For years now, these have been my first words each morning as I reach out towards the cup of coffee my husband offers me. In that bleary, not-quite-awake state, my first thought is of thanks.
I then get out of bed and sit in what I call my “prayer chair” in a private corner of the room, and in between sips of that freshly-made coffee, I write in my journal about the previous day. My dreamy state begins to sharpen its focus as I put words on the page.
We don’t need to journey alone. I’d love to walk with you.
I’ve created a space where people of open-hearted Christian perspective can walk together to reflect on how spirituality connects to our daily lives.
You can subscribe to receive a free monthly reflection with questions to ponder for your own spiritual journey, and you’ll be kept up to date with what I’m involved with.
If you’d like to become more intentionally involved in this community, you can become a member to receive weekly emails with personal reflections, prompts for pondering, images of the beautiful north coast of Ireland where I live, additional video, music or podcast to accompany the written content, and blessings for your journeys. In the privacy of this space for members, you’ll be able to share on a more authentic level with others of like mind.
Until now, I’ve written the occasional post on this blog reflecting on the spiritual journey of daily life, but I’m migrating those posts to the Bless My Feet community. The reason for this is that I feel drawn to connect on a deeper, personal level with people in a more private environment for all of us, where we can share and reflect in a more honest and real way.
Whether you sign up either for the free monthly reflection or if you’re interested in walking together a part of the members’ community, it would be great to see you there.
I’m sure you’ve all heard about the growing wild popularity of the outdoor sport of “wild swimming.” That is, the sport of entering near-freezing water without a wetsuit, even in the middle of winter. To be a “wild swimmer,” one needn’t be an accomplished sportsperson, but instead must be crazy enough to step into frigid water outdoors – the sea, a lake, a river- and… breathe. That’s right – breathe.
As someone who has in the past few years become a rather avid all-year-round sea swimmer, I can tell you that it’s true: provided the conditions are calm and welcoming, it’s very simple. All you need to do is walk into the water, until it’s up to your neck, and breathe.
You see, it’s very a human response, when extremely cold, to become breathless. I know this happened to me the first time I tried sea swimming in Ballycastle on the north coast – my whole body tensed up, the alarm bells of panic started ringing inside of me, and I was out of the water in a flash. That was in August.
Now, I swim easily in January. How?
I learned to breathe. As the water comes up over your shoulders, and you feel yourself becoming breathless, those minutes are the most important. If you breathe, slowly, in and out, your body loses its sense of panic and begins to relax.
As my tolerance increased, I began to experience the feeling of joy that wild swimming is becoming known for. Soon, my breathing became an act of trust in what would come: the sense of wellbeing that would wash over me and stay with me the rest of the day.
Sea swimming has taught me to breathe through the uncomfortable and to trust not only that my body can handle it, but that something good is to come.
I find myself breathing, these days, when stress threatens to overwhelm me – when my daughter is tearing her hair out trying to get her homework turned in online with only minutes to spare; when my son’s ipad crashes in the middle of his virtual class; when the needs and demands of work and homeschool and housework, and never having enough space to myself, leaving me feeling breathless.
At those moments, I find myself breathing. In, out, in, out. Long, slow breaths. An act of trust that this moment too shall pass, and that a sense of calm will return.
Don’t we all need to remember to breathe, these days. We so easily slip into a state of panic, the alarm bells ringing about the threat of COVID, the fears for the future, the state of the world, the struggles of the multitude of responsibilities we all carry in our own ways.
Just when we’re tempted to turn on our heels and give up – as I did on my first swim – that’s when we can call up the most simple act: to breathe. To breathe long, slow breaths, reminding our bodies, our minds, our hearts, our souls that we can trust that it will be ok.
For at the root of our faith is the belief that God can bring goodness out of even the most trying of situations.
So let’s breathe. In, out, and trust that joy and peace and hope and a sense of wellbeing will come.
Let us pray. Breath of life, when panic and stress rise up within us, breathe your calming spirit into us, and with that breath, remind us that your goodness will always prevail. In your holy name we pray, Amen.
In a strange collision of circumstances, I was also featured in a BBC documentary the night before I offered this prayer. The sea swimmers recorded this last summer, as a part of a series on The Glens of Antrim, where I live. The Ballycastle Swimrise Group have been a lifeline to me over the past year – prior to COVID and through COVID. Sea swimming has breathed life into me in so many ways! Click the link below to catch a glimpse of sea swimming in Ballycastle, Northern Ireland.
It seems every conversation I have with people these days comes down to the theme of limitation. Each one of us, in our own unique way, is experiencing limitations that hinder us and withhold from us certain aspects of the life we knew only eight short months ago.
Limitation defines so much for us right now: we weave our lives around the COVID rules and restrictions of whatever area we live in. We either abide by or resist those rules and regulations, but we’re aware of them nonetheless – building our lives around what we can or can’t do.
Limitation is our current reality. It’s the terrain we must dwell in to keep others and ourselves safe and healthy.
And in that limitation also resides much grief, frustration, anxiety, and helplessness.
Where we used to plan and dream far into the future, this limitation freezes us in a timelessness – forces us to stay put within our homes, our routines, our locale, for an undetermined amount of time.
Where we would have traveled and explored and adventured, we can only cast our mind’s eye to past memories, or turn to images on screens to transport us elsewhere.
Where we would have broken up our days and weeks and months with gatherings large and small, enjoyed blissful moments of witnessing or performing the arts, and taken in festivals or once-in-a-lifetime events, we can only stay within the scope of our mundane daily rhythms.
Where we once extended ourselves into our busy schedules, expending our energies for a multitude of activities and projects and causes, we now struggle to find ways to contribute meaningfully to the world.
I read the story of Mary being visited by the angel in Luke 1 with different ears, from this context of limitation in which we reside.
Two women, both in situations where it should be impossible for new life to grow within them. Two women whose limitations seem obvious.
And yet, the angel says: with God, all things are possible. God announces that new life will spring forth where none should be able to. Limitations no longer claim hold on these women’s lives.
Caught as we are in our own webs of limitation, how freeing it is to imagine God cutting through all that to release us: to bring new life and all it entails – hope, potential, change, dreams.
Could it be that God can break through our confines even without some dramatic reversal of events – without a vaccine, without a cure – and bring forth life in and through our limitations?
Perhaps there is boundlessness within our limitation. A vast world within our boundaries, which we are perfectly free to enjoy.
I consider some of the things that fill my life now that I never had time for or interest in before.
Gardening, for one.
My body eagerly spends hours digging, hauling, mixing, planting, when I wouldn’t have had a clue about it months ago.
Within the confines of my daily existence, I looked out the back of my house and slowly began to envision something new out of what was right before my eyes. I saw flowering bushes and a multitude of bulbs bursting forth with color in spring. I saw climbers and rambling roses. I saw arches and stone paths. I saw shows of color that shifted at varying times of day and season. I saw vegetables and herbs to nourish my family.
And I quickly caught on to the fact that the possibilities are endless.
I have a world to explore, and I haven’t even left my home (except to go to the garden store, which is my new favorite destination).
Boundlessness within limitation. The possibility of new life where there seemed to be none before. The ability to plan and dream and envision something new. A way to plant hope for the future.
Sometimes – not always, but sometimes – we can glimpse that unfettered freedom within our confines.
God breaks through and finds a way to bring new life, even where it seems impossible.
Twelve years ago I was handed a tiny human to hold for the very first time. I still remember the delightful shock of seeing the curves and crevices of this new person, whom no one had ever seen before, in all her particularity. “So you’re the one who’s been living inside me!” I thought. She had a character, a personality, a uniqueness, an “I am who I am” quality about her. And she was wholly mine (ours!) to embrace, to welcome, to love, to embrace. To hold.
Holding our daughter became life’s new activity. Holding her for feeding, holding her to walk from room to room, holding her with extended family, church members, friends – and handing her to them to hold.
What a precious experience it is to hold a newborn baby! There is nothing like their newborn smell, their fragile lightness, their precious vulnerability. And the holy task – the only task we have at those moments – is to show utter gentleness toward the human being in our arms.
Holding her that first moment filled me with such a sense of awe, instantly. Over the following hours, days, weeks the initial surprise transformed into familiarity, as I came to know her every movement and expression, as I developed an intuition for what she might be trying to communicate.
In the beginning there were also hours, days, nights when I felt baffled, holding her in confusion and frustration as I attempted to understand how to meet her needs.
But eventually, sometimes after a bit of a struggle, we would melt into the restful embrace of contentedness. My arms became that place of stillness for her, that place of comfort.
Like a child with mother quieted, reads Psalm 131.
Last week as I reflected on this passage, I recalled the way I had rested in my mother’s arms as a child. Though it’s been a while, the memory was fresh and visceral. I could feel the stroke of her hand through my hair. A sense of wellbeing washed over me – a contended relaxation. I had no where I needed to go, nothing I needed to do. Only to allow myself to be held in my mother’s arms.
Though I’m a grown woman, this memory of being held felt so deeply comforting to me. I continued to remember it throughout that day and the days after. I hope I continue to return to it, over and over again.
For the arms holding me in this image were not only my mother’s – they were God’s.
I was resting in the love, acceptance, and tenderness of the Mothering God.
It made me realize how important those moments of tenderness with my own daughter are, even now. She is growing up, she is developing her independence, and rightly so. I want that freedom for her, and I want her to develop that confidence to strike out on her own, as I did.
But when those moments of tenderness come, I will treat them as sacred. In those times when she rests on me, she is also experiencing rest in the arms of the Mothering God. The God who will hold her and love her much longer, and better, and more fully than I ever could as her earthly mother. I have my limitations, my faults; I make my mistakes. But God is the one who will embrace her forever.
So for now, while I can, I will hold my little girl, who is not so little anymore, and I will give thanks that the Mothering God will continue to hold her all her life long.
Love is Lord of all. These words of Joseph Campbell echo through the centuries into a far different time than when they were first written. The words of his original poem (entitled “My Lagan Love”) echo here alongside the words of Psalm 84, and those combined words speak into our reality here in 2020.
Love is Lord of all. We cry out in times of distress, fear, uncertainty, that God would incline an ear to us.
Today, the world awaits the results of an election with an uncertain outcome. And on this day, we remember who is truly ruler of all; we remember whose reign will be eternal.
For Love is Lord of all. Love, not hate. Love, not self-serving power. Love, not fear. Our hearts turn to this eternal Love, which will far outlast any earthly kingdom.
This ruler cares for the vulnerable, reaches out to those pushed to the margins of society, stands with the brokenhearted. This ruler doesn’t inflict pain but nurses wounds and brings healing. This ruler is Lord of a kingdom where peace and justice abound.
And this Love, this Lord, is ruler of all. This was true in the beginning and will be forevermore.
Greater than any earthly leader – we entrust our lives, our societies, our world, into the embrace of this God of Love, who is kind and gracious.
To this God of love, who is good and giving, we lift up our souls.
Today we submit ourselves to this greatest power.
In the end, this is all that will matter.
Did we love one another? Did we love ourselves, as we are beloved? Did we treat others with the dignity bestowed upon them by their loving Creator? Did we make our decisions based on love? Did we work toward loving systems and structures that allowed for all members of our communities and societies to be included and respected, honored and welcomed? Did we choose love in our daily interactions – with family, with friends, with strangers, with foes?
In the end, this is all that will matter. That we live our lives in service to Love.
Love will outlast it all. It The God of Love will outlive any election. Love will rise up, and will always rise up through the cracks of brokenness in our world.
Let us remember this, and live by this, today and always.
I’m fortunate enough to live on the beautiful north coast of Northern Ireland, where I can go for swims in the sea and walks on the beach daily.
I grew up in a big city, surrounded by concrete buildings and crowds of people, so I don’t take the nature that surrounds me for granted.
I found that during lockdown, when much of my work went online and I was spending a lot of my time glued to a computer screen, I depended even more than ever on my walks in nature – for refreshment, and for sanity.
Not only was it precious time out of the house and away from my family of five, but it was time to recognize that I am part of something much bigger than myself, much bigger than my little home – I am a part of God’s world.
A world created by God, a world cared for by God.
And nature – creation – reminded me of its artistic Creator: God the Creator of majestic vistas, of the brilliant colors of flowers, sea, and sky; of creatures – birds, fish, seals, and of course humans; of cool, refreshing breeze, of warm sun on my face.
Psalm 19 has always been one of my favorites: “The heavens declare the glory of God.”
It reminds us that nature can act as the word of God, speaking to us of who God is and reminding us of God’s care for us.
The youtube link above is for a song I arranged with paraphrased words of Psalm 19 set to the Irish melody The Lark in the Clear Air, part of our collection of psalms set to Irish and Scottish melodies (Celtic Psalms).
I’ve included photos of the beautiful vistas I saw on my walks through this last spring, in the height of lockdown, when every sight of beauty was even more poignant in a world turned upside-down by pandemic.
May you find time each day to emerge from your homes, from your home offices, or from wherever it is that you spend your days, and shift your gaze to the heavens, to be reminded that the same God who speaks through the beauty of nature around us, speaks to and care for you…for each one of us.
For many years, I have accompanied people on pilgrimages in Ireland. I meet groups at the airport, with the bags they have carefully packed, and I usher them to their hotels or retreat centers to begin their journeys.
People often come on these pilgrimages at great expense – of money, of time, of effort – and they have enormous hopes for what the experience will bring them. They hope for clarity, they hope for insight, they hope for connection, and in some cases they hope for nothing short of revelation. It’s a tall task, facing this group of people with such high expectations.
And yet, if there’s one thing I know, it’s that their journey will change them. Their journeys will leave them different when they return home a week, ten days, a fortnight later. It doesn’t matter the length of the journey: it will change them nonetheless, and most often not in the ways they anticipate.
Pilgrimage is a spiritual practice that, for thousands of years and in a multitude of cultures and religious traditions, has been embraced as a reliable source of transformation and inspiration. Regardless of the destination, regardless of the companions on the journey, regardless of the scenery, the types of accommodation, the weather, the time of year, the stage in life, those who go on pilgrimage will be altered by the experience.
Leaving your comfort zone and traveling through a new space, with all the unknowns that it brings, is sure to have an impact on you. No matter how carefully you plan the itinerary, no matter diligently you research prior to the journey, no matter how intentionally you prepare yourself for every moment of the trip and all its possible eventualities, you will still hit the unknown and the unpredictable, and it will affect you.
“It’s all part of the pilgrimage” became my mantra.
The one sure thing about pilgrimage is that it involves facing the unknown. But the question is: how do you respond to it when it arises? What does it bring up for you? What does it trigger within you? How do you treat others, or yourself, as you encounter it? How do you pray through it? How will it shape you into a new person?
The unknown and unpredictable can bring out the worst in us. It can reveal fear and resentment. It can unearth old hurts. It can expose judgmentalism, and harshness, towards others or ourselves. People can be impatient, ungracious, and uncharitable when things don’t go the way they’d hoped.
But on the other hand, facing the unknown of pilgrimage can also cast a light on the goodness within each one of us. It can reveal our resilience when encountering the unexpected. And when I saw pilgrims releasing their need to control the outcome of their journey and simply taking each step, each day as it came, with all of its surprises, the richer their experience became for them.
Here in Coronavirus 2020, we have suddenly arrived in a new space. Though we have not even departed from home, we have left our comfort zones far behind us and entered into the unknown. There’s no doubt that all this affects each of us greatly.
Though we may have scheduled these weeks, months, and years down to the hour, things have most definitely not gone according to plan. Indeed, none of us could have dreamed of how different our lives are now than we’d imagined they would be only a few short months ago.
Though we have not packed our suitcases with everything we might possibly need for this journey, we still carry our baggage. We carry our fears, resentments, and hurts as we walk through these days.
The question is: how do we respond to this unexpected present we are traveling through? What does it bring up for us? What does it trigger within us? How can we treat others with grace and kindness as we walk forward on this journey? How can we be gentle with ourselves as we step forward into whatever awaits us tomorrow? How can we find words and ways to pray through this time? And how will living through this experience shape us into new people?
If there’s one thing I know, it’s that journeys into the unknown will change us. This is a truth that has been embraced by human beings for thousands of years. We will be affected, we will struggle, we will grow, and we will not return to normalcy the same people we were before all this began.
Yet, in the midst of this unexpected twist in our plans, we may experience in our own homes the very thing we set out for distant lands to accomplish. We may receive the clarity, the insight, the connection, the revelation that we long for so deeply. We will be transformed – perhaps not in ways that we would have hoped for or chosen – but transformed nonetheless, into richer, stronger, wiser human beings.