Tomorrow is my birthday and lately I have been longing for some retreat time. I was wise enough to block off the next few days to rest in some stillness at home while my dear husband is away. This time of retreat is partly in preparation for a much larger pilgrimage I will be taking in just a couple of weeks and partly because I find birthdays invite reflection as I celebrate the anniversary of my own birth and sit in vigil waiting for what needs to be revealed for this next phase of my journey.
This past week I wrote about the need to be willing to walk into our despair rather than resist it and the practice of radical hospitality as one way to welcome in the strangers at our interior doors. There is another metaphor that I find helpful in this journey — the image of learning a new landscape. When we have enough courage to see sorrow or grief through the peephole and we welcome them in as treasured guests the way Rumi invites us to, there is an energy of resting in our interior dwelling space together. But there is also the energy of being invited onto a pilgrimage through unfamiliar territory. Much of our spiritual journeys hold these seemingly paradoxical movements — creating space within us to dwell and rest and be present to the strangers and shadows we would rather not welcome in — as well as the invitation to leave the place of our security, to go beyond the door of our own safe homes and be led on a pilgrimage by these strangers and shadows and being shown an entirely new landscape.
When I sit with people in spiritual direction I usually offer both of these metaphors at different moments, depending on what seems to be called for. In some ways the initial movement is the ability and willingness to welcome in the whole host of feelings and experiences that we want to resist into our interior house, into a place of safety. We make tea for our anger, serve a meal to our despair, build a fire for our sense of betrayal, so that we can create room enough within us to learn from these guests.
But while we sit over tea and scones with the fire roaring, this guest begins to take us on a journey. It is an interior journey of exploring a certain kind of landscape. In our deepest grief, when we let the sorrow in, can we then let sadness take us by the hand and walk us through the textures of that landscape? Are we willing to become familiar with the rock formations there, with the vegetation, the colors (or lack thereof) that spread out before us? Can we linger in those places that may not be beautiful, but offer us wisdom about what it means to be human?
Years ago, a wise and wonderful spiritual director sat with me as I shared a story of a betrayal I had experienced, one that had no neat resolutions to be found. She invited me to get familiar with that experience of betrayal, to welcome it into myself with the fullness of the human experience if for no other reason than to know that one day when I found myself sitting with another person going through a similar experience I could invite them to embrace the experience rather than resist it with the knowledge that I had been there too. True, my experience of the landscape of this emotional territory might be slightly different, but there was great value and compassion in simply being present to the pain in part as a gift to a future unknown other. A gift I find myself called upon to offer again and again.
In just a few weeks I leave for another external pilgrimage connected to my family systems work. I will be traveling to the places of my father and his ancestors, some of which I have journeyed through before as a child and some will be my first experience. It has taken time to get all of the preparations in place, to plan the itinerary, to make the necessary reservations, to contact the family members and old friends I want to connect with, to find someone to care for our home and beloved dog while we are away.
All those practical pieces are in place now and I suddenly realize it is time for me to make the emotional preparations as well. As someone who loves to travel, it will be an exciting journey simply to visit these beautiful places. But there will also be challenges along the way, I know memories will be stirred, unresolved feelings will show up, ancestral longings and trauma I was not familiar with before will demand my attention. I will need to put radical hospitality into practice, making internal space for all of these strangers. I will need to tend to the internal dimensions of the pilgrimage and grow intimate with landscapes and emotional territories I may not have anticipated. So these next few days of retreat are in part a time of preparation for the bigger journey ahead.
I also have some maps to help guide me along the way. I recently had my birth chart done again. The first time I went to an astrologist was about ten years ago. She was a close friend of my aunt’s and she offered a reading as a birthday gift. I accepted for the fun of it but was surprised by the complexity and beauty of what the reading offered to me in terms of understanding my own longings and the directions I felt called to go. Suddenly I imagined a God vast enough to have offered these archetypal symbols to me at the moment of my birth as one possible map, as guidance from one much wiser than myself. Astrology is not about your life being pre-determined, but a template that provides an invitation to go to the places that nurture your soul most deeply.
Ironically enough (or perhaps not really), one of the invitations in my chart I heard this past week that I hadn’t heard in past readings, is that an essential element of my work is to go to places of my own darkness so that I can also be a guide for others to do their own difficult soul work. The astrologist offered the myth of Persephone as an image and then in a lovely synchronicity, the person leading my peer supervision group the very next day invited us to work with the myth of Persephone through art as our process. I experienced deep resonance and layers of invitation unfolded before me during our time together that I will continue to explore. Persephone spends half the year in the Underworld, but while she was initially tricked into going there, she eventually becomes the Queen of this shadowy place. She becomes empowered to dwell there, but also is able to return to the earth above. I hold this story as another map to tend to in my few days of retreat and as a preparation for the pilgrimage ahead.
Lest you worry that my birthday will be spent only plunging the dark emotional depths of my soul, know that I also have the landscape of joy before me. Last Friday night I spent the most delightful and wondrous evening with a dear friend, welcoming the Solstice together, celebrating all of the delights of summer in Seattle, sharing communion together through bread and wine, witnessing each other’s journeys. I truly had the experience of breathing in the deepest kind of freedom that comes from authentic joy. And there is more of this kind of delight still to come this week. These moments provide their own kind of map as well.
What are the stories and symbols singing within you during these days of summer? What are the journeys and pilgrimages you are being invited to take (both internal and external)? Where are you experiencing the rich satisfaction of joy and the difficult places of sadness? What is the map you need to move into this new territory?
-Christine Valters Paintner @ Abbey of the Arts