Sacred Places

The question on my mind today? What makes something sacred? As we have walked among this varied landscape I have had a deep sense of the sacredness of the water, the mountains, the rocks, the ever changing and fickle wind. This experience has been mine and I am not sure is shared by all those who walk by my side, at least not in the same way in which I mean it. So, what does make a place, a person, an experience sacred?

Today we stopped along the road near the shore of a lake for our morning worship. There was not a person in sight except for our merry band of pilgrims. The large white coach pulled over on the side of the narrow road which had twisted and turned like a slithering snake through bog land piled high with peat until it flowed into a pathway between mountains. Standing in a circle along the side of the lake, hoping beyond hope that the rain we saw in the distance would not begin to show itself, we began our morning prayer with song, scripture and poetry. All the words pointed to standing on holy ground. And I believe we all felt we were. Surrounded by such stark beauty our words gave meaning to the experience of the landscape itself. “Truly God is in this place.” we spoke like Moses.

As we finished our worship words and took a few minutes to move around the boggy ground holding our own thoughts, I noticed six stones lying in a small grouping. I walked over to the stones and piled one on top of the other to form a cairn. This rock formation is meant to say: something sacred happened here. Take notice.

Leaving this place we moved on down the road to Kylemore Abbey. This incredible castle built by Mitchell Henry for his beloved wife Margaret is a remarkable structure nestled in an equally remarkable place. This beautiful home which housed a family of eleven and numerous staff is nestled on a lake surrounded by heather covered mountains reaching into the heavens. After his wife’s untimely death, Henry then built a small chapel in her memory, a chapel not adorned by the usual stern looking gargoyles but sweet-faced angels. Its simplicity holds even the deepest prayers. All around this beautiful estate are the most well cared for gardens full of not only flowers but fruit trees and herbs, all originally planted to provide welcoming food for the guests of the family.

When the Henry family left this place it was taken over by Benedictine sisters who first created a school for girls from both the area and from far flung places, sent to this amazing setting for an education that would serve them in their life. The school no longer exists but the nuns live on and maintain it as a place of welcome and hospitality, a place of solace and meditation. It was our blessing yesterday to allow this landscape to wash over us and to hold us in the glory of an autumn day. Walking through the grounds I felt any stresses I may have been carrying melt away. I felt my breathing deepen and my rhythm remember its Source. I felt connected to all those who had walked these paths before me.

So, what makes a place sacred? Yesterday as I walked this landscape, as we worshiped beside the still waters of a mountain lake, I came to the understanding that it is love that makes a place sacred. Over time people have tried to write creeds and rules for naming a place as holy but that is really in vain. What makes a place sacred is the love by which relationships, with humans, with the earth, are nurtured. It is in this love that we come to know the greater Love that moves in all that, even the tiniest gesture or the grandest expression. Most of us will never build a castle for those we love but most of us try to make a castle of the homes we have. In the welcoming of people, whether schools of young women or the stranger that shows up at our door, if done in love, these guests walk into sacred spaces and make them more so by their presence. When we look out with love at the landscapes that make up our view of the world every day, our walk in the world becomes sacred.

Today may we all walk on sacred ground.


The Path

Today has been about attention to the path. As we took the ferry to the Aran Islands from our temporary home in Galway, I thought of those who traveled the path over the rough and treacherous seas to get to this land of rock walls. Standing on the upper deck of this large boat as we tossed to and fro, as our stomachs pitched with the will of the water, I tried to imagine what it was like to ride these waves in tiny boats made of wood and pitch, boats that held the worldly belongings of monks and marauders, farmers and fishermen. The crossing must have been important enough to risk life and limb to settle on this strikingly beautiful island yet stark island.The life there must have been worth it as they carried sand and seaweed to create the soil that created the food they would eat to sustain their lives and the faith they carried with them. It was a path that created awe and humility in me.

Walking up the rocky and steep path to Dun Aongus, a fortress of rock upon rock, piled to astonishing heights by people more than 3000 years ago, I wondered at the feet that had trod this path. Both human and animals have worked this land, calling it home, in conditions that seem nearly impossible to endure. At the same time I am sure they were drawn to it as we were, for its sheer beauty, and the sense that you are standing in a place so holy that you are being suspended in a time between time, a time held by the One who breathed us all into being. Stone, grass, mud, animal droppings, the sign of other footprints marked the path that held our feet. With each step we added to the history of the place.

