Witnessed by Strangers

Turning Mourning into DancingGuess I really am a minister.  When my phone rang at 2:40 this morning I figured it was a wrong number.  When I realized a message had been left I woke up enough to play it back.  To my surprise, it was someone I had married calling to say that his mom had passed away 40 minutes ago, and that the first thing the entire family had said was, “Call Jude.” 
This is really what being a minister is all about.  It means that when there’s a deep spiritual challenge, you’re the person they think to call.  The only thing is – I feel like ordinary Jude……….
But you know something? Even though my mind was screaming, “I can’t do this,” there was a deeper part of me that knew I had the training and the ability to rise to the occasion to serve this family as they wished to be served.  And so – half asleep I stumbled into my office, pulled out my minister’s manual, found the funeral ceremony I had written and never thought I’d have to use, dug out the intake form I had created as part of my manual, both of which suddenly transformed from homework into being a tool.  I took a deep breath and called back at 3 AM, because I heard in the voice of the message exhaustion, shock, sadness, confusion, and a little bit of fear.
Definitely not the same kind of call as the wedding calls I so love to receive.  This was digging down a bit deeper to the place of truth, to find the words that would comfort if not heal, to listen carefully to find out what this family needed to say, and then to respond with, “Of course I can meet with you and your family tomorrow to create a funeral service.”
Also not like the weddings I have months to joyfully prepare.
And as I hung up the phone, feeling like I had just crossed an imaginary hurdle, I was then left with, “Now what do I do?”   And even though I was filled with doubt, there was a wiser part of me that knew I had the ability to go to that place of truth that we all share, to find the words that would comfort if not heal.  For the truth is, we did come with owner’s manuals.  We are filled with innate wisdom.  All we need to do is practice learning where to look.  And I guess I was just elected to guide others to that place, so that they, too, can begin to heal and grow. 
There’s an odd sort of grace surrounding death.  We want to avoid it, yet seem to be inexplicably drawn to it, wanting to understand that which we know will one day will be our experience as well.  In the words of the son who called me so soon after his mother’s passing, he felt numb, yet oddly OK.  And that’s going to be my job over the next few days, to support this family through their numbness as it turns into grief, doing my best to remind them that in some strange way, everything is oddly OK.  

There are parts of life that are so easy to enjoy, to appreciate, and to understand.  And then there are those parts that seem to have nothing to offer us other than pain.  But when that pain can be turned into riches, suddenly life takes on a deeper meaning than the one we  normally see.

I have always been intrigued by Psalm 30 which says, “You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing.”  How can that be?  Yet, in some way, I know that’s was how life’s transitions are meant to be experienced, but I have been uncertain how to arrive at that place.  And now I have others asking me to explain that very same thing.  I’m not sure I have the answers, but I suspect the son’s expression of everything being “oddly OK,” holds some of the clues. 

Not quite sure I’m up to the task.  But I have a family waiting to meet with me in the morning who believes that I am.  So I guess I’m going to have to trust that my training has been real, my connection is deep, and that I can trust that to carry me through the next few days to the answers that will lend meaning to what seems so impossible to explain.

And so I surrender into being guided by a truth deeper than what I consciously know, to a place wiser than where I normally live.  And my only prayer is that my awkward inelegance will serve to soothe those who hearts yearn to be lead from mourning into joy. 

What a career I’ve chosen.  I get to shed the beliefs that no longer serve me to uncover the truths that lie underneath while being witnessed by strangers.  But when it comes down to it, I guess we’re not really strangers after all.    
Much love and many blessings,

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Patrick Died

Abadiania, Brazil, John of GodPatrick died.  He came into my life briefly, and left quickly, before I had a chance to get to know what made him uniquely himself.  I met him in Abadiania, Brazil, when our paths happened to cross while staying at the same pousada, or guest house.  I was in Brazil to get enlightened.  Patrick was in Brazil to get well.  I experienced truths I only thought I knew.  Patrick died.  But the question is – which one of us was healed?

People flock to Abadiania to spend time in the presence of John of God, looking for healing by many different definitions, sharing a common bond of hope.  Many scrounge together their last remaining dollars, desperately hoping for a cure.  Others make the long journey to seek the healing of wounds that cannot be seen, but which have formed scars just the same.  Others don’t seek healing at all, but are drawn to this place simply to experience whatever is next meant to be.  Still others wish to use this place of powerful pull to align themselves with their deeper knowing.  And still others arrive in response to a call they cannot describe in words, and sometimes, can barely even hear. 

