The Spiritual Path

I walked at the Stormont Estate in Belfast. Very pretty.

At the airport  gate, I chatted with an older woman who had just walked the Camino in Spain. I’m not really sure where the Camino is. I’m too jetlagged from my Ireland trip to google it. But I think it’s a pilgrimage following in the footsteps of some beloved saint.

The 70ish woman carried only a small backpack. Her feet were tired she said but her boots were sturdy. She lifted a boot to show me.

“Nice,” I said although they were just plain old hiking shoes, not attractive at all. I guess hiking boots are not supposed to be attractive. “They look functional.”

“Some people do hike the Camino in sneakers, but I think you need these.”

“I am going to do that – a spiritual journey,” I nodded.

“Any walk can be a spiritual walk,” she said. “Like you told me you’re from New York. You could walk the Hudson River?”

“Really?” I said. “What’s spiritual about the Hudson?”

“I don’t know. Maybe do Vermont then,” she said.

This is a path Dan Wakefield and I walked at the Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat in Pennsylvania.

I am attracted to the idea of long walks like the Camino, wherever that is, or the Appalachian Trail. Yes, the AT’s cool. You start in the spring in the south and end in the fall in New England. But do you sleep in a cozy bed? I don’t think so. I love a bed and breakfast where someone – not me – makes me coffee.

Maybe I should consider the wise woman’s advice and see the Hudson as a spiritual path. I could blog about it. I might call the new blog, Hiking the Hudson, A Spiritual Journey. Oh, I like the sound of that. The Hudson is beautiful in the fall. Maybe I’ll do the hike this fall when my darlings go back to school.

Wait. The Hudson is too ordinary. I want to do an extraordinary hike — Mount Kilimanjaro or K2 — a climb that will make me famous. Or at least make me feel alive. I might encounter rattlesnakes, freeze to death, stare down a wild boar. But will I sleep in a soft place? I don’t think so. Maybe I should stick with the Hudson and then I can head home every night to my cozy bed on the Upper West Side.

Maybe every walk can be a spiritual walk, just like the elder pilgrim said. Every journey can spark lofty thoughts, philosophical ponderings and celebrations of God.

I believe God is found in nature and in chance encounters on the daily  journey. Maybe God even resides in the ordinary river that I pass every day.

Maybe I don’t have to make a pilgrimage to some distant land and blog about it to find my spiritual path.

I wrote this post at the Ecumenical Library lunchtime writing group at the Interchurch Center led by Tracey Del Duca. The next God Box writing group meets on Aug. 10 and 24. 

What I Mean by Spiritual Autobiography

First Church of Jamaica Plain (Boston), MA
First Church of Jamaica Plain (Boston), MA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
scandinavia (Photo credit: herbstkind)

This morning Kelly forwarded me a question someone had written on our website, “What do you mean by spiritual autobiography? How is that supposed to help us grow?”

I felt defensive. Isn’t it obvious, dear reader?

But I’ve learned that quick email replies have helped my business. Answering random emails is part of the small business owner’s task. This is especially true as I’m trying to get participants to this month’s Writing Workshops. So here’s what I wrote to the person (who did not leave his/her name!)

Here’s what I mean: In the spiritual autobiography class, we look at moments in our lives not as random but as meaningful — small moments and big moments. For ex., being in my Scandinavian grandma’s kitchen was as sacred as church.

We look for the times when we turned one way instead of another — times when we felt found after feeling lost. These are the moments we look for and write about.

How spiritual autobiography helps: We see the pattern in our lives. When we find these threads of holy and sacred throughout our lives, we can create the patchwork quilt of our purpose. Like all quilts, this will warm and comfort us. It will add beauty to our lives.

We see the events in our lives. not as the results of a roll of the dice but as the intentional striving for growth — spiritual and personal growth. But we find within ourselves an increased sense of belonging, responsibility, and purpose.

I base my techniques on my friend and mentor’s book, The Story of Your Life by Dan Wakefield.

I’ve taught this class in weekly sessions and in day-long retreats. Most recently, at the end of March, I led this class for an afternoon session at First Church in Jamaica Plain, Boston. We laughed and cried. It’s a privilege to do this work. Thanks for being interested and for inquiring.

Sincerely, Mary Beth

M.B. Coudal and Dan Wakefield
Me and Dan (Wakefield) on his way home.
Visiting Harvard
I took the kids to the Boston area for their spring break.

The Labyrinth

I really had a lot to do. I had to finish writing two stories. But as I was dashing out of the Experience Hall, I bumped into my friend, Rachel Harvey.

“Great to see you!” I said. Rachel seemed even calmer than usual. “Love to stay and talk but I gotta’ get to the Press Room.” That’s me — busy, busy — but good busy.

