All things new: Spiritual Journey

An offering for the Spiritual Journey group, comprised of faithful friends who gather on the first Thursday of each month. Today’s theme is “all things new.”

Spring arrives, clad in rich new vestments of green. Every day, more of the color ripples across the landscape. Here in the central part of North Carolina the Bradford pears have already exchanged their ethereal veil-clouds of wedding lace blossoms for something more matronly and verdant. A whirlwind ceremony, that five-minute flowering of pear.

The birds began preparing back in winter. Flashes of electric blue on my back deck; a brilliant bluebird, dropping by like a friendly neighbor. Darts of fiery red across the road while I’m driving; cardinals, making me stress over potentially ensnaring them in the grille (why DO they fly so low?). Today, a darling brown Carolina wren on my back deck—clearly doing Deacon of the Week rotation with the bluebird—singing its heart out, full-throated, unrestrained, magnificent. How can such a small bird have such a big voice? Bocelli can’t hold a candle to you, Little Wren. From the pines and budding hardwoods, bird choirs swell, as in the song “The King is Coming”:

Regal robes are now unfolding,
Heaven’s grandstand’s all in place,
Heaven’s choir now assembled,
Start to sing “Amazing Grace!”

All in earthly bird language, naturally… but no less celestial.

All but the finches, that is.

For several consecutive years a finch family has built a nest on my from door wreath and raised generations of little broods. I’d find a total of three baby-blue eggs in the nest, sometimes four, laid precisely between seven and eight o’clock every morning. My family has been treated to an insider’s view of the whole process, from nest-building to egg-laying to the hatching of tiny pink things so frail and helpless that a person might think they can’t possibly manage to stay alive; yet in no time they’re fledglings working on flying lessons. We’ve even had a batch of babies in the spring and another in summer; that makes for a long time of roping off my front-door bird sanctuary.

Then, with the advent of COVID-19 last March, a curious thing occurred. As the human world reeled, and became strapped in the strange straitjacket of pandemic, as businesses shut down, as hospitals and mortuaries overflowed, spring came anyway. Nature, in fact, outdid herself with resplendent finery. The finches came to build their nest as always and this little act of constancy lifted my flagging spirits: At least there will be baby birds to watch while we are all under stay-at-home orders.

But there were no eggs last spring. The nest remained empty all season. The finches… they vanished. No warning, just—poof!—gone. I didn’t see when, how, or why.

After a while, bereft, I quit looking for them.

I didn’t take the wreath down until late fall.

I saved the little unused nest.

I didn’t have the heart to throw away such a labor of love (you can say instinct all you want but the perfect craftsmanship of nests amazes me).

With the return of March, I waited for the finches to join the rest of the avian throng having revival beyond my windows. Every day I looked.

Nothing.

Nothing.

Nothing.

Then, day before yesterday…on the top of the wreath, one lone strand of grass, lying in a telltale curve…could it be, could it be…?

And yesterday…

“THEY’RE BACK! THEY’RE BACK! COME SEE!”

My family humored me with only a slight rolling of eyes…my granddaughter, at least, seemed interested. She made my son hold her up high for a better, bird’s-eye view.

I marveled at the greenness of the nest. Is it just me, or is this how they always look? This green, this fresh? I do not think so. No, they have never been so green before.

And today…

Almost complete. Look at that leafy lining, so carefully placed.

By Easter—dare I hope?—we might have an egg.

A tiny, age-old symbol of rebirth and resurrection.

I marvel at this fresh greenery, this new grass, this preparation for new life, the hope that’s in it. If not for the birds, then for me. Especially after the year that’s passed, marked by so much bleakness and loss, down to the former little nest that contained no life.

I recall the promise of Christ: one day there will be no more death, mourning, crying, or pain. Behold, I am making all things new (Revelation 21:4-5, ESV).

Every spring hints at it. My personal winged messengers, harbingers of blessed assurance.

A little foretaste of glory divine.

Hymns of the heart. I step outside, away from the constraints of the house, watching the two finches take flight, zigzagging skyward, sunlight gleaming on their sandy backs, calling, calling, calling, how sweet the sound.

