A Peaceable Kingdom

She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen
into her, so that, like an audience,
she can look them over, menacing and sullen,
and curl to sleep with them. But all at once

as if awakened, she turns her face to yours;
and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny,
inside the golden amber of her eyeballs
suspended, like a prehistoric fly.
~Ranier Maria Rilke from “Black Cat”

Pangur Bán and I at work,
Adepts, equals, cat and clerk:
His whole instinct is to hunt,
Mine to free the meaning pent.

All the while, his round bright eye
Fixes on the wall, while I
Focus my less piercing gaze
On the challenge of the page.

With his unsheathed, perfect nails
Pangur springs, exults and kills.
When the longed-for, difficult
Answers come, I too exult.

So it goes. To each his own.
No vying. No vexation.
Taking pleasure, taking pains,
Kindred spirits, veterans.

Day and night, soft purr, soft pad,
Pangur Bán has learned his trade.
Day and night, my own hard work
Solves the cruxes, makes a mark.
~Anonymous Irish monk from “Pangur Bán”
, translated by Seamus Heaney

Cally, our first adopted calico cat, was quite elderly and fading fast. Winter is always a tough time for barn cats, even with snug shelter, plentiful food and water. We had lost our 16+ year old tuxedo kitty just a couple months previously, and now Cally, not much younger,  was not going to last much longer. She still got up to eat and potty, and still licked her front paws clean, but couldn’t manage much else.  Her frame was thin and frail, her coat dull and matted in places, she had been deaf for some time and her eyes were rheumy.  She spent her days and nights in a nest of hay on the floor of our horse barn, watching the comings and goings of horse hooves and people rolling by with wheelbarrows full of manure.  One evening she allowed me to bring her a little rug to give her a bit more cushion and protection from drafts, as I wouldn’t be surprised to find her permanently curled up there the next morning.  Her time was soon to come.

Cally was one of a litter raised in the mid-90’s by good friends, the VanderHaaks, on their acreage a few miles from here. When they had to make a move to a city on the east coast, their Cally and an orange colored kitty were in need of a new home. On arrival, the orange cat immediately ran into the woods, only rarely to be spotted at a distance for a few months and then completely disappeared, possibly a victim of the local coyote pack.  Cally strolled onto our farm and decreed it satisfactory.  She moved right in, immediately at home with the cows, horses, chickens, our aging dog Tango (who loved cats) and our other cats. In no time, she became the undisputed leader, with great nobility and elegance. There was no one who would dare to question her authority.

We knew Cally was unusual from the start. Tango initially approached her somewhat warily, given the reaction Tango elicited from our other cats (typically a hair raising hiss, scratch and spit). Instead, Cally marched right up, rubbed noses with Tango, and they became fast friends, cuddling together on our front porch whenever it was time to take a nap. They were best pals. Tango surely loved anyone who would snuggle up to her belly and keep her warm and Cally was the perfect belly warmer (as Garrison Keillor says, “a heater cat”).

Our free range rooster seriously questioned this dog/cat relationship.  He was a bit indignant about a front porch communal naptime and would strut up the sidewalk, walk up and down the porch and perch on the railing,  muttering to himself about how improper it was, and at times getting quite loud and insistent about it. They completely ignored him, which obviously bugged him, proud and haughty bird that he was.

One fall morning, as I opened the front door to go down the driveway to get the newspaper in the pre-dawn mist, I was astonished to see not just a cat and dog snuggled together on the porch mat, but the rooster as well, tucked up next to Tango’s tail. As usual,  Tango and Cally didn’t move a muscle when I appeared, as was their habit–I always had to step over them to get to where I needed to go. The rooster, however, was very startled to see me,  almost embarrassed.  He stood up quickly, flapped his wings a few times, and swaggered off crowing, just to prove he hadn’t compromised his cock-sure raison d’etre.

No, I didn’t have my camera with me and I never found them all together ever again. The reader will have to just take it on faith.

After Tango died, Cally rebounded by taking on the training of our new corgi pup and making sure he understood her regal authority in all things, and demanding, in her silent way, his respect and servitude.  He would happily chase other cats, but never Cally. They would touch noses, she would rub against his fur, and tickle his chin with her tail and all he could think to do was smile and wag at her.

So I figure a dog, a cat and a rooster sleeping together was our little farm’s version of the lion and lamb lying down together.  We can learn something from the peaceable kingdom right outside our front door,  a harbinger of what is possible for the rest of us.  Despite claws, sharp teeth, and talons and too many inflexible opinions, it is possible to snuggle together in harmony and mutual need for warmth and comfort.

Our special Cally made it happen here on earth. Up in heaven, I suspect she has met up with Tango, and one rooster with attitude, for a nice nap on the other side.

