Andrea Raynor has gained a keen perspective on the meaning of life and death, comfort and grief, as a hospice chaplain, a cancer survivor, and a chaplain at Ground Zero following September 11. In the heartfelt tradition of Anne Lamott and Kate Braestrup, she uses her own experiences to remind readers that even in the direst of circumstances, we still have the opportunity to recognize beauty, to be inspired by the tenacity of the human spirit, and to feel connected to something greater. We may not be able to prevent the difficulties that come in life, but we can always choose the way in which we face them.
Warm, personal, and practical, The Voice That Calls You Home is a compelling guide to appreciating the wondrous world we live in, offering wisdom on how we can bear our inevitable sorrows with a steady eye and a sense of hope, and find an increased connection between the spiritual and the everyday.
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About the Author
Andrea Raynor received her Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School and served as a chaplain at Ground Zero after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. A cancer survivor herself, she now continues helping others through her hospice work. She lives in Rye, New York.
Read an Excerpt
MOST OF US HAVE experienced some sort of trauma in our lives. Perhaps it is the loss of a child, a spouse, or a parent; or perhaps it is the trauma of living in these uncertain times times when, as we found out, death can come on the bluest of days to people sitting at their desks or dozing on an airplane. Maybe you, like me, like so many of us, are looking for some hope, some inspiration, some toehold on life so that we are better prepared to cope with the challenges that are sure to come.
This yearning to make sense of the things that befall us can be the catalyst for spiritual growth. And yet it requires courage. If we are willing to move beyond simplistic rationalizations of why bad things happen, we may find ourselves in unfamiliar territory. What if everything doesn't happen for a reason? What if it just happens? When we surrender our idea of the Divine as a sort of Grand Puppeteer or Superhero, we are left with a God who can seem utterly unwilling or unable to protect us. How are we to live with that?
Simply speaking, when we most need reassurance, God can feel inaccessible and remote. This is especially true if we have thought of God as our insurance policy against bad things happening our just-in-case genie that we keep stashed away for emergencies. When times are good, many of us don't think much about the Divine; but when faced with true hardship, accompanied by what feels like God's silent acquiescence, deep down, we mourn. We mourn the assurance that we are loved and protected by Someone or Something Greater than ourselves.
What if we could live each moment knowing that we are not forgotten, butrather are loved and cherished, precious and fully known, regardless of circumstance? What would this mean for our lives? What would we see? How would we live? What would we hear in the dark night of despair if we listened, not for the response of a magic genie but for the rumblings of a voice deep within the echoed song of the One who is home to our Spirit? It might sound something like "Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. I am with you."
How do we hear this voice? Perhaps God speaks to us in the only voice God has that of creation. God speaks through the people we encounter, through those who face devastating hardships without losing hope, through those who suffer heartache and yet somehow still know joy, and through those who survive spiritually though the foundations of their faith have been rocked. God speaks through the beauty of nature, through the perfection of a snowflake, through the light coming in just so from a window. If we open our hearts and minds to the messages that come to us, we will discover that life is inherently meaningful despite the hardships we bear, and that we are not alone on the journey. For the weary and the wounded, this is rest for the soul.
As a chaplain, I have searched for ways to offer comfort in times of suffering. When I was diagnosed with cancer myself, I was suddenly on the receiving end of comfort. What I found in my work and in my life is that sound theology and eloquent words can only do so much, usually soothing but the surface of the wounded heart. Words can be a balm, yes, especially if they are the right words, but the only thing that truly heals is presence being present to the pain of the sufferer and allowing that person to tell his or her story without plugging the holes that grief has left like ragged buckshot. Hopefully all of us have had the experience at one time or another of being heard and understood and can recall the healing this inspired.
Part of the secret to surviving hardship, then, is being willing to share our stories and to be present to one another. By doing so, we will discover the muscular resiliency of the heart. We will experience the restorative cycle of the breath the exhalation of our own stories, the inhalation of the stories of others. Give and take, ebb and flow, crying and comfort. It is the respiration and resuscitation of the soul. It is the way of compassion. Rumi, the thirteenth-century Persian poet, described it this way:
Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralyzed.
Your deepest presence
is in every small contracting and expanding,
the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
THERE IS A Buddhist tale that beautifully illustrates this. It is about a woman named Kisagotami, who has suffered the loss of her infant son. Racked with grief, Kisagotami cannot accept his death. And so she carries the baby's body to the Buddha, begging him to bring her son back to life. The Buddha listens to her anguish, then sends her away with this instruction: She must go back into her village, and if she can return with a single mustard seed from a household that has not known death, he will restore her son to her. As one might expect, Kisagotami returns to the Buddha empty-handed but something has happened to her in the process, something has been changed and healed in her. Maybe she has come to accept that hers is a universal fate, that all have experienced or will experience the loss of a loved one but somehow, I do not believe this is the whole story.
After working with many families over the years, I have learned that it is seldom comforting to remind them that others, too, have suffered. Others have lost mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, children and spouses. And it is never comforting to compare one person's pain with someone else's. Acknowledging the suffering of others may help to normalize our experience, it may ease the feeling of being isolated in grief, but it will not ultimately free us from pain. Reason and intellect seldom soothe the heart. Wise Buddha knew this...and so he gently sent Kisagotami on a path toward self-discovery, a path that she could walk or crawl at her own pace, a path free from judgment the only path that could lead her to acceptance and healing.
So what was it that ultimately consoled Kisagotami in her search for the mustard seed? What happened as she went door to door, telling her story and having to hear the stories of others? At first, one can imagine that she pounded on each door with the raw anguish of a mother's grief, pleading, begging, hoping for a different answer than the one that was sure to come. "Please, please, you've got to help me! Please tell me that you have not been touched by death. What's that? You have? But you don't understand my son has died, my little boy, and I have to find a way to bring him back to life."
Each time she entered a new home, Kisagotami was forced to tell her story and to bear the disappointment of leaving without the mustard seed and, therefore, without hope that her child could be brought back to life. In each home, she told her tale and she listened to the stories of the ones who lived there. Each family who welcomed her must surely have recognized the desperation born out of love for her child; each could feel the pain of this young mother and could empathize with her refusal to accept her child's death. No doors were slammed in her face, no one refused her entrance; no one mocked her for her attempt to find the mustard seed. Perhaps the compassion of others started to soften the sharp edges of her grief. Perhaps the stories that she collected going from home to home began to be interwoven with her own veil of sorrow. What thread was her loss, what the old woman's, what the young man's? What color was her broken heart, now braided into a rainbow cord of stories? Only Kisagotami knows for sure what began to shift in her, and what brought her back to the feet of the Buddha free from bitterness and despair. But clearly, when she stood before him again, she did so with a new sense of purpose and a heart filled with compassion.
The secret of the mustard seed is one that we all must discover for ourselves. It doesn't matter what condition we are in when we begin. We can be bitter, we can be raging mad at God, insane with grief, unrealistic, self-absorbed, anguished, or zombielike. The only thing that matters is our willingness to undertake the journey to knock on one more door, to hear one more story and to let the stories begin to work their way into our hearts and into our lives. Perhaps we will discover that we are not alone. Perhaps we will be soothed by the compassion of others who have suffered, and we will experience ever more deeply the profound comfort of being heard and held by those who know. Along the way, we may also have the privilege of offering comfort to someone else, of extending a small cup of kindness to one in need. In any case, the journey is at once individual and communal. It is a path which winds through the darkest forest but moves us ever closer toward the light a light that promises to break in the clearing ahead.
How we view our experiences can dramatically change our perception of God's presence as well as our sense of well-being. What if we could revisit the events that shaped our lives, especially those times of despair, and see emerging through the dim and hazy images the comfort that was always there, the Presence that never abandoned us. Living with an awareness of the Holy means opening our eyes to beauty, to the grace that pervades everyday interactions, and to the expectation that something extraordinary could happen is happening at every turn. God's absence is only our illusion.
All of us will someday face adversity; all will wrestle with a traumatic event. We may not be able to prevent these or even to anticipate them, but we can always choose the way in which we will respond. We can surrender to despair or we can embark on a journey of spiritual exploration. The path may not be easy, but it will be illuminated. Torches have been lit by those who have gone before us, and they promise to guide us out of the darkness toward the clearing ahead. We need only to keep moving, gathering strength, gathering light, following our innate spiritual compass, for it always points toward home.
If we trust in the journey, we will begin to see that life is inherently blessed. It is infused with meaning some of which we might grasp and some of which will remain a mystery. We, too, are part of that mystery. We have been set on our course like stars since the beginning of time propelled into motion hurtling now through space, traveling at our own velocities, burning at our own speeds, and dying in our own times. How will we live? We can live with our heads down, our eyes closed, and our hands in our pockets, or we can open ourselves to catch the blessings that fall, softly and silently, like moonlight and sunlight, like mist before dawn.
WE ARE PART of the Great Constellation. The stardust inour bones draws us to the heavens like a magnet, like a homingsignal for the soul. Nothing can change this. Not hardship,not death not even a lack of faith. This is simply how we aremade. If we tune in to the frequency, the Voice that calls us,chances are that our spirits will become lighter, stronger, morecourageous, more compassionate and life itself will seem anincredible adventure.
Copyright © 2009 by Andrea Raynor
Table of Contents
1 Holy Ground 9
2 Yankee Swap 17
3 Calabrese Sun 31
4 Seeing Leo 41
5 Zhivago 47
6 No Other Hands 55
7 Are You the One? 61
8 Girl in the Clouds 69
9 Getting There 81
10 Walking the Site Like God 91
11 Saving Anthony 97
12 The Morgue Calls 105
13 Mist and Vapor 111
14 Adam's Hand 115
15 Flags and Tags 121
16 Station 10-10 127
17 The Medical Examiner 131
18 May 6, 2002 137
19 Reentry 141
20 Living with Ghosts 153
21 Death of a Psychic 161
22 The Accident 179
23 Body and Spirit 189
24 For Jeanette 195
25 The Brave Test 203
26 The Straw Man 215
27 The Buzz Party 225
28 After 239
29 Angels and Ghosts 253
30 Allie-Allie-in-Come-Free 267
What People are Saying About This
"This is above all a richly human document in the sense that it confronts us with both the height and the depth of what it is to be human in a dark world and helps to put us closer in touch with our own humanness." Frederick Buechner, author of The Sacred Journey
"A book for anyone who has ever hit a bump in the road of life, or needs the words and the wisdom to care for those who have. Andrea Raynor writes in a soothing and beautiful way about the collective experience of loss and grief and the ability to touch the common threads of hope through incredibly difficult times." Lee Woodruff, New York Times bestselling coauthor of In an Instant