Archive for September, 2014

Hearts at Rest

We have sold Heart’s Rest.  While it is a momentous change for us, it is a change that has been under discussion for several years.  To me, it’s felt like an interminably long haul from the start of the discussion until now, but the actual time from going live with the house listing to sale was just four months: a lightning strike, according to our real estate agent.


We haven’t had the same speed on the other end.  The deal on the wonderful old home we thought we were buying fell apart ten days ago in a welter of asbestos removal and crumbling foundations which we simply couldn’t afford.  It was so easy to see our selves in that home that I have found it difficult to wrap my mind around this change; or I should say, I haven’t been able to let my heart feel the change.  We’ve just closed on another property but the house does not feel as immediately “right” although the land sure feels good; and we will have a five-week hiatus before moving into our new home.  So today, just days from the time we need to be out of here, I’m feeling homeless, without moorings, a little crazy.


This shouldn’t be as big a deal as it feels.  We can store stuff.  Our friends have offered to take us in.  We have resources.  There are one or two places we could rent in town.  We’re staying in the same community, after all.  But I am finding it almost impossible to keep my soul in any kind of calmness.  The best I could do early last week was walk the labyrinth and chant, Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.  That slowed me down for a bit but also reduced me to tears—not necessarily an aid to completion of practical tasks like sorting books or cleaning out drawers or preparing for the upcoming retreat.


In my saner moments, I’ve been contemplating the great difficulty of holding an internal steadiness in the midst of external upheaval.  There’s a very good reason why monastic orders take vows of physical stability: it is simply easier to go deep into the scary places, and stay deep, if the world around you is predictable.  (Actually, part of what helps you go deep spiritually is that very predictability—it will surely drive you into acedia and thence into more complete surrender, provided you don’t go crazy first.)  But this experience, this untethering of the outer world, is also a matter of stability, and a matter of spiritual practice.  Trying to hold on to internal steadiness while the familiar world unravels feels like black belt work.


Early last spring, while on retreat, I had a strong sense of needing to root down, get quiet and solid and strong, because a big wind was coming.  When the four young people of our community drowned in early May, I figured that was the hurricane.  I thought, This is what I have been practicing for.  And it was true—I needed every root clinging in every bit of soil to stay anchored through those days and weeks, to set aside my own grief and stand steady in a world undone.


But that wasn’t the end of the storms, as you all know.  All over the world right now, things are flying apart, and it appears that none of us are escaping the personal repercussions.  It puts my suffering in perspective—i.e., it’s minute—when I read of the masses of people homeless and dying in Syria, Palestine, the Ukraine; those dying from Ebola; the contamination and destruction from tar sand spills in the U.S. and tailing ponds in Canada.  Friends are having heart attacks and strokes; last week, two friends had grandchildren die just before they were born.  It feels like the entire world is strained, stressed, coming apart at the seams.  Creation is groaning…


So how do we stay steady and clear in the midst of such chaos?  It is not, I think, a matter of holing up and praying, of distancing ourselves from reality.  I will admit that the thought I could pray better and be better support if my outer life was calmer often crosses my mind these days.  Sure it’s true.  But it’s not really an option: my life isn’t calm.  Plus, to ask not to feel in the midst of this difficult time would be asking for an exemption from the current human condition generally, and my own human condition specifically.


I don’t have an answer to this question I’ve just posed: How do we stay steady and clear in the midst of such chaos?   I simply have my own experience, my own faltering attempt to hold on.


While packing, I’ve also been preparing for a retreat based on the sayings of the desert mothers and fathers.  In the course of that preparation, I stumbled across one central phrase and an attitude, both of which seem worth hanging on to.  The phrase: A desert is any set of constrictions to which we willingly assent.  The attitude: rest (quies) is not comfort, absence of motion or bodily rest.  Quies is a lack of internal resistance, no matter what the external world brings on.


So for the past while I’ve taken as mantra the phrase, I say yes.  For my patron saint, I’ve chosen Ette Hillesum, who vowed to stand firm in the face of life’s tempests, affirming even as she went to her death in a concentration camp that life, in its unfathomable depths, is so wonderfully good.*  When I remember to say that mantra or to think of Ette, the door of my heart swings open.  Now as I pack boxes and say goodbye to the dream of Heart’s Rest and feel my heart break as I read the news and work with George to figure out whether we need to get the roof replaced before the snow falls and get ready for a retreat in midst of all of this, I say yes. Yes to this desert; yes to the changes and heartbreak; yes to the joy, the silliness, the mess. Yes, yes, yes, I will live this life; yes, I long to hold the aching world; yes, I am grateful beyond all belief to be alive; yes, I am afraid of the coming change; yes, it hurts.  Yes, I willingly assent to all of this.


My friend Michele reminded me today me that we have not sold Heart’s Rest, because heart’s rest cannot be sold: when we keep saying yes, it simply lives more deeply inside us.  To that too I say yes.




*  A Dutch Jewish university student, Ette tethered herself to the deep Centre which she called God during the hatred and certain death facing Jews during WWII.  She wrote: God take me by Your hand, I shall follow You faithfully, and not resist too much, I shall evade none of the tempests life has in store for me, I shall try to face it all as best I can…. I shall try to spread some of my warmth, of my genuine love for others, wherever I go…. I sometimes imagine that I long for the seclusion of a nunnery. But I know that I must seek You amongst people, out in the world. And that is what I shall do…. I vow to live my life out there to the full.  Her last communication was a card thrown from the train on the way to Auschwitz: Tell them we left the camp singing. If you haven’t read An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Ettie Hillesum 1941-1943, do.