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Category: nature

holy comforter

maybe you haul your wounded self to the water’s edge, to where rocks punctuate the water’s otherwise-unstartled flow, and set things percolating, gurgling. perhaps it’s the roar of the water falling, tumbling down ledges. or the susurrations of a creek rushing through grasses. 

maybe you park your bum in the golden glowing woods, squat on a fallen trunk of maple or oak, a log now home to mosses and mushrooms. or you press your soles to the slope of a mountain, hard against granite or igneous rock, where, as the woodsman John Muir (who advised climbing barefoot) once noted, we’re wise to absorb the sacred essence “with our heels as well as our heads.” 

the other morning, knocked about by a phone call i’d been both chasing and dreading, i sought triage and solace out where the autumn light slanted in on my garden’s last gasps. holy comfort i found there with my clippers in hand, untangling my thoughts along with the last of the tomato’s serpentine withering vines, soaking in the morning’s few waning sunbeams. 

i all but wrapped myself in the strands of this earth’s balms. holy comforter, indeed. the warmth of the harvest sun. the unparalleled green. each late-season leaf expiring its last bits of life-giving balm, or what the twelfth-century mystic and herbalist hildegard of bingen termed viriditas, the divine healing power of green. she once wrote, “there is a power that has been since all eternity, and that force and potentiality is green!” in other words, the surging “thereness” of God, life source of all. and, oh, i basked in it the other morning. 

there is something particularly soothing — nay, healing — about the comforts of the late-season garden, about the comforts of each and every season, really. 

it’s as if the earth presses itself hard against my hollowed chest, against the faint beating of my worn-thin heart. it soothes without words, the whole of the creation does. doesn’t try to fill in the silence, offer quick fix. the earth, holy comforter, simply is present. stands in certain unwobbling encounter. makes real the declaration: “i am here.”

benevolent, earth offers healing by multiple choice: should you not feel the radiant heat on the bare skin of your arms, inhale the pungent spice-notes of marigold or spearmint as you break off a stem. or catch the fluttering shadow of october’s south-bound monarch playing with the breeze. or the chatter of sparrows, incessantly sparring. 

each and every sensory channel stands at the ready, inviting the way in. 

there’s a presence, grander, more tender, than i’ve otherwise known. it’s the enveloping bosom of this holy healing earth. or the soft shoulder against which i lay my weary head. 

it’s where i turn when the hurt is too big, or not yet sorted out, not pegged into words. and i’m as certain as anything that it’s the one i call God who enwraps me when i step into the wilds, when i carry my banged-up sorry old self into the balm that is this holy comforter earth. 

***

Glance at the sun. See the moon and stars. / Gaze at the beauty of earth’s greenings. / Now, think. / What delight God gives to humankind / with all these things….

—Hildegard of Bingen

how has any aspect of the whole of creation comforted you of late, or in particular?

in search of diamond country

sometimes i feel like a pilgrim without certain destination. i left a shore that no longer feels like home, like safe harbor, and i’m either adrift or paddling like hell toward parts unknown. i need to remind myself that not knowing does not equal nowhere. 

i’m speaking of the realm of religion; i’m speaking of a search for something beyond creed and dogma. i’m speaking of the search for something truer, for something eternally sacred, not outlined within the confines of human imagination, human motivations ill-begotten or simply mistaken. or cruel.

i firmly believe i’m pulled toward and by the pulsing heart of the purity i know as God. but, still, it’s shaky out here beyond the boundaries. beyond the catechism i was so dutifully taught so long ago. 

i suppose i’ve always been drawn to margins, to the outer rim of wherever i wandered. i remember a third-grade essay that got me in trouble. i remember watching a long litany of others get picked for red rover. i remember how in the halls of my high school, i huddled often with those sitting alone on the benches outside the lunch room. i remember i was certain it was why i was homecoming queen; i’d rejected the confines of cliques. 

and then, in a newsroom years and years later, i fell in love with and married a man of another religion, an interweaving not without hurdles and hard spots. we were squarely on the uncharted margins.

but i never let go of my core beliefs, never let go of my own guiding principles: turn the other cheek; love as you would be loved; welcome the little child; do for the least among us. seek the face of God in all faces, seek the sacred — in all peoples and places and things. 

and over and over, my mother taught me one indelible thing: don’t let the church get in the way of God. 

and so, in stumbling along, in my wanderings that in some ways mimic the ancient celtic tradition of peregrination — setting sail into the unknown — i gather up my own lifeline of wisdom seekers whose words illuminate my zigzagging way. they’re my personal pantheon of saints. some, i read about in the pages of books. some i meet in the checkout line.

which brings me to kenneth white, a scottish poet, and modern celtic prophet. born in 1936 in the slums of glasgow, he’s spent most of his adult life in france, teaching modern poetry at the sorbonne, and, though not all critics concur, he’s been hailed there as “one of the foremost english-language poets of today.” his poetry, it’s been said, holds traces of william carlos williams, ezra pound, and walt whitman, and, too, it weaves in filaments of zen buddhism and american transcendentalism. 

what i love most, in the not enough that i know, is that he points us toward seeing the shining deep in the natural landscape and seascape and skyscape. that shining, he teaches, is the light of the divine. he calls it “the diamond country” in the heart of all things. he sees it, writes j. philip newell, “glistening in earth, sea, and sky.” 

in a poem titled, “a high blue day on the scalpay,” white writes:

…the sea shimmering, shimmering

no art can touch it, the mind can only 

try to become attuned to it

to become quiet…open…still…

knowing itself in the diamond country, in

the ultimate unlettered light.

