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Category: paying attention

holy week, promised land, and the spiritual practice of making do…

“why is this night different from all other nights?”

year after year for all the years we’ve been circling ’round tables when the paschal moon is at its plumpest and pinkest, telling and retelling the story of exodus — of plagues and passover and a promised land just out of reach — that question, the first of the four questions traditionally asked by the youngest, sharpens the focus on the holy act of separating time. setting aside particular hours, according to particular rising and setting of the moon in the heavens, lifting those hours out of the ordinary, sanctifying. making holy. erecting cathedrals of time, in the words of abraham joshua heschel, the late great rabbi and thinker, who wrote:

Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. Unlike the space-minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogeneous, to whom all hours are alike, quality-less, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time. There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.

Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate.

this year, the question — why this night? — carried particular resonance. and its sister question, why is this week different from all other weeks, begins to burrow into the holiest questions quivering just beneath the surface of all this 20-second hand washing, and bleach-and-water spritzing and tying of masks round our smiles.

in a week woven with tradition — with particular prayers in particular places, particular recipes, particular gatherings year after year after year — it’s all broken open. it’s all in shards and pieces we assemble and reassemble as best we can.

i think here of the japanese art of kintsugi, beholding the beauty in the brokenness, not occluding or hiding the cracks, but filling them in with rivers of shimmering radiant metals, gold or silver or platinum. deeply understanding the infinite wisdom of rumi, the sufi mystic: “the wound is the place where the Light enters you.” or the resounding redemptive truth of hemingway’s glorious line from a farewell to arms“the world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”

and in this old house where we weave passover and holy week, where the retelling of the parting of the sea, the fleeing from evil pharaoh, the pestilence and boils and locust and darkness, the slaying of the firstborn (the litany of plagues that visited upon egypt) interlaces with the stories of the last supper, the betrayal of judas, the flogging and crowning with thorns, the crucifixion, i found salvation in the spiritual practice of making do.

and there, in the straining of imagination, in the redefining and refocusing on the essence at the root of each strand of tradition, in scouring the pantry, in testing the powers of my own ingenuity, i began to see in sharp focus the extraordinary blessing in reinvention, in improvisation, in the promised land just beyond my reach. in the imperative of bypassing any and all shortcuts. working just a little bit harder. discovering joy at each tiny triumph.

take the chicken marbella.

IMG_1425over the decades since the silver palate cookbook was first published in 1979, and over the decades at the passover seder where i’ve marked the first night of prayer for 36 years, that glorious rendition of chicken and olives and prunes has become synonymous with the jewish rite of spring. add to that the fact that my home-bound freshman in college happens to love it, practically licks the plate of it. (and these days — passover or not — i’ll climb any mountain to bring him one iota of everyday ordinary un-quarantined joy.)

IMG_1432i’d decided a week ago that, come heck or high water (an apt expression in the season of red sea crossing), i was going to muster up a pan full of that vernal succulence. eyeing the few parts of chicken in this old house, i tucked away a package of breasts at the back of the freezer, knowing i might not fetch another till this pandemic is ended. i happened to find just enough dried prunes in the pantry to realize i was halfway there. olive oil, oregano and garlic, i scrounged up with little worry. brown sugar, ditto. white wine i found in the dark and dingy corner of the basement. it was the spanish olives that presented the hurdle. so i made do: i found a few lonely olives, black ones not green, at the back of the fridge. and i stirred it all up like nobody’s business, rejoicing all along the way that i’d found a way — through scrounging + improv — toward chicken marbella.

next up was the seder plate: where in the world does one look for a roasted shank bone in the depths of pandemic? and was i really going to sacrifice one of the six lowly eggs in the fridge for a ceremonial platter of symbols? i was not. so off to the cupboard i trotted, reached for my half-dehydrated markers and scissors. grabbed a sheet of printer paper, and voila, shank bone, egg, and — the hardest procurement of the week — one square of matzo, all kosher for passover. haroset — the apple, walnut, cinnamon and wine meant to remind of the mortar used by the slaves who built pharaoh’s pyramids — that came courtesy of the many-years-old bottle of manischewitz concord grape wine stored in that same dingy corner of the basement, and a stash of walnuts left over from christmas.

but, when we sat down to our laptop, dialed into our zeder (seder by ZOOM, the cyber salvation of the red-ringed siege), we had ourselves a proper seder table, from marbella to matzo, the ingenuity way.

all that making do, all that finding my way — deciding what’s worth the effort, what doesn’t matter — it’s becoming a meditation in mindful distilling. take nothing for granted. turn in to your own toolbox of tricks. never mind the easy way. do away with the unnecessary.

have you noticed that barely-enough makes for extraordinary? have you sensed the keener attention you pay when so little is taken for granted? when i sliced into a ripening pineapple the other morning, and discovered it was perfectly golden and sweet, not hard and pale yellow as it sometimes can be, i felt a sigh of pure joy riveting through me. you would have thought i was an arctic explorer staking my flag in the pole, so triumphant did i feel at suddenly beholding my cache of pineapple perfection. when’s the last time you remembered for days how sweet your pineapple was?

and so it is in the time of corona. when a trip to the grocery store — or a ride on the el, or rubbing elbows with the stranger wedged in beside you at the movies or museum or ballpark — without fear of catching a potentially fatal infection might never again be taken for granted.

we are all, collectively, living and breathing improvisation. expanding the boundaries of what we thought we could do (heck, i’m now very best friends with the sourdough starter bubbling away at the back of my fridge, and i’m zooming into book groups all over the globe, chanting with monks hundreds of miles away). we are looking out for each other in ways we might not have before (sending meals to ER departments, sharing seeds with the neighbor next door).

