Thursday, May 28, 2009

Pentecost Among the Mountains

I will miss the incense on Pentecost morning.

I will miss the white-robed thurifer advancing steadily down the center aisle at the head of the procession.

I will miss the mounting harmonies of the opening hymn, the choir’s voices reaching higher and higher with each verse, the brass joining the organ at a particular point.

I will miss a centuries-old liturgy, carefully orchestrated and beautifully choreographed, designed to celebrate the action of God’s Spirit in making the unimaginable a distinct possibility in human hearts.

I will be in my car this Sunday morning, having just left an inn built in the eighteenth century along the Connecticut River. When 9:30 services for Pentecost Sunday begin in my parish, I will be driving home from a weekend in an area I have visited before.

I will be fresh from two days of long walks and long dinners, musings about how the unimaginable has become a distinct possibility in my life and in the lives of people I know.

Within rooms that speak of history, I will review my own history.

Within sight of the mountains, I will consider the paths my life can take in the months and years ahead.

Most importantly, I will heed the Spirit’s call. I will trust that something better always lies before me.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Summer Porches

I love porches in the summer.

Bringing a library book onto the front porch of the house where I grew up was quintessential summer pleasure. As a child, I did not expect a summer full of fun; I knew fun usually meant what other people enjoyed and made time for and accommodated in family schedules. I had my own ideas of the best ways to move through slow morning hours and stave off the lethargy of a Louisiana afternoon and await the arrival of evening.

On the porch in summer, I paged through the latest books that I had borrowed from the local library. The air through the screens that enclosed the porch was thick with outdoor smells: the sharp fragrance of moist, shaded soil; the dry, green smell of arbor vitae and lugustrum and crepe myrtle. Meanwhile, I inhaled another aroma when I put my nose up to the leathery pages of a borrowed book, a smell as foreign and strangely welcoming as anything arising from the flower beds along the sides of our New Orleans home.

I did not know what adults did with summer -- at least what the adults in my house did that was any different from the other months of the year. My father still put on a starched white shirt each day to go downtown to work; my mother still ironed her shirtwaist dress before Sunday morning Mass. It was long years before my parents could manage anything that might count as vacation in the way that that phenomenon was depicted in the books I selected to read from the library stacks.

Yes, strange to say, my consolation was to read about summer.

My favorite summer pasttime became a way of visiting those long, quiet summer hours in other families' lives. To Kill a Mockingbird was only one of the books that got me onto the porches that belonged to those other people. In getting there, however, I caught glimpses of how my life might have been if I had been born into another home.

Maybe a father would have fallen asleep in a rocking chair and let me wake him before dinner.

Maybe a grandmother would have climbed down the backdoor steps and herded visiting cousins around her.

Maybe aunts and uncles would have arranged themselves on a wide gallery and smiled into a camera.

Vintage photographs that I have purchased over the past several years do often, it turns out, manage to convey a feel of summer quiet. The moment captured within the white borders of each picture feels something worth keeping in focus, worth remembering, worth honoring. They each tell the kind of story we might tell when we are not concerned about our lives sounding more interesting than they are.

That kind of story seems important.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Retreat Night

This past Saturday night I was in a place where I always feel myself.

It is a place along the rocky coastline of the northern Atlantic.

It is a place far from city lights and city noises.

It is a place filled with the sound of waves pulling far off into the darkness and crashing back onto the shore.

It is a place of moist winds coming in off nighttime waters.

After spending my early years in New Orleans, I am always startled to find myself standing alone there by the Atlantic. Accustomed as a child to thick, sweet night air in the month of May, I am thrilled to be trusted by myself in a place like this. There seem to be questions in the night air and a wild, sovereign freedom from easy answers.

The walkways along which I move in checkered darkness are familiar with the sound of my voice. I talk to God there. I talk to my heart. I am usually trying to get them to talk to one another. And there are times when they do. With such frequency and regularity and predictability, in fact, that I am no longer surprised by the stillness and silence that open up around me at times along that road.

I trust what I say there. I trust it more than what I say in my home or what I say in a church. I trust it infinitely more than anything I might ever have said at a dinner party on a Saturday night.

I marvel sometimes that so few people have ever walked with me there, even in the daytime. How can I have kept this place all to myself? How can I claim to be known through and through if this nighttime walk is still one that no one has taken alongside me?

Thirty years of retreats, and this promise of a nighttime God ready to listen to me and my heart is still kept.

To my relief.

To my healing.

Image of waves from bluesherpa

Friday, May 15, 2009

Want the Change

A friend and I are having conversations these days that had not seemed possible a short while back. Surprises occur when things don't have to look the same.

Sonnets To Orpheus, Part Two, XII
By Rainer Maria Rilke

Want the change. Be inspired by the flame
Where everything shines as it disappears.
The artist, when sketching, loves nothing so much
as the curve of the body as it turns away.

What locks itself in sameness has congealed.
Is it safer to be gray and numb?
What turns hard becomes rigid
and is easily shattered.

Pour yourself like a fountain.
Flow into the knowledge that what you are seeking
finishes often at the start, and, with ending, begins.