white belongs in a long line of thinkers who subscribe to an ancient theology known as the Book of Nature, a theology i’ve written a book about (though it waits still for an editor to send me her notes), a theology that holds that God’s first text was and is in and through creation, a text spelled out in the alphabet of leaves and stones, stars and sunlight, and the dawn and dusk of each day. a text birthed anew with each breath of creation.

it’s a theology that draws heavily from ancient celtic threads, threads that trace their roots to ancient eastern religions, to desert mothers and fathers of egypt, to persia and beyond. it’s a theology that subscribes not to pantheism but panentheism, God in all things. 

white, like emerson and thoreau, merton and all indigenous peoples, sees the natural world as a sacred text: “the sound of the wind in the treetops, the roaring of the waves, all these are sacred voices,” he writes.

put simply, it’s being awake to the sacred in all its iterations and voices, understanding the divine glistens and shimmers and stirs deep in the heart of all that is of this earth and its heavens. 

judaism teaches that at creation every drop of divine light was contained in a single vessel, but the vessel couldn’t contain it, so it shattered, scattering shards of light throughout the cosmos. our job, the rabbis teach us, is to search for and gather up those shards. 

kenneth white teaches so, too. “look for the shining in the deep of all things.” white is no romantic. he knows that the world is both “terrible and joyous.” (that’s an especially apt description of the now, though white wrote those words at another moment in history; terrible and joyous, a refrain without end.) yet beneath the glory and pain, the beauty and suffering, the pulse point, the epicenter, is always the deep, deep shining. the sacred eternal. the glistening of the diamond country.

he writes:

the loveliness is everywhere

even

in the ugliest 

and most hostile environment

the loveliness is everywhere

at the turning of a corner

in the eyes

and on the lips

of a stranger

in the emptiest areas

with no place for hope

and only death 

to invite the heart

the loveliness is everywhere

it emerges

incomprehensible

inexplicable

it rises in its own reality

and what we must learn is

how to receive it

into ours

i find solace in white’s promise, comfort in the embrace of his sharp-edged seeing. he’s not glossing over the pox, not disregarding the brokenness. he’s reminding: the sacred is ever-present, God doesn’t retreat. even when we cannot, for the life of us, make out even the faintest of outlines.

and there’s our pursuit, our life’s work: seek the loveliness, find your way to the diamond country. the sacred is stirring, is waiting….

gather the shards, glistening…

name a shining you’ve noticed of late. name ten shinings if you’re so stirred….

*photo above by will kamin

sweet, sweet earth

it was gasping for air, really.

i’d loped to the garage, grabbed the crusty old trowel, grabbed my prophylactic spritz bottle of stay-away-squirrels spray, and headed out to the secret sinuous side garden where i looked for a desperate patch crying for hope. crying for something to rise up in the spring, on the far side of the harsh and impending winter.

i was armed with a battery of bulbs, bulbs in various girths, fat ones that promised me daffodil, itty-bitty wisps of bulbs who promised me the tenderlings, snowdrops and siberian squill, and those space-age globes of allium, in this case promising a puff ball of blue. as pretty a thing to bury my nose in as i could imagine.

i’d somehow gotten the itch to give back, to give back to dear mama earth what she so unfailingly offers me: tender and certain shelter, jolt of resilience, undying promise that even if daunted she’s not going away. not yet anyway. not if we can muscle the forces to cease and desist with the trashing of the one glorious blue marble long, long ago entrusted to us.

a few mornings before, amid the cleaning and clearing and worrying, i’d leapt into the old red wagon, the car that takes me wherever i aim it, and i’d motored over to the store with the rows and bins of springtime bulbs, an adventure that’s something like a trip to the candy counter, only without the threat of cavities. i’d filled my arms, judiciously putting aside the bulbs that would have cost as much as a pound of burgers. and then, when the urge struck, i’d be stocked and ready to dig, bury, and someday behold.

i’ve always found it sacramental, the dropping to my knees, gashing into the surrendering soil, shaking a powder of bulb-boosting fortifier, and then carefully lifting just the right bulb for the purpose: to tuck in for the winter the concentrated pouch of promise. the thing that looks like a dried-up onion, laying it to rest in the shadow of autumn, nestling it soft against the earth’s curve, the earth’s cupped hands, the earth’s promise: i’ll take it from here.

and all winter long, through the ice and the wind that will pound at my windowpanes, my bevy of bulbs will be silently doing their thing, shooting down roots, stirring within.

the tasks of autumn are the stockpiling tasks, the turning-in ones. slip on an extra layer of sweater, slow roast the last of the tomatoes, make them last through the long months ahead. upholster the garden with unseen but certain patches of promise.

when your heart hurts or is heavy, i’ve found, it helps to ply tender ministrations to whomever or whatever falls in my path. this week it was my paltry patch of earth. there’ve been times when it was one of my boys, one whose knee or whose heart had been banged up and bloodied. or a friend who needed little more than a hot mug of tea and an hour of listening.

but the taking care of this holy earth is bigger even than that. it’s understanding how sacred it is at its core, and in its every blessed breath. go silent for a minute or two (or three or four) and simply keep watch: listen for the mournful cry of the geese veeing the sky. watch the leaves go gold. plop yourself at the water’s edge and marvel at its infinite rhythm.

i’ve just started reading a marvelous book by john philip newell, one titled, sacred earth, sacred soul, and like newell’s earlier books, it’s an exploration of celtic wisdoms, a reawakening of the ancient and eternal truths long ago snuffed nearly into extinction. it’s a book i’ve already managed to slather with my inky underlinings, page after page.

