Mary Oliver, the wonderful American poetess died this last week. She was a woman of such deep faith in the goodness of things. A Pulitzer prize winner at a young age, Mary spent her life asking the deeper questions of life, searching out the answers through her affinity with the natural world, a place she had retreated to during a difficult childhood. She saw the fingerprint of the divine in every detail of nature, marrying her love for all things alive with her search to make sense of the world. Our Call to Worship this week will be Mary's thoughtful rendering, 'Wild Geese.' Below is a short clip of Mary reading this poem. There is also a short radio interview where she speaks of her view of prayer.
Mary, and her poetry, are beloved by my daughter Madelaine and I. We find in Mary's work a simplicity and elegance that offers a fresh lens for viewing this often tumultuous world. Here below is one of her most famous poems on death. I have, from time to time, offered it during a time of contemplation in funeral services. In it, Mary imagines death to be a 'cottage of darkness', hoping that she may step through its door 'full of curiosity', wondering 'what it is going to be like.'
I can imagine Mary doing just that, her keen mind alive to new possibility, her heart open to new experience. But I will miss her in this world. I am grieved that her heart beats no longer with our collective heartbeat.
But Mary has awakened to a brand new day over the horizon. And no doubt she is just as filled with wonder there, as she was here.
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it's over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.
Let me begin, by way of introduction, with another’s introduction.
Thomas Keating opens his treatise on the way of contemplation, Open Heart, Open Mind, with this simple statement.“Contemplation is the place where God makes all things possible.”
Contemplation, in its simplest analysis, is the spiritual arena that lies beyond our own personal efforts, where knowledge exists that cannot be obtained through the well worn pathways of intellectual acquisition. As this arena is both unique to each human in construct, and yet, mystically woven together with the playgrounds of all others who reach out in this way, it serves both the purposes of the individual who find themselves within it, and simultaneously, serves the greater good of all humanity.
Contemplation is a spiritual practice, and as such, it exemplifies the grounding principles of the universe - reciprocity, interconnectedness, and mutuality. God, as Keating has used the word here, and as he further illuminates it in his various writings, is both representative of the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition from which he comes, as well as embracing Allah, The Great Mother, The Other and all other names and entities within the religious world. But too, the sense of the divine is not confined to those within formal, doctrinal religions but expands to include all those who do not fit comfortably inside any faith tradition, but have some understanding, however little, that there are things to be known beyond what we can see and taste and touch, and which serves to enlighten our more noble selves, at the same time it extends compassion to our baser nature. Contemplation opens up the possibilities of the infinite.
I think we are all in need of quiet contemplation at this time of year - well, at all times of the year, but the quiet of the deep winter lends itself to this practice. So, I have chosen as my daily devotion for 2019 The Daily Reader for Contemplative Living, Excerpts from the Works of Father Thomas Keating, O.S.C.O., compiled by S. Stephanie Iachetta.
Working with a short scripture to guide the reader through the day as a mantra, Keating expands on the chosen phrase, in his gentle, thoughtful way. Here below is a sample reading from January 10th. And also, a short video made in the days before Thomas Keating's death this last fall.
Bring Christ into the World
Immanuel. . . means, "God with us."
What is the great thing that Our Lady (Mary) has done for us? She brought the Word of God into the world, or rather let Him come into the world through her. It is not so much what we do but what we are that allows Christ to live in the world. When the presence of God emerges from our inmost being into our faculties, whether we walk down the street or drink a cup of soup divine life is pouring into the world. The effectiveness of every action depends on the source from which it springs. If it is coming out fo the false self, it is severely limited. If it is coming our of a person who is immersed in God, it is extremely effective. The contemplative state, like the vocation of Our Lady, brings Christ into the World.
(Open Mind, Open Heart, 62,63)
In the year 2019, we might consider all that we do not know.
We think, of course, given our fancy technology and the never ending stream of information that pours down upon us, that we know a lot. Certainly we do. But it is flicker in the wind to all that is unknown. Humility - the great virtue to be desired - is standing open to the unknown, able and willing to learn from all that is unclaimed in our intellect. Such is faith, of course, and by faith, I mean here faith in the widest sense, not faith pushed into tidy doctrinal boxes, but faith in the great expanse of the goodness and strength of life and improbability of life.