I come to the sanctuary in the cool of the day to behold
these moments of Earth’s remembering, an altar call where I
respond, walking the greening aisle just as I am
to a fanfare of wingbeats and music-making.
Holy holy holy, I surrender all
in wordless doxology on the returning. Let all things
their Creator bless, with ancient morningsong, yet ever new
.

*******

Update, Thursday evening… first egg!
Holy Week blessings to all.

*******

with thanks to Karen Eastlund for hosting today’s Spiritual Journey

and also shared with the writing community on SOS – Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog, in response to the open invitation to write around the many meanings of “spring.”

Deep

A Spiritual Journey/Slice of Life Story Challenge Offering

My Spiritual Journey group writes on the first Thursday of the month.
Margaret Simon is our hostess today.
Our theme is March Spirit Wind.

On the evening news, on the second day of March: We are entering our severe storm season…

In central North Carolina, that means tornadoes. Schools will conduct required drills next week.

Metaphorically speaking, though: When is it not severe storm season? Potentially? Consider this past year, March to March…without warning, we found ourselves in uncharted waters. We faced the unknown. We weathered the weird (monster snow in Texas?). On every side, things dangerous, destructive, and deadly threatened, still threaten, our existence.

Sometimes it seems relentless. Endless.

Sometimes our spirits fail. We grow tired. We want to trust, but we wonder if we can make it through.

So it is for the disciples, when the miracle happens.

The Sea of Galilee, almost seven hundred feet below sea level, is subject to violent downdrafts and sudden storms. On this night, the storm is fierce. It is also long; in the fishing boat, the disciples have been battling the wind and waves for nine hours. They are exhausted, physically and mentally. They know death can come for them at any moment. They are afraid. This turns to sheer terror at the vision of a figure walking on the water: “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear (Matthew 14:26).

Jesus responds immediately: “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

That’s when Peter—impulsive, passionate Peter—asks if it is really the Lord out there on the waves, and, if so, then command him to walk on the water. Jesus says Come. We know what happens. Peter climbs out of the boat, starts walking on the water, suddenly loses his nerve, and begins to sink. He cries for the Lord to save him. Jesus reaches out his hand, grabs hold of Peter, and chides him for his “little faith”—I cannot help hearing an exasperated tone, like that of a parent to a child: Why did you doubt?

Here is what I find interesting: The storm is raging this whole time. The furious winds don’t stop until Jesus and Peter are in the boat together. Peter’s desire to trust is obvious. I sense his earnest belief. Peter was a fisherman; he’d seen these kinds of storms all of his life. He probably knew the Sea of Galilee was littered with broken vessels (one dating to the first century was found there in 1986). Peter loved the Lord and knew he had exactly what he needed to accomplish this supernatural feat—in fact, he asked for and was granted the opportunity—yet his human nature failed him. Why?

When he saw the wind, he was afraid (v. 30).

It wasn’t the wind that threatened to annihilate Peter. It was his own fear.

You may know the haunting song that alludes to this story. I didn’t until my musician son mentioned hearing it in a dream. My boy has faced mighty storms in his young life with exceptional courage and unfailing compassion for others, even when others haven’t treated him well. He’s one of the gentlest, bravest souls I know, constant throughout moments of deep anguish. After the death of a friend— he’s lost several, suddenly and far too early—he dreamed he heard her singing in the darkened church:

You call me out upon the waters
The great unknown where feet may fail
And there I find You in the mystery
In oceans deep
My faith will stand

Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior

The storm season may be severe. Relentless, exhausting, depleting. Fear’s going to run deep, sometimes. It’s natural. As natural as the wind and the sea.

Faith running deeper…that’s supernatural. A boat can’t come close to containing it.

Which I believe, in the deepest part of his heart, Peter knew.

Lyrics are to “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” by Hillsong United, performed here on the Sea of Galilee.

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 4, I am writing around a word beginning with letter d.

