So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum in painted quiet and concentration keeps pouring milk day after day from the pitcher to the bowl the World hasn’t earned the world’s end. ~Wisława Szymborska “Vermeer” trans. Clare Cavanagh & Stanisław Barańczak
I am struck by the expression of so much widespread hopelessness: the earth is being destroyed by humanity. Our continued existence is causing the world’s end.
This certainly isn’t the first time we’ve felt such desperation about our relationship with the world. It happened long ago when we chose to eat the fruit of the one forbidden tree and as a result were banned from the Garden. It happened with the plague when careless exposures wiped out entire villages. It happened when our wars left behind no living thing, leaving the ground itself cinders. It happened with the threat of imminent nuclear holocaust as missiles remain pointed at each other.
Still the sun rises and the sun sets, day after day. We don’t know for how much longer. Only God knows as God put us here with a plan.
So we continue to pour the milk as a sacrament: quietly, with great concentration, as that is the work we do, day after day. We still milk the cows and raise the wheat for bread and conceive children and raise them up as best we can. As long as we continue to do the work of the Garden, even while we dwell outside it, we are not causing the apocalypse. It is God’s world, after all, and all that is in it.
When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic, Time takes on the strain until it breaks; Then all the unattended stress falls in On the mind like an endless, increasing weight,
The light in the mind becomes dim. Things you could take in your stride before Now become laboursome events of will.
You have been forced to enter empty time. The desire that drove you has relinquished. There is nothing else to do now but rest And patiently learn to receive the self You have forsaken for the race of days.
You have travelled too fast over false ground; Now your soul has come to take you back.
Take refuge in your senses, open up To all the small miracles you rushed through.
Become inclined to watch the way of rain When it falls slow and free.
Imitate the habit of twilight, Taking time to open the well of colour That fostered the brightness of day.
26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you… Ezekiel 36:26-27
We are divided people; not just liberal and conservative, believer or not, capitalist or socialist.
Believers are also a divided people; we cannot agree about much of anything, so sure we alone have the best understanding of who God is and what He expects of us.
We forget that there is much that is still mystery, unknowable for God’s good reasons. Yet He does not leave us directionless. He has given us a roadmap.
Instead we travel too fast over false ground, expecting it will take us to the right destination as we ignore God’s signposts along the way telling us about the bumps ahead, or when to reduce speed, or to turn around as the road is washed out.
Instead of heeding the signs, we set out heedless, our hearts hardened in self-protection; so many tears, so many harsh words, so many sleepless nights when we face daily conflict and division.
Yet this is exactly what we must give up to Him: He became flesh so that we no longer cling to our heart of stone. Our priorities are changed.
We become full with God, our heart of flesh delivered safely to our Deliverer.
He will come like last leaf’s fall. One night when the November wind has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth wakes choking on the mould, the soft shroud’s folding.
He will come like frost. One morning when the shrinking earth opens on mist, to find itself arrested in the net of alien, sword-set beauty.
He will come like dark. One evening when the bursting red December sun draws up the sheet and penny-masks its eye to yield the star-snowed fields of sky.
He will come, will come, will come like crying in the night, like blood, like breaking, as the earth writhes to toss him free. He will come like child. ~Rowan Williams “Advent Calendar”
How have we diminished the worth of a child?
More and more we resist humanity’s mandate to ensure a future for those who come after us.
Our excuse: the world is dying, the climate an emergency, how do we dare expose future generations to desolation and destruction?
Better to have no children at all. So many choose childlessness, doing whatever it takes to remain childless.
Yet all feel outrage at the images of children suffering and dying trying to escape poverty, homelessness, war and evil:
A toddler lying face down in the water on a Turkish beach, at first glance almost as if napping, but this sleep is forever. A father drowned in the Rio Grande protecting his daughter, also drowned, trying to bring her to a safe future in the States.
This is nothing new in the history of humanity. We kill unborn children every day in our own private wars that we justify without guilt or regret.
When confronted by images of dead children while eating breakfast, when millions cry out with the shame of it, so many tears falling like raindrops soaking deep on holy ground, ground we share with the poor and oppressed and homeless, ground we no longer can hoard.
These images change from one day to the next, birthing life, taking life, a child in the womb becomes ghost in the tomb, so we come undone, forced to unbuild walls we hide behind.
God Himself came like a child – bloody, broken, crying. The earth writhes in the reality that if conceived today, Jesus would likely be washed away before His birth, considered inconvenient and so unfortunate to be born to an impoverished refugee family. The world was much too harsh for Him to thrive.
So we would toss away the Son, the Light, the Hope and cling to our darkness.
What is the worth of such a Child? He answers clearly: He came because we are worthy of both His birth and His death.