the brakes have been halted on this mad-paced world. and yes, it’s filled with heartbreak upon heartbreak. jobs are being cut (i lost one of mine). paychecks are being slashed (happened here, too). magnificent glorious souls are breathing their very last breath afraid and alone (dear God, praise the nurses and doctors who step into those holiest of shoes). the obituaries (some of them being written in the room just above) will make you weep (and they do, day after day).

but inside of all the uncharted fear, and the bureaucratic ineptitude that might make you furious, this holiest week is upon us, and it’s teaching us lessons we might never have otherwise learned.

in the nooks and the folds of making-do, i’m paying closest attention to those deepest essentials. and therein lies the holy way home.

what making-do moments have you encountered this week? and what lessons spilled forth?

a housekeeping note: you might have noticed that all week long, in the comments of each week’s post, i’ve been tucking away especially succulent morsels i happen to come across in my cyber adventures. as we’ve long considered this our shared kitchen table, it seems more than apt to leave little bits of deliciousness all week long. so be sure to click back, and scroll through the comments, where i’ve left a bevy of links and snippets of poetry. 

before i go, here’s one i clipped from a letter the great george saunders wrote to all the fledgling writers at kenyon college whose spring quarter was snatched away. he wrote a beautiful long letter, but this one paragraph i saved just for you:

from George Saunders to Kenyon writers:

There’s a beautiful story about the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Her husband was shot and her son arrested during the Stalinist purges. One day she was standing outside the prison with hundreds of other women in similar situations. It’s Russian-cold and they have to go there every day, wait for hours in this big open yard, then get the answer that, today and every day, there will be no news. But every day they keep coming back. A woman, recognizing her as the famous poet, says, “Poet, can you write this?” And Akhmatova thinks about it a second and goes: “Yes.”

may we all find poetry, even amid the pandemic….

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and now i enter deep into my holiest hours….the triduum of holy week….

(p.s. that’s our zoom seder screen shot above, same characters year after year after year. beloved mary schmich, the brilliant pulitzer-prize-winning chicago tribune columnist, wrote about it….here.)

in which we pull spring from out of the earth…

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file this under “desperately seeking proof.” or perhaps, “it’s so necessary this time round.”

the subject is the eruption of spring: that moment, year after year, for as many years as there’ve ever been, when the whole chorus of buds, the vocal cords of feathered flocks and the tips at the ends of the trees, all decide at once to clang the cymbals, pound the drums, and explode like nobody’s business.

it’s so necessary this time round. so necessary when the airwaves fill us with cataclysmic reports, when going to the grocery is an exercise in holding your breath, when reading the morning news just might have you heaving before your first spoon of cornflakes.

Unknownhere in my little corner of the world, about three fingers in from the east coast (if you’re looking at a palm-sized map), a whole thumbprint down from the canadian border, hard against that blue pendicle we know as lake michigan, there is the faintest rumbling of spring. not nearly enough. not enough for a vast swath of humanity staring out the kitchen window on high alert for the invisible virus, not enough for worn-down souls on the lookout for hope.

so i’ve been doing my part: i’ve put serious thought to my latest rube goldbergian plot. my plan to coax the eruption out of the earth. i’ve pictured myself out in the deep ink of the night, knees folded into a crouch, fist wrapped tight around a flashlight, pointing the beam onto stem after stem, branch after branch, seeing if a little light therapy might coax things along.

i’ve got friends in far-off-enough places who are sending me dispatches of itty-bitty finch eggs already laid. cherry trees awash in their seasonal meringue.

here in sweet chicago, here so close to the lake you can hear it lapping the shore: nada, zilch, practically zero. certainly not enough for a soul hungry for spring in the same way some of our bellies growl at the first whiff of oozy cheese in a griddle…

perhaps it would help if i scrawled paint onto a banner, spelled out the plea, “dear mama earth, PLEASE HELP!” we are in serious need of emotional rescue down here. we would do well to fall into the arms of magnolia. might cheer to a bluebird riding along on our shoulder. might fling ourselves face-first and eyes wide open into a bed of tulips and daffodil. fill our lungs with parfum de lilac instead of the fear of the red-ringed demon.

oh, there’ve been the subtlest of cues: goldfinch feathers dropping their wintry drab, taking on the sunshine-gleam of gold that gives them their name; the first lilliputian daffodils putting up their periscopes of promise (see proof above); the birdsong that cannot wait for first light of dawn, birdsong so thick you might think it a recording.

but this is no year for subtlety. this is a year for all the hope we can find. we are holding our breath down here on planet earth, where the whole globe is at a standstill. we need a  vernal exclamation like never before.

those faraway friends tell me it’s coming. a friend in cambridge says, except for corona, this would be the most perfect spring she’s seen in a very long while. except for corona…

because my days are a checkerboard of occasional plug-ins — chanting with monks on mondays and thursdays, inhaling celtic spirituality direct from galway nine days in a row, chiming in on a once-a-week book group based in seattle — i’ve plenty of time for prowling my plot. i make the rounds at least twice a day, on the lookout for any sign of eruption. all but wander the walks with measuring stick and string, all in the hopes of seeing some progress.

this is a season for turning our keenest attentions to the rumblings of earth, to this most intoxicating science and faith that never fails, that offers page after page of wisdom and truth.

this unforgettable spring we are learning the art of deep patience. “ride it out,” is the mantra. “stick close to home,” the instruction.

