held

I slipped through the crowd in the auditorium lobby, swung open the gallery’s glass door, and stepped inside. The bustle evaporated in a holy hush as the space swallowed all the chattering voices. White walls soothed my overstimulated brain. Paintings and photographs peppered throughout did not clamor for attention. Instead, they waited patiently to be noticed.

I wandered past the entryway into the cavernous main hall, where the ceiling stretched taller and gained another story. The polished butterscotch floor reflected the overhead light. Settling myself down on a simple wooden stool, I slid off my bulky coat and laid it down atop the pile made by my purse and bag.

I’d read the description for this meditation session offered to those attending the Festival of Faith and Writing: a brief retreat from the flurry of panels, interviews, classes, and speeches to practice centering prayer. When it fit into my schedule, I showed up, hungry for quiet. I looked around as I waited for it to begin.

A three-dimensional exhibit hung before me in the center of the large room. Photographs of sky and naked tree branches hung like floating puzzle pieces above my head. A rainbow of three-dimensional leaves floated beneath each one in various stages of descent. Lights shone down on the display and framed it on all sides. Silver wires supporting the foliage shimmered when hit by the light, but from other angles, tricked the eye and disappeared. Shadows painted the surrounding bare walls with the shape of each unique leaf, providing the illusion of a deeper forest.

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Soon the facilitator greeted those of us who had assembled. She asked us to close our eyes and relax, to breathe deeply and open our hands. The words she used were few but her voice ushered us into the presence of God. As I sat and stilled in the silence, the word I heard blow through my mind as we began our centering prayer was at once both foreign and familiar:

held

I focused on my breath, allowed my lungs to expand to their limit, then deflated them slowly and deliberately. Peace washed over me as I realized: I am being held.

I flashed back to the week I’d had before arriving at this conference. My sleep was interrupted, my mind was scattered, my days were frantic and checklist-driven. Finally, mid-week, it dawned on me: I was caught in the constricting grip of fear. A legion of lies had pinned me down and drained my energy. This mob loomed large and mysterious in the dark corners of my mind. When I had finally had enough, I confronted each one, brought them out of the background and into the light. I made them stand where I could see them and state their names. Exposed, one by one, they looked weak and silly. In the light, they lost their power. Once I could name the fears I held and see they were holding me back, I chose to let them go. But I was still weary from the fight.

It’s a lesson I have to relearn time and again: fear loses its grip when I choose faith.

At first, letting go of what’s familiar feels like chaos: a free fall that begins when I give up the safety of a sturdy branch far above the cold, hard ground. Trying something new, showing up as my real self, by myself, carries the risk of exposure, rejection, and loneliness. But if I never jump, I’ll wither and waste my one wild and precious life.

The artist captured the falling leaves in mid-flight. They weren’t struggling or clinging to anything; they were free: gliding, while guided and supported by an invisible presence. No longer clustered in a clump with others, their intricate designs revealed themselves in the empty air.

They were wrapped in the wind, held by the heavens, for the whole length of their journey. (Just like me.)

The result was breathtaking, even magical: frailty that trusts learns to fly.

Held. The word was a gift to me. A whispered promise.

I emerged from the sacred space a little calmer, a little braver, and much less alone.

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*This exhibit at Calvin College’s Center Art Gallery was entitled “Remembrances” by Jennifer L. Hand. The centering prayer exercise was led by J. Dana Trent. My sincere thanks to both of you for using your gifts so others like me could be inspired and encouraged.

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Reflection along the Monon Trail

The heavens floated down to earth this morning. Suspended clouds slipped through the atmosphere and landed upside down on a blanket of blue. Peeking through tangled weeds, they arrested my gaze. My rhythmic footfalls ceased; the world around and within me hushed. I stood rapt, astonished by the celestial masterpiece floating in the retention pond along the paved old railroad path.

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At ground level, the transcendent felt palpable, if just out of reach. A barrier of waist-high weeds, thistles and wildflowers threatened the exposed skin of would-be explorers so I kept my distance. Holding my breath, I witnessed the miracle and received its invitation, beckoning me toward wonder.

As I stood spellbound, my buoyant thoughts were punctured by a pinprick dread of the inevitable. This fluid illusion would dissolve when stirred by wind or human touch. A desperate impulse consumed me, a panicked need to capture the intangible essence. Snapping smartphone photos at different angles, I grasped for tactile proof. A postcard to document where I’d been. A souvenir proving the mirage was reality.

