Seeking Sanctuary

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Today… in a world that’s both astonishingly beautiful and horrifically cruel, “sanctuary” is as vital as breathing to me. Sometimes I find it in churches, monasteries, and other sites designated as sacred. But more often I find it in places sacred to my soul: in the natural world, in the company of a trustworthy friend, in solitary or shared silence, in the ambience of a good poem or good music.

Sanctuary is wherever I find safe space to regain my bearings, reclaim my soul, heal my wounds, and return to the world as a wounded healer. It’s not merely about finding shelter from the storm: it’s about spiritual survival.

Fed by the taproot some call the soul, we need neither to flee from the world, nor exploit it. Instead, we can love the world with all of its (and our) flaws by trying to live in a way that models life’s finest possibilities.

That kind of love is possible, I believe, only if we know when and where to seek sanctuary, reclaiming our souls in order to engage the world in life-giving ways.
~Parker Palmer from “Seeking Sanctuary in our own Sacred Spaces”

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When I go to our 100+ year old hay barn to fetch a couple of bales for the horses, I stop to marvel at the continual miracle of this barn that I call my sanctuary.  It is breaking down along its roof crest, yes.  It is sorely in need of another coat of paint, yes.  It has leaks where the winter winds have blown shingles off so the rain and snow come straight indoors, yes.

Yet these old growth beams and rafters, recycled from a nearby dismantled saw mill over a century ago, continue to do their job of holding up the world encased within.  This home of pigeons, swallows, bats, barn owls, mice, rats, raccoons, skunks and possum remains a steadfast sanctuary for the harvest of our hill.  For decades it has remained steep and silent, serene and solace-filled.

Every cubic inch of this place, its streams of light and its shadowy dark, inside and out, is wonder-full, even when it is empty in the late spring and especially when packed to the rafters, as it is now, with this summer’s hay crop.  The miraculous is grown, cut, dried, raked, baled, hauled, stacked and piece by piece, stem by stem, as it sustains living creatures through three seasons of the year.

As it sustains me…

I have the privilege of entering here every day and witnessing the miracle year after year.
I know nothing else but miracles, despite my own sagging, my weakening foundation and some *occasional* inopportune leaking of my own.

I know where and to whom I belong.

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Suddenly a Wall Becomes a Gate

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What seemed to be the end proved to be the beginning…
Suddenly a wall becomes a gate.
~Henri Nouwen from Gracias! A Letter of Consolation

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What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
~T.S. Eliot from “Little Gidding” The Four Quartets

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Every once in awhile we are blessed with a few minutes of a rare sunrise where a wall of clouds opens up to become a gateway to heaven.  Darkness becomes pricked full of holes and incredible light leaks out. It can only happen when the clouds become canvas backdrop on which the color is able to be painted– sometimes these clouds create havoc, floods, winds, power outages.

Then this.

Startling, wondrous magnificence beyond imagination. Grace that brings us to our knees, especially when we are mired in our gray troubled ordinariness and plainness.

Drink deeply of this. Hold it, savor it and know that to walk through the gate of any sunrise is to witness the face of God.

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Fading Away

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photo by Kate Steensma

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Through the ample open door of the peaceful country barn,
A sun-lit pasture field, with cattle and horses feeding;
And haze, and vista, and the far horizon, fading away.
~Walt Whitman “A Farm-Picture”

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When the light rises on the hills,
slowly fading the haze of a late summer morning,
I feel the veil lift enough
that I am able to see
far beyond my reach or grasp.
The horizon extends on and on forever
and I will endure another descent into winter.

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On This Surge of Hill

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Here, on this surge of hill, I find myself
not as I am or will be or once was,
not as the measure of days defines my soul;
beyond all that a being of breath and bone,
partaker of wind and sun and air and earth,
I stand on the surge of hill and know myself
Below, the stars sink landward, and above
I breathe with their slow glimmer; fields are gone,
the woods are fallen into the speechless dark;
no claim, no voice, no motion, no demand.
It is alone we end then and alone
we go, creatures of solitary light;
the finger of truth is laid upon my heart:
See and be wise and unafraid, a part
of stars and earth-wind and the deepening night.
~Jane Clement

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I don’t do alone well.  Never have.  I’ve always preferred plenty of activity around me, planning gatherings, and filling days to the brim.  Very little of my day is spent by myself and I designed it that way.  But once in a while there comes a time when I must quiet myself, be still, and simply be, with no agenda.  With our children grown and gone, this is happening more often than I prefer even though the love of my life and I often commute to work together, eat meals together, spend our evenings and nights together.  It is just so much … quieter now.  So quiet.

Typically I don’t prefer my own company but I’m slowly learning the lessons of spending time alone.  There is no glossing over my flaws nor distracting myself from where I fall short.  Alone is an unforgiving mirror reflecting back what I have kept myself too busy to see. It is going beyond all that a being of breath and bone can become.

Slowly but surely I sit within my own skin more comfortably, gaze out through 62 year old eyes attached to an over-capacity brain and begin to appreciate thinking random uninterrupted thoughts as they occur to me, as the finger of truth is laid upon my heart. 

I might even decide I’m fit company for myself.   Maybe someday.  Probably not today.

Anyone up for a cup of coffee?

My treat.

