Waiting in Wilderness: What is Expected

Look at the birds 1
Consider the lilies 2
Drink ye all of it 3

Ask 4
Seek
Knock
Enter by the narrow gate 5

Do not be anxious 6
Judge not; 7 do not give dogs what is holy 8

Go: be it done for you 9
Do not be afraid 10
Maiden, arise 11
Young man, I say, arise 12

Stretch out your hand 13
Stand up, 14 be still 15
Rise, let us be going … 16

Love 17
Forgive 18
Remember me 19
~Kathleen Norris Imperatives, from
Journey: New and Selected Poems/ Mysteries of the Incarnation

These are the essentials of what Jesus asks.
Basic, simple, gentle, emphatic, encouraging.
So why don’t I follow through?
Why do I hand myself over to anxiety and fear?
Why do I fail at what should be so simple?
He knows I need reminders. He knows I am weak.
So He says it again: don’t forget this.
Remember me.
I will remember. I will remember You.

1 Matthew 6:26. See also Luke 12:24, “Consider the ravens.”
2 Matthew 6:28; Luke 12:27.
3 “Drink from it, all of you” (Matthew 26:27). Norris uses the King James translation here.
4 This stanza is a series of Jesus’s commands from the Sermon on the Mount: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matthew 7:7, King James; also Luke 11:9).
5 Matthew 7:13-14; also Luke 13:23-24.
6 Matthew 6:25, 31; Luke 12:22, 29.
7 Matthew 7:1; Mark 4:24; Luke 6:37-38.
8 Matthew 7:6.
9 Matthew 8:13.
10 “Do not be afraid” – a frequent command by Jesus; for example, Matthew 10:31; 14:27; 17:7; 28:10.
11 The healing of Jairus’s daughter: “Little girl, get up!” (Mark 5:41; also Luke 8:54).
12 The healing the widow’s only son; Luke 7:14.
13 The healing of the man with the withered hand: Matthew 12:13; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11.
14 Jesus’s healing the paralyzed man: Matthew 9:2-8; Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26.
15 Jesus’s command to the ocean: Mark 5:39; also Matthew 8:26; Luke 8:24.
16 Jesus to his disciples in Gethsemane: “Rise, let us be going: behold, he is at hand that doth betray me” (Matthew 26:46; Mark 14:42).
17Jesus’s two great commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. … You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39; also Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-28).
18 Matthew 18:21-22; Luke 17:4.

Turning Darkness into Light: Infinite Weight and Lightness

“Like Mary, we have no way of knowing…
We can ask for courage, however,
and trust that God has not led us into this new land
only to abandon us there.”
~Kathleen Norris from God With Us

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,

almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
courage.
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
God waited.

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

____________________________

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
uncomprehending.
More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

______________________________

She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
only asked
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.

This was the moment no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.

A breath unbreathed,
                                Spirit,
                                          suspended,
                                                            waiting.

______________________________

She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’
Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
                                                       raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
                                  consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
                               and the iridescent wings.
Consent,
              courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.
~Denise Levertov “The Annunciation”

Like most people living in 2020,
I want things to be the way I want them:
my plans, my timing, my hopes and dreams first and foremost.

And then the unexpected happens and suddenly nothing looks the way it was supposed to be. There is infinite weight within infinite emptiness.

Only then, as an emptied vessel, can I be filled.

In my forty years of clinical work, I’ve never before seen such an epidemic of hopelessness. Debts seem too great, reserves too limited, foundations too shaky, plans dashed, the future too uncertain.

In the annunciation of the angel approaching a young woman out of the blue, Mary’s response to this overwhelming event is a model for us all when we are hit by the unexpected.

She is prepared; she has studied and knows God’s Word and His promise to His people, even in the midst of trouble. She is able to articulate it beautifully in the song she sings as her response. She gives up her so-carefully-planned-out life to give life to God within her.

Her resilience reverberates through the ages and to each one of us in our own multi-faceted and overwhelming troubles:
may it be to me as you say.

May it be.
Your plans, Your purpose, Your promise – all embodied within me.

Let it be.

Even if it pierces my soul as with a sword so that I leak out to empty;
you are there to plug the bleeding hole, filling me with your infinite light.

Everything inside me cries for order
Everything inside me wants to hide
Is this shadow an angel or a warrior?
If God is pleased with me, why am I so terrified?
Someone tell me I am only dreaming
Somehow help me see with Heaven’s eyes
And before my head agrees,
My heart is on its knees
Holy is He. Blessed am I.

Be born in me
Be born in me
Trembling heart, somehow I believe
That You chose me
I’ll hold you in the beginning
You will hold me in the end
Every moment in the middle,
Make my heart your Bethlehem
Be born in me

All this time we’ve waited for the promise
All this time You’ve waited for my arms
Did You wrap yourself inside the unexpected
So we might know that Love would go that far?

Be born in me
Be born in me
Trembling heart, somehow I believe
That You chose me
I’ll hold you in the beginning
You will hold me in the end
Every moment in the middle,
Make my heart your Bethlehem
Be born in me

I am not brave
I’ll never be
The only thing my heart can offer is a vacancy
I’m just a girl
Nothing more
But I am willing, I am Yours
Be born in me
Be born in me
Trembling heart, somehow I believe
That You chose me
I’ll hold you in the beginning
You will hold me in the end
Every moment in the middle,
Make my heart your Bethlehem
Be born in me

Francesca Battistelli

Grace Disguised

If grace is so wonderful, why do we have such difficulty recognizing and accepting it?

Maybe it’s because grace is not gentle or made-to-order.

It often comes disguised as loss, or failure, or unwelcome change.
For grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn’t know we needed
and take us places where we didn’t know we didn’t want to go.
~Kathleen Norris from Acedia and Me

I’ve been salvaged when I didn’t even know I needed saving.
I’ve been given what I didn’t think I needed so never had asked.
I’ve been taken places I never planned to be when I was sure things were fine right where I was.

Grace is not about giving me what I think I want;
it is not a reward for good behavior. 

It is giving me exactly what I need when I deserve nothing.

It is the thorny landing that catches me when I fall.
It is the tiny drop that spares me in drought.
It is scars formed as proof that healing happens to the deepest wounds.
It is being scattered when I planned to remain whole.

I am grateful, so very grateful, for what I didn’t know.
I am grateful, so very grateful, for grace disguised.

People of Your Light

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On Epiphany day,
     we are still the people walking.
     We are still people in the dark,
          and the darkness looms large around us,
          beset as we are by fear,
                                        anxiety,
                                        brutality,
                                        violence,
                                        loss —
          a dozen alienations that we cannot manage.

We are — we could be — people of your light.
     So we pray for the light of your glorious presence
          as we wait for your appearing;
     we pray for the light of your wondrous grace
          as we exhaust our coping capacity;
     we pray for your gift of newness that
          will override our weariness;
     we pray that we may see and know and hear and trust
          in your good rule.

That we may have energy, courage, and freedom to enact
         your rule through the demands of this day.
         We submit our day to you and to your rule, with deep joy and high hope.
~Walter Brueggemann from  Prayers for a Privileged People 

 

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Unclench your fists
Hold out your hands.
Take mine.
Let us hold each other.
Thus is his Glory Manifest.
~Madeleine L’Engle “Epiphany”

 

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Today is celebrated the Feast of Epiphany (His Glory revealed and made manifest in all lives).

Even as weak and crumbling vessels, God is made manifest within us. It is not the easy path to say yes to God: it means sacrifice, abandoning our will for His will so His glory is illuminated by His Light, not ours.

And so, we, like Mary, shall say yes.
His Seed shall take root in our hearts.

 

“Like Mary, we have no way of knowing…
We can ask for courage, however,
and trust that God has not led us into this new land
only to abandon us there.”

~Kathleen Norris from God With Us

sunset15188

To Labor and Not Seek Reward

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And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

*

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.
~Seamus Heaney “St. Kevin and the Blackbird”

 

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Eternal Word, only begotten Son of God,
Teach me true generosity.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve.
To give without counting the cost,
To fight heedless of wounds,
To labor without seeking rest,
To sacrifice myself without thought of any reward
Save the knowledge that I have done your will.
Amen.

~St. Ignatius’ Prayer for Generosity

 

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Heaney shifts from the literal (if “imagined”) physical world to the metaphysical and symbolic. In the midst of burnout and mental detachment, Kevin is somehow returned to and reconnected with his calling at a level deeper than conscious thought. Indeed, in the span of one brief line break, it is as though he has become indistinguishable from his life’s mission itself: he is “mirrored clear” in the pure, deep waters of an empathetic love for the “network of eternal life” into which he is presently and vitally “linked.”

The way Heaney constructs the next two lines calls attention to the paradox of mindfulness he illuminates. Kevin “prays,” which perhaps most immediately suggests that he entreats God to help him “labour and not to seek reward.” But after the stanza break, Heaney reveals that this prayer is not at all what the reader might have expected; Kevin’s prayer is not conscious because he is no longer conscious in the workaday-world way. Rather, Kevin’s is

“A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

When he can no longer muster the energy to think of the life entrusted to him, his own delights and discomforts in fostering that life, or even the original life force (here, the “river”) that led to his vocation, it is as if a kind of autonomic spirituality kicks in to complement the compassionate detachment with which—or in which—he holds the blackbird. Body and soul and work are one.
~Kimberly R. Myers, PhD, MA from “Mindfulness and Seamus Heaney” from JAMA’s
A Piece of My Mind, Aug.1, 2017

 

hydrangeaaugust

…we have tried to do too much, pretending to be in such control of things that we are indispensible…

…if you’re like me, you take a kind of comfort in being busy. The danger is that we will come to feel too useful, so full of purpose and the necessity of fulfilling obligations that we lose sight of God’s play with creation, and with ourselves.
~Kathleen Norris from The Quotidian Mysteries

 

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Not Just Another Day

budrain

 

“This is another day, O Lord…
If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely.
If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly.
If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently.
And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly.”
— Kathleen Norris citing the Book of Common Prayer

 

redrosedroplets

 

This day is the wrap-up to my twenty-eighth academic year working as a college health physician,  the most demanding so far.  Despite budget challenges, inadequate staffing, a higher severity of illness in a patient population with burgeoning mental health needs,  our staff did an incredible job this year serving students and their families with the resources we do have.   Reaching this day today is poignant: we will miss the graduating students we have gotten to know so well over four or five years,  we watch others leave temporarily for the summer, some to far away places around the globe, and we weep for those who have failed out, given up or fallen away from those who care deeply about them, some never to return to school again.

In my work I strive to do what is needed when it is needed no matter what time of the day or night.  There are obviously times when I fall short– too vehement when I need to be quiet, too urgent and pressured when I need to be patient,  too anxious to do something/anything when it is best to courageously do nothing.  It is very difficult for any doctor to choose to do nothing but I vowed in my own graduation ceremony over forty years ago to “First do no harm.”  And I’ve tried hard to live up to that vow.

In a sense I graduate as well on this last day of the school year– only not with cap and gown and diploma in hand.  Each year I learn enough from each patient to fill volumes, as they speak of their struggles, their pain, their stories and sometimes hearing, most tragically, their forever silence.

I honor our students and their families on this day, sharing the blessings from us who work toward the goal of sending them healthier and better equipped and joyful into the rest of their lives.

It is not just another day.

 

drizzleiris

 

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What I Did Not Know

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mejierface

For grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn’t know we needed and take us places where we didn’t know we didn’t want to go.
~Kathleen Norris

 

His grace and mercy have salvaged me
when I didn’t know I needed saving,
given me what I didn’t think I needed
so have never asked for,
and taken me where I never planned to be
because I was so comfortable where I was.

Grace is not about giving me what I want;
it is not reward for following the rules,
being good or staying out of trouble.
It is rescue from a fate of meaningless,
a gift of God’s heart buoying my weakness
when I deserve nothing whatsoever.

This grace is a prickly vine I must cling to,
grateful to be spared from falling.
It is a overwhelming flow that carries me to safety
through the desolate landscape.

I am grateful,
so very grateful,
for what I did not know
I needed to know.

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mejierwaterfall

meijer1.

Epiphany

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All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
~T.S. Eliot from “Journey of the Magi”

 

sunset15163

 

Unclench your fists
Hold out your hands.
Take mine.
Let us hold each other.
Thus is his Glory Manifest.
~Madeleine L’Engle “Epiphany”

Venus & Mercury
Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. 
The beauty of it smote his heart,
as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. 
For like a shaft, clear and cold,
the thought pierced him that in the end
the Shadow was only a small and passing thing:
there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.
~J.R.R. Tolikien, The Return of the King

________________________________

 

Epiphany is the day of acknowledging God’s glory revealed in our lives, illuminating the darkness that surrounds us. With infinite heaviness and lightness we accept our new role as weak and crumbling vessels become beautiful as God is made manifest within us.

It is not the easy path to accept the ultimate freedom that requires our true sacrifice of self, just as it was not easy for the visiting magi traveling far from home — or for Mary saying yes to God even as her own heart is pierced by what that means for her.

Today we too shall say yes, trusting Him as we take His offered hand.

 

“Like Mary, we have no way of knowing… We can ask for courage, however, and trust that God has not led us into this new land only to abandon us there.”
~Kathleen Norris from God With Us

 

snowsky14161

Prepare for Joy: Opened Like Leaves

tulipleafdrops

palmice

I came to your door
with soup and bread.
I didn’t know you
but you were a neighbor
in pain: and a little soup and bread,
I reasoned, never hurt anyone.

I shouldn’t reason.
I appeared the day
your divorce was final:
a woman, flushed with cooking
and talk, and you watched,
fascinated,
coiled like a spring.

You seemed so brave and lonely
I wanted to comfort you like a child.
I couldn’t of course.
You wanted to ask me too far in.

It was then I knew
it had to be like prayer.
We can’t ask
for what we know we want:
we have to ask to be led
someplace we never dreamed of going,
a place we don’t want to be.

We’ll find ourselves there
one morning,
opened like leaves,
and it will be all right.
~Kathleen Norris “Answered Prayer”

 

When I struggle with how to pray
I fall back to asking for strength
to cope with whatever is to come,
rather than pray for what I hope,
a prayer of the terrified,
the worried and the weak.

How is it with God, all things are possible,
He asked for the cup to be taken,
knowing it would remain in His Hands.
His will
will be done,
even when terrified,
worried, and weary.
So instead of closing off,
as I would have done,
not wanting to go somewhere
I don’t want to be,
He opened up Himself
like a leaf,
the earth becoming His flesh,
His flesh one with the tree.

And it was all right.
It will always be
all right.

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What I Didn’t Know

photo by Josh Scholten
photo by Josh Scholten

For grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn’t know we needed and take us places where we didn’t know we didn’t want to go.
~Kathleen Norris

His grace and mercy has salvaged me when I didn’t know I needed saving, given me what I didn’t think I needed so have never asked for, and taken me where I never planned to be because I was so comfortable where I was.

Grace is not about giving me what I want; it is never a reward for good behavior.  It is giving me what I need when I deserve nothing whatsoever.

It is the prickly vine I must cling to, grateful to be spared from falling.  It is the flow that carries me to safety through the desolate landscape.

I am grateful, so very grateful, for what I didn’t know.

photo by Josh Scholten
photo by Josh Scholten