Becoming Who We Are Made to Be

Becoming Who We Are Made to Be

Originally published in The Catholic Times Jan. 14, 2018

Photo of diffuse bright light at the top of stone staircase

Photo: Mary van Balen

Samuel paid attention. His heart was “awake” even as he slept. One night, in the shrine at Shiloh where he lived under the care of its aged high priest, Eli, Samuel heard someone call his name. He didn’t turn over and go back to sleep. “Here I am,” he responded and hurried to Eli, assuming the summons had come from him.

But it hadn’t. Eli instructed the boy to go back to sleep. After this happened two more times, Eli realized that the Lord was speaking to Samuel and instructed him to reply, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” if he were to hear the call again.

God did call again, and the boy responded as Eli had instructed. I wonder if Samuel had any expectations of what he might hear that night or if he was surprised to learn that the Lord planned to fulfill the Divine threats made against Eli and his family for their abuse of priestly duties, dishonoring the God they were to serve.

Samuel listened and then went back to sleep. In the morning, he had the courage to answer Eli’s question about what the Lord had said, and Eli had the humility to accept it. Samuel had spoken and been heard as the prophet God made him to be.

Scripture provides no definite age for Samuel at the time of this call. He is called “a boy.” He was the son of Hannah, a faithful woman embittered by long years of barrenness and the derision she suffered as a result. While on her family’s annual pilgrimage to the shrine at Shiloh, she laid her anguish before the Lord, weeping and imploring God to give her a male child. If so blessed, she vowed to give him to God’s service for as long as he lived. She had a son and true to her word, when he was of appropriate age, Hannah brought him to Shiloh and left him in Eli’s care.

No matter Samuel’s age, this story of a youth hearing and responding whole-heartedly to the call of God is captivating and is one of my favorites. How had Samuel become so “wide awake,” so attentive and receptive to God?

Photo: Mary van Balen

Surely, as with all of us, his early years were formative. Growing up in a family of faith, nursed and nurtured by a mother who loved and trusted God, and living in the shadow of the ark of God in the tabernacle in Shiloh must have influenced his relationship with the Holy One.

But, Samuel’s life sounds rosier than it was. (Don’t we often idealize the lives of others in comparison with our own?). Remember, his father had two wives who didn’t get along, and Eli and his sons were not faithful to the demands and requirements of their priestly ministry.

In the midst of it all, Samuel was able to attend to the call of God. He was a contemplative, aware of the Presence within and without, in the good and not so good, as he went about his duties. He must have taken time for solitude, resting in God and deepening his ability to hear and recognize the Holy Mystery that was the Source of his life and identity.

No matter the differences in time and circumstance between our lives and Samuel’s, we share the call to be people of prayer and to grow in our relationship with God. God has placed the gift of Divine Self in every one of us. Identifying that bit of Divinity and living into it, becoming the reflection of God we are made to be and remaining faithful to it is our life task. That’s why the story of young Samuel grabs our hearts: it is the story of us all.

Photo: Kathryn Holt

As 2018 unfolds, we can choose practices that will deepen our openness and help us “pay attention.” In the midst of life’s busyness, suffering, and challenges, we can take time to be still and rest in God, hearing God’s call however it comes. We can allow the Holy Mystery dwelling within to move and transform us and so, participate in transforming the world. We can say, like Samuel, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

© 2018 Mary van Balen

Solar Eclipse II: A Reflection

Solar Eclipse II: A Reflection

NASA photograph of the total solar eclipse taken at Oregon State Fairgrounds by Dominic Hart

PHOTO: NASA taken by Dominic Hart at the Oregon State Fairgrounds August 21, 2017

When the eclipse reached totality, the dramatic appearance of the sun’s corona took the crowds collective breath away—stunning and larger than I had imagined it would be. Was it the blackness of the moon that made the corona look so bright, or the brightness of the corona that made the moon’s darkness absolute, like a hole in the sky looking into emptiness?

“The corona’s always there,” I thought, “just overpowered by the sun’s brilliance.”

Only darkness could reveal the light.

Darkness is often used to describe something to be avoided or escaped. It’s a metaphor for what’s wrong in our world or in us. It’s where we don’t want to be. We read about moving from darkness into light, and the spiritual journey is often described that way.

But the eclipse reminded me that when it comes to darkness, it’s not so clear cut. Darkness has an important role to play in creation, in life, and in spiritual deepening.

Years ago, a close friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer. A few weeks later, after having had an inconclusive mammogram, I was called back for a second screening. While waiting for the appointment, I thought a lot about cancer and dying, imagining the worst: Would I see my children grow to adulthood? How well would I deal with the pain and process of treatment? How would it affect my family and friends? Was I ready to face death? And how was my relationship with God?

The morning of the appointment was clear and bright. The prospect of death had sharpened my senses, and on the way to the imaging facility, I noticed everything: the coolness of the air, the color of leaves, the beauty of the city, the crisp, dark shadows on the buildings that made edges sharp and shapes distinct. Without the shadows, everything would blend into everything else. “Maybe that’s what’s meant by ‘the shadow of death,’” I pondered. “It provides definition, bringing life into focus.”

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

The relationship between darkness and light is a constant theme in literature and art. It runs through Scripture. Phrases like “a light that darkness could not overcome” or “calling you out of the darkness into the light” quickly come to mind, portraying “darkness” as evil. But there are others.

The creation story starts out in chaos. God then separates light from darkness suggesting both were present—light in darkness, darkness in light—to make day and night. Neither were banished. Life needs both to work. And God said it was all very good.

In Exodus, God was in the pillar of cloud as well as the pillar of fire when leading the Hebrews out of Egypt, and when Moses met the Holy One face to face, the people hung back and watched from the light as Moses entered the thick, dark cloud because that’s where God was.

Psalm 139 says: “Darkness is not dark for you, and night shines as the day. Darkness and light are but one.”

God is in both.

The great mystics speak of darkness as a necessary part of the journey. It helps us see what is otherwise missed—like the corona that’s present but invisible. Darkness invites us to reach deeper, to look intently, to accept ourselves as we are. And in the darkest times, we may learn how to sit with God in the night while the Holy Mystery does the work we are unable to do ourselves.

Photo Credit: NASA/Carla Thomas

The coming together of darkness and light during the eclipse was magnificently beautiful, a profound experience that will remain for me an image of the power of darkness to illumine the spiritual journey—a metaphor of the grace found in embracing our darkness as well as our light, and encountering God there.

© 2017 Mary van Balen

Saint Bonifacia’s Ordinary Way

Saint Bonifacia’s Ordinary Way

a photo of Saint Bonifacia Rodriguez y Castro S.S.J.Originally published in The Catholic Times Aug. 13, 2017

This week’s liturgical calendar celebrates the lives of three women saints: St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), St. Clare, and Saint Bonifacia Rodriguez y Castro. If you’re like me, you’re familiar with the first two. But who was the third, Saint Bonifacia?

Her memorial is listed as August 7, 8, or 9th, depending on where you look, but a little research provided an inspiring portrait of the woman. Bonifacia was born in 1837, the oldest of six children, to a poor couple in Salamanca, Spain. Her father was a tailor who worked in his shop at home. Bonifacia learned not only his craft, but she and her siblings also witnessed the deep faith of both parents, lived simply in their home and community.

Her father died when she was fifteen, and Bonifacia began working for others outside her home. Eventually, she set up a shop in the family home, making and selling cords, lace, and other trimmings to support herself and her mother. Inspired by the quiet life of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, she saw her home and shop as a little Nazareth where work and prayer were intertwined. Along with her mother, Bonifacia made daily visits to a nearby Jesuit-run church.

Other young women, attracted to her and her way of life, began to gather at her home on Sunday’s and feast days, finding a safe place to gather and support one another with prayer and Scripture, listening and encouraging as women do. The house-shop became a safe haven for women to work and pray.

