Several years ago, I read a story in The New York Times that really stayed with me. The story was about a Scottish museum director — Sir Timothy Clifford — who, while visiting the Cooper-Hewitt museum and looking through a number of old boxes that had been largely ignored by that museum’s staff, discovered a drawing that he and other experts agree is a work by Michelangelo. Here’s the paragraph that really caught my attention: “…Early in his career Sir Timothy was an assistant curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, working on ceramics. As a small child he collected porcelain and was so obsessed that he used to go to bed with his cups and saucers, stroking them to determine by touch, in the dark, whether he could figure out which factories in France… made what.”
Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t know any boys — or girls either — who cuddle their cups and saucers under the covers to identify them by touch. So Sir Timothy’s story seems to me to be a marvelous example of paying attention to what it is that we delight in as individuals, what we have always delighted in. By doing that, we receive such clues as to what it is we can contribute to the world. In the words of Frederick Buechner, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
May we re-discover the places where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet — and may we have confidence that our own version of teacups-under-the-covers can have ramifications beyond our imagining.
—Rev. Maggie Oman Shannon
Though I was definitely late to the party — the party known as watching “American Idol,” which, it was recently announced, will end after the next season — I always like to tune in around this time of year to find out who wins the prize after the field has narrowed. And enjoying the young singers’ incredible gifts, their talent for expressing themselves so soulfully through their music, always reminds me of a weekend many years ago in which I learned a powerful lesson about the importance of acknowledging one’s own gifts and talents.
That weekend, I was at a group gathering of about 100 people, and the facilitator opened the meeting by playing the recording of a hauntingly beautiful song. The song was sung by a woman whose only accompaniment was the graceful playing of her own guitar. The lyrics, the voice, and the music were so compelling that I made a note to find out who recorded the CD, so that I could buy it.
Other people in the room were moved by it, too, and after the break the facilitator responded to a person who had asked him about it. He said that the CD wasn’t available; it had been recorded by a friend of his who had given him this copy as a birthday present. He implied that she didn’t feel the music was good enough to record, and that he was trying to address that misconception by playing her music to groups of people.
I bet there were at least 50 people in the room who would have bought her CD — and this is a painful example of how we don’t only deny ourselves when we tell ourselves our offering isn’t “good enough.” We also deny other people the experience of enjoying our talents and skills. Everyone loses out.
Not everyone can win “American Idol”; and not everyone can record a CD that people want to buy. But all of us have gifts and talents that not only are unique but also needed in this world. Let us all share ourselves with each other…by doing so, we not only contribute to our own and others’ joy, we also participate with the Source of all creativity in creating our world.
–Rev. Maggie Oman Shannon
It has been said that the Divine speaks to us through symbols, and this week’s reflection is on the many ways in which symbols surround us. In my adulthood, I’ve had the opportunity three times to spend two days and nights completely alone in nature, which is always an amazing arena for viewing the symbolic. I was visited during my waking hours by deer; in my dreams, I was visited by a white heron and a green snake. Later looking up these symbols in the reference book Animal-Speak by Ted Andrews lent additional layers of meaning to both my inner and outer journey.
And we can work with the symbols we’re given in creative ways. Once I was in a drugstore and saw tiny, six-inch plastic trashcans for sale in the dollar bin. I thought to myself, “What would someone do with those things?!” The very next day, during an appointment, someone I was counseling spoke about noticing the “Divine residue” all around her — bits of animal fur, dried flower petals. I was very captivated by this image and the exercise that it suggested of collecting the bits of Divine residue that surround me every day. And I thought of the perfect container for gathering these discoveries — that same tiny trashcan I had dismissed the day before! It has become a great joy to use this symbol to become more mindful of the beauty and possible messages found in otherwise overlooked elements.
And when I once overheard a peer counseling someone to put one of those life lessons we all receive into her “learning basket,” I was delighted when that person later told me that she was literally going to make a learning basket as a reminder to be gentle with herself as she grows and evolves. Symbols can support us in becoming who we want to be and in contributing what we want to contribute.
