Friday, December 12, 2008

Am I not your Mother?

Today is the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the celebration of the Virgin Mary's appearance to Juan Diego, a humble Indian of Mexican descent in 1531 to assure him of her "love, compassion, help, and protection to all who inhavit this land and to those others who love me."

What a delight this reading was, especially when learning that Juan Diego, sent to fetch a priest for his dying uncle "went around the hill and passed on the other side . . . so as to arrive quickly in Mexico City and to avoid being detained by the Heavenly Lady."

Like Juan avoiding the Lady, we too have at times gone out of our way to avoid meeting God. Like Mary to Juan Diego, God does not remonstrate or accuse or punish but rather assures us of love, compassion and help.

Like Mary, God comes to meet us at the place where we have gone to avoid him. Like Mary to Juan who went to meet him on the other side of the hill, God says to us "Are you not under my protection ... are you not in my care?"

Thursday, December 4, 2008

All over the world

While reciting the morning liturgy of Lauds this morning with my husband, I suddenly became aware that we were praying not as a unit of 2 but as one small note within a symphony of prayer rising from monasteries, cloisters, churches, homes, beaches, forests, and farms -- at every moment, somewhere in the world others are praying the same psalms and reading the same lessons and praying the same invocations with us. What a glorious, comforting, and hopeful thought.

Click on photos for larger view

Monday, November 24, 2008

Finding joy in imperfection

It's taken me a lifetime to learn that pursuing perfection sets our teeth on edge. At every failure we berate ourselves. Why bother, we think. It's an impossible task. And that's exactly what it is -- an impossible task. We are human. We are not God. We fall, we get up again, we move forward, we fall, we get up again. What a journey. I have learned more from my falling than I ever learned from flight. More from failure than from success. More from suffering than from an absence of suffering. I've learned to keep my hand lifted so that God can raise me up. What joy to find that presence always there.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Prayer in a new place

We left within days of our return from Italy for Florida where for the first time we plan to spend the winter. The cold is getting difficult to handle living in a remote area and alone much of the time as my husband travels.

Here I have no special place to meditate as I do on Lake Superior. Daily I find myself moving to a different location -- a different side of a room, a different room, trying to find a place that feels right.

Waking around 3:30 most mornings I've tried to meditate in bed but always end up rising. I have a prayer shawl which has become my "place." I wrap it round me and feel silence envelope me.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Oh Italy

I won't be posting again until late October as my husband Bill and I are leaving for 3+ weeks in Italy -- a pilgrimage of sorts to many of the places I visited with my deceased husband Vittorio.

It seems strange to bring my husband to places I once shared with Vittorio but this was Bill's idea. He's never been to Italy and my last trip was 30 years ago just before Vittorio's death.

Bill and I will spend several days in Rome before heading south for the Amalfi coast, visiting Pompeii, Sorrento, Capri on the way, then heading up to Foligno and the Umbrian countryside so beloved of St. Francis, then to Florence, the Italian Riviera, the Italian Alps and Lago di Garda, Venice and back to Rome.

Wishing you Peace and All Good.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

"Living in Metaphors"

Christin Lore Weber has been writing a Caring Bridge blog for several years as she followed her husband through the torment of treatment for brain cancer and of his final journey. John died earlier this year but Christin continues to update this site -- writing with incredible beauty of her pilgrimage through grief. In her most recent blog she wrote:

"You are living in metaphors, I tell myself. The leaves. The dogs. Minnesota. Oregon. Can you live in your own being? Can you be still? And even that is metaphor because right away it brings Eliot’s poetry to mind -- “We must be still and still moving, into another intensity/ For a further union, a deeper communion,/ Through the cold dark and the empty desolation, ... In my end is my beginning.”

Christin is the author of several books on spirituality and her exquisite first novel Altar Music published by Scribner in 2001.

P.S. I just received notice that Christin is moving her writing to her page. I also write on where I post an eclectic assortment of essays, book reviews, photo essays, and fiction, and find the community of reading and writing friends I've met there invigorating.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Our lovely larcenous mess

What was I doing at a concert on the night of 9/11/01 among a swaying praising group of evangelicals when my heart was sick with grief over the tragedy taking place in New York?

What was I doing at a Praise God concert when I should have been at home waiting for my daughter who was driving 254 miles to be with me on that awful day?

What was I doing keeping my daughter waiting, when this was the last visit she’d ever make; when the following week -- on the same day, and at around the same hour -- a bullet would take her young life.

