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Wednesday, January 20, 2016 – 2:32am
Photo by Kent Miller

Notes from a Week in the Winter Woods

I’ve been on retreat at a cabin in the woods since last Monday — a silent, solitary retreat. As my time here got underway, I took a few notes each day — a sort of mini-journal — and got the idea of stringing them together.

Monday, Jan. 11, 2016
Arrived in mid-afternoon at my rented cabin in the snow-covered Wisconsin countryside. Went inside, lit a fire, and unpacked the car, quickly, motivated by the sub-zero wind chill. Outside, acres of bright fields and dark woods. Inside, just me. Plus enough clothing, food, and books for a week of silence and solitude.

Last night, someone asked if I liked being alone. “It depends,” I said. “Sometimes I’m my best friend. Sometimes I’m my worst enemy. We’ll see who shows up.”

It’s 9:00 p.m., an hour before Quaker midnight, but I’m going to turn in anyway. I’m drowsy and at peace. The fire I’ve been staring into seems to have burned away the worries that tagged along with me.

Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016

Woke up about 5:00 a.m. and lay awake for another hour in the dark, watching my worries rise phoenix-like from the ashes and flap around to get my attention.

“Welcome and entertain them all!” says Rumi in The Guest House.

“Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”

Guess I need to have a chat with the “beyond.” Looks like he/she/it didn’t get the memo that I came here for some peace.

Now, a few hours later, I’m feeling that peace again. It came from a breakfast of bacon, eggs, and toast, all ready simultaneously despite the fact that I’m a certified kitchen klutz. It came as well from looking out on the snowfields, brilliant under the rising sun — but beautifully etched with the shadows of trees and stubble poking up through the snow.

The “beyond” was right: peace comes from embracing the interplay of shadow and light (and a good breakfast doesn’t hurt). After breakfast, I read the January 12 entry in A Year With Thomas Merton, a collection of daily meditations:

“It seems to me that I have greater peace… when I am not ‘trying to be contemplative,’ or trying to be anything special, but simply orienting my life fully and completely towards what seems to be required of a man like me at a time like this.”

Simple and true, but so easily lost in Type-A spiritual striving! What was required of me this morning was simply to make breakfast despite my well-documented ineptitude. The deal is to do whatever is needful and within reach, no matter how ordinary it is or whether I’m likely to do it well.

This afternoon, what I needed was a hike, though the wind chill was six below. I’m no Ernest Shackleton, but I learned long ago that winter will drive you crazy until you get out into it — and I mean “winter” both literally and metaphorically. “In the middle of winter,” said Camus, “I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.”

I didn’t discover summer on my hike. But the sun blazed bright on the frozen prairie, warming my face. And high in the cobalt blue sky, a hawk made lazy circles as I’ve seem them do in July. For January, that’s close enough to summer for me!

Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016

I slept poorly last night, and I know why. An hour before bedtime, I binge-ate a box of Jujyfruits while reading a book about spiritual discipline. The book made a few good points but was not well written, and I scarfed down the Jujyfruits as a stimulus to stick with it. My bad. But clear evidence that I could use some discipline!

I feel better now because the oatmeal I made for breakfast — on my second try — was healing. Pure comfort food. On the first try, I got the ratio of oatmeal to water wrong and left it on the burner too long. The pan looks like a grotesque avant garde sculpture of metal and grain: “Agrarian Culture Defeated by Machine.” Again, my bad. But my kitchen klutz credentials have been reinstated.

I guess my theme today is “Screw-ups in Solitude.” In solitude, my bads make me grin. If I committed them in front of others, I’d be embarrassed or angry with myself. Self-acceptance is easier when no one is around.

The Taoist master Chuang Tzu tells about a man crossing a river when an empty skiff slams into his. The man does not become angry, as he would if there was a boatman in the other skiff. So, says Chuang Tzu:

“Empty your own boat as you cross the river of the world.”

In solitude, I can empty my boat. Can I do it when I’m not alone? Maybe.

“Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people — it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.”

That quote comes from a book I wrote, so I should probably give it a try!

Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016

Woke up at 2:00 a.m. and found myself regretting some things I got wrong over the past 77 years. Wished I had been kinder, or braver, or less self-centered than I was, and had a hard time remembering the things I got right.

Knowing that the 2:00 a.m. mind is almost always deranged, I got up at 4:00 a.m., dressed, made some coffee, stood out in the dark and cold for a bit, and saw Venus gleaming low in the southeast. The goddess of love: that helped!

Then I read the January 14th entry in A Year With Thomas Merton. Once again,my old friend had a word I need to hear, as he reflected on the complex mix of rights and wrongs in his own life:

I am thrown into contradiction: to realize it is mercy, to accept it is love, and to help others do the same is compassion.

Merton goes on to say that the contradictions in our lives are engines of creativity. It’s true. If we got everything right or everything wrong, there’d be none of the divine discontent or the sense of possibility that drives us to grow. What we get wrong makes us reach for something better. What we get right gives us hope that the “better” might be within reach.

Now I feel ready to step into the day animated by the counsel of Florida Scott-Maxwell:

“You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done… you are fierce with reality.”

I fully intend to get fierce and real today. But before I do that, I’m going to take a nap!

Friday, Jan. 15, 2016

This morning, for no apparent reason, I woke up with a grin, another one of those “guests” Rumi spoke about, “sent as a guide from beyond.” But this time the guest is a welcome lightness, a sense of impending laughter.

Most of my heroes are folks who are no strangers to laughter. Grandpa Palmer comes to mind. The man was proof-positive of William James’s claim that “common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds.” Grandpa taught me to drive when I was 14. First time out, I made a dumb, dangerous move on a back-country Iowa road. When we came to a safe stop, Grandpa was ominously silent for a moment. Then he said, laconically, “If I’d of knowed you was gonna do that, I don’t believe I’d of asked you to drive.” He never said another word about my near-disaster, and for the past 60 years I’ve driven accident-free!

Merton was well known for his sense of humor, a quality not uncommon among monks. In The Sign of Jonas, a deeply moving journal of his early years in the monastery, there’s a line on page 37 that always makes me smile:

“I had a pious thought, but I am not going to write it down.”

And I love this claim, found in a Hindu epic called The Ramayana, as told by Aubrey Menen:

There are three things which are real: God, human folly, and laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension, so we must do what we can with the third.

I’m sure I’ll experience all three today. The first is ever-available, if my heart is open. The second is guaranteed, since wherever I go, there I am. As for the third, I’ll do what I can with it. As Chesterton quipped:

“Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016

A cardinal in winter(Parker Palmer)

Today’s opening line in A Year With Thomas Merton, “You can make your life what you want” if you don’t “drive [yourself] on with illusory demands.” I don’t think it’s entirely true that I can make my life what I want. But it would help if I stopped making demands on myself that distort who I really am and what I’m really called to do.

After five days of silence and solitude, many of the demands that hung over me when I came out here have lightened or lifted. Since I’ve done little this week to meet those demands, the lesson seems clear: they were mostly the inventions of an agitated mind. Now that my mind has quieted, its “illusory demands” have vaporized, and I feel a deeper peace.

I remember a story my businessman dad told me about how he dealt with pressure. In his office, he had a desk with five drawers. He’d put today’s mail in the bottom drawer, after moving yesterday’s mail up to the next drawer, and so on. He’d open letters only after they had made it to the top drawer. By that time, he said, half the problems people wrote him about had taken care of themselves, and the other half were less demanding than if he’d read the letters the moment they arrived! As Black Elk said to the children in his tribe when he told a teaching story:

“Whether it happened that way, I do not know. But if you think about it, you will see that it is true.”

Of course, the curse called email did not exist in Dad’s day. Still, his story points the way: make five folders for my email, and use them as Dad said he used his desk drawers. In certain respects, you can make the life you want!

Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016

Sunset in winter(Parker Palmer)

On this last full day of my retreat, I’m still meditating on the opening line of the January 13 entry in A Year With Thomas Merton:

“There is one thing I must do here at my woodshed hermitage… and that is to prepare for my death. But that means a preparation in gentleness…”

What a great leap — from death to gentleness! So different from Dylan Thomas’s famous advice:

“Do not go gentle into that good night…
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

When I was 35, raging seemed right. But at 77, it’s Thomas Merton, not Dylan Thomas, who speaks to me.

The prospect of death — heightened by winter’s dark and cold, by solitude, silence, and age — makes it clear that my calling is to be gentle with the many expressions of life, old and new, that must be handled with care if they are to survive and thrive.

Sometimes, of course, that means becoming fierce in confronting the enemies of gentleness. If that’s a contradiction, so be it! As Merton said in The Sign of Jonas:

“I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”

THE IRISH CELLS ON ST BRENDAN’S ISLE

There is something unique about St Brendan’s island, something I find very difficult to put into words, because I have no term of comparison. These Celtic Pilgrimages are filled with places of such spiritual strength that they can be overwhelming. About Iona, there is a saying that no pilgrim will ever come here just once. You will always return because you need to hear once more the things you’ve heard in your heart the first time. This is true of all the isles; in some ways, it is even stronger on the smaller, more secluded ones, precisely because of their very remoteness and silence.

Let me tell you a secret. Of all the amazing places we see during our pilgrimages, my heart aches for four in particular: St Brendan’s beehive cell; the hermit caves on St Kenneth’s Isle; St Columba’s Bay on Iona; and the Nuns’s Cave on Mull. It is revealing to me, as the leader of these pilgrimages, that people tend to wander alone here. After we pray together, each of us instinctively looks for solitude to pray alone. It is as if we all answer a personal silent call from the cliffs, the hills or the coast of the ocean.

There is something deeply unsettling about these sites, something that immediately throws you out of your spiritual comfort zone. The things we learn to avoid, the aspects of our faith we gradually learn to ignore somehow become the essential, central themes here. These are un compromising places, dangerous places for anyone except uncompromising characters of dangerous, uncompromising faith. I hope to tell you about all these places over time, but let’s start with few words about St Brendan’s cell.

The ‘data’ concerning the cell is itself impressive beyond belief. Dating back to the very early 500s, it is stunningly well-preserved. Fifteen centuries later, its unmistakably Irish character is perfectly obvious, building a direct link with St Brendan’s first monastic community. All the original monastics were Irish, and they built their first cells as they did in their own country. The beehive cell on St Brendan’s are identical with those you find on the Skellig Islands, for instance.

What makes this cell even more remarkable is that it is an extremely rare example of a double beehive cell. From what I know – please tell me if this is not true – the cell on St Brendan’s is the only example of a double beehive cell in Scotland. We don’t really know why the Christian Celts built these double cells, just as we don’t know why they are so rare. The most likely explanation is that they were intended for the use of the Abbot of the monastery, who would have needed the second space to hear the brothers’ confessions and to offer them private guidance.

It is a unique experience to kneel in this cell and to pray for St Brendan’s guidance. Just kneel down and ask him to accept you as one of his community, and to cover you with his protection after your return home; just ask for the unspeakable, ask with boldness, ask with the positive desperation of the one who feels lost but refuses to give up the fight. Hope against hope. ‘Christ beside me, Christ within me.’ – these words come from the heart of a tradition that knew this feeling very well.

Come with us. Come pray with us. Come and say these words here, in St Brendan’s cell.View to St Brendan's CellThe Cell on the Coast of the oceanBeehive Cell on St Brendan's IslePraying in St Brendan's CellLooking our from St Brendan's CellDouble Irish Beehive Cell

Saturday, August 15, 2015 – 6:13am  (with thanks to on being)
Photo by Hamish Irvine

Wild Sanctuary

BY TOM JABLONSKI,  GUEST CONTRIBUTOR
worked in the environmental field in industry, consulting, and government for over 25 years. He lives in Blaine, Minnesota and blogs at Ecological Leadership.

A patch of wilderness, a remnant of land not completely taken over by humans at that point in time, surrounded me. It was a small strip of land located between Highway 65 and the vacant land that paralleled it to the west, and the housing development in which I lived.

