Our youngest son raises quail for sale. These quail are a nutritious and balanced meal for a hawk, eagle or owl, and they are high demand by zoos, educational facilities and others who hold captive birds of prey. On Thursday of last week, I transferred 5190 quail eggs in a brooder. The eggs spend two weeks in an incubator, and then the brooder that holds them while they hatch and mature for a day or so. While I was transferring the eggs, I was acutely aware that each little orb was a living bird, wrapped in a cocoon of calcium, and needed to be handled gently. Apparently, my diligence paid off. He sent me a picture of one of the brooder trays, teeming with little striped bundles of feet, heads and down. Our daughter-in-law says the chicks hatch into three different personalities. There are those who literally stick their heads back into the shells as if to say, “I’m not sure I like it out here!,” there are those who contentedly wade through the sea of their peers, and there are those who jump at the sides, trying to get out.
Life-giving life in an orb half the size of a brussel sprout, breaking free of its limitations to grow into something capable of creating other such orbs—I can’t help but see in it a metaphor for the spiritual growth of the human soul. Born into the human family, we find (or ought to find) protection inside the shell of our communities of faith. But the time will come when that shell is a barrier to further growth, and we must break free. Sometimes hatching is scary and we want to go back to the comfort of what we knew. Sometimes hatching is hardly noticed by the new hatchling, but those around say, “Wow, you’ve changed somehow!” Then there are those who’s hatching so immediately transforms them that they are driven to transcend any and all barriers they see around them. Unlike quail chicks, the human soul hatches more than once. More importantly, we must choose to hatch and we can share hatching. Choosing not to hatch forces us into a living death from which we are freed only when released from this temporal life. Choosing to hatch opens the door to a larger life, one that is intrinsically ours, but not automatic. The disciplines of spiritual practice teach us to hatch gracefully into the new and larger life so that we may help others hatch.
Maybe this is why I believe the Christian doctrine of the Saints in Light that we celebrate at funerals and All Saints’ Sunday. Those who have finally hatched out of this temporal life into the timeless life of God share in God’s work of helping us through our several hatchings, even as we help others along the path with us.
Our youngest son and his wife recently purchased 70 acres along the Palouse River in eastern Washington State. We just got back from a five-day visit with them. We got to know “the farm,” and got to help getting things ready for their eventual move to it. Those things included helping him replace bad beams under the house, painting walls, and moving their two heritage short-horn cows from a shed to a makeshift pasture. That caper stands out as one of the hilarious highlights of the week.
Moving the cows meant getting them to leave the shed they’ve been living in for the last month or so, getting them onto the road that runs down to the haybarn, then moving them across a railroad track into the pasture. At one point they bolted in the opposite direction, sending my son racing to head them off. Soon they were thundering down toward my wife and me again, only to take a wrong turn into the haybarn (wrong for us, not for them, I’m sure.) We finally got them up to the rails, and found they were reluctant to cross at the car-crossing. The Railroad Company had laid down ties longwise to provide an even surface for wheeled traffic to cross, and it looked to the cows like a cattle-guard. At one point the smaller cow actually inserted her feet vertically into the slots between the ties, giving us all visions of broken ankles. Finally, we were successful in tempting them with alfalfa hay off the crossing where they stepped over the rails like they were logs on the ground. They virtually bolted into the pasture from there and we all breathed a sigh of relief as we closed the gate.
Life through the eyes of a cow is just not the same as life through the eyes of a person. What looks big and scary to us is nothing to them, whereas innocuous things like a waved hat sent them scampering the other way. It takes some doing to step outside the human animal’s experience of the world, especially colored as it is by history, experience, culture and personality, and into the head of a bovine, but it’s worth it. The created order is full of such alien minds with whom we must live in harmony.
Harmony: the blending of different voices on harmonic resonances (my definition.) Harmony presupposes both diversity and unity. As midterm elections draw near, name-calling, broad-net simplistic answers to complicated questions, selective application of moral imperatives, and general demonization of the perceived “other” are not blending in harmony from where I stand, but rather raising a cacophonous discord. Maybe we need a little more barnyard music.
This morning’s first lesson in Morning Prayer came from the opening verses of the prophet Micah, as he, with erudition and careful articulation laid out before the King of Judah just how dire the situation had become. The slippery slope of evil was cascading them into exile because of their transgressions. It was a dark and dangerous read. The canticle after the reading that is appointed according to the cycle I use comes from another prophet, Isaiah, and begins, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you.” Wow, talk about a roller coaster! How do you fit these two readings together? Which does one listen to? And why can’t I choose what I read so it flows nicely and presents a coherent theme?
The answer is, yes, I could. But there is much spiritual benefit from the rhythms of a discipline, even, and perhaps especially, when parts of it don’t seem to flow together. I read the lessons appointed according to the Revised Common Lectionary because hundreds of thousands of Christians around the world are reading that same passage with me. I join in the throng, knowing that in surrendering to this discipline, over the course of two years I will read 95% of the Bible. I read the canticle assigned for the same reasons. The fact that the two express very different sides of the human experience can be jarring or stretching, depending on how I choose to respond. If I let it stretch me I realize both sentiments expressed are emotions I feel in my life. It lifts me out of the emotions of the moment, and lets me see my life from the balcony, so to speak, to see its length and breadth. I am reminded that if I craft the readings and canticles for the moment I am all too easily tempted to limit the scope of expression to what I subconsciously acknowledge as “acceptable,” and avoid the broken shadows. All of my lived experience must show up in my prayer, or I am less than honest, even less than human. No, I need them both, right there, side by side, standing in contrast to one another, to free me from the tyranny of my own immediacy.
Surrender to the disciplines of the faith is not an arbitrary breaking of the will born of some dark view of human nature, but a willing sacrifice of my own limitedness in order to be lifted into my fullest humanity.
Last night the first blast of fall weather blew down off the mountains and dropped our temps into the high 30’s. I had to drive to Deming this morning, and the feel of driving in a coat, with crisp, cold air outside is one of those feelings of the season. As soon as a good frost comes it will draw the sugar out in our fall apples and we will have delicious work to do! Growing up just miles from the Equator line the seasons were different—rainy and dry, with very little actual temperature variation, but it didn’t take me long in my young adult years in Indiana to appreciate the march of time marked by cold and hot, green and brown, flowers and fruit. Round and round goes the planet, round and round goes the year, round and round go our lives, until some day we launch from the cycles into the Mystery.
So, why do we call it “Autumn” or “Fall?” The etymology of “autumn” may date back to the Etruscans, according to etymologonline.com, and mean “the drying-up season.” “Fall” evokes falling leaves, or the falling off of the year from Summer toward the cold of winter. Either way, change is in the air. Fall and Spring are transitions from extremes, who derive their identities not from peaks but from valleys and movement. Maybe “fall” is a good word for it, then.
I find within two responses. One is the hurry up and prepare, to harvest and store away. Maybe the ancient Irish and Scottish blood in me remembers winter all too well. I want to get busy with activity that I think will increase the likelihood of things being better rather than worse in the future. Perhaps this business is a form of prayer.
The other response is more contemplative. Part of me sits back and watches from the corner of the ceiling everything else going on in me and asks, “What does it mean to be in transition?” This part of me wants to watch more than act. Perhaps this watching is also a form of prayer.
Yesterday the board of the Rio Grande Borderland Ministries met. We’re seven weeks out from our biggest gig ever, a Border Ministries Summit to which the whole Episcopal Church has been invited, plus the Anglican Church of Mexico and people from Central America. It sounds big, and it could be big, and when I spent most of the National General Convention talking to people about it there seemed to be a lot of interest—but we do not have a lot of people signed up yet! We were caught between being the ideal and the real. Now in reality or registrations have jumped from barely nothing to barely doable in a matter of two weeks, and I will be spending a lot of time in the next 24 hours reaching out to folks who expressed interest and are not yet signed up, but a lot hangs in the balance. We bit off a big chunk of stuff we can’t completely control, and we’re struggling to manage it.
If I don’t miss my guess, that’s the outlines of your worries, too—stuff where your ability to control doesn’t seem to match the potential consequences.
Cast your cares upon God, for God cares for you. All is illusion, all is fluidity, let it pass. Detachment is the way to peace. Inshalla. The message is clear: Our control is always rather limited, and doing anything of consequence puts us in that place where our control does not reach far enough for comfort. It becomes a spiritual discipline of surrender. There are Energies at work beyond our capacity, whose ends are to be trusted. “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” (Julian of Norwich)
Peace is surrender in the midst of chaos.
I was reading an article in the latest issue of Parabola magazine last night about a woman recovering from cancer treatments who went on a pilgrimage to visit the home of the Brontë sisters in Haworth, Yorkshire, UK. The story of the Brontës is more tragic than hers: the mother and all of the children died before they were 40. The father lived to be 84. (According to the Wikipedia article, the brother, Branwell first painted himself in the picture shown and then removed his likeness so as not to clutter the image. You can still see his shadow. He died suddenly at 31. Was the painting a kind of self-immolation?)
So, here is a woman recovering from cancer, beset with depression, visiting the museum to a tragic family story from which we get such literary masterpieces as Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyrie. The pilgrimage for the author is the same kind of walk through the darkness of depression and out into freedom. It is a journey in which she remembers her Zen training: Do not feed your thoughts, just let them come and go. All is fluidity.
In this time of intense political drama this is good advice. We need not avoid the politics, that would be escape, not serenity. On the other hand, we need not be consumed by it either. It is what it is and it ain’t what it ain’t. We will vote in a few short weeks and there will be political fall-out, and it will affect peoples’ lives, including yours and mine, but these kinds of things come and go. Keep your center, everything else is fluid. Only from that center can true action in the world for justice and peace emerge. All else is beating the wind that will blow it all away in the long run.
Fluidity—the key to solidity.
Picture credit: Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Brontë, by their brother Branwell (c. 1834) (From the Wikipedia article, “Brontë family”, accessed 10/2/18)
This morning the red and grey pre-dawn clouds hung over the world, bouncing their glow off the rocky shark-fin of Cooke’s Peak. Sailors may say that red in the morning is a warning, but if you live in the desert it’s good news. A front is supposed to drop precious moisture today and again in a week. It’s a change to the predictions that the fall was going to be dry, and a welcome change.
There is a saying where I grew up, “Mejor mal conocido que bien por conocer.” (Better the evil you know than the good you don’t.) Change is uncomfortable, even if the routines we are used to are not all that good—and yet early Greek philosopher Heraclitus noted that the only constant thing in life is change. If there is a totally predictable routine to get used to, it’s the routine of change. That seems like a contradiction, but it’s not really.
Change provides the opportunity for a reevaluation, sitting back and taking stock, and a reassessment of what is important and what is not. It drives us either to superficial bitterness or deep wisdom and compassion. It always does one of those two things. This is the constant in change, a routine we can get used to. The discipline of pushing deep for wisdom and compassion is the stuff of a truly fulfilling human life.
Embrace the change thoughtfully, carefully and openly, and it will always open an amazing door.