Category Archives: Spiritual Life

The Keys to 33

Although we would be staying at a renewal center in the middle of the desert, those of us who enrolled at the Hesychia School of Spiritual Direction were advised to pack our laptop computers, since we had some assignments to complete there. After I unpacked my computer in my small single room, No. 33 in the St Gerard building, I diligently tried to log on to one of the available WiFi network, but without any success. The last thing I wanted was any technical difficulties. I have always taken my schoolwork seriously.

Hesychia is a Greek term often translated as silence, tranquility, or stillness. For millennia now, various monastics have sought hesychia in community, starting with the Desert Elders, the so-called Mothers and Fathers, Ammas and Abbas, who began settling in Egypt together at the start of the third century. They lived alone in tiny residences, some built, some found, that were called cells. While they lived individually, they did not exist independently — they formed intimate relationships with their fellow spiritual sojourners, each seeking to be a friend of God.

The view from No. 33

There was a total of 13 of us enrolled in the Winter 2022 term as at Hesychia, a little enough group where we could make easily one another’s acquaintance. After only a couple of days, we could recognize each other’s voice on the walkway outside our doors or through the thin walls. I queried my fellow students about their success logging on to the WiFi network; they gave me mixed reports. Near the end of the first week, after I had tried every IT trick suggested to me, I took my computer to the renewal center office in utter frustration, finding myself behind in my email and limited in the sort of Internet research I hoped to do. As befitted her job title, the business manager in the office was all business. “What room are you in again?” she asked me. 

“I’m in 33,” I replied.

“Oh, that explains it. You won’t get WiFi in that room,” she declared. “It never works there.” She reached for a set of keys to another room and slid them across the counter to me. When I was ready, she told me, I could move my things to the new room. 

Because I didn’t recognize the number on the keychain, I first had to find No. 25 on a campus map. It was on the distant side of the center, behind the hermitages. I walking in that direction and found it was the last door in the building. It opened to an isolated suite; outdoors was a private sitting area. It was obviously an upgrade to my student accommodations and it simply would not do. I made sure to lock the door behind me. 

The Desert Elders had a guiding dictum: “Go into your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” They had a habit of offering up odd words of wisdom. What they meant in this instance was that any one of us can learn from our personal circumstance if we can simply sit still with them long enough. In one of her more famous sayings, Amma Syncletica took the notion even further. She said that a monastic who changed places was no different than a bird who abandoned her nest. The eggs laid there could not stay warm and the new life that had been incubating could not hatch. There would be no chicks to nurture, no chirps to hear. Continuity was a virtue in its own right, one to be cultivated with sincere intention. If we would accept and observe any given situation, the Ammas and Abbas suggested, then we might stay eminently teachable. 

When people ask me what sort of work I do as a spiritual director, I explain that I join with people who want to direct fuller attention to the spiritual dimension of their lives. This requires that director and directee alike develop an increased capacity for stilling and centering and noticing. At the renewal center this winter, I soon recognized that my cell was teaching me one of the most crucial lessons I would learn as a student. No. 33 was showing me that I didn’t need WiFi for those weeks I was in the desert, after all. While I was tempted to optimize my time in residence, what I actually needed to do was attend to a long neglected practice of acceptance. I could choose to accept a certain limitation and finitude and particularity. 

So I dropped that extra set of keys back at the office, thanking the business manager for her ingenious problem-solving on my behalf. As silly as it sounded, I explained, I could not be that far from thin walls and chatty walkways and the other students settled into their cells, with and without WiFi. Back in No. 33 St. Gerard, I folded my laptop shut. I opened up a book I had borrowed from the renewal center library instead. It did not contain a single hyperlink, I realized, considerably relieved. I could not click on anything. 

