Tag Archives: spirituality

Travel Tuesday: Labyrinths

If you’re looking for a quieter, introspective trip, seek out a labyrinth.

A labyrinth is an ancient symbol that relates to wholeness. It combines the imagery of the circle and the spiral into a meandering but purposeful path. Labyrinths have long been used as meditation and prayer tools.

While visiting Laughlin, Nevada, a couple of years ago, my Beloved and I escaped the town’s primary entertainment—a casino—to check out Laughlin Labyrinths, a sensory oasis in the middle of the desert.

labyrinth 2

Laughlin Labyrinths were created by Wes Dufek with rocks and geometry. There are a total of eight stone labyrinths in a quarter-mile radius of each other, ranging from 25 to 55 feet. A 36-foot seven-circuit octagon and a 33-foot seven-circuit square labyrinth are the most recent additions to the collection.

Labyrinth 1

Laughlin Labyrinths can be found on the east side of Thomas Edison, between Bruce Woodbury and Casino Drive in Laughlin, Nevada, a quarter mile from each intersection. Look for three yellow posts and walk up the wash.

Walking a labyrinth represents a journey to one’s own center and back again out into the world. Doing so in the desert where almost the only sound is the breeze is an oddly calming experience. There are no bells and whistles, no long lines and no adrenaline, which is a nice alternative to some vacation destinations.

At the time, I didn’t know one ought to walk a labyrinth by following the path in and out; labyrinths, considered by many to be holy ground, are not mazes and there are no dead ends.

I am reminded of this experience because I walked a labyrinth closer to home yesterday: The Labyrinth of St. John in the Wilderness at the Episcopal Church in Elkhorn, Wisconsin.

labyrinth sign

I visited this labyrinth designed in concrete with a couple of other women in my meditation group. (I noted with interest that the labyrinth is across the street from a former church that has been converted into an accountant’s office.)

wilderness labyrinth

The Labyrinth of St. John in the Wilderness can be found at 13 S. Church St., Elkhorn, Wisconsin.

Walking this labyrinth was a different experience. Long-off sirens, passing traffic and chirping birds filled the evening air, but I got into my groove by focusing on my breath and pondering Isaiah 43:19b: “I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”

My journey around the circuits took about 20 minutes, and at the end, I was struck with the thought that all I had to do was simply follow the path. It led me in and out without me having to predict the turns and circles. Step by step, I found my way without having to know my way.

You don’t have to visit Laughlin, Nevada, or Elkhorn, Wisconsin, to experience a labyrinth. Labyrinth Locator, an easy-to-use database of labyrinths around the world, offers locations, pictures and contact details for more than 5,800 labyrinths in more than 80 countries across the globe. Check one out.

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The passing of an age

If you’ve followed Minnesota Transplant for any length of time, you knew I had a centenarian grandmother.

She was my father’s mother, and I say “was” because she died earlier this month. She was 104.

I needed some time to process her death, not because it hit me hard—who can profess surprise about the death of a 104-year-old?—but because I really wanted to write about her thoughtfully and in a way that honors her.

She was a tiny person physically, but she loomed large in her family in part because of her longevity. I have clear, vivid memories of her because I knew her when I was an adult, a middle-aged adult. We were pen pals for decades, and as a fan of the written word, I now am the proud recipient of many of her diaries.

grandma with her cake

When Grandma was 96 (and still living on her own and cooking for herself), she brought the dessert for our family Easter celebration, an elegant looker made from a recipe she’d found in a newspaper.

She was an incredible hostess, and I am honored to have inherited one of her sets of china and a set of flatware. Yes, she believed “lunch” required china cups and saucers, and no one spent any amount of time with her without being offered something to eat. No meal was complete without pickled beets or sweet pickles. And cookies, even if she served another more elaborate dessert. Cookies on the side.

I also inherited her vanity, but I do not consider it a deadly sin. I believe part of the reason she lasted as long as she did is because she took care of her human vessel. She cared about how she looked, and an interest in fashion was part of that interest. I once went shoe shopping with her when she was 100. She accented her outfits by wearing bracelets and scarves right up ’til the very end.

