Threshold to the Sacred

I had the privilege of leading a birth retreat for young alumnae of a Catholic girls’ high school here in Cincinnati this past Saturday morning. The Embodying the Sacred mini-retreat seeks to connect the physical processes of pregnancy and birth with symbols of Christian faith to empower and celebrate women and is based on my book of the same name. Expressive activities like drawing and painting feature prominently as spiritual practices, and I hit upon the idea of providing blank journals for these activities, primarily as an organizational tool. Participants can then leave with a single item from the day that they can continue to express themselves in, rather than a jumble of loose papers.

In a lovely synchronicity, I eventually encountered a more theological rationale for using these journals, through the work of Jan Richardson, a Methodist minister/artist/writer. In the Sanctuary of Women refers to spiritual books as a “thin place” in the manner of the ancient Celts. Opening such a book, whether simple or extravagant, is to cross a threshold toward encounter with the divine in prayer. I am particularly captivated by Jan’s account of a discovery in Germany. A restoration team working on a former Cistercian monastery pulled up the floorboards of what had been their sanctuary to find a treasure trove of everyday items used by the community, including a collection of individual prayer books created by the sisters in the 1500s. While the books had elements in common, each was distinct and clearly intended for personal use apart from their communal prayer.

This framework resonated more strongly than ever at Saturday’s retreat as we gathered in the lower level of the historic school, a converted Victorian mansion, in a meeting space that for many years served as the school cafeteria. The architecture still echoes with the vibrancy of adolescent girls as well as the more subtle reverberation of the women religious who founded the convent and academy more than a century ago.

IMG_0120[1]After introductions and opening prayer, I passed out the journals and provided collage materials for participants to decorate the cover. Using fingers to dab the glue, they arranged torn bits of paper into unique and heartfelt patterns on their individual books. When they finished, I invited them first to hold them up so we could all see. In the individual sharing that followed, a threshold was indeed crossed. The morning passed quickly as the group actively reflected on creation and our bodies, on a woman’s body as sacred vessel, on the female pelvis as passage for birth, especially the pain involved in that process, and on the power of storytelling about birth. Our circle itself came to embody the holiness of female community, past, present and future.

“Across the centuries, women have carried prayers in our bones and in our blood. We have passed down the sacred stories from body to body. We have struggled to know our lives as sacred texts, to perceive the ways that God has written God’s own story within us, to understand how the Word still seeks to take flesh in and through us.” (In the Sanctuary of Women, p. 14)




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Speaking of Birth

I really enjoyed sharing my work on birth and spirituality at the Call to Action conference in Memphis this past weekend. A Catholic Church reform group founded in the 1970s, Call to Action draws hundreds of regulars as well as many newcomers for speakers and workshops over three days each year.

IMG_0438[1]My name tag with its “speaker” ribbon attached attracted notice in casual chatting with other attendees, and I heard myself declare numerous times with increasing confidence: “I’m giving a workshop on the spirituality of childbirth on Saturday” Later I began to add, “At 10:00 am in Room L-12.” Having now presented variations of this talk a few times, I feel the message is better honed and delivered. Though attendance was not large, the level of engagement with the topic was quite meaningful, which has been my experience in other settings as well, and it’s very gratifying.

Several workshop attendees were grandmothers, and at various points stories were shared of our children’s or grandchildren’s births. The discussion of bodily transitions as spiritual rites of passage was greatly enhanced by the participation of a hospice nurse who, at a prior crossroads in life, chose between that field and a career in midwifery. Coincidentally, as I shared in the talk, my interest in the connections between birth and faith originally sprung from an encounter with hospice care, because it reminded me of the midwives who attended us in birth. Another woman spoke of how moved she had been to witness her daughter-in-law’s labor in a pool of water, and this story led us to connect the sacramental qualities of water more explicitly with birth.

I’m also grateful for a chance conversation Sunday on the shuttle back to the airport, with a woman whose name I didn’t even find out. She has two grown stepchildren but never physically gave birth, so while she was drawn in by the workshop description, she wasn’t sure if she would feel comfortable or even be welcome. Tears lurked in the corners of her eyes as she said this. I thanked her for her feedback that would help me in the future.  Because, as I went on to explain, I hope to persuade both women and men that birth matters to everyone, not just women in a particular age bracket or life experience.

