Lenten Reflection: We Too Are Creatures

In the summer of 2017, Mark and I led the River of Life Connecticut River Pilgrimage – a 40-day journey of prayer and reconciliation with the land. I invited the more than 50 pilgrims who joined us to return to the prayers from our pilgrimage this Lent. Throughout the season of Lent, I am writing weekly reflections drawing on the themes from the Connecticut River Pilgrimage. They are also being posted by Kairos Earth, the organization that sponsored the pilgrimage. Enjoy!

“The world is like our bodies. It, too, is formed by many limbs and directed by a single soul. Yes, the world is an immense being directed by the power and the word of God, who is, so to say, its soul.” – Origen

Modern life is lived out almost entirely in a human-made bubble. Within the world that Origen describes – the natural, God-created world of which our bodies are part– there is a manufactured sub-world of machines, concrete, currency and climate-control. Through the power of our technologies it is easy to forget that we are creatures, dependent on a world not of our creation for our food, water, and air. All too often this sub-world becomes all-consuming. It begins to feel like THE world itself, all that there is.

Thanks be to God, this is not so. This manufactured sub-world rests within the larger, God-created world. This God-created world holds and sustains us and this smaller world we’ve made.

But how can we remember this? How can humanity return to the lived understanding that we too are creatures? That we belong first and foremost to the world Origen describes? That our very destinies are interwoven, not with the powers and principalities of our human-made sub-world, but with the earth, the rivers, the birds and the beasts? How do we know in our hearts and bodies – not just our minds – that from dust we have come and to dust we shall return?

I believe our first and most important step is to immerse ourselves in the God-created world as much as possible. Or as Steve Blackmer much more simply puts, “Go outside!” And when we go outside, we go to listen, trusting that the earth will remind us who we are and whose we are. We go not to retreat from our manufactured sub-world, to fuel up and go back into the fray. We go to relearn how to be creatures that live in balance with our precious home every moment of our lives. This is the intimacy, this is the relationship with creation, for which our souls and the world’s soul longs.

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Mark getting to know some honey mushrooms!

Are you interested in exploring a greater intimacy with God’s creation? To awaken evermore to your own creatureliness? Consider joining us for the first Earth Credo retreat April 22-27.

Earth Credo is a 5-day immersion in the practice and spirituality of living in right relationship with the natural world. Rooted in the Christian tradition of care for the earth, participants will learn contemplative disciplines that support intimacy with God through Creation and learn practical outdoor skills needed to be comfortable interacting more closely with nature.

Lenten Reflection: Waking Up With the Earth

In the summer of 2017, Mark and I led the River of Life Connecticut River Pilgrimage – a 40-day journey of prayer and reconciliation with the land. I invited the more than 50 pilgrims who joined us to return to the prayers from our pilgrimage this Lent. Throughout the season of Lent, I am writing weekly reflections drawing on the themes from the Connecticut River Pilgrimage. They are also being posted by Kairos Earth, the organization that sponsored the pilgrimage. Enjoy!

Spring comes slowly to Vermont. The day’s light lengthens incrementally and the sun warms. The chickadees come alive with their glorious tunes. The red squirrels come out and begin to scurry and play. Yet, with all this pre-spring activity, a foot of snow still covers the earth I so long to dig my hands and feet into! Spring comes so very slowly to Vermont.

Taking in these little hints of spring available to me (and at this point impatiently wishing spring would come rushing at me all at once) has lead me to reflect on how our inner lives mirror the change of the seasons, especially as it relates to baptism and immersion – the River of Life Prayer Book’s theme for this week. As this week’s intro says, “Baptism was understood in the early church as a ritual drowning – dying to the old self to be born anew in God.” Every year we have the opportunity to watch how the earth herself dies each winter and is born anew each spring. It is a rhythm that will not be rushed and one that is essential for the vitality of our ecology.

So it is with our inner life. The spiritual path is a lifelong process of dying to our false self and being reborn into the fullness of life. The liturgical calendar invites us into this rhythm every year during the Lent and Easter seasons. The earth invites us into this rhythm with each setting and rising of the sun. Our own bodies invite us into this rhythm with our very breath – taking in the new and releasing the old with each inhalation and exhalation.

In the Gospel of John, Nicodemus asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” Jesus replies, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” The spiritual life is saying yes to the possibility that with each year, with each day, even with each breath the gift of a new life – the gift of spring – is available to us.

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This is why we have Lent. To remind us that we need not stay locked, frozen, and trapped in our false selves. The new life of spring, the resurrection of Easter, is always as near to us as our very breath.

May we wake up to this reality this Lent, this day, this very breath.

