In Praise of Wild and Lonely Places

There is something evocative about slowing down and becoming quiet.  A primitive, even visceral desire, to strip away the distractions and focus on that which matters.

For many of us, getting outdoors, is a way of focusing on that which matters.  We do so by working in our garden, hiking, snowshoeing through the woods or walking on the beach.

We are drawn to that which allows our hearts, minds and imaginations to expand. To be reminded that we belong to the cosmos, not just to our daily routines.

Stephen Hiltner taps into this desire in a provocative article in the New York Times entitled: ‘In Britain, Enraptured by the Wild, Lonely and Remote’. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/21/travel/in-search-of-britains-bothies.html?partner=rss&emc=rss He writes of a journey through the wild lands of the United Kingdom, finding refuge and inspiration in isolated huts called ‘bothies’.

A vast majority of bothies are repurposed structures — crofters’ homes, shepherds’ huts, mining outbuildings — that have been salvaged from various states of disrepair by the Mountain Bothies Association, a charitable organization founded in 1965 whose aim is “to maintain simple shelters in remote country for the use and benefit of all who love wild and lonely places.” Some, like Warnscale Head in England’s Lake District, date to the 1700s. Collectively, since they came into recreational use in the 1930s as weekend getaways (sometimes used clandestinely) for working-class laborers, bothies have given rise to a unique culture that values communal respect for fellow visitors, for the bothies themselves and for the land on which they’re situated.

Such wild and lonely places remind me of a week spent on the Longtrail, in Vermont.  With my cousin, Tom, we spent that week moving from rustic hut to hut, soaking in the vistas and silence.

On the Longtrail, there is a tradition of receiving a ‘trail name’ that evokes who you are, or, what you hope to be.  My name was ‘Slow and Easy’.  The name reflects a tendency when on the trail, to linger and savor what the trail has to offer.  While some seek to conquer the trail by bagging a maximum of miles per day, my goal was to experience what was right in front of me.

Travelling ‘slow and easy’ was somewhat counterculture on the trail and certainly is countercultural in our plugged in, highly scheduled lives.

Back to the line I opened with: ‘There is something evocative about slowing down and becoming quiet’.

John Muir lived this truth. He was a mystic and founder of the Sierra Club in the 1930’s.  His formative years were nourished by the wild and lonely places in Scotland.  Later, as a youth, his family emigrated to the United States in the 1870’s and it was there that he fell in love with the wild and lonely places of America.

The moors of Scotland and the mountains of Yosemite, evoke a sense of awe, wonder and belonging to that which is greater than oneself.  Muir wrote:

“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

Muir’s words reflects that which drew monks and mystics for millenniums to the out-of-the-way places.  Yet, we know too, that such wild and exotic places are simply pointers to that place we can enter each day.  A reminder to slow down, reflect and reconnect, to that Source which is eternal, which is good, lasting and true.

The portal to such a place, begins by simply slowing down and becoming quiet.

Isaiah, an ancient prophet said: ‘Listen and your soul will live’.

May it be so.  Wherever your path may lead.

 

 

Remembering Mary Oliver and the Gift of Red Bird

Yesterday, the great American poet, Mary Oliver died, at age 83.  Her poetry grew out of a love for nature, that served as a refuge from a turbulent childhood.  In the woods and ponds around her rural Ohio home, she found beauty, healing and hope. Throughout her adult life, she found wisdom and renewal on daily walks along the beaches and forests of Provincetown, Cape Cod.  Nature fed and expanded her soul.

Her poem Red Bird, invites the reader to look for the gift of color that breaks into the often grey and cold days of a New England winter.

Red Bird reminds us that beauty however fleeting, comes into even the darkest of times.

May Red Bird speak to you.

 

Red Bird

Red bird came all winter
Firing up the landscape
As nothing else could.

Of course I love the sparrows,
Those dun-colored darlings,
So hungry and so many.

I am a God-fearing feeder of birds,
I know he has many children,
Not all of them bold in spirit.

Still, for whatever reason-
Perhaps because the winter is so long
And the sky so black-blue,

Or perhaps because the heart narrows
As often as it opens-
I am grateful

That red bird comes all winter
Firing up the landscape

As nothing else can do.

Everything’s a Circle

The Sacred Spiral – The spiral represents the universal pattern of growth and evolution. The spiral represents eternity and continuity. The spiral in nature appears frequently. It is a symbol that represents innocence, rebirth, and the eternal. The sacred spiral is also an energetic symbol, it represents energy. In fact, if you look at pure energy under a microscope you will see that energy forms spiral patterns.

Nature loves to make things round: planets, soap bubbles, oranges, eyeballs, the circular swirl of a spinning hurricane. A lot of forces are at play in favoring natural circles and spheres—the equalizing force of air pressure pushing out or gravity pulling in; the rotation of the Earth, creating vortices in air; the evolutionary imperative of efficient packaging.

