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Hesychia: A Place of God’s Presence

Who isn’t stressed these days?

Even when I pray and attend to reducing the pace of my work, some natural stressors come in anyway and rid me of my serenity. To help balance these stressors, I’ve added an exercise routine to my schedule, and I make sure to spend quality time with my friends. I try not to make my weekends so full that I don’t get enough rest and relaxation. In other words, I try not to let recreation be as stressful as work is.

One practice, though, has helped me find the level of serenity I am seeking. Within the last few years, I have learned about a new place within me that is always available, costs nothing, can be visited alone or with friends, and, for me, is deeply Holy. My therapist, who taught me about this place, learned about it from Eastern Orthodox monks, who call it the hesychia, (hess-ik-eye-ya or hess-ik-ee-ya) a place of inner repose, a place in which God dwells. I think of it as the place where my soul encounters God’s presence within me.

A few verses in the Hebrew scripture capture the essence of this experience:
“I will put my spirit within you and you will live. I will place you in your
own land. Then you will know that I, the Lord, have spoken, and I have
done it, says the Lord” (Ezekial 37:14).

“Behold, you desire truth in the inward being, therefore teach me wisdom
in my secret heart” (Psalm 51).

Since I started going to my hesychia, I am more aware of my body, especially of my breathing. When I go inside, I can listen more closely to my body and my soul, and hear what they are trying to teach me. I am also more aware of my connection with the Holy since slowing down allows me to hear that still small voice inside.

I approach this inner space by sitting in a comfortable place away from noise, with my feet flat on the floor and my hands resting comfortably on my legs, palms up. This sets me up to expect that I will receive something from God for my life. Then I close my eyes and let myself be aware of my breathing for a few minutes, just letting the thoughts float through my mind. Sometimes I whisper a word or phrase in my mind, like “peace” or “have mercy on me.”

Then I go to that inner place in my solar plexus, the quiet, safe place where God dwells (or if you prefer, the place just behind your sternum). The image that comes to me when I approach this place is that I am going up a few steps and entering into the womb of God—a warm, safe, quiet, soothing, calm, reassuring, hopeful and inviting place. In my imagination, I sometimes lie down there for a while, usually in the fetal position, just to let go of my stress and anxiety.

When I arrive in my hesychia, I know that things in my life will work out in ways that are best for my soul. I know that the pains I am suffering will work for my growth. I know that other people will heal a bit from the amends I’ve tried to make to them. I know that my future will be fine and I needn’t worry about it, no matter what happens. I know that “all will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well,” as Julian of Norwich so aptly put it. On many days, this is all I want, just to be in this place and feel its calmness: to feel wrapped in God’s love and know that I am truly cared for and loved.

A man in a contemplative group at my church said a wise thing recently in a discussion about the process of quieting down, and it resonated with me, since he was describing what I experience. He said he loves the verse from the Psalms, “Be still and know that I am God.” He broke the verse into two parts, one about being still and the other about knowing that God is God. This tells me that getting still is one part of the process and that inviting God to be God in my life is the other.

Here’s how that works itself out in my quiet place, my hesychia: Sometimes, when I am particularly concerned about a situation or person, in my imagination I invite the situation or person to come with me into this place, then I try to be open to what God might be asking of me or inviting me to do. This usually makes me more aware of when and how to move forward and when to stay put. It makes me less likely to blame others, more likely to take care of myself in difficult situations, more likely to take a healing stance instead of a win/lose stance, and more likely to see light in each situation, even the most trying.

One thing I have had to work on is keeping my inner demons (my shadows) from taking over my hesychia. My demons are those things about me that haunt me, trip me up or hurt me. I have a special place for them in my quiet hesychia; warm mineral baths where they can relax, take a warm soak, and get a bit more mellow.

When I am in the quiet hesychia, I can hear that still, small voice that speaks to me of my life and of a path to interior freedom, forgiveness, love and joy. People get messages from God in many different ways, but this is the way that I hear best, and this is the place I can say the most vulnerable things to God—weep and laugh, be sorrowful and joyful.