Note this, in connection with “deep”: After years of drought and levels so low that irreversible damage was imminent, scientists now consider the Sea of Galilee to be nearly full.

Lead photo credit: Stormy seas. Ishature Dawn. CC BY-SA

Take heart

For Spiritual Journey Thursday

As it’s February, the word heart came to mind when I prepared to write for Spiritual Journey Thursday (the first Thursday of each month).

No doubt Valentine’s Day conjured the word. Still feels a bit early for that, although I saw grocery shelves being stocked for it back before Christmas.

I began thinking more along the lines of taking heart. As in courage, which derives from Latin cor, meaning heart, and encourage, from Old French encoragier, to make strong, or to hearten.

One of my favorite images of courage and being encouraged is a scene from the Chronicles of Narnia. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, young Prince Caspian’s ship has sailed into a mysterious, enchanted darkness where nightmares come true. Lucy prays to Aslan, the Narnian lion-god: “Aslan, Aslan, if ever you loved us, send us help now.” The darkness doesn’t change but Lucy senses an inner change. She sees a speck of white materializing above. It comes closer and closer. An albatross, which whispers in her ear as it sweeps past: “Courage, Dear Heart.” And it leads the vessel through the infernal, terrifying darkness to the light just ahead.

We are nearing the year mark of nightmarish things come true. The COVID-19 pandemic rages on. Numbers are still high. New and more virulent strains are developing before vaccines can be obtained. Schools closed last spring and are still in various stages of reopening. There’s been turbulence in the streets, at the Capitol, a heavy toll taken on people’s lives, livelihoods, psyches, and souls…a long, long darkness.

Yet there is faith. And prayer.

Even when it seems eternal
Night cannot last forever.
Courage, dear hearts
One guides you onward
Until the morning comes.
Remember you are never
Alone.
God Himself walks alongside you
Every step of the way
.

While the darkness may not have lifted, we can always sense the light.

There are, after all, the children.

They are unique encouragers. At the end of some of my remote learning sessions, students have signed off by holding up “heart hands.” My own heart lightens as I give heart hands back. While our church was closed, kids mailed handmade cards covered with crayoned hearts to my husband and me: “Pastor Bill and Miss Fran, we miss you!” Years ago, long before I entered the education profession, my oldest son, around the age of five, spent his own money to buy me a little piece of artwork bearing this quote on encouragement: A teacher in wisdom and kindness helps children learn to do exactly what they thought could not be done.

That is true. For it is exactly what the Teacher did for His students, otherwise known as the disciples, just before the the darkest days they’d ever experience. They could hardly have imagined the light ahead. Nor, I imagine, can we. But the heart, it senses. And clings to that hope.

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. —John 16:33

Spiritual Journey Friends, please click here to leave your link

Spiritual Word Journey

As the calendar turned from 2020 to 2021, I thought about words.

Particularly the word “weary.” It had seeped into my bones.

And I wondered if maybe, maybe…as much as I love them…I was tired of words.

Tired of the way they are wielded to wound.

Tired of the clamor.

One word with appeal: hibernation. Yes. Give me that word. It is, after all, winter.

I’ve just begun reading the book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May. Early in the book, May speaks of how plants and animals don’t fight winter. They don’t pretend it’s not happening or carry on living the same as they would in summer: They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Winter is a time of withdawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight, but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.

It is winter. My country is in a metaphorical winter. A bitter one. Certainly a crucible. What is being forged, I cannot say; the combination of a pandemic, many types of loss, from jobs to loved ones, to food insecurity, to strife and political unrest, seems almost more crucible than can be withstood. It takes its toll. Mentally, physically, emotionally. Withdrawing, at least from social media where vitriol is most rampant and draining, has great appeal. In the name of preservation, if not of one’s sanity, then certainly of one’s spirit.

Vanishing from sight. Alluring.

Makes me think of little bats I read about recently, how they survive the winter by making tiny dens in the snow. Took scientists years to figure out how they survived—only polar bears were known to make snow caves.

Ussurian tube-nosed bat, hibernating in Japan. Photo: Hirofumi Hirakawa. Science Magazine.

