Lighting the Winter Candle

by Shelly Mohnkern

“As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”

Carl Jung, 1963

Winter:  The time of reflection, introspection, and thought;  the fallow time of the mind between semesters. We rest, but we are not still. We fill our days not with books and research and long hours at the library, but with family, food and fellowship. We prepare to re-engage in our scholarship by shopping for books, and supplies, thinking about our schedules, and waiting for the syllabi that will direct our efforts over the next five months. We reflect on the past year, and make resolutions for the upcoming one.

This is the time where we re-kindle Jung’s light, the light that will shine through us for the rest of the year.

I find myself looking inward, seeking that light within me, and searching for the knowledge I will need to nourish the flame to its brightest life. There are so many facets of that light. Much like the human housing it, it takes many different nutrients for the light to thrive and burn brightly. My light thrives on such lofty things as charity work, prayer, helping my tribe-of-choice, spiritual practice, and learning. It also thrives on more mundane pleasures like reading fiction, movies, time spent with children playing, vocal music, and indulging my theatrical side with role-play gaming. I give joy and receive it gratefully. I take “me time” and permit myself to be indulgent. It is a balance between doing for others, letting others do for me, and occasionally doing for myself.

Soon I return to classes. I’m excited and nervous.  I can’t wait to be learning again. In fact, I marvel at the idea that some folks stop learning, feeling they have already gleaned all they can from academic study. I came back to school later in life, and I marvel at all I have learned so far, and the horizons of learning yet to be achieved. I see my light begin to burn brighter, adding itself to the light of my peers, fed by the light of my instructors, the authors of our texts, and the scholarship of those who have gone before me.

Shine on, and shine well. The dark times are passing, now is the time of light.

Happy Holidays

by Nicole Snyder

On Black Friday a quote came through on my News Feed on Facebook.  It was attributed to Ohiyesa (Charles Alexander Eastman) a Wahpeton Santee Sioux.

“It was our belief that the love of possessions is a weakness to be overcome.  Its appeal is to the material part, and if allowed its way, it will in time disturb one’s spiritual balance.  Therefore, children must learn the beauty of generosity.  They are taught to give what they prize most, that they may taste the happiness of giving “.

Given the source, I cannot be certain the quote is correctly contributed.  Nonetheless, the quote speaks to my inward struggle at this time of year.  I want to be a part of the cultural celebrations.  Yet, I also want to celebrate in a way that honours my “spiritual balance”.  In a culture that celebrates materialism and consumerism, I find it very challenging to actualize my intentions.

When I lived in Ireland, the holidays were about family and friends.  It was a time set aside to spend time with people, usually accompanied by good food and drinks.  Any gifts that were exchanged were done by businesses thanking customers or were for the children.  When I try to explain the differences between there and here, it’s hard to put into words.  The differences are in the spirit of the celebrations, in the attitude, and therefore intentions of the people.  It makes me incredibly aware of how much the environment surrounding me impacts me.  As much as I might try to recreate the spirit of the holidays here, as it was there, it is astonishingly hard to translate.

How do I honour my “spiritual balance” in the place I am today in the midst of cultural expectations I resist?  When was the last time I gave away what I prize most merely because I knew the recipient would enjoy it?  Have I learned the beauty of generosity?  How do I reconcile these thoughts and my intentions with the season that is upon us?  I don’t have any good answers yet.

I know I will continue to struggle with finding my spiritual balance in the midst of culturally encouraged consumerism.  I will continue to explore what spiritual balance means to me.  I know I will continue to struggle with finding the balance for my son between him celebrating the holiday and not being consumed with what he is getting.  I will continue to struggle with all of these things.  My hope is that my struggle and the thoughtfulness of my choices will eventually find me a way through.

Finding the Face of God

By David Gosling

“Each thing hath two faces, a face of its own, and a face of its Lord; in respect of its own face it is nothingness, and in respect of the Face of God it is Being. Thus there is nothing in existence save only God and His Face, for everything perisheth but His Face, always and forever.”

-Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali

This quote from the famous medieval mystic al-Ghazali, one of the most important figures in historical Islam, demonstrates the curious predicament one finds in the modern application of counseling within a pastoral context. There is the immediate need to treat a person suffering from a variety of psychological conditions, someone deeply hurt by the world and their experiences within it. Yet, there is also the deeper and greater need to treat the soul of the individual, to acknowledge the Face of God that lies behind and beyond each physical being. Indeed, through this statement al-Ghazali demonstrates the ultimate futility of tending to the finite self while ignoring the Infinite: all paths converge on the Oneness of Being despite our intentions to the contrary.

It is an utterly human quality to forget such esoteric realities when concerns of the present come calling, and to our credit (or discredit) we often do such a good job that they are virtually forgotten altogether. On one level, this preoccupation with the present manifests itself in the record number of psychological and psychosomatic problems experienced these days. On a more profound level, and perhaps in conjunction with the previous crisis, our spiritual selves are being denied their rightful place within the framework of a healthy, well-balanced life. Every generation seems to forget anew Christ’s teaching to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our strength. We also seem to forget that it is through this continued remembrance of God in our lives that we are able to truly love our neighbor, thereby fulfilling the remainder of Jesus’ command.

The relevance of pastoral counseling seems more than ever to be in its ability to address both the psychological and spiritual dimensions of the human condition, in this age of continued crisis and lackluster faith in anything beyond the scientific method. May we each continue to search for the uniquely divine Face of God behind every person who seeks our counsel.

Alhamdulillah (Praise to God).

An Advent of Humanity – No Cape Necessary

by Dayna Pizzigoni

What does it mean to have a God that was born in a manger and died on a cross? About five years ago I wrote this question in an untitled notebook on a page without a date. As my spiritual community closes our liturgical year with Christ our King on the cross and begins our celebration of Advent, I ponder this question and its personal meaning in my faith journey again.

The reality of a God born in a barn and murdered after healing the sick and feeding the hungry means that Jesus was not a super hero. He participated in the messiness of humanity. I need to remember that if God did not step into the world as a super hero then She probably doesn’t expect me to be a super hero (despite how fun it might be to have super powers as a doctoral student).

I am a human being. God does not expect me to be perfect. He intentionally did not give me a super hero cape. My humanity, like my need for rest and play, is not a flaw. The most significant joy I will celebrate, pain I will suffer, and contribution I will offer the world will be done cape-less-ly as a regular human.

Now it must be said that sometimes we, as humans, do put on wonderful capes of determination and resilience. Single fathers, abuse survivors, refugees, and struggling students probably have made good use of metaphorical capes. It is beautiful how we can survive, stretch, and grow, but this strength becomes a liability when our expectations for ourselves become too high. We are not made to be “on” and heroic all the time. Following Christ is not about being a super hero. It is about being fully human.

There is nothing as tempting as a doctoral program to make me wish I could be a super hero; however, doctoral classes are not crises. I do not need a cape for my courses. I need to plan for adequate time to do my work and trust my intelligence. My studies call me not to heroism, but to humility with which work and be ever grateful for the privilege of higher education.

This Advent I hope to contemplate the beauty of our limited humanity. I can honor the holiness of my humanity and humbly invite Christ into the Bethlehem of my heart this Advent. Jesus will be ok in the messiness of my fragile humanity. After all, He was born in a manger and died on a cross.

Love What it Loves

by Kate Gerwin

“You can’t have my heart and you don’t own my mind but, do what you want, what you want with my body.” –Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga is a singer whose shock value tends to come more from her over the top ensembles than her lyrics; her latest song however, struck a chord with me.

Undertones of sexual assault aside, the lyrics aren’t any more sexually provocative than others you hear on any pop radio station and Gaga has every right to decide what she wants to do with her body.

What upsets me is the fact that the song speaks to a larger cultural attitude towards the body; one in which the body is at best, a vehicle to further the needs of the “real” parts of us (the heart and mind) and one in which it is, at worst, treated with apathy and abuse.

Gaga is not the first or the only one to voice the belief that the body is “less than” the other aspects of the self; turn on the radio or the television or peruse social media and it is not hard to see that Gnosticism is alive and well in modern day America. As a culture, we are conflicted masters of our bodily selves, oscillating between stringent contempt and debilitating over-indulgence.

On the one hand, we judge our bodies for what they are not, restrict them, deny them the basics of what they need (food, sleep, rest, touch, nature, play), push them beyond healthy limits and then chastise them for not working “like they should.” On the other, we abuse our bodies with over-indulgence and addiction. Even the arguments made for healthy living tend to come back to looking better and living longer, implying that the only two things that the body has to offer are attractiveness and longevity.

Religion and spirituality are often in on it too. Whether it is through the condemnation of sexuality, harsh ascetic practices or even just the subtle implication that “real” spirituality lies beyond our embodied selves, spirituality can proliferate the belief that the body need not be as valued as our hearts or minds.

