Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns. -George Eliot
I’m thinking today of my great-aunt Muriel. It feels strange to type her actual name, because everyone in the family always called her “TeeDee,” a nickname bestowed by my father when he was a toddler who couldn’t quite manage “Auntie.” TeeDee was a world traveler who gave me my first globe. While I was still crawling around the garden, she taught me the name of every plant.
This morning, as I ran past the local cemetery and saw hundreds of red-white-and-blue flags fluttering in the morning breeze, I suddenly remembered a long-ago Memorial Day. I was 13 that year, and my stepsister, Adria, was eight. We were out early that morning, walking the dog and chatting as we went. All over the neighborhood, flags had appeared on porches and lawns.
A few blocks from home, Adria grew quiet as she worked something out in her mind. When she spoke again, she had a question:
“Does everybody know TeeDee?”
“Well…not everybody,” I said.
“Then why do they all put out flags for her birthday?” Adria asked.
“Oh, it’s not TeeDee’s birthday yet,” I told her. “Her birthday isn’t until July.”
“Are you sure?” Adria asked. “Isn’t today Muriel Day?”
Muriel Day…Memorial Day. Whatever you’re celebrating, and whomever you’re remembering, may your day be sweet.
For many weeks now, I’ve been leading a Sunday-morning meditation circle. It started as a way to help folks take up a practice of contemplative prayer for the 40 days of Lent. But it was such a joy to be together—and such a gift to have a group of friends supporting our individual spiritual practice—that we decided to keep meeting through this Easter season. On Sunday mornings, we’ve been practicing lectio divina with the week’s scripture readings. At home during the week, we have all kinds of contemplative practices we’ve committed to. Some folks are doing walking meditation. Some are practicing centering prayer. And one person is faithfully taking a few minutes every evening to write down, and give thanks for, the day’s blessings.
I took up a gratefulness practice here last November, posting every week about something I was thankful for. So I know how sweet this practice can be. I know that making a gratitude list in the evening can reverse-engineer your days, so that you begin to notice small and large blessings as they happen, all day long. Still, I’ve been finding myself too exhausted at the end of the day to do it. Every Sunday, when Pam reports to the group about the way this gratefulness list is delighting her heart, I think (and often say!): I really need to take up this practice again…
So. Right here in the month of May, with nary a turkey in sight, I’m making a pledge to write one blog post every week about something that has awakened my heart to joy.
This week, I’m giving thanks for these tiny seedlings I planted yesterday, and for the few minutes I found between meetings to put my hands in the dirt; for fertile soil, fresh compost from the bin (complete with eggshells – I’ve never been one to sift the compost), plenty of water, and the first warm days of spring…
Maybe you’re ready for a spring gratefulness practice, too? If so, I hope you’ll comment about whatever is making your heart sing!
This is how to feel the sap rising
Walk as slowly as possible,
all the while imagining
yourself moving through
pools of honey and dancing with
snails, turtles, and caterpillars.
Turn your body in a clockwise direction
to inspire your dreams to flow upward.
Imagine the trees are your own
wise ancestors offering their emerald
leaves to you as a sacred text.
Lay yourself down across earth
and stones. Feel the vibration of
dirt and moss, sparking a tiny
revolution in your heart
with their own great longing.
Close your eyes and forget this
border of skin. Imagine the
breeze blowing through your hair
is the breath of the forest and
your own breath joined, rising and
falling in ancient rhythms.
Open your eyes again and see it
is true, that there is no “me” and “tree”
but only One great pulsing of life,
one sap which nourishes and
enlivens all, one great nectar
bestowing trust and wonder.
Open your eyes and see that there
are no more words like beautiful,
and ugly, good and bad,
but only the shimmering presence of your
own attention to life.
Only one great miracle unfolding and
only one sacred word which is
—Christine Valters Paintner
So grateful for the baptism we are receiving, “in the name of the wind, and the light, and the rain,” (and the snow!) May we remember, this day and always, to whom, and to what, we belong…
TO LEARN FROM ANIMAL BEING
Nearer to the earth’s heart,
Deeper within its silence:
Animals know this world
In a way we never will.
We who are ever
Distanced and distracted
By the parade of bright
Windows thought opens:
Their seamless presence
Is not fractured thus.
Stranded between time
Gone and time emerging,
We manage seldom
To be where we are:
Whereas they are always
Looking out from
The here and now.