But no matter what has initiated the call to respond, once they arrive, bonds easily form between strangers whose paths have crossed for a short period of time.  There is an unspoken respect for each other’s stories, for you quickly discover that the reason you came has little to do with why you have arrived.  And gradually, but surely, that which tends to separate us fades away, as that which we share becomes known. 

Ands such was the case with Patrick.  Just leaving his teens and learning how to become a man, Patrick arrived from halfway around the world with his mother and aunt, hoping to experience a remission in the growth of tumors that were outrunning his surgeon’s knife.  And although Patrick arrived with a vivid red scar visible through his thin hair, he had a vibrancy to him that belied the state of his health. 

I was impressed by Patrick’s curiosity.  Rather than appearing fearful of the uncertainty of his diagnosis, he seemed curious about what would unfold and the lessons he had yet to learn.  This young man made me feel ashamed about the deep fears I often bring to circumstances that are, in truth, rather tame, as compared to the alertness and grace he brought to a challenge he was told would most likely end shortly in death.

I heard him tell me about his condition, but somehow he didn’t seem sick.  His eyes were too full of life.  He voice was too calm, his demeanor too vibrant, his smile too quick.  How could this almost man have such a strength around himself when I, the ordained minister, still have questions about God?

We talked about life.  We talked about death.  We talked about who we were as spiritual beings.  We talked about illusion.  We talked about choice.  We talked about pain.  We talked about why we are born.  We talked about why we die.  He believed I was teaching him.  But I knew he was teaching me.  We left Abadiania to return to our different worlds, and I was certain Patrick had achieved the healing he had come looking to find.

So when I received word a short while ago that Patrick had died, part of me couldn’t believe it.  How could it be possible that this young person, so full of life and  potential, was no longer free to walk, run, laugh, and love?  How could one who had looked to be so full of life, now be lying lifeless in the ground?  How could one who had some seeking answers not have been served?  And if one of my brothers had failed to be served, than what did it mean for me?  For I too, am full of life.  I, too, am filled with curiosity.  I, too, have a thirst to experience life fully and to embrace whatever comes my way.  But if Patrick had all those things and still his time on earth was ended, then there’s no escaping the fact that it’s going to happen to me.  It’s just a question of when.

But my horror, my sadness, my anger, and my fear led me on a journey of a different sort – a journey about the very nature of healing itself.  Was Patrick healed?  Was I?  What does it mean to be healed? Does it mean the lessening of physical symptoms?  Does it mean the easing of burdens? Does it mean being able to see life as a “daring adventure,” as Helen Keller once described?  Or does it simply mean connecting with the unconditional love that is ultimately what we each yearn for, and seem to struggle so much to find.

I started to read.  I started to write.  I started to reflect, to contemplate, to ask more questions, and to pray.  And little by little, I was reminded that life only has the beginnings, the middles, and the ends that we give it, and that healing means so much more. 

I realized that true healing comes from the quiet way of being that flows from one’s true center.  Healing is focused, authentic, indisputable, and accepting of any outcome.  It looks beyond the body that is sick, and is not contaminated by fear of death.  Healing contains no blame or guilt, and unfolds as effortlessly as we breathe, and as spontaneously as our hearts keep beat on their own.  Healing does not exclude any therapeutic approaches, and may include allopathic treatment as naturally as it may cherish contemplation, meditation, or prayer.  Healing is unconcerned with tragic outcomes, for it understands that one’s higher Self is immortal, eternal, and cannot die.

I came to realize that healing is not a passive event.  That it requires us to draw on our inner resources, in order to find the strength to leave behind the beliefs, judgments, and behaviors that no longer serve us, so that we may see ourselves in new ways.  It involves asking ourselves deep and intrusive questions.  Questions such as

  • What does healing mean to me?
  • What are my expectations with regards to healing?
  • What are my attachments to being healed?  To not?
  • How am I willing or able to contribute to my own healing?
  • What am I willing to give up or change in order to heal?
  • What is it that I desire at the deepest level of my soul?

And I learned that healing takes different forms.  In the words of John of God translator Heather Cumming, “Sometimes the soul makes great strides but the body isn’t able to keep pace.”   It is natural to wish for the quick reversal, the sudden recovery, the miraculous cure.  But sometimes, the path just might be more twisted and longer than expected, and take us to a location different than we planned.

Was Patrick healed?  Was I?  Were any of the people whom I encountered while in Brazil?  I’m not sure it’s a question I can answer.  I think you would need to ask them.

