Saturday, October 25, 2008



Have you ever happened upon a wilderness lakeside or mountain stream and discovered human built stacks of stones? You’ve been in the presence of an international, informal club of stone-stackers. Better yet, wade right into the wilderness, choose out a good sturdy base-stone and join the club. You’re well on your way to spending a carefree afternoon, wasting time in the sun by the lake. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned in improving life's balancing act from stacking stones.

Find the Center
Most everything has a center. The earth rotates on a central axis. From the center of that axis radiates a modest little force we call gravity, drawing all other objects towards the center. Try a simple test. Balance a yardstick on your finger. Lay the number 17 or 19 on your finger and watch the stick fall. Then place your finger under the number 18 and watch it balance easily. Stacking stones calls a person to the center. Simply put, the spirituality of returning and resting in God quietly moves us to the center, to the balancing point where impossible loads become possible to bear. 

Allow for Failure
I remember one sunny afternoon at a lakeside a few years ago. One of our sons spent several hours on a single stack of stones. Over and over again, he would raise one stone upon another and over it would topple. He allowed for failure, and finally stuck the stack into a thing of improbable beauty, seven large round stones raised to a height above his head. No two stones alike. Stone stacking requires plenty of trail and error. Find a stone you think will work. Find what you think is the center. Set it gently upon the stone beneath to see how its weight is received by the stack. Make adjustments. Who cares if it knocks the whole stack down? Try it again. Learn the patient art of allowing for failure.

Get Support
One of the little tricks we’ve often used in stone stacking is the use of little stone wedges, or chinks, to help support uneven stones. Part of the delight of stone stacking is the lack of uniformity in a pile of stones. Stacking bricks holds little interest for me. But why not add an odd wedge of stone here and a prop there to give the whole structure more stability. Often, I’ve been propped up and found my center by the chinking support of a wise word from a friend, a friendly gesture of a stranger or even from a circumstantial event that filled the gap at the right time. Look for these little supports in the day.

Step Away
After you’ve set a few stones on the stack, take a few steps back, and look. Admire the creation. Inspect the angles. See how the sun plays on the faces of the stones. Get a feel for the whole. With most tasks, we get so caught up in the labor that we forget to take time to step away for a moment, just to pause, look, take a few breaths, and admire our work. Often, within this pause, I’ve felt the sense of where the stones are heading and plunged back into the lake with renewed vigor and clarity to finish the stack.

Enjoy Yourself
Take delight in stacking stones. You will not be entering the Pacific Northwest regional championships with this pile. There is no first prize. Your boss will not be writing up a performance review at the end of the day. There’s no deadline. Just you, the lake, and a pile of stones. Splash about, get wet, pretend you’re a child all over again, and set another stone on the stack. The first year our family began stacking stones on the north shore of Lake Quinault in the Olympic National Park, people walked by to gawk at the odd stone statues lining the shore along a rocky point. “What are they?” people would ask. Our answers varied from year to year. To be honest, I’ve never quite understood what they are or why we build them. Part of the answer lies in the wonder of childhood, in the delight children take at playing with the good earth at the edge of the water. The other part comes from that mysterious side of every human, no matter the age, language, culture, nationality or tribe. We all have an inner compass for the center and find delight in the beauty and challenge of keeping our lives in balance.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

"Corn Lily" Abstract I

also known as False Hellebore or veratrum californicum


I saw a stranger today.
I put food for him in the eating-place
And drink in the drinking-place
And music in the listening-place.

In the Holy name of the Trinity
He blessed myself and my family.
And the lark said in her warble
Often, often, often
Goes Christ in the stranger's guise.

O, oft and oft and oft,

Goes Christ in the stranger's guise.


This anonymous “Celtic Rune of Hospitality” is from the Isle of Iona, Scotland, discovered in the Iona Community gift shop on an art card, September, 2005. The painting is "Christ at Emmaus" by Rembrandt. Though a Dutchman, and not a Celtic painter, Rembrandt captures the spirit of Celtic hospitality in his earthy welcome to the Stranger who is Christ.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Misty Mountains


God, gather and turn my thoughts to You.
With You there is Light,
You forget me not.
With You there is Help, and with You there is Patience.
I do not understand Your Ways,
But You know the Way for me.
~Prayer by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)
Bonhoeffer, German Pastor, Theologian and Writer, was executed by the Gestapo on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before the Allied Forces liberated that concentration camp.