The Underbelly of Simple Living

February has been a difficult month – the frequent dreary skies have mirrored my weary and restless soul. Mark and I have taken turns being ill or fighting illness the entire month. Our two weekend programs this month were cancelled – one because of our illness, the other because of climate change.¹  Because of physical illness and psychological weariness, daily chores and work have felt particularly burdensome.

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A dreary fall day – pre snow!

This is by no means my first hard season, yet this season is still a first. It’s my first time going through a time of inner isolation, a sense of lost purpose, and pervasive weariness while immersed in this simple way of life. In some ways, this lifestyle has made my felt experience of this season much more difficult. Naturally, I’ve been tempted (and I’ve given in to the temptation) to blame our way of life for my inner restlessness. If only our life was easier and more convenient, I wouldn’t be so lonely, foggy and grumpy. If only I had a bigger home, then I’d be happy. Ha! How short and feeble is my memory! How quickly my mind forgets similar seasons living in a four-bedroom house in the middle of town thinking, “If only I was living closer to the land, then I’d be happy.” Or “If only I had a husband to take care of me, pull me out of this state, etc.” Happiness is not a consequence of environment.

I adamantly reject the idea that more convenience would make me happier. However, I am discovering that living simply requires me to feel my unhappiness at a deeper, more raw level, hence making the felt experience more difficult. This way of life, you see, makes it very, VERY hard to check out.

I’m really good at checking out. It’s my go-to response to stress. When the outer world or my inner world feels like too much for me to handle I reach for Facebook, Instagram, or Netflix. Living without electricity or internet has made it painfully difficult to check out in my favorite and easiest ways! Even though I haven’t binged on Netflix since the fall and I haven’t been on Facebook at home since December, I still feel an inner tug to find something to mindlessly consume when my weariness overwhelms me. My cellphone gets 3G in the yurt (I have to smoosh my body up against the front door to get service, but I get it) and it’s been revealing and humbling to discover how much I find myself in that spot hunched over my phone looking for distraction and relief from my inner woes.

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Beech leaf tenacity

For Lent, I “gave up” accessing the internet when I’m home. At least, I’ve been trying to. It’s only been two weeks and an embarrassing number of my conversations with Mark start with, “Confession: I checked my email, but let me tell you about this message we got!” So often the miracle of my existence, the love Mark and I share, and the infinite wonder outside my door does not seem to be enough. I do not have the eyes to see, so I crave the distraction of what’s happening anywhere but where I am.

It’s not just the removal of distractions that can make it harder to check out of simple living. It’s also a lifestyle that requires regular action for our daily needs to be met. When I don’t have access to the internet – the means to endless abstracted distraction – my next favorite way to check out is sleep, or general mopey slothfulness. In our off-grid 20-foot yurt, I can only be so lazy. We do not have the luxury to distance ourselves from the elements by a mere flip of the switch, reserving contact with the natural world and our bodily needs to times when we’re feeling robust, invigorated and fully alive. On even the worst days, wood needs to be brought in and the fire needs to be stoked if we’re going to stay warm and fed, the ice in the ice box needs to be changed out if our food is going to stay fresh, water needs to be hauled if we’re going to stay hydrated, a 100-yard hill needs to be walked to reach our front door, and our small space needs to be cleaned and organized if we’re going to stay sane.²  Sometimes engaging in these necessary chores plunges me further into my isolation and grumpiness, but more often than not they serve as tiny sacraments – marks of grace – inviting me to be present with the moment, present with the task at hand, and – what is always the most difficult for me – present even with my despair.

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A mid-winter ramble following one of the streams that flows through our property

In our culture of consumerism, we have been trained that negative emotions can be placated, ignored, or even fixed by changing our external circumstances. It’s no coincidence that changing those external circumstances almost always costs money. It’s easy for me to fight this temptation during one day of weariness, but when the fog carries on for days, weeks, or months my mind starts looking around to see what’s wrong. The longer the weariness continues, the harder it is to admit that the fog is probably coming from within me. That perhaps instead of more space or things in my house, I need to restart my routine of walking by the stream each morning, or recommit myself to our rhythm of prayer, or spend a few days in silence and solitude, or pray for eyes to see the infinite beauty and wonder around me. Most likely, I should do all the above.

When the fog of weariness lifts a bit, I am reminded of what I know to be true. A weary and restless heart is almost always not the disease (or dis-ease). It is a sign and symptom of a deeper dis-ease, of something in my inner life keeping me from total freedom and happiness. When hard seasons arrive, they are not something to escape or check out of. Escaping through distractions or sleep may seem like it’s making things better, but it’s only numbing the underlying pain, medicating a symptom without removing the source of the unease.

The hard lesson I’m (re)learning this month is that seasons like these are opportunities to be led by grace into ever greater freedom and a more abundant life. This is the nitty-gritty, the underbelly of this radical simplicity. It’s not always fun and easy. Though the land of the infinite may be within and among us in each and every moment, it doesn’t always feel like it. My trust in this experiment is that, to the extent that I refuse to check out and embrace a life of simplicity, prayer, and love – and all the good, bad, and ugly it reveals – the life and love of the Divine will infuse more and more of my being, giving me eyes to see that even in the hard times, the infinite is at hand!

