Friday, March 25, 2022

"I was a stranger..."

Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, I have been “sitting” for meditation three mornings a week with a small and diverse ZOOM sangha.  We sit together for 20 minutes practicing the nurture of the heart-mind.  I experience significant challenge in the practice of observing the flow of thoughts and distractions and emotions that flow through consciousness at any given moment.  In a 20 minute “sit” I may need to practice “returning to my breath” almost moment to moment.  “Monkey mind,” a mind that jumps from distraction to distraction, like a monkey enjoying flight in the trees, is     a  state I live in a lot of the time.
            For many years in my spiritual practice, cultivating compassion as a first response to any situation I may encounter has been my commitment and my greatest challenge.    There is often a bit of a gap between my initial (and not always compassionate) judgement, and the eventual arrival at a more loving and hospitable response.
           I was able to observe it with  much greater clarity this week - bowing with gratitude to my teacher and the teachings.    I received a call from a total stranger whose friend and mother-figure was dying. She said “Can you come?  Can you say a prayer?”  So far, so good.  Of course I can. 

        I entered a house full of physical chaos - the result of the months long downward slide of a home in the grips of a terminal illness.  There was barely a path through the clutter and debris from the front door into the bedroom where death was happening.  So far so good.  My heart broke wide open for this family who had already suffered insurmountable loss and was about to lose wife - mother -grandmother - the nuts and bolts that held the family together.
    We conversed.  We prayed blessings for her as she embarked on her final journey.  The back story was that the couple had been married 41 years ago by a priest ( the husband is Roman Catholic) and a minister (the dying woman was Protestant) in our local church.  It was of profound importance to the surviving husband that his wife’s funeral be concelebrated in the same way -with a priest and a minister in attendance.  Still, so far, so good. Compassion dictates that the comfort and care of a grieving family is paramount.

                                   Death came before midnight of that same day.


      I awaited the customary call from the funeral home, letting me know specifics - time, location of the funeral and burial - - but there was a glitch.  The local priest was reluctant to concelebrate a service and burial of a non-Catholic.  There goes my compassion - - like a bird in flight - - right out the window. How could a servant of God refuse the rites of the church to a grieving family?  I watched with a kind of chagrined amusement  as all my judgements and biases flooded in - - rather too embarrassing to list them here.  I stewed with my thoughts and feelings  as I tried to find my way through my resistance without doing any damage.  After several unsatisfying attempts to reach the priest, we finally managed a brief conversation and put together a “game plan” for the service and burial.  

          Compassion at a very low ebb - judgement and aversion abounding.    I kept observing.

    I sat with the sangha early on the day of the funeral and began to feel the glimmers of return to a bit of balance in my heart-mind.  
    I walked into the funeral home about 30 minutes before the service was to begin, greeted family members, sat with the grieving husband for a few minutes and went in search of the priest.  I found him contemplating a collage of photos of the deceased, sweat pouring from his forehead.  He turned to look at me when I called his name and introduced myself.  I saw a young, frightened and confused child looking at me with eyes like a deer in the headlights.  

 My heart cracked wide open.  Here was a priest, brand new to the island,  finding his way into our peculiar island culture - - called upon to do something his tradition was very ambivalent about - - not really knowing how to handle something for which there was no guidance or language in the prayerbook ritual.  He did not know the family nor did he know anyone else in the gathering. He did not even know me. He was a stranger.
    Gone were my judgements. Gone was my irritability. Gone was my frustration.  All replaced by a compassion that wanted to embrace him and tell him it would be OK.  I could offer my familiarity with the community’s customs, reassure him that sometimes weird situations arise and that we could just “go with it” for the sake of a suffering family, that I would handle the parts that just didn’t fit with his tradition.  I could feel compassionate love and generosity and hospitality for this stranger in our midst.  It turned out that we actually worked quite well together.
    It was a great learning experience for me.  No matter how long or how much I practice my spiritual disciplines, I am vulnerable to knee-jerk responses that are less than compassionate. I can be fearful and judgmental of the stranger  as though I had never practiced at all.  I learned that face to face encounter with the stranger can result in the awakening of compassion when the reality of his or her humanity is in full view in relationship.  I learned that the stranger is my teacher.
   Millions of strangers are in the making with the war in Ukraine.  I read a few days ago that in Poland it is not just the social service structures that are welcoming refugees so much as it is Polish families who are opening their homes and their hearts to strangers, welcoming them, clothing them, feeding them, providing a place of refuge in the maelstrom.


    Strangers, teachers of compassion abound in this world.  We have only to encounter them and be open to what they will teach us.
Vicky Hanjian

Friday, March 18, 2022

Couch Traveling

 There are two films this morning I can’t get out of my mind. One I watched last night on public television. Thanks to PBS, a person can travel the world from their couch. That’s not a bad idea when the globe is struggling with a pandemic and old bones don’t like 12 or 14 hours in airplanes. 

The PBS film was about Slovakia. The tour director took us to several small villages as well as two of the major cities. The villages were of most interest to me, as they revealed connections between the past and present, especially in different community events and traditions and an at-home relationship with the natural environment. People seemed comfortable in their rural environment, without the need for shopping malls and the latest in fashion and music. Traditional markets, song and dance were sufficient.

The film gave us a picture of a country of castles and churches. Some of the castles were in ruins. Others were tourist destinations with tour directors; one offered frightening theatre meant to scare and enlighten you as you explored the interior. The distant past came alive in these human creations of stone and mortar. One wondered about those who dwelled there; their passions and purpose; their loves and losses. What moved and motivated a castle dweller? What swayed their spirit?

The film also showed us some of Slovakia’s churches. Two stand out in my mind’s eye. The first is from an aerial view. The church is in the center of the town square. I mean the center! There is nothing around it except stone churchyard, at least an open football field on all sides. Only then do the dwellings of residents begin to appear. It’s not the traditional courtyard, with a courthouse and the rule of law at the center; but a churchyard, with a church and faith at the center. One gets the explicit understanding the people of this community want their faith to be at the center of their community life.

The other gripping church scenes were iconic. It was an old cathedral; constructed in the 13th. or 14th. century. There was a picture of Mary. Just looking at the artist’s rendering of her could create converts to her story. Other time-worn iconic figures, surviving the ravages of time, temperature and treachery, could make a believer out of a viewer. The intensity in those pictures, rendered so long ago, remains!

Slovakia is not just castles and churches but also forests and mountains. In the film, we go hiking on forest trails and climb high mountains. There are waterfalls and deep snow and extravagant views.  But in all of these wilderness areas there is modest but necessary human interventions, to make experience of the natural world possible; fast and sleek trains; climbing ladders; mountain top cable cars. We are offered access, but not dominance. One can hope the film will satisfy watchers and not encourage Slovakian travel, that overwhelms their capacity to provide that natural setting.

Increased tourism to Slovakia would fit with our modern mentality of “more is better.” We would want Slovakia to have more trains to carry more tourists to visit more castles and churches to boost the economy and in the process, forget the songs and dances of the past (except for show), the beauty and timelessness of the forests and the mountains, (except as they draw more tourists).

The second film I can’t get out of my mind is, “Don’t Look Up.” It first came to my attention in a message from the Sunrise Movement. If you haven’t seen it, you must! It also investigates the “more is better” theme and the result of ignoring its consequences.

There are those in our society who don’t want us to look to the past. They are afraid we will see things there that were life-giving, but now lost. They are afraid we will see things that needed correction then, and still need correction now. They are afraid we will remember our more intense relationship with the world of living things around us, and relinquish our desire for things and more “stuff.”

