The Elkhart Truth editorial cartoon this morning showed an outlined paint-by-number April landscape of two glum-looking people walking their dog. The color key read: 1. Gray, 2. Gray, 3. Gray, 4. Gray, 5. Gray, 6. Gray.
April indeed. But April showers also bring April flowers. The daffodils and Siberian iris are bright spots of color, even when covered with raindrops. The bridal wreath spirea is a tangle of bare branches with tiny buds of green and a king's ransom of raindrop gems. And a pair of house-hunting ducks came wandering through the back yard, perfectly content with the weather.
During the Soul and Soil retreat on Thursday, I spent the contemplative prayer time roaming with my camera. The last ten or fifteen minutes of that I slowly circled Karla's herb bed, focusing in on some of the intriguing shapes and patterns. Until I slowed down and looked, and looked again, none of them had made even a tiny "blip" on my consciousness, even though we had gone past the bed several times.
Later, as we gathered around the dining table for lunch, one of the other retreatants told me she had discovered a new contemplative practice. She had ended her prayer time sitting quietly on the porch, sheltered from the light rain, looking out over the yard and the herb bed, and watching me contemplate the plants with the help of the camera. She discovered that it can also be contemplative to watch someone else in the midst of going slowly, looking, trying other angles, looking again.
Yesterday I was at Maple Tree Meadows, near Three Rivers, Michigan, for another in this year's monthly series of retreats on Soul and Soil. Karla Kauffman led us in a rhythm of an hour of study and conversation, an hour of labor, an hour of solitude and contemplation, and an hour gathered at table, eating and talking.
It was a cool and rainy day, for which the soil was grateful, as were we. Nothing like a little drought to change your perspective on gray, rainy days! Though I generally have a positive attitude toward days of gentle rain like this one -- it reminds me of the year I lived in Belgium, and brings back warm memories.
We studied two more chapters from Ellen Davis' book, Scripture, Culture and Agriculture, and talked of the gift of manna, and eating as the most basic of all cultural and economic acts. And we talked of Leviticus and the way it portrays the acquisition and consumption of food as the definitive cultural and religious act, an occasion for Israel to practice covenantal faithfulness.
And then we went out and stacked wood in the barn, observing the Benedictine practice of stopping when the bell rang for prayer, even though another ten minutes or so would have seen the whole pile neatly stacked. Instead when our "bell" rang -- when Karla looked at her watch and said it was time for our hour of quiet -- we stopped, took off our work gloves, and moved in to a time of contemplative prayer.
My prayer took the form of wandering with my camera, slowing down enough to see the beauty hidden around me, focusing on the gifts of this gray day. They were subtle, but there. Most of the photos that follow I found in the pasture pictured in the first photo above.
And then Karla rang her kitchen chimes and we gathered around the table for that cultural, economic, and religious act of eating together -- a salad of mixed green and lemony lentils, corn on the cob, and applesauce, with fresh peaches to end with. Thanks, Karla, for the space, the reflections, the fellowship, and the lunch!
A second cloudy, rainy morning. What a delight! And what a delight to find this delightful -- a month of no rain creates a completely different receptive spirit than, say, what we are likely to experience come November. (Cloudy wet day after cloudy wet day, for those who are not familiar with Northern Indiana weather).
After yesterday's rain, Judy and I walked along the race. There was a familiar late summer mix of Queen Anne's Lace and cornflowers, bejeweled by raindrops. Familiar -- and yet how amazing and unusual when you start focusing in for a close view.
A rose "candle" for Heidi. Today is her birthday -- and perhaps also the day of her birth into a new life. They have told us that the end of this life is imminent. Every time I check email, I wonder if there will be a message from the Assembly office.
The rose with raindrops comes from the first set of photos I took, back in September, soon after hearing that Heidi had stage IV cancer, when the light caught by raindrops on my rose leaves somehow also caught the mix of sorrow and hope our congregation was experiencing.
And below is a mix of the bright colors of early summer, for a rainbow in celebration of Heidi's birthday, and for the gift of beauty in the midst of sadness.
I've been thinking about weeds and unwanted growth this week. I've been working in my garden and flowerbeds, pulling the weeds, making room for the veggies and the flowers I want to be there.
And I've been thinking about the weed of cancer, and the effect it is having on our copastor Heidi, and on the parents of several friends. Last week Heidi and Mitch made the decision for her to end chemotherapy and to enter hospice care.
There is beauty in thistles, in the right place. There is no beauty in cancer. I don't know if there is ever a "right place" for cancer. I do know that it doesn't belong in Heidi's body.
