How to find the magic?

Evergreen tree inside our house, decorated with lights and little ornaments, with wood stove to the right in a brick hearth.

Almost Winter Solstice here! We got our first snow the other day, just a few inches, but enough to brighten the ground. It is good. It seems the long cold nights are infiltrating my spirit, and I feel weary. As I get older, it is harder to rejoice in the season of winter–ice has tripped me up on prior walks, and bruised my bones. COVID has limited our ability to welcome guests into our home, and it is too frigid for visits in the garden. Last week, our heat pumps suddenly stopped working, and we turned to our back-up boiler, but it seemed a little clanky from disuse, so we fired up our wood stove. That sounds cozy, but I find the wood smoke gives me headaches. (Thankfully, the heat pumps were repaired in two days.)

I feel old and cranky and tired with this season. It is ironic that pagan myths often assign this season to an old woman. I wonder if the winter crone is cranky? I am wrestling with how to find the magic of this cold dark season.

I didn’t really feel like getting a holiday tree. But Margy did, so we got this tree from our local food coop. I don’t feel guilty for it being cut, because it was grown for this purpose on an organic tree farm. Seeing how many seedlings try to grow into a new forest in our yard, I know that there can be an abundance of seedlings that naturally never grow up–so this one got to grow to eight feet and then be celebrated. I find myself surprised by how good it feels to have this little tree with us in the house, like a connection to the natural world during a time when that connection is harder to feel. I feel grateful to Margy for pulling us into its sweet magic.

That is my question. How to find the magic of this cold dark season? Can I quiet my mind, rather than merely entertaining it with stories in books or on screen? (though this has often been a season of stories) Can I open my heart, even if I am far away from most friends and family and other loved ones? (reaching out with letters and cards?) Can I embrace the sorrows and fears of age, of my age, my sorrows and fears, and give them a home in this moment? (hospitality has many forms) Can I embrace the silence? Let myself sink into it, floating down like a snowflake, bury myself in the silence like the plants are buried in snow? Silent night.

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Blessing by O’Donohue

I found this poem again, by John O’Donohue, on a friend’s Facebook feed, and wanted to share it here. I think about how I haven’t had a lot of words lately, and have posted only rarely. There is something empty about this time, something without desire or ambition, something that feels lost or sad sometimes. Perhaps this poem may speak to you as it spoke to me.

For one who is exhausted, a blessing –

You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken for the race of days.

At first your thinking will darken
And sadness take over like listless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.

You have traveled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.

Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.

Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.

Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of color
That fostered the brightness of day.

Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.

Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.

Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time.

~ John O’Donohue, “For One Who Is Exhausted, a Blessing.”

You have to look quietly and closely to see what is hidden in the gray sky.

What Is Really Going On?

Tree Reflection DSC03816One fall, I was on retreat with other ministers, and our retreat leader was a priest, Rev. Ray Tetrault. He was a friend of one of my colleagues and known to us as a passionate advocate for social justice. Our task together was to reflect on the politics of our time, in light of our role as spiritual leaders.

He started us off with an unlikely reference from the gospel of Luke, familiar from the Christmas story. Luke tells us that a census was called during the time when Herod was the king of Judea, Augustus was caesar of the Roman Empire, and Quirinius was the governor of Syria. Ray reminded us that they were the politicians in charge of the regional and imperial governments some two thousand years ago.

But what was really going on?” he asked. Something mysterious. In a small town, a baby had just been born—we know him as John the Baptist—and something new was beginning that would literally transform the world. This new thing emerged, not from those at the top, but from underneath, from an unexpected and hidden place.

Since our retreat was happening just before the national elections, all of us were sitting there with many stirred up feelings about the issues facing our country. It would have been easy to talk together about our political leaders, our concerns and our analysis. But Ray invited us instead to be silent, to listen deep in the quiet of our hearts, underneath our thoughts and feelings. He invited us to reflect on the question: “What is really going on?” What else might be happening here in our own time and country, underneath, unseen, and yet full of potential significance? What is really going on?

We kept the silence for an hour, and then we shared from our hearts. The next day we went back into silence, and then shared again from that deeper place. When I went into the silence, I felt something like a seed in my heart that was swelling and expanding, and also something like a shell cracking open, something like an old husk.

I remembered an email that I had sent a few days earlier to my family members. I am the oldest of nine siblings, and my parents are both still alive. I have family living in Michigan, Texas, Montana, and West Virginia. I remember that my family was excited when John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic president, but mostly we had not been very involved in politics. Now we have vast disagreements among us. In fact, the deep religious and political divisions in our country are directly mirrored in my family.

I had been moved to send an email to my family members about my feelings and concerns about the elections, and about the spiritual beliefs underlying my hopes and fears. Then others started replying: several of my sisters, my father, a niece and a nephew sent emails to all the others. Many began by expressing fear that if they shared their beliefs, others might reject them, but still they wanted to take the risk. And even those with very strong views kept repeating that, in spite of these differences, they loved each member of the family and hoped that everyone still loved them.

Somehow, in the midst of the cultural divisions facing our nation, we had ventured across the walls of politics and religion, painfully but hopefully, to share our truths with love. Our differences were deep, and our emails did not make them go away. But we were touching each other at a deeper level than our differences. And that gave me hope for facing the divide in our nation. In the silence of the retreat, I was realizing the mysterious unfolding that had taken place in our email conversation. It felt something like a seed in my heart swelling and expanding, something like a shell cracking open, something like an old husk.