Thankful for the Gift of Presence

Thankful for the Gift of Presence

Originally published in The Catholic Times November 12, 2017

November 9 is the feast of the dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome, the official church of the Pope. The Mass readings for that day, not surprisingly, have to do with temples of one sort or another. The first reading is from Ezekiel 47, but let’s start a bit earlier in the book.

Rendering of Ezekiel's temple by Henery Sulley (1845-1940)

Ezekiel’s temple by Henery Sulley (1845-1940) Public Domain

In chapters 40-48 of Ezekiel, the prophet describes a vision where God transports him to a high mountain in Israel, and an angel gives him a tour of a new city. The vision is long and full of details: precise measurements of walls, inner courts, outer courts, door jambs, and Temple outbuildings, as well as the new Temple itself. Ezekiel witnesses the glory of God returning to fill the Temple, and God tells him that it again will be the Divine dwelling place in the midst of the people.

In addition to seeing the physical structures, Ezekiel learns the rules for those who serve in the Temple, how land is to be appropriated, how feasts are to be observed, and a list of protocols and procedures for Temple worship and sacrifices and that would make a Royal event planner’s head spin.

As I read these verses, I was glad it was Ezekiel and not me who had been instructed to remember every detail so he could share them with the exiled Israelites when he returned to them in Babylon. They had pretty much lost hope. Jerusalem had fallen, and despite the prophet’s valiant efforts to help them recognize that its destruction was imminent, many had clung to the illusion that Jerusalem would survive and they would go back home, resuming life as usual. I can identify. It’s a human tendency to ignore signs that portend the coming of something calamitous or the slow creep of something bad.

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

Next comes the description of the spring in the Temple. That’s the first reading for November 9. It’s abbreviated in the lectionary (To get the full effect, I suggest reading all the first twelve verses.), but it’s still a magnificent image.  A stream begins in the Temple, runs under the threshold, and flows to the Dead sea, swelling into a river too deep for anyone to cross.

When it reaches the sea, it makes the salt water fresh, teeming with all kinds of fish and water creatures. People flock there with nets. Wherever the river flows, it brings life and healing. Trees along its bank produce new, delicious fruit every month. Even their leaves are medicinal.  All this because it is God’s life flowing from the sanctuary.

When I read these words, I wanted to jump in! I wanted to splash through the river and sink beneath the water, let it do its healing, and then burst up through the surface full of hope, energy, and joy, free of the worries and concerns that fill my heart. Perhaps that’s how the Israelites felt when they listened to Ezekiel recount the story.

The good news is that God doesn’t dwell in temples or churches. Paul writes to the Corinthians, and to us, that we are the temples of God. (1 Cor 3, 16-17) The Spirit lives in each of us, neighbor and stranger alike. The glorious, healing, life-giving Presence that Ezekiel sees coming from the Temple, flows in and through all, gracing the people and places it touches. We don’t have to look for that river streaming down from the city on a hill; that “river” is everywhere. We can sink into Holy Presence wherever we are. Incarnation means God has entered into the matter of creation. We are immersed in that Presence whether we realize it or not. Open to it, Grace transforms us and all it touches. We can move into our deepest center and meet God there.

God is truly with us: strength in our struggles, joy in our celebrations, hope when we are tempted to despair. God walks with us when we are afraid, offers rest when we have worn ourselves out, waits when we are too busy to notice, fills what is empty, mourns with us in our grief, and sits with us when we don’t know what else to do.

The last words in Ezekiel, naming the new city, sum up this wondrous reality: “The name of the City shall henceforth be ‘The Lord is here.’” (48, 35)

© 2017 Mary van Balen

Rain—An Icon of Grace

Rain—An Icon of Grace

A photo of rain falling on a stone wall

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

Originally published in The Catholic Times, May 14, 2017

Rain pelted the windows as I fell asleep one Friday night this spring. Thunder rumbled in the distance, occasionally exploding through the thick sky, rattling the window beside my bed. I’ve always loved thunder storms, especially at night when I have nothing else to do but listen and watch for lightning flashes that brighten the darkness for a moment or two.

When I awoke late the following morning, rain was still falling, and heavy clouds shuttered the sky making the house dark enough that I lit a candle for prayer time. Rain drops became my centering “word” as I tried to quiet my mind and simply sit with God. That’s never easy. Managing a minute or two out of twenty without thoughts crashing around in my head is a success. I trust the Holy One appreciates the effort.

