Quieting the Soul

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At times these days I think of the way the sun would set on the farmland around our small house in the autumn.  A view of the horizon, the entire circle of it, if you turned, the sun setting behind you, the sky in front becoming pink and soft, then slightly blue again, as though it could not stop going on in its beauty, then the land closest to the setting sun would get dark, almost black against the orange line of the horizon, but if you turn around, the land is still available to the eye with such softness, the few trees, the quiet fields of cover crops already turned, and the sky lingering, lingering, then finally dark. As though the soul can be quiet for those moments.

All life amazes me.

– Elizabeth Strout, from My Name is Lucy Barton

 

 

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I have learned, from those much wiser than I, to recognize moments meant for quieting.  The news of the world constantly rushes past; there is suffering beyond imagining in the lives of a few I know and millions I don’t know.  There is much I can do to make a difference but so much more beyond my feeble reach.

Instead of feeling abandoned on the shores of overwhelm, I seek out the familiar, the routine, and the ordinary, immersed in the recurring patterns of the day and night as the world turns on its axis.  I turn myself around to witness what surrounds me.

And so I am quieted.  And so I am amazed.

 

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The Sweetness of Ripening

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Our hair
turns white with our ripening
as though to fly away in some
coming wind, bearing the seed
of what we know…
Having come
the bitter way to better prayer, we have
the sweetness of ripening.
~Wendell Berry in “Ripening”

 

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My husband and I walk our country road together on a warm late summer evening, breathing in the smell of ripening cornstalks and freshly mowed grass lined up in windrows,  much like the walks we took together thirty six years ago when we were newly married.   Just down the road, we pass the smaller farm we first owned having left the city behind for a new life amid quieter surroundings.   The seedling trees we planted there are now a thick grove and effective windbreak from the bitter howling northeasters we endured.  The fences need work after 30 years, the blackberries have swallowed up the small barn where our first horses, goats, chickens and cows lived, the house needs painting, nevertheless there is such sweetness recalling the first home we owned together.

On this road, our children were conceived and raised, strolling these same steps with us many times, but now they are flown far away for their life’s work. My husband and I are back to walking together again, just the two of us, wondering how each child is doing at this very moment, pondering how the passage of time could be so swift that our hair is turning white and we are going to seed when only yesterday we were so young.

We ripen before we’re ready.

It is bitter sweetness relinquishing what we know,  to face what we can never know.

It is the mystery that keeps us coming back, walking the same steps those younger legs once did, admiring the same setting sun, smelling the same late summer smells.  But we are not the same as we were, having finally come to the fruitfulness intended all along.

Ripening and readying.

 

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our thirty sixth wedding anniversary today

To Balance Upon a Broken World

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Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the
Stooks arise
Around; up above, what wind-walks! what
lovely behavior
Of silk-sack clouds!  Has wilder, willful-waiver
Meal-drift molded ever and melted across the skies?
~Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Hurrahing in Harvest”

 

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This afternoon was the colour of water falling through sunlight;
The trees glittered with the tumbling of leaves;
The sidewalks shone like alleys of dropped maple leaves,
And the houses ran along them laughing out of square, open windows.
Under a tree in the park,
Two little boys, lying flat on their faces,
Were carefully gathering red berries
To put in a pasteboard box.
Some day there will be no war,
Then I shall take out this afternoon
And turn it in my fingers,
And remark the sweet taste of it upon my palate,
And note the crisp variety of its flights of leaves.
To-day I can only gather it
And put it into my lunch-box,
For I have time for nothing
But the endeavour to balance myself
Upon a broken world.
~Amy Lowell “September 1918”
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Am I the only one who awakes this morning with a prayer asking
that today be a day of healing between peoples rather than conflict and pain,
that the barbaric become peaceable~
no missiles launched,
no one gunned down in the streets,
no vehicles used as weapons,
no child misused,
no one sold into slavery,
no one abandoned, homeless and starving.
Am I the only one who awakes this morning and seeks only
to watch the clouds
to praise the heavens
to see the leaves turn color
to take out this day and taste it
and save it away somehow
so as to balance myself on this brokenness all around?
I am not the only one.
I know I am not.
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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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A Deep But Dazzling Darkness

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There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
             See not all clear.
    O for that night! where I in Him
    Might live invisible and dim!
~Henry Vaughn from “The Night”

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Wandering the evening farm,
I feel the darkness rising within me,
more than see or hear
the settling of birdsong,
the clicks and whoosh of owls overhead
the rise of coyote calls.

It is in the horizon’s firelight,
the slowing of my pulse,
and the depth of my breaths.

I let it come over me,
the deep descent,
this most dazzling dusk.

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Turn Aside and Look: Cleaning Up the Mess

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It is not only prayer that gives God glory,
but work.
Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam,
whitewashing a wall, driving horses,
sweeping, scouring,
everything gives God some glory
if being in his grace you do it as your duty.
To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory,
but a man with a dungfork in his hand,
a woman with a slop pail,
give Him glory, too.
God is so great
that all things give Him glory
if you mean that they should.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins

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Thanks in large part to how messy we humans are, this world is a grimy place.   As an act of worship, we keep cleaning up after ourselves.  The hands that clean the toilets, scrub the floors, carry the bedpans, pick up the garbage might as well be clasped in prayer–it is in such mundane tasks God is glorified.

I spend an hour every day carrying dirty buckets and wielding a pitchfork because it is my way of restoring order to the disorder inherent in human life.  It is with gratitude that I’m able to pick up one little corner of my world, making stall beds tidier for our farm animals by mucking up their messes and in so doing, I’m cleaning up a piece of me at the same time.

I never want to forget the mess I’m in and the mess I am.  I never want to forget to clean up after myself.  I never want to feel it is a mere and mundane chore to worship with dungfork and slop pail in hand.

It is my privilege to work.  It is His gift to me.

It is Grace who has come alongside me, pitching the muck and carrying the slop when I am too weary, and most amazing of all, cleans me up as well.

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Farmer with a pitchfork by Winslow Homer
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Photo of Aaron Janicki haying with his Oberlander team in Skagit County courtesy of Tayler Rae

 

Turn Aside and Look: Heaven in Ordinary

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God sees us as we are,
loves us as we are,
and accepts us as we are.
But by his grace,
he does not leave us as we are.
~Tim Keller

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Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
~George Herbert “Prayer”
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Considering the distance between us and God,
seemingly insurmountable to overcome,
how amazing it only takes a few words to Him,
our gratitude and praise,
our pleas and pain,
our breath hot in His ear~
unhesitating
He plummets to us;
then we are lifted to Him.Heaven dwells in the ordinary,
in our plainness,
dresses us up,
prepares us to be loved,
prepares us to be accepted and understood
prepares us to be transformed
by no less than our very Creator.
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