I am not a fan of bats, long before COVID-19. But that this tiny creature weighing less than a quarter ounce can endure, knows to endure, such harsh conditions in this way fills me with awe.

And that is the word I am clinging to in 2021.

Not hibernation. Awe.

I didn’t feel like choosing a word as a focus for the year. Remember, I was weary beyond words. Yet when I flipped my planner to January 1, I found this quote: Experiencing awe, the feeling of being in the presence of something bigger than you, can improve your physical health and make you feel more altruistic. Intentionally create awe this month by spending time in nature, meditating, volunteering, etc.

So that is how awe chose me as a guiding word for the year, extracting an unwritten promise from me that I would look for it each day. I started capturing an “awe of the day” in a notebook…for three whole days. Then I started back to remote teaching with sketchy Internet and a plethora of other school-related issues that weighed heavy enough to bring tears, a rare thing for me. All which were obscured today by the long shadow of the U.S. Capitol. Tonight another word from my planner’s awe-quote, altruistic, rises to the surface: having a genuine and selfless concern for others.

Where is it?

Like awe from which it is born, it must be looked for.

When I see it happening, I take heart. I am awed by others who, in the darkest of times, are the light-bearers. The healing-bringers. In these moments I know I am in the presence of something greater than myself.

I also happened to read this quote from Albert S. Rossi in Becoming a Healing Presence:

We need to push “pause” often and avoid reacting to the latest and loudest…The Lord expects us to live a life of love for Him and for others.

We have all the time we need to do all the things God has us here to do, in a peaceful way…We revere time as a way to remain peaceful, no matter what, to please God who gave us time. We have time to be come more of a healing presence during our remaining time on Earth.

We don’t live life. Life lives us.

Those words and that wisdom fill me with awe, like the little bats which know to burrow in the snow. Like the stars, like the ocean that I haven’t seen in eighteen months and am longing to see again, for the healing it offers my soul, for the taste of salt and infinity on its breeze. Like the children at school (on the screen) who are so buoyant. Like my son’s music—I can hear the keyboard upstairs, as I write—and his beautiful voice when he sings. Like his older brother’s way with words and his deepening altruistic nature. Like my daughter-in-law, a gift straight from God to our family, and her artwork in both painting and baking. Awe. Like my granddaughter’s face, lit with joy, every time she comes to see us. She has changed our world.

Just one more reminder that I’m in the presence of something far, far greater than me.

What the world needs now might not be as much love, sweet love, as awe, healing awe.

Did you see the two widowed penguins with their wings around each other in an award-winning photo, touted one of the best of 2020? Animals know. Let us humans likewise be a healing presence to one another, moving forward.

Two penguins look into the distance in Melbourne

Tobias Baumgaertner. Ocean Photography Awards. BBC News

Here’s to claiming your awe. Or letting it claim you.

Just little more of mine:

Unicorn cake my daughter-in-law made for my granddaughter’s birthday…
unicorns, by the way, are a symbol of healing.

My granddaughter’s portrait, painted by her mom, as a Christmas gift to my husband and me.

*******

With much gratitude to my Spiritual Journey Thursday group. You all are another source of awe. Special thanks to Carol Varsalona for hosting at Beyond Literacy Link. Per Carol’s suggestion, I am including a link to a prayer-poem here that I wrote earlier, tying “awe” (note the beginning letters in the title) to being a vessel of the Spirit: Alight with Expectancy.

Spiritual Journey: Seeled

seel: close (a person’s eyes); prevent (someone) from seeing. —Dictionary.com

seel: to close the eyes of (a bird, such as a hawk) by drawing threads through the eyelids. —Merriam-Webster.com

A Spiritual Journey Thursday reflection

Over Thanksgiving break from school, I read a book about a family of twelve children, six of whom (all boys) were diagnosed with schizophrenia: Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family. I expected to learn more about the disorder, how it manifests as a distorted, alternate reality, affecting a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior. I expected to learn about the part genetics play (six siblings!). I expected loads of medical research and new scientific insights…more than anything, I expected to be moved by the story.

I did. I was.

In a word: Devastating.

I never expected to learn a haunting little detail about falconry.

Originating in ancient times as a form of hunting, it became a sport and status symbol of the nobility in medieval Europe. A pastime of the Galvin family in Hidden Valley Road, falconry involves trapping a bird and training it to be completely dependent on the bidding of the falconer by “seeling” its eyes—stitching its eyelids closed.

Young Don and Mimi, parents of four boys at the time, trapped their first bird of prey, a red-tailed hawk. They consulted the local zoologist for guidance on training. He said, “Now sew the eyelids together”:

Stabler explained that [falcons’] eyelids protect them as they dive at speeds upwards of two hundred miles per hour. But in order to train a falcon the way Henry VIII’s falconers did it, the bird’s eyelids should be temporarily sewn shut. With no visual distractions, a falcon can be made dependent on the will of the falconer—the sound of his voice, the touch of his hands. The zoologist cautioned Mimi: Be careful the stitches aren’t too tight or too loose, and that the needle never pricks the hawk’s eyes. There seemed to be any number of ways to make hash of the bird…Mimi went to work on the edge of each eyelid, one after the other…Stabler complimented Mimi on her work. “Now,” he said, “you have to keep it on the fist for forty-eight hours”…At the end of those forty-eight hours, Mimi and Don had successfully domesticated a hawk. They felt an enormous sense of accomplishment. This was about embracing the wild, natural world and also about bringing it under one’s control. Taming these birds could be brutal and punishing. But with consistency and devotion and discipline, it was unbelievably rewarding.

Not unlike, they often thought, the parenting of a child.

For me, the fleeting sense of wonder is outweighed by horror on reading these lines… for suffering of the bird, for the foreshadowed suffering of these parents, these children.

The image will not leave my mind. I think about what a falcon symbolizes. Among many things, freedom. Which was taken away, here.

Also wisdom.

The most famous book of wisdom and suffering happens to mention a falcon. In Job 28, the title character continues a speech around the question “Where is wisdom?” Job marvels at the precious resources hidden in the earth and humans’ ability to extract them through mining. Human industry brings silver, gold, iron, copper, sapphires from the depths to the light.

Job speaks of the hidden way to such treasures:

That path no bird of prey knows, and the falcon’s eye has not seen it (28:7).

The metaphor is for wisdom, how elusive it is to mankind, and that its value is far above any earthly riches: “Man does not know its worth” (v. 13). The word “hidden” is referenced or alluded to over and over; wisdom can’t be seen even by the creatures with the keenest eyesight, birds of the air. Wisdom comes only from God (v. 28).

A song also plays in my mind, this line from Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind”: How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?

Hidden wisdom, hidden treasure. Hidden Valley Road. Hidden suffering, to an unimaginable degree…

I can’t help but think, as the year 2020 comes to a close, how those numbers stand for perfect vision—and the irony of so much we never saw coming.

Moving forward, let us seek wisdom, above all. Let us not be guilty of seeling our own eyes—or our hearts—to suffering beyond our own. Let us see.

Most of all, Dear God, don’t let us perpetuate more of it.

Photo: el7bara. CC BY

Quotation: Robert Kolker, Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, 2020, p. 5-6.

Written with gratitude for my Spiritual Journey family. See more at A Word Edgewise – thank you, Linda, for hosting.

Spiritual journey: Grateful for belief

For Spiritual Journey Thursday, on the theme of gratitude.

I am grateful for a new morning. I am grateful to be writing about spiritual journeys on the first Thursday of the month, and for my fellow sojourners. As I write, silver-white stars are still glittering in the black sky. My kitchen bay window faces east where the sun is soon to rise. When it does, I will stop to drink in its glory.

I am grateful for books, for having developed a love of reading so early in life that I can’t remember learning how. I am grateful for libraries, for row upon row of treasures waiting to be discovered, for being ten years old and stooping to examine a curious title, for removing a book, opening the cover, and finding myself in another world.

