29. Liz Caemmerer. When I first met Liz, the co-founder of the Grunewald Guild, I was a little intimidated. She was almost 70, tall and sturdy, and she seemed to almost float into the room, powerful, regal and yet also reserved – there was nothing about her that seemed egocentric or overbearing, it’s more that she was such a commanding, quiet presence, I was almost afraid to approach her.
The first time we really talked at any length was when she walked me around the Guild property, pointing out the various places that she thought would be best for my wedding. I was going to be the first non-family member to be married at the Guild, and Liz had lots of ideas for my ceremony, based on the weddings of her kids as well as her knowledge of the Guild, and while I didn’t fully appreciate it then, her knowledge of ritual and full artistic expression.
She showed me the garden, we walked through the Centrum and Liz talked about the pros and cons of the various spaces. She brought me to a tree by the River House, and offered why that space would be especially sacred. That was the place we chose. Liz loved the idea of the river flowing by us and how that would be a metaphor for our past and future, and all of the people and experiences in it. She talked about the importance of the tree – its roots and branches, and gave us the idea to hang copies of the love letters Sasha and I had written to each other all over the tree branches hanging at the Guild. More than a year later, I was walking around the property and found a piece of paper on the ground. I picked it up to throw it away, only to find it was a weather worn, but still readable love letter from me to Sasha.
Liz offered ideas of the whole wedding party walking to the bridge together and dropping leaves into the river as wishes. She talked about how we could build an altar and let people bring offerings to it in the days and hours leading up to our ceremony. With Liz’s help, we were filled with creative and devotional ideas for this precious day and I believe it was in part many of her quiet suggestions that made our wedding so special. I remember one idea she had that made me and Stephanie laugh for years after – standing by the river, Liz pointed up to the mountains above us and talked about how we could hang a big banner in the trees so people could see it as they were driving in, but, she warned us, if we were going to climb up there, we would have to make sure to wear our “bear bells.” Stephanie and I just looked at each other wide eyed – two suburban girls, one from Jersey, one from LA – we didn’t have any bear bells, nor did we know anyone who did, but Liz seemed to think that was just a natural item anyone might have on hand.
I would see Liz around the Guild from time to time after that over the years, and was always in awe of her, mainly because of her posture which showed so much strength and grace. It would be in the years later that I would get to know that strength and grace, not as a posture, but as a way of being in the world.
At some point, I began to seek Liz out and over time we developed a friendship that in the beginning mainly consisted of long walks on the mountain trails around theGrunewald Guild. We would always talk about the same thing, in different ways: God, God consciousness, solace in spirituality, shared humanity, the evolution of religious thought and although not in these words, the cave of the heart.
”Love alone is capable of uniting living beings in such a way as to complete and fulfill them, for it alone takes them and joins them by what is deepest in themselves.” ~ Pierre Teillhard de Chardin
Liz talked often about Pierre Teillhard de Chardin – he is one of her most beloved teachers – and introduced me to his students and their work, including the work of Ilia Delio and much later, Richard Rohr, along with so many other important voices, including poets and artists who expressed Christ consciousness in brand new ways for me. She finds her spirituality in the natural world, in the poetry of Mary Oliver, and Wendell Berry, and in epic climbs up mountain trails, always in awe of the pulsation of life in the changing landscape.
I was falling in love with Christ through Liz, which was a huge revelation and reclamation for me. Having been raised Catholic, and then gravitating toward yoga and vedic thought, I had come to believe, like many I know, that they were somehow mutually exclusive, and that yoga was “better” – only for me because it didn’t (yet) have as much baggage related to it. I had idealized one religious concept and jettisoned another. I thought I knew about Christ – I had gone to church and CCD my entire child- and young adulthood, but now I was being awakened to something new and magical. Liz brought mysticism to life in such a creative and generative way, like nothing I had experienced before. She talked about changing the phrase “Kingdom of God” to “Kin – dom of God.”
”God is not a superior Being who lords it over us; rather God stands “under” us, hidden within ordinary reality as the “real”, the whole of the whole, the depth of love . . . Divine power is not a force over us but the humility of love beneath us, the love that makes existence possible. ~ Ilia Delio
Liz always brought her love of Christ back to the everyday – in the way we treat each other, in her advice for me as I explored, and yes, sometimes vented, about my students and my teaching on Samarya Yoga Teacher Training. She always had a new perspective, born out of both commitment and kindness and is always looking for new ways to explore God, whether through the Sufi mystics or through everyday occurrences – Liz doesn’t separate spiritual life from the mundane. In fact, for her, God is most present in the mundane.
I remember one afternoon when we trekked up to one of the peaks by her house and looked out over the Plain valley. She pointed to a mountain across the valley and told me about some people over there who got really mad when people hiked on their expansive property but who were caught hiking on someone else’s. I asked her if anyone had called them out and she responded, “You know, we don’t always have to bring that part of someone forward.” I have never forgotten that, and it has become part of my own practice – what is it that we “bring forward” in another person? Can we sometimes let something go – specifically because we don’t want to bring that aspect of the person forward, and yet within that seek to bring another, more beautiful aspect of that same person forward, simply by what we choose to focus on? I think we can, and that has been a game changer for me in many ways.
