Symbolic Language

Big canvas, kind of a mess to start. Doorway–the threshold, the liminal space, the between.

Recently, I wrote a piece for someone about what symbolic language means to me, how I approach life and spirituality as a poet and a mystic rather than as a theologian, how stories and images speak to me more than finely-constructed arguments and manifestos. As an English teacher and word-nerd, I DO love strong argument and well-worded theses, but in the realm of the spiritual journey, they leave me cold and disheartened.

It’s part of my devotion to Jesus: He was a storyteller. He used symbolic language rather than cold dogma and doctrine. The Sermon on the Mount is as much poetry as it is doctrine. He’s getting a seriously bad rap these days–once again–as people who think they know his mind try to control and cage and exclude others using his name.

The Holy One, call Her what you will, is too unutterably beyond our comprehension for mere mortals to put Her in a box with our words and our religious doctrines. And the journey that each of us takes to find Them is too miraculous and individual and utterly free to be caged either. Find Them in the trees, in the stones. Find Him in the breeze rising over the hill. Find Her in the deep still waters of the pond or the roaring of ocean waves. The Great Mystery is there, waiting to be discovered, in your dreams, in your books, in your cards, in your meditations, in the gentle words your beloved speaks.

In the early days of this new and uncertain chapter of my life, my beloved sister-in-law gave me the image of standing in a doorway. I had just asked my Creative Writing students a week or two before to write a poem about doorways, how we look back at the past and look forward to the future, but stand poised in liminal space as we rest on a threshold. I’m trying to paint a doorway now. I’m rusty in the painting department, and I have never done such a huge canvas, but it’s healing to live into this image as I stand with my own hands on the doorposts, deciding to step into the unknown before me.

And just a few days ago, a beloved friend gave me a dream image about a road in an expansive landscape, with many smaller roads leading away, into blue sky and over rolling hills (I’m making the image my own now even as I repeat it). And, she said, despite the knowledge of the pain that I was feeling, there was joy because of the binder/book I was carrying, filled with my poetry and art. I picture it overflowing and spilling outward. Something in me is finding a home on this new road.

Friends have given me stones, cards, books, plants, candles in my time of wrestling and grieving–all symbols for my heart to latch onto as I figure out who I am on this new road.

What are the images that speak to your soul in times of crisis or joy? What dreams and visions and meditations inform your spiritual journey, your inward path?

Gratitude List:
1. Symbols for the pathway
2. How the trees shine green
3. The way the scent of these lilies of the valley reaches out to be noticed
4. A temporary new job! I’m going to be an aide in a Kindergarten class three days a week, and the lead teacher is a former student of mine. This is one of the happiest little circles!
5. The deep-hearted kindness of beloveds in these circles of community
May we walk in Beauty, in Love, in Spirit!

“If you are looking for verses with which to support slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to abolish slavery, you will find them. If you are looking for verses with which to oppress women, you will find them. If you are looking for for verses with which to liberate or honor women, you will find them. If you are looking for reasons to wage war, you will find them. If you are looking for reasons to promote peace, you will find them. If you are looking for an out-dated, irrelevant ancient text, you will find it. If you are looking for truth, believe me, you will find it. This is why there are times when the most instructive question to bring to the text is not “what does it say?”, but “what am I looking for?” I suspect Jesus knew this when he said, “ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.” If you want to do violence in this world, you will always find the weapons. If you want to heal, you will always find the balm.” ―Rachel Held Evans

“My interpretation can only be as inerrant as I am, and that’s good to keep in mind.” ―Rachel Held Evans

“I am writing because sometimes we are closer to the truth in our vulnerability than in our safe certainties.” ―Rachel Held Evans

“There is a kindness that dwells deep down in things; it presides everywhere, often in the places we least expect. The world can be harsh and negative, but if we remain generous and patient, kindness inevitably reveals itself. Something deep in the human soul seems to depend on the presence of kindness; something instinctive in us expects it, and once we sense it we are able to trust and open ourselves.” —John O’Donohue

“Prayer leads you to see new paths and to hear new melodies in the air. Prayer is the breath of your life which gives you the freedom to go and to stay where you wish and to find the many signs which point out the way to a new land. Praying is not simply some necessary compartment in the daily schedule of a Christian or a source of support in a time or need, nor is it restricted to Sunday mornings or mealtimes. Praying is living.” —Henri J. M. Nouwen