Narnia, to be exact. That book was The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. It would send me scrambling for the rest of the books in the series, always longing for more. I was given a boxed set for my twelfth birthday and the tattered copies remain on my bookshelf to this day.

When it comes to spiritual journeys, no character in Narnia with the exception of Aslan (the Talking Lion, “King of Beasts, the son of the Emperor-Over-the-Sea, the King above all High Kings in Narnia”) outshines Reepicheep, leader of the Talking Mice. Reepicheep, who stands about two feet tall, is young King Caspian’s most loyal knight, quite fierce in battle with his small rapier. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Reepicheep sails with his king to explore unmapped lands. He does not intend to return home to Narnia; instead, he means to sail to the end of the world, on to Aslan’s country.

No one knows if Aslan’s country can be reached this way. When Lucy (a human child from our world, if you did not already know) asks “Do you think Aslan’s would be that sort of country you could ever sail to,” Reepicheep says he does not know, but that when he was a baby a Dryad (spirit of a tree) sang to him in his cradle about finding his heart’s desire where “sky and water meet, where the waves grow sweet… there is utter East.”

In the movie, however, Reepicheep answers: “We have nothing if not belief.”

When the Dawn Treader can sail no farther, as it’s reached the shallows of lily-clogged, sweet waters where the sea and sky meet, Reepicheep makes his goodbyes. A tiny wooden boat is lowered from the ship and he sails on, alone, over the rim of the world.

No one ever sees him again.

At least, not in that world.

Aslan’s country is another matter…

I glance through my bay window facing east and see that the sky has changed. The upper canopy is now indigo, melting into turquoise, into lighter aqua nearer the horizon where the faintest yellow glows above a pale rosy blush… I cannot see the sun, but I know it is there… it is coming…as it always does.

I am grateful for a new morning. I am grateful for the coffee in my Reepicheep mug, for the eastern sky reminding me to rise above the things of this tainted world… as poet Robert Browning wrote: Man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?

I am grateful for the journey.

*******

with thanks to C.S. Lewis and my fellow Spiritual Journey voyagers, especially Ruth who’s hosting today from Haiti. Visit her site, There’s No Such Thing as a God-Forsaken Town, for more on gratitude.

Also grateful for taking the plunge into creating this blog. A wonderful personal adventure it’s been, writing, discovering, remembering, and interacting with new friends all along the way. This is my 400th post.

Grace

The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. – Matthew 19:14

For Spiritual Journey Thursday. A double etheree.

Now
I wake,
now I rise,
wiping the sleep
from my sleepy eyes.
Time to eat, time to pray.
Thank you, Lord, for this new day
to live, to learn, to love, to play.
In Your kingdom, where I have a place,
remember Your little child saying grace.


Remember all Your children, needing grace
when we’ve forgotten to seek Your face.
Draw us back to that holy place
in a child’s believing heart.
O Lord, in the morning
cast us not away—
help us, we pray—
You are great,
You are
good.

Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation… Psalm 51: 10-12

Give ear to my words, O Lord, consider my meditation. Hearken unto the voice of my cry, my King, and my God: for unto thee will I pray. My voice shalt thou hear in the morning, O Lord; in the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee, and will look up.
-Psalm 5:1-3

*******
For more Spiritual Journey offerings, visit Reflections on the Teche – with gratitude to Margaret Simon for hosting.

Lines on a path in the woods

September
whispers
the first hint
of autumn
with a cool breath
caressing our faces
our bare arms
and legs
in the still-warm sun.
Whispers an invitation
to walk
woodsy trails
under trees communicating
in rustling green tongues.
One leaf
already fallen
crispy and brown
cartwheels across the path.
It is longer than we realized.
One of us would push

for a more vigorous pace
but the other of us
is tired.
A restful respite
in the almost-chilly
tree-proffered shade
just short of the bridge
we didn’t know was here.
Cicadas chorus high above
a big black ant hurries past
and somewhere a bird sings
as if it is the very heart
of all things.
We’ve come this far.
We walk a few more steps
one a little ahead
one leaning on a cane

one breath at a time.
Not until
we reach the bridge
can we hear the water
talking to itself below
in a wordless trickling flow
going on and on and on.
And so we do
even though we can’t see
how much path
is left to travel
nor what lies ahead
around the bowery bend.
The bridge cannot whisper

invitation.
It only stands
offering
silent invocation.
It is enough.
We cross over.

