Saturday, March 26, 2011

Seen or Unseen

From Elk Rock Gardens - Mount Hood

I was welcomed here—clear gold
of late summer, of opening autumn,
the dawn eagle sunning himself on the highest tree,
the mountain revealing herself unclouded, her snow
tinted apricot as she looked west,
Tolerant, in her steadfastness, of the restless sun
forever rising and setting.
Now I am given
a taste of the grey foretold by all and sundry,
a grey both heavy and chill. I've boasted I would not care,
I'm London-born. And I won't. I'll dig in,
into my days, having come here to live, not to visit.
Grey is the price
of neighboring with eagles, of knowing
a mountain's vast presence, seen or unseen.
-Denise Levertov

I’m spending the day at a Centering Prayer retreat in a beautiful setting that’s owned by our Episcopal Diocese. The chapel and gardens overlook the Willamette River, which runs right through the middle of Portland. From the west side of the river, there are breathtaking views (on a clear day) of Mt. Hood, the highest point in Oregon and only about fifty miles east. (The above picture is taken from these gardens, borrowed from someone's Flickr.) I’m a little jealous today, for there is nothing to be seen but clouds east of the river. Regardless, I consider myself lucky to have found a sunny bench in the midst of tall trees on this cloudy day in order to journal my thoughts. Portland, it seems, is cloud-trap, a deep valley surrounded by mountainous terrain. Still, we have our clear days, days when mountains that are hundreds of miles away in the Cascade range seem close enough to touch. Not to give cloudy, coffee-shop days a bad rap, but those crystal clear days are really quite something. Of course, it’s a package deal. Perhaps this is why I’m especially drawn to Levertov’s poem; this is the agreement I have made with beauty. “Grey is the price…of knowing a mountain’s vast presence, seen or unseen.” And if you'll forgive the extended metaphor, perhaps this is why mountains are helpful for understanding our relationship with God, however common and familiar the analogy may be.

Back in the chapel, I sit in silence in a circle of fellow pray-ers. By faith, I know that we are in the midst of God; in a sense, we are in God, yet we may only catch a glimpse. Maybe there are days, those rare days when God’s love is especially felt or sensed, but today (and probably most days) shrouded by clouds, only knowable by a faithful prayer that says, “I will sit.” Or, as the speaker of the poem declares, “here to live, not to visit.”

It is my prayer to continue to know God in this apophatic way, with greater sincerity and fidelity… and maybe just a glimpse here and there.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Gritty Ashes

Last night, I conducted an Ash Wednesday service to start our community's Lenten journey toward Easter. As I placed the sign of the cross on each person's forehead, I sensed that we were in a different realm of time for those few minutes. Then as the last person placed the ashes on my forehead, I felt the grit of burnt palm leaves and heard the traditional refrain: "From dust you came, and to dust you shall return." With a thumb against my brow I sensed a welcoming peace in the midst of my contemplation of death and mortality -- a reminder that in silence and no/thing, I am never alone.

Those gritty ashes are calling me to the secret prayer closet this Lent. I hope to continue being met in my moments of solitude with assurance -- assurance that my sisters and brothers here are with me and that Emmanuel is with me as I am tempted to question my identity in Christ, the Church and the World.

Lenten Blessings to You All,

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Tree as Spiritual Metaphor

Jomon Sugi Japanese Cedar in Yaku Shima, Japan

As I've shared before, I've come to appreciate nature both in its own right and as a site for developing my awareness of God. I've been taking meditative walks outdoors (see "Our Sister Mother Earth," 22 April 2010). I've been learning about the ecology of the watershed I live in (see this cool website on Peace River Watershed). I've also been reading in environmentalism (most recently Eaarth by Bill McKibben). And I've been reading nature poems (especially Thirst by Mary Oliver). So when I came across a passage where Thomas Keating uses a tree as a spiritual metaphor, I paid particular attention.

Thomas Keating writes: "Take the image of a growing tree. At first you see the trunk and the branches. Later come the leaves. This makes the tree beautiful, the stage of growth that comes when you first learn how to enter into interior silence. After the leaves come the flowers, another moment of intense satisfaction. But they quickly die and fall to the ground. The fruit comes only at the end of the season, and even then it takes a while for it to ripen on the tree. So don't think when the leaves appear and the flowers come, that this is the end of the journey. The spiritual journey is a long trip." "Moreover," the spiritual life works in seasons so that "your experience will seem to recycle . . . You seem to be returning to the point from which you started, but in actual fact you are at a higher level." In other words, though you may find yourself bare of leaves for a time or though your leaves may start again growing from buds, your roots will be a little deeper, your trunk a little wider, and your branches reaching out a little farther. 

The tree in the picture above is between two and seven thousand years old. As Keating says, "The spiritual journey is a long trip." The photographer, Rachel Sussman, has taken on a project of photographing the oldest living things on the planet. I recommend her blog or her 14 min. talk on TED as a way to reflect on this metaphor and the spiritual life.

My prayer is that we keep growing, that we have patience with ourselves and each other as we grow, and that we will produce more and more fruit of the spirit.

Blog Archive