasize the importance of finding quiet in our lives–time apart from the noise and business of the everyday. These are the times we focus on looking and going within ourselves. Only by consciously connecting to this interior spaciousness will we then be prepared to re-enter “ordinary” life. Only when we have witnessed, touched, and calibrated to the serenity and expansiveness within ourselves are we able to be fully present with, and manage, life’s daily activity and struggles.

Find ways to honor yourself both for yourself and for those around you, who might then follow your example. Imagine what the world would be like if we all gave ourselves permission to love, care for, and curate the Divine spark within us. The world would shine brightly indeed, and we would feel truly free.

The term, “self-care,” has become almost trendy now, right? It’s strange how such a basic, essential concept now seems new or alternative. Alternative to what, exactly? Martyrdom? Self-abandonment? Here’s why it’s so vital.

Of course, especially when a sick child or loved one needs us, we need to attend to our own health and wellness; if we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t care for others. This is obvious. But there are more expansive, even karmic, reasons to mind our minds and our bodies.

When we attend to our emotional, spiritual, and physical health, we are not only literally caring for ourselves, but we are also caring for the energy we emit, the atmosphere we create and offer others. We can’t fool the universe, saying, “I’m fine! Really, I’m great,” when we know we feel empty or sad or are suffering inside.

In the same way, our kids and those close to us know, too, when we’re just putting on a happy face. We cannot hide the energy we carry with us. The electromagnetic field of our heart (5,000 times stronger than that of our brains) communicates the authenticity of our energy.

And perhaps most importantly, when we attend to ourselves, we are also sharing with others, including our kids, that we value their own self-care. When my children see me taking time to exercise, meditate, learn, and create (all activities that are essential to my daily happiness and sense of purpose), they understand that they, too, are autonomous, independent, and worthy of participating in the activities that fill up their souls.

So, is self-care selfish? Yes. Yes, it is. And it is also life-sustaining, liberating, and actually the most loving action we can take to create an optimal environment of love and compassion.

On Mothering, part 4

I have been trying to get to this post for about a day and a half. I now sit at 7:54 PM, tired and uncertain that I have anything interesting or helpful to say. And so, this is the theme of today’s post.

Ironically, I was trying to finish dinner and housework by 7:00 PM to attend a live call about essential oils and self-care. I have to laugh as I write this; the extent to which I am lacking in the self-care department today is testament to how much I need it. And I’m sure I’m not alone.

These days, how many of us are doing even more mothering than usual in all areas of life? Work outside the home has diminished or stopped altogether. Kids are homeschooled. Extra-curricular activities are no more. And yet, I believe most mothers (and fathers) would agree we are busier than ever. As parents, we are now full-time teachers, creative directors, technology managers, kid-friendly household-job creators, spiritual directors, and counselors, in addition to non-stop domestic servants and large and small animal pet caretakers. It’s not that any of these jobs is completely new; it’s that they are now constant with very little down and alone time.

I don’t feel sorry for myself. I’m not even complaining. I’m simply stating what is. And as I have presented in my previous posts, our refusal to witness and confront what is, as well as our constant self-emptying without refilling, are not only exhausting, they are also unsustainable. Feeling overwhelmed or tense or constricted in service to everyone else all the time is NOT a requisite for mothering. The socially accepted declarations, “Now that I have a husband and kids, it’s not about me anymore,” and “it’s all about what’s good for them, not me,” are tired and incredibly damaging. Indeed, too often feeling and behaving as though we matter less than anyone else will cause us to turn against ourselves. And worse, we will be unable, truly unable, to hold and reflect the compassion and love our children require from us in order to form their own autonomous, healthy, self-possessed spirits.

So what to do? When we have days like the several in a row I’ve had (which I know you all have also experienced), how can we return to ourselves to refocus and refuel? A friend of mine posed this very question to me today. “How do I pay attention to myself,” she asked, “and manage my own state of mind when my kids are yelling, the dog is barking, and I have to make dinner AND fold laundry?” Yup. That’s about sums it up. Not easy. But not impossible either.

In discerning how to answer, this quotation from modern-day mystic, writer, and Episcopal priest, Cynthia Bourgeault, came to mind. She writes, “When the field of vision has been unified, the inner being comes to rest, and that inner peaceableness flows into the outer world [as] harmony and compassion.” In order to move towards a place of peace and wholeness, then, we must find a way for our “field of vision” to become “unified.” How do we accomplish that?

The answer is simple, but hardly simplistic. We must first learn to practice stillness and centeredness before the contrast and chaos and noise arrive. If we are moving through life often feeling barraged with negative stimuli and experiencing the momentum of much that is unwanted, we usually are unable to slow down sufficiently to turn toward the direction of what is wanted. It’s like making a sharp turn driving at 80 miles per hour. It’s very challenging, quite dangerous, and if you drive a big car, you’re likely to tip over and roll. It won’t end well.

However, if we are practiced at calling on, and sitting with, serenity, we are more likely to recover it in the early stages of being triggered when the chaos visits. This is the purpose of daily meditation, contemplation, and breathing exercises. We practice finding and resting in quiet and stillness in order to recalibrate our energy. We can also experience these moments by paying attention to, and appreciating, when conditions make it easy for us to feel relaxed and focused–when the kids are quieter, when the dog is resting, when there is no dinner to prepare, and when the laundry isn’t screaming to be folded. We learn to be unconditional in our ability to self-regulate, and at the same time, we are able to see and feel and have gratitude for the moments when the conditions reflect back to us our inner stability.

One day last week, I was trying to help all three kids start their school day. They had Zoom meetings, work to do, and tests to take. As I stood in the kitchen, attempting to corral the cats, so to speak, one asked, “Can I have some eggs?” Another declared, “I’d like some tuna.” And another requested a smoothie. I took a breath, and said, “Sure,” frustrated not that they were hungry and wanted to eat, but rather, that our morning start felt like wading through a muddy, rain-soaked steeplechase course at Radnor Hunt in Wellies with no tread. We were slipping and sliding and could not get any traction to get to our destination.

And then it started. Each child, in a different part of the kitchen and family room, started humming a tune. Not the same tune, mind you. Three separate ones at high volumes that were anything but harmonious. The playful rogue cats image returns readily here.

For a moment I thought I might just lose my mind. Cacophonous noise on top of the already pear-shaped work schedule? Seriously? But then… I grabbed on to the tail of that cranky momentum and yanked it back. I gazed at my three children, each singing untethered and with joy, and my spirit joined them. I saw them and the whole scene for what it was–fun, a little wild, and free. This is the good stuff, I thought. This is what we get to experience at home on a Tuesday morning with our kids. In other words, I experienced, as Cynthia expresses, a “unified” “field of vision.” My restless “inner being” came “to rest.” And as a result my “inner peaceableness flow[ed] into…[my]…outer world [as] harmony and compassion.” I experienced clarity and calm and profound love.

The question before us right now isn’t, when will this all end? When will life get back to normal? The question, rather, is, what are we doing right now to be present to life with all its moving parts? To witness the messy living room, the kids’ loud music, the breakfast room table full of half-finished crafts, and even the periodic grumbles and complaints.

Yes, fellow mothers, we have a lot to do everyday. A lot. And yet, it is in this mix of frustration and ease, challenge and joy, that we can find purpose and meaning and clarity. Every experience is an invitation to evolve and consider more deeply who we are and who we want to be. To be a mother is to know, almost daily, the pain and the ecstasy of life. This is the ongoing journey of mothering.