We go on.

*******

Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Tuesday invitation to write a Slice of Life and to my Spiritual Journey Thursday friends for the writing fellowship along the way. For more spiritual offerings see Karen Eastlund’s collated posts under “Finding Direction” at Karen’s Got a Blog! (Thank you, Karen, for hosting).

The portal

Written for Spiritual Journey Thursday.

As COVID restrictions finally began to lift, my husband and I ventured out to a nice restaurant for lunch. We practically had the place to ourselves. Afterward, as the day was bright and breezy, we decided to walk along the outdoor mall’s trendy shops and boutiques. The sidewalks, normally crowded, were empty, perfect for a promenade… I almost felt as if I should be holding a parasol and that my husband should be wearing a striped jacket, a straw hat, and carrying an ornamental cane…on and on we strolled, aimlessly, just drinking in the glorious early-summer afternoon, temperate and rare.

“Let’s cross over here,” said my husband, grasping my hand, when I looked up to see…

on an otherwise blank, unremarkable wall…

a magical door.

“Oooh! Wait!” I said, dropping my husband’s hand to take a picture: I must write about this…

A painted portal. With light fixtures on either side to illuminate it at night. Even though it isn’t really a door.

—Or is it?

It seems straight out of a fantasy novel: A door to another world, a conspicuous portkey, an enchanted painting like that of the Narnian ship Dawn Treader hanging on a bedroom wall, coming to life as Eustace, Edmund, and Lucy rushed at it and fell through into the ocean…

Standing there on the vacant sidewalk, on that bright, ethereal afternoon so strangely devoid of other people, I could almost believe the portal was real, that it led to… something beyond.

I recognized the depiction, of course—a modified version of one of the best-known works of art in the world. Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night. He painted it in his asylum room. It’s the view from his window, facing east, before the sunrise. He would write to his brother that “the morning star was very large.” The scene is dark. It is blue. At the time, van Gogh’s mind was dark and blue; he was a deeply religious man who’d suffered much mental and emotional pain, who’d sacrificed for his art to his own detriment, though most others found little value in his paintings until after his suicide. The full scope of the village can’t be seen here in the portal on the wall, and it wasn’t a village that van Gogh saw as he painted the original; it was in his mind. Those are cypress trees dominating the foreground—funerary trees, symbols of mourning.

I thought: Is this a portal I’d want to pass through? A place where I really want to find myself?

But then… my husband and I had just come out of a dark place. The COVID stay-at-home order. Shadowy, uncertain days swirling with horror and mourning as the worldwide death toll spiked. Refrigerated trucks needed for storing corpses, images of caskets lined up for burial… which of us ever expected to find ourselves here? Public places closed for the sake of public health, at last re-opening, tentatively, with social distancing requirements… we were still (and still are, even now) unable to return to church where my husband pastors…

—The church. Note how large it is, there in the mysterious doorway. Much larger in proportion to the one van Gogh actually painted. He wanted to be a pastor. He failed the exams. He became a missionary, gave up his own comfort on behalf of the impoverished congregation, and slid deeper into psychosis and poverty.

This artwork hits me anew with its unique, transformative force… for that is what art does. It speaks to the spirit. Van Gogh didn’t paint what he saw; he painted his interpretation of it. The tormented man looked through the asylum window and focused on the stars. A hundred and thirty-one years later I stand on a sidewalk before a quasi-reproduction of his famous work, looking at the enlarged church, with the words of C.S. Lewis echoing in my mind: “At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.”

A spiritual portal, leading to something beyond.

The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (MOMA). Photo: Wouter de Bruijn, 2014. CC BY-NC-SA.