newell, once the warden of iona abbey, a sixth-century monastery rising up from a wee island off scotland in the roar of the north atlantic, beckons us to listen for the beat of the sacred deep within ourselves and one another, and deep within the body of the earth. sacred, he writes, “is not bound by religion.” sacred is the soulful knowing, the keen awareness, that deep down in all things — in the earth, and in everything that has been born — there pulses an inextinguishable holiness. it’s our task, our holy task, to sense it, to seize it: to see it, to feel it, to honor it. to make way for it, make an altar for it, hold it up high.

my bulb-burying the other morning might have been seen as just another autumnal chore. or, through the celtic lens, the lens of an ancient wisdom shared by all the world’s great religions, it’s that i was quietly tucking in visible manifestations, reminders come spring, that what pulses deep within the earth, deep within each of our souls and our selves, is something unflaggingly beautiful. and holy. at once tender and resilient.

digging those bulbs, turning newell’s pages, brought me back to a peaceful holy calm. and i filled my lungs with pure blessed air.

what brings you breath? what’s your understanding of sacred? and how do you sense the sacred within?

anointed places

it’s as if someone’s set a buzzer that must go off at asynchronous times–could be twilight, could be the middle of the afternoon, could be on the verge of thunderclap, or the first dappled stitches of starlight–and deep inside me there is some cord that must be yanked. suddenly, i am turning toward the east, propelled to the water’s edge by wagon, bike, or soles. it’s the vast, vast ever-shifting canvas, where lake and sky, earth and heaven, never cease their stagings.

in these weeks and months when what’s bottled up inside–the worldly angst, the brokenness in all its iterations–when all of that feels so compressed, so hungry for release, relief, it’s the expanse, the i-can’t-reach-the-end-of-it of heaven’s vault that offers ablution. that rinses out the muck. and fills me once again with hope, with depth, with the unshakable sense that i am held in the very palm of God. and all that worries me, weighs me down, is drained away.

there’s the play of color, a color wheel of endless turning, from indigo to amethyst, cerulean to aubergine, and at the dawn and dusk, who’s ever behind the curtain hauls out the rosy tray, where the sky ignites in shades of flame. there’s light and shadow, too. the sky roils in charcoaled turbulence, storm churning in the distance. the sun illuminates the lacy edges of a cloud. sun and clouds and sky in eternal choreography, not one scene ever plays on rerun.

it is, by definition, an anointed place, a most holy place. a place where the nearness of God, the encircling of that infinite tenderness, pours out from some unseen vessel. holy unction, indeed.

when i was all of eight, in Mrs. Bishop’s third-grade religion class, learning all the things that make a catholic catholic, i always tripped over the one of the seven sacraments they called extreme unction. it sounded downright scary. i knew that oil was involved. i couldn’t tell you if it was safflower or olive, but it was oil, and it was poured on you in the hour of your direst need. at the cusp of dying, among other times. getting blessed with water was an everyday matter (to this day i lurch toward any holy water basin, splash fitfully and let it rain sloppily down on me), but getting blessed with oil was like calling in the light brigade. it was reserved for Serious Stuff. in my third-grade vernacular that probably meant whatever was worse than falling off your bike, or getting pushed down on the playground, when Mrs. Dolder the school nurse, pulled out that stinging bottle of mercurochrome, its iron bitterness running down your leg.

thetis anointing achilles

turns out, oil’s claim to holiness is an ancient one. it’s there in the early pages of the bible, not long after genesis. thought to be the medium through which God’s blessings are conveyed. it’s what makes a king a king, apparently. (well, that and a crown.) jews and egyptians reached for olive oil (poured from a ram’s horn). butter is the anointment of choice in hindu blessings. a newly built house is smeared with it, so too are those thought to be possessed by demonic forces. indigenous australians believed that if they smeared themselves with the intestinal fat of a dead person they would absorb that person’s virtues. (i’ll pass, thank you.) arabs of east africa rubbed themselves with lion’s fat to muster courage. and in greek mythology, the sea nymph thetis anointed her mortal child achilles with ambrosia to make him immortal. (another telling of the myth has thetis dipping achilles in the waters of the river styx, but she failed to dip the heel by which she held him. and we all know what happened to achilles’ heel).

lest i get too far sidetracked by the oily substance of anointments, let us leap back to a consideration of a place that’s anointed, even if not a slick. a place the celts would call a thin place. where the opening to heaven is so thin as to be not there. in other words, it’s where you go when you need to fall into the arms of God, or whomever you think is out there trying to hold us together.

walking along the water’s edge, dodging the tickle of the still-warm undulations, dodging the squawky gulls, it’s all but impossible not to be swept into the game of it, the deep-down child’s joy of it. nearly every time, i hear the sound of someone out-loud laughing; i look around and figure out the sound is me, it’s coming from my bellows. be it a brisk constitutional or a lazy jaunt, those sands, those waves, that sky, soak up what ails me every time.

i’ve not always been a shore girl. more often i’ve found myself tucked inside grassy coves, leaning against the rough bark of oak or cottonwood, or plopped on a log deep in the woods. i’m one for making myself all but hidden, a tiny dot, in the all-engulfing canvas of the never-ending curve of globe. but there is a singular prescriptive that comes where water plays, and where the sky can’t keep from turning. it’s a wide-out-in-the-open sort of place.

it’s cast a holy spell on me. and i’ve no intention of rubbing it away.

what’s your anointed place?

and should the woods be on your anointed list, i share this meditative walk in the woods from my wonderful friends at orion magazine. (it’s a 20-minute enchantment, sung by the Crossing Choir of philadelphia, sure to lift you to some ethereal plane.) it’s described thusly:

IN THE DEPTHS of the pandemic, when choral groups could not safely gather to sing indoors, The Crossing Choir of Philadelphia took their singing outdoors, into parks and open-air venues. Last October, they premiered a work entitled “The Forest” in Bowman’s Hill, a stand of mature trees, many over 200 years old, in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Mt. Airy.