Most people encounter birth somehow in their lives through family and friends if not directly as a birthing mother. Because our culture regards childbirth only as a medical event and mostly religion disregards it altogether, we have an impoverished understanding. A real appreciation of childbirth as holy and sacred in its bodily aspects (whether you’ve actually given birth or not) will allow the metaphor of birthing to become more resonant in other areas of life for everybody. Then we will more naturally reach for birth as a symbol to talk about our creative endeavors or advocacy projects or movement through life transitions.

By this time her eyes held a thoughtful expression, and she nodded her head.



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Changing Direction

“It’s been so long since I’ve seen you,” a friend remarked recently as we chatted during an event for a non-profit where we’re both involved. “I know,” I said, “I’ve hardly been at church.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed,” she replied, eyeing me pointedly over her glasses with an expression that said she wanted to know why but would not press further if I did not voluntarily explain.

4390415028_8ea68aebd2_mAmused by her attempted subtlety, I smiled. “I’ve only been twice since mid-August. I’m either on sabbatical or in exodus, I’m not sure yet. I’ll let you know when I discover which it is!”

It’s the end of October, and this is an unprecedented absence in my life. I have never missed going to church on Sunday more than a couple weeks in a row and always before due to travel or special events. In the past I felt eager to return. Mostly now I feel relieved.

Why have I withdrawn from church-going?

I have not gone off in a huff over a particular issue. It’s been a gradual process of disengagement beginning with the new Missal just about three years ago. Despite the very pastoral approach to this change that was taken at our parish, the new language has alienated me from the liturgy, particularly from the start of the Liturgy of the Eucharist through the communion rite. After the gifts are presented, I experience an unraveling of the prayerfulness and reflection fostered by the Liturgy of the Word. What had been warm and human becomes stilted and rote. And it’s not just the words themselves, but their meaning signifies a renewed emphasis on atonement theology that I cannot accept.

Over this same time period, my tolerance for the hierarchy has evaporated – their heavy-handed treatment of American nuns; ongoing revelations of sexual abuse and cover-ups; and finally this past spring, the expanded morals clause in the Cincinnati Archdiocese teacher’s contract. Increasingly I feel myself complicit in their actions by participation in the church. Many people are heartened by the gestures and words of Pope Francis, but his “softer tone” is just not enough for me. I’m glad he cares about global poverty and models a simpler lifestyle, but he doesn’t understand or value women any more than his predecessors.

I’m not sure where this path is heading. I wonder how I’ll be impacted over time by the loss of community, a consideration that previously kept me in the pew each week. Last spring the idea of liberation took hold, no doubt the result of ongoing interactions with Judaism, where exodus from slavery is a defining narrative. Realizing that the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years after leaving Egypt, I’m okay living with the present ambiguity for a while.


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Ode to Trees

The soaring heights, elegant arches, and vast open spaces of Gothic cathedrals invite awe. As a college student studying abroad three decades ago, I wandered several times through Notre Dame in Paris, gazing upward and all around, amazed at the feats of engineering that produced such a worship space. Now once again my face is tilted up in wonder, but this time at the marvels of Earth. I slide the glass door that opens from the family room to the deck and step into a natural cathedral created by the trees.

IMG_0089[1]Three bald cypress trees, stately and graceful, stand to the right along the property line. Unusual among conifers, this species drops its needles in the fall. Their trunks are thick to support heights of 60 or more feet, but their thin needles dangling lightly from the branches make me think of a watercolor painting, as if they’ve been gently dabbed into the sky above with a thin paintbrush.

Closer in, also to the right, the venerable gingko lends a distinctive note with its fan-shaped leaves and ancient roots. More than 200 million years old, it’s considered a IMG_0086[1]living fossil and has no close relatives among other species of trees. It tends to drop its leaves all at once in a
phenomenon called “gingko rain.” I was greatly blessed to witness this relinquishing last November, and “the beauty of letting go” arose in my thoughts at the sight. Released from the branch at just the right moment, the leaves soar gracefully in the breeze, land softly. This image called to mind the final scene in Charlotte’s Web, when the baby spiders take off from the barn yard leaving Wilbur bereft. One spider explains, “We’re leaving here on the warm updraft. This is our moment for setting forth.”