¹ The uncharacteristic heavy thawing and freezing created very icy conditions in northern New Hampshire, making cross country skiing and snowshoeing difficult and travel on the dirt roads dangerous. Hence, a weekend with Dartmouth College students promising hours of winter play was cancelled. Late winter just hasn’t been wintry enough.
² Of course, chores are not the only way to create obstacles to checking out. Mothers and fathers get the ultimate cred in my book for leading lives that require presence and action no matter how one is feeling.

Lenten Reflection: Mud Season of the Soul

In the summer of 2017, Mark and I led the River of Life Connecticut River Pilgrimage – a 40-day journey of prayer and reconciliation with the land. I invited the more than 50 pilgrims who joined us to return to the prayers from our pilgrimage this Lent. Throughout the season of Lent, I am writing weekly reflections drawing on the themes from the Connecticut River Pilgrimage. They are also being posted by Kairos Earth, the organization that sponsored the pilgrimage. Enjoy!

The earth has begun to thaw in my home region – the Upper Valley along the Connecticut River – with unseasonably warm 40+ degree days. When the frozen ground begins to melt in Vermont, where the majority of the roads are dirt, we experience mud season – the messy, mucky, unwieldy transition from winter to spring. This season, the limbo between the frozen waters and waters that flow clean and free, is an apt metaphor for grace.¹

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Grace is good news. It is the gift of God’s infinite and loving presence available to us at every moment. It is the freedom that does not bind us to our past faults, foibles, and ways of being and acting that wrought pain to the world and ourselves. It is the promise that true healing of our wounds, relationships, injustices, and the earth is possible.

Yet in the transition from our hardened, frozen hearts to life, freedom, and wholeness we need to walk through some muck. When we seek to discard idols and attachments that we may experience the infinite riches of the present moment, our “senses will cry like disappointed children” (Jean de Pierre Caussade in The Sacrament of the Present Moment). When we embrace the freedom of forgiveness we need to look squarely at the pain we caused. When we work for true healing in our lives, our community, and the earth, we must first name the hurt, the disorder, the fracturing. We experience grace to the extent that we have eyes to see the reality of the world in front of us – the muck of wounding, injustice, and exploitation as well as the spring flowers of forgiveness, reconciliation, and freedom.

Lent, then, is our liturgical mud season. It is the season in which we fast and pray, intentionally looking at the places we have fallen short, grieving our role in the cycle of woundedness, and asking for the grace of a transformed heart.

May we embrace the difficult, uncomfortable, painful invitation of Lent, knowing that the muck is a sign of God’s fiery grace melting our hardened, frozen hearts.

¹It’s important to note that true mud season in Vermont is typically late March into April. The sloppiness of this week is unusual.

How We Do It: Cooking on a Wood Stove

Living off-grid in a 314-square foot yurt requires a healthy dose of creativity and flexibility when it comes to even the most basic aspects of daily life. Before this adventure was our lived reality, I frequently peppered Mark (who had previously spent two winters living in an even smaller yurt-like home with even less amenities) with questions. I was like a three-year old discovering the world for the first time. What will we use for light? How will we cook? How will we wash dishes? Where will we sleep? Will we be warm enough? I’ve quickly discovered these are the questions everyone else is eager to hear about too. How do we do it?  

This is the first installment of the “How We Do It” series where (you can see where this is going) I tell you how we do it. Enjoy!

Wood Stove Cooking 101

There are three things that produce heat in our yurt – candles fueled by beeswax, our bodies fueled by calories, and our wood stove fueled by trees. Both candles and our bodies have rated poor in their ability to sufficiently cook food leaving us with an all-in-one kitchen gadget – the woodstove that also doubles as our heater and triples as our clothes dryer.

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Making scrambled eggs for my parents who during their recent visit

I was a bit skeptical, albeit up for the challenge, when I realized my love for cooking would be limited to what is essentially a hot box of metal. However, what I love about cooking – the endless possibilities, the creativity, the intimacy with food, and of course, the delicious results – have by no means been taken away from me.

Wood Stove as Stovetop

One of the most frequent ways we use the wood stove for cooking is for typical stovetop uses – sauteeing, frying, boiling, etc. The top of the stove can fit one large pan and two large pots comfortably if needed. We’ve learned with time which spots are hottest, which changes drastically depending on how hot we’ve fired the stove. We’ve learned how these changes effect our cooking as well. Our neighbor aptly compared cooking with a wood stove to sailing – the sailor or cook needs to constantly adapt to the elements of wind or fire, as the case may be. Learning to cook this way cannot come through an instruction manual with clear, consistent steps, but only through experience and a felt knowledge of your specific stove. Anytime I can bring more art, intuition, and intimacy into my life, I’m there!

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Functional AND beautiful?

Our stove – a Tempwood Stove – is fed wood through a round hole in the top of the firebox.This feature makes it most excellent for cooking! We quickly discovered that our cast iron pan fits perfectly over this hole so that it functions like a traditional cookstove, giving the flames direct access to the bottom of the pan. This is our “high heat” option. What do we do when we need to reduce the heat to a simmer? Simple! We just close down the air intake, replace the metal cover on the stove, and let our breakfast onions caramelize on low heat while we kneel for morning prayer.

The added joy of wood stove cooking in the winter is the heat is always there! I was shocked to discover how spoiled I was in this department when I visited my parents over Christmas. Their stove’s electric burners took so long to heat up! What a delightful irony – sometimes simplicity makes things more convenient, not less!

Wood Stove as Oven

By moving into the yurt, I assumed I was giving up any dishes that required an oven. While it’s taken me a bit longer to tweak and at this point I use this method of cooking more for special meals than day-to-day nourishment, wood stove roasting and baking with the assistance of a cast iron Dutch oven is totally within the realm of possiblity! At this point I have not attempted wood stove bread baking – most certainly because my standards as a professional baker are a bit higher than my other food-making ventures. But it is on my to-do list. I’ll be sure to report back on this one.

What I have had raging success at is using the Dutch oven to roast meats, mostly chicken thighs and salmon filets. I simply season the bird or fish the way I always do (typically rosemary and thyme for the chicken and dill or rosemary and white balsamic vinegar for the salmon), place the meat in the Dutch oven with less than an inch of water, cover the pot and let it cook. (For added yumminess I sear the chicken thighs in butter before adding to the Dutch oven, because obviously anything will be better after being seared in butter.) Sometimes I add some potatoes and onions around the meat for one pot cooking. I have yet to master the art of crispy vegetable roasting, but I am convinced it’s possible. Stay tuned!

 

Wood Stove as Crockpot

There’s no better time than winter for food that has spent hours simmering away. Our bodies’ longing for bone broths, stews, and soups in the cold months dovetails beautifully with the lifestyle of a wood stove cook. The wood stove is already putting off a steady supply of heat all day long to keep our bodies warm. There is literally no additional energy or fuel used to make nourishing bone broths and soups that get better by the hour. Many a day this winter, I’ve grabbed some bone-in chicken or beef (or retrieved leftover bones from previous meals) immediately after breakfast, threw them in a pot of water, added a splash of apple cider vinegar, and set them on the stove. By the end of the day I have a magnificent broth with no more than 5 minutes of my attention and zero energy cost over and above our heating. Soups are almost this easy with just an additional 15 minutes of vegetable chopping.

I relish in the ease, simplicity, and efficiency of creating such delectable winter nourishment! I love how naturally the cold, and thereby the need for the woodstove to be fired up, lends itself to making food that the body craves in that season. Soup making will be a lot harder in the summer months without a constant source of heat, but I suspect we won’t miss the deep warming bone broths when the sun is warming us from the outside in!

Wood Stove as All Those Other Appliances That Used to Crowd My Countertop

We regularly use our wood stove as a tea kettle, coffee maker (kind of), toaster, and popcorn popper. (We have yet to figure out how to use it as a blender.)

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Lucky for us, the fancier the coffee, the less likely you need electricity to brew it!

Thanks to the wood-loading hole in the top of the stove, we can boil water wicked fast! Our pails neatly drop into the hole, just the right size for the rim to catch. This hack means the flames are literally surrounding the water, rivaling most tea kettles in its boiling speed. As a former barista and lover of both the Aeropress and French Press, hot water is all I need to make the most delicious coffee out there. (On-demand coffee grinding is a bit more challenging – a topic for another post!)

 

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Water boiling hack!

Over eggs and toast during my parents’ recent visit my Dad remarked, “This toast is a lot better than our toasters!” Indeed, sir! That’s because our toast is toasted in a cast iron of melted butter. Just as quick when the fire’s hotand exceedingly more delicious!

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The simple joy of a perfectly popped kernel of popcorn!

Our favorite evening treat is a big bowl of butter-doused popcorn. (As you may have deduced by now, we go through A LOT of butter.) Growing up we had a greasy-from-use popcorn popper we hauled out of the pantry for Saturday movie nights and sleepovers. College life naturally led me down the path of microwave popcorn. (I do not miss the weird fuzzy feeling that “butter” left in my mouth. What is that stuff?) In a health-conscious move, I eventually had a popcorn popper of my own, but this one used hot air for its popping. In my yurt life, I use a stainless-steel pail and the woodstove. I melt a couple tablespoons of coconut oil in the pail (I use coconut oil because of its relatively high smoke point) and add 2-4 popcorn kernels as testers. When they pop I know the oil is hot enough to add the rest of the kernels. After adding enough kernels to fill the bottom of the pail (I don’t believe in measuring cups…), I put a couple tablespoons of butter in a metal cup and set it on the woodstove to melt. In no time, the yurt is filled with the muffled sound of popping corn and the decadent aroma of melted butter.

This is how we cook in the winter. The whole scene will change with the change of the seasons. Of course, when the time comes, I will let you know how we do that too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lenten Reflection: What Stands Between You & Wildness?

In the summer of 2017, Mark and I led the River of Life Connecticut River Pilgrimage – a 40-day journey of prayer and reconciliation with the land. I invited the more than 50 pilgrims who joined us to return to the prayers from our pilgrimage this Lent. Throughout the season of Lent, I am writing weekly reflections drawing on the themes from the Connecticut River Pilgrimage. They are also being posted by Kairos Earth, the organization that sponsored the pilgrimage. Enjoy!

Our winter lives in New England are full of barriers to protect us from the wildness of the outside world – the walls of our houses and the heating devices within; coats, boots, hats, mittens & scarves; our climate-controlled vehicles. Thanks to amazing road crews our routines can continue uninterrupted save the occasional blizzard or ice storm. All these protections keep us cozy, safe, and protected from the fierce wildness of winter.

Barriers that keep our bodies warm and alive on cold winter days are good and necessary protections. Yet our lives are filled with all sorts of other barriers that protect us from the wildness and the unpredictability of God. These barriers also keep us from dying, but they keep us from a spiritual death of the ego. Ultimately, that death invites us into a much greater life than we can possibly imagine.

Lent is a time to discover and strip away the barriers that stand between us and the wild love of God. Because God’s nature is so clearly revealed in the wildness of creation, I think it is also a time to strip away the modern barriers between us and the incarnate wildness of creation.

It may be a few days after Ash Wednesday, but it’s not too late to think about what to fast from this Lent. What can you remove from your life that will bring you into greater encounter with the wildness of God, the wildness of nature, and the wildness of the present reality. What barrier, can you remove to remind you that life – existence itself –  is wild, free and glorious?

Here are some ideas:

Internet/Social Media: We all have had the experience of being transported from where are bodies are to some other place with one ding, swipe, or click. The internet is an incredible tool when used wisely. It also has tremendous power to shield us from the wildness of the present reality – including God and nature. Every time I do an internet or social media fast I am shocked at how programmed I am to reach for my phone as soon as I am no longer preoccupied with something else.

This fast can manifest multiple ways – delete a social media account for the season, limit internet use to working hours, keep a tech-free Sabbath once a week, or remove internet access on your smartphone. And then, look around you, really see the people you walk or drive by, notice how your body feels, pay attention to where your mind goes. Pray that your eyes would open to the infinite presence of God in each and every moment.

Conveniences: Our modern lives are chock-full of conveniences! Surveying our morning routines alone demonstrates this – light at the flick of a switch, water at the turn of a handle, hot water at the turn of another handle, a refrigerator keeping our food cold, a heater keeping us warm. Choosing to fast from a convenience can remind us how interconnected our lives are with the rest of the planet.

You can fast from a convenience by using candles in the evening instead of electric lights, hand wash dishes instead of using a dish washer, or limit the amount of trash you generate during Lent to a quart-sized jar (or smaller!). Consider parking far away from your office, grocery store or church rather than the closest spot you can find. If you are able to walk instead of drive, opt for walking this Lent. You can also remove a barrier between you and your impact on the earth by visiting the source of your conveniences. Visit the hydro dam, solar panels, wind turbines or power plant that produces your electricity or the reservoir that supplies your water.

Noise: The news, background music, podcasts, Netflix, conversation with others, books. We have countless ways to distract us from the physical reality around us, our thoughts, and God’s presence. On the Connecticut River Pilgrimage, silence was the cornerstone of everything we did. Without the silence – 3-4 hours every morning and 20 minutes of silence during communal prayer – the challenge of hearing the voice of the river and the presence of God would have been so much greater. Silence is our greatest aid in encountering the wildness of God, nature, and the present moment. The gift of silence is that it is accessible to us no matter where we are!

The prayer book encourages a practice of twenty minutes of silence two times a day. Additionally, you can fast from noise by not listening to the radio or podcasts; giving up recorded music; choosing to not watch TV, Netflix or movies; or keeping silence until mid-morning each day (you need to get your household in on this one!). Do not be afraid when your mind fills in the silence with noise of its own. You may be tempted to replace your old form of noise-making with a new form. Resist the temptation. If you stay with the silence and surrender your inner noisiness to God, inner silence will come.

It is a terrifying undertaking to remove the barriers we have built to protect us against the wild unpredictability of God, nature, and the present moment. I resonate with Emilie Griffin when she writes,

“‘Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit.’ Isn’t that one of the most disturbing sentences in the Scriptures? We know God asks hard things. We know he did not spare his own Son. We know Jesus, prayed, not now and then, but all the time. Isn’t this what holds us back –the knowledge of God’s omnipotence, his unguessability, his power, his right to ask an All of us, a perfect gift of self, a perfect act of full surrender?”

Yet even as we enter this forty day fast, we already know how it ends. We fast, not in a spirit of deprivation, but with the promise that it is only through stripping the old away, through death, that new life will come.

May God give us the courage to strip away all that keeps us from knowing fully the wonder of this wild world and the love of a wild God!

 

On Fear, Trust & Pilgrimage

Most of my stories take place on a 10-acre homestead in the hills of Vermont. Occasionally, however, I tell a tale of pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is an essential discipline in my spiritual life. In the out-of-routine unpredictability and vulnerability of pilgrimage, my eyes become more adept at seeing the infinite riches of each moment and that vision comes back home with me. Without doubt, the familiarity and comfort of home will lull me back into a blurrier vision and so I return to pilgrimage. However, upon each return home my vision stays clearer a little longer. The conviction that I’m as much on pilgrimage at home as I am on the trail is a little stronger. I have come to believe that without this change – if pilgrimage doesn’t impact home – the journey was in vain.

I usually go on pilgrimage close to home – on the Connecticut River or the Appalachian Trail. When I choose to take the train to Pennsylvania (my childhood home) instead of driving, that too becomes a pilgrimage. On rare and special occasions I am called even further outside my comfort zone. In the fall of 2017, I set aside money and carved out time to walk an old pilgrimage way in southeastern France – the Way of St Gilles. Here’s part of that story.

It took me two hours to get out of Le Puy en Velay.  Two hours of wandering around the unfamiliar city on the first day of my two-week walking pilgrimage in France. The morning started out okay. Early rising, an unsatisfying version of a French breakfast – bland white bread, butter, and instant coffee – at the hostel, and a special mass at the basilica to bless and send pilgrims. At the conclusion of mass, the 60-some pilgrims shouldered their packs (you could immediately pick out the veterans and newbies based solely on pack size) and flooded down the huge stone steps leading out from the church. The majority of these walkers stepped right from the church onto El Camino de Santiago – their first step on the French Way of the famous pilgrimage.

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The first steps on pilgrimage

I, the contrarian that I can be when I’m truly listening to the Spirit, had to meander and navigate my way through the curvy, cobblestone, medieval streets to find the first unassuming white and red blaze marking the Way of St Gilles, or the Regordane Way, the much less traveled path I had chosen. However, before finding my pilgrim way, I had a few errands to make while I was still in the “big city.”

First, I needed some real food if I had any hope of walking the 17 miles to the hostel I planned to spend the night. I loaded up on the fattiest and protein-iest foods I could find at the little French market – two avocadoes and a little tub of Greek yogurt. According to my guidebook, there was a town of decent size that had a bakery and market about half-

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Uncertain street meandering

way through my day’s walk. I didn’t want to carry more weight than I needed and this would get me at least that far.

I also needed more cash than the 15 euros I had. I knew next to nothing about the villages I was about to walk through and certainly didn’t want to end up cashless and ATM-less. Quite aware of the ticking clock and the lack of kilometers behind me, I quickly tracked down a bank, muddled my way through the automated screen and eventually saw a friendly “Merci, au revoir!” on the screen. I waited for the cash I requested, but no money came. Oh no! I thought I’m going to need to go inside! I know very little French. I knew even less on my first day of this walk. My plan was to find my way on this adventure with my eyes, ears, smarts, and gut and use my voice as little as possible. But here I was, only a few steps into my journey and already confused.

I sheepishly pulled the heavy glass door, my mind swimming with all the stories I’ve heard about how much the French hate Americans – especially the stupid Americans who travel to France without knowing French. They’re just stories, I try to reassure myself. Don’t live in a perceived reality. Experience actual reality. Well, this time perceived reality and actual reality were quite similar. Sitting at the desk before me was a tall, slender, perfectly manicured Frenchman who already looked annoyed with me. I was suddenly terribly conscious of my stained hiking clothes and unkempt hair.

“Excuse moi? Parlez-vous anglais?” I managed in the worst French accent imaginable, so embarrassed I hadn’t been more faithful with my Duo Lingo exercises.

“A little,” he responded, as it seems all French people do regardless of how much English they actually do speak.

I explained my predicament and he kindly came out to the ATM and tried again for me. After working his way through a couple screens he looked down at me. “Denied,” he said. His tone wasn’t condescending, but it was not apologetic either.

