Moving the Garden to lauraknowlescavanaugh.com

Future reflections on spirituality will be posted on my new site: LauraKnowlesCavanaugh.com.

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Revisiting the Desert

Matt and I went on a little vacation to Las Vegas over the weekend to rest and try snowboarding (my first time).  It was a nice getaway, other than people smoking on the no-smoking floor of our hotel and Matt’s getting altitude sickness from our little snowboarding adventure on Saturday.  As we drove through the desert on our way back home yesterday, I was struck again and again by the unvarying ugliness of the landscape, the repetitive monotony of the drive, and the stark contrast between the barrenness of our desert vacation and the beautiful tranquility of our beach-side home.

Our drive home reminded me of the contrast between the spiritual wilderness I endured for several years since moving to California and the rest and growth I’ve begun to enjoy in the last few months.  Here’s a little taste of my spiritual “desert vacation,” an excerpt from a piece I wrote and posted two years ago:

There is something haunting about the barrenness of the desert. The dry, cracked earth produces little more plant life than bristles, thistles, and thorns. I am sitting on the hillside overlooking St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California. The cemetery rests behind me, just up the winding dirt path. The sun is unmerciful, but I shiver, defenseless against the wind. It is Ash Wednesday. I have never been to a monastery before. I envy this rhythm of life so firmly established here, so deeply rooted in history, tradition, and meaning. I envy the unrushed movement of the brothers as they go about their daily tasks with studied patience. Mostly, I envy the cultivated attitude of reverence toward solitude and stillness. Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten season, is marked by fasting, prayer, and quiet. I have hiked up this hill, away from the monks and visitors, in order to break the silence with my sad song.   Read the rest here.

What I noticed as we drove back toward California was something I had never been able to imagine while I was stuck in my spiritual wilderness: we were leaving the desert.  We had stayed in the desert for a time, but we weren’t living there.  Now we were going back home, back to where we live, back to the mountains and the ocean.  I was in the desert for so long, it felt like I was living there, like I was going to live there forever. Now I see moving to our home by the beach as a physical representation of the spiritual move I was making from the wilderness to the ocean, from barrenness to new life, from anguish to peace.

When we arrived home yesterday afternoon, we unpacked the car and made a bee-line for the beach to catch the sunset.  Every time I watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, I marvel that I live here now. I can see this every day if I want to.  I’m no longer surrounded by noise, rushing cars, flying helicopters, and smog.  Now I’m surrounded by vacationing families, retirees, quiet days, and quieter nights.  And, oh yes, the sunset.  Here’s what I see every day as the sun goes down:

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“Yearly” Examine, Elephants, and Psalm 131

Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Welcome to the year 2012.  Today I decided to begin the new year by reviewing the old one, using the Daily Examination of Consciousness as a guide.  Some of what came up was expected, and some surprised me, but overall it was a fruitful time.  I used a journal my brother brought back for me from China when he came to visit me in June 2010. I had only written in the first couple of pages, recording spiritual exercises from September and October 2010 before I got engaged in November and my life was completely taken over by planning a wedding, getting married, moving several times, working overtime, and becoming overwhelmed by fatigue.  2011 was a crazy year.  Now in 2012, I hope to fill the pages of this journal with my encounters with God through various spiritual exercises.

my elephant journal

As I closed the journal after my prayer this morning, I noticed there is an elephant on the front.  Out of curiosity, I looked up the meaning of elephants and came across these adjectives in my web research: grace, prosperity, power, loyalty, wisdom, luck, solitude, intelligence, honor, stability, patience, temperance, chastity, reliability, dignity, royalty, pride, determination, responsibility, sensitivity and social connection.  Specific to China, the elephant represents happiness, longevity, and good luck.  Wow, that’s a lot to live up to.  In any case, I like that the elephant is a symbol of so many positive traits and that 2012 is the year of writing in my elephant journal.

I also had my Bible out in case I needed some inspiration during my “yearly” examine, and I happened to flip through the Psalms and come to one I’ve never really noticed before: Psalm 131.

1 My heart is not proud, O LORD,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
2 But I have stilled and quieted my soul;
like a weaned child with its mother,
like a weaned child is my soul within me.

