I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to our Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Anne MacDermaid’s reflection “Just Like Me.”
“Breathe in compassion, breathe out regret,” has become my mantra, something soothing in the small and wakeful hours of the night, something to inhale like a tonic when times are stressful, something to ground each breath in a habitual intention to enhance both ways of being and little by little, breath by breath, change the world.
It is always easiest to look outward rather than inward, and indeed there is much to see in looking outward, not least because sometimes to our surprise we see ourselves reflected back in a situation or individual, and if we are canny enough to recognize that, we can learn much from this. Unfortunately, such seeing rather than eliciting compassion, often takes the form of criticism of others. My deceased husband, who was a psychiatrist, used to say, “Whenever you make a critical comment about someone, you should always add at the end of the sentence, ‘just like me.’” His insight made me laugh, but it was also so true, and a useful reminder that we find the same issues within ourselves that we critique in the wide world. We need to consider and address both. “Just like me,” I need to consider and address both!
We live in troubled times, and doubtless each generation before us has felt that as well, from earliest humans faced with primary needs, to our present age where a fortunate small minority have the leisure and the energy to seek enlightenment at will. And yet my memory takes me back to the work-worn, wrinkled Mexican woman in an impoverished hill town south of Guadalajara, who in eighty years had never been as far from her village of wattle huts and seasonal cholera as the main highway ten miles over the mountain, and yet whose faith and wisdom was evident in her piercing gaze as she said in Spanish to this group of strangers, “We are all brothers and sisters, and we all worship the same God.” Her life of hardship, and our witness to it, met as she asked that we keep her and her village in prayer.
It is instinct to regret not having done more: for example, at the market, bought more colourful baskets woven in ancient techniques from reeds and grasses. Should we have organized formal continuing contacts and helped to dig a clean well and contributed school books and clothing and other material goods? But our critique of the medieval way of living and wish to change things reflected our values, not hers. She didn’t ask for any of that, only for our prayers. It was hard for us from the developed world to see that she was asking for what she most wanted— equality and dignity in our shared prayers.
“Breathe in compassion, breathe out regret.” Breathe in the prayers from others that give us strength, and the prayers that we hold up in care and love for those whom we know by name, and the strangers whom we meet only briefly and by chance. It was one of the joys of my life when an elderly Catholic priest, whose parish was on the same island where I first served after ordination, told me that he held me in his daily prayers, and he assured me he was grateful that I reciprocated. The bond of caring and concern which we held for each other as workers in the vineyard made our labours lighter as we modelled respect and acceptance for each other’s spiritual and pastoral journeys, queried and questioned and prayed together.
Is it possible that those breaths will change the world? I believe they will. Quantum physicists are discovering more and more that thoughts can move matter. And prayers can move mountains. How? By giving us the strength and the vision to look beyond our own small lives and actions, to see them as part of an organism made up of all humanity, like a heart that is capable of beating in unison with the pulse of creation, moving in concert to right wrongs and recreate our world as a flourishing garden, where qualities of justice and peace are valued and lived out in action.
I believe that grand creative work begins within, through attaining the personhood we wish to become. Those mirrors that reflect back the issues and ills in the world around us are hints that there is similar work each of us has to do within ourselves. When we go to those places of discomfort we are engaged in holy work, intentionally changing ourselves for the better. And as quantum physicists have demonstrated, those changes within us will inevitably change our world as well.
It’s hard work. It requires deliberation, and courage. It’s the work we do as we are meditating, or strolling along a riverside walk, or when we awaken in those lonely hours, or when we are mulling over problems with trusted kindred spirits. It’s the work we do when we are on our knees and looking for answers to our frustration or grief. It’s the work we do when suddenly we read a phrase or hear a poignant tune or catch a rhythm in bird song or celestial hymn, and suddenly we know that one piece of the puzzle has fitted into place, found its forever home, and the picture is becoming complete.
“Breathe in compassion, breathe out regret.” Each of us has those hidden chambers of the heart where hurt and regret are locked away. Keys and combinations won’t work to unlock them. It takes a gentle touch, a soft voice, persistence and trust— in ourselves, for ourselves— to take our prayers to that place that lays bare the lonely inner cell where hurt and holiness lie embalmed. It takes courage and faith to allow the bright light of compassion to sweep the shadows. With each regret breathed out and away, our capacity increases to change our grave clothes into radiant robes for dancing. That dancing will surely change the universe!
Of Irish heritage, Moira Anne MacDermaid is a retired ordained United Church of Canada minister, who served several rural charges after a first career as University Archivist at Queen’s University, Kingston Canada. Abbey of the Arts, friends and family, travel, and writing poetry, all enrich her newfound leisure.