A birthday week reflection I

Saint Therese of Lisieux reminds me, “ Accept and embrace your own littleness.”

Saint Ignatius of Loyola tells me, “Keep doing the work of discernment until you arrive.”

Saint Charles de Foucauld urges me, “Carry on day-by-day faithfully, even when – especially when – you cannot see the way ahead.”

Thomas Keating, OCSO counsels me, “Above all else, pray faithfully.  Place yourself quietly in the Presence always.”

Saint Francis of Assisi says, “Know the grace of God is flowing into your life every moment; your job is to be open to the gift.”

Saint Benedict of Nursia assures me, “Keep listening.  Always keep listening for the Word as it comes.”

Photo by Geetanjal Khanna on Unsplash

These are my companions and patrons on what feels sometimes like a fool’s errand, but feels always like an invitation to follow no matter how circuitous the route or pitted the path.  

Early in 2021 a call that had murmured at the foundation of my soul, a message that had whispered from the back stacks of the library of my life spoke out loud.  The words were simple, “Now are you ready?”  Ready to seek community, prayer, service, shared life in a community of faith, in a dedicated community of others who heard the call in their own manner and answered.

I have come to recognize this call is so profoundly basic to my being that the question of whether to answer it in the Roman Catholic communion of most of my life, or in the Anglican Communion of these latter years, or in another place that I have not seen myself is a secondary question.  The primary question is community, is a life of prayer, is service, is shared life, and yes, is silence too.

I reached out with energy newborn to those who could help in the Catholic Church, in the Episcopal Church, and to new friends hearing similar calls and seeking new ways to answer it together.  I spoke with and visited monastic communities where I have visited for lengths of time in the past and found myself at home in a manner that I have known nowhere else.  I have received encouragement and discouragement in about equal measure.  The encouragement comes from voices that seem to hear the echo of something real in my voice when I speak of this call.  The discouragement comes principally from obstacles of course, which are more than one.  But the single hardest one is the general agreement that I am asking, looking, searching too late in life.

The several religious communities who have responded in that way have, no doubt, good reason for saying so, coming out of other experience with candidates beyond a certain determined age (which varies) who have come and not settled and sometimes caused disruption and often left again with both their individual lives and the life of the community unsettled.  I can see and understand that.

But the voice which asks “now are you ready” continues to ask, even as the ‘now’ both slips into the past and remains ever new with the rising of each sun and the changing of each season.  And I continue, and I will continue – taking all the counsel from my saintly companions above – to respond with the most profound Yes I ever have spoken.  A Yes rooted so deeply in my origin and identity, soul and spirit, that it is bigger than, and as well embraces entirely, the joyful Yes I spoke to ordained service decades ago.  

I trust that the God whom the desperate and exhausted Elijah met again at Mount Horeb, the God who both refreshed the prophet and then set him on his way again, will continue to show me the way, if only I show a daily willingness to follow wherever the way leads.  And I pledge, as sure as the God of daily graces lives and gives, that I will.

And I place no limits on how this call might find its answer.  Limits are not my business here.  Whatever Christian communion it might be in, whatever spiritual family following whatever ever-fresh charism from past to future, whatever monastery or abbey or friary or house of prayer; whether the community be numerous or few, whether the group be growing or shrinking, whether I find my place in an established community or help establish a community, or become a solitary linked to other solitaries across the miles, or an anchorite living by the side of church in prayer and bonded to the parish community there – whatever be the path and whatever be the point of arrival, as long as I have breath I will continue and walk on willingly. 

“I do not ask to see the distant scene, – one step enough for me.” And another step as the following day begins. Accepting my own littleness. Discerning what the days are teaching me. Carrying on, in prayer. Life thrown open to the pouring fonts of grace, head thrown back and mouth open to drink the rain pouring down from heaven. And always listening. Listening for the voice of the living God in all the ways that voice faithfully speaks.

Perhaps even in your voice, dear reader, as you read and respond?

Morning Light

In the early morning

Under cover of darkness

With only a hint of light in the eastern sky

Looking more like memory than promise

I took the dogs out.

The air crisp, leaves whispering on the trees in a light dawn of creation breeze:

“I hear we’re falling soon; our time has come,” and a leafish response,

“You’re crazy, we’ve been here always and we always will be.”

It’s a day off, so back to bed, granted K-9 permission, “for a nap.”

At 8, a turn in bed brings full sunlight through closed eyelids into my world.

A color, brilliant orange yellow blazes and reveals the leavings of a lifetime of sight floating relaxed within,

And veins and who knows what else, a hidden world suddenly ablaze,

Inner and outer worlds lit in unison, singing silently together

Sitting up at bed’s edge I am filled with a sure appreciation and a word of praise:

I am alive.

The dogs, patiently seated across the room, nod in agreement.

The day begins, not off but on.

In Praise of the Slow Mow

I went to mow the lawn yesterday only to find that the very impressive rider-mower that came with the premises was unwilling to make a sound, never mind to cut grass.  In the corner of the garage stands my well-used old manual push mower.  You push, it cuts.  At least, it cuts some of what it rolls over.  So the old mower and I were pressed into service together.

Several differences were immediately evident regarding the use of one grass-cutting tool over another.  First, it was much quieter.  I see my neighbors wearing headsets as they twirl around their yards on their own rider-mowers.  One would look preternaturally silly wearing headphones while pushing the old manual mower, unless of course one were listening to the best of Elton John as his final concert approaches, or fill-in-your-favorite-music.  Secondly, it took more time.  I completed half the lawn in about twice the time it would’ve taken to complete the whole of it on mower-back.  Thirdly, it took more effort.  As I am fond of saying, in terms of physical effort the rider-mower proves only that I retain sufficient balance to remain upright in a seat (even in motion!).  If I live long enough the day will likely arrive when this is no longer true, but thank God at the present time it doesn’t feel like much of an accomplishment.  And finally, the quieter, slower, more taxing method of getting the job done invites, allows, and almost requires me to actually get to know the yard, to actually see the lawn, its makeup of a startling variety of local weeds in various shades of green which, when cut low, masquerade a lawn with admirable efficacy.  