I don’t know if Patrick experienced the healing he came to Abadiania to find.  But I do know that the grace and curiosity and openness with which he faced his transition into an experience we can’t define has helped to heal me.  And perhaps, ultimately, the true definition of our healing is the impact we have on those whose lives we touch.

Patrick came into my life briefly and left quickly.  But the lessons he taught me will last for a very long time.  And now, Patrick gets to teach you as well. And I would say that is a pretty powerful legacy for a young man who was just leaving his teens.

I can’t say with certainty what happens when we die.  But I do know that we continue to live on in the hearts and minds of others, and thus we continue to grow strong.  May each of you uncover your own understandings of healing, and then witness its miracle in the circumstances of your lives.

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A New Dawn

Hudson River, Magdalene Island

Sitting on the porch at dawn

Watching the mist rise from the river

Shrouding the opposite shore in mystery,

I am healed by a chorus of birds

Knowing to sing their own song.

I am filled with awe

At the perfection of life,

And can’t help but feel

As beautifully clothed

As the lilies of the field.

And if those lilies

Are so beautifully cared for,

While struggling and toiling not,

Then why do I ever doubt

That the same grace

Would not be extended to me?

~ JLS, May 20, 2011


Hudson Valley HermitageI arrived on retreat as I always do – overworked, overtired, overly stressed, believing I didn’t have time for the luxury of this retreat.  But as soon as I walked over to the little hermitage that would be my home for the next five days, looked out at the expanse of Hudson River, saw green all around me and heard nothing but birds, I knew I was just where I needed to be – even though logic kept telling me I should be somewhere else.

I began my retreat as I usually do, wanting to do it all, not knowing where to begin.  Nap?  Meditate?  Read?  Take a walk?  All seemed equally as delicious as I surveyed this planned gift of time.

The watch went away.  The phone got turned off.  The computer was put under the bed.  And then it was just me – with nothing I needed to do.  The choice felt overwhelming.

But gradually I shifted from doing to being, dictated not by the pressing demands of life, butRiver Road, Hudson Valley, NY by the urging of my heart.  And even though my life is one devoted to the pursuit of spiritual things, they, too, create a busyness of their own.  One more reason I am committed to taking myself on a seasonal retreat – even though the timing never feels right.

But the timing is always right. Because even though my days are governed by spiritual practice and spirit-filled work, my penchant for busyness seems to override the soft and still voice that I seek every morning before I begin my day.  Slowly, but surely, without even being aware that it’s happening, I gradually become pulled off course, just a bit, but enough that it becomes another voice that I hear.  The voice of “shoulds,” “musts,” “obligations,” “responsibilities,” an artificial list defining my notion of success.  I begin to forget my desire to cultivate the art of surrender, choosing instead to grasp at the demands of schedules and man-made needs.  I give up my loyalty to a guidance I cannot see, displaying allegiance to a different god – a god dictated by logic and demands of the world.

Falling Waters, Hudson Valley, NYAs I slowly get pulled off course, so imperceptibly that I cannot even see it has occurred, I forget that I’m the whole, healthy, and complete being that I am, and I begin to see myself through the jaded eyes of one who has yet to arrive.  I see all my faults, all my fears, all my worries, doubts, and shortcomings.  And so, I show up on retreat with the plea to be “fixed,” to find my answers, to feel whole once again.  And I pray, and I meditate, and I write – lamenting on my brokenness and my yearning to be complete.

But somehow on each retreat, in between the naps, the meditation, the walking, the sitting, the writing, and the time to just be, a subtle shift occurs, equally as imperceptibly as the shift that brought me here.  Once again, I feel the wholeness that is me.  I feel my connection to the Divine.  I feel the perfection and the safety of my world.  I believe that I am indeed loved, protected, and safe.  And then I feel shamed with the knowingness of all that I have, and so often fail to see.

When I became ordained, I made a vow to retreat from the world for one week every season, because I intuitively knew that the world is a strong master, one I easily listen to, and one that insistently calls my name.  That softer voice doesn’t call to me with as much  urgency.  It has a patience that waits to be found.  And it will wait for a very long time until I remember to look.

I’m returning to my world strengthened, rejuvenated, reborn into wholeness.  I’ve remembered the joy to be found in my world, and the power that comes from looking within to then celebrate without.  But I also suspect that with the passing of the days to come, the certainty I feel right now will begin to wane, so slowly that I don’t even notice it’s passing, as once again, I start to listen to the insistent calls of my predilection to achieve.  But I’ve left this retreat with a safety net in place – my summer retreat already scheduled and paid for in advance.

Magdalene Island, Hudson River, NY

We all have our unique ways for remembering that which we undeniably know.  That which was imprinted deep within our hearts before the world taught us otherwise.  May each one of you be led to discovering your own rituals of rebirth, ones that allow you to feel at home while reminding you that angels can fly. 


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The Porch at Dawn


Sitting on the porch at dawn
Watching the mist rise from the river
Shrouding the opposite shore in mystery,
I am healed by a chorus of birds
All knowing to sing their own songs.

I am filled with awe
At the perfection of life,
And can’t help but feel
As beautifully clothed
As the lilies of the field.

And if those lilies
Are so beautifully cared for,
While struggling and toiling not,
Then why do I ever doubt
That the same grace
Would not be extended to me?

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My Soul Sings Out

“I have listened and I have looked with open eyes.

I have poured my soul into the world,

Seeking the unknown within the known.

And I sing out loud in amazement.” 

~ Rabindranath Tagore, Indian mystic and poet


How do I communicate the depth of my recent experience in Abadiania, Brazil, home of trance healer John of God?  How do I capture in words that which was felt by the heart?

How do I share the profounJohn of God, Casa de Dom Inacio, Abadiania Brazil, Joao de Deusd nature of spending long hours sharing sacred space with hundreds of others, who came from around the world to deepen their understanding of who they are and their connection to all that is?  How do I speak about discovering that the spiritual knowings that oftentimes seem so illusive suddenly became undeniably real?  How do I describe the veil that usually exists between the world of form and that which cannot be touched being so thin that there was no separation? 

How do I speak about physical healings I witnessed, including my own, that cannot be explained in logical terms? How do I give you an experience of the unconditional love that was so pervasive it permeates the entire village of Abadiania?  How do I describe the hope and lack of fear exhibited by a thousand people waiting in long lines in a room too small – without pushing, restlessness, or impatience – in spite of many of them being very, very ill? 

How do I let you hear that soft and still voice that sometimes appears in your most sacred moments, a voice that became loud and undeniable in Brazil?  How do I communicate the feeling of peace that came from finally experiencing the world as a safe place and knowing that there is nothing to fear?  And how do I share that in a way that will allow you to experience your own perfection, your own Divinity, your own transformation in how you see the world? 

Twelve of us traveled from the comforts of our North American homes to a dusty little town of red dirt roads called Abadiania.  I arrived with a mixture of excitement, curiosity, skepticism, and hope.  I had heard many things about John of God – that he was a healer who went into trance and channeled the spirits of many great doctors, mystics, and teachers who lived before, that he performed invasive physical surgeries without anesthesia or pain in spite of being illiterate and having little more than a second grade education,  that Abadiania was a vortex of spiritual energy intensified by the bed of quartz crystal that lay underneath, and that Joao had healed millions of people from around the world who made the pilgrimage to Abadiania based on nothing more than faith.

I went to Brazil to focus on deepening my spiritual walk. But as I stepped onto the Casa grounds, the home of John of God, and saw for the first time the hundreds of people gathered together, many in obvious need of physical healing, I was immediately humbled by the self-serving nature of my pilgrimage as compared to the life-saving motivations of others who were there.  Yet somehow, we all became one over the course of our time together, joined in a common desire to experience ourselves as whole, healthy, and complete.  Because whether manifested in physical symptoms or in feelings of malaise, spiritual unrest shares a common thread.  And it was that commonality that was felt,  in spite of great differences in language, background, economic prosperity, and physical health.  In Abadiania, we were all equals, coming to be healed.

I didn’t know what to expect.  On my first morning I joined the parade of hundreds of others all dressed in white, as we walked en masse along the town’s red roads, the early morning mist still blanketing the surrounding valley.   We arrived at the Casa at 7 AM to give ourselves time to settle in before the morning session with John of God would begin.  Shortly before 8 AM, a hush settled over the murmuring crowd, as John himself appeared on the little stage at the front of the hall. Prayers were said in Portuguese, and thanks to an English translator, we learned that John was about to channel one of the many healing spirits who do their work at the Casa, as he asked for those who desired physical surgery to come forth.  The surgeries I had heard so much about were about to begin.

