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: Alchemy and the Radical Transformation of Metal into Water

 

We are soon approaching the Winter Solstice, which in Celtic Spirituality is said to be a thin time, a moment when the spirit world is a bit closer to us, a time which celebrates the end of darkness and awaits the return of the light.  We cannot see it yet. But the promise of light is near.

In Five Element theory, we hold a similar idea. We leave the season of Autumn and the element of Metal as we progress toward the season of Winter and the element of Water. In the practice of acupuncture, we call this particular transition a radical transformation.

Consider the process. How can one transform Metal into Water?  Metal is hard, dense, and unyielding. Water is fluid, embodies movement, and life is born from it.  How can we logically explain such a drastic transition? The creation cycle of the other elements is clear: Water creates Wood. Wood creates Fire. Fire creates Earth. Earth creates  Metal (minerals).

But what of this radical transformation of Metal turning into Water? How does it happen? How can we apply laws of physics?

We can’t. This process involves magic. Alchemy. The hand of God.

In Five Element theory, the shift out of Metal and into Water is said to be the movement of death into birth,  similar to the Celtic view of the Winter Solstice and moving from darkness into light. And so this is why the shift from Metal to Water is called a radical transformation. We must make a giant leap. A leap that science cannot explain.  A leap of faith. Hard and unyielding Metal will be affected so deeply by some inexplicable force that minerals will be turned into water and life will start anew.  It is a transition beyond the mind’s reach.

Magic. Alchemy. The hand of God.

This transition involves a belief in a divine process,  in divine law, not man’s law. A process which requires us to make space in our lives for divine movement. This is the space in which God plays. And it is the space in which we wait and trust in our Creator’s deep love for us and in the belief that life will go on, despite what seems to be highly unlikely odds.

We experience this transition — this waiting between endings and beginnings — in times of grief and sorrow as well. In Chinese Medicine, it so happens that grief and sorrow are associated with the element of Metal. And the element of Water is associated with fear.

Ah, now, doesn’t this get a little more interesting?

When we grieve, we hurt so deeply that we are convinced we cannot survive our pain. Grief is a momentary death of our spirit. We are at the end of the cycle of Metal. Water is on the other side. Grief checks us. Fear stares us down from the distance. We are afraid of what’s on the other side of sorrow and grief. We wait in darkness, immobile, resisting the alchemical shift from death into birth. We are at an impasse. We are terrified of living again, of feeling again.

On the other side of darkness though is emerging light. Always. The Celts knew this. The ancient Chinese knew this. Metal waiting to be turned into Water. Death waiting for rebirth.

Magic. Alchemy. The hand of God.

To consider rebirth though and to start this cycle again is to risk great pain. We clutch at the darkness. Darkness is at least familiar. It is not normal or sensible to want to feel pain.

Birth is painful. For the woman. For the child.

But it offers immeasurable joy too. Birth is the only path to the human experience. To experience joy means to eventually experience sorrow. You cannot have one without the contrast of the other.

As we move toward the Winter Solstice, ask yourself these questions:

  • What in me has died?
  •  What in me is waiting to be reborn?
  • Am I willing to take the radical journey of alchemy from Metal into Water?
  • Am I willing to make space for magic and trust in the hand of God?

And in the tradition of a woman who asks no one to take a journey she has not taken herself, I assure you that I am on the path of radical transformation as well, walking right alongside you.

Blessings and peace to you as we all await the light’s return,

Maria Grace Mandarino 


Meeting God in the Patterns

090Last night someone at church had mentioned she made a church decision based on logic. Turned out logic was not the right choice.

I joked with her that logic is way overrated anyway.

It turned out the decision should have been made based on tradition. And tradition typically involves following a certain order and a patterned way of doing things, which isn’t often linear or logical.

Years ago, when I was a student observer in the acupuncture clinic, our supervisor, Dan Bedgood, had mentioned to a senior intern that a student had complained to the dean about his teaching style. The complaint? He did not teach in a linear fashion.

I could not help myself.  I blurted out, “But this isn’t a linear medicine.”

Student observers are meant to do just that: observe. They are not expected to speak. And if they are foolish enough to do so, it is assumed they do not have much to share worth listening to.

Dan’s head went up and he stared at me from across the table. It was probably the first time he heard my voice and possibly the first time he even noticed me. And I think we were very close to pointing a finger at each other as if we suddenly recognized something in the other,  about to say, “Atlantis, right?”

The truth is Chinese Medicine is not at all linear. It is based on patterns. Patterns that need to be observed, respected, and honored.  It works like this: if this happens, then that happens. BUT if THAT happens, then THIS happens. Or… if the wind is blowing, then THAT happens. But if it’s damp and cold, well then THIS happens. And if it’s dry and hot, well, look at what happens then! And let’s not even talk about whether you are standing on the sunny or shady side of the mountain, because that can uncover a whole other set of patterns.

It’s a story of patterns of potential. Not of a narrow and limited road.

Chinese Medicine is a medicine that always made more sense to me than Western Medicine for this reason. Seek the pattern and you are led to the answer. Pull the piece of yarn and watch the pattern unravel; each time you tug, a new skein of possibilities.

As a writer and a poet (and as someone who crafts with yarn), I have always interpreted life through metaphor. So of course I grasped the language of this ancient medicine easily. Once you figure out the patterns in Chinese Medicine, you have the key to everything: physical pain, emotional pain, organ disease. Find the pattern, find the key. Find the pattern, find the language of the Divine.

Think about it. God is not linear. How dull would that be? This has to happen before that can happen in order for this to happen. Wait and get on line and until you reach the destination point, it’s pretty much a process of drudgery. Kind of like the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Look at the universe and tell me it’s linear. You can’t. God is a creative God. And She speaks in patterns. In the patterns and cycles of life, in the patterns of our experience, in the patterns of the people we meet, in the many synchronous gifts and mysteries that come into our lives. Linear thought says you have to go through 24 other letters to get from A to Z. With God, it’s possible to get there in a heartbeat. There’s no logic in that.

What are you on line waiting for? What are you expecting might take ten years and not ten days? What do you think needs to happen before the next thing can occur? Does God need that thing to happen, or do you need the logic of that thing happening first? How might life look if you shifted that view and let go of your brain’s need for reason? And control?

How might life look if you decided to not limit God to a linear process, and instead opened yourself up to the infinite patterns of Divine Mystery?

Blessings and peace on your journey,

Maria Mandarino

 

Blog Post: By Faith

The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee,

preserve thy body and soul under everlasting life. Take and eat

this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on

him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving.

       –Book of Common Prayer, Holy Eucharist, Rite I

 

I have heard these words nearly every Thursday morning at the Rite I service I attend at my church. But last Thursday, time felt as though it were suspended, as my pastor firmly placed the communion bread into my palm as I knelt at the altar rail in our small chapel.

My pastor begins this prayer as he serves communion to the first person kneeling. And as he moves to the next person, he continues with the next line of the prayer. As he reached me, he was up to the words, “by faith.”

And faith was exactly what I had lost, only about a half hour earlier.

Four days prior, my dearest and oldest friend on this planet, Jim, a friend whom I consider an anam cara (soul friend in Gaelic) had suffered a massive heart attack. He is only 51 and in good health. He had been revived by medics. We were told he was without oxygen for ten minutes. He was in a medically induced coma. I was on the other side of the country and relying upon friends at a distance to get my updates. It looked grim for four days. No response. My friends, my family, and my entire church were all praying for Jim’s recovery. I could not imagine walking this earth without my soul friend at my side. I was distraught and steeped in grief for four solid days.

On Thursday morning there had been no change in Jim’s status. Before leaving for church, I sat on the floor of my bedroom and I spoke to him. Jim and I have certainly had “conversations” without benefit of a telephone connection before. I knew with Jim in a coma, his heart would feel my words now.

Gentle tears ran down my cheeks as I said, “Jim, I love you. And I will miss you. But if you need to go — if you need to be free — it’s okay to leave.” I sat there for some time, just being with the sound of those words and all they meant. Jim and I had talked plenty about death and dying and nearly 20 years ago we dealt with the tragic passing of a friend who was barely 30. We had had many “big conversations.”  I was sad, but I knew being kept alive on machines was not consistent with Jim’s idea of life.

I looked at the clock then and realized I’d be ten minutes late for church. And I thought perhaps God would understand if I skipped this week. And then I heard Jim’s voice inside my head. “Maria Grace,” (he only used my middle name when he was exasperated with me). “Get your ass to church.”

I froze in my tracks. It was so completely something Jim would have said. I paused in disbelief. Then, I heard, “And put on your goddamned green!”

It was Saint Patrick’s Day. I looked down at my sweater. It was mauve.

I glanced back at the clock. Changing clothes would mean I’d be an additional five minutes late.

I went back into my closet and pulled out a change of clothes.

I got to church just in time for the last part of the first reading.  During the sermon, our pastor was talking about how there can be no Easter without a Good Friday. I’m at the end of my first year of training to be a spiritual director. Throughout much of Lent we have been talking about the Pascal Mystery and the many transitions of life into death we experience on this earth. I peacefully sat with the pastor’s words, accepting that Jim’s time of transition was likely nearing and this was God’s way of preparing me. I was sad, but I was at peace with what seemed (at least clinically speaking) to be the obvious.

I had my phone set to vibrate in my pocket, something I would typically never do while in church. But this day I was so sure that within the hour I’d be receiving sad news, I could not bring myself to silence my phone. As the pastor was speaking about the Pascal Mystery, the phone vibrated. I silenced it immediately and I took a peek at the message.

It simply read: “He wiggled his toes on command.” It was beyond anything any one of us could have expected. He was in there. Tears of joy ran down my face. There was voluntary movement, he could hear, he could process information. I knew Jim. I knew the rest would come.

All clinical evidence and all physical world knowledge spoke against this moment.

And yet more the next day. Jim moved his knees. We had bilateral movement and recruitment of large muscle groups, which suggested that with therapy Jim would walk again.

Two days later, we  received confirmation that Jim’s personality was still in there. He had undergone a tracheotomy, but was communicating with his eyes. When he was asked what he had perceived as a stupid question, he rolled his eyes as if to say, “Duh.”

Small things become monumental gifts in times such as these. And these were gifts that were precious to us all.  They embodied hope.

Jim is still very much on a healing journey and likely will be for a while. I post this blog on Holy Saturday, a holy day of waiting. And appropriately, here we are, patiently waiting for more news about Jim’s continued healing.

Easter has always been an odd time of transition for me. It seems to come a bit too quickly after the darkness of Good Friday and the stripping of the altar. One day of waiting for the stone to be rolled away doesn’t seem to be quite enough time for me. The new-found brightness and the shift into celebration feels a bit shocking. I don’t feel prepared for such radical change. And I can only imagine the shock of Mary as she arrived at the tomb, finding the stone moved, as she made the transition from grief into joy. Such a large shift for a human heart to make.

Wishing you God’s blessings and the peace and joy of the Resurrection this Easter and always.

May we all walk by faith.

Peace,

Maria Grace Mandarino

©Maria Grace Mandarino  2016