Soli Deo Gloria

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How does one mend a life threaded with melancholy? When the world becomes too much and too loud? When one’s sighs become heavier and one’s thoughts more anxious? Throughout the gospels, we see Christ retire to a solitary place: a place of silence and solitude. He who was part man, part God also needed to remove himself from this world that can sweep over one like waves in a storm over the bow and sides of a fishing boat at sea. Leave the shouting and the bustling and the to-do lists. Leave behind the cell phone and the constant thrum of social media with its reckless words and constant need to be seen and be heard. Go to where one is not noticed, where one need not be heard or seen, but still and quiet and unnoticed. Where the shrill caw of a crow’s calling is calming and one leaves the well-trod path to wander beyond the fence to where only the fox can hear one’s confession.

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I sit on the stream’s banks and desire for nothing more than its gentle reminder that grace can be found in the peace of simple things: such as watching the tadpoles gather. There is no need to buy or sell here. It is enough to notice and be aware. Rest in the beauty of the sunlight dappled on the mossy stones and water’s ripples. I sit and the only envy I feel is towards the rootedness of trees.

My soul learns from the water of the pond to be still. I close my eyes and heed only its reminder: Be still. Be still. Be still.

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The only movement is the dance of a cluster of gnats that move in a kind of column.

The only sound is the crack of the mockingbird’s call. He moves along the ground: raising and lowering his wings. His song, like the compositions of my beloved Bach, are all “Soli Deo Gloria” (To God Alone Be The Glory).

Nearby a box turtle is motionless, resting in the warmth of sunlight by the water’s edge. This is contentment.

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This is why I come here. This is how my soul is comforted. This is how I remind myself at the beginning of creation God called it all “very good.” This is where my every breath is praise. This is where my every heartbeat is a prayer of gratitude. This is where my mouth cannot help but form the word: Alleluia.

As if this is not enough, I find the large feather of an owl and am humbled by this gift.

This is why I go deeper and deeper into the natural world: not just to be dazzled and delighted, but to be reminded, in quiet reflection, that all ground is holy ground and that the world is alive with miracle and mystery.

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Awareness & Attention

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The Early German Romantic poet Novalis wrote, “To romanticize the world is to make us aware of the magic, mystery, and wonder of the world; it is to educate the senses to see the ordinary as extraordinary, the familiar as strange, the mundane as sacred, the finite as infinite.” It is words that have a deeper impact knowing that the poet only lived to the age of twenty-eight when he died of tuberculosis. He was not only a poet but studied mineralogy at university and continued to study science throughout his young life.

Returning to his statement about romanticizing the world, I cannot help but think what he is referring to is not romanticizing the world but truly having eyes to gaze upon the natural world around us. It is about not only noticing but focusing one’s concentration. The poet Jane Hirshfield wrote, “In the wholeheartedness of concentration world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.”

Concentration and awareness do not necessarily come naturally to us but, like all spiritual disciplines, is something that must be practiced. The novelist Margurite Duras grasped that this is something that takes time, effort, and practice, “The art of seeing has to be learned.” We must begin to see as the artist sees, the poet sees, the novelist sees, as the scientist sees, and as the child sees. With eyes afresh and marshalling all of one’s senses because attention is, as cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz describes as “an intentional, unapologetic discriminator.”

It requires us to not only limit our distractions and interruptions but draw our focus from our internal selves to something in the world around us: a flower, a bird, clouds, a tree. Often it requires solitude and privacy. Attention requires a giving of ourselves to something else. It asks of us to be intentional. The French philosopher Simone Weil wrote in her classic Gravity and Grace that, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” She also sees this as not being merely a matter of willpower. We cannot will oneself to do so. As she writes:

The will only controls a few movements of a few muscles, and these movements are associated with the idea of the change of position of nearby objects. I can will to put my hand flat on the table. If inner purity, inspiration or truth of thought were necessarily associated with attitudes of this kind, they might be the object of will. As this is not the case, we can only beg for them… Or should we cease to desire them? What could be worse? Inner supplication is the only reasonable way, for it avoids stiffening muscles which have nothing to do with the matter. What could be more stupid than to tighten up our muscles and set our jaws about virtue, or poetry, or the solution of a problem. Attention is something quite different.

Weil sees attention, however, as a spiritual act:

Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.

Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.

If we turn our mind toward the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.

