a few years ago — i thought it was three, but in fact it was six — i stumbled into the making of a gratitude list and found myself counting to 100, which made it a centenary of thanks. i fell in love with the word, of course, and the notion of reaching toward a number so high it took concentrated attention. simone weil, of course, tells us that attention is the launch pad of prayer. only she says it more poetically. she says this: “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”
pádraig Ó tuama, the brilliant north ireland peacemaker and poet, says this about prayer: “i do love praying. like prier from french, ‘to ask.’ and what i love about that word is it doesn’t require belief. it just requires a recognition of need. and i think the recognition of need is something that brings us to a deep, common language about what it means to be human…”
and so, this year especially, when the wounds are deep, and the fears shimmer just below the surface, the sacred act of weaving ourselves and wrapping ourselves in the shawl of a gratitude litany — prayer purled — seems not only wise but necessary. surely an armament against the cold winds that will not abate.
i begin with the woods. i’m drawn there first for its tabernacle of sheltered silence, for the stirrings so faint you can hear tree trunks creaking, as if old bentwood rocking chairs, who let out a bit of a pinched and arthritic cry as they bend in the wind, rub hard against their fallen brethren.
i begin with the light there, the way the shadows play. one day dappling the leafy floor into odd-shaped checkerboard geometries, the next day diffusing the whole — the undulations of rises and hollows, the tangle of vines still holding tight to their berries — in a radiance that might be a kind of mystical halo.
the woods, a grove of old-growth oaks and a tumble of decades-old anonymous stumps, runs along a canal just a short ways from my house. i’ve taken to wandering there, squatting myself on the logs and the stumps that seem like children’s play blocks strewn from a leviathan’s toy chest. i listen and watch. a prayerful pose, if ever there was.
the litany of gratitudes tumble into my notebook, for i always carry a notepad and pen. these days, the woods are just about the holiest place i know. a tabernacle tucked under the trees.
the woods, it seems, are a fine place to sit in a time of pandemic. you might traipse through a meadow. or plunk in the sand and the sharp-bladed grasses along the lakeshore. or perhaps you’ve a river that bends, that offers up its whispering current, that serves as your launch pad for prayer.
these are the places that pay no mind to the cacophonies of the world, to the political banshee cries, to the ungodly images from inside the ICUs where breath itself verges on the impossible.
i turn, in times like these, to those carved-out holy places of God’s making. the opening in the woods, the prayer pew along the river bank or the lake’s soft edge. under the great star-salted dome of the night sky, just beyond my kitchen door.
but i might find holy altars even on the inside of my old house. at the cookstove, most certainly. that place where i stand, stirring, intermingling my incantations with the steam rising from whatever’s bubbling. call me crazy, but for me cooking, cooking for the ones i love, is nothing short of a prayer. sometimes i get lost in the launching of my litanies, and i wind up more or less burning my prayers. i’m rather infamous around here for my long record of burning the broccoli.
all this seems to be a circling around of the centenary itself. i’ve yet to get to the counting here. so perhaps the wisest thing to do is to slow count this year, to make it a week-long practice of paying simone-weil-level attention.
i’ll have an abundance of grist here: a boy i love is coming home from college, clear till the first of february. he and his papa will be motoring across the farmland of the great buckeye state, soon as we get the green light, soon as the precautionary COVID test comes back from the lab, with nary a worry.
the table this year will be sparse. only three of us. with our most essential fourth far beyond the reach of my hand, too far. but blessedly he won’t be alone.
we’ll partake of the traditional thanksgiving drive to grandma’s house, only we’ll be stationed outside. on her sidewalk, perhaps. or in the circular drive. and there won’t be any picking away at the turkey platter at her house. nor even the swapping of slices of pie.
but i promise i will make it to 100, cross that prayerful line of demarcation (i wouldn’t want to call it a finish line, as that might imply a stopping, and i’ve no intention of doing so). perhaps you might choose to play along. perhaps you’ll count to 100, too. weave your own centenary. if there are turkey trots galore this time of year, those early-morning chases down pathways and lanes, a preamble calorie burn to make room for more stuffing, there might just as well be a numerical exercise in the petitions department.
i will leave you with the breathtakingness of our friend pádraig Ó tuama who wrote this about prayer, in an essay entitled, “Oremus,” which means, in latin, “let us pray.”
“…let us pick up the stones over which we stumble, friends, and build altars. let us listen to the sound of breath in our bodies. let us listen to the sounds of our own voices, of our own names, of our own fears. let us name the harsh light and soft darkness that surround us. let’s claw ourselves out from the graves we’ve dug. let’s lick the earth from our fingers. let us look up and out and around. the world is big and wide and wild and wonderful and wicked, and our lives are murky, magnificent, malleable, and full of meaning. Oremus. let us pray.”
i invite you to pray to one hundred….
blessings and blessings upon us, in these hours of blessing to come….
even if you don’t count to 100, perhaps you’ll pay closer attention to the petitions you hold in your heart in this blessed season of gratitude. but i will see you here next week, with my centenary in hand, or rather at heart…where, and with what, will you begin?
p.s. that tepee above is a little miracle i stumbled upon in the woods yesterday. an architecture of sticks, gathered from the heap pile of fallen limbs. it hadn’t been there before and so it stirred a thousand questions: was it something for a boy scout badge? are there still children who play in the woods? was it some ancestral lodge in the making, a place from which smoky petitions might rise?
oops! i forgot that i was thinking of leaving a little something here. the other night there was a “book launch” for Stillness, and given these pandemic times, that meant a virtual gathering. so, from the cozy confines of my kitchen, we all gathered robustly. AND the wonders of technology made an instant recording, which you can click any time to play along. here’s the key to get in! (just click the word “key” and it’ll magically open the door)