I'm off to a weekend retreat with my foundational Gestalt Pastoral Care friends. I'm looking forward to it, but it's also bittersweet -- our last session, after two years of meeting together nearly monthly.
I'll live in the moment with them, and in the meantime, here are a few images that caught my eye this past week, of the way various plants caught the light.
The ups and downs of spring.... for several days Judy and I watched a robin working on this nest in a tree between the College Church parking lot and the bike path. It didn't strike us as the safest or quietest place to raise a family. Apparently the robin decided the same thing, leaving behind this high quality nest for anyone interested.
The ups and downs of April temperatures have kept us busy, covering and uncovering the strawberries and blueberries, but even without any protection, the miniature rose is putting out tiny rosebuds. (I haven't cropped this one as tightly as I might, to give you an idea of the size of the plant -- about six inches).
Our backyard is full of exclamation points, thanks to the neighbor's silver maple. It's great fun to watch them whirling their way down, but while we are hopeful that all the blueberry blossoms result in fruit, we are definitely hoping that these seeds are not so prolific. Most of the yard looks like this little patch:
The Japanese maple is not nearly so prolific, but there are 3 or 4 little seedlings coming up nearby. Pretty tiny, as you can see by the maple seed, but we're hoping these survive.
Perhaps what was lurking behind yesterday's photos of the intermingling of new life and old was not so much an unrealized metaphor as a connection waiting to be encountered.
This morning I received an email from a Mennonite spiritual directors group I belong to, notifying us of the death this past week of two of our members. I didn't know either Will Streeter or Jane Friesen, though I have friends that did. Both died of cancer, in their 40's/50's. I have the phrase from the Book of Common Prayer running through my head: In the midst of life we are in death....
New life, and old, death, and new life.
This weekend I decided to use Open the Door, by Joyce Rupp, as a resource for this transition time of Eastertide. And this story from her Introduction, read this morning, feels like the connection that was waiting in the wings, both for yesterday's photos and for this morning's news.
I sat on the doorstep of my porch, talking on the phone, listening to a newly widowed friend speak of her severe sorrow. In between wrenching tears, she poured out her struggle of attempting to re-engage with a life that no longer included her beloved husband. As I gave full attention to my grieving friend, a young, sleek deer emerged from the woods and stood like a sentinel on the front lawn. At the same time, the tiny lights of fireflies began twinkling in the night air. I felt caught between two contrasting worlds: the sharp pain in my friend's heart and the alluring beauty of the natural world.
Between these two opposites, something unidentified nudged me to pay attention. I let the disparity be there until the phone conversation ended. Then I continued to sit silently on the doorstep, pondering the enticing scene, wondering what stirred inside of me. This movement opened the door to my inner self and led me to look at the part that always wants life to be fair. I recognized my strong desire to relieve my friend of her heartache. At the same time, I also trusted she was in a "growing place" and eventually would be less pained from her loss.
From this pause of reflection, I glimpsed divine presence in both areas: a Compassionate Companion embracing hurting ones and a Generous Creator continually revealing abundant splendor. The deer and the fireflies assured me that beauty remains present in the midst of life's turmoil. That evening the door of my heart provided a passageway to gratitude for enduring beauty and a reminder to trust God's strength to be there, especially when the harshness of life shows its face. Joyce Rupp, Open the Door, pp, 16 - 17
Holding this awareness of the Compassionate Companion and the Generous Creator, the intermingling of beauty and hard times, I'll keep looking for those images of spring beauty.
There's lots of new growth around here of late. These clematis opened up in the last couple days -- new blooms on last year's vines.
I've been seeing this combination of new and old together in a number of areas recently. There's probably a good metaphor there, related to seasons and life cycles and the interaction of generations, but I haven't come up with it yet.
The trees in Pennsylvania seemed to be a bit behind our early spring, so as we traveled out to Pittsburgh last weekend, we saw hills covered with mostly bare trees, and scattered among the gray, a few trees ablaze with color -- red, yellow, light green. I tend to forget that trees other than dogwoods and redbud also flower.