Be still and know that I am God
Be still and know that I am
Be still and know
Be still
—Fr. James Martin

“Empathy is the lifeblood of our fragile humanity, dear friend. It is the thing that sustains us all, and in moments like this it is more precious than ever. The world needs people like you who are willing to have their hearts broken; people who wake every day prepared to be wounded on behalf of another, because they know that this wounding allows someone to be seen and heard and known when they most need to be.” —John Pavlovitz

“Draw thy pen. Slay the beast.” —on a sign at a protest march

Doctor Who : “You want weapons? We’re in a library. Books are the best weapon in the world. This room’s the greatest arsenal we could have. Arm yourself!”

“In her book “Women Who Run with the Wolves,” Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes suggests that we all need to periodically go cheerfully and enthusiastically out of our minds. Make sure, she says, that at least one part of you always remains untamed, uncategorizable, and unsubjugated by routine. Be adamant in your determination to stay intimately connected to all that’s inexplicable and mysterious about your life.

“At the same time, though, Estés believes you need to keep your unusual urges clear and ordered. Discipline your wildness, in other words, and don’t let it degenerate into careless disorder.” —Rob Brezsny, on Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes

“Trees are poems the earth writes upon the sky.” —Kahlil Gibran

“It seems that a whole lot of people, both Christians and non-Christians, are under the impression that you can’t be a Christian
and vote for a Democrat,
you can’t be a Christian and believe in evolution,
you can’t be a Christian and be gay,
you can’t be a Christian and have questions about the Bible,
you can’t be a Christian and be tolerant of other religions,
you can’t be a Christian and be a feminist,
you can’t be a Christian and drink or smoke, you can’t be a Christian and read the New York Times,
you can’t be a Christian and support gay rights,
you can’t be a Christian and get depressed, you can’t be a Christian and doubt.
In fact, I am convinced that what drives most people away from Christianity is not the cost of discipleship but rather the cost of false fundamentals.” —Rachel Held Evans

Advent 24: Go Away

The Advent/Solstice Wreath.

A couple Sundays ago, we acted three stations of the Las Posadas in church. In Mexican Christian tradition, during the nine nights before Christmas, communities gather together and walk through their towns, ending up at a different house each night. People outside the house sing songs asking for shelter for Mary, who is about to give birth. People inside the houses sing, “Go away!” The songs go back and forth until Mary and Joseph and their retinue are invited inside where the people pray together and eat and drink together.

As I think about my own preparations for the Lightreturn, for the birth of the Child of Light within me and the world, for the acknowledgement of Emmanuel–the Divine Within, I find this pageant both unsettling and inspiring. I do not want to admit my reluctance to be the Bearer of Light, to be a welcomer of the messy and chaotic coming of the Holy One into my rooms. For all of Advent, I have explored this inner inn. I’ve peered into the shadows, kept the cobwebs to the corners, shone my little light into hidden cupboards and closets, looked for treasures and traps.

I’ve celebrated the turning, the center of the labyrinth. I’ve sat here waiting, in stillness, content in my solitude. And now, when I am settled into my own quiet winter, comes the raucous god-crowd, knocking at the door and asking to come in. Something needs to be born! they call. You need to make room! It’s bound to get messy. It’s sure to get noisy. Somebody is going to need something from you. You can try to escape the fray, but the fray will come to you.

Is there room within the inn? I feel myself shrinking just at the moment when I need to expand. Remember the stretches. Arms up and out. Breathe in. Pause and expand. Sigh out that breath and let the arms fall. Room enough. Yes. There is always room enough.

What have I been creating this space for, if not for the birth of light within? If not for the child of promise, the Holy One, to enter?

Call that immanent birth the Christ-Child, call it the Divine Light, call it Deepest Awareness. Whatever you name it, are you prepared to let welcome this light into your innermost rooms?

Again, Yes. There is always room enough. Hold the stillness. Hold the chaos. Joy is dancing in the space between.

Gratitude List:
1. Pageantry and ritual that get beneath the surface of things
2. Making space for light to enter
3. My children’s anticipation of Christmas
4. Time out of time. No obligations but the daily preparations for the days of celebration. And those are slow and steady.
5. Peppermint.

May we walk in Beauty!