i, like you most likely, have hours when my knees go wobbly. i’ve wiped away the occasional tear or two (or five). i’m trying to be something of a lifeline for a kid i love who’s all alone in a faraway place, where the walls sometimes press in. trying to make life here at home as tranquil and gentle and sometimes delicious as i can possibly muster. (for reasons that don’t quite escape me, i’ve taken keen fondness for a spritz bottle of lavender mist, which i spritz till the sheets and the pillows are soggy. and i figure the more delicious aromas i can stir from the kitchen, the better the chances i can steady the kid in the room up above, the one whose spring semester has — like everyone else’s — gone up in red-ringed vapors.)

it’s a master class in surrender to which we’ve been enlisted. no one asked first if we’d choose it. it was thrust wildly upon us.

the questions are these: how quiet can we go? how calm might we settle our souls? what new and wondrous epiphanies might drop before our eyes, our hearts, our imaginations? what brings you peace? where is your joy? what pulls you out from your darkest hours? who is your lifeline?

and, where oh where, is the promise of spring?

and suddenly, the holiest of weeks is almost upon us: holy week and easter for churchgoers; passover for jews. as i sink deep into the braiding of those two ancient traditions, i leave you with this from our rabbi, a page from the prayers of passover, as we mark the exodus — safe passage — from egypt, in search and hope and belief in the promised land. it’s a theme with particular resonance this year….

In our prayer book,Mishkan T’filah, we read about the crossing of the Red Sea:

        Standing on the parted shores of history

        we still believe what we were taught

        before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;

        that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt

        that there is a better place, a promised land;

        that the winding way to that promise

        passes through the wilderness.

        That there is no way to get from here to there

        except by joining hands, marching

        together.

join hands, march together; believe in the promised land….

have you stumbled into epiphanies? found yourself a lifeline? what are the saving graces in your days?

we all leap…

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wrestling time seems to have preoccupied the human species since the dawn of, well, time. time itself ceaselessly flows. the heavens, though, mark it with sun and moon, light and shadow. we, scribblers that we are, we draw lines on pages, make them into little boxes, count them one by one. it’s a russian doll of time boxed. we have boxes in all sizes: millennia, century, year, month, day, and of late (in the scope of human history, that is) we have day-minders that make itty-bitty boxes, one for each hour or quarter hour, depending on your busyness. one box slips inside another. we now know at-a-glance just how booked our tomorrows will be.

hipparchus.

hipparchus

all this time wrestling long ago left the mathematicians and sky gazers with a little bit of a problem. a leftover, in fact. or in second-grade subtraction lingo, a remainder. once wise folk like hipparchus, considered the greatest astronomer of antiquity, started squinting toward the sun, hauling out their rudimentary measuring sticks, they mapped some sense of the heavens. hipparchus, the fellow who gave us trigonometry (something you might or might not celebrate), is the one who first pinned time to the revolutions of the sun, to the dance of planet earth in tango with the biggest star. he’s the one who must have whooped, aha! when he calculated the time it takes for one spin around the sun. and here’s the rub: it takes 365 days and 6 hours to make the round-about. that pesky leftover is what brings us to tomorrow — february 29 (a date pulled from the special-reserve shelf).

if you’re going to put time in a box (or a whole calendar of boxes) what shall you do with that quarter of a day left behind? well, said the wise sky scribes of long ago, let us bundle those quarter days into a single package, one that rolls around every four years. (it gets even trickier for us, and for those ancient numbers dudes, once hipparchus pointed out the pesky little fact that their bundling left yet another remainder: every four years, there’s an extra 44 minutes, or three days every 400 years (as ever, it’s the leftovers that all but foil us). so, geniuses that they were, they once again did their math and this time reached for subtraction, deciding that those years divisible by 100 only get a leap day if they’re also divisible by 400. (meaning 1600, 2000, 2400 are leap years, but 1700, 1800, 1900 got gypped.) (and further proving that you can bend rules to do just about anything you so desire.)

so, basically, we should all bow down to long-ago hipparchus for this construct of the leap day. theoretically, it’s the mathematical solution to the boxing-up of time. but for us seekers of the deeper truths, it begs a russian doll of questions, all pivoting on one essential one: if you were handed a gift box of time, if hours were added to the measure of your life, how might you squeeze the holiest holiness from those ticking seconds, minutes, hours? how might you make it most count?

one of the mystical truths of time is that often we get our clearest vision of the gift when it’s taken away, or so threatened. have you ever held your breath waiting for results of a scan? have you paced the halls outside doors marked “surgery: do not enter,” waiting for word of what was found? have you watched the clock move glacially as you await the phone call that’s not coming? have you begged for one more yesterday, most emphatically with someone loved and lost?

what tumbles through our whole self is the begging sense that if only we could have one more day, a few more hours, we’d do this and this and this. say these words we’ve left unsaid. i heard joe biden, someone who knows volumes about loss, say not so long ago that the truth is that in the end cancer patients aren’t asking for years and years, their pleas boil down to “doc, can i make it till the baby comes?” “can i watch her walk down the aisle?” “maybe make it one more christmas?” it’s chiseled to the precipice of the humblest increments of time, of possibility counted out in minutes.

so what will we do with our so-called extra tomorrow? isn’t this our once-a-quatrain chance to practice sacramental time? to lift up each hour, to hold it to the holy light, infuse it with intentionality (that modern-day queazy term for “paying attention,” as ancient a sacred practice as ever there was).

imagine you are handed a basketful of time. as you unwrap each and every hour, each section of an hour, how will you choose to live it to its most abundant fullness?