While Beth and Jesse practiced with the choir before church last Sunday, John and I strolled through the park across the street, and I found trees at various stages of flowering and putting out new leaves.
Which got me to wondering, "Where does the phrase 'turning over a new leaf' come from? Does it have anything to do with springtime?"
Thanks to that font of wisdom, the internet, I discovered that the "leaf" is a page. You might turn over a new leaf in your ledger to start a new account, for example (back before you kept your records in a spreadsheet, of course). This gets expanded to mean "starting over" or "getting a fresh start" in a more general way.
Nature may be turning a new leaf, starting yet again into the year's cycle of growth and new life. I'm needing to turn a new leaf in that more metaphorical sense. With the shift in seasons and yardwork, and the shift from Lenten practices to Eastertide, I'm feeling like I haven't found my prayer rhythm yet for this time of year.
I'm not worrying about it too much, remembering a lovely story told about Father Thomas Keating, one of the teachers of centering prayer. He was teaching a group of nuns this way of praying, which involves silently centering yourself on God with the aid of a word that you return to any time you find your thoughts getting hooked into carrying you away from the prayer.
One sister came up to him afterwards and said, "Father Keating, I am so bad at this type of prayer. I kept thinking of other things and had to come back to my prayer word a thousand times."
Father Keating smiled and told her, "How delightful! A thousand opportunities to return to God!"
I'll find the right rhythm for this season too, the right mixture of silent prayer and gardening prayer and photo/blogging prayer for this time of year. All in good time.
We traveled out to Pittsburgh this weekend to visit our daughter and son-in-law, and one of our outings was a trip to the National Aviary. They have several habitats where you are right in the room with the birds, providing some close encounters of an avian kind.
In the Wetlands habitat, this Inca tern perched on a ledge just behind us, waiting for the feeding that was about to happen. Below, Beth and Jesse (and others) hold up mealie worms, which the terns were happy to swoop down and nab. (The tern in the middle of the picture is perched on Jesse's arm, eyeing the worm.)
This pair of finches was having a peaceful snooze, despite the flow of passers-by only a few feet away.
This scarlet ibis found a quiet corner far from the madding crowd.
The flamingos, on the other hand, were more flamboyant.
Today the temperatures have dropped and I even saw a few snowflakes, but yesterday was warm and sunny, and I was able to take a walk through the woods by the dam. I thought I was seeing old bell-shaped seed pods hanging from the branches of small trees, but a closer looked revealed that they were spring flowers, even if they were maroon. I don't know what kind of tree they are from, but they are all over the place in the woods there.
Maroon seemed to be the color of the day -- not just in the mystery bell flowers, but lower down, repeated in the trillium that is beginning to open.
One more Julian icon, showing a reference to perhaps her most frequently quoted line. It comes in a passage where Julian is wrestling with her awareness of the pain caused by sin, and wondering why God could not have prevented sin from ever beginning. She hears that sin is necessary (or as one translation has it, inevitable), but "all shall be well, and all shall be well, and every manner of thing shall be well."
A good word to carry with us into the world as we move outwards from the high celebratory note of Easter, as is also Julian's summary of the essence of her showings:
And from the time it was revealed, I desired many times to know in what was our Lord's meaning. And fifteen years after and more, I was answered in spiritual understanding, and it was said: What, do you wish to know your Lord's meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same. But you will never know different, without end.
We celebrated Easter this Sunday with a glimpse of the feast of the Lamb.
After much good music and song, Heidi's sermon took us to Mark's account of the women who come to the tomb and are told by a young man in a white robe that Jesus has been raised. He instructs them to go back and tell the disciples, and that Jesus is going ahead to Galilee and they will see him there. Instead, as so often in Mark's account of Jesus' followers, they don't get it, and they flee in terror and amazement, and in fear, tell no one. Heidi challenged us to think about how we share the story, and gave us five minutes of her sermon time to jot down a few words or an image of what is central for us in this on-going story of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, and then to share that with someone nearby.