What about a view of the body that cherishes it just as much as one would cherish a child? What about a view founded on acceptance, curiosity, appreciation and joy? One that celebrates the body not just as an essential part of the self, but as the true meeting place of self? What about a spirituality that understands that holiness or enlightenment is an embodied process? A view that tells us, in the words of the poet Mary Oliver:

“You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert; you only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Living With Choice

by Andrea Noel

Often I live each day not considering the fact that I have a choice. I have the choice to be present to life or to avoid it. I have the choice to be compassionate with life or to be indifferent to it. I have the choice to obsess about being in control or to relax into the freedom of letting go.Instead of considering my choices, I typically get consumed by fear, haste and the need to react. However, the beauty of life is that we are always being invited back into right relationship with creation, God, and ourselves.

The fall season has impressed on me the need to cultivate a ‘pace for grace,’ and is inviting me to create spaciousness to better notice choices. This season of slowing down reminds me that I am invited to choose all the time, and that I need to be more present in the choosing. My choices give me power to manifest the life I want to experience. Noticing what I choose also holds me accountable to owning my experiences and gives me the opportunity to change them.

As fall slowly shifts into winter, I choose to continue nurturing a ‘pace for grace.’ I choose openness, to be more aware of what options are in front me. I choose patience, to be more present to process. Finally, I choose to be in my choices, empowering myself to live more passionately.

Coming Home

by Kate Gerwin

“After the Ecstasy… the laundry.” – Jack Kornfield

This past weekend, I went on a retreat—or perhaps more accurately stated, this past weekend, I came back from a retreat.

The retreat itself was one of the most soul-touching experiences I have ever had. I showed up on Friday, resistant and jaded (just the right temperature for cooking, my teacher would say) and left on Sunday with deep new wells of life. It was humbling, empowering and one of those rare moments where you realize you are watching your life change.

So overall, a pretty good weekend.

To give some context, I am somewhat familiar with retreats; I’ve been on more than a few and led many more and perhaps most importantly, I had finally learned the art of fitting a sleeping bag, pillow and all my clothes into one tiny duffle. My experiences have run the gamut, from deeply meaningful and life-altering, to extraordinarily empty and stale.

One thing about retreats that has always intrigued me is coming back home, as the experience is always different. At times I have been so raw and broken open that coming home has been like waking up under harshly lit florescent lights. Sometimes I have been so deeply moved that my attempts to share my experience have been totally futile. And on other occasions, I have been so frustrated, cynical or bored that I haven’t been able to make it to the car fast enough; impatient to get back to the distracting business of my ‘real’ life.

I think the greatest gift that this particular weekend gave me, was the gift of coming home.

Jack Kornfield, beloved author and meditation teacher, sums up the beauty of “coming home” in his book, “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.” Kornfield writes about how moments of transcendence can be so powerful and life-changing; and yet, after such realization, we are faced, or gifted, with the day-to-day-living of our lives. These are the real moments of miracle and mystery. For Kornfield the moments of ecstasy and enlightenment are worth very little if they do not help the laundry become a luminous or sacred task.

As we were about to leave the retreat, my teacher, mindful that we would all be returning to our proverbial laundry, left us with this quote by Buddhist meditation master, Thich Nhat Hanh, from his sermon about the life of Jesus:

“The real miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.”

I am off to do some laundry!

Walking with the Ancestors

by Rev. Shelly Mohnkern

Lo, there do I see my father.
Lo, there do I see my mother, my sisters and my brothers.
Lo, there do I see the line of my people back to the beginning.
Lo, they do call to me.
They bid me take my place on Asgard in the halls of Valhalla,
Where the brave may live forever.

-The 13th Warrior

As the year slips into cooler weather and the earth into dormancy, we enter in a time of reflection amidst our academic learning. This is the time where our thoughts divide between school and the upcoming season of celebrations, family, and light. It is a natural part of the waning of the year. We are reminded that, like the year itself, life is a cycle, carried on after us by our children or the children we know, and perpetuated before us by the ancestors.

The crisp smell in the air always puts me in the mindset of remembrance. This is the time of year when we remember those who went before us, and honor their journeys both in life and afterwards. We cleanse our sacred spaces, we light candles, we care for graves and spaces of memory and we gather together and share our histories. We celebrate Samhain, All Saints Day, Dia De Los Muertes, and All Souls Day. For some this is a solitary time, and for others, a time of community.

Honoring our ancestors cultivates a sense of kinship, family loyalty and lineage. It celebrates the great Mystery of who we are, where we come from, and where we go when the familiarities of living leave us. It deepens our sense of history and how it has shaped us. Honoring ancestors is a tradition that is found world-wide, in almost every culture, class, political system and technical stage of advancement. Even those who have never known their genetic ancestors can find ancestral connection through those that raised them, those that taught and shaped them, and the society that surrounds them.

My ancestors have led me here, to pastoral counseling, and to Loyola. The lessons given to me by my parents, my grandparents, my family history, the tales I have heard from my loved ones about their families, and everything my community brought me up to believe in, to feel and to seek, have culminated in this path, at this time, in this place. I open my ears, my heart, and my spirit, and I walk with them for a time, giving thanks and reconnecting and finding myself at the heart of it.

 

The Power of Language

by Dave Gosling

A single word can brighten the face

of one who knows the value of words,

Ripened in silence, a single word

acquires a great energy of work.

War is cut short by a word,

and a word heals the wounds,

and there’s a word that changes

poison into butter and honey.

Let a word mature inside yourself.

Withhold the unripened thought.

Come and understand the kind of word

that reduces money and riches to dust.

Know when to speak a word

and when not to speak at all.

A single word turns a universe of hell

into eight paradises.

Follow the Way. Don’t be fooled

by what you already know. Be watchful.

Reflect before you speak.

A foolish mouth can brand your soul

Yunus, say one last thing

about the power of words–

Only the word “I”

divides me from God.

Yunus Emre

Every major faith tradition warns against the uninhibited use of words. The wise understand that human beings possess a finite amount of energy. To speak is to use that energy, to direct it toward an object with intent. A hurtful word to a friend, a shallow or pointless conversation, an internal dialogue with one’s own egoistic agenda, a curse against the universe….these are all ways language can deprive us of energy otherwise allocated for the accomplishment of Good.  Like Yunus, we should hold our words until the right one approaches, the one that “changes poison into butter and honey”.

The magnitude of this challenge is clear in the current global landscape. The rise of technology has not only given us a variety of platforms from which to use our words carelessly and often; it has also opened our psyches and souls to the millions of meaningless words spoken by others. We are encouraged to push the entirety of our lives–our hopes, dreams, desires, and accomplishments–onto others, feeding our habits for constant attention, affection, and desirability. How, then, can we possibly withhold words until they ripen with meaning and compassion?

Counselors are blessed with a professional setting that encourages this process of patience and growth. Words, when they are spoken, must be carefully weighed and measured. They must reflect the professional knowledge of the speaker, but only in relation to the patient’s anguish and concern. They must also contain compassion and understanding. They may even be graced by the light touch of Spirit. Too many words and the power of the message is lost. Too few and the message remains unclear, muddled. May we all learn with Yunus how to “withhold the unripened thought” until the timing is right. It seems a great challenge, but one that also contains an immense blessing in its power to change and improve lives.

Letting Go

by Dayna Pizzigoni

“Slowly, she celebrated the sacrament of letting go.

First she surrendered her green,

then the orange, yellow, and red…” Macrina Wiederkehr

About two years ago I decide to let go. I let go of my insistence to predict God’s plan for my life. I had just experienced a falling apart, a heart-break that invited me into a profound surrender. I held on to only two things: hope and a desire to know God anew.

I let go of my idea of God’s will for me because I had no answers anymore and the search seemed too clouded by my fear and will to control it. My sacrament of letting go began with re-discovering the grace inside myself. I couldn’t start to get to know God any other way. I had to accept the Truth inside me before I could trust the Truth anywhere else.

I can’t tell you how I got to know myself again. I did not take on this self-discovery like a project or goal that I had to carefully note and analyze. I accepted the beauty of uncertainty and let the process unfold. (By the way, this feat, by this recovering perfectionist, would not have happened without the gift of being broken open.) I remember doing things like going to yoga, eating at a restaurant by myself, attending mass during the week, seeing my therapist, and allowing time and space in my life to do whatever I felt like (eg coloring).

“And then, the sacrament of waiting began

The sunrise and sunset watched with

Tenderness, clothing her with silhouettes

They kept her hope alive.

They helped her understand that

her vulnerability

her dependence and need

her emptiness

her readiness to receive

were giving her a new kind of beauty.

Every morning and every evening she stood in silence and celebrated

the sacrament of waiting.” Macrina Wiederkehr

In this surrender, I waited for whatever life would present. I practiced trusting myself more and waited for God to reveal Herself however She wanted. I risked greater vulnerability and let God love me.

I sit writing to you now on a small porch outside my apartment enjoying the autumn sun with my husband inside. From heart-break to heart-bounty, I rest in the grace of letting go and waiting for God to surprise me again. Let go of something this fall as the leaves surrender. Wait for God to surprise you. Life is not a statistical analysis where we predict outcomes. Life is unfolding.