Being a Companion

As seen on the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation blog site.

By Stephanie Gretchen Burgevin

2013-02-15 13.59.23How does one support a dear one in your life who is torn apart by something you can’t fix or even fully understand?

There have been times in my life when a loved one has been struggling through an experience that I have never had and can’t totally fathom. I want so much to support this person, but feel encumbered by my lack of experience in the area of their pain.

At times, just physically being with them or carrying the tools of open-hearted listening and physically and emotionally being there are of some solace. No words are necessary, they wouldn’t help anyway.

But there are other times when the person is seeking active support. How do we do that?

I don’t know what suffering from depression, for example, feels like. I can’t think of ways that might help when they ask for it.

As I hold the suffering up in prayer, and hold myself up in prayer as a caregiver, I can feel the Light flowing into both of us. Sometimes that feels like enough. Sometimes their pain is so large nothing feels like enough but I take some solace in knowing they are not alone on this journey and neither am I.

Parker Palmer touches on this in his book Let Your Life Speak. He talks of one of his depressions where a friend was able to just BE with him. “He never tried to invade my awful inwardness with false comfort or advice; he simply stood on its boundaries, modeling the respect for me and my journey—and the courage to let it be—that I myself needed if I were to endure.”

This is “the kind of love that neither avoids nor invades the soul’s suffering. It is a love in which we represent God’s love to a suffering person, a God who does not ‘fix’ us but gives us strength by suffering with us. By standing respectfully and faithfully at the borders of another’s solitude, we may mediate the love of God to a person who needs something deeper than any human being can give.”

When times are scary and dark, hearing, “I am with you” can get us through.

Wake Up Calls: A flash flood

2014-04-25 17.53.11I love the metaphors of nature.

I have seen the effects of two flash floods in the past week. What power!

Last week we were hiking in Bandelier National Monument (New Mexico) and saw the aftereffects of a flash flood that happened in 2011. The wall of trees, picnic tables, and rocks was incredible. Especially since there was only a trickle of a stream running through the canyon at that point.

We got home to Maryland earlier this week and after a day and a half of constant rain, witnessed our own river rise several feet in about an hour. We had a month’s worth of rain in a day. The road was overcome by the flood waters. Nature’s power is awesome.

Once the water receded we could see how far the water went (deep and wide). There is a depth marker and the high water mark’s debris was tangled around 22 feet. You can see the swath of branches, trash, leaves, and trees like a ring around the collar 30-40 feet into the woods on the other side of the road.

Some of us have experienced these flash floods of life, where, out of nowhere we are overcome (or nearly so). There’s that saying, “If you’re going through hell, keep on going.” In other words, keep moving forward so you can work your way out of there.

There is no way to outrun the flood. You can’t just keep doing what you’ve been doing. It’s a totally different wake up call. One that says, you need to completely change course and run to higher ground. The higher ground piece is so important. Take the high road, do what you know is right, and don’t dillydally. Do it now!

Walking through hard times is difficult enough, but I’m hoping none of us need a flash flood to wake us up!

© Copyright 2014. Blessed Journey Blog. All Rights Reserved.

The Blessing of Anger

2014-05-02 17.01.38Here’s one I wrote for Shalem’s blog  I hope you enjoy it.

The Blessing of Anger.

By Stephanie Gretchen. Stephanie is a writer and retreat leader. She is an associate faculty member of Shalem and a graduate of their Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats Program and leads spiritual and secular programs. Stephanie manages Shalem’s blog. You can see more of her writing at

It’s so easy to think of pleasant, lovely things as spiritual. But, what is the holiness of anger? What about jealousy, frustration, being curt? We all get there, we all experience that snap and realize we are in that painful, acidic place. So what is the purpose?

It can certainly be a red flag that we’ve got some work to do in an area. Is it a Holy nudge to work on the real issue at hand somewhere beyond the justifications?

Someone may have truly done something disrespectful or unkind to us, but what is our response? What is our part in the tension between humans? What is there to grow from in this fecund arena called relationship?