that’s the question. contemplate your blessings…and, soon enough, it’ll be time to take the holy leap.

sun

the question above–how will you make the very most of the gift of tomorrow, or today, for that matter–is the question i leave here on this morning’s table….

mapping the sun hipparchus(p.s. the image at the tippy-top here is the cover of william cunningham’s 1559 Cosmographicall Glasse, a compendium of engravings of the known principles (at the time) of cosmography, geography, navigation….among the details is his engraving of hipparchus scoping the sun…)

 

autumn is the season that begs your attention

All creation holds its breath, listening within me,
because, to hear you, I keep silent.
~ Ranier Maria Rilke ~

i’m deep breathing poetry and wisdom at the 2019 Catholic Imagination Conference in downtown chicago, a biannual sacred-infused assemblage this year drawing a roster of glorious writers including alice mcDermott, tobias wolff, patricia hempl, mary gordon, paul elie, and poets mary szybist, paul mariani, and dana gioia, and more and more to the shores of lake michigan. this year’s biennial is subtitled: “the future of catholic literary tradition,” a subject to which i am curiously drawn. while i’m off inhaling all that these wise ones offer, and as the seasons take their pivot, exuberant summer into majestic autumn, i am leaving here at the table the longer, unedited version of something i once wrote: a count-your-blessings calendar for autumn, the season of awe, the season that begs your deepest attentions. in all, there are four weeks in my blessed-be autumnal calendar, but i might leave two here now, and circle back with the next two later in the season. (on the other hand, i might leave the whole thing here now…)

slowing timean abridged version of this is found on pages 134 to 138 of Slowing Time, my first foray into the world of book publishing, a book that still sells at a slow and humbling trickle. (though not as humbling as the next two…) delight in making this the backdrop to your hours of quietude in the shimmering weeks ahead. i find i can’t ever wrap myself enough in the velvety folds of this turn in the year…

A Count-Your-Blessings Calendar: Blessed be Autumn, Season of Awe…*

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In the Christian calendar, Ordinary Time continues, punctuated with Feast Days, All Saints’ and All Souls’, chief among many. Advent comes as autumn turns toward winter. We kindle lights amid the blanketing darkness. We await the Holy. In the Hebrew calendar, harvest time brings the Days of Awe, the holiest of holy days, from Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year to Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement, and on to Sukkot, Feast of Tabernacles, the harvest celebration where we wrap ourselves in the whole of Creation and God’s abundant glory. From the golden glowing autumn light to the morning’s brisk first breath, this is indeed the Season of Awe.

Week One:

Day 1: Blessed be the golden days and star-stitched nights of autumn. Blessed be triumphant blast of light and jewel-toned tapestry, as the Northern Hemisphere lets out its final hallelujah before deepening, drawing in. And bless those among us who are wide-eyed to the wonderment that is ours for belly-filling feasting.

Day 2: Now’s the interlude when leaves drop their drab summer-worn green for jaw-dropping amber and gold, copper and crimson. Air turns wake-me-up chilly. Pumpkins weigh down the vine. The slant of sun drops in the sky, as we twirl farther and farther away, it is all autumn’s call to attention.

Day 3: Season riddled with goodbyes: Winged flocks take flight on night winds. Hummingbirds hover but an instant. The hearts and souls we love shove off, back to school desks and leafy college quads. Bittersweet the partings, filled with prayer for safe return.

Day 4: There is faith galore in tucking in a bulb, concentrated life. In setting it just so, roots poking down and the shoot facing skyward, where the vernal sun will come, will tickle it awake, coax it from the frozen earth, break through unannounced, startle us with tender slips of green. Resurrection, sealed beneath the earth.

Day 5: Wrap yourself in the prayerful cry of the cello, the orchestra’s autumnal offering. No deeper plea for hope than Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5 in C Minor, especially as unspooled by Yo-Yo Ma. Might it be the backdrop to your autumn prayer? 

Day 6: Behold the piercing, minor-key dissonance, raining from on high. It’s the trumpet blasts of geese in Vs, far above the trees. In this season of migration, as feathered flocks follow heaven’s call, let us bow our hearts when we hear the mournful siren’s song. 

Day 7: English poet and polemicist John Milton says of geese: They are “intelligent of seasons.” Contemplate that wisdom when next you absorb the snow goose’s unseen night cry. 

Week Two:

Day 1: Some call this “the wabi-sabi season,” so defined as the season that pulses with the beauty of sadness and the sadness of beauty, and the breathtaking poetry of imperfection and impermanence. Embrace your own wabi-sabi self.

Day 2: Be on the lookout for the first frost of the autumn, the glass-beaded luminescence that captures the slant of the sun, refracts it, refines it. Wraps it in a ball, makes it more than it was, broadcasts it. When first frost comes — when the architecture of water and cold finds itself frozen — that morning light is magnified, glorified, held up for ovation, a show that won’t last. It’s all part of the whole-cloth majesty that is the autumn.

Day 3: Holy chores of autumn: Head outdoors to chatter with your birds and squirrel friends. Protect them from the coming cold. Toss corn. Pour water into shallow bowls. Smear peanut butter onto tree bark so they can peck it off, stave off the shivers and the rumbly tummies that we fear for them.

Day 4: Partake of autumn’s poetic fruits: honeycrisp apple, mission fig, pomegranate, persimmon, ruby-breasted pear, quince. 

