Open to Transformation? a story, a poem, and a spiritual practice to foster change-adaptability

In my blog on healing, I glean from perennial wisdom traditions to offer stories, poems, and spiritual practices to foster contemplative reading and writing as a way to nurture a sacred way of life. To learn more about me, check out my home page.

To accept life as it is, we must accept the inevitability of change

When the love-of-my-life spouse and soul mate was diagnosed with dementia-related mild Neuro-Cognitive Disorder (mNCD), it felt like life had sucker-punched me. For months I felt disoriented and breathless, like a non swimmer tossed overboard in the middle of an ocean. And then, with the elation of a ship-wrecked soul when a rope ladder descends from a hovering helicopter, I climbed my way into the loving embrace of the Sisters and Oblates (associates) of Saint Benedict’s monastery. I had found my spiritual home.

In those days, the words “spiritual home” were, for me, synonymous with heaven. And for a while I imagined I had arrived in an other-worldly place. Falling in love is like that. When we’re giddy on happy-hormones, we don’t notice that everything is not, in fact, entirely rosy. In the same way I had fallen in love with him nearly 25 years earlier, I was swept off my feet by the Benedictine way of life. I found a monastery full of soul mates–nearly 200 Sisters and 400 Oblates. And then in December, 2018, a McKnight Foundation grant from the Central Minnesota Arts Board allowed me to set up a Scholar’s office (in Studium) at the monastery to research and write about the habits common to poets and monastics. My first day there, I practically floated from my silent office to the Oratory, where I joined the community in the midday prayers of The Divine Office. It seemed as if blissfully quiet angel-wings of beauty and hope were carrying me.

After prayers, I joined the Sisters for lunch in their dining room, where Sister Mary Rachael asked what I was working on. I told her I was writing a series of essays about how practices common to monastics and poets give our lives meaning. When I said I was going to call my collection Book of Transformations, she grasped both my hands, looked compassionately through the windows of my eyes into the depths of my soul, and tenderly spoke words that sounded like a funeral condolence.

“Oh,” she said. “So you’ll be going through transformation, too. I’ll be praying for you.”

It was a deer-caught-in-the-headlights moment. Coming to the monastery had not brought me to a place of living happily-ever-after.

But why was I surprised to realize that the work of exploring transformation would inevitably transform me? I had, after all, chosen my title from a line in Stanley Kunitz’s poem, “The Layers,” which ends with the words, “I am not done with my changes.”  To live deeply, meaningfully, and truthfully, the poem seems to be saying, is to accept that life–and we who dwell within is circle–are endlessly changing.

Stanley Kunitz Reads “The Layers”

Sigh. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change… To accept life as it is, is to accept that I am not done with my changes.

Thinking I can control life makes it hard for me to accept change. Admitting my need for change requires an inner acknowledgement that I might have been wrong–I could been kinder, more patient, more loving. And that admission is painful. I also cling to a persistent fantasy that someday soon I will reach that happily-ever-after place in my story. But, the truth is, life is no fairy tale.

My book has gone through many transformations, too. I’m finally in the final phases of editing, and I hope to be sharing publication information about Duties of the Spirit: Personhood in a Marriage Transformed by Dementia with you soon.

a poem about the difficulty of accepting the reality of change

As the following poem points out, the truth that we must not only accept change, but also accept our own need to change, is uncomfortable. And human nature tends to see discomfort as a pain to be avoided.

The Wayfarer, by Stephen Crane**

The wayfarer,
Perceiving the pathway to truth,
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
“Ha,” he said,
“I see that none has passed here
In a long time.”
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
“Well,” he mumbled at last,
“Doubtless there are other roads.”

a practice to encourage change-adaptability: Light a Candle

In his book Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, Brother David Steindl-Rast explains that lighting a candle can be an act of prayer. To to begin, gather a candle, a match and striker, and find a dark place where you can be alone for five minutes with your candle.

Take a moment to settle into your body by breathing slowly. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Repeat. Now strike the match, noticing the sound of friction, the smell of chemical reaction.

Pay attention to the flame you’ve kindled, how it grows when the match and wick touch, how it diminishes when you pull the match away. See the smoke rise when you extinguish the match. Notice how the melting wax rekindles the flame. See how the flame of the candle changes the atmosphere of the room–warming the space with light and heat.

Sit with the candle for a few minutes, welcoming the light. Then sit for a few minutes after you extinguish the candle, welcoming the darkness. Say or think, “I welcome changes because to live is to grow, and to grow is to change.”

Perhaps the first step in opening to transformation (in becoming change-adaptable) is to be grateful for life.

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**The poem "The Wayfarer" by Stephen Crane is in the public domain.