Do You Have a Portable Paradise?

         I recently gave a sermon focusing on the famous verse from Psalm 23 in which the writer compares God to a shepherd who “… makes me lie down in green pastures…leads me beside still waters…(and) restores my soul.” 

The next day, a parishioner sent me this poet by Trinidadian writer, Roger Robinson:

“A Portable Paradise”

“And if I speak of Paradise,

then I’m speaking of my grandmother

who told me to carry it always

on my person, concealed, so

no one else would know but me.

That way they can’t steal it, she’d say.

And if life puts you under pressure,

trace its ridges in your pocket,

smell its piney scent on your handkerchief,

hum its anthem under your breath.

And if your stresses are sustained and daily,

get yourself to an empty room – be it hotel,

hostel or hovel – find a lamp

and empty your paradise onto a desk:

your white sands, green hills and fresh fish.

Shine the lamp on it like the fresh hope

of morning, and keep staring at it till you sleep.”

We seem to have inherited a strong imprint of such places from our hunting and gathering ancestors. If we live in a desert climate, “green pastures” and “still waters” give us a sense of safety and hope; if we live on a Caribbean island, it may be “white sands, green hills and fresh fish.”  Such places speak to us of life, rest, and restoration.

This past week, I asked friends where they go when they want to have such an experience.  Some say it’s a quiet place in their backyard.  Others say it’s a specific beach, park, or trail.  Many people will name places in Hawaii or the Sierras.  

We can carry such places with us in our imaginations.  As the poet says, such a place can become our own “portable paradise.”  We can go there in times of anxiety and uncertainty, when we are facing an important decision, or when we simply want to remember who we are.

Hospice counselors I know encourage their clients to identify and carry such “safe places” with them so they can imagine being there when feeling worn down by grief. One bilingual counselor told me that some of her Latino clients have never been to places like Hawaii or the Sierras, nor could they identify a safe place from personal experience.  She would encourage them to choose a color that might work, and they often chose blue.

For more than a decade, we’ve spent time every summer in the town of McCloud at the foot of Mt. Shasta.  There’s an old 9-hole golf course there at the edge of the pine forest.  I’ve played it many times by myself in the late afternoon and early evening when it’s just the course, the creek, the mountain, the deer, and me.  During COVID, if I was having a hard time sleeping, I’d play a round in my imagination. I would see myself preparing for and executing each shot, then walking patiently to the next one.  I didn’t keep score, and often fell asleep before finishing the round.

Calling such places to mind is like tasting delicious food – we can take our time, savoring each aspect of the image as it speaks to us.  Our egos may get impatient, nagging us about the urgent things we need to do.  But we can tell our busy minds we’ll be right back after a break.  When we take time to let our imagination become a servant to our soul, we can find those “paradise places” within that bring us back to life.

Top image: “Picnic in Paradise,” by Steve Barton; Lower image, “Deer Finding Lost Ball,” McCloud Golf Club

The Mysteries of Prayer

Last year I visited the Getty Villa in Malibu. This is Mr. Getty’s effort to recreate his own lavish Roman residence on the California coast. I spent two hours there. I read about the effort and expense used to create the buildings, gardens, and galleries. But it left me feeling empty. I’ve lost interest in seeing monuments emperors and billionaires build to celebrate themselves and their accomplishments. 

But in one of the gardens, I came across this statue, “Woman Praying”:

I took note of the posture, then looked closely at the face:

I was fascinated.  And puzzled.  Why would this interest me?  There’s nothing remarkable in her expression – it seems almost blank. But after standing there a while, I realized I wasn’t drawn to the sculpture itself.  Instead, I found it raised questions for me: What would this anonymous Roman woman’s inner experience have been like?  What was she thinking? What was she feeling? Was she using a formula she had been taught or was she improvising?  Was her prayer about some critical decision, or just an ordinary part of her day?

            I could Google around and probably get specific answers to my questions.  But I didn’t want to answer the questions as much as tend them – letting them draw me into my own reflections on the experience of prayer.

            Some might think I should be an expert.  For over 40 years I have been studying, reading, reciting, hearing, and composing prayers drawn from 3,000 years of Western traditions.  I’ve been at Buddhist retreats focusing on meditation and “Metta” prayers. I’ve attended Native American ceremonies, where ancestors and the Creator are honored.  I had no clue as to what might have been in this woman’s mind and heart. Yet somehow, I felt a kinship.

