3 chairs“Prayer is not just spending time with God. It is partly that – but if it ends there, it is fruitless. No, prayer is dynamic. Authentic prayer changes us – unmasks us, strips us, indicates where growth is needed. Authentic prayer never leads us to complacency, but needles us, makes us uneasy at times. It leads us to true self-knowledge, to true humility.” ~ St. Theresa of Avila

Wow. St. Teresa’s words are powerful, maybe even a little frightening. Prayer can do that? Be that? You mean it’s not just folding our hands, bowing our heads, and reciting familiar words? There is something that happens in us, because of prayer?

As many of you already know, I have an app on my phone that I talk about often. Called ‘Insight Timer’, it is an app I use every day. I was drawn to it many years ago because it provides a way to set a timer to begin and end my prayer time. I can choose the bell sound I want from a variety of different tones, and I can pre-set times and sounds I want to choose from.

Last Spring, another company bought the app, and late this Fall, they unveiled a number of new features. Now, when I open the app each morning to prepare for my prayer time, the first page that comes up shows a map of the world, with dots that indicate where people are praying at that moment. And below, it lists first names of people who are meditating or praying right then. They are from: Nackenheim, Germany; Paekakariki, NZ; Belmont, MA; Los Angeles, CA; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Thailand; Buffalo, NY; Thunder Bay, ONT; Melbourne, Australia; Lexington, KY; Brownsville, TX; Dublin, Ireland . . . As soon as I see this map and these names and places, I am comforted and enlivened by knowing that I am praying and meditating with a worldwide community.

Because there is also a social network feature, sometimes I receive a quiet bell sound on my phone with a message “Thank you for meditating with me today.” When the bell rings to end my prayer time, a page opens with a cascade of small images filling the page. And at the top it says, ‘You just meditated with 4015 people’ . . . or ‘5140 people’ . . . or . . .

If I am going to engage in this powerful, maybe even a little frightening, practice that needles me, and makes me uneasy at times, and that also leads to true self-knowledge and true humility, I need this community of people with whom I pray and meditate each morning. I am reassured by their presence, by their participation, by their willingness to connect.

As well, I need to reflect on my experience of prayer, and of God, with a patient companion, who listens deeply, questions openly, and challenges thoughtfully. He is my spiritual director, and my spiritual life depends as much on his companionship as it does on using my Insight Timer.

I’m wondering – what supports do you have for your prayer life? For your spiritual life? I can recommend the Insight Timer app for your devices. And I also invite you to consider seeking the companionship and support of a spiritual director, who can listen openly, honestly, and spaciously for Divine presence in and through your life.

I have spaces available to receive new people for spiritual direction. Also, you can find a spiritual director near you by following this link: http://www.sdiworld.org/find-a-spiritual-director/seek-and-find-guide. Remember, “authentic prayer changes us, unmasks us . . . needles us, makes us uneasy at times. It leads to true self-knowledge, to true humility.” Let me know if you’d like to explore this together. (leave comments at http://www.susienallen.com)

Sourcing the Soul for Vocational Transformation

UnknownOne of the ways we model and lead is through the way we speak; and our speech shapes and guides our work communities.  Our speech also communicates how the soul is manifest in our work.  Join me, and my friend and colleague, Sue Vincent Cox, for a 10-week program where we will focus on how we listen to, and speak from, the soul. The readings, exercises, and format are designed to help participants strengthen communication practices, and develop ways to bring them into their leadership environments for vital, energizing growth.

Click the link below for more information and to find out how to join.

Sourcing the Soul for Vocational Transformation-online

Thriving

UnknownI have been thinking a lot, lately, about how easily I can get overextended – physically and emotionally depleted, cranky, judgmental, frustrated. I have, for a long time, been aware that I struggle to set boundaries in my life, striving to do more, be more, give more. How do I shut down? When is enough, enough?

I have studied the spiritual practice of saying yes, and saying no. That has given me an awareness that I need to find ways to say no more, though that, in itself, is a difficult thing to do. I am, by nature, a pleaser.

I have found myself wishing for a sanctioned day off, as though I somehow need affirmation or permission from the world around me, to stop.

