Life Transitions

 return slowly

(The Hermitage sign along the driveway for departing guests).

 

Greetings from Three Rivers, Michigan! My husband and I moved here almost a month ago—sold our home, sorted, packed, donated (and donated, and donated), and moved to join the residential community of The Hermitage, a contemplative retreat center.

At one point we seriously considered joining the residential community but it never seemed the right time. During a conversation with the Hermitage board someone asked Kevin is he was finished his library career and he realized there was more he wanted to explore. Within the past two years he sensed an inner restlessness and began to discern that he was ready to move on from library work. After pondering and praying we approached The Hermitage about joining the residential community. And here we are.

We are settling into our new home, new work, new schedule, new life. We are learning what it is to pray together as a community six days a week which includes weekly celebrating the Eucharist with one another. We are learning to work together which involves explaining and absorbing details such as which towels and sheets go into which guest room. Working together involves discussing and challenging and yielding and releasing of “my way.”

As Benedict stated in his rules for monastic life: Ora et labora. The literal translation is “Prayer and work.” It can also be translated as “Our work is our prayer; our prayer is our work.”

I discovered this prayer from the Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals which describes my inner restlessness and reflection these past several months:

Prayer for Major Life Transition

Lord, help me now to unclutter my life, to organize myself in the direction of simplicity.

Lord, teach me to listen to my heart, teach me to welcome change, instead of fearing it.

Lord, I give you these stirrings inside of me. I give you my discontent, I give you my restlessness. I give you my doubt. I give you my despair. I give you all the longing I hold inside. Help me to listen to these signs of change, of growth; help me to listen seriously and follow where they lead through the breathtaking empty space of an open door.

 

Listening as an Act of Love

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In the late 1980s, in a small group gathering, Dallas Willard said: “Listening is an act of love.” I had chills as I recognized the truth of his statement and I quickly wrote it down. I’ve been ruminating on this phrase for thirty years now. And I try to listen lovingly as a spouse, a family member, a friend, a spiritual director, and a church member. When I listen with love or am listened to with love, the competing, clamoring internal voices are quieted down and God’s own voice can be heard.

 

During the recent Christmas holiday my husband, Kevin, and I traveled to Southern California to be with my family. We live in Michigan and don’t often see my family but connect via phone and/or social media and had not visited my family for a few years. I was anxious because I’m not always certain how we will be received—will we be in the way of everyone else’s plans? Will people make time for us? Will people be interested in our lives? Will they listen to us and our stories?

 

My anxiety is grounded in my (unhealthy) desire to not be a bother to people. I don’t want to make presumptions on others because what if I am rejected? I am not certain that people are interested in me and my life so I fret before a visit home.

 

I did make plans to for us to visit Dennis, Susan, and their sons on Susan’s birthday. I’ve been friends with them for forty years while their friendship with Kevin is briefer and as my spouse. I wondered: will they be interested in Kevin? Will my friends talk with Kevin or only to me? Will they ask him questions about his experiences, observations, the state of his soul?

 

As our time together progressed, Susan began asking Kevin about his work. As she talked with him, she leaned toward the dining table and rested her elbow on it with her chin cupped in her hand. She was listening intently to his story of vocational discernment. And the more she listened the more Kevin shared. As she asked follow-up questions about his discerning process he moved into deeper descriptions of his conversation with his spiritual director. Susan listened carefully with a caring heart and his story unfolded. He was feeling heard by Susan. He was feeling loved.

***

When I lovingly listen to another I am giving of myself to that person. I am giving of my time, my mental, emotional, and my spiritual energy as I clear away my own concerns in order to give full attention to the other person.

As Jan Stairs wrote in Listening for the Soul, “Listening happens best when we pause and take time to hear more deeply and reflect upon the depths we hear. Our souls simply cannot thrive in a fast-paced life without claiming some time to take things in, uncover what lies deeply within, and mull things over … listening for the soul requires ongoing attention and sustained habits of reflection,” (p. 21).

In the conversation between Susan and Kevin, they both paused at moments to reflect—either in response to a question or in the answer itself. Both of them were reflecting on the unfurling of love within the conversation.

 

I have learned that I am able to listen to others because I have been lovingly listened to: by my husband, family members, my former therapist, different spiritual directors, and friends like Susan. Because I have been “heard into speech” (as Nelle Morton described loving listening), and have been accepted as I am, I can, hopefully, lovingly hear others into speech. I can lean in toward the person with open-hearted freedom and hear their hearts just as Susan leaned toward Kevin across the dining table.

***

Several hours later, after we hugged Dennis and Susan goodbye, we left our time with them feeling loved. We described it as “our hearts were warmed” by the attentive, compassionate, open-hearted listening we received.

Loving Listening

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Imagine this: Debbie arrives at church after a challenging week of working too many long hours and racing to complete to meet a deadline. She felt exhausted, raw, and unable to listen to the sermon or sharing time. She needed to share her story with someone in hope to find healing and new life. After church, Mary approached Debbie and asked her how she was doing.  The words began tumbling out of Debbie as she shared the awfulness of the week. Unfortunately, Mary wasn’t really interested in hearing Debbie’s story; Mary wanted to tell Debbie about her week.

Soon Debbie noticed that, while Mary was sort of listening to her, she was instead looking around as if she wanted to find someone else to talk to. Debbie stammered on into the story of receiving a speeding ticket and Mary interrupted her: “That’s nothing. My car got towed this week when I parked it in a tow‑away zone. I had to get my sister to take me to the police impound and pay $150.00 to get it out. I cannot afford to lose that money just now, etc., etc. ….”  Debbie mutely nodded while Mary continued with her story oblivious to the pain that Debbie was still experiencing. Neither Debbie nor Mary experienced God’s loving presence in their interaction with one another. Neither of them was able to listen lovingly to the other.

Imagine this: Debbie arrives home at the end of a troubling week, filled with problems with clients, and, receiving a speeding ticket for racing to her office to meet her deadlines. She was discouraged and exhausted, doubtful about God’s call to use her gifts business. In fact, she was having difficulty hearing God’s voice and believing that God was even interested in the awfulness of her week. After supper, she made a cup of tea and dialed Rachel’s phone number. Debbie thoroughly trusts Rachel to lovingly listen to her, to be present to her, pray for her, and offer words of love and wisdom. Debbie believed that Rachel represented God’s concern for her and called Rachel where they jointly entered into God’s loving presence via the telephone.

At different points of my life I have been each of these characters:  Debbie, feeling raw and discouraged, in desperate need for someone to lovingly listen to me, holding my heart before God in prayer while listening; Rachel, the loving friend, willing and able to listen wholeheartedly to the other; Mary, so self‑absorbed that I can’t even begin to listen to the words someone else is speaking let alone to hear the pain underneath the words. Of course, I like to think of myself as Rachel, the one able to listen with love and wisdom, but, naturally, I vacillate between all three characters at any given time yet I can choose between listening like Rachel or listening like Mary.

Loving listening requires both time and the contemplative act of listening. We allow the other the passing of minutes to tell their story, allowing for the silence to provide those spaces where additional thoughts might surface from below.

Loving listening takes time over a period of weeks, months, and sometimes years. I recently was reminded that loving listening over a period of years can occur in all of our relationship when my husband listened to me lament and struggle with an issue that I’ve been lamenting and struggling with since we met several years ago.

Loving listening requires a contemplative heart, waiting for the other person to share their heart. Several years ago I read a profile of the journalist Barbara Walters about her interviewing trade secrets. She said she often remains silent after the individual makes a statement because usually in that silence the individual will disclose more to her. Loving listening offers silence as a way for people to ponder and reflect without disruption from me.

Imagine this: Debbie arrives at church tired after a challenging week but calm and collected. She was able to talk with Rachel on Saturday and felt listened to and loved. After church she approached Mary and asked, how was your week?  Mary, who needs someone to listen to her, began to tell Debbie her story of her week. And because Debbie received loving listening she was able to lean toward her and began to lovingly listen to Mary.

Finding my way at Krogers

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After finally finding a parking spot adjacent to Krogers I enter the grocery store to find no available shopping carts. I turn around, return to the parking lot, and find one in the metal shopping cart carrels. My annoyance and impatience are beginning to grow.

I find a cart with a cranky wheel which causes me trouble as I try to push it back into the store while clutching my grocery list written on recycled paper and my reusable bags. As I follow my mental store map I notice just how very busy the store is with many people maneuvering carts filled with groceries. Feeling irritated, I begin to focus on my breathing: in deeply, out deeply, in deeply, out deeply. I move slowly through the store unable to quickly navigate at my usual pace and any remaining patience I had is now gone.

At last, I push my cart into a check-out line behind someone with a full cart, so full I can’t load my groceries onto the conveyor belt yet. The woman, appearing unkempt, asks the cashier several questions which slows the process. And with each question, the cashier gives the woman her full attention, patiently and graciously answering the woman’s questions.

Meanwhile, I am tapping my foot, feeling peevish toward both of them.

The cashier turns toward customer service to ask a question and the woman turns to me, smiles, and says, “Sorry for taking so long. I don’t know how to use the new WIC cards. Before I moved away we had paper coupons and now that I am back, I have to learn the new cards.” She sheepishly smiles at me.

Lying, I tightly smile and say, “It’s fine, don’t worry about it.”

Then the cashier returns and they continue checking out.

As I wait, an inner voice says, “June Mears, you speak and write about compassion for the poor yet when a poor woman slows you down, you lack compassion and mercy.”

I immediately see my Self and repent.

As the woman leaves she apologizes again and I truthfully and heartfully smile at her and say, “It’s no problem. I hope you have a good day.”

As I reach the cashier, I thank her for her kindness and patience with the woman. The cashier responds, “Well, it’s hard for people to learn to use the WIC cards and they need them to feed their families.”

“Well, you were very generous with her and thank you,” I say.

She slightly shrugged as she swipes my groceries over the scanner. “Well, it’s super busy when the accounts are refilled and folks buy their groceries.”

“I thought it was busier than usual,” I say.

“That’s why”.

As I wait for her to finish I gaze at the loving face of God as seen in the face of the Kroger cashier. I find God at Krogers.

***

“Love and mercy are sovereign, if often in disguise as ordinary people.”

–Anne Lamott

Attentive Living: A review of Liturgy of the Ordinary

Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren  (InterVarsityPress, 2016)

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It is easy for me to zone out while doing tasks by listening to a podcast, or a recorded book, or NPR. I dislike doing chores without distraction. On occasion, I practice the discipline of silence and  imbue my chores with sacredness. I remember Brother Lawrence, the Carmelite brother who worked his adult life in the monastery kitchen and while cooking, washing dishes, and sweeping the kitchen floor as a time for prayer: “It is not necessary to have great things to do. I turn my little omelet in the pan for the love of God,” from Practicing the Presence of God.

But usually, well, my chore practice is to be distracted, and will organize my chore schedule to coincide with the NPR schedule so I can be absorbed in something not related to the task at hand.

In her book, Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, writer and Anglican priest, Tish Harrison Warren suggests that all our tasks can be imbued with the sacred. And, truthfully, she is making a convert of me. She reminds the reader that spiritual formation is taking place in us during these daily activities: “Is it in the repetitive and the mundane that I begin to learn to love, to listen, to pay attention to God and those around me.”

She shapes the book on themes which we find in ordinary life: checking email, sitting in traffic, fighting with her husband, calling a friend, and sleeping. She reminds us through an Annie Dillard quote that, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” So then, how do we spend our days—distracted and not fully present to our lives or mindful of God’s presence in and around us? Harrison Warren confesses, “It is hard for me to believe that checking email could ever be a place of prayer.” Nevertheless, she hopes her work, her tasks, will be blessed God.  Additionally, Harrison Warren suggests being mindful of God’s love and presence during the repetition of our daily life is similar to the repetition of our transformation, or, our sanctification:

Daily life, dishes in the sink, children that ask the same questions and want the same stories again and again, the long doldrums of the afternoon—these things are filled with repetition. And much of the Christian life is returning over and over to the same work and the same habits of worship. We must contend with the same spiritual struggles again and again. The work of repentance and faith is daily and repetitive. Again and again, we repent and believe.

Importantly, Harrison Warren reminds us that bringing the sacred into the everyday is not a mental effort but it involves and engages our bodies:

If we don’t learn to live the Christian life as embodied beings, worshiping God and stewarding the good gift of our bodies, we will learn a false gospel, an alternative liturgy of the body …. Our bodies are instruments of worship.

Her reflections are robust, and, truthfully, convicting (especially about checking her social media the first thing in the morning). The book includes discussion questions and practices that could be used for personal study or a small group study. Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life is well-written and accessible for readers who are seeking more meaning into one’s everyday life, especially while doing chores.

 

 

 

Prayer for compassion

june mears driedger

A cross-stitched labyrinth made by Kevin Driedger for Christmas, 2007. A cross-stitched labyrinth made by Kevin Driedger for Christmas, 2007.

O God, Compassionate One-

I pray for a compassionate heart this new year.

I pray for a heart that is willing to expand with your compassion, with your love.

I pray for a set of compassionate eyes that see what your eyes see.

I pray for a set of compassionate ears that hear what your ears hear.

O God, Compassionate One-

I pray for a heart willing to extend compassion to those who annoy me, infuriate me, enrage me.

Help me to see these people as your children, worthy of your love and compassion and therefore deserving of my love and compassion.

O God, Compassionate One-

I pray for a heart that is bold enough to seek reconciliation with those whom I have hurt, harmed or dismissed.

Help me to understand, to know (deep in my bones)…

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The Wisdom of Peace Pilgrim (Part 2)

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“My friends, the world situation is grave. Humanity with fearful faltering steps, walks a knife-edge between complete chaos and a golden age, while strong forces push toward chaos. Unless we, the people of the world, awake from our lethargy and push firmly and quickly away from, all that we cherish will be destroyed in the holocaust which will descend.

This is the way of peace: Overcome evil with good, falsehood with truth, and hatred with love.

The Golden Rule would do as well. Please don’t say lightly that these are just religious concepts and not practical. These are laws governing human conduct, which apply as rigidly as the law of gravity. When we disregard these laws in any walk of life, chaos results. Through obedience to these laws this frightened, war-weary world of ours could enter into a period of peace and richness of life beyond our fondest dreams.”

Steps Toward Inner Peace

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Peace Pilgrim lived 1908-1981 and walked more than 25,000 miles from 1953-1981 spreading her message: “This is the way of peace: Overcome evil with good, falsehood with truth, and hatred with love.”