Morning Prayer in Trosly

Morning Prayer in Trosly

After breakfast of toast—a treat since our apartment does not have a toaster—butter, jam, and coffee, my friend Rick went to morning prayer in the chapel at La Ferme de Trosly. I went upstairs and straightened my bedroom: Sheets and towels were dropped into the laundry basket in the hallway. Bedspreads and pillows were smoothed and clothes packed into the always handy Longchamp bag. I draped a trench coat and sweater over my arm and took the spiral steps down to the welcome desk. Leaving my things with Benedicta, I opened the door into a misty morning for a walk.

Prayer and Attentiveness

close up of tiny flowers growing on a mossy, rock wall in Trosly, France.

Tiny flowers on old stone wall, Trosly-Breuil, France. Photo: Mary van Balen

Praying

by Mary Oliver

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”

close up of a tangle of roots and a snail shell on old mossy stone wall in Trosly, France

Tangle or roots, flowers, and a snail shell on old stone wall, Trosly-Breuil, France. Photo: Mary van Balen

 

View on a misty morning on Rue des Croisettes, Trosly, France.

Rue des Criosettes, Trosly-Breuil, France
Photo: Mary van Balen

 

Close up of Horse Chestnut tree blooms, Trosly, France.

Horse Chestnut blooms, Trosly-Breuil, France
Photo: Mary van Balen

 

close up of dew beads clinging to edge of red leaf

Dew beads, Trosly-Breuil, France Photo: Mary van Balen

 

Close up of purple and white lilacs

Lilacs, Trosly-Breuil, France Photo: Mary van Balen

 

The Val Fleuri, Trosly, France Photo: Mary van Balen

The Val Fleuri, Trosly-Breuil, France Photo: Mary van Balen

 

Close up of green weeds and plants covered with dew beside the road, Trosly, France

Beside the road, Trosly-Breuil, France Photo: Mary van Balen

 

Amen.

This Business of Being

This Business of Being

yellow wild flowers and a rock near bay on Whidbey Island

PHOTO: Mary van Balen Whidbey Island

Originally published in The Catholic Times

A few weeks ago in Barnes & Noble, while browsing through the bookstore looking for an old book they didn’t have, I wandered into the poetry section and picked up a slim, hardback volume with “Felicity” and “Mary Oliver” writ large in white across the soft gray sky on the cover.

I stood and read a poem about St. Augustine. “Take heart,” it said to me. Augustine didn’t become himself overnight. There was one about a cricket, finding its way into a house in the fall.

I’ve been on a Mary Oliver jag ever since, pulling out books I already own, ordering Felicity and the second volume of “New and Selected Poems.” She’s a master of attention and mindful living. Her poems are prayer, savoring the Sacred in our midst, perhaps in an armful of peonies or a heron’s flight. “I want to make poems while thinking of/the bread of heaven and the/cup of astonishment… (from “Everything” in New and Selected Poems – Volume Two).

There is something about the grace of her poetry that anchors me when reports of violence, hatred, and fear threaten to overwhelm. The news we hear most often is bad, and while my daughter assures me that we live in a world with less, not more, violence than in centuries past (We just hear about more of it, she says), some days this planet seems a dangerous place careening towards disaster.

Yet, in this same time and place there is hope. There is goodness and love that refuse to give in to despair. There is mercy and forgiveness. There are people who, little by little, replace darkness with light by simply living as best they can, showing kindness and compassion along the way. They speak the truth they know and go about the ordinary tasks of life. There is Spirit, shared with each of us, who draws us to goodness if we allow, and empower us to make life’s journey as partners with the One who is transforming the world.

Poets express in words (and the spaces between them) something of this mystery and their experience of it, inviting readers to participate. I suppose, now and again, a line or two, or even a complete poem moves quickly and effortlessly from heart to word, but that is a rare mercy—the inbreaking of Spirit to a practiced soul, aware and open to such things.

Poets I’ve known and my attempts at writing verse, have taught me that writing poetry is work. Ted Kooser, U.S. poet laureate 2004-06, once surprised my adult GED students by sharing his writerly routine (up early every morning for fifty years, writing an hour and a half before leaving the house) and the revelation that he had revised one of their favorite, very short poems 50 times.