At one time the land was likely cleared and the earth had been reshaped. Old berms and piles of dirt marked the landscape, but the wild vegetation had reclaimed the disturbed soil. My observations were interrupted by the call of some animal. I thought it might be a bird, crying out in a loud shrieking that almost drowned out the sound of traffic on the highway. The call got louder and then softer. The chickadees that flitted around the nearby trees seemed to ignore it. What was the call and who was making it? And what was my call?

I had been doing some volunteer work to try and fill my day with some meaning, but the tasks did not fill me with the sense of accomplishment I sought. What was it like to experience a real sense of accomplishment? Maybe it was not experiencing accomplishment that kept me going. For what more was there in life once accomplishment had been achieved?

image

Round Lake in St. Paul MN.

Credit: Jim Brekke License: Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

The leaves had mostly fallen off all the trees, and they lay covering the ground. A brown layer interspersed with a patch of black where the leaves had been pushed away to expose the rich, black humus below — a silt-sand-organic matrix filled with microscopic life.

As was typical of those times of solitude, two airplanes sliced through the sky above, their engines churning out there own matrix of noise, exhaust, and propulsion. The sun broke through the overcast sky, sending a strong beam of light and warmth my way. Some remnants of grass dangling from a brown stem rocked back and forth in the breeze that blew through the tangle of wilderness. The trees in the area appeared to be a hardy lot: poplars, box elders, and other shrubs.

A red fox walked through the clearing in front of me, wandering within 30 feet of where I sat. It passed through sniffing the ground, not seeming to notice me as I watched and marveled at the site of it.

image

A fox near Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado.

Credit: Max and Dee Bernt License: Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

And then it faded away into the past year’s dried grass. Times like those were good times. This patch of wilderness brought me back to the areas of wilderness I spent time with during my childhood. Going to that place reminded me how sacred those small patches were. They were sanctuaries for life, for creation, for sanity.

So what was it that brought me to that spot at the time when the fox would share its presence with me? And was it the fox that made the strange call I heard when I first came to the place? What brought the leaf down from the tree above and caused it to land in the open spot between my left thumb and forefinger? Were all of those happenings merely coincidences, merely chance meetings of different life forms? Or was there a connection, was there meaning, a message to me telling me what I was called to do? Or was it that I simply enjoyed sitting there, observing, savoring; escaping the places that did not seem to fill me with the same sense of awe.

Small birds somewhere in the distant treetops sang a soft short song — a calling out, an experience of joy, a voice announcing a presence. A crow much further away cawed. The hum of the traffic masked the softer sounds, the more distant sounds. And vines enveloped the tree and the brush, below which I sat ruminating my life.

image

Light illuminates the Reservoir Canyon Trail in San Luis Obispo, California.

Credit: Steve Corey License: Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

The tree that I sat under reminded me of the tree that the Buddha sat under while experiencing nirvana. What creatures, what voices, which distractions called out to the Buddha as he pondered his own life? Was there more to enlightenment then simply being present to that which existed around me? Was the moment all there was? Now that I had found it, was I called back to chop wood and haul water, clean bathrooms, vacuum and go on with the volunteering jobs that did not give me the sense of meaning and accomplishment I sought? Could it be that smiling at some kids or helping one or two of them to zip up their coat was all I needed to accomplish that day?

Questions like those would not likely be answered. They likely existed to simply keep me prodding along, to keep living, to keep moving, and to keep interacting. It seemed like it was the interactions of life that could give me the sense of accomplishment I desired.

The time of reflection, serenity, and existence would not hold meaning if it was not shared through the interactions called life. Maybe what I needed to do was to not just focus on the fox, or the voice of the bird, but to pay attention to the brush, to the distraction, to the traffic, and the long grass that hid the fox. The breeze picked up, the sun receded behind a cloud, and I felt chilled. It was time to recede myself from that remnant of wilderness, time to return home to face the distractions of my life, time to focus on the mundane, the ordinary, and find what I sought.

