Garden of the Spirit

Climbing the Willow

When I was a child on the farm, I had my own willow tree to climb. Its strong branches were low and spreading, inviting me upwards. Hidden high behind a waving green curtain, I looked down on the world. I watched my mother hang laundry on the line, glimpsed my grandmother in her flower beds, and smelled fresh cut grass as my father mowed the lawn. With an apple and a book, I curled into the small space where three branches met, snug and content in my green balcony.

Now I have another willow tree, and it is blooming green-gold in the springtime sun. My granddaughters climb it sometimes as I work below in my flower beds. I wonder if my grandmother watched me surreptitiously, concerned for my safety, as I do them.

But today, on this sunny spring day, my willow glowed with an invitation for me to climb. “Come,” it whispered, “come and join my celebration of greening, of springtime renewal.” How could I resist?

I grabbed the first low branch and pulled myself up. The bark was rougher than I remembered. My hands gripped firmly, and I carefully placed my feet as I stepped up the ladder of branches angling off the trunk. Finally I leaned back and looked up into the canopy of pale color draped around me. Light and shadow flickered as a breeze whispered and gently waved the greening fronds. I was awake to the sacredness of the moment and content within it. “Here, now. This place, this time,” I thought.

I was held within the willow tree, but when I climbed down and turned to resume my work, I discovered that the tree was within me, too. A bit of willow’s tree-ness had entered me and changed my day. I was refreshed. It was a balm for my thirsty spirit, though I had not even known I was thirsty.

I hadn’t realized how much I needed that brief time of stillness in the tree. Turning to my garden again, I walked differently, steadied and grounded. I was more aware of the world around me, seeing more than just the weeds I had been focused on.

What happened to me? Was there extra rich oxygen I breathed, straight from the breath of the tree? While such an image may be fanciful, I knew one thing I had done–I had stopped my work and climbed. I had paused in the middle of a task-focused day, opening to become aware of the sacred now, this amazing Spirit-filled, never-to-be-repeated day.

Perhaps my willow is inviting me to become a prayer partner, to join together in a practice of opening to the Holy around us and within us, to celebrate together God’s miracle of renewal. I wonder what it would be like to pray regularly while perched within a tree. Perhaps there is a miracle of springtime renewal there, not only for the tree, but also for me.

The Celtic Christian tradition celebrates the presence of the Holy within everything that is created. In Carmina Gadelica, a collection of Celtic Christian prayers and poems, one prayer affirms that “There is no plant in the ground but is full of God’s virtue. There is no form in the strand but is full of God’s blessing.

All living things are of God. I knew that when I climbed down from the tree, but I often forget. I forget to see the miracles of creation all around me. Springtime’s blossoming trees and new green shoots help me to remember, but my task-focused life makes it easy to pass by even these signs. I want to remember to be awake.

May we all remain awake to the miracles around us, whatever season we are living in. May we remember to pause and pay attention to the Holy, however it appears in our lives.

See, I am doing a new thing. Now it springs up. Do you not perceive it. (Isa.43:19)

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.