Dawn on our Darkness: Split Open to the Light

What next, she wonders,
with the angel disappearing, and her room
suddenly gone dark.

The loneliness of her news
possesses her. She ponders
how to tell her mother.

Still, the secret at her heart burns like
a sun rising. How to hold it in—
that which cannot be contained.

She nestles into herself, half-convinced
it was some kind of good dream,
she its visionary.

But then, part dazzled, part prescient—
she hugs her body, a pod with a seed
that will split her.
~Luci Shaw “Mary Considers Her Situation”

Ere by the spheres time was created thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son, and Brother;
Whom thou conceivest, conceived; yea, thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother,
Thou hast light in dark, and shutt’st in little room
Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb.
~John Donne “Annunciation”


For Light to illuminate
where darkness thrives in me,
there must be a wounding,
a splitting open;
a crack exists in everything,
cleaving me so joy can infiltrate and heal
where I hurt the most,
celebrating
as I say yes.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
~Leonard Cohen from “Anthem”

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

When time sweeps yesterday away,
It leaves behind an empty heart,
Weeping through the night so dark and long.
When words are lost among the tears,
When sadness steals another day,
God hears our cries and turns our sighs into a song.

Sing to the One who mends our broken hearts with music.
Sing to the One who fills our empty hearts with love.
Sing to the One who gives us light to step into the darkest night.
Sing to the God who turns our sighs into a song.

From heaven falls a mercy sweet,
The time for weeping now is gone;
God hears our sighs and gives us His eternal song.

Sing to the One who mends our broken hearts with music.
Sing to the One who fills our empty hearts with love.
Sing to the One who gives us light to step into the darkest night.
Sing to the God who turns our sighs into a song.

Sing to the One who mends our broken hearts with music.
Sing to the One who fills our empty hearts with love.
Sing to the One who gives us light to step into the darkest night.
Sing to the God who turns our sighs into a song.
~Susan Boersma

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Such Letting Go

the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith
such faith is grace
such grace is god
i agree with the leaves
~Lucille Clifton “Lesson of the Falling Leaves” from Blessing the Boats

The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,
as if orchards were dying high in space.
Each leaf falls as if it were motioning “no.”
And tonight the heavy earth is falling
away from all other stars in the loneliness.
We’re all falling. This hand here is falling.
And look at the other one. It’s in them all.
And yet there is Someone, whose hands
infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.
~Rainer Maria Rilke “Autumn” translated by Robert Bly

Sometimes I wake from my sleep
with a palpitating start:
dreaming of falling,
my body pitching and tumbling
yet somehow I land,
~oh so softly~
in my bed,
my fear quashed and cushioned by
awaking safe.

I feel caught,
held tightly,
rescued amid the fall
we all do someday,
like leaves drifting down
from heaven’s orchard,
like seeds released like kisses
into the air,
the earth rises to meet me
and Someone cradles me there.

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The Ultimate Good for All

First I shake the whole Apple tree, that the ripest might fall. Then I climb the tree and shake each limb, and then each branch and then each twig, and then I look under each leaf.
~Martin Luther

The apple is the commonest and yet the most varied and beautiful of fruits… A rose when it blooms, the apple is a rose when it ripens. It pleases every sense to which it can be addressed, the touch, the smell, the sight, the taste; and when it falls in the still October days it pleases the ear [when] down comes the painted sphere with a mellow thump to the earth, towards which it has been nodding so long.

<Dear apple>, I think if I could subsist on you or the like of you, I should never have an intemperate or ignoble thought, never be feverish or despondent. So far as I could absorb or transmute your quality I should be cheerful, continent, equitable, sweet-blooded, long-lived, and should shed warmth and contentment around.
~John Burroughs from The Apple

Lo! Sweetened with the summer light,
The full-juiced apple, waxing over-mellow,
Drops in a silent autumn night.
~Lord Tennyson from “The Lotos-eaters”

An election day in a free country can seem like a free-for-all, with the most vocal citizens shouting their personal opinions far and wide, whether through letters to the editor, reams of ads arriving in the mailbox or by email, roadside signs and bumperstickers, and, most obnoxious of all, robo-call phone texts at all hours of the day or night. Despite all the promotion of one candidate or negative attacks on an opponent, every voter, even the smallest and meekest, has the opportunity today to have their say, quietly and alone– a pas de deux between the ballot box and them.

