Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas Blessings

Christmas, the date on the calendar, may find each of us in very different places: we may be sad and alone or we may be celebrating with family; we may be in church praising God or we may be at home lost in doubt; we may feel full of love and gratitude or we may be overcome with guilt and unworthiness. Each of us is on our own unique journey - and our journeys are often not easy.
Christmas, the eternal truth, is with us at every moment. God coming among us, becoming us, self-emptying into humanness, that we might know love and hope and mercy, is here with me and with you. He is here, in the midst of our sadness, doubt and worry as much as he is in the midst of our celebration and joy. He came to share in all of our human experience - no matter how painful.
Not only did He come to join us - but also to lead us to our true Home. To welcome us into the Love that is Him. There is much I need to learn in order to follow Him there. I must travel His path, not my own. I need to learn all of those things that my self resists: forgiveness and obedience and humility.
Of course, I do not know how to do any of this. But come, let us walk together. Let us pray for each other (even if we do not know how to pray). Let us open ourselves to this possibility, this promise of hope, that is so much beyond our understanding.
Wherever you are on your personal journey, know that I as praying with you and for you. I am not praying as one who has arrived or who knows the answers but as one more lost soul is search of true Home. Grace and peace be with you. 

winter mother

i come to the earth; she comes to me.

at first i judge her empty, barren.

where are her blossoms and seeds?

                           yet she pours out her life for me,

                           swirling and splashing joyfully

                           around the boulders of my discontent.

and when i am done complaining
(moaning that she is too cold)
she warms me with her sparkling smile.
                          she dances me through crevices
                          and into her palace of ice
                          where even shadows shine brilliant white.
come, she says, come with me.
enter the glory of His radiant light.
seek, seek the gift of endless giving.

                          in frozen wonder she teaches me...
                          i come to Him, He comes to me.
                          lovingly giving in endless praise.
I took these photos at Minnehaha Falls in Minneapolis where I am visiting family. It was a place often visited during my childhood and it was exciting to see the Falls almost completely frozen. The poem was written the day after the photos were taken, as part of a "poetry party" conducted by the online Abbey I follow:
OK, I have one more photo I couldn't fit in... But let it mean this: if you are feeling alone or sad, may this picture be a reminder that we are spiritually connected to each other and therefore not truly alone. More so - our Creator does not leave us alone and has built a bridge to meet us. Christmas greetings coming soon!
(If you wish to see any of the photos in more detail, click on them. As always, you are welcome to download any of my photos or text for personal, nonprofit use.)

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A beautiful life

(Below is the text and the photo album that were combined to create the video above. As always, you are welcome to download any photos or text for your personal, nonprofit use.)


This is the story of a beautiful life.

However, that does not mean that every moment of that life felt beautiful or looked beautiful.

In fact, it began in death. The shell of last year's life remained in the spring, a reminder of the tomb from which its seed came forth. From its inception, this life began a journey that would eventually render it an empty shell as well. But that did not stop it from making the journey.

This life began as a seed buried in the rich soil of last year's decay. It began before human eyes could even see it or know that it was there. But the little life grew and grew until it made itself known, a green stalk with leaves that opened wide to the sun. Its single straight root held it deeply to the earth, ever faithful to the place of its beginning.

As this life grew and grew, it drew other lives to it: insects that fed upon it and worked upon it, both destroying and nurturing its future. And it grew and grew until it proudly held forth its buds to the sun, inviting this great Light to open its tightness into blossoms. And so It did.

Then came the bees. With them came fertile time, a pregnancy of swelling that pushed aside the proud blossoms into withered nothing. And the swelling continued, the life's many wombs bloating forth with unseen treasure.

Finally the days came when its secrets could be held no longer. Cracking, stretching, breaking, painfully and powerfully, its inner magnificence burst forth. Into the wind it sent its seed to spread, into the Light its glory born.

It birthed and it birthed until there was nothing left. Seeds upon seeds it birthed, emptying itself into the Great Life. And its own emptiness it did not mind.

It was indeed a beautiful life...

A beautiful life

Monday, November 26, 2012

The orchestra of our hearts...

When people come and share their suffering with me, so often I hear the words, "I should be able to...". Usually these words arise from a feeling within, a sense that managing thoughts, feelings and life problems is something that I should be able to do without the help of others. Often people balk at the idea of needing to talk to a professional or take a pill to ease the pain.

I remember the first time I had to see a counselor. And I mean had to see one. This was something much more than the casual chats with the college counselor during my undergraduate days. I had just come to Cleveland with the volunteer corps that had so captured my interest. When I had signed up for it, I was excited at the idea of working in a new place, meeting and living with a new group of people. However, when the time actually came, I found myself in a totally different place emotionally.

Some events during the summer between graduation and the move had shaken my very core. I felt uncharacteristically anxious and uneasy. Part of me thought that there must be something wrong with me physically. I knew I had had some emotional disruption - but I had dealt with that. I had thought it all through and it was time to move on. But something inside wasn't moving on. I didn't feel well and any mention of stress or anxiety only seemed to make me feel worse.

I finally went to the doctor and he ran a few blood tests. He told me there was nothing wrong and I obviously had a mental problem. He said that I should see a psychologist. (I was not yet a psychologist myself then.) Of course, I was horrified. I knew he had to be wrong...yet I was so distressed at his suggestion that I could no longer deny that something was going on. I got the name of someone, a self-taught counselor, who was not part of the "system" that I then hated for having judged me.

I was so incredibly fortunate. Even though it was more than 30 years ago, I will never forget what this counselor said to me. He had a casual, easy manner about him. When I was done pouring out my dilemma, he said, "You seem pretty together to me. In fact, maybe a little too together." He proceeded to tell me that it was like I had a report card that had only A's and F's on it, so that if I didn't get an A, it meant I got an F, that I failed. In his wise way, he was telling me I was too much of a perfectionist, that I didn't give myself enough room to make mistakes, to be human. And he did it in a way that my perfectionist self could hear. (We perfectionists like people telling us that we are "too together" much more than we like being told we have mental problems.)