But that Saturday morning, rain made a difference. After a while it became an icon of Grace, falling steadily on the world, replenishing Life’s Gift that flows through all creation. I sat for a long time, moving in and out of quiet, trying to be present enough that some of that Gift could find a place in me.

The image of Grace raining down on the world stayed with me all day. I remembered times of exhilaration, running out in a downpour, getting soaked, and tilting my head up towards the sky with my mouth open trying to taste the drops. I also remembered making mad dashes from car to door, trying to avoid rain altogether.

Saturday came and went, but as the new week moved along, the image raised questions. How eagerly do I embrace Grace given. Do I stand with arms outstretched and heart open? Do I let it drench me? Do I stop and listen, no matter where I am or what I’m doing? Do I welcome it in and let it flow out? Or am I too busy, too distracted by noise to hear?

If so, the morning rain said not to worry. Grace is always falling.

Photo of a heavy rain falling on waterlilies on lake at St. Johns

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

I remembered a few favorite scripture verses that speak about rain and God’s provident care:

For just as from the heavens/ the rain and snow come down/ And do not return there/ till they have watered the earth, /making it fertile and fruitful, /Given seed to those who sow/ and bread to those who eat, / so shall my word be/ that goes forth from my mouth;/ It shall not return to me void, /but shall do my will, /achieving the end for which I sent it.  Is 55, 10-11

These words bring hope that God’s Spirit, falling into my deepest places, flows through me as I go about my days, helping me do the work, knowingly or not, that I am made to do.

Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; / with the lyre make music to our God, /Who covers the heavens with clouds, / provides rain for the earth, / makes grass sprout on the mountains… Ps 147, 7-8

 How important to nurture a grateful spirit, to give thanks for the outpouring of Grace that never stops, recognized or not.

Let us know, let us strive to know the Lord; /whose coming is as certain as the dawn, /and whose judgement shines forth like the light of day! /The Lord will come to us like the rain/like spring rain that waters the earth. Hosea 6, 3

 Trusting that God’s coming “is as certain as the dawn” is difficult when the earth of our hearts is parched or when suffering and injustice in the world overwhelms. Concerns of the heart can tempt it to close in upon itself, to keep Grace running down the outside instead of pouring in.

I have a photo of a rainy afternoon outside the apartment I stayed in one summer during a writing workshop in Minnesota. I think I’ll make a print of it and keep close by—an icon of never-ending Grace and Presence.

©2017 Mary van Balen

Look at Me. Just Me.

Look at Me. Just Me.

Dome of Pantheon, with light streaming in.

PHOTO: Mary van Balen
Dome of Pantheon, Rome, Italy.

Originally published in The Catholic Times August 14, 2016 issue

While preparing to write this column, I read through the Mass readings for the week as I often do. Actually, I had a topic in mind, but the Spirit had another tucked into Sunday’s second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. “Brothers and sisters:” it begins, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.”

It was the phrase “keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus” that let me know clearly, this was the column. Here’s the back story. Last month, I sent an email to a good friend in Boston asking for prayers. We’d met during our first gathering for members of Shalem Institute’s Spiritual Guidance Program a couple of years ago and have stayed in touch ever since, continuing to share our journeys through letters, emails, and an occasional phone conversation.

When I wrote that email, life was feeling particularly overwhelming. Changes in family routine and a world where violence seemed more random and sinister than ever—though of course it’s always sinister and often random—were getting the best of me. My “worry gene” had kicked in, and I couldn’t quiet my mind or spirit for long. Falling asleep at night was difficult.

The email request for prayer wasn’t about this sense of turmoil, but as the Spirit would have it, my friend’s answer was.

It turned out he was on a challenging retreat. With the change of venue from a lovely new retreat house on the ocean (the building had fallen behind schedule and wasn’t ready) to a gloomy, old institutional building that once housed a seminary, and the discovery that the retreat was for spiritual directors giving the Ignatian Exercises (which he was not), the first few days were tough going.

He felt distant and agitated. Then, as he wrote: “I heard Christ telling me: ‘Look at me.  Just at me.’  Finally, last night, I was able to settle a bit in prayer.”

I couldn’t get those words out of my mind. “Look at me. Just at me.” That night, I tried to do that, to keep my focus on Christ. Not on events swirling around me and pulling me with them into dis-ease and anxiety. I fixed the gaze of my heart on Jesus. The one who loves. The one who holds. The one who is always “with.”