This particular free-for-all has now lasted for months. There is nearly a universal desire to just get it done, shaking the electoral apple tree so hard that ripe and bruised and bitter and green all fall to the ground. We then settle in to cope with whatever harvest we have reaped with our votes. Sometimes we get near-perfect fruit; other times we get rotten to the core. All too often there is a worm or two in the mix.

Somehow, we’ve got to cooperate to make palatable sauce from all those apples falling at our feet, trying to pare out and discard what spoils the whole pot.

Some citizens vote down party lines only; the quality of the candidate matters not — as long as they have the right party affiliation and platform. Other citizens turn over every leaf in detailed scrutiny of each candidate’s history and qualifications, voting based primarily on individual characteristics.

Sadly, it can seem like few running for office are worthy choices to represent a country founded on the principles of religious freedom and escape from the tyranny of government in the lives of citizens. We are indeed a confused and far too angry people, divided and divisive, all shaking the American tree for all its worth to see what’s in it for us, threatening the life of the tree itself.

After I complete and seal up my ballot, I pray this election day will be a day when we set the differences aside and work together to make the best applesauce possible, blending all the different viewpoints in a “cheerful, continent, equitable, sweet-blooded, long-lived” mixture, shedding warmth and contentment around for the ultimate good of all.

Now that’ll be the day…

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Being in the Driver’s Seat

I heard an old man speak once,
someone who had been sober for fifty years,
a very prominent doctor.
He said that he’d finally figured out a few years ago
that his profound sense of control,
in the world and over his life,
is another addiction and a total illusion.
He said that when he sees little kids sitting in the back seat of cars,
in those car seats that have steering wheels,
with grim expressions of concentration on their faces,
clearly convinced that their efforts are causing the car
to do whatever it is doing,
he thinks of himself
and his relationship with God:
God who drives along silently,
gently amused,
in the real driver’s seat.

~Anne Lamott from Operating Instructions

We want to steer life in the way we want it to go:
our plans, our timing, our chosen destination,
our hopes and dreams matter first and foremost.

And then life happens and suddenly the road ceases to look familiar and we don’t seem to be going the direction we intended.

Who is doing the driving anyway?

We are under the illusion that we are in control:

Sadness and hopelessness, frustration and anger stem from discouragement over our lack of control over where we are headed. We feel there is no turning back, unable to see the road signs to another path to a different future.

There is an epidemic of hopelessness and helplessness especially among children and young adults – their path is murky, their debts too great, their reserves too limited, their foundations too shaky, their hope nonexistent, their future too dim.

Relinquishing control by giving up the driver’s seat is not in our nature. We want to be seen as competent and feel as though we are prepared to be the captain of our fate.

Instead we need to give up our carefully planned-out life to the God who created us and has it all planned for us.

We turn over the steering wheel saying: may it be to me as you say.

May it be.
Your plans, Your purpose, Your promise.
Let it be.

Even if it may pierce my soul as with a sword:
You are there to plug the bleeding hole.

And I will follow wherever you steer me.

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The Unbroken Dark

Now you hear what the house has to say.
Pipes clanking, water running in the dark,
the mortgaged walls shifting in discomfort,
and voices mounting in an endless drone
of small complaints like the sounds of a family
that year by year you’ve learned how to ignore.

But now you must listen to the things you own,
all that you’ve worked for these past years,
the murmur of property, of things in disrepair,
the moving parts about to come undone,
and twisting in the sheets remember all
the faces you could not bring yourself to love.

How many voices have escaped you until now,
the venting furnace, the floorboards underfoot,

the steady accusations of the clock
numbering the minutes no one will mark.
The terrible clarity this moment brings,
the useless insight, the unbroken dark.
~Dana Gioia, “Insomnia” from 99 Poems: New and Selected. 

The almost disturbing scent
of peonies presses through the screens,
and I know without looking how
those heavy white heads lean down
under the moon’s light. A cricket chafes
and pauses, chafes and pauses,
as if distracted or preoccupied.

When I open my eyes to document
my sleeplessness by the clock, a point
of greenish light pulses near the ceiling.
A firefly . . . In childhood I ran out
at dusk, a jar in one hand, lid
pierced with airholes in the other,
getting soaked to the knees
in the long wet grass.

The light moves unsteadily, like someone
whose balance is uncertain after traveling
many hours, coming a long way.
Get up. Get up and let it out.

But I leave it hovering overhead, in case
it’s my father, come back from the dead
to ask, “Why are you still awake? You can
put grass in their jar in the morning.”

~Jane Kenyon from “Insomnia” from Collected Poems

Sleep comes its little while.
Then I wake in the valley of midnight or three a.m.
to the first fragrances of spring which is coming,
all by itself, no matter what
My heart says,
what you thought you have you do not have.
My body says,
will this pounding ever stop?
My heart says:
there, there, be a good student.
My body says:
let me up and out,
I want to fondle those soft white flowers,
open in the night
~Mary Oliver
from A Thousand Morning Poems

Our house does make sounds at night. It has many stories to tell, and does.

I’ve become accustomed to its various voices after almost thirty years sleeping (and too often not sleeping) here, yet hearing new noises are disconcerting – whether thumps that come from the attic, pattering of little feet across the roof, clinking and clunking of the furnace, or inexplicable wild sounds right outside the bedroom window.

Listening in the night reminds me I’m a mere visitor here. The house, the farm, all that surrounds me here remains long after I’m gone. Awake or asleep, I want to spend my time well here; tossing and turning in my thoughts gives me a chance to consider what the house, the land, the the wild and not-so-wild critters outside have to say. The “terrible clarity” of the unbroken dark is often disconcerting and downright frightening.

It is then, and only then – God’s still, small voice breaks the dark.
Always has. Always will.

I will seek You Lord
Search with all my heart till I find You
Waiting patiently
Longing for one word to breath new life
Your words are life

I will listen, ever listen
For Your still small voice
Lord I’m longing to know You more
So I will listen for Your still small voice

Take me to a place
Sheltered from the noise and distraction
Lord be my escape
Open up my heart to whispers of
Your life and love

I will listen, ever listen
For Your still small voice
Lord I’m longing to know You more
So I will listen for Your still small voice

I will listen, ever listen
For Your still small voice
Lord I’m longing to know You more
So I will listen for Your still small voice
~Jay Stocker

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Taking a Moment to Thank the Light

Now a red, sleepy sun above the rim
Of twilight stares along the quiet weald,
And the kind, simple country shines revealed
In solitudes of peace, no longer dim.
The old horse lifts his face and thanks the light,
Then stretches down his head to crop the green.
All things that he has loved are in his sight;
The places where his happiness has been
Are in his eyes, his heart, and they are good.
~Siegfried Sassoon from “Break of Day”

We grow older along with our horses – as we near seventy, our oldest mare is thirty years old. None of us, horses or humans, have to climb in the harness to pull the heavy loads of our former work lives.

During these October days, as the horses feel the morning sun on their withers and the green blades under their feet, they scan the pasture for the sweetest tender patch to munch in the fields they know and love so well. They nap more now than in their younger years, taking breaks to let their heads hang relaxed and nodding, their tails slowly swishing at flies.

To be honest, I nap and nod more now as well.

They remind me to borrow the calm of the pasture to balance the noise and misery always present in the morning headlines. Carrying that calm to my decades of work as a physician was an essential survival skill. I remembered how peace and light intentionally descended to a troubled earth in sore need of healing.

A new day’s sunlight breaks fresh each morning and sinks gently and quietly beneath the horizon each evening. All things I love are within my sight; happiness and contentment do grow, like the grass beneath my feet, thanks to the Light.

And I am glad, so very glad that it is good.

