On May 5 to 7, Mennonite spiritual directors from the Great Lakes region gathered for a retreat at Lindenwood Retreat Center, near Plymouth, Indiana. Our theme was Tending the Fire -- and we had time to tend the fire that God has kindled in each of us through worship times, story sharing, experiential workshops on spiritual practices, conversations of many sorts, and sabbath time. The Emmaus road story, Luke 24:13 - 36, wove its way through our worship gatherings: Were not our hearts burning within us while he was taking to us on the road?
The room for most of our large gatherings looked out over the lake and the beginnings of spring -- flowering trees, tulips, baby geese. Our visuals required some creativity. We had chosen the theme of Tending the Fire before we knew that Lindenwood has a policy of no open flames, for insurance reasons. So we improvised with fiery colors, salt lamps, paintings, figures, and flowers, changing with each worship time.
The visual center below has a story of its own. Jane Halteman brought a number of things to be used for the visuals. At the last minute she threw in this red and blue cloth, one that she had purchased from the Congo Cloth Connection at Mennonite General Assembly last summer. She choose it for the colors, not aware that the pattern was of candle flames until she opened it at the retreat. It immediately struck us as just what was needed for our main gathering space, along with a contemporary icon of the Emmaus encounter and some light from a Ten Thousand Villages salt lamp.
If you count the candles on the cloth, you'll find 30 whole flames and 3 partial ones (allowing for a bit of imaginative stretch in the case of that right uppermost flame). There were 33 registrants at the retreat, with several who were not able to be there the whole time. A lovely synchronicity (even if the numbers don't quite match -- there should be four partial flames!).
One early morning last week I walked into my spiritual direction room, ready to spend some time working on a retreat with the theme Tending the Fire. The sun was barely up and the room was shadowy, but the view out the window made me pause in delight. Overnight the leaves on the neighbor's tulip poplar tree had turned golden.
It wasn't hard to find fiery fall light this past week, filling the leaves with glory. For some, even their veins seemed full of fire.
A few years ago a friend introduced me to J. Philip Newell's Celtic Benediction, and his morning and evening prayers continue to be a blessing. I've looked back through past photos for images that go with this Sunday morning prayer.
I watch this morning
for the light that the darkness has not overcome.
I watch for the fire that was in the beginning
and that burns still in the brilliance of the rising sun.
I watch for the glow of life that gleams in the growing earth
and glistens in sea and sky.
I watch for your light, O God,
in the eyes of every living creature
and in the ever-living flame of my own soul.
If the grace of seeing were mine this day
I would glimpse you in all that lives.
Grant me the grace of seeing this day.
Grant me the grace of seeing.
I'm reading The Book of Creation by Philip Newell, and found this prayer from the Celtic tradition, one that was said or chanted with the lighting of the morning fire:
I will kindle my fire this morning
In the presence of the holy angels of heaven. . .
I don't light a fire each day in this house with its central heating, but there is a band of angels keeping watch on my piano these weeks of Advent, and each wintry Sunday evening at Faith House Fellowship we kindle a fire.
The prayer continues:
God, kindle Thou in my heart within
A flame of love to my neighbour,
To my foe, to my friend, to my kindred all. . .
O Son of the loveliest Mary,
From the lowliest thing that liveth,
To the Name that is highest of all.
A flame of love. Perhaps it is like the flames I was looking at last night, discovering that through the light of one flame I could see the light of another. A flame of love for my neighbor, foe, friend. . . for all living things and for the One whose fire of love holds us all.
Last Sunday evening we kindled our weekly fire at Faith House Fellowship, and sang "When the night becomes dark, your love, O Lord, is a fire" and "Within our darkest night, you kindle the fire that never dies away," both Taize songs.
What might it be like, to pray that prayer each morning, and to sing one of those songs each night?
One of the electives during second hour at Assembly yesterday was a Taize-style song and prayer service. The room was dim; the rough wood cross was on the floor again, swathed in a fabric of deep blue with gold highlights; the Christ candle was lit, and terracotta platters of sand stood ready to receive our small white candles.
The service moved peacefully through scripture, silence and song, with musicians contributing their skills on piano, recorder, guitar, cello and violin. The last song, the one we sang over and over as we lit the small candles and prayed around the cross, was Within our darkest night, which includes the line, you kindle the fire that never dies away.
Something in the music sounds Spanish to me, though the composer is French, and I think of St John of the Cross, the medieval Spanish mystic and poet who drew on flame imagery to describe his experience of encountering the divine, in his poem Llama de Amor Viva -- the living flame of love.
The living flame of love. Light in the darkness.
In French, the song is not so much a statement as a prayer -- dans nos obscurites, allume le feu qui ne s'etaint jamais -- in our obscurities, our darkness-es, light the fire that never goes out.
We are coming down to the dark time of year -- the gray days, the long nights, the cold winds. Amongst those singing were those wrestling with a personal dark season -- illness, loss, grief. One young visitor struggled with tears.
I don't know what each one there carried in their hearts, what sorrows, what hopes, how they heard the words. For some, the darkness might seem overwhelming. But they were there, holding the candles, praying, being held by the song.
Light in the darkness. The living flame of love.
Assembly participants contributed scraps of cloth from many places to make a comforter for Heidi, our co-pastor who is living with cancer.
Heidi has lived many places over the years, and so have people from the congregation. So there is cloth from Africa and Japan, and the Philippines, and other places. And there are many prayers that came with the cloth, and that continue to wrap Heidi and Mitch and the boys.
And a moment of light from later in the day.... Sunday evenings, John and I attend Faith House Fellowship, a small house church that meets in the downtown house that serves as Faith Mennonite Church's office and gathering space. Tonight was the first time for a fire this fall -- light that we regularly enjoy when we gather for worship in winter's darkness.
My approach to contemplative photography --
Tell about it."
Mary Oliver in "Sometimes"