day 13

You see, there is much I want.

Perhaps everything:

the darkness of each infinite fall,

the scintillant play of each ascent.

So many people live without wishes,

calm of spirit, light of judgement,

muted as princes.

But you rejoice in every soul

that thirsts and serves,

rejoice in all whose hands reserve

you for a tool.

You have not grown cold; it is not too late

to dive into your deepening deeps,

where life gives itself up to peace.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours/ Book of Monkish Life (trans. Susan Ranson)

The stories of the journey of the Maji to the manger tell us that one of the key parts of their experience happened when the star they were following disappeared.  For far too many mornings my first thought on waking is ‘I do not want to live this day’.  That thought is accompanied by a deep sense of loss and abandonment.  My vision feels clouded, my mind feels fogged, it feels like there is nothing other than being stuck in this pit.  Yet I am not stuck; I am not abandoned.  This is the lie of depression that I continually have to keep naming as I pray for Grace.  Macrina Wiederkehr’s prayer to the Morning Light speaks of something similar:

You have come with your great shining, attempting to sing in a new day, but I have not the heart to receive your shining.  I know it is the hour of resurrection and joy, and you are trying to wake up my gladness.  Please respect my dreary mood.  Your light comes into my darkness, yet my darkness remains unlit.  All the same, I ask you to keep shining, and I will try not to be angry at your brightness.  Perhaps at some moment during this day your glance of light will fall into my wearied soul.  I do not ask you to stop shining, only this – understand my dark moment and be gentle with your light.  O Morning Light, respect my darkness.

Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses (60)

There is something very important about this honesty before God, as I try to work my way through the ‘dark’ places in my life.  Brother David Steindl-Rast writes about the monastic observance of Vigils (also known as Matins) as ‘the night-watch hour’:

the time for learning to trust the darkness.  Looking up to the night sky, we are reminded of the immense mystery in which we are immersed.  The root meaning of the word “mystery” is to shut one’s eyes and ears.  Mystery is silence, darkness.  Rilke speaks in his Book of Hours of turning inward, of looking deep within himself, and he reports what he finds: “My God is dark.”

Music of Silence (20)

The experience of God as a colourless darkness in whom there is no One present is a familiar one to many who are seekers into God.  These may be the days in which I wish to hurry on past, not daring to glance at these shadows, pursuing the Light with all my might, allowing myself to be distracted by the bright colours.  Yet I know from experience this impulse to flee from myself and from God-within-me, means I will miss vital signposts for healing and flourishing, for me and for others.  In wanting to escape the moments when darkness feels absolute, I join those who, when watching fireworks, have ‘no understanding that the anticipation of the next one holds just as much magic as the gaps afterwards, that silence makes a satisfying star sandwich, that the joy is held, like breath, in the waiting’.  (‘Day 217: Fireworks’, Keren Dibbens-Wyatt, Garden of God’s Heart (217))  In my desire to flee, I end up searching in the wrong place.

Frequently God calls me to wait in the discomfort of these places so that I might find this Joy.  Even though it feels an unsafe place to be, this prayer from the Iona community reminds me that it is not:

As the rain hides the stars, 

as the autumn mists hide the hills, 

as the clouds veil the blue of the sky, 

so the dark happenings of my lot

hide The Shining of Thy Face from me.

Yet, if I may hold Thy hand in the darkness,

it is enough,

since I know that,

though I may stumble in my going,

Thou dost not fall.

So even when the star disappears and I am left floundering and stumbling in my JoyPilgrimage, it is precisely at this point that I can follow an instinct to move towards the Presence I know is here, somewhere.  This will mean moving closer to the heart of the darkness in an inward sense, but it also means looking outwards to the darknesses of others, and bringing them closer to the Presence too, in prayer and in practice.  I may feel powerless to act in the face of others’ suffering, loss, grief and pain, but Henri Nouwen corrects my view of this ‘power’ I feel I have lost: 

In and through Jesus we come to know God as a powerless God, who becomes dependent on us.  But it is precisely in this powerlessness that God’s power reveals itself.  This is not the power that controls, dictates and commands.  It is the power that heals, reconciles and unites.  It is the power of the Spirit.  When Jesus appeared people wanted to be close to him and touch him because “ power came out of him” (Luke 6.19).  It is this power of the divine Spirit that Jesus wants to give us.  The Spirit indeed empowers us and allows us to be healing presences.  When we are filled with that Spirit, we cannot be other than healers.

Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey (181)

However I feel in this moment, I hold onto the fact that joy is not a fleeting emotion, but a way of being a healer: for by healing others, leading them to experience an intimate encounter with the One Who is Joy, is the way I too will be healed to behold Joy in my turn.

It is said that before entering the sea

a river trembles with fear.

She looks back at the path she has traveled,

from the peaks of the mountains,

the long winding road crossing forests and villages.

And in front of her,

she sees an ocean so vast,

that to enter

there seems nothing more than to disappear forever.

But there is no other way.

The river cannot go back.

Nobody can go back.

To go back is impossible in existence.

The river needs to take the risk

of entering the ocean

because only then will fear disappear,

because that’s where the river will know

it’s not about disappearing into the ocean,

but of becoming the ocean.

‘Fear’

Khalil Gibran

joy is held. iPhone image.

day 12

‘But I still don’t understand, Sparrowhawk.  I have seen my brother, even his prentice, make light in a dark place only by saying one word: and the light shines, it is bright, not a word by a light you can see your way by!’

‘Aye,’ Ged answered. ‘Light is power.  A great power by which we exist, but which exists beyond our needs.  Sunlight and starlight are time, and time is light.  In the sunlight, in the days and years, life is.  In a dark place life may call upon the light, naming it. – But usually when you see a wizard name or call upon some thing, some object to appear, that is not the same, he calls upon no power greater than himself, and what appears is an illusion only.  To summon a thing that is not there at all, to call it by speaking its true name, that is a great mastery, not lightly used.’

Ursula Le Guin, Earthsea

I am drawn to the stories of the journey the Mages took over two thousand years ago, and not just because I am drawn to searching out wherever Wisdom, in any her guises, may appear.  The idea of deliberately venturing out into the darkness with a single guiding light gives me hope that I too, may grow in courage enough so as to be able to navigate a path through the ‘dark night’ experiences of clinical depression which dog my days.  There are times when God bids me rest from all my striving against pain; yet there are equally times when God says, enough escaping, running in the opposite direction, or enough waiting, the time to act is now.  In that moment God invites me to ‘turn and face the darkness’ – and see that it is not dark.

Stars are an enduring symbol and metaphor in all Wisdom literature and are expressed in all art forms.  I wonder why?  The idea that they are light reaching us from billions of light years away always stirs awe and wonder in me.  I find it a persistently beguiling idea that one can learn to navigate by the stars, literally as well as metaphorically.  I wish I had this skill.  When I wake in the night and try to pray for others who might also be awake in that night, for whatever reason, I often feel the need to go to the window, lift the curtain, and see if I can see the moon and her stars.  I experience real joy when it is a clear night and moonlight washes directly over me.  Yet I can still choose joy even when the clouds are full, and there feels like nothing to see.  I can still pray:

Make of me a faithful vigil in the heart of darkness, I want to be a sentinel through all the dark hours.  When the deep darkness falls, let me be your star.  Name me One Who Watches Through the Night.  Reveal to me the holiness of lingering with mystery.  Employ me in the holy art of waiting.

  • O teach me to live with a vigilant heart.

(Macrina Wiederkehr, ‘Litany of the Hours’ from Seven Sacred Pauses (177-179))

We smile at astrological hopes

And leave the sky to expert men

Who do not reckon horoscopes

But painfully extend their ken

In mathematical debate

With slide and photographic plate. 

And yet, protest it if we will,

Some corner of the mind retains

The medieval man, who still

Keeps watch upon those starry skeins

And drives us out of doors at night

To gaze at anagrams of light.

Whatever register or law

Is drawn in digits for these two,

Venus and Jupiter keep their awe,

Wardens of brilliance, as they do

Their dual circuit of the west – 

The brightest planet and her guest.

Is any light so proudly thrust

From darkness on our lifted faces

A sign of something we can trust,

Or is it that in starry places

We see the things we long to see

In fiery iconography?

