Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

The Last Belgium Blog

My retreat partner Susan and I with a statue of a Beguine.
My retreat partner Susan and I in Luven, with a statue of a Beguine.

It is the work of women to balance the world, to know their strength and stand courageously in the light of their truth. A patriarchy without the balance of matriarchy creates an uneven playing field upon which women are subordinates rather than leaders. You don’t have to look too far to see how out of balance institutions and governments create both a physical and spiritual poverty when they do not include the voice of women.

Traveling in Belgium and learning about the Beguines, I was inspired by the this esoteric group of women who sought to remedy the corruption of the church in the 12th century by living an example of spiritual and financial independence at a time when women did not have such choices. For a short period of time, they brought about a reverence and a station for women before their ideals and actions were again muted and absorbed by church and state. So, what did they teach me? How have I changed?

I walked the same cobble stone roads that they walked. I sat in churches where they prayed. I brushed up against the places and times that informed them. I listened to lectures about them, read about them and wondered about them. What all of that ignited in me was strength, the strength of standing strong in the light of my own truth. I have dug for examples in my life and I have found that all throughout history there were women who walked before me who had the same desire to live full and equal lives. I came away from Belgium with newly found and newly reclaimed inner strength to move forward in confidence and respect for myself.

The images of old-world northern Europe delighted my senses and reminded me that the world is a big and diverse place. Still, I doubt that I will ever become a world traveler. I am more of a Hestia, the Greek goddess who found satisfaction in tending the home fires. I am so happy to be home and so happy to have made the once in a lifetime journey. I met wonderful people, taught good writing classes, learned a lot . . . and made sure I did a little shopping.

The charm of old-world northern Europe.
The charm of old-world northern Europe

Now at home, settling into the autumn, I will begin my next novel and spend the winter months holed up in my office creating. The Beguines were creators. They made art and music and I see those things differently now. I see making art as a worshipful thing, a praising of all creation, a joy created in the heart, mind and spirit. My writing is an expression of love through creation. It’s good to be home, slightly altered and deeply grateful for where I ventured out,  and also for the return.

With Mathew Fox, who traveled with us for two days and taught us wonderful thing!
With Mathew Fox, who traveled with us for two days and taught us wonderful things!

 

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

The Heart of the Beguines

Cathedral at Ghent
Cathedral at Ghent

The word “cathedral” means “the throne upon which she sits.” In 15th century Northern Europe, there was a worshipful attitude toward the Divine Feminine as embodied in Mary. In this time, the Beguines thrived. They lived in democratic communities, separate from the church, caring for each other and practicing  social justice by feeding the poor and tending to the sick. Truly the “cathedral” in all its majesty and art, is for me, a symbol to the beauty by which the Beguines lived.

Even though they were the first feminists, it is surprising that this group of mystics is so little known, even here in Belgium. Steeped a mysticism that didn’t match the hierarchy or patriarchy of the Catholic Church, they would eventually adapt and become absorbed by the church. But for a short period of time, they thrived as panentheistic, meaning that they believed “God is in everything and everything is in God.”  I relate to that viewpoint, noting that the rest is just politics.

The Beguines were all about compassion and action. They understood and underscored that “help the least of these” was less a directive from the Christ and more a clue as to how to fully live the spiritual life. These women advocated for what was then, and is now, a radical idea, that the spiritual life should not be about the rules and values of a hierarchy and a patriarchy, but should be about our individual capacity to sense the Creator in how we care for each other.

Hugging the statue of Marcela, the last Beguine
Hugging the statue of Marcela, the last Beguine

The biggest mistake that Christianity has made is that it put God in a little white house, and then treated the rest of the world however it wanted. This is why the churches in Europe are mostly empty. This is why membership in churches in America dwindles. Young people seek a new spirituality, one that is inclusive, of all people, one that honors and reveres women, one that will take care of our planet. And one that is democratic rather than modeled upon a military inspired hierarchy.

It’s been good to be away from the crazy-ass headlines of America these past few days, away from pasty old white men dominating the television screen, the politicians and candidates who still want to control women’s bodies as some perverted sense of personal morality. Power hungry men thumping bibles and trying to convince the world what great leaders they will make while an overheated world burns and the poor die at their feet.

I came to Belgium to learn something from the Beguines. I can hear them whispering on the wind that they have things to teach us about living together and caring for each other.

The Beguinage Church at Luven
The Beguinage Church at Liven

Here is a summation of the compassion lived by these women: “When you drink the waters of sorrow, you will kindle the fire of love.” (Metchild of Matenburg) To be theistic means, I am here and God is there. And again, panentheism is the belief that God is all things and all things are in God. If you embrace this viewpoint it becomes more difficult to turn away from the suffering of the world and its people. This was the radical idea that eventually led to the Beguines’ demise.

The Beguines have ignited in me a clarity and vision that goes beyond the grand cathedrals and charming Beguineages that I have visited here. This is the stuff of unraveling, the gifts of traveling and letting the history of a place teach you. I am so grateful to be here, and to be lit with new passion.

