Musings from the Well...
Copyright © 2019 Catharine Mitchell. All rights reserved.
Wow. I wrote the previous post at the end of February 2020, then left it to edit later. And then Covid. And George Floyd. Today (August 14, 2020) is the first time I've returned here. It's strange how we seemed to have stepped out of time. My plan had been to write about the need to wrestle with white privilege, and then about the trauma created by the patriarchal structure of our society. Those points are being made, daily, by others much more qualified than I am. #MeToo exploded a couple of years ago, and now #BlackLivesMatter is taking this dive further and deeper into the unjust restrictions plaguing our society. So. I have posted what I had written as I had written it half a year ago, which feels like another lifetime.
So much of what was going through my mind in February seems to have receded from the forefront of my consciousness. Now the focus has become the ability to breathe. Through Covid. Through callous brutality. We've been hammered with images which break our hearts. We've been forced to accept that we have, concsiously or not, collaborated with injustice. We've been terrified and confused and hopeless. So now what?
It was a blessed synchronicity (and mystery) that, during all of this, I was in the middle of the nine-month journey of the Ignatian Exercises in Daily Life. If you had asked me a year ago if I would have enrolled in a program developed for Jesuits, I would have laughed hysterically. My hard-won spiritual independence was far too precious to me. And yet when someone I trusted told me that she would be offering the program, I went within, listened long and deeply, and joined the group. It was a difficult journey, one in which I confronted the heartbreak caused by the betrayal of the established church (my perception), yet it ended in a profound healing. After teaching for thirty years, I know how to recognize a good teacher when I find one, and Ignatius was a master. The program begins by building a container in which we felt loved and accepted, then moved out from this into our own positive and negative impacts upon the world (I would put white privilege here), back into the loving container, back out into where we feel a call to help the world, back into the loving container, with imagination not only tolerated but encouraged as part of the experience. This I could do. As a program, it was not for the faint of heart, and certainly not for everyone. But for me, at this time, it was the medicine I needed. Having a weekly spiritual direction session as part of the program was a lifeline, and I am profoundly grateful for the blessing of a gentle guide who sat compassionately with a student who did not approach a Christian program in a way she might have anticipated! Covid and social justice could be held in this container. This is how I survived these times, times which I believe we will eventually see were even more traumatic than we realize.
So what do we do? Keep breathing. Covid and George Floyd have shown us, tragically and in a deeply visceral way, that this is not just a mindless mechanical function. Breathe. Be grateful for clean air, if you're lucky enough to have it. Find a way to help others breathe better. Help the earth herself keep breathing. Remember that respiration has Spirit in it. And be ready for what comes next.
I struggle, sweaty and tired
through the brambles snagging
my skin, leaving long, burning
scratches. Finally, the
I move the brush away, expecting
to see the landscape - hills,
or lake, or (please no)
cities encased in smog.
As I lean over, panting, struggling
for breath, I do not have
room for wonder. But You
are not me.
We look up. Into endless, velvet black, thickly
scattered with stars. The air is pure
and clean, and endlessly
I pray for a forest, for even one tree,
and You give me
First Words on a New Page
I wish that words would flow like drops of honey from my pen -
that sweetness of connecting with whatever mystical reality
feeds my practice.
It is no longer sufficient to craft lines. Now they cry to be
This commitment (and the discipline it requires)
terrifies me. What am I afraid of?
Of being false. Of speaking fantasies instead of
The only way forward is through.
I feel into my resistance, and it opens, just a little...
All right, then. Let us begin.
So. The only way to approach this shifting image of God is to pull out and see the big picture, to see how things started. I'm not a historian and I'm not a psychologist, but this is my life, after all, so I do have authority here.
Each of our lives begins within a context. We are not born, fully-formed, as we are. We emerge into a context, into a specific place and a specific time. Into a culture. I've had conversations with people who insist that the surrounding culture did not affect them - they received a liberal upbringing and were therefore innoculated against cultural impact. Frankly, I can't see this as possible, at least not for the vast majority of us. Our culture and the time period into which we are born are the lenses we see through. We've been looking through them all of our lives, for so long that we don't even notice that they are there. Consider your nose. Close your left eye, and see your nose on the left. Close your right eye, and see it on the right. Our nose is there, clearly, in our field of vision. Yet when we look through both eyes, we almost never "see" our nose as part of the picture. So it is with our culture. Some souls in each generation begin to question this "blindness", and labour to expand our collective field of vision. This "blindness" can predispose us to assume that slavery is acceptable, that only the wealthy deserve education and safe places to live, or that a loving partner relationship can only be male-female, that people from other places or belief systems are dangerous, that the earth and it's resources are infinite and there for the taking with no need for wise stewardship or equal sharing. Western culture is having a great deal of difficulity in acknowledging the presence of white privilege - we can't see this invisible posture because it has always been part of our field of vision. But I'm getting ahead of myself. What was my first context? And how did sexism/systemic patriarchy become the main challenge of my life?
