Winter Solstice and Rebirth

We’ve reached the Winter Solstice, shortest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere, bookended by the longest nights. Oh my. Last night brought a lunar eclipse as well, though the heavy cloud cover discouraged me from getting up in the middle of the night to watch.

I’ve observed other eclipses of the moon, fascinated to see the shining orb slowly overtaken by shadow. In spite of understanding the phenomenon, it’s an emotional experience to see it happen. There is a kind of visceral drama in its disappearance and the wait for that first sliver of its return.

The eclipse is similar to the drama of the winter solstice, but in condensed form. The light slowly disappears and we anxiously await its return. As with every kind of darkness, we need the gift of faith and the reassurance of ritual to make it through.

The sun at its farthest point from us, the winter just beginning, we have a long way to go. For the most part we accept the rhythm of the seasons, adjust to the routines shaped by shorter days and longer nights. And in celebrating the completion of these longest nights we know that this, too, shall pass.

The light returns incrementally, but the cumulative effect of those small changes transforms the seasons. Tomorrow the earth and sun begin their course toward summer—a marvelously hopeful thought, however long the journey may be.

It has me thinking of the power of committing to steady movement in a particular direction over time. Apparently it’s natural to remember that this time of year. The rebirth of the sun through the Winter Solstice, the rebirth of divinely inspired possibilities for human life through Christmas, the rebirth of the year and all that it contains through New Year’s—the idea of renewal is a thread weaving through all these holidays. Here in the dark of winter is energy toward rebirth. Hallelujah!

What kinds of new possibilities might be germinating in the dark?

Working with Stones

I’m fascinated by the limestone fences that line the Central Kentucky landscape. Constructed without mortar by skilled builders, many of whom were itinerant Irish and Scottish masons, they can endure for centuries. The Dry Stone Masonry Conservancy teaches this almost-lost art to local masons, preserving and spreading the knowledge that allows the old rock fences to be repaired and maintained in the original way, as well as new ones built.

To study a section of stone fence is to appreciate the depth of attention brought to the work. Rough and irregular stones are layered without gaps, as if each settled naturally into its place according to its nature. Even the smallest stone is an integral part of the whole, filling a space that would otherwise weaken the structure. Made of limestone from the surrounding fields, the fences come from the land and fit easily into the landscape. They were built from the necessity of working with materials at hand. They belong.

Labor and skill are apparent in these old stone fences, but so is a sense of reverence for the world as it is. The builders worked with the nature of the stones, so that the textured unity of the fence is not imposed through conformity but coaxed from diversity. The strength and beauty of a rock wall comes from working with what is given, carefully determining the placement of each piece so that is part of a cohesive whole. Nothing is forced; every stone is different. Yet put together in the right way the stones yield a structure that is beautiful, cohesive, and strong. Each stone lends its strength to something that endures.

The building method works because the stones are different shapes. They don’t just sit side by side, they fit into each other. Scattered across the ground, the stones don’t look like building material. They’re just rocks. They suggest nothing of the potential seen by a mason. But placed by a master builder, they become part of something beautiful and enduring.

In the same way, it can be hard to see what the scattered parts of our lives add up to. Sometimes we lack the perspective on our selves, or on our communities, to see anything more than a rocky field. At those times it helps me to remember that I’m not the mason. In spite of everything I try to do and learn and accomplish and create, there is only so much improvement of myself or the world that I can bring about under my own power. But there is a master builder who has the vision to make something good of my life and its odd-shaped elements, and of this world and its rough-edged inhabitants. There is good work in progress.

What helps give you a builder’s perspective?

A Definition of Faith

One of the things I love about John O’Donohue’s Anam Ċara is its deeply rooted optimism. It does not deny the darkness in life, yet conveys unwavering trust in life’s goodness. His assurance of life’s faithfulness is itself a wonderful definition of faith:

“Creative expectation brings you healing and renewal. If you could trust your soul, you would receive every blessing you require. Life itself is the great sacrament through which we are wounded and healed. If we live everything, life will be faithful to us.”

This is a powerful statement, one that I’m drawn to and also challenged by. I’m not sure that I want to live everything. There are plenty of difficult, painful, and trying things that I’d like very much to avoid. Yet when those things arrive in spite of every effort to turn them away, there is no choice but to live them. And when that happens, I’d like to believe that walking through a dark valley eventually leads toward healing and wholeness.

How do we learn to trust life, knowing its power to wound? How do we overcome the fear that we won’t be safe, loved, or cared for if we aren’t good enough? How do we cultivate creative expectation when we’re weary and disappointed?

O’Donohue points toward the inherent strength of the soul. He knows there is a place within us that is eternal, where we can go “to be nourished, strengthened, and renewed.” He offers the assurance that “The deepest things that you need are not elsewhere. They are here and now in that circle of your own soul.” The presence of God is within us always.

That presence is manifest in a chorus that echoes throughout scripture: “Do not be afraid.” It is spoken to ancient ancestors and through the words of the prophets. It is the message of angels to Mary and Joseph, to the shepherds who visited the Christ-child, and to the father of John the Baptist. Jesus says to his followers, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid.” Holy reassurance seems a universal stepping stone toward a life of genuine faith, one that trusts in the work of God.

