These are stories about the spiritual journeys of our Associates. Hopefully, they will inspire you… Here are some of the stories:
Joy and the Bango
Grace can happen in any number of ways.
Some 20 years ago, I attended a weekend retreat run by the Society of Saint John the Evangelist called “Blowing Zen: Meditating with the Shakuhachi.” Dating from the eighth century, the shakuhachi, or Zen flute, is made from bamboo root and was used as a weapon as well as a musical instrument by mendicant monks who wandered the countryside seeking enlightenment.
I sat on my Zen pillow, eyes closed, listening to the mournful tones of the flute. If you want to hear a shakuhachi, here is a link to a brief YouTube video. It mingled with the sounds of wind and rain and wind chimes. As I focused on my breathing, I suddenly realized, I want to learn to play the banjo!
My first teacher was from West Virginia. Let’s call him Gid. He smelled of pot and body odor and said things like, “Hey, Man! What’s happenin’?” His three-month-old daughter (“Man, was she a surprise!”) slept in a guitar case beside us.
Gid started me on what’s called claw-hammer style banjo, where your right hand is supposed to come down on the strings and hit the head of the banjo, almost as if knocking on a door. Gid wasn’t much concerned with hitting the right notes as he was with establishing a rhythm. “Bounce, bounce!” he’d shout, “Keep that rhythm going!”
I loved it. And I still do. I guess because I’m totally focused, completely in the moment. Keeping what’s called the “bum-ditty” rhythm becomes a kind of mantra. Jamming with a group of old-time musicians, I go into a “zone,” where nothing matters but the music.
At the same time, the bright sound of the banjo provides a balance in the day for someone who spends much of his time alone in front of a computer screen, often writing about grief and loss, or sitting in silence gazing at his navel. Although I prefer the term, omphaloskepsis.
First made from an animal skin tacked over a hollowed half of a gourd, with three or four strings stretched over a planed stick, the “banza” or “banjar” came to this country from Africa with the slaves. So the banjo has its roots in sadness and loss, which makes it appropriate for a grieving parent like me.
Yet it can blossom in spontaneity and joy. In fact, I don’t think I ever knew what joy was until I began whaling away on the banjo and discovered that unlike simple happiness or contentment or pleasure, joy contains the element of sadness, of longing.
This is what I think the Christian writer C.S. Lewis meant when he defined joy as “an unsatisfied desire, which is itself more desirable than any satisfaction.” I wonder if he ever played the banjo.
What is God? Chris Upton
God is a fleeting event that happens to me. It is a rising up from dull, habitual, over and over mind routine into a journey of boundlessness, abundance, safety, protection, and new possibility. This protection, where no harm can come, is a place where new doorways open in my heart and there is only freshness and light.
It is a place where transformation incubates. It is the gift of a new direction for an old problem, of alternative ways for the worn-out emotional strategies that have carved deep ridges in me. The gift of spacious emptiness where crowded psychic clutter and dust once lived.
The experience of God is the movement out of my “same old, same old” to an undiscovered path that flows like a meandering mountain stream. It is a soft landing. It is the light that stirs in my heart, breathing a cool breeze into stale patterns of behavior.
This gift of spaciousness is not aloneness, it is communion, “with union.” God is vibrant life where there was once stagnation. In God, my rigid, dry, and brittle heart turns supple and absorbent.
God is the freedom to create, freedom for change, freedom to emerge. The fuel behind this momentum is mighty, mysterious, radiant love. It is a love that is barely knowable, incomprehensible, beyond understanding.
It is more vast than the clear night sky and the canyons and ocean depths. It is love that is unbreakable, unmovable, unquenchable, through all time and space. This love in God is as close as my breath and a healing adhesive balm on my soul.
The Spirituality of Mud Nancy Collins
“Never fall in love with a pot until it comes out of the final firing.” This was the first advice given to me when I began making pottery.
