The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: O Great Mystery

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave

In these years!

Yet, I feel,If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,“
In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,
”I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
~Thomas Hardy “The Oxen”

Says a country legend told every year:
Go to the barn on Christmas Eve and see
what the creatures do as that long night tips over.
Down on their knees they will go, the fire
of an old memory whistling through their minds!

So I went. Wrapped to my eyes against the cold
I creaked back the barn door and peered in.
From town the church bells spilled their midnight music,
and the beasts listened – yet they lay in their stalls like stone.

Oh the heretics!
Not to remember Bethlehem,
or the star as bright as a sun,
or the child born on a bed of straw!
To know only of the dissolving Now!

Still they drowsed on –
citizens of the pure, the physical world,
they loomed in the dark: powerful
of body, peaceful of mind, innocent of history.

Brothers! I whispered. It is Christmas!
And you are no heretics, but a miracle,
immaculate still as when you thundered forth
on the morning of creation!
As for Bethlehem, that blazing star

still sailed the dark, but only looked for me.
Caught in its light, listening again to its story,
I curled against some sleepy beast, who nuzzled
my hair as though I were a child, and warmed me
the best it could all night.

~Mary Oliver “Christmas Poem” from Goodness and Light

The winds were scornful,
Passing by;
And gathering Angels
Wondered why

A burdened Mother
Did not mind
That only animals
Were kind.

For who in all the world
Could guess
That God would search out
Loneliness.
~Sr. M. Chrysostom, O.S.B.  “The Stable”

Beholding his glory is only half our job. 
In our souls too the mysteries must be brought forth; 
we are not really Christians till that has been done. 
A mystic says human nature is like a stable inhabited 
by the ox of passion and the ass of prejudice—
animals which take up a lot of room 
and which I suppose most of us are feeding on the quiet. 
And it is there between them, pushing them out, 
that Christ must be born 
and in their very manger he must be laid—
and they will be the first to fall on their knees before him. 
Sometimes Christians seem far nearer to those animals 
than to Christ in his simple poverty, self-abandoned to God.
~Evelyn Underhill
“Light of the World” from Watch for the Light

Growing up on my childhood farm,
remembering the magic of Christmas eve night,
I bundled myself up to stay warm
in our barn, to witness an unbelievable sight.

At midnight we knew the animals knelt down,
speaking words we could all understand,
to worship a Child born in Bethlehem town,
in a barn, long ago in a far away land.

They were there that night, to see and to hear,
the blessings that came from the sky.
They patiently stood watch at the manger near,
in a barn, while shepherds and kings stopped by.

My trips to the barn were always too late,
our cows would be chewing, our chickens asleep,
our horses breathing softly, cats climbing the gate,
in our barn, there was never a neigh, moo or peep.

But I knew they had done it, I just missed it again!
They were plainly so calm, well-fed and at peace
in the sweet smelling straw, all snug in their pens,
in a barn, a mystery, once more, took place.

Even now, I still bundle to go out Christmas eve,
in the hope I’ll catch them just once more this time.
Though I’m older and grayer, I still firmly believe
in the barn, a Birth happened amid cobwebs and grime.

Our horses sigh low as they hear me come near,
that tells me the time I hope for is now,
they will drop to their knees without any fear
in our barn, as worship, all living things bow.

I wonder anew at God’s immense trust
for His creatures so sheltered that darkening night –
the mystery of why of all places, His Son must
begin life in a barn: a welcoming most holy and right.
~Emily Gibson “In the Barn” (written Christmas Eve 1999)

Let it come, as it will, and don’t   
be afraid. God does not leave us   
comfortless, so let evening come.
~Jane Kenyon, from “Let Evening Come”

This year’s Barnstorming Advent theme “… the Beginning shall remind us of the End” is taken from the final lines in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”

Latin text
O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
iacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare
Dominum Iesum Christum.
Alleluia!

English translation
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the newborn Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
the Lord, Jesus Christ.
Alleluia!

Sing O the wild wood, the green holly,
The silent river and barren tree;
The humble creatures that no man sees:
Sing O the wild wood.

A weary journey one winter’s night;
No hope of shelter, no rest in sight.
Who was the creature that bore Mary?
A simple donkey.

