Topic Archives: spiritual experiences

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nighttime and rain

As I reflected on the days here in the northern hemisphere getting darker and darker, this quote from Merton seemed just right. This is from my advent calendar (click here if you want to see the whole calendar).

I came up here from the monastery last night, sloshing through the cornfield, said Vespers, and put some oatmeal on the Coleman stove for supper. It boiled over while I was listening to the rain and toasting a piece of bread at the log fire. The night became very dark. The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking up the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows!

-Thomas Merton, from the essay Rain and the Rhinoceros

 

unbelievable sunset

A beautiful sunset from the hills of Kentucky. The colors in the sky were unbelievable, but I tried to capture them anyway.

still

Still

By AR Ammons

I said I will find what is lowly

and put the roots of my identity

down there:

each day I’ll wake up

and find the lowly nearby,

a handy focus and reminder,

a ready measure of my significance,

the voice by which I would be heard,

the wills, the kinds of selfishness

I could

freely adopt as my own:

 

but though I have looked everywhere,

I can find nothing

to give myself to:

everything is

 

magnificent with existence, is in

surfeit of glory:

nothing is diminished,

nothing has been diminished for me:

 

I said what is more lowly than the grass:

ah, underneath,

a ground-crust of dry-burnt moss:

I looked at it closely

and said this can be my habitat: but

nestling in I

found

below the brown exterior

green mechanisms beyond the intellect

awaiting resurrection in rain: so I got up

 

and ran saying there is nothing lowly in the universe:

I found a beggar:

he had stumps for legs: nobody was paying

him any attention: everybody went on by:

I nestled in and found his life:

there, love shook his body like a devastation:

I said

though I have looked everywhere

I can find nothing lowly

in the universe:

 

I whirled though transfigurations up and down,

transfigurations of size and shape and place:

 

at one sudden point came still,

stood in wonder:

moss, beggar, weed, tick, pine, self, magnificent

with being!

From The Selected Poems: 1951-1977, Expanded Edition, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Copyright © 1986 by A. R. Ammons.

I was on retreat this past week, and I even found the bathroom beautiful.  It seems to have followed me home, together with the many positive effects of the week at the monastery.

 

I would rather…

I put a bumper sticker on my car last winter. It reads “I would rather be here now.” I don’t naturally think this, especially in tough times. When I stuck it on, I wondered whether I would always agree with the words: in traffic jams, in the midst of conflict, if I had an accident, in the deep cold of winter. It is a daily reminder to me to whole-heartedly inhabit my own skin, no matter what the circumstances.

There is a chapter “Yes!” in my latest book, that I just recorded in audio. Click here if you want to listen. In it I invite us to reflect on our personal challenges and difficulties, yet affirm the value and wonder of who and where we are. I also write about how we view our past, and how we might see the good in what we might see as mistakes and things that don’t seem at all perfect.

Traveling without seeing ahead

We travelers, walking to the sun,

can’t see
 ahead, but looking back the very light

That blinded us shows us the way we came,

Along which blessings now appear, risen

As if from sightlessness to sight, and we,

By blessing brightly lit, keep going toward

That blessed light that yet to us is dark.

 

–Wendell Berry, from Given: New Poems

So often I want to see what is coming ahead, so that I can plan, so that I can better control things, including myself….But the future is not something we can see in any kind of certain way. And imagining that we can is a delusion to be avoided. That does not mean that we cannot be hopeful, however, for bright surprises.

nonchalant asparagus

One of the best things about summer where I live is food from the farmer’s market. I cannot grow plants for the life of me, but I so enjoy looking at the beauty of the produce at market, and then, of course, eating food made from fresh ingredients. These small blessings add so much to the quality of my life. The asparagus this year has been great. Fresh food like this inspires even this mediocre cook to make a dinner. When I sent this drawing to my daughter she said it was nonchalant asparagus. 

small things

“People who place their small time into the heart of eternity, which they already carry within, will suddenly realize that even small things, have inexpressible depths, are messengers of eternity, are always more than they appear to be, are like drops of water in which is reflected the entire sky, like signs pointing beyond themselves, like messengers running ahead of the message they are carrying and announcing the coming of eternity, like shadows of true reality that are cast over us because the real is already very near.”—Karl Rahner (trans. Annemarie Kidder)

art by lynn

freshness

art by lynn

“There is a freshness deep down things”, wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins.

I am finding myself looking for freshness in each day and moment, and finding it in the most unexpected places.