Much can happen to a pot from start to finish. The soft clay handle of a newly created mug may droop under its own weight. Once it dries the mug becomes very delicate and may be easily broken.
When the mug goes through the bisque firing it may distort. In the final glaze firing the reliably bright turquoise glaze may turn into a dull gray or may run off the mug and cause it to stick to the kiln shelf. Or the funny little distorted gray mug with the droopy handle may turn out to be your favorite piece.
Making pottery is a spiritual experience for me. It is about earth and fire and also about being present. Playing in the clay, or mud, helps me feel close to the earth.
It forces me to clear my mind and concentrate. It teaches me to get out of the way and let the clay tell me what it wants to become. Making pottery has helped me learn to not get too attached to results and to remember that handcrafted pottery is not supposed to be perfect.
There is more about my wabi-sabi imperfect pottery on my website, Art Studio No. 8. “Quit trying to be perfect” is the best spiritual lesson I have been given. I learned it from the mud.
A Passion for Nature’s Invitation Daniel Robinson
When I was four years old and living in Americus, Georgia, a large black Buick hit me as I was crossing a road. It dragged me for a short way down the street before the driver realized what had happened.
During the time I was unconscious, I experienced a lady with long silver hair, who I have recently named Emily, walking with me among a group of children from all over the world. I felt warm, loving, joyful, even gleeful, as we all romped in a beautiful meadow. Since that near-death experience, I have always felt totally at home in my backyard as well as in the wilderness.
One day many years later, I was walking in another meadow near the horse farms of Ocala, Florida. As I strolled along, I felt questions coming up from the trees and plants. This meadow, along with these questions, formed the basis for a labyrinth I was soon to design.
For a number of years, I took local retirees on ‘Friday Walks” along this labyrinth, inviting them to gaze with soft eyes upon all of the nature that surrounded them. I asked them to write in their journals questions that came up inside their hearts. We would later gather up under a tree and listen as each shared how nature had invited them to go inward.
My wife, Heather, and I were later married in the center of this labyrinth, held within the loving arms of a huge hickory tree. One of the many reasons that I retired to Maine in 2010 was that I felt invited into the questions by this state’s gorgeous natural settings. I love the cabin and studio that Heather has blessed with her loving gifts of design, art, and gardening.
Each day when I walk along our bubbly stream flowing into the beauty of Green Lake, my heart sings. Not a day goes by when I don’t lift up my spirit to the sky and thank my creator for blessing me with such an incredible place for my soul to grow. We currently have purple plums, apples, blueberries, tomatoes, blackberries, hummingbirds, dragonflies, sun rays through the evergreens, flower blossoms of every color, an old potter’s wheel, and quail weaving through the garden.
Currently, I am building another labyrinth that stretches through our yard with Heather’s landscaping skills adding beauty to an already incredible space. One of my passions is to gaze into the ‘outer’ world of nature and discover what questions God has for my ‘inner’ today. Nature has a way of opening my heart to truly listen and, if I am lucky, I hear the questions rising from the spirit of place. It is good to have a place and to feel that I belong within it.
Where is it that you feel questions rising up within you that beg for a fresh new answer?
My Companion – Marty Resotko
I once heard the voice of God. It came from the back seat of my car, as I approached the York Tollbooth. I heard, “whichever way you go, I will be with you.”
Now to be clear, this did not involve a prayer on my part asking which lane in the toll plaza would be the fastest. I was struggling to decide on a course of action regarding my marriage. The words from the back seat did not “give me the answer” but they still made all the difference as I faced my dilemma.
To quote Br. James Koester of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, “When life is hard, what I need most is not always what I want. What I want is for life to be easy. What I want is for someone or something to come along and make it all go away. But what I need is tenderness. What I need is to be loved. What I need is a companion for the journey.”
Hearing God’s voice did assure me of a companion and my spiritual background told me my companion was a kind, loving one. I have recalled that voice assuring me of God’s presence and approval many times in the years since. Sometimes I forget the voice and get called up short when I do remember it. I have taken many opportunities to share with others my story of God’s presence and healing. Sharing the voice from the back seat has become my passion.