‘For the Conjunction of Two Planets’

Adrienne Rich

fiery iconography. iPhone image.

day 11

As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being.

Carl Jung

Yesterday I wondered how the dark matter of my life might be a source of joy.  Today I find myself wondering about ‘dark light’, which Wikipedia defines as:

Dark light (vision) or eigengrau, the color seen by the eye in perfect darkness. Dark light, a theoretical force that only interacts with dark matter.

The dark places in my life still have colour.  They maybe full of deeply uncomfortable, painful, terrifying, traumatic memories, but they are not beyond the power of transformation.  As ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) creator Steven Hayes says, ‘There is as much life in a moment of pain as in a moment of joy.’

Too often though, I am paralysed by what lies in my darkness, a deep unconscious fear prevents me seeing this life, prevents me from flourishing.  This New Year’s Day reflection from Keren Dibbens-Wyatt speaks to the nature of shadows:

How long the darkness falls now from the past and the yet to come!  Here at the gates of beginning, starting over, we feel the desire to let our monsters tear themselves away and walk slowly off into the night leaving us puffing our cheeks full of sighs, free to begin again, and yet soon, too soon, the pressure of needing to Get It Right This Time overtakes us.  The lengthening stretch of our potential obscures the gravel before us … but perhaps we might stop and remember we can ask to be led.  We can watch the light increase … For if our silhouettes were not constantly thrown before us, we would not have a following light, or we would find ourselves stripped of what is anyway declining, distraught like Peter Pam, forever chasing our own darkness and wanting to stitch it back on. 

(‘Day 274: Shadows’, Garden of God’s Heart, Keren Dibbens-Wyatt (274))

God’s light may appear to be only dark light to my fear-filled eyes, but Rilke reminds me that ’to you, and to evening, and the poets/things darkest run clear’ (from ‘You are Cloister to the Stigmata’, Book of Pilgrimage, Rilke. trans Susan Ranson).  Even when I feel I am only filled to the brim with murkiness, where no light shines, where no light could penetrate, I can remember: I am not dark to God; even dark is not dark to God.  Although I cannot see it, there is life here.  I can rest in this.  I can close my eyes.  I can find comfort.  I can choose joy even in the darkest of darks.  And that joy will hold me in safety so I can pray:

Make me your holy darkness, your blessed night.  Transform me into a great silence that drowns out distracting noises.  Fashion me into one who sees with the eyes of the soul.  I long to be a protective mantle of comforting darkness for all who need rest.  Give me insight into the Holy Mystery that cradles me through the night.

 – O make of me your night prayer.

(Macrina Wiederkehr, ‘Litany of the Hours’ from Seven Sacred Pauses (177-179))

Listen to Velma Frye sing Macrina Wiederkehr’s lyric ‘O comforting darkness’

The arms of darkness hold us,

Revealing now how dear we are.

O beautiful darkness. O comforting darkness.

O beautiful darkness. O comforting darkness.

Enfold us and hold us.

Inform us, transform us.

O beautiful darkness. O comforting darkness.

O beautiful darkness. O comforting darkness.

Surround us, all around us,

And hold our light, like sky to star.

O beautiful darkness. O comforting darkness.

O beautiful darkness. O comforting darkness.

dark light fall. iPhone image.

day 10

Sometimes, gliding at night

in a plane over New York City

I have felt like some messenger

called to enter, called to engage

this field of light and darkness.

A grandiose idea, born of flying.

But underneath the grandiose idea

is the thought that what I must engage

after the plane has raged onto the tarmac

after climbing my old stairs, sitting down

at my old window

is meant to break my heart and reduce me to silence.

Adrienne Rich from ‘North American Time: VIII’ (1983)

The Biblical stories tell me that the journey the sages undertook more than two thousand years ago was an adventure into nightseeing.  Their guiding light was a cosmic display, only visible in the deep dark.  It seems like one of those Kingdom paradoxes that I might only be able to see my way on this JoyPilgrimage, if I keep my eyes and heart open to the undersides of my world where I would rather not pay attention.  I will need to pay attention to what I suspect might be the spiritual equivalent of ‘dark matter’.