Grandma had a great sense of humor, and one of her favorite holidays was April Fool’s Day. She was also an avid gardener, which is no mean feat in north central Minnesota where the growing season is eight weeks long (I kid, but not much).

But more than any of these character traits and interests, Grandma was faithful. An ardent Christian, she believed with a capital B. Her week revolved around going to worship services until she moved into assisted living four years ago. That faith is what got her through the volume of grief only a 104-year-old experiences. She was a widow for 42 years (she never remarried). Her daughter-in-law who lived two doors down for decades lost a battle to cancer. Two of her grandchildren died young. Her sisters. Her brothers. Her youngest son died two years ago. So many friends and neighbors got to the finish line before she did.

She also lost her hearing, which I think was a difficult thing for someone as social as she was. It happened relatively early in her life; I don’t even remember my grandmother without hearing aids. In the end she was so profoundly deaf, it was easier to get your point across with a white board than to yell. Her eyesight was failing, too, and in recent years she began using a wheelchair more than her own legs. Aging is not for the faint-hearted, quite literally.

Before Grandma died, she planned her funeral, writing down many details so we would get it right. (Among the details she did not dictate, we draped one of her handmade quilts over her coffin instead of a spray of flowers; she was an avid quilter for many years and it was beautiful. And her family, not Grandma, selected the wild rice hotdish for the funeral luncheon, but I found that a perfect choice for a Central Minnesota funeral.) For some reason, Grandma designated me to read one of the Bible readings at the service. Apparently, I had brought my public speaking skills to her attention in more than one postal missive I sent to her. Unlike some of my cousins who probably would not have wanted the burden, I was flattered to do it. When I looked up the verses before the service, I thought they was perfect for Grandma.

21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.

~ Philippians 1:21-24

Grandma lived so long she came to wonder whether God had forgotten her or flat out didn’t want her. The pastor at her funeral said her most persistent question was “Why am I still here?” The tone he parroted made her sound like she was cross examining him in a court of law.

Her reason for being is probably as varied as the people who knew her. For me, she was a role model for aging gracefully, if not always cheerfully. It’s hard to get old, but she persevered because she believed in a higher purpose.

Fortunately for all of us and her, too, Grandma died in her sleep. God wanted her after all, He just didn’t want her going out in a blaze of IV tubes and pain meds so He waited out that strong heart of hers.

I’m not sad Grandma died. She lived a good life, and she died a good death. I will miss her, to be sure, but leaving this earthly plain is what she wanted so I’m happy for her. Her send-off was oddly celebratory for a funeral, but perfectly pitched for someone who lived 104 years in God’s grace.

Happy Irrelevant Cultural Holiday

When I was growing up—in Minnesota, nearly 40 years ago—St. Patrick’s Day meant wearing green or risk getting pinched. I remember one year in high school—probably about ninth grade—I was late for school because I couldn’t find something both green and flattering to wear on St. Patrick’s Day. And I really didn’t want to get pinched.

Finally, I decided to wear a necklace with light green beads. Weak, very weak showing on St. Patrick’s Day. I probably got pinched anyway.

About a decade ago, I moved to Illinois and I was astounded by what St. Patrick’s Day meant to people. Sure, some of the folks here wear green and Chicagoans dye the Chicago River green, but if you’re observing this patron saint’s day properly in Chicagoland, you better be toasting with a foamy green beer and a plate of corned beef.

Green leaves

Ah, green, a reminder of spring. Not beer.

Just about every restaurant around here has a St. Patrick’s Day special that includes corned beef and sometimes cabbage or soda bread. Maybe Chicago is particularly merry about this holiday, but I think this secular fascination with all things green on St. Patrick’s Day has spread across the country. I blame lazy marketers who run every great religious holiday straight into the ground by starting too early, going too literal and turning it into a secular excuse to drink alcohol.

If it’s Irish, it has to be green? Really? St. Patrick wasn’t even Irish. He was born in England and brought by pirates to Ireland as a slave. He eventually escaped, found God and returned to Ireland as a missionary.

When we should be remembering his courage and benevolence, we’re honoring St. Patrick by wearing dorky four-leaf-clover hats and complaining about how gassy cabbage makes us.

Most of us wouldn’t know even his first name without the green beer. All we Americans need to twist the meaning of a solemn holiday is liquor, a three-day weekend and fireworks (see: Independence Day). Because newspapers/magazines/bars/TV newscasters need a hook to get our attention, we’re all celebrating a holiday that means nothing to most of us because it’s an excuse to get drunk. Yes, I get curmudgeonly about it.

If you like corned beef, you can eat it any day of the year. And if you like green beer or Irish coffee, you should examine your excuses for imbibing at 10 a.m. You may have a problem that can only be solved with a 12-step program.

Wikipedia now defines St. Patrick’s Day as a cultural and religious holiday honoring Irish heritage. OK, this is nice for the Irish, if not St. Patrick, but one has to dig pretty deep in Google results to find holidays honoring Nigerian or Japanese heritage.

Since I am a little bit Scotch-Irish (which means I could be Irish but it also means I could be Scottish), I am wearing green today in honor of St. Patrick, not St. Patrick’s Day (and also, to guard against getting pinched). And I might enjoy some corned beef because it’s delicious and plentiful. I’m passing on the green beer (though I might quaff an amber one). My advice? You do you.

I’m also sharing a little bit of St. Patrick’s Breastplate, a popular prayer attributed to the patron saint which was shared in church today. This is the most secular bit of it, and it’s quite beautiful whether you believe in St. Patrick or God or green beer:

I arise today, through
The strength of heaven,
The light of the sun,
The radiance of the moon,
The splendor of fire,
The speed of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of the sea,
The stability of the earth,
The firmness of rock.

Thank you, St. Patrick, for inspiring today’s blog post. God rest your eternal soul.

Bearing witness

Is this heaven

If you think meditation requires sitting cross-legged and chanting “Om,” you might be surprised to learn that’s only one way to practice meditation. Dozens of contemplative practices exist including everything from sitting in silence to dance and many acts in between. One of them is bearing witness, defined by Jules Shuzen Harris as “acknowledging that something exists or is true.” He suggests the Buddhist perspective of bearing witness “is to embrace both the joy and the suffering we encounter.”

For the past six months or so, I have been participating in a meditation practice with a small group of women at a nearby church. Last month, we met in my church (that is, my house, which used to be a church). After we rang the church bell, we meditated to the sound of bells. It was lovely.

But today I’m thinking of bearing witness as a meditation because I did so earlier this week when I spent a few minutes in silence holding a dying man’s hand. Without getting into the sticky HIPAA details of who this man is and whether or not he is actually dying, let’s just stipulate we all are dying. But we’re not all breathing with a ventilator in the critical care unit of a hospital. This man was. If you’re a more hopeful sort, you might argue this man was recovering, not dying. To-may-to, to-mah-to. Unless you’re a baby, we’re all in some state of disintegration.

This experience has clung to my consciousness like Pig-pen’s dust cloud, not in a haunting way but in a solemn, reverential way; it seems appropriate with the observance today of Ash Wednesday, which I associate with one’s path to death and resurrection. “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. For dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.”

In between the hullabaloo of a number of visitors checking on this man’s well-being and the nurse washing his face and pressing various buttons on his monitors and intravenous drips, I was left alone in the room with him for about 20 minutes. Cell phones were not allowed in the ward. Food wasn’t permitted. There wasn’t a TV in the room. Only the man, carefully arranged in a hospital bed, and an array of machinery. Instead of seeking a distraction, I paid attention to the moment.

I took the man’s hand and was surprised to find it warmer than my own. I held it gently because he was so frail.

I considered singing a lullaby, but he is hearing impaired and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be heard by anyone else or that I could remember whole verses. So I sat in silence listening to the ventilator do its work.

Air in. Breath out. Air in. Breath out. Air in. Breath out.

Every breath is a miracle if you think about it, but it was even more special in this setting. This is exactly what one might do to center one’s mind during meditation, only one would be concentrating on one’s own breath instead of someone else’s.

