Waking Up to Joy

I realize not everyone is attuned to rise at dawn. We each have our own circadian rhythms. Scientists have found that individual rhythms have a genetic basis and are incredibly difficult to change. Some people naturally rise early, they call them the larks, while others are tuned to a later cycle, they call them the owls.

So I am not suggesting that everyone should start rising at dawn. I am still not even sure if I can shape my life in that way. But what I notice is that whenever I take some small step toward attuning myself with the larger earth, I feel blessed by it—I feel more beauty and joy.

And yet, for each small step, I also feel challenged—aware of how broken off I am. Aware of how broken off we are as a people from this earth that is our whole life. I have to believe that awakening to this beauty and brokenness is the essence of the spiritual journey. We cannot have one without the other. My greatest hopes trigger my greatest fears. My greatest fears call forth my greatest hopes. I believe that when we enter that place between our greatest fears and our greatest hopes—when we encounter our own vulnerability, and call out for help, something can rise in us like the dawn… and this is the place where God lives.

I am still on this journey. When the days are shorter, the dawn comes later. But then it is too cold to go sit outside like I sat outside during the summer. So I am not sure how it will unfold. Sometimes I sit by the window and watch the sunrise from the comfy chair in my room, a tiny black cat curled up in my lap. But I remember the message of the cardinal singing at dawn: Come outside! May sadness be dispelled, may joy and beauty be awakened in us.Snowy Sunrise

Dawn Rhythms

Crescent Moon at DawnOne morning on Star Island, I heard the cardinal at 4 a.m. Closer to first light. The waning crescent moon was hung over a deep pink rainbow of a skyline. I began to wonder why we don’t always get up with the light. It is actually quite bright in the hour between dawn and sunrise.

Before that summer, I had used the words dawn and sunrise interchangeably, but I learned that dawn refers to the first light that comes before sunrise. There is so much of it. Enough to read and write in my journal. We could save a lot of electricity if we got up at first light, and went to bed earlier. Of course, that is the logic behind daylight savings time, where we set the clock ahead so that we wake up an hour earlier during the longer days.

But what would it be like if our world was oriented to the rising and setting of the sun? Then every day we’d rise a little later or earlier than the day before. Because the sunrise changes every day. We’d have long days in the summer, and short days in the winter. The earliest sunrise in Maine comes in mid June, just before 5 a.m. daylight savings time. (That would be 4 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.) The latest sunrise comes about 7:15 at the end of December, except, because of time changes, it actually gets to 7:22 in early November, before we fall back with the changing of the clocks.

So, people might say that it wouldn’t be practical, in our world, to plan our day according to the sun. We plan our lives according to the clock. But what do we lose by that? While I was trying to discover the natural rhythm of dawn, I could feel how disconnected I was from all natural rhythms. Rising at dawn is a way to deepen my relationship with the seasons of the earth, and to the sun, and to the birds. But it makes me wonder, “Why do we try to shape the earth to our demands? Why don’t we try to shape ourselves to the rhythms of the earth?” And what might happen if we changed that pattern?

Cultures and religions the world over have honored the sacredness of dawn, the sacredness of the sun. Our word “sun” comes from the Old English, “sunne,” which was related to the Germanic sun goddess, “Sunna.” It shows up in our everyday language—the day of our worship is called Sunday. Christian monks, and Hindu priests rise at dawn; Muslims during Ramadan, as well as Indigenous peoples across many cultures. There is something in our human life that wants to be attuned to the life of the earth, which looks for beauty and joy in these simple rhythms.

Moving Toward East

I feel awe and wonder when I watch the sun come up in the morning and also when it goes down in the evening. Its beauty and grandeur can be breathtaking. It gives me even greater awe and wonder to realize that it is actually we on the earth who are moving, turning toward or away from our view of the sun. Science has taught us that. The earth spins on its axis once every twenty four hours, and this spinning creates our day and night. I may know all this intellectually, but I must use my imagination to experience it: see if you can, too. You can try this anytime, but it is most vivid at a sunrise or sunset.

Face the east just before sunrise.
Imagine yourself riding on the surface of the round earth sphere,
almost like riding in a car, looking out the front window.
We are speeding forward further and further until suddenly the sun comes into view. Feel yourself moving!

Later, just before sunset, face the west.
Again imagine yourself on the surface of this huge globe.
This time, like a child looking out the rear window of a car,
see that we are speeding away from everything until the sun slips from our sight.
We’re always moving toward the east!

It would make us dizzy to be aware of this motion all the time. But for a moment, we can be dizzy with the wonder of it all. Scientific knowledge can bring us to an awareness of reality beyond what we can see with our own eyes. Spirituality is when that awareness moves from the dry realm of intellect into the visceral experience of awe and wonder. The natural world is the original holy book, the original sacred text: the earliest forms of religion were responses to the mysteries of the earth and sky. As our ability to read this book of the universe grows, our spiritual practices are trying to catch up.

Dawn at Star IslandMargy and I traveled to Star Island, a conference center that is an island off the coast of New Hampshire. It is a rather small island—you can see the water from almost every place on it. It turned out that the windows in our tiny room faced the east. The next morning, through my open window, of course I heard a cardinal singing before sunrise. “Come outside!” it seemed to say, once again.

