Crossing the Threshold

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John O’Donohue gave voice to the connection between beauty and those edges of life—
thresholds was the word he loved—
where the fullness of reality becomes more stark and more clear.

If you go back to the etymology of the word “threshold,” it comes from “threshing,” which is to separate the grain from the husk. So the threshold, in a way, is a place where you move into more critical and challenging and worthy fullness.

There are huge thresholds in every life.

You know that, for instance, if you are in the middle of your life in a busy evening, fifty things to do and you get a phone call that somebody you love is suddenly dying, it takes ten seconds to communicate that information.

But when you put the phone down, you are already standing in a different world. Suddenly everything that seems so important before is all gone and now you are thinking of this.

So the given world that we think is there and the solid ground we are on is so tentative.
And a threshold is a line which separates two territories of spirit, and very often how we cross is the key thing.

When we cross a new threshold worthily, what we do is we heal the patterns of repetition
that were in us that had us caught somewhere.

~John O’Donohue from an “On Being” interview with Krista Tippett on “Becoming Wise”

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I emerge from the mind’s
cave into the worse darkness
outside, where things pass and
the Lord is in none of them.
I have heard the still, small voice
and it was that of the bacteria
demolishing my cosmos. I
have lingered too long on
this threshold, but where can I go?
To look back is to lose the soul
I was leading upwards towards
the light. To look forward? Ah,
what balance is needed at
the edges of such an abyss.
I am alone on the surface
of a turning planet. What
to do but, like Michelangelo’s
Adam, put my hand
out into unknown space,
hoping for the reciprocating touch?
~R.S. Thomas “Threshold”

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These past few months of mass shootings, tragic deaths and never-ending conflict have forced us all to a threshold needing to be crossed. Yet we stand stubborn, immobilized, frozen and dying on the spot, peering out in fear but never peering inward for self-examination.

Instead of submitting to the crushing winnowing that must happen to blow away the chaff of our lives, to get down to the kernel of truth that sustains us, we cling to the old and familiar. It is we who have delivered ourselves a non-choice between two deeply flawed individuals for president. They represent what evils we tolerate as a people: celebrating entitlements, tolerating their legal, moral and financial shenanigans simply because they are rich and famous.

Unwilling to change attitude or perspective, reluctant to move forward into largely uncharted territory, mired in a tribalism only skin deep, we wonder why history repeats itself, why we are dying every day, by our own hand or by others’.

How to cross worthily? How to cross together, arm in arm, united in the need to move forward beyond this mess we have made for ourselves?

We need a good threshing, badly. We need to be worthy. We need to reach out our hands into the unknown that lies ahead, hoping and praying Someone is there to grab hold and lead us across to a better day.

 

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Plunged into the Dark Abyss

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The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
Hate multiplies hate,
violence multiplies violence,
and toughness multiplies toughness
in a descending spiral of destruction….
The chain reaction of evil —
hate begetting hate,
wars producing more wars —
must be broken,
or we shall be plunged
into the dark abyss of annihilation.
~
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from Strength to Love

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The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places.
But still there is much that is fair. And though in all lands, love is now
mingled with grief, it still grows, perhaps, the greater.
— J. R. R. Tolkien

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We forget that God is right there, waiting for us to turn to him, no matter how dire our situation.  We forget the reassuring words of his messengers: “Fear not.”   God always seeks to draw close to us — even in the depths of hell.
…it comes down to this: the only way to truly overcome our fear of death is to live life in such a way that its meaning cannot be taken away by death.  It means fighting the impulse to live for ourselves, instead of for others.  It means choosing generosity over greed.  It also means living humbly, rather than seeking influence and power.  Finally, it means being ready to die again and again — to ourselves, and to every self-serving opinion or agenda.

~Johann Christoph Arnold

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This week, bullets have been fired out of fear and anger by, and have struck down, people who look and are just like us.  Shed tears never need translation or interpretation, no matter what color cheeks they moisten.

