I spent last Wednesday with an animated group of teachers—St. Augustine’s in Vancouver, BC. Their retreat, before a new school year. Our topic, an invitation to create sanctuary, allowing us to honor habits that sustain our wellbeing.
We began the day going around a circle, each sharing memories from the summer. There were weddings and funerals and trips and reunions and adventures and celebrations in Parisian pubs after the World Cup victory.
“I have a heart condition,” one young teacher began her turn. “And every year I get an MRI for assessment. Because I never know what the news will be, my temptation is caution and apprehension. Because of my condition, and afraid of the worst, I have always kept my physical activity to a minimum. Although I’ll admit that the excuse does come in handy, ‘I’d love to help out, but I have a heart condition.’” We laughed. “This year, after a clear MRI, my doctors told me that I needed more activity. Outdoors. Nothing strenuous. But still. Anyway, my summer was very different than normal. I biked and hiked and enjoyed the sky and water and the air. I loved being outdoors.”
Well, I have a confession.
I have lived most of my emotional and spiritual life with a heart condition.
Because I have lived cautious and afraid, holding back my heart because of what it might cost, or require of me. Or fearing (running from) my brokenness, not believing that an open and broken heart is an invitation to live my days giving, creating, embracing, connecting, savoring and celebrating.
On NPR’s This American Life, Ira Glass interviewed a young woman, a singer with a Riverdance troupe. She told how one day, the troupe collectively decided to purchase a batch of lottery tickets. The plan (buoyed by sheer conviction and blind faith) seemed simple enough. Such a large purchase would increase their odds of winning, and with the considerable prize money, they could share the proceeds.
After winning (a foreclosure in their minds), they had determined they would quit Riverdance, and use the money to do whatever it was they really wanted to do: go back to school, buy a house, seek a new vocation, etc. Behind each of their wishes, you could read the longing for a change at a new direction in their lives.
On the evening the lottery winner(s) was to be announced, the troupe danced their “final” performance. The singer described how a kind of ecstasy swept up the entire troupe, as they danced and sang wholehearted and unabashed. In their hearts, all the performers knew this would be their winning night, the night they would be released from the repetitiousness of their lives. All of them knew as well, as they danced and sang, that they were giving, creating, living and celebrating their best performance ever. Afterward, the audience, understandably, went wild. Something truly amazing had taken place.
The drawing was held. Not one troupe ticket held the winning number. They did not win the lottery. To a person, they couldn’t believe that their intention–or confidence–had failed them.
Look at what happened. Their performance provided a container–a liturgy or sacred space–for some awakening of that which lay dormant in their souls. In fact, the troupe, literally, transcended the dance itself. They were engaged. They were totally alive, and present. And, as it turns out, they did receive what they wished for.
In other words, once the troupe gave up the need to force a great performance, they simply danced with an open heart.
During our teacher’s retreat, we made a list of all the gifts born in sanctuary… vulnerability, empathy, inclusion, compassion, presence, authenticity and the permission to be grounded.
Looking at their list, I made the observation that while we hunger for these gifts, it will take a toll, because every one of them invites us to live with and from our whole heart.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Thank you Leonard Cohen.
If only we have eyes to see. Or, perhaps, if only we can surrender expectations that, in the end, prevent us from seeing. Such as anticipated lottery winnings, I suppose… with the promise that life can be found “if only” or “when.”
Or in my case, having succumbed to some unnamed fear that keeps me from living an “unabashed life.” (“What would they think?”)
Our knee-jerk, of course, is to figure it all out, some sort of checklist for “living fully present.” (There’s the rub. Apparently it’s not authenticity I want. It’s certainty—or security—that I’m after.)
However, like the dance troupe learned, we recognize that freedom happens only when we can let go. “Once you have grace,” wrote Thomas Merton, “you are free. Without it, you cannot help doing the things you know you should not do, and that you know you don’t really want to do.”
It reminds me of Henry Miller’s quote, “The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely. We live at the edge of the miraculous.” In other words, to make space for what is dormant in our soul.
There is a scene in the movie Shawshank Redemption, when Andy locks himself in the warden’s office, puts a record on the turntable and sets the prison intercom microphone near the speaker. The music pervades and suffuses the entire prison. Red, the narrator, says, “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”
I feel that way whenever I get a dose of the “music” of Mary Oliver…
“I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.”
Yes. And Amen. Because here’s the deal. Living from an open heart always takes us beyond our ego. We do not need to live defensive. And what spills from an open heart? An invitation to live generous, benevolent, grateful, compassionate and kind.
We buried Aretha and John McCain this week. Two people unafraid of living wholehearted.
A restful Labor Day to all. Find a way to savor your day, living in the sacrament of the present moment.
I’m with friends new and old, creating a garden, and it reminds me of the dance troupe, and the permission to always find a time and a way, to dance with an open heart.
Quotes for your week…
The only true gift is a portion of yourself. Ralph Waldo Emerson
POEMS AND PRAYERS
One had to abandon altogether the search for security, and reach out to the risk of living with both arms. One has to embrace the world like a lover. One has to accept pain as a condition of existence. One has to court doubt and darkness as the cost of knowing. One needs a will stubborn in conflict, but apt always to total acceptance of every consequence of living and dying. Morris West
Poetry: Tis a Fearful Thing
‘Tis a fearful thing
to love what death can touch.
A fearful thing
to love, to hope, to dream, to be –
And oh, to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
And a holy thing,
a holy thing
For your life has lived in me,
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
‘Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing, to love
what death has touched.
Yehuda HaLevi (1075 – 1141)
God, let us be serious.
face to face.
heart to heart.
let us be fully present.
the closest we may come