Watching Ensanguining Skies

Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
  Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
  Falls the remorseful day.
~A.E. Houseman from “How Clear, How Lovely Bright”

O’er me, like a regal tent,
Cloudy-ribbed, the sunset bent,
Purple-curtained, fringed with gold,
Looped in many a wind-swung fold…

~John Greenleaf Whittier from “The Barefoot Boy”

Once I saw a chimpanzee gaze at a particularly beautiful sunset for a full 15 minutes, watching the changing colors [and then] retire to the forest without picking a pawpaw for supper.
~Adriaan Krotlandt, Dutch ethologist in Scientific American (1962)

It was like a church to me.
I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.
It was quiet.
What God there was made himself felt,
Not listened to, in clean colours
That brought a moistening of the eye,
In a movement of the wind over grass.
There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions — that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.
R.S. Thomas “The Moor”

How can I feel so warm   
Here in the dead center of January? I can   
Scarcely believe it, and yet I have to, this is   
The only life I have. 
~James Wright from “A Winter Daybreak Above Vence”

Last night was a once a year sunset experience in the dead center of January, following a full day of pouring-rain gray-skies monochrome nothingness.

For twenty minutes our region was blissed to witness an evolving array of crimson and purple color and patterns, streaks and swirls, gradation and gradual decline.

It all took place in silence.  No bird song, no wind, no spoken prayer.
Yet a communion took place – the air broke and fed us like manna from heaven. And so filled to the brim…

May I squander my life no more and instead treasure each moment.

May I vow to cherish God, church, family, friends, and those in my community who are strangers to me.

May I never forget my witness this winter day of the bleeding of the last light of day.

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An Absence of Secrecy

I came here to study hard things
– rock mountain and salt sea –
and to temper my spirit on their edges. 
“Teach me thy ways, O Lord” is, like all prayers,
a rash one, and one I cannot but recommend. 

These mountains — Mount Baker and the Sisters and Shuksan,
the Canadian Coastal Range and the Olympics on the peninsula — are surely the edge of the known and comprehended world…. 

That they bear their own unimaginable masses and weathers aloft, holding them up in the sky for anyone to see plain, makes them,
as Chesterton said of the Eucharist, only the more mysterious
by their very visibility and absence of secrecy.
~Annie Dillard from Holy the Firm

Sometimes the mountain
is hidden from me in veils
of cloud, sometimes
I am hidden from the mountain
in veils of inattention, apathy, fatigue,
when I forget or refuse to go
down to the shore or a few yards
up the road, on a clear day,
to reconfirm
that witnessing presence.
~Denise Levertov  “Witness”

Even on the days like today when the mountain is hidden behind a veil of clouds, I have every confidence it is there.  It has not moved in the night, gone to another county, blown up or melted down.  My vision isn’t penetrating enough to see it through cloud cover today, but it will return to my line of sight, if not tomorrow, perhaps the next day, maybe not until next week. 

I know this and have faith it is true – the mountain does not keep itself a secret.

On the days when I am not bothering to look for it, too preoccupied so walk right past its obvious grandeur and presence, then it reaches out to me and calls me back, refocusing me. 

There are times when I turn a corner on the farm and glance up, and there it is, a silent and overwhelming witness to beauty and steadfastness.  I literally gasp at not noticing before, at not remembering how I’m blessed by it being there even at the times I can’t be bothered.

It witnesses my lack of witness and, so in its mysterious way of being in plain sight, stays put to hold me fast yet another day.  And so I keep coming back to gaze, sometimes just at clouds, yearning to lift the veil, and as a result, lift my veil, just one more time.

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The Beginning Shall Remind Us of the End: Calling Out

Vast whisp-whisp of wingbeats
awakens me and I look up
at a minute-long string of black geese
following low past the moon the white
course of the snow-covered river and
by the way thank You for
keeping Your face hidden, I
can hardly bear the beauty of this world
~Franz Wright from “Cloudless Snowfall”

A psalm of geese
labours overland

cajoling each other
near half…

The din grew immense.
No need to look up.

All you had to do
was sit in the sound

and put it down
as best you could…

It’s not a lonesome sound
but a panic,

a calling out to the others
to see if they’re there
~Dermot Healy from A Fool’s Errand 

Hear my prayer, Lord;
    let my cry for help come to you.

Do not hide Your face from me in the day of my distress;
Incline Your ear to me;
In the day when I call answer me quickly.
Psalm 102:1-2

We are here to witness the creation and abet it.
We are here to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow
and each stone on the beach but, especially,
we notice the beautiful faces and complex natures of each other.

We are here to bring to consciousness the beauty and power that are around us and to praise the people who are here with us.
We witness our generation and our times.
We watch the weather.
Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house.
~Annie Dillard from The Meaning of Life edited by David Friend

We tend to keep our faces hidden from each other, even when we want to be recognized and known, especially when we are distressed.

