My friend and writing coach, Christine Hemp, introduced me to the poem, The Woodcarver. It has led me to amazing riches. I keep it taped above my desktop computer in my office as a reminder to “Guard my spirit, [and] not expend it on trifles that [are] not to the point.” This poem has served as such an inspiration, that I wanted to share it with you. May we all create our beautiful bell stand.
Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand
Of precious wood. When it was finished,
All who saw it were astounded. They said it must be
The work of spirits.
The Prince of Lu said to the master carver:
“What is your secret?”
King replied: “I am only a workman:
I have no secret. There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it
On trifles, that were not to the point.
I fasted in order to set
My heart at rest.
After three days fasting,
I had forgotten gain and success.
After five days
I had forgotten praise or criticism.
After seven days
I had forgotten my body
With all its limbs.
“By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell stand.
“Then I went to the forest
To see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand
“If I had not met this particular tree
There would have been
No bell stand at all.
My own collected thought
Encountered the hidden potential in the wood;
From this live encounter came the work
Which you ascribe to the spirits.”
from The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton
Christmas comes early for a college chaplain. This year’s service is on December 2nd before the students take final exams and leave for winter break. So there is no Advent season of waiting or preparation for this preacher. I’ve been listening to Christmas music for a month now trying to get myself in the mood.
When I begin this early Christmas journey, familiar scripture text in hand, I have no idea where I am being led in my sermon writing process. I have to write my way in, following the thread of inspiration, and carefully guard my spirit so I don’t get distracted.
This is terribly difficult because I have to forget about how badly I want this sermon to go well and how badly I want to offer my community something beautiful. I have to set aside my desires as well as my fears. I have to stop picturing myself preaching in front of our new President and the Dean and all those scary faculty types and all those college students who are so good at looking so bored. I have to meditate a lot in order to free myself from these distractions, and I have to pray and attend to my soul and… I drink a little.
This sermon-writing journey is tumultuous and there are times when I doubt if I will ever find the message, the discovery, the wisdom I am supposed to share. It’s hard to trust that there is anything waiting for me at all. Which often leads me to consider quitting. It’d be a relief to give the whole thing up. Inevitably, while I am in the middle of working on a sermon, I end up asking my husband, “Dan, do you think Farm King is hiring? They’ve got some really cool stuff there. Or maybe Subway? I think I could make sandwiches for the rest of my life.”
While I run on the treadmill, Sara Bareilles speaks to me through my earbuds telling me that she wants to see me be brave, with what I want to say, and to just let the words fall out….but I don’t feel brave. In fact, I don’t believe in myself much. But I do believe in the journey. As difficult as it is, there is something sacred about the journey.
The acclaimed poet William Stafford likened this writer’s journey to following a golden thread. Stafford “believes that whenever you set a detail down in language, it becomes the end of a thread…and every detail—the sound of the lawn mower, the memory of your father’s hands, a crack you once heard in lake ice, the jogger hurtling herself past your window—will lead you to amazing riches.” The stance for the writer to take, then, is one of being “neutral, ready, susceptible to now. Only the golden thread knows where it is going, and the role for the writer is one of following, not imposing.”
So hear I am, once again, following the Christmas narrative to see where it leads me and my community, who I pray will hear some Good News as a result of this strenuous, yet sacred journey.
 From Robert Bly’s introduction to Stafford’s selected poems
On a bright summer morning, I dropped my 5-year-old daughter off at day camp placing her in the care of counselors who all appeared to be in high school. Looking at Ella’s counselors I remembered myself at their age, and the parents who entrusted their children to me. I didn’t take the same precautions with those children as I do now, with my own. I suspected the same was true of these teenagers. But I was too busy with Ella’s transfer–lunchbox (check), bathing suit and towel (check), water bottle (check), sunblock and bugspray (check)—to give my worry much attention. The camp counselors were busy too, loading my daughter up in a 15-passenger van. They were taking the kids on a trip to the lake.
Driving away from the drop-off, the image of my tiny, tow-headed daughter, climbing into the camp van stayed with me. Arriving at my office, unlocking the door, arranging my desk to tackle my long list of to-do’s, my mind kept returning to my daughter in the van.
Then, a premonition overcame me; a feeling, a knowing. My mind pictured the tragedy—a van overturned with my daughter’s body inside it.
The urge to go and get her—to chase down that van, find my daughter, pull her into my arms and keep her with me for the rest of the day—swelled. Fear flooded my nervous system and I broke into a sweat.
Am I crazy? Or is this a sign? Will I regret this forever if I don’t go and get her? How could this possibly be true? I was suffering terribly and almost succumbed. My car keys were in my hand when I remembered my practice.
So I took my suffering to the mat and sat with it. This was a tough one because the fear was like violence within me. It was beating me up inside, clubbing my heart, contracting my lungs, scorching me with its heat from the inside out. It was almost unbearable. But I sat with it and breathed. I leaned into my suffering instead of running away from it, or running immediately to resolve it. And, like my anger previously, I eventually felt the urgency of my fear dissipate. The oxygen calmed my nerves and restored my reason. I was still afraid, but not overwhelmed. And in this new state I realized that I had to let Ella go…and keep letting her go…because her life and mine could not be ruled by fear.
Our suffering has much to teach us, and yet we do everything possible to avoid it or get rid of it. I am becoming much more aware of my suffering now and my power to sit with it. This, in turn, has led me to become more aware of the suffering of others. The faces of humanity rise in my mind as I sit on my mat. I hold each in my heart, just as I hold my own fragile self. Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, believes that the world would be a more peaceful and compassionate place if we all practiced meditation. As I stop to imagine this—a world that could learn from its own suffering and not be ruled by fear—I give thanks for the profound gifts of a simple practice.