If only we took such time to see the attention we give to something of beauty in the world as a form of prayer. It is an active prayer. We are immersing ourselves in something else. There are times when I can spend an hour simply sitting by the side of a stream and watch the flow of the water, listening to its movement and the sound of birdsong in the trees. I see the way the sun shimmers off the water’s surface or see the reflection of the trees or the clouds overhead. To see schools of small common stream fish darting about among the shadows of the banks. Or watching as a dragonfly, with a slight turn of its wing, goes zipping over the stream’s surface before it lands on a nearby plant. It is more than mere witnessing, more than simply noticing,  or it is, as the poet Mary Oliver writes, “Attention without feeling is only a report.”

We must, as Novalis wrote, educated our senses to the world: our hearing, our seeing, our feeling, and even our sense of smell. To offer all of our senses to this form of attention is no less than what we do when we offer ourselves up in prayer or silence or meditation. It is a sacrificing of self to something beyond and greater than ourselves. It is also rediscovering the connection of ourselves to something outside of our own bodies: whether that be God or a crayfish that we see resting on a watery rock in the stream. It is, as Virginia Woolf understood, giving “passionate attention . . . to the details around us.” I love that she calls it “passionate attention.” When we are passionate about something, we give it our fullest attention. Passion, more than thought or belief, truly shapes us and what and where we spend our time and attention.

When we do this, we do as Novalis so clearly understands, we truly become “aware of the magic, mystery, and wonder of the world; it is to educate the senses to see the ordinary as extraordinary, the familiar as strange, the mundane as sacred, the finite as infinite.” We stop taking this natural world for granted. We see that it is sparked with mystery and miracles and magic. It fills us with awe and wonder and delight. It draws us out into the sacredness of the natural world. All ground is holy ground. All is touched with a spark of the divine.

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On Turning 51

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I’m not a morning person.

I have never been a morning person.

Early mornings are not my thing and I don’t do them well at all. When I wake up, I am slow to process and even slower to communicate. I prefer quiet and not be inundated with noise and distraction. Yet I found myself awake before sunrise on my birthday, which was a Saturday (a day I normally sleep in on) and, unable to go back to sleep, I finally got up and quietly went to the kitchen. After fixing myself a cup of coffee, I opened my Bible to read my Psalm for that day. I couldn’t help but think of Dorothy Day’s saying, “My strength returns to me with my cup of coffee and the reading of the psalms.”

My Psalm for this day was Psalm 27, which begins “The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The Lord is my stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?”

As someone who suffers from anxiety, I know fear intimately, but struggle to let go of those fears enough to know God more intimately. It’s funny, but at the age of fifty-one, I still wrestle with many of the same things I struggled with at fifteen. I thought I would have more answers and more victories. It is like Andrew Peterson sings about in his song “After All These Years”:

After all these years I would have thought
That all my fears were laid to rest
But I still get scared
And I thought that all my struggles would be
Victories by now but I confess
That the mess is there

The older I get, the more questions I have, the less easy answers I have, and the more I’m finding that faith is all about trust when one doesn’t have an answer.

Returning to Psalm 27, at 51, I was struck by these verses:

One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and seek him in his temple.

And that is exactly what I prayed that morning, “Lord, let me gaze on your beauty.” Continuing with the Psalmist, “My heart says of you, ‘Seek his face!’ Your face, I will seek.” This is a request of the utmost intimacy. How few have truly looked on the face of the Lord God. Most saw only the cloud by day, the pillar of fire by night at best. Yet we often see the face of God every day and ignore them: those around us, those we come across and encounter each day for we are, all of us, Imago Dei. As the late Rich Mullins sang, “Everywhere I go I see you.”

I see the beauty of the Lord in the sunrise with its soft hues of pink and purple like the blossoms on our azalea bushes to gentle yellows of the irises. To see the blooms in our garden and hear the Spirit say, “See this beauty and gather it to you in gratitude.” How many mornings do I miss this grace because I’m too preoccupied or filled with complaint and ingratitude? How often am I not present because I’m too busy, too fragmented, too filled with distraction and deadlines? Or because of my wanting for more? Do I miss those ordinary moments because I’m too busy seeking the extraordinary ones?

As the early morning sun came in through the kitchen window, as I fixed myself another cup of coffee, and listened to the birdsong and I gaze out the window at the green and glistens with the touch of light on the dew of the grass and the sky was now the color of forget-me-nots and I agreed with Meister Eckhart’s assessment, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” Inside, I was praying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

With coffee in hand, I returned to the couch and the Psalm and read, “Teach me your way, Lord; lead me in the straight path.” Seldom has my spiritual journey been on a straight path. I wander as I wonder.