In her poem “The Desert Has Many Teachings”, Jane Hirshfield translates the writing of the mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg with these words: “In the desert, turn toward emptiness… and your being will quiet… kindle Love’s fire with the twigs of a simple life.” Gather the twigs very nearby and you will be able to warm yourself in the nest where you find yourself perched. Study the desert teachings dotting the earthly landscape, mystics and monastics tell us. The school never closes; its classrooms are always in session. Its lessons are precious — and also portable.

When I returned home and began unpacking my bags, I discovered that I still had the keys to No. 33 with me. Clearly, I had not been ready to leave my cell just yet. I emailed the renewal canter office with my apologies and assured them I would return those keys in the mail as soon as the local post office opened. Then I surprised myself by asking if I could please stay in No. 33 again for the Spring 2022 term. I got a reply the next day saying that No. 33 was “already reserved” for me. Even out of school, a great distance away from the desert, I was learning.

Peace by Peace

After I moved from New York to Massachusetts, I transferred my clinical license between the states. When my Massachusetts copy arrived in the mail, I was horrified. In addition to the letters after my name, in the background of the license appeared the seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which I had never before noticed. This seal depicts an Indigenous man in traditional garb standing underneath a hand grasping a sword, complete with the Latin motto that translates: “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty”. It reads like an inscription on an atrocious trophy. The very paper that my license was printed on seemed tainted. I put it a folder in the back of my filing cabinet, some place far out of sight, where it could not further contaminate anyone’s consciousness. Honestly, I do not even like having it in my home. I feel implicated by it. I am implicated by it. As a citizen of these United States, in particular an Anglo member of the dominant culture, I am the heir of conquerors. Some conquered using the sword, some using gunpowder, some even using small pox. How much peace can there be, I wonder, after centuries of genocide?

Earlier this year, the Commonwealth created a commission to create a new motto, seal, and state flag for Massachusetts; the nineteen members of the commission hope to propose those before the end of the year. It is social progress, undoubtedly, but it is long overdue. It marks our latest reckoning with our troubled past — in this country, in the New England region, and in this state. This month, for the first time ever and by executive decree, Boston will be celebrating Indigenous People’s Day instead of Columbus Day, the October holiday it has commemorated for decades. It is one of more 20 municipalities statewide to make this change. Within a couple of years, I expect, the change will be made statewide. The more people learn about the terrible exploits of Columbus, the more reluctant they will be to honor his memory or legacy.

Honor Indigenous Peoples’ Day!

The Unitarian Universalist congregation I serve as Senior Minister has officially commemorated Indigenous Peoples’ Day each October since 2012, since that was the year that the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations passed a resolution to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, a 15th-century manifesto that provided Europeans with the religious ideology that sanctioned their profiteering and imperialist drives toward expansion into the New World and its Americas. Overseas explorers were empowered to convert the heathen natives by any means necessary — but only after subduing them first. 

This summer, Canadian citizens were horrified by the discovery of the remains of hundred of indigenous children who had been buried on the grounds of mission boarding schools in mass and unmarked graves. Around the U.S., such mission boarding schools were operating throughout the 19th into the 20th centuries, a few of them funded by the institutional precursor to the Unitarian Universalist Association. One Unitarian mission school was opened in Montana in the 1880s, on the Crow reservation, and run by the Rev. Henry F. Bond. In correspondence, he shared his views that the Crow children who had been forcibly separated from their families and brought into his custody would “enter at once upon a life of usefulness, and… do credit to their training, and become zealous and successful laborers for the civilization of their race” and never “be… thrust back into a sea of barbarism with no career open to them, and no one to look after them.” The relish with which this clergyman assumed the proverbial White Man’s Burden is unmistakable — and appalling.

These days, people in my denomination are joining with interfaith networks across the Americas in undertaking a process of truth-telling and reconciliation. One such network released statement in July 2021 that acknowledged that “tribal communities have been testifying for years to the truth of forced removal, assimilation, abuse, and death perpetrated through boarding schools…. We also know that the trauma of this history lives on in the lives of people and communities, and all of us are affected.” It concluded: “Telling the truth is a critical step to healing… we know that a radical shift must occur in our own theologies as we seek to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery and the way [that] has been used to justify colonialism, domination, slavery, and genocide of indigenous people.” This long weekend in October, we can all take part in making that spiritual shift ourselves. 