Do all funeral directors believe death takes precedence over life? Or just the ones I have to work with? I got “the call” from our local funeral director informing me that there had been a death in our community. The family (whom I did not know and do not serve as pastor) had requested that I do the service…that Saturday at 2:00pm. I was not available that Saturday at 2:00pm. When I told the funeral director this, he balked. Clearly I was not here “to serve the people” like he was. Clearly I did not understand that it was my duty as a pastor to drop everything in my life to serve the dead.
His attempt to shame me was infuriating. After I hung up the phone, the conversation clung to me like a wet spider web. I couldn’t get rid of his voice in my head, the words he used against me, and the anger roiling my insides. I hopped hyperactively around our house, unable to focus on my work and the looming deadline of my next writing project. This man had powerfully leapt into my day and threatened to monopolize my mind if I didn’t do something quick.
So I took the funeral director to the mat and meditated with my suffering. I breathed in, feeling my lungs expand, and breathed out, feeling my lungs contract. My shoulders rose and fell. My anger burned in my chest like a hot piece of coal as I sat for ten minutes, feeling the burn. In doing so, the funeral director’s hold on me began to break into tiny little pieces. When I finished, he wasn’t entirely gone, but my anger was diffused and I was able to get back to my work.
Typically, when I get this hot, I pass my emotions on to my husband in an angry, spiteful rant. My husband loves me so he receives my rant and oftentimes shoulders my anger in solidarity. This, I realize, isn’t particularly fair to my husband. Why should he bear the anger I can’t rid myself of? Also, sharing my anger with my husband just seems to make it grow and expand in the universe. We don’t need any more anger in the world. So before I rant or vent or allow any emotion to distract me from the present moment, I’m going to try to take it to the mat. I’m going to practice sitting with my suffering.
“God is a challenge rather than a notion. We do not think Him; we are stirred by Him. We can never describe Him; we can only return to Him. We may address ourselves to Him; we cannot comprehend Him. We can sense His presence; we cannot grasp His essence.”
“God is not always silent, and man is not always blind. His glory fills the world; His spirit hovers above the waters. There are moments in which, to use a Talmudic phrase, heaven and earth kiss each other, in which there is a lifting of the veil at the horizon of the known, opening a vision of what is eternal in time. Some of us have at least once experienced the momentous realness of God. Some of us have at least caught a glimpse of the beauty, peace, and power that flow through the souls of those who are devoted to Him. There may come a moment like thunder in the soul, when man is not only aided, not only guided by God’s mysterious hand, but also taught how to aid, how to guide other beings. The voice of Sinai goes on forever: “These words the Lord spoke unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud and of the thick darkness, with a great voice that goes on forever.”
My favorite phrase here, “A moment like thunder in the soul.” I’ve felt that. Have you?
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, Essential Writings, (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2011), pgs. 93-95.
My meditation practice began with the purchase of a new, maroon zafu and zabuton—fancy names for the pillows I learned were a must for those who suffer while sitting cross-legged on the floor. The cushions feel good under my sit-bones, keep my back straight and my anklebones comfortable. I sit in a dark room near my office at the college where gray light filters in through venetian blinds. Behind me is a green chalkboard since this used to be a classroom, turned conference room, now cleared out as a space for prayer and meditation. Our college has welcomed a new group of Muslim students who needed a quiet place to pray. So we created this space in which I find myself meditating each morning.
Alec Baldwin’s character on 30 Rock wryly cracked, “Meditation is a waste of time, like learning French or kissing after sex.” And I might agree, except that French is a beautiful language and kissing speaks of love—especially when it’s not required, or expected. This is the beauty of meditation for me. Out of the nothingness of it, out of this waste of time, comes beauty and knowledge I never expected.
For instance, one day I sat, focused on my breathing, and came to the knowledge that my body is not happy unless it is in constant motion. I itched to go and do while I sat. It was a pulling within me towards activity like the addict is pulled to her dope. The same was true of my mind that was not content unless it was leaping, forward or backward, to any moment but the present. After my practice I wondered how I could be happy if my body and mind never wanted to be where I actually was? I didn’t know of this discontent—of my unrest and addiction to motion—until I practiced doing nothing.
Meditation, then, is a clearing of space for me, an emptying ritual of only ten to twelve minutes. My desire is to open myself through this practice so I can receive whatever comes. Sometimes nothing comes. But that’s okay. Who am I to judge the nothingness? More often, though, I am given something out of the nothing—an epiphany (such as the discontent to which my mind and body lure me) a knowing humility that the world moves on as I sit, or a simple and subtle diffusing of the urgency of my emotions. These are gifts I never would have received had I not engaged myself in the practice of doing nothing, had I not stopped for a few minutes to sit cross-legged, in a dark room on a maroon zafu and zabuton.
A figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid (e.g., as brave as a lion, crazy like a fox).
I’ve fallen in love with the simile. A friend suggested I use one in an article I was writing. I had so much fun trying to come up with the perfect simile that I have been hunting them down in everything I read. This summer I’ve been immersing myself in the stories of Flannery O’Connor who—hands down—is the QUEEN of similes! Just for fun–here are a few of my favorites:
- His heart began to grip him like a little ape clutching the bars of its cage.
- Rayber felt as if he were fighting his way out of a net.
- His khaki trousers reached just to his hipbones and his stomach hung over them like a sack of meal swaying under his shirt.
- Behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth.
- She could hear the wind move through the treetops like a long satisfied insuck of breath.
- The graduates in their heavy robes looked as if the last beads of ignorance were being sweated out of them.
- He heard the words drag out. He felt them pull out of his mouth like freight cars, jangling, backing up on each other, grating to a halt, sliding, clinching back, jarring, and then suddenly stopping as roughly as they had begun.