Stay tuned for at least one more blog from Belgium. I will come home changed somehow, though I cannot say how that will be. Right now it’s all just Grace, promise and exhaustion.

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Delights and Deliverance

IMG_0086So many images travel to my eyes, rise and fall from the heart and float away on the afternoon breeze. Brugge, Belgium is the old world. Homes from the 15th century line the canals with window boxes overflowing in cascades of red geraniums.

Our group goes to the Minnenhauf. It means “house of love.” We meet  Sister Felicitous, who tells us about the women from whose ideals her order of Benedictines borrow–the Beguines. This area was filled with Beguines at one time, pious women who lived to serve, who made lace, with intricate knots and turns, reflecting the focus of a meditative state, focused singularly on devotion.

In the evenings the four or five nuns living at the Minnehauf sing in the chapel. They invite our group to join them and then be blessed with holy water. I don’t go. I sit in my room at night alone. The days are already packed too full for me, and I need time to process all that I see and taste and feel here. The reason I came was to pay homage to my home girls–these 11th century feminists, mystics who developed an esoteric evangelism and grabbed, however briefly, financial independence a time when neither spiritual nor financial independence was available to women. I’m afraid that if I fill up every minute I will miss their whisperings in the night air.

On a canal boat ride Sunday morning, I turn my face to the sun, close my eyes and just feel this place I am in, all of itsIMG_0113 history vibrating in what I breathe in. The swans stand in the park at water’s edge, long necks curved gracefully. I’ve heard that the Beguines brought the swans here. I’ve heard that the swans were a memorial to an innocent man executed in the city square. I don’t know which story is true. I know that the swan in Sufism represents the soul and that feels appropriate to either story. Maybe stories and history converge somewhere, and all of it makes sense in the end.

Today I taught my first writing class: Deepening into Your Spiritual Story–the Arc of Spiritual Memoir. I am animated, passionate and lit. I share my ever-changing, ever-growing process and philosophy about writing. I give exercises that place their pens to the page. An hour later I feel energized and happy to have shared something that I love so much with such a fine circle of individuals.

The Beguines were the first people in western civilization to write about Spirit in the vernacular of the day. Margareta Porete wrote a book called A Mirror of Simple Souls,” the premise of which is that the little church is the cathedral on the corner and the big church is the church that lives in the heart.” Later they burned her at the stake. I share this in my writing class. We are all connected by our stories. We communicate through story. We tell each other stories all day long and yet at the end of the day, or the end of a life, we sometimes fail to see what the story is or to ascribe meaning to it. That we seek meaning at all is unique to the human journey.

IMG_0108I am moved and inspired by the stories of the retreat participants. Former nuns, former and current clergy, people in the throes of unanswered questions and the inevitable loss that comes from living such a full, rich and long life. These people are of an older age, teaching and learning from each other about reclaiming the broken parts of the self in the last years of living. Surround those pieces in love, shrugging and saying “you know, life is messy,” and then be willing to have it be messy again.

This part of my story takes me to Belgium. And to borrow from Margareta Porete, the little adventure is the plane ride and the events of this place, and the big adventure is what is changing and growing within my heart.IMG_0126

Stay tuned for more adventures blogging through Belgium. Miss my friends and delight in this adventure. Hugs.

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Blogging on the Way to the Plane

iStock_000001998520XSmall(1)Seven years ago, I produced my first retreat. Joan Borysenko was, at the time, a neighbor of mine and she agreed to come hang out in my living room for a day with twelve women. The idea was that with Joan as a facilitator, we would all be encouraged to be with each other in a purposeful and authentic way. Unplugged from cell phones, computers and the obligations of work and family, we gathered. It was a day of deep camaraderie, tears, laughter and the sharing of dreams. I felt a great sense of joy in bringing all of us together, and I enjoyed that everyone got to slow down and ponder the mystery and miracle of our lives, taking time to celebrate and appreciate each other.

With the advent of each autumn since, I have planned a retreat. Just before I moved from Colorado to Oregon, I found myself sitting in the back of a large conference room, filled with two hundred and fifty people who I brought together to immerse in the study and contemplation of the great mystic, Meister Eckhart. A former Trappist monk, Dr. James Finley, facilitated the three days. I learned that I had the skill set to produce larger retreats. And in James, I found a friend and ally who is a valuable touchstone in my journey.

Here again at the edge of autumn, I am about to do yet another retreat, this time in Belgium. Oh brave, new world. My friend Susan is a dynamic minister and group leader. Our friendship became a partnership as we planned an plotted and signed up individuals with whom we will share the next ten days.  Like the first retreats in my living room, this is a small group. And unlike the first retreats, I now teach a writing component entitled “Deepening Your Spiritual Story, the Arc of Memoir.” It’s probably more accurate to say that I share what I know about the philosophy and process of writing as opposed to teaching writing. What I do is kind of coaxing that will hopefully inspire stories and images to arise from the heart.

Each year the retreats I produce change me. One retreat, I reclaimed the young woman who wrote. She had been pushed aside and overlooked. Life sometime intervenes in our dreams and you have to pick up the pieces later. In meeting her again, I began writing daily– blogs, short stories, essays and journals. And I began to teach. I mostly worked with incarcerated women, a group who reminded me that my life has too many blessings to count. My students in the jail taught me how to be grateful for the smallest things.

So, tomorrow morning at 5:00am I leave for Belgium to be with fourteen people who will be my community for the next couple of weeks. We will trace the footsteps of a group of 11th century feminist mystics, called the Beguines. We will meet up with Mathew Fox and listen to him speak from the pulpit where Meister Eckhart once preached.

We will spend days visiting the places where lace is hand-made, one of the ways that the Beguines supported themselves financially. We will have morning prayers and meditations and late afternoon process groups. And just like that first little retreat in my living room, each person will be unplugged from the digital world, enter a world of heart-touch and share our lives. I love learning about other people, about their faith and what it is they hold as good.

What will I learn in Belgium? How will this change me? Peace within and peace for all? A reclamation of the parts of self that are broken and cast away? A whispering from a Beguine sister that comes as a light September breeze, inspiring a contemplation of community? I can’t say for sure, but I do know that it will change me and push me toward the growing edge of my life.

Stay tuned for my adventure of blogging through Belgium. The plane leaves at 5:00. I’m a little nervous about whether or not I have packed all the right stuff. I am going with an open heart, a curious mind, and a sense of adventure. If I throw in some gratitude, I should have everything that I need for the journey.

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

And Then I Blogged Through Belgium

iStock_000040946278Small

Thus far, my sixties have been the most exciting and fun part of my life. I never believed I would say that a few years ago. Sixty is, after all, a daunting age that marks the threshold of what we know as “old age,” or at least “older” age. And I certainly went through a time in my late fifties when I could feel my significance in the world, along with my smooth, tight skin, slipping and sagging away. But then I turned 60. I stopped working full-time, and started becoming the things I used to dream of when I was 20. Jerry Garcia was right, “what a long, strange trip it’s been.”

This preamble marks the lead in to a trip I never thought I would be taking. I am not a world traveler. During my work years, the weekends meant the grocery store, a hike with the dog and a nap in front of one of my favorite HGTV shows. When the sweet, young woman at the checkout counter asked me enthusiastically what I was “doing” this weekend, I was sure to give her a disappointing answers that did not involve Jell-O shots or Kama Sutra oils, let alone a trip anywhere . . .but I digress.

Next week, I leave for Belgium. This is a trip that has been a year and a half in the making. My friend Susan and I cooked it up one afternoon when we were sitting at the tea house talking about our favorite group of women, The Beguines–a group of feminist mystics that took root in the area around France and Belgium in the 12th century. “Let’s go trace their footsteps,” she said. “Let’s go sense their history,” I replied.

Now Susan is a world traveler and when she actually began putting the pieces of this trip together I totally freaked out. “You mean get on a plane and fly over the ocean to a foreign country,” I would scream over the phone. Week by week, we constructed a trip, a plan and a group of people who would join us. My gig once we get over there is to help people deepen their spiritual story through writing. Writing is my grounding wire. It’s what I do. It’s what I understand. Everything is a story and I am a student of story. I’ve taught creative writing in my spare time for over twenty years–but my students up until now have been troubled teens and incarcerated women. This will be a class of clergy, former clergy and really nice people. My girls in prison were nice people too, albeit addicted to meth and a few other bad habits. Somehow I am making this trip for them too, wanting to light a candle in a place where the Beguines once met, in hopes that the light, the warmth of the flame and the prayer it symbolizes will find its way to them, comforting them in the night.

So, I’m going. A week from Friday, I get on a plane for way too many hours and I travel to Europe, where I have only ever been one time, thirty years ago. And I get to sit with all these amazing theological students and seekers, spiritual directors and one retired judge who have given their lives to the constant exploration of faith and spirit that informs their lives. In a way I feel like the kid who got on the wrong bus. Then I remember that I have something to offer in terms of writing and story and I trust that if I can coax open the doors of story in a group of incarcerated meth addicts, this group might be a little easier.

This blog has never had a theme. When I am not practicing being a novelist, I write here, and it’s really nothing more than just little slices of my life, laid bare to the world. In the next couple of weeks though, my blog will have an actual theme, the theme of “The Grand, So Big, Once In a Lifetime, Wow, Trip.”

Meanwhile, back at the preamble, I love being in my 60’s. I write and study story every day. I write novels. I take naps (still in front of HGTV) and evidently I can travel. The significance in the world that I once felt slipping away has been replaced by an unfolding into a fullness of being that I could not have imagined ten years ago.

I have a phone call with my friend and retreat partner, Susan today. This might just be the first day we’ve talked where I don’t scream into the phone “get on a plane and fly over an ocean to a strange land–are you friggen’ kidding me?!”

Stay tuned for more stories about this travel rookie’s once in a lifetime journey to Belgium and my encounters with spiritual sisters from the 11th and 12th century! And I’ll let you know how my writing classes go. How joyous to be older and able to unabashedly nerd out!