May we learn to return
And rest in the beauty
Of animal being,
Learn to lean low,
Leave our locked minds,
And with freed senses
Feel the earth
Breathing with us.
May we enter
Into lightness of spirit,
And slip frequently into
The feel of the wild.
Let the clear silence
Of our animal being
Cleanse our hearts
Of corrosive words.
May we learn to walk
Upon the earth
With all their confidence
And clear-eyed stillness
So that our minds
Might be baptized
In the name of the wind
And the light and the rain.
Last year at this time, I was heading off for a silent retreat. It was a beautiful, rainy stretch of days, and it gave me the gift of spacious time – long, quiet hours; no meals to shop for or prepare; no agenda but to listen for Spirit and follow the leadings of my soul. I took along a journal and pen, and came away with page after page of sketches, musings, and joyful notes that surprised me with their clarity. In just a few days, the silence and beauty of that place swiftly helped me remember who I really am and what I’m here to do. That’s the great gift of a January retreat: it takes you away from your usual surroundings just long enough to see yourself, and the world, in the new light of a year just born.
This year, I didn’t plan a retreat. I thought it would be enough to stay at home in relative silence, letting my spirit recover from the difficult six months just past. So I cleared my schedule for January, and then made a quick two-day New Year’s trip to see my family in San Francisco. When it turned out that all my relatives had come down with winter colds, I decided to put myself up at a Holiday Inn for the night. It was nothing fancy, and certainly nothing I would have called a retreat: just a place to stay between family gatherings. But I had a clean hotel room to myself, a restaurant downstairs to cook dinner for me, a little journal, and a pen. And something surprising happened in the few hours I was there. The low winter light came through the windows at a different angle than it did at home. The wet leaves in the parking lot were different colors, sticking to the hood of my car like New Year’s confetti shining in the January rain. Outside my room, kids ran up and down the hallway—a sound you never hear at a retreat center. And yet there I was, once again effortlessly jotting down ideas for classes I want to teach, prints I want to make, new understandings about things that had been puzzling me for weeks.
Today marks the Feast of the Epiphany, the day when, according to legend, the Wise Ones arrived to see for themselves the Christ Child, the Light of the World, born new into a desperate, dangerous time. In that Light, they saw the hope their people had for so many centuries been longing to glimpse. Maybe it’s no coincidence that they found that Light, that great hope, after journeying a long way from home.
Okay, so at first glance, a night’s stay at a nondescript Holiday Inn, sandwiched between wonderful, noisy, chaotic visits with my family, bears almost zero resemblance to the long, silent, journey of the Magi. But I wonder if their journey might have something to tell us about the value of getting away, if only for a little while. Because while the Light of the World always lives in and among us, its radiant Presence is offering, moment by moment, to make us, and the world, new—the truth is that the Light regularly gets overshadowed by the length of our lists: things to do, things to fix, things we can’t fix but feel like we should worry about anyway. No matter how much we love our homes, it seems that the act of packing a camel’s saddle bag or an overnight satchel and simply walking away has power and magic in it: the power to help us see things in a new light; the magic of once again seeing clearly who we are, and who we are called to become.
As this new year begins, and as those ancient travelers arrive at their destination, I wonder if you’ll give yourself, and the world, the gift of a small retreat. It doesn’t have to be a long journey: no need to go last-minute gift shopping for frankincense and myrrh. Chapel bells and silent meals are not required. All you really need is permission to put away your to-do list, turn off your phone, and let yourself simply be. Perhaps, basking in an evening of silence and candlelight, you’ll remember what it is in all the world you love most, and what that great love is whispering in your ear.
If your soul is craving a bit of spacious silence this week, I pray that you find it with ease. And in the sweet hours of your own retreat, may you see yourself, and the world, in a newly born and gentle light—a light in which you see, once again, who you really are: loved from before always; blessed beyond imagining; and called to offer this beautiful, broken world the one gift that only you can bring.
Last night, just as darkness fell, the rain clouds that had soaked us all day suddenly moved off, leaving the sky clear and cold and bright with starlight. Up on the hill at Peace United Church of Christ, we gathered for our annual Advent Spiral, a tradition that many churches have gratefully borrowed from the Waldorf tradition. Early in the day, friends had gathered to lay an enormous, beautiful evergreen spiral on the sanctuary floor. As evening arrived, we gathered to share a lively pot-luck dinner in the hall. Then kids and adults together walked through the cold and dark, over to the sanctuary, where musicians were waiting to welcome us with Christmas carols on violin and cello.