WESTBROOK, ME – JANUARY 14: This 30-second exposure shows a circular ice floe spinning counter-clockwise in the Presumpscot River below Bridge Street, as viewed from a nearby parking garage. (Staff photo by Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer)

The power of the round is in the news again, with the appearance of a massive, rotating ice disk in the Presumpscot River in Westbrook, Maine. The disk was first noticed on January 14, spinning in a lazy, counterclockwise direction. On social media, the ice circle was an instant sensation, alternately said to resemble a British crop circle or the mottled face of the moon—both fair descriptions. Either way, the Presumpscot ducks loved it, settling down for a slow-motion ride.

Ice circles are rare but hardly unheard of. What makes this one special is its size: 300 ft. in diameter, or 10 times bigger than the common 30-footers.

The circle has always been an important symbol to the Native American. It represents the sun, the moon, the cycles of the seasons, and the cycle of life to death to rebirth.

Represented by the circle is the Medicine Wheel, an ancient and powerful symbol of the never-ending cycle of life, used by Native Americans for various spiritual and ritual purposes.

Our fascination with the ‘Ice Circle in Maine’, speaks to an instinctive longing within humanity.  A longing to be filled with awe and wonder.  This phenomenon serves a spiritual purpose…putting  our lives in perspective.   A reminder that it isn’t all about us.

Rather, we are part of a universe that is awe-inspiring.  We have a place in a cosmology that is far bigger than us, than we can imagine.

Throughout time, such awareness, evoking humility, has spoken to the spiritual journey of countless people.  We’ve taken various paths but are fueled by a shared passion to connect to that which is greater than oneself.

The ancient prophet, Isaiah spoke to this journey:

“Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded? Creator sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. The Holy stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.”  (Isaiah 40:21-22)

 

The labyrinth found in Christian cathedrals and forest glades, invites the traveler to walk the way of the circle and to be open to the blessings to be found.

It has been said, that ‘everything is a circle’.  If we allow ourselves to enter upon such a path, we may find ourselves returning to the Source of all that is good, lasting and true.

When Prayer Meets Politics

In a January 7th New York Times article” ‘A Wall and Two Prayers’ by  Maggie Haberman and Annie Karni    The article reflects on a series of meetings this past weekend, by White House and Congressional leaders.  They are seeking a way past the shut down of our nation’s government, now at day sixteen.  The article begins:

WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence insisted on beginning the first meeting with a prayer, so the chief of staff to the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, asked God to “to bring us together” when negotiators met Saturday in Mr. Pence’s ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

The next day, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s staff members, who were representing the Democratic side, began with their own prayer, which noted that Jesus and Mary were both refugees.

The two disparate prayers underscored the stalemate that lawmakers find themselves in as the shutdown drags into its third week: The two sides could not even agree on a pro forma invocation.

The article raises the question of what role prayer has, in the world of politics.

We know that prayer can be a means to support one’s own agenda and bias.  A cynic may suggest that Vice President Pence and Speaker Pelosi used prayer in precisely this way.

But I offer a warning.  Anyone who strive to use prayer in a calculating manner is moving into unchartered territory.

Prayer has a way of inserting that intangible we call Spirit, into our most carefully constructed agenda and closely held bias.  Prayer can’t be constrained or contained.  Prayer taps into a Source that is greater than our sense of what is possible. Greater even than our ego or fears.

Prayer creates an opening.  To be filled by that Mystery who goes by many names: Holy/Sacred/Divine/Spirit/Source.   Spirit can expand the smallest of imaginations and soften the hardest of hearts.

Prayer can’t be domesticated.  Not by politicians, priests, pastors or prophets.

When a person enters into prayer…even the most hard-hearted and closed-minded among us….has entered upon a process of being changed.

The Spirit nudges, stirs, compels and propels, to the point that the one who prays begin to change, evolve, transform.

Perhaps the change is dramatic like the Biblical story of Saul being brought to his knees at the Damascus gate.  The result is a new identity (Paul) with a new call to serve those he had been persecuting.

Other times the process is glacial, like the slow expanding of the Grinch’s heart at Christmas (which was oh, so small).

My point is that Mr. Pence and Mrs. Pelosi should be careful when praying.  If they continue, who knows where it will lead?

We can only hope it will lead to greater wisdom, guided by compassion.  Not just for our sake but the sake of all God’s children.

For this, let us pray.

Darkness and Light

The Winter Solstice has come and gone.  With each day the light lingers.

In my faith tradition, Advent has given way to Christmas.  Light illuminates the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

The seasons both cosmic and liturgical, remind us that the challenges of any given moment, give way in time, to that which is life-giving.    Such is our hope.

Such thoughts are welcome in this time of political turmoil, both within our nation and on a global scale.  I see the leader of my own nation demonize and trivialize the struggle of migrants fleeing violence and poverty.  The answer he offers is a wall to keep ‘the other’ out.   A wall of apartheid.  A wall built by fear.

Yet, we know that in a life of faith, there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, there is only ‘us’.  Children of God.

Imago Dei.

We know, these migrants have names and stories, just like you and me.  We know that they are more than their labels.  We know that they are simply doing for their loved ones what we would do.

