Do not be dismayed
“Do you really talk to the sheep every week?” I was asked this week on a Zoom gathering.
“I do,” I tell them. Although truth be told, most days I just stand there and listen. They’ve got a corner on something that we humans have lost or forgotten.
When I pass by this morning, the sheep are all standing, as if waiting for the service to begin. (It makes me feel good to think that’s the case.)
“Why are you guys always together?” I ask.
“We’re a flock,” one little one says.
“We could use that now. We live pretty divided in this world.”
When my hope starts to cave, I need a go-to story. In 1914, famed explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton set out from England on an expedition to cross the continent of Antarctica. He posted this brief notice: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.”
Five thousand men applied.
Twenty-eight men began the voyage.
The expedition did not (to put it mildly) go as planned. What transpired is breathtaking, and quite literally, beyond belief. The crew spent 635 days, surviving cold, their ship crushed by ice, months of darkness and living in make-shift camps in cramped quarters.
I recommend watching the documentary, The Endurance (which features actual footage, taken by expedition member Frank Hurley, and includes interviews with surviving relatives, plus archived audio interviews with expedition members). One day away from their destination, Vahsel Bay (in the Antarctic Circle), surrounded by an unforeseen heavy ice flow, the Endurance halted. Stuck, the crew spent the winter months living on a stranded ship. After months, Shackleton made the decision to abandon ship and continue on foot (which proved fortuitous as they watched the Endurance crushed by the ice and claimed by the sea).
In lifeboats, the crew found its way to Elephant Island, with hope fleeting. Against all odds, Shackleton and five crew-members boarded one small lifeboat (leaving the others for future rescue), spending three weeks crossing eight hundred miles of frigid, raging ocean.
After reaching South Georgia Island (ironically, where their expedition had begun over a year previous), the starved and frostbitten men found themselves on the wrong side of the island, which meant that they needed to cross a severe mountainous terrain, a journey never attempted nor completed before.
Facing almost certain death that morning, Shackleton wrote in his journal: “We passed through the narrow mouth of the cove with the ugly rocks and waving kelp close on either side, turned to the east, and sailed merrily up the bay as the sun broke through the mists and made the tossing waves sparkle around us. We were a curious-looking party on that bright morning, but we were feeling happy. We even broke into song, and, but for our Robinson Crusoe appearance, a casual observer might have taken us for a picnic party sailing in a Norwegian fjord or one of the beautiful sounds of the west coast of New Zealand.” (It reminded me of Isaac Asimov’s quote, “If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.” )
Endurance is an edge-of-your-seat sort of documentary. And will certainly curtail my grouses regarding any number of travel nuisances. (It’s hard to carp—at least with a straight face—about a tardy flight arrival when you have not experienced frostbite.)
This is not an easy story to render. There is no doubt that I cannot imagine the conditions these men endured. Even Shackleton could not have anticipated the James Cameron or Steven Spielberg-esque special effects.
But here’s what hit me…
There are times when we feel at wits end.
There are times when we are certain we cannot handle this.
There are times when we feel strong enough to handle everything, and wonder why we fail.
There are times when the events of our world bewilder and unravel us, even while uniting us in pain.
And there are times when our insides feel like dust, when we hope to find something to carry us through.
And for too many, one of those times, is now.
So I wonder… How do we survive? And where do we go and what do we draw upon when life is bigger than we are?
The sheep were right. We must remember that we are a flock.
This must be a non-negotiable: When you hurt, I hurt.
“How do you make a broken family whole? The same way you make a broken nation whole: With love and understanding, small acts of kindness, with bravery, with unwavering faith.” (Thank you Jill Biden)
No, it’s not easy. And when I think of how my life should be, endurance is not what I had in mind.
I have an agenda and a timeline. And it is irritating when life interferes. Or, say, an intersection of calamities; health, economic, racial, democratic and climatic.
But here’s the deal: When life is awkward or inconvenient or downright intolerable, we are offered an invitation. What Martin Heidegger called dasein (being in the world).
This not a reference to existence, but to our capacity to enter fully into the day. This day. Shackleton knew, and lived, this truth.
In other words, we are no longer numb. We feel. Literally. And fully.