Then came our glimpse of the vision described in Isaiah 24: 6 - 9: On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow,
of well-aged wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
For the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him,
so that he might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
Two tables at the front were spread with festive cloth and decorated with candles and flowers, and a steady stream of our many children carried in candles, fizzy grape juice, plates and baskets of rich breads, fruits, cheeses, eggs, chocolates and more, till the tables were full and overflowing. And still more baskets and plates arrived, till the piano bench was pulled in to hold a few, the table at the front was full, and several of the helpers stayed at the front holding food, as our worship leader led us in giving thanks.
After our time of feasting, a group of many ages gathered like an African choir at the front, leading us in a Tanzanian praise song and dance -- an exuberant, celebrative conclusion to our glimpse of that feast which will be for all peoples.
Early in Lent I participated in the monthly Taize worship at the Hermitage, in Michigan. We gathered in the chapel with the chairs set up in two tiers circling a cross which hung in the middle of the room, over a center arrangement with trays of sand, a Christ candle, and small prayer candles.
We sang the simple Taize songs over and over, sometimes accompanied by piano, sometimes by cello or flute or harp, till they had sunk deep within, quieting and centering us. Some were familiar to me from other settings: “Come and pray in us,” “Bless the Lord.” We sang, and quieted our souls, and slowly people began going to the center, lighting a candle, praying for awhile and then placing the candle in the sand and returning to their seats.
For an intercession song, we sang #22 in the Taize song book:
By your cross and all the wounds you suffered,
grant us freedom in your love.
I found this echoing with my reading of Julian’s showings of Christ’s Passion, and of the deep message of love she felt. Our cross was empty, two branches stripped of their bark and roped together. But there was a discoloration on the side facing me that looked like the face of someone crying out or weeping, hand to cheek. And across the room, on the opposite wall, there was a crucifix, with Christ on the cross, and beside it, an icon of Christ the Light-Giver. I found my gaze going to the cross behind the head on the icon, to the crucifix, to the crying face on the cross of bare branches.
And in that space I held awareness of a number of people I know who are suffering – living with cancer or chronic disease, the loss of a loved one, depression, the breakdown of relationship. I went up to light my candle and to hold that in prayer at the foot of the cross.
We moved in to an extended time of silence before singing “When the night becomes dark, your love, O Lord, is a fire,” watching the flames of the candles flicker as others came forward to add another candle. And we sang “We adore you, Jesus Christ, and we bless your holy name, truly your cross and passion bring us life and healing.”
That one I will continue to ponder. The resurrection and its hope of healing and restoration, yes – but what of the cross and Christ’s Passion? How do I understand this gift of love? Understand, not in the sense of worrying about which theological interpretation of atonement I can assent to, but rather understand and receive at the heart level, as Julian so clearly did.
As I ponder, another visual memory stirs. Years ago I attended an Interplay workshop at Bethany Theological Seminary. In their lovely wood-floored chapel, we did hand dances, moved and played, told big body stories, sometimes all together, sometimes just a few of us. For one session, Cynthia Winton-Henry read the story of Jesus’ visit to Mary and Martha, and then put on some lively music. I watched as Martha after Martha sprang up, energetically moving, stirring, dancing around.
Then one male dancer stretched out on the floor, on his side, with one hand reaching towards the cross on the wall across the room, and with intense focus, began pushing himself with his other arm, a slow, silent, straight route through all the lively dancers, to the foot of the cross, where he rested, hand open and outstretched.
Like the dancer, like Mary, like Julian, like those praying at the Taize service, on this Holy Saturday I can continue to bring my prayers to the foot of the cross, my own and my intercessory prayers.
And a different sort of flame lifted my prayers this morning, as I walked the Stations of the Cross at Pathways Retreat Center -- the flame of sunlight and new plant growth.
My approach to contemplative photography --
Tell about it."
Mary Oliver in "Sometimes"