Though Bonifacia longed to become a Dominican, the Jesuit priest at her church, Francisco Javier Butiña y Hospital (her spiritual director), had another idea. His deep concern for the plight of post Industrial Revolution factory workers and respect for the path to holiness through ordinary work resonated with Bonifacia. He suggested that together they establish a congregation to protect the women workers and promote a spirituality that embraced manual work as a way to holiness, not an impediment. The congregation became known as the Servants of Saint Joseph.

This was a new form for a women’s congregation, and while supported by some and by the local bishop at the time of its foundation, it later met with resistance from those more comfortable with women in convents. Like many before her, she suffered for her vision and determination to remain faithful to it.

As Saint John Paul II said in his homily at her beatification, “It was a form of religious life too daring not to have opposition. Immediately it was attacked by the then traditional diocesan clergy of Salamanca who does not grasp the evangelical depth of this form of life which is very close to the world of work.”

While this column doesn’t provide space to tell all her story, I can emphasize the importance her life and vision have for us today. Despite Vatican II’s insistence that the call to holiness is given to everyone and is found in all walks of life, many church faithful, clergy and lay alike, still think the path to sanctity is somehow separate from ordinary life. Holiness is seen best pursued in convents, monasteries, or rectories. Or at least in occupations connected with church or overtly religious activities.

Bonifacia knew better. Through prayer and reflection, she recognized God’s call deep within and trusted it, remaining faithful when others opposed and mistreated her. It’s easy to doubt the word that God speaks in our hearts, the call that directs us to bring God into the world in a way uniquely given to each of us, right where we are.

Bonifacia also knew that we don’t walk the path to God alone. We walk together. As she said, “We should be all for all, following Jesus.”  But trusting God’s indwelling in the “other” is a challenge, especially if the “other” looks different than we do, speaks a different language, or has views different than our own. Despite its difficulty, this ordinary path transforms the world by our taking God’s Presence into it.

The world needs people committed to this simple way of prayer and bringing God we come to know within into the streets and workplaces. Not by heavy handed evangelizing and dogma, but by living with love and joy, responding to the needs of those we encounter. By truly listening to “others,” open to recognize and receive God who dwells in their hearts. And like Bonifacia, by having courage to speak our truth to power. To do something different in familiar places.

©2017 Mary van Balen

Fountain Fullness and Good Stewardship

Fountain Fullness and Good Stewardship

éFirst published in The Catholic Times  July 16, 2017 issue

Close up of fountain at the Vatican

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

And since the nature of goodness is to diffuse itself…the Father is the fountain-fullness of goodness.        Ilia Delio

Yet access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights.      Pope Francis

Standing Rock is everywhere.   Chief Arvol Looking Horse

 

Water has been on my mind. As Ilia Delio, O.S.F. writes in Simply Bonaventure: An Introduction to His Life, Thought, and Writing, the 13th century saint whose feast we celebrate on July 15 referred to the first principle of the Godhead as the fountain-fullness of goodness. (Bonaventure referred to this self-diffusive Goodness as “Father,” not in a biological manner, but in the sense that God is generative, Delio explains.)

I first heard this phrase over fifteen years ago while attending a lecture by Delio. When she made time for questions, I was unable to formulate any but sat in silence allowing some of the imagery and expansive thought she presented to find a place within me. The image of God as infinite fountain-fullness, pouring out Divine self, has always remained.

Niagra Falls

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

I’ve thought of it while standing at Niagara Falls, getting soaked in a rainstorm, or while drinking a refreshing glass of water: God, ever-flowing outward, creating and sustaining all.

In his encyclical, Laudato Si’, from the conviction that “…everything in the world is connected…” Pope Francis reminds us that fresh drinking water holds primary importance because “… it is indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.” As with the effects of other instances of environmental degradation, the lack of clean water and the consequences of that fall most heavily upon the poor.

