Good Friday and Easter: Integrating Love into our Living

Labyrinth at Menucha Retreat Center, similar to a labyrinth at Chartres' Cathedral.
Labyrinth at Menucha Retreat Center, similar to a labyrinth at Chartres’ Cathedral.

Good Friday. It seems a strange name for the day Jesus was killed. It precedes Easter, of course, and I have been meditating more as well as pondering my faith: the who, what, where, how, why. Those events which happened so long ago. History.

As every Good Friday before, I have felt drawn to being alone, walking in silence without my camera, being prayerful, reading Scripture and feeling God with me. Fifty years ago shops closed at noon for at least three hours. Schools were closed for the day. People entered churches to pray. My family didn’t engage in frivolous entertainment or unnecessary work. We were respectful of the occasion, and a feeling of tender melancholy pervaded the house until night fell.

Earlier in the week I had other occasions to contemplate the business of living and dying, human life and God in our world, the often demanding work of loving one another when it can seem much easier to not even bother. About Jesus’ radical message–to love God with our all, to love each other in all we think, say and do. A tall order for me, that’s for certain.

Not a very consistent church-goer since my youth, I nonetheless searched for a church that felt right for years. Decades, really. I kept comparing each with the Midwest Methodist church of my growing up and finding each one wanting. The fellowship at my childhood church was far-reaching, reliable, helpful. The place itself and the music shared there were comforting, as well. I didn’t need a huge, fancy church run more on show and educated words than action. I have prayed for assistance in finding a down-to-earth, caring church, one where I fit and can be of service.

Then last summer I attended a creative percussion concert given at a church in city center. Though it always surprises me that a variety of concerts are in sanctuaries, I enjoyed the music. As I listened, I also admired the nineteenth century architecture, the richly carved woodwork and mammoth pipe organ. I liked being in that sanctuary. It called to me. Several people smiled at me; I thought some might be members of the congregation. I decided to return with my spouse.

It has turned out well. We’ve appreciated thoughtful sermons, the way people introduce themselves, the small but excellent choir. We’ve gamely learned new (Presbyterian) hymns. I found myself beginning to sing more easily. This in itself has been surprising, as I essentially lost my singing voice decades ago. As I hit the notes with more clarity and steadiness, I feel something “click” within.

I was soon invited to a women’s study group that meets weekly. It took a couple of months to finally get there, but when I arrived at the large group, I was greeted at the door and a spot was found for me in the circle. My name was asked; my responses heard. No one swamped me in an overeager manner. I was welcomed with kind acceptance despite not even knowing me yet. I have since participated in prayers, studied the materials and been part of enlightening exchanges of ideas. I appreciate this assemblage of women–their intelligent and critical thinking made mellow by deep yet ever-searching faith.

On Palm Sunday, my husband and I attended a brunch at the church’s retreat center. As we drove up the country road, light filled a beautiful forested setting. The attendees were still welcoming, the food delicious and bountiful. After feasting and chatting, we roamed some of the one hundred acres of meadow and woodland that parallels the Columbia River, amid the famed Columbia Gorge. I was struck by the labyrinth. I had fallen in love with Chartres Cathedral and the labyrinth when researching it for a college paper but I’d never gotten to see it. Yet a similar labyrinth was right before me to walk with my husband.

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On the afternoon of Maundy Thursday (when Jesus was betrayed into the hands of soldiers) I again joined the women’s group. A minister shared part of what was to be the evening church service. He spoke of subtle meanings of communion, the breaking and sharing of bread and wine or grape juice when Jesus held the Last Supper for his disciples. The minister suggested when Jesus was telling them to “do this in remembrance of me”, he also was reminding the disciples to practice the new covenant: love one another. To accept and return God’s infinite love for us, to live the wisdom of his teachings, not only carry out a sacred religious ritual.

As the bread was passed around our circle, we tore off took a piece, then passed the loaf to the next woman; the same with the goblet in which each of us dipped our bread. The room grew in stillness beyond quiet words accompanying the Holy Supper. I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit as we, face-to-face, hand-to-hand, passed loaf and juice. I was deeply moved, my heart opened further, my soul enlivened. This was the experience with God and others I had sought. I felt this was what Jesus intended, that we give to one another and make a bridge with our belief. A conduit of eternal love from God through Christ to us. Then, that we take this with us into street, city, the worlds within which we each move day in, day out.

How can we call ourselves believers if our hands and feet are not powered by courageous caring in our homes, in our neighborhoods and communities? How can we honor God and make palpable our committment to share joy, practice forgiveness and use compassion as a resource if we do not use love as a tool to better this life?

Back in Judaea long ago Pontius Pilate, the governor, presided over a decision-making process before Passover that he suddenly found daunting. He found no fault in Jesus, yet the crowd demanded he be crucified and Barabbas, a notorious insurrectionist against Roman rule and a murderer, be freed as tradition required before Passover. Jesus’ widespread healings, compassionate but challenging teachings and his statement that he was the Son of God made him more dangerous.

And so he was crucified between two criminals, as was prophesied. I try to imagine his mother, Mary, and his devoted disciple, Mary Magdalene, in the stricken group of followers nearby. How did they cope with such loss, accept it as expected–this son who was human but also a teacher made for and of God’s Spirit?

Even as Jesus was dying on the cross, he charged Mary Magdalene with looking after his mother and his mother to do the same for his disciple. To love one another: his central message and commandment throughout his travels which ended on this earth.

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(All photographs are this writer’s, protected by copyright.)

Grace So Well Becomes Us

bright sweaters

Before turning in each night, I used to spend time selecting and preparing my clothes for work the next day. The pants or skirt, shoes, shirts and jewelry didn’t need to match but they had to make sense in an attractive but calming manner. They needed a touch of verve–scarf, eye-catching necklace, pewter-metallic shoes. I could have dressed in jeans if I really wanted to. My “casual business” attired mental health agency serves everyone from white collar adults mandated to treatment for DUII to addicted younger adults who violated probation to homeless men and women trying to hang on, to change tough times into better ones. I didn’t want to dress too well or lackadaisically, as how I presented myself could be a boon or a barrier. But once I got to work, I forgot the external presentation. My work is from the inside out and my demeanor or facial expression is far more critical. So it was as much a habit to prepare my clothes carefully for thirty years as anything. But jeans didn’t seem best for work–it was stretch-cotton, ankle-length black slacks that suited me.

I started working in my thirties after my five children were ensconced in school. My first good job was assisting older adults who were disabled by such medical conditions as stroke and Parkinson’s’ disease. Soon I became manager of a large home care services department. I wore high heels and dresses or skirts and tops daily. Our budget was tight so I often shopped at Goodwill to supplement my newer clothes. It was not fashionable to buy second hand clothing but it worked out well. Dressing up for work was a joy after years of wearing jeans and t-shirts. They were both needed uniforms. I had a household to manage; my husband often travelled and I had my hands full.

venetian-clothes-line-mindy-newman

(Painting, “Venetian Clothesline”, by Mindy Newman)

I don’t work for a paycheck, as I quit my job in November. (I write,  which most people would say isn’t work, though it feels like it despite no monetary reward yet.) My counseling (or just employee) days may not be entirely over. Thus, work clothing still takes up the bulk of closet space. To be honest, two closets, large ones. I have accumulated a lot of variations of the themes of colors, styles, needs. There are shoes in stacked boxes and sweaters folded nicely in boxes. Off season clothing is in another room. I have more clothes than I know what to do with, yet I hold on.

I wear jeans daily now, with fleece when it is colder or knit tops when the breezes tease us with springy scents. No one see me for days except my husband or a family member who stops over.  So I dress easy. My daughters have told me I have so many t-shirts (with long and short sleeves) I could dedicate a whole closet to them. On my feet, sippers, though I hate to admit it, shoe snob that I’ve been in the past. They do feel great schlepping around my place, writing for hours at the computer.

Today I spotted a pair of white flats at Macy’s as I was lugging a bag of sale towels. I tried to get to the exit–what did I need shoes for?–but they beckoned me. They were on sale. Up close, they appeared comfortable yet stylish, the perfect combination. They had a cut-out motif that made them look feminine without being girly. I tried them on. They looked lovely in the mirror; I could walk without wincing. In warm weather, when extravagant flowers decorated emerald lawns and I could walk to church or stores without needing hiking boots to stay dry and warm, they would look…enchanting. They were be pretty and sturdy at once, my thinking insisted. And if I worked again, they would accent my professional duds.

So I bought them and took them home, put them on the closet shelf for a spring day. Maybe Easter.

shoes_girls_white_dress

I mused further. I had gotten a new pair of white shoes each Easter as a child. With white gloves, shiny Mary Janes and a pretty dress my mother made, I was all set for church, followed by the family playing music and a  roast beef dinner. Memories of that Sunday table came alive, from the crystal water goblets to the lilac tablecloth. I could nearly smell the steaming biscuits and taste the fruit salad with poppy seed dressing.

Had that been what stopped me as I had made my way out of the store earlier? With spring not far off, a longing for another time and place? My mother dressed beautifully, mostly due to her own creative skills. It was she who taught me appreciation of fine fabrics and elegant lines, how a good seam looked and held, how shorter or longer hems made a difference per eye and each occasion. She would have loved ogling the shoe racks with me; her high-heeled feet looked beautiful into her eighties.

I thought more about the sale shoes. I don’t need them, as I have a pair of white ones. Unless I get another job I will likely be barefoot when the buds unfurl and sunshine makes me want to dance. Or I will be wearing my Teva sandals when I hike in earnest. What makes me want to adorn myself with something I do not need besides our insistent culture of acquisition? When has the way I dressed made such a crucial difference? There are times I have needed to be “appropriate” or even “impressive”, but only in the eyes of this world. I love color and design, yes, but I can make art if that is so necessary to my peace of mind. Clothes are a very small part of everything.

easterdress

In fact, who I am is not very present in what I put on my body. It is a simple truth, but hits me soundly. I may be missing my work a bit– the camaraderie of working with others toward a common goal–or fancying the past. But who I am and will be is right here within me. The whole me, who does not have daily, professional support or even criticism. I long ago discovered I am not dependent on others for a secure sense of self, my “identity”. Who I have been, as a seven year old excited for Easter, a young adult struggling with challenges or a counselor who leans toward my client as his suffering is laid bare in exchange for a little peace–it all has origins here, within the invisible. My soul. We all have one, and no clothes or other accoutrements are needed to alter, hide or even adorn it.

I had a dream last night, a strange one wherein I was surrounded by people who were more like beings of another sort, without recognizable feature or form, yet full of vibrant, clear energy. No one spoke or said they loved me but I knew it by the way I felt as I floated among them. It was so powerfully magnetic that it pervaded every inch of me. One of them communicated without spoken words: “You are very pretty”, and I put my hands to my face and loudly protested. I  knew better. But they smiled at me, and the realization came that they might see me differently. And if here, in this dream place, I looked even a little as they did to me, I truly lived in beauty. How did these beings see me? I thought to educate them, and explained that my life wasn’t like theirs, it had been hard and not without significant failures. No one cared much. The love actually felt stronger; everyone shared it. When I finally heard “We have to leave you now”, I was terribly sad. I wanted that love to never end. But I awakened, deeply rested and at ease, and the awareness of whoever/whatever they were is with me still. We all need reminding of Divine Love. Everlasting love.

4689979273_dfe6487107_z iris

So maybe that is what the shoes are about, odd as it sounds. I remembered my childhood at the store, and Easter coming. I love shoes, it is true. But at the center of all this is the knowledge that I inhabit not just flesh and bones, but a soul. In fact, I am certain I was first and will last be that, alone. Everything in between is just filler. Tasks and travels. A chance to make good on the love we are given. Grace makes the difference. The grace of God, and also the grace we can cultivate in our daily lives with others: fluency in our conversations, finesse in our diplomacy, benevolence in interactions with those we do not understand, forgiveness of those who mean harm. We can train ourselves in discernment and decorum. We can live in graciousness, which becomes us all. The perfect raiment for this world, as well.

Still…I know you may be wondering about those sale shoes, which is where this piece began. One thing has led to another, and I’m thinking it over. There is a decent chance I’ll keep them for Easter and beyond. They look fun to wear, which matters, too, as long as I live in this body.

(Photo of the gorgeous iris–“A Graceful Dancer”–is attributed to Dorothy Mae.)

Gathering ’round the Tree of Life

I awakened this morning feeling something nameless but haunting. Familiarly rich with uncertainty. There seemed to be sunshine leaking from behind the clouds and I awaited a surge of happiness. It was the first day of my three day week-end. It was also Good Friday,  soon to be Easter, and that meant a time of gentle meditation on the death and then resurrection of Jesus. I thought of Easters past and for some reason, the memory of white patent leather shoes and floral, full-skirted dresses saddened me further.

But it wasn’t the particular day, it was me. I mused over the inhospitable territory of my thoughts and feelings as I completed my morning chores. I read over Psalm 100 about joyousness and God and thought as I scrubbed, laundered, tidied. I worried that this would be one of the rare days when I had nothing to write. Stories crept about in my mind, seeking higher ground as I toiled but still, relief was fleeting. The gloom partly diminished but my internal light was thin so I got my camera and headed out, hoping to be inspired.

The truth is, springtime, with all its extraordinary wonders, has not always been the best time for me. Growing up in the Midwest, it signified dreaded stormy weather and sent my family scurrying to the basement when tornado warnings sounded. In the Pacific Northwest, the long winter rains carry us on an upsweep of windy drizzle, tantalize with a pause or two,  then resume with a ponderous, damp trudging into April and May. The bright hyacinths and tulips sometimes seem to mock through gauzy curtains of rain.

Spring has often been the time when difficulties have spiked, also. Among them were raging tonsillitis that left me helpless and lonely in the hospital as a child;  abuse becoming a complicated misery made monstrous by a teen-aged haze of drugs. There was an incandescent love that failed, making springtime the premiere time for love seem like a terrible joke. I much later experienced a second stent implant in my artery when the first one failed and after, a very slow return of fitness. And there was loss of both my parents. I recall writing a poem at around fifteen in response to the so-called glories of spring. There is one line I still recall: “Beauty bites the broken heart.” Such angst and despair were sharpened by the abundance of spring. And so each April can bring a reminder of trials as well as a plethora of creativity.

Meanwhile, the rain held off all day. I started to snap pictures randomly and kept noticing trees, their small tender leaves unfurling, their fragrant pink and white blossoms shaking in the breeze. Bulbous, mossy roots captured my attention. Lithe limbs reached toward  heavens crowded with clouds. As I took photographs, sudden blueness leapt up and danced across the sky. All shone under the fine heat of sunshine that lingered on my shoulders, face, hands.

It was being lifted, my ratty cloak of self-sorrowing. Each step brought a line of poetry, a wafting of song, a simple prayer or two–certainty that this day, this time was good and could be better: “May my hands be useful, my words be balm; may my heart be open, my soul be free. May my mind be clear, my body be true.  May I welcome life and shape it in love.”

I strode down the center of a street and ogled the arching branches above. The trees watched over me as I rambled. They always have, since the first time I bravely climbed the big maple in the back yard as a child. Everything looked better from up there. I could see the bigger picture, all the way past crisscrossing streets, across the busy tree nursery to neighbor houses, into the dazzling, ever-changing skies above. Humanity lived on while I observed and took notes. The rough maple branches held me steady and gave me a seat upon which to wait and rest as I watched, imagined, pondered, problem solved. It let me cling to its smooth and scarred skin when crying and supported me as I sought solitude. I  could speak and not be heard by anyone except the whispering maple, and so I told it my best secrets. That tree took me away from the clanging, messy, unpredictable world below. It made me stronger and more courageous as I navigated its crooks and found favorite footholds, its brittle and sturdy branches. At the uppermost limbs, I hung on with one hand and held my left, flattened hand above my eyes and squinted into the radiant light. I felt like a hearty sailor in the crow’s nest, a bold adventurer. I was a girl who knew her way or would find it. Nothing could stop me.

But, of course we know the reality: things do stop us, at least temporarily. There is a vast and complicated web of stories in this world. We often weave them without thinking and at times walk into each others without a second glance. Even at our best, we make logistical errors, utilize surprisingly poor materials. We promise completions that cannot be finished for one reason or another. And regrets can work their way in and erode the most stalwart of souls.

But still, we can always gather around the tree of life. The idea might have sprung in part from the old maple but it graces many works of art, religious texts, poems and prayers worldwide. I know it is a compass and anchor. A shelter. Touchstone. It is the font of wisdom from which I gain knowledge and find succor.  To many, myself included, it is the divine mystery but I also see it as a community of those who are united by shared strength, hope, and experience. Call it the place of gathered lessons that every person carries on their journeys, then can teach. Perhaps it is the great collective unconscious. For me, the tree of life is like finding God alive and available right here on earth, rooted in ordinary fecund soil, rising to the celestial beyond, granting us all manner of needs while sharing the elegance and drama of creation. Within and around this tree, the truth unfolds. And it  thrives within me as long as I care for it–steady light, breath of air, affirming touch, love and respect for its power.

Last week-end I went on a short trip to Seattle with my youngest daughter, Alexandra; we met her sister, Naomi, an artist who had flown in for a ceramics conference. We enjoyed ourselves, walking and talking, eating and seeing fabulous art, laughing. We went to Pike Place Market one afternoon, perusing the variety of delights. Among the flowers, fish and hand-crafted items, I found silver earrings that had as their a design massive tree. They reminded me of the pewter necklace given to me by my husband a few years ago: another immense tree. I promptly purchased the earrings. It felt right, being with my daughters and enjoying our time together. When I returned home I thought of another tree of life that adorned a table runner, and took a picture of them together which I share with you.

But the question as my day closes–now that I am feeling realigned and more at ease– is how I can ever forget to sit at that tree, at the Master’s feet, in the magnetic compassion of God? How can I forget that there will always be shelter and direction given if it is sought?  It is what keeps me nourished. What enables me to give back. So I write this to remember once more that in this life I have the choice to create good will,  seek clarity of mind and soul. Make things a little better for me, for you.

Come, gather ’round the Tree of Life. Sit with me and rest, then climb higher up the branches. Tell me your story as we survey the lay of the land.