Becoming Who We Are Made to Be

Becoming Who We Are Made to Be

Originally published in The Catholic Times Jan. 14, 2018

Photo of diffuse bright light at the top of stone staircase

Photo: Mary van Balen

Samuel paid attention. His heart was “awake” even as he slept. One night, in the shrine at Shiloh where he lived under the care of its aged high priest, Eli, Samuel heard someone call his name. He didn’t turn over and go back to sleep. “Here I am,” he responded and hurried to Eli, assuming the summons had come from him.

But it hadn’t. Eli instructed the boy to go back to sleep. After this happened two more times, Eli realized that the Lord was speaking to Samuel and instructed him to reply, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” if he were to hear the call again.

God did call again, and the boy responded as Eli had instructed. I wonder if Samuel had any expectations of what he might hear that night or if he was surprised to learn that the Lord planned to fulfill the Divine threats made against Eli and his family for their abuse of priestly duties, dishonoring the God they were to serve.

Samuel listened and then went back to sleep. In the morning, he had the courage to answer Eli’s question about what the Lord had said, and Eli had the humility to accept it. Samuel had spoken and been heard as the prophet God made him to be.

Scripture provides no definite age for Samuel at the time of this call. He is called “a boy.” He was the son of Hannah, a faithful woman embittered by long years of barrenness and the derision she suffered as a result. While on her family’s annual pilgrimage to the shrine at Shiloh, she laid her anguish before the Lord, weeping and imploring God to give her a male child. If so blessed, she vowed to give him to God’s service for as long as he lived. She had a son and true to her word, when he was of appropriate age, Hannah brought him to Shiloh and left him in Eli’s care.

No matter Samuel’s age, this story of a youth hearing and responding whole-heartedly to the call of God is captivating and is one of my favorites. How had Samuel become so “wide awake,” so attentive and receptive to God?

Photo: Mary van Balen

Surely, as with all of us, his early years were formative. Growing up in a family of faith, nursed and nurtured by a mother who loved and trusted God, and living in the shadow of the ark of God in the tabernacle in Shiloh must have influenced his relationship with the Holy One.

But, Samuel’s life sounds rosier than it was. (Don’t we often idealize the lives of others in comparison with our own?). Remember, his father had two wives who didn’t get along, and Eli and his sons were not faithful to the demands and requirements of their priestly ministry.

In the midst of it all, Samuel was able to attend to the call of God. He was a contemplative, aware of the Presence within and without, in the good and not so good, as he went about his duties. He must have taken time for solitude, resting in God and deepening his ability to hear and recognize the Holy Mystery that was the Source of his life and identity.

No matter the differences in time and circumstance between our lives and Samuel’s, we share the call to be people of prayer and to grow in our relationship with God. God has placed the gift of Divine Self in every one of us. Identifying that bit of Divinity and living into it, becoming the reflection of God we are made to be and remaining faithful to it is our life task. That’s why the story of young Samuel grabs our hearts: it is the story of us all.

Photo: Kathryn Holt

As 2018 unfolds, we can choose practices that will deepen our openness and help us “pay attention.” In the midst of life’s busyness, suffering, and challenges, we can take time to be still and rest in God, hearing God’s call however it comes. We can allow the Holy Mystery dwelling within to move and transform us and so, participate in transforming the world. We can say, like Samuel, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

© 2018 Mary van Balen

Farewell Cassini, Thank you NASA

Farewell Cassini, Thank you NASA

Cassini’s trajectory into Saturn

Even though it was a day off, I woke at 6:45, pulled on my old black t-shirt with the solar system silkscreened half on the front, half on the back. It’s seen eclipses and meteor showers. It would bid farewell to the Cassini spacecraft on Friday morning, September 15.

In the kitchen, I began preparing food for a daughter’s visit while watching NASA TV’s coverage of the final half-hour of the Cassini mission.

