Sometimes words don’t work.
Sometimes a candle-lit room, accompanied by the sound of rain, says more than the greatest philosopher.
Sometimes pain is our greatest teacher.
Sometimes those that give us life try to destroy us.
Sometimes time doesn’t heal our wounds.
Sometimes choosing life is harder than giving in to death.
Sometimes friends become our family.
Sometimes healing hurts more than the injury.
Sometimes we must let go in order to receive.
Sometimes we don’t live happily ever after.
Sometimes we must create distance, in order to find ourselves.
Sometimes we must embrace our fear and sit with our grief.
Sometimes tears come without reason.
Sometimes it is better to receive than to give.
Sometimes it is “and” and not “or”.
Sometimes there is no explanation.
Sometimes stillness is the best medicine.
Sometimes breathing is all we can do.
Sometimes we are shattered.
we are held.
(Poem by Carli Youndt, from the anthology Held: Blessings for the depths’)
It´s the thing that makes sense of the nonsensical and shifts the darkest cloud on the dullest day. It blows aside confusion with the whisper of a breeze; so gentle that it´s almost imperceptible; and yet so powerful that it moves a mountain of anxiety in a moment saying, usually without words, “Just trust that I am here”.
I see it everywhere…in everything and everyone…when I breathe, take a step back, relax and trust. And the more I trust, the more it makes itself visible, heard and present in my life.
Earlier this week, not for the first time and for no particular reason, the Shema prayer came into my mind. It´s the prayer that people of Jewish faith say in the mornings and at night, on rising and before going to sleep. I first heard it when, as a teenager, I worked as an Au Pair for a Jewish family in London during two consecutive Summers. Part of the daily routine was helping their two young sons get ready for bed and, when they were bathed and in their pyjamas, they would put on their skullcaps/kippahs, kneel beside their beds and recite the Shema prayer.
Searching on YouTube to find a recitation of the prayer I came across this video and within it a beautiful description, by female Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann, of what God is. It´s a description that so closely reflects how I personally experience God that I felt the gentle breeze flow through me and lift my heart as it moved on its way…
With the kind of synergy that now feels normal to me but is still always welcome when it happens, the weekly Newsletter of my local church (which I typeset when I receive it from the parish priest each Saturday morning) talked about the Shema prayer today.
That felt like a good enough reason to write this post and to share one person´s attempt to convey – through their personal, creative, colourful and joyful video – the Love, the Light and the wholly-interconnected Life that God is. And which is always calling to us: “Shema Israel…”
Last week a pilgrim, who had worked as a volunteer at the Taizé Community in France, stayed with us in the parroquial albergue in Logroño. As he helped wash and dry the dishes after dinner we spoke about his time at Taize and he explained a little about the community´s Mission; to help unite the Christians of the world in one true message of Love.
Curious to know more (because I believe wholeheartedly in any movement to unite people who understand that God is Love) I visited the Taize website today and found this article on ´the value of silence in our relationship with God´.
Silence forms a massive part of the time I spend in prayer and it´s in this silence that I most deeply and profoundly feel the overwhelming and unconditional Love that God is. I hope you find something in this article that speaks directly to your heart, as it did to mine…
Silence and prayer
Three times a day, everything on the hill of Taizé stops: the work, the Bible studies, the discussions. The bells call everyone to church for prayer. Hundreds or even thousands of mainly young people from all over the world pray and sing together with the brothers of the community. Scripture is read in several languages. In the middle of each common prayer, there is a long period of silence, a unique moment for meeting with God.
If we take as our guide the oldest prayer book, the biblical Psalms, we note two main forms of prayer. One is a lament and cry for help. The other is thanksgiving and praise to God. On a more hidden level, there is a third kind of prayer, without demands or explicit expression of praise. In Psalm 131 for instance, there is nothing but quietness and confidence: “I have calmed and quieted my soul … hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore.”
At times prayer becomes silent. Peaceful communion with God can do without words. “I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother.” Like the satisfied child who has stopped crying and is in its mother’s arms, so can “my soul be with me” in the presence of God. Prayer then needs no words, maybe not even thoughts.
How is it possible to reach inner silence? Sometimes we are apparently silent, and yet we have great discussions within, struggling with imaginary partners or with ourselves. Calming our souls requires a kind of simplicity: “I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me.” Silence means recognising that my worries can’t do much. Silence means leaving to God what is beyond my reach and capacity. A moment of silence, even very short, is like a holy stop, a sabbatical rest, a truce of worries.
The turmoil of our thoughts can be compared to the storm that struck the disciples’ boat on the Sea of Galilee while Jesus was sleeping. Like them, we may be helpless, full of anxiety, and incapable of calming ourselves. But Christ is able to come to our help as well. As he rebuked the wind and the sea and “there was a great calm”, he can also quiet our heart when it is agitated by fears and worries (Mark 4).
Remaining silent, we trust and hope in God. One psalm suggests that silence is even a form of praise. We are used to reading at the beginning of Psalm 65: “Praise is due to you, O God”. This translation follows the Greek text, but actually the Hebrew text printed in most Bibles reads: “Silence is praise to you, O God”. When words and thoughts come to an end, God is praised in silent wonder and admiration.
The Word of God: thunder and silence
At Sinai, God spoke to Moses and the Israelites. Thunder and lightning and an ever-louder sound of a trumpet preceded and accompanied the Word of God (Exodus 19). Centuries later, the prophet Elijah returned to the same mountain of God. There he experienced storm and earthquake and fire as his ancestors did, and he was ready to listen to God speaking in the thunder. But the Lord was not in any of the familiar mighty phenomena. When all the noise was over, Elijah heard “a sound of sheer silence”, and God spoke to him (1 Kings 19).
Does God speak with a loud voice or in a breath of silence? Should we take as example the people gathered at Sinai or the prophet Elijah? This might be a wrong alternative. The terrifying phenomena related to the gift of the Ten Commandments emphasise how serious these are. Keeping or rejecting them is a question of life or death. Seeing a child running straight under a car, one is right to shout as loud as possible. In analogous situations prophets speak the word of God so that it makes our ears ring.
Loud words certainly make themselves heard; they are impressive. But we also know that they hardly touch the hearts. They are resisted rather than welcomed. Elijah’s experience shows that God does not want to impress, but to be understood and accepted. God chose “a sound of sheer silence” in order to speak. This is a paradox:
God is silent and yet speaking
When God’s word becomes “a sound of sheer silence”, it is more efficient then ever to change our hearts. The heavy storm on Mount Sinai was splitting rocks, but God’s silent word is able to break open human hearts of stone. For Elijah himself the sudden silence was probably more fearsome than the storm and thunder. The loud and mighty manifestations of God were somehow familiar to him. God’s silence is disconcerting, so very different from all Elijah knew before.
Silence makes us ready for a new meeting with God. In silence, God’s word can reach the hidden corners of our hearts. In silence, it proves to be “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit” (Hebrews 4:12). In silence, we stop hiding before God, and the light of Christ can reach and heal and transform even what we are ashamed of.
Silence and love
Christ says: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). We need silence in order to welcome these words and put them into practice. When we are agitated and restless, we have so many arguments and reasons not to forgive and not to love too easily. But when we “have calmed and quieted our soul”, these reasons turn out to be quite insignificant. Maybe we sometimes avoid silence, preferring whatever noise, words or distraction, because inner peace is a risky thing: it makes us empty and poor, disintegrates bitterness and leads us to the gift of ourselves. Silent and poor, our hearts are overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit, filled with an unconditional love. Silence is a humble yet secure path to loving.
most beautiful among all creatures,
you who so long to know the place
where your Beloved is,
so as to seek him
and become one with him,
now it has been stated:
you yourself are the home in which he dwells.
Here is a reason to be happy;
here is a cause for joy:
the realization that every blessing
and all you hope for
is so close to you
as to be within you.
find joy there,
and be present to him
who dwells within,
since he is so close to you;
desire him there,
adore him there. . .
I dwell in possibility,
I offer men free choice,
Strength to the Courageous,
the Gentle find my voice.
Seekers go in search of me,
Listeners hear my call,
Asking nothing of the Faithless,
But of the Asking, I ask all.
I appear in form of Strangers,
Hearts are with me or without me:
~ Espiritu Santu ~
Spirit of Love
On Tuesday of last week I celebrated my birthday; possibly the happiest birthday of my whole life…or, at least, of my life so far. God, who I experience as pure, complete Love and the creator of all that is positive, life-giving and regenerating in this world, is now at the centre of my life in a way that I never imagined would be likely or even possible before. But that´s the thing with Divine Love, once it enters our awareness…and as a result, colours our whole lives…all things become possible.
I looked at the evening landscape in the picture below, out of my kitchen window a few days later, and the final scene of the film What Dreams May Come immediately came to mind. It´s a film that leaves different impressions on different people: some see it as pure fantasy with no relation to the real world; some believe it´s incomprehensible nonsense; and some see the truth that lies within it, because they´ve glimpsed flashes of it for themselves. The overall message is that ´Love saves our Souls´ from the torment of our lived experience and that the real goal of life is to connect to, live through and act from this Divine Love that lives within all of us and which we see sacredly reflected in the beauty of the world that surrounds us.
It´s a message I´ve heard echoed in the weeks leading up to this special birthday, because I´ve spent them in the heart of this Christian community in Spain, living through the Biblical story and shared experience of what Lent, Holy Week and Easter really represent. They tell the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus…a human man who devoted himself to embodying the will of Divine Love and who discovered the power that it has to overcome every obstacle, even death, when we find the courage to trust it and to live by its guiding light.
I´ve found that the spirit of Divine Love moves within us, around us and between us…if we free our minds and our hearts enough to make space for it to work. It is endlessly regenerating and, when blocked, denied or rejected, it returns to itself and then seeks other minds and hearts that are open to receiving it and to welcoming it in. It is always nearby, always open to our invitation, but we must invite it in; through our compassionate actions, our courageous choices, our tender words and our respectful deeds; both towards ourselves and towards others.
I´ve learned that it´s not enough to wish for it. It´s not enough to pray for it. It´s not enough to simply speak the words, however well-intentioned, “I welcome you in”. I now know that, to have Divine Love present and active in my life, I must show it that I genuinely want its presence. I must work with it, by finding the source of it within myself and then acting consciously from that source in the things that I think, do and say in my active efforts to connect with others. I must balance my needs with the needs of those around me; because Divine Love envelopes us all equally and what it seeks, to work peacefully and powerfully through us, is harmony and balance within us.
I´ve learned, through sometimes painful personal experience, that this harmony and balance is only achieved when I move my focus from ´suffering and sacrifice´ to a focus of ´awareness and trust´…trust that the things my heart is calling me to do have a Divine intention. And the proof of that ´Divine intervention´ becomes clear to me in time, when I begin to see the positive effects of my balanced choices on the lives, attitudes and actions of those around me, and within myself.
My life so far has taught me that God´s Divine Love seeks to work peacefully and powerfully through us, and that it functions in seemingly miraculous and effortless ways, when we live from an inner place of its empowerment (which is the gift of this Love) rather than a sense of obligation or enslavement to it.
God loves us as much as every other person that we touch with the words, thoughts and actions that give sacred meaning our lives, because our sense of meaning is inspired by the spirit of Divine Love. And, when we live from a place of balanced love, for ourselves and for others, we invite the spirit of Divine Love to work through us, and this repeated choice ultimately becomes the testimony of faith that we leave behind us with the impact of our human lives.
Julian of Norwich was a 14th Century English Mystic who believed, from her own lived experience, that God is Divine Love. It´s the experience of God that I have also, because my heart tells me that it is so, and for the last 6 years (since I was first introduced to her writings by a friend), I´ve felt a great afinity with her; because her core belief is my core belief and it´s the foundation on which all of my faith in God since then has steadily grown.
Every week, I receive a summary of reflections and contemplations from the Centre for Action & Contemplation. It comes as no surprise to me, but fills me with a sense of gratitude and joy, that the contemplative piece they chose to feature on my birthday this year focused on the writings and beliefs of Julian of Norwich. I´ve reproduce the piece below in the hope that it touches something deep within the hearts of others too.