God is always bigger than the boxes we build for God, so we should not waste too much time protecting the boxes. ~ Richard Rohr
My teaching began to change and my students began to notice it. Through Liz, I became intensely interested in the mystics of every religion, and grew to appreciate deeply a real model of living spiritual life, rather than just knowing it, or teaching about it. Everything Liz talked about related to Christ and God reminded me of yoga and specifically of Samarya Yoga and our focus on “perfect and whole.” Through her, I recalibrated my own orientation to yoga and spiritual life, finding the parallels in her passion and my own and becoming ever more faith based through our sharing. The first time I went to meet Ram Dass, I asked Liz, as a spiritual director herself, what I could expect and what I should ask. She didn’t know exactly who Ram Dass was, but gave me a sense of what I might encounter and how to receive it. When I returned from that first visit, Liz had taken it upon herself to explore Ram Dass’ teachings and to incorporate them into all she already knew and taught. I was delighted when I first met Ram Dass, and he talked about who was always represented on his puja table, and he cited Teillhard de Chardin as one of the top three – I got to say, “I know who that is! He’s my teacher too!”
A year or so later, Liz and i were walking and she asked me about the Upanishads and if there was a particular translation I could recommend. I was so excited that she was asking me for something from my spiritual orientation but sad that I didn’t have one at the ready. I told her I would ask Ram Dass when I saw him next.
Indeed, the next time I was with Ram Dass, I asked him if he could recommend something to me on behalf of Liz. I had already sent him Ilia Delio’s “The Unbearable Wholeness of Being” – a book that Liz had recommended to me – filled with pages marked by tiny post-its, just in case Ram Dass couldn’t figure out the good parts for himself.
Anyway, he told me he had one particular translation that he liked the best, and that I could find it on his bookshelf. I got up and and looked through his books and took down the first copy of the Upanishads I could find. “Is this it?” I asked. Ram Dass looked at it and then said, “Well, that one is good, but that’s not the one I was referencing.” He described it to me again, and I searched his bookshelves again until I found another. “Yes, that’s the one,” he said. I asked him if I could take them back to my room to look through them and he said, “You can keep them both, what am I going to do with them?” Because of Liz, I not only became deeply familiar with, and deeply moved by, the Upanishads, I got to have two copies that once belonged to Ram Dass. These books are some of my most precious belongings.
Liz and I continued our friendship as the years moved on. I began to spend more time with her and her husband Rich, a famous painter, and the creator of stained glass in over 600 churches world-wide. I would have dinner at their house – Rich even did some work on illustrating the cover to my book, although in the end he didn’t complete it, the experience of working with him on it and talking with him about it generated some amazing stories and moments that also transformed my life and thought – but that will have to be for another day. Our dinners would be filled with stories of art, and God, and poetry, and change, and more than once they asked me to begin the meal with a prayer “from my tradition.” Liz always made me, and makes me feel absolutely seen.
In January of this year, Liz led my winter retreatants through the process of Lectio Divina, which was a highlight for all of us. After we finished and the students left, Liz asked me how I thought it went, saying, “I’m not really a teacher.” I told Liz that she was surely a teacher, the students had gained so much, but not just in her ability to convey thought, she was the best kind of teacher, because she IS the teaching.
Rich died suddenly this spring, just a month or so before I returned to the Guild for teacher training. I made it a point to spend as much possible time as I could with Liz, not just to keep her company, but perhaps selfishly to be in that delicate and precious space of grief with someone who would experience it in a very particular way through her deep faith. She talked about gazing at the fire in her wood stove as one of the only real respites from her grief and wondered aloud what she would do when the weather changed. I got to tell her about the yogic practice of tratak – gazing into a flame to enter into the cave of the heart. She talked about needing to stop falling apart, and I got to tell her I didn’t think she needed to stop anything. She talked about feeling like things were coming undone, and she needed company in putting them back together. I asked her what she meant in the moment and she told me about the wood pile that her beloved dog, Hopi, had pulled down chasing a squirrel, and i got to put it back together with her. As a Jersey girl, I had never stacked wood like that, and alongside this strong, capable and physically powerful 80 year old woman, I got to discover the magical meditation of wood stacking.
Liz Caemmerer has touched and changed my life like no one else. She exposed me to teachings, teachers and a way of being in the world that infinitely increased my capacity and breadth as a teacher, but even more so, my dedication to my spiritual life as a deeply mystical and personal experience. Oh, and one other thing about Liz – she loves to text using emoticons, which for some reason i find particularly funny for a woman of her age – not one you might usually think would express herself through tiny texted pictures of praying hands, or a smiling sun wearing sunglasses. One time she texted me saying, “You are the gentlest of souls,” with an emoticon of namaste and a blushing sun. Having been referred to most of my life as things like fiery, yang, intense, hearing from this woman – herself the epitome of a gentle soul – a person that I love and respect so much telling me that I was “the gentlest of souls” made my heart swell and soar.
Thank you Liz. Here’s to many more walks and talks in the coming years. Thank you for sharing your greatest teachings with me – yourself and your life.