Since I began visiting my hesychia on a regular basis—and this is something I intend to adopt as a lifelong discipline—I have noticed that everything becomes part of the process—work, friendships, health, recreation-—and it is all an integral part of my journey. I have experienced more gratitude for every aspect of my life than I ever thought possible.

Now, on those days when I start to slide down the slope of self-pity or depression or anger or loneliness, I can sit down, go to my hesychia, and write what I am grateful for in my journal. It is better for my soul than eating a chocolate sundae (although that is wonderful too!). Does having this place of repose and healing mean that I have less pain in my life? Definitely not. I have about as much pain as everyone else. But does it allow me to process my pain and joy in different ways? Absolutely. And for that, I am grateful.

©Janet O. Hagberg, 2005. All rights reserved.

 

Reflections on this essay:
1. What is your best way to relax from daily stress?

2. Do you have any kind of meditation practice? What is it? Does it have a spiritual component?

3. How does hesychia resonate within you? How could you envision it in your life?

4. How have you experienced quiet time taking you deeper and into more intimacy with the Holy?

5. What are the changes in your life as a result of this quiet practice?

Dear Subscribers,

I’m starting a five week series today on Solitude and Stillness. I thought it might be helpful as we move into summer to remember that, in addition to recreation and travel, rest and quiet are good for our souls. So I’ll be sending a few essays, an icon and a poem, all on this theme. I value any feedback you send me either on the blog or privately. You’ve been very supportive.

 

Janet

What Good is Gratitude?

When I get into really tough places–caught in a deadly addiction, ready to jump ship in a precarious work situation, leaving an unhealthy relationship, facing financial crises—I get paralyzed with anxiety. When I can sit down and calm myself for a few minutes I usually find that a few simple things help me begin to sort out my crises. These are the first things I do and they usually lead me to the more life-giving actions or decisions.

These things are deceptively simple yet they calm my soul enough that I can think more clearly. I wrap myself in an afghan that was a gift from a dear friend. I can feel her arms around me as I do this. Along with that I drink soothing tea and just sit down for a while. I may call or email an understanding friend or get my feelings out on paper, especially my fears. I always pray and I can be assured that this will quiet down the clamoring voices inside me that are vying for my attention.

Over the years, though, I’ve found two other things that are equally important but not so obvious ways to ground myself and help me more forward. One is to recount what I am grateful for and the other is to reach out to others, to be of comfort to them. These both seem counter intuitive, especially when I am so afraid, but they almost always work.

One indelible memory I have is of a very low point in my life. My mother had just died, suddenly and at a young age. I needed desperately to go back to school and I had not been accepted into the program I wanted. My marriage was in stress and I had a bad cold. I was walking across a parking lot from my car to a class at the University. I remember feeling despondent and hopeless. As I walked I heard this inner voice say, “Well, is there anything you are grateful for?” I had to pause for a long time. What a powerful question. Was there anything I was grateful for? Slowly a very short list began to form in my mind.

I was grateful for the sunshine
I was grateful for my mind
I was grateful that I was alive

That was about all I could muster for that first try but it got me moving slowly on a new track—a track of focusing on what I had rather than on what I didn’t have. It did not change my situation but it allowed me to consider a different perspective, a way to balance the things that were changing with the things that were stable.

One other time I remember the role gratitude had in giving me a new perspective. I was in a very stressful work situation and I was about to jump ship. I do this because I don’t want to fail and I’m afraid to stay with something and be part of the stabilization. This time my spiritual director helped me stay the course by asking me to consider staying but with this assignment. She asked me to cut a lot of quarter sized circles out of paper and then write each day, the thing I was most grateful for, and put them all in a box. At the end of a month I took them out to read them all. And at the end of two months I read them again. I was amazed, not only with the simplicity of the things that I was most grateful for—a phone call from a friend, my cat purring in my lap, a cup of tea—but also the miracles I experienced that I may not have noticed, like new sources of funding, forgiveness from a friend, standing firm in conflict, or visions of peace in my heart.