It wasn’t easy. Nagging fears and a sense that the world was somehow careening out of control kept calling for my attention. Not being sucked into the chaos required a conscious choice again and again, to heed Christ’s words: “Look at me.”

Slowly, that choice to look at Love made a difference. The grip of events that were tempting me with illusions of the ability control them loosened. Instead of imagining control, I felt moved to surrender to trust instead. Not a trust that everything was going to go as I wanted it to or that evil didn’t exist, but a trust that everything didn’t depend on me and my constant attempts to figure it out. The chatter that filled my head started to fade until finally there was blessed quiet. Churning and turmoil was being replaced by stillness and calm.

I slept well that night, and many nights after. Whenever I felt worry taking hold or fear seeping in to my center, I repeated the Christ’s injunction: “Look at me. Just at me,” and turned the eyes of my heart to Love.

So today, when I came across the admonition in Hebrews to embrace the wisdom of the “cloud of witnesses” and let go of burdens and sin that cling to us, to go forward and meet whatever is ahead while keeping our eyes on Jesus, I remembered my friend’s words that have become a powerful prayer for me.

It’s not magic. Sleep sometimes eludes. Deep openness is still gift. I wake up knowing I have work to do. Transforming the world is everyone’s work. But we don’t do it ourselves. We do it by letting Love fill us until we can bring that Holy Mystery to every place and every person we meet. Somehow, we face the evil and craziness and unknown with the steadiness of Love. I’m not sure how it works. It has something to do with being present. It has something to do with trust. It has everything to do with Love.

©2016 Mary van Balen

Lessons from Paris: Befriending Holy Leisure

Lessons from Paris: Befriending Holy Leisure

Woman on a bench in a park writing in her journal

Photo: Mary van Balen
Writing in Jardin du Luxembourg

Originally published in The Catholic Times   June 16, 2016

I’ve recently returned from a wonderful vacation of almost a month in Paris with two of my daughters, one of whom is doing research at the National Natural History Museum there—a perfect reason to visit. Spending so much time with adult daughters is a gift itself. Doing it in Paris? Well, that made it extraordinary.

We did the usual tourist things, visiting museums and landmarks, enjoying Parisian baguettes smeared with butter or jam, and drinking lots of café. A highlight was making the short trip to spend a day at Giverny and Monet’s garden, a lifelong dream of my youngest.

Standing in the oval rooms of Musee de l’Orangerie surrounded by the giant water lily canvasses was breathtaking. I don’t think it makes any difference which you do first, visit the garden or feast on Monet’s paintings, the experiences enrich one another. Musee d’Orsay, a favorite, required two visits.

Art and music are everywhere, not only in museums but in shops, cathedrals, and along the streets. Beauty heals, whether in a painting or in the care taken with displays of pastries and breads for sale. Once, on our way to an evening concert, we were surprised by a woman singing an aria. Speakers provided the music, and her powerful voice poured through the small street. A trio on military patrol, heart-stirred by the song like the rest of us, paused, and one lifted his iPhone to record the sound.

We became accustomed to hearing a classical pianist playing Chopin on Pont Saint-Louis near Notre Dame, someone playing accordion along a strip of small restaurants, or jazz groups entertaining on street corners.  In every case, people stopped to listen, sometimes to dance. Always, music stirs the soul.

I was grateful for the length of our stay. A friend commented on one of my posts saying he was glad I had time to spend enjoying “holy leisure.” A sense of the importance of befriending “holy leisure” is wisdom that came home with me. The temptation, vacation or not, is to try to do too much. In Paris, there was always another amazing museum to visit or landmark to see. What would friends say when you returned if you told them you didn’t visit the Louvre?

We could pack every day, allowing vacation to become a check list. We chose otherwise. While our list of things to see and do was long enough, we gave ourselves days to do nothing special and simply be present to the gifts of the moment and each other.

My daughter made time to paint. Sometimes we walked to a park and she set up on a bench. Other days, the dining room table worked. I journaled, wrote blog posts, and finally figured out how to sketch the lovely green table umbrellas at Luxembourg Garden. We wended our way to our favorite street, Rue Mouffetard, sat in a café and enjoyed starting (or ending) a day slowly. Some of the best times were sitting or walking wherever, all three of us, enjoying each other’s company.

Back home, events and places are different, but schedules and expectations can be as demanding. There is work to do, family and friends to see, events to attend. But I returned determined to enjoy little things, listen to more music, and be attentive to Spirit movements in my heart.