A strange call reverberated dull. Questions of meaning filled the skull. A fox — red, soft, and close to the ground — walked through the place as leaves tumbled down. Sniffing the earth, searching, and blending, it entered the zone, the place of grass bending. The red coat began to disappear, its white-tipped tail the only memory it was near. Time, space, and tranquility. It seemed that was what life could be.

image

week a

WASHINGTON, JUNE 25, 2015 —US-COURT-The Supreme Court rescued President Obama’s health care law on Thursday for the second time in three years, rejecting a conservative challenge to the law’s financial structure that could have proved fatal.  By a vote of 6-3, the justices ruled that insurance subsidies created by the health law can be offered in both state and federal health care exchanges, or marketplaces, putting the landmark 2010 statute on solid legal footing for the immediate future and handing the law’s opponents a sound defeat.

week 5

CHARLESTON, SC – JUNE 25: First Of Charleston Church Shooting Victims Laid To Rest:  Brandon Risher comforts his mother, Sharon Risher, during the funeral service for her mother, Ethel Lance, 70, who was one of nine victims of a mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, during her funeral service at Royal Missionary Baptist Church, on June 25, 2015 in North Charleston, South Carolina. Suspected shooter Dylann Roof, 21 years old, is accused of killing the nine people on June 17th during a prayer meeting in the church, which is one of the nation’s oldest black churches in Charleston. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

week 3

US-SHOOTING-CHARLESTON A family member of Emanuel AME Church shooting victim Ethel Lance prays during the funeral at the Royal Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston, South Carolina, June 25, 2015. AFP PHOTO/JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

week 1

President Obama Joins Mourners At Funeral Of Rev. Clementa Pinckney CHARLESTON, SC – JUNE 26: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers the eulogy for South Carolina state senator and Rev. Clementa Pinckney during Pinckney’s funeral service June 26, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina. Suspected shooter Dylann Roof, 21, is accused of killing nine people on June 17th during a prayer meeting in the church, which is one of the nation’s oldest black churches in Charleston. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

week 2

President Obama Speaks On Supreme Court Ruling In Favor Of Gay Marriage WASHINGTON, DC – JUNE 26: U.S. President Barack Obama gives remarks on the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, in the Rose Garden at the White House June 26, 2015 in Washington, DC. Today the high court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry in all 50 states. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

week 7

US-COURT-GAY-MARRIAGE-RIGHTS  People celebrate outside the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on June 26, 2015 after its historic decision on gay marriage. The US Supreme Court ruled Friday that gay marriage is a nationwide right, a landmark decision in one of the most keenly awaited announcements in decades and sparking scenes of jubilation. The nation’s highest court, in a narrow 5-4 decision, said the US Constitution requires all states to carry out and recognize marriage between people of the same sex. AFP PHOTO/ MLADEN ANTONOV (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)

week 6

Celebrations Take Part Across Country As Supreme Court Rules In Favor Of Gay Marriage–ANN ARBOR, MI – JUNE 26: Same-sex marriage supporters rejoice after the U.S Supreme Court hands down a ruling regarding same-sex marriage on June 26th, 2015 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry in all 50 states. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

week 8

The US Episcopal Church voted to let gay couples wed in its religious ceremonies but clergy can opt out of officiating–SALT LAKE CITY, NEVADA, JULY 1, 2015, 11:30PM ET: The U.S. Episcopal Church voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to let gay couples wed in the denomination’s religious ceremonies, reinforcing its support for same-sex nuptials days after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide.  The Rev. Bonnie Perry of Chicago, a lesbian married to a fellow Episcopal priest, hugged fellow supporters on Wednesday and said, “We’re all included now.”  The Church, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, became in 2012 the largest U.S. religious denomination to approve a liturgy for clergy to use in blessing same-sex unions….the faith’s House of Deputies concurred with the House of Bishops, which overwhelmingly approved the measure in a separate vote on Tuesday.  “In 1976, the Church promised full and equal claim to LGBT members, and we’ve spent those years making that resolution a reality,” said the Rev. Susan Russell of the Diocese of Los Angeles.  (cbs photo)

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Joan of Arc

I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory