Surprised by My Own Unfolding

"I would love to live as a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding." John O'Donohue

Have you ever had one of those moments when everything came together into a singularity of bliss? It never lasts for long and evaporates as unexpectedly as it appears. Nonetheless, when those occasions unfold, they exude hope, a sense of purpose, and oodles of joy.

I had such an experience Saturday night. At the Chaplaincy Institute's monthly interfaith service, I (along with three classmates) had the honor of receiving my certificate of completion for the Interfaith Spiritual Direction program.  I also transferred my ordination to the Chaplaincy Institute's Interfaith Community. The community celebrated these milestones along with the announcement that I am now the Acting Director of Interfaith Community for the Chaplaincy Institute.

What a change! Over the past year or so, I felt despondent, discouraged and utterly confused. Where was my life going? What is my work? Where is my community? What the hell am I doing? So I waited. I noticed. As each next step appeared out of the fog, I took it, not knowing where it would lead.

When I first moved to California, Stephanie Warfield, a friend in Austin, e-introduced me to John Mabry, the Director of The Chaplaincy Institute's Interfaith Spiritual Direction program. While I have been a spiritual director for several years, I'd never completed a certificate program. The opportunity to do so while also learning about multiple faith traditions (included working with people of no faith tradition), excited me.

Then a fellow student in the program, Amy Hoyt, became the first person to transfer her existing ordination to The Chaplaincy Institute, which is not only a seminary, but also an interfaith community. When I left parish ministry 17 years ago, my ordination was eventually "inactivated" since I was not in a ministry setting with the denomination that ordained me. Reactivating my ordination had not been on my radar screen for some time. Next thing I knew, I was completing all the requirements to transfer my ordination to the Chaplaincy Institute. Now I am once again endorsed as "clergy in good standing".

Then Jim Larkin, the kind minister who shepherded me through that transfer process, announced that he was stepping down from his position as Director of Interfaith Community. I applied for the position, was hired, and started last Monday! I now feel at home in community and in my vocation.

This was no strategic, step-by-step plan. I did set my intentions (prayers) for the kind of work and community that I longed for. Then I kept my eyes open, noticing any subtle hints that emerged. I waited. I struggled. I kept returning to my intentions. I applied for jobs. I tried out various communities and groups. The desert stretched out before me in limitless, frustrating desiccation. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, streams converged to form this oasis.

Of course, I still have no idea how all of this will evolve. But, in this moment, I am filled with gratitude for how this life is unfolding. I feel supported by the Universe (God) and by so many loving people, including my friend Kathleen who gave me the ministerial "charge" (words of encouragement and blessing for the way forward), and especially by my partner Herb who put the stole on me during the service.

As you reflect on your life:

  • What yearnings do you notice?
  • How might you activate that yearning into an intention?
  • What subtle hints, crumbs along the path, align with your intention?
  • What is your best guess as to your next, single step forward?

Those moments of bliss, those times when life "comes together", are neither guaranteed nor permanent. They, are, however, more likely to be noticed and appreciated through an open heart, an open mind, and a willingness to be carried along by the surprising unfolding of life's river.

A Breath of Fresh Air

This morning I walked our dog Flash around the neighborhood. Turning a corner, I saw ahead of us two elderly smokers having a chat. Under my breath I complained to Flash about the upcoming pollution. I then held my breath while quickly scooting around them. After we passed them, I continued to mutter to Flash about their nasty habit and felt anger at the man and woman for desecrating our pure air with secondhand smoke. While I had seem them before, I didn't know anything about them other than I wished to avoid them on the way back.

On the return trip home, Flash and I encountered the same woman. She had always seemed rather unfriendly before, and I held Flash back to give her a wide berth on the sidewalk. She stopped. She extinguished her cigarette. And then a flurry of words snowed upon us: "What a beautiful dog! What breed is he? What's his name? His curly fur is amazing!" Before I knew it, Flash and I were engaged in conversation with a lovely human being.

As we parted ways, I started to question how certain I could be about my assumptions and expectations. A woman for whom I held a mild repulsion actually made my day. While I still abhor smoking, this person who smokes and whom I assumed to be unfriendly turned out to be delightful. What else might I be wrong about? How might my life be different if I approached each moment with a clean slate (the Bhuddist concept of "beginner's mind")?

On a macro-level, I couldn't help but wonder how the current impasse over the "fiscal cliff" is another example of unquestioned, entrenched assumptions. To be honest, I've seen the Republicans as arrogant, inflexible and dead wrong. Is it possible, however, that I and those of my political persuasion are also arrogant, inflexible, and, at least on some issues, partially or totally dead wrong? Am I adamant in the superiority of my positions, when I should be learning, investigating, conversing, getting involved, advocating with passion...and all with an open heart and mind? Can I be dedicated to my values, yet  willing to grow, evolve, and, yes, be surprised by the humanity of those with whom I disagree?

Today an Airedale and an elderly smoker melted my icy judgments. They taught me that I can oppose smoking and any number of other behaviors without walking around in a cloud of resentment. They invited me to hold my assumptions lightly so that I can pivot freely when the unexpected emerges. They reminded me that the truest way to experience each moment is with a mind and heart held as wide open as possible. And in that moment, I inhaled the deepest breath of pure, fresh air.

When You Can't See the Forest for the Trees

This past weekend my partner and I went to Muir Woods National Monument in search of Coho salmon, which are starting to work their way from the ocean into fresh water in order to spawn. Because of the heavy rains, the water was too muddy to see anything. While strolling through the skyscraping redwoods, I noticed an interesting phenomenon, "tree rain". While the skies were almost clear, the trees were so saturated with moisture that it felt like a steady rain was falling under the canopy. The unexpected precipitation was made all the more magical by the sun's radiant beams bursting through the dense foliage.

Sometimes it takes a broader view to see reality. When all that's visible is water descending from above, the obvious conclusion is that the storm still rages. A more panoramic view, however, reveals a truer picture in which sunny clarity beams above and at times through the drizzling darkness.

When all we sense is gloom and pain, a more expansive container for our experience is available. Whether we call that our Inner Wisdom, the Web of Life, God, or Higher Power, the invitation is to take a step or two back, look up and around and within.  Yes, we are getting wet and it's unpleasant, and there is also more going on that gives context and hope for our dampened spirit.

Brother David Steindl-Rast said that hope is the willingness to be surprised. In the midst of your obvious difficulty, is something surprising also starting to shine through? How can you get enough distance to be able to see it?

Spirituality is just a pious term for the intentional practice of welcoming surprise. It is letting go of our allegiance to what we think is going on until what is currently beyond our field of vision becomes visible. That view usually comes as a surprise, a gift, but the preceding willingness to release our narrow viewpoint is a choice. To have hope and notice life-giving Spirit everywhere is not a miracle reserved for saints or the lucky. It flows from the intention to open the aperture of the soul from narrow to panoramic.