“And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that make one circle, wide as daylight and starlight… to shelter all the children of one mother and one father,” Black Elk of the Lakota tribe long ago told us, “and I saw that it was holy.” Can we see so many interlocking circles? Can we appreciate how enormous and inclusive they are? Can we revere them as holy? This year, my church has begun work on installing a permanent land acknowledgment marker on our church campus, acknowledging that our buildings and ground are located on the traditional territory of the Massachusett tribe. That is true and somehow entirely too easy for us to overlook.

Last summer, my husband and I moved to our new home in Watertown, MA and inherited a couple of big green recycling bins in our backyard emblazoned with the town seal. Watertown is located on the traditional territory of the Pequossette tribe and the seal makes reference to that fact. Admittedly, this town seal is much more benign than the one emblazoned on our state flag and also etched on to my clinical license. Watertown has a Latin motto of its own, but a kinder, gentler one: In pace condita, or “Founded in peace.” I told my husband that I had to question that historicity of that account and so we made a closer study of the claim. 

The motto underlines a pastoral scene containing what is no doubt an idealized encounter along the banks of the Charles River. In it, a Puritan man is offering a tribesman a hearty baked good in exchange for proffered bass no doubt fished from local waters; in the backdrop are other members of the Pequossette tribe standing in front of their teepees in stances signaling they are interested onlookers, with only friendly curiosity and no misgivings whatsoever. The scene portrays amiable commerce and equal exchange. My husband suggested that there might be some value in even having a revisionist history of the town founding, at least in its expression of a collective hope that things might have been fairly decent when they in all likelihood there were not. Perhaps?

Like many White kids in my generation, I grew up playing games of “Cowboys and Indians” with others in my neighborhood, and there was never any question among us about who were the good guys and who were the bad guys — about which was the preferred (and indeed, superior) identity. As schoolchildren, we use ethnic slurs like “Indian giver” in the most casual manner imaginable in public contexts where they went entirely unchallenged. That is a mortifying enough admission in its own right, but today I am doubly disturbed by the way that insult presented so blatant an inversion of reality. An Indian giver was supposedly someone who gave you something only to take it back. Think of the bitter irony of that. How many insidious lies were we raised with about our Indigenous siblings, how many derogatory caricatures? More than I care to catalogue now. Lately, I better comprehend how prone we are to confusing the victim and villain roles. School and national sports teams no longer making use of so-called “Native American” mascots is just one concession we can make to ending confusion about what constitutes savagery. 

As the U.S. Poet Laureate and Indigenous author Joy Harjo writes, “Remember you are all people and all people are you.” We have work to counter our strongest social conditioning, which in the U.S. valorizes and vindicates settler colonialism by White Europeans. In Boston, there was considerable upset among its residents that Indigenous People’s Day represented the undoing of Columbus Day. It did, yes. Yet how could it have been otherwise? We have to surrender our allegiance to the conquerers in order to challenge the demonic logic of conquest itself and join in solidarity with all the conquered. Unless we want that hand grasping a sword on the Massachusetts seal to be representative of our own, we have to renounce both the ideologies and practices that make us complicit with triumphant tales that would turn Indigenous Peoples into human trophies. Unless we want to become strangers to our highest selves, we have to become familiar with the traditional territories we inhabit; we have to understand how that ground was gained; we have to resist the mental, emotional, and spiritual legacies of colonialism; and we have to apprise what settler colonialism has cost us in terms of a shared humanity. Let us start to correct some of the errors of the past with Indigenous Peoples Day. Let us seek whatever peace can be made with our history this holiday. Let us begin in earnest today.