He addresses the people of the world, calling for a change of lifestyles of consumption and immediate gratification into lifestyles of sacrifice and sharing. Pope Francis quotes Patriarch Bartholomew’s eloquent words saying we all need to repent since in some ways we have all harmed the planet.

That realization deepened for me when I recently viewed a water bill for my apartment. The amount of water used was surprising.

I began to notice that water usually runs while I wash my hands and brush my teeth. Without a dishwasher, I often fill the sink with soapy water, even when only a few plates and glassed need cleaned. As weeks passed, water and my consumption of it became an exercise in mindfulness. A big water drinker, I usually find two or three half-filled glasses on tables or counters at bedtime. No longer dumped down the drain, the extra now waters my plants. In a month’s time, my water use decreased by half.

Who would’ve thought that such small efforts would make a difference? Patriarch Bartholomew realized that we all “generate small ecological damage.” Some is unavoidable; some is not.

Water came to mind again this week when a longtime friend sent a copy of an article published in the June 26 issue of America Magazine. “The Spirituality of Standing Rock: Activists see a moral imperative for protecting our water” by Eileen Markey begins with the historic gathering of Native Americans and their supporters from around the globe at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota to prayerfully protest the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline under their water supply.

“Water is life,” the women said. While oil now flows beneath their land, the stand to protect the environment, particularly the water, continues as groups and individuals across the country carry on the protests, calling for action from governments, corporations, groups, and individuals. The setback at Standing Rock was not the end of the issue.

“Standing Rock is everywhere,” Lakota chief Arvol Looking Horse said in the article. Indeed, it is.

Summer, with its long spells of hot, dry days interspersed with sudden storms or a day or two of soft showers, is a good time to reflect on water and how we use it. To change wasteful habits. To stand with Pope Francis in his call to work together to move into lifestyles that reflect reverence for the earth and recognition of the importance of good stewardship, especially as it affects the poor. And it is a good time to join our voices with that of Saint Francis, in thanksgiving and in praise of the Creator, the Fountain-Fullenss, the source of all that is.

© 2017 Mary van Balen

Rain—An Icon of Grace

Rain—An Icon of Grace

A photo of rain falling on a stone wall

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

Originally published in The Catholic Times, May 14, 2017

Rain pelted the windows as I fell asleep one Friday night this spring. Thunder rumbled in the distance, occasionally exploding through the thick sky, rattling the window beside my bed. I’ve always loved thunder storms, especially at night when I have nothing else to do but listen and watch for lightning flashes that brighten the darkness for a moment or two.

When I awoke late the following morning, rain was still falling, and heavy clouds shuttered the sky making the house dark enough that I lit a candle for prayer time. Rain drops became my centering “word” as I tried to quiet my mind and simply sit with God. That’s never easy. Managing a minute or two out of twenty without thoughts crashing around in my head is a success. I trust the Holy One appreciates the effort.

But that Saturday morning, rain made a difference. After a while it became an icon of Grace, falling steadily on the world, replenishing Life’s Gift that flows through all creation. I sat for a long time, moving in and out of quiet, trying to be present enough that some of that Gift could find a place in me.

The image of Grace raining down on the world stayed with me all day. I remembered times of exhilaration, running out in a downpour, getting soaked, and tilting my head up towards the sky with my mouth open trying to taste the drops. I also remembered making mad dashes from car to door, trying to avoid rain altogether.

Saturday came and went, but as the new week moved along, the image raised questions. How eagerly do I embrace Grace given. Do I stand with arms outstretched and heart open? Do I let it drench me? Do I stop and listen, no matter where I am or what I’m doing? Do I welcome it in and let it flow out? Or am I too busy, too distracted by noise to hear?

If so, the morning rain said not to worry. Grace is always falling.

Photo of a heavy rain falling on waterlilies on lake at St. Johns

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

I remembered a few favorite scripture verses that speak about rain and God’s provident care:

For just as from the heavens/ the rain and snow come down/ And do not return there/ till they have watered the earth, /making it fertile and fruitful, /Given seed to those who sow/ and bread to those who eat, / so shall my word be/ that goes forth from my mouth;/ It shall not return to me void, /but shall do my will, /achieving the end for which I sent it.  Is 55, 10-11

These words bring hope that God’s Spirit, falling into my deepest places, flows through me as I go about my days, helping me do the work, knowingly or not, that I am made to do.

Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; / with the lyre make music to our God, /Who covers the heavens with clouds, / provides rain for the earth, / makes grass sprout on the mountains… Ps 147, 7-8

 How important to nurture a grateful spirit, to give thanks for the outpouring of Grace that never stops, recognized or not.

Let us know, let us strive to know the Lord; /whose coming is as certain as the dawn, /and whose judgement shines forth like the light of day! /The Lord will come to us like the rain/like spring rain that waters the earth. Hosea 6, 3

 Trusting that God’s coming “is as certain as the dawn” is difficult when the earth of our hearts is parched or when suffering and injustice in the world overwhelms. Concerns of the heart can tempt it to close in upon itself, to keep Grace running down the outside instead of pouring in.

I have a photo of a rainy afternoon outside the apartment I stayed in one summer during a writing workshop in Minnesota. I think I’ll make a print of it and keep close by—an icon of never-ending Grace and Presence.

©2017 Mary van Balen

Where Grace is Found and Given Away

Where Grace is Found and Given Away

flowers in a vase, mug, and guitar sitting on a blue and white table cloth.Originally published in The Catholic Times, October 16, 2016

Yesterday I came home from work and picked the five remaining stems of tall, pink snapdragons and one red geranium. They fit perfectly into a vase purchased from a shop near the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota. The dark green matte outer layer had been etched down to the pale terra cotta, creating the stair-step design that symbolizes the Black Hills, Paha Sapa, a holy place of the Lakota.

The Lakota came to mind, and the other Native Americans and supporters who gather with them in prayer and presence, again striving to protect their land, this time by protesting the construction of the Dakota pipeline.

Their struggle was one reason I needed flowers on my table last night and why I’ve stopped perusing New York Times headlines as part of my morning routine. The violence and suffering in the news is overwhelming.

Hatred, stoked by fear and ignorance, fills our national election politics. The voices of the marginalized  around the world—the poor, women, LGBT people, children, refugees, and others—are rarely heard. Glacial ice-melts and extreme weather patterns call for action to address global warming, but the will to pursue alternative energy sources and lifestyle changes is lacking. My heart was worn out.

So, I picked flowers. I brewed tea and poured it into a favorite mug made by Joan Lederman, who lives in Woods Hole, creating glazes with sediment collected from the ocean floor. My mug is part of her Earth Crust/Space Dust series, and a band of its glaze contains asteroid-laden dust from 65 million years ago. I rubbed the blue sea glass that fills the thumb well on the handle, sipped Lady Grey, and let my heart soak up beauty.

Next I pulled my guitar case out from under the bed where it’s rested undisturbed for a year. A thin stack of papers lay beneath the instrument. Old and yellowed, they were covered with song lyrics and chord notations written in my hand during the 60s and 70s. I remembered them all, and my fingers quickly found their places on the strings. I played and sang, listening to my younger self celebrating the glories of an October day or a patient, hopeful love.

I heard my weary heart calling for Grace and comfort from the wind, sun, and rain after learning of the sudden death of a college friend. Many of my songs danced with Divine Mystery found “within and without, above and below,” or gave melody to psalms. Singing for an hour, I sank my heart-roots deep into that Holy Presence.

When my unpracticed fingertips became sore, I returned the guitar to its case and picked up a friend’s newly released memoir, Harnessing Courage. Despite its serious topic (Laura Bratton was diagnosed with a retinal disease at the age of 9 that eventually took her sight.), the first pages made me laugh out loud, picturing her confident, three-year-old self remembering every ballet step and leading the other, stage struck toddlers through their first dance recital.

