What needs to go?
What like the seasons is preparing to shed,
or to grow.
is silent yet in the earth?
make three columns
with your paper and ink:
through the garden of your life,
with full attentiveness.
Take part in your practice,
with your arms raised
like the trees,
that you might feel the praise of
sap running through fingers,
the budding at their tips.
Then close your eyes and feel
what falls in a rustle of leaves,
the release of weight.
And pay attention as you walk
to see where weeds need clearing
that the earth might breathe
and seedlings emerge,
what plants need space to spread
Feel the earth and thank her
for her storage of the secret
things still to sprout.
And for the sacred place she
makes for everything fallen
to break down and become new mulch.
And see the sky and sun
shining golden through new leaves.
And know how
in heaven our gardens are prepared
that here is a reflection,
as the waters of a lake
mirroring the morning,
all blue and green
in the clearing mist.
And remember you have all the seeds
for these gardens for which we have been given the vision
for creating, for nurturing
in the endless cycles of the seasons,
heaven nodding in affirmation.
Ana Lisa de Jong
Living Tree Poetry, March 2021
I feel in a funny-old place, very in-between things and unsettled. Uncomfortable in my skin. Exhausted. Depleted. And I am out of step – the world around me is about to open up again – more than one set of Covid-19 restrictions being lifted, coinciding neatly within the orbit of vernal equinox, and new life breaking through and budding from the earth beneath my window. Must I really drag the bottom of my murky pool to find the energy to fuel a ‘spring forth’?
This year, I sense it can’t be done.
Yet aren’t I often, nearly always, out of step with the rhythms of the world around me, living quietly as I do, in a mostly bed-orientated existence, normally (pre-Covid) spending much of my time alone? My daily rhythms and routines are dependent on that day’s allowance of energy, so often I have to let go of whatever I might have hoped to accomplish, or planned to do, whether it was studio time, a medical appointment, or sitting with a friend. And for a recovering perfectionist like me, it is incredibly difficult to ‘keep at’ what will no-doubt be a life-long task: the soul-work of finding a balance between desire and acceptance, the heart-work of being silent and at rest, balanced against creative action without striving.
As I continue this journey of marking each Equinox, Solstice and Cross-Quarter over the course of a single year, (begun in May 2020), watching the growing and waning strength of light change the colours of familiar objects around me, I wonder how this perception of light might help me listen to my empty, desolate, tired places within – the wilderness places, the desert places; to listen, with renewed attention, but without force. Perhaps I need to keep watching Winter’s shadows a little longer? Is it possible for someone who longs to be up and making, to find the patience to lie fallow a little longer?
And I have to laugh at myself as I write that sentence, because what on earth do I mean by ‘fallow’? As I mentioned at Imbolc, during January and February it has been my huge privilege to be part of a community delving into an exploration of ‘A MidWinter God’ (with the Abbey of the Arts). This course brought the key concept of being ‘fallow’ to my attention, and it is a word that keeps returning to me. For example, one evening last week, at the end of what I was bemoaning to myself as a ‘fallow’ day (read ‘unproductive’ which is not the same thing at all!), I brought myself up short, stopped the internal whine and made a list of what I had done during that day between 9 am and 7.15pm. It read as follows (in no particular order):
- making an iPad painting of my discerning of ‘grief as a holy path’
- writing an extended prayer meditation
- typing up and sharing both of these with fellow pilgrims on ‘MidWinter God’ site
- 20 minutes Centering Prayer practice
- One hour writing an Imbolc piece for Image into Ikon blog
- making a poem for ‘poem-a-day’ project
- typing up poem (points 1-7 all sitting up in bed)
- 30 minutes painting new canvas – including standing and stretching
- cleaning brushes and palette on diary covers/ playing cards (as part of other projects/new beginnings)
- rest: lying down and watching sky for a while
- ink pen doodling letter X for illustrated alphabet project
- engaging in an extended WhatsApp text exchange (lying down)
- watching 3 minute FaceBook video (lying down)
- eating supper with my parents (wheelchair to kitchen and back)
- having a 20 minute drink & conversation with Dad before supper
- listening to the first two songs of a NineBarrow concert with my parents
- rest: reading Barbara Brown Taylor and Paolo Coehlo concentratedly for 40 mins (lying down)
- rest: reading Georgette Heyer mindlessly on and off for 2 hours (lying down).