Ligeia Mare – Sea on Titan (False color)

I listened to scientists sharing their thoughts as Cassini sped towards its fiery end in Saturn’s atmosphere. My iPad, sitting on top of the microwave, streamed live interviews with project scientists and engineers, some of whom had spent entire careers working on the Cassini mission. There were images of Saturn and its largest moon, Titan, with methane-rich lakes and rivers. Computer-generated graphics showed Cassini’s 22 dives into the dark space between Saturn and its rings as well as how the spacecraft would meet its end by entering the atmosphere and burning up.

Cassini’s Grand Finale orbits

I was glad making chili didn’t require much attention because mine was on the screen. The images were mesmerizing. (NASA has made an eBook of some of those images and it’s available to download here.)

While chopping onions and green peppers, I learned more about the unexpected length and scientific bounty of this mission as well as the team’s ability to make changes in orbits and trajectories to take advantage of surprise discoveries almost 900 million miles away.

Narrow jets of gas and vapor from Saturn’s moon Enceladus

For example, when geysers of vapor were found spewing out of the south pole of Saturn’s tiny moon, Enceladus, the spacecraft actually flew through them and analyzed the composition, finding ice particles, water vapor and organic chemicals. Cassini also determined that beneath the moon’s icy surface sloshes an ocean of salty water.

For the last ten minutes of the broadcast, I turned my full attention to the screen. Even from my kitchen, I wanted to be one of the thousands, maybe millions around the world, waiting for that last signal from Cassini.

Where Cassini entered Saturn’s atmosphere

Through the commentary of those who had worked most closely with it from the beginning, the spacecraft had taken on an anthropomorphic quality, doing everything it had been asked to do, right down to the last images sent as it struggled against Saturn’s atmosphere.

The vastness and variety of creation overwhelmed me as the final signals faded. In my kitchen, chili was simmering. On Titan, methane rivers flowed. Saturn’s majestic rings, better understood, still grace our night skies.

Human imagination and wonder have paired with knowledge and skill to give us an extraordinary window into the universe. From ancient times, human beings have marveled at the night sky. Never before have we had such a view.

Saturn from Cassini spacecraftMy response is gratitude for those who have worked so long and hard to provide it. And to bend my knee before the One who creates it. I join with the ancient psalmist in prayer: The heavens proclaim the glory of God/and the firmament shows forth the work of his hands./Day unto day takes up the story/and night unto night makes know the message./ No speech, no word, no voice is heard/yet their span goes forth through all the earth,/their words to the utmost bounds of the world.

 

All images are from NASA

 

Cassini 12 Years at Saturn

The Cassini-Huygens mission was a joint effort of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency, Agenzia Spaziale Italiana. Many other countries were involved in the manufacturing of components.

What’s NASA doing next? Read this NYT article for some tantalizing descriptions of missions already on the calendar.

NASA Cassini at Saturn 

 

Solar Eclipse II: A Reflection

Solar Eclipse II: A Reflection

NASA photograph of the total solar eclipse taken at Oregon State Fairgrounds by Dominic Hart

PHOTO: NASA taken by Dominic Hart at the Oregon State Fairgrounds August 21, 2017

When the eclipse reached totality, the dramatic appearance of the sun’s corona took the crowds collective breath away—stunning and larger than I had imagined it would be. Was it the blackness of the moon that made the corona look so bright, or the brightness of the corona that made the moon’s darkness absolute, like a hole in the sky looking into emptiness?

“The corona’s always there,” I thought, “just overpowered by the sun’s brilliance.”

Only darkness could reveal the light.

Darkness is often used to describe something to be avoided or escaped. It’s a metaphor for what’s wrong in our world or in us. It’s where we don’t want to be. We read about moving from darkness into light, and the spiritual journey is often described that way.

But the eclipse reminded me that when it comes to darkness, it’s not so clear cut. Darkness has an important role to play in creation, in life, and in spiritual deepening.

Years ago, a close friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer. A few weeks later, after having had an inconclusive mammogram, I was called back for a second screening. While waiting for the appointment, I thought a lot about cancer and dying, imagining the worst: Would I see my children grow to adulthood? How well would I deal with the pain and process of treatment? How would it affect my family and friends? Was I ready to face death? And how was my relationship with God?

The morning of the appointment was clear and bright. The prospect of death had sharpened my senses, and on the way to the imaging facility, I noticed everything: the coolness of the air, the color of leaves, the beauty of the city, the crisp, dark shadows on the buildings that made edges sharp and shapes distinct. Without the shadows, everything would blend into everything else. “Maybe that’s what’s meant by ‘the shadow of death,’” I pondered. “It provides definition, bringing life into focus.”

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

The relationship between darkness and light is a constant theme in literature and art. It runs through Scripture. Phrases like “a light that darkness could not overcome” or “calling you out of the darkness into the light” quickly come to mind, portraying “darkness” as evil. But there are others.

The creation story starts out in chaos. God then separates light from darkness suggesting both were present—light in darkness, darkness in light—to make day and night. Neither were banished. Life needs both to work. And God said it was all very good.

In Exodus, God was in the pillar of cloud as well as the pillar of fire when leading the Hebrews out of Egypt, and when Moses met the Holy One face to face, the people hung back and watched from the light as Moses entered the thick, dark cloud because that’s where God was.

Psalm 139 says: “Darkness is not dark for you, and night shines as the day. Darkness and light are but one.”

God is in both.

The great mystics speak of darkness as a necessary part of the journey. It helps us see what is otherwise missed—like the corona that’s present but invisible. Darkness invites us to reach deeper, to look intently, to accept ourselves as we are. And in the darkest times, we may learn how to sit with God in the night while the Holy Mystery does the work we are unable to do ourselves.

Photo Credit: NASA/Carla Thomas

The coming together of darkness and light during the eclipse was magnificently beautiful, a profound experience that will remain for me an image of the power of darkness to illumine the spiritual journey—a metaphor of the grace found in embracing our darkness as well as our light, and encountering God there.

© 2017 Mary van Balen

Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is mystery. Today is…

Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is mystery. Today is…

Photo of a flooded alley

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

Hank is one of my favorite people. I don’t know him well, but I’m getting there. At the end of most work days I stop and talk with him on my way out. We talk about politics and religion despite conventional wisdom that warns against it. He shares memories of growing up in this city, keeps me updated on jazz events around town. I’ve lent him books and articles, and he drops nuggets of wisdom he’s learned along the way.

The other day we were talking about a recent column I’d written, “Rain, an Icon of Grace,” that shared my experience of God’s Grace always pouring over us, refreshing and renewing us, like rain nourishes the earth.

Chair in rain on patio

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

“It made me think of growing up,” he said. “I’ve always loved the rain and storms. Listening to it on the roof or hitting the windows. When I was little, I used to sit on the porch during heavy rains and watch the water pour down from the overflowing gutters along the overhang above my head. I was mesmerized. You know how it is when you are so young. Everything looks big and amazing. The rain looked like a waterfall. I could sit there for hours.”

From there our conversation turned to Grace and the importance of being present to it, like Hank was present to the beauty of the rain gushing down during the storm all those years ago.

“You know that saying,” Hank continued. “Yesterday is History. Tomorrow is Mystery. Today is Blessing.”

Hollyhock blossom in rain

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

I didn’t know that saying. But since he shared it with me, it has become a constant prayer. A reminder of God’s Grace present in the moment and the futility of fretting over what cannot be changed or worrying about things that may or may not happen. I’m prone to do both. Thanks to Hank, the past and the future are less successful at pulling me away from the present. His short saying became a mantra. “Yesterday is history,” I say to regret. “Tomorrow is mystery,” I throw back at worry. “Today is blessing.” I take a deep breath and remember this is so. And remember a little boy soaking it up on his porch.

Seeing Everything Shining Like the Sun

Seeing Everything Shining Like the Sun

Photo of a domed stained glass window In Church in Rome, Italy, depicting the universe.Originally published in The Catholic Times, November 12, 2016 issue

Liturgically speaking, November begins with celebrating the holy ones who have gone before and who live among us: the saints and the saints-becoming. Canonized or not, they are those who open our eyes to both the presence of God-with-Us and to the responsibility to reverence that Presence in how we live our lives.

What if we looked at this month through the eyes of the saints? Would we see things we usually overlook? Would we be moved to act in ways out of our ordinary routines?

Trees blazing with color will soon drop their leaves and stand starkly against winter skies. On some days, snow will cling to their branches and cover the ground. Beauty has many faces. Growth often happens deep within, out of sight. While autumn’s riot of color shouts, winter’s muted palette speaks in whispers. Silence guards the life that has withdrawn to the center, content to wait and gather strength.

The great contemplatives speak of encountering God within, spending silent time resting in the Sacred Presence. Often, though, in the midst of contemplative practice, nothing much seems to be going on other than distractions. When tempted to wonder where God is in those times, we can remember the winter trees and landscape where the mystery of life deepens unseen.

The saintly scientists invite us to encounter God in the ordinary and spectacular realities of the universe. St. Hildegard of Bingen living in the 12th century, wrote about ecology, natural science, and medicine. St. Albert the Great, whose feast we celebrate next week, was a philosopher and scholar recognized for his knowledge and writing not only about theology but also about the sciences including physics, and astronomy.

Watching the super moon rise on November 14 or gazing at the dance of the moon and planets can be worship.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest born in the late nineteenth century was a mystic and accomplished geologist and paleontologist. His vision of the evolutionary nature not only of matter but of spirit and his understanding of the Cosmic Christ continues to inspire today.

Looking with these saints helps us see not only the magnificence of creation, but also the connectedness of all things. We are a small part of a universe beyond imagining. From the perspective of such immensity we become aware of our place in the world, participants in Infinite Life. What happens to one affects us all.

The great challenges of our time require such a universal view. Pope Francis has emphasized our moral obligation to respond to protect the earth. He also calls us to be merciful and to create a culture of encounter with one another.

How many stories are told of saints who lived their lives serving the poor and marginalized, the sick and suffering? Elizabeth of Hungary, whose feast is also celebrated next week, was a queen and mother who gave herself so whole-heartedly to sharing her fortune with the poor and nursing the sick, that, when her husband died on the way to battle, she was thrown out into the street by his parents who were offended by her discipline of prayer and good works!

Monument to the Immigrant in New Orleans. A statue depicting a female muse whose flowing gown leads to family of four immigrants. By Franco Alessandrini (1944), American sculptor of New Orleans

Monument to the Immigrant. 1995 New Orleans by Franco Alessandrini (1944), American sculptor of New Orleans.
Dedicated to the courageous men and women who left their homeland seeking freedom, opportunity, and a better life in a new country.
Photo: Mary van Balen

Martin de Porres entered a Dominican monastery as a lowly lay helper, but spent much of his life using gifts for healing not only tending the monks, but also the poorest in his city of Lima, Peru.

Today as millions of refugees leave their homelands destroyed by wars and violence, looking for a safer place to live and raise their families, we do well to remember how these saints saw every person. St. Benedict instructed his monks to greet every stranger who came to the monastery door as Christ. Mother Teresa saw the face of Jesus in every dying person she lifted from the street. How do we see these people, fleeing for their lives? How do we welcome them when they arrive at our shores?

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton wondered at God dwelling within every person he saw at a busy intersection in Louisville, Kentucky: “…There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun!”

When we are able to see the hand of God in every speck of earth or distant star, to recognize the Holy Presence in others, or to trust the Indwelling in ourselves, we can pray for Grace so, like the holy ones who have gone before us, we will reverence the Sacred that is in our midst or knocking on our doors.

©2016 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

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.

 

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.

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.