As night came, I remembered holy ones whose feasts fall on this week’s liturgical calendar, who persevered despite their world’s ills. With the courage to challenge the status quo, St. John XXIII threw open the windows of the Church to let in fresh air, trusting the Spirit to bring renewal.

St Teresa of Avila, the great Carmelite mystic, reformer and first woman to be declared a Doctor of the Church, struggled with illness, opposition, and an investigation by the Inquisition. She defined contemplative prayer simply as a close sharing between friends and frequent time spent alone with God who loves us.

And while Madeleine Delbrêl (born in France in 1904) isn’t declared a saint, Robert Ellsberg writes about her in Liturgical Press’s Give Us This Day reflection for October 13, the date of her death. She knew that holiness could be encountered in people’s everyday life. “Each tiny act is an extraordinary event, in which heaven is given to us, in which we are able to give heaven to others.”

That’s why surrounding myself with beauty, singing, and enjoying the gifts of others was just what I needed last night. It helped me descend to my center, resting in Healing Presence, finding Grace in the moment. God refreshes the heart and provides strength to be grateful for life that is given even in the midst of suffering. As John, Teresa, and Madeleine knew, we must trust and spend time with God in whatever ways deepen our relationship. Then we will have Spirit to share and can be part of the ongoing transformation of a wounded world.

© 2016 Mary van Balen

Look at Me. Just Me.

Look at Me. Just Me.

Dome of Pantheon, with light streaming in.

PHOTO: Mary van Balen
Dome of Pantheon, Rome, Italy.

Originally published in The Catholic Times August 14, 2016 issue

While preparing to write this column, I read through the Mass readings for the week as I often do. Actually, I had a topic in mind, but the Spirit had another tucked into Sunday’s second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. “Brothers and sisters:” it begins, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.”

It was the phrase “keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus” that let me know clearly, this was the column. Here’s the back story. Last month, I sent an email to a good friend in Boston asking for prayers. We’d met during our first gathering for members of Shalem Institute’s Spiritual Guidance Program a couple of years ago and have stayed in touch ever since, continuing to share our journeys through letters, emails, and an occasional phone conversation.

When I wrote that email, life was feeling particularly overwhelming. Changes in family routine and a world where violence seemed more random and sinister than ever—though of course it’s always sinister and often random—were getting the best of me. My “worry gene” had kicked in, and I couldn’t quiet my mind or spirit for long. Falling asleep at night was difficult.

The email request for prayer wasn’t about this sense of turmoil, but as the Spirit would have it, my friend’s answer was.

It turned out he was on a challenging retreat. With the change of venue from a lovely new retreat house on the ocean (the building had fallen behind schedule and wasn’t ready) to a gloomy, old institutional building that once housed a seminary, and the discovery that the retreat was for spiritual directors giving the Ignatian Exercises (which he was not), the first few days were tough going.

He felt distant and agitated. Then, as he wrote: “I heard Christ telling me: ‘Look at me.  Just at me.’  Finally, last night, I was able to settle a bit in prayer.”

I couldn’t get those words out of my mind. “Look at me. Just at me.” That night, I tried to do that, to keep my focus on Christ. Not on events swirling around me and pulling me with them into dis-ease and anxiety. I fixed the gaze of my heart on Jesus. The one who loves. The one who holds. The one who is always “with.”

It wasn’t easy. Nagging fears and a sense that the world was somehow careening out of control kept calling for my attention. Not being sucked into the chaos required a conscious choice again and again, to heed Christ’s words: “Look at me.”

Slowly, that choice to look at Love made a difference. The grip of events that were tempting me with illusions of the ability control them loosened. Instead of imagining control, I felt moved to surrender to trust instead. Not a trust that everything was going to go as I wanted it to or that evil didn’t exist, but a trust that everything didn’t depend on me and my constant attempts to figure it out. The chatter that filled my head started to fade until finally there was blessed quiet. Churning and turmoil was being replaced by stillness and calm.