It may not be an obvious choice, adding yet another event to a season already packed with service projects and school parties and Christmas worship. But over the past few years, both here in Santa Cruz and at the church I served in Maine, the Advent Spiral has become one of my favorite moments of Christmas. Last year, it occurred to me that maybe the reason I love the spiral so much is that once it begins, there’s nothing at all for me to do. For a pastor, it’s a rare and wondrous thing to simply sit in the darkened sanctuary and just take in the beauty, the music, the scent of evergreen boughs and candle wax, the reverent silence punctuated by the joyful sound of a toddler’s running feet. Last year, I found myself sitting on the floor with the kids, offering a grateful, silent blessing for each person who slowly walked the spiral to receive, and then to offer, the growing Light.
This year, as the ceremony began, our Advent angel walked ever so solemnly to the spiral’s center to kindle the Light of Christ. As I watched her so carefully and reverently making her way, I was awed once again by the beauty of this rare, contemplative moment in the noisy bustle of the Christmas season. One by one, children and adults followed the angel’s path into the spiral, and once again, I found myself unspeakably grateful to simply sit in sacred darkness and pray for each beloved heart as the light increased, candle by candle, step by step.
And yet, even in the midst of so much beauty, so much hope, so many dear ones walking and praying and singing, I will confess that my prayers were troubled this year. Here we are—so many of us, all over the world—lighting candles in all the ways we humans do, all of us trusting, just as our ancestors did, in the return of the light. But this year in particular, the world itself seems so fragile, so vulnerable to the evil and indifference of we humans, whose job it is, always, to protect this world that God so loves. Step by step, in rain boots, in heels, in thick winter socks, we walked—kindling, carrying, and offering light. I watched every step. And to my surprise, I found my mind, step by step, spiraling not into joy, but into into worry and grief. Worry for the hungry and homeless who would soon be filling the warming center right next door in the church hall. Grief for all the wild ones on the brink of extinction, about to lose the meager protections that have kept them alive. Candle by candle, I wondered how this could possibly be enough, this offering of light that we welcome into our souls and carry into the world. How can our tender, flickering light possibly protect the world we love? How in God’s name will we answer for the starving polar bears who even now are haunting northern towns like emaciated ghosts, their hunting grounds devastated by the ravages of global warming? How will we answer for the hungry and the hurting who are in danger of losing even the flimsy social safety nets we’ve worked so hard to stitch? Can we honestly look into our children’s eyes and promise them that the light they carry in their hands tonight, the light we carry in our hearts, will be enough to protect the most vulnerable among us, human and otherwise? Can we trust, even now, that a Light bigger and far more ancient than ourselves still shines in the darkness…and that the darkness will not overcome it?
After all the songs had been sung, after the cider had been passed around and the cookies sampled, we began to make our way home. As I drove down the hill, Christmas lights glowed from rooftops all over town, spiraling up tree trunks, circling into signs of peace. Down near the train tracks, I watched as a woman wheeled all her worldly belongings in a too-flimsy laundry cart, heading for the emergency shelter and the blessing of a safe night’s rest.
I’m pretty sure that the next few years are going to take all the light we can muster. All the hope, all the promise, all the gritty perseverance of a community that knows a thing or two about how to take care of the most vulnerable, about how to put our comfort, our security, and maybe our very lives on the line to protect the earth and all her creatures.
But maybe not tonight. Maybe this Christmas Eve, our only job, our holy vocation, is to fill our souls with enough joy, enough of the Christ Light, to carry us out, tomorrow, into a world that needs us. Maybe tonight, our only job is to keep a close eye on that angel. I wish you could have seen her last night, solemn as only a third-grader can be, walking ever so slowly a spiral path to the very heart of the world. I wish you could have seen the face of this child whom we love more than life itself, this child we’ve taught to count on God’s promises, this child we’ve taught to love God’s world—a world that needs her gifts, her light, her love of polar bears and spotted newts. I wish you could have seen her face last night as she walked, confident that we were cheering her on, so confident that her every step mattered, because she was carrying the Light of the World.
Tonight, as the tall tapers are kindled in the sanctuary and a trumpet blast announces the good news, let’s fill ourselves up to the brim with joy. Let’s let tomorrow’s Christmas celebrations overflow with laughter and hope and rest – for our children, and for all the ones we love. And then, filled and feted and fed, let’s gather up every last candle and head out together, into forest and field, into shelters and streets, carrying the Light of the World.
“But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you…’ ”