Now when I get into a difficult place it helps me to just start a list of all the things I am grateful for. Over time I have come to a new experience of gratitude. I call it my deep truth. My deep truth is that out of my painful experiences I have gained things that I am very grateful for. These experiences were not all bad, not all loss, not all to be avoided. I can even see, on my good days, that most of what has happened to me has allowed me to grow, to change, or to have more compassion for others. Failing in a work project taught me to go forward in spite of not succeeding; being in an abusive work relationship has taught me how to have healthy boundaries and how to find my own worth. Giving up a life style taught me more dependence on God. From all of these difficult circumstances I can see ways in which they formed me into a more whole and compassionate person. Some people experience bankruptcies that save them from the rat race; cancer brings some people to their feelings in new ways.

Do I want to repeat my most painful experiences? No. But were they worthwhile? Absolutely. And now when I write my gratitude list it is considerably longer, even when I am stressed. Here are a few things on my list:

The faithful love of God
Friends who laugh with/at me
My cat, Mr. Nelson
The richness of not wanting
Challenges that draw me to God
Generosity of others
Quilting and the quilt group
Letting go–on my good days
Youth and young adults in my life
The sunshine
Baseball
Hope, in difficult times
Recovery
Cultural diversity
Dark chocolate
Prayer and quiet
Mentoring/meaningful work
Healing and forgiveness
Tango dancing
The gift of writing this essay

MJ Ryan, writing the last essay in her wonderful book, Attitudes of Gratitude, cites three different kinds of gratitude. The first is the wonder and simple response to a gift. Thank you. It is gratefulness for getting what we like or what we want.

The second form of gratitude is what I have been describing here, being grateful for the unexpected gifts or lessons that come along with hard times or experiences of suffering. It is a more subtle and, perhaps, deeper form of gratitude which begins a journey of transformation within us and changes the lens through which we view the world.

The third form of gratitude is the most elusive. This is a life lived in gratitude and undergirded with pure joy—no matter what happens. Ryan says it is like a breath of thanksgiving with every inhalation of air, no matter what is going on in the world. This type of gratitude is usually reserved for saints but who knows, perhaps if we pray and ask for this approach to life, this attitude of trust in the ultimate benevolence of all things, we could catch a glimpse of what God is waiting to do when our lives and hearts are open.

©Janet O. Hagberg, 2009. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this essay
What are you most grateful for in your life now?

What helps you the most when you feel yourself getting “down?”

What situation in life taught you the most about being grateful?

Which of the three kinds of gratitude do you most resonate with and why? getting things from others, lessons learned from pain, or pure joy no matter what is happening?

Gaining Wisdom From a Grocery Bag

It’s kind of embarrassing for me to admit that I learn some of my best lessons from the most trivial experiences. But I find that what I learn from the trivial experiences symbolizes larger issues in my life. Take the grocery bag issue, for instance.

I was driving my friend, Harriet, to the pizza place and then on to the grocery store and it triggered the memory that two weeks ago, when I had picked up a few extra things for her, I had forgotten to take back my new cloth grocery bag (environmentally friendly and politically correct). I casually commented that I needed to get that bag back so I could avoid using paper and plastic. As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I felt uncomfortable and I wasn’t quite sure why. All the way to the pizza place I reflected on it and then I said to Harriet, “Cancel what I said about the bag. You can keep the bag and I can get both of us another bag when we go grocery shopping.”

In those few minutes I had processed a lot of things. First, I reflected on my discomfort about getting my bag back. It came from the feeling that I needed that bag. It represented something missing from my stuff if I didn’t get it back–it was mine and someone else had it. I was keeping track of my stuff, like people track books or money they lend. I might even be diminished in some way if I didn’t get it back. No thought to how it would be if I willingly gave it up!

If I go a little deeper, I can feel that this clinging to my stuff, even the most trivial stuff, is really a sign of my scarcity mentality. It goes like this, “If I don’t get that bag back, I may be in need and not have enough. At some point there may not be enough stuff (insert the word food or jobs or money or whatever) to go around and I may have to go without and then I will be really scared.” None of this is at the conscious level, of course, which is why my clinging to my bag is sort of funny. Clinging to a grocery bag, which costs a dollar, as if it was a source of security! But this mentality also shows up in bigger things, like my time, my willingness to listen to others who differ from me, my willingness to have a smaller and simpler life style.

