For the next few days, I will continue posting a series of journal entries I made on a retreat last winter. Every six months I try and take a few days away to regroup and focus on one spiritual master. Last year, it was The Cloud of Unknowing.
Day 2: Anticipation of Snow
The day passes quickly as I read, and eat, and sleep some. I rest, no doubt, but my mind is mingled with struggle, to let my work and worries pass away in a cloud of forgetting and to come naked before my creator. This is not work for the faint hearted, coming to terms with hidden pride in places you would rather not look yet letting waves of mercy transform one’s deformed and dissapointed heart. For many unwanted things can grow on the windows of one’s soul when the cares of life demand your concern. And though I have come here for clarity of direction, to wipe the window clean, what I find is the eyes of a living Mystery looking back at me and leading me into depths of faith unfathomed where I must go and leave my pre-packaged questions and answers behind.
Indeed the day of solitude quickly passes, and as night comes again I heed the primordial call to rest, having no idea of the oncoming gift (consolation) that lies in store for me the next morning…
For the Next Few Days, I will post a series of journal entries I made on a retreat last winter. Every six months I try and take a few days away to regroup and focus on one spiritual master. Last year, it was The Cloud of Unknowing.
Day 1: A Winter’s Retreat
The snow came while the world slumbered, and the people of central Kentucky had braced for the worst. Winter advisories warned of inches, perhaps five or six: an unusual accumulation this far south. Last year, an ice storm blanketed the region cracking limbs, killing power, and shutting down society for half a week. But five inches of snow, that would be an event of a decade.
So when I heard of the looming forecast that coinciding with a weekend where wife and child were visiting grandma, I hurried for the Kentucky woods to a familiar Catholic retreat center. With large decisions on our life’s horizon, these two days would be the perfect chance to breathe deep and listen to the Mystery’s leading…
It is a tough age for people who want to thrive. The currents of our global village toss us against the rocky shore of faith. Reason often triumphs over intuition. And, because of the growing advances in technology, we often feel fragmented. Peace and radiance suffer at the hand of progress. And it often seems that our destinies will rise or fall on our strength and abilities. Dogs eat dogs, after all. We have no time for radiance.
Wendell Berry writes so pointedly about the strange search for rest and faith and peace in his poem, “The Lilies:”
Hunting them, a man must sweat, bear the whine of a mosquito in his ear, grow thirsty, tired, despair perhaps of ever finding them, walk a long way. He must give himself over to patience, for they live beyond will. He must be led along the hill as by a prayer. If he finds them anywhere, he will find a few, paired on their stalks, at ease in the air as souls in bliss. I found them here at first without hunting, by grace, as all beauties are first found. I have hunted and not found them here. Found, unfound, they breathe their light into the mind, year after year.
The lily enjoys a rich place in art and Western literature. St. John of the Cross utilizes the lily to describe abandonment in the arms of Christ, for example. Lost in his embrace, we leave our “cares forgotten among the lilies.” The poet of the Song of Songs uses the image of the lily to describe the radiance of the beloved. C.S. Lewis uses the image of the lily to describe the serenity and uniqueness of coming close to God (watch for it at the end of the Dawn Treader).
Thus, to thrive among the lilies is no small task. It means staying true to the beauty that God has placed within us. It means abandoning ourselves to God in the best and worst of times, resisting the inclination to feel abandoned by God. It means loosing your cares as Jesus points us to the fields where, as As Quaker Thomas Kelly put it: “God plucks the world out of our hearts, loosening the chain of attachment. And He hurls the world into our hearts, where we and He together carry it in infinitely tender love.”
Back to “Sacred Earth”
Unlike the farm, wilderness reminds us life is bigger than our cultivated land. And if I were a betting man, I’d bet a hundred on the power of a wilderness experience to give you perspective. A mentor of mine spoke these profound words to me once: if life ever gets fuzzy and you find yourself loosing your way, simply go and stick your head in a rabbit’s hole.
I love the way Wendell Berry puts it:
“When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
Came across this video we took on one of our adventures in Kentucky. Go find this place if you can:
“There is a season”, pines the author of Ecclesiastes. Some parts of the world endure the rainy and dry seasons, but I live in a land where springs unfolds finally into winter. And there is sacredness in these rhythms.
On the one hand, we learn lessons from the rhythms of our earth. The leafless branches of the winter argue to us that all is dead. I know an African man who arrived in the U.S. for the first time. It was the calm of winter. He looked around himself and “wondered if these American’s killed all their trees.” Yet, as sure as the sun rises, it also moves towards its springtime blaze. The air warms, the snow melts, and the life that is more powerful than death will work its magic. There is a lesson in the seasons about our univere.
On the other hand, I believe the seasons deeply relate with our spirits. We must follow them if we want to thrive as humans. Why is it that we spend billions of dollars making the winter streets as if it were summer? Plows, salt, pressing through the haze. Winter days with with white wind were meant for gathering in and resting. The seasons place harsh limits on our weary souls. Fall days were meant for enjoying and reverlry. Why do we pound the days away on our computers and walk across the city paths with our heads buried in the next text. Lift up your heads; this fall will never arrive again.
We do not worship the seasons or the forces they create. But we open our hearts wide to their sacred rhythms. If we are lucky, we learn to dance and sing their songs. Do not take my word for it. Take Wendell’s:
“The foliage has dropped
below the window’s grave edge,
baring the sky, the distant
hills, the branches,
the year’s greenness
gone down from the high
light where it so fairly
The country opens to the sky,
the eye purified among hard facts:
the black grid of the window,
the wood of trees branching
outward and outward
to the nervousness of twigs
buds asleep in the air”
It is harvest time in the U.S.!
My facebook newsfeed lit up last night with notes about carving pumpkins and loving the cooling weather. And harvest at “Thriving Among the Lilies” means a week-long exploration into the importance of our earth for your health and radiance.
I heard a phenomenal musician make this point at his concert on Friday: The moon commands the ebb and flow of our powerful oceans, why do we (creatures made of 75% water) think a full moon will not effect us? I had never thought of that before. But, I do deeply believe that we live in an age where we have forgotten our earth-boundedness. And, I long for a Christianity and Christian theology that wakes us up to the sanctity of this place and its role in feeding our bodies, souls, and imaginations.
The changing of the seasons, our innate connection with our earth, and the natural place of death and resurrection: these all conjure up within us an ancient longing to be home here among the complex and simple beauty of our land. And if we loose touch with the soil beneath us, we risk loosing touch with the very soul within us.
So for this week-long journey, I have brought with me a mentor of sorts, Wendell Berry and some of his poems:
Now constantly there is the sound,
quieter than rain,
of the leaves falling.
Under their loosening bright
gold, the sycamore limbs
Now the only flowers are beeweed and aster, spray
of their white and lavender
over the brown leaves.
The calling of a crow sounds
that the life of summer falls
silent, and the nights grow.