They don’t want us to “look up.” They don’t want us to see the sun and the moon and the stars. They don’t want us to see a sacred pattern to the universe with everlasting messages for us. Instead, they offer us material satisfaction and spiritual starvation. As “Don’t Look Up” makes clear, we have a choice, We need to heed what religion and science tell us about our relationship to Creation and the world around us; to falling castles and iconic images; to village life and alpine forests. Two films; one choice; more or enough! 

Carl Kline

Friday, March 11, 2022

No Way Around But Through

This morning, you come downstairs to find me. You greet me in that sunny voice with which you always bless the beginning of my days.

Then you slump on the couch beside me. Your youthful face darkens to a storm. “How could Biden have done this?” you say, in dismay.

You’re talking Afghanistan. The panic at the Kabul airport. The gunfire. The mad rushes on the tarmac. The desperation of thousands to escape the Taliban. The failure of our government to plan a better evacuation.

“You’ve been reading your newsfeed,” I say.
 “It’s immoral,” you say, in soft-spoken outrage, tinged by grief.

How to console you? Your heart is as deep as the sky is high. You dream of a perfect world, even as you’re learning that “perfect” is a trap. (The Taliban, too, seek the “perfect.”)

“We could have done better!” you exclaim.

“Yes,” I reply, “and we should have. There’s no excuse … Still, there’s no clean way to end a war.” What begins with bombs will end with blood, I think to myself. “Now there’s chaos, and the threat of slaughter. No way around but through.”

* * *

No way around but through. This is one of the mantras of my life. I didn’t borrow the phrase from anyone, though others have probably said it. Rather, it emerged from my spirit as I wrestled with the lesser angels of my nature and the sorrows of this world.

Its roots run back to The Book of Isaiah:

When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze. (43:2 NIV)

This imagery got seared into my mind as a girl. Back then, I sometimes thought of the speaker as God, just as the passage is written. Most often, though, I imagined myself as the speaker, promising my compassionate presence to an imperiled world. (Try reading the text this way, if you’d like. Offer it your full voice.)

Are flood waters rising all around? We have to plunge into them. No way around but through.

Are fires burning on all sides? We have to walk into them. No way around but through.

I’m not sure when I began to use these words to shore myself up (and others, too) in times of trouble. But they’ve been part of me long enough that, whenever I need them, they rise unbidden.

You heard me say these words often enough during your childhood that now, as a young adult, you say them to rally yourself; to persevere through what hurts.

I smile when you do that. You’re making my mantra your own wisdom. May it serve you well.

No way around but through. This isn’t a prayer that you and I might be spared hardship or crisis. Rather, it’s a reminder that no matter the mess we’re in, something worth striving for is waiting on the other side. We might not be able to see it from here—the floods too high, the fires too hot, the Taliban too menacing—but it’s there. Our struggle to reach it can teach us things that we didn’t understand before; things we might not have learned, had the path been easier.

No way around but through. These words work no magic. But they help us keep going when we’re tempted to turn back. Or run away. Or throw up our hands. Or bury our heads in the burning sand.

These words prepare us to be brave. To be resilient. To pay attention. To be resourceful and creative. To convert our despair into loving resolve.

You’ve heard of “tough love?” Well, I’m talking the grittiest, most tenacious, down-in-the-trenches, nobody-left-behind kind of love—a love of this world so fused with hope for this world that no amount of suffering can destroy it.

So, dear heart, I promise you, we will do better. In the disaster of Afghanistan. In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. In the raging pandemic. In the plagues afflicting our democracy. In the upheaval of a changing climate … In all our trials and tribulations.

Will we get frustrated sometimes? Often.

Tired? Yep.

Broken-hearted? You’d better believe it.

But we’ll keep keepin’ on.

No way. Around. But through.

Deep peace,

Phyllis Cole Dai

This post first appeared in a recent issue of Staying Power, Phyllis’s weekly care package for creative, compassionate spirits. Get a boost in your inbox!