NASA defines dark matter thus:

Dark matter is composed of particles that do not absorb, reflect, or emit light, so they cannot be detected by observing electromagnetic radiation. Dark matter is material that cannot be seen directly. We know that dark matter exists because of the effect it has on objects that we can observe directly.

In Underland Robert Macfarlane visits a mine deep under the North Sea where he meets a scientist called Christopher who shows him experiments designed to search for the properties of dark matter:

‘Right now,’ Christopher says, ‘you are looking into the absolute smallness of the universe with pinpoint accuracy, peering down at the most minute of scales.  Those coloured lines are our magnifying lens.’  Then he says – as if the phrase has just entered his head without warning, scoring a trace as it passes through – ‘Everything causes a scintillation.’  He pauses. ‘Why are you looking for dark matter?’ I ask.  ‘To further our knowledge,’ Christopher replies without hesitation, ‘and to give life meaning.  If we’re not exploring, we’re not doing anything.  We’re just waiting.’ … ‘Is the search for dark matter an act of faith?’ I ask him. (67)

‘Everything causes a scintillation’, everything emits colour, visible and invisible.  Exploring the darkness, exploring the night’s space, exploring the dark night of the soul, will mean searching for this new palette.  There are times when all I can do is sit still and wait to see what is the right direction for my exploring energy.  I do not need to exhaust myself and use up all my reserves in restless seeking.  There are times when it is dangerous to travel into these places, especially alone.  Yet I come back to remembering: the dark is not dark to God.  I will not be alone, I will not be overwhelmed.  By opening myself to an encounter with the present, in all its colours, I am opening myself to the multitude of manifestations of the Presence.  

I choose Joy.

Were you one of the three

came travelling to the workshop

with your gifts of heart, mind and soul

to the newly born in the cradle?

Was that a halo above it

of molecules and electrons,

with the metal gone hoarse trying 

to reiterate: Holy. Holy. Holy? …

from ‘Incarnation’,

R.S. Thomas, Counterpoint

dark signatures.  iPhone images.

day 9

What I fear and desire most in this world is passion. I fear it because it promises to be spontaneous, out of my control, unnamed, beyond my reasonable self. I desire it because passion has color, like the landscape before me. It is not pale. It is not neutral. It reveals the backside of the heart.

Terry Tempest Williams

I choose joy.  It might get messy.  It might be difficult to imagine, it might be hard to realise, and it might be even harder to hold onto.  But as Henri Nouwen says,

We can choose joy … choose to trust that what happened, painful as it may be, holds a promise … or choose despair and be destroyed by it.

(Bread for the Journey, 38)

I choose joy because I know I want to live with an open heart, open towards my God, towards others and towards my self.  I know this choice to journey along the road to Joy will need perseverance. There will be darkness. There will be difficulties.  There will be diversions.  I will need to cling onto hope for all I am worth, if I am to recognise the promises, the opportunities, that can arise out every encounter and every experience.  Alain de Botton and John Armstrong suggest that,

… in many cases the difference between success and failure is determined by nothing more than our sense of what is possible and the energy we can muster to convince others of our due.  We might be doomed not by a lack of skill, but by an absence of hope … we need tools that can preserve our hopeful dispositions.

(Art as Therapy, 13)

During the midst of this year’s global pandemic, colour suddenly burst forth as the sign and emblem of hope, compassion, gratitude and solidarity.  The rainbow’s spectrum appeared everywhere, claimed by religious and non-religious alike.  

lockdown rainbow (Kate Kennington Steer, mixed media collage)

What is it about this array of colour that represents such a well of emotions?  Keren Dibbens-Wyatt offers me this contemplative perspective:

A promise ribbon falling in a cascade of colours through the air as the sky dries its tears and finally lets the sun shine.  A bridge between sadness and joy, arching across the divide between creation and re-creation.  Your partialness just as much an illusion as your sudden appearance, when of course your spectrum is always there and you are just one visible section of God’s wedding band, round and perfect, a sign of covenant grace encircling those he loves, people and animals, to whom he says, “Never again” and “I am with you always.”  Hovering hues, high and holy, a sneak preview of the kingdom to come, like a glimpse of God’s petticoat sweeping through the blue.  A breakthrough of that world to this.  An eternal beau of brightness, almost unbearable in its simple vibrancy, so that it must depart into the invisible soon and fade.  Those who have eyes to see, let them see.