But they were nothing like the sensationalized clips I had seen prior to my arrival.  Everything was done quietly and without theatrics.  John invited any doctors who were in the audience to come onto the stage and to comment on the procedure as it was unfolding, as the spirits being channeled wanted the world to know that healing alternatives exist.  Those with cameras were invited to come closer.  A surgeon from New Jersey came onto the stage, and while John performed his surgery on a volunteer who was perfectly relaxed, appearing as though under general anesthesia, the surgeon told us that the procedure was being done with excellent surgical technique, the only surprising thing being the relative lack of blood.  The surgery was over in a matter of minutes, and the “patient” was whisked away in a wheelchair to an infirmary on the grounds.  After handing his surgical instruments to an assistant, John retreated to the inner rooms in preparation to see the hundreds and sometimes thousands of visitors who pass before him in long lines each day.  He does not stop his work until the very last visitor has been seen, and he charges nothing to do so.

I waited with my group until our particular line was called.  With that same mixture of excitement, curiosity, and perhaps a little bit of fear, I proceeded to inch my way into those inner chambers, listening to the lively Brazilian music that was the constant background noise.  No sooner did I step foot into the inner chambers than the music suddenly changed – to Julie Andrews singing Edelweiss from the Sound of Music – a song I’ve long associated with my grandmother who passed many years ago.  The incongruency of hearing Julie Andrews in these remote and modest surroundings singing a song so dear to my heart left me in tears.  My first inkling that things were not as they seemed.

I passed in front of Joao, and handed him my translated request that I’d like his help in deepening my understanding of my spiritual gifts and how to use them in service to the world.  A worthy request of an ordained minister!  Joao said he would help me, and sent me on my way.

After a typically fresh, diverse, and abundant lunch back at our pousada, or guest house, we returned for the afternoon session with John of God.  This time, I decided to sit in the current room, a room holding hundreds of people engaged in deep meditation, which is where much of the healing takes place while also serving to strengthen the energy field available to John to do his work.  The skeptic in me began thinking about the surprise of the music from the morning, wanting confirmation that what I had heard was meant for me.  No sooner did I have that thought than Edelweiss played once again.  I knew.

By the next day I was feeling a bit braver with this new world I was exploring, a bit more daring even.  I decided that since I was here, I might as well test the waters even deeper by requesting I be healed of the very serious sleep apnea I have struggled with for as long as I can remember.  I would stop breathing hundreds of times every night, were it not for the very invasive sleep machine that breathed for me when I could not.  Once again I waited in a very long line, passed in front of Joao, and handed  him my translated request.  This time he told me to return that afternoon for spiritual surgery.

Spiritual surgery meant being ushered into a room with about 50 others sitting on long wooden church pews.  We were told to close our eyes, to place our hands over the body part needing healing, or over our hearts if the healing was of a spiritual or emotional nature.  We were told that there were thousands of helping spirits surrounding  us who would be healing us spiritually while we were in this meditative state.  I closed my eyes, placed my hands over the place where I imagined my lungs to be, and surrendered into whatever forces were there to heal me.  An unknown amount of time later, we were given a blessing in Portuguese by a Casa volunteer, and told to return to our guest houses by taxi, as a very real  intervention had just taken place.  We were given further instructions to sleep for the next 24 hours, and that meals would be brought to our rooms.  And if we couldn’t sleep – then we were to act as if we were sleeping.  That meant no reading, no listening to music, no meditation, no talking, no writing – just lying on our beds with our eyes closed.

I left the “surgery” room feeling a bit silly to be taking a cab the short distance back to my hotel.  But by the time I arrived at my pousada a few minutes later, I felt so lightheaded that I could barely make it to my room. There was a heaviness in my chest, which felt tender and delicate, reminiscent of past physical surgeries I have had. I undressed, brushed my teeth, and stumbled onto my bed, having no trouble complying with the instructions to sleep.

Over the course of many hours, I had the sense that I was being communicated to in my sleep.  I heard it said to me that I had made a decision in my childhood that I didn’t deserve to breathe, and that it was time to release that judgment.  I was told that these helpers were going to retrain my breathing, and that I needed to experience what it was like to take deep breaths.  I had the sense that I was being breathed, deeply in and out, over and over again, as childhood patterns were being released.  I roused briefly when dinner was brought to my room, only to fall deeply back asleep as soon as I was done with my meal.  I slept right through ’til morning, so deeply asleep I was unaware of my surroundings.  And my husband reported that for the first time in our life together, I had done so without any interruption of my breathing.  I awoke refreshed, a new experience for me.  And I have been sleeping soundly every since, my sleep machine now happily put away on a high shelf in my closet.