There’s a hymn by the great Fanny Crosby entitled “All The Way My Savior Leads Me” that contains these lyrics:

All the way my Savior leads me

and He cheers each winding path I tread

gives me strength for every trial

and He feeds me with living bread

and tho my steps may falter

and my soul a thirst may be

gushing from a rock before me

tho a spirit of joy I see

If I’m being honest with myself, I am more a wanderer than a follower. Wandering, however, can leave one exhausted, depressed, thirsty, hungry, and battered and bruised and bloodied. Wandering can also be mere escapism – a pulling away from Christ and community for mere distractions. Yet this morning, in the stillness and the silence, those distractions were removed. I was awake and awakened. I was focused and thankful. As I read and meditated on the words with a calm heart, I found myself not reaching for my laptop or my cell phone.

I found myself in a place of worship and wonder. Grabbing a copy of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, it fell open to his poem “Pied Beauty.”

Glory be to God for dappled things –

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-foals; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;

And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

His fathers-forth whose beauty is past change.

Praise him.

Praise Him, indeed. Not a bad way to turn fifty-one.

 

 

The Owl, The Idols, & God

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While working in the garden in our backyard, I happened to glance up and notice the Barred Owl perched on the limb of one of our great old oak trees. In her mouth was a vole. And I began to think: Is that how I view God? Do I see God less as a mother hen protecting her chicks and more like this fierce bird of prey with a victim in her mouth? Am I that vole? It’s hard to worship such a fearful God, to be devoted to a God who devours.

I have just come out of another period of spiritual questioning. I go through these periods every few years and find myself pointedly asking: What do I truly believe and why do I, if I’m being completely honest with myself, believe it? These periods are never easy, never comfortable and I often find myself confronting the false images, the false idols of the God I claim to worship. These periods are a time of my breaking the graven images I have made of my own God: this big God who is distant and as watchful of me as that owl was of the vole it caught within its talons and then in its sharp beak.

Currently, I am reading Simplicity: The Freedom of Letting Go by Richard Rohr. In it he writes, “The journey of faith demands that we let go of our image of God and our image of ourselves. But we can’t do that in our own head and on our own; it’s done to us. The only thing we have to do is live, but live openly and honestly, letting the truth of the world get through to us. We’re not converted in our heads or by sermons from the pastor: we’re converted by circumstances – if we really let the circumstances speak to us. And when we let reality get through to us, then our conversion doesn’t take very long.”

These periods always take me to uncomfortable and unfamiliar places. Deserts and wildernesses where my false gods cannot go. It’s not about spirituality but survival. It is Christ in the forty days letting go and discovering again who his God truly was and what this God wanted of him. Not an easy task. Not one that we willingly endure. It rips and tears and shreds the images of God that we have made for ourselves just as that owl will do with that vole.

I hate these periods.

Gone are the Sunday school felt figures of a soft, cuddly, and warm Christ with the children and the lambs. This is the wilderness God who led the Israelites out of Egypt so that they would forget the God they thought they knew to encounter the one, true God. God of clouds and columns of fire. God of storms on mountaintops.

For me, it is not a process of seeking but of divine wrestling. An internal struggle that often leads to long, sleepless nights of questioning. Not nice, diplomatic questions, but of the kind that the Psalmists ask without fear or trepidation. Questions that often begin with, “Why?” or “Where are You?”

Gone are my plastic devotions. Gone are my polite prayers.

This God will not be found in the blue sky. This is not the God of books and words in print. This is not a God of poetry and praise. This is not the God of mountains and oceans and stars. One cannot go to churches or temples or cathedrals. This God will not be contained by such small tents (not even our universe).

I found myself in a place of neither belonging nor being abandoned.

Do not despair of the darkness, I tried to comfort myself, as others slept soundly and I watched and waited and wondered when wisdom would come. Not answers. Wisdom is not the same as answers.

Like David in his cave, like the prophets in the wild, I cried, I lamented, I wandered, and waited.  There I found the fierce center of the longing of my heart: that raging fury of God’s embrace. That place where God is nothing but what Thomas Merton called “mercy, within mercy, within mercy.”

This was not the God of the high place, the God of the out there. This was the God of the inner whisper, the gentle breeze, the birdsong that fills the trees. It is a casting down of the cold surface of my idol God until it cracks and shatters completely. It is only then that the light and the warmth can return just as winter needs its thaw to transform into spring.

It means I have to let go of all the images and ideas I hold of God and to come to God, again, empty-handed like a child.

It is leaving the wilderness to return to the house of belonging where a God who is both father and mother welcomes me with open arms and warm kisses.

It is an abandoning the constant attempts at rowing across this unknown, raging sea and allowing oneself to drown in the endless sea of love and mercy and grace.