May we each take the time to notice our symbols — to notice how God is speaking to us through all the beings and small details crossing our path — and to create creative containers for them, so that they can support us in living our most mindful, connected, and sacred life.
—Rev. Maggie Oman Shannon
The reflection for this week is on words — the power of words and also the limitation of words. Words are slippery things; they can carry different meanings for each listener, a fact of human living which invites us to choose our words with care. Chosen carefully, words are extremely valuable to us, as they can connect us to another, create a bridge of understanding or kinship that did not exist before. Used carelessly, words can destroy those bridges — or at least create enough damage for some major roadwork to be necessary! And this, we know, also applies to the words we choose for our own interior conversations, as well. Our words to ourselves can also create, or destroy. As Aldous Huxley wrote, “Words form the thread on which we string our experiences.”
I once read a book in which the author noted that the most telling evidence of who a person will be five years from now is found in the books that the person reads and the people that the person spends time with. It seems to me that the common denominator in both of those situations is words — the words we take in and the words we share with others. Reflect for a moment: Are the words you’ve been reading recently creating something in your life? Are the words you’ve been sharing with other people lately — and saying to yourself — constructive? How does your future look, based on what’s on your night table or what you’ve talked to friends about recently?
As Charles Capps once said, “Words are the most powerful thing in the universe… Words are containers. They contain faith, or fear, and they produce after their kind…” But the great thing about words is that they can be changed, shaped, re-written, revised at any time. Today. Right now. May your words bless you and be a blessing; may your words create your most deeply held dreams.
–Rev. Maggie Oman Shannon
P.S. If you missed the interview with USC Music Director Michael Hatfield on my radio show, “Creative Spirit,” yesterday, you can access it (and all of the previously recorded shows) here: http://www.unity.fm/episode/CreativeSpirit_041515
I find that nature can give us such mirrors about larger lessons, and some of those I have learned from my pets. Though she’s no longer with me—she had to be put to sleep a few years ago, having almost made it to her 20th birthday — one of those lessons I learned after accidentally stepping on the tail of my elderly cat. After apologizing profusely in the best interspecies way I knew how, I was immediately rewarded again with her presence next to me on the couch.
I mention this as an example of the trust that we all choose to demonstrate, or not to demonstrate, at every moment of our lives. Like my cat Lani, we may get “stepped on,” and we then have a choice whether to trust again or not. I’ve read that Einstein said that the most important question that we as human beings have to answer is, Is the universe friendly or not? Do we live in a benevolent universe, or not?
Indeed, this is the underlying framework beneath creating the largest, fullest vision for our lives: Can we trust that what we want for our lives matters? Can we have, do, or be what we want? Can we trust that our lives matter?
If our answer to any of these questions is no, we will stay stuck in our old stories. Like my cat Lani, we have a choice when we feel pain — to run away and hide, to lick our wounds…or to take a chance again. Lani was rewarded with a lot of love—and treats. Our trust in a friendly universe—our trust in the Divine—will be rewarded, too.
Having been trained as a life-purpose coach, spiritual director, and minister, I spend a lot of time thinking about the purpose of life. And while everyone has a unique role to play in this world, there are commonalities of purpose that all of us share. In my research and reading, I keep note of what various teachers, both secular and spiritual, suggest as being the ultimate purpose of life, and I’ve noticed a common theme emerging. The purpose of life, most sages have proposed, can be boiled down to one word…love.
Isn’t that beautiful in its simplicity? The purpose of life is to love. What I love about this invitation to love is that it is something that we can do right now, no matter how confused we may be about finding our way in life. Whether we’re searching for our right livelihood, Mr. or Ms. Right, or any other purposeful aspect of life, we can still love right now. We can explore what it means to love in a job we’re unsatisfied with; we can explore what it means to love when we’re longing for a relationship; we can explore what it means to love when we feel hopelessly muddled about just about everything in life. And really, that’s what living our highest vision is all about: being aware of the love around us, creating from love, sharing our love with the world.
Your love is needed in this world. Sharing your love is the greatest gift you could give someone—and yourself—today.
The Academy Awards were presented last Sunday evening, and as a life-long movie lover—I wrote film reviews in high school and college—I always try to catch up on nominated films beforehand. Thinking about my favorite movies, I’m reminded of one that still haunts me and which I highly recommend: “Whale Rider.” Filmed in New Zealand and released in 2002, the story follows a young Maori girl whose heart is full of spirit, conviction, and love for her grandfather and the ways of her ancestors. Fresh, funny, compelling and deeply moving, “Whale Rider” is a story that epitomizes the process of living one’s highest vision for oneself; indeed, the tagline for the movie is “One young girl dared to confront the past, change the present and determine the future.”
This week, may we examine those very components—may we look at where we need to confront the past, change the present, and determine our future. Like the girl depicted in “Whale Rider,” may we look with clarity and courage at the course our life is taking; and like this admirable character, may we be guided by—to use the memorable words of the Persian poet Rumi—“the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.” Indeed, that is a question worth returning to again and again: What do you really love? Where is that love pulling you now?
Years ago I came across a quotation that I still sometimes ponder: “Nothing is insignificant.” It’s an interesting concept to chew on, since it often can be tempting to dismiss a momentary indulgence with the thought that we won’t have that piece of chocolate, or won’t watch that TV show, or will clean out our closet, or will write that letter, “next time”—tomorrow. But so often that next time, those tomorrows, hold the same behaviors with the same justifications—that we’ll do it just this once, that just once can’t hurt, that just once is insignificant.
Writer Annie Dillard observed that “the way we live our days, is the way we live our lives.” Put into this larger container, those “insignificant” behaviors can have a significant impact on the quality of our lives. This is not to suggest that we must always hold ourselves to rigid “to-do” (or “do-not”) lists…only to pose the reminder that we need to be mindful about why we’re choosing what we are, and to make our choices more consciously. Taken together, the sum of all our choices equals the story of our lives—and we can keep living out our old stories, or make ourselves a New Story.
In thinking about a subject for this week’s reflection, I turned to a book of quotations. There, I found this wonderful statement by author and theologian Matthew Fox: “To repress our wonder is to kill our capacity for the Divine.”
What a useful point upon which to meditate…how might we be repressing our wonder? How might we be killing our capacity for the Divine? In our fast-paced, complex society, it can be very easy to allow our wonder to leak–to become cynical, to even convince ourselves that our viewpoint is sophisticated and realistic, that certain things are “just the way life is.” But can you think of a sentence that kills our capacity for the Divine more than that one?
The upcoming season of spring invites us to re-embrace that sense of wonder, as all around us we’re beginning to see buds and blossoms and new life. May we take care this week to cultivate that wonder, to spend even just five minutes in contemplation of something in nature. May we remember that when we neglect our spirit of wonder, when we slip into cynicism or sarcasm, we kill–in bits and pieces–our capacity for the Divine. And may we explore the thought that the converse might be true: that by expanding our sense of wonder, we might also be expanding our sense of the Divine.
I once heard a statistic that gave me a lot of pause—that watching something three or more times affects our psyches as if we had watched the actual event! Think about this; think of the horrific images that have come our way quite unbidden by just watching the news. Think of the times we have willingly ingested such images by going to the movies to see a murder mystery, or viewing television shows focusing on crimes.
And the statistic doesn’t apply only to images containing violent themes. Evidently it is equally true of the repeated viewing of anything—which could include other unhealthy situations, such as depictions of bickering couples or drug abuse. Even shows focusing on celebrities, repeatedly watched, could be seen as reinforcing the idea that what really counts in our society, what is valued and highly paid for, is beauty or notoriety—sometimes both.
May we remember that the images we take in do not pass through our consciousness without some effect. May we choose what we feed our hearts and minds with consciously. May we remember the wisdom of the guidance found in the New Testament’s Philippians 4:8: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, think about such things.” Becoming more mindful of the images we take in may seem like a small thing, but the quality of our lives depends on it—and ultimately, so does the future of our world.