Is it kind?

Is death kind? Sometimes, it comes slowly, imperceptibly; you look up from the book you are reading, and he’s gone. He’s lain on the bed breathing shallowly for days. You wonder, when he slept, did he dream? Of what do you dream when you’re dying? Sometimes, death comes quickly, unexpectedly, in a van returning from a church retreat. Does death bestow any kindness on its victims before it stops their breath?

frio-river
Frio River, Texas Hill Country

Was song or laughter still caught in the throats of the Baptists in the van when death crushed them? Where is their song now? Did it flow into the gurgle of nearby creeks or float up to mingle among the leaves of oaks? Were the victims blessed with one more grace before leaving, perhaps? A glimpse of blue sky. The red of a cardinal’s wing. The warmth of their friends’ hands? Did death allow them any comfort as they left?

What happens to a man in a war when one minute he’s charging with ferocity at an enemy, and the next he’s lying dead on the ground? Where did his passion go when the bullets hit? Where too his hopes, loves, and dreams? Are they coagulating in his blood and soaking with it into the earth? Or, as the fight goes on without him, do they float, lifting above his body in the breeze, catching thermals and rising to flow through hawks’ wings?

I’ve been thinking a lot about death since my dad passed away in January. I’ve been looking around me to see and hear, feel and breathe the grace of being alive. If people’s hopes and dreams and laughter and song are indeed floating among leaves–swaying and leaving dappled, sunlit patterns on the earth–if their passions and joys have soaked into the ground beneath our feet, then we must tread carefully and reverently. We must look and listen for them, and when our turn comes, may death escort us kindly to join them among the trees, in the air, in the rivers, and within the good earth.

Generations

In a part of St. Louis called St. John, an off-ramp from I-170 northbound curves north and west to meet St. Charles Road. This road, now the St. Charles Rock Road, had been a path for westward-heading wagon trains long before it carried Fords, Toyotas, and Mercedes.

 

charles-rockThe Lewis and Clark Expedition had traveled through here in 1804 on what later became a post and stagecoach road. In 1851 it was paved with oak planks, later with gravel (and thus the reason “Rock” was added to its name), and in 1921 with concrete. Every workday, I travel it a short distance in addition to my I-170 and I-64 routes.

The north exit to St. Charles Rock Road arcs beneath I-170 to a stoplight. Between the arc of the ramp and the road sits a triangle of green, a mini-wetland environment where scrubby trees, cattails, wildflowers, and grasses grow. Some birds make their homes there: red-winged blackbirds, sparrows, cowbirds, barn swallows.

One particular spring evening stands out for me. I exited the freeway to make the curve to westbound St. Charles Rock Road, an orange and pink sunset glowing at its end. As I slowed to a stop at the light, I rolled my windows down. A cool breeze carrying the scent of bar-be-que wafted through, and from the green space came the “conk-a-ree” call of a red-winged blackbird and the trill of a song sparrow’s melody. I breathed in the breeze–and the sounds carried on it–and smiled.

The city’s rush boomed all around me too as semi-trucks’ engines throttled down, and a 747 roared into the sky, human-made machine noise masking the songs and chirps of the birds and the rustle of grasses in the breeze. Between the beats of someone’s music and the clunk of traffic crossing above, I heard the male red-winged blackbird proclaiming his ownership of the green space. I heard the song sparrow’s trill and the swallows’ calls to their hungry babies, no doubt peering out from their mud homes among the rusted, green girders of the overpass.

And I was reminded that the birds have been raising their young and the breeze has been carrying their songs for many centuries before I stopped here to listen. Grasses and wildflowers have whispered tales to one another in the wind long before this spot became a bustling intersection filled with human noise and traffic.

red-wingThis blackbird could be the far descendant of one who witnessed the quieter traffic of horse-drawn wagons heading west. That song sparrow’s ancestor might have trilled from a branch overlooking the streetcar line that once ran along this route. I was reminded in that moment that for the birds, the grasses, and the wildflowers, this is and has always been their home. We are just passing through.

As I looked around me at other people sitting in their cars waiting for the light to change, I wished they noticed these things too. I wish people could turn off their music, turn away from their cell phones, and roll their windows down to hear the music of ages past and the ages to come, the wisdom of place and time told by winged sages and the wind.

Pond

The willow’s reflection
grasses greening
a cardinal’s red
stark against blue

Still water
the dock graying
a boat’s metal
held by line

Hands in pockets
Mother standing
a thin figure’s
moment in time

Time Lapse

leaf-bud

If you’re still
long enough
at dusk
you can watch

a flower closing–
tiny twitches
of tired petals,
contracting.

If you’re still
long enough
in spring
you can see

a bud opening–
the tumescence
of new leaves
birthing.