Only when one lets go and abandons oneself can one begin to abide again.

Give away everything and you will find yourself with what is necessary.

Then you will come in contact with what David Whyte writes about in his poem “The Bell and the Blackbird”:

That radiance
you have always
carried with you
as you walk
both alone
and completely
accompanied
in friendship
by every corner
of the world
crying
Allelujah.

So I look up at the owl and am grateful that I no longer hold such idol gods as the owl holds to that vole.

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Meditation On Psalm 22 On Good Friday

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My Lent to Easter tradition is to listen to Bach’s magnificent MatthäusPassion. It begins with the choral, “Come, you daughters, help me lament.” And lament is exactly where I was on Good Friday. Instead of reading the traditional passage from the Gospel of Matthew recounting the crucifixion, this year I read Psalm 22 with its most existential spiritual question, “Eli, Eli, lema sabacthani?” or “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” Jesus utters David’s words from the cross in the most haunting and heart-wrenching words for me in the entirety of scriptures. I shudder to think of Christ’s rasping, questioning voice of one who has been intimately connected to God before there was time and Creation and now that connection is split, gone, and in the absolute cry of abandonment, he cries out with the strained, broken voice of one who has suffered the unimaginable in body, mind, and spirit.

David’s question has been one that has driven deeply to my core whenever I read it. Having been at the edge of utter despair and destruction, I, too, once cried out in such a manner. I was asking, “Where are You? Why have You abandoned me?” Yet, as I read the opening line from Psalm 22, I found the question altered, my own spirit responding to a different question that was no less painful to ask, “My God, my God, why have I forsaken you?”

When I imagine the few of his faithful who had gathered at the foot of the cross, I understand that I would not have been one of them. Like most of the disciples, I would have scattered and fled for fear of my own safety and security. I would have hidden and startled at every sound, every movement for absolute terror that the Roman soldiers or the crowds who called for Christ to be crucified would be coming for me now. It’s a hard realization to face. We all would like to believe ourselves strong enough to stand and proclaim, even at the cost of our own lives. Yet as I sat in silent meditation, I knew I would not have.

How do I know this?

Because of the way that question came back on me, “My God, my God, why have I forsaken You?” I am all too ready to wander and question and struggle and fight and question and wrestle and blame and doubt and forget the One who came to me in the depths of my own hell and reminded me that, even when I was not faithful, He still was. Why then do I so often and so easily walk away? Why do I continually find myself asking, “Is any of this even real? Was all of this created to comfort us in our fear of death?”

In one of the recitatives, Bach has Jesus sing:

All ye shall be offended because of me this night; for

it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep

of the flock, shall be scattered abroad. But after I am

risen again. I will go before you into Galilee.

Then Bach has the Chorale reply:

Know me, my keeper,

my shepherd, take me to Thee.

By Thee, source of all good things,

much good has befallen me.

Thy mouth has refreshed me

with milk and sweetmeats

Thy spirit has favoured me

with many a heavenly longing.

I hear those words as a follow-up to what Christ has just told his followers and realize that, despite his being the “source of all good things,” I am still prone to abandon and deny him.

I see myself in the doubting of Thomas and the denying of Peter. It always moves me to tears when Peter’s aria comes on:

Have mercy, my God,

for my tears’ sake;

Look hither, heart and eyes

weep bitterly before Thee.

Have mercy!

In the depths of darkness, I cried and wept bitterly myself and prayed just such words. Even after such a moment of utter brokenness, when God has pulled me out of the pit, out of a depression and woundedness that I was willing to end it all; even though light shone in that darkness, even though I heard His voice speak to me, “Look up!” I still find myself in times where I would as the hymn “Come Thy Fount of Every Blessing” states:

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

Too often I turn from that divine grace, that utter overwhelming show of eternal mercy and endless love, and become prone to wander.

As it so often has in the past, poetry has been the guide that draws me back. This time it has been a poet who is new to me, Jane Tyson Clement. In a collection entitled The Heart’s Necessities: Life in Poetry. With any collection of poetry, I do not devour them in quick readings but read a poem and then reflect on it throughout my day. I let the words sink in, mull them over and consider and contemplate the poet’s imagery and meaning. On Good Friday, my poem by Clement entitled “The Sea is Dusk Now.” It was written when she was only 22 and in college. She had just come through a period of severe pneumonia (fevers, extremely painful coughs, fatigue, and unsure if she was even going to live). She begins the poem with the painful, “The sea is dusk now, and the wind is dying: / landward the last night-driven gull is flying.” I love this image of the seaside just after a violent storm. It is still dark but there is a calm returning.