            This statue came back to me recently after reading, “When I Prayed to Buddha, God was Listening,” an article by a woman named Sida Lei.  Ms. Lei was raised as a Buddhist in Cambodia. At age 10, the Khmer Rouge came into her city and expelled the residents. She writes, “When the Khmer Rouge split my family apart, sending me away to a child labor camp, my mother knelt over me and whispered, “If ever you are in trouble, Sida, pray to God. He will help you.” Of course, the god I pictured was the great stone statue of Buddha. There were no other gods I knew.” Her mother died of starvation and her father was taken away, never to be seen again.  She became responsible for her four siblings, and they were incarcerated in the countryside.

            Eventually, she and her siblings decided to attempt an escape. They fled into the jungle and came across an abandoned temple with a broken statue of Buddha. Drawn to the statue, she prayed for guidance. She felt prompted to flee to Vietnam with her siblings. So began a perilous journey. Eventually, they arrived at a refugee camp in Thailand and she was filled with gratitude. 

That first night she heard a song in the distance, “Amazing Grace.”  The next day she went into town to discover where the music had come from.  She was directed to a church.  She asked some women there if they had been the ones singing and they said they were.  They told her they sang praises to God daily. She began attending.  Eventually, she and her siblings were able to come to the U.S., sponsored by a Catholic church in upstate New York.  She is now a clinical microbiologist in Virginia.

            Sida Lei prayed for guidance to Buddha, who was the divine image her culture and mother had given her. Time and again she felt she received guidance.  The focus of her prayer changed when she found herself in another culture, [i]but she did not feel she had to disown one to embrace the other.  She had been in a time of desperate need, reached out as best as she could, and eventually experienced deliverance.

A deep tenet in Western traditions is a conviction that there is one God, and no other images or concepts should be worshipped.  One should be very careful to pray for appropriate things in an appropriate way.  I understand the context of this belief.  But if a human being of any culture is reaching out to an unseen presence with all their heart — might that be enough?

My spiritual awakening began in my early 20s in a time of crisis.  At that age, I didn’t believe in anything beyond what I could see and understand rationally. But I was desperate.  I decided to pray.  What did I pray? I don’t remember.   Maybe I made it up or maybe I tried to recite something I’d heard as a child.  Three days later I became aware that I wasn’t as desperately afraid as I had been that night, and something like a calm point of light had entered my darkness. No claims were made on me to take a specific action or adopt a particular belief – what I’d been given was a pure gift.  Several years later I began attending a church and learning all the different words, images, forms, and experiences one can use in praying.  I am aware of the countless questions raised over the centuries, like “Why are some prayers answered and some not?” And I understand why many people are skeptical about prayer.  But I don’t let my lack of understanding stop me from praying.

I don’t know what this Roman woman experienced, what forces were at play in Sida Lei’s escape, or what exactly happened to me many years ago.  It’s a mystery. But I have a feeling that it’s more about sincerity and an open heart than having the right form.  And I know the outcome can be amazing.

(Prior posts on prayer include Turning Toward the Serene Light and ACTS: A Simple Form for Personal Prayer)

NOTE: This piece was written without assistance from any Chatbots or A.I. programs. The author has been tempted by emails encouraging him to let a computer “write your blog for you,’ but so far, he has refused to accept such help. He’d rather do the work himself and create something flawed than have a “superior product” created by a sophisticated device.

[i] When I Prayed to Buddha, God was Listening

A-C-T-S: A Simple Form for Personal Prayer

Decades ago, I came across a simple structure for personal prayer I’ve since used countless times. This prayer form is one that works well when you want to pray for the needs of others (the “Serene Light” prayer I wrote about last week is more of a meditation). I like the way it moves from point to point and how it is easy to remember and adapt. When I complete it, it feels like I’ve covered the important bases.  It’s uses A-C-T-S as an acronym … Appreciation, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication.

The ACTS prayer will be familiar to some, but I’ve adapted it to make it my own. I start with “Appreciation” rather than the traditional “Adoration.” I avoid stock phrases about God, and don’t dwell on “sin.” My focus is on moments of personal awareness leading to the needs of others. What I’m offering is my own, custom version, not the standard one.  Adapt it as you like.