I have tried a variety of ways to structure my calendar – different colors for different kinds of activities, trying to allow for space between activities, trying to allow for rest time after leading programs and retreats. But when push comes to shove, there is a voice inside that urges me to fit in one more thing. The same voice entreats – ‘You can do this. You’ll be fine. It will be good for you to do this.’

The Habit Journal that I have been keeping for the past 6 months has a daily reminder to visualize the life I want, the goals I have set. I discovered that I hardly ever check that box – I have struggled to know how to visualize it all. Where do I start? What is the paradigm?

At this turn of the year, I have been thinking a lot about this idea of visualizing. How can I prepare myself, in new and renewing ways, to live into the values and goals I hold dear?

It turns out that the Christmas holiday, itself, provided the doorway into new understanding. We had the great good fortune to spend a week with our grown children and their significant ones, coming and going. While they were with us, I gave way to my delight in being with them, and simply let everything else go. I didn’t check email very often, I didn’t excuse myself to tend to work things. I enjoyed every minute of our time together.

At the same time, I was also in the midst of some current work conversations and planning. When I did take a few minutes to check email, I discovered that my colleagues had been sending emails that were, now, days old. Feelings of guilt, regret, self-judgment crept in.

Somewhere in the middle of this joy and this guilt, I remembered some things I had read a few years ago, in a book titled, Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way, by Dan Buettner. Buettner identifies and investigates the happiest regions on four continents. I went back and re-read what he wrote about the people of Denmark. Here are some of the conclusions he reached about the happiness factors in Denmark: build an environment of trust; tolerance; care for the young and old; get the right job; work just enough (most Danes work 37 hours a week and then go home to their families); cultivate the art of living (develop an appreciation of art); make cozy, well-lit home environments; nudge people into interaction; optimize cities for activity; volunteer. All of a sudden, I found that this paradigm offered me a vision that, while unlike much of what I experience here in the US, allows me to see a way toward choices that feel potentially more life-giving to me. Part of what I need to do is more clearly identify and name what I value, and claim time to honor those values. They include doing the work I so love, time with my family, time with friends, time for new adventures, time to read and knit, time to exercise, time for music-making, time for retreat, time to ponder and just be.

I discovered that visualizing wasn’t about seeing from the outside – managing my calendar, goal-setting, strategizing. It was about seeing and experiencing from the inside – What matters most to me? Where do I experience deep joy? What do I need to thrive?

I’m off, now, to read A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough, by Wayne Muller. Let 2016 begin!

What do you need to thrive?

 

 

Coffee Cups and Community

UnknownI have watched with curiosity and confusion, at the ongoing commentary about Starbucks’ red cups for the holiday season. To me, they seem attractive, seasonal, and appropriate for the ever-more-diverse population in our society. While I am ordained clergy in the Christian tradition, I am ever more aware that my fellow community members represent a variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds. Is it right that my tradition trumps any other during this, or any other time of the year?

As I’ve pondered the expressed outrage about Starbucks’ choice, I’ve been thinking: why don’t we express outrage that other faith traditions are never represented in the public sphere? Why don’t we express outrage that traditions dear to our neighbors who are Jewish, or Muslim rarely get expressed or celebrated by coffee cups or special sales or decorations? And why is it that loud voices from the political and news worlds seem to express either conservative Christian beliefs or no beliefs at all?

As I sat with mouth agape and heart broken as news of the Paris murders, now claimed by ISIS, flashed across my smart phone and my TV, I found myself wondering – will this, FINALLY, be the time that we can stop talking about coffee cups and start doing the very hard work of building community with one another to form bonds that connect us through our common humanity? Can we do the hard work of developing ways to talk about what matters to us as individuals, and listen with open minds and hearts, even if we disagree? Can we support political candidates who seek to empower local community, rather than harden the rhetoric of division, debate, and disagreement?

imagesHow long until we can harness our energy for good, and join together as world community, to stand together against the forces of violence and hatred? What would that be like? How much power and creativity would that generate?

I found myself turning, again, to Parker Palmer’s compelling book, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. In his opening chapter, Palmer speaks of Diversity, Tension and Democracy. Here are some of the things the says that speak to me:

“At the deepest levels of human life, we do not need techniques. We need insights into ourselves and our world that can help us understand how to learn and grow from our experiences of diversity, tension, and conflict.”

“The civility we need will not come from watching our tongues. It will come from valuing our differences.”