Over the holidays Bruce and I, at the encouragement of one of our children, watched Blue Planet II. It was a soul enlivening experience. Might I suggest that you watch it as a spiritual discipline? That there are creatures all over the world at this very moment completely unaware of our ambitions and fears, that think not of us at all, but of their own glorious lives, is a perspective well worth absorbing.
Observing these astonishing visions of complexity, beauty and intellect, may bring us to a place where we consider again all that we do not know. As we fuss and fight on the surface, deep below, a whole other world - to which we are intimately connected - works through its own challenges, and finds its own solutions.
Happy New Year Viewing.
And from the ever thoughtful Ron Rolheiser, way back in 1994, comes this beautiful writing on befriending ourselves and one another. If it is a year to begin to understand what we do not know , it is also, perhaps, a year to befriend ourselves - to befriend our humanity, our goodness, those who love us, our chastity, our bodies, our mortality, our mortality, our sense of humour, the genders that perplex us, the gender we embrace, and the God of Julian of Norwich who assures us that 'All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. . .' So says Ron Rolheiser, writer and theologian extraordinaire. Have a read.
For the last three years at Trinity United Church, we have offered a Solstice service on December 21st. I have always thought of the Christmas story as a solstice story - light out of darkness, possibility out of dead ends, newness where nothing seems new, illumination in the midst of confusion - so the solstice and the Christmas story weave together in my mind.
And too, I am conscious of the fact that Christmas can be a dark time within, a time where we feel we are not measuring up to the imaginary fairytale of the season that descends upon us from the world of advertising. And there are those who are suffering or alone or grieving during the season - all things that are bad enough under normal circumstances without the further burden of forced gaiety. With this in mind, the following readings were offered at our 2018 Solstice Service. In the dark months ahead, they may offer consolation and places around which to congregate. The authors are all well known Christian mystics of sorts. May they lead you by the hand through the stillness of winter
John 0’Donahue was a Celtic poet, theologian, writer and philosopher from the 19th century. And one of his most endearing books is ‘To Bless the Space Between Us.’ One of the long held theologies in the Christian church has been the doctrine of original sin. O’Donahue offers us a doctrine of original blessing, which, in my view, is a much truer reading of the Christian Scriptures. And here he offers a blessing of courage for all those whose courage is failing. I offer it to you, on his behalf.
When the light around lessens
And your thoughts darken until
Your body feels fear turn
Cold as a stone inside,
When you find yourself bereft
Of any belief in yourself
And all you unknowingly
Leaned on has fallen,
When one voice commands
Your whole heart,
And it is raven dark,
Steady yourself and see
That it is your own thinking
That darkens your world.
Search and you will find
A diamond-thought of light,
Know that you are not alone,
And that this darkness has purpose;
Gradually it will school your eyes,
To find the one gift your life requires
Hidden within this night-corner.
Invoke the learning
Of every suffering
You have suffered.
Close your eyes.
Gather all the kindling
About your heart
To create one spark
That is all you need
To nourish the flame
That will cleanse the dark
Of its weight of festered fear.
A new confidence will come alive
To urge you towards higher ground
Where your imagination
will learn to engage difficulty
As its most rewarding threshold!
Sometimes, we need the dark for rest, as a place to stay, to grieve, to hold onto a safe place where we don’t have to do anything. When there is much going on inside, it is easier if the outside is quiet. The months of January and February offer us this - the dark, quietness of these months, the grey sky, the desire to be open in mind, and to stay quiet until the time for the great noise of spring bursts forth…..
Joyce Rupp, writer, and world renown spiritual director, addresses this need she has to stay in the dark, and away from the light…
This year I do not want
the dark to leave me.
I need its wrap
of silent stillness,
of long lasting embrace.
Too much light
has pulled me away
from the chamber
Let the dawns
let the sunsets
let the evenings
while I lean into
the abyss of my being.
Let me lie in the cave
of my soul,
for too much light
steals the source
Let me seek solace
in the empty places
of winter's passage,
those vast dark nights
that never fail to shelter me.
And here is the wonderful Rainer Maria Rilke’s contribution to the conversation. Always such a compassionate voice, Rilke offers this encouragement to one who has once again defended into a dark place, an old memory, a forgotten loss.
Sonnets to Orpheus II, 29 II
Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.
May the darkness of winter offer you deep illumination
Rev. Dr. Candice Bist
Offering what I hope will be thoughtful additions to your spiritual journey, from my own musings, and the great array of teachers available to us through other blogs, videos, websites, music and art. May grace surround us all as we make our way forward through the astonishing mystery of life.