I tried not to let my gut’s clenching reach my face until he disappeared back into the bank. It was 3:30am in the United States – all banks would be closed. There was nothing I could do but walk. And hope the hostel accepted cards.

 I walked out of the center of town, where the Virgin rose into the sky watching over the city, and made my way toward the outskirts, my eyes alert for the first sign of the Way of St Gilles.

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Confident I was on the right street, my eye suddenly caught the red and white marker that would be my guide for the next two weeks. There it was. A 2 inch by 4 inch red and white blaze on a street light, the first indication I was on the Way. No large announcement, not even a small one. As humble as a pilgrim’s first step is the pilgrimage’s first marker.

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With renewed vigor I went forward, my eyes constantly scanned the posts, poles, trees and walls for the blazes that would lead me the 249 km to the old seaport of St. Gilles. I walked with confidence and a sense of bewilderment that I was actually doing this – alone in this strange city on a path I had only learned about a few months prior – walking for no other reason than I felt called to do it.

Then, as quickly as I had found the way’s blazes, I lost them. The blaze had pointed me across the street and then they just disappeared.  I walked up the street and back the other way on both sides – no red or white. Except…there was some red tape hanging from a rope across a driveway. It seemed like my only option, so I interpreted it as a sign. Bad mistake. I few days into my walking adventure, I would know the pilgrim’s markings well enough to know this tape had absolutely nothing to do with the walking route. But today? I was new to this and had some learning to do and I was destined to learn it the hard way.

I followed the path into a lush green park bordered by an urban stream. It seemed like the perfect time to take a moment for some water, a snack, and a good look at my maps. Since I had lost the blazes, my map was now my guide. The map was not as detailed as I would have liked and in retrospective, may have given me just enough information to arm me with unwarranted confidence. Two hours later – which involved a confusing sign-language/French/Spanish/English mashup conversation with a Spanish woman, going to the bathroom in the SKETCHIEST public restroom I have ever seen (think concrete, under a stairway, IRON GATED DOORS), and a desperate duck into a church to gather my senses – I was pointed by a gentleman right back to the very spot where I had lost my way two hours earlier. I traced my steps heading back to the center of town thinking perhaps my two hours of aimless wandering would have given me miraculous intuition to know what to do this time. Turns out, it did! This time I saw what I didn’t before – a small walking path following a stream. It was the same stream that had lured me two hours earlier, just the upstream direction. Twenty paces down the path – a new-to-me red and white blaze. I was back.

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How did I not notice this inviting path?

The sun was now high in the sky and I had literally made no physical progress in two hours, but the joy of knowing where I was and where I was going was enough to keep my spirits buoyed as I climbed the hill leading out of the city. Before I knew it, Le Puy en Velay was nothing more than a view as I looked back over my left shoulder.

The hours flew by quicker than the miles (as they so often do when walking in the afternoon) and I didn’t make it to Costaros – what should have been my lunch spot – until dinnertime. All I had eaten so far was a little bread, yogurt and one avocado. I decided to save my second avocado and ducked into a small bakery. I spent 2 euros on a quiche Lorraine (which I quickly learned is the most protein-dense option at a French bakery) and stashed it in the top of my pack. It’s not that I wasn’t hungry, but I was feeling a bit ashamed at how my first day of pilgrimage was going and I wanted to wait to rest and eat in the countryside without the risk of onlookers. Even in provincial France, I was worried about my image.

I walked up and out of Costaros – tired, despondent, and afraid. I had tried to make a reservation at the hostel in Landos, but I had no way of knowing if they had received it (my phone was useless to me without wifi).

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A familiar sight – elderberries! I also saw puffball mushrooms and wild blackberries on this walk. All are common wild edibles in Vermont. Signs of a small, interconnected, beautiful earth.

If they did receive it, I didn’t know if there was a bed available and if there was a bed, that I’d be able to pay for it without cash. I started eyeing up the landscape around me, wondering if I would need to stealth camp tonight. The idea of wild camping – something commonplace for me to do at home – seemed terrifying here. This place, in its unfamiliarity, felt unpredictable. What if someone approached me? I can’t even speak their language. I couldn’t explain myself. I’d have no one to call. No one to lean on. My heart raced as I thought how narrow my options felt.

As I peaked the top of the hill coming out of Costaros, the image of Christ on the cross loomed in front of me. I wasn’t having a supernatural vision, there in my path was an actual life-sized crucifix.  Do you want to know the really awesome thing about being a Christian pilgrim in France? You literally come face to face with a cross at least three times a day. I dropped my pack at the foot of the cross and slumped my body next to it. I pulled out my cold quiche and gave thanks. I gave thanks for everything I had going for me in that moment, which it turns out, was a lot. I had quiche. And water. Thirteen euros. The blazes showing me the way. A tarp and a sleeping bag. Two more hours of daylight. Fair weather. My healthy, whole body. My mind. I was going to be fine. The next hours may not be easy, but I wasn’t going to die. I wasn’t even going to be harmed. There was nothing to fear.