“Partisanship is not a problem. Demonizing the other side is.”

“Violence is what we get when we do not know what else to do with our suffering.”

This time, we Americans are looking in from a distance. But we are not immune or safe from these same forces. We must look within to our own potential for violence and hatred, and join with one another for support and vision for something better.

Please, please. Let’s stop talking about coffee cups. Let’s gather, one by one, a few by a few, and say to one another, and to everyone who will join us – NOW is the time to move in a different direction. NOW is the time to learn and develop ways to live in safe and supportive community; where we listen first and talk later; where we value community before conflict; where we stand together in light of our shared humanity, rather than apart because we have differences.

Jewish author and holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, tells it this way:

“One of the Just Men came to Sodom, determined to save its inhabitants from sin and punishment. Night and day he walked the streets and markets protesting against greed and theft, falsehood and indifference. In the beginning people listened and smiled ironically. Then they stopped listening: he no longer amused them, the killers went on killing, the wise men kept silent, as if there were no Just Man in their midst. One day a child, moved by compassion for the unfortunate teacher, approached him with these words: ‘Poor stranger, you shout, you scream, don’t you see that it is hopeless?’ ‘Yes, I see,’ answered the Just Man.’ ‘Then why do you go on?’ ‘I’ll tell you why. In the beginning, I thought I could change man. Today, I know I cannot. If I still shout today, if I still scream, it is to prevent man from ultimately changing me.’”

Convergence

IMG_1718Over the last few weeks, I have been reading in two books. To continue my study and prayer on the theme of pilgrimage, I have been reading The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred, by Phil Cousineau. And for my book group, I have been reading Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande.

It seems no accident that I’m reading these books in the midst of the move from our home of 17 years, to a small apartment. In preparation for the move, we have gone through everything in the house to determine if we want to bring it, or let it go (limited space is a big incentive here). We’ve gone through photographs, boxes of stuff from my parents, children’s toys and books (our kids are all grown now), college memorabilia, music, clothing, appliances, furniture, food cupboards. We’ve tried hard to stay focused on the task at hand, though there were many moments that I had to stop and ponder the memories that an item brought to mind.

As I read in Cousineau’s book each morning, I become aware of the sacred potential in this move. While our travels, as we packed and prepared, were no further – physically – than the next cupboard or the next closet or the next room, the memories that arose allowed me to recollect the ways in which I have struggled, celebrated, opened, defended, raged, and grown through the years. I have been reminded of the people and places and events which, and who, have been touchstones and milestones; pointing the way, leading the way, distracting the way.

I’m also aware that, at age 62, I’m looking into the last third of my life. This is a sobering thing to write and to look at. Gawande’s book, a powerful and challenging look at the strengths and limitations of modern medicine, offers a hopeful and life-giving set of questions to ponder as one faces illness and death. While I am counting on many years of good health and fruitful living, I have begun to think about my life’s pilgrimage with these questions in mind. What is most important to me? How does that influence my decisions – on what I do, where I live, and who I want to be with?

If I overlay the idea of life as sacred pilgrimage with the more present awareness of my mortality, what opportunities appear before me? Where do I want to go? What are the touchstones and milestones I am looking for? Who are my guides and companions? What is my guiding question?

I don’t see feel sad or morose or fearful about this. I feel enlivened and excited and eager to engage my life with a deeper gratitude, and a growing clarity. And to all who I know and love, I am thrilled that you are with me along the way.

~with thanks to Sarah Smyth Hauser for the photo

susiesunLabor Day for Clergy and Church Leaders

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”—Matthew 11:28-30

As we stand on the cusp of the new church program year, it is not unusual for clergy and church leaders to feel a sense of weightiness, anxiousness, and anticipatory exhaustion. There are so many demands; so many concerns; so many hopes; so many challenges.

Rev. Judy Proctor and I invite you to join us for a 10-week program designed to offer a time to rest, reflect, and engage in spiritual practices and leadership principles to help you listen deeply for God’s invitation for your life and work.

Microsoft Word - Invitation to Soul of Leadership Mini.docx

Pilgrimage
It all started on May 24, 2015, when my pilgrimage trip to Assisi, Italy began. Or maybe it really started on July 18, 1953, when my life began. Either way, the idea of pilgrimage – the experience of travel for the sake of finding God – has been deep in me for the last several months. Active in my thinking and reflecting, alive in my prayer, this idea of pilgrimage is infusing my life experience daily.