 

Why beauty?

art by lynn

But are these beautiful because we think them so, or because they are beautiful in the mind of nature or the mind of God, beautiful by intention inborn in a world beloved?

 

Beauty is the crisis of our knowing, the signature of love indwelling in all created things, called from nothing by love, recognized and answered by love in the human heart, not reducible by any analysis to any fact.

 

–Wendell Berry, A Small Porch, Counterpoint Press, 2016

good conversation

“16 questions” by lynn

What makes for a good interview? I think Dr. Rachael Kohn has it nailed. I had the privilege of being interviewed by her on the Australian public radio ABC show The Spirit of Things, which aired on March 26. She is an exemplar of how we can help good conversations to happen in our daily lives. We can ask questions that bring out the other person, and sometimes stretch them in an accepting context. We can take time to listen to the answers, rather than thinking about what we are going to say next. We can find out about the other person, and engage with them, not use them as a vehicle to press our point of view. When in the course of research, I  interviewed people about the practices that were important for compassionate love, ‘really listening to the other person,’ was one of those practices.

Rachael engages in conversation with a perfectly lovely voice, and that helps this too. She sets the person at ease through her respectful and honest attitude. She gently asks probing and sometimes hard questions, which enable interpersonal connection and understanding to happen. Of course, a conversation that is designed to be broadcast, and happens between continents, can never be like one over coffee or at home, and because it was an interview I didn’t get to ask her questions, but nevertheless, this same kind of asking and listening can happen in our own living rooms or when we are in a variety of social situations.

The show, which includes a poem and quotes from the Spiritual Connection in Daily Life book, is now up on the ABC website, where it can be played or downloaded http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/spiritofthings/are-you-spiritually-connected/8376242  Her balanced approach provides a model for us all for how to make a space for truly good conversation.

Contour drawing as a spiritual practice

contour self-portrait by lynn

One of my favorite ways of sketching is to do blind, or semi-blind, contour drawing. In it, you try not to look at your paper at all, and not lift your pen, while you draw. You look at the subject, not the paper, and feel your way around and within your subject, as you draw with your pen or pencil. I was first exposed to this method in a studio drawing class in college and found it marvelous. When I do this while drawing a person, it connects me with the interior feelings of the person. It reminds me that the visual nature of the person is not just about ‘looking good,’ and that the success of a drawing is not in its photographic likeness. It also draws my attention to how we can perceive some of the complex life of a person even through outer appearance. It is, for me, a kind of spiritual exercise.

You may wish to try it. All you need is a pencil, paper, and a subject. The easiest to start with is yourself in a mirror. More details about this method can be found in a book by Kimon Nicolaides, A Natural Way to Draw.

arresting attention

art by lynn

I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness that characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.

Saul Bellow, the Art of Fiction No. 37, 1966, The Paris Review

listening to birches

Poets can open our hearts and touch us. Robert Frost does this for me in his poem ‘Birches’.  The complete poem can be found at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/44260 or in The Poetry of Robert Frost (1969).

When I see birches bend to left and right

Across the lines of straighter darker trees,

I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

And then after Frost digresses about how ice storms bend the trees downwards, he continues:

By riding them down over and over again

Until he took the stiffness out of them,

And not one but hung limp, not one was left

For him to conquer. He learned all there was

To learn about not launching out too soon

And so not carrying the tree away

Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise

To the top branches, climbing carefully

With the same pains you use to fill a cup

Up to the brim, and even above the brim.

Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,

Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

 

So was I once myself a swinger of birches.

And so I dream of going back to be.

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs

Broken across it, and one eye is weeping

From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

I’d like to get away from earth awhile

And then come back to it and begin over.

May no fate willfully misunderstand me

And half grant what I wish and snatch me away

Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:

I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,

And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk

Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,

But dipped its top and set me down again.

That would be good both going and coming back.

One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Each of us may be touched differently by this poem. The full poem can transport us into the woods, the natural world. The description of the boy can take us back to the sense of adventure and freedom of swinging and climbing as children, and even our adventures as adults. But the poet also gives a way to think of our desires to be free of the constraints of the world, when our faces ‘burn and tickle with the cobwebs’ and ‘one eye is weeping from a twig’s having lashed across it.’  Yet, he reminds us:  ‘Earth’s the right place for love.’  We launch out in this wild world that is the right place for love.