 

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This Need To Kneel

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I know this happiness
is provisional:

the looming presences –
great suffering, great fear –

withdraw only
into peripheral vision:

but ineluctable this shimmering
of wind in the blue leaves:

this flood of stillness
widening the lake of sky:

this need to dance,
this need to kneel:

this mystery…
~Denise Levertov “Of Being”

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Here is the mystery, the secret, one might almost say the cunning, of the deep love of God: that it is bound to draw upon itself the hatred and pain and shame and anger and bitterness and rejection of the world, but to draw all those things on to itself is precisely the means chosen from all eternity by the generous, loving God, by which to rid his world of the evils which have resulted from human abuse of God-given freedom.
~N.T.Wright

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Inundated by the overwhelmingly bad news of the world,
blasted 24/7 from cable TV,
highlighted in rapidly changing headlines online,
and tweeted real time from every nook and cranny,
we must cling to the mystery
of His magnetism for our weaknesses and flaws.
He willingly pulls our evil out of us
and onto Himself.

Hatred and pain,
shame and anger,
our bitterness disappears
into the vortex of His love and beauty,
the dusty corners of our hearts vacuumed spotless.

We are let in on this secret:
He is not sullied by absorbing the dirty messes of our lives.
Instead, as we kneel forgiven,
He washes us forever clean.

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Restoration

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The ghosts swarm.
They speak as one
person. Each
loves you. Each
has left something undone.
~Rae Armantrout from “Unbidden”

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What is it that goes on within the soul,
that it takes greater delight if things it loves are found
or restored to it than if it had always possessed them?

…The storm tosses seafarers about and threatens them with shipwreck:
they all grow pale at their coming death.
Then the sky and the sea become calm, and they exult exceedingly,
just as they had feared exceedingly.

Or a dear friend is ill.…
All those who long to see him in good health are in mind sick along with him.
He gets well again, and although he does not yet walk with his former vigor,
there is joy such as did not obtain before when he walked well and strong.…

Everywhere a great joy is preceded by a greater suffering.
~Augustine of Hippo from Confessions

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(written 15 years ago today)
Tonight was a moment of epiphany in my life as a mother and farmer. This world suddenly feels so uncertain after the horrific and tragic events today, yet simple moments of grace-filled routine offer themselves up unexpectedly.  I know the Lord is beside us no matter what has happened.

For me, the routine is tucking the horses into bed, almost as important to me as tucking our children into bed. In fact, my family knows I cannot sit down to dinner until the job is done out in the barn–so human dinner waits until the horses are fed and their beds prepared.

My work schedule is usually such that I must take the horses out to their paddocks from their cozy box stalls while the sky is still dark, and then bring them back in later in the day after the sun goes down. We have quite a long driveway from barn to the paddocks which are strategically placed by the road so the horses are exposed to all manner of road noise, vehicles, logging, milk and hay trucks, school buses, and never blink when these zip past their noses. They must learn from weanling stage on to walk politely and respectfully alongside me as I make that trek from the barn in the morning and back to the barn in the evening.

Bringing the horses in tonight was a particular joy because I was a little earlier than usual and not needing to rush: the sun was setting golden orange, the world had a glow, the poplar and maple leaves carpeting the driveway and each horse walked with me without challenge,  no rushing, pushing, or pulling–just walking alongside me like the partner they have been taught to be.

I enjoy putting each into their own box stall bed at night, with fresh fluffed shavings, a pile of sweet smelling hay and fresh water. I see them breathe a big sigh of relief that they have their own space for the night–no jostling for position or feed, no hierarchy for 12 hours, and then it is back out the next morning to the herd, with all the conflict that can come from coping with other individuals in the same space.  My horses love their stalls, because that is their safe sanctuary where peace and calm is restored, that is where they get special scratching and hugs, and visits from a little red haired girl who loves them and sings them songs.

Then comes my own restoration of returning to the sanctuary of our house, feeding my human family and tucking three precious children into bed, even though two are now taller than me. The world feels momentarily predictable within our walls, comforting us in the midst of devastation and tragedy elsewhere.   Hugging a favorite pillow and wrapping up in a familiar soft blanket, there is warmth and safety in being tucked in.

I’ll continue to search for these moments of restoration whenever I’m frightened, hurting and unable to cope.  I need a quiet routine to help remind me how blessed we are to be here to wake each morning to regroup, renew and restore when it seems the ground has given way.

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A Silken Ladder

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The spider, dropping down from twig,
Unfolds a plan of her devising,
A thin premeditated rig
To use in rising.

And all that journey down through space,
In cool descent and loyal hearted,
She spins a ladder to the place
From where she started.

Thus I, gone forth as spiders do
In spider’s web a truth discerning,
Attach one silken thread to you
For my returning.
~E.B. White “Natural History”

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No matter where I go to complete farm chores this time of year, I’m getting a face full of spider web and often a spider or two or three in my hair.  The spinners are very busy in the night dropping from rafters and branches, leaping courageously into uncharted territory with only their thread as rescue cable.

I am not so brave as they, nor as diligent.  Instead, I’m lollygagging in the art gallery of their fine work,  simply appreciating the abundant crop of silken ladders and hammocks, while trying not to destroy them.

I’m drawn back morning after morning to see what they’ve caught and how well they endure.  As long as I keep my face out of their masterpiece, all is well.

All is well.

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