Atop the cliff, at its highest point archeologists have discovered the shapes of seven dwellings. In between two of the dwellings was a large, round flat stone, hollowed out to hold water heated by the gift of the sun and other hot stones to cook food. These were people who knew what it meant to depend on one another, to live closely, to look out and see the expanse of the shining sea, to look up and see the heavens shining back at them. To live in this close proximity meant to depend, protect and care for one another as they carved out a life.

On the path down I watched as those in our group walked before me. Hands reached out to steady teetering bodies. Instructions for a better perhaps safer way for the next step were offered. Some stopped along the path to rest with another. Step by step we made our way down the steep path mirroring the care, dependence and protection that must have happened for thousands of years in this very place.

To live on an island means knowing you are all in it together. Today we may have learned that to be on pilgrimage also means knowing you are all it in together. Step after blessed step.

As we ended our day today some of us shared the words of Jan Richardson as we reflected on the path of this day:
That each step
may be a shedding.
That you will let yourself
become lost.
That when it looks
like you are going backwards,
you may be making progress.
That progress is not the goal anyway,
but presence
to the feel of the path on your skin,
to the way it reshaped you
in each place it makes contact,
to the way you cannot see it
until the moment you have stepped out.

Today was all those things.


Rock Solid

Sometimes we stand at the edge of the world. I believe everyone has this experience now and then. You are going along doing your every day, normal, run of the mill tasks and something happens that has you standing at a precipice that takes your breath away. Sometimes it is an illness or a loss. Other times it is the act of falling in love with a person or a job or the prospect of a newness you had not dreamed of until it confronts you face to face.

Today those of us on a journey to Ireland stood at the edge of the world. Looking out over the Cliffs of Moher on a bright and beautiful day certainly took my breath away. Looking at these limestone formations in all their dramatic splendor sent a chill of danger and awe throughout my body. It is difficult to look at such a sight of Creation and not imagine the many lives that have been lost over the centuries on these very stones. It is equally difficult to imagine the all the others, just like me, who have stood at the altar of such a miraculous and awe inspiring sight.

Around us were people from all around the world. I listened to German, Polish, Italian and various accents of English being spoken, all trying to find the words for their experience of such a place. Watching people line up for a photo with these accordion pleated walls as the backdrop made me smile. Something about being human also means saying: “I was here. I saw this amazing sight!”

Just a few miles down the road from the cliffs is an area of Ireland known as the Burren. This landscape of barren rock formations pushing through earth and creating a backdrop of solid, gray multi-layered truly resonated with some of our group. People walked with great care and some trepidation over this rocky ground that tilted and gave way without notice. It was as if the cliffs we had just seen went underground and pushed their way upward to create a new and different place altogether.

What to make of these two varied slices of the same small island? There is of course the explanations of glaciers and shifting plates, all things I have a healthy, sixth grade science understanding and respect of. But as one who is looking for the Divine in this journey I saw the majesty of a Creator who can tell a whopper of a big story. I also saw the fragility of stone that has over time become worn and in need of protection. Looking at the barrenness of the moonscape called the Burren I saw a Sacred strength that digs in and will not let go while all the time opening itself to tiny plants that find ways to grow in the most unlikely of places. Even in this slice of earth that makes you squint to see the Life Force, there it is waiting to be discovered. If you take the time to stand still and be present to the miracle which is as near as your beating heart.

We began our worship together standing in the presence of these ancient stone formations by saying the more than 3000 year old words of the psalmist: The voice of God sounds in the seas, echoing over the oceans. The powerful voice of God is heard in all its splendor and majesty.

And so it is.



Landscape En Route

Landscape is not just there. It was here long ago, long before we were dreamed. It was here without us. It watched us arrive.”
~John O’Donohue

These are the words that have given form to the pilgrimage I am helping to lead to Ireland. This journey will take us on the various landscapes that make up the tiny but important island of Ireland. In the span of ten days we will be on an even smaller island, in the mountains, in pasture and farmland and on the rockiest, and I am told, windiest cliffs ever to be experienced.

Over the course of the last several days leading up to this trip, two different people have asked me about the purpose of this adventure. I have to admit to be taken aback. One person even said: “What can you do there that you can’t do here?” Being one of those people who is always up for the next opportunity to pack my bags, I found myself stumbling over my words.

When this journey was first dreamed we talked about what the gift of landscape is to us. We also talked about what it means to travel to places that have given birth to the long, enduring evolution of our faith story. Certainly the land of Ireland has done that as those monks so long ago copied and saved the sacred texts from those who wanted to rule people by squashing their intellect. They also improved upon the beauty of those words by illuminating the words with image and color and the now famous Celtic designs we see in such works as The Book of Kells.

But this path we are on is also about being present to the diversity of this landscape and the ways in which poets and scholars have written their experience of the Holy, guided and inspired by the Creation they see all around them. Our hope is that practicing this presence will not only inspire us to understand these beautiful texts and what it meant to the faith experience of the writers but also inspire us to be present to our own experience of the Divine and to follow their example. How does the landscape that birthed each of us live in someplace that longs to be spoken and offered to the world?

This is a part of our hope as we planned and shaped each day of this pilgrimage. Of course much more will happen. Friendships will be formed and others will be strengthened. Conflicts will be negotiated and problems will find resolution. Prayers will be said and blessings will be offered. Songs will be sung…..this is a mighty group of singers! And community will be formed, that kind of intense community that happens when people are on the shaky ground that is not their own place of comfort and familiarity.

But this landscape thing is what will continue to hold us whether we articulate it well or not. I know it is true for me because of what happened yesterday. As I was packing up all I needed from my office and was headed out the door, I reached into my mailbox one last time and pulled out an envelope from someone I had not heard from in several years. It was really just a ‘catch up’ letter telling me of jobs and children and houses sent by someone who now lives in Canada but whose wedding I was blessed to perform years ago. On the cover of the notecard were these words: “Is it not possible that a place could have huge affection for those who dwell there? Perhaps your place loves having you there. It misses you when you are away and in its secret way rejoices when you return. Could it be possible that a landscape might have a deep friendship with you? That it could sense your presence and feel the care you extend towards it?”

The writer? That fine and noble Irishman, John O’Donohue. And so we stand between the landscape that will miss us and that which will watch us arrive.

And to that I say blessed be.

Packed Bags

Oh my Lord,
I am carrying too much luggage,
and it’s weighing me down,
holding me back.
I worry about losing it,
but don’t need much of the stuff I’m dragging about.
It blocks up the aisles and gangways,
getting in the way,
making people cross
and wrapping itself round my ankles.
I need to learn to travel light,
but don’t know what to do with all this stuff……..”
~Kathy Galloway

For the last several weeks I have been placing the things I think I will need for our pilgrimage to Ireland in a basket in my office at home. Slowly over time the basket’s contents have flowed onto the floor nearby. They are little things, toiletries, papers, socks, clothes, a flashlight. And yet in their totality it seems like a lot of stuff. My goal today is to actually now place them in my bag while also weeding out those things which were based on whim and not need.

So yesterday as I was searching for a prayer for an upcoming worship service and my eyes fell on this one by Kathy Galloway of the Iona community in Scotland, I was chagrined. This problem of ‘too much stuff’ is both literal and metaphorical in our world. Most of us accumulate much more than we will ever need and then wonder why we are moving piles from one side of the desk to the other, from one drawer to another, from one room to the next. This accumulating is one of the dark sides of a society based own consumption. It is also the fodder of garage sales!

I have no doubt that I will be able to weed out what is truly not needed as I pack my bag for Ireland. But more than the literal stuff I discard my deepest prayer is that I, and my fellow pilgrims, can also leave behind all the other mostly invisible weights that are dragging at souls and hearts and minds. As people prepare my hope is that there will be time for deep breaths that replace long lists and full sighs that give way to open hearts. May nothing be wrapping around ankles or blocking the path to being fully present to this soulful landscape which awaits us.

Traveling light is tricky and difficult business. I know I have packed many a bag with shoulds and oughts. Have you? I also have a full set of bright red Samsonite that carries judgment. I have a back pack of regret and a small tote of shame also. This is the luggage I hope over time to drop at the side of the road.

But I also have bag upon bag filled with hope and wonder and at least one that carries a compassionate heart. There is the flowered duffle filled with a sense of adventure and the desire to meet new people and hear their stories. A brown canvas bag hauls around opportunity for laughter and seeing the world in new ways, with a little side pocket that holds awe and the longing to be surprised.

Tomorrow I hope to take all of this invisible baggage which will help me be present to the gifts of the open road and the equally open heart. Now if I just remember the toothpaste!


Pilgrim Blessing

Imagine the moment of departure as the crossing of a threshold. The anxiety you may feel is the reverse of the thrill of anticipation. Something new is about to happen; something unexpected but transformative.”
~Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage

I have been thinking about thresholds a lot lately. In a few days I will leave with a group of pilgrims to travel to sacred sights in Ireland. It is a journey that has included much planning and great anticipation. As the group has come together from various communities, some far flung, it has been a joy to watch it take shape. Each person has their own reason, their own hopes for what this journey holds. It has been intriguing to me to hear the many reasons the people have offered as to why this trip, why now.

One of the patterns I have begun to hear in the telling of these stories is the sense of standing at a threshold. Several people have mentioned that this journey marks a significant threshold moment for them, a time when things have been a certain way and now are about to be something different. This has stayed with me because I know it is also true for me. I am also standing at a pivotal point, not where I was and not where I am going. It is a feeling that produces both anxiety and anticipation.

In his book The Art of Pilgrimage, Phil Cousineau tells story after story of pilgrims embarking on a journey that becomes transformative. For some this is their hope, their intention. For others the threshold moments and their transformation becomes a surprise that is the gift of being present to the moment. As they place their foot upon the path they make the concerted choice to pay attention, to be open to what the journey brings. Without their planning, without their effort.

A pilgrimage is different than a vacation or even a trip. Vacations can have pilgrimage moments and trips can bring transformation but a pilgrimage sets as its intention an experience of the Holy. Wherever the landscape. Mountain. City. Prairie. Lakeside. Valley. Ocean. Cliffs. Island. To be present to the way of the Divine in any of these places and all places makes for a pilgrimage life.

As I spend this weekend preparing, packing and making last minute adjustments to my suitcase, I am thinking of all those who will be my fellow pilgrims. I pray a blessing upon them that anxiety will fall away and into anticipation. I pray that as each item is placed within a bag that it is done with intention and attention. I pray that each thing will be something that supports the walk they are about to make. I pray that the threshold on which we all stand is one that will lead to experiences of the Holy on the path to transformation.

Of course, these are all things that can happen without getting on planes, trains or boats. This is the opportunity offered to us with the rising of each day. Each morning provides the threshold to walk in the world as a pilgrim. To put one foot in front of the other with intention. To walk with an open heart and open hands inviting the Sacred to be our companion.

To the pilgrims preparing and all that is yet to be, I say blessing.



Somehow I find that I am on a mailing list to receive a news magazine created by the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, Minnesota. It is simply called ‘Our Journey.’ The pages are filled with stories of the various ministries of these women and I always enjoy reading what they are up to. The most recent one included a report on the bounty from the garden of Sister Ruth. Clearly this nun is good at not only growing vegetables and distributing them appropriately but also at record keeping. The report included the records from the harvest of 2010 in which volunteers gathered 1126 lbs. of cucumbers, 1049 lbs. of tomatoes, and 1231 lbs. of watermelon just to name a few. Reading about the extent of this harvest filled me with such joy. The fact that this all happened in the ‘motherhouse’ garden made my joy complete as I have been enamored by the term motherhouse since hearing it for the first times several years ago.

But what I enjoy most while reading this magazine is, oddly enough, the memorial entries of those sisters who have died since the last printing. This month’s were particularly memorable. Their wisdom is so fulfilling as they share quotes of these beloved women in their community. One of the sisters whose work had been with those in need was remembered by her words:” People who are poor know how to wait. They wait for a check. They wait for help. It’s something we can all learn here in America: to learn to wait.”

What a challenging reminder of our place in the family of things. I carried the words of this woman I had never known with me into my day. Waiting. It is indeed an important gift, an important lesson to learn and a practice to perfect. Not only because it reminds those of us of privilege about those who are in need but because waiting can birth patience and patience can birth humility and humility can birth love.

Another of the sisters who had lived to the ripe age of 100 years had actually been a part of the Orphan Trains that made their way to these prairies in the early 1900’s. Her story seemed a happy one unlike some others I have heard. From the description of her life she was a spitfire and loved the work and travel of mission. But it was one quote that she treasured that captured my heart: ” She who loves work is always on vacation.” The article goes on to say that this sister’s joy was her work and so she felt as if she was on vacation her whole life. It must have been true because she worked until the last year of her life. 99 years and still working…..or having a vacation!

At some point I must have given money to these Franciscan Sisters or purchased something they have made which has placed me on this mailing list. Many people would probably just pitch this mailer among all the other stuff that arrives at the door. But this particular magazine is a great reminder to me of all the rich lives being lived out and all the wisdom that comes from living close to earth, close to a community you love and close to the One who birthed us into being.

In these days when it is often difficult to cut through the vitriol that flies as fast as a hummingbird’s wings, these are the stories that fill me and bring me hope. This unsolicited magazine filled with pictures and names of those I do not know bring me up short and cause me to pause and remember what is really important. In some ways it is the work these sisters have quietly done their whole lives. What a gift that they can continue to inspire even after their bodies have left this earth.


Approved Message

This morning as I was getting ready to begin my day I was listening to the radio. A particular report caught my attention. The newscaster was reporting that a new advertisement was beginning today for one of the many politicians running for office. The news about this ad was that it was to be a specifically negative message directed at an opponent of the person who was unveiling the ad. I stopped my mid morning routine to listen to this report which, I guess, was telling me to ‘stay tuned ‘ for this new attack on someone’s character and message.

I have to admit it gave my morning a rocky start. Instead of reveling in the crisp,cool air that arrived over night, I was thinking about what has become of us. When did we become a people who actually say” Hey! Watch and listen for these new rotten things I am going to say about someone!” This thought led me to think about the enormous amounts of money being spent on these words and phrases that often have very little basis in fact or truth. The morning kept getting worse the more I allowed myself to ruminate on it all.

It was probably pure grace that turned me around. I began to think of all the people I know who are not making news, people who are doing wonderful work. People who get up every day and rarely speak a harsh word about anyone. I thought of the advertisement I might write about all the wonderful parents I speak to on a regular basis. I am privileged to listen to their stories about raising their children, the challenges they face, the joy and laughter their children bring to their lives. “Follow these people.”, I’d want to say. “Let them lead us all into a better future.”

With great regularity I find myself visiting people who are in hospital. Could I ever create a fabulous message about those who work in all the areas of these health care facilities! “Come experience compassion and deep listening. Allow these people to tend to your hurt, your pain, your illness.” From doctors to nurses to those who change beds and those who serve meals, I have rarely, if ever, heard any of them say a mean word to anyone. Even when they are treated poorly by a frightened or frustrated patient or family member. Why can’t we tell that story, send out that message on the radio?

Every Sunday I am blessed by a community of people who sing, pray, laugh and cry together. We call it worship. Though we may come from a variety of backgrounds-economic, social, ethnic, educational- there is never a mean spiritedness in the behavior or words of these people. Though they may not share the same political platform they share a pursuit of the common decency and an effort toward kindness. “Come hang out with some really nice people!” I want to say. ” No one will try to attack your character or your faith.”

As you can tell from these words, the radio report from this morning has stuck with me. But instead of bowing to the hard-edged words that seem to have become our food these days, my head and heart have turned instead to all the people getting up every day and trying their best to be decent and kind. I feel blessed to know so many of them, to come into contact with so many of them. They lift my spirits and help bring perspective to these times.

In a few months things will be different and we will not be exposed to so much harshness. But in the meantime, I am telling the stories from the underbelly, those not infused with money or hate or things our mothers taught us not to say about other people.

And for the record, I approve this message.

Words of Prophets

What does God require of you
But to do justice,
And to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?
~Micah 6:8

If you make your way down Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis these days, you may find yourself confronted with the essence of this scripture from the prophet Micah. On the illuminated sign just outside our church you will see these messages in various stages of a brilliant blue: “Do Justice”, “Love Kindness”, “Walk Humbly”. At prescribed intervals these messages are flashed at the hundreds, perhaps thousands of cars that drive by each day. This says nothing of the walkers, those standing at the bus stop nearby or the countless bikers that make their way along the bike path that runs horizontally with the church.

Today as I left the office “Love Kindness” was shining forth in the afternoon sun. I felt warm all over. I love that this message is being sent into the world. I love that its beams might counteract what may be playing on the airwaves in the cars that are stopped at the light. I love that this bright blue message might seep into the minds and hearts of those who have just had a negative encounter with another person. Turning the corner and heading onto the freeway, I allowed these two simple words to fill in all the cracks and crevices of my own being that had been attacked by any harsh words and images over the last few days. It was a healing balm.

The prophet Micah lived in as complicated a time as we do. He may not have had a world view that was as expansive as ours but he saw much around him that needing changing in order to live as he perceived God intended. The prophet’s life is not an easy one. It is not the way to be the most popular kid on the block. Perhaps you have known was prophets in your life and have watched them struggle. Perhaps you are one so you know what I mean.

But these words, just one verse of scripture, have rung out through the millennia. These words spoken by a young man some 700 years before the time of Jesus, still hold a deep wisdom that can inform our living. Confronted as we are every day with choice upon choice as to how to walk in the way of peace, this could be our mantra. As we look at the ways in which we work, grow and buy our food, educate our children, entertain ourselves or vote, the act of doing justice, loving kindness and walk humbly are as good a place to start as I can imagine.

What places are calling you to acts of justice these days? When have you given yourself over to the love of kindness? In a culture that seems steeped more and more in impatience and quick judgments, being kind and just can take a concerted discipline. Even in the little things of the every day, it can be a test of will to hold onto these two phrases Micah calls ‘requirements’.

But somehow I think the walking humbly part may be the most difficult. The good news is, I guess, that the walking humbly is not alone. It is walking humbly with God. Which probably makes all the difference.

Don’t you think?

Temporary Spaces

A couple of times over the last weeks I have driven by a large sign that simply reads: ‘Temporary Space Available’. Looking past the sign all that can be seen is a field of pasture grass and wild flowers. Further in the distance is a large office building. But you have to look very hard to see the building which, I suspect, is the temporary space that is available.

For some reason this sign has captured my imagination. On the one hand, who wants to rent space on a temporary basis? On the other hand, who is looking for a temporary space and what are their reasons? On the other hand, what if I am wrong and the temporary space that is available really is the open, grassy, wildflower strewn field and not the office building in the distance? On the other hand…..oh, so many things to consider!

While looking at this field, I can imagine many times during any given day when walking into this field, even temporarily, would help clear my head and put whatever seemingly urgent matter into perspective. I can imagine the grasses waving in the wind around me as I sit on the ground hidden from the sight of other humans. I can imagine staring for a couple of hours into the face of a black-eyed Susan or purple headed prairie grass, noticing the intricate shape of bloom and blossom. I can imagine this contemplative staring filling me first with awe at their very existence and then with calm at my relationship to them. I can imagine the sturdy strength of the ground beneath me and the comfort of that. I can imagine the other creatures….ants, worms,field mice, moles, voles…..that might crawl around me reminding me of place in family of things. I can imagine laying back and taking a nap, the sun warming my face and keeping watch over my temporary respite from the pulls of the world.

I suppose every one needs a temporary space now and then. A space where they can reconnect with their own beating heart, their own longing soul. Do you have such a space? Have you visited it recently? I know many people who have lake cabins that provide such a retreat from the stresses of work and every day living. Others I know have a coffee shop or pub where they have a familiar chair. This need for temporary space is always a pilgrimage of re-creation.

For some reason the second sighting of this sign sent me searching for this poem by Wendell Berry which seems to me an affirmation of the importance of temporary space:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

If you are out driving around the Twin Cities today and see a field with an advertisement for temporary space available and in the middle of that field you see a parting of grasses and an indentation, it could be me taking a break from the pulls of life on what promises to be, perhaps, our last sweltering day of the season. I may be found resting, temporarily, in the presence of wild things, allowing their grace to wash over me and send me on my way.