APPRECIATION – Some prayers start with something like, “Thank you for all my blessings,” but that general statement doesn’t capture actual moments to be savored.  Instead, I begin by recalling at least seven recent experiences I’ve had that feel like blessings – tangible reminders of how good it is to be alive, even amid difficulties.

         Here’s seven moments that came to me recently:

  1. My breakfast Thursday morning — that toasted half of a poppy seed bagel with cream cheese and the last of the smoked salmon.
  2. The lunch I had yesterday with A., catching up on two years of each other’s lives.
  3. The hour my wife and I spent with our seven-month-old granddaughter on Wednesday. She cried because she missed her mom, but the smile on her face when mom came back was something to behold.
  4. Completing the first six weeks of the interim pastoral work I’m doing and meeting new people.
  5. The swim in the ocean I had last week, knowing the ocean where we live is not always warm enough for an old guy to enjoy.
  6. Going to the fish market yesterday and buying fresh yellowtail, grilling it, and eating it.
  7. A good night’s sleep last night — only awoke once.

If we don’t stop and intentionally remember these kinds of blessings, we can easily forget them, and they’ll be lost.


         I don’t make this into a time to grovel or heap guilt on myself, but to simply reflect on the last few days to see what regrets come to mind…things I said or did, or opportunities to do better that I missed; e.g., “The moment when I lost my patience when we were moving furniture the other day.”  It’s taking an inventory of my behavior with the aim of doing better in the future, but not getting stuck in regret.


         I use this prompt to express gratitude for the divine presence in my life that is always ready to receive my “confession” in a way that encourages me to keep learning how to live.   “God does not love as we love,” the French mystic Simone Weil said, “God loves as an emerald is green.” I take a moment to accept the divine compassion.


         Here’s where I turn to specific situations or people that I want to pray for.  Like the “Metta” prayer in Buddhism, it begins with personal concerns and then moves outward to situations beyond me.

         I begin by visualizing our youngest daughter, her fiancé, and his family. I ask they be surrounded with divine light, strength, and goodness.

         I turn to our middle daughter, her husband, each of their three children, and then to members of his family with the same request.

         I pray for our oldest daughter, her son, and her ex-husband.

         I see my wife and ask for her to be blessed.

         I turn to myself, focusing first on my health, my personal journey, and whatever work or projects I’m involved in currently.

         Sometimes I shift to members of our extended family who are on my mind.

         My attention then moves to specific people I know who are facing health issues, depression, important decisions, or uncertainty.  This may be personal friends or situations I have learned of recently.

         I end by imagining my mind being clear and open and being receptive for any intuitions, prompts or ideas that may arise.  If I sense something, I note it, but I’m not straining for anything…just making my consciousness available.   

         When I’m done, I may simply bow my head and silently say, “Thank you.”

         I’ve used this ACTS prayer form many times in my life.  It’s particularly fitting to do after yoga or some mindfulness practices.  Like the “Serene Light” prayer, I’ve used it on airplane flights, sleepless periods in the night, outside of hospital rooms, and in quiet times in the morning – any place or situation when I would like to center myself in gratitude and compassion for others.

         If we are turning to prayer because we are worried about something or someone else, we may feel tempted to skip the first three parts and get to “supplication.”  But I’ve found taking each step in turn puts me in a better place to pray for others rather than just rushing there right away.

Does it make any difference? Who knows! I’ve been surprised by how many times I’ll bring a familiar concern to mind and realize something good has occurred since the last time I prayed for it. But not always. It’s not magic. 

I remember a story about CS Lewis.  A friend was skeptical that praying accomplished anything and said examples of “answered prayer” describe positive outcomes that are, in fact, just coincidences.  Lewis responded, “Maybe so, but the funny thing is, the more you pray, the more positive coincidences seem to happen.”

Turning Towards the Serene Light

         In my lifetime, I’ve explored many kinds of prayers, meditations, mantras, mindfulness techniques and awareness exercises.  I’ve used them to help me on my personal journey, to occupy myself at night when I can’t sleep, to center myself before walking into difficult situations, and to share them with others in classes and retreats. One ancient prayer I keep coming back to is the “Serene Light” prayer.  Some of you may already know it. I want to share it and include some personal comments.