There is beauty in the supportive responses, in the ways our congregation has gathered around Heidi and her family, in the courage and hope with which they have approached this cancer journey. But beauty in cancer? No.
Thinking about cancer, and about thistles, I went back on campus to look for the thistle I had photographed a couple weeks ago (see yesterday's entry).
I couldn't find it. I looked where I thought I had seen it, and I went back and forth along the edge of the prairie plantings and there was not a thistle anywhere in sight.
Or rather, not any that I recognized. I finally took a second look at this shriveled specimen and realized it was the thistle I had photographed earlier. And I remembered seeing a groundskeeper prowling the plantings with a spray nozzle in hand and a tank of something on his back. A tank of something lethal, apparently, because it certainly did in this thistle.
Apparently thistles don't belong in the prairie plantings, anymore than they belong in my garden. In this setting it was a weed, and the groundskeeper dealt with it.
The doctors tried numerous ways of dealing with Heidi's cancer, but they didn't succeed. Did I mention the beauty of doctors, nurses, and other caregivers who deal with cancer day after day, rejoicing when the treatment goes well, mourning when it does not?
This blog began on a day when I saw raindrops on red rose leaves catching the light. (That photo is the banner for this blog.) I took the picture just a few days after we learned that Heidi had stage IV cancer, and for me the image somehow captured the tears and the hope we had.
Winter has come and gone, and last week there were again raindrops on my rose leaves. This Sunday we celebrate Pentecost, and also Heidi's years of pastoring at Assembly Mennonite Church. We don't know whether she will be able to be present -- she was last Sunday -- but the service will be recorded. And we will remember and laugh and weep together.
A few weeks ago, as part of the opening meditation at our weekly church fellowship group, we were invited to reflect on encounters with nature from the day. One young woman shared about the delight she had digging in the soil, planting a garden. "I'm not so sure about the thistles, though." She had pulled out a fair number and was finding it hard to be grateful for thorns.
The day before my eye had been caught by the raindrops on a newly emerging thistle in the prairie plantings on campus, and by the intriguing patterns of the thorns and the emerging thistle heads. There is beauty even in thorns and thistles.
We talked about the definition of a weed being "a plant that is in the wrong place." Liz didn't want thistles in the garden, so they were weeds. But in the right place, they have their own beauty.
Thistles are thriving in the wild stretch between the railroad and the bike path, south of campus. Some have thrust their thistle heads higher than I am, and they are beginning to bloom. Eventually there will be seeds and the goldfinch will rejoice.
Blessed are you, O Child of the Dawn,
for your light that dapples through creation
on leaves that shimmer in the morning sun
and in showers of rain that wash the earth.
Phillip Newell, part of prayer from Celtic Benediction
Spring is bursting out in an exuberance of colors and way ahead of schedule around here. A mixed blessing, with fears that it will all get nipped by an early frost -- but to be enjoyed in the meantime.
This morning's gentle rain put beads of light on our bare Japanese maple -- take this photo and multiply it by ten to get a picture of the whole tree. My eye could see all the beads of light when looking at the whole tree, but the camera couldn't.
By early afternoon, the rain shifted to snow, seen here on the last two leaves left on the maple.
And the snow continues to fall -- when I look out the window, the sky and the yard are full of light, held by the snow, though now it is well after sunset.
Here's our first Advent candle lit and burning, just before I closed the curtains, at that time of day when light and darkness mingle, in this season of the year where we're thinking more about darkness and light.
I drove over to Elkhart for a meeting this morning and took the country roads, past fields that a few days ago were golden with sunshine. Not today. Today there was a thick gray cloud cover, and the bare trees were dark gray, the harvested soy fields were rusty gray, and the harvested corn fields were dun, with scarcely a ghost of pale gold remaining.
It wasn't a landscape for sparks of light, at least not photographic ones. It occurred to me that it is easy to find sparks in full sunshine -- so easy that we quickly take it for granted. And in darkness, the light stands out in vibrant contrast. The real challenge is finding light when life is gray, and all energy and life seems bleached away.
I thought I'd probably be writing about moments of light from conversations or from my visit to the seminary library, and I certainly could do that with memories from today. But I'll save some of the reading sparks for another day and post the one photographic spark I did find.
I came out of the seminary library into a downpour and hurried to my car. No glory of gulls today. But these berries on low bushes by the sidewalk were dripping light, thanks to the rain.
My approach to contemplative photography --
Tell about it."
Mary Oliver in "Sometimes"
Tesserae: small cube-shaped tiles of ceramic, glass or precious stone used to make a mosaic, or in this case, brief essays on some element of lectio divina with Luke 10:38-42.