‘Day 37: Rainbow’, Garden of God’s Heart, Keren Dibbens-Wyatt (37)

spectrum’s shimmer. iPhone image.

Sunday 2

you need to be very still
to hear the concert of your body 

to think about what you contain 

salt and water
knows what it’s doing
renewing itself
back to earth
it is a quiet thing
this is where our riches are
we are all red inside
brimming with love
all fluid and quiet and fire. 

‘Core’

Kerrie O’Brien

I am on the journey towards being a JoyPilgrim.  Reflecting on where my ‘riches are’, I remembered Eckhart Tolle writing about ‘isness’, the transformative power of doing absolutely nothing, merely being:

Find the “narrow gate that leads to life” … It is called the Now.  Narrow your life down to this moment … use your senses fully.  Be where you are.  Look around.  Just look, don’t interpret.  See the lights, shapes, colours, textures.  Be aware of the silent presence of each thing.  Be aware of the space that allows everything to be … Allow the ‘isness’ of all things.  Move deeply into the Now.  

Eckhart Tolle The Power of Now (52)

I spend much of my time in bed, seemingly doing nothing.  Coming to the end of each day and still seemingly having ‘nothing to show for it’ is a habitual mind script that I am trying to change.  Such language of achievement and productivity is deeply unhelpful to a perfectionist like me and over the years it has become a very large stick with which I can beat myself.  Such language takes me further and further away from the Now, distancing me from the revelation of the Holy in that instant.  The more I am isolated from the Holy, the more ill I become.  

So my spiritual journey is characterised by the idea of ‘travelling whilst staying still’.  I long to be constantly open to the transformative potential of each moment, where Sophia waits to guide, teach, reassure, lead, and play.  ‘Travelling whilst staying still’ is a heart journey, not merely a mental idea; it is an intentional, chosen-moment-by-moment, holistic adventure into Joy.

The first king was on horseback.

The second a pillion rider.

The third came by plane.

Where was the god-child?

He was in the manger

with the beasts, all looking

the other way where the fourth

was a slow dawning because

wisdom must come on foot.

R.S.Thomas, from Counterpoint.

fluid quiet fire. iPhone image.

day 7

this skin

this Black skin

a constant reminder of centuries of genocides in a world that kept/keeps silent every time it happens

this Black skin

a symbol of glory and triumph, symbolizing that despite all we conquered!

a skin whose essence is made of honey and gold but who’s story has been summed up to that of slavery and oppression

even though the sea holds more history of us than white minds ever will and even though the genocide continues till today. We have rised, we are rising.

because we are not defined by your crooked ignorance of who we are nor by the white supremacist version your history textbooks teach you

my melanin has and never will demand acceptance from you. i am centuries old in this small body, because my ancestors have lived the lesser life so i could have a fuller one

i have lived all these memories a century ago and so my wisdom and light is a reflection of that

i am Black and i carry the burden of the universe on my shoulders because the world’s agenda seems to want to destroy the very being of where they came from

i am Black, and there was way God could have blessed me more, no way he could’ve made me more beautiful

my skin is the color of the earth and my hair defies gravity… i am magical, i am Black!

‘This Black skin — a poem on Blackness’

Elizabeth Queta

(see/hear her read this at an open mic night)

I cannot go any further into this pilgrimage towards Joy by exploring colour, without stating I am profoundly troubled by the historical connections between colour and class, and between colour and race.  In this year where the world’s response to the killing of George Floyd was a wake-up call to many, and such injustice became the rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement, I cannot avoid confronting my own casual assumptions.  It is no longer enough to say ‘we are all people of colour’ when part of the social construction of my understanding of colour is made up of passages such as this, from Goethe’s Theory of Colours (1810):

… it is also worthy of remark, that savage nations, uneducated people, and children have a great predilection for vivid colours: that animals are excited to rage by certain colours; that people of refinement avoid vivid colours in their dress and the objects that are about them, and seem inclined to banish them altogether from their presence.

