How late I came to love you, O Beauty so ancient and so fresh, how late I came to love you.
You were within me, yet I had gone outside to seek you.
Unlovely myself, I rushed toward all those lovely things you had made. And always you were with me. I was not with you.
All those beauties kept me far from you – although they would not have existed at all unless they had their being in you.
You called, you cried, you shattered my deafness.
You sparkled, you blazed, you drove away my blindness.
You shed your Fragrance, and I drew in my breath and I pant for you, I tasted and now I hunger and thirst. You touched me, and now I burn with longing. ~St. Augustine in Confessions
God spoke in His Word but I didn’t listen. God fed me but I chose junk food. God showed me beauty but I couldn’t see Him. God smelled like the finest rose but I turned away. God touched me but I was numb.
So He sent His Son as Word and food, beauty and fragrance, sparkling and blazing, reaching out broken hands so I would know my hunger and thirst is only and always for Him alone.
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I do remember darkness, how it snaked through the alders, their ashen flanks in our high-beams the color of stone. That hollow slap as floodwater hit the sides of the car. Was the radio on? Had I been asleep? Sometimes you have to tell a story your entire life to get it right.
Twenty-two and terrified, I had married you but barely knew you. And for forty years I’ve told this story wrong. In my memory you drove right through it, the river already rising on the road behind us, no turning around. But since your illness I recall it differently. Now that I know it’s possible to lose you, I’m finally remembering it right. That night, you threw that car in reverse, and gunned it. You found us another way home. ~Emily Ransdell, “Everywhere a River,” from New Letters
When life gets scary, we long for rescue as the world threatens to overwhelm us. And eventually it is true, this world will overwhelm us, and we’ll wonder how we will escape.
Where does our help come from?
It doesn’t always come from the direction we expect. Most often, we keep staring ahead, hoping somehow salvation lies just around the corner.
But salvation has been behind us all the while. We were created saved but need to believe it, live it out, share it with anyone open to listen.
We all need to trust in the Rescuer when we are stuck and flooded with life. It takes courage, faith and grace to be led home, either straight ahead or back the way we came.
Heidelberg Catechism Question and Answer 1:
What is your only comfort in life and death?
That I am not my own, 1 but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, 2to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. 3He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, 4and has set me free from all the power of the devil. 5He also preserves me in such a way 6that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; 7indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. 8Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life 9and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him
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Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day, I paused and said, ‘I will turn back from here. No, I will go on farther—and we shall see.’ The hard snow held me, save where now and then One foot went through. The view was all in lines Straight up and down of tall slim trees Too much alike to mark or name a place by So as to say for certain I was here Or somewhere else: I was just far from home. A small bird flew before me. He was careful To put a tree between us when he lighted, And say no word to tell me who he was Who was so foolish as to think what he thought. He thought that I was after him for a feather— The white one in his tail; like one who takes Everything said as personal to himself. One flight out sideways would have undeceived him. And then there was a pile of wood for which I forgot him and let his little fear Carry him off the way I might have gone, Without so much as wishing him good-night. He went behind it to make his last stand. It was a cord of maple, cut and split And piled—and measured, four by four by eight. And not another like it could I see. No runner tracks in this year’s snow looped near it. And it was older sure than this year’s cutting, Or even last year’s or the year’s before. The wood was gray and the bark warping off it And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle. What held it though on one side was a tree Still growing, and on one a stake and prop, These latter about to fall. I thought that only Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks Could so forget his handiwork on which He spent himself, the labor of his ax, And leave it there far from a useful fireplace To warm the frozen swamp as best it could With the slow smokeless burning of decay. ~Robert Frost, “The Wood-pile” from North of Boston
My labor is usually done with fervor and purpose, but there are times when I do not experience the fruits of my labor. It is left to smolder slowly to decay rather than provide the intended warmth and nurture of a fresh hearthfire.
I might have chosen a different way to go if I had known.
Perhaps I will simply follow the birds instead…
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The leaves are always near to falling there but never fall, and pairs of souls out walking heaven’s paths no longer feel the weight of years upon them. Safe in heaven’s calm, they take each other’s arm, the light shining through them, all joy and terror gone. But we are far from heaven here, in a garden ragged and unkept as Eden would be with the walls knocked down, the paths littered with the unswept leaves of many years, bright keepsakes for children of the Fall. The light is gold, the sun pulling the long shadow soul out of each thing, disclosing an outcome. The last roses of the year nod their frail heads, like listeners listening to all that’s said, to ask, What brought us here? What seed? What rain? What light? What forced us upward through dark earth? What made us bloom? What wind shall take us soon, sweeping the garden bare? Their voiceless voices hang there, as ours might, if we were roses, too. Their beds are blanketed with leaves, tended by an absent gardener whose life is elsewhere. It is the last of many last days. Is it enough? To rest in this moment? To turn our faces to the sun? To watch the lineaments of a world passing? To feel the metal of a black iron chair, cool and eternal, press against our skin? To apprehend a chill as clouds pass overhead, turning us to shivering shade and shadow? And then to be restored, small miracle, the sun shining brightly as before? We go on, you leading the way, a figure leaning on a cane that leaves its mark on the earth. My friend, you have led me farther than I have ever been. To a garden in autumn. To a heaven of impermanence where the final falling off is slow, a slow and radiant happening. The light is gold. And while we’re here, I think it must be heaven. ~Elizabeth Spires “In Heaven It Is Always Autumn” from Now the Green Blade Rises
I wander the autumn garden mystified at the passing of the weeks since the seed was first sown, weeds pulled, peapods picked. It could not possibly be done so soon–this patch of productivity and beauty, now wilted and brown, vines crushed to the ground, no longer fruitful.
The root cellar is filling up, the freezer is packed. The work of putting away is almost done.
So why do I go back to the now barren soil we so carefully worked, numb in the knowledge I will pick no more this season, nor feel the burst of a cherry tomato exploding in my mouth or the green freshness of a bean or peapod straight off the vine?
Because for a few fertile weeks, only a few weeks, the garden was a bit of heaven on earth, impermanent but a real taste nonetheless. We may have once mistaken our Lord for the gardener when He appeared to us radiant, suddenly unfamiliar, but it was He who offered us the care of the garden, to bring in the sheaves, to share the forever mercies in the form of daily bread grown right here and now.
When He says my name, then I will know Him. He will lead me farther than I have ever been.
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And Is it not enough that every year A richly laden autumn should unfold And shimmer into being leaf by leaf, It’s scattered ochres mirrored everywhere In hints and glints of hidden red and gold Threaded like memory through loss and grief, When dusk descends, when branches are unveiled, When roots reach deeper than our minds can feel And ready us for winter with strange calm, That I should see the inner tree revealed And know its beauty as the bright leaves fall And feel its truth within me as I am?
It is not yet enough. So I must try, In my poor turn, to help you see it too, As though these leaves could be as rich as those, That red and gold might glimmer in your eye, That autumn might unfold again in you, Feeling with me what falling leaves disclose. ~Malcolm Guite from “And is it Not Enough?”
As the rains return, and the leaves turn and fall, we shelter together, blessed by years and miles, our unknown becoming known, our understanding of nakedness breathed in silence.
Though we be gray as the clouds above, our hearts beat in synchrony each pulsing moment more sacred than our last.
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I sit beside the fire and think of all that I have seen, of meadow-flowers and butterflies in summers that have been; Of yellow leaves and gossamer in autumns that there were, with morning mist and silver sun and wind upon my hair. I sit beside the fire and think of how the world will be when winter comes without a spring that I shall ever see.
For still there are so many things that I have never seen: in every wood in every spring there is a different green. I sit beside the fire and think of people long ago, and people who will see a world that I shall never know. But all the while I sit and think of times there were before, I listen for returning feet and voices at the door. ~J.R.R. Tolkien “Bilbo’s Song” from The Lord of the Rings
The shortening days make me greedy for what is left of daylight – watching the sky change by the hour, brown summer fields greening from rain, webs clinging when I pass.
More than anything, I hunker down, waiting for winter, knowing the quiet nights by the fire will restore me – hoping I’ll hear visitors at the door, those I love coming home to spend what time is left.
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I made for grief a leaden bowl and drank it, every drop. And though I thought I’d downed it all the hurting didn’t stop.
I made of hope a golden sieve to drain my world of pain. Though I was sure I’d bled it dry the void filled up again.
I made of words a silver fork and stabbed love in the heart, and when I found the sweetness gone I chewed it into art. ~Luci Shaw “What I Needed to Do”
How can I stow away our hurt and grief when it keeps refilling, leaking everywhere? Where can hope be found when all feels hopeless? When I have been loved beyond all measure, with bleeding hands and feet and side; why not turn to the Word, its sweetness never exhausted no matter how often I chew through it in my hunger.
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After the keen still days of September, the October sun filled the world with mellow warmth… The maple tree in front of the doorstep burned like a gigantic red torch. The oaks along the roadway glowed yellow and bronze. The fields stretched like a carpet of jewels, emerald and topaz and garnet. Everywhere she walked the color shouted and sang around her… In October any wonderful unexpected thing might be possible. ~Elizabeth George Speare from The Witch of Blackbird Pond
On this early morning gray clouds lie heavy and unrelenting hovering low over the eastern hills, when a moment’s light snuck out from under the covers throwing back the blankets to glow golden over the mountain.
Only a minute of unexpected light underneath the gray gone in a heartbeat (as are we) yet O! the Glory when we too are luminous.
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When I opened the door I found the vine leaves speaking among themselves in abundant whispers. My presence made them hush their green breath, embarrassed, the way humans stand up, buttoning their jackets, acting as if they were leaving anyway, as if the conversation had ended just before you arrived. I liked the glimpse I had, though, of their obscure gestures. I liked the sound of such private voices. Next time I’ll move like cautious sunlight, open the door by fractions, eavesdrop peacefully. ~Denise Levertov, “Aware” from This Great Unknowing.
I need to be cautious or I also would be swallowed up inch by inch by a variety of vines surrounding our home and farm buildings. Between the ivy, Virginia creeper and our opportunistic ubiquitous blackberry vines, I’m mere audience to their varied plans of expansive world domination.
As part of generations of human creep, I can’t indict the vines as aggressive interlopers for going where no vine has gone before. Much human migration has been out of necessity due to inadequate food sources or inhospitable circumstances. Some is due to a spirit of adventure and desire for new places to explore. Nevertheless, we human vines end up dominating places where we may not be really welcome.
So we human vines whisper together conspiratorially about where to send out our tendrils next, never asking permission, only sometimes asking for forgiveness later.
I can’t help but listen to those private voices – one of which is my own – who feel discontented with the “here and now” — we suspect somewhere else may be better. Rather than choose to stay and flourish in place, we keep creeping and overwhelming our surroundings.