The same daughter who assures me the human condition is actually improving can’t imagine why anyone would want to write—for her, it’s agony. But, as poet Maya Angelou’s quote on a postage stamp states, “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”

Poets write because that is what is they are made to do, and they are faithful. A poem in “Felicity” moved me to remember that we all are made to be a particular reflection of God in the world and that we, the world, and the cosmos are better off when we’re faithful to it. Jesus is the perfect example of such authentic living: He is God’s own life, and he shares it with us.

Wld rose bush with pink bloomsThe poem is “Roses.” Oliver writes of the quest to answer life’s “big questions” and decides to ask the wild roses if they know the answers and might share them with her. They don’t seem to have time for that. As they say, “…we are just now entirely busy being roses.”

How glorious if all humanity could know themselves as honestly and be themselves as genuinely as those roses. But we are wounded, and there is evil, and taking time to be still and listen to the Spirit within is difficult in the busyness of daily life.

The universe suffers from this disconnect. We see that in the eyes of the poor, marginalized, and war-weary. We see it in eyes reflecting anger, hatred, and fear that fuel violence. We hear it in the groaning of our planet with melting icecaps and water and air that poison its creatures

April is national poetry month. What better time to listen to the poets among us, past and present, who speak their truth and encourage us to do the same.

© 2016 Mary van Balen

Poetry and Prayer without Pews

Poetry and Prayer without Pews

Two books of Mary Oliver's poetry: "New and Selected Poems" and "Felicity."My day was off to a confused start. It was the time change. Usually, the clock by my bed adjusts for moving into or out of daylight savings time, but not this morning. Or maybe I just read it wrong. I hurried, washed my hair, and drove to church. No one was there. That’s when I realized: Daylight savings time was back. Sigh. Not a fan.

I decided to drive across town and retrieve my “Lorem Ipsum” scarf from the back seat of a friend’s car and to leave some of my columns for her. Took the wrong freeway. Circled back to catch the correct Interstate which I did, but in the wrong direction. Another circle and finally I was was headed east.

At home, I sat sipping coffee and chuckling at myself and the morning when the phone rang. It was my daughter. I gave her the rundown of the morning’s adventures before she could ask her question: What was the poem I had referenced in a text I sent to her last night. Something about what you’d do with your one wild and precious life.

Ah, the morning was wonderful again. “Mary Oliver’s ‘Summer Day’,” I said. Walking around the house, I found the book and began what became a poetry reading: “Summer Day,” “Roses,” “When Death Comes,” “Don’t Worry.”  Verse interspersed with my descriptions of Mary Oliver, the poet of attentiveness, prayer as attention, and then another poem.

I couldn’t stop, and my daughter was patient. I think she enjoyed it, actually. And when I hung up, I felt like I had been to church after all.

God’s Mercy, Me, and the Fig Tree

God’s Mercy, Me, and the Fig Tree

green fig on tree branch

PHOTO: Lynn Greyling Public Domain

“Things take the time they take,” Mary Oliver writes in her poem, Don’t Worry (found in her latest book of poetry, “Felicity“). That’s good news. So was the gardner’s attitude in today’s gospel reading. A person had a fig tree planted in his orchard and was ticked that, after three years, it still wasn’t bearing fruit. He’d had it. His attitude was basically, “What’s the point?” To him that tree was a waste of  soil, space, and effort. Just cut it down and burn it up.

But the gardner had a different perspective. He wasn’t ready to give up on the tree. “Leave it in the ground and let me cultivate the ground around it, fertilize it. Who knows, it may bear fruit after all.” Then, as a nod to the irate owner, the gardner adds, “OK. If it still doesn’t produce some figs, then you can cut it down.”

God is even more patient and gives second chances. Well, actually, third, fourth, fifth, and on and on. There’s no end to the chances we get. It’s the mercy Pope Francis talks about. God has mercy on the fig tree, and on me.

As I said, it’s a good thing. Lent is half over, and I’m not doing so well. Still eating too much and spending more time than is healthy watching Netflix or videos. I haven’t been able to make myself delete spider solitaire from my iPad and it’s close to hand in the evenings. Three more weeks to go. Don’t give up.  God hasn’t.