Friday, March 4, 2022


Now that the pandemic is in the third year and new variants continue to emerge; with the numbers of cases going up and down and up again; with continuing recommendations for masks and social distancing; with the difficulties of travel to be with family and friends; with a firm belief in vaccines and love of neighbor; my life has become considerably more monkish. A meditative and metaphorical life practice has emerged. I call it our Pandemic Puzzle Practice.

Life is a puzzle, isn’t it? Sometimes it seems that God is a puzzle maker, creating us in 300, 500, 750, 1,000 or more pieces, putting us in a package and delivering us by God’s own FedEx. Then it’s our job, hopefully with some help, to put the pieces together.

I always start a puzzle by turning over all the pieces and separating out the straight edges. Then there’s a good chance you can make the border for the puzzle and proceed to put it together. I know this isn’t the process everyone uses. My granddaughter doesn’t need a frame. When we do one together, she can start working from the inside out; perhaps because she’s young and has an artists’ eye. Either way, we all eventually create that boundary, that frame for our life; and we need it, if we are going to complete the Creators’ puzzle for us.

There can be problems! You think you’re building a solid wall, a frame, a border, a foundation for a full and satisfying life. Then you discover there’s a space, a hole, and you aren’t sure where or what the piece is that can fill it. Was it there at one point but now lost? Is it simply stuck in the midst of all the others? I always look under the near-by rug. Then I search among the waiting puzzle boxes under the table and on the floor. Sometimes it takes the help of another to locate it. Or perhaps you need a while away from the puzzle, to come back with fresh eyes for a new look. We just need to remember, when we see pieces missing, it can be a good thing. It can start a search toward eventual satisfaction. 
The worst possible problem is to have a finished puzzle (or life), with one piece missing and none to be found. It’s not under the rug, the table, the chair, the couch. We hate to pass such a puzzle box on to others, labelled “one piece missing.” Most don’t want it!

Once we finished a puzzle and there was an extra piece. Was the maker trying to fool us? Another time the picture on the box was different from the puzzle inside. Was the maker mixed up? There are a few pieces in our lost and found drawer; lonely, never used, lost to us and their origins.

Puzzle practice helps discernment. My preference is the big picture items. Just let me put all the sky pieces in one place and start to see the heavens. The light varies. The colors are bright or dim, shaded or stark, with all manner of variations. Gradually the colors reveal themselves and shapes and sizes complete the placement process.

My wife prefers the smaller puzzle items. Give her words or faces or solitary images and she’s at her best. She leaves the leaves for me. We both prefer bright colors. Puzzle practice together is a good metaphor for married life.

There are some who do puzzle practice with two puzzles in one. You need the same puzzle maker with two puzzles cut with the same saw. Then you combine them in a way that gives you a totally new picture, like twins delivered from the Divine Puzzle-Maker.

Two puzzles ago we put together some of the sacred and spectacular sites around the globe. They each had their own little box, from Yellowstone to Egyptian Pyramids to the Taj Mahal to the Eiffel Tower. It was like a pandemic trip around the globe from the space of one’s living room. The latest we finished yesterday was a Charles Wysocki puzzle, one of those that produces nostalgia for older folks. It’s a picture of the sand dunes and Cape Cottages on Nantucket from an earlier era, with women in long dresses on the dunes and kites in the sky.

One of the churches I served had a puzzle library. Anyone could borrow a puzzle and it was where folks brought them when they finished one. There was always an interesting selection and new puzzles appeared regularly. I know seniors borrowed them, as I would find them on tables and desks when I visited elders in retirement communities and care centers. There’s something meditative and contemplative about puzzle practice.

For some, the practice of puzzles could be an escape from the hard realities of their time and place. Heaven knows, we live in such times and spaces. Then again, puzzle practice could operate as a metaphor for life, offering instruction and discernment about the importance of even one small piece in the overall intention of the Creator.  

Let’s care for our life puzzle pieces, and not leave any holes in our completed picture.

Carl Kline