There is an image painted on an old post.
Others designed it and chose the colours.
Exposed to air and the elements
its features weather and fade.
I use my own paint and brush to maintain it and
keep it from wearing away (that's what good girls do)
though I'm not even sure I like it.
Sometimes it seems kind, more often vaguely threatening.
Who knows how much my clumsy repair work has deviated from the original?
One day, I decide to wait -
to let the colours flake and peel.
It's hard, this allowing.
Eventually, I see the soft greys, browns, and greens
of the wood beneath.
Paint has turned to dust.
I brush it away, gently, careful of slivers,
This is no old post, rotting in the ground.
It is a living tree, growing and changing,
connected to the rest of the forest through
a web of roots, deep underground,
and now finally freed from well-meant
but outmoded designs.
I thought the image was the whole truth,
but there is living wood beneath the façade.
Outgrown beliefs, habits, and addictions receive an invitation to evolve beyond
When people ask why I don't post more often, my response is usually that I write when I have something to say. I've come to realize that this is not completely true. Yes, I do wonder sometimes about why some use social media to share so many details of their days: the latest cute thing a little one has done (I love these ones); opportunities to be involved in social-justice-oriented activities (I appreciate these); news about loved ones (two thumbs up)… Then there is the deluge of selfies, pics of each meal eaten, and rants about whatever the writer dislikes or disagrees with. It can become exhausting to try to keep up.
Before I start sounding too self-satisfied and pious, let me own that I am beginning to realize that it's possible to go too far in the other direction. To be overly-cautious. To seldom share true thoughts and feelings because of a discomfort with attention or the fear of handling a potentially negative response. (I'm thinking both in and beyond social media here.) To get back to my opening sentence, perhaps, for me, writing infrequent posts is less about having nothing to say, and more, much more, about a deep caution about revealing what's really going on inside, particularly around my own spiritual journey. I have recently received some nudges from people I sincerely respect and admire. Their words have encouraged me to be more open about sharing my lifelong search for meaning, in the possibility that parts of it may resonate for others. I've committed to using the next few posts to do just that. And I'm beginning with a big topic - the evolving image of God.
I wrote "Old Paint" three years ago during the intense spiritual formation segment of the Ontario Jubilee training program in spiritual direction. I specifically chose Jubilee because it is (in both its guidelines and in actual, feet-on-the-ground practice) open to and respectful of all spiritual traditions and belief systems. I didn't know the term "Spiritual Independent" when I began the program, and I came to feel a resonance with the term as a result of my research and reflection during those years. Whatever I was or wasn't, Jubilee welcomed me and accepted that, regardless of my lack of a label with which to identify my personal belief system, I was indeed person of faith with a deep reverence for the Sacred. During my years of training and in the time since then, I have been able to go back into the past, recognize trauma where it existed in my own experience of a patriarchal religion, heal much of the hurt I carried (though that, like most healing, tends to come in layers), and flow into a new way of relating with the Divine. What "Old Paint" speaks of is my sense of awe in realizing that, like the landscape, plant and animal species, and the Cosmos itself, my image of God can evolve. (I have a suspicion that this is far less about God and far more about me!) This process can be beautiful and full of wonder or it can be a painful wrestling between the religion we were taught (including its concept of God) and our own lived experience. Usually it's both wonderful and difficult. Based upon my own life and the conversations I am honoured to have with seekers during spiritual direction sessions, I can say that while this process of evolution can be immensely challenging, it leads us into greater freedom. There is expanding life in the search, much like the old post in the poem which is revealed to be a living tree. Getting to this point in my own journey has been hard, hard work, and I know that the work will go on as long as I continue to breathe. But it's been worth it.
Late Summer Cleanup
I return home after a few days away
To discover my plants dry and wilted,
Some leaves even crisp for lack of care.
We had experienced rain away
So this evidence of neglect (Nature's or mine?)
Surprises and chides me.
As I carefully trickle bucket after bucket
Into the dry soil, I notice
That the leaves which have fallen, dessicated,
Have gathered in corners of porch and deck,
Held securely by cobwebs -
In some places so thick as to be opaque white.
(More evidence that my attention was elsewhere.)