Why do I impose this reflection on the rest of the reading world?  

For one reason.  All four of the differences outlined between the newer, powered manner of reaching the goal and the older, self-propelled way seem to me to argue that the older and simpler is (at least sometimes) better.  And perhaps not just when it comes to getting the yard to look nice.  

Think about it.

Lately I have taken to setting the GPS to avoid toll roads and interstates.  In doing so I have nothing against that marvel of national roadways that bear the name of President Eisenhower.  There are times and circumstances – many of them – where what he and others wrought in the building of that system is just what is needed.  But, if the trip is within the state, or from one New England state to another, to avoid the bigger and better reveals the same differences and allied benefits uncovered in my front yard.  The voyage is quieter, slower, asks a livelier attentiveness of the driver, and allows the part of creation between the beginning and ending points to actually present itself in all its wonder, beauty, and uniqueness.  

All these are benefits, both along the way and on arrival.  Postmodern life wants you to hurry everywhere, and when you get here to hurry to accomplish what you came for.  Pshaw on that.  The quiet allows the inner dialogue in your brain to slow, to allow memories to be recalled by what is seen and heard along the way, and to link those memories to life here and now.  The seeing and hearing along the way, paying attention to the kind of curve that doesn’t often come on a super-highway, gasping in awe at the brook swollen by recent rains by the side of the road and a few miles along noticing where it becomes a valued contributor to a river – these are gifts to the traveler, awake and aware.  

Examples could be multiplied.  Writing a letter with a pen, folding it, placing it in an envelope, greeting the postal service person and chatting as you purchase a stamp, addressing that envelope and placing it in the mailbox with a whispered prayer for the recipient: all this is a richer experience by far than pecking out an email in 2 minutes and sending it without another thought at minute 2.5.  Walking, where and when possible, to complete a simple shopping errand places me in touch with the actual place I live in a way that hopping in car and driving there just cannot do.  And walking without an errand, without a reason, without a cause, is even better.  Enough of that at least brings to life the memory of childhood when you moved just because.  And most of the time you couldn’t name the cause.

So.  Though I’ve naught against rider-mowers, you can read here that at least some of them should be re-tooled as planters in the front yard, decorative reminders of some of what we would be better off letting go of between pandemics.  Like the kind of rushing around that numbs the mind.  And the busy-ness that puts the heart to sleep and threatens to allow me to forget the good of my neighbor.  And the world’s noise that drowns out the tiny whisper of the voice of God, a voice that is not saying . . . ever . . . Hurry up, will you???

© John McGinty 7/25/2021

Today’s Job

Very early this morning, before the first light rose, a first question arose in my mind: What is my job today?

An interesting question to come to me while on vacation.  Just a moment later I registered that it is vacation time and then this answer to the original question came clear and immediate:

My job today is to be the person home at #4.

That’s it and that’s all.  

I went to sleep last night and entered early into a set of dreams. My falling asleep and the dreams themselves were characterized by the kind of jumping-around erratic non-rhythm of thought that a long time ago led wiser persons than I to think of the human mind as a monkey constantly jumping from tree to tree. In my experience, it is an apt and a helpful image.

On the one hand the jumping around bears witness that we live.  There’s a positive.  On the other hand, it also reveals that we tend to be hyper, to be unable or unlikely to settle in one place, to remain there, to look around calmly and come to know the place, and there, contentedly, to be.  To simply be.  

In that morning light, my first thoughts of this day are a grace and gift to me.  This is indeed my job today, inasmuch as I have one.  My job is to be right here.  To be, right here.  My job is to remain in this place, in this time.  

In doing so, I believe that I would come to be able to affirm that in all time and in every place, all that is needed has been provided. The God who created, and who continues to create is here, and is at work.

What is being created? Activity and joy and memories for the children across the lake at camp. Plant life, flourishing just beyond these walls in the midst of a recent overabundance of rain and today the gift of warm sun. Animal and insect life on the move. Birds singing their morning prayer in original tunes, and always on key.

And in the human being, what is being created?  In this human being, sitting in this chair typing?  What is being created in me? Is it healing from the ravages of covid-time isolation?  Is it a renewed resilience?  Is it the continued pathway along the necessary road of grief and mourning?  Is it recovery from weariness by the balm of rest?  Is it a word from the home of hope?  Is it new possibility, awaiting birth?  Is it a new idea, or a new feeling?  Or is it simply and marvelously a next breath?

Likely the answer is all this, and more.  If the human mind jumps from tree to tree like a monkey, sometimes creatively and more often madly, the heart of God moves from hill to hill creating new trees, new species, new wonders that might never occur to a monkey mind, but which invite recognition as gifts and the birth of contentment and joy.

What does it take for me to do the ‘job’ identified as today’s?  Simply to stop trying.  To cease striving.  Simply, but anything but easily.  Witness the fact that I am writing about it, rather than doing it.  

Long before I was ever doing, I was being taught in my mother’s womb how to be.  The teacher of that lesson was both radically distant and astoundingly near.  That teacher still whispers, now as then.  That teacher still has lessons to impart.  They are spoken first to the heart, to the wholeness of me, and not only to my mind.  

Today, at least in desire, I want only to be.

Copyright 2021 John P. McGinty