Practicing Dying

Hair flipping outside her helmet, knees narrowly missing the silver handlebars, with a fierce  yet wobbly determination, my daughter gripped the handles of her bubblegum-pink bicycle freshly shorn of its training wheels.  “Don’t get ahead of yourself,” I said.  “No need to worry about whether or not you are going to fall because you are definitely going to fall.  So first, let’s practice falling.  When you get the hang of falling, maybe you will be less afraid of riding your bike.”

I don’t remember all the details about how I was taught to ride a bike.  I don’t remember if someone tried to steady my shoulders as I balanced on the hefty banana seat.  I don’t remember if I was coached to look out, not down.  But I am fairly certain no one helped me learn how to fall, and no one assured me that I would fall before I had even tried to ride.

I don’t remember being taught about falling, but I have been hearing all of my life about the fact that I will die someday.  Mostly, I heard this in church and from church people.  Sunday school lessons and a fair number of sermons were primarily concerned with my death (and anybody else’s who happened to be present).  All of us will die.  I was encouraged to live with my death before me.  Would I be ready when the time came?

“Give your heart to Jesus because when you die you want to go to heaven and not burn in the fiery pit of hell,” they said.

“On the day of judgement, when you stand before the throne of God, having left behind this earthly life, you will have to account for all that you have done and all that you have left undone.  Live today as if it is your last,” they said.

“If you leave this place tonight, if you die in a car wreck on the way home, will your soul be in eternal peace with Jesus?” they asked.

I believe these statements, and others like them, were intended to help me live a more full and loving life.  If I could be free of the fear of dying and death, I would be free to live as a person motivated by agape love, a person characterized by faith, a person grounded in hope.  I think these admonitions were supposed to encourage me and provide a foundation of perseverance when I found doing the “right” thing too hard or too loathsome or too boring.  In a way, the church was saying, “You are going to fall.  Maybe you won’t be afraid of falling if you know how to do it well.”

I am born to die.  You are born to die.  We are all going to die because life encompasses death.  As a person of Christian faith, how I proceed to my death, how I recognize and negotiate the terms of my death, how I incorporate the eventuality of my “falling” into death has the potential to give balance to my wobbly life and to serve as a reminder to look out, not down.  The problem is that the primary ways I was taught to practice dying were built on fear – fear of failing to return God’s love, fear of God’s disapproval, fear that I (or anyone else) would be too weak to choose the leading of God’s Spirit if the punishment and reward failed to be utterly persuasive.  The problem is that focusing solely on this system of punishment and reward seems to disregard prevenient grace, the grace of God at work in us before we are able to respond, the divine spark within human beings that longs to be united with the All Consuming Fire of God’s love.  This emphasis on the reward and punishment which accompanies death seems to belittle God’s ability to woo us as God’s Beloved and to demean the capability of God’s Spirit within us to reciprocate God’s love.  Cannot God’s love do more than we can ask or imagine?  Cannot God’s love defeat the power of death?

I am still practicing dying but in a way more akin to falling or maybe sky-diving.  My practice of dying is less rooted in imagining a certain home in a Revelation kind of heaven (though many times I find great comfort seeing my loved ones walking streets of gold or strolling in peaceful green pastures).  Instead, my practice of dying is unveiled in a daily acknowledgement of my limited self and an awareness of the cosmic nature of God in Christ.  I practice dying by letting go into the unknown, immeasurable, immense nature of God’s presence that has known me before I was born, that knit me together in my mother’s womb, and that will receive me in death – though I do not know exactly how.  I practice dying by trust-falling into the presence of God when I am still and quiet and simply breathing, an experimental existing non-existence.

Why do I practice dying?  Because I believe I will live a fuller, richer, more abundant life if I see my death as part of my life.  I practice dying because I believe that the fear of death, in its many forms, is the cause of most human suffering.  Afraid of the death of a relationship, we manipulate and control the other or ourselves.  Afraid of the death of a way of life, we seek any and all means to prop up failing circumstances never counting the cost of greed and an unquenchable thirst for power.  Fearing the death of our influence, we fail to give ourselves in service to others or to promote a way of living which mirrors a wounded and suffering Christ.  Fearing the death of another’s approval, perceptions, or affirmation of us as “good people,” we fail to expose weakness, vulnerability, and struggle and so keep up the pretense (in cooperation with many around us) that we aren’t “one of those people,” all the while forgetting that healing is  undeniably tied to our willingness to uncover our wounds before the loving gaze of Grace.  I practice dying because I believe that fear and unconditional love exist at cross purposes to one another.  I John 4:18 says it much better than I can.  “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” 

So, if you were to ask me to give you some tips on learning how to live well, I would say, “It’s like riding a bike.  Learn how to fall, and maybe you will be less afraid.  Maybe you will then be able to look out, not down.”

bike riding

How have you practiced being less afraid of death?

