Joyce Rupp is a creative devotional writer, a spiritual "midwife," and a popular retreat and conference speaker. She is profiled in our Living Spiritual Teachers Project. She and Frederic had this exchange on the occasion of the release of a new edition of her book May I Have This Dance?.
Frederic Brussat: How did you come up with the title of May I Have This Dance?
Joyce Rupp: One day I read the passage in Ezekiel 37, about the dried up bones in the desert that God brought together. At that particular moment in my life, I was feeling a lot like those old bones. Much like what I wrote in the opening poem: “lost dreams/and forgotten pleasures/sold like a soul/to a gluttonous world/feeding on my frenzy/and anxious activity.” When I read the part about the bones coming together into a wholeness, I had this strong image of the sun-bleached, parched bones being filled with new life. I could almost see them dancing toward each other, elated to be rejoining one another as they regained their strength. That old song of Annie Murray’s, “Could I Have this Dance?” popped into my head and there I was — off and running with the image of a dance with the divine.
Frederic: What image comes to your mind when you think of yourself as dancing with God?
Joyce:Like those old bones in Ezekiel, my image of the Holy One dancing with me is like a free-spirited breath of amazing love, gathering me in a wonderful embrace.
Frederic: Is it a slow dance or a lively one?
Joyce: My dance with the divine varies accordingly to daily events and the inner movements of my life. There are times when it’s a lovely slow dance, my whole self in harmony with the One who instills peace in me. At other times, this dance is pretty wild, wondering where in the world the dance is taking me. I think I’d find it rather monotonous to always dance in one particular way. What I can always count on is to have this Great Love as my partner in the daily dance of life.
Frederic: Does God always lead or do you move as equal partners?
Joyce: I wish I could say that I always let God do the leading in my dance of life but, alas, that is not always so. I still step on God’s toes when I start pushing my way around, grasping at life or trying to shove away what is trying to be my teacher of wisdom. Most of the time, my dance with the Holy One goes smoothly. As I’ve aged, we seem to be more and more in sync. I don’t know that I could ever think of myself as an equal partner in the dance because I definitely do not know the steps as well as my divine partner but I get more and more comfortable just gliding along in a deep sense of harmony and oneness.
Frederic: In your poem "The Falling Leaves" you refer to "the dance of death" and "the serenity of sailing leaves." Has your struggle with human mortality lessened over the years? If so, what new spiritual practices or insights have brought about a change?
Joyce: Ever since I wrote Praying Our Goodbyes, I’ve been intentional about being less anxious and resistive to farewells and the inevitable "letting go" aspect that comes with being human. Ever so slowly this has happened. I’ve bid farewell to quite a number of beloved people. My twelve years as a volunteer for Hospice also eased my fears and struggles with human mortality. What has helped me the most is my study of Buddhism and the accepting of some basic tenets regarding the impermanence of life. I see so clearly now how life is filled with ebb and flow, with beginnings and endings, with changing seasons that come and go. This natural pattern of transformation is the process of ongoing growth and each time I give myself to it, instead of resisting it, greater peace resides within me. It’s not so much that my spiritual practices have changed but my attitude toward loss and gain has changed significantly.
Having said all this, I have to admit that every year when summer ends, I feel the old tug at my heart to "hang on." I am never quite ready for autumn to take away the greening leaves and the long days of light. I suppose the same will be true for my physical death. As much as I think I am ready for it, I will probably feel the old tug to hang around this sphere of life longer. I do believe that the tug gets less forceful with the passing years, however.
Frederic: Talk a bit about any spiritual practices that would help us appreciate the many special blessings of the season of fall.
Joyce: For as long as I can remember, nature has been a tremendous teacher and healer for me. The more I observe and lean into nature’s lessons, the more peace my heart holds. Walking in the woods among the falling leaves, or bringing several colored leaves into the house and placing them on my prayer altar, serves to keep autumn’s reality near. The beauty of the leaves reminds me that there is a blessing in letting go. There’s a Mary Oliver poem that I like very much. In it she comments on the leaves falling from the branches and how glad they must feel to be joining the comfort of the earth. I had never thought of leaves being happy to leave a tree. So now I look at falling leaves differently. There can be a blessing in letting go and moving on, like leaves rejoining the soil and becoming compost for new life to evolve.
I’ve also had some comforting awareness regarding life’s impermanence by simply holding a dead leaf in my hands while meditating. I don’t "think" about the leaf. I just let it accompany me during my meditation. It’s a lovely way to befriend the dying aspect of life in the form of the leaf. There’s a certain strength that comes in befriending what is asking for release.
The feast of "All Saints Day" comes on November 1st in my own religious tradition and this is a wonderful way of connecting death with life. Almost always I make a list, a kind of litany, on that day of the beloved people in my life who have died. I look at the list and feel richly blessed by how their presence helped me grow, and I feel, once again, a strong connection with them. This day reminds me that these “saints” with their goodness live on in my heart.
Frederic: We loved your "Prayer of Wonder" on page 118. Since creativity, poetry, imagination, and beauty are all essential ingredients in your Christianity, tell us what we can do to make wonder a spiritual practice that governs our days and deeds.
Joyce: Oh, I could go on and on and on about this! If we are going to "wonder," we will need to slow down. We can’t wonder at the beauty, mystery and intricacy of life and its secrets if we are zooming through our days at high speed. Slowing down is one help. Another big one for me is using my external senses. These natural parts of our physical being are such a gift — to really look at someone or something, to listen and truly hear the sounds around us, to actually taste our food instead of gulping it down, — these simple actions can lead us to contemplate life, to see in a deeper, clearer way. Wonder naturally leads to a sense of gratitude and joy. I don’t think any of us can every "wonder" too much!
Frederic: Share a spiritual hope that comes from your heart this week.
Joyce: I’m glad you asked this question. Hope is a vital component of my spirit. There is an immense amount of pain in our world. If I focus only on this aspect, I can easily become overwhelmed, discouraged and disillusioned. As a citizen of our planet, I never want to avoid or deny my responsibility in contributing to the transformation of our world. At the same time, I need a kernel of hope in my heart to keep me focused and energized. This hope often comes to me in the form of friends and strangers alike. Not a day goes by without my coming in contact with someone whose life and demeanor reflect goodness (God-ness). Knowing there are all these magnificent people with a desire for world peace and compassion fills my heart with hope. Together we are strong. Together we can make a difference. Together we can be authentic love in a world desperately in need of this precious gift.