I do not know what to say to my ‘black’ friends other than asking for their forgiveness for my part in perpetuating, however unwittingly, such assumptions.  Even the following fascinating account of the symbiotic nature of light and darkness, cannot help drawing on an inherited metaphor of cultural imperialism:

Movies are made out of darkness as well as light; it is the surprisingly brief intervals of darkness between each luminous still image that make it possible to assemble the many images into one moving picture.  Without that darkness, there would only be a blur.  Which is to say that a full-length movie consists of half an hour of pure darkness that goes unseen.  If you could add up all the darkness, you would find the audience in the theater gazing together at a deep imaginative night.  It is the terra incognita of film, the dark continent on every map.

from Rebecca Solnit A Field Guide to Getting Lost (175)

My grief and silence makes language itself seem a ‘terra incognita’, an unknown land where my vocabulary deserts me when I think of the pain my fellow human beings impose on one another through apartheid, racism and segregation.  Somewhere in this too I have to choose joy, but just at this precise moment, that feels deeply difficult.  I am ‘in the dark’, sitting alongside so many others, holding each other in solidarity as we cry to God and to one another, for justice, for mercy, for freedom.

You have looked at so many doors with longing, wondering if your life lay on the other side.

For today, choose the door that opens to the inside.

Travel the most ancient way of all: the path that leads you to the center of your life.

No map but the one you make yourself.

No provision but what you already carry and the grace that comes to those who walk the pilgrim’s way.

Speak this blessing as you set out and watch how your rhythm slows, the cadence of the road drawing you into the pace that is your own.

Eat when hungry. Rest when tired. Listen to your dreaming. Welcome detours as doors deeper in.

Pray for protection. Ask for the guidance you need. Offer gladness for the gifts that come and then let them go.

Do not expect to return by the same road.

Home is always by another way and you will know it not by the light that waits for you but by the star that blazes inside you telling you where you are is holy

and you are welcome here.

‘The Map You Make Yourself’

Jan L Richardson

terra incognita.  original artwork by Kate Kennington Steer (mixed media)

day 6

I could not predict the fullness
of the day. How it was enough
to stand alone without help
in the green yard at dawn.

How two geese would spin out
of the ochre sun opening my spine,
curling my head up to the sky
in an arc I took for granted.

And the lilac bush by the red
brick wall flooding the air
with its purple weight of beauty?
How it made my body swoon,

brought my arms to reach for it
without even thinking.

*
In class today a Dutch woman split
in two by a stroke – one branch
of her body a petrified silence,
walked leaning on her husband

to the treatment table while we
the unimpaired looked on with envy.
How he dignified her wobble,
beheld her deformation, untied her

shoe, removed the brace that stakes
her weaknesses. How he cradled
her down in his arms to the table
smoothing her hair as if they were

alone in their bed. I tell you –
his smile would have made you weep.

*
At twilight I visit my garden
where the peonies are about to burst.

Some days there will be more
flowers than the vase can hold.

‘I tell You’

Adrienne Rich

If I am to choose joy today I am going to have to make the gargantuan effort to stay present.  As part of my preparations for my journey as a JoyPilgrim, I need to sit much more lightly to my mind’s ruminating thoughts, get curious, and perceive what is really going on around me in this moment.  Where I put my attention will dictate what I am able to see today and what, in turn, I am able to feel.  As Rob Walker says in The Art of Noticing:

To stay eager, to connect, to find interest in the everyday, to notice what everybody else overlooks—these are vital skills and noble goals. They speak to the difference between looking and seeing, between hearing and listening, between accepting what the world presents and noticing what matters to you.

Paying attention to the details, the colours, of my life in this immediate moment, here and now, will bring me directly into contact with the Holy.  Paying attention is the doorway to wonder and the doorway to gratitude.  Most significantly paying attention will bring me into an encounter where I might behold some part of the Immensity who is Joy.

God cannot be thought, but God can be met. Through awe and wonder we experience God and there, as mystics have always stated, we understand more by not understanding than by understanding. In that posture we let God be God. In such a posture, too, we live in contemplation. 