Day 5: Bless the miracle of the monarch, the one of all the 24,000 species of butterflies who migrates the farthest. And whose story brings on goosebumps. For most of the year, the monarch, like every other butterfly, lives an ephemeral life. It’s born, and within weeks, it dies. Not so the monarchs of autumn, they are the Methuselah generation — named for the oldest old man of the Bible, who, according to Genesis 5:27, lived “nine hundred sixty and nine years.” Monarchs born at summer’s end, way up in Canada, live as long as eight months. They exist for one purpose: To fly south, and, come spring, beget the next generation. Who in heaven’s name dreamed up such almighty wonder?

Day 6: Crack open the autumnal recipe box. Bake a crisp or crumble that draws upon the orchard’s harvest. Offer up a prayer for heirloom apple tree, and the woodsman who tended it, and plucked its drooping boughs.

Day 7: Fill the table with invited friends, friends whose big ideas soar like kites against the wind, and whose laughter makes the walls shake. We are blessed with such companions, a word with Latin roots meaning, literally, “bread fellows.”  

Week Three:

Day 1: Bless the season of winged flight, of thousands of miles of flapping wings. Of painted-wing songbirds carrying off their full-throated melodies and charmed warblings, leaving us to absorb the new-found silence of the leafless trees.  

Day 2: It is in the few fat fruits — American cranberry, rosehips — left on the bough and thorny stem, and the up-reached arms of oak and serviceberry that we might find the combination lock to our imagination — and our most satisfying comfort.

Day 3: Treat yourself to a mid-night’s moon lace. Tear off the bedclothes, tiptoe to a window — or if you’re feeling brave, straight out to under heaven’s dome. On a night when the moon is full or nearly so, behold the full-strength moonbeams as they spill across the boughs, the grass. All the earth is dappled in inside-out shadow. Better than Chantilly, and sure to take your breath away. 

Day 4: Savor the gray days of late autumn. When all the world is stripped of excess, pared back to strictly elemental. When even a smidge of color — save, maybe, for the blood red of a clump of berries — is uncalled for, unnecessary.

Day 5: Regard the autumn frost, redux. Miracle of sunbeams captured in wee globes of dew. Or might it be the cold sweat of dawn’s labor, the hard work of night turning to day? Either way, let it take your breath away. First blessing of the day. 

Day 6: Unearth a long-buried tome from your bookshelf, and curl up for a long afternoon’s contemplation. What title tickles your autumnal fancy, and gets you in the mood for counting all your bounty?

Day 7: Dollop sweetness, the gifts of summer’s labor harvested in autumn. Might you choose amber-liquid honey, or bronze molasses? Or do you take your sugar squared, in lumps? Heaped blessing, indeed. 

Week Four:

Day 1: The world is at work in its tasks that trace back to the birth of all time. There was darkness, there was light. Genesis says so. There are seasons, turning. Ask Ecclesiastes.

Day 2: Look out into tangled labyrinth of branch on branch — interrupted only by unkempt knot of leaves assembled by some squirrel intent on keeping warm — and understand what November reveals.

Day 3: As you begin kindling wicks, come nightfall, consider the honeybees’ hard labor to beget the beeswax. It’s estimated that, to gather the pollen to make the honey that’s consumed by bees to craft the honeycomb, the bees fly 150,000 miles to yield one pound of beeswax. 

Day 4: Or, as Bavarian thinker named Karl von Leoprechting wrote, in 1855: “The bee is the only creature which has come to us unchanged from paradise, therefore she gathers the wax for sacred services.” Ponder that when next you strike a match to illuminate the darkness.

Day 5: These are the days when the stark poetry of gnarly branch and endless sky open up to us. When all around is naked, bared, stripped of its cloak, exposed. We might be spurred to pare away all but our very essence.

Day 6: It is jagged silhouette against the charcoal sky that haunts, rustles us, seeps slowly deeply in.

Day 7: “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was ‘Thank you,’ that would be enough.” — German philosopher and mystic Meister Eckhart (1260 – 1328).

what would you add to your own count-your-blessings calendar for this season of deepest awe?

black-eyed susan* © 2006-2019 Barbara Mahany. All Rights Reserved.

the cartography of discovery, one page at a time

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i am finding my way, or trying anyway, one page at a time.

the stacks of books are growing at a precipitous, and possibly murderous, rate. it’s not quite as death-defying as the bibliophiles who cowered on the cover of middle june’s new yorker, the brilliant bruce eric kaplan’s “bedtime stories,” which made me laugh out loud (in sorry self-recognition). but it’s growing at a rate that might make ol’ jack and his beanstalk shudder.

certainly propelled by the question of the season — what will you do with your one wild and precious life? — i climb the stairs of this old house, this increasingly arthritic house (the old wood slabs and my old bones now creaking in something akin to unison). i am, more often than not, carrying a small armload of books. i carry them, logs to the pyre, to see what i might kindle from the depths of their pages.