The enormous elm looms straight ahead right next to the deck, so close that its trunk, nearly 8 feet in diameter, dominates the view. Just taller than the cypress in height, the elm’s wide leaf canopy shelters us in delightful shade. As a mature American elm, its very existence is exceptional, having escaped the plague which wiped out most of its relatives in the mid-twentieth century. In contrast to the gingko, this immense tree suggests the gift of stability, of being deeply rooted. To sit in its presence is like visiting a wise elder, where you feel safe, loved, held.

Lest we become too lost in contemplation, three oak trees to the left of the deck contribute a lively spark to our backyard sanctuary. Throughout much of the year, squirrels skitter up and down the trunks and leap from branch to branch. Certain autumns – like this one — the intermittent pounding of acorns on the roof catches our attention at all hours, at times startling in volume. Wisely, oaks periodically put out a large quantity of acorns, to saturate the area with an amount beyond what can be consumed by deer, mice, squirrels and other animals, to maximize the chances for new seedlings to take root.

We looked at this house for the first time twelve years ago in early February when the ground was completely snow-covered, but still the trees drew us immediately. I love this arboreal community!


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Personal Climate March — An Invitation

This Sunday, Sept. 21,
is the People’s Climate March in New York ,
and I invite you to join me
in a personal gesture of participation
in your local area.

Planned to coincide with a UN summit on the climate crisis, the People’s Climate March represents a strikingly broad-based coalition of businesses, unions, faith groups, schools, social justice groups, and environmental groups. And it’s explicitly centered on justice for communities particularly hard-hit by rising seas and other destructive effects of climate change.

With our future on the line and the whole world watching, we’ll take a stand to bend the course of history. We’ll take to the streets to demand the world we know is within our reach: a world with an economy that works for people and the planet; a world safe from the ravages of climate change; a world with good jobs, clean air and water, and healthy communities.
People’s Climate March website

Posts and articles about this event began catching my attention last week while participating in the Earth as Original Monastery online retreat. I’d heard about it before, but somehow during those days of contemplation on creation as the source of all spirituality, the vision for this People’s March truly touched my heart.

1378742121429Actually going to New York to participate is not feasible for me, but the new/old idea of a labyrinth walk surfaced.  In the Middle Ages, labyrinths were associated with the Christian tradition of pilgrimage. Many Europeans pledged to make a trip to Jerusalem once in their life to follow in the steps of Christ, but the Crusades made travel dangerous. So the Church designated seven pilgrimage cathedrals, and trekking to one or more of them became a pilgrimage.  Several, like the Chartres Cathedral outside Paris, had labyrinths, so arriving there and walking the labyrinth symbolized entering Jerusalem.  So this Sunday at 11:30 am ET, a labyrinth walk will symbolize my deepest hopes for real change in solidarity with people gathered in New York and other events around the globe.

I hope you’ll participate! Walk a labyrinth (or trace one with your fingers), hike in a park, stroll through your neighborhood, sit in silence on your porch, or whatever moves you.  Consider leaving a comment below about your experience.

To locate a labyrinth in your area, visit the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator sponsored by the World Labyrinth Society and Veriditas Inc.

Download a labyrinth outline here.



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Parable of the Spider

Joe and I frequent our back deck during the warm months, which is accessed via the sliding glass door adjacent to our breakfast room. Throughout the day we let the dog in and out there as well. It’s definitely a high-traffic entrance. On Labor Day morning, I slid open the door and just before stepping over the threshold, the gigantic spider web that spanned the entry way caught my notice. It was magnificent! Nearly 3’ by 3’ with a brown spider hovering near the center.SpiderWeb

“Joe, you have got to see this!!!” I shouted as the spider hurriedly raised itself to the lintel at the loudness of my voice.