My tiredness did not go away, but my despondency did. With a simple prayer of thanks, I was transported out of a scarcity mindset to a place of enoughness, perhaps even

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View of Costoras 

abundance. I actually had MORE than I needed. I had multiple options. I could choose to camp right there. I could go back down into Costaros or continue on to Landos. I had enough water to get me to morning and I certainly wasn’t going to starve if I missed dinner. There was nothing to fear.

I’ve found myself coming to this place multiple times since returning home. Sometimes the fear creeps in as I review our month’s expenses and realize we spent more than we had intended. The few hundred dollars we were over budget becomes a crisis of mass proportions. My gut clenched, I am sure I will die a sickly, impoverished woman. My fear blinds me to the abundance around me – the land on which I dwell, the neighbors who look out for us, the food always at our finger tips, my loving, creative, and passionate husband, and plenty of money and means of earning more money if necessary.

Or I’ll mull over how unlikely it is that any of our dreams will come to fruition. That we’ll labor away for years without ever creating a productive bakery, a spiritual community, or a beautiful and soul-nourishing place for people to find respite and reconnect with God. I totally ignore the fact that our lives are so

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An early morning of abundance – a late fall paddle with the loons!

joyful already, that gifts beyond our dreams have already materialized and if nothing else happened, what already has happened would be completely and utterly sufficient!

Still other times I worry about the children we don’t have. Will our alternative lives traumatize them for life? Our current set-up is not yet conducive to a large family. Will what we need be available when we need it? When I’m not being controlled by fear, these questions sound ridiculous to me! Our lives are so abundant with love, community, good food, and the felt presence of God, it’s insane – literally in that it’s out of line with my current reality – to be anxious about tomorrow.

I am discovering that my fear is almost always based on a false perception of the world around me, not the actual reality.1 Without fail that perception is a narrowed and constricted view that is blind to the resources, options, and love accessible to me. My inner eye locks in focusing on what I do not have and consequently, I fail to see the abundance in my peripheral vision. Much of my life of prayer and faith is practicing to relax my eyes and see the infinite riches all around me.

What was previously paralyzing me with fear does not disappear, but it is held within a larger picture. In that moment by the foot of a crucifix on a little hill over Costoras, France, I still didn’t have a place to spend the night. I still had to make some decisions and act quickly. But as I took stock of the gifts around me, I was moved from a place of gripping fear to a spirit of open trust. From there, I could think and act clearly and even experience joy.

My journey onward from Costoras ended with a hot meal of shepherd’s pie, conversation over tea with a fellow pilgrim and a warm bed. All were pure gift. Three miles from Landos as the sun was setting, a car slowed to my pace and the gentleman inside asked (first in French, but soon thereafter in broken English) where I was going and if I wanted a lift. I paused, obviously hesitant and wary. I was about to say no when I checked in with my gut. I felt safe. So contrary to my usual habits (I turned down a number

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Home for the night in Landos

of ride offers on this journey alone), I accepted. Accepting this ride was the best decision of my day. This angel drove me right to the hostel, helped me figure out the unnecessarily complex system of checking in, and called the hostel manager who was out (my phone was worthless remember?).

By the time I got settled in (the hostel did accept cards!), any food stores or restaurants in the tiny village were closed. I resigned myself to the fact that my saved avocado would be my dinner that night until I realized it was gone. It must have fallen out of my pack somewhere along the 17 miles. So I resigned myself to the fact that I was fasting that night. I was in the common area of the hostel trying to figure out why my debit card had been denied when the hostel manager asked if I wanted some food. Some guests last night had left a frozen shepherd’s pie.

“It’s probably not very good or healthy,” he warned me. “But you can have it if you like.”

It was the BEST shepherd’s pie I ever ate. As I happily digested my four servings of shepherd’s pie, I sipped tea (another gift) and swapped traveling tales with my roommate for the night. The abundance of resources, generosity and life that surrounded me was even more than I knew on that hill above Costoras. There was nothing to fear.

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1 Clearly, for many people, the actual reality of their life’s situation is a legitimate cause for fear – fleeing a war-torn city, watching your ill child’s body fail, living with an abusive relationship. I feel ill-equipped at best and pretentious at worst to speak about such traumatic events and lives. That said, I am curious about how this dynamic of fear and trust plays out even in such tragic and heart-wrenching events. Not all people respond to all situations the same way – even the most horrific. What’s going on there? What allows the great saints and heroes of human history to stay open, loving, and present while they are being beaten, tortured, and killed?