The magic of his words was that they allowed me to relax and accept help without feeling like I had failed as a human being. Up to that point, I had constructed a life in which I was the helper, not the "helpee". As painful as it was, that experience in my life is one that I would never trade. It taught me that I really needed other people in order to make it, that I was vulnerable and could not do it alone. I became open to help and grew tremendously over the years that followed.

Just this past weekend, a friend invited me to hear the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra at Severance. I had not seen them live in many years, probably decades. Listening and watching, I was mesmerized. As they soared through Rachmaninoff's Symphony No.2, I was captivated by the synchrony of the violinists, their bows all moving in unison. The percussionists were often sitting idle - until just the right moment. They then approached their instruments and the music was transformed with the rumbling of the timpani or the bell-like singing of the glockenspiel.

I reflected as I drank in the sights and sounds. I realized that for too much of my life I have been trying to play solos. Even with my earlier experience in accepting the need for help, something in me has still wanted to be able to do it myself. Yet, watching and listening to the orchestra, I was brought to the realization that each musician had to yield his/her solo self for this transcendent symphony of sound to be.

In our culture's teaching that anything less than independent, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstrap living is shameful, something so much more valuable is lost. We are not meant to do this alone - any more than the oboes are meant to play the symphony alone. One gives to me, I give to another; the giving and the receiving are woven into interdependent movements that bind us together in ways too deep for words. It is a sacred experience, this orchestra of our hearts.

Do not be afraid. Come, bring your sorrows and your joys - and I will bring mine. Together we shall create a symphony of praise and thanksgiving for this love to which we are called.

(It is interesting to note that Rachmaninoff himself experienced a severe bout of depression after his Symphony No.1 was poorly received. He was unable to write much music for the next three years but finally consulted a psychiatrist whose interventions helped him regain some confidence. He then wrote his Second Piano Concerto in 1901 which was received much more positively. Yet it was still another 5 years before he attempted another symphony, his Symphony No. 2, which he completed in 1907. Thus, because he too accepted help, I was blessed to experience this glorious piece of music in 2012...)

Friday, October 26, 2012

This is who I am...

In my last post, I wrote about change and the seasons of life. I am now on the threshold, watching my life seasons changing.

When I think back to my younger years, I remember being very passionate about my values - the ones I thought would never change. One of the most central was my desire to lead a life of voluntary poverty, a life of simplicity in which material possessions had little place, a life lived in solidarity with those for whom poverty was a grim reality every day.

Why would anyone volunteer to be poor?

When I search my memory for the roots of this value, I find many. One of the earliest was when I was in high school. As was often the case in Catholic high school religion classes, we were given the assignment to give a presentation in front of the class on some social issue. This having been in the early 1970's, such topics as war, abortion and drugs were among the popular choices. I gave a presentation on voluntary poverty (weird child that I was).

I remember my older brother bringing home some literature on voluntary poverty, apparently authored by some college liberal. This, of course, gave it immediate appeal. I was extremely conscious of the Vietnam war, the horrors of which regularly visited the front pages of the newspaper. The argument made in this treatise was that one could avoid paying the federal taxes that supported the war by keeping one's income below taxable level. There was no question in my black-and-white adolescent mind that this war - and all war - was morally wrong. Hence, this argument for a voluntary poverty was a potent one.

Looking back, even prior to that, I see another root. Between my sophomore and junior years in high school, my family moved from liberal, urban Minneapolis, Minnesota to conservative, suburban Columbus, Ohio. During the summer prior to the move, I had an eye-opening volunteer experience that exposed me to the realities of how poor people lived. When we moved into our new ranch style house in the affluent mid-Ohio suburb, I was bombarded by the contrast more than ever. Our new house had central air conditioning. I could not stop thinking about those sweltering in the heat. Why should I be comfortable when they were suffering?

And this was just the beginning of the "why" questions. The answers that came to me were strong. "I don't want to be among the privileged." "I don't want to be white." "I don't want to have things that other people cannot have." And so, like St. Francis of Assisi, I wanted to cast my father's riches out the window and be a poor person living among the poor.

But there was something more. Like St. Francis of Assisi, there was something deeply spiritual about this longing. It was more than just a political statement. It was more than just a rebellion against my parents' generation. It was a radically sacred call to give up everything that did not matter for the One thing that did matter.

In my youthful attempts to embody this call, I wore my blue jeans patched and frayed. When I wanted to visit Cincinnati the summer after college graduation, I stayed in a women's "inn" as a transient for $4 a night. (I gained a much deeper appreciation for the notion of "sweltering".) I then joined the volunteer corps that brought me to Cleveland. I lived in a community in a large old convent, with $50 a month for a stipend. I later took a job at an inner city mental health clinic where the director kept begging me to allow her to pay me more. I declined. I was living my version of poverty.

When I went to graduate school in Kent, like most of my ilk, I continued to have a low income. While I continued to cherish that, experience and maturity helped me to realize that my voluntary poverty was not really poverty at all. True poverty is not so much about income or possessions as it is about loss of control, about not having choices. My education gave me choices. My middle class parents in the background were my safety net. I did not have to be afraid of not having food or a place to live or people to care about me.

But I found poverty another way. I found it in the gripping anxiety that I felt when I walked away from the security of my home, job and friends to start a difficult course of study in which I might not succeed. I discovered the poverty of not being in control - and it was terrifying. Yet what it taught me was grace beyond measure. In my panic, I had to trust in something beyond myself - or I would die. I could trust in God - but I needed something, someone more tangible. And my therapist was still there for me, a gift greater than I can explain.