Photo caption: Marty with grandson Eli, who had a broken leg, and grand dog Maya, who adores chasing a ball at the beach!
The Center Still Holds Sandra Horne
As a seminary student, I spent a considerable amount of time treading water in the theological deep end, trying to understand God’s proximity in loss and the meaning or purpose of suffering. As you might guess, this was no intellectual exercise. In 1967, the wrongful death of my three-year-old sister, a consequence of parental neglect, unleashed a torrent of events that sent my older brother into a death spiral of addiction that took his life 25 years later.
No member of my immediate family ever attended religious services or talked about God. Many of our neighbors were devout Catholics. I wondered how they found the hope and consolation they needed by reading scripture or attending Mass.
After years of resistance, I finally followed my longing and entered Bangor Theological Seminary. One day, while engaged with scholarly “conversation partners” in contemporary grief theory, I was blindsided by this passage from author Melissa Kelley. “The experience of loss,” she writes, “breaks our hearts and breaks our stories.”
Karen’s senseless death broke Phillip’s story and mine. I struggle to live comfortably from my heart. My connection to all things holy feels tenuous much of the time. The slow process of healing plods along.
At age 60, I’m still relearning the world as it is now. Not as it once was, nor how I wish it could someday be. There’s no triumphant ending here. But remarkably, through no effort of my own, the center still holds.
My Passion for Preserving Fruit Lyta Seddig
Have you ever walked into a kitchen and discovered the delectable fragrance of marmalade, chutney, jam, or preserves cooking? About 40-some years ago I had that experience entering the kitchen of a friend, who then taught me the process which gave birth to my passion for preserving. Over the years, I have become aware of the inherent spirituality of that process.
Yesterday I stood beneath an apple tree, and was awed by the abundance of attractive apples which I could just touch and pick! I’ve had similar experiences with cherry, peach, pear, plum, and quince trees, not to mention blueberry, currant, and gooseberry bushes (in Pennsylvania), grapevines, and rows of cranberries, rhubarb, and strawberries. Such varied, beautiful abundance of creation, gifts right there for me, my husband, daughters, and grandchildren to pick and enjoy!
As we bring our harvest into our kitchen, I consider which recipe to make, sorting through recipes from family, friends, and books. As I decide, I evoke that person or author and silently give thanks for the recipe which means so much to me.
I also pick the jars I will use, quilted crystal, jelly, antique, baby food, or condiment jars I have acquired over the years. If I use antique jars, I remember with love my grandmother and mother who gave them to me.
Then, my husband and I prepare the fruit. Just cutting into the fruit and seeing the beauty of its fresh interior is a remarkable experience. As I gather the ingredients which we have bought for a particular recipe, fruit (e.g. pineapple), liquor, nuts, sugar, honey, and pectin (if needed).
I wonder if the people (refugees? immigrants? migrant workers?) who grew, harvested, and prepared the ingredients have been well-treated. I hold them in prayer, as well as their government.
The exciting part follows. Mixing the ingredients in a large pot and bringing them to a boil. This requires vigilant awareness, literally living in the present moment, stirring often to avoid anything sticking to the bottom of the pot.
If the recipe has no pectin, the ingredients must cook/simmer longer, until the liquid begins to jell. Trusting that the jelling point has been reached is crucial. And, during all this cooking, the fragrance is intense and mouthwatering!
Ladling the preserves into the jars can be challenging, depending on the jar’s diameter. Cleaning off the jars is often when I get the jam’s first real taste and a sense of joyful union. Taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound (my husband’s “Mmmm…”).
To seal the jams, I use the old-fashioned method of pouring paraffin over their tops, or I freeze them (if the recipe was no-cook). Then I make labels with different colored inks and store the jams in my precious antique jelly cupboard until the occasion arises to share them with family and friends. I love to see their responses as they read the labels, and am filled with gratitude!