By anyone’s measure, this day cannot be called inactive – or restful – or ‘fallow’; and this kind of evidence list is a very necessary therapy for me from time to time, helping me confront my inner perfectionist and inner ungrateful-wretch head on.
So how do I really learn to clear a space, to simplify, to listen to the sentence I just wrote rather than begin a new one? Since last summer my therapist has been urging me to finish some of the multiple creative projects I have on the go. Together we have noted, with compassion and affection, that my ‘genius’ for overcomplicating is related to my persistent habit of having a hundred creative ideas before breakfast. My sadness, my abiding sin perhaps you might call it, is that I carry this habit over into my spiritual life, always dipping into multiple sources throughout my morning’s ‘quiet’ time, thereby receiving multiple messages, multiple inspirations, multiple everything. Is it any wonder I struggle with brain fog? Is it any wonder I get overwhelmed by details? Is it any wonder there are days I just do not know where to start? Perhaps all this multiplying is part of a desperate subconscious assault on the brain: if I blast my system with enough holy reading surely some of it might get through and stick?
In his book Spiritual Intelligence Brian Draper asks:
… often the most profound awakenings arise from being willing to let go of the ‘Where now?’ or ‘What next?’ questions. In fact, most of us need to let go profoundly before we take anything more on. … We must clear a space in order to hear the still, small voice speak to us. But we must also be prepared, within that act of space-clearing, for yet more clearing to take place – to discern what we first need to surrender before we can more on with a lighter load. The poet, priest and mystic John O’Donohue once wrote that we must ‘clear thickets in the undergrowth of banality in our life’ so that we can overhear our true self. We should first clear space in order to ask, ‘What more should I clear?’ (25)
Over the course of the last thirty years I feel that I have had to let go of so much, due to chronic illness. Some days the grief of those dashed hopes and unfulfilled dreams threatens to overwhelm me, and I wonder if this grief makes me subconsciously cling to my present desires like a safety raft, utterly resistant to the idea that they too might need to be cleared out the way. But I have begun to learn to recognise that I need to let go of these most tenacious desires, and that the only way to do it is in every moment of every day. Father Thomas Keating called these engrained desires our ‘emotional drivers’: the desire for power and control; the desire for safety and security; the desire for affection, affirmation and esteem; the desire to change circumstance, situations, other people and myself. Letting go of these ‘drivers’ is at the heart of Centering Prayer practice and most mornings for the last seven years I have prayed this prayer. Yet five minutes after I have prayed it, I catch myself repeating the desire I just prayed to release! In my case, the work of trying to overhear my True Self that Draper and O’Donohue point to, is a very halting process of trying to recognise where my ‘attachments’ and desires are leading me off into a cul-de-sac, away from the Way of God’s healing and flourishing. And once I have finally noticed I have sabotaged myself again? All I can do is sigh, smile at myself, and begin again, surrendering to the Winter hard work of trying to clear the brambles of myself out of the way, so I might have enough clarity to see the GodLight springing forth.
Yet it has been my experience that clearing the ground, clearing space, surrendering all my so-called ‘good ideas’ and my ‘purple prose’, has often meant I have exposed huge, gaping emotional chasms, uncovered an echoing, empty, arid desert within me, and felt the keen edge of the wind whistle God’s absence from these places within me. Lent is often the time to remember the rich traditions of Desert Spirituality: to reflect on wilderness – where one might uncover thickets with brambles so densely-packed it feels you might never escape – as well as on open, unpopulated or barren places, or perhaps, on dark places or on blinding-light places.
