Archives

The Mission Is Within

photo by Grant Gillard

photo by Grant Gillard

The primary nectar flow is in full swing and my bees are single-mindedly going about their work. Some guard the hive, others fetch water from the pond, forage for nectar, alert their comrades to new blooms by dancing on the doorstep. They and their mission are one. The mission is within.

And I think of Sr. Alice.

I first met Sr. Alice when she was leading a spirituality and arts center in the congregation’s old dairy barn. Alice is a white-haired wise woman, her features sharp, her eyes kind and laughing. She is a tai chi practitioner, tall and angular, moving effortlessly through the world of spiritual traditions.

Alice’s white barn housed vibrant art and quiet music where the dairy stalls had been. The soaring beams of the hayloft framed a contemplative sacred space. I loved walking past the tall rosemary bushes into the barn, reflecting upon artists’ visions, listening to Alice as she shared her latest spiritual journey. But then it was gone.

The sisters’ retirement complex was next door and needed more space. The barn gave way for senior apartments to expand the sisters’ ministry to serve older adults.

The loss touched my heart. I thought of Alice, the scent of the rosemary and heat bouncing off the Texas sandstone that bordered the barn path, the light coming through the square dairy stall windows. The white barn gave way for a high-rise. I couldn’t imagine how terrible Alice felt about losing that beautiful space.

A few months later I was in San Antonio on the motherhouse grounds walking behind the retirement center. Suddenly, I saw Alice striding toward me, tall and slender in a red shirt and denim skirt. I hurried toward her and blurted out my concern for her and the loss of the barn.

She just smiled. Then she said that she was fine.

The barn was just a place, albeit a beautiful place, but a place all the same. She had been given an office in the retirement center and was carrying out the mission in a new way that she called Chispas, or sparks, for the sparks of the divine that are in each of us.

Alice explained that the mission is within her. The place is unimportant because she carries the mission within wherever she is. The mission manifests itself in whatever she is doing.

I have thought about that conversation with Alice many times. So often we get caught up in the need to possess something, whether it be a place, a project, our job or another person. To varying degrees these things are necessary for us, but they do not define us.

Each of us has a mission.

The bees currently live in a hive box in my yard, but they could swarm and move to a hollow sycamore tree or rotted building eaves. The bees would construct new comb, rebuild the honey stores.

We carry the mission within.

Relationships: Begin as You Mean to Go on

Blue/Purple Vase, Carondelet Pottery

Blue/Purple Vase, Carondelet Pottery

When I am throwing at the wheel, typically I begin as I mean to go on. As I center the clay, I am intentional. For a vase, I keep my left hand firm against the side to maintain a centered clay column; I push down with my right fist and strong arm the clay into a flat disc to create what will become a plate. I begin as I mean to go on.

Recently, a friend was worried about how she would work with a new colleague. She liked this person but, as an introvert, she was worried about being overshadowed. Would she be second fiddle, not because he put her in that place but because she placed herself there?

I told her quite simply,

Begin as you mean to go on.

At meetings, continue to share your perspective and not hold back because your new colleague is the extrovert. Continue doing your part of the work, and don’t carry his water.

It may appear to you that he doesn’t have all of his ducks in a row for a meeting, but don’t begin by assuming he is unprepared and then put yourself in a support role to provide what you think he needs to make his presentation a success. He is a professional and his way of preparing might be quite different, but still successful. And if turns out you were right and he wasn’t as prepared as he should have been, he will learn to do a better job the next time.

You need to establish an equitable relationship from the start and not place yourself in a subordinate role. You are, in fact, colleagues. If you represent yourself as support staff, that is how he will treat you.


When I throw that vase, I establish the parameters from the outset. Because if it starts as a plate, it is almost impossible to force the clay back into a cylinder and pull it up into a vase. The clay particles have been pushed in a different direction. Even if you do force it back, the results are usually not happy.

Begin as you mean to go on.

The Power of Being Present

Alley Springs MO

An essential part of living Incarnational spirituality is the power of presence. Very seldom are we truly present to others and to ourselves. We live in a constant state of distraction.

