Do You Believe . . .

 . . . in magic? I do.  

The earliest memory I have of magic is the way I felt at Grandma’s house at Christmas when I was a child — the tree, the presents, the family, and the midnight ham sandwiches because we all just wanted another excuse to be together, and it was Christmas, and the normal rules were suspended. It was a feeling not easily described with true emotional accuracy, and that’s either magic or poetry. 

My grandmother was the quintessential grandmother, the archetype of grandmothers.  She had a soft face and a perpetual smile. Her house felt safe, soft like her. She laughed readily and often. She loved with sincerity and gentleness. Grandma passed away in 1976, just a few months before my twelfth birthday. 

At some point in my early twenties, during a season of angst and despair, I stood out under a night sky, scanning the heavens until my eyes rested on the brightest star, what I once believed to be the North Star, but I now understand was probably Sirius.  Though I was at least a decade beyond my grandmother’s passing, she came strongly into mind as I stared at that star.  I decided the star was grandma, the one person who had always felt safe to me, the one person I believed I could have talked to about all my struggles, had she lived to see me through them.  And I poured my heart out to that star. 

This began a practice I have continued ever since. Problems spoken into a night sky transform into a magic that brings purpose to our challenges and healing to our wounds. They are met with answers, and if not answers, then a form of acceptance so deep and primal it feels like its own kind of answer.  And whether this magic comes from Grandma, or that star, or the simple act of breathing the air of the quiet darkness, it does indeed come. Sometimes profoundly, sometimes subtly, but it comes. 

This week is Halloween, Samhain in the Celtic tradition, followed by All Saints Day on November 1st for the Christian World and Dia de los Muertos or the Day of the Dead in Mexican culture. All of these observances, to varying extents, involve the interaction of the living with those who have already passed beyond the veil.  In fact, that veil between the incarnate and the spirit world is said to be at its thinnest on October 31st.  

On October 28 of 2013, eight years ago, my father passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. He was an otherwise healthy 71-year-old man who had been hiking just that morning. He was lean and muscular, still cutting a dashing figure and able to scamper over the East Tennessee mountains like a billy goat.  He lived that way even on the last day of his life, and then he sat down in his easy chair and had a heart attack.  We held his memorial on October 31. Halloween. 

When my grandmother passed, I was a child. But I was a middle-aged adult when my father passed. The grief was full-grown. 

In many ways, I felt him around me more intimately than when he was alive. There were times I knew that I knew that I knew that he had paid me a visit or sent me a sign. And I could talk to him about things we wouldn’t have touched when he was alive, our differences far too profound on certain subjects.  But now I knew him as a father who loved me not through a veil of disappointments or expectations, but with unlimited compassion and understanding.  

He became the other inhabitant of the brightest star in the sky, and Grandma seemed happy to share. 

So, on Halloween, or the next full moon or new moon, or any night, really, when a problem is haunting you or a general unease is hovering about in your person, try stepping outside and talking to whomever you believe might live in the brightest star.  There’s plenty of room for them there, and they are happy to listen as long as you need.  

And through that conversation can come healing and release and understanding and peace. 

And I call that magic. 

Everything Happens for a Reason . . .

. . . at least that’s what folks say.  But, is it true?  Like many matters of faith, and this is indeed a matter of faith, it’s impossible to prove. If you could prove it, then it wouldn’t be faith.  

Not being provable, however, does not negate the value of a belief. It’s impossible to prove, for example, that Jesus was an actual person who lived, you know, right around the same time someone was inventing the calendar.  There are some theologians who contend that Jesus or Yeshua or Joshua, as he might more accurately be called, was a creation of the early Gnostic Christians, a kind of avatar of perfection, a character specifically developed to be a model and a cornerstone for this new religious belief.  But even if they are right, even if Jesus was a fictional character and not a real person at all, that doesn’t necessarily devalue his role in shaping world thought. Provability is not always the standard by which we can measure value. 

So, what value is there in believing that everything happens for a reason, regardless of whether it’s true or not? 

We tell ourselves that everything happens for a reason because we’re trying to make sense out of things that make no sense.  Sometimes life is a mystery. Sometimes it’s even a tragedy. For people of faith — whether that’s a traditional faith running as a thread through a particular religious tradition or whether it’s a private tendency toward hope — it’s important and even vital for this existence to fit into some grand scheme. We want to see a design, at first invisible, become gradually clearer, like those magic eye pictures that look like nothing more than busy wallpaper until we shift our focus, look through the picture somehow, and then, as if it should have been obvious the entire time, an image pushes through the chaos and becomes clear.

Believing that everything happens for a reason can be the reason we even start the practice of looking for patterns in our lives.  And those patterns are there. Of that, I have no doubt. I’ve seen patterns play out in my own life, and sometimes patterns within patterns, the events of my life acting as so many interconnected cogs in a giant machine. 

Believing that everything happens for a reason can also comfort us when nothing else will.  When we can’t understand anything about a situation, resting in the faith of believing there is a rhyme and reason to it can bring a kind of peace. But, the comfort of “everything happens for a reason” is a personal comfort. It can be a reminder we use for ourselves that everything will turn out okay, but it doesn’t always land quite right when it comes from someone else. 

I overheard someone at a funeral a few years back as they grasped the hands of the newly widowed woman struggling to make it through the unimaginable.  They said, “Well, everything happens for a reason,” and you could almost hear the internal cringe of several of us standing nearby.  Here’s a small piece of advice; do with it what you will. In that situation, the situation where someone has experienced tremendous loss, say that you feel for them, say you’re praying for them, say you’re carrying them in your heart — say just about anything except everything happens for a reason.  Even if you believe it’s true. Even if you know THEY believe it’s true.  Just don’t say it.  Not then. Not ever. Keep it for yourself.  

Actually, I might suggest that when people are really hurting we should set our “spiritual-ness” down and just be with them.  The hurt they are feeling isn’t in their divine nature anyway; it’s in the very human, fragile person they are, and the hurt they are experiencing is real for that person.  Any spiritual attempt to explain it, suppress it, redirect it, or enlighten it is often, in reality, acting to negate it, belittle it, and self-righteously sweep real pain away as if it was insignificant dust on an otherwise shiny life. 

Sometimes people need comfort, true and gentle comfort, not an aphorism or a spiritual sound bite.  “Everything happens for a reason” may be true, but “I’m so sorry this happened to you” is far more comforting.  And human. And real. 

And if our heart is right when we say it, no one will need faith to believe it’s true. 

What Really Matters . . .

Some days, it seems like not much. We have to take care of mundane business or complete work tasks that seem meaningless.  We can even become so entrenched in these mindless tasks that we miss the opportunities for meaningful encounters when they come our way. And as long as we are alive and awake, meaningful encounters will indeed come our way.  

This past week, I went to get my teeth cleaned, a task I do not enjoy. Although I know that clean teeth contribute to my overall health, there is a certain level of meaninglessness that I can attach to this event. Worse than simple drudgery, it’s uncomfortable. I don’t like it. 

But something happened during this particular visit. At some point in the cleaning, for no obvious reason, the dental hygienist began telling me the story of the death of her 19-year-old son, unexpectedly, on Christmas morning of this past year.  The story she told was so stunning and so deeply moving that it was hard to take in. I’m not sure how it happened, but I realized at some point that she had stopped cleaning, and I had stopped breathing. I had placed my hand over my heart as I took in the grief and pain of this mother reliving the unimaginable. 

After a moment, she looked down at me, tears welling in her eyes, and said, “Oh, good lord! I’m supposed to be cleaning your teeth!” I think the moment had caught us both by surprise, and I knew that this new moment of awareness presented a choice to me — to move ahead with the mundane, or to give this holy present moment the full attention it deserved. 

I chose the latter.  

“That’s not important right now,” I said. “Please tell me the rest of your story.” 

And she did. It wasn’t necessarily a story I wanted to hear more of. It was heavy, and it was tragic. But it felt like this moment had been presented to us for this purpose.  It seemed she had reached a point where she needed to release it once again, and it felt like years of study and meditation and spiritual journeying had prepared me for, if nothing else ever, precisely this moment. And what I was called to do was to listen. Just listen. 

I thanked her for honoring me with the story and offered the grossly insufficient condolences that are all we have to give when limited to mere words, and I silently prayed that my willingness to be in that moment with her would offer a balm of some sort. 

She did finish cleaning my teeth eventually, and I left. I was grateful I could be there at that moment for her, but just like every other time when I have been presented the opportunity to serve others, what I was left with when all was said and done was the profound awareness that the experience had also been a gift for me.  I was changed by her story. 

I was reminded that eddies of spiritual energy are swirling around us at all times just waiting for the slight sign of our willingness and our readiness to be pulled into the vortex of what really matters. 

And I was reminded once again that when faced with a choice between the mundane and the meaningful, always choose the meaningful.