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The Warm Milk of Light

I sit with braided fingers
and closed eyes
in a span of late sunlight.
The spokes are closing.
It is fall: warm milk of light,
though from an aging breast.
I do not mean to pray.
The posture for thanks or
supplication is the same
as for weariness or relief.
But I am glad for the luck
of light. Surely it is godly,
that it makes all things
begin, and appear, and become
actual to each other.
Light that’s sucked into
the eye, warming the brain
with wires of color.
Light that hatched life
out of the cold egg of earth.
~May Swenson from “October”

portrait of Dan’s mom, Emma Gibson, praying, by granddaughter Sara Lenssen

We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.
~C.S. Lewis from The Weight of Glory

photo of Wiser Lake Chapel by Barbara Hoelle

I do mean to pray.

I will sit in an old wooden pew this Sabbath day, my fingers tightly braided together in gratitude for bathing in yet another feast of Light. I will be fed as surely as if I were being cradled at a warm breast, as if I were a newborn holding tightly with a mighty grip.

We were created to be nurtured like this, held close to beauty and stirred to life, immersed within a nest made for us out of cold dust.

So I drink deeply of the warm milk of beauty whenever offered.
Perhaps you can too.

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They Changed Our Life

And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came.

In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.

Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads,
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.

~Edwin Muir from “The Horses”

There is nothing that truly compels a horse to wear a saddle, pull a heavy burden, chew a cold bit until it foams warm — no fear of whip or spur or harsh word.  They, so much more powerful than we are, choose the work, to do what is needed, to serve freely, to be there because they were asked — whether asked nicely or not.

How much more we learn from the lather of their sweaty grace —  how to choose the labor that changes lives, how to offer up love in gratitude for the reward of a scratch in just the right place and a nose buried in sweet clover.

Chesna Klimek free-jumping her Haflinger gelding Pippin

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Into Every Small Fold

It is not enough to offer a silent thank you,
looking down at dark mums and the garden’s final offerings
of autumn—late-planted greens, their small leaves
fragile and pale. And bright orange peppers,
the odd liveliness of their color signaling an end.
To see the dense clouds drop into its depths and know
who placed them there. It is not enough to welcome God
into every small fold of the day’s passing.
To call upon some unknown force
to let the meat be fresh, the house not burn,
the evening to find us all here again. Yet,
we are here again. And we have witnessed
the miracle of nothing. A slight turning of empty time,
bare of grief and illness and pain. We have lived
nondescript this season, this day, these sixty-minutes.
But it is not enough. To bow our heads in silence.
To close our eyes and see in each moment
of each second the uneventful wonder
of none.
~Pamela Steed Hill “The Miracle of Nothing”

Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday.
It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain.
You can feel the silent and invisible life.
~Marilynne Robinson from Gilead

I am covered with Sabbath rest
quiet and deep~
planted, grown, and now harvested in soil
still warm and dry from a too long summer,
now readying for sleep again.

I know there is nothing ordinary
in this uneventful wonder of none.

I am called by such Light
to push out against darkness,
to be witness to the miracle of nothing
and everything.

Can there be nothing more eventful
than the wonder of an ordinary Sunday?

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Keeping It For Later

When you are already here 
you appear to be only 
a name that tells of you 
whether you are present or not 
and for now it seems as though 
you are still summer 
still the high familiar 
endless summer 
yet with a glint 
of bronze in the chill mornings 
and the late yellow petals 
of the mullein fluttering 
on the stalks that lean 
over their broken 
shadows across the cracked ground 
but they all know 
that you have come 
the seed heads of the sage 
the whispering birds 
with nowhere to hide you 
to keep you for later 
you who fly with them 
you who are neither 
before nor after 
you who arrive 
with blue plums 
that have fallen through the night 
perfect in the dew
~W.S.Merwin “To the Light of September”

Each month has its own special lighting
though this past luminous September tended to sweep them all.

I loosen my grasp on September as we slip into October bronze.

There must be a place I can hide these riches,
tuck this light away for safe-keeping,
to bring it out on the darkest winter day
and feast upon it.

I do know better;
this glow follows the birds as they fly away.
They keep it with them, wherever they go,
towing it back on their wings come spring.

In the meantime I must remember how
this endless summer defined September.