Ronald Rolheiser, The Shattered Lantern: Rediscovering a Felt Presence of God (117).

rise up. iPhone image.

day 5

Once in the Advent season
When I was walking down
A narrow street

I met a flock of children
Who all came running up to me
Saying that they were prophets
And for a penny they
Would prophesy

I gave them each a penny

They started out
By rummaging in trash-cans
Until they found
A ragged piece of silk

It’s blue, they said
Blue is a holy color
Blue is the color that
The mountains are
When they are far away

They laid the rag
On a small fire
Of newspaper and shavings
And burned it in the street

They scraped up all the ashes
And with them decorated
Each other’s faces

Then they ran back to me
And stood
In a circle ‘round me

We stood that way
In a solemn silence
Until
One of the children spoke

It was the prophecy!

He said that long before
The pear tree blossoms
Or sparrows in the hedges
Begin to sing

A Child will be our King.

‘Prophets’
Anne Porter

Is blue a holy colour as Anne Porter suggests?  It certainly figures dominantly in many paintings of the Madonna and Child.  It is after all, one of three primary colours, from which all other hues can be made.  In that sense it might be called an incarnational colour.  But any easy assumption that the sky is blue risks blinkering myself by my own expectations, and expectations are a major handicap on any spiritual pilgrimage.  As I set my heart’s intention of being a ‘joy pilgrim’ for this Advent, I need to be intent on being curious about every facet of every blue that may appear during these days, to see where joy might be revealed.  The English historian A.L.Rowse described such an encounter with blue:

The peculiar purity of the blue sky seen through the white clusters of the apple-blossom in spring.  I remember being moon-struck looking at it early one morning on my way to school.  It meant something to me; what I couldn’t say.  It gave me unease at heart, such reaching out towards perfection such as impels men to religion, some sense of the transcendence of things, of the fragility of our hold upon life.

(found in John Pridmore, Playing with Icons: The Spirituality of Recalled Childhood)

cloudscape (original artwork by Kate Kennington Steer)

Where might joy be found in this ‘unease at heart’?  How does my attraction to blue clothing, for example, sit next to my recognition of Rowse’s description of perfection, transcendence, purity, fragility?

How simple is it to be ‘moon-struck’ by blue?  In Underland the poet Robert Macfarlane explored some of the deepest places below the earth’s crust:  

Crevasses open around us, a few feet deep only at first, soon dropping to twenty, thirty, fifty, countless feet deep.  Colours change.  The surface ice is whiter than at the snout.  The crevasses glow … Here the blue is even more intense, more radiant, older … Ice is blue because when a ray of light passes through it, it hits the crystal structure of ice and is deflected, bounces off another crystal and is deflected again, bounces off into another, and another, and in this manner ricochets its way to the eye.  Light passing through the ice therefore travels much further than the straight-line distance to the eye.  Along the way the red end of the spectrum is absorbed, and only the blue remains. (385)

Be ‘moon-struck’ by blue; be awed, silenced, confronted by depth and immensity.  Yet it might also be easy to be over-awed, overcome perhaps by joy, but perhaps too, by an ‘unease of heart’. In an attitude of wonder Mcfarlane writes: 

Ice has a memory and the colour of this memory is blue… The colour of deep ice is blue, a blue unlike any other in the world – the blue of time.  The blue of time is glimpsed in the depths of crevasses.  The blue of time is glimpsed in the calving faces of glaciers, where bergs of 100,000-year-old ice surge to the surface of fjords from far below the water level.  The blue of time is so beautiful that it pulls body and mind towards it. (338-9)

I am on a journey that follows in the footsteps of wise ancients being pulled toward joy – mind, body and spirit.  I am intent on choosing joy.  Yet I also recognise that in the making of that choice, I need to see the flip side, to hear the pain that the Blues songs express so powerfully.  Similarly, next to Macfarlane’s experiences sits an acknowledgement of the pain the earth itself might feel.  This is clearly seen in the photographer Timo Lieber’s images of the Arctic, where beautiful, but hugely troubling pools of water are forming on the melting ice cap. “There are so many lakes, it’s scary. A landscape you’d expect to be pristine white is just littered with blue”, Lieber says.