The sea is dusk now, and the wind is dying;

landward the last night-driven gull is flying.

Give up your mind now to the destined dark

and under the wide sky arched and high with stars

seek not the daylight and the touch of the sun.

Accept the strong design – unlimited

by light, by dark, by wind and slow stars creeping:

there is a deep heart which is never sleeping.

That last line hit me as I read it: there is a deep heart which is never sleeping. God never sleeps. Even in the midst of the storms, the darkness, the crashing waves, the lighting and the thunder, God is awake and aware and present even when I cannot feel or imagine it is so. God is greater than the coming night and that He is “unlimited by light, by dark, by wind and slow stars creeping.” These are words that resounded from the page this Good Friday. It is a reminder of the truth of Good Friday and Easter. Neither darkness, nor the grave, nor death can overcome Him. This is a poem that moves from fear and doubt to acceptance and understanding. These words reminded me that He is the way back home again, He is the dawn after the darkest night, He is the arms that embrace and the lips that kiss every prodigal child with abandon and eternal love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shelter Your Heart

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Sometimes my soul seems darker than the storm clouds that gather outside before a great downpour. Before the storm, I leave the house to drink in the scent of the air before a heavy rain. To listen to the birdsong: are they warning each other? Are they saying, “Get back to your nest! Get back to your nest”?

There is a sharpness to the world just before a storm. An awakening of sorts.

Because we live in a house that is over a century old and the huge oak trees that surround it are even older, storms are a thing of concern. How long will the roots keep those massive oaks standing? Especially since we have had so much rain lately. And there is a coming wind. I would imagine that even those of no faith would pray for such oaks to remain standing around their homes.

Standing beneath the large branches, I look upward. Then I begin to feel raindrops on my face. The storm is coming. It will be here soon. Take shelter as the birds have done.

I go back inside just as the clouds can no longer contain the water they hold. Water begins to sluice off our roof. Lightning flashes across the sky like a child playing with a flashlight: clicking it on and off, on and off. Thunder is a loud, grumbling dog making us aware of his discontentment.

As I watch the storm gather and unleash itself, my mind turns to the words of the seventeenth-century founder of the Quakers, George Fox, when he wrote, “I saw, also, that there was an ocean of darkness and death; but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. In that also I saw the infinite love of God.”

The branches of the oaks are lashed by the wind and rain as if caught in the quarrel of ancient gods. Violent storms make the world seem tumultuous and uncertain. One’s spirit can become restless and anxious. One can feel as if one is in a boat battered at sea. The blows come against its sides and the waves wash in. Do I offer it a sacrifice? A quiet prayer of peace or a sing out a hymn to the wildness of the weather?

Restless to this raging fury, this spring tempest. Rain is more than rain. Wind is more than wind. This storm is a reminder that I am not in control.

In her poem “Faith,” Jane Tyson Clement writes:

You who have watched the wings of darkness lifting

and heard the misted whisper of the sea,

shelter your heart with patience now, with patience,

and keep it free.

Let not the voiced destruction and the tumult

urge to a lesser prize your turning mind;

keep faith with beauty now, and in the ending

stars you may find.

I take comfort in this poet’s words. “Shelter your heart with patience now, with patience,” I quietly repeat as if in meditation. And this darkness will left just as this storm will pass.

And this poem repeats itself in my memory as I watch as Notre Dame Cathedral burns in Paris. I grieve for this place I have never been to; not just because it is historical and irreplaceable, but because this cathedral burning reminds me of the fragility of beauty in this world where anything can go up in flames in a moment. I think of the Cardinal’s eggs in the nest that rests in the tree by my goldfish pond. One day I noticed that one had gotten outside of the nest and was close to falling out of the small tree. As gently as I could, I took out a handkerchief from my pocket and, with the grace and mercy so often shown to me, I carefully and gently returned the egg to safety. Today, when I passed by the tree, I saw this:

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A baby Cardinal with its mouth open: as if waiting for the priest to offer it the Eucharist bread that is broken for us or crying out to God.

I am that baby bird crying out to God. I am crying out to be fed, to be taken care of, to have my needs met again and again. But that cry will turn to song one day. Song that fills the breezes that gently move through the foliage of the trees. Song that dances like the monarch butterfly does amidst our garden.

Sing your song. Sing your song of praise. Sing your song of lament. Know that praise will turn to lament and lament to praise. Both pass as the storm passes. Yes, the clouds may look dark and foreboding but know that it will be overcome by that “infinite ocean of light and love.”

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Secret Correspondence

 

IMG_8436Contemplation and appreciation of beauty is a form of prayer. It is certainly one I am practising this afternoon as I stroll through our backyard. Today, the natural world requires of me a concentrated focus that lingers on details, as if they were frames from a Tarkovsky film. Bees hummingly appreciate the wisteria that droops overhead. The trees are filled with the movement and calls of birds. One small tree that hangs over my fish pond contains a Cardinal’s nest, with the mother resting on her eggs. The eggs are a grayish white with brown speckles.

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I cannot help but think of Mary Oliver’s words, “it is a serious thing / just to be alive / on this fresh morning / in this broken world.”

This is a truth I must remind myself of. Depression can often cause one to focus so much inward that the world becomes smaller and smaller; as if folding in on itself. So I must refocus. Draw outward. Go outside. Pay attention to this life: not just my own but that all around me and above me.  To see the grace in a raindrop still on the petals of a flower.

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The poet Shelley wrote in On Love, ” . . . in solitude . . .  we love the flowers, the grass and the waters and the sky. In the motions of the very leaves of spring in the blue air there is then found a secret correspondence with our heart.” Today, in these moments, I feel that “secret correspondence.” In this solitude, there is a communication between my innermost self and the natural world. I listen to the sounds of the mockingbird or notice as two bees appear to be chasing each other through the sky. The sky itself is a mixture of uncertainty: dark clouds and glimpses of sunshine.

I have to be outside. To feel the wet blades of grass on my feet again. To be in the world and to see it and to hear it and to react to it because it’s only when I do that I can even begin to understand myself again. It is only in these moments of small astonishments, when I see with eyes that see and hear with ears that hear and have a heart that is open and ready to receive that there is infinite tenderness in the sight of a mother Cardinal nesting and knowing that, in a few short weeks, those eggs will hatch. There is awe to be felt when one sees that one is being watched by the great mother Barred Owl of the old oak tree. She, like a Dowager, oversees this backyard world and suffers not the slights of smaller birds who chitter and chirp and fly about her. There is a seriousness to her stare, a sense of watchfulness, that makes one feel small in her gaze: as if one were merely a vole or a mouse.

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This is the world that harbours my imagination, my contemplation, my meditation, and my gratitude. It is where I can be silent and listen to the lips of the world as it speaks to me in something deeper than mere words: something far more ancient than speech. Emerson proclaimed that we should live the examined life. It is a sacred act and, like prayer or meditation, this examined life does not come naturally but through holy habits: a reminding oneself of its necessity. Be still. Let go your anxious and busy heart.

We must be divers in this life: not content to merely wade in the shallows but to dive more and more deeply. In Thoughts in Solitude, Thomas Merton wrote, “If a man is to live, he must be all alive, body, soul, mind, heart, spirit.”

Creation did not end after the seven days but continues and will keep continuing

A calico cat darts past. A black-capped chickadee flies onto a nearby branch. There is a small splash made on the surface of the pond by a fish.

The world is wider and wilder and extravagant and elegant but it requires of us that we stop and see. Awareness is the beginning of love.

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Contemplate The Beauty

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“Poetry is a way of looking at the world for the first time.”

W.S. Merwin

It’s been a period in which prayers have been like sand on my tongue; the words choked in my throat before they had even been spoken. Where faith ends and doubt begins has blurred to the point where I don’t know which outweighs the other. A period of Divine Absence. Silence in the soul. I consider what is death without eternity: as impossibility. If I let go, will I despair? Will I feel it a loss? If a life just ends at death – if we are re-translated back into the matter we were before, the stuff of stars, is that the same as heaven?

With so much unresolved in my heart, I set out for the woods. There, without a signal on my cell phone, I am left with only the world around me and that within me. My own thoughts and I can, hopefully, find stillness. I go not to seek answers but to focus my attention, again, on the wonders of this world without consideration of whether or not there’ another.

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I have been reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and I come to this passage, “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”

I come to contemplate the beauty, to find those reserves of strength I find missing lately. More the scripture, I find myself turning to scientists and poets and naturalists to return myself to a place of wonder again. To fathom the imponderable, to consider the mystery that lies around us, above us, and within us. The complexities of the unseen threads that weave us all together, that connect us in ways we have not even begun to imagine.

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My younger son goes with me; sketchbook in hand. He knows I will not mind his stopping to sit down on dirt or grass or tree stump or stone to draw what he sees in the world around him. Considering and, putting pencil to pad, sketching. Because he is still, he delights in the approach of a pair of Canada Geese. As they draw near to the shore, one dabbles its head in the shallow water and nibbles on the grass.  They both look as they hear the loud honking of some other geese who fly over the surface of the lake. My son is in awe. The world is a miraculous place where such occurrences can happen right before one’s eyes. Nothing brings him joy like wildlife, especially birds. His hand sketches as quickly as it can before the two paddle off, away from us.

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The every day is filled with such wondrous beauty for those who are open to it. Every forest is an enchanted one for those who have eyes to truly see it. Some of the geese fly through the clear, blue sky overhead. Their honking is harsh and exciting. Once they are gone, we are returned to stillness again. The lake ripples only from the breezes. My son’s focus turns to a turtle, resting in the sun on a log that juts up from the water.

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Ah, if only so many of us in this world could be as content as that turtle, in that moment. It wants and wishes for nothing but the warmth of the sun. Maybe that, in itself, is a kind of prayer. I look down and see some tadpoles swimming about in the murk and grass along the lake’s shore. It won’t be long before we hear the songs of frogs or catch a glimpse of one as it splashes back into the water at the first sound of people approaching. It’s curious to think about how life first came from the water and all that has developed since those first microorganisms. Is that not, in itself, a kind of miracle?

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Out of the corner of my eye, I catch movement. A small, green lizard moves stealthily along the bark of a tree. Life is all around us but how many of us miss it because we do not stop to be present to it? Without our phones or our distractions, simply there, in that moment, breathing in life and realizing there is more than our daily tasks and assignments. Oh to see again with the clear-eyed vision of a child. To feel one’s pulse quicken at spotting something new and unpredicted.

There is not the sound of traffic. Only a chorus of black-capped chickadees in the branches of the trees overhead. Their song is the beautiful trills to each other, unconcerned about the humans below them.

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I am standing there, at the water’s edge, staring out across its surface and a swallowtail butterfly dances past. In such moments as these, one cannot help but feel that one is being refilled in one’s soul, as if one is storing up an inheritance that will strengthen one at some later time. Returning to Rachel Carson, she writes, “One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?” It’s a question I always ask myself because one does not know. This could be one’s last moments on earth. How am I spending them? Am I aware of the deep, rich, wondrous miracles that are taking place in every given second? Life is abundant about us. In the sky, in the soil, in the water . . . A thank you rises up from within. It’s the closest I have had to a real prayer in a long time. But is that not a start? A returning or a beginning again?

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Many speak of grace as a great spiritual act, but what if it is also these small, momentary glimpses of what so often remains imperceptible to us because we do not take the time to look and see. Nature returns me to humility before it. Is faith not a way of seeing with a spirit of wonder and curiosity? To not seek answers, but to allow for the questions to rest within us and be content to know that we do not know?

In this moment, I think of W.S. Merwin, who recently passed away, and I think of his words:

come back
believer in shade
believer in silence and elegance
believer in ferns
believer in patience
believer in the rain.

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Like the buds that are returning, perhaps, I, too, am? I am coming back, as Merwin wrote as a “believer in silence and elegance.” And, for now, that is enough.

 

The Owl

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I first heard her call at twilight.

A warning or a calling? I was not sure.

This is not the first I heard from our hundred-years-old oak trees

That remind us how time is all relative.

I have heard them at twilight and near dawn.

Each time, I am still startled out of myself –

Awakened, really – to the world outside me.

I try to find where the call is coming from.

Then I see her:

Like a queen upon her throne

She gazes down (Benevolently?) 

From the great limb where she’s perched.

The owl has seen me long before I noticed her.

In that moment, I am grateful.

Grateful that I am not a mouse or vole

Or any other small rodent whom she would devour

As greedily as a child with Halloween candy.

To be seen by a bird of prey –

To fall under their gaze –

Is to be humbled, 

As if by some great god of the past.

Suddenly, she spreads her wings

And swoops off to snatch up – what?

I do not see

And am only glad it is not I

In those sharp talons of 

God’s.

 

 

 

In Praise Of Woolgathering

Pride and Prejudice

My teachers all complained of my daydreaming. To be labeled a “daydreamer” was a negative and was frowned upon. To daydream was to waste time.  One could not afford to waste time. School was for learning (supposedly). To become lost in thought was frivolous and was sheer idleness.  After all, “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” To do so went against our very Puritan work ethic. One must always be busy, one cannot just be.

But, no matter how much criticism I received, I remained a daydreamy boy whose head was always lost somewhere in the clouds of imagining. I was a stripling of a boy and did not care for sports but searched the woods behind our house for a magical portal to another, more wondrous realm. I was convinced it was the old abandoned VW Bug that had somehow broken down and remained in the center of the wood. I just needed to figure out how it was. Much thought went into considering each and every possibility. I never found one but I also never considered that time spent in wondering to have been a waste.

I was a natural born woolgatherer. Woolgathering is defined as the “indulgence in aimless thought or dreamy imagining; absentmindedness.”

Woolgathering often means sitting and simply thinking, pondering, wondering, imagining, and daydreaming. In our society that prides utilitarianism, woolgathering appears to be a waste of time, a true indulgence. In her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Rebecca Solnit writes, “The multiplication of technologies in the name of efficiency is actually eradicating free time by making it possible to maximize the time and place for production and minimize the unstructured travel time in between…Too, the rhetoric of efficiency around these technologies suggests that what cannot be quantified cannot be valued-that that vast array of pleasures which fall into the category of doing nothing in particular, of woolgathering, cloud-gazing, wandering, window-shopping, are nothing but voids to be filled by something more definite, more production, or faster-paced…I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought or thoughtfulness.”

I shudder at that last phrase “faster than the speed of thought or thoughtfulness.”

Woolgathering allows for thought. for considering, for speculating, for dreaming.

Someone who was a big daydreamer was Albert Einstein. It was while he was lost in thought that he originated the pioneering theory that led him to establish the foundation of modern physics was actually envisioned in one of his many famous thought experiments. He came up with his theory of relativity after spending hours lost in his own mind. And he was not alone, Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and James Joyce were the same way.

Why?

Because spending hours allowing the mind to wander frees it to consider many different possibilities in solving complex problems with creative solutions. Now we are not all going to be Einstein coming up with the Theory of Relativity or James Joyce writing Dubliners, but we can still benefit from time spent simply in thought.

The term “woolgathering” used to mean, quite literally, gathering bits of wool that had been shed in tufts from the sheep that had gotten caught on bushes or fences. Those who did, wandered about, looking for and gathering these tiny scraps of wool. It wasn’t until the mid-16th century that it began to have another meaning when people began to say, “My wits went a woolgathering” (meaning aimlessly wandering in thought).

And yet I consider such time precious. Time spent lying under a tree’s shade just watching clouds pass overhead or the canopy of stars.

When Patti Smith heard someone being called a woolgather she writes, “I was not at all sure what a woolgatherer was but it sounded like a worthy calling and seemed a good job for me. And so I kept watch, in every weather. In every weather. . . And the image of woolgatherers in that sleepy field drew me to sleep as well. And I wandered among them, through the thistle and thorn, with no task more exceptional than to rescue a fleeting thought, a tuft of wool, from the comb of the wind.”

Gather thoughts like tufts of wool. Thoughts so easily blown away by the wind.

Thoughts passing by like clouds.

Idleness is not laziness. Idleness can spark creativity.

As author Neil Gaiman understands, “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.”

In the woods behind our house, there was a great boulder that I love to lay on because it was my dreaming stone. During the summer it was warm from the sun, especially since I most often went without a shirt on. In the fall and spring, it was cool against my back, even through the shirt I had on. On that dreaming stone, I would either close my eyes or leave them open. Either way, it did not take long to get lost in my own thoughts. They were rich and full and plentiful. I imagined what my life would be like, I imagined other worlds and what they were like, I created pictures of images or words, I delighted in the simple, pure pleasure of the dream.

Even now, there are times when I will be driving along and will spot a stream. Pulling my car over somewhere, I will get out and go sit on the banks and watch as the waters meander past me. And I allow myself a few moments to do nothing else. To breathe. To quiet the busyness of the world and to allow my thoughts to have free rein. It’s amazing how just spending a few moments in this way can shift something deep within me and I can feel the sacredness of life and the wonder of the world.

Time is fleeting. Time is short. Time is a gift.

That is why time should not all be spent in hurrying to accomplish tasks and to meet deadlines. Time must be treasured in a way that is luxurious, that is indulgent, that is spent in simply woolgathering. How big and wide and wondrous his world is and our time in it. Take that time to reflect, to wish and dream and imagine. From such moments come music and poetry and art and literature and science and philosophy.

Gather the discarded. Gather the forgotten, Gather that which has been blown away. Gather that which others do not. Gather the tufts of those things that will be your gift to the world. Pluck from the thorn that image, that word, that metaphor because it is precious.

Woolgatherers gathered the small bits of wool without pay and many of us may find ourselves unpaid by wages for our art, but gather anyway. Continue to gather and weave with grace, with delight in the simple act of doing it, of creating to create.

So go out into that world and be a woolgatherer.