Would we have to climb under the web to access the deck? For how long, I wondered. When I voiced these questions, my practical, scientific-minded husband said we would remove the web, explaining that the spider could re-absorb it and re-build in a better location. He also assured me that spiders can build webs fairly quickly. Joe then picked up a stick and gently nudged the web aside like a curtain from the left side of the doorway to the right.

Supporting Joe’s rationale for removal, a new web appeared the next morning!

Mid-week I went out of town for two days to help our son move. On Friday, the first of our newly empty nest, after Joe departed for school I opened the sliding door to have my coffee on the deck and walked right into another spider web! Ick!! Bits of spider web clinging to my hair and clothes!!  Joe later told me that new webs had appeared the previous two days as well – making it five days running.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something brown drop to the ground. I paused in my frantic brushing off to confirm that the spider had just landed on the mat inside the house. Using the book in my hand, I gently tried to lift the spider back outside. It scurried away and I tried again a little more forcefully. Alas, perhaps adrenaline increased my effort more than I realized. “Oh no, I did not mean to kill you,” I said aloud to the now still creature in front of me.

I felt terrible, but in the next instant received clear insight that this was never going to end well:  Don’t keep doing the same thing over and over when it’s obviously not working, said an unexpected voice in my head.

Since Monday I’ve been following an online retreat called “Earth as Our Original Monastery” with the Abbey of the Arts, which began with the striking assertion that animals were the first monks. The Celtic Christian tradition especially contains stories of saints with special connections to animals. More curious now about my encounter with the spider, I looked into symbolic meanings and discovered even richer resonance.  A website called Pure Spirit seemed to best summarize the various sources I reviewed:

  • Spider is associated with words and communication.
  • If a web is destroyed, spider recycles it and weaves it anew. So spider allows the individual to assimilate negative experiences and use them for gain.
  • Spider’s appearance can symbolize one’s fear. When she arrives, it is time to confront one’s phobias. Suppressing them without confronting them means they are sure to surface later.
  • Spider allows one to contact one’s deepest wisdom and nurtures a sense of connection and integration at all levels. Her web symbolizes the tying together of loose ideas into a tidy package.
  • The lesson of the spider is maintaining balance – between past and future, male and female, spiritual and physical. She teaches you that everything you do and experience now is weaving what you will encounter in the future.
  • The spider awakes creative sensibility. She reminds us that the world is woven around us; we are the center of our own world.

The Pure Spirit website also provided these questions to ponder in regards to the spider symbol, which are amazingly relevant to me right now.

  • Are you weaving your dreams into reality?
  • Are you moving toward a central goal or are you scattered and going in multiple directions?
  • Are you becoming too involved and or self-absorbed?
  • Are you focusing on others’ accomplishments and not on your own?
  • Do you need to write or draw and are not following through?
  • Are you developing resentment because of it – for yourself or for them?

Wisdom from a spider’s web.


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Labyrinth Love

In his welcome to new parents last week, the president of St. Olaf College noted that no new or renovated buildings are opening this year but a labyrinth had been installed next to the chapel, which immediately piqued my interest. I have long loved labyrinths, and they feature prominently in my spiritual birth preparation book and programs.  That instant I determined to walk the new labyrinth during my brief time at St. Olaf.  We had driven the 740 miles from Cincinnati to Northfield, MN, to deliver our youngest child for his freshman year, a momentous rite of passage that simultaneously elicits excitement and fear, joy and grief. The emotions of this transition were heightened by our oldest’s post-college move to Chicago and our daughter’s foray to Africa for a semester abroad — all occurring within the same week as this dropoff.  A labyrinth walk at least would feel familiar.

IMG_0313[1]Turns out I had never seen a labyrinth like this one before! Set among a shady grove of trees in a green triangle between the art building, theater building, and chapel (closest to chapel and accessed from that side), its gravel-lined walking path is bordered by flat stones. But unusually, mounds of earth planted with grasses, shrubs, and mosses define the pathways. The effect is like stepping into a lush forest. Campus activity fades into the background. On Saturday afternoon a brief window of time opened between move-in and info sessions to walk the labyrinth. On the way in, I set my intention for Christian, and for all of us, in this time of definitive transition.

