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.

Microcosm

Microcosm:
a little world; especially : the human race or human nature seen as an epitome of the world or the universe.

Walking down a country road in northern Minnesota recently, I became aware of all the webs blanketing the morning, hanging on the plants that lined the dusty road, creating little worlds vulnerable to destruction by human, animal and elements. Sitting among the green, lush plants, fibers spun into lace-like doilies dotted the roadside, fresh with dew, sparkling in the sun. I stopped for a moment and gazed at them thinking about their minuscule nature in a much larger world, thinking about how I had no ability to do what this insect had done, no idea as to the intricacies creating this fragile beauty. My moving presence seemed harsh and bombastic in comparison.

The word microcosm kept coming to mind on that summer morning that promised to heat up and plunge us into humidity and sweaty discomfort. I thought of all the ‘little worlds’ that exist that I mostly ignore or dismiss. Being human can allow for thinking, believing, living as if we are the most important, the pinnacle of Creation. Being human can find us moving through the world without attention to the many microcosms of existence that show themselves all around. I believe we are lesser for this way of being.

That encounter with the morning webs awakened my eyes and my heart to the many microcosms that are all around. I began to see the little worlds that existed in glistening pools and along the forest paths. Things were happening, lives were being lived by creatures I could not see or even recognize. This way of noticing can create a practice of walking with humility in the world. To step wrongly or cavalierly has the potential to harm or even destroy a world of which we are unaware, a world that is home to some thing. And this is to say nothing of the potential to miss out on the beauty and wonder of such a microscopic world.

Back from the north woods, I began to think of all the microcosms. Microcosms of relationship and community. All the little worlds I have not experienced, will never experience, can not understand. Whole communities of people exist whose life experience and way of walking in the world is so vastly different from mine. In these communities people are weaving webs I could not possibly create, ways of making family and relationship that is as full of fierce love as my own. How much richer we would all be if we could wonder, marvel, and protect their webs as powerfully as we do our own. To be willing to work for their small world with the same force and passion as I do my own might make for a healthier and more whole world. To say “your little world matters as much as mine” might be what saves us.

Sometimes a thing as small as a web can be what turns a head and eventually a heart. Today I will try not to move through the world with my big human feet acting as if I am the center of the Universe. Today I will move gently and carefully so as to notice, and not harm, the microcosms of life all around me. Today I will practice noticing and then blessing all the little worlds holding the sacredness and gift of this day.

Walking


Solvitur ambulando — “It is solved by walking.”
~St. Augustine

These last weeks have found me walking. And walking. And walking. As I prepare for the pilgrimage on a part of the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain, I am training by walking several…sometimes many…miles a day. Walking through neighborhoods I know, along the rivers that flow near our house and through parks, around lakes and nature centers that provide shade in the heat and uneven terrain that I think might be similar to the paths I will eventually walk. I have spent considerable time thinking about the act of walking.

Anyone who has ever watched a young child begin to join mind and body in the pursuit of movement knows the effort, the challenge, the trial and error that goes into this act most of us do without thinking. To be present to that push and pull of muscle and matter as a young one tries over and over again to stand and then to thrust forward, first one foot and then the other, is a powerful thing to witness.

This walking I will be doing with a dear friend will likely challenge us in ways we have yet to imagine. While we will have readied our bodies as much as possible, we will no doubt be, at times, exhausted and even ready to give up. We will be present to landscape both foreign and breath taking and will also be confronted with the mundane images of people living ordinary lives, doing ordinary work. All the while, we will be walking until we reach the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela where pilgrims have been arriving for hundreds of years, some having walked many months. Why?

I am sure the reasons for walking are as many as those who walk. Many are coming to a place they hold sacred because they believe the bones of St. James, a follower of Jesus, are buried there. Others come to remember…who they are, who they might believe God to be, how they want to be in the world. Some are offering some kind of penance…for what they have done, what they have left undone, what they might not even be able to see. Still others walk for the sheer challenge of it, to say they did it, to be more healthy and fit for having walked so many miles.

Last week I found myself walking alone for nearly four hours through Lebanon Hills Regional Park. That is a long time to keep yourself company! As I walked along I remembered this quote supposedly made by St. Augustine: Solvitur ambulando — It is solved by walking. It led me to think about all the people who have walked the Camino and other pilgrimage routes, many in the pursuit of a solution. A solution to a big life question. A solution to a simple one. A solution within a relationship or a vocation or career. A solution about how to be engaged in the state of the world or clarity to see a situation with more wisdom. The simple act of walking can bring about many solutions.

Of course, within moments I began to think about the people I know and care about who have lost the ability to physically walk. Those who must now use a walker or cane to help them find balance or those whose forward motion in the world comes in the form of wheels that have become the extension of their legs. My prayer is that each is still able to embrace the metaphor of St. Augustine’s intention, that whatever form their forward motion takes gives them a sense of moving toward the solution they seek.

I have some thought about why I am walking. I also trust I will discover that there are probably reasons for this pilgrimage that have been hiding deep within me someplace. What I do have is a faith in those that have seeded the path before me with their prayers, their intentions, their exhaustion and exhilaration. Their footsteps will become a part of the journey and will, I believe, lead me to whatever solutions the Universe may be holding out.

Perhaps this is the way it always is whether on an ancient pilgrim path or the sidewalks of our cities. We are held by the footsteps of those that have gone before urging us to walk until we reach the solution we seek.

The Circles That Hold Us


As humans, we are story. We are the story of our birth and our death. We are the story of what we love and what repels us. We are the story of our truths and our lies. We are the story of all the places we have lived and the places we have left behind. We are the story of home and exile and journey, of our hopes, dreams, our successes and failures. The story of each of our lives is held by the circles of people we have known and traveled with from our first breath to our last.

I was reminded so clearly of this last week when I met up with a friend from college…a friend I had not seen in several decades. Though we each had a general sense of one another’s life story from Christmas letters and now Facebook, the story by which we know one another was situated in those four years of intense living, learning and evolving that takes place in the close proximity of dorm living and college explorations. Our meeting found us remembering the highs and lows of that often turbulent time. We laughed and told the story, not always with consistent memory, of those days before we were launched into the totality of adulthood. The story that we held together represented only a glimpse of our life and where we are now. We talked of the people who made up that circle that knew us and helped us write the scenes that made up that particular act of our play. Some we had kept in touch with and others were stranded forever in the experiences we had once shared.

There are circles of people that hold us for a season and then release us to the ‘what next’. Sometimes those that make up the circle hold a thread that continues to connect and be woven into our next chapter and other times they let go and we all travel on. After this experience with my college friend, I have been thinking of those circles that have held my story. Circles of family…of friends…of teachers…of neighbors…of children and elders…of trusted ones and those that have betrayed trust…circles made up of those who have encouraged, others who have questioned, challenged. So many circles throughout any given life. But all help us write, tell and remember our story that is ever changing and emerging throughout however many days and years we are blessed to continue to walk this Earth.

Meeting with my college friend also impressed upon me how we can never know the totality of anyone’s story. Even those with whom we share the greatest intimacy and life experience have some secret part of themselves that will always remain that…secret. To know this creates a certain open heartedness in me. The circles that hold us harbors a part of knowing but none holds the fullness. As my friend and I shared many things that had happened to us over the years, part of us still really saw it all through our 21year old eyes which was sweet and lovely. That was the part of the other that we most truly knew. From that place, we held out to one another the fragments of some of what has happened since those precious years as a kind of offering, hoping to fill in the missing pieces of a now much fuller life.

As humans, we are story. Fragile, broken, triumphant, soaring story. It is with this lens that I want to greet each person I meet knowing that I can never…never…know the fullness of their story. All I can do in any brief or long encounter is to hold their life with a gentleness and reverence it deserves as their living moves their story farther along. As the wise, spiritual teacher Ram Dass says: “ We are all just walking each other home.”

And in that walking, wouldn’t we all want to have companions who hold our lives, our story, in a circle of care and compassion that is nothing short of sacred?

I think so. I think so.

Work

“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
~Studs Terkel, Working

Sometime, either near the end of college or just after I graduated, I read Stud Terkel’s book Working. It was a series of accounts of different people describing their work and the various feelings, thoughts and perspectives of what they believed their work meant in the world. I am sure there were a variety of professions but the ones that drew me in most were those we describe as ‘blue collar’ jobs, jobs that often go unnoticed in our culture. They are not jobs that draw attention or get much play in any media. They are often behind the scenes and invisible yet completely necessary to our existence. These jobs are often filled by people who work hard, long hours and come home physically, mentally and, no doubt, spiritually exhausted. Think about the countless road construction workers standing in the heat of a Minnesota summer repairing and rebuilding our roads. Bring to mind the many pickers and harvesters bringing food to our tables. Imagine the line cooks, the bathroom cleaners, the office maintenance workers who show up in the dark of night to prepare shiny, clean spaces for higher paid workers, all work that goes unseen most of the time.

Since retiring just over a month ago, it probably makes sense that I am thinking about work…what it is…what it means…how we approach it…what meaning it brings to our lives. And yet I have always been fascinated by this daily activity we engage in that pays our bills and creates the life that defines how we live out our days. Studs Terkel’s book may have contributed to this fascination for wondering about people’s work life. I still remember Terkels’s account of the jack hammer operator’s description of coming home at the end of the day, settling into his recliner to watch television and feeling his body vibrating from the tool’s movement still finding a home in his muscles and bones. Since, I have never passed a jack hammer worker on a construction site and not said a silent prayer of awe and thanks for the work they are doing.

Terkel writes: “Most of us have jobs that are too small for our spirits.” There is probably some truth in this. And there are also people who take the job they have landed in and make it somehow enlarge to fit their spirit. I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to be in the presence of just such a person. My husband and I traveled to Milwaukee to do the interment of my father-in-law’s ashes at the cemetery in the town where he had lived out his life. His death in December had been a surprise to us as he was a vital, 92 year old in seemingly good health. We celebrated his life with a memorial service but had yet to have this final moment of closure.

The day of the interment could not have been farther from the weather of winter. Heat in the upper 90’s and sun beating down, we arrived at the cemetery knowing we were to meet someone from the mortuary and, we were told, the gravedigger. Even writing that word conjures up images from a Dicken’s tale. In all the graveside services I have been privileged to attend, I had never seen the gravedigger. They had always been unseen players in the drama that was being played out. But this man, rough around the edges and wearing cutoffs and a ragged, Rolling Stones tshirt…the one with the large red tongue protruding…arrived to stand with us in this humid, hot final act of saying goodbye to one of the finest men I have ever known. We said a prayer and read a poem and then placed the lovely, cherrywood box in the ground.

At that moment, the gravedigger shifted from unseen player to something more. “Wait.”, he said, as he went back to his truck. Coming back he leaned over and placed a woven bit of palm branch on the lid of the box.”I brought this from church.”, he said. In the pounding heat, we may have mumbled some thanks, I don’t remember. I do know that the impact of that moment has traveled with me in the days that have followed.

It seems to me that this man, doing what we might call menial labor, had chosen to enlarge his work and make it big enough to fit his spirit. He had chosen to stand fully in the power of his work, claiming and connecting the movement of his shovel with the movement of the faithful offering the dead back, not only to the Earth, but to the One who breathed them into being. It was a holy moment, one for which I am thankful.

For Dwayne…and for all those who enlarge their work to fill their spirit…may you be blessed beyond measure.

Impossible

Sometimes I am simply stunned by what seems impossible. A newborn baby’s eyelashes, for instance. Or the color of the freshly bloomed irises in the spring. The way a heron lifts its thin legs and heavy body by the force of wings into the air. The sheer stillness of the rabbit in my backyard who can appear a statue while I have to fidget every second. There are seemingly impossible things happening around us all the time and sometimes I have the presence of mind…and heart…to be awake to them.

Last week I was walking near one of city lakes when I rounded a corner and came face to face with what seemed impossible. A whole area of the lake danced with the floating beauty of white water lilies. Stunned. I know I am not the only one who has grappled with their impossibility. Artists have tried to freeze their image in time, watching how the light played hour by hour on their frilly form floating above shimmering water. Poets have shaped words around their wonder.

Every year
the lilies
are so perfect
I can hardly believe
their lapped light crowding
the black,
mid-summer ponds
.”…writes poet Mary Oliver. Yes, unbelievable. From what roots do these circles of magic arise? The way they float with such little effort is a lesson for us all. Their short lived presence is a reminder of how fragile all life really is. Their ability to emerge from what had only been frozen form but weeks before offers imagination for what could also emerge from us.

Of course, there are other things that stun with what seems impossible. The way one human can deny the humanity of another. Because of skin color. Or how they name the Holy. Or who they love. Or the language they speak. The way groups of people can come together to create a false sense of ‘other’ and make laws that define those as less than. That some could find any reason to take a child from the arms of a loving parent and separate them, placing those small, vulnerable ones in frightening situations, knowingly, with intent.

“Impossible..not able to occur, exist or be done…very difficult to deal with…very unreasonable”. I guess the word has many meanings. Today I want to remember the beauty of impossible that lies in the presence of the waterlilies. In hope, I pray for what seems the impossible presence of beauty and kindness and wisdom to become visible and real in our world. Especially for what feels so very difficult to deal with and incredibly unreasonable

“Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled —
to cast aside the weight of facts
and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.

I want to believe I am looking
into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing —
that the light is everything — that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.”

The Power of a Name

Every name is real. That is the nature of names.”
~Jerry Spinelli, Stargirl

Names. How did you come by yours? I’ve yet to meet a person who doesn’t have some story about their name…who chose it…whether they like it or not…what they’d rather be called instead. Names hold power and history and help us mark our spot in the unfolding of our lives and our world. And while I do not remember the feeling of making the letters of my own name for those first tries, I have watched many a child, my own included, do the painstaking movement of each letter that would eventually be the triumph of their name scrawled in black and white for the purpose of saying, “I was here.”

This past weekend I walked through the Museum of Art in Chicago and was once again gobsmacked by the beauty and creativity of the painters. Particularly the Impressionists. I am not sure why these paintings, this style grabs my heart so, but they do. The colors, the brush strokes, the evocative landscapes that draw you in as you feel your pulse slow and rest in an image that speaks of what is both real and hoped for…a beauty that transcends time. I stood and soaked it all in and allowed the gift of the artist to provide a balm of both inspiration and healing.

As I was gazing upon the paintings I began to notice the signatures of the artist often placed in a lower corner of the canvas. I became mesmerized by looking at the names realizing that it really was the name that made the painting real for me. I wondered about the signature…how did the artist choose to be finished? Was the signature an afterthought or was there genuine pride and satisfaction with what they had created? Seeing the name written in a corresponding color became very powerful declaring the artist’s presence.

We sign our name many times every day. Sometimes we do this with great care…when we want to be truly known as we send off a card to someone we love. Other times we scribble an illegible series of marks that would be difficult to decipher as having anything to do with who we are. I wonder sometimes at the many times I swipe a credit card and use my finger to sign my name…How could anyone ever trace this signature back to me?!

What we give our name to is important. I think the artists knew this when they signed their paintings and said to the world, “ This is mine. I made this. I dreamed this. I offer this now to you…in my name.”

As I observe our world right now people are giving their names to acts and decisions that are having grave consequences for the most vulnerable among us. I wonder if, in a few weeks or or months or years, they will be proud that their name is on the canvas they have painted. I wonder if those who gave them their name would stand by them in what they have created. What we sign in our name has lasting legacy.

Names are important. We are wise to think and act carefully as we add our signature in the world. It will likely be remembered for years to come.