Living Well

Inside the Blue Line*: Spiritual Reflections on Life in the Adirondack Park

Mystery

mysteryThere’s something almost “Brigadoon-ish” about the view when the fog settles into the valleys here among the mountains. It feels as though we’re in a ‘time out of time’ here. The edges get blurred, the clock seems to stop, and the firm structure of daily rhythm seems to slip away.

To me, it is a wonderful invitation into mystery. At the top level, the mystery is:

When will the skies clear so we can resume our outdoor chores and plans?

Or maybe the mystery is:

Will rain come from these clouds so our dry earth and rivers can be restored?

These can be important questions, and the mystery will be solved when conditions change.

At the same time, I find myself drawn to the mystery within.

What are the interior clouds that cover the truth of Holy Presence within?

What might I discover if I let go into the ‘time out of time’  flow, pausing for a deep dive into such questions as:

What is the purpose of life in this world?

Why are we here?

What is the goal of our work and all our efforts?

What need does the earth have of us?+

 How might I let go into mystery in my daily life, trusting that what I see is a tiny facet of the Universal Whole?

What is it like to consider that many mysteries will remain unsolved this side of heaven?

When we have a stretch of clear, sunny days, I find myself struggling to break free of the confines of clear, well-established rhythms and answers, longing for the clouds of mystery to invite me to take a deep breath . . .  into wonder.

*The Blue Line is the term used in New York state for the boundaries of the Adirondack  (and Catskill) parks, within which can be found the state’s Forest Preserve. The state constitution requires that any property owned or acquired by the state in those parks “be forever kept as wild forest lands” and prohibits it from selling or transferring them in any way. It is so called because blue ink was used when they were first drawn on state maps.

+These four questions come from Pope Francis’s encyclical on Care for Our Common Home, Laudato Si.

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Living Well

My Adirondack Soundtracks

To say it has been a wet Spring is a bit of an understatement. I think I can count on one hand the number of sunny days we have had . . . or even sunny parts of days. So Spring gardening has been hard to get to.

Finally, this week, there was an afternoon of sun, and I took my opportunity to get in the garden and pull out the weeds and debris that had gathered since last Fall. To keep me happily engaged in the project, I decided to listen to some music. But what would it be on this afternoon of sun and abundant Adirondack beauty? It would be Paul Winter Consort’s Missa Gaia. Composed in 1981, the Missa Gaiais a stunning intertwining of sacred texts and sounds of the created world – whales, wolves, waterfalls – in a jazz format. “All the Earth forever turning; for the skies, for every sea; To our Lord, we sing returning home to our blue green hills of earth.” Yes, this seemed like the very soundtrack for the day. To dig in the earth, to look around me and see the blue green mountains and hear the sound of the rain-swollen river nearby – these were the very expressions of the music, and of God.

My Adirondack SoundtracksToday, I awoke to another foggy, rainy day. After some morning errands, I arrived home to another small window without rain. No sun this time and another garden to weed and clean. What would carry me along? I began to think about my family roots here in the mountains, going back at least 150 years on my dad’s side of the family. And I thought of my dad. He is 100 years old and lives in a nursing home. He doesn’t have dementia, but his thoughts and his conversation are an interesting, humorous, and much-of-the-time fictitious mix of his life’s experiences. While he’ll engage in a conversation of sorts for a little while, what he loves more than anything is listening to music on his MP3 player. He has a running set list of jazz and big band music from the 1930’s and 1940’s. So, in honor of Dad, and the life I treasure here in the mountains, today I listened to Benny Goodman and his orchestra. It was a different connection to the earth – to roots of a family sort; deep, sometimes tangled, old, firm.

I wonder what the soundtrack will be tomorrow . . .

Living Well

Inside the Blue Line*: Spiritual Reflections on Life in the Adirondack Park

The first day of Spring was a few days ago. And like many (or most) people, I’m hungering for warmer days, lots of sun, and an ease that comes with release from the cold. That said, there is still a part of me that will say goodbye to winter with sadness.

SpringDespite the joy and relief that comes with Spring and all of its primal energies, there is something about winter that is deeply ‘home’ for me. In the dead of winter, when the air is icy and the ground is white, there is a quiet and peace that prevails for me. Sounds are muffled by the blanket of snow. Colors are sharply diminished to white and various shades of grey and black. Rather than being distracted by sights and sounds and smells, I breathe deeply into the simplicity of vision – shapes and shadows, light and lines, softness and stillness. I can gaze endlessly into this monochromatic scene and receive it with wonder. How many intricate and detailed ways can the complexity and diversity of creation be expressed in black and white?