By the grace of God, I survived and I graduated with my PhD in Clinical Psychology. I then began the job that I have had for the past 20 years. And now it is time to move on.

As I stand on the threshold looking back, I contemplate why I stayed at this job so long. As much as I love being a psychologist, I'm not sure that this particular place of employment was ever a good fit for who I am. I began there because they were willing to hire me and supervise me until I was licensed. Once I began, I fell in love with all of the beautiful patients who came and shared their lives with me. I developed dear friendships with a kind and caring cadre of coworkers. But something else happened too. Something I never thought would happen to me.

I became attached to the security. I became gradually more and more comfortable with my paycheck and the benefits that enabled a comfortable lifestyle. By many professional people's standards, my lifestyle never gained extravagance - or even close to it. But I discovered one day that something had changed in me so gradually that I had hardly noticed.

As the world of healthcare changed and the style of providing care increasingly conflicted with the call of my spirit, I began to consider leaving my job. And I considered it some more. For years. One of the things that held me back was my patients. How could I ever leave them, these people who had trusted me with their deepest pain? I remembered the gift given to me in my poverty and it seemed unthinkable. I also feared losing the closeness of my colleagues, whose support was always there when either personal or professional trials came my way.

But eventually I had to admit that I was also afraid to give up the security. Not just the money but the assurance and predictability of knowing that I would have enough. This was not an easy discovery. In fact, I suspect that it was one that could only be made through pain. As the breaking points became more frequent and more profound, I cried out, "I would rather be poor" than work there. This, of course, was just a fleeting anger. But it gave me pause. When had financial security become so important to me? When had my trust in God become so feeble?

And so it began: the changing of the seasons. I began to explore the possibilities and in almost no time one emerged. I have been blessed now with an opportunity to continue as a psychologist and to allow many of my long term patients to continue to see me. And I have no idea how much money I will make and it is freeing that it no longer matters all that much. What matters is the One who has always mattered more than anything or anyone. I follow Him and all shall be well...

(If there are any former patients who have lost touch and want to know how to reach me, my new business e-mail address is: If there are any readers who do not know me but have stumbled across this site, you too are welcome to use this e-mail. Friends reading this blog are asked to continue contacting me via my personal e-mail so that my business account doesn't become too congested. Thank you and blessings to all.)

Sunday, September 23, 2012


When I was a young adult, just emerging from college with my strong ideas and ideals, I remember thinking: "I will never change." I joined a volunteer corps after graduation and that was what brought me to Cleveland.

I was hungry to live out my values. I was to live simply, in a community with others, sharing spirituality and a lifestyle that promoted social justice. I was to work for a small, ecumenical church-based agency that assisted ex-offenders. I was ready to change the world - although I would have told you at the time that I was not that idealistic.

One of my coworkers at that agency was a politically radical, often frenzied, much caring minister of a different denomination from mine. He was familiar with my volunteer corps in that the agency had had a volunteer the year before. Often when he was introducing me to others, he would say that I was "taking a year off" to do this work and live this way. I always wanted to correct him, though I don't remember if I ever actually did. I wanted to say: "I'm not just doing this for a year. This is how I want to live all of my life. I will not change from this way of living - when I'm thirty, forty or fifty. This is who I am."

Recently, my parents faced the difficult task of downsizing twice in a short period of time - first from their house to a senior apartment, then from the apartment to an assisted living apartment across the country. All of this downsizing meant discovering possessions that they did not remember that they had and having to make decisions about what to do with them. One discovery was a large collection of cards and letters sent to them by my brother and me. Quite possibly every card or letter.

My mother gave me the bag of my own, suggesting that I read through them and decide if I wanted to keep any of them. My first thought was just to pitch them. Of course, curiosity got the better of me in the end. There were predictably cute ones from when I was very young. The ones that made the most striking impression, however, were the ones from college and my young adult years.

It was so peculiar. I thought I remembered myself at that age, how I thought and felt and wrote as a young adult. Yet reading the letters I had written home were like reading letters written by a stranger. A rather strange stranger. Now well into my fifties, there is no doubt. I have indeed changed, much as I had vowed I wouldn't.

In my youthful exuberance, I was not mistaken in believing that my core ideas and values would guide the course of my coming decades. What I lacked was the experience to understand that life must change. Life, as part of its "aliveness" is dynamic, constantly in motion, growing, developing, withering, dying and being reborn - anything and everything but staying the same.

Life has its seasons. It is no coincidence that I write now, as the season changes from summer to autumn. But life's seasons are so much more than the cycle that repeats, year after year.

My life has its seasons, even when I haven't recognized that that was the case. It is much like when one is used to the summer heat and then suddenly notices that there is a bit of a nip in the air when the sun goes down. When did that start happening? Yet the seasons of my own life are even more mysterious. While I can predict that my hair will gray and my mind will slow (and surely they have!), there is much about the changing seasons of my life that I cannot know before I get there.

Even my response to the changes in my life has been changeable. Sometimes I have feared change. Changes that I chose sent panic shooting through my body as I could see nothing before me but risk. Other times, I have longed for change, but could not see how to make it happen. Yet so often it seems that, when I allow it to, life unfolds and change simply is. Not always easily or without effort or without pain. But I fumble through the fears and obstacles, living the questions until they turn into answers. (The answers too, because life is always changing, turn back into new questions...)

This, now, is a time of major change in my life. I have both longed for and feared it. I tried to make it happen many times and discovered that I couldn't. I was afraid. I didn't know how. And now I understand why. I could not be in charge of the change. To be my true self is to be in God. To be in God means that I cannot be God. Rather I must entrust myself to the sacred movement, the sacred dance of the living universe... I found that I did not know how to do even this.

Yet there is grace. And that grace is like an irresistible melody that guides my heart to dance in its rhythm, though I do not know (and cannot know) the steps. In that sacred dance, it is He who leads - and so I follow...

If you are a patient or friend who has been out of touch and do not know of my life changes, feel free to contact me. If you do not know how to contact me, a link will be provided sometime in the next few weeks. If you would like to read more about life-in-motion, Father Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest, posted a wonderful article on his blog:

(To celebrate the changing seasons, click on the image below to view my 50 favorite photos from summer of 2012. To watch them as a slide show, click on the slideshow button in the upper left; to stop the slideshow, hit the escape key. As always, you are welcome to download any of my photos for your personal, nonprofit use.)
summer 2012

Friday, August 3, 2012

The broken wing

“O most Holy One,” the little one lamented. “You gave me these beautiful wings with which to soar the heavens. I am so ashamed: one of them is broken.”

The Heavens were silent and the little one nearly lost hope. “What can I do?” he wondered. “What can I do, damaged as I am? There is no place in this world for butterflies with broken wings.”

As he contemplated his fate, he noticed sister bee, busily hopping from flower to flower, collecting pollen to feed her brood, fertilizing as she went. “Her wings are not colorful at all, nor do they span as broadly as mine,” the little one thought automatically, used to being monarch of all of the winged.

But then he remembered his plight and felt a deepening sorrow.

“How could the Holy One allow this to happen to me?” the angry thought burst forth. “It simply is not fair.” But again he felt ashamed, knowing that the ways of the Holy One are beyond the knowing of the small.

The little one considered. “Perhaps I could pollinate too. Surely I would not be as efficient as sister bee who was made for such work. And I could not go far with my broken wing…”

He thought some more. “If I could pollinate even a few flowers, certainly that would serve the Holy One better than giving up and dying.”

And so, with a newfound humility, the little one began. He was much more accustomed to being admired than working hard. He was not sure just what to do or how to go about it.

To his surprise, sister bee quickly noticed, joined him and taught him what to do. Soon, he was so busy that he forgot all about his own lost glory. He found joy in helping the Holy One create beauty amidst the growing things.

The day was nearly over and the little one grew tired. Evening Sun shown deeply through his stained glass wings. Yet the little one kept working. “I want to give the Holy One fitting praise, for new life has been given me this day.”

At last, Sun set and life ebbed from the little one just as light ebbed from the sky. The Holy One came to him and asked for his wings. “My wings?” gasped the little one, “I cannot take them with me?”

“They are mine,” said the Holy One, at last breaking His silence. “They too are mine. Come along now, little one, come.”

The Holy One bent to scoop up the stiffening body of the little one and whispered, “I take you to My home where we soar the heavens without wings. No longer can you be broken. For now you are truly mine - as I am yours.”

For a closer look, click on the image. The broken wing is the upper right wing. Of course, it no longer matters :-)

(If you would like to jump to the future and read the sequel to this story, click here.)

Saturday, June 30, 2012

A gift

I received a beautiful gift today.

I came home from work in the early evening and immediately changed into shorts and a t-shirt. It has been a very hot and dry month, leaving the yard parched. Early this spring I decided to plant a butterfly garden, hoping to draw some of my little friends to the back yard. Unfortunately, between the heat, a groundhog and my stingy watering habits, the garden has been looking rather sorry.

However, I never let such things stop me in my quest for beauty. I grabbed my camera and ventured into the yard. "I can begin by documenting how very dry it is", I thought, reminded of how my soul thirsts for God. There had been a very meager shower earlier in the afternoon. It was still warm, cloudy and prematurely dark.

I took the picture.

Clearly not the
beauty I was seeking.

Yet it was a start.

I decided to walk over to my poor little garden and assess the damage wrought by another sizzling day. Something drew my attention to a plain yellow leaf. It had not occurred to me that it was not the season for leaves to turn yellow and fall. Something else had caught my attention. Was that a butterfly resting on the leaf?

From afar, I took a picture.

(My tiny friends can be rather skittish.)

Ah, a Red Admiral. It was in the news that they would be plentiful this year. I moved closer, shooting new photos as I approached. He (or she? hard to tell with this type...) did not seem to be going anywhere.

Droplets of rain.

Perhaps that is what drew him?

So beautiful.

And suddenly he was gone! I did not see where he went... but I a sensed some fluttering near me. And there he was - perched first on my shorts, then hopping onto my t-shirt. I gazed down at him, delighted. I thanked him for visiting me and invited him to step onto my arm.

And so he did, his wings closed.

I waited.

And then they opened.

I expected him to dash off at any moment but, oddly, he did not. His wings folded again and he remained perched on my arm while I talked to him. (Yes, I do talk to butterflies... and birds... and squirrels... )  I apologized that my garden did not have any nectar to offer him.

I took him to my neighbor's garden.

I showed him her flowers, offering them.

Yet he stayed with me.

Back in my yard, I wondered what was next. And then, without warning, he was once again gone, vanished from my sight ...

Looking up, I saw him. He was fluttering against the sky with a new-found energy, jostling with another butterfly.

I smiled.

Beauty visited me today. (May He visit you as well...)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Surrendering spring...

Note: I wrote this somewhat unusual poem for a "poetry party" at . Today, as we leave spring for summer, I decided to illustrate it with photos/collages, one for each stanza. (If the print is too small to read, clicking on the photo produces a larger image...)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

prayer for today

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Beyond understanding

There is a great deal that I do not understand. It is for this reason that I write here.

When people come to me with their pain, sometimes pain that goes beyond my imagining, there is nothing I can say to relieve it. I want to - but such words do not exist...

Psychotherapy falls short when someone is sobbing over the death of someone they love.

It makes little sense to try to teach someone to change their thoughts when their house has burned down and suddenly they have only the clothes on their back.

What can I offer someone who tells me that their father molested them or their mother abandoned them or their best friend had an affair with their spouse?

{If you think that I am writing about you, you are both right and wrong, for I have heard each of these things and more, from more than one person...}

I do not understand how or why these things happen. I wish I could give you the explanation that would make it all make sense and assure you that you will never be hurt again. But I cannot.

But I will invite you on a journey with me, a journey of words and images.

Let us see if together we can find hope...

Let us begin by looking more closely at the ordinary, at those simple things right in front of us.

Sometimes we may have to look very closely to see what is there.

What we see may only hint at possibility - a seed, something that may or may not become more.

It may be hard to trust.

(Does it look to you like she is looking at the grass and at the person holding the camera? It does to me.)

Sometimes there will be tears - we see the beauty but pain overrides; it just hurts too much.

We may feel alone at times, like we are standing on a slippery slope that has no bottom.

But neither you nor I are not alone. We are each unique and yet not. There are others like us.

We are meant to travel together, sometimes leading, sometimes following.

If we keep swimming, there is light up ahead.

(If you do not see it, follow me. Someone let me follow them a long time ago.)

There is One who has brought me healing (over and over) and who teaches me to offer healing as well. Let me show you one of His many, many faces. If you do not know Him or feel comfortable with that sort of belief, do not stress yourself over it. Just gaze at the beauty - see what I saw one day not long ago. The light was truly that bright and the shadow that dark (only a tiny edit of the photo was needed to make the poster below). I was standing across the street and something made me look...

"We love because He first loved us." (1 John: 4:19)

I have been blessed in this way - and so I love. I write and show you these images that you too may be so blessed. It may not happen all at once - in fact, it probably won't. But come - let us journey together - for we are not meant to journey alone...

(Click below to see the full web album of my spring photos, including these. I decided to narrow it down to my 50 favorites - a hard task! If you would like to watch them as a slide show, click on the button in the upper left; hit the escape button on your keyboard to stop the slide show. As always, you may download any photos for your own personal/nonprofit use.)

Spring, 2012

Monday, April 9, 2012

A note to myself

A note to myself today as I celebrate the resurrection of the Lord Jesus in the year 2012:

It is not an easy thing to believe in the resurrection. It seems perhaps easiest to believe in it when I am hearing the words and music of long-celebrated Easter prayers and rituals from my religious tradition. These draw up a deep emotional response that fills me with joy. This, however, does not constitute believing - for a well loved story or childhood song might do the same.

It also seems easy to believe in the resurrection when it is a beautiful spring day and the once gray sky is now a sea of blue, with brilliant sunlight flooding fresh leaves and blossoms. It is not so hard to believe that life can come from death when I see nature's cycle portraying this before my eyes. However, this too does not constitute believing in the resurrection.

To believe that Jesus rose from the dead is especially challenging to the scientific mind of our day. We have learned to believe only what can be "proven". We have been taught not to trust claims that cannot be substantiated. It is hard to believe in the resurrection because I have never personally known anyone who has "risen from the dead". No one I know has either.

And yet I believe.

I make this note to myself today though because I suspect that there will be days in my future when it will be even harder to believe than it is now. I have been fortunate that the pains and losses of my life thus far have been buffered by caring friends or circumstances that eased the blow. I have not yet experienced a loss that turned me inside out, a loss that sucked the air from my lungs and left me gasping. It is when I experience this that I will most need this note.

I believe and yet, it seems nearly impossible to express in words why it is I believe. I remember going through my young adult days when my religious faith had to pass a gauntlet of questions poured forth by my reasoning mind. I wouldn't accept believing in God only because I wanted it to be so. I had to work it out logically that there very well could be a God - or even more, that there must be a God. However, passing that test was only the beginning of my journey toward a resurrection faith.

And perhaps that is one of the most important "whys" of my believing - the journey. Believing has most certainly not been a single moment experience for me nor has it been a smooth straight line. Yet, as I reflect back over my life, I see so much evidence of resurrection. I recall so many times when light has emerged from darkness, hopelessness or fear. What is so especially important about these experiences though is that they didn't start with me. They did not occur because I was smart or because I worked hard or because I was a good person. They came as sheer gift. Completely undeserved - like someone (Someone?) loving me for no reason.

But this was only phase one of the journey. I then discovered that things were being expressed through me that surprised even me. I did not know what to say to a patient and something wise came out of my mouth. Or I found that a poem, painting or photograph "fell into place" to express something that startled me with its beauty. If I were the creator, how could it surprise me? What was expressed seemed to be given for others, much as it was for me, like Someone loving with a love that could not be deserved or earned.

All of this has taught me that there is something (Someone) far greater than anything I can see or prove. This awareness stirs forth from my heart, not from the logic of my mind. Yet it is, I believe, every bit as real of a knowing – perhaps more real. Hence, when I see what appears to be the end, I do not and shall not accept that as full reality but rather as an appearance. It may indeed be the end of one thing. But it may also be the beginning of something else - something much fuller, much richer than what it is that ended.

My belief in this resurrection, however, does not mean that I will always see this as true at the most painful moments. In fact, I probably won't. Much like the disciples of Jesus, I may doubt or reject the idea of resurrection. In my confusion of suffering, the possibility may not even occur to me. When this happens, I may scream and pound on things and feel like my life is over. But I don't want it to end there. Thus, this note to myself. A reminder of what I believe.

Having said all of this, I realize that I may still be lost when the time of great suffering strikes. And so, an image. A butterfly. A monarch butterfly. The one that can fly 2,500 miles to find the same roosting place its ancestors found the year before. It is not a strong or sturdy creature. It has no map. It has no language or intelligence. It simply has God.

And so have I.

(To my dear readers: below is my Easter gift to you. But before I could give it to you, it first was given to me, one of those experiences that fell into place, so to speak. Many blessings to you today, wherever you may be on your journey.)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Holy Week: words, images and sounds for the journey toward Easter

I apologize to anyone who has noticed that I haven't posted for almost a month. My life has been unusually busy - not over anything bad - just biting off more than I could chew with an online class and an online Lenten retreat at the same time. While both have been good, the retreat has been so good, so beautiful, so powerful - though not always easy. With other pilgrims on the Lenten journey, there has been much sharing of thoughts, struggles and art. I'd like to share a just a bit of what it has brought me to in these final days of Holy Week.

I have mentioned before my affiliation with through which this retreat was available. Our "abbess" (leader), Christine, has shared many wonderful ideas and images throughout. With her permission, I would like to share some of her thoughts. First, she talked about how we cannot rush to resurrection. Whether we are believers, skeptics or unbelievers, the tendency in all of us is to want to skip the hard, painful parts of life to get to the "Easter" experiences. The final path of Jesus was one of betrayal, rejection, physical pain and abandonment. To consider walking with Him, means walking through these experiences - and most assuredly, we do not want to. Let's just get to the colored eggs, the candy, the family dinner and not have to deal with the gut-wrenching loss of being put to death (whatever that means to each of us as individuals).

Yet we all know, believer or not, that we cannot escape these experiences. Our lives are, at best, dotted with them -  sometimes are filled with them. And one of our greatest challenges as human beings is to accept this part of our existence. These experiences can fill us with confusion, sometimes rage or despair. Where was this so-called loving God when I went through this? Where is He now when I most need Him?

I will show you in a moment where He was, where He is. First, I'd like to share some profound words offered by Christine in the retreat this week:

“We must know the terrible experience of loss wrought again and again in our world so that when the promise of new life dawns we can let it enter into us fully in the space carved by loss.”   
                                - Christine Valters Paintner, OblSB, PhD, REACE

"in the space carved by loss" - these words struck me with great power when I first read them and they still do. I would never say that God sends us loss or pain or any of the other horrible things that afflict us just to accomplish some other purpose. That is not the God I believe in. However, the notion that loss creates a space in us which we can allow new life to fill is very consistent with the God I believe in. He can transform our pain if we give it to Him. Not only that though. He holds our pain and bears it with us. He becomes our pain and, in becoming it, He shares it more intimately than we could believe possible.

I said I would show you where He is/was when you were (or are) suffering. It may seem when I show you, that I am trying to preach the Christian message, to convert you to my religion. Please believe me that that is not my intent - for I respect wherever you may be with believing or not believing. (And if you don't want to continue to the end of this posting, that too is fine.) What I am sharing with you is an artistic expression of images that came from a sacred place within me during this retreat, along with harp strings playing the melody of an old spiritual: Were you there when they crucified my Lord? (I am not claiming good art or musicianship - simply a message coming from my heart.)

(To listen, click on the play button, then continue to scroll down for the images.)

(It does not end here. I hope to be posting again in a few days...)


Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Finding the compassion within...

As I write this, I am sitting in the waiting room of the Cleveland Clinic Neurological Center for Pain. (I am here for a consultation regarding my migraines.) It is a sobering thought to realize that the others sitting here with me are suffering from some affliction, some pain.

Perhaps more sobering though was a sight seen by random chance during the drive here. I was stopped at a traffic light when I saw an older man with a cane in each hand step off the curb ahead. He was wearing a dark trench coat against the wind and snow and had a stubble of a beard. Using the canes to steady himself, he patiently inched his way across the street in front of the waiting traffic. I could not imagine that he would reach the other side before the light changed – but he did. I sense that this slow, laborious movement was a fact of his life. He was not a patient waiting hopefully to see a specialist at a world class medical facility. He was just an old man making his way across the street.
It is not hard to feel compassion when, like this, we are in full view of the suffering of others. We can relate to their visible pain and struggle and wish for their relief as we might wish for our own. However, some sufferings are harder to relate to. Many kinds of pain are hidden from view. Behind the indifference, rudeness or anger of another may hide a hurting heart. Yet when we see someone being unkind, dismissive or worse, compassion for the perpetrator is not likely to arise easily, if at all.

Oddly, even more challenging for many of us is to find compassion for our own hurting selves. So many times I have heard people blame themselves, sometimes viciously, for things over which they have no control. I encounter many people who experience motor or cognitive impairments or physical pain brought on by random accidents or diseases. So many of them are angry – so often, with themselves – because they are the way they are. They feel they should be stronger and more able to overcome the suffering that holds them captive.

When it comes to mental and emotional pain, we seem to be even less tolerant of our suffering selves. It is not uncommon for me to encounter people who hate themselves because of things done to them when they were small children. They blame themselves for not having stopped it, as though a 4 year old could stop molestation or a 5 year old could be “good” enough to prevent a beating. Our adult minds can view another’s childhood suffering with compassion, but somehow our views of ourselves are much harsher, as though our child bodies had adult minds that should have known better.

And then there’s the big one. This is where our capacity for compassion almost always fails us: when we have done something we believe or know to be wrong. “How could I possibly have compassion for myself when I’ve done that?” we think.

Let me share a story. Recently I was corresponding with an online friend, also a therapist, and we were sharing some experiences from our pasts. As a result of this, I was drawn to reflect on an incident from my young adult days that had triggered much guilt and anxiety at the time. While this event had long since been worked through, re-opening it caused an old familiar twinge of discomfort. What happened next though was something entirely new: in this process of reflecting, I had been digging through a box of memorabilia and come across a photo. A photo of me when I was about the age I was when I did “the awful thing”. I looked at the photo and thought: “My God. How young I was.” I could see my youthfulness in my fresh skin and hair. But I could also see it in my soul. I was so young and knew so little about living. I found within me a deep compassion for this young woman, barely out of her teens… and a new level of healing started to unfold. I had always expected myself to do the right thing and to know what the right thing was. “How absurd”, I now realized, “how absurd to have expected that of myself.”

You too have a younger self. Many younger selves. Selves who did not know as much as you do now when they struggled to survive and meet your needs.  And if your younger self was hurt or damaged by abuse or neglect, that self may have remained “young”, i.e. it may not have developed properly with regard to judgments or choices, causing more pain and sorrow. May there not be compassion for these selves too?

With compassion comes Mercy, the great healer of all souls.

I invite you now, if you care to, to join me in a short meditation practice called a "metta" (or lovingkindness) meditation. While the concept is borrowed from Buddhism, it is religiously neutral, ie.g. not likely to be offensive to any formal religion or to those without a religion.
[While this meditation is often done with the eyes closed and the words said to oneself, I have set it up here with some photos taken on a recent walk and with my voice saying some words. I set it up this way for a couple of reasons. First, it helps to demonstrate the idea. Secondly, some people who have suffered trauma, may find themselves flooded with unpleasant thoughts or images when they close their eyes. Thus, if you find yourself in that position, you can use the photos and my voice to help you stay grounded. (If you are one of my patients, please keep me informed of any problems.) You may also change the words to make them more relevant for yourself - I chose the words I did as part of my own meditation. However, you may wish for other things - e.g. to be well, to be calm, to be free of suffering, etc. It is generally good for us to go through the 3 cycles as demonstrated as that can help us cultivate compassion more generally.]

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

love poem

sun and snow and tree
shadow on glistening white
heaven kissing earth

(this Haiku poem was prepared for the poetry party at

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Screaming at God

I was a freshman in college. Like all freshmen, I took the battery of interest and personality tests that they gave us and signed up for a time to review the results with the college counselor, Linda L. I do not remember a lot about the results but I do remember one thing: I was in the 99th percentile on independence. I remember Linda giving me a quizzical look, gingerly raising the question of whether there might be problems at home that I was so eager for independence. I denied it, with complete honesty. My conscious mind told me that I had a fine family and we all loved each other. I was just ready to move into the next stage of my life.

In my undergraduate college experience, I was studying social work and criminal justice which required a significant number of psychology classes. I remember reading Freud and all of his ideas about the "unconscious" and the repressed emotions that he taught were the underpinnings of neurosis. I remember not believing it. I believed much of what I studied but an unconscious? No way. Shortly after I graduated from college though I had an experience that triggered something that years later made me revise my thinking.

The details of the experience are not important (sorry to leave you hanging). But what was important was that I started having anxiety. And interestingly, the word "unconscious" itself started to trigger little ripples of anxiety in me. Eventually I got myself into therapy and it was then (years in) that I discovered it. The anger. The rage. A rage that made me want to pound my fists to the floor and scream, "I hate you!" Much of the time, my screams were silent, fully screamed but without my vocal cords since I had neighbors living downstairs. But the screams unleashed something that, years ago as a college freshman, I had no idea existed.

There was, in my case, no forgotten trauma revealed. And my parents really are fine people. So where had all of this rage come from? Looking back, I think much of it came from a simple misunderstanding made as a young child. With my solid Catholic upbringing, I learned to examine my conscience, to identify my sins, confess them and receive forgiveness. I still remember sitting in the church one Saturday afternoon with a prayer book that was to help me with this process. I was leafing through it and saw reference to "the seven deadly sins". I did not know what a deadly sin was - but I knew it couldn't be good. I wasn't too worried at that point in my life about such things as sloth, gluttony or lust. But one that particularly caught my eye was "anger". This one really worried me at the time because, quite naturally, I felt angry from time to time. If this was a deadly sin, my child-mind reasoned, I had to get rid of it, stop it. A deadly sin would cut me off from God, the worst thing imaginable to my pious little mind.

So my life proceeded, with my ongoing struggle to not feel angry - and definitely to not express it. If I felt anger, I would add that to the list of offenses that I told the priest. It would feel good to be told I was forgiven but it hardly seemed to take any time at all for me to again feel angry. It was years later before anyone told me that anger was not a sin - in fact, that no emotions are sins. They are just emotions. But by that time, I had taken a lot of angers, many of them minor, and stuffed them in my mental closet. Because I seldom expressed them, some that could have been cleared up with a bit of discussion, instead festered in there without my knowledge. When the "I hate you" burst forth in my silent screams as an adult, I could no longer deny an unconscious. My anger had been so carefully hidden that, for years, I hadn't even known that it existed.

This is, of course, just a bit of my story, different I'm sure from yours. However, I learned (and am still learning) profound things from it. Besides learning that I have an unconscious, that I can be angry and that stuffing anger inside can make me anxious, I have also learned that sometimes we need to scream. Sometimes we need to spew forth the most ugly and painful feelings in order to be free of them.

While probably few people grow up with my terror of the deadly sin, I think many grow up believing that it is not safe to express anger or rage. Sometimes it may feel unsafe because of an overtly abusive parent who will surely give a beating for something like that. Sometimes it may not feel safe because a parent might withdraw their love, refusing to speak for days or weeks on end. Sometimes it may feel unacceptable simply because there is a culture that teaches that one must not be angry with or even question one's mother or father - or one's God.

Many courageous souls come to me, sharing their pain. One of the saddest things I hear (and I hear it often) is when someone tells me that they hate themselves. Sometimes people even say they loathe themselves. Often people who feel this (and maybe you're one of them) feel that they cannot be forgiven by God and/or they cannot forgive themselves. If I ask them if someone they love did or experienced the same thing they did, without fail they tell me they would forgive that person. But with themselves, it is different. One of the things that is so particularly sad about this is that the people who tell me this are not terrible people; most often they are the "walking wounded", those who experienced or witnessed the unthinkable when they were but innocent children.

Other courageous souls come to me too, sharing other pains. Tragedies - deaths, suicides, murders of loved ones. Unrelenting pain from illness or injury. Diseases that rob the mind or body of the simple joy of being productive. And many, many more sorrows. The question so often is: why? What did I do to deserve this?

As I reflect upon all of this, with the backdrop of my own story, I realize anew that our relationship with God, if we are to have one, cannot always be what many of us were taught. We cannot always approach God with praise. We cannot always tell Him we love him. We cannot always come to Him thanking Him for His goodness and mercy. At least not at first.

Sometimes we need to scream at Him.

Sometimes we need to scream, "WHY?"

Or we need to scream, "Where were you when...?"

Or, "Why didn't you stop that?"

For a relationship with God to be honest, we cannot hide these feelings from Him. When we try, we find ourselves anxious, depressed - even hating ourselves. And even more, we don't allow Him to get close to us. Close enough for us to feel Him holding us in our pain. Close enough to hear Him whispering to us that we are loved, no matter how angry, hurt, sinful or lost we are. Close enough to know He meant it when He said He would rather die Himself than leave us in our suffering...

Come, walk with me down the path to healing - to redemption. It may seem like a lonely, scary, treacherous path. What kind of God could accept someone like me who has so much rage within? Surely no one else has come at God screaming. But then I hear the voices, the laments through the centuries - and I know that I am not alone - that we are not alone...

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22:2) (Matthew 27:46) (Mark 15:34)

(While researching for this post, I came across a small fact: of the 150 Psalms in the Bible, over 50 of them are considered "Laments", prayers for coming out of pain. Indeed, we are not alone. If you are not ready for a full-throated scream at God, consider reading one of these Psalms. Read it slowly out loud so that you can hear your voice saying the words...)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Always we begin again...

I had been contemplating what I might write today as the New Year begins and only the vaguest of notions came to mind. I hoped and prayed that the Grace might come, as I know that without it all of my efforts are in vain. My mind felt a bit muddled and my head began to ache, likely from staring too long at my computer screen. So I decided to take a little walk, to clear my mind, though the weather was hardly inviting. "Perhaps I will find some beauty", I thought to myself doubtfully. I stuck my camera in my pocket, just in case.

I put on my winter coat and gloves since the temperature had been dropping. I stepped out and felt the icy pricks of rain upon my face. The sky was full of threatening clouds and the sun so well hidden that the whole world seemed gray. The wind gusted about me. Out of habit, I walked toward the overpass where a number of freeways pass each other in layers. Fire engines wailed, one after another, as I began my quest. The sidewalk too was gray in my monochromatic world, except where bits of litter and decaying leaves added splotches of white and brown. Perhaps today there is no beauty, I thought. It could happen.

As we begin a new year, we encounter an opportunity to look at our lives from a slightly different perspective. New Year's Day is, of course, just another day and we would know no difference without our calendars announcing the change. Sometimes the changing year causes us to look back, perhaps thankful for blessings that came our way in the last 12 months. However, there are those among us for whom looking back is only a reminder that 2011 was the worst year of their lives. Yet either way, there is something about a new year that both frightens and gives hope.

If all I see from my soul's window is sunless gray in endless expanse, I may indeed feel afraid. Can I make it through another year? Do I even want to try, if I can see nothing but more of the same up ahead?

Yet for some sufferers, the hanging of a new calendar brings a sense of relief, a sense of closure to last year's difficulties, offering the possibility that this year will be different. I don't see beauty now because it is winter. But spring and summer will come again... yet so will winter...

Today while walking I allowed myself to see and experience (admittedly for a short time since my skin began to itch and burn from the cold).

I didn't see any blue skies or sun breaking through clouds.

No blossoms or beautiful foliage.

No insects, no wildlife, not even a squirrel.

But I will show you one glimpse of beauty I found in our nearly dormant world.

A dead weed, growing behind a fence, bobbing back and forth in the wind.

And how is this beautiful?

It is beautiful because it is carrying its seed.

It is holding onto its promise of a tomorrow, a life cycle that continues even in the face of outward death.

It carries a new life that we cannot yet see. For from where we are now, we can only see the "deadness" of the plant, the grayness of the world. We can only feel that howling wind and stinging winter rain. But life is hiding inside those seeds - and it is beautiful.

Not long ago, I heard some interesting hypotheses from neuroscience about why negative thoughts are so prevalent in us humans. Why do we seem to remember and focus on the dreadful rather than the beautiful? It seems that we do this to protect ourselves. As a species, we would never survive if we forgot the dangers in our environment - but we could get by if we forgot the beauties. And the more dangers we have experienced, the more watchful and focused our psyches become to negative possibility. So focused, in fact, that we can walk through the world and not see or even remember the very thing we most need to nourish our souls. Little benefit if our species survives but our souls are starved for hope and meaning.

The gift of a "new year" is that it reminds us that we can always begin again. Of course, we do not need to wait until January to allow change into our lives. My life (and yours) is an ongoing journey through many seasons and terrains. There are times of beauty and times of barrenness. There are moments of breaking daylight and moments of chilling darkness. But in each of these, if we are open, if we remember, there is an invitation to be transformed by the Holy.

We will, of course, forget. We will forget the invitation and the promise that lies within it. Yet, as St. Benedict wrote, "Always we begin again." Each day - each moment - each breath - a new opporunity to open ourselves to the Gift.

Join me in remembering the beauty, in this short video offered as my gift to you for the New Year: