Bowing

Bowing. I do not come from bowing stock. Neither my culture or my faith tradition asks for much bowing. Something within probably resists the humility and vulnerability that bowing requires. And so it seems an odd act to be reflecting on in these darkest of December days. But it is what I have been doing.

It started with attending an Advent evening prayer service at Our Lady of Presentation Chapel offered by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet. I arrived early in the beautiful candlelit sanctuary that, for years, has held the prayers of these kind and mighty women of faith who have given their lives to social justice, art and nurturing generations for the future. Finding a space in one of the pews facing the flickering lights near the altar, I settled in to be silent, quiet, at home in the darkened room. One by one people of all ages arrived. Those that captured my attention, however, were the nuns who clearly had a greater comfort level than others in this space. Their traditional habits a thing of the past, these women instead were clothed in jeans and sweatshirts, colorful sweaters and comfortable pants. Some walked with the help of cane or walker but most moved confidently into the room. And then they bowed. Toward the candles lining the altar. Toward the altar itself. Toward the barely visible crucifix at the front of the sanctuary. One or two forgot something and had to leave their seats, bowing before leaving. and bowing again upon their return.

I found myself wondering what these bowing women thought about when they bent knee or waist and head. I wondered if at this point of their lives they did this so automatically that no thought flew through their heads, only an inner impulse to bow. This ritual action had likely defined their days in ways that are completely foreign to me. And yet I was drawn to it, wanted some of whatever they had for myself.

The three letters of this tiny word create many definitions: bow…to bend the head, body, or knee in reverence, submission, or shame; to incline the head or body in salutation or assent; to cease from competition or resistance; to express by bending the head, body, or knee. And these are just the verbs. A small word with powerful meanings.

Reverence. Submission. Shame. Salutation. Assent. I have thought of what it is that might cause me to follow the example of the sisters and to begin a bowing life. And then I noticed the Sun streaming through my window on a cold, winter day. I bow to its beams warming the floorboards and my bare feet. I picked up the book I had been reading and I bowed to the author and all the authors whose words challenge, inspire, entertain and persuade. I bow to the children learning to read as they struggle with sounds and understanding and the desire to please the adults around them. I bow to artists whose eye for color and form grace my walls and bring me such joy. I bow to the musicians whose work wafts from speaker and concert hall, from sanctuary and street corner providing a respite of sound and sentiment. All these and so much more bring me to a place of reverence and call for bowing.

I found that once you begin to bow you don’t know where to stop. I bow to the mothers who cradle children everywhere but especially those who hold tightly to the children they have carried as they move toward the borders of our country in the hope of a better life. I bow to the fathers who have walked away from pride and purpose to bring children and family through danger hoping to offer a home where those they love can be more than they ever dreamed. I bow to the workers, the helpers, the pray-ers who hand out clothes and meals and try to make connections and something civil out of situations most of us could not imagine. This bowing is full of reverence and laced with shame. 

All around the world there are caregivers standing at bedsides and in nursing homes and hospitals, holding hands, dispensing medicine, serving meals, offering smiles and the human touch. I bow to you. I bow to the teachers and the servers, the cooks and the bakers, to the sales clerks and the workers on factory lines whose work is used by most of us and whose names are never known. I bow to those who clean…our houses, our office buildings, our streets. I bow to the ones who know only loneliness at this time of year advertised to house cheer and human connection. I bow to the college students who are making sense of their lives and might be afraid to let their true heart be seen. I bow to all those who have too little and those who have too much and do not know how to share.

You see. Once you start bowing it becomes never ending. Maybe the nuns know that. Certainly the Sufi poet and wise one Rumi knew it. “If God said, ‘Rumi pay homage to everything that has helped you enter my arms,’ there would not be one experience of my life, not one thought, not one feeling, nor any act, I would not bow to.”

So I guess I have chosen to become one who bows. Perhaps it will start out only in my mind but who knows what form it will take as the practice unfolds? If you, too, are interested in the bowing life, please join me.

Rhythms for Dancing Light

We are creatures driven by rhythms. The rhythm of minutes, hours, days, years. We are held in a rhythm of seasons. Spring, summer, autumn, winter. Any given day has us held by the rhythm of sunrise and moonrise. Given our home on the planet those seasons and the play of light and darkness varies but is always present. Sometimes we are more aware of these rhythms than at other times. Traveling, as I did in the past weeks, across the northern cusp of our nation and into the Pacific Northwest, I was always surprised at how early darkness arrived and how long it lingered in the morning. 

For those of us who share in the experience of the Christian calendar, the rhythm of the season of Advent has arrived. These days that lead up to the celebration of Christmas are, I have to admit, my favorite season. To hold in sacred grasp the anticipation, the waiting, the watching for a Light that will bring yet another rhythm to the world carries a remembering that we are creatures who have always been cradled between darkness and what has power to overcome the shadows. Shadows which are part of Creation and shadows which we ourselves create.

On Sunday morning, the first of the Advent season, I sat in worship looking at a banner that became icon for me. Not an icon of the computer world but one of the religious world meant to foster devotion and connection with the Sacred. Usually these paintings are created on wood and feature a face of Jesus or another holy figure. This image that held my gaze off and on during the service was not of a human but of colors of blue, purple and black painted on fabric interrupted with flashes of shining drops of light. Amidst word and music both lovely and engaging, what offered itself to me as an invitation into Advent was this banner created by the people of the community. Over the last few days I have continued to be visited by this image. I have thought about how the streaks of white light were actually a part of the darkness, how they danced within the Advent colors of blue and purple, how they created more of a wholeness rather than the opposites so often portrayed when talking about light and darkness.

Later in the evening I sat with some people who lamented the safety and goodness of their lives while children and families suffer at the southern borders of our country. We felt held in the shadows of our privilege. We spoke of the difficulty in knowing how to celebrate and mark what is meant to be a time of family, of faith, of joy. We shared in our feelings of powerlessness and despair. And we also spoke of the beauty of music we had heard in the last week, the gifts of friendship and hope for a future where justice will indeed roll down like an everflowing stream and the gift of that longing to lift our spirits. 

As we shared in all of this, my mind traveled back to that image…blues and purples and blacks woven through with flashes of light. Perhaps the real wisdom in this vision of Advent is that the light is always present. Always. Dancing throughout. While we may want a bright light to stamp out all the shadows in a flashy Vegas way, the reality is that this dance of light and darkness is the place of our living and where we find the strength to continue to help bring light to the world.

In her book Night Visions, Jan L. Richardson offers these words: “Move over the face of my deep, my darkness, my endless restless chaos, and create, O God: trouble me, comfort me, stir me up, and calm me, but do not cease to breathe your Spirit into my wakening soul.”

May these dark days of the Advent season find us troubled, comforted, restless, always watching for the flashes of light that call us to be bearers of what might heal our world…

**Great gratitude to the people of Macalester Plymouth Church in St. Paul for this amazing image.

To Gaze in Wonder

I believe that landscape shapes us and informs how we see and experience the world. I believe this because I know it in my bones. There are certain landscapes that stir up something within me that calls to me from an ancient place etched there by the ancestors who birthed me and placed me upright in human form. Rolling green hills, sharp, jagged stones, water teeming with mystery, danger and refreshment, desolate while beautiful, all these speak to the soul of my emergence from lands far off yet deep within. These landscapes make up the story that lives within my DNA and informs how I see the world and my place in it.

The past two weeks I have been traveling through landscapes unfamiliar as we made a road trip to Seattle to spend Thanksgiving with our two sons. Staring out the window as Minnesota prairie bled into North Dakota farmland and oil fields boasting rocky formations that were often Moon-like, led me to reflect on the gifts and challenges of being human shaped by the soil on which we were planted. Gazing out at the snow-capped cliffs and many hued rocks of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, I began to imagine the mindset of all those who have known these views on a daily basis. How has seeing these strange and beautiful formations shaped their worldview? How does the coming together of rock and river and the common sight of so many forms of wildlife affect a person’s understanding of the world and their place in it?

As we moved into the mountains of Montana and Idaho, I wondered if the people there forget to see, really see, the magnificence all around them. Trees towered as tall as skyscrapers and hugged the ever undulating mounds of earth that reached toward heaven. Is it any wonder people who have tried to explain and name God have used mountains as a measuring stick, a metaphor? Do the people who live there find the mountains a comfort in their surrounding presence or do these enormous mounds simply begin to represent something to be conquered and moved past? I wondered. For this person simply passing through, I just know the experience as one of awe. Pure awe. I wanted to open my arms Maria Von Trapp style and turn in circles breathing them in.

And then there was the sky. The sky kept painting pictures that continued to take away that breath, filling me instead with a deep solitude and humility for being lucky…and blessed…and privileged enough to see the colors and the clouds shapeshift in the closing days of November. Does such a sky cause most people to quiet mind and heart in the presence of such an unimaginable sight? I hope so.

Over the last week, I have been rereading some of Irish poet John O’Donohue’s words so it was only natural that I kept thinking of his wisdom while clicking off the miles on this road trip. “The earth is full of thresholds where beauty awaits the wonder of our gaze.” Yes, indeed. The various vistas my eyes beheld were each unique and had a beauty all their own. And each was a threshold for opening myself to the diversity of landscape that welcomed my gaze…and invited me to wonder.

And for that I am eternally grateful.

Places That Shape Us

If you live long enough, some of the places that have been important to you, those buildings that have helped shape you, are remodeled, changed in ways you don’t approve of, or are even destroyed. Several years ago now I arrived in my hometown to not only be impressed by the new high school and athletic stadium that had been built but to also see that the high school I and my parents had attended had been leveled…knocked to the ground…and only an empty hill stood where so many of my formative days had been spent. When I visit these days I always have to go to where the high school once stood. I look at the still empty hillside and try to remember the red brick building, the stairs where I waited for friends and the doors to the auditorium where I exited on my way from graduation to an entrance into what I believed would be an exciting, adventurous future. The halls and classrooms that sowed that desire for my dreams, some of which have been fulfilled, only exist now in a shadowy memory. The walls that housed the seeds of the dreams of so many, first loves, questions, challenges, discoveries, are no more.

As humans we create structures for all our endeavors. Houses. Schools. Libraries. Churches. Stadiums. Shops. The dwellings in which we find shelter from the weather, where we settle in to be with other people, where we find sanctuary and safety, where we move from those who once lived in caves to those who take command of their environment and put down roots reflect that we were here, alive. The buildings we have known in our lives help us tell our story and the story of those with whom we have made and lived our lives.

The power of buildings moved front and center for me this week. The seminary where I received my education has sold its buildings, including its beautiful chapel, and will be moving to a new home in what is hoped to be a more central, convenient location for its future. This past week I attended a service of gratitude for how the structure served and nurtured so many. I thought back to the idealistic and wide-eyed way I entered that building for the first time. My questions were large and deep and it was a place that welcomed them and me, allowing me to live into a future I was still imagining, discovering. The classrooms and hallways were hotbeds of theological conversation and intellectual insight. And the chapel, built after I had graduated, became a place of artistic beauty and experimenting creatively with how worship can be expressed. And it has the most amazing acoustics!

But like all buildings and the people that inhabit them change comes to live in the midst of what had once been familiar and secure. That change necessitates remodeling, renovating or even pulling up stakes and moving. This service of gratitude allowed those present to say thank you to the people and the Spirit that gave birth to the walls and floors and the dreams and hopes that had found a home there. And it allowed for saying it is time to embrace the change that is woven with both loss and possibility as the building is handed over to another school with younger people and their own dreams with which to bathe the space.

As I sat in this beautiful chapel, listening to the music, hearing words well chosen and well spoken, I noticed that outside the window workers were already lifting tiles for a new roof, making the place safe and warm for the next tenants. I smiled at the metaphor of preparation even as we were doing the leave taking. It is probably always this way but perhaps not always so visible.

 Naomi Shihab Nye writes in her poem “Trying to Name What Doesn’t Change”:

Roselva says the only thing that doesn’t change
is train tracks. She’s sure of it.
The train changes, or the weeds that grow up spidery
by the side, but not the tracks.
and it doesn’t curve, doesn’t break, doesn’t grow.

Change in our lives and in the buildings that house our lives is inevitable though most often painful. And yet most of us would not choose to live lives like train tracks…no curves, no breaks, no growth. And we would not choose that for the people we love or the dwellings that house us.

My childhood home went on the real estate market a few months ago. The walls within which I grew and was launched will hopefully soon be a nest for a new family. Change…curves…breaking…growth…comes to us all. Within the walls of my first home new dreams will be formed and hopes will be given wing. It is called life and it is always moving, changing, remodeling, reforming into a future that is unsure and, hopefully, blessed.

Color

It may be difficult to remember but the first several days of October were particularly gloomy. Skies were gray. The Sun was far from us most of the hours of most of the days. Many people, myself included, were starting to fray at the edges from such a quick dive into dreariness with the fresh scent of summer still hanging on to our skin, our psyches, our spirits. In my particular situation I was also still walking around with the experience of several weeks under a brilliant Mediterranean sky so the weather seemed very harsh to me. Too many clouds. Too soon. Too winter-like for the what can be a glorious autumn month.

Trying not to let the gray-cast skies get me down, I headed for a long walk along the Mississippi River…always a healing activity for me. Clothed in hat and coat more suited for late November, I kicked the fallen leaves and watched more of their kind dance to their final resting place on sidewalk and boulevard. As my eyes wandered up I was astonished to see that, while the sky, the very day was incredibly dreary, the trees were shining forth amazing color into the bland background. Noticing the brilliant yellows, the bright oranges and the just-appearing reds, I felt my own spirit lift in the presence of such hues. I began to reflect on all the ways Creation can dazzle us, can draw us out of the doldrums if we keep our gaze sharp and ready to be surprised.

I thought of all the times I am pulled down by not only the gray skies but also by words that lack color, that are life-deadening. There is enough of that these days to keep us in a constant state of funk. And I have found that it is often the gifts of Creation that wakes me up. Wakes me up to possibility. Wakes me up to beauty. Wakes me up to all I am offered without any effort on my part. Wakes me up to what is real and lasting and enduring. 

The painter and bold interpreter of the landscape that held her, Georgia O’Keefe, once said: “I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say in any other way – things that I had no words for.” The gift of color can be such a spirit-lifter which is what happened for me as I began to take in the palette of trees defying the backdrop of those early October days. By the time I found my car once again, I was in a different place than when I started that early morning walk. I had been awakened to yellow, gold, orange, red, hot pink and my breath was deeper and my face reflected light and a rosier outlook on the day and the world.

On Sunday we turned our clocks back and now the darkness of November seems to have descended. I heard yesterday that November is the ‘darkest’ month. I don’t know about that but this week promises to be pretty dreary, rainy, with even threats of the ‘s’ word. My antidote? Pull out the most colorful clothes you own…a brilliant scarf, a bright sweater, those crazy red pants you keep pushing to the bottom of the drawer and wear them proudly. Paint…color…bring flowers into the house…eat salads and soups full of colorful vegetables. Spend time looking at the nearly impossible shades of an apple. Allow the color to carry you through the dismal days, the times when words are too thick or harsh. Bask in the beauty of color. It may be just what is needed for the dreariness of both sky and spirit.

Blessing Anger

I will admit it. I am a first born daughter who wants everyone to like her and hates the idea of feeling angry for any reason. Keeping the peace at all costs has been a constant in my life. Raising my voice or confronting conflict makes me dizzy with fear and I avoid it like the plague. This has been a pattern in my personal and professional life and it has likely led to both good and bad situations in both. The health of this commitment to peacekeeping, of often denying anger can lead, as we all know, to harmful and sometimes disastrous consequences. This denial of emotion has been fed by a culture that doesn’t like the display of anger…particularly by women and girls…and by a faith tradition that can, at times, encourage us to stuff feelings and words of anger for all kinds of reasons. We often forget the many times the Psalms reflect anger directed at all kinds of people and specifically toward God.

So this past week as I reflected on the tragedy and violence at the Tree of Life Synagogue and  in a Kroger store in Kentucky, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with what could only called be anger. Of course, this emotion was mixed with so many other feelings…devastation, sorrow, astonishment, weariness as the ‘not again’ thoughts washed over me. But what mostly colored everything else was anger. Anger at the lives lost. Anger at the senselessness. Anger at the bigotry, the ignorance, the seemingly ever present ability to have guns meant to do nothing but kill, kill lots of people quickly. Anger at what feels like an inability for intelligent, rational people to do anything to change this tragic drama in which we find ourselves over and over. Anger. Anger. Anger.

When I need to wrestle with something I often go for a walk and so I took this feeling and put my feet to it. And what came out of that walk was a prayer, and I do believe it was a prayer, whose message was: “Bless this anger.” As someone who has been a part of a community that believes in the power of blessing, I have come to see this act as the recognition and honoring of the Sacred within and between what is being blessed and the one who blesses. It is what has me inconspicuously raising my hand toward those animals that have met an untimely death on the road or toward children stepping onto the bus in the morning. It is a way to remind myself that I am connected, connected to all that has been created through no effort on my part and that we are sharing in this journey of life together, in all its beauty and terror.

What might it mean to bless this anger? Since I am not an expert in this emotion, I am still living into this. But later in the day, I came across this Franciscan Blessing that helped bring language to my wrestling:

May God bless you with a restless discomfort
  about easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships,
  so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.
May God bless you with holy anger
  so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace  among all people.
May God bless you with the gift of tears
  to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or
  the loss of all they cherish,
  so that you may reach your hand to comfort the, and
  transform their pain into joy.
May God bless you with enough foolishness
  to believe that you really can make a difference in this world,
  so that you are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim
  cannot be done.

These days call for blessing upon blessing. Blessing all that connects us. Blessing what divides us. Blessing what makes our hearts sing and what causes it to break. Blessing our hopes and our deep disappointments. Blessing those we love and those we may never understand. Blessing our tears and our foolishness. Blessing our discomfort. And blessing our anger, making it somehow holy enough to propel us toward acts of justice, compassion and love.

May Grace dance through all these blessings bringing us to a place we can only imagine. For the healing of our hearts. For the healing of our lives. And for the healing of our world.

Not Understanding

Silence is the language of God. All else is poor translation.

~Rumi

During the month of September I probably attended at least ten services of worship. All were either in Spanish or Portuguese, neither of which I speak. Since they were all Roman Catholic masses and I know the form of the service, I basically knew what was going on and could even gear up to say the Lord’s Prayer in English under my breath when the time came. Sometimes I could tell from the scripture lessons what particular story was being recounted but when it came to the sermon I had no idea what was being said. Even in the churches where there was an effort to teach a short sung response, though I may have caught hold of the tune as it floated by, I was making up the words, ‘watermeloning’ my way through.

Many people might think this odd…that I would be content to sit through hour after hour of an experience in which the language was lost on me. But, frankly, the sanctuaries in which I had taken a seat were so stunningly beautiful, that what was being said was overshadowed for me by the colors streaming through windows, the ancient stones that oozed strength and majesty, the statues of angels and saints that told stories of faith and a history I only know a little about. The music that surrounded from choirs and organ wove through all my eyes could take in, holding what I knew and what I could not understand, in a gentle blanket of beauty.

Truth be told I have sat through many worship experiences in which I did not understand the language. Even though what was being said was in my mother tongue, the words being spoken made little sense to me, to my experience of the Holy. I have listened to words that seemed harmful and judgmental. Words spoken to exclude and narrowly paint a box in which some are ‘in’ and others are ‘out’. It was a language I simply did not understand and didn’t want to learn. In those places I have also become one with the deep blue, the brilliant red and golden yellow in the stained glass windows. I have watched how the sun filtered through creating a rainbow on the wall and down onto the floor. I have hung on for dear life to the one hymn that seems to want to ooze in and heal all what has gone before with its sweet tune and kind words. 

So, being in so many services where I did not understand the language didn’t seem odd to me. There was maybe even a comfort in it or at least something freeing. In describing an experience of worshiping with some of her students in the Greek Orthodox Church, author Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “Not knowing the language turns out to be a kind of blessing. We can listen to the music without worrying about the words. We can let the prayers wash over us without analyzing their content. Since we did not understand what the priest is saying, we can watch what he is doing. We can see the reverent gestures going on all around us without being certain what they mean.”

I may not have understood very many of the words to which I was present in those worship services. But I did understand some of what was happening both for me and for all those gathered around me. As all of us showed up at the appointed hour and found a resting place in buildings created by the hands and the lives of people whose witness had spanned centuries, we all carried with us hope for being lifted above the ordinariness of our lives, of having an encounter with beauty and mercy and that invisible thread that connects us, of being held by Mystery. Our names and the language for this hope may have been very different but the experience was similar. How did I know this? It was visible on their faces and I believe it was visible on mine. Weeks later I now carry the gift of that with me and I am so grateful…even if I don’t know, will never know, the language.

Devotion

Devotion. For much of the month of September I was confronted with acts of devotion. Since it is not something I give much thought to, each and every time it happened I was surprised. I found my breath caught in my chest. Sometimes a tear sprang to my eye. Sometimes I just stopped and watched, hoping, I think, that some of whatever was happening to the people I witnessed would rub off on me. Sometimes I simply held the space for the experience of the other…which might be a form of prayer.

As I walked the paths of the Camino de Santiago, pilgrims from many countries shared the way. Many were carrying with them a devotion to religious traditions while others were devoted to the physical exercise the walking required. One had to devote oneself to the ups and downs, the difficulties and the beauty of the road we had chosen. We were all confronted with the devotion of those who lived along this well traveled route…devotion to hospitality, welcome, surprise, guests arriving at all times. To live along this pilgrim route or to own a cafe or bar meant that your day was filled with interruptions of people bearing packs, exhausted, with hopes of a cool drink of water or a hot cup of cafe con leche. All seemed to have embraced this devotion to an open door policy to whomever showed up. If I am not mistaken, I think there is something about this in the scriptures.

The dictionary defines devotion as a “love, loyalty, or enthusiasm for a person, activity or cause.” Associated words are faithfulness, commitment, allegiance, dedication, piety, sanctity, holiness, godliness. While all these point to a part of this experience, there still seems to be something more for me, something more that I observed though I am still searching its articulation.

After the pilgrimage, I made my way to two particular places where this observation of what I can only call devotion was writ large. Walking into the large concrete square that connects the more traditional cathedral of Fatima, Portugal with its newer more modern church, I came face to face with a long pathway of rubberized material that seemed to connect the two places of worship. Making their way on knees bent in prayer and most likely penance, people moved slowly with their eyes lifted toward a place near by where miracles are believed to have occurred. I watched as they crept along in the too hot day devoted to some deep held longing I was not privy to. The whole sight seemed like miracle to me.

A few days later I joined with people of all ages from around the world to have a moment with the Black Madonna of Monserrat in eastern Spain. After taking either train or cable car to the top of the mountain believed to have been created by angels with golden saws, people stood for hours to make their way to the high altar of the sanctuary to gaze into the face of a black wooden statue of Mary that had been found in a cave on the mountain. Total silence held us as we inched along and wound through a narrow stairway. I looked at the faces of those ahead of me and could see something I can only name again as devotion…and a longing to be in the presence of More. Watching a young man make his way toward the Black Madonna I saw his beautiful brown eyes look into hers, watched his lips mutter words I could not understand, saw him kiss the round orb she held in her outstretched hand. Another young woman followed him and, at the last minute, took the purple and white scarf that she wore and wrapped it clumsily around her head before approaching. Her whole face shown as she stared into the static face of the Madonna.

When my own time came to climb the steps and look into the deep brown face and piercing eyes of this statue born of tree and rock and miraculous stories, I stepped forward into a devotion that is somewhat foreign to this Protestant. What these people before and behind me were experiencing I did not know, could not know, will never know. Their lives and the spiritual cloth from which we have been cut is different in so many ways. How we have known devotion or its absence is as varied as any of us might imagine.

What does devotion look like to you? When have you been in its presence? Walking down the steps and away from the Black Madonna I was bathed in all the moments of devotion I had glimpsed over the weeks that I had just lived. Making my way down the mountain cut by angels, I somehow knew that I, too, live a life of devotion that may connect with all those I witnessed in a way that is universal. My devotion to the love, loyalty and enthusiasm for longing…longing… can bring me to my knees or cause me to gaze into the eyes of statue, human, animal, flower or daybreak. This longing to connect with the One who breathed all Creation into being is a lifelong source of devotion. To have had even a brief encounter with this devotion is miracle enough for awhile.

Walking in Fog

To find truth, one must travel a dense fog.”
~ David Dweck

Fog. Every day we began our walk in fog. Unable to see more than a few hundred feet down the path of the Camino de Santiago, we headed out in the early hours of morning hoping to escape much of the heat we knew would arrive later in the day. In small villages and larger towns, in countryside and along highways, across bridges that spanned water and busy roads, we trusted the invisible path to unfold before us. Seeing just enough to continue along that journey that would unfold over five days of walking…walking…walking. Trusting our senses and staying in the present moment, watching for the markers of arrow and shell that pointed us in the right direction. Trusting the path as pilgrims have done for over a row we began in fog.

This fog was something I had not anticipated and came every morning as a surprise. The humidity hung heavy in the air and our hair was soon wet with early dew hanging limply in the wee hours. We had abandoned any sense of fashion after only a few minutes. Our work, which we gave ourself to every day, was to walk. To walk and to be present to the path and to the journey, to the prayers we carried within and those that lingered in landscape and the parish churches that marked our way. Entering chapels heavy with history and image and relic and low in lighting, candles flickered in corners, evidence of other pilgrims that had arrived earlier, evidence of others who had made their way through the fog. Every now and then we added to their light and named those for whom we had dedicated the walk of the day. As the hours continued the fog began to lift and more of the path became visible, our eyes reaching further into the expanse of the day.

Looking back now over my photos, I have been struck by this fog and the metaphor of it. In truth, don’t we begin most days shrouded in fog? Our plans may be all lined up in our planners or calendars, neat outlines of the tasks ahead, the meetings, the errands, the tasks to be accomplished, our own intentions and hopes. And yet, what the day will become has a life of its own, one we can only see into with dim flicker of light. Sometimes we come to the end of the day and marvel at the surprises both beautiful and terrible that have come to walk alongside us. Some days have us traveling well into evening in the companionship of fog. Our only hope is to begin again after sleep holds us or eludes us. Other days we step out of the fog and into the pure light and give thanks for the arrival, the lifting, the seeing.

There is gift in fog if we choose it. It allows us to see only what needs be seen for the next moments. It keeps us in the present which, in the end, is all we have been promised. It bathes the day in a Mystery that is our ever-companion. And when it lifts we can stand in the grace of putting our feet on the path, one step at a time.

What Happens Next

A child stood on his seat in a restaurant,
holding the railing of the chair back
as though to address a courtroom,
Nobody knows what’s going to happen next.”
Then his turning-slide back down to his food,
relieved
and proud to say the truth,

as were we to hear it.
~Colman Barks, “The Railing

This poem from a book of prayers collected for the arrival of the millennium has swept into my life periodically. It has made me laugh and filled me with hope in its simplicity and its wisdom. The scene is so easy to imagine, isn’t it? And the words of this child saying, as children often do, the most important words that must be said. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen next.” Though we may plan and outline and schedule and decide, anyone who has lived at least a few years knows that those plans often do not play out accordingly. Things happen. Situations change. Life intervenes.

Tomorrow I leave for a pilgrimage I have planned for months. I will be walking a part of the Camino de Santiago…the ancient path walked by pilgrims for more than a thousand years that leads to the cathedral housing the relics of St. James in northern Spain. Having dreamed for several years of making this prayerful walk, the planning and details began in April with the actual training to walk, sometimes as much as 18 miles per day, in May. Maps will be carried, socks have been chosen, hiking boots have been adequately prepared and worn what I hope will be just the right amount to minimize blisters. I have considered many things that could go wrong, what might be needed, what can be left behind.

But the truth of the matter is: “Nobody knows what’s going to happen.” along the way. In any endeavor, our plans only take us so far and then it is up to chance, fate, circumstance, faith and, hopefully, a large dose of grace. Once my traveling companion and I make the first step upon the path, I believe the pilgrimage will have a spirit of its own…one that holds challenges and surprises and gifts we could not plan for or imagine. It will take us to places we have not seen before, asking us to make decisions we could not have planned to make. In this way, the path mirrors life, doesn’t it?

As I have been thinking about not only this poem and the pilgrimage, I have been aware of the people close to me who have been visited by circumstances that they did not see coming. They did not know what was to happen next. They have their lives fully planted in a ‘what has happened’ that has brought them up short and made shifts in plans and hopes and dreams they had created in what now may seem like a very distant past. Their work now is to live into the what next with some measure of kindness and gentleness toward themselves, those that surround them and the world that is now their home. My prayer is that this Spirit of Grace is a constant companion for the journey.

Last week I saw one of the quirky, fun creations of artist Brian Andreas that spoke to this moment in my own journey and perhaps others. His colorful drawings of somewhat formless people doing fanciful acts always bring me joy and are accompanied by a whisp of wisdom that surprises. The drawing read: “There are times when I have no idea what comes next & it’s the thing I’ve come to love most about being alive: Leaning in to hear the invitation of each day & feeling my whole body melt when I say yes, yes, yes.”

As I begin this long planned for journey, I pray that I will have the courage to find joy in the presence of not knowing what will happen next. And with each step may my companion and I lean in to the invitation that is the gift of every new day. And may the word ‘Yes’ be the word we both give ourselves to again, and again and again.