What if we are the brutish one? What is Spirit showing us?

I was talking with a friend the other day and they asked me to do something I really didn’t want to do. It wasn’t immoral or painful or anything, but I just really (really, really) didn’t want to do it. So, I said no. I need to actually mark that on the calendar, because that is an unusual event. I’m usually on the self-sacrificial end of the spectrum. The person “mentioned” something about me being selfish. I had a trigger response (body to mouth, no head) and said, “Yes, maybe I’m being selfish, but what I know is that I’m establishing a boundary.” I was angry at being called selfish, but what I realized was that the gift in this was that the anger helped me stand firm in my nascent skill of standing up for myself in this new way.

Hard emotions are not always pretty or clear, but perhaps if we remember that they can be a guidepost or a flag that says, “Pay attention,” we can not only get over that hump, but maybe even dissolve it all together. These too are gifts, reminders that God is with us here too if we are just open to it.

The Gifts of Space

Bison cropMany years ago I was on a hike in the back country of Teddy Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. A beautiful, wild place. The park ranger leading the hike was a sensitive outdoorsman. At lunch he read poetry while sitting under what shade we could find.

He talked of his sense of space, living out there among the wild things (bison, prairie dogs, wild horses, snakes, etc.). We pondered if one’s sense of space was created by where you grew up, or if it could change.

I grew up in the beautiful woods of New Jersey (really)! I loved walking through the forest to one of the streams that ran its course there, pooling into sections deep enough to jump into during the summer. It was idyllic in many ways. I’m not sure if it was the woods, the water, the sunlight through the leaves, the peacefulness of sitting on the porch in the evening hush, or just being close to the heartbeat of the earth, but I was aware of the sense of casting off the shackles of life when I was in nature. I was aware of a freedom and connection even at a young age.

When I roll that ranger’s question around I wonder if it was the woods that formed my sense of space or my time on the beach. Of course growing up in NJ I spent lots of time in or by the ocean. There was a deep sense, a deep knowing that one was in the presence a powerful life force.

But then, as I grew into an adult I developed a deep love and attraction to the high desert. Now, as an adult, that vast openness calls me. I’ve traveled there so many times with friends and family. When in the desert of 6000+ feet I feel like I’m with a partner, I feel a completeness, my longing satisfied.

There is a sense of what is holy, the power and beauty, in just about all environments. If open, we can hear Spirit calling in any location. Where do you find yours?

© Copyright 2014. Blessed Journey Blog. All Rights Reserved.

Be Careful Of What You Pray For

2014-04-25 12.59.24I was watching a program the other day and the woman being interviewed said all kinds of sage things, like

  • Others mirror our unconscious beliefs about ourselves
  • The way someone treats me is how he/she is feeling

But the point that struck me with the most power was when the woman said: when you pray for patience you get a line at the bank. In other words you are given the opportunity to practice what you are praying to learn. We have to put some skin in the game. We can’t just read about it or just pray this new skill falls in our lap. Oh, this is that messy stuff of relationship we’ve talked about!

So, if I’m praying for peace, I’ll get a good dose of chaos so I can practice being peaceful in the muck and mire. If I’m praying for joy, I’ll receive someone’s crummy attitude or infuriating behavior. And if I find myself there time and again, responding in the same way that isn’t working, it’s easy to blame the other person, but isn’t it my response too?! I’m half of this equation. And this situation is what I’ve asked for. This blessing is school to make my prayer come true.

So, my work is to come up with ways to respect myself and the other person in a peaceful way. How can I remember that this soul in front of me is tired and overworked and not just someone trying to yank my chain? The question of who’s “right” and “wrong” becomes irrelevant (and isn’t that an unhelpful question anyway?!).

So instead of my prayer being, “Please get me the heck out of here (or something worse)” it becomes, “Show me how to do this better.” And with that prayer, intention, openness, honesty, and perhaps some grace, we’ll learn this and move on to what’s next.

Blessings on your journey.

© Copyright 2014. Blessed Journey Blog. All Rights Reserved.