One afternoon, after preparing dinners for the week to come and catching up on vacation laundry, I walked outside and tossed cans and jars into the recycling bin. The air was particularly clear after a rain, and as anyone in central Ohio with asthma knows, that is something to celebrate. Back in the kitchen, I started to wash up the dishes, then remembered Paris. “No,” I thought responding to the lift I had felt, “Enjoy.”

I poured a glass of iced tea and sat in the plastic lawn chair on my porch. That’s it. I sat and looked and breathed air that felt good in my lungs. A hummingbird buzzed in over my shoulders and headed toward a green patch of ground cover looking for blooms. A sparrow hopped out from underneath a bush with a huge piece of fuzzy fluff in its beak. The breeze picked up and leaves on the trees across the street danced.

A short prayer of thanksgiving. Some quiet moments of remembering that I live in God’s presence.

The truth that we meet God in the present is nothing new, but deceptively simple. In Paris, at home, anywhere.

© 2016 Mary van Balen

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.

Bonjour!

Bonjour!

Poppies along path Jardin de Plantes, Paris

Photo: Mary van Balen

Cool air slides into the apartment through open windows. No screens gray the view of a Parisian morning. Bird song, motorcycle growls, and car hums signal the city is stretching and meeting the new day. It’s Saturday, my first here, and I don’t know just how busy the morning will be. I’m enjoying tea and baguette smeared with a bit of jam. A bright bouquet of flowers, a gift from my daughter, sits on the table where I write. Another daughter just left, on her way to the Jardin de Plantes to paint.

To paint! We are both enjoying the biggest gift of this adventure: time. Time to savor the morning breeze and the sweet taste of breakfast. Time to walk slowly through huge public gardens, watching poppies nod and dance as people strolled by.

young woman sitting on bench painting in Jardin de Luxembourg

Photo: Mary van Balen

“What do these people do?” I asked my daughter yesterday as we carried our chairs to a shady place in the huge public garden. So many adults filled the park on a Friday afternoon. What about their jobs? Do they take long lunches? Not all of them could be tourists.

We settled in. Kathryn pulled a pencil, paints, a tablet, a collapsable water pot, brushes, and a bottle of water from her Longchamp bag. I pulled a journal, pencil, eraser, and pen from mine. (Thank goodness for Longchamp bags. They not only help us blend in a bit since so many women carry them here, but they hold everything!)

Pink tree in the midst of green trees and grass in Jardin de Luxemburg, Paris

Photo: Mary van Balen

A bright pink tree rose flamboyantly in the midst of green and caught our attention. My daughter began to sketch out her composition. For a while, I sat and took in the sight of the pink flame, wondering what kind of tree it was and how it came to be there. Deep breaths. In and out. No hurry. Time to savor beauty and to be present to the Holy Mystery that held us all there.

After writing  a bit in my journal and making a sketch of the tree, I took some close photos of its leaves thinking I might discover its name one day. Lots of people stopped to look and take photos of the tree that was simply being its beautiful self. Perhaps it would not have been as striking if the chestnuts and grass had not provided such cool, green contrast.

A line from Thomas Merton came to mind. I couldn’t remember it verbatim, but the thought was about how naturally trees were able to be just what they were made to be, yet how we human beings struggle to do the same. Those trees in the park were saying “yes” to their Creator, catching sunlight on their green (or pink) leaves and stunning all who saw with the beauty of pure being.

My daughter and I, witness to the glory, were relearning the grace of simply being who we are.

 

Surprised by Pope Francis: Day and Merton

Surprised by Pope Francis: Day and Merton

Close up of Dorothy Day

First published in The Catholic Times, October 11, 2015 issue

 

I stayed home from work the morning that Pope Francis spoke to the United States Congress. I wanted to watch his face and the faces of those gathered to hear him: A congress mired in partisan politics, hopelessly polarized. What would Pope Francis say to them? To the country? How would our elected officials receive his words? It was a moment I wanted to witness as it unfolded.

The pope did not disappoint. Just a couple of weeks ago, at a gathering of citizens concerned about issues of social justice and a stalled political system, a gentleman expressed dismay that the concept of the common good was no longer a topic in public discourse. Pope Francis took care of that.

He had barely spoken a hundred words when he directed attention to our solemn responsibility for the common good. “You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens,” he said to the lawmakers, “in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics.”

