The husband knew he could not adequately care for his wife, now in the final stages of Alzheimer’s. He found a compassionate facility and visited her every day. At noon for lunch.
Noon. Every day.
Until the day of a minor accident when he found himself in an Emergency Room, his arm being stitched by a nurse as the clock approached the noon hour.
“I need to leave,” he said ill at ease.
“Hold on,” she told him, “we’re not finished here.”
“But I must visit my wife at noon,” he said.
“Well,” she told him gently, “today you can be a little late.”
The man told the nurse the story of his wife and of the facility where she lives and how when he visits she does not even recognize him, does not know who he is. The nurse patted his hand and said, “That’s okay hon. You can relax. If she doesn’t even recognize you, there is no harm in being late this one day.”
“No,” the man insisted. “I need to go. I need to be there at noon. I know she doesn’t recognize me. But I need to be there because I still recognize her.”
I have a New Year wish for 2019.
I want us to live more consciously and compassionately.
Let me rephrase; I want to live more consciously and compassionately.
And I have been remiss. So, I need to return to those places where I am grounded.
Words are easy, and frames are pretty. But choices. Well, that takes chutzpah.
When we are not grounded (depleted or lose our way) we need awareness and replenishment. And let’s remember that living compassionately goes both ways, for others and for our self. Care of every kind begins with self-care.
The Hebrew word for rested, vyenafesh, can mean rest; or ensouled, breath, as in to catch one’s breath, sweet fragrance, passion, and inner being of man. A nefesh can also mean a living being—to live consciously. In the context of Sabbath replenishment, God ensouled this day when He rested. It’s what it means to be grounded.
In a recent conference on the “Spirit of Place,” a Native American noted that, “The salmon do not only return to the stream to spawn. They also return to respond to the prayers and hopes of the people who love them.” (And yes, more than a few conferees snickered and scoffed.)
Or, to put a spin on Teilhard de Chardin, “the whole of life lies in seeing the world sacramentally.” And this is not sheer sentimentality. When we do live sacramentally, there is a “price” to pay; because we are connected—consciously and compassionately.
It is more than just repetitious behavior. Wishes find their footing in ritual. Or, what we call “traditions” this time of year. There is something fundamental, vital and palpable.
Here’s the deal: Rituals remind us to pay attention. They can be places where we are able receive. And places from which we give; wholeheartedness, joy, compassion, sorrow, kindness, grace, forgiveness, gladness. “I need to be there,” he said… because this matters.
Speaking of traditions. Did you know that years ago (actually decades ago), we would have celebrated Christmas Eve by bringing in a huge freshly cut log for the hearth. The family would have sprinkled the trunk with oil, salt, and mulled wine, and recited some prayers before lighting it (kindled from the remains of the previous year’s Yule fire, which we would have kept in the home throughout the entire year). We would have known—in our hearts—that the log would protect the house from lightening and the evil powers of the devil.
You see, we would believe that the Yule log symbolized the light returning to conquer the darkness. (Not unlike the salmon, returning to the prayers and hopes of the people who love them.
And according to tradition, the log must either have been harvested from our own land, or given as a gift. It must never have been purchased. The log would burn through the night—an evening, by the way, filled with dancing and reverie and merriment (that’s my favorite part)—then allowed to smolder for the 12 Days of Christmas before being ceremonially extinguished. The story gets even better; in the 1600s, in England, strapping young men willing to haul heavy Yule logs were compensated with free beer. Amen.
We don’t have great Yule logs anymore do we?
And it’s a pity, isn’t it?
We call it progress. We no longer need logs for heat. Great hearths were replaced by cast iron stoves, which gave way to central heat and suburban houses with fireplaces showcasing gas logs and instant ambiance. We do, however, still have a “Yule Log.” But now, it is a pastry, decorated with sugared holly leaves, roses and meringue mushrooms.
The Christian mystical tradition describes prayer as an encounter with God “characterized by feelings of desire, arousal, passion, and union”. (Janet Ruffing)
My oh my… “desire, arousal and passion.”
Which makes me wonder… Do I want the real Yule log fire, or will the gas-log suffice? It seems in lieu of large feelings—sorrow, fury, joy—I chose their junior counterparts; anxiety, irritation and excitement. (Mary Karr)
So, yes, I tell myself, I want large feelings. (Not to be found with a “newer and better gas log.”)
There are still vestiges of Christmas in the living room with Christmas music in the air. We are, after all, still in the middle of the 12 Days of Christmas. The twelve days (the ones we sing about in that ubiquitous and vexing carol) that begin the day after Christmas (Boxing Day or St. Stephen’s Day) and end on January 6 (The Feast of the Epiphany). The coffee table is strewn with devoured books. This month, Educated by Tara Westover, Becoming by Michelle Obama, The Good Neighbor by Maxwell King (the life of Fred Rogers) and Leadership by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Near my pond, there’s a downed Fir tree. It lived upright for about 100 years, and then one night, a few years ago, it surrendered to a perfect storm. For whatever reason, I tear up, only to remind myself that I usually don’t cry in the woods, but there’s no one who will see, so I let the tears fall, a good cleansing at the end of a long year. Truth be told, I feel more alive and alert, as if “the rust had been knocked off my nerves. The armor of self dissolves, ego relaxes its grip, and I am simply there, on the breeze of the moment.”
I haven’t the heart to cut this great tree for firewood. But then maybe it would make next year’s perfect Yule Log.
Quote for your week…
Of God’s love we can say two things: it is poured out universally for everyone from the Pope to the loneliest wino on the planet and secondly, God’s love doesn’t seek value, it creates value. It is not because we have value that we are loved, but because we are loved that we have value. Our value is a gift, not an achievement.
William Sloane Coffin
POEMS AND PRAYERS
When first snow begins to fall
I stop what I’m doing—
dishes, e-mail, prayers—
And heed its call.
I fall, too.
Contemplation spins open on the hinge of an instant.
And I know in my bones:
the unchanging and the changing are inseparable.
Can this be what mystics experience?
Does it matter?
When the fresh snowflakes carry their own melting and evaporation in every molecule, why not notice—and celebrate—my own potential for transformation?
Is this not how fate first turns towards destiny?
Heeding the invitation to witness.
May God bless you with discomfort,
At easy answers, half-truths,
And superficial relationships
So that you may live
Deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression,
And exploitation of people,
So that you may work for
Justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears,
To shed for those who suffer pain,
Rejection, hunger and war,
So that you may reach out your hand
To comfort them and
To turn their pain to joy
And may God bless you
With enough foolishness
To believe that you can
Make a difference in the world,
So that you can do
What others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness
To all our children and the poor.
St Francis Blessing
A People Place
If this is not a place where tears are understood,
Where do I go to cry?
If this is not a place where my spirits can take wing,
Where do I go to fly?
If this is not a place where my questions can be asked,
Where do I go to seek?
If this is not a place where my feelings can be heard,
Where do I go to speak?
If this is not a place where you’ll accept me as I am,
Where can I go to be?
If this is not a place where I can try to learn and grow,
Where can I be just me?