This summer, in my daily morning devotional time, I have been reading To the Field of Stars: A Pilgrim’s Journey to Santiago de Compostela, by Kevin A. Codd. I discovered this book on our summer reading bookshelf – a collection of books left here by various family members as a resource for reading while here at our cottage. It’s an eclectic collection – many of them favorites of ours, some of them books that are culturally popular. My eldest has long held a fascination for the camino de Santiago, a medieval pilgrimage route from southern France to northwest Spain. She and I have talked about this many times – imagining how we might walk this pilgrimage route together – and Codd’s book is one that she had read and left on the summer reading shelf.

As I continued to reflect on my late Spring pilgrimage trip to Assisi, I was drawn to this book when I arrived at our cottage this summer. Each short chapter is a reflection on a day’s portion of the author’s walk from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela, a journey of some 500 miles. I quickly got into a rhythm of reading one chapter as part of my invitation to the day. Each chapter has felt like a deep, rich, very special bite of chocolate – each one lingering on my soul’s tongue for the whole day. I’m almost at the end – so sad (along with the author) that I’m almost finished; and, at the same time, holding a rich resource of images, ideas, invitations, to take with me going forward.

camino shell-2The most enduring and recognizable symbol of the Camino de Santiago is the scallop shell. Many, if not most, of the pilgrims who walk the Camino, have a scallop shell with them along the way. Signposts bear the symbol as well. There are many stories about the significance of the shell; in the midst of the stories is the knowledge that the scallop shell is often found on the shores of Galicia, near Santiago de Compostela.

There are a few symbols that one finds in Assisi, representing St. Francis. One of them is the dove – a sign of peace. The lifeAssisi dove
and ministry of St. Francis were grounded in peace – a longing for peace among people; teaching peace as he traveled; modeling peace as the faithful, if not unlikely, leader of a growing community of followers. Wanting to take home a memento of my trip, of Assisi and St. Francis, and an ongoing reminder to me of my experience, I purchased a small, simple, necklace – a thin, black cord with a small dove made of local olive wood. I leave it out on my dresser so I see it regularly during the day; and I wear it often. I want to remember. I want to see my life, itself, as pilgrimage.

So for today – invitation. While my life pilgrimage has been underway for 62 years, I want to regularly look at it with the heart of a pilgrim. What will my experience of God be today? What signs, experiences, people join me today and how do they help me know myself, and God with me?

I Do

imagesOur daughter was married ten days ago. It was a precious and celebratory gathering of friends and family who witnessed, with us, vows of love and commitment made between our daughter and her beloved. As is so often the case, their wedding was preceded by months of planning and preparation, managing details, making decisions, and envisioning what they wanted their day to be. As I reflected on their wedding day this last week, I found myself tearing up regularly, filled to overflowing with a sense of gratitude and deep gladness at all that we experienced.

It seems to me that all of the details and thought and visioning that went into the planning of their wedding made possible the creation of a sacred space; a vessel that safely, lovingly held a Divine welling-up of all that is good. It was a space in which I found myself enveloped in a longing and freedom to commit to my own ‘I do’s’ – with myself, and with those I love.

I do . . . promise to show up

I do . . . want this experience to last

I do . . . see you are standing by me

I do . . . see the Divine spark in you

I do . . . celebrate the joy I see in you

I do . . . want to love with all my heart

I do . . . recognize that we are still growing

I do . . . want to have more of what I’m experiencing here

I do . . . look around and say thank you for each person here

I do . . . see the profoundly moving results of love and forgiveness

I do . . . thank God for our daughter, for her wife, and for all the people who loved them into being

I Do.

 Stripping and Adorning 
image
I have been on a pilgrimage tour in Assisi, Italy for the last week. We have been ‘walking in the footsteps of St. Francis and St. Clare.’ Francis and Clare, born in the late 12th Century, each renounced their families and lives of privilege in order to follow a deep and profound call from within to follow Jesus in a life of poverty and prayer. The sites we have seen have all been, in some way, an expression of devotion to and praise for the lives of Francis and Clare, by those who have come after them

Each day of our tour, the pilgrimage guides have provided a theme, inviting us to reflect on what we see and experience through the lens of the theme. We have seen churches, basilicas, and cathedrals; and each of them, in their own particular ways, have been adorned with paintings, sculptures, frescoes, stained glass, altars – breathtaking, inspiring, overwhelming, inviting. The history and meaning of these places is palpable and powerful.