My friend, Harriet, who is from Uganda and has a powerful story of fleeing the country to come to America as a refugee, is generous with all of her things and gives me food and love all the time. She has almost nothing yet she is usually grateful and willing to share. I am learning from her that it is not about what I have, it is about what I’m willing to share, believing that I will be just fine. What Harriet would say, about giving the grocery bag to someone, is “God will provide.” And she would mean it, because she has experienced it so many times in her crisis-ridden life.

The scarcity life is not healthy for me but neither is the opposite, the abundance mentality, whereby if I just visualize what I want I can get it. This feeds my wants and desires without ever checking to see if God has anything to say about whether those things would actually be good for me. I find this approach feeds my power and ego more than is healthy for me and often leads me to ask for things to fill my emptiness rather than to look at the emptiness to see what it teaches me. It’s not that I don’t deserve abundance, but I’m choosing, instead, to trust in God to be my source of security and fulfillment. And if I really look underneath my desire for abundance, I find that my fear of not having enough is just as present there.

So what is the option that makes more sense? If fear underlies my sense of scarcity and abundance, how can I find a spirit of having enough? I can move to a place of sufficiency. Sufficiency is neither scarcity nor abundance. It is enoughness. It is satisfaction with what I already have and gratefulness for what I will receive without clinging to either. It encourages me to live on a sort of edge where I can’t count on a whole storage bin full of what I want, but to live as if I will always have what I need. It requires trust and dependence on the Holy and on divine providence, not on my own will and power. It is simultaneously scary and awesome. It is sacred space.

When the Israelites fled Egypt and were moving slowly through the wilderness, they complained that they did not have enough food. Moses asked God about this and God provided a daily meal, called manna, to every household. If they stored it and didn’t eat it, out of fear that they would not have enough, it rotted. If they ate too much, they did not have enough to feed everyone. So each day they had to trust that God would provide more manna. This required more courage, to go out each day to collect the manna that appeared on their doorstep.

I gave my grocery bag to Harriet with a glad heart. We even laughed about it. But now I think of my dilemma with the grocery bag as a manna story. It reminds me that I didn’t trust God’s manna. Now when I think of manna it is easier to hold all of my stuff lightly.

If you want to have an experiential understanding of clinging to your stuff, try giving away your very favorite thing or the thing you thought you could never part with, and see what it stirs in you. Think of manna and see if you feel any more freedom after you release your favorite thing.

©Janet O. Hagberg, 2009. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this essay

When have you had a sudden awareness that things may need to change or be different, a “grocery bag” experience? What was it? How did it change you?

When have you felt scarcity or lived out of a scarcity mentality? How does it affect you and your relationship with others?

When have you experienced abundance? How did this affect you and your relationship with others? Was it spiritual abundance or some other kind?

When have you experienced sufficiency? How does it affect your heart and your stance towards God, yourself, others?

Would you be willing to give away one of your favorite belongings and see how things shift in you? Why or why not? What reasons do you give for keeping your things? Can you see this as humorous?

The Spirituality of Baseball

I love baseball. I know, I know… players are paid way too much money, some of them cheat big time, the owners can be ruthless and the whole idea of sports could be seen as an opiate for the masses. Although all of this makes me sad, it doesn’t deter me from pulling out my 1987 and 1991 Twins’ World Series celebration videos each March in anticipation of Opening Day. But how can baseball be spiritual?

For Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), the co-star in Bull Durham, her religious journey has culminated in declaring her commitment to the church of baseball.
“I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there’s no guilt in baseball, and it’s never boring… It’s a long season and you gotta trust. I’ve tried ’em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.”

While I don’t commit to baseball as a religion, I do see baseball as a spiritual experience. Of course, to be honest, I may feel that more strongly when my team wins, but not always. If they play well and there are a few great moments in the game but they still lose, I go home satisfied.