Mary Oliver’s poem ends wondering how many roads St. Augustine took till he became St. Augustine.

I’m guessing lots.

 

Praying Presence at the Roosevelt

Praying Presence at the Roosevelt

white teacup filled with dark tea on deep green and white saucerBright sun was a welcome change from the grey overcast days we’d been having. I hurried along the sidewalk, passing upscale condos along the street adjacent to the downtown parking lot where my car waits everyday while I’m at work. The brown sandstone cathedral sits just across the street. I thought about dropping in, but opted for the church of buildings and people, cars and cracked sidewalks instead. The cathedral would be locked anyway.

I moved quickly, wanting to make the most of my break: Arrive at the Roosevelt Coffeehouse, order tea, and have time to read. After walking a  block to avoid construction, I turned left. There was a policeman walking in front of me and a man in front of him–an unsteady man whose black leather jacket hung oddly, drooping off the right side of his slight body. He had something slung over his shoulder. But what I noticed most was his stumbling gait and regular brushing against buildings’ old bricks.

I slowed, a participant in this odd, short parade, then turned down an alley, whispering a prayer for the man and for the policeman who followed him. Taking long strides and stretching my legs felt as good as the cool air and sunlight. When I turned left again and crossed the street, there was the man in the drooping black jacket. He must have walked faster, too. The policeman, no longer following, had stopped on the corner to chat with a security guard on a bicycle. Parade over.

Slipping into Roosevelts, my new favorite place to spend a break, I smiled at the barista and looked over the day’s menu of coffee and teas. How could I not order an oolong fig peach tea? I found a table by a window, pulled a book from my purse and settled in. Music comes from a turntable and donated records at this place, and the soundtrack from “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou” was playing. I remembered singing a variation of one song a cappella with my sister and my ex, years ago in tight, smooth harmony. My foot was tapping.

“Oh brother, lets go down, come on down, don’t you wanna go down? Oh sister, lets go down, down in the valley to pray.”

The tea arrived, lovely in a large white cup sitting on a saucer glazed with deep green. Steam rose like incense, and holding cupped hands above it, I savored the fragrance and warmth. I don’t remember when I stopped reading and started paying attention instead, but that’s what I did.

Aromas of freshly ground coffee beans and spicy teas were thick enough to taste. My tea rested on a table made of a repurposed bowling lane, its light wood encased in enough polyurethane to make it shine. All the tables and counters were made of the same luminous stuff.

People had gathered midday at this little place. There was a man in a flannel shirt engaged in lively discussion with two women. Between them was a scatter of papers covered with colored pie charts and notes. They were planning a meeting and exchanging phone numbers. Five or six people worked on laptops and three guys sat on stools at the counter, laughing and talking about music. One young woman, shutting it all out, or at least trying to, was studying.

I was paying attention. Watching bits of dust and steam lit up by sunlight coming in the window. Marveling at how different people are from one another, what different lives we have: the policeman, the jacket man, the people in this place, my coworkers just a few blocks away.

The congregation of the church outside the cathedral. The prayer, paying attention.  Simone Weil famously said, “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” The ancient prayer of attentiveness, of being present to the moment, runs through the great traditions. Mary Oliver, a poet of attentiveness, writes:

Praying

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

Draining the last bit of tea from the cup, I packed up my book, said goodbye, and walked from the doorway of one church into the expanse of another.

 

 

Being an Appreciator

Being an Appreciator

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

Originally published in The Catholic Times, April 13, 2014, Volume 63:27

 

A good friend, Rita, once said years ago that she knew herself to be an appreciator: an appreciator of God revealed in the world of creation, of people, of life. I thought of her when I read a reflection by Carole Crumley, Episcopal priest and Shalem Institute’s Senior Program Director. Carole’s morning prayer practice is gazing at the world outside in her backyard, enjoying watching the day wake up as she does. In the reflection she mentions poet Mary Oliver, one of my favorites, whose poetry celebrates the glorious sacred in every day. Oliver, like Crumley, and my friend Rita, is an appreciator.

I’ve often told classes of aspiring journalers and writers that writing helps me stay “wide awake” as I move through life. It helps me notice and appreciate. As spring arrives after a particularly relentless winter, many of us notice the first crocuses and daffodils, the forsythia blooming, the feel of soft earth that just weeks ago was hard and unmoving beneath our feet. Winter makes us into appreciators, at least for a while.

We quickly become accustomed to green crowned trees, warm air, and colorful blooms. Before long many of us will be complaining of the heat and finding refuge in air-conditioned spaces, alert for cool breezes and cooler temperatures. So goes the cycle. The sense of wonder and joy seems greatest at boundary times: winter into spring; Lent into Easter; sickness into health; danger into safety. Then it fades.

The call to be an appreciator or “pray-er” requires one to find the extraordinary cloaked in the ordinary, to marvel at our planet circling the sun even when the sun’s heat is oppressive, to see the Divine Mystery even when it is lodged in someone we don’t like.

Routine may be the greatest challenge to those who desire a poet’s heart or a saint’s prayer. How quickly we look past what surrounds us everyday, longing for something to lift our spirits or inspire us, when we tromp over miracles piled underfoot.

Artists of all types help us see these wonders more clearly. Hasn’t your heart moved at the beauty of a close-up photograph of something very plain: a tea cup, blue paint peeling off an old door, weeds pushing up through cracks in sidewalks? Haven’t you become lost in the light of a van Gogh painting? It’s by looking closely at what we all walk past everyday and wondering at it enough to celebrate it in words, music, or form, that artists awaken the poet and saint in us all.

Mary Oliver writes in her poem, When Death Comes,” “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement… I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

I think that the Incarnation and the love that impelled the Creator to walk this earth with us, to eventually die for love of it and us rather than resort to grasping at power and control, invites us to live as poet and saint. Night imparts an appreciation of day, as does day of night. Winter gives us a heart for spring. Lent, a desire for Easter. Routine hides singularity.

Jesus was an appreciator. He saw the Glory of the Divine in poor fishermen and women spurned by society or the men in their lives. He saw majesty in lilies and grace in the poor widow’s gift of pennies. His celebration of all life challenged those who would cherish life only on their own terms. He accepted death at the hands of the extraordinary and powerful only to witness to the victory of what, at first glace, seemed ordinary and weak. An itinerant preacher of love and service, easily dismissed by most, conquered death and invites us to do the same: to see with him the Glory of God infused into every moment, even the darkest, to expect to find wonder and Presence, and to celebrate it by the way we live our lives.

© 2014 Mary van Balen

Candle, Cookout, and Poetry

Candle, Cookout, and Poetry

candlebeerandpoetry

“I have energy,” I thought as I drove home from work around 4pm. I noticed because lately, I haven’t. Maybe it was not using my CPAP machine regularly (no excuse for that) or that my shift was over before the sun set. Maybe it was the magnificent cool weather. Whatever, I had a spring in my step even after an hour of running errands. I decided to have a cookout.

I put brats in a pan of beer to precook and simmered canned baked beans with onion, mustard, and molasses. The grill was heating up and I tackled dishes left in the sink. Then, when I put the brats on, I placed a candle on the outside table and sat down to read some poetry and drink the Heineken I hadn’t used to cook the brats.

Pink clouds streaked the sky. Swallows dipped and soared. And Mary Oliver took me to dark summer ponds covered with lilies. (“The Ponds” in New and Selected Poems, p92-93.)

I plopped a couple of brats into whole wheat buns slathered with Dijon mustard, scooped baked beans into a little bowl and mounded the remaining space of my plate with some chips.

My neighbor has been sharing tomatoes, and even though the one I sliced was sweet, I sprinkled a little sugar on one slice to remember my mom and dinners around the table when I was a child. We always sprinkled tomatoes with sugar. Maybe it was a ploy to  convince the kids to eat their vegetables. I enjoyed the taste and the memories.

So, I sat, munching dinner under a darkening sky and reading “The Ponds,” marveling along with Mary Oliver at the light of countless lilies floating on dark summer ponds. [Read more…]