I witnessed the healing of others.  Crutches were taken away.  Joao passed his hands over eyes that were unseeing, allowing sight to return.  I saw a man who appeared almost catatonic regain interest in the world.  But what I saw more than anything else were people coming to deep peace within themselves with a knowing that all was well. 

The Casa translators speak during each session, giving instructions and helpful information.  One of the things said repeatedly throughout our stay was that the only healing offered at the Casa is spiritual healing.  That when the spirit is healed the body sometimes heals as well.  It was said that we must be partners in our healing.  That we must be willing to surrender into whatever is needed for our healing to occur.  And John said over and over again that he does not heal anyone.  That the one who heals is God, and that he is merely an instrument in God’s Divine hands.

What happens in Abadiania?  What is calling to me to return?  Oprah once said that to allow the truth of who you are – your spiritual self – to rule your life means that you stop the struggle and learn to  move with the flow.  Whether that means stopping your struggle with illness, addiction, fear, unworthiness, doubt, or experiences of lack and limitation,  it means surrendering into a deeper truth that lies within the heart of who you are, and a trust that all is well.  And although it seemed easier to do that in Abadiania, for me the proof lies in how well I can do so while immersed in my circumstances back home.  I’ve had lapses every now and then, because transformation needs to become habit, but I’d say I’m doing a pretty good job of hanging onto the truths I have come to know as real.  The sleep machine on my closet shelf is a testimony to that.

I came to Abadiania with open eyes.  I listened.  I poured my soul into the world, seeking the unknown within the known.  And my soul continues to sing out with amazement. 

We all have access to our own Abadianias.  May each of you be led to that special place that will cause your soul to sing out loud in amazement as well.

With love,


While in Abadiania, Jude was made an official guide of the Casa de Dom Inacio   by John of God.  When asked if she could continue bringing groups to the Casa, John’s response was, “Of course!” with a tone that implied she didn’t need to ask.

Next trip – July 4 – July 16, 2011

For More Information – Center for Authentic Living:  Sacred Passages

 John of God

 My Soul Sings Out

A brief video glimpse for the heart into the experience of Abadiania, Brazil.  

From my heart to yours.




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Hard Time

“Pain is the roadmap that leads to healing.”

 ~ Jude Smith ~


Linwood Spiritual Center Hudson River Rhinebeck NYIt was a difficult retreat week.  Unlike my usual retreat weeks spent cavorting with God, this one was spent cavorting with the dark sides of my soul.  I didn’t like  it.  I felt ripped off.  I want to be able to do it all over again.  The right way this time.  I want to redo my retreat week in a way that will make me feel all warm inside, with the knowing that life is perfect, and that I am being held. 

I should have known something was up, because I just couldn’t seem to settle in.  Monday was spent answering emails that I convinced myself couldn’t wait another week.  Tuesday was spent roaming the retreat center grounds, camera in hand, convincing myself that my camera was allowing me to see.  Wednesday morning was spent using those photographs to create art, while convincing myself that sinking into creativity would bring me closer to God.  But by Wednesday afternoon, with half my retreat already spent, another half to go, I was filled with remorse that I had allowed that much time to pass with barely any time spent looking within. 

I dove into my remaining days with the passion of one running out of time.  Out went my books.  Away went my computer.  Off went my phone.  All that remained was me and my chair.  And I made desperate love to that chair during endless hours of meditation, yet somehow not experiencing the joy usually guaranteed.

Instead I felt grief.  Instead I felt anger.  Instead I felt fear.  Where was my God?  Meditation has always been the one sure thing allowing me to feel the peace that passes all understanding, as I deeply sink into that blissful place that lies beneath my thoughts.  Not this time.

Even with my thoughts becoming quieted – something raw was still bubbling deep within me.  Perhaps activated by my mother-in-law’s death, perhaps activated by some freelance work coming to a close, perhaps activated by the onset of winter, a season that always reminds me of death, I couldn’t seem to shake this lonely darkness, no matter how many spiritual tricks I called forth.

 What did I do?  I went deeper.  I went longer.  I went harder.  Linwood MeditationWith some preconceived notion of what my retreat week should look like, I attacked my time with all the fury of one scorned.  I was determined to shed the dark emotion that was swirling around me, to reveal the bliss I had come on retreat expecting to find. 

But the more I tried, the more wounded I felt.  The ache went deep, to a place I thought had healed a long time ago.  Every wound, every hurt, every disappointment, every fear, was competing for my attention during this week retreated from the world.  And I hurt.  And I ached.  And I trembled.  And I raged.  And I meditated some more.  It had worked in the past……. 