© Amy Persons Parkes 2013

To Speak and To Listen

“Listen, and I will tell you a mystery…”
                                                                (I Corinthians 15:51)

When I was in the fifth grade, our teacher instructed the class on the practice of effective listening.  “Watch the person’s lips,” she admonished, “Don’t watch her face.  Watch her lips.”

Listen to Lips

I remember a time in my late teens when I was trying to listen to God.  How are you supposed to do that?  God doesn’t have lips to watch.  And without lips to watch, I heard a cacophony of voices in my head giving directions, offering advice, and issuing threats.  The voices tumbled over one another in an endless cycle as if my mind were a dryer with a glass door.  I was listening, but not to God.  The tumbling voices were attached to all the people who had praised me and loved me, who had scared me and hurt me, who had cajoled me and manipulated me, who had taught me and challenged me.  People had lips; God didn’t.

In the passing years, I realized that the tumbling voices came from a gift; I am a good listener.  Listening well means more than watching lips.  Listening well is hearing tone and sensing emotion.  Listening well is to pull back the Self in order to create as much space as possible for the Other to speak, to play, to emerge, to soar, to spill, to spew.  To listen is to pay attention to the hands and the shoulders, trace the arc of the eyes, hear the pattern of verbs, and to follow the billowy, lacy, delicate web of thought, gossamer thin and light, sheer, yet, defining.

Soon, if you are listening, you begin to see the delicate web is everywhere.  I saw it all; all of us like Charlotte’s babies spinning our silk and ballooning from one place to another.  And I began to wonder if spinning my silk to the breeze was a betrayal of the gift of listening I had been given.  All those years of listening, observing, making room for the Other to speak, became obstacles to listening for a God with no lips, obstacles to listening to my True Self.  When I tried to listen for God, I heard everyone else. When I yearned for my own voice, I could not discern my whisper among the tumbling voices; the voice of my True Self was as hard to find as a lost sock.

Wondering, I asked, “What if I listened to myself with as much attentiveness and gentleness and interest as I had listened to others?”  As I became a better listener, I learned that listening well means that I must not forget that I am the one who listens.  To hear the tone and sense the emotion, I use my faculties and my intuition.  To pull back the Self is not to say the Self can or should disappear.  To pay attention to hands and shoulders, I watch with my eyes; to trace the arc of your eyes, I use my vision.

I listen; but when I listen well, I also speak.

© Amy Persons Parkes 2013

A Burning Me

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him,  “Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts.  What else can I do?  Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven.  His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

Joseph of Panephysis 7, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers:  The Alphabetical   Collection

I have spent years waiting for the next burning bush.  I say “next” because one would never suffice.  What job do I take?  Which decision do I make?  What next?

I read the words of Abba Joseph, and I wonder if I am the “next” burning bush.  Can I burn and not be consumed?

Burning Bush Luminaries for Shavuot DIY Tutorial

I wonder if Abba Joseph and Moses were only encountering God from two different perspectives, the transcendence and immanence of God, the God beyond and the God within.  Perhaps, this is what Moses later discovered when he began to burn with a bright light after meeting with God.

A burning me… on fire and yet not consumed.  Maybe, beyond doing the right thing, I would become the “right” thing.

Companions: Voices in my Head, Books by my Bed

Everyone needs companions in life.  Some of mine live with me.  Some are a phone call and a country away.  Some have died and still speak to me in dreams, through old letters, and archived emails.  And some of my companions are only such because I read what they write and add their voices to my inner conversations.  Here are a few of those companions who speak to me.

Daily reflections:

Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations
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Henri Nouwen Society
Henri Nouwen’s Daily Reflections as written in his book Bread for the Journey.

Daily meditations from the Irish Jesuits that I read in book form, but the meditations are also accessible online.
The book is Sacred Space:  The Prayer Book 2013
The website is www.sacredspace.ie

Books by my Bed:

The Grace in Dying: A Message of Hope, Comfort and Spiritual Transformation

The Grace in Dying: A Message of Hope, Comfort and Spiritual Transformation by Kathleen Dowling Singh

Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening

Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening by Cynthia Bourgeault

 A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix

A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix by Edwin H. Friedman, Edward W. Beal (Editor), Margaret M. Treadwell(Editor)

Primary Speech

Primary Speech by Ann Ulanov, Barry Ulanov

To Pray and to Love

To Pray and to Love by Roberta C. Bondi

For a more extensive list of authors and books who have been companions and conversation partners, here is a link to my favorites on Goodreads:

Favorites Bookshelf

Who are your companions?

Healing

When the blister heals, water stings the opening.
I itch after the sunburn eases.
As the scrape on my right foot heals,
I feel bumpy scabs tighten across my skin.
And I’m wondering, Healing God,
about the pink and purple
and yellow and green
dyeing my healing bruise.

By what change, what beauty
what discomfort, what surprise,
will you heal me, God?

On second thought,
like the vaccination needle
maybe it’s better
if I don’t know
what’s coming next.

Great Physician,
Compassionate Nurse,
Ever-present Attendant,
do what you think is best.
Comfort the fever of my resistance.
Dress the wound of my pride,
And cover the nakedness of my deepest pain.
In and through Christ, I pray.  Amen.

© Amy Persons Parkes 2011

Written as part of my final project for the Two Year Academy of Spiritual Formation #30

Forgiveness: A Prayer

Loyola House Feb 2012 007

The trouble is,
I don’t know if I want to forgive.
I’m afraid I’m all out of discernment
when it comes to this problem.

The trouble is, God,
I’m not sure I know what it means
to let go all that has passed between us.
The list of offenses is piled so high,
and the piles are so numerous;
the site of the injury reminds me
of the dumping grounds in India.

The trouble is, God,
I don’t think you understand
what I’m dealing with here.
The orphans of my heart
are starved for reconciliation
and healing.
But I only know to let them roam
among the piles of offenses
in search of any morsel to keep them alive.
Because alive is better… right, God?

The trouble is, God,
I can’t pray a little harder
or believe with more sincerity
or act with more kindness than I already have.
I am stuck in this wasteland of garbage
and while part of me searches for some nourishment here
another part of me keeps pushing the piles around
believing that rearranging the memories might
provide some opening for escape.

The trouble is, God,
I can’t imagine the beauty and freedom
of a life apart from this dump.
And no matter how hard I try
I cannot envision another possibility.
I am not able to set myself free.

The trouble is, God,
I need some help —
when you are available,
when you have some time.
I don’t want to be a bother.

© Amy Persons Parkes 2011

Written as part of my final project for the Two Year Academy of Spiritual Formation.

A Different Epiphany Journey

Loyola House Feb 2012 062

Father Thomas Keating describes centering prayer as being like a scuba diver settled on a large rock upon a riverbed.  You do not rest on the rock alone; God is present alongside you.  The river is Life, streaming, flowing, trickling, cascading and altering current and course with flood and drought, with falling rock and shifting ground.  Anchored by God’s presence, you allow the waters to flow past you, over you, and around you.  Above the riverbed your thoughts and feelings float like boats on the water’s surface.  From your underwater perch on the river’s floor, you can distinguish each thought and feeling, observing the boats come about, heel, pitch, heave to, and founder and thus giving freedom to your thoughts to be just as they are.

On this day of Epiphany, on this day of enlightenment, of gift-giving, of insight, I allow the vessels of my thoughts and feelings to jostle against one another – sloshing and spitting water, spraying and listing. Some are catching wind.  Some lay dead in the water, awaiting a brisk breeze.  I am aware of them.  I know from a glance at their sunken underbellies what lies tucked away in each hull above.

But for this Epiphany, on this day of light, I will sink to the riverbed; and I will place my openness before the Ground of Being, before the Source of all Light, before the One who gives desire to travel far and to see and know wonder.

For this Epiphany, I will sit on the river’s bottom with the One who birthed my being and know that these boats sail only for a time; and then, they will pass.  I will wait in the deep down place knowing even I, too, will be changed from “glory into glory,” knowing that once I was no more than a slumbering hot water bottle radiating heat on my mother’s chest.  I will rest below the river’s surface for this Epiphany knowing in the end, I will release the mainsail of my breath and I will surrender the headsail of my ego and sail on in another river as another vessel.

In loving memory of Wayne and his puckered whiskered lips, ready for another smoke and his next witty retort.

© Amy Persons Parkes 2013

A Prayer of Praise

While the earth and the sun
and the mountains and the streams
sing your praise, great God of heaven,
I offer a little praise of my own.

Praise God, with muddy floors and sticky counters.
Praise God, with dusty computers and lint-filled dryers.
Praise God, with toothpaste on shower curtain.
Praise God, with big smiles and loose teeth.
Praise God, with cardboard boxes transformed into time machines.
Praise God, with low bank balances and big bills.
Praise God, with no meal plan one hour before dinner.
Praise God, with children – sick and late to school.
Praise God, with Sunday school lesson half-way prepared and wrinkled dress.
Praise God, with sniffling noses and uncombed hair.
Praise God, with gutter leaning and shutter peeling.
Praise God, with one hubcap missing.
Praise God, with litter box in need of cleaning.
Praise God, with mascara smudged and a cut from shaving.
Praise God, with shoe soles flapping and missing buttons.
Praise God, with deadline looming and surprise visitor.
Praise God, with broken toe plus an unruly in-law.

In all times and in all places,
and in all manner of faces and spaces,
let all that is real and immediate and present
bellow and whisper
scream and whimper
cheer and wail
praise to you, O God,
creator, sister, sustainer.

Written as part of the final project for the Academy of Spiritual Formation #30 and appropriate for Thanksgiving.
© Amy Persons Parkes, 2011.