Right beyond the door of our room was a porch facing east, with rocking chairs on it. I could crawl out of bed wrapped in a blanket, and sit in a rocking chair to watch the sun rise over the ocean. That day, the clouds formed variegated patterns of pink and orange, blazing up through the whole eastern sky. The cardinals jumped from bush to bush close to where I was rocking in my chair.Rocking Chairs

Watching the beauty of the sunrise during the next several days, I was again thinking about how the sun generates its own energy, how all the stars do that. We on earth are more like children, we are utterly dependent on this light-being for all our needs. All of the energy human beings generate and use all over the earth relies on the sun as its ultimate source. The whole sphere of life on earth is a child of the sun. Yet the sun is so personal too. We can feel its touch on our faces—it is as personal as the vitamin D that it creates through our skin.

The poet Hafiz said,

All this time
The sun never says to earth,
You owe
What happens
With a love like that.
It lights the

 Poem from The Gift: Poems by Hafiz, The Great Sufi Master, translations by Daniel Ladinsky 

Sunrise Blessings

Mona Polacca, an indigenous elder of the Hopi and Havasupai people, spoke at my church one summer. She talked about how we come into relationship with all the elements of the earth, with water, and air, and fire and earth. She blessed us with the feather of a water bird. Someone at the talk asked Mona what gave her hope. She said, hope comes with each new dawn.

Feeling blessed by her words, the next day, I woke up at 5 a.m. and went outside a few minutes later. It was already so light! The sunrise was to be about 5:18. The birds were all singing their morning songs. I could see the red orange sphere through the branches of the spruce tree.Spruce Sunrise DSC03603 I felt anew the amazing power of the sun. All plants convert sunlight to energy, and animals eat the plants, and we eat the plants and animals and our bodies are formed of this. We are the sun. Every fiber of our being is created of sunlight. All the earth sings to this light, this star from which we are created.

And we can see the sun. We have been fashioned in such a way that we can recognize this parent—all the creatures of the surface of the earth feel and see the sunlight. I felt joined together with that song of the earth, a prayer of thanksgiving to the sun. Thanks for life! I chimed in. Thanks for vision to experience the life all around me of which I am a part, and for hearing and smelling and tasting and touching.

After such a magical moment, you might think that I would be awake every morning after that. But it wasn’t so easy for me to actually get up at dawn. To sustain it I would have to go to bed much earlier than I was used to. The very next morning I had planned to sleep in, because I was up late the night before. But in the middle of my sleeping, I heard a banging sound.

I stirred, and realized that one of our kittens was inside the closet, pushing against the sliding doors. I grumbled, but the clock said 5:15 a.m., exactly five minutes before sunrise. Feeling duly summoned by forces greater than myself, I crawled out from under the sheets, pulled on my shoes, and went outside once more, while the red ball was just appearing in the east.

The Magic of Dawn

CardinalI was sitting on a blanket in a screen tent in the back yard, honoring the earth and all her creatures, when during my prayers, a cardinal started singing, and came to perch on the ground right near the tent. I felt so thankful for that visit.

I was pondering the big questions of my heart. I was asking, What is my greatest hope? And my heart answered, I hope that we find a way to live in harmony with all life on the earth, that our spirits wake up to experience the unity of all life, that we might join in that beautiful dance. But I also asked, What is my greatest fear? My heart answered, I am afraid that the greedy and powerful will kill all the trees, pollute the oceans, and destroy the animals and the people. I am afraid that humankind is broken beyond restoration, so cut off that we cannot find our way back to the unity.

And so my prayer was a prayer to find wholeness, to find joy. When the cardinal started to sing so close by, it reminded me of the magic of being outside, the place where my hope is restored. It also reminded me of the magic of waking up at dawn, the time when the cardinal and a host of other birds sing their most beautiful songs. They create together a dawn chorus.

I first learned about the magic of dawn from my Wampanoag friend gkisedtanamoogk. He had told me that the eastern peoples, called the Wabanaki, believed that dawn was the most sacred time of the day—the name Wabanaki means people of the first light, the first light of the sky before the sun rises over the horizon. This time was considered the best time to pray, to commune with the earth and the spirits within the earth.

A few days later, I woke early, and heard a cardinal singing outside my window, and that called me outside again. So I went out and sat on my blanket and tried again to open my heart to the world all around me. When I look at any writing in English, even the tag on the edge of the screen tent, I cannot help but read the writing there. Yet when I look at the plants or the mushrooms in our yard, I realize I do not know how to read the earth. I don’t know the names of many plants or their characteristics. Our species has become so isolated, so alone in our own thoughts and works. I wish I had a guide to teach me how to read the earth.

Slug in grassI saw a small slug moving slowly through the grass. As I was watching it, I wondered what it was reading about the earth, what chemical messages it found in the small trails through the grass. It was on its way toward a mushroom. I took photos of its small golden body, tried to pay attention to its slowness and intention as it climbed the mushroom stem. Even a slug can be a teacher.Slug on Mushroom

Listening to the cardinal singing, these words came into my heart: Whatever you do there is beauty in it: the work, the rest, the prayer, the play, the listening. Awaken to beauty, be present to it, the hidden beauty of the ordinary is like the muted beauty of the female cardinal. Dispel sadness, awaken to beauty and joy.