Struck by Pentecost

lightning tree

Without a whispered warning,
Spirit bolts us to the ground,
stands every hair on end,
rearranges neurons
and leaves us singed and breathless,
scarred along each nerve
by hot transcendence.

Fire in the brain,
surge in the heart and lungs,
garbled words upon the tongue;
thought without language,
language without thought,
the sudden, shining moment
of rebirth

Once ignited,

we are ever changed:
terrified, illuminated,
filled with longings,
and purpose.

Always watchful,
one eye on the skies,
we sniff the ozone,
taste the air,
and wait
for the proverb to be disproved
and the firebolt to descend
once more.

© 2014 by Penelope J. Stokes







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An Encounter with the Easter Bunny

Easter is almost upon us. This Sunday is Palm Sunday, and suddenly we’re ushered into Holy Week. Where has Lent gone? What happened to all my good intentions for being intentional?

Courtesy of

Courtesy of prozac1

I’ve been reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World. I’m trying to be mindful of each day, grateful for the grace of the present moment.

I’m trying to slow down, to breathe, to wake up and open my eyes and see beyond the mundane to the mystery. To relish the moment and find the presence of God even in the smallest things.

This week, one of those moments came rushing back–a small, seemingly insignificant encounter from three or four years ago, in the pre-dawn hours of a cool spring morning.

At the time, my partner Pam had not yet retired, and her morning ablutions began far earlier than my own. She was in the habit of getting up at 4:30 and leaving for work before the sun came up.  But this particular morning, something interfered with that schedule.

Vaguely aware of her departure, I had just settled down for another two hours of sleep when the doorbell began to ring. The back doorbell. Our dog Rags jumped onto my stomach and added his shrill warning bark to the cacophony. I struggled out of bed and groped my way to the back door. And there I found find Pam attempting to fend off Moses, the cat, who apparently had captured something and was intent on having it for Kitty Breakfast.

Clearly, she needed a hand. Besides, I was the designated mole/vole/chipmunk/mouse disposer in the family. I figured Moses had caught yet another of the thousand voles that inhabited tunnels under our front yard. Dead or alive, it was my job to get rid of the beast.

Courtesy of Dr. Joseph Valks,

I stepped out and surveyed the situation. In an instant I realized that this was no disposal job. It was a rescue.

At the corner between the brick wall of the house and the trash can, Moses had cornered a tiny, terrified baby rabbit. With its nose to the wall and its tail to the wind, it shuddered and trembled, but was not about to turn and face its predator.

Pam corralled Moses. I scooped up the bunny and headed him back into the woods. The whole operation happened so fast we could have easily missed the message.

Because it wasn’t just any spring morning. It was Holy Week….


“The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you;
don’t go back to sleep.”

Crouched in the darkness
with its back to the predator,
the prey shivers,
for the final blow
of tooth and claw.

I take it in my hands,
stroke the brown baby fur
between its ears,
whisper a word of comfort,
and feel the panicked heartbeat
thrumming against my lifeline.

How safe it is
cradled between my palms,
it cannot comprehend;
cannot understand
the assurances I murmur,
cannot know
the love I feel.

And so I release it to the woods,
prod its furry backside
and send it hopping
toward its mama,
toward the dawn.

In this moment
at cockcrow,
standing at the verge of the trees
in my pajamas,
I bear witness to the ultimate grace:
without a death.

(Not nearly so dramatic, perhaps,
but easier on the bunny.)

And I wonder:
How many Easter mornings
have dawned without me
I was asleep?

© Penelope J. Stokes




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Mindfulness, Buddha, and the White Oak Tree

Pam and I love our house. The lot is wooded and mostly private, and it backs up to a steep ravine. There’s an old deserted AME church on the other side, and a weathered graveyard—barely visible except in the dead of winter. Sometimes, when the wind is just right, you can almost hear the echo of spirituals on the breeze.

There’s just one problem with our property:  too many trees.

Now, understand, I grew up in a family where there was no such thing as too many trees. Our eleventh commandment read, “Thou shalt not lay the saw to the bark.” I remember when I was ten and our little sixties rambler was being built, how Mama went out and stood in front of the bulldozer, daring the contractor to take down that huge pine tree at the front corner of the yard. I believe her exact words were, “Over my dead body.”