During the performance, the singers, unmasked, stood far apart among the trees, their voices amplified by specially-designed speakers, while audience members walked at safely-distanced intervals along a thousand-foot path through the forest.

of prophets and poets, and the sacred instruction: let the light be from within

maybe you read the newspaper every morning. maybe you even read the Chicago Tribune, the newspaper that birthed most of the most precious threads in my life. but chances are — reading the studies that come, one after a sad other, from the journalism think tanks — you don’t. the sound of the rolled-up sausage of a newspaper landing with a thwop on the front stoop is nearly obsolete. but this week, my old newspaper made room for a little essay i wrote, one birthed in the pages of Stillness, that beribboned little book that seems to be winging its way to armchairs and reading nooks in various vicinities around the countryside this december.

given the unlikelihood that you would have stumbled across this little essay — a variation on the opening essay, “December: Sacred Invitation,” in Stillness — and given that my little laptop has a crack-of-dawn doctor’s appointment at the genius bar, i figured i’d give the essay a whirl here. it comes with the hope that you find all sorts of ways to fill the december darkness with flickering flames, and tongues of fire that leap from the hearth. the ones in your home, or the ones in your heart.

Commentary: In December’s darkness, the prophets and poets guide us toward the light

By BARBARA MAHANY

December’s darkness is coming like never before.

Oh, sure, as the sun arcs into its wintry descent, as the night grows to its longest, and day after day a minute is shaved at the dawn and at dusk, the sunlight ebbs and the shadow grows. There’s that darkness.

But cloaking all of it this year is the darkness of knowing we can’t kindle the light in gathering kinship.

We will be more alone this winter, perhaps, than ever before.

But there is a bright side, or at least a blessed side.

I say, celebrate the darkness — landscape of discovery, of finding our way only by engaging, igniting, heightening our deeper senses, the senses of the heart and the soul, intellect and imagination.

Celebrate the quietude. The stillness that comes in the hours of solitude, that state of grace sought by the ancient mystics and saints, by Zen priests and the Desert Elders of Egypt, by Hildegard of Bingen and Henry David Thoreau, deep in the woods of Walden Pond, the ones who dialed down the noise and distraction, pressing their ears into the silence, awaiting the murmurings of the still small voice. As Meister Eckhart put it: “There is nothing so much like God as silence.”

The truth is: Stillness and darkness draw out our deep-down depths. Darkness is womb, is seed underground. Darkness is where birthing begins, incubator of unseen stirring, essential and fundamental growing.

Stillness, as all the enlightened have known, in the paradox that might be a Buddhist koan, is the fullness that comes only through emptiness.

This December, both will abound. We’d be wise to welcome them.

December, I like to think, is when God cloaks the world — or at least the northern half of the globe — in what amounts to a prayer shawl. December’s darkness invites us inward, the deepening spiral — paradoxical spiral — we deepen to ascend, we vault from new depths.

At nightfall in December, when the last seeds of illumination are scattered and the stars turn on — all at once as if the caretakers of wonder have flown through the heavens sparking the wicks — we, too, huddled in our kitchens or circled round our dining room tables, strike the match. We kindle the flame. We shatter darkness with all the light we can muster.

The liturgical calendar, prescriptive in its wisdoms, lights the way: It gives us Advent, season of anticipation, of awaiting, of holding our breath for spectacular coming. Season of dappling the darkness with candled crescendo.

And therein is the sacred instruction for the month: Make the light be from you. Deep within you.

Seize the month. Reclaim the days. Employ ardent counterculturalism, and do not succumb.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish scholar and one of my heroes, talks about Shabbat — every week’s holy Sabbath pause — as erecting the cathedral of time, the Jewish equivalent of sacred architecture, only for Jews it’s the sanctification of time, not space. Writes Heschel: “Learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” I say, build yourself a tucked-away chapel, a humble half-hour’s chamber of silence, of prayer, of deepening.

Here’s a radical thought, for December or otherwise: Live sacramentally — yes, always. But most emphatically in the month of December. Most especially this December.

What do I mean? To be sacramental is to lift even the most ordinary moments into Holiness. Weave the liturgical into the everyday.

Live sacramentally: Sit down to a dinner table — even dinner for one — set with intention. Embrace all that’s slow. And with purpose. Light candles at dinner. Light the Advent wreath. And if you’re Jewish, blaze the menorah. If you’re Jewish and Catholic, as my family is, well, bring on the fire battalion, we’re lighting every which flame.

Because this is our one chance at December this year — and who knows how many Decembers we might have.

December is invitation. Glance out the window. Behold the silence of the first snowfall. Stand under heaven’s dome and watch the star-stitched wonder: Orion, Polaris. Listen for the love songs of the great horned owl. Be dazzled. To be dazzled is a prayer.

Mary Oliver, the poet saint, tells us, “attentiveness is the root of all prayer.” And she reminds us that our one task as we walk the snow-crusted woods or startle to the night cry of the sky-crossing goose is “learning to be astonished.”

Ever astonished.

Renaissance scholar and poet Kimberly Johnson says, “I want to live my life in epiphany.”