Spring’s joyful exuberance will come. The snow will melt, the trees will leaf out, the wildlife will make itself known in sight and sound. I will celebrate with the best of them when this happens. And even still, in the deep recesses of my soul, I will nurture a quiet longing for the peace of winter, trusting that for it to come, Spring, Summer and Autumn will have to show their glory as well.

*The Blue Line is the term used in New York state for the boundaries of the Adirondack  (and Catskill) parks, within which can be found the state’s Forest Preserve. The state constitution requires that any property owned or acquired by the state in those parks “be forever kept as wild forest lands” and prohibits it from selling or transferring them in any way. It is so called because blue ink was used when they were first drawn on state maps. 

Living Well

Inside the Blue Line*: Spiritual Reflections on Life in the Adirondack Park

The East Branch of the Ausable River runs through our town, and is a prominent feature and consideration in our community’s life. There is a 2 ½ mile walking loop that traverses the River by bridge. When I was young, you could drive across the bridge that spanned the river. It was a ‘rickety-rackety’ bridge, and over the years, car traffic was banned and it became a pedestrian bridge.

When Hurricane Irene blew through in 2011, the River flooded in many areas, destroying property and livelihoods in just a few hours. Among the losses was the ‘rickety-rackety bridge.’ It was completely destroyed, a twist of metal beams found downstream in the days after the storm. While the town was working to restore itself in a variety of ways, a small group of people began to investigate how a new bridge could be built to replace the one that was lost. A repurposed bridge was installed in 2015, and the walking loop was open again! There was a festive dedication ceremony, complete with raffle tickets to win the chance to be the first to walk across the new bridge.

for community.jpegI walk this loop regularly, and while I am delighted to have this river crossing restored, what stands out to me most, is this. In the middle of the bridge is a bench, with a plaque that says ‘for community.’ Alongside the bench is a snow shovel. In the winter months, when snow is on the ground much of the time, I have yet to cross this bridge when someone has not already shoveled a path. I don’t know who does it; is there one person who does it all or most of the time? Is it the first person who happens to cross just after a snow? I only know how grateful I am to have a path already cleared so I can continue walking the loop.

Care for community – which for me is an element of the spiritual life – is visible and enacted around here all the time. I think, when the weather grows warmer, I will stop to sit on the bench, take in the amazing beauty all around me in sight and sound, and give thanks for community.

*The Blue Line is the term used in New York state for the boundaries of the Adirondack (and Catskill) parks, within which can be found the state’s Forest Preserve. The state constitution requires that any property owned or acquired by the state in those parks “be forever kept as wild forest lands” and prohibits it from selling or transferring them in any way. It is so called because blue ink was used when they were first drawn on state maps. 

Living Well

What brings people to spiritual direction? What do we talk about?

(third in a series about spiritual direction)

3 chairsThe intention of spiritual direction is to provide a safe, confidential, sacred space in which to reflect on all of life’s questions and concerns. People choose to enter into this sacred space for a variety of reasons. Some people come for an established amount of time to address a specific question or concern. Others engage in spiritual direction as an ongoing commitment to self-care, often alongside psychotherapy, exercise, energy work, massage, and other forms of care for the whole person – mind, body, spirit.

  • Many clergy include spiritual direction as a part of their ongoing rhythm of life, to support, deepen, and nourish their relationship with God, especially in the face of the many challenges and demands of congregational leadership.
  • Individuals facing a serious illness can choose spiritual direction as a place where they bring fundamental questions about living and dying, freeing them from having to answer questions for others, and entering a space where all questions are held as sacred and valued.
  • Sometimes people seek spiritual grounding and support through a life transition – marriage, new job, loss of job, new children, retirement.
  • Spiritual seekers – some who have church affiliations and others who don’t – decide to come for spiritual direction to bring questions of doubt, wonder, curiosity, and challenge. Often this is in support of the relationship with their church; sometimes it is with a desire to find a church or faith community; other times it is to heal from a fractured relationship with church.
  • Most of the time, those who seek spiritual direction bring stories of their lives – relationships, vocational experiences, celebrations, sorrows – and come with a desire to understand and grow through these experiences in a way that is life-giving and sacred.

Sessions are punctuated with silence, prayer, and invitation to spiritual practices. Sometimes, a book or other resource is recommended. Other times, a question for ongoing consideration is posed. Always, the intent is to listen for Divine Stirrings, moments where it feels as though wisdom is arising through the shared experience and deep listening.

If you are curious about how spiritual direction could be a support to you in your life, contact me or find a spiritual director through this resource from Spiritual Directors International:

http://www.sdiworld.org/find-a-spiritual-director/seek-and-find-guide

 

 

“What is essential is invisible to the eyes.”–Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Living Well

What is a spiritual direction session like?