         This prayer arose in the Eastern Orthodox tradition centuries ago. In the simplest sense, it uses light as a metaphor of the divine presence – light in darkness being one of the most common metaphors in global spiritual traditions.  It’s not dependent on you believing any specific religious doctrines, but only on a simple desire for a spiritual connection.

         Like many prayers, its effectiveness depends on our intention — the way in which we recite it.

A writing teacher once said that the difference between prose and poetry is that good prose keeps you moving from one idea to the next, speeding up as you go along.  Good poetry – and prayers — are different.  They invite you to slow down, pause and think about what each phrase means, letting it linger and speak. It’s like putting flower petals on water one by one and watching each one float before you add the next one. Or sipping a good glass of wine instead of gulping it down.  The “savoring” approach lets each image or thought take shape and sink in; our sense of time slows down, which eases us into a more reflective state of awareness.

So, here’s the prayer, followed by some of my comments on each phrase:

Serene light,

shining in the ground of my being,

draw me to yourself.

Draw me past the snares of the senses,

out of the mazes of the mind.

Free me from symbols, from words,

that I may discover the signified,

the word unspoken,

in the darkness,

which veils the ground of my being

  • “Serene light” – the light I seek is not glaring or flashing, but calm and quiet. It radiates peace and strength. It is unaffected by my fears and anxiety. In the mystical traditions this light is at the heart of all creation. 
  • “shining in the ground of my being” – In one way, this light is beyond the busy-me that chatters all day. But in another way, it lies deep within me, at my center.  It shines, and in so doing offers me a focus, a goal, and a presence.  I imagine it shining within me.  
  • “Draw me to yourself” – Like a thirsty animal seeking water during a drought, I affirm my desire to come closer to this light.  I am not asking to abandon my own sense of self or avoid my responsibilities. But I want some help, some aid, some infusion of peace as I face what is before me. I trust the light will help me.
  • “Draw me past the snares of the senses” – We are wired to have our attention react quickly to many kinds of stimuli.  If I see something move, my eyes immediately evaluate what it is. If I hear a sound, my brain is compelled to analyze the source.  The same is true of all my senses. I can spend every minute of the day being subject to these distractions, becoming “ensnared” in the constant flow of information. But in this moment, I want to slow down, reduce the mental static, and not give in to distractions. I am choosing instead to seek the light.
  • “…Out of the mazes of my mind.” Just as my senses can keep me constantly distracted, so my mind is in the habit of jumping from one thought to the next, creating strategies and scripts to protect or promote myself.  But right now, I want to ascend above the clouds to see a greater horizon; I want to rise above the “mazes”.
  • “Free me from symbols, from words…”  Most moments of awareness are dependent on ordinary things and familiar concepts, but we can reach beyond them. In this prayer, I am using symbols and words like “light” and “mazes”, but those are not my goal. Beyond my cluttered, ordinary thinking is something greater I can sense when I am still.
  • …that I may discover the signified, the Word unspoken.”  There are endless names for the divine; Islam alone offers 99. Each word suggests a specific spiritual experience and relationship, but all are limited to a specific aspect of our understanding.  In saying this prayer, I want to go beyond all language and move closer to the “serene light.”   Ultimately, I seek the source of the light, which I cannot fully know. But I don’t need to “know” it in an ordinary sense — I only need to draw close to it.
  • “…in the darkness which veils the ground of my being.” The darkness is not a forbidding or dangerous darkness — it’s “dark” because I can’t ever “see” the “ground of my being” as I can an everyday object.  It’s the mysterious dimension in which our souls exist.

It’s ideal to memorize the prayer so it’s available whenever we want it.  And it’s important to know that we don’t have to look for immediate results to experience its power.  Sometimes it’s enough to have taken the time to live within the prayer for a set time, and the effects may be experienced later in the day.  If you do have specific concerns on your mind, you can add those requests after you’ve taken the time to dwell in the prayer; coming from a more peaceful inner space helps us focus what it is we seek.

The “Serene Light” prayer is a gem that I’ve turned to again and again and have always been grateful for where it leads me.  Perhaps it can also be useful to you.

Image: Spika Star, New Forest Observatory

Time to Go Vertical?

Today’s piece begins with a quiz. This photograph is:

  1. My grandson reaching out of our trailer’s skylight to see what it feels like.
  2. A visual metaphor for prayer.
  3. All the above.

            If you answered “c” you are correct.

            Last week’s entry on enlightenment included an homage to Huston Smith. No writer or thinker has inspired me more.  He consistently drew on a lifetime of scholarship and personal experience to make memorable, useful and simple statements.  The statement for today is: “When you find yourself in a difficult place, go vertical.”

            Huston believed that spiritual traditions are based on higher truths.  We live much of our lives “horizontally” – going through the day with routines, assumptions and interactions that serve us well.  But sometimes we run into situations – tragedies, difficult decisions, illnesses, crises — when ordinary ways of thinking don’t help. In those moments we can turn to spiritual truths, passed on to us from people who have transcended ordinary reality to see the bigger picture.  That’s going “vertical.”

            I’m going to share some experiences of “going vertical,” but first I will address concerns thoughtful people may have about “going vertical.” 

            “’Isn’t this an outmoded way of thinking with the divine being “up there” and us “down here?’” It’s a reasonable question.  Many ancient people did believe the divine was too pure or holy to be down in the muck with us.  God must be up at the top of that mountain, far away and safely removed.  Most of us would agree that’s not the way we think anymore.

             If someone asks me, “Where is God?” I would say “everywhere.”  Within each cell of every living creature, as well as all creation, as well as far beyond what we can see or know.  As Psalm 139 puts it:

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.
(New Revised Standard Version)

            Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is not far away, but within us and amongst us.  People experienced his stunning presence right where they lived – they did not have to ascend a mountain.  Buddha was asked where the authority for his teaching came from; he touched the ground and said, “Let the earth be my witness.”  Muhammed taught that Allah is closer to us than our own jugular vein.

            So, we don’t have to go up a mountain to find the divine.    

            But I believe it’s still useful to use metaphors that suggest we “go up” for spiritual truth.

            When your airplane lifts off and you see your town from a higher altitude, you can see where you live with greater perspective.

             “Inspiration Point “is a favorite hiking destination in Santa Barbara.   When you get to the top you have a stunning vista over the town and coastline. It’s in-spir-ing, as in “in-Spirit-ing.”

            So, it’s useful to consider spiritual truths as “Higher” because when we grasp them, many other things come into perspective.

            The trajectory of my life was changed in my early 20s when I was in a personal crisis. I’d been self-absorbed, skeptical of any truth beyond my own reasoning.  But at a moment when I felt my life was going to pieces, I reached out into the unknown and “went vertical:” I prayed for the first time. I’m not even sure what I said. But metaphorically my hand was reaching out into the unknown hoping something “up there” or “out there” might help me.  Three days later, I realized something had changed – at my very center, instead of darkness and fear, there seemed to be a tangible point of light.  I was stunned. I was grateful. It took me a long time to integrate the experience, but my life was literally saved when I “went vertical.”  It was my first experience of grace.

            Ministry is all about helping people “go vertical.”  

            For example, people would make an appointment with me and say, “I think my wife is having an affair with someone at work and I’m worried our marriage may be in danger.”

            I would ask for more background. If appropriate, I would say:

            “One of the most important things you can do is to deepen your spiritual life. This will make you stronger for whatever happens.  If reconciliation is possible, you will have a better sense of who you are and how to repair the relationship.  And if your partner does leave, faith will be a lifeline to take with you into the unknown.”

            In January of 2020, I flew to Vienna on my own for two weeks.  For the first several nights, jet lag kept me awake for hours.  I “went vertical,” spending much of the time reciting the 23rd Psalm in a careful, contemplative way.  I not only got through the night but sensed a kinship with all the people I know who live alone.

            When COVID came, prayer and meditation became even more important.  The divine presence is not threatened by a virus.  I am grateful for the daily renewal I felt in those early months, “going vertical” instead of being shut in by fear.

            There are many issues to explore regarding how we pray and what to expect. But I never regret a moment when I find myself afraid or uncertain and “go vertical,” reaching out for what I cannot see.

            Have you had such experiences?

            “The winds of grace are always blowing, but it is you who must raise the sails.” (Tagore)