3 O Israel, put your hope in the LORD
both now and forevermore.

Over the past two years, God has used a lot of imagery about babies to teach me about dependence on and trust in God to take care of the the things that burden me as well as to take care of me.  Now, as I move into a new season, I believe God is using this psalm to show me I have grown enough to become the weaned child–older and more content with the waiting and patience that come with seeking God.  Now that life isn’t so crazy and I have more free time to invest, my soul has become still and quiet, hoping in and waiting on the Lord as King David modeled.

I will take Psalm 131 into 2012 to remind me to wait on God with the patience of a toddler (however little that might be), confident that I have tried God and found God indeed dependable and trustworthy.  Welcome, 2012!

Goals for 2012

After some thought, here are my goals for the new year:

Writing goals
Start a new journal
Blog twice a week
Make a dent in my reading list

Spiritual health goals
Try a new spiritual exercise each month
Practice the examine every day
Find a church community
Find a new spiritual director

Physical health goals
Ride my bike more than 5 miles
Use my new sleeping bag
Use my pilates videos at least once a week

Emotional health goals
Make a new friend in the SB area to have tea with
Watch at least 3 sunsets a week

Revisiting Contemplation

In honor of the anniversary of Thomas Merton‘s death (December 10th, 1968), I have decided to re-read New Seeds of Contemplation. It’s been a while, and I forgot how much I enjoy his writing.  Here’s a bit from the first paragraph of the book:

Contemplation is the highest expression of [one’s] intellectual and spiritual life.  It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source. It knows the Source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes both beyond reason and beyond simple faith. For contemplation is a kind of spiritual vision to which both reason and faith aspire, by their very nature, because without it they must always remain incomplete.

I like that idea that contemplation is the completion of reason and faith.  It helps me to understand why God has been leading me the past several years out of my left-brained intellectual self and toward a more right-brained, mystical experience of who God is and who I am in God and because of God’s presence in my life.  My college years were very much defined by St. Anselm‘s concept of faith seeking understanding.  I expected my graduate years to be much the same, yet I found myself drawn to fringe classes like Power Encounter and Theology and Popular Culture.  I discovered PIHOP and began an unexpected journey into the tangible experience of God.  Instead of lining my bookshelves with academic volumes and commentaries, I filled a whole bookshelf with new and used titles from the Prayer & Spirituality section at the bookstore where I worked.  Now, I’m excited to revisit New Seeds of Contemplation in light of my spiritual journey and see what new truths God has in store.

Trees: A Vision

“But blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD,
whose confidence is in him.
They will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.    – Jeremiah 17:7-8

Has God ever answered a question you didn’t realize you were asking? I was wondering idly what season I’m in now, and to my surprise, God answered me!  Now, I have been in a very wintery season for the past few years, but now that I sit reflecting and searching my inner life, I realize I’m not really in that season anymore.  Getting engaged, getting married, and moving to a new area haven’t exactly been the easiest experiences of the past year.  In fact, it’s been an incredibly stressful year.  But they are happy things.  For the first time in a long time, I’m satisfied with who I am and where I am in life.  I no longer feel pain I can’t describe or identify.  I no longer feel dry and far from God.  Instead, I love being married to my wonderful hubby.  I love living in Carpinteria where it is quiet and peaceful.  I love working from home. I especially love having only one job.  I love being able to sleep as long as I want and stay in bed all day if I want.  I no longer feel like my world is coming apart.  Before I share what God said to me, there are three things you need to know.

#1: When my roommate and I decided to move to Sierra Madre several years ago, we ended up living on a beautiful little street called Esperanza.  When we prayed over our new home, my roommate remarked that it was ironic that we moved onto a street that means “hope” or “trust” since we were both struggling with a very painful season of life at the time.  About the same time, Jeremiah 17:5-7 came up in discussion with my spiritual director, and she encouraged me to mediate on the verses for a time, which led me to create this little picture to encourage myself that though I felt like everything on the left, I could hope and trust in God to bring me one day to everything promised on the right.

#2: Sometime later, Jeremiah 17:5-8 came up again, and I wrote this poem.

#3: I remember sitting in my living room about a year ago with a group of girls as my roommate led us in an exercise of Visio Divina (here’s a great resource). She asked us to imagine ourselves as a tree and to ask God to enter the image and reveal a truth to us.  At that time, I tried to imagine myself as a tree, but I could only see the roots.  It was dark and isolated, but I saw Jesus sitting on the roots and heard him telling me that the roots have to grow first before the tree can begin to grow above ground.  There was a sense of promise that although things seemed dark and lonely in the moment, growth was still happening, and I would one day begin to grow in the light.

Now in the moment I was wondering idly what season I had entered, I was not thinking about this image of the tree’s roots from that night with my friends, or the poem I wrote, or the picture I made. I was not thinking about Jeremiah 17:5-8.  To be perfectly honest, I had not–until the writing of this post–even noticed that there was a theme of growing trees in the story of my spiritual journey.  But suddenly there popped into my head this image of a tree.  Now the tree wasn’t really a tree yet. It was still a sapling.  It was young and bare, but it had a few green leaves beginning to unfurl on its flimsy branches.  In that moment, I saw myself as the tree growing above ground, and I knew I had entered a new season: spring!  New life and growth.  Light and green.  Health and hope.  Without even noticing, I left the barren wilderness and frozen ground behind and walked into the fulfillment of God’s promise all those months ago.

Journey Through the Liturgical Year

I’ve decided (albeit belatedly) to follow the liturgical year over the next year and blog about it from time to time.  Since the first Sunday of Advent was this past Sunday, I’d better get a move on.

Advent is a period of preparation for Christmas but, unlike Lent, it is not a period of penance.  It is a period that focuses us on joy.  We prepare ourselves to understand the full adult meaning of the feast.  We come to realize more each year how great are our blessings, how beautiful is a life lived in concert with the Jesus who came to show us the way.  We learn the joy of anticipation, the joy of delighting in a sense of the presence of God all around us, the joy of looking for the second coming of Christ, the joy of living in the surety of even more life in the future. – Joan Chittister

I started reading The Liturgical Year by Joan Chittister (read a review by my friend Wess Daniels) along with Eternal Seasons, which is a collection of excerpts from Henri Nouwen’s writing, edited by Michael Ford.  Here’s something Nouwen said that struck me in his discussion of Mary’s response in Luke 1:38 to the news that she was pregnant with God’s child: “She was saying, ‘I don’t know what this all means, but I trust that good things will happen.’ She trusted so deeply that her waiting was open to all possibilities.” In reading these books, I am reminded that Advent is a season of waiting–unlike the waiting of the lenten season–that is full of hope, expectation, and joy.

I have spent the last three years learning to find meaning in the painful, barren waiting the lenten season teaches us. I have cried, rebelled, and begged God for answers when the only answer I ever received was wait, wait.  Today in my readings, I realized that my last three years of waiting have been all wrong.  I wasn’t meant to wait in a prolonged state of repentance, despair, and emptiness.  I was meant to wait in hopeful and joyful expectation of the next season in my spiritual journey.  I realized today as I read about the Advent season that I consistently used as my breath prayer the line Mary used to express surrender to the season God had brought her into when the angel Gabriel brought her the news. For three years, I have prayed with Mary: Let it be to me as you have said.

This realization has given me new eyes to look back on my experience of graduating from seminary and trying to figure out what to do next.  I see now that what I perceived as barren wasn’t barren at all. In fact, it was pregnant!  Now I can’t speak from experience, but any mother will tell you that pregnancy isn’t exactly the most pleasant experience.  In fact, it can be quite unpleasant and even painful to endure nine months of ever increasing weight, movement, and discomfort.  Nevertheless, there is also hope, expectation, and joy.  I’m not sure what my season of waiting is going to bring into being, or when that expectation will be realized.  What I do know for sure is that all those times I felt forsaken, I wasn’t.  All those times I felt empty, I wasn’t.  Instead, I am filled with the very fullness of God–living and moving inside of me.  I want to be like Mary.  I want to be open to all possibilities, as Nouwen said, and I want to trust that it is all going to be for good.  Something is going to change, and I can’t wait to find out what is coming…or becoming!

The spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, expecting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination or prediction. That, indeed, is a very radical stance in a world preoccupied with control. – Henri Nouwen