Garden of the Spirit

The River Will Tell Us

Many years ago, I joined friends and family in the grand adventure of rafting down the Colorado River. For a week, we traveled through the Grand Canyon, carried by the mighty river by day and camping on its sandy banks by night. I remember the richly varied experiences of the week, both the wild roar of the rapids as we tore through them and the gentle hours of floating quietly past looming rock walls. It was a time of living in the sacred now. We experienced the Sacred through the magnificent power of the geology around us and through the breathtaking intensity of suddenly churning through rapids, my sun-warmed stillness soaked in icy water.

I remember Duffy. He was our guide, wise and experienced in the ways of both River and tourists, holding our safety in his hands. On the first day, someone asked Duffy, “So how far will we go this morning and when will we stop for lunch?” Duffy replied, “The River will tell us.”

In the afternoon, another traveler asked, “Where will we be stopping to camp for the night, and how long until we get there?” And Duffy calmly replied, “The River will tell us.” Duffy knew that the Colorado is changeable, that he needed to read the river carefully before he decided when and where we’d stop—and how we’d negotiate the rapids, too.

Those words echo for me now. The river will tell us. Yes, but only if we pay attention to it!

Our life journey is a bit like a rafting trip. Sometimes it’s quiet and peaceful; sometimes there’s tumult and fear, and we simply hang on through the waves. Much is out of our control, but almost always we can make decisions that shape our experiences.

In this time of rapidly shifting cultural, political and economic currents, amid the year of the pandemic and all the unknowns of the future, we may feel lost and overwhelmed. To make wise decisions on our lifetime rafting trip, we need to be attentive to the river. We need to know it so we can travel well.

Immersing ourselves in the present reality, its grief and weariness as well as those refreshing moments of gratitude and gladness, invites us to live contemplatively. Being contemplative isn’t separating ourselves from daily life, but living fully awake in the midst of daily life. Being contemplative means being attentive to what is, including being fully attentive to God’s presence.

When I am open to Divine Presence, I am more likely to find a way forward. I am more likely to notice when it’s time to pause and wait—and when the time comes to act. When I am open to God, I notice the Divine nudge that says, “Now! Now is the time to paddle.” Or perhaps “Now is your time to reach out in love! Now is the time to bear witness to truth.”

Can I trust God’s timing and nudges? A century ago, the Jesuit scientist-philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, wrote

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability--and that it may take a very long time.
........
Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

The journey includes uncertainty and anxiety. Often we will be impatient, longing to “skip the intermediate stages.” May we instead be awake to the present moment and listen attentively. As we travel on life’s river, may we learn to trust the journey and the Guide.

Of Light and Salt

When I think that He meant me when He said, “Ye are the light of the world,” I feel very unworthy. I know that one must go on joyfully and with an urge to be a “light” and also “salt” to salt this old earth.

These words were written 75 years ago by a Pennsylvania farm woman in a letter to her daughter. Her name was Annis, and she was my grandmother. I’ve inherited letters written by both my grandmothers. I wrote about Grandmother Fianna in Fianna’s Story and this is the story of Grandmother Annis.

Annis’ life was hard. Longing to learn, she was forced to drop out of school at 14. Her parents also opposed church involvement, and she hungered for it. When her mother died tragically in a fire, she took over care of four younger siblings. Her life spanned two World Wars, and included church divisions, family brokenness, and Depression-era scrimping and saving.

Hers was an unnoticed life. Annis joined no movements, marched in no rallies, and made no headlines. She preached no sermons and wrote no books. Her world was limited to the local community and her mild voice easy to overlook. She was, as poet Thomas Gray wrote, like a flower “born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness. . .”

The poet was wrong this time; her sweetness was not wasted. Remembering my grandmother, I recall lovingkindness and patient sweetness in a woman who loved flowers and walking barefoot in the grass. I remember peach pie and the dress she made for me when I was six. I remember the stories she told and the warmth of her arms. Naturally, I took her for granted!

Only now, reading Annis’ letters, am I aware of the whole person. Now I see a woman of deep and unquestioning faith with a steadfast strength born through adversity, a soft-spoken country woman committed to Christ’s teachings. I see an unassuming woman who quietly saw the best hidden within others and loved it into opening. Annis’ daily living was grounded in the spiritual practice of tikkun olam.

The Hebrew phrase tikkun olam means repairing or restoring the world. What an enormous endeavor–and how many ways one can participate in the work! Annis’daily faithfulness, her small gestures of patient loving and forgiving, her reaching out to mend broken relationships was her way of practicing tikkun olam. Through following Christ’s teaching to be salt and light for “this old earth,” she spread the loving energy that allows others to discover their own flavor and their own light. One small encounter at a time, the world is repaired.

Annis knew that even small steps were not easy. She knew that she could not be salt and light for the world unless her heart was open. Reconciling with another with whom she disagreed or reaching out to a person who had hurt her was more than simply an act or a few words. She needed to want to welcome the other into a changed relationship. She wrote I’ve experienced in my life that when I can not do the [hard] thing pleasantly, which seems almost going the third mile, there is no power at all and one is terribly miserable.

What is it to “go the third mile”–when Jesus’ teaching was only for a second mile? (Matt. 5:41) After all, choosing to carry the burden a second mile, when a Roman soldier ordered a Jew to carry it one mile, should be sufficient. I believe the third mile is the heart mile. For us today, it means seeing the ‘Roman soldiers,’ whoever they may be, as fellow human beings, and then loving them. It also means loving people who are not truly enemies but still irritate us dreadfully.

Annis knew this heart-deep work would change her, too. I’ve experienced that if one keeps on and does what is at our hand to do, graciously, why our faith grows. . when we look back it was not so big a burden as it seemed.

May we, too, find that reaching out in love and going the third mile changes us and makes our burdens lighter. I echo Annis’ words: My prayer and hope is that we shall all be faithful.

Annis and her granddaughter Nancy

When I think

A New Year’s Prayer for 2021

Out of the depths, I cry to You, Lord. Ps. 130

As I sat at my desk to write this month’s reflection, I was given a prayer for the new year. It’s a prayer I needed to write, with hope for new beginnings in a new year.

O God, in this season of new beginnings,
may we choose our beginnings wisely.
May we choose to be open
to the journey of healing
here within this country of conflict.

In this season of new beginnings,
the journey of healing 
begins at the portal of grief.

We bring our grief for the pain we have caused,
for the hatred we blasted at each other,
for the blinders that narrowed our seeing 
and the indifference of our listening.

We bring our remorse,
knowing new beginnings are rooted
in the soil of remorse,
rooted in horror at the deaths
of those who should have lived.
They paid for our blindness,
 our disregard, our turning away.

O God, out of the depths of grief, 
we call to you, but we know
our lament has no power unless it pierces us.
Our lament has no power unless we weep,
acknowledging we are complicit
in the brokenness around us.
For our silence, our walking on the other side,
our shrugging lightly when it is time to tear our clothes,
for all this, others have paid.

In this season of new beginnings,
O God of love and mercy,
we desire a new beginning.
In the midst of our grief, may we birth love.
Surrounded by wreckage from the storms,
broken open by our lament,
teach us to live beyond our fears,
to embrace the other and love generously.

In place of our blindness,
may we give ourselves to the work 
of clear-eyed seeing, whole-hearted listening,
until the pangs of deep compassion stir us 
to live and love as if our souls depend on it.

O God, may walking the path of grief
bring us to the healing work
of a new beginning for this time.

The words of this prayer poem came to me as an unexpected gift, a response to a question I didn’t know I was asking myself. The question may be yours as well: How can I contribute to healing in this divided and struggling world as we move through 2021? I don’t have a step-by-step answer, but I do believe the attitude of my heart is the place to begin. I bring my heart’s grief and my recognition that I am involved in brokenness through silence. I bring my desire to be a presence of love through my being and my doing. Now is the time of beginnings.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Martin Luther King

A Song for Dark December

The darkness of the northern hemisphere this month seems longer and the days shorter than I remember from past Decembers. Perhaps my perception matches the world’s mood. Though we know the earth’s tilt will shift (and vaccines are on the way), it’s cold and dark now, and we are weary of our restricted lives and, yes, weary of crises.

In 1899, writer Thomas Hardy wrote of a bleak December in his poem, “The Darkling Thrush.” As he gazed out over a desolate December landscape that seemed to hold no potential for life’s revival, he suddenly heard a song. “An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small” was flinging “his soul upon the growing gloom.” And Hardy, grieving the world’s brokenness at the end of the century, wondered if there was “some blessed Hope, whereof he knew and I was unaware.”

Hardy ended his poem there so I don’t know if he grew more hopeful about the future upon hearing the thrush. What I do know is that a song of hope flung into dark times has a power out of proportion to the size of the messenger. If a little brown bird can sing hope, I wonder what hope is mine to fling forth.

Poet Edwin Muir also found treasure in dark times. In “One Foot in Eden,” he described how the world’s suffering, its “darkened fields,” brought forth blossoms of love and hope that mysteriously flourished best because they grew in the brokenness of the world. Great love and great acts of compassion are called forth in the midst of suffering. They are, he wrote, the “strange blessings” of a broken world.

Perhaps hope, love, and compassion do put forth their brightest blossoms in dark times of pain and hardship, but I don’t want to live in such times. I’d like to sing out hope and to bloom with love–without a pandemic, grief, great loss, and bitter division in my country. I want warm, light-splashed times!

But this now is what we have. If Muir’s “darkened fields” are a place of germination and growth for the human flowering of hope and love, what blooms can we bring forth? What soul song is ours to sing now?

This is a time of darkness to attend to the Loving One who nudges us to grow by presenting opportunities for practicing love. This is a darkness where we can see the needs around us, and we give as we can. This is the long night of winter when the energy for creating a better future can be strengthened through vision and faithful communities. This is the bleak season when we long to be together with those we love, and we are challenged to celebrate in new ways. Can we celebrate the hopeful song of the thrush in new ways?

A year ago, I wrote a piece for my blog titled “Puddleglum’s Hope.” (Link Here) Puddleglum, a figure from C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books, chose to live by hope in a time of darkness, even though he had no certainty that the Lion Aslan or Narnia itself were real. That still remains our challenge. Can we decide to live out of hope, to act out of compassion and love, even if we feel darkness inside us as well as outside us? If we choose hope and join with others, the song of hope will grow, but it’s not ever easy.

My mother loved to sing, and her beautiful voice often filled my childhood home with music. Her favorite Christmas carol was “O Holy Night,” and I remember the depth of feeling with which she sang “a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.” Like the thrush flinging his song into the bleak world, she offered her song into December darkness, and her voice soared with hope.

My prayer for this weary world is that we will find ways to sing of hope and offer it to others. My prayer is that hope, compassion, and love, the “strange blessings” of painful times, will deeply root themselves in us and bloom with great power and beauty.

Hanging Out With Trees

Exhausted, discouraged, and stressed, 
I turned to the forest
all aglow in morning light, 
and the tall trees drew me 
into their golden hearts. 

A few weeks ago, my husband and I stepped back from our daily life and all the turmoil in the country and world. For a few days, we stayed in a small cabin deep in the Appalachian Mountains and hiked the forests that surrounded us. I didn’t know how much discouragement and anxiety I carried until I began to shed it. I didn’t know how tired I was until the rhythm of my days slowed down, and I breathed easily again.

Far from the conflicts of a world threatened by civil unrest amid a flourishing pandemic, I focused on watching deer outside the window. Each day we walked leaf littered mountain trails, while, above us, the giants of the forest accepted our presence with quiet serenity. By the edge of a mountain pool, I lay back on the grass and stared through gilded branches into a blue sky. I wondered, how could I have forgotten such soul-restoring stillness?

I needed the trees. Walking a forest path was like walking into a cathedral, breath-taking and quieting, bringing me to tears with its beauty. I was inside a space that opened me to God. I walked down a leafy aisle, I climbed up the steep slope on sprawled root steps, and the trees embraced me and filled me with peace.

I turned to the trees,
burnished by autumn's palate,
and they breathed on me.
I leaned to their silent embrace,
comforted by deep rooted strength.

I turned to the trees
whose boughs, bending down,
brushed me softly with falling leaves,
and I was quieted 
by their feather light touch.

I turned to the trees,
and far above me I heard
a slow deep murmur,
"Welcome home, child. We are still here.
Come, and rest among us."

Hanging out with trees brings me other gifts as well. The long arc of tree life reminds me that trees measure time by centuries. Absorbing the deep-rooted, long wisdom of trees, I wake to hopeful possibilities behind my own ephemeral lifetime. When I recall tree time, I can live for a future that I will never see.

Like a tree whose living nurtures other life, whose dying feeds future blossoming, may my presence in God’s world nurture its healing. May my spirit be rooted in the Divine Spirit and contribute to a future where people offer the wisdom and peace of the trees — to each other. The Psalmist writes of such people: “they are like trees planted by streams of water which yield fruit in its season.” (Ps. 1:3) May we indeed bring forth such fruit!

My husband and I have returned home to our usual daily lives and responsibilities. Around us, the furious tumult of the world goes on. But the healing wisdom and quiet strength of the trees remain with me. I cherish hope again. I look ahead, and live for the lives of the children of my grandchildren — who may turn to the identical trees I turned to. And the trees will gift them, too, with peace and renewal.

Outside my window, a profusion of colorful leaves spreads across the grass. Even as the pine tree that stretches above my house retains its green, the maples surrounding it are preparing to release their last gold and red into the light wind. Shimmering in the sun, the leaves will float silently down to join the carpet below. The season is turning, and the skeleton of the maples is revealed in all its elegance and strength.

When wind-whipped, raucous storms
buffet our lives,
when fault lines crack ever deeper 
in our world,
I turn to the trees for healing, 
to the comforting patience of the forest,
to the long-lived continuity of trees.
I trust the passing seasons again;
my soul is restored.