This prayer is also a beautiful song composed by the Taize' Community in Taize', France.

Saturday, October 4, 2008


Several evenings a week, I arrive home from work before my wife. I get out two wine glasses, set them on the wood countertop in our kitchen, uncork a bottle of Pinot Noir, and wait for my wife’s return. I love the expression on her face when she comes up the stairs to be greeted by those two empty wine glasses. As she sets down her things, I pour the wine, we clink our glasses and raise a toast of gratitude for the goodness of life.

The Tao of the empty chalice. A couple of thousand years ago, an elderly Chinese man, weary with the world, walked through the eastern gates of his town, abandoning human society to live out whatever years remained in the wilderness of solitude. The legend tells us that a young person called out to him, begging the sage to impart a word of wisdom before he departed. The Tao Te Ching, a collection of Chinese wisdom poems written by Lao Tsu was the fruit of that brief encounter at the city gate. According to these poems, the Tao, the source of all life, is described in many ways, including as an empty chalice, a bellows, the hollow center of a wheel, a doorway and a window.

The Tao is an empty vessel; it is used, but never filled.

The space between heaven and earth is like a bellows.

The shape changes but not the form;

The more it moves, the more it yields.

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub; it is the center hole that makes it useful.

Shape clay into a vessel; it is the space within that makes it useful.

Cut doors and windows for a room; it is the holes which make it useful.[i]

The emptiness of the chalice anticipates the filling. Without the empty hollow within the glass, there is no filling. In the mystery of the emptiness is the wonder of fullness. But how are we to discover that empty space within the chalice of our souls? What about all that other material things of this world that fills that empty space? What happens to all that stuff? And what about the filling? When does that happen? The Tao of the empty chalice reveals three great movements of the human soul.

The first movement of the soul is acceptance. Accept the present moment as an empty chalice awaiting your return. Accept the soul truth, as uncomfortable as it may feel, that you’ve filled your chalice with rocks rather than with good wine. Taste the thirsty condition of your soul and tell yourself that you were not put on this planet to drink rocks.

The second movement of the soul is abandonment. Abandon the fears you’ve held, the fears of letting go of your control of selfhood. Abandon the utilitarian approach to life, which demands that everything be useful and practical. Abandon your need to control your future. Try letting go of the gripping anxiety which comes from knowing you have little control over your future. Set down your briefcase, filled with your important functional tools: your laptop, your business calendar, your appointment book, your palm planner, your checkbook, your pager, your cell phone, all the tools of your busy self. Give your busy self away to the moment, the present moment. Empty the chalice of your soul.

Try a simple physical exercise. Tense up your shoulders by raising them as high as you can. At the same time fill your lungs with air. Then, as you slowly release the air from your lungs, slowly drop your shoulders and breathe out a long, audible sigh. Let it all go. Let your body go limp from the waist up, finishing as a rag doll hanging down. Have a little chuckle at the oddity of taking life so seriously. Self-denial. Self-sacrifice. Self-emptying. Self-abandonment. Self-renunciation. These are the words used by the religions of the world to describe the interior spiritual discipline of emptying the chalice of your soul. Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam. The globe is circumscribed with such faith practices of emptying. The Greek word for empty is keno, the name chosen in Oregon for one if its lotteries. While lottery tickets will indeed have an emptying effect upon your wallet, the real soul work of kenosis, of emptying our lives of self-centeredness, lies at the heart of the great faiths around the world.

The third movement of the soul is receptivity. It comes as a sheer gift, the gift of grace. The odd thing about this gift is it can only be given to an empty chalice. Here’s how Thomas a’ Kempis expressed this truth in his spiritual classic, The Imitation of Christ:

The sooner you resign yourself with your whole heart to God, and no longer seek anything according to your own will or pleasure, but totally place yourself in His hands, the sooner you will find that you are united to God and are at peace.[ii]

In returning and rest, we allow our chalice to be filled. We open our souls to the gift of indwelling, of soul renewal: the gift of goodness after corruption, of peace after disjointedness, of rest after a stressful day, of quiet after too many words. The pinot noir is uncorked ready to be poured out. Clay is molded into a chalice. Because of the Tao of the empty chalice, the hollow, empty place deep within our soul may be filled with Christ’s gift of new wine.

[i] Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching, Translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1972), 4, 5, 11.

[ii] Thomas a’Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, A Translation from the Latin by Joseph N. Tylenda, S.J., (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1998), 209.