Joy in hard times

 art by lynn

art by lynn

I am involved in a project at Yale University on joy, considering what science might have to contribute to our understanding of it. I have also been doing more work and writing on how dire circumstances can help us dispel certain delusions of thinking. These words speak to both:

The basic assumption of the happiness mentality—in spite of considerable hard evidence to the contrary—is that if one lives one’s life correctly one will be happy. The corollary of this assumption is that if one is not happy, one is doing something wrong. These two beliefs form the foundation of a system that has become so rampant in recent years that many people now feel any sign of unhappiness in their lives is a symptom of psychological or spiritual disorder. People who believe this strive to resolve or repress unhappiness as quickly as possible….

The happiness mentality causes people to repress or deny many of their own negative feelings. It prohibits the rich experience of living through painful situations, of fully feeling and being in the sadness, grief, and fear that are natural parts of human existence. It fosters a pastel quality of life, with limited ranges of emotion. Some shallow conditions of ‘happiness’ may be achieved in this way, but joy is altogether out of the question. Most of us know that prohibiting agony in the experience of life must also prohibit joy. To try to accomplish one without the other is to dilute both the experience and the meaning of life. But the happiness mentality can overcome this knowledge, convince us that sadness is unhealthy, and cause us to bridle all our feelings. At best, this watered-down existence takes on a ‘Pollyanna’ atmosphere, denying the negativity of life. At its worst, it sinks into apathy, denying life itself.

Human beings who adhere to the happiness mentality are continually attempting to deprive themselves of the rich dark side of life, the leaven, the creative complementarity without which happiness is empty. If these attempts are successful, life’s experiences become as flimsy as tissue. If the attempts fail, people feel that something is deeply wrong inside them. Neither way allows the precious beautiful, awesome possibilities of accepting the richness of life as it presents itself in each moment.

Perhaps the greatest inherent defect of the happiness mentality is that it prohibits sensitivity and responsiveness to the suffering of others. The happiness mentality maintains that one must first organize one’s own life toward the absence of discomfort. Even if a person manages to accomplish this for a brief period of time, the terrible pain in the rest of the world still exists. One then has an extremely limited range of options in responding to this pain. One can deny it, shut it out of awareness through ‘selective inattention,’ or one can engage in brief sophomoric attempts to rationalize it. But the fact remains: private happiness can exist as a permanent condition in the midst of public suffering only if it is based on delusion.

(This is of course not to say that one must carry the world’s burdens on one’s shoulders with constant morbidity. In fact, the happiness mentality is in large part a rebellion against precisely this kind of puritanical pessimism. It was not too long ago that people in our culture were looked upon with suspicion if they appeared too happy. Many puritanical-pietistic themes of Middle America maintained that life was hard, that each person had to bear the cross, and that suffering was good for the soul. It was believed that something was morally wrong with people who did not seem to be struggling with the pain of life. It is not surprising that generations of such somber sobriety would eventually bring rebellion. As usual, however, the pendulum swung too far. Now, instead of happiness being seen as a moral impropriety, unhappiness is seen as a psychological defect.)

Whenever one is preoccupied with happiness, the possibility of joy is pre-empted. Poets, contemplatives, and some philosophers have long maintained that a fundamental qualitative difference exists between these two states, but our society is just barely beginning to appreciate how radical that difference is. Happiness has to do with Freud’s old pleasure principle: the satisfaction of needs and the avoidance of pain. Joy is altogether beyond any consideration of pleasure or pain, and in fact requires a knowledge and acceptance of pain. Joy is the reaction one has to the full appreciation of Being. It is one’s response to finding one’s rightful, rooted place in life, and it can happen only when one knows through and through that absolutely nothing is being denied or otherwise shut out of awareness.”

May, Gerald. (1987). Will and Spirit. Harper and Row. pp 14-16

memo to self

on the bulletin board in the kitchen

acceptquotecomprLynnUnderwood

to see what we see

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

We must always tell what we see. Above all, and this is more difficult, we must always see what we see.”        –Charles Peguy

milagros

I found myself trying to find words and image to convey something of this tiny arm and hand full of promise.

Milagrosdrawing by lynnb

 

Loose

in the breeze of the holy

spirit

draw near

flow through

unclench –

no need.  New

power now.

Will of good pleasure

through my body

my arms

my hands.

 

 

juicy

art by lynn

art by lynn

I have asked people what kinds of things they thought of, when they felt ‘thankful for their blessings.’ One lady replied that after recovering from a bad cold, she really appreciated the taste of tomatoes. So often we just don’t notice wonderful things until we lose them.