By now, most who read this column will have read (or heard) various commentaries on the address and what the pope did and did not say. But, what surprised me was how he said it: He used the example of four great Americans who gave their lives to service and to the betterment of society. Two, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., often serve as inspirational examples, fittingly so.

The other two are the ones I didn’t expect: Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. In my late teens I read a number of their books. They influenced my faith and spirituality. Still, I wondered, how many of the government officials sitting in the room knew those names? How many watching and listening around the country wondered who they were and searched for them on mobile phones and tablets?

They’d find Dorothy Day, born in 1897, was a radical who advocated for women’s suffrage, a pacifist who opposed all wars, and a tireless worker for social justice who saw the need not only to serve the poor she encountered in daily life, but also to change the system that created such poverty and injustice. She was a writer and journalist who gave voice to marginalized people and causes.

A convert to the Catholic faith that fed and sustained her, Dorothy attended daily Mass, read scripture, and wove prayer throughout her days. As a friend who once heard her speak said, “She was prayer.

Dorothy, along with close friend Peter Maurin, founded “The Catholic Worker” newspaper and the movement of the same name. Catholic Worker Houses continue to welcome the poor and are places where the corporal works of mercy are lived out. As Pope Francis encourages, they are places of encounter.

The pope spoke a second name that I didn’t expect to hear: Thomas Merton, a Trappist Monk at the monastery of Gethsemani, in Kentucky. We celebrated the 100th anniversary of his birth this year. Pope Francis singled him out for his openness to dialog with others of all faiths, seeing them as pilgrims on the same search for ultimate truth. His last journey was to Bangkok where he attended an international conference on monasticism, organized by Buddhist monks. Like Day, he calls us to deep encounter with those unlike ourselves.

Thomas Merton standing outside Pope Francis also recommended Merton’s openness to God in a contemplative style of prayer. Merton in the midst of a world immersed in “noise” of all types—digital, visual, aural—pouring out of players, electronics, out of the depths of our souls, calls us to quiet presence. For those who fill up every moment with activity and distraction, he says, “Be still. Listen.”

Like Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton was a writer and a convert. His books addressed spirituality and political topics. He was an outspoken critic of the Viet Nam War and the arms race.

Two people of deep faith and prayer: One active in the world, the other a monk responding to world issues with his pen; both social activists who pointedly challenged the status quo and whose words speak to us today. Immigration, poverty, climate change, racism, and violence require bold responses from all of us, not only governments.

If you’re not familiar with Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, consider reading some of their work or finding out more about their lives and spiritual journeys. Pope Francis’ choices challenge us all.

© 2015 Mary van Balen

Permission to be Still

Permission to be Still

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

The day is perfect. I’m sitting with a friend on the porch of her beautiful home in the woods on Whidbey Island. Cool air blows by and sunlight plays on the branches of firs, cedars, and hemlocks. Chestnut backed chickadees and black headed juncos fly in and out of the feeder, and a woodpecker calls like a squeaky dog-toy from the woods. I’ve just finished drinking a large glass of watermelon aqua frescas when the feeling rises: Guilt. I should be doing something. I could write in my journal, make a sketch of the Douglas Fir, cedar, and hemlock needles so I can remember and identify them. I could read or compose a blog. I have an article to edit.

But all I want to do is sit, look, and breathe in pine-scented salty air. My friend reclines in her favorite red canvas chair, and now and then we comment on the birds, lack of rain, or deer that eat the Marion berry brambles she brought from her former home on Puget Sound. Then we are quiet, each with our own thoughts, or in my case, a combination of no thoughts and guilt.

I finally give myself permission to be still. To be an appreciator of creation, of a friendship that doesn’t require lots of conversation. To be present to the moment without having to record it with camera or pen. I simply sit, and when I think about it, give thanks.  It’s luxurious. And Graceful. And perfectly acceptable.

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

Not more than a month ago, I was on the other side of the country, participating in a contemplative residency for Shalem’s Spiritual Guidance Program. Silence and presence wove in and out of every day, reverenced  as an essential way of prayer. A way of becoming mindful of the Creator who made all and who resides within each of us. How could such stillness be worthy on retreat, but suspect on this glorious afternoon? How does our culture’s value of “doing” so quickly trump the wisdom of being still?  Have you wondered at that when the moment says “rest,” but some inner voice speaks louder: “Not now. No Time. Maybe later?” When the ingrained imperative to “be productive” pulls you away from your heart’s desire, how has your struggle gone?

Today, I wrestled for awhile, then relaxed into spacious silence. A small victory, sweet and refreshing, like the watermelon aqua frescas.