Faith understands that the power of God permeates all of life, making growth, healing, and renewal part of the experience of being alive. Faith trusts that God is faithful. Faith frees us from being trapped in our circumstances. Faith rests in the assurance that God is always at work in the world and in us, and invites us to live into a greater vision of all that life can be.

Holy Week: What We Learn from Looking into the Dark

It’s Holy Week, a time in the liturgical year that draws Christians into and through great darkness. But there is plenty of darkness in the world—why do we need to invite more? I don’t relish the thought of entering into the stories of betrayal and fear, of manipulation by people in power and humanity’s willingness to extinguish a light. It would be easier to take if that had all changed now, but we know it isn’t so. Even knowing that this story has a good ending, it’s not an easy one to engage with.

I approach this week thinking, “not again.” Why is this, of all weeks, the one labeled “holy?” It’s a week filled with unholy actions as well as holy moments, like all of life. Why is its suffering and desolation what we choose to lift up?

Nonetheless, it comes ‘round every year. And like any observance that occurs with that regularity, it brings a chance to look at a familiar ritual from the slightly different perspective that another year of living brings.

This year, I’m noticing that the story shows how quickly things turn around: from celebration and adoration to arrest and death; from horror at the crucifixion of a beloved teacher to wonder at the empty tomb. The first Easter morning wasn’t yet a triumph, but it brought hope wrapped in mystery. What the disciples thought was over was made open-ended. Despair was replaced with questions that led them to a new place.

In this week of reversals we celebrate the consistent thread running through all of them. Jesus knew who he was and what he was about, regardless of how the world around him shifted. Reality wasn’t determined by the crowd’s response, good or bad, but by his certain connection with God.

He knew his time was limited and he knew what was important. When the world was growing dark he washed his disciples’ feet and shared a meal in a way that remains in our memory today.

Holy Week shows us that everything in the world comes to an end. But we can endure it, knowing that life moves beyond the endings we can see, and that darkness does not have the final word.

Do you find light in this week of darkness? What do you do with Holy Week?

Making Peace with What You Can Do

Walking in the early spring air this morning, I got by with a light cotton jacket. Yet the weather remains cool and damp. Green fronds push up from the ground, but the skies are grey. Trees are full of birdsong, though the bare branches appear unchanged since winter.

This almost-spring feels nothing like winter, yet there is no blossoming. As if the earth is saying: This, today, is what I can do. I can bring forth this much, but for now I can go no farther.

And the slow warming is enough. The turning of the seasons is exactly this; nothing more is needed. There is no hurry, no catching up to do. All is sufficient.

***

It’s tempting to discount those efforts we are able to make. How do you make peace with the limits of what you can do?

Divine Inspiration and Everyday Incarnation

These days I’m living in the tension between inspiration and productivity; between drawing water from the well and hauling it home to cook and wash. There are so many things I want to do, but the hours and energy of the day are spent before I can see to them all. I love being in touch with the creative spirit, yet I’m overflowing with plans and ideas that I can hardly carry out. It’s hard to bridge the gap between ideal and actuality, vision and incarnation.

I’m also trying to remember that this challenge is a blessing. I’ve had my share of wandering in the wilderness, wondering where the path was leading. Chances are I’ll experience the wilderness again. But for the time being I have meaningful work to do—an assortment of conversations, projects, and explorations. On the surface they seem unconnected, yet together they impart the sense of gathering energy.

It’s good to feel that generative flow—what we call the Holy Spirit at work. It has been moving all along, bringing me to this place, but now it’s easier to see. Gratefully, I’m trying to pay attention to the work I need to do. And I’m trying to go with the flow.

What if we could always remember that we’re being led to the place we need to be? That we are part of the ongoing work of incarnation?

Reason for Hope

I’ve been reading Pierre Teilhard de Chardin over the past few weeks, absorbing The Divine Milieu a little at a time. It’s a wise and deeply hopeful book, relevant to the perennial issues and questions that arise in everyday life.

One of those issues is the pain that is part of human experience, as in the pictures we see in the news. Teilhard ascribes suffering not to the will of God, but to the fact that creation is unfinished, still moving toward the full expression of abundant life made possible in God. Humanity may be subject to heartbreak, but we are part of a creation in which God works even through tragedy towards strength and healing. The world in its current state cannot escape “shocks and diminishments,” but God works through them to bring about something better. In Teilhard’s hope-filled worldview, “Not everything is immediately good to those who seek God; but everything is capable of becoming good.”

Teilhard’s deep faith in God’s intention for creation means that suffering is never the last word, and that darkness and confusion will be transcended. Life may sometimes be difficult but it is not meaningless. Our individual experience is part of a larger framework, which helps us resist the darkness and isolation that invites despair.

When I see the world’s compassionate response to disaster, it appears Teilhard is right. When someone says that losing a job eventually led them to more meaningful and satisfying work, it supports what Teilhard is saying. For other hurts there are no pat answers. Sometimes we cannot see the pattern in which pain and loss are a part.

But I want to believe with Teilhard that the aspects of life that seem to yield only meaningless suffering will be places touched by the powerful life force that is God. Believing that the spirit of God within humanity is always working towards a good creation, even through darkness and pain, is a reason to keep going. It’s a reason to know that our lives matter. It’s a reason to hope, and that makes all the difference.

What gives you reason to hope?