What someone tells me about what they are feeling may not always match what I notice: trembling hands, a deep sigh, eyes filling with tears.  I am audience and witness to their burden and struggle; even more, I am called to listen, offering them the gift of being noticed and being there for them, just them, at that moment.

I know this because it is how God cares for me: when I call out to Him, sometimes in a panic to see if He is there, I know I am not playing or praying to an empty house. God is ready and listening, loving us enough to show us His face in the form of a helpless infant.

This is a God who allows Himself to be vulnerable to those He loves, whether laid to sleep in a wooden manager or dying nailed to a tree.

He calls out to us to see if we are there, ready to listen.

Psalm 102: 1 Hear my prayer, Lord; let my cry for help come to you.

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”

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A Benediction of Mourning

The waning October moon reluctantly rose,
pulling back from the full globe of a few nights before.

I drive a night darkened country road, white lines sweeping past,
aware of advancing frost in the evening haze,
anxious to return home to fireplace light.

Nearing a familiar corner, a stop sign loomed,
to the right, a rural cemetery sits silently expectant.

Open iron gates and tenebrous headstones,
in the middle path, incongruous, a car’s headlights beam bright.
I slowed, thinking: lovers or vandals would seek inky cover of night.

Instead, these lights illuminate a lone figure, kneeling graveside,
one hand resting heavily on a stone, head bowed in prayer.

A stark moment of solitary sorrow,
invisible grieving of the heart
focused by twin beams.

A benediction of mourning; light piercing their blackness,
as gentle fingertips trace the engraved letters of a beloved name.

An uneasy witness, I withdraw as if touched myself
and drive on into the night, struggling to see
through the thickening mist of my eyes and the road.

Angel of Grief–Stanford University

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Full of Mystery

It’s strange to be here. The mystery never leaves you. 
~John O’Donohue from Anam Cara

We must learn to acknowledge
that the creation is full of mystery;
we will never entirely understand it.
We must abandon arrogance
and stand in awe.
We must recover the sense
of the majesty of creation,
and the ability to be worshipful in its presence.
For I do not doubt that it is only
on the condition of humility and reverence before the world
that our species will be able to remain in it.
~Wendell Berry from  The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays

How did we come here and how is it we remain?

Even when the wind blows mightily,
the waters rise,
the earth shakes,
the fires rage,
the pandemic persists…

~we are here, granted another day to get it right. And will we?

It is strange to be here,
marveling at the mystery around us –
recognizing we are the ultimate mystery of creation,
placed here as its witnesses,
worshiping in humility, with reverence and obedience.

We don’t own what we see;
we only own our awe.

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The Smell of Water

At the soft place in the snowbank
Warmed to dripping by the sun
There is the smell of water.
On the western wind the hint of glacier.
A cottonwood tree warmed by the same sun
On the same day,
My back against its rough bark
Same west wind mild in my face.
A piece of spring
Pierced me with love for this empty place
Where a prairie creek runs
Under its cover of clear ice
And the sound it makes,
Mysterious as a heartbeat,
New as a lamb.
~Tom Hennen, “In the Late Season” from Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems. 

While walking the sloping hillside of our farm,
if I listen carefully,
I can hear trickling under the snow.
I can’t see it but I can hear and feel and smell the water;
as a hidden and mysterious melt happens.
Thawing under my feet-
as winter drains away,
spring is on the move.

I witness that which I have no control over,
this subtle softening of frozen ground-
unseen, yet as evident as the steady beating of my heart
as I too begin to thaw and melt
through the miracle of flowing grace
into whatever comes next.


After the Family Broke

This was our pretty gray kitten,
hence her name; who was born
in our garage and stayed nearby
her whole life. There were allergies;
so she was, as they say,
an outside cat.
But she loved us. For years,
she was at our window.
Sometimes, a paw on the screen
as if to want in, as if
to be with us
the best she could.
She would be on the deck,
at the sliding door.
She would be on the small
sill of the window in the bathroom.
She would be at the kitchen
window above the sink.
We’d go to the living room;
anticipating that she’d be there, too,
hop up, look in.
She’d be on the roof,
she’d be in a nearby tree.
She’d be listening
through the wall to our family life.
She knew where we were,
and she knew where we were going
and would meet us there.
Little spark of consciousness,
calm kitty eyes staring
through the window.

After the family broke,
and when the house was about to sell,
I walked around it for a last look.
Under the eaves, on the ground,
there was a path worn in the dirt,
tight against the foundation —
small padded feet, year after year,
window to window.

When we moved, we left her
to be fed by the people next door.
Months after we were gone,
they found her in the bushes
and buried her by the fence.
So many years after,
I can’t get her out of my mind.

~Philip F. Deaver, “Gray” from How Men Pray

Our pets are witness to the routine of our lives. They know when the food bowl remains empty too long, or when no one comes to pick them up and stroke their fur. They sit silently waiting.

They know when things aren’t right at home.

Sometimes a barn cat moves on, looking for a place with more consistency and better feeding grounds. Most often they stick close to what they know, even if it isn’t entirely a happy or welcoming place. After all, it’s home and that’s what they know and that’s where they stay.

When my family broke as my parents split, after the furniture was removed and the dust of over thirty five years of marriage swept up, I wondered if our cat and dog had seen it coming before we did. They had been peering through the window at our lives, measuring the amount of spilled love that was left over for them.

I can’t get them out of my mind – they, like me, became children of divorce. We knew when we left the only home we knew, we would never truly feel at home again.

Life is The Mystery

All men die. Not all men really live.
~William Wallace

Life — the temptation is always to reduce it to size. A bowl of cherries. A rat race. Amino acids. Even to call it a mystery smacks of reductionism. It is THE mystery.

After lecturing learnedly on miracles, a great theologian was asked to give a specific example of one. ‘There is only one miracle,’ he answered. “It is life.”

Have you wept at anything during the past year?
Has your heart beat faster at the sight of young beauty?
Have you thought seriously about the fact
that someday you are going to die?

More often than not,
do you really listen when people are speaking to you,
instead of just waiting for your turn to speak?


Is there anybody you know in whose place,
if one of you had to suffer great pain,
you would volunteer yourself?


If your answer to all or most of these questions is no,
the chances are that you’re dead.

~Frederick Buechner from  Listen to Your Life

I like mysteries if they are neatly solved between two book covers or contained within 90 minutes on a TV show.

Mysteries that don’t neatly resolve? Not so much. The uncertainty and unknowns can be paralyzing.

I am gifted the opportunity to witness miracles every day and the mystery is that I don’t often recognize them. I’m too “in my own head” to see.

If I weep, which I do more often than is comfortable to admit, am I weeping for something other than myself? If I listen, which I like to think I do well in my profession, but not as well in my personal life, do I really hear the perspective from another life and world view? If I become aware of someone’s suffering, am I willing to become uncomfortable myself to ease another’s pain?

I am being tested in these days of disrupted routines and potential threats to my health and well-being. Do I hunker down defensively or reach out unselfishly to make the best of the days that are left to me?

The mystery of when I will die can’t be solved until that moment comes, and I can’t be paralyzed by that unknown. But the everyday miracles of life are large and small and grand and plentiful and hidden in plain sight. I want to live every moment as their witness.

Go Make the Call

Just before the green begins there is the hint of green
a blush of color, and the red buds thicken
the ends of the maple’s branches and everything
is poised before the start of a new world,
which is really the same world
just moving forward from bud
to flower to blossom to fruit
to harvest to sweet sleep, and the roots
await the next signal, every signal
every call a miracle and the switchboard
is lighting up and the operators are
standing by in the pledge drive we’ve
all been listening to: Go make the call.
~Stuart Kestenbaum “April Prayer”

The buds have been poised for weeks and then,
as if all responding to an identical summons to action,
let go of all their pent up potential~
exploding with harmonious energy
enough to make us want to donate all we have,
over and over again.

How much may I pledge to witness this miracle?
Nothing, nothing at all.
It’s free. It’s totally free.

Watching the Mountain

…I am watching the mountain. And the second I verbalize this awareness in my brain, I cease to see the mountain…. I am opaque, so much black asphalt.

I look at the mountain, which is still doing its tricks, as you look at a still-beautiful face belonging to a person who was once your lover in another country years ago: with fond nostalgia, and recognition, but no real feeling save a secret astonishment that you are now strangers. Thanks. For the memories. It is ironic that the one thing that all religions recognize as separating us from our creator — our very self-consciousness — is also the one thing that divides us from our fellow creatures. It was a bitter birthday present from evolution, cutting us off at both ends. I get in the car and drive home.
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

We drive up the highway an hour or so to lose ourselves rather than become more self-conscious. We want to be witness to grander things.

Once we turn the bend into Heather Meadows, Mount Shuksan suddenly appears, overwhelming the landscape. There is simply nothing else to look at so I stand there gawking, forgetting to breathe.
Then I realize that I have become more self-conscious rather than less: here am I at the foot of this incredible creation, wondering at how blessed I am to be there, and it becomes all about me. The mountain has been here for eons and will continue to be here for eons, and we’re merely passing through, bubbles floating on the unending stream of time.

Yesterday we were completely alone in what typically is a place of many gawkers, all setting up tripods and clicking cameras. It was absolutely silent – even the birds had abandoned the chilly hills for warmer climes lower down.

Most remarkable yesterday was the stillness meant there was a double delight: two mountains, reflection and the real thing herself. It is the most glass-like the lakes have been on our many visits.

We had to finally climb in the car and head back down the highway to home. I carry these images back with me to remember that moment of awestruck witness. The image isn’t the real thing, it isn’t even the real reflection. Yet it is me watching the mountain watching me back.

It just might be about me after all.