“There’s never an end to dust and dusting,” my aunt would say as her rag, like a thunderhead, scudded across the yellow oak of her little house. There she lived seventy years with a ball of compulsion closed in her fist, and an elbow that creaked and popped like a branch in a storm. Now dust is her hands and dust her heart. There’s never an end to it. ~Ted Kooser “Carrie” from Flying at Night: Poems 1965-1985
My Great Aunt Marion was considered odd, no question about it. She usually dressed in somber woolens, smelling faintly of mothballs and incense. Her straight gray hair was bobbed with bangs, unfashionable for the wavy permanents of the fifties and the beehives of the sixties. Aunt Marion was a second grade teacher all her life, never marrying, and she lived for over 50 years in a spotless tiny apartment until the day she died in 1975. She bequeathed what little she had to the church she had faithfully attended a few blocks away and was buried in the family plot on a windswept hill overlooking Puget Sound.
I was overseas when she died, and to my knowledge, none of the extended family attended her funeral. In her retirement years she had become reclusive and remote. It was clear visitors weren’t welcome so visits to her became rare. In an effort to counteract that, I have annually visited her gravesite for the past 30+ years, paying homage to this aunt who remained an enigma in life and became even more mysterious in death.
She grew up in the early 20th century in an impoverished German immigrant family who relocated from Wisconsin to the northwest. Her father was gone most of the year running steamboats up the Yukon, leaving her mother to make do as a some time school teacher and full time mother. Her older brother dropped schooling early for the rough and ready life of the local logging camps but Marion finished teachers’ college at the Western Washington Normal School on the hill in Bellingham. She began her life’s work teaching 2nd grade a few miles away at Geneva Elementary School, and became the primary caretaker in her mother’s declining years.
Her shock over her brother’s marriage to a much younger teenage girl in 1917 created foment within an already fractious family that persisted down through the generations. As the offspring of that union, my father tried to prove his worth to his judgmental aunt. She was had a spiky and thorny personality, stern and unforgiving, but politely tolerated his existence though would never acknowledge his mother. Family gatherings weren’t possible due to the ongoing bitter conflict between the two strong-willed ladies.
Though Marion was childless, her heart belonged to her many students as well as a number of children she sponsored through relief organizations in developing countries around the world. Her most visible joy came from her annual summer trip to one of those exotic countries to meet first hand the child she was sponsoring. It seemed to fuel her until the next trip could be planned. She visited Asia and India numerous times, as well as Central and South America. It provided the purpose that was missing in the daily routine of her life at home.
I moved to my great aunt’s community over three decades ago, 10 years after she had died. I’d occasionally think of her as I drove past her old apartment building or the Methodist church she attended. Several years ago, I noticed a new wing on the old church, modern, spacious and airy. I commented on it to a co-worker who I knew attended that church.
He said the old church building had undergone significant remodeling over the years to update the wiring and plumbing, to create a more welcome sanctuary for worship and most recently to add a new educational wing for Sunday School and after school programs during the weekdays. As one of the council members in the church’s leadership, he commented that he was fortunate to attend a church equipped with financial resources to provide programs such as this in a struggling neighborhood that had more than its share of latch-key kids and single parents barely making do. He mentioned an endowment from a bequest given over 40 years ago by a spinster schoolteacher in her will. This lady had attended the church faithfully for years, and was somewhat legendary for her silent weekly presence in the same pew and that she rarely spoke to others in the church. She arrived, sat in the same spot, and left right after the service, barely interacting. Upon her death, she left her entire estate to the church, well over $1 million in addition to the deed to an oil well in Texas which has continued to flow and prosper over the past several decades. The new wing was dedicated to her memory as it represented her expressed desire for her neighborhood.
I asked if her name was Marion and he stared at me baffled. Yes, I knew her, I said. Yes, she was a remarkable woman. Yes, how proud she would be to see her legacy – what she had worked so hard for and then left behind — come to fruition.
There were times as I was growing up I wondered if my Great Aunt Marion had a secret lover somewhere, or if she led a double life as her life at home seemed so lonely and painful. I know now that she did have a secret life. She loved the children she had made her own and she lived plainly and simply in order to provide for others who had little. Her extended family is better off having never inherited that money or an oil well. It could have torn an already conflicted family apart and Marion knew, estranged from her only blood relatives, her money would hurt us more than it would help.
Her full story has died with her. Even so, I mourn her anew, marveling at what became of the dust of her, the legacy she chose to leave.
There seemed a smell of autumn in the air At the bleak end of night; he shivered there In a dank, musty dug-out where he lay, Legs wrapped in sand-bags,—lumps of chalk and clay Spattering his face. Dry-mouthed, he thought, “To-day We start the damned attack; and, Lord knows why, Zero’s at nine; how bloody if I’m done in Under the freedom of that morning sky!” And then he coughed and dozed, cursing the din.
Was it the ghost of autumn in that smell Of underground, or God’s blank heart grown kind, That sent a happy dream to him in hell?— Where men are crushed like clods, and crawl to find Some crater for their wretchedness; who lie In outcast immolation, doomed to die Far from clean things or any hope of cheer, Cowed anger in their eyes, till darkness brims And roars into their heads, and they can hear Old childish talk, and tags of foolish hymns.
He sniffs the chilly air; (his dreaming starts). He’s riding in a dusty Sussex lane In quiet September; slowly night departs; And he’s a living soul, absolved from pain. Beyond the brambled fences where he goes Are glimmering fields with harvest piled in sheaves, And tree-tops dark against the stars grown pale; Then, clear and shrill, a distant farm-cock crows; And there’s a wall of mist along the vale Where willows shake their watery-sounding leaves. He gazes on it all, and scarce believes That earth is telling its old peaceful tale; He thanks the blessed world that he was born…. Then, far away, a lonely note of the horn.
They’re drawing the Big Wood! Unlatch the gate, And set Golumpus going on the grass: He knows the corner where it’s best to wait And hear the crashing woodland chorus pass; The corner where old foxes make their track To the Long Spinney; that’s the place to be. The bracken shakes below an ivied tree, And then a cub looks out; and “Tally-o-back!” He bawls, and swings his thong with volleying crack,— All the clean thrill of autumn in his blood, And hunting surging through him like a flood In joyous welcome from the untroubled past; While the war drifts away, forgotten at last.
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. * * * * Hark! there’s the horn: they’re drawing the Big Wood. ~Siegfried Sassoon “Break of Day” (written about his memories as a WWI soldier)
When we are at war, whether deep in the foxhole hiding from the enemy, or deeper yet in a hole of our own making, trying to conceal our sins.
Amidst that mire and mud, we dream of better days and an untroubled past, when the hunter and hunted was merely a game, not life and death.
May we know the means of peace was brought to earth.
May we surface in mutual surrender, begging for reprieve, longing for redemption. May the solitudes of peace overwhelm those who are angry and conflicted. May we lift our faces up and thank the Light.
there are no words there is no song is there a balm that can heal these wounds that will last a lifetime long and when the stars have burned to dust hand in hand we still will stand because we must
in one single hour in one single day we were changed forever something taken away and there is no fire that can melt this heavy stone that can bring back the voices and the spirits of our own
all the brothers, sisters and lovers all the friends that are gone all the chairs that will be empty in the lives that will go on can we ever forgive though we never will forget can we believe in the milk of human goodness yet
we were forged in freedom we were born in liberty we came here to stop the twisted arrows cast by tyranny and we won’t bow down we are strong of heart we are a chain together that won’t be pulled apart ~Kitty Donohoe “There are no words”written on 9/1/11
As a grade school child in November 1963, I learned the import of the U.S. flag being lowered to half mast in response to the shocking and violent death of our President. The lowering of the flag was so rare when I was growing up, it had dramatic effect on all who passed by — something very sad had happened to our country, warranting our unified silence and our stillness.
Since 9/11/01, our flag has spent significant time at half mast, so much so that I’m befuddled instead of contemplative, puzzling over what the latest loss might be as there are so many, sometimes all happening in the same time frame. We no longer are silenced by this gesture of honor and respect and we certainly are not stilled, personally and corporately instigating and suffering the same mistakes against humanity over and over again.
There remains so much more sadness to be borne after that tragic day 18 years ago – such abundance of grief that our world has become overwhelmed and stricken and it seems we’ve lost all imagination for the “milk of human goodness.” Instead it seems we have become more divisive, pulling ourselves apart.
We must return, as people of faith, to that stillness to which we are called on a day such as today. We must be still; we must be silent. We must let the bells toll and the names be read out. We must grieve the losses of this turning world and pray for release from the suffering we cause and we endure. Only in the asking, only in the kneeling down and pleading, are we surrounded by grace. A flag half lowered may have lost its power to punch our gut, but we are illuminated by the Light, forged in freedom, born in liberty.
We must stop allowing our chain links from being pulled apart.
With my arms raised in a vee, I gather the heavens and bring my hands down slow together, press palms and bow my head.
I try to forget the suffering, the wars, the ravage of land that threatens songbirds, butterflies, and pollinators.
The ghosts of their wings flutter past my closed eyes as I breathe the spirit of seasons, the stirrings in soil, trees moving with sap.
With my third eye, I conjure the red fox, its healthy tail, recount the good of this world, the farmer tending her tomatoes, the beans
dazzled green al dente in butter, salt and pepper, cows munching on grass. The orb of sun-gold from which all bounty flows. ~Twyla M. Hansen “Trying to Pray” fromRock. Tree. Bird
There is much to pray about. The list is endless and the need overwhelming.
Where even to begin?
It is for good reason we are advised by Paul to “pray without ceasing” (the word in Greek is adialeiptos or “uninterruptedly”) in 1 Thessalonians 5:17.
It is not only when we audibly and in form, address our petitions to the Deity that we pray. We pray without ceasing. Every secret wish is a prayer. Every house is a church; the corner of every street is a closet of devotion. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson in his sermon: Pray Without Ceasing
A farmer may have an addendum: every barn is a church, every moment kneeling and weeding the soil an act of devotion, every moment of care-taking God’s creation an act of sacramental obedience. Praying without ceasing in the course of one’s day.
Yet even before we clasp our hands together, we are told to “Rejoice always.” -Rejoice before complaining. -Rejoice before requesting. -Rejoice before losing heart.
Let me be breathing in the spirit of the seasons, overwhelmed by joy, before I talk with God. He knows which tears are which.