I slept well that night, and many nights after. Whenever I felt worry taking hold or fear seeping in to my center, I repeated the Christ’s injunction: “Look at me. Just at me,” and turned the eyes of my heart to Love.

So today, when I came across the admonition in Hebrews to embrace the wisdom of the “cloud of witnesses” and let go of burdens and sin that cling to us, to go forward and meet whatever is ahead while keeping our eyes on Jesus, I remembered my friend’s words that have become a powerful prayer for me.

It’s not magic. Sleep sometimes eludes. Deep openness is still gift. I wake up knowing I have work to do. Transforming the world is everyone’s work. But we don’t do it ourselves. We do it by letting Love fill us until we can bring that Holy Mystery to every place and every person we meet. Somehow, we face the evil and craziness and unknown with the steadiness of Love. I’m not sure how it works. It has something to do with being present. It has something to do with trust. It has everything to do with Love.

©2016 Mary van Balen

Lessons from Paris: Befriending Holy Leisure

Lessons from Paris: Befriending Holy Leisure

Woman on a bench in a park writing in her journal

Photo: Mary van Balen
Writing in Jardin du Luxembourg

Originally published in The Catholic Times   June 16, 2016

I’ve recently returned from a wonderful vacation of almost a month in Paris with two of my daughters, one of whom is doing research at the National Natural History Museum there—a perfect reason to visit. Spending so much time with adult daughters is a gift itself. Doing it in Paris? Well, that made it extraordinary.

We did the usual tourist things, visiting museums and landmarks, enjoying Parisian baguettes smeared with butter or jam, and drinking lots of café. A highlight was making the short trip to spend a day at Giverny and Monet’s garden, a lifelong dream of my youngest.

Standing in the oval rooms of Musee de l’Orangerie surrounded by the giant water lily canvasses was breathtaking. I don’t think it makes any difference which you do first, visit the garden or feast on Monet’s paintings, the experiences enrich one another. Musee d’Orsay, a favorite, required two visits.

Art and music are everywhere, not only in museums but in shops, cathedrals, and along the streets. Beauty heals, whether in a painting or in the care taken with displays of pastries and breads for sale. Once, on our way to an evening concert, we were surprised by a woman singing an aria. Speakers provided the music, and her powerful voice poured through the small street. A trio on military patrol, heart-stirred by the song like the rest of us, paused, and one lifted his iPhone to record the sound.

We became accustomed to hearing a classical pianist playing Chopin on Pont Saint-Louis near Notre Dame, someone playing accordion along a strip of small restaurants, or jazz groups entertaining on street corners.  In every case, people stopped to listen, sometimes to dance. Always, music stirs the soul.

I was grateful for the length of our stay. A friend commented on one of my posts saying he was glad I had time to spend enjoying “holy leisure.” A sense of the importance of befriending “holy leisure” is wisdom that came home with me. The temptation, vacation or not, is to try to do too much. In Paris, there was always another amazing museum to visit or landmark to see. What would friends say when you returned if you told them you didn’t visit the Louvre?

We could pack every day, allowing vacation to become a check list. We chose otherwise. While our list of things to see and do was long enough, we gave ourselves days to do nothing special and simply be present to the gifts of the moment and each other.

My daughter made time to paint. Sometimes we walked to a park and she set up on a bench. Other days, the dining room table worked. I journaled, wrote blog posts, and finally figured out how to sketch the lovely green table umbrellas at Luxembourg Garden. We wended our way to our favorite street, Rue Mouffetard, sat in a café and enjoyed starting (or ending) a day slowly. Some of the best times were sitting or walking wherever, all three of us, enjoying each other’s company.

Back home, events and places are different, but schedules and expectations can be as demanding. There is work to do, family and friends to see, events to attend. But I returned determined to enjoy little things, listen to more music, and be attentive to Spirit movements in my heart.

One afternoon, after preparing dinners for the week to come and catching up on vacation laundry, I walked outside and tossed cans and jars into the recycling bin. The air was particularly clear after a rain, and as anyone in central Ohio with asthma knows, that is something to celebrate. Back in the kitchen, I started to wash up the dishes, then remembered Paris. “No,” I thought responding to the lift I had felt, “Enjoy.”

I poured a glass of iced tea and sat in the plastic lawn chair on my porch. That’s it. I sat and looked and breathed air that felt good in my lungs. A hummingbird buzzed in over my shoulders and headed toward a green patch of ground cover looking for blooms. A sparrow hopped out from underneath a bush with a huge piece of fuzzy fluff in its beak. The breeze picked up and leaves on the trees across the street danced.

A short prayer of thanksgiving. Some quiet moments of remembering that I live in God’s presence.

The truth that we meet God in the present is nothing new, but deceptively simple. In Paris, at home, anywhere.

© 2016 Mary van Balen

In Remembrance and Solidarity

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

This evening I joined a gathering of people at Trinity Episcopal Church for a prayer vigil of remembrance and solidarity following the violence in Orlando. People of various denominations, faiths, and communities celebrated in a simple service that included silence and music—not too many words. Being together in the Holy Presence of Love, however one names it, was enough.

I felt a profound sense of peace sitting in that welcoming church. Clergy and community leaders spoke and shared their thoughts and voiced prayer for all: an Episcopal priest, Methodist minister, Jewish rabbi, Islamic leader, a member of the LGBT community, and a representative of the Ohio Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

Perhaps the most moving moments were those spent standing in silence, listening to the bell toll 50 times, once for each life lost.

We held candles during the final musical piece and benediction. “What’s a vigil without candles?” rector Rev. Richard A. Burnett asked.

True. Candles bring light into darkness, a symbol of Love, of prayer, which do the same.

a round tray filled with sand and small, lit tea candles

PHOTO:Mary van Balen

Note:

As we left the church, a table held information from a number of community organizations that invited participation.  Love is the motivator, the power. But, as Stephen Colbert said as he began his show after the attack: “Love is verb. Do something.” It’s not enough to remember. Each in our individual way must make Love live. One suggestion? In November,  vote, and vote to elect those who will not build on hate and division, but who will work for the common good and protect the civil rights of all.

To the Face of Evil, Bring Love

To the Face of Evil, Bring Love

Old Man in Sorrow - Vincent van Gogh 1890

Old Man in Sorrow – Vincent van Gogh 1890

Before heading out to work this morning, I’m heading to church. Drawn there by grief and not knowing what else to do. The hate and fear that could move one human being to massacre innocent people is unfathomable to me. As is often the case in the face of such horror, I feel helpless.

The temptation is to hate back. But if we do, hate wins.

Facebook is full of quotes and suggestions. One counseled kindness. Be especially kind today at work and as you go about your day. You have no idea who may be “suffering quietly” after Sunday’s massacre. Good advice at any time, but particularly today. How often do those in the LGBTQ community and those who love them  suffer quietly, their pain and struggle held close and out of sight?

Today I will try to love and live in a way that fosters peace. They will be small ways. I’m not a celebrity whose words will be quoted. I’m not in a position of power to make laws or change the ones we have. At least not quickly. Most of us are not.

modern painting circle of five people in an embrace

Painting by Richard Duarte Brown

But we can refuse to hate, as difficult as that can be at times like this. We can refuse to blame entire religions (Some would like to point fingers at Islam, others at Christianity.). We can offer comfort, listen, pray. We can grieve with those who have lost family and friends, who have lost any sense of safety. We can make our voices heard by speaking up and communicating with those who are political and religious leaders.

But I think, most of all, we can live our ordinary lives with love and compassion. We can walk forward calling on the power of infinite Love in the face of evil. And have hope. What else is there to do?