Good question! Often when I am first talking with people about spiritual direction, this is a question that arises. What does a session ‘look like’? What happens when we’re together?

I often begin by saying a spiritual direction session ‘looks’ something like a psychotherapy session in these ways:

  • it is a one-on-one conversation
  • we generally meet for one hour*
  • there is a fee that is paid for the time together
  • all that is shared is held in confidence

It is not unusual for a person in spiritual direction (directee) to also be working with a psychotherapist. While the format and framework might be similar between psychotherapy and spiritual direction, the intent and design of the sessions are different.

3 chairsSpiritual direction sessions are intended and designed to follow the leading of Spirit. This can be manifest in a variety of ways. We usually begin with silence, inviting ourselves to be attentive to the present moment. This can also be a time of slowing down from the, often, frantic pace of life, to breathe deeply, and to acknowledge the participation of God/Holy Love/Divine Presence.

Often the directee will share experiences that are calling his or her attention. Many times we will pause after some sharing to notice what might be arising from within. A guiding understanding is that the directee already has Holy Wisdom within, and that our shared intention is to listen for it. As spiritual director, I am paying to attention to where I notice freedom and aliveness in the words, actions, and spirit of the directee, trusting this is a place where she or he feels fully herself/himself, able to connect to deep truth and wholeness.

Sometimes, I will invite consideration of a spiritual practice or a resource that I believe will support the directee’s spiritual journey. As spiritual direction itself is an ancient practice, so also is there a rich storehouse of spiritual practices and resources that have been used by spiritual seekers for generations.

As the session draws to a close, we enter silence again, allowing some time to gather in all that has been shared, and to become aware of ideas, images, and themes the directee wants to reflect on going forward. We close in prayer – sometimes just me praying, sometimes each of us praying as Spirit guides us. Before we part, we schedule a time to meet again – usually in a month, though more or less often as need and intention inform us.

It is important to note that the process and approach to spiritual direction is unique to the one offering spiritual direction, and that the experience might be different with other spiritual directors. (More about this in an upcoming post).

*Most often, I meet with directees in person. However, more and more people are asking to meet by phone or Zoom, and this can offer more flexibility in time and resources.

“This God with whom we have to do, this God whose thoughts are not our thoughts, claims from us, I believe not static and confident belief but active and humble attention.”–Marilynne Robinson

 

 

 

Living Well

What is spiritual direction?

(I offer this as first in a series of reflections on spiritual direction)

In the last few years, I have witnessed the proliferation of spiritual direction training programs both in my area, and around the country. For a vocation that, until recently, was either unknown, or known only in monastic and priest formation circles, it is exciting to see a growing interest in this ancient and life-giving practice. So, what is spiritual direction?

I first learned about it as I began my seminary training; and after finding a spiritual director (thanks to a referral from one of my professors), I began what has become an essential and ongoing commitment to reflect on every aspect of my life with the support and presence of a trained listener.

What comes to mind when you consider spending an hour each month with someone whose sole intent is to listen for what gives you life? And to help you listen for, and reflect on, your own deep questions and longings?

During the almost 20 years that I have met regularly with a spiritual director, I have become more familiar with my inner life; my core being; my wounds, my challenges, my shadow side; and my heart’s deepest desires. As a person who readily seeks a spiritual framework to engage these questions and concerns, I have found spiritual direction to be a homecoming of sorts. It has been a place where I experience Divine Presence and inspiration through the words, the silence, the listening that comes through the heart and soul of my spiritual director. I have felt freed to honor what my wounds have to teach me, and to pursue the passions and deep desires that draw me more closely to my true self. Spiritual direction has been a resource for healing and growth, helping to integrate body, mind and soul.

So I suppose it is no surprise that I felt a call to this vocation of listening and companioning, and after a 2-year program in formation as a spiritual director, I began offering this practice of sacred listening. I have been listening with people in spiritual direction for over 10 years now and continue to come away feeling like this is the work I was created to do. While my intent is to listen for divine stirrings in the words and heart of the individuals with whom I meet, I feel close to Divine Presence as well. I feel enlivened and restored in my own life with the Divine every time I sit and listen with another.

3 chairsThe image that is often used to represent spiritual direction – 3 chairs – expresses it best, I think. At every session, there are three listeners: spiritual director, the person who has come to reflect, and Holy Presence . . . God . . . Divine Love. Together, we seek to bring deep healing, to strengthen greater compassion for self and others, and to free the capacity for loving presence in the world.

“O, the comfort,

the inexpressible comfort

of feeling safe with a person.

 

Having neither to weigh thoughts,

nor measure words

but pouring them all out

wheat and chaff together.

 

Certain that a faithful hand

will keep

that which is worth keeping,

and with a breath of kindness

blow the rest away.”

–Dinah Maria Craik, 18thC British poet

Living Well

Overwhelm

IMG_1285This word – overwhelm – has been on the lips of so many people in my life these days. They seem to be describing a collective experience of suffering – too many tragedies, too much suffering, too many demands, too much rancor and division in the public sector. And many people also speak of the challenge of taking time to stop and care for themselves. It seems to be a toxic mix of overscheduling, physical exhaustion, emotional depletion, and guilt which stands in the way of pausing to rest, reflect, and rejoice in the precious moments that move through our days. These moments are crowded out by urgency, anger, competition, and isolation.

 

A wise colleague and friend recently said that he thinks the traumas we have recently witnessed – in Charlottesville, Las Vegas, Washington, DC, North Korea, NYC to name just a few – are really spiritual problems at their root. I couldn’t agree more. As spiritual beings having a human experience (Teilhard de Chardin) how do we, can we, respond?

More than ever, I believe, we need to take time to find and nurture connection – with self, with one another and with Divine Presence, however you experience this.

What feeds your soul? Being in the natural world? Listening to music? Creating art? Preparing a meal? Take a few moments to get clear on where your soul comes alive, and do more of that. Schedule time every day – even for 5 minutes – to feed your soul, your deepest self.

Who is your ‘village’? Identify the people with whom you feel safe, cared for, heard, affirmed. Spend time with them. Be intentional – in whatever way works for you – in scheduling time to be with your village. Care for one another.

How do you experience Divine Presence? God? Through prayer? Song? Reading? Silence? In community? By yourself? When and where have you felt a closeness with the world where “God shimmers in all things?” (Teilhard) How does your daily/weekly/monthly schedule reflect and make space for time with Divine Presence?

A couple of weeks ago, while on retreat, I attended a Contemplative Eucharist service at Bethany House of Prayer in Arlington, MA. The generous welcome, the deep silence, the space embedded with prayer, were a welcome balm to my soul. As we moved toward the altar to receive the bread and wine, we chanted these words –

Return again, return again

Return to the land of your Soul

Return to what you are, return to who you are

return to where you are

Born and reborn again

The simple melody, the direct invitation, has been singing in me ever since. Return to what I am, who I am, where I am. Born . . . and reborn.

When overwhelm hits – when the aching of the world feels like too much to bear – return to the land of your Soul. Take time to turn your heart toward all that enlivens you, that frees you to see the ‘shimmering presence of God in all things’ . . . even you.

Click HERE to listen Return Again!

Living Well

A Peaceful Transfer of Power

shepard-equal-humanity-greaterthanfear“The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place, as it has for almost two centuries, and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every 4-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.”—President Ronald Reagan, from his First Inaugural Address.

“Nothing less than a miracle.” Somehow, the transfer of power from President Obama to President Trump seems like a miracle, for sure. I omitted the word ‘peaceful,’ though maybe inappropriately so. Since President Trump’s election and inauguration, it has felt to me like we are flirting with the limits of peacefulness in our country. Near constant demonstrations, marches, tweets, media storms, and congressional wrangling seem to be pushing boundaries on all sides. I am deeply grateful that the public outcry has – at least so far – stayed within the limits of civility. But the question persists – how is one to respond in a meaningful and powerful way in the face of a national government gone awry?

I have not posted on my blog for one year. At this time last year, the primary season was in full swing, and the ugliness, the bitterness, and the shocking display of incivility was on display. My own heart and soul were challenged each day by new revelations; new torments; new worries about what might happen should the current President – then a candidate among many – actually be elected.

On election night, I was awake into the wee hours of the morning (and those who know my usual proclivity for early bedtime will understand the meaning of my late hours on 11/8/16), and my shock turned to disbelief and then to horror. What have we done?

Two days later, a close friend told me about the Women’s March on Washington, scheduled for 1/21/17, and asked if I’d join her. It was an easy ‘yes.’ Along with one of my daughters, we traveled to DC, we marched, we reflected, and we continue to hold the question: how is one to respond in a meaningful and powerful way in the face of a national government gone awry?

Here’s what I’ve discovered. There has been a peaceful transfer of power within me. Until now, until this election and inauguration, I have been one who observed the workings of government with interest and even local involvement. But I had not – until now – felt compelled to march; or to call my congress leaders; or to reach out and reach out and reach out again to friends and colleagues to keep the energy and action and reflection going. Until now, I have not known with such deep conviction, that I have the responsibility to be ‘we, the people’ – with my actions, my words, my letters, my phone calls. And with my prayers, my compassion, my work, and my spiritual community.

Yes, a peaceful transfer of power has occurred within me. Thanks be to God.

Living Well

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)