Turning the Corners

I have been asked to pray for a lot of people in this past week. People grieving loss. People dealing with serious illness. People facing paralyzing fears that come with major life transitions. People who are scared, overwhelmed, in pain, and fresh out of hope.

Then there have been names like Irma and Maria.

Places like Las Vegas.

How do you hold all of it? How do you pray for all of it?

As spiritual directors, we encourage our directees to seek out forms of prayer that call them into a more intimate relationship with God. Usually these are not the prayers found in a prayer book. Oftentimes we talk about body prayer. The labyrinth is one such form of body prayer.

This morning I attended a business networking function to promote my acupuncture practice. I don’t even think about the hat I wear as a Spiritual Director at these meetings.

And then a spirited woman sat across from me. We had a conversation about our respective professions. She complimented me on the Brigid’s cross that I wear. It opened a conversation and we talked about church, community, and serving others in need. She, like me, was an Episcopalian, and a former Roman Catholic. The odds of sitting across from this woman and having this conversation in this moment at a professional networking group were slim. And I suspected the movement of God was involved.

I am not a natural at networking events. I can do them. But I am an introvert. And after such extroverted activity, I find myself wanting to decompress, usually alone and in nature. But I had things to do at the office, and other appointments to get to later on.

On the way to my office though, I took a wrong turn. And I passed the Unity Church that is less than a quarter mile from my clinic. It houses a breathtaking labyrinth that I promised myself I’d visit once the triple digit summer temperatures dropped. I turned into the parking lot, expecting to spend maybe ten minutes there. The word “turn, ” by the way, is significant.

I spent a half hour there.

That half hour held the power of a weekend retreat. Alone, against the backdrop of an Autumn desert blue sky, with the warm sun on my back, I was in awe of the hummingbirds, butterflies, and honey bees at work all around me. I stood at the entrance to the labyrinth and thanked these creatures for allowing me to share this holy space with them. Desert flowers of orange, yellow, fuchsia and purple, framed in shades of sage green, framed the circular path. The sound of water from the large fountain behind me filled the space.

My heart was overwhelmed.

God was everywhere.

I began to walk. I usually walk a labyrinth at a medium pace. I like an even rhythm. On a walk. And in life.

The turns were hard today though. They seemed narrow. I was wearing a low heel. My balance felt off. The long spans were easy. But the turns threw it all off. I slowed my pace.

Slowing down was not enough though. I still bobbled at the turns.

I don’t like to bobble and I was uncomfortable.

On the next long pass, I knew I had to navigate the approaching turn differently. I stepped. And paused.

I waited longer. And I listened. To the sounds of the fountain, the honey bees, the birds. Even the train whistling in the distance.

In the Benedictine tradition that I am trained in, we are taught to listen with the Ear of the Heart. And so I listened in this way too. And I heard, “Step again. Then wait. Again.”

I did.

And then I pivoted slowly to continue in the other direction.

I did not bobble.

I stepped again, two feet landing side by side.  I paused again.

I still did not bobble.

And then slowly and mindfully, I continued on in this way.

 

The labyrinth is a metaphor for life. I like predictability. When I strike a pace, on the physical path, or the spiritual path, I like to keep that pace. I appreciate patterns and rhythms. They comfort me. And they have always been where I’ve found God. But nothing about these past weeks has been predictable. Or comforting.  And I’ve felt a little disconnected from God.

In moments like these, when the old ways no longer work, you can either keep walking as you always have, or you can seek a new way.

 

I have not been able to pray easily this week because of the monumental sorrow of so many people around me.  As I prayed for these people as I walked today, the labyrinth taught me a new way to be with sorrow, and how  to make space for hope and the movement of God in what might feel like hopeless and spiritually vacant times.

When I became an Episcopalian, the Bishop spoke of the importance of turning. Turning away from the things that were not in alignment with the flow of God. The questions beg:  what do we turn away from? What do we turn toward? How do we navigate those turns? How mindful are we in making those turns? How slow? How fast? How willing? How unwilling? How patient?

In my walk today and in the hours that followed, I thought about the Bishop’s words and how significant the idea of turning really is on the spiritual path.

We are living in new times. We are all figuring things out, day by day, and often hour by hour. If your usual ways of prayer feel limiting, try a form of body prayer. While moving and praying, listen. Listen with your feet. Listen with your legs. Listen with your lungs. Listen with your heart. Listen for the voice on the wind. Stand there as long as it takes. Take off your shoes. Wait a few seconds. Maybe a minute, or ten. Then wait a little longer still. Step again. Pivot, with your feet, with your mind, with your heart. God is working in all those movements, in the stepping, in the standing, in the turning.

 

Blessings and peace on your journey,
Maria Grace Mandarino

Sacred Space Spiritual Direction

www.MariaMandarino.com/spiritualdirection.html

 

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Blog Post: Wherever You Go, There You Are

Six months ago, I had promised I’d write more about the unfolding of my journey into the healing arts. When I began on this road seventeen years ago as a student in the massage therapy program at the New York College of Health Professions, I was quite linear. I was learning. And I was a damned good learner. Muscle origins and insertions, innervations. Kinesiology. Neurology. There was plenty to keep my linear mind busy. Not to mention sitting for one of the most grueling massage boards in the country.

When things started to open up on that journey, I really didn’t quite understand what was happening and my linear mind wasn’t keen on making space for the non-linear stuff it didn’t understand. When I started to grasp it through T’ai Chi and Qi Gong, I couldn’t quite accept that it was happening to me and that it was happening so fast. Wasn’t this sort of thing supposed to happen over time with dedicated cultivation and the guidance of a wise mentor?

Over the years though, I came to realize this cultivation of energy had started long before I got to the massage program. This did not happen in a two year massage therapy program.

In Spring of 1996, I was a pretty intense Type A sort, working in medical editorial, driven by the almighty deadline. My boss, a physician from India, didn’t play into such physical world dramas, and one day when I had probably had one cup of coffee too many, and was chomping at the bit to select manuscripts for the next issue, he suggested that I learn to meditate. As only a dedicated Type A New Yorker could respond, I said, “I don’t have time for that stuff.” He nodded, smiled graciously, and said, “Precisely when you need to do it most.”

Some weeks later, I found myself in an independent bookstore on Long Island that was closing its doors. Everything was marked down. “Misplaced” in the literary fiction section was this book, facing outward so the title boldly stared me in the eye. It read, “Wherever You Go, There You Are.”

I was fond of the Clint Black song by the same name that was popular at the time. So I took the book off the shelf.

It turned out to be about Zen Meditation. I recalled my boss’s recommendation. The book was half price. What did I have to lose? I bought it. I opened it when I got home and devoured it. It was the first thing that made sense to me in a long, long while.

That book altered the course of everything that followed.

Three months later, I received a phone call at work — a defining moment for which nothing could have ever prepared me. I learned of the death of a childhood friend who was only 30 years old. It was impossible to breathe. Sound distorted. Vision blurred. My mental focus was lost and stayed that way for months. I plunged into despair. And there was no consoling me. I wanted one last time with my friend. One last conversation. One last song sung together. One last moment of raucous laughter. One last hug.

There would be none.

It was my first adult journey into grief. And I had no resources to guide me, except for the daily Zen practice I had begun three months before. Practice grounded me. It calmed me. It slowed down my racing heart. The very thing I had told my boss “I didn’t have time for” was the very thing I made time for — now twice a day. And eventually practice acquainted me with the peace of letting go. That process took nearly a full year.

But my opportunity to cultivate my energy wouldn’t end there.

But for a half hour, it would have been the first anniversary of my friend’s death. I was driving home from my grandmother’s house after her funeral, a funeral which came after an arduous two weeks of her failing health. During those weeks, I watched my grandmother decline in a hospital bed and stood by my mother and helped her make the decision to remove her mother from life support. I was present when she died. I saw her spirit leave her body. Although I told myself I had imagined that. The thing was back then, if you had asked me the point from which the spirit left the body, I would have said the crown. Because back then, even though I was meditating, I still lived wholeheartedly in my mind. The problem was, the gold spiral of energy I saw leave my grandmother’s body just before she flat-lined? It rose above her heart.

I was beyond thinking about it. I was emotionally drained. And I was making the journey into another layer of grief.

That night after the funeral, I was only about 15 minutes from home when traffic came to a stop at a construction site on the northbound Sagtikos Parkway.  I saw the cars in my rear view mirror cascading off the road as they were struck one by one, a ballet of headlights as cars were pushed onto the shoulder in a surreal blur. I remember bracing against the steering wheel and the brake pedal. And then the unforgiving sound and feel of metal hitting metal as my car was struck hard by the drunk driver, propelling my car into the car ahead of me, which my then husband was driving. I remember the sensation of my body moving upward against the strain of my seat belt. Then a violent slam back down into my seat. And then nothing.

I don’t know how long “nothing” lasted but it couldn’t have been long.

I remember being suspended in blackness. A peaceful silence. And these tiny beautiful sparkling lights permeating the blackness. I felt like I was floating. The stillness was welcomed and I was held in it for what seemed a long time. Then I heard a man’s voice. It was not a voice I recognized. But it was clear and firm in its directive: “You need to go back. Your mother cannot handle losing you and her mother.”

And then the next thing I remembered was sound. Loud and intrusive sounds. My husband was banging against the driver’s side window, screaming my name, pounding his fists against the glass. I wanted to tell him to shut up. A distant car horn was piercing the night. And then I saw my husband’s face as he continued to pound on the window. I recognized a frantic look I’d never seen before. I had been married to Joe Cool. An attorney. Nothing flustered him. Nothing. But this had him unearthed.

I got out of the car. I could walk, even though people told me I shouldn’t. I remember pacing like a wild animal on the shoulder, wrapped in a blanket until help arrived. We went to the ER. No bones were broken. Nothing required stitches. But soft tissue injuries and chronic pain plagued me, which provided me with more opportunity for Zen practice over the months that followed. I was also left with a heightened emotional sensitivity and spiritual awareness I didn’t understand and often scared me. And I was hesitant to breathe a word about those things to anyone for quite some time.

It wasn’t until years later, while in my first Myofascial Release class, that I had recall of a similar experience, when I was 17 years old. I grew up on Long Island and any Long Islander knows you never turn your back on the ocean. I had been taken under by a silent wave that rose up behind me. I remembered losing my footing and spiraling in the water, not sure what direction I was moving in. I pushed down on the ocean floor in panic and could feel my hands and legs being scraped by sand and rocks. I struggled. I fought. And then I had no fight left. I let go.

I experienced that same blackness with the sparkling lights. The same restful silence. The same feeling of suspension. Time ceased.  And then the harsh intrusion of sunlight as I found myself on the shore.

I told no one about this, not for years anyway. My linear assessment of the event went like this: 1) I was infinitely stupid for turning my back on the ocean, and 2) I was damned lucky to not be carried out to sea. And that was all I was capable of understanding at the time — luck had beat out stupidity. No need to celebrate it.

While I had forgotten about that day at the beach, when I experienced the blackness with the sparkling lights after my car accident, I knew I would never be the person I was before that night. I knew I was here to do something completely different from anything I’d done before. It would be a long time before I could give any of this a voice and put language on it. But the one thing I knew without a doubt was that after that night, there was positively no going back to life as I had known it.sedona-cairn

Blog Post: Spirit’s Promise

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I believe God speaks to us in the spaces.  In the moments of stillness. In the moments of connection.  I find all too often people are not comfortable enough,  trusting enough, or perhaps present enough, to listen to the guidance that comes to us in these moments.  And too often I’ve been one of those people.

Two summers ago, I had one such moment and a chance to live my life a little differently.  It was quite an extended moment, actually. And dare I say, it was a defining moment that has inspired me to find the courage to stand firm on my intuitive gifts.

My friend Kelly and I had been on the phone that day, talking about some training in equine massage that  I was contemplating doing.

And he said, “I think my heart would explode if I could work with horses.”

Our friendship is such that we don’t let each other get away with powerful phrases like that.  So I asked him what was going on.

He shared that he has always loved horses.  Working on them was not within the scope of his license as a New York massage therapist.  He had thought about taking a course in animal communication instead.  Finances stood in the way. He never explored it.

I knew this wasn’t about money though.  A statement like that is never about money.  It’s about the soul remembering what it came here to do.  But what happened next defied any measure of logic. Let me say first, it’s not like I’ve never done something like this before, but I’ve certainly never done it  with this kind of connection, clarity, and velocity.

I said to Kelly, “I’m feeling a horse running toward me.  I feel it running right into my chest.  It rips my heart open.  There is a gaping hole inside.  And then the horse fills that hole.  And then there’s a pause.  I feel you now becoming the horse.  And I feel you and the horse, as one, tearing out of the gate.  The horse transforms you.”

The information kept coming, equally as fast:  “You’re going to work with rescue horses.  You’re going to heal the horses.  But there’s something else. Your work with the horses is going to heal you.”

There was a pause in the information and I waited to see if there was more. Then I got this: “And you will heal these horses so they can work with kids who have special needs, kids who need healing. So you will be the healer who heals the horse. But the horse is the healer who heals you. And you free this horse so it can then heal children.”

Then I said, “You need to volunteer somewhere where there are horses. Forget about money and the animal communication classes. That will come. For now volunteer. You need to just be around horses. Look on Eastern Long Island. Somewhere around Riverhead.”

Then I paused. Nothing else was coming. Except this: “I’m not sure what you’re supposed to do when you get there. But Spirit will lead you.”

I paused and furrowed my brow because what I got next seemed crazy. But I said it anyway.

“And don’t be surprised if you meet a horse named Spirit.”

Here I was, in Colorado,  1,800 miles away from New York, where I had lived most of my life. I hadn’t been back home in ten years. I had no clue there was a rescue barn there. Yet I knew in the center of my being that somehow there was one. Exactly there.

What happened next was surreal. Kelly texted me in less than five minutes. He sent me the link to a rescue barn. It was not in Riverhead, but in Manorville, one town over.

The name of the rescue barn? Spirit’s Promise.

It was named after their first rescue horse: Spirit.

Spirit’s Promise doesn’t just rescue horses that have been abused and neglected. Once rehabilitated, these horses go on to work in their equine therapy program, helping humans heal. The horses work with people who have experienced various emotional wounds. Among them: cancer survivors, survivors of trauma and sexual abuse, and those who have been harmed by bullying. The horses are there to be healed. And then the horses become the healers.

What Kelly told me shortly after learning all this provided an added layer of validation for both of us. A few weeks prior, Kelly’s friend Danny had sent him a video link about an animal communicator and a leopard named Diabolo, who was sent to a wild life rescue facility. Danny told Kelly this was the work he needed to be doing, that he had this gift. No one in the rescue facility could handle Diabolo and so an animal communicator was brought in to determine what was distressing the wild cat. Through her work with Diabolo, the animal communicator learned that the leopard desired respect and wanted to be renamed.  Diabolo’s wish? To be renamed Spirit.

And so when I had told Kelly not to be surprised if there was a horse named Spirit, he paid attention. When he found the actual barn called Spirit’s Promise one town over from where I told him to look for it, he knew this was important enough to investigate.

He called Spirit’s Promise and learned there was a caretaker’s day scheduled in two weeks.  He signed himself and his daughter up. He immediately resonated with Marisa Striano Charles, owner of Spirit’s Promise. His story of how he found the rescue barn captivated her. Kelly described a magical day working with the horses, bonding with and learning from them. Kelly’s own spirit certainly needed to meet the Spirit.

But I was curious about something. The information I received that day began while I was sitting in my clinic, setting acupuncture needles in myself. The last bit of the conversation about finding the horse named Spirit happened on my short ride home, just down the hill from my office. This was not the first time I had received information for Kelly at that exact place on my drive home. Some months before, in that same location, I had a visual impression of Kelly scattering rose quartz crystals on the ground. I called him and asked why I might be seeing this. He texted me a picture of a piece of rose quartz, the size of a softball. He had just been meditating with it.

So I had asked Kelly if the name of the street meant anything. He said it didn’t. It took me a while to put it together. Since childhood, Kelly’s spirit guide has been the bear, the Native American symbol of courage. At the bottom of this hill is a creek. And that creek so happens to be called Bear Creek. Wild bear had once been hunted on this land. It is literally bear land.

Some days later, I told Kelly he needed to look for animal communication classes in his area. He called me back to tell me he found one. The school so happened to be named “Two Bears.” We both suspected it was the one. Kelly was sure he needed training. Danny and I were pretty sure he didn’t. Then a few months ago, I knew he didn’t.

My friend Jean’s Yorkshire Terrier, Fiona, was dying of liver disease. Fiona had been perfectly healthy and then suddenly turned jaundiced. The disease came from nowhere and progressed rapidly. There wasn’t much time left. Jean wanted to know what Fiona needed to be more comfortable in her last few weeks.

The animal communicator Jean had contacted was unable to communicate with Fiona. The reading didn’t really unfold. I asked Jean if she was open to me asking Kelly if he could try. She agreed.

Kelly was hesitant, but tried anyway. He felt he didn’t get much of a connection. But he was clear on this much. Fiona told him that she felt like she “wasn’t the princess anymore.” Kelly was solid on that, but he thought this was virtually useless information.

What Kelly didn’t know is that Fiona’s full name was Princess Fiona. She was literally Jean’s princess, her first Yorkie. Only months before, Jean had gotten a fourth Yorkie, a puppy named Duke. And Fiona suddenly found herself feeling  lost in the crowd. Jean knew what needed to be done: Fiona needed to be showered with love during those last weeks to know she would always be Jean’s princess. Such a simple and short message held tremendous healing.

It’s been quite a ride since I learned about Spirit’s Promise. There was healing in the message for Kelly that day; I could hear it in his voice. But there was healing for me in that message too. And validation…

Spirit.

Spirit speaks to us. Spirit is a powerful guide. Spirit , I believe, is love. And that Spirit — that love — wants to put us on the path of our destiny — back on the path to the Divine.

But that message was not just about one word. It was not just about Spirit. Spirit was found at a place called Spirit’s Promise.

Spirit offers a promise: Follow me. Trust me. Let me lead you. I promise, I won’t abandon you. Let’s take this ride together; I will lead you to blessings you can’t even imagine.

I have revisited this experience for over a year now, sitting with what I believe was a mini-miracle. A beautiful gift from God, shared between two friends. And shared beyond us too.  The story has touched so many. I’ve had the pleasure of talking to Marisa Striano Charles on the phone. We both say we feel like we’ve known each other from another time. She feels the same way about Kelly. When I feel a little off course and when I need to deepen my connection to Spirit, I wear the wrist band that Marisa sent me, the one that bears her website name: www. SpiritsPromiseRescue.org. It serves as a reminder of the promise of Spirit and the many mystical ways in which God communicates and validates His love for each of us.

©2016 Maria Grace Mandarino