And when they came into Beth’lem Town
They found a stable to lay them down;
For their companions that Christmas night,
An ox and an ass.

And then an angel came down to earth
To bear the news of the Saviour’s birth;
The first to marvel were shepherds poor,
And sheep with their lambs.

Sing O the wild wood, the green holly,
The silent river and barren tree;
The humble creatures that no man sees:
Sing O the wild wood.
John Rutter

Jesus our brother, strong and good
Was humbly born in a stable rude
And the friendly beasts around him stood
Jesus our brother, strong and good
“I, ” said the donkey, shaggy and brown
“I carried his mother up hill and down
I carried his mother to Bethlehem town”
“I, ” said the donkey, shaggy and brown
“I, ” said the cow, all white and red
“I gave him my manger for his bed
I gave him my hay to pillow his head”
“I, ” said the cow, all white and red
“I, ” said the sheep with curly horn
“I gave him my wool for his blanket warm
He wore my coat on Christmas morn”
“I, ” said the sheep with curly horn
“I, ” said the dove from the rafters high
“I cooed him to sleep so he would not cry
We cooed him to sleep, my mate and I”
“I, ” said the dove from rafters high
Thus every beast by some good spell
In the stable dark was glad to tell
Of the gifts they gave Emmanuel
Of the gifts they gave Emmanuel

Turning Darkness Into Light: A Safe Place in My Heart

In the dark, a child might ask, What is the world?
just to hear his sister
promise, An unfinished wing of heaven,
just to hear his brother say,
A house inside a house,
but most of all to hear his mother answer,
One more song, then you go to sleep.


How could anyone in that bed guess
the question finds its beginning
in the answer long growing
inside the one who asked, that restless boy,
the night’s darling?


Later, a man lying awake,
he might ask it again,
just to hear the silence
charge him, This night
arching over your sleepless wondering,

this night, the near ground
every reaching-out-to overreaches,

just to remind himself
out of what little earth and duration,
out of what immense good-bye,


each must make a safe place of his heart,
before so strange and wild a guest
as God approaches.

~Li Young Lee “Nativity Poem”

As alone as we may feel during this odd time
without the comfort of ones we love now near,
as separate as it is without shared meals and laughter,
there is one thing a virus can’t take from us:

we are the shelter for God comes newborn
we are the womb He seeks
we are the safe place hidden from the storms of the world
and He grows here in our hearts –
invited and wild and strange –
so nurtured and so nurturing.


No presents, no candy, no treat
No stockings hung by the fire
No parties, no family to greet
No angel’s heavenly choirs

Bells are ringing all over the world
Bells are ringing calling the light
Bells are ringing all over the world
All over the world tonight

No doorways, no windows, no walls
No shelter here on the ground
No standing and no safe place to fall
Just the promise of this distant sound

Bells are ringing all over the world
Bells are ringing calling the light
Bells are ringing all over the world
All over the world tonight

Wherever you’re walking tonight
Whoever you’re waiting for
Somehow by the stable’s faint light
Peace in your heart is restored

Bells are ringing all over the world
Bells are ringing calling the light
Bells are ringing all over the world
All over the world

Bells are ringing all over the world
Bells are ringing calling the light
Bells are ringing all over the world
All over the world tonight
~Mary Chapin Carpenter

Edging Closer for Company

The trees are coming into their winter bareness,
the only green is the lichen on their branches.
Against the hemlocks, the rain is falling in dim, straight lines…
This is the time of year when all the houses have come out of the woods, edging closer to the roads as if for company.
~Verlyn Klinkenborg “The Rain It Raineth”

The deciduous trees in our part of the country have all been stripped bare, having come through rain and gusty winds in the last week.  It forces typically leaf-hidden homes out of camouflage and I’m once again startled at the actual proximity of our neighbors.  It isn’t as obvious in the summer given the tree buffer everyone has carefully planted.  Now we’re reminded once again we are not alone and actually never have been.

Even the mountains that surround us from the northwest to the southeast seem closer when the trees are bare and new snow has settled on their steep shoulders.