And somehow, in spite of my misery, I knew that there was nothing else for me to do.  I couldn’t make this into the rosy retreat I had come to expect.  I thought I went on retreat every season to remind myself of the beauty and love offered by life.  Instead, I discovered that I went on retreat every season to discover the depths of what was real.  This time what was real were all the dark emotions that my busyness insulates me from calling by name. 

I am a spiritual warrior. I live life with a commitment to experiencing it fully.  That means getting to experience the awe of fog coming off the river with the surrounding hillsides ablaze in autumn color.  But it also means feeling the despair of  unacknowledged disappointments when that is what is on the plate.  And in my endless quest to live life fully, it is only be experiencing all of what life offers – the warm fuzzies as well as the cold fears, that we can claim the awakened awareness we so quickly say we wish for, yet avoid when it feels other than good. 

I sat down yesterday evening to recount my week.  I wrote, and I deleted, and I wrote, and I deleted some more.  With each attempt, I was trying to put my week into a neat box that I could hold out to you as proof it was time well spent.  And each time I reread the words I had written, I cringed with the hollowness of what I had said. 

But my words have a need to be born, just as my emotions have that need as well.  And just as I can’t push my emotions back into their hole when the time has come for their birth, I also can’t neglect my words.  And so, as is true of so many middle-of-the-night births, my words decided their time had come just as my clock was turning 3.  And although I tried to convince them to wait until a more reasonable hour, they were relentless with their labor pains.  Having no other choice, I heeded their call and this is what was born. 

My words today are not the wise and pretty words I so proudly claim to own.  Black MadonnaThese words are filled with sarcastic darkness and pain.  But that is what is so, right now, even if I wish for it to be another way.  And in the midst of my misery, a little voice is gently whispering to me that this too shall pass, and that the only way to speed it on its way is to honor it by giving it a life of its own. 

I am bravely sitting with my misery, believing I have no choice.  Oh, I could immerse myself back into work, which I will probably do come Monday.  But for the moment, I am honoring my wounds by giving them a voice, hoping they will move on once they have nothing more to say. 

Did I have a good retreat week?  Will I return come winter?  You bet I will.  For as much as I ache, as much as I hurt, I feel fully alive and real.  And when my last day on earth arrives, I will have known that I made use of them all, with awareness and deep respect for the depth that is me.  For I’m more than the smiling woman I usually present to the world.  I am the human being, just like you, with hurts as proof of my wounds. 

In the wise words of Oprah, we get to turn our wounds into wisdom.  At the moment, the wisdom is a little bit beyond my reach.  But I suspect that by starting the process of honoring my wounds, their wisdom is coming a little bit closer to within my reach. 

I go on retreat each season to bring me closer to my God.  But this week, God eluded me, and I felt abandoned to just my misery and me.  But God has a way of reminding us of the fallacy of our thinking, and God didn’t cease trying each day I was away.  And my final moments on retreat were no different.  For as I shuffled through my iPod, the achingly beautiful words of “In the Garden” began to play, just in case I needed a reminder to return……..



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Come Closer

Linwood Spiritual Center Rhinebeck NY Hudson RiverDay 2 of my retreat. I woke up this morning with the driven urgency you might expect from someone who works like me. Even on retreat, I feel compelled to spend my time richly, completely, and well. Go figure, huh?

I raced down to breakfast concerned that I might be late, causing me to miss one precious minute of a week I look forward to for months. Feeling the excitement one might feel at the thought of meeting an illicit lover, I felt my heart beating wildly with a pleasure I could not name. The day was filled with possibilities.

I forced myself to slow down long enough to enjoy a rather non-descript breakfast of cereal and a hard-boiled egg,  its ordinariness made nearly extraordinary by the side order of the panoramic view of the Hudson River framed between the dining room’s walls.

While eating breakfast, I was struck by how particularly fresh seemed the day. It was a frosty morning. Fog was rolling off the river, and the sunlight was making it glow. The sky was that particularly lovely shade of blue only seen on those rare, perfectly cloudless days. And the foliage was still glorious, even though we had just turned the corner of fall.

And as I ate my breakfast, I considered how to spend the next 15 hours – with absolutely nothing to do but enjoy the unfolding of time.

The photographer in me was being called by the glory of the day, knowing that both the slant of the sun and the color of the leaves were going to be fleeting. I finished my breakfast, put on my coat, picked up my camera, and went outside, becoming immersed in the beauty I couldn’t quite capture on film. And I flitted from one inspiring vignette to another, stopping only when my battery told me I was done.

Linwood Spiritual Center

Now what? 10:30 AM. 11 ½ hours to go. Funny how even on retreat I am so mindful of the clock and the running away of time, feeling as though there was someplace I needed to be. Obviously, it would take more than a day and a half to ease my way into retreat.

Making my way back inside, I returned to my simple room and contemplated my choices. With an endless array of possibilities to choose from, the one that was calling to me most loudly was spending time alone with my God. So I settled into the meditation room, large enough to hold only one, closed my eyes, and just sat in the way only a meditator could understand. The warmth of the sunlight coming through the window, the glow of the altar thoughtfully provided, the comfort of my pillows, held me as I just let myself just go.

I was filled with images of peacefulness, in contrast to the whirlwind that is my usual way. I was filled with images of spaciousness, and a patient admonishment to see my day as being such. I saw that I had permission to do that which pleased me; that there was nothing I needed to accomplish to prove my retreat time had been well spent. And in that deep knowing, I felt myself coming home.

I came on retreat with lofty plans about the wise ways I wanted to use my time. I wanted to work on a neglected manuscript. I wanted to contemplate several opportunities currently on my plate. I wanted to deepen my spiritual understandings. And I wanted to more fully know my God. For if I am going to take a week off from my life, I wanted to make sure it was time well spent. I chuckle to notice that even on retreat I’m compulsively driven.

But while in meditation the thought came to me that I had permission to do this retreat week differently. That I didn’t have to accomplish anything in order to prove my time had been well spent. That life was not about the accomplishments, but that accomplishments came as a result of a life lived completely, joyously, and well. My heart heard that. I wanted to believe that. But I wasn’t sure if I could.

Ever the adventurous pioneer, I was willing to give it a try. So away went my notebooks. Away went my journals. Away went my plans to crank out spiritual work I could point to with pride. And instead I looked into my heart to see what it was that I most wanted to do.

Violet MandalaWhat did I do? I spent a decadent afternoon making love to my computer, creating photographic art. The hours flew by, with nothing more to show for my time than beauty that had not existed before. But as I realized time was creeping relentlessly closer to dinner and that I had done nothing all day but play, I found myself become more and more agitated, believing I had wasted Day 2 of my 5 day retreat.

Unlike the lone silence of my dinner the night before, tonight brought a different experience, as a group was holding a meeting, and their dinnertime energy was far different than mine. Sensing my desire to keep my quiet, a sensitive staff member suggested I take my dinner and eat alone in the library at the far end of the hall. Feeling a bit foolish but eager to comply, I picked up my tray and headed down the hall, all the while battling the turmoil going on inside of me over my waste of a precious day.

I sat down at the only table, and noticed a large book sitting with me, filled with the rich colors and the contemplative words that accompanied them. I began eating and opening the book simultaneously, feeling restless and ill at ease, not quite sure why, or what might be the cure.

But the cure found me, as is so often is the case. For the very first page of this unsolicited book gave me the words my heart was yearning to hear. And as I heard the soft words of God whispering my name, my heart was filled with grief over how easily I throw away my songs.

My child,

Come closer to me;

Let me play for you the music of the harp.

Can you hear it?

It rings of sorrow

And the struggles of human pain.

It hangs itself on the branches of the trees

And makes lamentation

For what is lost,

For what could have been,

For what is.

Come closer, my child.

Can you not hear the strumming

In your ears?

Embrace it,

And sing to its melody.

Come closer to me,

My friend;

Let me play you the music of the harp.

Would you like to play?

Give me your hands,

Your fingers,

Your heart.

I will move them for you,


Over the strings.

You will learn for yourself this music,

Music that can change sorrow to joy

So that even the barren willows bear fruit.

Come closer, my friend.

Can you not hear the strumming

In your soul?

Hold it tenderly;

Let me sing to its melody.

My beloved,

Come closer to me.

Let us make music together,

Playing the harp

And breathing one breath,

As we sing the same song.

Will we let this music take us?

It will draw us into each other,

Harmonize us in a symphonic communion

That will never be outdone.

The music will create dancing,

And the dancing will gather us all.

Soon the music and the dancing

Will flow like a river,

Fertile water for new life.

Come closer, my beloved.

Can you not hear the strumming in our embrace?

Let the melody take us where it will.

By Richard N. Fragomeni

~ with special thanks to Sister Kathleen, for knowing what I needed most.

And I cried, and I ate, and I settled, and I knew, and I was fed.

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