So do I. Maybe, so do you.

December invites us be our most radiant selves. And we find that radiance deep down in the heart of the darkness, our chambered nautilus of prayer. The coiled depths to which we turn in silence, to await the still small voice that whispers the original love song. Chorus and refrain, inscribed by the One who breathed the first breath.

Barbara Mahany, a former Chicago Tribune staff writer, is the author of four books; her latest is “The Stillness of Winter: Sacred Blessings of the Season.”

so there’s the essay. and here is the question: how might you live sacramentally? how do you lift the ordinary into the sacred; those humdrum quotidian tasks of the everyday, how do you imbue them with intention and attention, raise them into the realm of the holy so that this one pass at december is lived in ways that awake us as never before?

the last cricket and all those other blessed moments we miss…

we’re ankle-deep in october already, and the woods and the skies and the last vestige of garden are enmeshed in the verbs of autumn: gilding, disrobing, graying, withering.

while the world all around is exulting in the yin and yang of the seasonal shift, lurching from summer to winter, hewing the razor’s edge of autumnal juxtaposition — the last vestige of bone-baking warmth to the goosebumps of dawn’s early chill — while the chipmunks are making like there’s an acorn-stuffing contest, and he with the bulgingest cheeks wins, and the chatter of sparrows rises some days to a deafening chorus, the last of the summer’s songs have vanished.

and i didn’t notice till now.

the blanket of cricket song, a rising crescendo that all but tucked me into bed each summer’s night, it’s stilled. silenced. taken away, tucked on a shelf somewhere, awaiting the heat of next august.

the last of the cicadas’ 24-hour love song for survival. it’s gone too. snuffed out. it too rose to a deafening roar, and then with the flick of a switch that i didn’t bother to witness, it melted away.

now, when you open your windows at night, there’s little to hear save for the possums knocking over the watering can. or the night winds rustling the leaves before they loose from the limbs.

what with all the commotion — of the world, of the news, of the worry — i didn’t notice the absence till i stumbled into the thoughts of someone who’s paying closer attention.

sacred attention, i’d call it, a religion i aim to practice.

i read these words, and felt the ache in my chest:

My intention every year is to listen for the last cricket, the explosion of silence after its ridged wings have struck their final chirp. I imagine it as somehow akin to Bashō’s temple bell whose sound, after the bell has stopped ringing, comes pouring out of the flowers. I have no reason for wanting to mark the occasion other than a poetic temperament and a feeling that the mindfulness required of such a task is its own reward.

The idea usually arrives in September when the crickets are at their most frantic. I toy with the thought of camping out the night it seems likely they’ll stop. I imagine myself keenly attuned to the hypnotic lull, aware that if I fall asleep, even for a moment, I could miss it. The novelty appeals to me. The invention of such an inconsequential drama. It would make no difference to anyone whether I succeeded, or if it took me years to accomplish. The achievement would be mine alone. Sometimes to up the ante, I imagine decades of failed attempts until maybe one night—when I’m an old man, stumbling, bearded, blind, bereft of all hope—a Zen-like oneness with the woods sets in and from nearby, under the bark of a rotten log, I hear the teeth of a cricket wing crackling the air, and listen, knowingly, as the world resolves itself in silence.

Steve Edwards, “The Last Cricket,” Orion Magazine, Autumn 2020

mr. edwards’ elegy to the cricket song made me think of all else that i’d missed. it seemed an exercise that drew me — and maybe you — into a necessary meditation. an exercise in paying attention, for this is our one sweet moment to clasp our gaze, and our listening, on the beauties offered up in this one ephemeral whirl around the blazing star.

it’s a canticle worth our attention.

have you noticed…

*the moon gliding across the sky, still clinging to its post as the sun comes along, both sky lights sharing heaven’s dome?

*the stars turning on, any one particular night?

*the moment when God hauled out his paint set and brushes, and the first leaf turned amber or garnet or the color of pumpkins?

*did you happen to catch the river of monarchs riding the winds, flapping their stained-glass wings as if their life depended on it — because it did?

*did you stare into the indigo darkness, into the etched silhouette of what looked like endless punctuation marks crossing the moon, the night the tens of millions of birdsongs flew overhead, miles and miles into their autumnal sweep southward?

*have you paused in genuflection when the chevron of geese called out from the heavens with their spine-tingling minor-key cries?

*have you watched the sparrows upholstering their wintry homes with blades of dried grasses and tufts of runaway cotton?

*have you found where the cardinal sleeps in winter?

it’s all the wonderment out our window, in the woods, in the world where we’re not looking. and all it asks is that we notice. that we pay quiet and unbroken attention.

it’s all we need some mornings to remind us the world is still intact. to remind us we’re safe in the bosom of this holy and most sacred earth. our ears pressed against its soft chest and the heartbeat of the One who keeps it working.

what wonderments have you noticed, from the autumnal litany above, or from the zillions of moments i’ve not even mentioned?

p.s. my sweet boy is still on the mend. slowly, slowly. tray by tray of home-cooked mac-n-cheese, bread pudding, applesauce and water bottles by the case. slow walks around the block. long interludes of napping in the quiet of leafy suburbia. it’s all aiming to get him back to college before the already abbreviated semester lurches to an end. thank you, so much, for your love and your care, and your prayers. xoxox (p.s.s. i was a wee bit late here this morning, because my friend, the patient, beckoned, and the computer was playing all sorts of tricks….)

wild things

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a mouse’s house? with front-porch perch…

it’s the permeability of winter, when the cell wall between the wild and the worldly is punctured, when the precious little things come out into the open, are pushed out into the open, all but tap at the window, beg for a taste of mercy, that’s holiness to me.