What is at stake is not withdrawal or protection or more armor. What is at stake is understanding that spirituality, if anything, is about immersion. A spirituality that begins with the sentence, I never noticed that before. Like Shakleton’s tossing waves that sparkle. We find ourselves celebrating (even without knowing it), the sacrament of the present moment. And, if we are lucky, we pass the gift on. And you never know how far that gift will travel.
I have a friend doing battle with cancer, who sent me this note, “Life is not about waiting for the storms to pass… it’s about learning how to dance in the rain.” Even with his battle, he is passing the gift on.
Speaking of life being too big. The fires rage in California. Our planet is in pain. I watched the footage of the Big Basin Redwoods burning. When you hurt, we hurt. We watch and we pray. Please know that.
And for our friends in the southeast corner, two hurricanes headed your way.
So, this week, dasein. Savor a moment of your day. And let this be our prayer, “Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So, go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.” (L.R. Knost)
Quote for your week…
What is the meaning of life? The great revelation… never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark. Virginia Wolf
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I love to write. Since I was a boy, paper and pencil have been on my list of favorite things. Now, I’ve added a nib pen. As a boy, I journaled. I still do. Some years, writing every day. All journals have this in common: They give voice to what is inside. They become safe space. In that way, journaling is like a sanctuary: a time and a place that allows us—gives us permission— to pause. To look inside and to embrace what is here, what is alive and well. To embrace our enoughness. Think of this “sanctuary” space as a dose of grace. It bestows gifts upon us… stillness, gladness, calm, mystery, delight, discovery, learning and peace. This resonates because it is in our DNA to be renewed, nourished, replenished and spiritually hydrated. The Gift of Enough: A Journal for the Present Moment
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In the mailbag… because your letters affirm us all…
–May this change in your routine be refreshing and renewing for you. You give so much to your readers through your writing and reflections. Now you also model setting down even good things For a season to be free to receive something new. It is an important testimony.
Sister Julian, AF
–Love in a mist….there is the focus of my reflections this morning. That image of your grandmother and her swing has been with me since you told that story one year at Shrine Mont. We called my maternal grandmother “Dear” because that is what my grandfather called her. She had a glider on her back porch. I used to put my head in her lap and she would read to me while the glider loudly and rhythmically squeaked. Not too long ago I bought a rusty old glider and had it stripped and painted. It is where I always sit on my screen porch. For several years, I had been greatly disappointed that it had not even a hint of a squeak. Ever since my return in early March from my winter in the Keys, I have sat, laid down, read, written, listened to music, birds or train whistles in the distance on that glider… but still no squeak! I had a really rough day and sleepless night this week. I was on the porch in my usual spot on my glider long before sunrise. As I sat in the cool darkness of the morning, I felt conquered, despondent… done with carrying on anymore…and then grace happened… loud and clear and unmistakably… SQUEAK! Tears spilled from my eyes and ran down my cheeks. Thanks, Dear! I needed that. I can now go on! Grace happens on a porch swing, in a grandmother’s lap or on a dark morning on a porch glider that finally squeaked. May grace find you today and you recognize its presence in your life, Pam+
–A prayer from the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship. “Gracious God In times of sorrow and depression, when hope itself seems lost, help us remember the transforming power of your steadfast love and to give thanks for that NEW LIFE WE CANNOT NOW IMAGINE.” Thank you for Sabbath Moments. Karen
–Hi Terry, I thought of you today when I was watching the Today Show. They had John Legend on talking about his new album. He was wearing a shirt or jacket that had sheep all over it. Those doing the interview wished they could have one but they knew they could never afford it. It would be a great one for you on your walks. Anne
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POEMS AND PRAYERS
Three generations back
my family had only
to light a candle
and the world parted.
Today, Friday afternoon,
I disconnect clocks and phones.
Then night fills my house
I begin saving
Go to the Limits of Your Longing
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
by Rainer Maria Rilke
Open our hearts to those most in need:
The unemployed parent worried about feeding his or her children.
The woman who is underpaid, harassed or abused.
The Black man or woman who fear for their lives.
The immigrant at the border, longing for safety.
The homeless person looking for a meal.
The LGBT teen who is bullied.
The unborn child in the womb.
The inmate on death row.
Help us to be a nation where
every life is sacred,
all people are loved,
and all are welcome.
James Martin, SJ