Every happiness is the child of a separation
it did not think it could survive. And Daphne, becoming a laurel,
dares you to become the wind.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Book about Retreats

I wish there were a particular book about retreats that I could read tonight.

Late Friday afternoon I will get into my car and drive out to a retreat house here in New England. I last made a retreat there almost three years ago. It is a place to which I am eager to return for I love the setting, its walkways and its silences. I love its thirty-year history in my life. I love the message that comes to me with each visit: What do you want?

I want a book about retreats, but a book that no one else would know how to read. It would be a book that could link these upcoming three days away with the three days I spent with a group last October at a seaside house in another part of New England. I cannot make this weekend’s retreat except as someone who was changed by that fall landscape, that fall rhythm of reflection, that sowing of seeds in the autumn ground.

I want a book that does not presume yet to know what lies in wait for me this springtime weekend away. It will be a book full of the ordinary hopes and eager longing that this particular location always calls up in me. And it will be a book respectful of the tears that I know I need to expect on those walkways. They always show up in this location, and part of the invitation each retreat is not to avoid them, not to fear them, but rather to welcome the way they summon to a new, unsuspected peace.

I emerge from each challenge of this past year filled with gratitude for my life and all I continue to experience as solid care and unflagging support.

Pray that the Spirit – yet once more – takes us all where life awaits, where love awaits, where the special message we each need to hear this weekend awaits hopeful hearts.

Photo from Country Living

Friday, May 8, 2009

Quai de Brumes (1938)

You don't need to understand French to understand the beauty of this one-minute scene from Marcel Carné's 1938 classic Quai de Brumes. Wait for the famous line of Jean Gabin's: "T'as de beaux yeux, tu sais."

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Friday Hyacinths

I was approaching the entrance of my building late Friday afternoon, two Whole Foods shopping bags in hand.

In twenty-four hours I had reached the end of my ground coffee, my carton of half-and-half, a box of Kashi cereal, any fruit for the cereal, and a container of Kefir – each of them a breakfast staple. For a few days I had also been without cheese, nuts, bananas, or granola bars in the house. If I wanted a dinner other than pasta and prepared sauce or an omelette with dried spices, I had to visit the fish and meat cases of a grocery store and find something fresh to cook that evening. Or go out for dinner.

But I had felt like being home this Friday evening. After two evenings eating out – once with a friend after a church function, once with colleagues before an evening work event – I didn’t want to do anything more than settle in at home and maybe watch my Netflix copy of Moontide (1942) with French actor Jean Gabin.

My shopping had been quick and purposeful and practical. All right, I treated myself to hyacinths from the flower aisle. I intended the whole evening, as a matter of fact, to be something of a treat.

As I balanced the two shopping bags, one in each hand, near the entrance of my building, a friend who lived nearby and who was walking across the parking lot stopped to chat. Spotting the flowers sticking out of the top of one of the two bags, my friend gave me a knowing glance: “I see we have company tonight.”

I smiled at the crafty if inaccurate surmise on his part.

“Can’t someone just go to Whole Foods and treat himself to a good dinner and flowers?” I asked.

My friend started laughing: “All right, all right, whatever…”

I knew he suspected me of being cagey, and I was flattered by the credit he gave me for being ready to wine and dine someone I might want to hide from him.

It turned out to be a lovely evening here in my rooms. Flounder fillets dredged in corn meal and pan-fried, a mesclun salad with Manchego and an aged sherry vinaigrette, and a martini – what was there to want beyond that and the black-and-white magic of Forties’ Hollywood?

The next day I told another friend about the evening and about the conversation I had had on the steps outside my residence. I turned to him at a certain point and asked my question again: “Don’t people just go to Whole Foods sometimes and treat themselves to a good Friday dinner with flowers?”

I expected support from this kindred spirit, but he suddenly chortled and laughed: “No! Not likely!”

I was taken aback. I didn’t want to be accused of being humorless, but I felt at that moment left out there with what must be an idiosyncratic idea of a lovely Friday evening.

It took me some time to find the framework in which I could understand my urge. What had appealed to me about my Friday evening was something akin to the tradition of Shabbat – that conscious letting go of the week and the deliberate settling into the familiar walls of home. Nothing would have been wrong about going to an opera or a movie or a good restaurant. I recall, though, several months earlier talking with someone – like me, not born into a Jewish family or raised in the Jewish faith – who admitted that he loved the idea of keeping something like Shabbat in his home in years to come. We discussed what a Friday evening at home might mean for someone if the choice were made deliberately to draw the blinds once a week and nurture life at home.

I like to think that what happened in my home this past Friday evening captured some of that spirit of Shabbat. I can watch the hyacinths again today as I re-read these lines from a favorite author:

“Home. What can people have in mind who do not prefer it to any other place? Home: one’s own life, one’s innermost, ultimate concern, the center from which alone one can radiate effectively and mean anything to anybody. Home.”
Winterwise (1927) by Zephine Humphrey

Photo of hyacinths from Doug Green's Flower-garden-bulbs