“Wait. First, check out the Meditation Room. I just came from there. You can wear a prayer shawl, walk a labyrinth,” Rach said.

I’m a sucker for labyrinths. So I took Rach’s advice and visited the Meditation Room.

There were shawls draped on almost every chair. There were small gardens and a trickle of a waterfall. Women chatted quietly in pairs. Some sat silently by themselves. Some knitted, some quilted, some wrote and posted prayers on a wall.

The labyrinth was in the back. I slipped off my sandals and set off on my path. I was a little leery. Perhaps there were six people ahead of me. That seemed a little too crowded for a meditative walk.

But I walked quickly. I had to hurry. Deadlines loomed. My bare feet liked the feeling as they hit the canvas. My feet slowed down.

I remembered another time I’d walked the labyrinth. Ten years ago, I’d been with my women’s Bible Study group in the basement of Rutgers Church. It was right after I’d given birth to my twins. I’d been feeling ashamed of my body as I walked that labyrinth in the church basement. It wasn’t returning to its shape after my daughters’ birth.

At the center of the labyrinth then, I’d received a gift — a small rock sculpture of an elephant. “That’s me,” I thought. “I have a sagging once-beautiful body and a sagging once-buoyant spirit.” I had to admit to myself, newborn twins were an incredible joy, but also draining. (Literally, too, for I’d breastfed them for a year.)

I’d felt like a humongous mammal. After walking the labyrinth that day, some of my shame lifted. I’d whispered to my friend Holly at the edge of that labyrinth, “The elephant in the center of the walk was a perfect symbol for me. That’s how I feel. And though I know it’s wrong to call myself an elephant, elephants are beautiful too. Even though they’re saggy, they’re strong. Like that elephant, I can go far. That’s me, the elephant,” I said, smiling.

“It’s not an elephant,” Holly said. “It’s just a rock. Look.” And I looked back at the empty labyrinth and she was right, I’d made up the elephant in the center of the labyrinth. It was only a rock.

So, at Assembly this weekend, I wondered in this crowded labyrinth how I’d feel when I reached the center of the labyrinth. What gift awaited me in the center of this walk? It was the word Peace. I knelt down and ran my fingers over the smooth lines of the small sculpture. There was a small bird in front of the letters. (By the way, it was clearly a bird, I didn’t make it up this time.) I loved that little bird. That animal symbolized me too — darting, flying, hurrying, perched.

‘Great, now that I’d had my spiritual experience — Peace, I really have to get to the Press Room. The stories won’t write themselves,’ I thought.

I encountered an obstacle — a slow walker ahead of me on the labyrinth. I debated passing her. She was exceedingly slow. I had to go.

Then I remembered the Meditation Class I’d had at St. John the Divine with Buddhist teacher Joseph Goldstein. He had told us to walk in the St. John garden mindfully. To be aware of each foot as it hit the pavement. I tried this at Assembly as I waited for the woman ahead of me to hurry up.

I became aware of my breathing. With one step, I inhaled. With another, I exhaled. I slowed down. I felt relaxed as I walked. I tried walking with my eyes closed. I was aware of my breathing with each foot fall — heel, ball, toe. I contemplated nothingness.

Then, I realized something — I was now the slow one. A woman behind me seemed slightly impatient with my tempo. The woman who had seemed so slow was now way ahead of me.

Finally, I left the labyrinth.

I sat cross-legged on the floor. I took my time. I made a quilt square, wrote a prayer on the wall, prayed for others.

Ready to leave, the woman near the exit asked if I wanted to receive an anointing. “Yes,” I said. She put oil in my palms. We hugged.

I walked slowly back to the Press Room. Along the way, I bumped into another friend, Joanne Reich. I took my time chatting with her. I did not rush. The stories I was assigned to write could wait. They would, in fact, write themselves. I had my own story to tell. I advised Joanne to walk the labyrinth.


We are each in the midst of a community — work, school, or family. Yet, at times, we feel alone. More times than I care to admit, I have written in my journal, ‘I’m so lonely!’ Yet how can I feel so alone when I am so often in a crowd?

What makes for community? How can I create community? Is there a path to becoming more communal and more loving? I looked for answers in Taizé.

Taizé was founded fifty years ago by Brother Roger who professed the power of Christian forgiveness, simplicity, and love. Four years ago Brother Roger was killed in the Taizé church, the Church of Reconciliation, by a deranged woman. After the murder, the brothers and the pilgrims still gathered for prayer. They forgave the woman. They prayed for love, the kind of love Brother Roger professed.

Along with ten members of the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, I was a pilgrim to the Taizé monestary in Burgundy, France. From October 11th to 18th, I was amidst more than 1,200 young people, mostly German students on autumn break.

I asked Brother Emile, a Canadian brother, “How do you make community? How do you 100 brothers from all over — from Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox traditions — live together so peaceably?”

“Forgiveness everyday!” Brother Emile replied. “Especially the everyday wounds.”

“It helps that we are from different countries. Because one can think, ‘Maybe it’s a cultural barrier and that person just has a different understanding,'” Brother Emile said.

While the brothers shared the value of forgiveness, I believe they also shared other values including:

Following Jesus’s footsteps

Giving unconditional love

Mentoring young people

Singing together

Learning together

Creating silence and space for reflection

Sharing a love of travel and global understanding

Celebrating ecumenism

Remaining open to individuals at times leaving the community to spread the word

Small Groups

In the late morning after a brother’s bible study, the adults met in small groups. At first our group consisted of four Danish people and four Americans. But soon we were joined by a German retiree, a Finnish religion teacher, and a Dutch piano tuner. We answered Brother Wolfgang’s questions: “What would you like to win or achieve in life? What currency does Jesus use to define winning in life?”

We agreed that to trade in the currency Jesus valued, we must exchange more love. We talked about the times we felt loved in God’s kingdom or community. We discussed whether heaven was reserved for Christians. As our times together progressed, we continued to talk about the big questions, such as: What happens when you die? How do we share the Good News? Who is Jesus now?

One evening Brother Alois, Brother Roger’s successor, spoke in the sanctuary before the evening service. He said in life, we need, “love, play, unity.” He said we need freedom and institutions.

“We need institutions. Here, in Taizé we have the institution of the bells ringing three times a day. That is our institution.” Brother Alois emphasized that we must work within institutions to make them more open and less judgmental. I believe that was the gist of his remarks. However, his words were being simultaneously translated from German into English. The Abbott’s remarks were cut short by the ringing of the bells. Brother Alois shrugged apologetically, as if to say, ‘There is our institution at work – bells ringing three times a day for worship.’

The Service

The worship at Taizé was very simple. There was singing, scripture, and silence. Once a day, there was communion. On Saturday night there was a candle lighting service, signifying the resurrection of Easter. At that service, the children were the first to light the candles and pass the light. The small group of children was beautifully diverse. The experience of being led by the children was moving. I wished my children were with me to witness the beauty of the candlelight and song. The singing never failed to inspire awe. The harmonies! And then, there was the silence, which lasted between five to ten minutes at each service. The silence reverberated with meaning and comfort.

On the altar, there was an orthodox-style crucifix. There was a jumble of about a hundred cement blocks with candles within. It’s easy to imagine that the candles symbolized the light within each of us — those of us at Taizé and beyond. We each have a light within and we lean, round shouldered, like cement blocks, one upon another. I think is one clue as to what makes for community — an ability to lean upon one another.

Most of the service, we faced the altar, but for the reading of scripture, we turned towards the center of the church. I was struck by the beauty of hearing Jesus’s message read in several languages.

Something happened at the end of one of the evening services. Instead of processing out, some of the brothers stood like sentinels around the perimeter of the sanctuary. People approached them to confess their sins, tell their stories, or ask for guidance.

On that first night when the brothers were available for counsel, I asked for prayers and healing. I won’t tell you specifically what we talked about. But when the brother laid his heavy hand on my head, I felt truly blessed and protected. I felt I was in community.

The last night at Taizé, after the service, Brother Emile stood beside where I sat cross-legged. I admit I felt responsible for him, because no one was approaching him to ask for guidance or forgiveness (probably because he spoke English first and most at Taizé that week spoke German). So I went to him. I asked for traveling mercies for our group from New Jersey.

Brother Emile laid his hand on my head and prayed something like, “Jesus, forgive your friend, Mary Beth.” Maybe that was his standard prayer because I did not ask for his forgiveness. And this may be another clue as to what makes for community — receiving forgiveness even when you don’t ask for it. I admit I liked that Brother Emile called Jesus my friend.


Taizé, like all monastic life I imagine, is not without its hardships. For example, the living quarters are tight. The bunk beds are hard. You receive one large, ladled serving – maybe pasta, couscous, or rice and beans – at mealtime on a plastic plate with one utensil, a large spoon. The seats in the tents for meals and bible study are wobbly wooden benches. In the sanctuary, you sit or kneel on the floor. The sanctuary was warm, but outdoors it was cold.

I went to Taizé to lead a contemplative life. Yet, if truth be told, I also snuck away. I discovered treasures in the neighboring French countryside. I savored a precious cup of French coffee at a café and time away to write in my journal.

Yet never once, while on my pilgrimage to Taizé, did I ever complain in my journal, ‘I’m so lonely.’ I was a part of something bigger. I was a part of a communty. That made me feel so good.