So into the darkness of this moment in time, we long for metaphors, stories of light and love, healing and hope.  As we look into a New Year, may the words of the poet, Madeleine L’Engle offer comfort and courage to one and all.

Into The Darkest Hour
by Madeleine L’Engle

It was a time like this,
War & tumult of war,
a horror in the air.
Hungry yawned the abyss –
and yet there came the star
and the child most wonderfully there.

It was time like this
of fear & lust for power,
license & greed and blight –
and yet the Prince of bliss
came into the darkest hour
in quiet & silent light.

And in a time like this
how celebrate his birth
when all things fall apart?
Ah! Wonderful it is
with no room on the earth
the stable is our heart.

Sheer Silence: Part Four

This is the fourth installment, where we explore a key question:  In the midst of the busyness and noise of daily life, where can we turn for perspective and refreshment?

This question is particularly compelling during the holiday season.  The demands and expectations can be overwhelming and unrealistic.  The busyness can drown out the underlying spiritual essence of the season.

Within my tradition, Advent marks a four-week journey, ushering us towards the promise of the Christ child and the hope He represents.   My Jewish sisters and brothers celebrate Hanukkah, marking the eight-day festival of light as a reminder of God’s faithfulness.

Still others find meaning in the rhythm of the seasons. The Winter Solstice marks the longest night (honored with fire, dance and reflection).

Each of these ritualized events create cosmic space for a meeting of awe, wonder, gratitude and humility. A space which reminds us of the enormity and mystery within which we find our place.

What then can we do to step away from that which distracts us?   How can we enter more fully  into the cosmic search which the various religious traditions invite us?

Walking through the woods at Rolling Ridge Retreat Center, during a silent retreat for Advent.

Here are a few suggestions:  Carve out 30 minutes each day to simply be quiet.  The premise is that in silence we become open and are met by a Source of wisdom, which is greater than oneself.

Be mindful.  For a period of time each day, whatever you are doing, do so mind fully.  Be fully present to where you are and who you are with.  Imagine what happens when you are fully present to your child, to your beloved, to nature, to ___.

Be grateful.  Studies show that a leading indicator of happiness is an intentional practice of being grateful.  Consider making a list each day of at least three things you are grateful for.

Be kind.  Each day offer at least one-act of kindness, large or small.  Kindness expands our heart and mind.

Be unplugged.  This one is particularly challenging.  Recent studies show that many of us are addicted to our smartphones.  Indeed, social media platforms are designed to train us to spend more and more time on our devices.   A recent study by the University of Pennsylvania https://www.thecollegefix.com/college-students-happier-when-they-limit-social-media-campus-roundup-ep-36/ indicated that college students who limit themselves to 30 minutes on social media each day, saw a significant increase in their sense of mental well-being and connection to others.

This sacred season, whatever your spiritual path may be…may you carve out space to simply be and listen for the wisdom that is yours.  In the mid 19th century, the theologian Soren Kierkegaard said: ‘God is always present, simply waiting to be found’.

May it be so, for those with the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

 

 

When Character Counts

This week, two great Americans were laid to rest:  Former President George H.W. Bush and Andy Fitzgerald.  Both men shared core convictions:  Service above self and humility.

Today I watched President Bush’s funeral, televised from the National Cathedral.  His accomplishments were great.  But what made him a great man, was a sweet mixture of compassion for others, humor and a desire to deflect attention from himself.  An odd trait for a politician who accomplished so much.

A young George H.W. Bush as a Navy Pilot.

As a young man he served as a decorated combat pilot during WW II.  In one memorable encounter his plane was shot down.  His two fellow crewman didn’t survive.  For the rest of his life, he honored their memory by serving others.

 

Andy Fitzgerald is not as well-known.  He too served in the military.  In the early 1950’s he was stationed at a Coast Guard Station off of Chatham, Cape Cod.

On February 18, 1952, the Pendleton – a 503 foot oil tanker – broke in two about 6 miles off Chatham. In nighttime blizzard conditions, Fitzgerald and three others set off in a 36-foot boat and did the seemingly impossible: rescue 32 men off the Pendleton and make it back to shore.  A 36 foot boat, with a capacity for eight, carried the entire crew to safety.

Andy Fitzgerald, age 84, upon the commissioning of the Bernard C. Webber, the first of a new class of rapid response cutters. Named after Bernard Webber who commanded the rescue.

Mr. Fitzgerald was the last surviving member of the rescue crew that was awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal, the Coast Guard’s highest honor.  A book was written and a movie in 2016 was made of their story: “The Finest Hours”.  http://time.com/4197131/the-finest-hours-true-story

Andy’s wife, Gloria said: “He doesn’t consider himself a hero to this day.”  He’d say, ‘it was three hours of work that we were supposed to do.’

President Bush and Guardsman Fitzgerald, serve as an antidote to the toxic and polarized political culture of our time.  In contrast to the polarizing and self serving traits of some of today’s political leaders, we need look no further than George and Andy for guidance.

Their values show us the way forward.  Their character traits offer a self correction for us as neighbors and citizens.  Thank you George H.W. Bush and Andy Fitzgerald.  We as a nation, are forever in your debt.