IMG_0265my destination is the nook by the window that’s become my signature perch. my aerie. the crow’s nest for those not tossing on the seas, but merely tossing in the undulations of her own uncharted life.

i am, i suppose, reading my way toward some more certain path. and, more often than not, i find myself inside poetry. i find poems the surest way toward clarity. it’s the way a poem illuminates the barest wisps of the everyday, the quotidian. imbues those moments with the volumes of understanding, or wisdom, i’ve always sensed. poetry puts dimension, puts shadow, light, and a spectrum of color, to the otherwise unnoticed.

and therein i find what i call sacred. the holiness of the every blessed moment. if only we stop to mine the depths, the strata, the igneous rock bed beneath the flimsy shale.

this week, as i squirm inside the borderless plateau that is my newfound station, as i arch this way and that, wondering where my path is hiding, i stumbled onto this most perfect poem, one that almost seemed to be a polaroid of the moment in which i find myself: the work of my lifetime, mothering, now coming to a turn.

but what i love the most about this poem, “things you didn’t put on your résumé,” by the brilliant minnesota poet laureate, joyce sutphen, is that it holds the everyday up to the light. shines incandescence on the otherwise invisible. she says it more pulsingly and achingly than i’ve ever managed to capture it (though i wrote three books trying…..)

so from my corner nook in my window seat, looking out into the linden boughs and the serviceberry where the sparrows romp, here’s the perfect poem for this moment when i am looking back at all that’s been, missing it terribly, and wondering where oh where will i next find the closest thing to holiness in my everyday?IMG_0262

Things You Didn’t Put on Your Résumé
by Joyce Sutphen

How often you got up in the middle of the night
when one of your children had a bad dream,

and sometimes you woke because you thought
you heard a cry but they were all sleeping,

so you stood in the moonlight just listening
to their breathing, and you didn’t mention

that you were an expert at putting toothpaste
on tiny toothbrushes and bending down to wiggle

the toothbrush ten times on each tooth while
you sang the words to songs from Annie, and

who would suspect that you know the fingerings
to the songs in the first four books of the Suzuki

Violin Method and that you can do the voices
of Pooh and Piglet especially well, though

your absolute favorite thing to read out loud is
Bedtime for Frances and that you picked

up your way of reading it from Glynnis Johns,
and it is, now that you think of it, rather impressive

that you read all of Narnia and all of the Ring Trilogy
(and others too many to mention here) to them

before they went to bed and on the way out to
Yellowstone, which is another thing you don’t put

on the résumé: how you took them to the ocean
and the mountains and brought them safely home.

“Things You Didn’t Put on Your Résumé” from Carrying Water to the Field: New and Selected Poems by Joyce Sutphen, University of Nebraska Press.

simply: what are the things you don’t put on your résumé? 

playing house

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as long as i can remember, i’ve been keeping watch. i recall being at the art institute as a little little girl, standing in front of a mary cassatt painting of mother and child, only i was soon turned the other way. or my neck and eyes were anyway. i was far more enchanted by the woman standing just behind me, a woman as elegant as anyone i had ever seen, a silk scarf draped billowingly and oh-so-chicly round her neck and shoulders.

decades later, i was off to nursing school, and before that, working summers and weekends at a hospital, where i would all but be swallowed whole by the stories i could eke out from the nurses’ charts, the overheard snippets of conversation, the scuttlebutt over lunches back in the nurses’ lounge.

then someone gave me a notepad and a pen. ordered me in no uncertain terms: “take notes.” once, racing out the newsroom door to eyeball the apartment of the man suspected of lacing tylenol with cyanide, a legendary reporter, one who’d taken notes all around the world as a wire-service scribe, shot me one last instruction in the school of taking notes, “i want to know what the contac paper on his kitchen shelves looks like.” in other words: don’t miss a detail.

and so, all these years, i’ve been keeping watch. keeping watch on undulations of the lives around me, and my own. keeping watch to make sense. or least to glean some inkling of deeper understanding. communion, often, is the goal. to tease out those strands and threads that weave us all into a whole.

keeping watch on my own life this week, trying to chart the landscape of this house without a child, i keep bumping into one resounding thought: i’m playing house. it’s me and another grownup, and we’re all alone. no one needs to whisper. no one drinks the milk. barely anyone dumps dirty socks down the laundry chute. the hours seem longer and looser than before.

i’m not complaining. but nor am i quite at home. it’s less disconcerting than back in the days when i was first figuring out how to be a mum, and i was forever haunted by the notion that i was forgetting something — like the baby. i remember forever checking to be sure he was strapped into the grocery cart, the stroller, the carseat. i thought it wise to remind myself, “don’t forget the baby,” as if i just might walk out of the store and leave the little sweetheart behind, lost amid the cartons of cottage cheese and the lettuce heads.

this takes degrees less concentration; no one needs remind me that he’s not about to lope down the sidewalk, bound into the car, with two minutes to go till the school bell rings. (so last year!, as they say…) but the absence of the one who’s been here all these last 18 years, hmm, it’s downright hollow every once in a while.

i find it hardest when he calls me on the little phone, and hits the button that makes his face flash on the screen. when i catch a glint of the way his smile unfolds, or the certain twinkle in his eye, i need to all but cable myself to the chair to keep from leaping through that itty-bitty little screen. i read this week an earth-shattering report from the children on the u.s.-mexico border, children who said their “heartbeat hurts,” they are so scared, so lost without their moms and dads. theirs is a horror, mine a stage of life. but i felt the resonance in their exquisite, poetic, horrifying phrase: heartbeats do hurt sometimes, when we miss the ones we love, the ones we don’t quite know how to live without.

there’s a freedom in this newfound state of affairs, a day unbounded by school bells and soccer practices. i only need get out of bed when i need to get out. no one needs me to play at being the ejector parent anymore. no one races past me in the kitchen, reaching for the pancake wrapped in paper towel as he shoves his feet into shoes strewn by the door, and bolts into some car idling at the curb.

with freedom, though, comes responsibility, comes looming question: what will you do with your life? how will you make meaning every day?

i don’t yet know, is the answer. truth is i am slow walking, exploring each new hour as if i’ve been plopped in an unknown, uncharted place and time. and i am savoring. i am breathing deep, and pinching myself that we have actually gotten to this moment: two beautiful boys, grown, gone. on their own flight paths. sometimes, they stumble. and that’s when phone calls come. sometimes they must be soaring. and then i am left to imagine. left to consider this life that’s mine to pick up, carry forward.

and then there’s the playing house. the hard-won, long lost neat-as-a-pin-ness. the unrumpled beds. the bathroom sink that stays sparkly shiny (sans desiccated globs of toothpaste). the setting the table for two (i splurged on new napkin rings this week, and napkins too; decided it was high time we ditch the holey, raggedy ones, now that we are living civilized).

the good news (and i do not take this for granted) is that i really like the fellow with whom i share this old newly-empty house. being alone with him for days on end reminds me of back in the days when he was new to the newsroom, and i had a big fat crush on him. it’s almost as if someone waved a magic wand, and poof, suddenly here we are, all these decades later, the same two of us, only we lived a whole lifetime in between, birthed two lifetimes between us.

only it’s not make-believe.

and the drumbeat of the question, the insistent, persistent question, ala mary oliver, “tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

it’s the question that stirs me night and day….

what stirs you? and how might you answer mary O’s exquisite question? (no need to answer aloud, simply a thought worthy of pondering…)

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

cherish: these are the days i’ll forever miss

TK _ WK hug

something like feathery-flaked fairy dust — just a pinch, mind you — has descended on these days. there’s a palpable sense that we are living in hallowed time, on the permeable cusp of still holding on, but soon letting go. of liminal space, of a threshold when all the now is magnified, each fine grain of holiness amplified by the undercurrent of knowing these hours are numbered, this proximity will slip away.

cherish is the word that rumbles round my head — and my heart. it’s the sacred instruction whose imperative i follow.

fourth quarter senior year of high school started just the other day. for the kid born when i was barreling toward 45. for the kid i never ever ever thought i’d get to cradle, to fold in my arms. for the dream i feared i’d lose when his delivery got bumpy and a phalanx of top-notch neonatologists slithered into the murky shadows of the delivery room.

you never get over a miracle. i know i won’t.

even on the days when we’re nearly late for school because he won’t budge from under his covers — and what a miracle that that’s about the worst i can come up with — i never really lose touch with the blessedness of his existence.

truth be told, i get the sense that he too has an inkling of what’s coming, and he too is holding on just a wee bit tighter. even though for months now he’s teased me mercilessly about the fact that his days here are counting down.

in the last couple weeks, word has descended from college admissions offices far and wide and even close to home. friend after friend has decided, declared, committed. the boy we call our own, he is still deciding. we’re making one last trek to a couple campuses this weekend. taking one close look, and hopefully driving home knowing (although rain and more rain is in the forecast, which makes for dreary looking). maybe seeing a bit more clearly the outlines of what lies ahead.

but even without his own certainty yet, it’s the certainty of kids all around him that’s seeping in the sharp edge of truth: high school, this era he thought would never end, it’s over, done, finished, just the other side of this quarter that started this week. it’s a two-digit countdown if counting by days; it’s now less than two months away.

all of which dials up the urge to pay close attention. to savor. to cherish.

which makes this all the more, the tender season. there’s always something about springtime that pulses with a certain poignance. i always feel the equal parts light and shadow in these weeks of quickening. there’s hallelujah, there’s heartbreak, there’s loss, there’s triumph. there’s death and resurrection. nubs of newborn green at the end of the branch. mama bird in her nest-building frenzy. baby bird fallen from the nest. tender shoots bent under the crush of late-season ice or snow. the bush that didn’t survive the winter. the bulb that rises anyway. the fragile frond unfurling. the song of the wren.

i’ve written (here, and in the pages of slowing time) of the enlightened wisdom of the japanese who teach that the beauty of the cherry blossom — sentinel of spring — is its evanescence. “the very fact that at any minute a breeze might blow and blossoms will be scattered. they’re keen to what it’s teaching: behold the blossom. it won’t last for long.” nor forever.

nor these numbered days of childhood, the chapters that all unfold beneath one shared roof. the chapters where, night after night, you can perk your ears to the sounds of someone shuffling off to bed. those long-ago nights of bedtime stories and lying still beside him, in hopes that sleep would come to him before it came to whichever grownup had drawn the short straw that night, those nights are now but memory. the ritual these days is to listen for the click of the front door somewhere round the midnight hour. and not too long from now there will be no noise at midnight, nothing but the sound of a single sheet being pulled up round our noses. his room, the one at the bend in the stairs, it’ll lie untouched, un-messed-up for long weeks and months between college breaks. i’ll wander in, run my hand across the un-hollowed pillow. maybe sift through piles left behind. i’ll wonder how we got to such an empty room so fast…

i will hardly be surprised by the hollowness of those days to come. the ones where i work once again to re-wire who i am in the world. once again expand the imaginary boundaries of my mother-ness, expand to include however many miles stretch between me and my newly-faraway boy.

what’s surprising me is how tender these days are. how a softness has descended. an unspoken tenderness between us. how he calls out one last time “i love you,” before clicking shut his bedroom door, or as he climbs the stairs on his way toward homework. these are not the words he tosses willy-nilly. these are words that seem to be gurgling up from the undeniable truth that he and i have always, always sensed that we were living inside an answered prayer. and despite his disinclination to say so, he’s the bearer of one voluminous and deeply tender heart. and it’s feeling this tug in the surest quietest way imaginable.

i’ve been reading — in a glorious book titled, “the soul’s slow ripening,” by christine valters paintner, a poet, artist, and modern-day mystic now living in galway, on the western coast of ireland — that thresholds held particular attention for ancient irish monks.