IMG_1231against the white tableau of snowy day after snowy day, winter makes evident the tracings of the wild things: a mouse hole here; chantilly-lace tracks of junco and cardinal and jay. even the abominable paw prints of a giant-sized coyote, straight from the woods, up my walk, paused there by the door (did he press his nose to the glass, take a peek under the cookie dome?).

each morning, no matter what the heavens are hurling my way, i don my make-believe farmer-girl boots, i scoop my battered old tin can, fill it with seed, and head out for what you might call matins, morning benediction. i bow to the heavens. scan the trees for any flash of scarlet, or blue-jay blue. i unfurl prayer upon prayer (the moon, if it’s shining, even a crescent or wedge, draws it deep out of me, never more so than in those inky minutes just before the dawn).

what i love about the wild, about this curious equation between us in our warm cozy kitchens and them seeking harbor in ways that mystify now and forever, is the fragile interplay in which we reach beyond what we know, extend an open palm of pure unbridled trust, an offering, no strings attached. it takes stripped-away ego to dare to tiptoe into the world of the wild. it takes a deep and undiluted knowledge of how small a dot we are against the vast canvas of the universe, all but insists we put aside our big ol’ bossy pants, our hurried agendas, our know-it-all nonsense.

it’s the very image of holy veneration: head bowed, palms extended. i come bearing sustenance, in the form of plain seed.

have you ever felt the backdraft of a feathered thing, as it’s flown inches away from your shoulder? have you felt the rush of the wing, heard the soft sound of feather and bone parting the wind?

and then there’s the shock of color, all day long, brush strokes of scarlet, of blue, of smoky charcoal. the boughs are alive, are animated. it’s not all black and white and static gray, not in my patch of the world anyway. all day long it’s a reminder, the wild is just beyond, the wild has wisdoms to teach. mercy is among the urgencies. mercy is what we need to remember; we are lacking in mercies these days.

who ever thought to bring so much wonder to winter? that’s the point at which my wondering leaps from earthly to divine. that’s where unshakeable faith begins to take hold. the wild begs questions that only the heavens can answer for me.

which brings me, round about and once again, to david whyte, whose poem the journey says everything i could ever hope to say with any string of words. have a listen:

The Journey

Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again

Painting their
black silhouettes
on an open sky.

Sometimes everything
has to be
inscribed across
the heavens

so you can find
the one line
already written
inside you.

Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that

first, bright
and indescribable
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.

Sometimes with
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out

someone has written
something new
in the ashes of your life.

You are not leaving.
Even as the light fades quickly now,
you are arriving.

from House of Belonging  and Essentials by David Whyte

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what wisdoms does the wild whisper to you?

and, while we’re here, the late january table brings a slew of birthdays: kerry down the lane today, beloved beloved pammy jo of the high desert, yesterday. british columbia mary and indiana BB on the 28th. happy blessed whirls around the sun, ladies. and thank you for your radiance….

i missed the moon

missed the moon, so gillson

…not just any moon, the great warrior orb of autumn, the hunter moon. round and orange and overwhelming, like a dreamsicle melting from the night sky. and i missed it.

well, at least i caught a peek, the skinniest sliver of a peek, as i was darting here or there or nowhere.

but it takes some work to miss the moon that bathes the world below in luminescence. i must have been holed up inside a world of worries, of syria and betrayals and beheadings. i must have been nursing the tender spots of a mama who’d just packed up her youngest and dropped him at the jetway that would carry him 300 miles from where i’ve doted over him all these years.

in the house where i grew up to miss a moon — or a cardinal, or a loon, or the frog’s croak rising from the pond across the way — to miss any of the sighs and moans and spectacles of god’s creation was what amounted to a sin. in my mama’s book of rules, anyway.

you daren’t let on that you were too busy with your nose in the news. or worrying about the dustballs under your bed. too distracted to notice was not allowed. or so’s the truth as i absorbed it.

chased in part by guilt (a guilt that unlike the moon never ebbs), but even more so by an unquenchable thirst, a sense that i’d strayed too far from the thin-spun silken thread that ties heaven to earth to what passes for my soul. if i missed the moon, the great wide-cheeked nightbeam of october, i wonder what else i’d missed, what stirrings of the earth that were sure to launch my own deep-down stirrings, remind me of my own still small place beneath the immensities of the one who’d carved us — and all creation — from the depths and heights of divine imagination?

so i strapped on my sturdy walking shoes, and found myself crouched down low amid the grasses that swish and sway against the sand mounds, the ones that catch the wind off the lake, and rustle as do the faithful in the pews when sabbath comes.

i sank low and lower, not to hide so much as to immerse myself in lowliness. to drench myself in the posture of humility, of raw-edged vulnerability so necessary for reverence.

to behold the miracle of heaven above and all around, i find i need to grow small and smaller. ours is a world of oversized ego, oversized hubris, oversized oversize. the bigger the better. except, quite frankly, in matters of the blessed. to be willing to hear the holy whisper. to find satisfaction in steady footfall, one after another. to partake of the arithmetic of saints, by little and by little, by little acts of kindness, of courage, of hope. to relish the infinitesimal, the dew drop of the dawn, the twilight song of the red-bird preacher on highest bough, the flutter of the heartbeat when love swoops down, wipes away the loneliness, the ache of the empty vessel.