So what do I consider spiritual about baseball? First, the goal of the whole game is different from most other sports where there is a net, a hole or a hoop to put the ball in or through. In baseball the object is to hit the ball, but the goal is for the batter to come home, to get back to home plate. Somehow helping your teammates get back home holds more meaning for me, maybe because of my own longing to find my true home in my work, my faith and my relationships.

In baseball one of the major ways to help get your teammates back home, around the diamond to home plate, is to sacrifice for them. A sacrifice play means that you don’t get credit for it but it advances the runner. Walks, bunts and sacrifice flies (which are good hits but caught for an out, while advancing the runner) are all examples. So a key to this game is sacrifice. In my life, the most beloved people who I hold closest to my heart have sacrificed something for me or I for them. There is something about releasing your own need in order to help another, without martyrdom, that is deeply moving and life-giving for me.

Then there are the transcendent moments in baseball; the long ball that is headed over the fence for a home run until a player in the outfield leaps at the precise moment to connect with the ball and hold it majestically in his glove; the poetic double play in which the short stop tosses to the second baseman who then twists like a ballerina in mid-air throwing perfectly to first base; or the play at home plate when the runner slides ten feet–and a bit out of the baseline–while managing to brush the bag with his hand to avoid the catcher’s tag. All of these plays leave me smiling or gasping with appreciation and bring me back for more.

Baseball, for the most part, is a gentleman’s (or gentlewoman’s) game, a reflective sport. It is not primarily a beer bash or a status symbol. It’s not fast enough for the fast crowd. It is a slow game usually lasting about three hours, although there is no clock, so it goes on until it’s over. Few major sports are like that. The clock is the competition. So baseball invites you to relax, reflect, chat with friends, and just wile away the evening.

Besides the game itself, baseball, for me, represents some of what is best about America, in ways that other parts of our culture do not. For instance, the tickets are still within the means of most people so the average person can attend a game. Last year you could get four tickets, four hot dogs, and four cokes for twenty-five bucks. I love seeing fathers with their sons or daughters, who are wearing their baseball gloves, eagerly awaiting a foul ball. As they say; Priceless. And baseball teams are now the most integrated in sports, made up of players who are Latino, Black, White, and Asian. Jackie Robinson, the first black player, hired by Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945, made this all possible. Reading his story is a lesson in courage and heroism.

Baseball is a business like most sports, but when you’ve lived in a small market city, as I have, baseball is more like a family. We grow our players in a terrific minor league system and they become part of our extended clan. We don’t have as many big stars, although we do have some, but our team plays well together because they are all needed. Last year several of our players had home run records between twenty-five and thirty. Our clubhouse is known for its camaraderie partly because most everyone feels needed but also because our management encourages a team effort.

I could write about all the rituals of baseball or the spiritual experience of keeping score at games in which Cal Ripkin hit his 3000th hit, or Johan Santana got a record number of strike-outs. When history is being made keeping score is a ritual all of its own. But I want to end this essay with a story that goes beyond anything I have ever seen in sport and a story that could only happen in baseball.

It happened in 2008 in a game between two women’s college teams, Western Oregon College and Central Washington University. Washington was up by two in the bottom of the ninth inning. Oregon had two on and two outs. The batter hit a home run to win the game but caught her foot on the first base bag and fell, unable to walk. According to the rules, neither her coach nor her teammates could help her run the bases so Oregon would have to forfeit the game. Until…two players from Western Washington went over to the player, lifted her to her feet and carried her around the bases, allowing her to touch each one and win the game. They had done for her what baseball is all about, carried her back home. It meant they lost the game. Now that’s a story of sacrifice if I’ve ever heard one. In my mind everyone won.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2010. All rights reserved.
If you would like to see a seven minute documentary of this baseball game, go to
http://www.responsibilityproject.com/films/player/the-home-run/

Reflections on this essay
Which sports do you find interesting and why?

What parts of that sport do you find inspiring or spiritual?

What does that tap into in your life?

When have you experienced a transcendent moment in sports?

When have you experienced a gamesmanship moment that stuck with you?

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