Technology brings the work world home and we take pride in being accessible 24-7. Vacations are merely working in another locale as laptops and i-phones keep us connected to the office, but at the cost of being connected to our families, friends, and ourselves. Multi-tasking interferes with our ability to focus on the task at hand. In meetings, it is increasingly rare to have anyone’s full attention.

Recently, I went to a meeting where a philanthropist was talking about her foundation’s work in urban neighborhoods. At the end of her remarks, she asked for questions, and then proceeded to use her Blackberry while simultaneously answering our questions. My suspicion is her texts and tweets are about as trivial for the most part as those that I receive. But what I know for certain is how little value she placed on the conversation at that table that day.

The Power of Being Present

I still remember the first time I experienced the power of presence. I had come to San Antonio to check in with the Congregation and stopped by Sr. Helena Monahan’s office. She was in leadership at that time and her days were spent overseeing the work of a religious order of more than 300 women, traveling to the new missions in Zambia, or working with the University of the Incarnate Word where she was the university’s attorney—her commitments were many.

When I walked through the door, I immediately began our conversation by telling her that I was sorry to interrupt and that I would only need a few minutes to bring her up-to-date on what we were doing in St. Louis.

Her response was to come around the desk, sit down across from me and say, “I am here for you. Take the time the time that you need.“

There is a power in that moment when someone sets everything aside and focuses on what another person has to say. It creates a relationship.

Presence and Incarnational Spirituality

Recently, Helena shared her thoughts on how presence and relationship are essential and stem from Incarnational spirituality.

The divine is in every person. If I put somebody off or don’t take advantage of being with that person, then I have really missed something of that person, of God and of just the experience of living. I try to live that out because it makes life calmer as every moment becomes important.

Sometimes it is challenging to do this when you are with someone that you totally disagree with on important issues. You may just want to scream. That’s the time to step back from your anger and realize this is a human being who has the same reasoning powers and decision-making powers and somehow they’ve come to a different conclusion. I don’t have to agree with them and I can challenge them to the best of my ability and not become emotional. This is a huge discipline.

Recently I’ve been reading and reflecting on Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh which discusses how the tenets of the two faiths are very much alike. A key premise, and I do think it is valid, is that all of life is a continuum.

There is a ‘before I was born’ and there is ‘my life’ and there’s going to be ‘whatever happens after I die’ but really it’s all a continuum. That takes away fear and helps you live in the present moment without worrying about what is going to happen.

It’s very enriching and incarnational since ‘In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.’ The Word will always be. Whatever God is and whatever the Word is – the expression of God – that is what we are trying to live and that is in every person. So that is where I am.

The Gratitude Basket: Centering through Appreciation

Zambian basket A black and tawny yellow Zambian basket sits on my desk corner behind a stack of files. At first glance it appears to be a catchall filled with notecards, clippings and photos, its strong geometrical designs completely hidden. Sometimes I toss something else in the basket but there are weeks or even a month or two when it is untouched. Every so often I take the time to sort through the basket.

I read a note from my late mentor, Sr. Mary Ann, telling me in her precise Catholic school handwriting about how she enjoyed the care package I sent to her when she lived in Italy. Peanut butter is in short supply in Rome. There’s a newspaper clipping of my daughter, Carolyn, playing her harp at some long ago Christmas program at the Arch and a lovely card from Amelia for Mother’s Day last year. A post card I received more than a decade ago from my best friend with a cartoon about spending time gardening rather than laboring at your desk.

I smile at a photo from Chiapas, Mexico and remember the time I spent with the Chol Indians and several of the Incarnate Word sisters at their organic coffee plantation high in the rainforest. The first time I saw bowls of black beans for breakfast I thought they were serving us coffee beans. A handmade note from an agency director who works to alleviate domestic violence catches my eye and I appreciate all that she does to make the world a better place. She moved to Texas a few years ago and I take a moment to send good thoughts her way.

The papers, photos and cards left randomly in a straw basket serve a purpose. The basket centers me. I reflect on what I have been given by these extraordinary people and on the opportunities I have had to give to them in return.

Blue Hole Collage: The Courage to Be Creative

Blue Hole Collage, 2013

Blue Hole Collage, 2013

Most people that know me would say that I am creative and I would agree. I am a potter, a seamstress, and a writer. I knit every day. But even with all of that, there are times when creativity is stifled by fear.