I consider getting the broom to return
The steps to a neat, tidy, austere emptiness,
But I look around -
Leaves falling here and there,
Late summer weeds with gangly stalks,
Grass brown and brittle in places,
Pieces of walnut shell scattered by
Scavenging squirrels, preparing for a change of season.
My cobwebs and leaves are the remaining fragments
Of the dream of summer. Who am I
To sweep them away?
It's funny how in late August it's like we cross some sort of invisible threshold from summer to not-summer. While hot weather may find us yet, there will be no more of the humid nights where heading outside in the evening is like stepping into a warm bath. The sky looks different. Air-conditioning is off and windows are open to welcome breezes. Goldenrod has unfurled its deep yellow flowers everywhere along fences, ditches, and the edges of forests. Birds are gathering in flocks, frequently changing direction en masse, swimming through the air like schools of fish. We know that something is changing, even if we haven't looked at a calendar lately.
September has always been a bittersweet time for me. I loved school as a student, and even more so during my thirty years of teaching. There was great excitement and a deep sense of purpose in setting up a classroom and preparing to meet the hopeful new faces I would shepherd over the course of the coming school year. But... I would see the geese heading south, listen to their honking from high above me, and wish that I could travel too, somewhere, anywhere. People would chuckle when I mentioned this longing - especially when I mentioned my theory that some part of me was listening to an ancient pattern embedded in my DNA, a desperate need to move with the seasons.
These liminal, or threshold, times were honoured deeply by the ancient Celtic peoples. Any time or place where one thing was transitioning to another was recognized as sacred. This could be transition in place, such as water meeting land or forest meeting field, or transition in time, such as day meeting night at dusk, or summer meeting autumn during Lughnasadh (August 1-November 1). One of the blessings for me of retirement has been a slower pace, where I can take the time to feel into these times and places, rather than noting them in passing during a busy schedule, or even worse, ignoring them completely. Some transitions (such as seasonal changes) are cyclical, while others (such as moving from daily working life to retirement) may appear more linear. Certain transitions grow into our lives more slowly (think hair becoming progressively more grey as we move into eldership, or the planning involved in moving to a new home) while others, such as the unexpected loss of a job, loved one, or health, can come upon us with the force of a hurricane.
Navigating a period of transition can be difficult, especially if it is a change we did not choose. These times require great care, tenderness, and support. But even changes seen as happier, such as moving or marriage, often require a constant searching for balance between the old and the new. This is where Nature can be very helpful. Taking a moment, even within a breath, to note the slow shifting of colour in the leaves of a tree in the yard or the movement in exactly where the sun slips below the horizon, can remind us that change is part of life. It takes attention, but we can begin to develop deeper awareness in what is happening to and within us, and then find a more stable stance where we can both grieve what is leaving and find a way to welcome what is coming. Life presents us with plenty of opportunities to practise this. One of my most persistent teachers has been the coming of autumn.
While my awareness of this liminal seasonal transition used to occur during the busiest time of a teacher's yearly cycle, after retiring from the classroom my schedule is my own to craft. This is the fourth September when I have had this freedom (still somewhat strange to me) to go where I wish, when I wish. I have travelled somewhere during each of those years, intentionally honouring this deep longing. I try to structure my journeys around having opportunities to wander through forests and fields with Nature as my companion and teacher, as well as scheduling time to rest in silence. Stepping into this space with a degree of reverence helps me to remain aware that I am fortunate indeed to have this opportunity. Now I sit quietly in gratitude instead of frantically organizing materials and planning lessons. It's as though September has been calling me for years, and only now am I able to accept the invitation.
And she glides gracefully, loving all around her.
Through that love, from her unguarded heart
She lays a silken cord upon the earth, outlining
A place of possibility, a dimension bounded only
By the willingness to surrender to gentleness.
From this, a blossom grows, with a fragrance sweeter
Than galaxies. This love sings down empty passageways,
And sheds one iridescent crystal tear for those
Too afraid to open to her Presence.
She seems to swim in shadows, only because
All of her light is turned inward to this place of
Creation. Some will never understand this.
But she did not come here to be understood. Only
To live and love, and hold the space, that
Precious sanctuary, for the becoming of others.
This is no sacrifice. This is sacred duty.
And the joy of it is both sweeter and deeper
Than earthly love. There is no suffering when there is
The above poem was inspired by the ancient Celtic season of Imbolc, which begins February 1 (or more correctly, at sunset on January 31) and runs until the end of April. Imbolc brings with it the promise of spring. Though winter still has us in its grip, there is a seed buried deeply within which is being held and nourished and protected. The Celtic deity most closely linked with Imbolc is Brighid, often symbolized by the swan. She was associated with many areas of Celtic life, in particular creative metalwork, dairy production, poetry, and childbirth. As is often the case, Christianity absorbed these traditions, assigning the festival of Candlemas to February 2, and giving Brighid continuing incarnation as St. Brigid, patron saint of, among other things, blacksmiths and midwives.
