The Longest Night

The winter solstice occurs December 21st and is the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. Those  of us who have experienced loss and grief around Christmas time may feel more affinity for the longest night  than the garish holiday brightness, which abounds and may deepen our sorrow.  Many churches now hold “Longest Night” or “Blue Christmas” services for those of us experiencing complex and paradoxical feelings at this time of year.

I am one of those who find Christmas difficult.  Though my mother died shortly after Christmas on January 3, 1979,  the memory of her last Christmas, and the sadness that accompanied, it still lingers.  I have been trying to capture my memories in a poem for some time.  The one below feels unfinished, but I’d like to share it with you.

At the Christmas Eve service, I sang of angles, heard
the bright promise of the Christ child.
No one spoke of the stable muck, the smell of the animals
the slaughter of the innocents, the meaning of myrrh,
the death portended by the birth.

On Christmas morning, I bathed my mother,
rubbed rose-scented lotion into atrophied legs,
watched as my father lifted her from the bed.
Illness had trimmed her, she was as light
as the garland draped on the tree.

She lay in the blue reclining chair as we unwrapped presents,
emptied stockings and did not speak
of her impossible lightness, her unfocused gaze,
her fading light.

As I get older, I find spiritual growth and maturity requires accepting ambiguity and complexity, which means not only celebrating the bright side of life, but also accepting the tragic. I find comfort in Richard Rohr’s notion of “bright sadness,” which is a kind of “gravitas…held up by a much deeper lightness.” I’d like to think my poem above contains this “bright sadness,” and that it captures the complexity of sorrow and love.

This year, I will attend services on the longest night and on Christmas Eve. I will embrace the complexity and paradox at the heart of the Christmas story. The Divine becomes human. The Holy enters the earthly. As I celebrate a star shining in the dark night sky heralding the incarnation of Divine love in this ambiguous, complex, earthy life, I will embrace the “bright sadness” of this holy season and in my own life, for this, I believe,  is the way of healing, of salvation.

(The quotation above is from Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), p.117)

Writing Prompt: What does the image of a “bright sadness” suggest to you. What thoughts and impressions are conjured by these terms? Free write for 5-15 minutes.

 

 

 

 

Reconsidering “Doing Nothing”

 

Several people have asked me about how I spent my Thanksgiving holidays. I have responded “Oh, slow and restful.”  Yet, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I wrote in my journal that I had been struggling with the feeling that I had been “doing nothing” over the break.

On one hand, I clearly think of “doing nothing” as wasting time, not being productive and not working. The story I tell myself equates “doing nothing” with being lazy. To balance this self-judgement, I think of myself as not being very good at doing nothing, because I am usually doing something, whether it is knitting or writing, or reading or cooking (which, of course, makes me virtuous).

On the other hand, I believe all of us need rest and times of re-creation. In recognition of this need, I have been trying to include time for contemplative prayer into my spiritual practice. However, I realized the other day that I tend to think of contemplation as one more activity- albeit an activity where I am “doing nothing.”   This finally struck me as an odd contradiction – that I am trying very hard to DO something while “doing nothing.”

As I have been reflecting on this, I’ve realized that the story I have constructed about “doing nothing” isn’t helpful. I need to revise this story, or perhaps come up with a different term.

One of the ways I spent my time over the holiday weekend was to read Richard Rohr’s book Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer.  While I enjoyed his book, I found myself a bit frustrated that he never told me how to pray, that is, what to do.  What he does say is something I find more difficult because it is about being and not doing.

“Prayer” Rohr says,” is not primarily saying words or thinking thoughts.”  Prayer is “a stance. It is a way of living in the Presence, living in awareness of the Presence, and even of enjoying the Presence.” Contemplation, he suggests is not about doing nothing, but about away of being. Rohr also says “All spiritual disciplines have one purpose: to get rid of illusions so we can be present”(Rohr, Everything Belongs, 31).

I realized that a part of the story that shapes me is the illusion that doing something is better than doing nothing. I have to confess that “doing something” gives me a sense of being in control. Oh, I say to myself, “I know being is as important as doing.” But I realized that I tend to think of being as a kind of passivity, the opposite, of course, of doing. But this dualistic thinking is part of the problem, keeping me from being present in the moment, and “living in the Presence.”

In Falling Upwards: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Rohr says that contemplation is about holding together opposites, and becoming comfortable with the ambiguity that is so much a part of life. Well, this is certainly an entirely different way of thinking about contemplation that might get  me out of the being/doing dualism. The problem is, I don’t really like ambiguity and I don’t find it an easy place to dwell.

Rohr, however, does not suggest that the spiritual life, in which we live in the present moment is easy. Contemplation takes discipline, and it not just the discipline of sitting still. It requires a much harder discipline of getting out of our own way, which includes moving beyond our dualistic thinking.  For Rohr contemplation brings us to the awareness that “My life is not about me. I am about life.” This life is full of ambiguity and contradictions, but it is also more than that.  Rohr reminds us that the foundation of life is God and “God is about love” (Rohr, Everything Belongs, 79).

