To Labor and Not Seek Reward

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And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

*

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.
~Seamus Heaney “St. Kevin and the Blackbird”

 

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Eternal Word, only begotten Son of God,
Teach me true generosity.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve.
To give without counting the cost,
To fight heedless of wounds,
To labor without seeking rest,
To sacrifice myself without thought of any reward
Save the knowledge that I have done your will.
Amen.

~St. Ignatius’ Prayer for Generosity

 

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Heaney shifts from the literal (if “imagined”) physical world to the metaphysical and symbolic. In the midst of burnout and mental detachment, Kevin is somehow returned to and reconnected with his calling at a level deeper than conscious thought. Indeed, in the span of one brief line break, it is as though he has become indistinguishable from his life’s mission itself: he is “mirrored clear” in the pure, deep waters of an empathetic love for the “network of eternal life” into which he is presently and vitally “linked.”

The way Heaney constructs the next two lines calls attention to the paradox of mindfulness he illuminates. Kevin “prays,” which perhaps most immediately suggests that he entreats God to help him “labour and not to seek reward.” But after the stanza break, Heaney reveals that this prayer is not at all what the reader might have expected; Kevin’s prayer is not conscious because he is no longer conscious in the workaday-world way. Rather, Kevin’s is

“A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

When he can no longer muster the energy to think of the life entrusted to him, his own delights and discomforts in fostering that life, or even the original life force (here, the “river”) that led to his vocation, it is as if a kind of autonomic spirituality kicks in to complement the compassionate detachment with which—or in which—he holds the blackbird. Body and soul and work are one.
~Kimberly R. Myers, PhD, MA from “Mindfulness and Seamus Heaney” from JAMA’s
A Piece of My Mind, Aug.1, 2017

 

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…we have tried to do too much, pretending to be in such control of things that we are indispensible…

…if you’re like me, you take a kind of comfort in being busy. The danger is that we will come to feel too useful, so full of purpose and the necessity of fulfilling obligations that we lose sight of God’s play with creation, and with ourselves.
~Kathleen Norris from The Quotidian Mysteries

 

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Not Just Another Day

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“This is another day, O Lord…
If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely.
If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly.
If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently.
And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly.”
— Kathleen Norris citing the Book of Common Prayer

 

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This day is the wrap-up to my twenty-eighth academic year working as a college health physician,  the most demanding so far.  Despite budget challenges, inadequate staffing, a higher severity of illness in a patient population with burgeoning mental health needs,  our staff did an incredible job this year serving students and their families with the resources we do have.   Reaching this day today is poignant: we will miss the graduating students we have gotten to know so well over four or five years,  we watch others leave temporarily for the summer, some to far away places around the globe, and we weep for those who have failed out, given up or fallen away from those who care deeply about them, some never to return to school again.

In my work I strive to do what is needed when it is needed no matter what time of the day or night.  There are obviously times when I fall short– too vehement when I need to be quiet, too urgent and pressured when I need to be patient,  too anxious to do something/anything when it is best to courageously do nothing.  It is very difficult for any doctor to choose to do nothing but I vowed in my own graduation ceremony over forty years ago to “First do no harm.”  And I’ve tried hard to live up to that vow.

In a sense I graduate as well on this last day of the school year– only not with cap and gown and diploma in hand.  Each year I learn enough from each patient to fill volumes, as they speak of their struggles, their pain, their stories and sometimes hearing, most tragically, their forever silence.

I honor our students and their families on this day, sharing the blessings from us who work toward the goal of sending them healthier and better equipped and joyful into the rest of their lives.

It is not just another day.

 

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What I Did Not Know

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For grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn’t know we needed and take us places where we didn’t know we didn’t want to go.
~Kathleen Norris

 

His grace and mercy have salvaged me
when I didn’t know I needed saving,
given me what I didn’t think I needed
so have never asked for,
and taken me where I never planned to be
because I was so comfortable where I was.

Grace is not about giving me what I want;
it is not reward for following the rules,
being good or staying out of trouble.
It is rescue from a fate of meaningless,
a gift of God’s heart buoying my weakness
when I deserve nothing whatsoever.

This grace is a prickly vine I must cling to,
grateful to be spared from falling.
It is a overwhelming flow that carries me to safety
through the desolate landscape.

I am grateful,
so very grateful,
for what I did not know
I needed to know.

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Epiphany

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All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
~T.S. Eliot from “Journey of the Magi”

 

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Unclench your fists
Hold out your hands.
Take mine.
Let us hold each other.
Thus is his Glory Manifest.
~Madeleine L’Engle “Epiphany”

Venus & Mercury
Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. 
The beauty of it smote his heart,
as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. 
For like a shaft, clear and cold,
the thought pierced him that in the end
the Shadow was only a small and passing thing:
there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.
~J.R.R. Tolikien, The Return of the King

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Epiphany is the day of acknowledging God’s glory revealed in our lives, illuminating the darkness that surrounds us. With infinite heaviness and lightness we accept our new role as weak and crumbling vessels become beautiful as God is made manifest within us.

It is not the easy path to accept the ultimate freedom that requires our true sacrifice of self, just as it was not easy for the visiting magi traveling far from home — or for Mary saying yes to God even as her own heart is pierced by what that means for her.

Today we too shall say yes, trusting Him as we take His offered hand.

 

“Like Mary, we have no way of knowing… We can ask for courage, however, and trust that God has not led us into this new land only to abandon us there.”
~Kathleen Norris from God With Us

 

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Prepare for Joy: Opened Like Leaves

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I came to your door
with soup and bread.
I didn’t know you
but you were a neighbor
in pain: and a little soup and bread,
I reasoned, never hurt anyone.

I shouldn’t reason.
I appeared the day
your divorce was final:
a woman, flushed with cooking
and talk, and you watched,
fascinated,
coiled like a spring.

You seemed so brave and lonely
I wanted to comfort you like a child.
I couldn’t of course.
You wanted to ask me too far in.

It was then I knew
it had to be like prayer.
We can’t ask
for what we know we want:
we have to ask to be led
someplace we never dreamed of going,
a place we don’t want to be.

We’ll find ourselves there
one morning,
opened like leaves,
and it will be all right.
~Kathleen Norris “Answered Prayer”

 

When I struggle with how to pray
I fall back to asking for strength
to cope with whatever is to come,
rather than pray for what I hope,
a prayer of the terrified,
the worried and the weak.

How is it with God, all things are possible,
He asked for the cup to be taken,
knowing it would remain in His Hands.
His will
will be done,
even when terrified,
worried, and weary.
So instead of closing off,
as I would have done,
not wanting to go somewhere
I don’t want to be,
He opened up Himself
like a leaf,
the earth becoming His flesh,
His flesh one with the tree.

And it was all right.
It will always be
all right.

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What I Didn’t Know

photo by Josh Scholten
photo by Josh Scholten

For grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn’t know we needed and take us places where we didn’t know we didn’t want to go.
~Kathleen Norris

His grace and mercy has salvaged me when I didn’t know I needed saving, given me what I didn’t think I needed so have never asked for, and taken me where I never planned to be because I was so comfortable where I was.

Grace is not about giving me what I want; it is never a reward for good behavior.  It is giving me what I need when I deserve nothing whatsoever.

It is the prickly vine I must cling to, grateful to be spared from falling.  It is the flow that carries me to safety through the desolate landscape.

I am grateful, so very grateful, for what I didn’t know.

photo by Josh Scholten
photo by Josh Scholten

Infinite Weight and Lightness–Epiphany

A Hopeless Dawn by Frank Bramley
A Hopeless Dawn by Frank Bramley

…to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.

Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.
~Denise Levertov, from “Annunciation”

Today, the day celebrated in the church as Epiphany (His Glory revealed and made manifest in all lives), bookends the day Mary accepted her role as an earthly vessel to become the Mother of God.

Epiphany is our turn for this glory to be revealed in our lives; with infinite heaviness and lightness we accept our new role as weak and crumbling vessels, yet even so God is made manifest within us. It is not the easy path to accept the ultimate freedom that requires true sacrifice, just as it was not easy for Mary whose heart was pierced. She could not know what this announcement meant for her life, but yet she said yes to God.

And so, we shall say yes as well.

“Like Mary, we have no way of knowing… We can ask for courage, however, and trust that God has not led us into this new land only to abandon us there.”
~Kathleen Norris from God With Us