Birdsong and Hope

Birdsong and Hope

PHOTO:Mary van Balen

PHOTO:Mary van Balen

Sitting quietly, holding a cup of tea to warm my hands, I tried to enter into silence, greeting the morning, welcoming Presence. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. After ten minutes or so, I couldn’t help but focus on the birdsong coming from snow-blanketed tress and yards outside my building. Try as I might, I couldn’t let them go. “An invitation,” I decided.

Putting down the tea I opened the front door to see if I could spot the singers. Squinting my eyes against the bright light reflecting off all the white, I could see a small form or two on a tree a few doors down. I went inside, grabbed binoculars, slid my feet into slippers, and walked out the side door onto the driveway.

Cold, crisp air felt wonderful. Sun shine everywhere. Birdsong coming from every direction. “Sparrows,” I decided, on the trees over the red-tiled roof. “Cardinal.” The raspy bark of a woodpecker. Then, from somewhere out front, a clear, three-note call. I turned and followed the sound. Against the bright sun, only the bird’s silhouette could be seen. I began to hum along…three descending notes. “Lovely,” I thought, singing along. “What notes?”

I stepped back inside to find an instrument. The piano hadn’t made the transition into my apartment, residing now at my sister’s home in Ann Arbor. The guitar wasn’t tuned. Ah, the recorder, resting in its original hinged box, sat in front of a row of books in the glass-fronted case. Wrapped in scraps of pink and white flannel cut from pajamas decades ago, the pear wood instrument still produced warm tones as my fingers ran through the scale.

PHOTO:Mary van BAlen

PHOTO:Mary van Balen

There were the notes: B above middle C, A, and G. Over and over. Like “Three Blind Mice.” I don’t know why I wanted to know the notes. Maybe to honor the little singer who helped fill the winter morning with hope. Hope of coming spring. Of life waiting for a thaw, prepared by cold and darkness to push up into daylight. I played the notes over and over. God-breath could sing through me today, if I let it. That’s the invitation.

One more look outside. The long icicle hanging from a downspout along the porch overhang was melting. Drop after drop formed at its tip, liquid light. Suddenly, it crashed into the snow beneath. The little bird had disappeared into a large tree across the street. It kept singing, now in tandem with the one called ‘hope’ that perched in my soul, as Emily Dickinson wrote, who wouldn’t stop at all.

Hang In There

Hang In There

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

We are not among those who draw back and perish, but among those who have faith and will possess life.  Hb 10, 39

This morning’s Mass readings were full of “words” that spoke to my heart: Not throwing away what you have been given. Seeds growing, we know not how. The tiniest of seeds becoming the largest of plants. As I sat quietly in prayer, I became aware of the plants that line up along my buffet in front of the window. Of the Peace Lilies, one huge, that filter the air I breathe. Of the mystery of how they grow, turning sunlight into what they need, and how they serve me and the planet. Mystery. So much I can never know.

But it was the line from Hebrews that struck deepest. I think because I’m sometimes among those who draw back. Life isn’t easy for any of us, regardless of appearances. Like the life of the peace lily, it’s full of unknowables. In the face of darkness I’m tempted to forget the Light. In the presence of silence, I’m tempted to forget the Song. Or worse, not believe that Light and Song are out there (or in here) at all. I keep on keeping on, as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie urged, but without much heart or expectation.

That’s the perishing. The death of hope. The closing up.

The line from Hebrews encourages us to keep the faith. The Holy Mystery doesn’t withhold Life. No. Life is always gushing out. Like rain, it falls everywhere, on everyone. Those hurt or pained by life’s unfair twists and turns may close up tight. The rain of Life runs all over them, but can’t get in. Or can it? God isn’t so easily evaded. Like the rain, Life falls into the soil around each soul, soaking deep into that which holds its roots. Life, sliding off the closed bloom, quietly moves up the stem, sucked up by the inborn will be. The Presence that falls on the outside resides in the center as well.

I think of those for whom just choosing to live is a day by day challenge. Their “yes” to life is as much opening as they can muster. And it is enough. For those of us for whom simply living does not require daily assent, but challenges our perseverance, closing up tight may be the best we can do on some days. That is enough,too.

Thankfully, God-Life keeps pouring out, never giving up on us even when we give up on God, and eventually, we gather enough green sap to chance opening again. When we are able, we discover not only that we possess Life, but Life has possessed us all along.