Letting My Heart Go Forth

The season of sunset as it draws a veil over the day,
befits that repose of the soul when earthborn cares

yield to the joys of heavenly communion.
The glory of the setting sun excites our wonder,
and the solemnity of approaching night awakens our awe.


If the business of this day will permit it, it will be well, dear reader,
if you can spare an hour to walk in the field at eventide,
but if not, the Lord is in the town too, and will meet with you

in your chamber or in the crowded street.

Let your heart go forth to meet Him.

~Charles Spurgeon from Morning and Evening Devotionals

During my forty years in medical practice, I saw many patients who struggled to sleep at night. Their minds raced, they couldn’t stop worrying, their bodies were tight with tension.

I would have preferred to prescribe walking an hour with God at sunset but that was not permissible at a public institution owned by the government.

Instead, I prescribed sleep hygiene habit, over the counter herbals, prescription medications or talk therapy, wrote documentation for emotional support animals, or suggested yoga or “meditation” or even a labyrinth walk.

I find what is most effective in my own life is allowing my heart to go forth and meet God’s invitation to communion with Him.

Spurgeon, in his own anxiety and depression, knew the healing power of a walk with God at sunset or a meal together in His memory. Even when we are hungry, thirsty, exhausted with worry — by throwing the cares of our heart out to Him, He will catch and hold them tight, raising us up alongside Him on the last day.

I am the bread of life.
He who comes to me shall not hunger;
he who believes in me shall not thirst.
No one can come to me
unless the Father draw him.

And I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up on the last day.

The bread that I will give
is my flesh for the life of the world,
and he who eats of this bread,
he shall live for ever,
he shall live for ever.

And I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up on the last day.

Unless you eat
of the flesh of the Son of Man
and drink of his blood,
and drink of his blood,
you shall not have life within you.

And I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up on the last day.

I am the resurrection,
I am the life.
He who believes in me
even if he die,
he shall live for ever.

And I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up on the last day.

Yes, Lord, I believe
that you are the Christ,
the Son of God,
who has come
into the world.

And I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up,
and I will raise him up on the last day.

Sr. Suzanne Toolan

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Only Here and Now

When I work outdoors all day, every day,
as I do now, in the fall, getting ready for winter,
tearing up the garden, digging potatoes,
gathering the squash, cutting firewood, making kindling, repairing
bridges over the brook, clearing trails in the woods,

doing the last of the fall mowing,
pruning apple trees, taking down the screens,
putting up the storm windows, banking the house—all these things,
as preparation for the coming cold…


when I am every day all day all body and no mind, when I am
physically, wholly and completely, in this world with the birds,
the deer, the sky, the wind, the trees…


when day after day I think of nothing but what the next chore is,
when I go from clearing woods roads, to sharpening a chain saw,
to changing the oil in a mower, to stacking wood, when I am
all body and no mind…

when I am only here and now and nowhere else—
then, and only then, do I see the crippling power of mind,
the curse of thought, and I pause and wonder why
I so seldom find this shining moment in the now.
~David Budbill “This Shining Moment in the Now” from While We’ve Still Got Feet.

I spend only a small part of my day doing physical work compared to my husband’s faithful daily labor in the garden and elsewhere on the farm. We both celebrate the good and wonderful gifts from the Lord, His sun, rain and soil. Although these weeks are a busy harvest time preserving as much as we can from the orchard and the garden, too much of my own waking time is spent almost entirely within the confines of my skull.

I know that isn’t healthy. My body needs to lift and push and pull and dig and toss, so I head outside to do farm and garden chores. This physical activity gives me the opportunity to be “in the moment” and not crushed under “what was, what is, what needs to be and what possibly could be” — all the processing that happens mostly in my head.

I’m grateful for this tenuous balance in my life, knowing as I do that I was never cut out to be a good full time farmer. I sometimes feel that shining glow in the moments of “living it now” rather than dwelling endlessly in my mind about the past or the future.

Thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord. I am learning to let those harvest moments shine.

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The Need to Praise

A blue horse turns into
a streak of lightning,
then the sun —
relating the difference between sadness
and the need to praise
that which makes us joyful,
I can’t calculate
how the earth tips hungrily
toward the sun – then soaks up rain —
or the density
of this unbearable need
to be next to you. It’s a palpable thing —
this earth philosophy
and familiar in the dark
like your skin under my hand.
We are a small earth. It’s no
simple thing. Eventually
we will be dust together;
can be used to make a house,
to stop a flood or grow food
for those who will never remember
who we were, or know
that we loved fiercely.
Laughter and sadness eventually become
the same song turning us
toward the nearest star —
a star constructed of eternity
and elements of dust barely visible
in the twilight as you travel
east. I run with the blue horses
of electricity who surround
the heart
and imagine a promise made
when no promise was possible.

~Joy Harjo “Promise of Blue Horses” from How We Became Human

Birds embody the shapes of my heart
these days


holding the warmth of a hug
in their feathers


the gleam of a kiss in
their eyes


building a home for my love
in their beaks


and spreading, with their song,
the promise of blue horses.

 

“A blue horse turns into a streak of lightning,
then the sun—
relating the difference between sadness
and the need to praise
that which makes us joyful.”
~Marjorie Moorhead, “That Which Makes Us Joyful” from Literary North

Even when my heart isn’t feeling it, especially when I’m blue (along with much of the rest of the world on this September 11 anniversary), I need to remember to whisper hymns of praise to the Creator of all that is blue as well as every other color.

I’m reminded of the goodness of a God who provides me with the words to sing and a voice to sing them out loud.

That reality alone makes me joyful. That alone is reason to worship Him. That alone is enough to turn blue days, blue horses and blue hearts gold again.

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A Silken Connection

Someone said my name in the garden,

while I grew smaller
in the spreading shadow of the peonies,

grew larger by my absence to another,
grew older among the ants, ancient

under the opening heads of the flowers,
new to myself, and stranger.

When I heard my name again, it sounded far,
like the name of the child next door,
or a favorite cousin visiting for the summer,

while the quiet seemed my true name,
a near and inaudible singing
born of hidden ground.

Quiet to quiet, I called back.
And the birds declared my whereabouts all morning.

~Li-Young Lee “Out of Hiding”

The spider, dropping down from twig,
Unfolds a plan of her devising,
A thin premeditated rig
To use in rising.

And all that journey down through space,
In cool descent and loyal hearted,
She spins a ladder to the place
From where she started.

Thus I, gone forth as spiders do
In spider’s web a truth discerning,
Attach one silken thread to you
For my returning.
~E.B. White “Natural History”

I seek out the hidden web artist
who rebuilds this remarkable funnel
in an open pipe attached to a gate
I open and close daily without a thought.

As I approach, I see the weaver’s legs
scurrying hurriedly down into the safety of
its chosen darkness.

This spider needs temerity, not timidity,
to find its meal.

How else might it issue a dinner invitation,
luring me down into a sticky funnel vortex,
as a cherished guest meant never to return?

If I go astray and wander into temptation,
lose my way and plunge into the hole,
a silken thread remains:
hearing Him call out
my name from the garden,
urging me to return
to Whom I belong.

Indeed my soul hangs
by this single gossamer thread~
this silken connection calls me
back home, back to eternity.

There’s more that rises in the morning
Than the sun
And more that shines in the night
Than just the moon
It’s more than just this fire here
That keeps me warm
In a shelter that is larger
Than this room

And there’s a loyalty that’s deeper
Than mere sentiments
And a music higher than the songs
That I can sing
The stuff of Earth competes
For the allegiance
I owe only to the Giver
Of all good things

So if I stand let me stand on the promise
That you will pull me through
And if I can’t, let me fall on the grace
That first brought me to You
And if I sing let me sing for the joy
That has born in me these songs
And if I weep let it be as a man
Who is longing for his home

There’s more that dances on the prairies
Than the wind
More that pulses in the ocean
Than the tide
There’s a love that is fiercer
Than the love between friends
More gentle than a mother’s
When her baby’s at her side

~Rich Mullins

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Unintentionality

I go to nature not because
its flowers and sunsets speak
to me (though they do) or
listen to me inquire but


because I have filled it with
unintentionality, so that I
can miss anything personal in
the roar of sunset, so that


I can in beds of flowers hold
my head up too.
~A.R. Ammons from The Ridge Farm from Complete Poems

Take the tangle instead of the trouble it causes.
Take the world inside
as seriously as any other.
Take your elderly mother and father
at face value as they have to.
Take the mirror of the sky
mirrored in the bay.
Take the swell of new-mown hay
and the river conversing
where the valley opens its mouth
and the land begins to creak less
as the evening steals light away—
Take the wick in the far hills
and take the sun and the wind
and the look of nothing for granted.
Take a little less, all right
and try not to take fright.
Take the end in mind
instead of the end in sight.

~Brian Turner “Take This” from Taking Off

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.
~Rainer Maria Rilke from The Book of Hours

Each of us,
intentionally made by our Creator
in His image,
yet we discover the beauty and terror of living
in His shadow.

So much happens which we don’t intend
but there is nothing unintentional with God.

Books and lectures tell us to live intentionally
while each day contains something that
brings us to our knees.

I tell myself:
even though I don’t know what tomorrow will be,
I will not take fright
and hold my head up
I’ll just keep going
while taking His Hand and following
wherever He intends to take me.

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Taking It Slow

Sweet smell of phlox drifting across the lawn—
an early warning of the end of summer.
August is fading fast, and by September
the little purple flowers will all be gone.

Season, project, and vacation done.
One more year in everybody’s life.
Add a notch to the old hunting knife
Time keeps testing with a horny thumb.

Over the summer months hung an unspoken
aura of urgency. In late July
galactic pulsings filled the midnight sky
like silent screaming, so that, strangely woken,

we looked at one another in the dark,
then at the milky magical debris
arcing across, dwarfing our meek mortality.
There were two ways to live: get on with work,

redeem the time, ignore the imminence
of cataclysm; or else take it slow,
be as tranquil as the neighbors’ cow
we love to tickle through the barbed wire fence
(she paces through her days in massive innocence,
or, seeing green pastures, we imagine so).

In fact, not being cows, we have no choice.
Summer or winter, country, city, we
are prisoners from the start and automatically,
hemmed in, harangued by the one clamorous voice.

Not light but language shocks us out of sleep
ideas of doom transformed to meteors
we translate back to portents of the wars
looming above the nervous watch we keep.

~Rachel Hadas, “The End of Summer” from Halfway Down the Hall: New and Selected Poems.

For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past…
Psalm 90: 4

photo by Josh Scholten
photo by Josh Scholten

Each summer that passes feels more urgent; most of my summers are far behind me and I have no idea how many more are ahead. I try to take each day slowly, lingering in the moments yet time speeds ahead, irredeemable.

I tend to forget that Time, which feels so precious and burdensome to me, is of no consequence to an infinite God who built an infinite universe. He began it all with a Word, and despite all our human efforts to thwart and even destroy a perfect Creation, He remains a constant presence, guaranteeing the sun will rise again.

We are not alone; we are not abandoned. We are loved.

Good night, love! May heaven’s brightest stars watch over thee!
Good angels spread their wings, and cover thee;
And through the night, So dark and still,
Spirits of light Charm thee from ill!
My heart is hovering round thy dwelling-place,
Good night, dear love! God bless thee with His grace!
Good night, love! Soft lullabies the night-wind sing to thee!
And on its wings sweet odours bring to thee;
And in thy dreaming May all things dear,
With gentle seeming, Come smiling near!
My knees are bowed, my hands are clasped in prayer—
Good night, dear love! God keep thee in His care!
~Frances Anne Kemble

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Loved with a Perfect Love

The grace of God means something like:
“Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”

There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.

Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.
~Frederick Buechner from Wishful Thinking

photo by Nate Gibson

Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you.
I have called you by your name;
you are mine.


When you walk through the waters,
I’ll be with you;
you will never sink beneath the waves.
When the fire is burning all around you,
you will never be consumed by the flames.
When the fear of loneliness is looming,
then remember I am at your side.
When you dwell in the exile of a stranger,
remember you are precious in my eyes.
You are mine, O my child,
I am your Father,
and I love you with a perfect love.
~Gerard Markland “Do Not Be Afraid”

Most days I depend on discovering beauty
in the most unexpected places.
I am always looking for it.

But when the unexpected terrible happens–
crushes, bleeds and fractures me,
and beauty appears to hide its face,
what I fear most is that
I’ll not ever see beauty in the world again.

We are told in scripture:
the Words written
again and again and again,
-365 times in total-
once for every day of the year:

if only I can truly believe them,
if only I can reassure others so
they reach out and take them to heart

He is here, with us, in this broken world-
do not be afraid
do not be afraid
do not be afraid

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So Gradual the Grace

Further in Summer than the Birds
Pathetic from the Grass
A minor Nation celebrates
Its unobtrusive Mass.

No Ordinance be seen
So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

Antiquest felt at Noon
When August burning low
Arise this spectral Canticle
Repose to typify

Remit as yet no Grace
No Furrow on the Glow
Yet a Druidic Difference
Enhances Nature now
~Emily Dickinson

…<Dickinson’s Further in Summer is> one of the great poems of American literature. The statement of the poem is profound; it remarks the absolute separation between man and nature at a precise moment in time.  The poet looks as far as she can into the natural world, but what she sees at last is her isolation from that world.  She perceives, that is, the limits of her own perception. But that, we reason, is enough. This poem of just more than sixty words comprehends the human condition in relation to the universe:

So gradual the Grace
A pensive Custom it becomes
Enlarging Loneliness.

But this is a divine loneliness, the loneliness of a species evolved far beyond all others. The poem bespeaks a state of grace. In its precision, perception and eloquence it establishes the place of words within that state.  Words are indivisible with the highest realization of human being.
~N.Scott Momaday from The Man Made of Words

Silence again. The glorious symphony
Hath need of pause and interval of peace.
Some subtle signal bids all sweet sounds cease,
Save hum of insects’ aimless industry.
Pathetic summer seeks by blazonry
Of color to conceal her swift decrease.
Weak subterfuge! Each mocking day doth fleece
A blossom, and lay bare her poverty.
Poor middle-agèd summer! Vain this show!
Whole fields of golden-rod cannot offset
One meadow with a single violet;
And well the singing thrush and lily know,
Spite of all artifice which her regret
Can deck in splendid guise, their time to go!

~Helen Hunt Jackson “August”

On the first day I took his class on Native American Mythology and Lore in 1974 at Stanford, N.Scott Momaday strolled to the front, wrote the 60 words of this Dickinson poem on the blackboard.  He told us we would spend at least a week working out the meaning of what he considered the greatest poem written — this in a class devoted to Native American writing and oral tradition.  In his resonant bass, he read the poem to us many times, rolling the words around his mouth as if to extract their sweetness. This man of the plains, a member of the Kiowa tribe, loved this poem put together by a New England recluse poet — someone as culturally distant from him and his people as possible.

But grace works to unite us, no matter our differences, and Scott knew this as he led us, mostly white students, through this poem.  What on the surface appears a paean to late summer insect droning – doomed to extinction by oncoming winter – is a statement of the transcendence of man beyond our understanding of nature and the world in which we, its creatures, find ourselves. As summer begins its descent into the dark death of winter, we, unlike cicadas and crickets, become all too aware we too are descending.  There is no one as lonely as an individual facing their mortality and no one as lonely as a poet facing the empty page, in search of words to describe the sacrament of sacrifice and perishing.

The poem “August” by Helen Hunt Jackson has similar themes without the acknowledgement of grace. Helen was a childhood friend of Dickinson, and she comments on August heralding the coming silence of the winter of our lives.

Yet the written Word is not silent; the Word brings Grace unlike any other, even when the summer, pathetic and transient as it is, is gone. The Word brings Grace, like no other, to pathetic and transient man who will emerge transformed.

There is no furrow on the glow.  There is no need to plow and seed our salvaged souls, already lovingly planted by our Creator God, yielding a fruited plain.

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Ordinary is Just Extraordinary That Happens Over and Over

…it’s easy to forget that the ordinary is just the extraordinary that’s happened over and over again. Sometimes the beauty of your life is apparent. Sometimes you have to go looking for it. And just because you have to look for it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

God, grant me the grace of a normal day.
~Billy Coffey

Now, at sunset, all I see are dandelions on fire in the field.

To think I’ve carelessly
walked through,
on top of,
over and around them
for nearly 70 years,
and only now I see what magic they contain
once I settle down at their level and look.
God grants me grace for my years of dandelion destruction.

They are so normal and ordinary: extraordinary happening over and over again.

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An Object of Ultimate Concern

We live in an unbelieving age
but one which is markedly and lopsidedly spiritual…
an age that has domesticated despair
and learned to live with it happily.
There is something in us
that demands the redemptive act,
that demands that what falls
at least be offered the chance to be restored.
…what <modern man> has forgotten is the cost of it.
His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether,
and so he has forgotten the price of restoration.

This is an unlimited God
and one who has revealed himself specifically.
It is one who became man and rose from the dead.
It is one who confounds the senses and the sensibilities,
one known early on as a stumbling block.
There is no way to gloss over this specification
or to make it more acceptable to modern thought.
This God is the object of ultimate concern
and he has a name.

~Flannery O’Connor from a 1963 lecture published in Mystery and Manners

He has an unpronounceable name,
this God of specificity,
yet still He asks us to breathe it out
with each breath we take —
even if we don’t believe.

This God of specificity knows our name,
as He formed each one of us for a reason
and it is His voice calling out to us —
even when we aren’t listening.

He is worthy of our attention as
we are the object of His ultimate concern.

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