Tenacity Suited to a Pandemic

Barbara Brown Taylor and the dean of the National Cathedral shared a conversation last evening. I love everything BBT has to say as well as those all too familiar ribes from church-types she deftly sidesteps. Two things really rocked me…

She shared a favorite quote from theologian Walter Brueggemann: “The world for which you have been so carefully prepared is being taken away from you, and this by the grace of God.” Yowzer!!! Sit with that for awhile.

Second, BBT referred to the destruction of the Temple in 70CE as a source of consolation for her at this time in the life of Christianity. The Jewish people had to change, adapt, transform in unthinkable ways. Yet, they endured!

Hmmm… maybe God’s in charge after all; a “jealous God” who will have no truck with idolatry (magic, fantasy or superstition)!

Just some random thoughts percolating this morning on the Feast of the Ascension, that occasion when the departure of the Risen One yet again leaves his friends befuddled!

Are we to simply keep doing what we’ve been doing, frantic to return to what we knew as “normal”? How do we stay true to Christ? How do we avoid being co-opted by a past — not all bad — that needs to fall to the earth and die if it is to yield a rich harvest?

Somewhere in all this is the secure footing for a tenacious hope.

Thanksgiving Song

As the Great Dynamo who powers the wheels of seasons and years
Turns autumn once more into winter,
At this season of Thanksgiving,
We give thanks for all seasons.

For winter, who strips trees to their basic design,
For stark, minimalist winter,
We give thanks.
May we let go, and grow bright as stars in a clear, frosty night,
The more we are stripped of what we thought we could not do without.

For the springtime that bursts forth,
Just when we think winter will never end,
For irrepressible springtime
We give thanks.
May we never forget the crippled, wind-beaten trees,
How they, too, bud, green and bloom,
May we, too, take courage to bloom where we are planted.

For summer, when fruit begins to ripen more and more,
For the green, swelling high tide of summer
We give thanks.
May we trust that time is not running out, but coming to fulfillment,
May we wait patiently while time ripens.

For autumn and its slow growing fruition
For that season of ultimate rise and fall
We give thanks.
May we gracefully rise to the occasion of our own falling,
Giving ourselves just enough time to go beyond time
To the great Now
At the quiet center of the turning wheels.

We give thanks for all seasons
At this season of Thanksgiving.

— Brother David Steindl-Rast, OSB

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Thanks to Gratefulness.org for publishing this prayer-poem. All credit is theirs.

Late Autumn Oblation

I’m simply moved by and want others to enjoy Laura Foley’s poem, The Offering. Not only has she crafted a wonderful poem, the poet gives expression to a marvelous prayer…

These woods
on the edges of a lake
are settling now
to winter darkness.
Whatever was going to die
is gone —
crickets, ferns, swampgrass.
Bare earth fills long spaces of a field.
But look:
a single oak leaf
brown and shining
like a leather purse.
See what it so delicately offers
lying upturned on the path.
See how it reflects in its opened palm
a cup of deep, unending sky.

Everyday for 7 Years

Again and again, rain or shine, through ice or humidity! JebTheDog has faithfully taken me for a walk virtually every afternoon since 2011 along Minnehaha Creek. Nothing I post on Facebook is as popular as photos from these outings. Friends consistently remark about how they look forward to seeing the latest in the “creek series”.

At first, the walks were a duty I accepted as part of dog “ownership.” Self-interest motivated me during bleak February freezes — why else would I get out for a 30 minute walk in the depths of Minnesota winter? …it was good for me! Hassles were not limited to obligation or inclement weather. In 2017 I tumbled over a granite boulder on an idyllic summer afternoon. Surgery, screws, plates and physical therapy over a couple months were required to return my left wrist back to normal.

What happens when we do the same ritual time and time again over a considerable period of time? I now annually await the bluebells on the north slope. These are followed by an explosion of violets. Unintentional comparison of water levels are noted from year to year. JebTheDog remembers where to look for the snapping turtle each June in case I forget. Worried curiosity wonders what’s happened to the coy white squirrel. The rotting stump of a ginormous willows plucks a cord of grief, followed by grateful memories for what remains and for all that has been.