So you can imagine my consternation when Pam started talking about taking down trees. The house needed room to breathe, she said. The garden plot needed more sun.

I hyperventilated for a day or two, and then I gave in.

One by one, the trees came down. Seven of them. Big ones. The two poplars brooding over the deck in the back; three more on the bank above the garden, and (worst of all) the enormous white oak trees in front, right outside my office window. The trees where the white squirrels played.

208We left one stump, three feet or more in diameter. Placed a small Buddha on it, and a little cairn of rocks we’d collected on our travels. When I look out my office window now, I see that Buddha, his back to me, his face toward the larger world, meditating.

But I also see something else.

From the first deep cut where the saw went in, just below the top of the stump, that white oak tree is budding out again.

I’m learning these days about mindfulness, about opening up my field of vision, about viewing change with an open heart, a willing soul, and a curious mind. I’m learning that control is an illusion, like water clutched in my fist, like sand sifted through my fingers.

I’m learning that even a felled oak tree can live again.
And I say grace.


The metronome of culture
ticktocks us to the grave,
the rhythm of clods
hitting the coffin,
the rhythm of rain upon the roof,
heaven’s tears
mourning what might have been.

The articulate among us
have memorized their lines,
a flawless stump speech
delivered from the back of a departing train,
or from the dead remains
of a tree cut down in spring,
whose rings whisper for justice
in the still of the night.
You can hear it
if you listen.

Some of us,
suspecting there is more,
abandon articulation
for exploration,
groping in the darkness
for a language
to wrap around our wonder,
only to find ourselves
in the presence
of this Mystery.

©2013 by Penelope J. Stokes

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Becoming Saints. . .Sort Of

saint someday draft1In the past couple of weeks I’ve been putting the finishing touches on a new novel. It’s a coming of age story called Saint Someday—the journey of 15-year-old Brigid Landry through a troubled adolescence into adulthood. Because of her hyper-religious and abusive stepfather, Brigid can’t bring herself to believe in God, but she loves the saints.

The saints, after all, are human. They share her doubts and pain and longings. They listen when she speaks. They understand.

This novel has been in the works for almost seven years. In the process of writing and rewriting, I’ve thought lot about sainthood. Familiar images come to mind:  Mother Teresa in her blue striped sari, Gandhi at his spinning wheel, Desmond Tutu’s mischievous grin, the twinkle in his eyes.  And it leads me to wonder what, exactly, makes a person into a saint?

I’m not talking about the “official” process of beatification and canonization that is necessary for a person to be declared a saint of the Catholic church. Whatever your religious leanings, there’s a saint hovering somewhere in the background. Judaism honors the tzaddiks, Hinduism reveres its gurus, Buddhism the bodhisattvas, and Sikhism the sants. And although the definitions vary, the saints of all religions—and even no religion at all—tend to be defined as women and men who have lived lives of great virtue, enlightenment, and compassion.

Ah, but what about the miracles?

Good point. Catholic tradition requires a verified miracle from their candidates for sainthood. That eliminates most of us from the picture.

Or does it?
Maybe it depends on your definition of miracle.

Let’s see. Changing water into wine? Feeding thousands with a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread? Raising the dead? Not likely.

But maybe the real miracle would be transforming the polluted rivers and seas of this planet into clear flowing streams. Providing safe drinking water. Feeding the hungry by sharing what we have. Preventing deaths by making sure people have warmth and shelter. Healing the sick by offering accessible medical care.

Or maybe the miracle is even closer to home, and simpler. Giving birth to new life:  a baby, a poem, a garden, a pie. Reaching out to heal a broken heart, dry a tear, hold a hand. Taking time to listen when the rest of the world turns a deaf ear.

Maybe the miracle comes with the look in a lover’s eyes, the touch that makes all things new.

St. Therese of Lisieux

St. Therese of Lisieux

Consider St. Therese of Lisieux, Carmelite nun and the youngest person ever to be named a Doctor of the Church. She was called the Little Flower—an intelligent, beautiful child who entered the convent at 15, lived a cloistered life, and died at the age of 24. “What matters in life,” she wrote in Story of a Soul, “is not great deeds, but great love.”

Therese never did anything big or important by the world’s standards. She wasn’t a martyr. She wasn’t even a particularly remarkable nun.  She became a saint because she lived and taught that true spirituality lies in doing the ordinary with extraordinary love.

Now, that’s what I call a miracle.

And it occurs to me:  Maybe that’s how we can be saints for one another.


Interested in exploring further?

Read Chapter 1 of Saint Someday

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A Word on Sabbath Rest

IMG_0981This past weekend we went on retreat with 100 or so members from our church. The theme of the retreat was Weaving the Ways of Worship and Prayer. We made Tibetan prayer flags. We wrote our spiritual longings on strips of fabric and wove them together into an altar cloth. We made art prayers with doodles and colored pencils. It was all about finding rest, keeping Sabbath, learning to give ourselves time and permission for centering and healing.

Why, I wonder, do we need permission? What is it about our society that pushes us to work more, rest less, feel guilty if we sit down for five minutes?

I found the answer–or one answer–on the road to the retreat center.

We took the long way: Highway 276, the lovely, winding mountain road that snakes its way IMG_0977along the Davidson River through Pisgah National Forest, up and over the mountain. Along the way we passed Looking Glass Falls, Sliding Rock, the Cradle of Forestry, the bend in the river where we scattered my mother’s ashes.

It’s a drive we often take, just for the love of it. We go slow. We stop and look. We give in to wonder. And every half mile or so we pull off to let the next tailgating, engine-revving hurrier go by.

So much in this mixed-up world of ours is about competition:  being first, best, fastest. Or if not fastest, at least ahead of you. If not richest, at least accumulating more than the next guy’s got.  If not more powerful, at least superior to somebody.

Such a mindset runs counter to everything Jesus taught:  the last shall be first; the greatest among you is the servant of all. Consider the lilies. Be at peace. Let not your heart be troubled.

IMG_4661And so I invite you to join me this morning. Take a breath. Get a pad and pen and doodle some prayers. Stare out the window. Listen to the birds. Breathe.

It may be the most spiritual thing you do all day.



This path is not a highway—
not a road, even.
It is a trail made for meanderers
who have no map,
who know that getting lost
is part of the adventure
and brings the grace and gifts
of divine surprise.

This is no journey for the faint of heart,
the small of soul,
the perfectionist,
the controller,
the one who must always be right.
For there is no right way,
only the whisper in the trees
that urges, “Here! Here!”
Only the way of gut and intuition
that lures us forward
like a distant light—
a light that may be
no light at all
but only mirage,
a trick of the mind.

Do not seek to know,
to understand.
Move with the leaning of your heart.
Part the palm fronds,
duck behind the waterfall,
turn toward the sun.
Somewhere lies a hidden clearing
for you to call it

© 2013 Penelope J. Stokes

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How do you go on living when your whole life has been one big lie?

How do you go on living when your whole life has been one big lie?
Once, a long time ago, Grace Benedict had friends. Good friends. In college she and her roommates Tess, Lovey, and Liz, had been inseparable. And even though life has taken them in different directions, they’ve stayed in touch. For thirty years they’ve kept a circle journal, sharing with one another the ups and downs of their lives, their celebrations and victories, their struggles and heartaches.


Grace’s life hasn’t been easy. And now, as she faces a diagnosis of cancer that shakes her to the core, she needs her friends more than ever.

There’s just one problem. Grace has been lying to them. For thirty years, she’s been fabricating a life, creating a fiction of the way she wished things would be. Love, success, family, fulfillment—she’s had it all. In her imagination, anyway.

If she’s ever going to reclaim those friendships, she needs to tell the truth. About herself, about her needs, about the sadness and unfulfilled longing that has marked her life. She’s running out of time.

Telling the truth just might change everything. But can she find the courage? And more importantly, can she unravel her true self from the tangled web of deception that has held her captive?

Want to see more? Read Chapter 1

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Living in the Borderlands

Why is it that the older I get, the less I know as absolute certainty?

Cloisters of St. Chinian, courtesy of my lovely sister-in-law, Jane Kimzey

Cloisters of St. Chinian, courtesy of my lovely sister-in-law, Jane Kimzey

I used to be sure of everything.

Sure that I knew the proper things to think and believe and do.  Sure of myself, my abilities, my path, my future. Sure that life was pretty much a decision between right and wrong, without a whole lot of gray in between. As my friend Susan used to say, “Of course I think I’m right. If I didn’t think I was right, I’d think something else.”