Distrust and fear continue to impact our communities daily, settling like a shroud over the most routine activities.  So we must fall back on what we were told long ago and each and every day in 365 different verses in the Word itself: fear not.

Do not be overwhelmed with evil but overcome evil with good.

The goal of this life is to live for others, to live in such a way that death cannot erase the meaning and significance of a life.  We are called to give up our selfish agendas in order to consider the dignity of others and their greater good.

Cherish life, all lives, including, as is crystal clear from Christ’s example,  those who are so fearful, they hate and want to murder us.

Our only defense against evil is God’s offense; only He will lead us to Tolkien’s “where everything sad will come untrue”, where tears are no longer shed in sorrow,  but can only be tears of joy.

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A Sprung Metronome

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“A devout but highly imaginative Jesuit,”
Untermeyer says in my yellowed
college omnibus of modern poets,
perhaps intending an oxymoron, but is it?
Shook foil, sharp rivers start to flow.
Landscape plotted and pieced, gray-blue, snow-pocked
begins to show its margins. Speeding back
down the interstate into my own hills
I see them fickle, freckled, mounded fully
and softened by millennia into pillows.
The priest’s sprung metronome tick-tocks,
repeating how old winter is. It asks
each mile, snow fog battening the valleys,
what is all this juice and all this joy?
~Maxine Kumin “Almost Spring, Driving Home, Reciting Hopkins”

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These summer mornings I awake in a Hopkins landscape~
the priest who died too young at 44
would have created even more beauty
if he had lived twice as long,
combining words in suspended rhythm,
recreating the world outside our windows
entirely in our minds.

What is this joy I feel when witnessing
what must have moved him to write?
What could be more powerful
than words that awaken in us dawn’s redeeming light?

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Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “God’s Grandeur”
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How Many Flowers Fail

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How many Flowers fail in Wood –
Or perish from the Hill –
Without the privilege to know
That they are Beautiful –

How many cast a nameless Pod
Upon the nearest Breeze –
Unconscious of the Scarlet Freight –
It bear to Other Eyes –
~Emily Dickinson

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If seeds in the black earth can turn into such beautiful roses, what might not the heart of man become in its long journey toward the stars?
—G.K. Chesterton

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We are mere seeds lying dormant, plain and simple, with no knowledge of the beauty we harbor within, a beauty for which we were created. There is nothing to distinguish us one from the other until the murmurs of spring begin, so soft, so subtle.  The soil shakes loose frosty crust as the thawing warmth begins.   Sunlight makes us stir and swell, no longer frozen but animate and intimate.

We are called awake from our quiescence to sprout, bloom and fruit.  We reach as far as our tethered roots will allow, beyond earthly bounds to touch the light and be touched. We fling our seeds to the wind.

There is renewed hope created in the heart of man, ready and waiting to unfurl, with a precious fragrance that lingers long after our pods have burst open, as our seed dries, loosens, and falls to freedom.

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Happiness Beyond Our Grasp

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July 4 is not only the birthday of our independence as the United States of America.  It is the day we declared to the world:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

No one had ever said it out loud before.  Historically there had been many a treatise written and wars won and lost about the right to live, and the right to freedom, but the right to pursue happiness?  Unprecedented– and so typically American.

Declaring it is one thing.  Making it so is quite another matter.  Happiness likes to elude our pursuit.

As the famous American author Nathaniel Hawthorne, born on July 4, wrote:

“Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”

Americans pay a steep price in our noisy and pushy pursuit of happiness.  Perhaps it is the larger mortgage for a bigger house, a wider flat screen TV, the latest tech device, unlimited access to 24 hour porn sites, the best recreational substance money can buy, or the tank of gas that will carry us just a little farther down the road in our big trucks, RVs and SUVs.  We try to buy our way to happiness with our charge cards maxed out and find ourselves in a deeper debt pit, putting our life and liberty in serious jeopardy.  Even the government itself, home of the brave and the free, has never been so deep in deficit spending.

Happiness cannot be purchased with plastic, but is bought through individual personal sacrifice, making sure others have what they need before we ourselves rest easy.  It is the selfish pursuit of selflessness.  And that is exactly why it is so elusive because inalienable rights don’t come naturally–they must be fought for and preserved daily.

Much blood has been shed by Americans to guarantee Life and Liberty for others, including citizens of other countries.  If the price paid through the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of lives has resulted in more happiness, why do we still seem so unsatisfied and miserable?

Perhaps we have it backward, as Hawthorne suggests.  We can’t pursue happiness;  it will find us, like God’s grace,  when we least expect or deserve it.

Happiness certainly won’t be found in the fireworks that will be blown up today, or the food consumed, or the free flowing alcohol. It will be in a quiet moment of realization that we are truly blessed by this incredible place to live and raise our children, and that we need to work harder than ever to make it even better.   We will not be free until we stop allowing our appetites to dictate how we live our lives, but realize true freedom comes when we do what ought to be done to preserve equality, justice and liberty for future generations.

At that moment, in a public, no longer silent, prayer of thanks to the Creator addressed in our Declaration of Independence, can we know the Happiness that pursues us when we live in a forward thinking spirit of gratitude and sacrifice.

Happiness touches us, like a butterfly that lights upon us in our stillness,
in a moment of pure grace.

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Holding Fast By Letting Go

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photo of San Juan Islands by Joel DeWaard

 

We find by losing.
We hold fast by letting go.
We become something new by ceasing to be something old.
This seems to be close to the heart of that mystery.
I know no more now than I ever did about the far side of death as the last letting-go of all,
but I begin to know that I do not need to know and that I do not need to be afraid of not knowing.
God knows.
That is all that matters.
Out of Nothing he creates Something.
Out of the End he creates the Beginning.
Out of selfness we grow, by his grace, toward selflessness,
and out of that final selflessness,
which is the loss of self altogether,
“eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man”
what new marvels he will bring to pass next.
All’s lost.
All’s found.
And if such words sound childish, so be it.
Out of each old self that dies
some precious essence is preserved for the new self that is born;
and with in the child-self that is part of us all,
there is perhaps nothing more precious than the fathomless capacity to trust.
~Frederick Buechner
– Originally published in A Room Called Remember

 

 

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photo of San Juan Islands by Joel DeWaard

 

With a blue line of mountains north of the wall,
And east of the city a white curve of water,

Here you must leave me and drift away
Like a loosened water-plant hundreds of miles….
I shall think of you in a floating cloud;
So in the sunset think of me.
…We wave our hands to say good-bye,
And my horse is neighing again and again.
~Li Po “A Farewell to a Friend”

 

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photo of San Juan Islands by Joel DeWaard

A Hard Time

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photo by Nate Gibson

It’s a hard time to be human. We know too much
and too little. Does the breeze need us?
The cliffs? The gulls?
If you’ve managed to do one good thing,
the ocean doesn’t care.
But when Newton’s apple fell toward the earth,
the earth, ever so slightly, fell
toward the apple as well.
~Ellen Bass from “The World Has Need of You”

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God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going.  No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.
~Rainer Maria Rilke from “Book of Hours”

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For too much of my life I have focused on the future, bypassing the present.  There is always a goal to achieve,  a conclusion becoming commencement of the next phase, a sunset turning right around in a few hours to become sunrise.

When the present is so hard, so overwhelming, so riveting, so tenderly full of life or achingly full of death, I grab hold with all my strength to try and secret it away and keep it forever.   Even if it slips away from me, elusive and evasive, torn to bits by the unrelenting and devastating movement of time, I have felt the earth move, ever so slightly, toward me.

So, whether out of joy or pain, I must write to harvest those times to make them last a little bit longer.  Maybe not forever; they will be lost downstream into the ether of unread words.

Even if unread, I am learning that words, which had the power in the beginning to create all life, can bring tenderness and meaning back to my life.  I embody Him.

How blessed to live the gift twice: not just in the moment itself but in writing words that preserve and treasure it all up.

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