Monasteries of the Heart

Monks in Our Midst: Susan Baller-Shepard on What's Left to Shed?

 “No matter how much suffering you went through, you never wanted to let go of those memories.”
— Haruki Murakami

 “There ain't no way you can hold onto something that wants to go, you understand? You can only love what you got while you got it.”
― Kate DiCamillo, Because of Winn-Dixie

We'd just arrived at the campfire at the retreat when the stranger beside me threw her journal into the fire.

"Done with that," she said aloud, as I watched the open book, face down, sit and smolder on the logs burning in their tee pee shape.

"Wow!" was all I could manage to say, "Wow! You just did that!"

We were settling into our seats around the fire and the retreat got started. I learned this woman was seventy-two. I asked her, "Why did you do that?"

"I really needed to let go of that," she said, "it was weighing me down. I'm done with that. I don't want to carry that any more."

            It took a long time for her thick journal to catch fire. It sat and smoked atop the logs. I sat in my camping chair and just watched it. Then the flames licked its edges, and finally the whole thing caught fire and it fed the flames for a very long time. It provided fuel for a long time before it was gone. Like that. Gone.

            For those of us who journal or write regularly, can you imagine doing that? I journal daily and the thought of a journal going into the flames really was stunning to see. First of all, she did this at the beginning of the retreat. She was ready to let it go. She also threw it in with no big ceremony, she tossed it on the fire like the rest of us were placing logs onto the fire. When the journal sat there, unharmed for so long, with smoke billowing up from below it, I wondered if she had any second thoughts. Did she want to reclaim it? Did she feel she'd acted rashly? Did she want to reclaim it?

            This woman was fun and funny and had experienced a great deal of change in her life. I thought, "I want to be like her. I want to be able to let go when it's time to let go."

            I thought that burning journal was a great metaphor for the spiritual path. Are we willing to give up what no longer serves us in the faith journey? I know some of us are much better at this than others. I had a college roommate who was an incredible de-clutterer and if something did not serve a purpose, it was gone. I wish I was like that spiritually. I turn things over to God, saying, "All Yours God, do with this as you wish," and then I promptly take it back, scorching my hands trying to reclaim it all.

            What struck me at this retreat was the ease with which women were lightening their loads. There was a clarity about the need to get rid of any impediments in the faith journey. As a teacher of comparative religions, it reminded me of Frank Fools Crow, an Oglala Lakota, who said we are to be a "clean hollow bone" for the Spirit to move through. It reminded me also of Jains who believe that karma can stick to our souls (they use the term jiva) and humans must work to get "unstuck."  It also reminded me of Paul's letter to the Hebrews 12:1-3 (NRSV)

            Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.

            A great light has come. With Emmanuel, may we lay aside the weight(s) that slow us, the sin(s) that cling so closely, let us lay them down, so we might follow God more closely, that our feet might feel lighter for the path before us. May our hands not clench, but let go freely in this season.

Rev. Susan Baller-Shepard is a co-founder and editor of Spiritual Book Club with its blog "Real People, Real Lives, Real Spirituality" with over 200 interviews from around the world. Susan blogs for the Huffington Post religion section and is author of Matching Yu. She teaches religion at Heartland Community College in central Illinois, where she lives with her family.

1. In this season of shorter days and longer times of darkness, what do you need to throw into the fire of God's consuming love? What will lighten your load?

2. What have you carried for too long, that you wish to shed now?

3. Who helps you to lighten your load?

4. Sometimes our burdens become so much a part of us that we have a hard time letting go when it's time to let go. If you let go of this, will you still be you? Why or why not?

5. Do you trust God with what's next, if you experience this letting go?

6. What is your prayer about this, this season?

Please share your reflections with us here.




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