Now when I look around, I see lots of paths. Mazes, labyrinths, forks before and behind. Roads not taken. Ways unexplored. No GPS. Very few markers, innumerable thresholds, and a whole lot of options.

And I have to say, I prefer it this way.

How else am I expected to learn to live into the Mystery of the Divine in the Universe, and the Divine within myself? How else am I to discern the gifts of the Darkness, to rest in the reality of Uncertainty? How else can I cross into the realm of real Faith, unless I let go of what I think I understand?

Courtesy of nuttakit at

Courtesy of nuttakit at



Teach me to embrace the darkness,
to curve my body
into a question mark
around Uncertainty
and hold it like a lover in the night,
asking nothing, content
only to hear its quiet breathing,
feel its warmth.


Teach me to brave the Borderlands,
to run to the cliff edge
with arms spread wide
and plunge into the updraft,
a naked eagle, held aloft
by faith instead of feathers.

Teach me to live with Mystery,
to lay my soul across the threshold
between this world and the next
and feel the breezes on my skin,
to kiss the stars,
to tangle my hair
in dream shadows
and welcome each dawn
as if it never came

© 2012 Penelope J. Stokes

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Truth, Justice, and the American Way

My partner Pam and I went to see Man of Steel yesterday.
I wish we hadn’t.

superman logoThe iconic hero Superman is a part of every Baby Boomer’s history. George Reeves making his cheesy entrance flying through windows, or dashing into a phone booth—do we even have them any more?—to change clothes. Christopher Reeve (a true superhero in real life) flirting with Lois on the balcony and wrestling with his inner demons about his calling and destiny.

That’s the Superman we knew as kids. The one who is sent for a higher purpose. The one who rescues people from natural disasters, captures the bad guys and turns them in, foils Lex Luthor’s nefarious schemes, and harms no one in the process.

The one committed to truth, justice, and. . .
Oh, wait. The American Way.

Pam said it best:   The American Way. That’s what this Man of Steel movie is all about. Identifying the Enemy and mowing them down with Gatling guns and howitzers and lasers and bare knuckles and who knows what all. Two hours and twenty-three interminable minutes of violence, beginning with the first scene on Krypton and ending with Superman killing—yes, killing—his enemy General Zod.

There was a moment or two, I admit, when the carnage stopped long enough for Superman and Lois Lane to share a kiss. And to give him credit, the Man of Steel cried after he snapped Zod’s neck. But otherwise the film was pretty much bereft of anything remotely redemptive. No real character development, no soul-searching, none of the philosophical or spiritual depth of the earlier, less brutal versions.

After the movie, we talked at length about it. A true American movie, Pam said. A reflection of our shallow, insatiable need to identify and wipe out the Enemy, at any cost. Even the cost of our souls.

If you think I’m delusional, take a look at our history. From the moment we cultured white Europeans set foot on North American soil, we’ve been at war, first with the indigenous people we call Native Americans. We systematically wiped them out, took their land, and herded the few who were left onto reservations. Then we fought the British, the French, the Spanish, the Mexicans, and even Canada. When they were vanquished, we fought ourselves over the question of whether it was morally acceptable to own other human beings. And the list goes on:  Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Iran, Afghanistan.

But I digress. The real issue isn’t organized war. The real issue is violence in our own hearts. The violence reflected in movies and TV and music and video games. The violence of guns in the streets and the schools and the movie theaters. The violence of gangs in the cities, and self-appointed vigilantes who shoot unarmed citizens in the name of protection and self-defense.

And let’s keep in mind that we don’t have to carry guns to be steeped in violence. The violence of racism and sexism and homophobia. The violence of domestic and sexual abuse. The violence of road rage, and cutthroat competition. The violence of the language we use, and the way we treat people we’re supposed to care about.

Pogo 3

Oh yes, there is an enemy.
But the enemy isn’t “out there.”
The enemy is in here.
The enemy is. . .us.

And I must admit, if I’m going to be perfectly honest, that the enemy is me.

After all, I endured two and a half hours of that brutal carnage without speaking up. I could have said, “Come on, let’s get out of here.” But I didn’t. I just sat there and took it, and came away sick and sad and exhausted.

Like Superman, we all have to wrestle with our inner demons. We all have to work hard to discover what we’re sent here for, what our mission is, our calling. Mine—or at least part of mine, I believe—is to do what I can to make the world a kinder, gentler, more compassionate, more loving place.

So we won’t be giving any more of our time or money or attention to movies that glorify violence.  And if we get caught off guard, like we did with Man of Steel, we’ll leave the theater. We’ll tell the manager why, and request a refund.

I don’t think we’re likely to get our money back, and I doubt our protest will do much to stem the tide of violence in our land.

But at least we’ll be able to sleep at night.

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A Prayer for Authenticity

Human brain cells

Human brain cells

For most of my life, I have lived inside my head. I’m a thinker, a creator, an idea person.

It’s a blessing and a curse. In my imagination, I can move through time and space, have conversations with brilliant people both living and dead, peer into the world beyond the veil, and watch molecules in motion.


I can also lose track of what’s vital to life and relationships in the here and now.

In An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor describes the tangible prayer of hanging laundry on the line. The simple act, she says, offers “something concrete that I have accomplished, a rarity in my brainy life of largely abstract accomplishments.”

I was startled by that phrase–“my brainy life of largely abstract accomplishments.” Something inside my soul vibrated, resonated, a bell lifted and struck. And so I offered up this prayer for something more real than thought.

In this brainy, abstract life of mine,
these hands suffer from neglect.
Anointed even as they are
by holy fire and water,
I forget to use them.
I reach out with brain cells
rather than muscle and nerve and bone,
a poor caress
of neuron and synapse,
when the world needs blood
and skin and tenderness.

I grow weary of failing—
failing to be the lover, partner, friend,
artist, monk, dreamer, doer,
citizen of the world
I wish myself to be;
failing to hear,
to see,
to listen, watch, and hope;
failing to realize
that forgiveness hovers at the windowsill
on the breeze of dawn,
that always we begin again.

Wrap me,
O Spirit of the Universe,
in thy grace.
Let all my yearnings be
for thee,
and for the new birth
of the old, old me.

©Penelope J. Stokes, 2012

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Maybe It’s Time for Hope

I watch TV. I read. I go to movies. I see what’s going around on Facebook and Twitter. And I’ll admit it. I’m concerned.

black-holes_2What’s this world coming to? Apparently it’s coming to a black hole of darkness and despair.

Look at the movie and TV offerings:  World War Z. The Dome. White House Down. Defiance.

Zombies. Aliens. Rebels. Guns. Lots and lots of guns. Shadowy, dystopian visions of a future in which the world has been blown apart by technology, or resident evil, or aliens, or whatever nameless threat comes next.

And I wonder, what does this say about us as a society? As individuals? As community—or the lack thereof?

Maybe it says that deep down, we’re afraid. We see the future not as a vista opening out to lovely possibilities, but as a complicated, scary, and dangerous place. We’re afraid of death, yes, but we’re every bit as much afraid of life. We’re terrified of what tomorrow might bring. We dread the unknown. We’re afraid of losing the stuff we’ve worked hard to acquire. And so we barricade ourselves behind what’s familiar, what’s tangible, what’s OURS.

We’ve lost our sense of adventure. We’ve lost our sense of wonder.

1064-800Maybe it’s time to take a deep breath, take a step back, simplify a bit.
Maybe it’s time to go wade in the creek or take a walk or smell the grass after it’s just been mowed.
Maybe it’s time to look out the window and listen to the birds singing.
Maybe it’s time to get up early enough to watch the sun rise, or stay up late enough to be amazed by the stars again.
Maybe it’s time to see, really see, the beauty in the world around us, and in our loved ones’ eyes.

Maybe it’s time to discover—or rediscover—what it means to be content with the life we have, and with who we are.
Maybe it’s time to share a little bit more of what we own, and be a little less selfish with all the gifts we’ve been given.
Maybe it’s time to be happy with enough instead of always grasping for more.

Maybe it’s time we learned to live with an open hand. Maybe it’s time to quit holding onto material things; quit trying to control the way our lives play out; quit thinking we can manipulate the world around us into looking the way we want it to look.

Maybe it’s time for just being.
Just becoming.
Just…well, living.

Maybe it’s time to stop being afraid.
And then maybe—just maybe—it will be time to find hope again.

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