The four seasons of the Celtic year fall at the midway points between the solstices and equinoxes of the solar year. I find that the Celtic seasons provide a helpful metaphor for how spiritual deepening works. There are seasons when our energy is directed outward, when we take what we have created out into the world, sharing it with others. But there are other times when our movement is inward, and we become more reflective, gleaning wisdom from our experiences. We ponder what we will keep (cradling the kernels within) and what we will release. These seeds need a period of gestation before we are ready to, once again, turn our gaze outward.
This time of gestation, the allowing of a slow ripening within, can be very difficult. It's so hard to be patient, especially when it hurts. A common metaphor in the spiritual direction field is that of the spiritual guide as midwife. A midwife knows the process of gestation intimately. She guides the mother-to-be through the various stages of pregnancy, helping with basic information (such as nutrition and body changes) and sitting with the her through the joys and pains of pregnancy. The midwife does not contain this life; the mother does. The midwife's task is to hold compassionate space for the mother as she participates in this sacred birthing of new life. A spiritual guide has a parallel role - the journey taken within a session is not her journey; it is the seeker's. The guide's role is to hold a safe space within which this journey unfolds, and where the seeds which the seeker has planted can be either protected and nourished, or released. It is an honour to be part of this process. Blessings as Imbolc begins!
Years of study
Countless books read, digested,
Mostly forgotten, except for that one bright
Kernel gleaned from among the verbiage -
A cloak of words to wrap myself in.
White bookshelves filled with
The musings of wise teachers
Surrounding myself with their thoughts,
Their memories, their experiences.
All bringing me no closer to something
Knocking quietly, from the
All of the work, the years of solitude,
Endless hours watching, listening,
Only prefaces to the real story.
The story you and I write when we sit
Without words. The cloak lies gently folded
On the back of the chair.
Now, we wrap ourselves in
Spiritual guidance (or as it is more frequently called, spiritual direction) has been around for a very long time, and practised within a number of traditions. In the Christian tradition, it is associated with the desert fathers and mothers in the early years of the Common Era, moving eventually from there into the monastic orders, where it remained for centuries. Only in the past few decades has the western tradition of spiritual guidance been sought after and practised by Catholic laypersons, flowing into Protestant circles, and spreading from there into other faith traditions. Finally, it has become an important listening modality for that growing demographic sometimes referred to as the "spiritually independent".
Though the term "spiritual director" is most well known, my own preference is for the term "spiritual guide". Celtic traditions often refer to a spiritual guide as an "anam cara", or "soul friend", and though my Celtic DNA cherishes this, the term is known by few. Spiritual guide it is, then. The word "guide" suggests someone with life experience who has travelled herself and returned to walk with others as they head off on their own spiritual journeys. While a guide may, at times, share insights or experience she has gleaned from her own wanderings, her main purpose is to hold a safe space and provide accompaniment as the seeker journeys, looking for and reflecting with the seeker upon what is important and/or sacred in the seeker's life.
The poem "Folded Coat" was written after a few years of working with my own spiritual guide. I am, by nature, one of those eternal students who is always studying something new, and my life as an academic and educator supported this preference. Facts, theories, and the details of a busy life filled my mind, and even retirement from teaching seemed primarily a great opportunity to study even more. There was a part of me that longed for something deeper, and spiritual guidance provided the container. A vital component of a spiritual guidance session is the practice of silence. Though at first I rushed to fill this space with words and ideas, eventually it became a longed-for space where I could stop thinking and doing and just be. The cloak of words now lies folded upon the chair. Ah - but which chair? Susan Phillips (in Candlelight: Illuminating the Art of Spiritual Direction, Morehouse Publishing, 2008) tells of how she sets out three chairs for her sessions: one for the seeker, one for herself, and one to represent the presence of the Sacred. Though I do not follow this practice myself, her example reminds us that there is something that makes a spiritual guidance session unique - the understanding that there is a sacred container for the session, however that container is understood. For some, it might be nature, for others, the universe, community, mystery, or divinity. Perhaps it is understood as the quantum or unified field. (Or maybe they're all the same thing - but that's another musing for another day...) In any case, it's something, and my role as a spiritual guide is to respect how this container appears to a seeker (usually most easily felt during times of silence), and to be aware of how it enfolds us during the session. Within this awareness, I can be more present, and listen more deeply to the story which unfolds. This is spiritual guidance.