One of the most illuminating books I’ve read in the past year has been Belden C. Lane’s, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality. Lane repeatedly reminded me:
The desert is, preeminently, a place to die. Anyone retreating to an Egyptian or Judean monastery, hoping to escape the tensions of city life, found little comfort among the likes of an [Abba] Anthony or Sabas. The desert offered no private therapeutic place for solace and rejuvenation. One was as likely to be carried out feet first as to be restored unchanged to the life one had left. … Amma Syncletica refused to let anyone deceive herself by imagining that retreat to a desert monastery meant the guarantee of freedom from the world. The hardest world to leave, she knew, is the one within the heart. (165, 168)
As for his own heart, Lane declares, “All I bring to the darkness each night is what the Cloud [of Unknowing] author calls a “naked intent”, a wish to be empty and still in the presence of ‘that for which I have no name’, a practice of trying to find ‘that time of utterly thoughtless silence’. ” (146) I know that longing for thought-less-ness well (although I also know the very different extreme experience of true terror, when it feels like the brain freezes, and words flee in such a way as one is no longer able to communicate freely). Thomas Merton wrote of his own heart’s desire:
to deliver oneself up, to hand oneself over, entrust oneself completely to the silence of a wide landscape of woods and hills, or sea, or desert; to sit still while the sun comes up over that land and fills its silences with light. To pray and work in the morning and to labour and rest in the afternoon, and to sit still again in meditation in the evening when night falls upon that land and when the silence fills itself with darkness and with stars.
Rest. Stillness. Silence. Surrender. Emptiness. Fullness. Openness. Attention. These words are my keystones, words where my spirit encounters the Holy and beholds the I AM. These words pepper my journey with, and through, light. They are found across history, across faith traditions and religions, across the globe. Another exponent of the “naked intent” school of spirituality was the the thirteenth-century German mystic poet Mechthild of Magdeburg. She wrote:
In the desert,
Turn toward emptiness,
Fleeing the self.
Ask no one’s help,
And your being will quiet,
Free from the bondage of things.
Those who cling to the world,
endeavour to free them;
Those who are free, praise.
Care for the sick,
But live alone,
Happy to Drink from the waters of sorrow,
To kindle Love’s fire
With the twigs of a simple life.
Thus you will live in the desert.
‘The desert has many teachings’
Mechthild of Magdeburg
During this year of global pandemic many of us may have felt aloneness in a keener way, may have needed to care for the sick in a more particular way, may have experienced the extremes of happiness and sorrow. There will be few who have not at some point found humanity’s view of our mortality and our vitality brought into question. And the questions continue on into our uncertain personal and communal futures. So here again, on another turning point along this journey of light across the year, I will light a festive fire, that way of marking the Celtic pillars of the year; and, unsettled, empty, exhausted though I may be, by faith I will mark my surrender to the One who ushers possibility from uncertainty, by rekindling my fire of Love within by this prayer:
May I clear space for You, so that I might see what or where I need to simplify in this day, this season, this year.
May my life become a song of praise and gratitude to the One who greets my emptiness with the blessings of plenitude and abundance.
May I learn to be content to lie fallow, to rest, to be still, to know the I AM in silence and in song.
May I be given the courage to begin again, or to surge on, whenever Your light changes within, whenever you give me Your vision.
May I follow the Light of Love all the days of my life to come.
Then, the Lord heard me in the wilderness of my soul.
Then, the lost place of me became clear.
Then, I recognised distraction for what it is.
Then, I was freed from the desert of diversion.
Then, I was moved to the green oasis within me.
Then, the still voice of the Lord was as the depth of water. Then, I could cease the constant music in my head.
Then, I could move beyond myself and the noise of myself. Then, I could hear the smallness of my own voice.
Then, the still voice of the Lord was as the depth of water. Then, the lost place of me became clear as a cascade.
Then, I could hear the bass of my name.
Then, I heard the Lord in the wilderness of my soul.
Then, stillness and stillness and stillness sang.
‘The Psalm of Then’
Nicholas Samaras, from American Psalm, World Psalm