Blue might be holy, and perhaps part of its’ intrinsic holiness is a sacred ability to warn us; its’ sacred duty is to draw us in, confounding our expectations and easy assumptions.  If joy is blue to me today, it seems to suggest that deliberately choosing joy must always be a commitment made from the wisdom of compassionately seeing the pain sitting alongside the joy.

Wise women also came.
The fire burned
in their wombs
long before they saw
the flaming star
in the sky.
They walked in shadows,
trusting the path
would open
under the light of the moon.

Wise women also came,
seeking no directions,
no permission
from any king.
They came
by their own authority,
their own desire,
their own longing.
They came in quiet,
spreading no rumors,
sparking no fears
to lead
to innocents’ slaughter,
to their sister Rachel’s
inconsolable lamentations.

Wise women also came,
and they brought
useful gifts:
water for labor’s washing,
fire for warm illumination,
a blanket for swaddling.

Wise women also came,
at least three of them,
holding Mary in the labor,
crying out with her
in the birth pangs,
breathing ancient blessings
into her ear.

Wise women also came,
and they went,
as wise women always do,
home a different way.

Jan L Richardson

singing the blues. iPhone image.

day 4

… judging from the scripture of the season, Christmas is surely meant to be an attitude toward life, not a carnival. It is meant to be arrived at slowly and lived succulently. Christmas is not meant to be simply a day of celebration; it is meant to be a month of contemplation….

Advent is an excursion through scripture meant to give depth and emotional stability to the days for which there are no songs, no tinsel, no flashing lights to distract us from its raw, tart marrow.

Joan Chittister, Thanksgiving 2017

A month of contemplation of life’s ‘raw, tart marrow’, does not sound either joyful or appealing.  Yet if I am to understand anything on this journey into joy, I need to be clear about my intention.  I wish to become a ‘JoyPilgrim’, exploring the nature of the One who is Joy, the One who brings joy to me in all the ups and downs of my everyday here-and-now, the One who longs for my days to be joy-filled in a world saturated with grief and uncertainty.

So I need to get curious about looking for where joy might be revealed, and what the colours of joy might be.  I want to pay attention to what colours block the light of joy in me.  Which might I reflect back to help someone else’s day?  I need to scrutinise my colour blindness.  I need to peer into the shadowed places where I have camouflaged the places of deep shame and loss, even from my own sight.  I need to examine the cultural frameworks which have directed my understanding of colour thus far, and challenge the easy shorthands of symbolic meanings in their differences.

For there are miracles of colour happening in the nature all around me.  They might be a source of joy for me, as yet unseen. Dr Helen Czorski brought to my attention the fireflies in the Smokey Mountains, whose mating displays in May and June are showers of pinprick colours, where the male creates its own personal colour in order to attract a female, making their bodies become physical lanterns of light.  If I have eyes to see, one of the smallest species on earth might show me how life harnesses light.

May my lifelight shine in my colours today.

Blue sky … is a flag that signals … high-intensity light and, therefore, optimal conditions for photosynthesis… Blue means a lot of work.  The trees get full as they convert light, carbon dioxide, and water into supplies of sugar, cellulose, and other carbohydrates … the colour of organisms and objects is dictated by the colour of reflected light.  And in the case of leaves on trees, this colour is green… But why don’t we see leaves as black? Why don’t they absorb all the light?  Chlorophyll helps leaves process light … however, [it] has one disadvantage.  It has a so-called green gap, and because it cannot use this part of the colour spectrum, it has to reflect it back unused … What we are really seeing is waste light … Beautiful for us, useless for the trees …  The colour gap in chlorophyll is also responsible for another phenomenon: green shadows … shadows are not all the same colour.  Although many shades of colour are filtered out in the forest canopy – for example, very little red and blue made their way through – this is not the case of the “trash” colour green.  Because the trees can’t use it, some of it reaches the ground.  Therefore the forest is transfused with a subdued green light that just happens to have a relaxing effect on the human psyche.

Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees (227-230)

reflection. iPhone image.