Love Revealed(Click title for link to original CAC website post) Tuesday, April 6, 2021
What does Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth-century Catholic anchoress, who spent the majority of her adult life cloistered in a small stone cell attached to a church, have to teach us here and now? She reveals the feminine face of the Divine in all its radiance and reminds us to seek God there. She teaches us that God’s love has nothing to do with rules and retribution and everything to do with mercy and compassion. She shows us that our failings and transgressions are simply an opportunity to learn and grow, and should be honored as such, but not dwelled upon. She translates the sorrows of this life as tastes of Christ’s passion and assures us that all passing pain will be transmuted into endless joy.
Most of all, Julian of Norwich promises that, in spite of appearances to the contrary, all is well. Not just that creation was beautifully made to begin with, and that it will all work out in the end, but that everything is all right at every moment, if we could only look through the eyes of love. Such a perspective is difficult to sustain, Julian would be the first to admit. In rare moments of unitive consciousness—watching the sun rise, maybe, or giving birth, or singing to God in community—we may have fleeting glimpses of the cosmic design and see that it is good. But then the veil drops again and we forget. 
Because of our continual forgetfulness, Julian ends her Long Text with an emphasis on divine love. Note that while Julian here uses male pronouns for God, throughout her work she also shows that God is beyond gender by consistently calling God both Father and Mother.
Throughout the time of my showings, I wished to know what our Beloved meant. More than fifteen years later, the answer came in a spiritual vision. This is what I heard. “Would you like to know our Lord’s meaning in all this? Know it well: love was his meaning. Who revealed this to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why did he reveal it to you? For love. Stay with this and you will know more of the same. You will never know anything but love, without end.”
And so what I saw most clearly was that love is his meaning. God wants us to know that he loved us before he even made us, and this love has never diminished and never will. All his actions unfold from this love, and through this love he makes everything that happens of value to us, and in this love we find everlasting life. Our creation has a starting point, but the love in which he made us has no beginning, and this love is our true source.” 
References:  Mirabai Starr, “Introduction,” The Showings of Julian of Norwich: A New Translation (Hampton Roads: 2013), xix.
The Yin and the Yang of it,
the ebb and the flow;
they come and then go.
The breath that inspires it,
then leaves it in peace.
The power that inflates it,
the humble release.
The desire to unchain it
and know it in full.
The flee from the truth of it.
The infinite pull...
...to the centre of gravity,
that source of all Love;
as dark as a dungeon,
as light as a dove.
The binding of purpose,
and braiding of thread,
the salve of communion,
and breaking of bread.
And so we keep learning
as onward we go,
in the Yin and the Yang of it;
the ebb and the flow.
I believe that our experience of God is like an endless Sea of Love and, in that sea of love, God will send us perfect storms in an effort to perfect us to his own design. I believe his common design for all of us is that we think, speak, live, love and act from a place of compassionate truth. But, within that Grand Design, I believe there´s also a personal and unique design inscribed within each of our hearts.
I think the more we try to shape ourselves to a given model of authenticity, normality, conformity, goodness or perfection, the less we give ourselves the opportunity to gaze upon and contemplate the singular blueprint of our own unique design. And the more we try to limit, constrict or fit ourselves into stereotypes that others offer to us, with their expectations and their judgements of criticism or praise, the less we allow the will of God to work through us in a way that feels sacred and true to that unique, divine inscription we hold within.
To me, our unique design is one that gradually reveals itself to us throughout the course of our lives, through the situations we experience, the feelings they stir within us and the level of courage we display in accepting the truth of the messages that they bring to the surface from the deep. Messages about the truth of God´s love and how it manifests itself here on earth.
For the Sea of God´s Love encompasses everything: love for ourselves, love for others, romantic and erotic love, spiritual and divine love, maternal and paternal love, filial love, love of creation and expression, love of passion, love of nature, love of community, love of peace. It is not a constant and static entity. It is continually moving, continually shifting, continually growing and expanding and it gives and takes its different shapes and forms in its invitation to us to understand, trust, accept and willingly enter its life-giving ebb and flow.
“Love rests on no foundation. It is an endless ocean, with no beginning or end.“
Sometimes the storms God sends to us will physically break apart the vessel of security that we were given, fashioned for ourselves or chose to board; a significant relationship; a state of health; a much-loved job or profession; a family; a community; a place we thought was home. And sometimes the storm will wreck the internal image we were carrying of ourselves, and the external identity that came with it; the one which gave us status, confidence, a feeling of security about the future and a sense of calm.
These internal storms are the most challenging to weather, I believe, because they call into question everything we thought about ourselves and leave us feeling adrift in a sea of emotions that threaten to sink us and everything we took for granted about who we were. They can leave us feeling ship-wrecked, exhausted, half-drowned in confusion, anger, frustration and despair. But, I believe, these painful and challenging moments are the ones that truly form us and offer us the opportunity to become the ´all´ that we were designed to be.
There is truth in the age-old saying that “God never sends us anything we´re not strong enough to bear.” We only have to look around us at the countless number of those who´ve experienced, been humbled by, learned from and grown stronger from seemingly catastrophic events in their lives. These are the people that we admire, are inspired by and learn from; the ones who energise us and show us the healing power of hope.
"Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms ,to choose one´s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one´s own way"
Viktor Frankl (Neurologist, Philosopher and Auschwitz Survivor)
They have taken what the experience taught them (after allowing themselves time, with love, to grieve for what they lost) as an invitation and gift to seek something different, something more in their lives. They don´t allow themselves to become embittered, they find enough love for themselves to learn and grow and, in doing so, they create for themselves lives of meaning and they shine the light of love, hope and possibility which acts like a beacon for us all.
It´s only lack of faith in ourselves, lack of true love for ourselves, and lack of trust in the mysterious and endlessly-challenging ways of God that stop us from discovering and living this self-same truth.
You are the deep innerness of all things,
the last word that can never be spoken.
To each of us you reveal yourself differently:
to the ship as coastline, to the shore as a ship.
Rainer Maria Rilke
(The Book of Pilgrimage)
So here we are, approaching the end of the year in the week of Christmas, mentally and physically preparing for, anticipating, joyously awaiting, ignoring or dreading the arrival of The Big Day. And how we´re feeling will, no doubt, have been shaped by our life experience up to this point, and by the circumstances of our lives as they are today.
For some of us, this year will have been deeply, deeply challenging and maybe our hopes are pinned on living as ´normal´ a Christmas as we can, given the current Covid-affected times. For others (and I include myself in this group), this year will have been a gift in the sense that it gave us a pause, a space and an opportunity to pull the threads of our life experience together and maybe it delivered a ´wake-up call´ about the things that truly count. For me it was a timely and enlightening ´wake-up call´ and I now know that its effects will continue to reverberate throughout the rest of my life.
At the beginning of this month someone I love sent me an advent calendar. I have it pinned up in the kitchen and I religiously open a new door each day. The other day, as I was doing this, I remembered something that my sister said to me several years ago, when I was going through a particularly challenging, emotional and difficult time of my life.
“Sometimes the knocking on the door gets so loud we just have to open it to see what´s there”
And, as I looked at the calendar with its 24 doors, the memory made me smile because I feel like I´ve spent the last 6 years opening different doors to my heart, to see and understand what the knocking was all about. There was the door called “Who is Michele?” (when you take away all her attachments, her job, her possessions, her home, her partner, her fancy clothes, make-up and long hair). Then the one called “Who are other people?” (when you take away my prejudices about them and peel back our combined layers of defence). There was the door called “The Past” with all its feelings and memories and emotional power and regrets. And the one called “The Future” with all its uncertainties and possibilities and range of choices and fears of the unknown.
And then finally (and inevitably for someone whose heart repeats rhythmically, like a mantra, “You belong on the Camino”) there were the doors called “Who is God?” and “What is God?” and “Where is God?” and “How is God…ever to be understood?” And opening each door, by following what my heart urged me to do, led me to a treasure trove of experience and knowledge. I learned that I was capable of more than I ever thought possible; that other people were kinder, more understanding and more caring than I ever expected them to be or gave them credit for; and that God was visible and present in everyone and everything I encountered but, often, in inexplicable and mystifying ways.
One way that´s been especially mystifying to me, until very recently, was why following the voice of my heart during the last few years has brought me repeatedly into religious environments when I´ve been so convinced by my own spiritual experiences that God lies beyond the limits of organised religion. I´ve found answers here (in a Catholic parish in Logroño) that resonate strongly with what my heart feels is truth and I´ve learned, yet again, how lazy and unreliable it is to ´lump people together´ as a way of easily criticising and then rejecting the value of anything they think, do or say.
Out walking this week with one of the parish priests I shared with him my bafflement about why God clearly wants me to return to my Catholic roots after rejecting them for so much of my adult life. “We can´t ignore our roots,” was his response “they´re a part of what made us who we are, part of the tree of our ancestors and of our life. What happens to a tree if you just sever it at its roots?” “It falls over in strong winds” I replied. “But, to me, God is so much more than organised religion!” I countered with feeling, and his simple and disarming reply was “Yes…God is”.
I´ll be spending this Christmas in the church house of the parish in which I´m currently living, and I´ll be sharing Christmas Eve dinner (because Noche Buena is the major celebration in Spain this week) with the priests who also live here. In a way, this feels like an echo of my childhood because, having a German mother, Christmas Eve (rather than Christmas Day) was always the main event in our family home; we always had our own advent calendars and our Catholic religion was a formative part of our family life.
But before I help with preparations for our Noche Buena dinner I´ll be lending a hand at the local ´Social Dining Room´, where people with no kitchens, homes, families or resources will be coming to eat their festive meal this year. I mention this only because it´s the first year I´ve ever felt remotely inclined to do anything at Christmas time that involved strangers or service-to-others and I´ll be doing it for the simple reason that I enjoy it.
I´ve heard many, many times over the last 5 years that “happiness is found in service to others” but I had to keep opening the other doors of my heart before I reached the one that showed me this essential truth. It´s the same door that showed me that Jesus really is ´The Way, the Truth and the Life´…to finally finding that God is ever-present in this man-made world. But I had to build my relationship with him gradually, brick by brick, and in my own deeply personal way before I found a place inside me that truly looked and felt like Home. Being metaphorically told by others “Jesus is the key, go right ahead and open door 24!” never made any logical or heart-felt sense to me. The Advent Calendar of Life just doesn´t work that way…at least not the personal one that I´ve been given.
But having faith in the quiet urgings of my heart and opening the other doors, one by one, led me back here to this Christian and Catholic community at the start of October and, living and working within this community, has given me the opportunity to see how it really lives the doctrine of what is preached. I´ve seen what the belief that ´we are all part of the same human family´ really looks like in practice and I´ve been on the receiving end of that welcoming, inclusive, generous and giving belief. I´ve learned that actions matter more than opinions, that strangers really are friends waiting to be made, and that the simplest, most authentic and effective way to spread kindness, goodwill and hope is just by living it day-to-day and demonstrating it ourselves to others.
Advent, symbolically, represents the journey of darkness into light. A time when the all-powerful, unknowable, potentially-terrible-and vengeful God of the Old Testament became a human being, with a sacred human heart, and a relentless, endlessly-forgiving New Testament message of love. Jesus, as a messenger of God´s love, is revered by Christians, Muslims and people of the Jewish faith. And I´ve met many ´non-believers´ in my spiritual searching of the last 5 years who, nonetheless, believe deeply in the sincerity, authenticity and example of Jesus, the way he lived his life and what his essential teachings say.
Whatever we believe or don´t believe about God, we are all part of the same human family, we do all long for and search for love, we do all experience debilitating moments of darkness and we do draw strength and hope from people who are bold enough to offer their hand and the light of simple human compassion and kindness to those outside of their immediate circle of family and friends.
Christmas represents the birth of a man who epitomised this way of living and his message is one that I believe is worth repeating, sharing and spreading, in any way we can.