Fragrance

This year will be different
You will release
the guilt
that holds you captive

Chained in place
your hand stretching
for daffodils
just out of reach

This year will be different
Your gifts will lose
their tarnish
and you will shine

Free at last
to breathe in
the fragrance
of your soul

Out in the World

Quietly and steadily, a movement has been growing throughout the world called “New Monasticism.” Everyday people feel drawn to making the sacred a continuous thread through their days and their lives. Many of us, myself included, yearn for a life suffused with God in everything we do. New Monasticism seeks to move these activities from the cloister out into the world. Christine Paintner’s Abbey of the Arts and her “Monk Manifesto” (http://abbeyofthearts.com/about/monk-manifesto/) were my introduction to being a “monk in the world.”

One method of bringing the sacred into each day is to follow a “rule of life.” The Rule of St. Benedict, written in about 530 C.E., describes a daily balance of work, study, and prayer in the lives of Benedictine monks and nuns. The day’s rhythm is punctuated by what is called the “Liturgy of the Hours” or the “Divine Office,” beginning first thing in the morning and ending before going to bed. It imbues the day with grace and holiness.

 “The purpose of the Divine Office is to sanctify the day and all human activity.” – Apostolic Constitution, Canticum Laudis

This brief overview of the practice of the Divine Office from Universalis.com encapsulates well its rhythm:

Morning Prayer – at the start of the day’s work and the coming of the light.

Daytime Prayer – at mid-morning, noon and in the afternoon, to unite us with the one for whom and through whom we are working.

Evening Prayer – at the end of the day’s work, to offer up what we have done.

Night Prayer – last thing at night, to commend our souls to God.

Many people are recognizing that you do not have to become a monk or nun to participate in the observance of what is called “the hours.” You don’t have to be Catholic or Episcopalian. You don’t have to be a Christian. All that is needed is a little bit of time and a desire to experience the sacred.

Our society’s work schedules do not lend themselves well to this practice, but it can be done. Many people practice four periods of prayer a day instead of seven: morning, noon, evening, and night. When you are working, you spend a few minutes in the morning, take a very brief pause during your lunch break, do evening prayers before supper, and night prayers before going to bed. Each period of prayer and reading can last as long or be as short as you need it to be.

Resources for this practice include the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, Shorter Christian Prayer (Catholic Book Pub.), and other editions called “breviaries.” If you go to a bookseller’s web site and type any of these terms into the search box, you will find a plethora of resources for finding out more about this practice. In addition, there are online versions of the hours such as the one from Mission St. Clare (http://www.missionstclare.com/english/).

When you practice at home, you can choose to set aside a chair or cushion somewhere quiet and can make your space as simple or as elaborate as you choose. Furnish it with whatever makes it more conducive to prayer and contemplation. You might like some images, candles, incense, music or other items that soothe you. At work, you can find a place to sit or walk that gives you a little bit of private time.

The discipline of a rule of life is a tangible way to express gratitude to God for this life. We can go through our days feeling grateful on a subconscious level, but the structure of the rule, the observance of the hours, makes it conscious. Through daily, hourly practices that engage not only the mind but also the senses and body, awareness of the grace of God becomes embodied. You sense it in the aromas of incense and candle wax, you see it in colors and imagery, you hear it in music and psalms, and you feel it in creaky knees and touching palms.

Why is embodying grace so important? Selfishly, who wouldn’t want to live out their days suffused with grace? But grace is just a given, some would say. You don’t have to follow a rule or participate in rituals to receive it. True. But for me, following a rule of life and participating in liturgy amplifies it. You listen for God’s “still, small voice,” the voice of love, the voice of grace, while in prayer, while lighting candles, and then that voice, received and carried bodily, becomes a beacon that guides the activities of the rest of your day. Awareness of grace through the liturgy of the hours becomes awareness of grace while grocery shopping, while eating, while working, while loving.

This is an ancient practice of stopping at points during the day to pray, read scripture, and meditate going back into Jewish prehistory. “Seven times a day I praise you” (Ps. 119:164). It’s a turning away from the temporal and a turning toward the eternal. Like looking up at the Milky Way on a moonless summer night, you are reminded of the vastness and infinity of God. This practice then enlarges your perspective, and passing moods, difficulties, and irritations no longer hold such sway over you. You understand their transience against the backdrop of eternity.

Why would this practice matter to the world? Because it changes your perception of the world. Where you perceive differently, you behave differently. Your enlarged perceptions result in an openness, a kindness, indeed a largesse, toward others because you want them to experience this grace as well. Embodiment becomes precisely the point. Christ resides in you, your hands, your feet. You take your embodying of God’s grace out where you walk, shop, work, and play and give it to others by way of your very being. You’ve seen how Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama beam with joy and kindness, and people are drawn to it, for it is deeply nourishing and healing. You too will radiate such joy in your own unique way. And it’s all coming from God. You practice daily, thereby filling your “tank” with love. You go out daily and give it all away, knowing that there will be more, a manna that never runs out.

“Monks in the world” may or may not wear robes or habits. (Some do. More about that in another post!) Most will be hidden in plain sight as librarians, nurses, accounting executives, teachers, store clerks, retired people, and others that you encounter every day. Won’t you join them?