“thresholds are the space between,” paintner writes, “when we move from one time to another, as in the threshold of dawn to day or of dusk to dark; one space to another, as in times of inner or outer journeying or pilgrimage; and one awareness to another, as in times when our old structures fall away and we begin to build anew. the celts describe thresholds as ‘thin times or places’ where heaven and earth are closer together and the veil between worlds is thin.”

(i love learning that the monks literally sought out “edge places,” in the desert, on the margins of civilization, in the wide-open windswept burren, “at the very fringes of the ancient world,” where they might most deeply embrace the perspective it allowed them.)

it makes me scan the terrain of this “edge time” i find myself — and my sweet boy — living in. it makes me wonder if the pinch of fairy dust, the extra-porous tenderness, the gentle grace that animates each day, as my senior in high school holds on tighter as he gets ready to let go, it makes me wonder if we’re wise to pay attention to the “thinning,” and recognize the holiness of heaven intermingling in the everyday earthliness of this very last high school chapter?

it makes me wonder. and it makes me hold tighter to each and every hour of this blessed thinning time and space…

what thresholds capture your attention? have you a sense of the thin place, where heaven and earth hover within reach? 

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

wonder year

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sometimes we walk in circles before we find our way. or at least i do. maybe the last few months have been circle-walking. maybe the way forward is threaded by wonder. maybe what i’ve been looking for, a way into that deep-down still place inside, the place that’s a wellspring of the divine, maybe we get there by opening our eyes, putting our pulse up against the heartbeat of creation. maybe the quieter we go, the stiller we become, the more certain the sacred pulses inside and through and around and beyond.

maybe the place to begin — and this is the season for new beginnings — is right here where we are. maybe the way to begin is to be as still as we can possibly be, and plunge ourselves into those places where wonder can’t help but rub up against us.

this is hardly new revelation. i’ve been deep in the writings of thoreau these past couple weeks, poring over, underlining, making stars in the margins of a collection of passages and essays keenly observing the trees in and around walden pond and the woods of concord, mass. it’s a glorious collection of words and black-and-white photographs, gathered by the photographer and writer richard higgins from the two-million-word journal of the great transcendentalist and poet laureate of nature, henry david thoreau (1817-1862). it’s titled “thoreau and the language of trees,” and in it the instruction begins (for this is as much a guide to living as it is a historical recounting) with these guidepost paragraphs:thoreauandthelangaugeoftrees

“old trees connected thoreau to a realm of time not counted on the town clock, an endless moment of fable and possibility….

“and they were his teachers. although he called the shedding of leaves each fall a tragedy, he knew that the leaves that fell to the ground would enrich the soil and, in time, ‘stoop to rise’ in new trees. by falling so airily, so contentedly, he said, they teach us how to die.

“thoreau wrote prolifically about trees for a quarter century, from 1836 to 1861. he observed them closely, knew them well, and described them in detail, but he did not presume to fully explain them. he respected a mysterious quality about trees, a way in which they point beyond themselves. for thoreau, trees bore witness to the holy and emerged in his writings as special emblems and images of the divine.”

more and more of late, i am being drawn to a deeper understanding of the Book of Nature, a belief both catholic and jewish, a belief of many many faiths, that God first wrote the Book of Nature in creation, and then, in words, gave us the Torah, the Bible.

the pages of the Book of Nature are before us always — if we open the valves, the channels — the eyes, the ears, the soul — that detect and absorb the holy all around. the wisdom, the lessons, it’s all there to be extracted. it’s the wonder that catches our attention, that draws us in, holds us in its grasp. and then comes the pondering, the meditation, the sifting and filtering, the sieving and panning for glimmering gold.

but to notice, to pay attention, we need to go quiet. to still the noise. quell the cacophony. go to the woods or the edge of the shore. go to where the waters rush or trickle or flow in and flow out. stand under the stars of a cold winter’s night. we’re wrapped in the holiest text, the calligraphy of the great Book of Nature. God’s book. the book that beckons. the ancient and timeless antidote to the madness of civilization.

“the winter woods, especially, were a spirit land to thoreau, a place for contemplation. he walked in them alert to the mystical, more as supplicant than naturalist….

“thoreau also detected the divine in the woods. ‘nature is full of genius, full of divinity.’ all its motions — ‘the flowing sail, the running stream, the waving tree, the roving wind’ — must be the ‘circulations of God.’ ‘if by watching all day and all night i detect some trace of the Ineffable, then will it not be worth the while to watch,’ he asked, alluding to the recurring motif in the psalms of the watchman who calls out in the morning. ‘to watch for, describe, all the divine features which i detect in Nature. my profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature.”‘

and so, at the cusp of this blessed new year, this moment when beyond the woods the cacophony rises, i am following the trail in and through, in search of the wonder that makes clear what might otherwise escape me.

where do you find wonder? 

happy blessed newborn year to each and every one, as we all pack away the holidays, the glitter and shiny paper, and shuffle back to the extraordinary quotidian….i’m finding myself a wee bit heavy-hearted this morning as my firstborn, home for the first time in a year these past two weeks, flies off tomorrow, into what promises to be another steep climb up the next mountainside….thank goodness the so-called little one will stick around till he too shoves off when college calls early next autumn…..

p.s. ice crystals above, clinging to the roots of a fallen tree, discovered yesterday along lake michigan’s shore when my beloved and i went out for a late afternoon’s winter walk, but one of the wonders marking my annual return to the day i was birthed….