Beyond the uniqueness of each day and incidental occurrences, something cumulative and and rhythmic takes hold. Shifts in motivation creep in over time. Obligation morphs into anticipation. Laughing water reliably softens a knot of worry. Trees become faithful sentinels. Field mice consistently entertain and confound Jeb. The migration of mallards and the cyclic flow of seasons nudge us to notice patterns in our lives.

After seven years, the creek no longer presents itself as a destination. Rather it has become an extension of home, a harbinger of relationship, a sanctuary of wisdom, a grounding in matter — and in what matters. The Shakers had it right:

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
It will be in the valley of love and delight

Seven years of mentoring by my faithful companion, JebTheDog, casts a gentle glow on my 68 years of “occupancy” on this planet. I recognize how so many years and relationships have been characterized by action/reaction, effecting change, leading the charge, not simply being driven but being the driver. Perhaps a certain intensity needs to characterize seasons or transitory roles in our lives — they too can reveal the bulwark of a life well-lived. Yet, these can too easily come to dominate. In dire cases we accept them as our destiny — such is the death rattle of stifling monotony!

The demise of leonine willows, the laughter of rollicking water, the tenderizing cycle of seasons unmask my patterns of foolishness. A smile begins to replenish worry lines framing my eyes. With a spiritual master extraordinaire leading my way, doing the same thing everyday for seven years nudges me to awaken, let be, listen, allow and behold — recognizing we are in the place just right and precisely where we ought to be.

I’ll be glad for another seven years of dog-duty!

___________________

The familiar Shaker quote is from “Simple Gifts”, composed in 1848 by Elder Joseph Brackett.

I am indebted to Martin Laird, O.S.A.; An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation, and Liberation; Oxford University Press, 2019 for the distinction between reactive and receptive mind as well as the perfectly prescriptive words: let be, listen, allow and behold (p. 94).

Monumental

Purchasing a tombstone is inevitably a sobering experience, especially when its your own. That’s what I did during the last week of 2017. Seemed practical… with no children, who’s going to do it? Besides, it gives you the opportunity to select what you want. Or, better, what I don’t want — no “Praying Hands”, thank you very much!

I’ve often mused that I wanted my epithet to be “He made good soup.” It’s simple, descriptive, accurate. Conjures hospitality, creativity, frugality, a melding of many pieces into one grand symphony. Mom worked miracles with her clean-out-the-refrigerator soups as Dad awaited his next paycheck. What better could be said about someone’s life?

My cremains will be interred in a plot next to my parents in a Nebraska town of 1600 people where we haven’t lived for more than 62 years. We have four generations of family in that cemetery. Though I haven’t lived in Nebraska for more than forty years, the prairie remains my home and where my soul, even now, finds rest.

There is a fitting and delightful irony in that my final resting place will be more than 300 miles from where I now live but less than a quarter-mile from the house where my parents lived when I was conceived.

Proximity has never characterized our relationship! A lively sense of adventure and curiosity necessitated that I move on, travel the world, shed the provincialism I naively ascribed to my origins. Even being interred next to my parents was unimaginable for a time. As required in adolescence and young adulthood deep existential longings beckoned me beyond, always on to new horizons. Parents symbolize origins; I sought the world, and as much as of it I could get.

Parents frequently become a convenient and easy receptor for all we want to leave behind, their deficiencies an easy target for our ire. After all, we recognize at some deep level they are the only ones we get and that’s never going to change.  For better or worse we are irrevocably hitched. So we let ’em have it. They’re always our parents!

If we are especially fortunate we may find an abiding confidence that they may even love us unconditionally (even if not in the way we’d prefer). Though I have no personal experience, I’ve come to wonder whether the best parents can hope is for their heartache to be balanced with the consolation and joy children periodically deliver.

Perhaps herein lies the real gift — in our living we discover that anguish and joy are not an either/or proposition. Rather, they converge into a single, swirling vortex. In that swirling rough’n’tumble we discover as good a definition of love as any.

Here’s something I do know. In our youth a certain insatiable longing and expansiveness necessarily drives us outward and we need to dispose of the identity our parents and origins conferred upon us. Like the vast Nebraska prairie we envision limitless space and fix our eyes on the expansive horizon, ever captivated by whatever lies beyond. We eventually move from being pioneers to becoming homesteaders of our own.

Then, there comes a time we discover our deepest longings, most profound hungers, insatiable appetites cannot be satisfied. They need not be satisfied. Oh, we may try! But the horizon always recedes beyond us! The especially privileged among us will attempt to find satisfaction in what will ultimately be found insufficient to the need. Acquisitions of all sorts easily slide into consumerism or fetishes at best and obsessions or addictions in more desperate extremes.

Perhaps one key reason children and parents inevitably clash lies in the fact we engage one another at two different stages of life. One driven by an expansive, limitless trajectory; the other drawn deeper into an awareness of life’s complexities. We are destined to reside in different universes though never apart.

To the uninitiated, the Nebraska prairie appears barren, flat, featureless. Life on the plains carries a certain emptiness, longing, loneliness. That is precisely what beckons my soul. But cannot this be said of every place of human habitation? Ultimately, wherever we reside, we must find satisfaction beyond our dreams, beyond place, beyond selves.

The Nebraska prairie is the place where my soul finds rest. One way or another, we are all drawn deeper than we could have seen or imagined into discovering our most authentic selves. Horizons expand beyond the geographical. Life transcends the individual. Our trek paradoxically takes us, not just beyond, but ever deeper — deeper into emptiness, longing, yearning.

Fulfillment comes when we enter, or are plunged, more deeply if not willingly into that vast expansiveness. The hard and perplexing invitation to a full and happy life lies not in our futile efforts to fill an existential emptiness. Rather, our happiness and wholeness is discovered when we welcome, probe and embrace the wisdom this womb-like cavern holds for us. Therein lies life’s destiny and fulfillment.

My parents’ memorial sits inconspicuously atop a windswept hill in Nebraska. Mine will stand aside it — same size, same shape, same granite stone. Only difference being that Mom and Dad’s “Praying Hands” will be replaced by my simple cross. My husband asked, “Will your monument say, ‘He made good soup’?” My response, “No, it says something even better and more distinguished… ‘Son of Arthur and Gertrude’!”

My two Godson nephews have been instructed to simply place my cremains into the ground. The only graveside service I request is that they read aloud the conclusion to T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding. In part it says:

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
__________________

Eliot’s poem Little Gidding may be found at: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/history/winter/w3206/edit/tseliotlittlegidding.html

This Most Contradictory of Seasons

The bottom is about to drop out! We’ve been living on borrowed time. Still reluctant to face reality, it is what it is.

It’s not as if we haven’t been warned — today’s high in Minneapolis is to be 57; tomorrow’s temp is forecast to be 22! The redolent release of Fall is past. We are in for a full-bore collapse into the depths of winter.

We Minnesotans pride ourselves in being of hearty stock. Each year we enter this season with a conflicted mixture of reluctance and pride, reenactment of a familiar script and rehearsal for an even bigger drama that lies ahead.

Natives counsel new arrivals to our state with sage advice — learn to play in it; skating, cross-country skiing, show-shoeing, ice-fishing, “walk” the lakes. Those of Scandinavian descent advise the rest of us, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” Through Minnesota’s own expression of “natural selection” those of less hearty stock concoct veiled excuses to bail. Their loss!

What the uninformed protest as “harsh” Minnesota winters actually preserves our famed North Woods. Quail and other wildlife need snow cover to burrow into for cozy quarters. You haven’t truly relaxed until you know the solitude of cross-country skiing across of a frozen lake encircled with verdant pine, sentinel birch and the silhouettes of naked bur oak. A good hard winter is also nature’s best defense against the devastation of Emerald Ash Bore and the invasive Asian beetle. Then there is the hearth — that place where hearts are warmed, friendship deepens, and love finds expression.

So why such resistance? Why this talk of the bottom falling out? Why such reluctance and resignation? …a hunker-down survivalist stoicism? …the insistent urge to escape? Some seem captive to the sparseness of winter, afflicted with tunnel vision, willing to wallow in a life of hibernation. They appear constitutionally incapable of embracing beauty, recognizing promise, and plumbing life’s depths.

But is not this hardness of heart an unyielding refusal to change, a fear of any disruption to preferred routines, a denial of the passage of time, a poverty of imagination? We can too easily and stubbornly hold the promise for any potential future in a straight-jacket of our own making.

You need not be a privileged Minnesotan to embrace the offering of this sparsest of seasons. Our lives are also lived according to passages not made of uniform chronology. At any time of year we may bear the brunt of loss, the trauma of a potentially terminal diagnosis, the breakup of a relationship. Thankfully not all disruptions to the way things are, or want them to be, are as harsh or traumatic. We must engage them all to their depths if we are to fully live.

Mary Oliver lives on the easternmost tip of Cape Cod and has long been our most loyal chronicler of life’s fury, simplicity, sparseness and sublime beauty. Her poem, On Winter’s Margin captures both the timeless potential and promise of this most contradictory of seasons:

On winter’s margin, see the small birds now
With half-forged memories come flocking home
To gardens famous for their charity.
The green globe’s broken; vines like tangled veins
Hang at the entrance to the silent wood.

With half a loaf, I am the prince of crumbs;
By time snow’s down, the birds amassed will sing
Like children for their sire to walk abroad!
But what I love, is the gray stubborn hawk
Who floats alone beyond the frozen vines;
And what I dream of are the patient deer
Who stand on legs like reeds and drink the wind;—

They are what saves the world: who choose to grow
Thin to a starting point beyond this squalor.

Letting Go

Those who love me do so despite my over-sized ego, propensity to confuse my considered opinions with objective truth, and a dogged commitment to “my way” of doing things. This is not a new insight and some especially good friends have been able to reflect back to me some of this truth, if ever so cautiously.

At 67 I’m trying to accept a certain “fixed-ness” about my personality. I’m trying to live with a turn on the popular phrase, “What I see is what I get it!” On this Thanksgiving weekend I am increasingly aware of and grateful for those who look beyond my faults and failings to love me for the jumbled mixture of good and bad that I am.

For awhile now, my “sacred word” in a sputtering practice of Centering Prayer has been rapha, meaning to be weak, to let go, to release. Given my challenge outlined above, there should be no surprise that its grounded in “Be still, and know that I am God!” (Psalm 46:10). Some more learned than me suggest my “sacred word” might better be translated as “cause yourselves to let go” or “let yourselves become weak”.

Many days I struggle (a more honest verb might be avoid) fitting in my 20 minute meditation period. While the house is quiet this Thanksgiving morning and my husband makes pies for our family feast this afternoon there are no distractions from climbing the stairs to my prayer “cave”. As always, Jeb the Dog dutifully follows and positions himself on the rug behind me.

Rapha … rapha … rapha … settles my breathing as I attempt to be still, let go, release from my over-sized ego-self. Thoughts and distractions vie for attention much like frenzied fans yell, “me, me, me; here, here, here” to the stadium attendant tossing wiffle balls into the stands before a game.

As my iPhone timer silently ticks off the assigned 20 minutes, more pious thoughts wedge their way into an array of flashy images being cast onto the scrim of my ego. From Philippians 2: “Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped [now there’s a huge ego distraction for you!] but humbled himself.” The Annunciation… “Be it done unto me according to your will.” Or Jesus in the Garden… After expressing his opinion to the point of sweating blood, it was not his ego-self mustering a reluctant “But not my will but yours be done.”

Rapharapharapha … soon even such piously occluded projections fade as the distraction they are from a much needed nudge to become weak, to truly let go, to actually release my 67 y/o ego-self to the One who is truly God.

Rapharapharapha … as the iPhone chimes gently invite me back after the assigned minutes it is not the psalmist, Mary of Nazareth, or even Jesus facing crucifixion that grounds my consolation. Surprisingly, but ever so graciously, May Sarton’s AutumnSonnet gives voice to that which is anything but a distraction: “cause yourselves to let go”; “let yourselves become weak”.

With the suggestion that “my ego” be substituted for “you” in the first and last lines, I offer her words to you…

If I can let you go as trees let go
Their leaves, so casually, one by one,
If I can come to know what they do know,
That fall is the release, the consummation,
Then fear of time and the uncertain fruit
Would not distemper the great lucid skies
This strangest autumn, mellow and acute.
If I can take the dark with open eyes
And call it seasonal, not harsh or strange
(For love itself may need a time of sleep),
And, treelike, stand unmoved before the change,
Lose what I lose to keep what I can keep,
The strong root still alive under the snow,
Love will endure — if I can let you go.

———————-
AutumnSonnet by May Sarton, from “Selected Poems of May Sarton” 1978.
John J. Parsons provides a marvelous reflection on “surrender” and more fully explains the Hebrew origins of rapha. I encourage you to take a look at:
‪http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Meditations/Be_Still/be_still.html ‬