My efforts fell flat: my two-dimensional tool was insufficient for the task. I had no choice but to surrender, tuning in to the fullness of the moment, despite my longing to hold the whisper and carry it home.

This unlikely juxtaposition had shaken me awake. For a moment, the ordinary water, forbidden by the laws of nature to absorb the luscious colors and wispy shapes, transcended its limitations and soaked it all in, casting aside its transparence.

My stunted senses must have needed a shock to be reminded to breathe.

Immersed in beautiful absurdity of the earth-bound sky, reflection ensued. Quiet moments and still waters allow me to soak up the qualities of the presence to which I am present. But the Spirit doesn’t shout. I have to be listening, expectant, to be transformed.

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In this calm oasis, my awareness widened. Cicadas that shimmied and rattled in overhead trees guided me back and bound me to the present moment. The rise and fall of white noise grounded the mystical in earthiness, providing a soundtrack to complete my epiphany. Nature’s wild morning breath stuck to my glistening skin like a perfume mist. I breathed it in, knowing I would carry its scent long after waking from my daydream and continuing on my way.

 

sharing my birdseed and bread crumbs

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I began waking up to their presence last year as a result of having survived the harshest winter of my lifetime. Birds have been fluttering around in my brain ever since. Breezing through my budding thoughts, they’ve been gently ruffling my consciousness.

Months of bottomless temperatures and ice that threatened to never melt finally succumed to the calendar’s requirements in late April. Having been home-bound so long, I seized every opportunity to breathe in the fresh air with a naked face. (No more scarves!) I felt a heightened sense of urgency to break out of the walls that held me prisoner. I was relieved and ecstatic to reunite with my long-lost friend spring.

As the world reawakened, the neighborhood birds became my alarm clock. Their loud chirps broke through my closed windows at each incrementally earlier sunrise. I became their captive audience as I laid drowsily in bed. My curiosity grew. I wondered what meaning could be found in their call-and-response melodies. What were they trying to say with their high pitched trills and staccato statements?

Are they singing love songs? Reflecting each other’s feelings by echoing back one another’s sounds? Simply directing their peers toward the place where worms have just been found? Their language was foreign to my ears, nonsensical and easily blocked out by my wandering mind. I realized that it takes effort to tune in, to pay attention and look for patterns. Listening deeply requires a level of energy that is difficult to muster.

I was struck by the fact that an entire community of these living beings coexists with me in my cookie-cutter suburban neighborhood. Hidden from my eyes most of the time, these dainty wallflowers observe my movements from a higher perspective.  Our worlds collide only rarely and briefly, when their flight patterns intersect my field of vision. In order to see them, I have to stop and look heavenward.

The world at my eye-level is incomplete and deceptive. It’s very easy to believe the illusion that everything revolves around me. Its default mode of self-absorption and focus on productivity tempt me to go about my days harried and hurried. This blinding pace causes me to miss out on the subtle beauty and meaning in my midst.

Since my awakening last spring, birds have become icons for me. They remind me of the unseen world of the spirit. They encourage me to make time to slow down, to be quiet and to listen. As is often the case in my journey, God uses the technique of layered learning to make sure I get the messages He wants me to understand. And so these little creatures began appearing everywhere I went.

Though I have a long way to go, I am starting to tune in to their melodies. I have followed Jesus’ instruction to “look at the birds of the air” and have grown in confident trust that I am valuable to Him and in His care. As I listen, I often hear a word or two that flutters on the breeze like a still, small whisper. Sometimes, it’s clearly spoken and set out for me to simply take – like birdseed in a backyard feeder. But often I just catch a glimpse of a bread crumb on the path in front of me. It beckons me to pick it up and follow – and to keep looking for the next one, and the next one, and the one after that.

I’ve heard the whispers telling me for several years to speak up and share what I am learning with others through my writing. Clutching the crumbs I’ve found so far, I’ve been standing still, distracted by the noise that I allow to preoccupy me in order to avoid facing my fear.

But I know that I’m not alone in my hunger to live wholeheartedly, to connect with others in this lonely world and to know more of the One who designed it all.

My hope is that others might find strength and nourishment for their souls from the crumbs I’ve gathered. And maybe a little comfort or a chuckle from my stories about the crumbs that I’ve missed or dropped.

So here goes. Like my feathered friends, I will take the risk and sing my own tune with my tiny little voice. Perhaps someone else will hear and understand and we’ll both be a little less alone.