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the goat; and the calf and the young lion and the yearling together; and a little child shall lead them.
Isaiah 11:6

Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks, The Met

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On a Monday

My life is not this steeply sloping hour,
in which you see me hurrying.
Much stands behind me;
I stand before it like a tree;

I am the rest between two notes,
which are somehow always in discord
because Death’s note wants to climb over—
but in the dark interval, reconciled,
they stay there trembling.
And the song goes on, beautiful.
― Rainer Maria Rilke from “My Life is Not This Steeply Sloping Hour”

photo by Josh Scholten

On Monday mornings I often feel I’m stuck immobilized in the spot in the middle between discordant notes.

There is on one side of me the pressure of catch-up from what was left undone through the weekend and on the other side is the anticipated demand of the coming week of stressful work I am committed to doing. Before I arrive to work, I dwell uneasily in dead center between the unknown ahead and the known behind.

This moment of rest in the present, this trembling broken Now, is my moment of reconciliation, my Sabbath extended.

This Monday morning I allow myself an instant of silence and reflection before I surge full bore into the week, knowing that on my journey I’ll inevitably hit wrong notes, just as I do when I play, unprepared, at the piano.

But it can be beautiful nevertheless.

Even the least harmonious notes seek reconciliation within the next chord. I now move from the rest of my Sabbath back into the rhythm of my life.

Trembling, still trembling.

A book of beauty in words and photos, available to order here:

Deep in Darkness

Now I am still
And plain:
No more words….

And deep in the darkness is God.
~Rainer Maria Rilke from The Inner Sky: Poems, Notes, Dreams

Some days words simply don’t come.
I am stilled – waiting.
God is in the plainness of my emptiness.
He is there – waiting.


For Sheer Delight and Gratitude

Oh do you have time
to linger
for just a little while
out of your busy
and very important day

for the goldfinches
that have gathered
in a field of thistles
for a musical battle,
to see who can sing
the highest note,
or the lowest,
or the most expressive of mirth,
or the most tender?

Their strong, blunt beaks
drink the air

as they strive
melodiously
not for your sake
and not for mine
and not for the sake of winning
but for sheer delight and gratitude

believe us, they say,
it is a serious thing
just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.

I beg of you,
do not walk by
without pausing
to attend to this
rather ridiculous performance.

It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.
~Mary Oliver “An Invitation”

…for here there is no place
that does not see you.
You must change your life.

~Rainer Maria Rilke from “Archaic Torso of Apollo”

Just to be alive means everything~~

Despite all the brokenness in this world
and our own cracks in need of glue,
we need healing.

I welcome the change; a new day
of delight and gratitude.

Do not walk by.
Pause.
Linger.
Change.
You are welcome.

Thorns Have Roses

You love the roses – so do I. I wish
The sky would rain down roses, as they rain
From off the shaken bush. Why will it not?
Then all the valley would be pink and white
And soft to tread on. They would fall as light
As feathers, smelling sweet; and it would be
Like sleeping and like waking, all at once!
~George Eliot
from “The Spanish Gypsy”

It was gardener/author Alphonse Karr in the mid-19th century who wrote that even though most people grumble about roses having thorns,  he was grateful that thorns have roses.

There was a time when thorns were not part of our world, when we knew nothing of suffering and death. Yet in pursuing and desiring more than we were already generously given, we received more than we bargained for. We are still paying for that decision; we continue to reel under the thorns our choices produce — every day there is more bloodletting.

So a Rose was sent to adorn the thorns.

And what did we do? We chose thorns to make Him bleed and still do to this day.

A fragrant rose blooms beautiful,
bleeding amid the thorns,
raining down as we sleep and wake,
and will to the endless day.

Abandon entouré d’abandon, tendresse touchant aux tendresses…
C’est ton intérieur qui sans cesse se caresse, dirait-on;
se caresse en soi-même, par son propre reflet éclairé.
Ainsi tu inventes le thème du Narcisse exaucé.
~Rainer Maria Rilke “Dirait-on” from his French Poetry collection ‘Les chansons de la rose’

(Literal translation of “So They Say” from “The Song of the Rose”)
Abandon enveloping abandon, Tenderness brushing tendernesses,
Who you are sustains you eternally, so they say;
Your very being is nourished by its own enlightened reflection;
So you compose the theme of Narcissus redeemed.

http://www.classicalchops.org/videos/morten-lauridsen-how-he-wrote-dirait-on

Ambushed

At first a childhood, limitless and free
of any goals. Ah sweet unconsciousness.
Then sudden terror, schoolrooms, slavery,
the plunge into temptation and deep loss.

Defiance. The child bent becomes the bender,
Inflicts on others what he once went through.
Loved, feared, rescuer, wrestler, victor,
he takes his vengeance, blow by blow.

And now in vast, cold, empty space, alone.
Yet hidden deep within the grown-up heart,
a longing for the first world, the ancient one …

Then, from His place of ambush, God leapt out.
~ Rainer Maria Rilke “Imaginary Career”

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. 
Ezekiel 36: 26

God is waiting for us,
ready to perform transplant surgery,
our stony hearts restored to hearts of flesh,
our spirits renewed and refreshed.

We are ambushed by God,
ready to leap back into His arms.



Give Me Your Hand

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 “Go to the Limits of Your Longing” from
The Book of Hours

We were made for times like these: we feel things deeply, our awe and our fears, so much so we feel swept away.

Feelings are not the final say but they immobilize us.

God has told us not to back away from the shadow or the light – we will find Him if we long for Him enough.

Thought we may be lost, wandering, uncertain, He takes us by the hand and leads us through.

Grab hold and hang on tight.

He Does Not Leave Us Where We Are: Between Heaven and Earth

Slowly the west reaches for clothes of new colors
which it passes to a row of ancient trees.
You look, and soon these two worlds both leave you
one part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth.

leaving you, not really belonging to either,
not so hopelessly dark as that house that is silent,
not so unswervingly given to the eternal as that thing
that turns to a star each night and climbs–

leaving you (it is impossible to untangle the threads)
your own life, timid and standing high and growing,
so that, sometimes blocked in, sometimes reaching out,
one moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.
~Rainer Maria Rilke “Sunset” (Trans. by Robert Bly) from The Soul is Here for Its Own Joy


We, frail people that we are, live out our lives between heaven and earth, sometimes in an uneasy tug-of-war between the two. We feel not quite ready for heaven as our roots go deep here, yet the challenges of daily life on this soil can seem overwhelmingly difficult and we seek relief, begging for mercy.

As we struggle to stay healthy during a spreading pandemic, it is frightening to watch others suffer as death tolls rise. We pray for safety for ourselves and those we love, knowing we are living “in between” where we are now and where we soon will be.

Shall we remain stones on the ground, still and lifeless, or are we destined to become a star glistening in the firmament?

Or are we like a tree stretching between soil and sky trying to touch both and remain standing while buffeted by forces beyond our control?

Christ the Son, on earth and in heaven, maintains an eternal connection to above and below. In His hands and under His protection, we are safe no matter where we are and where He takes us.

We can be mere stones no more.

This year’s Barnstorming theme for the season of Lent:

God sees us as we are,
loves us as we are,
and accepts us as we are.
But by His grace,
He does not leave us where we are.
~Tim Keller

A World of Crowded Cups to Fill

sphere of pillowed sky
one faceless gathering of blue.
..

… I’m tethered, and devoted
to your raw and lonely bloom

my lavish need to drink
your world of crowded cups to fill.
~Tara Bray “hydrangea” from Image Journal

Like in old cans of paint the last green hue,
these leaves are sere and rough and dull-complected
behind the blossom clusters in which blue
is not so much displayed as it’s reflected;

They do reflect it imprecise and teary,
as though they’d rather have it go away,
and just like faded, once blue stationery,
they’re tinged with yellow, violet and gray;

As in an often laundered children’s smock,
cast off, its usefulness now all but over,
one senses running down a small life’s clock.

Yet suddenly the blue revives, it seems,
and in among these clusters one discovers
a tender blue rejoicing in the green.
~Rainer Maria Rilke “Blue Hydrangea” Translation by Bernhard Frank

Dwelling within a mosaic of dying colors,
these petals fold and collapse
under the weight of the sky’s tears.

This hydrangea bears a rainbow of hues,
once-vibrant promises of blue
now fading to rusts and grays.

I know what this is like:
the running out of the clock,
feeling the limits of vitality.

Withering and drying,
I’m drawn, thirsty for the beauty,
to this waning artist’s palette.

To quench my thirst:
from an open cup, an invitation,
an everlasting visual sacrament.

A Cloudy Temple

We must go up into the chase in the evenings,
and pray there with nothing but God’s cloud temple between us and His heaven!

…and then all still – hushed – awe-bound,
as the great thunderclouds slide up from the far south!
Then, there to praise God!

~Charles Kingsley

Heaven and earth are only three feet apart,
but in the thin places that distance is even smaller.
A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted
and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God.
~Celtic saying

To make myself understood and to diminish the distance between us,
I called out: “I am an evening cloud too.”
They stopped still, evidently taking a good look at me.
Then they stretched towards me their fine, transparent, rosy wings.
That is how evening clouds greet each other.
They had recognized me.
~Rainer Maria RilkeStories of God

We do not live in a part of the world with extremes in weather and for that I’m immensely grateful. We are moderate in temperature range, precipitation, wind velocity – for the most part.

Our cloud cover is mostly solid gray much of the time, very plain and unassuming, barely worth noticing.

When there are a few days each season of dramatic clouds, the horizon takes on a different feel, telling a new story, inviting our attention and admiration and welcoming us closer.

Heaven is nearer; the clouds recognize us and greet us with their rosy wings. The thin place between earth and heaven becomes thin indeed.