The nation was suffering, my daughter was suffering, and this group of traveling gospel singers was singing songs of joy and the audience was on its feet singing with them.

The concert was meant to be one of praise, to be worship-filled and trusting, but I found it inappropriate and shallow: the waving arms and swaying bodies a pretense of praise in a time of agony.

I was in anguish to leave that concert. My daughter was coming home and I'd put a prior commitment before her needs. I'd been consumed with worry about her and now that she was coming home, reaching out to me, I wasn't there to greet her. Instead she had to wait hours for my return.

As I sat there, shuddering inwardly throughout the entire event, I wanted to gather the elderly women I'd offered to take to this concert, and flee from that temple back home to my daughter. Instead I waited for it to end, and afterwards agreed to stop for a bite to eat on the way home.

What a mistake. Francesca was huddled on the couch watching the replay of the 9/11 events when I got home. I took her in my arms and held her close. She'd come home because she wanted to be with her mother, because she was afraid, because she was reaching out instead of pulling away.

That night she asked me if she could move back home with us. I said yes . . . and then I let her leave to get her things. Letting her go was an even greater mistake than not being there to greet her when she arrived that night.

“Accepting ourselves means accepting the whole package, the whole sour and sweet, lovely and larcenous mess that we are” says Philip Simmons in Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, a book of powerful, illuminating essays he wrote during the final stages of ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease), his promising literary career cut short at the age of 35.

It is so hard to accept this “lovely and larcenous mess that we are,” isn’t it? We look on our mistakes as failures, especially when the results are so devastating.

Friday, September 12, 2008


If I escape from the clamor of my thoughts into the silence of the breath, why do I find this journey so difficult? Thirty years of practice and my mind continues to rebel. Sometimes I find myself closer to the divine midst the stress of the daily. I stop and enter the presence.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Backyard Labyrinth

My husband Bill often calls our home Beryl's Monastery and in many ways it is. I am often here alone as Bill's work as a consultant takes him away from home for much of every week. I am blessed that my husband shares my desire to live spiritually. When he is home, we recite Lauds and Vespers together (sometimes the other liturgical hours) and we meditate together.

Bill is also responsible for the meditative paths we have around our house. One of these paths
features several meditation benches overlooking Lake Superior and circles the knoll where we buried my daughter Francesca's ashes. But by far the most amazing meditative path is the labyrinth he built for us (and for whoever else wants to use it).

A labyrinth is not to be confused with a maze. A labyrinth is path designed to lead purposefully, in tight concentric circles or spirals, toward a center space. The walker then retraces his/her steps from that center back to the beginning.

I think of the labyrinth as a physical metaphor for our life’s journey and the meditative walk one takes through a labyrinth as a mini-pilgrimage. Walking the labyrinth slowly calms and opens heart and mind. Used meditatively, the labyrinth is a vehicle for inner healing and transformation.

Ours is not a traditional labyrinth, one that follows a pattern such as those found in ancient cathedrals or monasteries. Our labyrinth conforms to the topography of our land. It is defined by the shape, the ruts and ridges, of the wildflower field in front of our home.

It looks quite pretty tucked among the grasses and wildflowers, its meandering spirals bordered with split logs and filled with wood chips with Lake Superior providing a gorgeous blue backdrop. Bill and I have been walking it since he first laid it out two years ago.

My favorite time to walk the labyrinth is after supper as the sun begins to set. In winter the labyrinth disappears under the snow, but in spring, summer, and fall, it provides a wonderful place to remember that life is a journey and to walk it attentively.

© Beryl Singleton Bissell 2008

See Road Writer for my travel blog.

Monday, August 4, 2008

10 days of silence

When I left for my first Vipasana retreat (insight meditation) last July with Resources for Ecumenical Spirituality -- an experience that combines Christian with Buddhist meditation practices -- I'd pictured a cozy silence where I didn't have to talk and could just moon around being thoughtful. I was sadly but wondrously mistaken. This retreat was not mystic rapture. This retreat was Dark Night of the Soul.

In July of this year I went back, this time with my husband Bill. Rigorous days. Rigorous nights. For 10 days we sat in meditation, walked in meditation and when we weren't sitting, walking or listening, we were moving purposefully -- reaching for doorknobs, putting on one's sandals, eating one's meal -- everything done as consciously and purposefully as possible. We did not read books. We did not write in journals. We kept total silence save during the lectures (1 lecture, 1 practice instruction daily) when we were encouraged to ask questions, or when we were chanting.

I must confess that this year, with my hubby there, I was not as focused as I’d hoped. Instead I worried about my type-A personality husband. Would he survive the first few days? Two other attendees had bolted early on and I learned later that two days into the retreat Bill was ready to high-tail it out of there as well. But he didn’t. He stayed and entered that intense silence with me. He's glad he went but he's not sure he wants to do it again.

There was one other married couple there. They sat together during their silent meals. Bill and I did not sit together. The other retreatants were not even aware that we were married – that’s how hard we tried to walk the Vipasana experience. I’ll write more about our retreat in my next post.

This retreat was offered by Resources for Ecumenical Spirituality -- an organization founded by 2 Carmelite priests and Mary Jo Meadows, an author, clinical psychologist, former professor of religious studies at Mankato State University and a practitioner of meditation for more than 30 years in the Christian, ashtanga yogic, and Theravada Buddhist traditions. For more information on their retreats and workshops, contact them at

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Tools of the Trade: unnecessary but nice

This is where I usually meditate.

The table was made by a local craftsman who used a piece of mahogany my deceased brother Greg gave me over 30 years ago. We call it Greg's memorial table.

In front of the table are my Zafu meditation cushion and a prayer rug made by my husband Bill's father.

On the table are two photos. One of my deceased daughter Francesca, and one of my son Thomas and his little family.

Not shown is a meditation shawl brought back to me from India by a dear Yogi friend.

I have several other places where I can meditate which I shall show in future posts. My husband calls our home, Beryl's Monastery.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A good day to start

For more than 30 years I've been journaling, charting the daily thoughts and happenings in my life but, until today, I'd never considered the option of writing a public journal about my efforts to live a God-centered life.

So here goes. Day one.

Though I've spent most of my life searching for God: rising daily intending to make my day one of praise, I continue to retire every night having to accept the poverty of my efforts.

This morning for example, I woke to the sound of thunder and dashed downstairs to my office to unplug my computer. As I entered the room, a bolt of lightening thrust itself into the lake and I sent a quick plea heavenwards that it would stay on the lake and keep a safe distance from my house -- at least until I got the appropriate electric cables, phone and satellite, disconnected. Having done so, I went back upstairs to begin my 40 minutes of silent meditation.

After all these years, one would think that I've gotten this morning schedule thing down pat but I'm still working on it. Almost daily I debate the option of stretching first and then meditating or meditating first and then stretching. Stretching calms my mind, which at 5 am is already busy planning its day. Stretching helps me focus. Something to do with exerting oneself and breathing deeply. Meditating first thing in the morning, however, is the option preferred by spiritual directors.

This morning, meditating first seemed like the more viable option. I'd just experienced the creative power in an electric storm. Certainly focusing on the divine should be easy. But was it?

Of course not. My 40 minutes of silent prayer limped by as thoughts besieged me: remember to confirm lunch with Vicki, don't forget to cancel the appointment with Crystal, remember to bring wild flowers when you visit Virginia. Each time I became aware of these thoughts, I gently returned to my breath and wham, before I knew it I was thinking about the book I'm working on, structural changes to make, conflicts to include, a character's voice.

This morning I actually took a peek at my watch rather than waiting for the timer to chime the end of my session. 35 minutes down. Five to go.

That's enough don't you think, I told myself (and God). Got such a busy day. Better get my stretching done while there's still time.

And, dear God, please help me to remember to remember you throughout this day because I need your help. Desperately. Thank you.

About Me

My photo
Beryl is the author of The Scent of God: A Memoir published by Counterpoint NY in 2006 and A View of the Lake published by Lake Superior Port Cities Inc. in 2001. She’s been living on Lake Superior for seventeen wonderful years, and spent 10 years writing two popular columns for the Cook County News Herald: Newcomer Notes and Putting Down Roots. Beryl is past president of the Schroeder Area Historical Society and a long-time chair of its Oral History and Marketing committees. She is a past board member of the Violence Prevention Center in Grand Marais and committee member for the Grand Marais Art Colony’s first ever annual North Shore Reader and Writers Festival. She’s been published in the Sun Magazine, Minnesota Monthly, Lake Superior Magazine, and The Trenton Times and in the anthologies, Surviving Ophelia published by Perseus Publications in 2001 and The New Writer's Handbook, Vol. 2, published by Scarletta Press in 2008 and was named Best of Minnesota Writers by the Minneapolis Star Tribune. She is currently working on her third memoir: the sequel to The Scent of God.