i stayed long enough to walk the beach, playing catch-me-if-you-can with rippling waves. i walked and watched the roiling sky. charcoal gray, i find, is supremely lovely up above. it portends drama just ahead. and, indeed, when raindrops came in dime-sized plops, i picked up my pace. ducked beneath a maple tree whose boughs had just been daubed by autumn’s crimson paintbrush.

i inhaled a quart or so of morning vapors. filled my lungs, my heart, my soul with God’s most necessary ingredient: quiescence, the underlay of all the richest risings, the prayers that wend their way past worldly noise, the ones that from the deepest stillest dancepoint of our earthly selves ascend. to there, where prayers are heard, even in their wordlessness. and the One Who Hears echoes in kind the blessing, sating us in ways no other ever will.

how do you drink up all the holiness you crave? where’s your deep down quiet place?

gillson row of trees

off to the woods

st. mary lake

i’m off to the woods, soon as i pack the wagon, stash the little library next to the umbrella, make sure i don’t leave behind the binder with the pages and pages of notes and thoughts and scribbles.

i’m doing something i’ve not done before, not for this many days and nights anyway. and i’m doing it in a sacred splotch of woods, a place so quiet you can hear the cardinal talking to the blue jay, and you can hear the bullfrog leaping off a log so wrapped in odd-planed fungi it looks extraterrestrial. i’ve walked these woods before, and the miles and miles of trails that snake around the lake, st. mary lake. it’s all on the grounds of an old seminary, and if you listen closely you can hear the murmurs of years and years — whole decades, a century and three quarters, actually — of prayers unreeled in all these woods.

last time i was there, i was one of the ones who’d gone to be quiet. it was a two-day mostly silent retreat. this time, i’m the one who needs to talk. who needs to weave and wend the soulful into morning, noon, and night. or try, anyway.

i don’t know anyone who will be there. not yet anyway. i’m told 16 soulful women have signed up, packed their bags, and will be looking to me for sustenance of the spiritual kind. oh, lordy. help me. (it’s why i’ve spent weeks reading, thinking, writing, scribbling all those notes.)

i keep wishing it was a chair sisters’ retreat. that all of us were finding our way to the woods, gathering in the kitchen to cook ourselves a feast, kindling logs in the fireplace, taking moon walks under heaven’s star-stitched dome. i wish we were all bringing pages we found soulful. or worthy of deeper study, thoughtful consideration.

maybe this is just the first step. a trial run. to see how i fare across three days, two nights.

i imagine there will be moments of blessing. once i chase away the butterflies. i worry i won’t be “churchy” enough. hope my turning to mary oliver, and celtic poets, to ralph waldo emerson and good ol’ thoreau — my pantheon of poets and shimmering souls — is enough to sate the thirsty.

the idea here — or at least the thread that weaves this all together — is rooted in that old Book of Nature i’m so intent on reading closely. the eruptions and raptures of springtime, this season that explodes right before our eyes (while typing here i spied my first goldfinch of the season, and this morning the redbud that reaches across my backyard is twice as swollen and pink as when the sun set last night) it’s a season rife with lessons and wisdoms and wonder, and we’ll be walking the woods in search of all of it. (snow is in the forecast for tomorrow, but i’m going to pretend i didn’t see that.)

we’ll weave in thoughts about the spiritual practice of paying attention, and carving out hours of stillness. and really, truth be told, these are all ideas i could spend a lifetime considering. my deepest attentions are drawn toward the liminal, the thin places and craggy edges where secular and sacred intersect. shimmer radiantly. come unexpected. i like it slant, as dear emily (dickinson) might prescribe.

so i bring my slanted theology to the woods today. and i pray my heart meets each and every one who finds me there. in between the five titled talks, simple shared conversation — over meals, during walks, curled in armchairs in the library — will be where souls are sparked.

and as always, the bookshelf offers hope. here, in the spirit of soulful edification, is the litany of books i’ve gathered and packed and will soon be tossing in the old red wagon.

BOOKS:

Carmen Acevedo Butcher:
Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church: A Spiritual Reader
The Cloud of Unknowing

Ralph Waldo Emerson:
The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Modern Library); edited by Brooks Atkinson

James Finley:
The Contemplative Heart

Richard Higgins:
Thoreau and the Language of Trees

Pico Iyer:
The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere

Gina Marie Mammano:
Camino Divina: Walking the Divine Way

Thomas Merton:
Literary Essays of Thomas Merton

Mary Oliver:
Devotions
Upstream
Long Life

Christine Valters Paintner:
The Soul’s Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred
Dreaming of Stones: Poems

Jan Richardson:
Sacred Journeys: A Woman’s Book of Daily Prayer
Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons
In Wisdom’s Path: Discovering the Sacred in Every Season

Joan Sauro, CSJ:
Whole Earth Meditation: Ecology for the Spirit

David Steindl-Rast and Sharon Lebell, introduction by Kathleen Norris:
Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey through the Hours of the Day
gratefulness.org

Simone Weil:
Waiting for God (essays: “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with View to the Love of God;” “The Love of God and Affliction”)

may your weekend, wherever it is, and however you spend it, be something of a soulful retreat.

what books might you pack for a string of days and nights of soul stirring?

off to the woods

if you look closely enough……

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you might have to get down on your knees. or bend like an origami human. you definitely might need your magnifying glass, but if you look closely enough — say, at the tips of the twigs you’ve hauled into your house, the ones that “force” the vernal tide — you might, just maybe, see the first droplets of spring.

the earth is turning. really it is. even on the days we don’t notice.

hildegard of bingen, one of the wise women whose words i’ve been deep in all week (simone weil is the other), calls it “viriditas,” the green energy of the divine pulsing through the entire universe, the animating force, the goodness that charges the world with life, beauty, and renewal — literally with “greenness.” you might call it “hope,” pure and certain.

the surest time to catch a glimpse, i’d wager, is now, in the dregs of early march, when the world is grey-on-grey-on-grey tableau. and any shock of pigment — a dab of green, the cardinal’s red, shock-of-shocks forsythia yellow — is enough to set off alarm bells inside. the ones that let you know you’re almost at the goal post. the goal being nothing short of survival — winter survival. (for those who need booster shots of assurance, here in the middle west, and most of the u.s., this weekend brings time change — aka “daylight savings time” — in which we spring forward our clocks, and gain an hour of sunlight at twilight.)

as i type this, flakes are tumbling from the sky. i might need snow boots to go find me some viriditas. but, to my thirsty little heart, i find it astonishing in the highest order that just when we’re flagging, just when we start scrounging around for the oxygen tanks, the ones that will keep us from gasping, the arbors and twigs leap into action. sap starts running. birds chime their love songs. holy mackerel. it’s as if all the universe is conspiring, whispering in our deepest inner ear: “have hope, have hope, resurgence will come.”

the eternal cycles. the rhythms as ancient as time. viriditas. ebb and flow. the turning wheel of the seasons. winter thawing to spring. grey exploding in green. to some it’s little more than sunlight + chlorophyll. to the rest of us, it’s something akin to surround-sound proof that we’re deep in the clutch of heaven on earth. and so blessed to be here.

what wisps of hope have you stumbled upon in these grey days of march?

ct-1550008015-2yfsw8e0l5-snap-imagemy roundup of books for the soul for the tribune is now my one soulful book you might want to read. budget cuts keep chipping away at newspapers, and the latest cuts cut away two of my three soulful reads in my monthly (or so) roundup. here’s the first of the one-book-at-a-time reviews, a fascinating read from mary gordon who takes on a literary critique of the writer-monk of gethsemani, thomas merton.

Mary Gordon illuminates the literary works of Thomas Merton

Barbara Mahany

Mary Gordon — novelist, memoirist, professor of English at Barnard College — has long proved herself to be a Catholic voice engaged in deep and nuanced dialogue with the Church. She is fluent in its rhythms, its mysteries, its illuminations — and its darkness. She is a truth-teller, one not afraid to name her church’s sins, nor unwilling to see through its complexities to its radiant core.

Gordon’s capacity to dwell in duality, to circle her subject from all perspectives, to call it as she sees it, positions her squarely as a critic — both literary and cultural — robustly qualified to take on Thomas Merton, the celebrated mid-20th-century monk and writer with a worldwide ecumenical following. In her new slim but soulful volume, “On Thomas Merton,” Gordon plants herself on her firmest footing: “I am a writer. I wanted to write about him, writer to writer.”

She opens her exploration by pinpointing the tension at the heart of Merton: “(I)n becoming a Trappist,” she writes, “he entered an order devoted to silence, and yet his vocation was based on words.”

Merton, author most famously of “The Seven Storey Mountain,” belonged, Gordon writes, to the post-World War I period “when Catholicism was intellectually and aesthetically chic.” He was one of a heady crop of distinguished literary converts, along with G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.

Before he entered the monastery as a Trappist monk at Gethsemani, the abbey outside Louisville, Kentucky, Merton had been engaged in urgent conversation with the modern world. It’s a conversation that never ceased, not until the hour of his death in a Thai cottage, some 20 miles outside Bangkok, in 1968. He’d been granted special permission to leave his hermitage to address a world interfaith conference, in a talk titled “Marxism and Monastic Perspectives.”

While Gordon begins her examination of Merton’s works on a sympathetic note, fully understanding “the conflict between being an artist in solitude and being a human in the world,” further adding that his is “a spiritual test that combines the ascetic and the aesthetic,” she cuts the writer-monk little critical slack. In her scope is a litany that includes Merton’s autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” his 1941 novel, “My Argument with the Gestapo,” and finally his seven-volume, 2,500-plus-page Journals — “longer than the whole of Proust,” Gordon notes.

It’s her bracing honesty along the way that makes her final coda so penetrating. Wrapping up her assessment of “My Argument with the Gestapo,” she writes, “more than likely he would have been marginalized or disappeared,” had he not gone on to publish “The Seven Storey Mountain.” No wonder the reader startles to attention when, one page later, Gordon declares the journals “Merton’s best writing.” She explains: “I detect a much greater sense of spiritual vitality in his journal passages than I do in his books that are self-consciously ‘spiritual.’…(F)rom the very first pages of the journals, everything he describes using sensory language shimmers and resonates.”

Studded with excerpts, Gordon’s meticulous probing of literary Merton points the curious reader toward the richest veins — in effect mapping the Merton catalogue, pointing out the places to begin, or, for a reader already well-versed, sharpening the prism through which he’s understood.

Because she’s regarded Merton with the necessary distance of critic, Gordon’s closing passages — in which she throws down her guard — rivets our attention. “I close the volumes of the journal, and I weep.”

She places him alongside those other martyrs of 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The greatness of Merton, she writes, lies in his “life lived in all its imperfectability, reaching toward it in exaltation, pulling back in fear, in anguish, but insisting on the primacy of his praise as a man of God.”

It’s an intimate literary portrait, stitched through with Merton’s own threads. Ultimately, it’s a prayerful one. And the prayer echoes far beyond its final page.

Barbara Mahany’s latest book,“The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published last spring.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany