Homeless: In the Shelter of our Hearts

The following post is from our Newsletter Archives. It first appeared in our Winter 1994 Newsletter.*

"da homeless mother and child" by the artofgriffin.

“da homeless mother and child” by the artofgriffin.

by S. Mary Margaret McKenzie, VHM

Homelessness happens: tenants have to move because a landlord can’t meet the mortgage payment; a single parent needs more space for growing children; a family of nine cannot stay indefinitely with already crowded relatives, but what the law requires for housing seven children is not affordable; a person in recovery from chemical abuse slips, loses his job and therefore, his apartment; a young woman volunteering her time and talent for the enrichment of children no longer has a place when the outreach is cut back; a young mother involved in some “activity” has to move before she is evicted or reported; another mother away from her abusive husband with two small children knows the quickest eviction of all from a catastrophic fire. Theres are our neighbors, our friends, and their options are few.

“..until we could enter into our own suffering, we would not be able to support others in theirs.” 

The man in recovery sleeps on a shelter floor for the first time. The large family is dreading the shelter, but if they go, they will get emergency help from subsidizing housing which has a two year waiting list. Without newspaper, phone or car the long search for a “place to stay” begins. We have never heard the homeless talk about a place to “live.

It did not occur to me as a child, even though I grew up during the Depression, that homelessness could happen. Children in North Minneapolis know that it does. The young boy whose name means, “heart of the valley” came home from school one day to find that he was moving that afternoon. His mother told him to come with his little sister to say “goodbye” to us. They appeared at the door during Evening Prayer in too much shock and pain to talk, just looking at us out of a numbness that was holding on to everything. They left with many embraces and a care package. Each time they turned to wave, another one of us began to cry.

“Prayer does bond us in our mutual suffering.” 

Archbishop Roach warned us that it would be “hard, very difficult, terrible, awful” to stand with such pain and be helpless. We were not expecting it to come in the homelessness that seems to have plagued the neighborhood this winter. We have often recalled the counsel of Bishop Carlson that until we could enter into our own suffering, we would not be able to support others in theirs.

“Windsock time” with the children has prepared us for “phone time” with some who use our phone to make real estate appointments. While they wait for calls to be returned, we pray with them or they join us for one of Hours of the Office. One woman brought her sister-in-law along just for the prayer. Prayer does bond us in our mutual suffering, and once prayer brought a friend willing to make his properties affordable to to any reliable tenants we could recommend. Also, there is that amazing grace that flows in and through and around us when the homeless stand by us, too, in our helplessness in helping them and we learn that the “heart of the valley” is not the terrain of hopelessness.

 

***

Original article: Homelessness by SMM Winter Newsletter 1994

 

Tonglen: A Meditation Tool to Transform Suffering

Vis Companions Heidi and Bianca practice centering prayer

Vis Companions Heidi and Bianca practice

by Melissa Borgmann-KiemdeVisitation Companion

Heidi’s dad died this week. Margaret lost her daughter to a long battle with cancer. Karen endures chemo, fighting a malignancy in her breast. Serena showed up at our door, seeking cold-weather clothing. Our local priests and church leaders continue to discern a course of leadership and healing in the face of more sexual abuse accusations.  Khalilah recalls the passing of her mother; and Francois and I hold the memory of our son who lived for one hour. These struggles or sadnesses all inform our prayers this week.

As humans, we suffer. We wonder; we ache; we seek understanding in the face of our illnesses and all that we endure. And we lean into a loving God to show us the way.

Then Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering,
 and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed,
and after three days rise again.  -Mark 8:31
What is the role of prayer or meditation in easing our suffering? How does leaning into the holy, the divine, the mysteries of this universe and our alignment with all of creation, help us transform our ills, and make a way through our seasons of struggle?
He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, 
“Get behind me, Satan!
For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” –Mark 8:32-33
In session four of our “Following the Spirit” discernment series, we focus on the role of suffering in our vocations. As we prepare for this course, we consider different “tools” for helping our discerners navigate difficulty and find a way to hear God’s voice in their present circumstances and their larger life callings.
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, 
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves
and take up their cross and follow me.
For those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” 
-Mark 8:34-35 
Tonglen meditation is one tool we draw on to teach the transformation of struggle and suffering.
In this Buddhist-meditation practice, we find the intersecting Christian teachings of compassion and forgiveness and the Salesian virtue of gentleness. In the process of this practice, we may experience deep consolation and healing.We invite you to try it.

TONGLEN MEDITATION

Here are the abbreviated steps of this meditation practice. For a lengthier explanation and teaching, see American Zen Buddhist Joan Halifax’s “Meditation: Tonglen or Giving and Receiving: A Practice of Great Mercy”  

Find a comfortable posture, palms up, eyes closed, feet on the ground. This work takes great courage. Trust your ability to do it, as you align with your heart’s deepest wells of love and the mercy and kindness you possess.

1) Identify a source of suffering or struggle within your own life. How have you experienced hurt? Fear? Resistance? Doubt? Shame? Breathe in the experience, imagining it as hot, heavy air or smoke, including the feelings that accompany your hurt. Let them touch every part of your being. Exhale loving kindness and mercy. Imagine this as light, loving air.

2) Consider the suffering or hurt of a beloved friend or family member. Breathe in their pain, recognizing you are not alone in your struggle. See how they hurt in their circumstances and invite the mercy and kindness of your heart to transform this woe. Exhale loving kindness.

3) Recognize the hurt or pain in an acquaintance – someone you see on the street, driving in a car, in your place of work, or at the gym or grocery store. Breathe in their pain, and exhale loving kindness.

4) See your would-be enemy, and envision how they hurt. Let their struggle enter your imagination, and trust your heart’s ability to be softened and hold their pain. Inhale deeply and exhale loving kindness and mercy.

5) Consider your pain, that of your beloved, what ails the acquaintance or stranger, and that of your would-be enemy as one: inhale the collective hurt of all and exhale loving-kindness. Recognize how connected all suffering is, and your power to send love and light, joy and kindness to all.

On Suffering: Finding Comfort in Community

Visionary, abstract, digital, and fractal art by Jack Haas.

Visionary, abstract, digital, and fractal art by Jack Haas.

by Melissa Borgmann-Kiemde, Visitation Companion

I hurt my eye. After thirty years of wearing contacts, it got dry. It turned red. It really started to ache — so I went in to the eye doctor and she informed me that the surface looked like the equivalent of a “dry, cracked and bleeding hand.” She immediately instructed me to quit wearing my contact lenses, gave me some drops and an antibiotic gel to put in  twice a day. A week later, things were worse. When I returned to the doctor, she told me how glad she was that I had come back. Turns out, it was much more serious than she initially thought: I had a herniated cornea.

For eighteen days, I was in a lot of pain. I mean a lot. My entire eye socket throbbed. I couldn’t bear to have the lights on, window shades open, or be in the sun. I wore dark glasses – I had five different pairs of varying shades to protect my eye and the non-stop headache that accompanied my blurry vision. I cried a lot and craved daily naps and early bedtime hours. I was prescribed a much more potent antibiotic to apply hourly. And I was told to just wait.

How do we conduct ourselves in any kind of prayerful manner when we are physically suffering? (Are we called to be polite patients of injury? Or our authentic “ouchy” selves?) What does our state of mind/ heart/ spirit reveal about us in our most vulnerable states? Where do we put our trust? How do we wield our anger or rage? What do we make of our most wanting selves?

These are some of the questions that have come to me in my reflections on this past month’s experience. My eye is on the mend, but now I’m inviting my heart to catch up with what I’m learning about such physically uncomfortable journeys.

In the Visitation community this past month we have had four of our six sisters endure physical challenges: starting on Easter Sunday, when Sr. Karen slipped on a slice of remaining sidewalk ice and shattered her ankle. Following the spill, and subsequent surgery requiring new pins put into her body, were two planned surgeries that likewise addressed the repair of body parts. Sr. Mary Virginia got a new knee and Sr. Mary Margaret had heart surgery. In the space of these medical procedure navigations there was another slip on some unseasonal sidewalk snow that left Sr. Suzanne with a sprained ankle. (And this doesn’t even count the two brain surgeries that Sr. Mary Frances had last Fall!)

In the midst of all this physical discomfort, I have found radiant spirits. I have witnessed faithful, joyful women with confidence in their recoveries, who have sought solace in a resurrected Christ who carries all of our wounds and helps us trust in transcendence.

While I have been weeping and wining in my process of healing, the sisters have been praying for me. When I believed myself to be possibly forever disabled, or unable to endure another hour of watery eyes, excruciating headache and bright light, the sisters invited me into a space of comfort and alliance with their knowing and faithful community anchored in the Living Jesus. I wasn’t alone.

This kind of comfort, community, is priceless. I invite you today to reflect with me on where you find such alliance in love.

“You have to love….It is the reason you are here on Earth.”

by Melissa Borgmann-Kiemde, Visitation Companion

A former student sent me the following words. I find such balm in them and in this young woman’s thoughtfulness.  I am deeply moved by the author Louise Erdich’s ability to inspire and capture our heart’s compelling nature to love beyond fear, death, suffering, betrayal, woe. I invite your prayerful meditation on this text this day. Perhaps these words will speak to you and your own place in life and discernment?

“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on Earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near… Let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.” – Louise Erdich, “The Painted Drum LP”