Now, rather than asking myself how do I spend my time, was I doing nothing or doing something, I am trying to ask a different question.  Am I living in the present, aware of the Presence, and growing in love?

I’ll let you know how it goes.

For your reflection: How do you think of “doing nothing?” Do you tend to have a judgmental view of yourself when doing nothing as I do?  What are the practices or disciplines you engage in to be aware of Presence?”

A Ribbon at a Time

Dawn Epiphany

Just before dawn, I sat wrapped in a blanket on the porch of Rivendell Writer’s Colony on a late October morning warming my hands on the coffee cup I held. Such an early rising is unusual for me. I am not a morning person by nature, unlike my dear friend, Ellen, who sat beside me. For some reason, I seem to rise early at Rivendell. Perhaps it’s because I never quite adjust to the hour time difference between Georgia and Tennessee. But I think the real reason is that I don’t want to miss the show.  In the fall, the sun rises right over the middle of the ridge of the Cumberland Plateau and the view is perfect from the porch. As the sun rises, I almost feel as if I am watching the face of God appear.

The sky was still mostly indigo blue when I sat down in the rocking chair, but a strip of pale yellow gauze ran across the top of the ridge, while above, a long strip of cloud in the bluing sky was a bright coral. I was reminded of Emily Dickenson’s words: “I’ll tell you how the sun rose,–/ A ribbon at a time.”

Just before the dome of the sun could be seen above the ridge, the clouds changed color, as if changing clothes for the appearance of royalty. One the sun began to ascend, I had to turn away, the brightness was too intense. Looking directly at the sun’s face would damage my eyes.

As I later reflected on that morning’s dawn, I thought of how Moses had to hide behind the cleft of a rock as God passed by, God’s countenance being too much for a mortal to bear. I decided to read that portion of scripture in Exodus 33:18-22 to refresh my memory of the story. God refuses to show Moses his face directly, even though that is what Moses asks of God. Rather, God places Moses on a rock and shields him as he passes by, allowing him to see his back but not his face. (Exodus 33:21-22). I had remembered that much of the story correctly.

 

What I had forgotten was God’s answer to Moses’ very direct request to God to “Show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18). God responds: “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But, you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Exodus 33:19-20).

I had remembered this passage as being about the beautiful and awe-full power of God, which no human can withstand up close. I imagined, that like the bright morning sun, I could not encounter the holy without damage.

Why had I remembered this as the message of the text? Where had I gotten such an idea of God?  The text does say “no one may see me and live,” but Moses does not die, nor is he damaged in any way. Moses doesn’t realize the consequences of what he is asking for, but God does and protects him. More than that, God declares that God’s goodness will pass in front of Moses, and divine mercy and compassion will be extended as God chooses.

I realized that this text reveals not only a God whose power is beyond human imagining, but also a compassionate God who responds to Moses direct request and protects him from it at the same time. I wondered how often God had responded to my requests and protected me from my desires at the same time? I wondered how many times God’s goodness had passed in front of me and I had only seen terrible power?

In the blazing glory of the sun, I had apprehended God’s awe-full power that brings each day into existence. As I reflected on the scripture text the dawn brought to mind, I was also reminded of God’s compassion and mercy, extended to me in the gifts of a new day, friendship, companionable silence, and the beauty of sunrise.

For your reflection: Read the passage in Exodus 33:18—22, mentioned above. What image of God or what attributes of God stand out to you in this passage? How do you hold together the notions of God’s power and God’s compassion?

Writing Prompts:

  • Use these words of Emily Dickenson as a prompt to write about a sunrise you witnessed or imagine. “I’ll tell you how the sun rose…”
  • A time I remember experiencing both God’s power and compassion was ….

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surprised by Story

I was standing in line waiting to buy a book at the Cokesburry display at the Georgia Pastor’s School. I don’t know if I was really trying to be friendly or just passing time. In any case, I spoke to the man behind me. “Where are you from?”  I asked, while trying to read his nametag. It was, of course, turned around backward. As he turned his nametag around so I could read it, he commented on his name.

 He said he’d like to go back to that ancestor that thought his given name was a good one for a boy growing up in the south who wanted to play football and tell him a thing or two. I stood astonished as a tale rolled from his tongue and vivid images filled my head. I suddenly knew much more about this man than I had expected to know. I had only asked where he hailed from. I got a story about a teller of tales, a former high school football player, an entertainer, and man with a long family history ambivalent about his name.

 That’s how it is with stories. Even when we think we want information what we most often give and get are stories. Stories communicate who we are.  Had he simply answered my question, all I would have known was where he was from. Instead, in five minutes, he invited me into his world.  Now, it is possible, much of what he told me was made up.  That doesn’t really matter. He had given me a good story.  And that says a lot about him.