Air in. Breath out. Air in. Breath out. Air in. Breath out.

Though mostly unconscious, it was clear this man was suffering. Occasionally, he would open his mouth and grimace. But he would also sometimes turn his head and smile. There was small but real joy in these fleeting moments. He was warm. He was breathing. He was alive. Life, being a gift, should be celebrated even in the midst of pain, I believe. Sitting there with him, this is what I bore witness to.

Air in. Breath out. Air in. Breath out. Air in. Breath out.

I did not consider the future. I have the luxury of being emotionally separated enough from the man that his state did not disturb or worry me. I was in no position to help the situation or control it or even speak words of comfort (he couldn’t hear me anyway and with a tracheotomy, he couldn’t speak either so conversation was not an option). I could just be. Holding his hand. And bearing witness. See him in the moment instead his past mistakes or all the machines in the present or what the future might hold.

According to Harris, bearing witness has psychological and spiritual benefits for the bearer: “It enables us to connect with a place of real empathy. It also provides a kind of catharsis, a release from our emotional reactions of pity, shame, or fear. Spiritually, bearing witness invokes a sense of interconnectedness, of oneness, a direct realization of the wholeness of life.”

I felt these benefits while sitting with this man. For a few minutes, I let go of my shame and pity, and in bearing witness to his joy and suffering, I felt fortunate. My private moments in that room were a blessing to him, I hope, and to me. It’s not every day one observes so intimately the process of living and dying.

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In observance of Ash Wednesday, I’m asking big questions about life and death this week on Minnesota Transplant. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, a six-week season during which Christians focus on the life and, in particular, the death of Jesus Christ. Tomorrow, a throwback with a lighter perspective.

Advent is a season of preparation

Not only do I now own a church, I own a church sign. In the first days of clean-up and demolition, my Beloved found the box of letters to create a new message in the sign so I did what I do best and that’s write.

church sign advent

Today, if you didn’t already know it, is the first Sunday in Advent, and I was inordinately pleased with myself to post this message. Its meaning applies literally to the church season and to the process of cleaning up corners and tearing down walls inside our 119-year-old Methodist church as step one in our renovation project.

In homage to the season (and the double message with new meaning for me this year), I’m reprinting this post from the Minnesota Transplant archive, publishing originally a year ago.

Glory be

While the secular world recovered from a Thanksgiving dinner-induced food coma and then leapt loopily into Black Friday-Small Business Saturday-Cyber Monday (which for many overeager online retailers began on Friday), Christians rang in a new year.

Today is the first Sunday of the liturgical year which is to say the First Sunday in Advent.

Advent is the run-up to Christmas, a liminal season of expectation. But to describe it only as a time of waiting sells Advent short, just as the days between Thanksgiving and Dec. 25 are more than simply an out-of-breath sprint to be endured.

For me, it’s not this time of year without spending some time in church. Sitting (and standing and singing and praying) through a worship service slows down time.

This is not a post about why you should go to church. That’s your call. This is a post about why I go to church. For me, Advent is the best time of year to spend some time in church, to be observant to the reason for the season. Christmas is all crowds and gifts and traditional-in-the-extreme music (let’s just say I’m not a fan of “Silent Night, Holy Night”). Lent, too, is a run-up season, preparing Christians for Easter, but Lent and Easter are solemn. The messages are heavy on crucifixion and death (yes, and rising again, I know, but rising from the tomb).

Advent, though, is news about pregnancy and babies and angels and birthdays. (That Advent also coincides with the countdown to my own birthday is just happy coincidence.)

I went to Catholic Mass last night for the first time in years, maybe even a decade. It was a beautiful quiet service in an enormous church where hundreds of people were doing the same thing I was — celebrating the new church year. I was reminded how lovely is the ritual of Mass, so familiar and universal.

I was once Catholic, but when I got divorced, I reverted to my origin religion, Lutheran. A week ago, I read the scripture lessons for the last time at the Lutheran church where I am a member. I resigned my position as reader in anticipation of moving away. Coincidentally, it was also the last Sunday of the church year.

Serendipity.

I kind of felt like I was throwing off the bonds of responsibility and the old year and the old way of worshiping all at once. Celebrating the new Christian year for me meant Mass in a big, beautiful church. Which is how I found myself last night in church I’d never been in before soaking up Bible readings about waiting and preparation and expectation.

It is the perfect message on which to meditate for a woman waiting (and waiting) to sell her house.

Advent is not an empty time, I was reminded. It is a season of fullness. Because preparing is just as meaningful as celebrating. Anticipation should be as joy-filled as the hullabaloo for which we’re waiting.

Pondering Advent and the imminent celebration of the birth of Christ, I was reminded of a scene I appreciated earlier this year.

nativity-facade

This is the Nativity Façade at the Sagrada Familia, aka the Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family in Barcelona, Spain. The church was designed by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi. The structure is so elaborate, it has been under construction since 1882 and remains incomplete. This is the entryway to the church, and I snapped this picture when I had the opportunity to tour it in June. As you might expect, the Nativity Façade is dedicated to the birth of Jesus.

A single figure is itself a fantastic sculpture, and here there are hundreds of them. But let’s look at the central point of interest there, right above the two doorways of entry.

nativity

You can see Jesus surrounded by his mother Mary and Joseph. Check out those two faces peeking around the corners — an oxen and a donkey. Kind of cute, if you ask me. Carved into stone above Joseph’s head are the words “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (you can read Deo clearly in this closeup). That’s Latin for “Glory to God in the highest.”

This sculptured wall is the entryway to the church (inside is entirely amazing experience in itself). But before you even get inside to see it (and, presumably, participate in Mass), this enormous highly detailed art greets you. You could spend days gazing at each sculpture, taking in the meaning, and you’re still outside the building.

That’s Advent. Days of detail, building up to the threshold of Christmas.

Don’t wish it away. Soak it in.

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If you’re interested in more from Minnesota Wonderer/Minnesota Transplant, don’t miss my new blog about renovating the 119-year-old church. Start reading here at ChurchSweetHome.com.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

stump

Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

Even ashes and dust–and beheaded trees–create the raw material for new life. Tree stumps look like the end to a life, but they are sometimes able to regenerate into new trees. Even the enormous log that must have resulted from this tree can provide the fuel for new life; as I’ve read on many a interpretive displays about trees felled by wind or varmints, wildfires are actually a creative force in the forest. What we first see as death is in reality setting the scene for life.

Mushrooms and moss were celebrating life on this stump I found at my campsite in Cascade Locks, Ore. Isn’t it beautiful? For a stump?

Spirituality quest on the banks of the great Columbia River

Columbia River Gorge museum

Columbia River Gorge Interpretive Center Museum

Spiritual thoughts on a Sunday. Not to imply spiritual thoughts should be limited to Sundays …

spiritual quest

I found this deep-thinking museum label at the Columbia River Gorge Interpretive Center Museum, a grand building on the Columbia River near Stevenson in Washington State filled with historical information about the residents through time of the Columbia River Gorge (and some interesting tidbits about explorers Lewis and Clark and about the Oregon Trail).

The label above is a description accompanying the Spiritual Quest Gallery on the top floor of the museum where the Don Brown Rosary Collection, the world’s largest of its kind, finds its home. Brown was a resident of Skamania County, Washington, in the early part of the 20th century. Nearly 4,000 rosaries are displayed along with other religious artifacts identified with Pacific Northwest history. It’s a bit like walking through a bead store until you realize every single string of beads is a rosary.

Here’s the biggest rosary on display.

large rosary

And here’s another set of rosaries that are probably apt for Memorial Day weekend.

patriotic rosaries

I don’t know what drove Don Brown to make his life’s work about collecting rosaries. I’ve read that collections of anything are manifestations of something one was lacking in a past life. Maybe Don Brown should have prayed more in a past life. One of the lines in the museum display card attempts to define it: “Deep within each person is a spiritual longing. It is a thirst unquenched, a hunger unfulfilled, a vision only partly seen.”