We think we have autonomy all wrapped up but it takes the storms of autumn to remind us we are unwrapped and vulnerable, stark naked, in desperate need of company when darkness comes early, the snow flies and the lights are flickering.

photo by Nate Gibson

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When the Rain Began

The room darkened, darkened until
our nakedness became a form of gray;
then the rain came bursting,
and we were sheltered, blessed,
upheld in a world of elements
that held us justified.
In all the love I had felt for you before,
in all that love,
there was no love
like that I felt when the rain began…
~John Updike from “The Blessing” from Collected Poems.

As the rains return,
we shelter together,
blessed by years and miles,
our unknown become known,
our understanding breathed in silence.
Though we be gray as the clouds above,
our hearts beat in synchrony
each pulsing moment
more sacred than the last.

A Wink of Eyes and Hoof Prints

The neighbor’s horses idle
under the roof
of their three-sided shelter,
looking out at the rain.

Sometimes
one or another
will fade into the shadows
in the corner, maybe
to eat, or drink.

Still, the others stand,
blowing out their warm
breaths. Rain rattles
on the metal roof.

Their hoof prints
in the corral
open gray eyes to the sky,
and wink each time
another drop falls in.
~Jennifer Gray

The September rains have returned and will stay awhile. We, especially the horses, sigh with relief, as flies no longer crawl over their faces all day seeking a watery eye to drink from. With no flies around, there are also no longer birds tickling pony backs looking for a meal.

Our Haflingers prefer to graze under open gray skies not bothering to seek cover during the day; their mountain coats provide adequate insulation in a rain squall. Darkness descends earlier and earlier so I go out in the evening to find them standing waiting at the gate, ready for an invitation to come into the barn.

Their eyes are heavy, blinking with sleep; outside their muddy hoofprints fill with rain overnight.

It is a peaceful time for us no-longer-young ponies and farmers. We wink and nod together, ready for rain, ready for the night.


Not a Leg to Stand On

mourning_dove_birds_eye_view

Three weeks old
when his mother allowed me
a peek in the nest
to spy his fledging wings;
he did his best to hide beneath her.

It was another week before
it was clear
this little dove could not stand or perch,
his deformed legs sprawled
and spraddled aside.

He flopped rather than hopped
out of the nest at five weeks,
fluttering to the cage floor
in search of a world
outside his mother’s wings.

Crouched next to seed and water
he fed himself, tucked in a corner
watching the other doves come and go.
Soon he jumped out the door
to join them.

Now it was up to me:
walk away or put feed and water
on the ground where he could reach.
His desire to live so strong,
his voice just forming in his throat.

Now two months later I fret
as the night grows chill
and the rain falls,
his makeshift shelter will fail
to protect him.

He can not stand
and will never fly,
yet he sings
and does only
so my heart may hear.

 

 

An Ancient Companion

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The cold has the philosophical value of reminding men that the universe does not love us…cold is our ancient companion.   To return back indoors after exposure to the bitter, inimical, implacable cold is to experience gratitude for the shelters of civilization, for the islands of warmth that life creates.
~John Updike from “The Cold”

We’ve had a string of sub-freezing temperature nights and days with crystal clear skies once the frozen fog abates.  There has been no northeaster to send the windchill plummeting.  Everything shimmers with diamonds of frosty glitter all day long.  It is the kind of cold this pacific northwest native can actually enjoy.  It is not the cold of the midwest plains, or the Alaskan frontier.  This is civilized, “kill the bugs and the allergens” cold that helps balance out the ecosystem as well as our internal thermostats.  It is just not seemly to live at 70 degrees year round, toasted by the stove in the winter, soothed by conditioned air in the summer.

We are not always so lucky as this.  The cold that sometimes descends from the Arctic can blast through the strongest Carhartt clothing, sneak through drafty doors and windows, and freeze pipes not left dripping.  It leaves no one untouched and unbitten with universal freezer burn.

A bitter cold snap ensures even independent fair-weather individualists must become companionable when the going gets rugged, mandating shelter with others for survival.  It can even mean forced companionship with those we ordinarily avoid, with whom we have little in common, with whom we disagree and even quarrel, with whom sharing a hug or snuggling for warmth would be unimaginable.

Our nation is in such a cold snap today, terribly and bitterly divided.  If we all together don’t come in out of the deep freeze, we each will perish alone.   It is time to be thankful we have each other, such as we are.  At least we can generate heat, even if we can’t lighten up.