I remember taking a sculpture class at the museum. At first, I fell right into it. We were using clay–my primary medium–an old friend. My teacher was very complimentary; who doesn’t respond to that? I basked in a sense of accomplishment.

And then one day we went up to the gallery to do some sketches prior to sculpting. I sat before a pensive 10th century Buddha. Nothing–I was paralyzed. How could I draw anything? That wasn’t what I knew how to do. How could I meet the expectations, when compared to my work in clay this would be nothing? What was the right way?

Finally the teacher came over and said, “Why haven’t you started? What’s wrong?” And I told him I didn’t know how. He laughed and said, “Of course you do. Let go and just put what you are thinking on the paper.” And I did. It wasn’t a masterpiece, but it didn’t have to be. It was the opening to the creative pathway.

This came to mind a few months ago when I was at the PeerSpirit writer’s workshop on Whidbey Island. One evening early on we were given the option of doing a collage. I was skeptical. How would this help my writing? I am a potter, not a collage artist.

But all of those thoughts were just rationalizations. It really boiled down to fear. How could I create a collage that would pass muster? I didn’t know how to do this. What would people think?

I almost didn’t go that night but the alternative was sitting in my room twisting with recrimination.

I walked over the boardwalk to Marsh House and found a table. We didn’t have hours to do the collage and there was no time for self-doubt.

Within a few minutes, I plotted my course. My writing project centered around the Blue Hole, the headwaters of the San Antonio River, and so would the collage. I shifted through National Geographics and old calendars, at first focusing on anything blue for the water, then beige and taupe for the stone rim. Then came birds, leaves, and branches on the edge and a filmy blue whale’s eye at the vortex. I was caught up in the creativity of the moment.

The Blue Hole Collage opened my mind for the writing that was to come that week. Creativity overcame fear and I was in a new invigorating space.

Walking over the Alder Marsh–Passing Over Obstacles

Alder Marsh, photo by Joanna Powell Colbert

Alder Marsh, photo by Joanna Powell Colbert

Recently I attended a PeerSpirit writer’s retreat at Alder Marsh on Whidbey Island off of the Seattle Coast where I spent a week in a cabin cushioned by soft air among Douglas firs and alders.

Communal gatherings were at the Marsh House, a low round building in a grassy clearing on the far side of the marshland.

Several times each day and evening we’d travel through the watery marsh, sometimes singly and other times in quietly conversing pairs. In the morning weak sunlight struggling through grey clouds and full conifers revealed the way. In the evening fairy lights defined the boardwalk at the turns over black water.

The Alder Marsh was an obstacle. If we tried to walk through it we would have been soaked through by icy water, pushing past floating leaves, tripping over submerged stumps, stirring up the decaying vegetation and sucking mud.

Instead, we walked above it. We were careful–the wooden path was wet with moss and mist. We were observant, seeing the floating leaves, sticks covered with lichen, majestic alders and logs furred by emerald moss.

Everyday in our work we encounter obstacles. Some obstacles are deliberately dropped in front of us; others, intrinsic to the landscape. It’s much tougher if we force our way through. Rather, we can acknowledge what is in our way and walk above it, ending up where we need to be.

Doing Our Part

Magnolia tree in the garden

Magnolia tree in the garden

The magnolia tree is blooming in the garden this week. I try to spend time every morning and evening taking in the heady beauty of creamy brushed-cotton dinnerplate blooms bound to bare branches against the early April sky. One strong spring storm and it will be over, the ground splattered with petals bruised and brown.

And while there might be one or two errant blooms over the summer months, that’s it. What’s the point of a magnolia tree? Two weeks of beauty at most, some years not at all if there is a late frost. The rose of sharon flowers for a much longer period. Lilacs at least have the added value of strong perfume. Magnolias definitely have limits.

Often that’s the case when we take on a project, work in a community, or build personal or professional relationships. No matter how well things go or how hard we try, there are limitations that can lead to disappointment or even a sense of futility. At those times, we need to refocus and consider what we have accomplished or how the relationships do sustain and fulfill us. It is so much easier to see limitations rather than all the good that has occurred.

They are predicting rain for the next few days. But until the storm sets in the magnolia will keep blooming. They continue to do their part, in spite of limitations, and so will I.