Upon reaching the center, a a wide copper bowl filled with rocks covered by water inspired a spontaneous ritual. Crouching down, I immersed my hands in the water for a few moments and then made IMG_0317[1]the sign of the cross on my forehead, lips, and heart. Now what to do with wet hands?  I stood to face out to the campus away from the chapel and flung drops of water all around to bless this place where my baby will reside, that he would grow and learn and thrive, then concluded by anointing my face and arms with the remaining droplets. On the walk out, I just rested in the experience and listened for wisdom; hopefulness and peace prevailed.

The labyrinth symbolism continues to percolate for me since returning home. I find it’s rather apt as the twists and turns of the labyrinth can confuse when you’re walking its path, but there really is an overall pattern even when you can’t see it. The presence of plants and grasses along with the brick, gravel, and rocks particularly spoke to me of newness and growth. So I created a portable version in the foyer of our home, a reminder in my daily comings and goings of the larger pattern of life. 


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Dog Day and Discernment

IMG_0100[1]Eleven years ago today, also a Friday, we adopted our dog, Carly, from a shelter.  On our first visit to the shelter several days earlier to scope out possible dogs, we had spent time with Carly as well as a hound mix named Luke. Departing, the family was divided with some wanting Carly and one child in particular strongly preferring Luke. Not knowing how in the world this could be resolved without incurring serious sibling conflict and accusations of parental favoritism, I heard myself say, “The Holy Spirit will tell us what dog to adopt.” I had no idea what I meant by this, but it did defuse some tension.  And I really wanted to trust that the necessary wisdom would arise.

When we returned on Aug. 15, Luke was outside in an enclosed yard, happily playing with another dog. We proceeded inside to the kennel areas where the dogs were visible through glass windows. Carly was sitting on a blanket, reclined, but head up.  The instant she saw us, her ears perked up in immediate recognition, and she looked directly into my eyes with such hopeful eagerness, expressing so clearly it was as though she’d spoken aloud: “Ok, I’m ready. Let’s go!” I nearly choked up, the communication felt that palpable.  Joe and the kids were aware of it too, and we took her home that day.

We love to recollect this experience. It evokes the special bond we all feel for our dog. “Remember how Carly looked up at you, Mom?”  But today I’m marveling that 11 years ago a remark that I tossed off in part just to mitigate conflict actually did convey a valuable message about discernment.

Listen.  Notice.  Trust.

And it stuck! “The Holy Spirit will tell us . . .” evolved over the years into a mantra for faith in the face of confusion or uncertainty that the still, small voice would be heard.  It became particularly relevant regarding college selection. I remember many conversations weighing the pros and cons of each potential school but without full knowledge for a final decision just yet – waiting for the acceptance letter or the scholarship award or the second visit.  Finally the discussion would wrap up with a casual, “Well, the Holy Spirit will tell what college to choose.”

These memories provide a timely reminder as we approach big changes. Over the next two weeks, each of our children will embark on a major adventure – Christian, the youngest, to his freshman year of college in Minnesota; our daughter, Kieran, to a semester of study in Africa; and Michael, recent college graduate, to Chicago for independent life and work. Joe and I (and Carly!) will remain here in unfamiliar circumstances.  Excitement and anxiety are in the air!

The Holy Spirit will guide us on the path. 

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IMG_20130710_120938This summer my Wednesday afternoon volunteering at the Bond Hill Pantry became irregular due to travel and other commitments, and I was glad to return yesterday.  I pretty much give the same spiel each time I accompany a client through the pantry. “You have three choices in vegetables, which are both of these shelving units.  There are different items in each . . .”

Then we proceed through grains, home care, non-meat protein, fruit, and “combo” before coming to the personal care section. With my first client yesterday, as usual I said, “This bag has toilet paper and soap, and you can choose one additional item – shampoo, deodorant, lotion, shaving supplies, or toothpaste.”  Suddenly I really heard what I was saying as though for the first time.  You have one selection among these ordinary products. Even though people shave, brush teeth, wash hair, and wear deodorant daily, choose only one form of hygiene.  A sobering reminder yet again of how need outstrips resources.

Later I went through with a mom who is a regular patron and a particularly warm and dignified person. Two of her children had come along, boys about 10 and 12 years old.  They had never been to the pantry before, and the older one was clearly fascinated.  Girls about his age were staffing the dessert table; as we turned from there to the main shelves he immediately wanted to know, “How old do you have to be to work here?”  I explained that young people often volunteer with their parents or other adults, and he could speak to the coordinators if he is interested.  As we continued on, this young man marveled at the shelves and pointed to different items, at one point exclaiming, “This is like a little store!”

Is the glass half full or half empty?  Yes!


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#FaithFeminisms — Questioning

This post is written for a synchroblog on faith and feminism underway through July 25. Originally I hoped to link a previous piece to the synchroblog site and be done with it,
but . . . I discovered that feminism is not a topic I’ve addressed explicitly in nearly four years of blogging, hardly surprising I suppose since “feminism” is maligned by much of the Catholic Church. Yet I have always considered myself a feminist, and for me that means asking questions.

Why are things the way they are? 

4314134817_79ed3af337_nWhen I was in 5th grade at a Catholic parochial school in 1973, I was one of a group of girls who wrote a letter to then-Archbishop Bernardin asking why we couldn’t be altar servers. We had raised this question to our teacher, and to her credit she suggested and assisted with the letter.  To the archbishop’s credit, he at least wrote back, explaining that it was largely a matter of tradition. Although the content of his answer was unsatisfying, I still remember the kindness of its tone, which now seems rather quaint in contrast to my 2014 experience writing to our present archbishop, which received no response of any kind.

The “big bang” question of my life arose in my early 30s, after I had given birth to our older two children, when my husband and I visited a hospice for the first time.  We had been blessed to receive skilled, nurturing care from midwives during pregnancy and birth, which impacted us so positively.  Following the hospice visit I remarked to Joe that it
IMG_0261[1]reminded me of the midwives because the care was so personalized, the dying process was
treated as a normal part of life, and support was provided to the whole family.  Suddenly I began to wonder why death and dying receive so much focus in the Christian tradition but normal childbirth none at all.  Of course the reason is obvious — women’s bodies are not valued in traditional theology; in fact, Christianity often treats them as sources of shame or sin. But the questions would not go away!  Giving birth was the most amazing and powerful experience I’d ever had. My body writhed, sweated, moaned, and bled through such intense pain to bring forth a child.  How could this process be anything but holy and awe-inspiring??

How does birth connect with faith?

BookCoverImageMy response to these questions gestated for many years but finally took the form of a book for pregnant women called Embodying the Sacred: A Spiritual Preparation for Birth. Avoiding any romanticizing of birth and with the premise that the bodily process of birth is spiritual, the book draws on Christian symbols and practices and suggests activities to make the body/spirit connection real in an empowering way, for example by working with clay to reflect on the pelvis as a sacred vessel or decorating a birth garment to honor birthing as priestly work.

The holiness of birth can be a tough sell with many feminists though, even in faith settings. At first pass, it’s dismissed as a feminist concern because our culture sees birth only through a medical lens, and so often women have been oppressed by childbearing.  Our churches too have used birthing to relegate women to a separate sphere.  So the tendency is to segment childbirth as a health care issue just for younger women or to regard it only as something to be managed or avoided on the way to real liberation and equality. Often I must persuade people that this topic is worthwhile.  However, once they read my book or attend a program, they get it. The physical/spiritual connection resonates, and they want to go deeper.

I call my initial wondering about childbirth and theology a “big bang” question because nearly two decades later it still reverberates. Like the universe, it’s expanded outward.

Now I’m asking:

How do women image God through birth?

How does our culture’s disregard for birth intersect with rampant violence against women (rape culture, trafficking, pornography, etc)?

How does birth serve as a metaphor for creative endeavors, spiritual growth, or work for justice?

What might I learn from the LGBTQ community and/or women of color that will challenge or enrich my thinking on these matters?

Feminism means asking questions and never giving up on the search for answers.

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