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Much gratitude to Margaret Simon for hosting Spiritual Journey Thursday for August on her blog, Reflections on the Teche. Margaret said: “My topic is spiritual art. I often find that art speaks to me in a spiritual way, like poetry.” Sparked by this challenge. my thoughts went straight to the portal, this painting, and van Gogh. Visit Margaret’s post, “Art for the Soul,” for more odysseys.

The C.S. Lewis quote is from The Weight of Glory, a wartime sermon first published in 1941. The title is derived from 2 Corinthians 4:17: “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.”

Spiritual Journey Thursday: On golf and good-bye

An elegy.

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.

-Ecclesiastes 9:11

He was born nearly seventy years ago.

With cerebral palsy.

He would never be able to go up a flight of stairs, for both halves of his body wouldn’t work together.

He would partake of the Lord’s Supper at church with a special goblet reserved for him; the tiny communion cups required too much finesse.

His ever-present smile, however, set his entire face alight with a magnificent inner glow that never dimmed, his piercing blue eyes as bright as the unclouded summer sky.

Perhaps it began with his father, who chose to believe.

Who loved the game of golf and decided his son would, too.

And so he taught his boy.

As if there were no handicap.

Always make a total effort, even when the odds are against you.

-Arnold Palmer

It’s a game of precision, skill, and amazing grace.

The boy loved it.

He excelled at it.

He entered tournaments, won trophies.

A whole case full of them.

I have to believe in myself. I know what I can do, what I can achieve.

-Sergio Garcia

He liked people even though many could not understand his labored speech and, in their discomfiture, avoided him.

He could drive a car and on occasion came to visit the parsonage where my husband and I lived, when our children were small.

I learned he had a mischievous sense of humor, that his brain was, in fact, brilliant.

I wonder how many people understood this.

When I told him that I had to complete a required PE credit on my path to becoming a teacher, and that the only thing currently available was golf, and that I was already in danger of failing it due to my abysmal performance, he coached me.

Brought me pages of yellow legal paper covered with handwritten notes far clearer, finer, and consistent than my own, organized under this heading: The Fundamentals of Golf. Another heading: Form. Accompanied by his sketches of how to stand, how to hold the club, body position, dotted lines for movement…

I contemplated these golden pages with absolute awe.

He brought me newspaper clippings and magazine articles on women golfers. Hoping, perhaps, I’d love the sport. His sport. That I’d maybe rise, somehow, to the glimmering, glorious heights of it…

I never did. Never learned to love golf, not even a little.

The university instructor declared, in utter exasperation, that I looked like I was chopping wood.

But I got an A in the course.

Thanks to my coach.

Golf is the closest game to the game we call life. You get bad breaks from good shots; you get good breaks from bad shots—but you have to play it where it lies.

-Bobby Jones

He taught me much.

He wanted to be married, to have a family.

It didn’t happen.

“People don’t understand God,” he told me during one of his last parsonage visits. “But I understand God.”

I looked at his face, bright and earnest as ever, uncharacteristically serious, eyes fierce, blazing.

And I believed him.

As you walk down the fairway of life, you must smell the roses, for you only get to play one round.

-Ben Hogan

He lived with his mother, who cared for him until her illness and death, after which he went to an assisted living facility.

Parents gone, driving gone, golf gone. Seasons come and gone with slow decline, languish, only memories left of moments in the sun, walking the fairway, making your best shot.

With the arrival of COVID-19, even visitors were gone.

And now so is he.

He could be considered a victim. Of the cerebral palsy that marked an existence of suffering from birth to his death by a pathogen that, in electron-microscope images, looks like a golf ball with extruding dimples.

Some might say his life wasn’t fair… what if his father thought this?

I say he was a conqueror.

More than a conqueror, never separated from the love of God.

He understood.

Only a few will be allowed at the memorial today.

Just know that I remember, old Friend. Farewell. You were, you remain, always, a gift from our Father.

Photo: Chris Urbanowicz. CC BY

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Special thanks to Carol Varsalona for hosting Spiritual Journey Thursday today at Beyond Literacy Link.