But today, we walked to the Hermitage of the Carceri; a place where Francis and his brothers in community went to rest and pray away from the activity and demands of their life and ministry in Assisi. Several of us walked on a trail through the woods, climbing higher and higher until we reached the remote place where these men lived in caves, and devoted themselves to prayer and silence.

Though a larger structure has been built in the years since Francis and his brothers retreated there, it is still a place of simplicity and natural beauty. As I walked along the trails leading from the chapel to the caves, I felt as though I was in a primal forest. Beautiful, unspoiled, holy. Everywhere I turned, there was a reminder of God – a simple altar, a gentle bend in the trail, time-worn stones, moss-covered tree trunks. I found that the theme of stripping and adorning kept coming to me.

I began to think about all the ways in which we can get so easily and stubbornly attached to our sacred spaces of place and time – stained glass, original pews, altar cloths, time of worship, structure of liturgy. We can so easily slip into worshiping these sacred – to us – things, and lose sight of worshiping God. We can so easily become devoted to the beauty and history and importance of these things and what they have meant to us as worshiping community, and forget that God is calling us through and beyond these things to a life marked by love and Presence to God in all things and at all times.

So I am wondering what it is I need to strip away. What is distracting me from God? From God in one another? What do I need to let go of in order to receive . . . God?

I posted this on my blog 2 years ago. I offer it again today.

May your Good Friday be a day of awe and remembrance and Presence.

 

Being There

imagesIn the Christian household (to which I belong), it is Holy Week. As happens most years, I enter this week with the desire to experience, as fully as I can, the story of the last days of the life of Jesus. I seek worship opportunities that engage all of my senses–I want to get as close as I can to ‘being there’ . . . with Jesus. What were the sights, the sounds, the smells . . . what if I had been one of the women with him? What if I had talked with him? Walked with him? Been healed by him? What if . . .

I also make it a practice to listen to music that expresses the intensity of this week, this story: waiting, preparation, sadness, grief, loss, anticipation, expectation, joy. For me, music transcends words. There is a passion, an expression, a communication that connects believers not only across language and age barriers, but also across time barriers. Nothing I have ever heard has moved me as deeply as a setting, by Knut Nystedt, of the poem, “O Crux”, by Venantius Fortunatus, 6th century poet, priest and Bishop of Poitiers.

Here is the text:

O Crux                                                           Translation

O crux splendidior cunctis astris                    O Cross, more radiant than the stars,

Mundo celebris hominibus.                            Celebrated throughout the earth,

Multum amabilis sanctior universis.             Beloved of the people. Holier than all things,

Quae sola fuisti                                                   Which alone was found worthy

Digna portare talentum mundi;                      To bear the light of the world;

Dulce lignum,                                                      Blessed Tree,

Dulces clavos,                                                      Blessed Nails,

Dulcia ferens pondera;                                      Blest the weight you bore;

Salva praesentem catervam,                            Save the flock

In tuis hodie,                                                       which today

Laudibus congregatam.                                    Is gathered to praise you.

 

The piece opens with intense and stark dissonance that is both unsettling and inviting. What could this cross be about? Before the words give answer, there is a section of sudden crying out: “Ah!!!” that weaves between all voice parts, transmitting to one another this anticipation of utter desolation and understanding. The piece continues with a sense of ponderous procession until the music builds to a re-expression of the opening line that foretells the power of the Resurrection.

All of a sudden, beautiful harmony emerges; a change of mood and style, which lifts us to an appreciation of the role of this cross and the weight it bore. “Blessed tree, blessed nails, blest the weight you bore.”

Before we know it, however, the piece ends. And it ends with the women, as if an angelic choir, singing again the words “O Crux” three times. The men respond in deep and resonant harmony, answering with the words “splendidior.”

I have sung this before. I have listened to it countless times. And I am always speechless when it is over. In it, I find myself in the mystery beyond all mysteries . . . and can only be there . . . in awe.

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 535 other followers