Someone mentioned this quote in Meeting for Worship a week ago. I looked it up and it’s stayed with me ever since. I was supposed to be on pilgrimage in Assisi right after Easter, going on from there to travel in northern Italy. We would have flown home from Milan at the end of last week. Of course the pandemic destroyed all those carefully laid plans. I haven’t heard much about Assisi in the news but Bergamo and Milan, two places we were planning to visit, were shut down and have suffered terribly. My heart has been with the people of those places in a special way.
They say, though, that pilgrimage begins not with your first physical step but rather with the intention to go, and so indeed I am on pilgrimage now, if not the one I had in mind. It’s turning out to be an unexpected and rather unwelcome journey, and yet it has included some good moments. I hesitate to celebrate those moments, gifts of time with myself and my family, while others have lost and are losing so much. And yet I must, because this is the way my feet have walked, the path my footprints have made. Whether or not I chose it, this is my life. One lesson we’ve all been learning – again – is that we’re not in control even of our own lives.
The truth is, I have lost so much. I hesitate to mention that, too, when others have lost so much more. But I’ve lost the freedom to move freely in life. I’ve lost time in my life, months and perhaps years that won’t come again. I’ve lost the freedom to be and do what I want in that time. I may yet lose my health, my life. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that, but those other losses I do grieve. I know only that this pilgrimage is taking me where I didn’t want to go, and I don’t know where it will lead before it’s over. By walking the path is made.
Three friends have died this week, members of different communities I’ve been part of over the years. They weren’t close friends, but one each of them touched my life in ways that made an impression that has stayed with me. I’m feeling sad about losing them now, but also glad that I had a chance to know them. Both emotions are reminding me to appreciate all of the special people I know while they’re still here. I’m also thinking about a comment made by the priest who preached at the funeral of the poet John O’Donohue; he recalled that when asked not long before his death what it was that haunted him, O’Donohue had replied, “It is the sense of my days running through my fingers like the finest sand and I can’t stop it.” That pretty much sums it up for me, perhaps for all of us.
Self portrait. Looking in from the outside, out from the inside, seemingly everywhere at once.
I’m getting better with practice at PhotoShop, enjoying the time with my family, trying to experience some of the blessings in this time, but still so worried for the world, for all of us, for the hungry and the sick and those who are dying alone and their families who grieve in isolation.
These lines from a book I’m reading resonate this morning:
There will always be more grief than we can bear. There will always be ripe fruit flesh making your fingers sticky from the juice.
Life is tidal, rising and receding, its long loneliness, its lush loveliness, no need to wish for low tide when the banks are breaking.
From The Soul’s Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred, by Christine Valters Paintner
One of the things I’m noticing now in my practice of walking and observing the arrival of spring is the trees: The way they come into leaf at different times, each according to its own heritage. The colors of the leaves, much more brilliant now than they will be in the fullness of summer. And especially the way the exist in community, branch to branch with others not freely chosen, together until death parts them.
A while back I read a fascinating book called Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren. It’s part memoir, part passionate plea for a sustainable earth, part rumination on the lives of trees, which turns out to be a much more interesting subject than I’d ever imagined. Jahren talks about the tremendous risk involved when a tree-to-be puts out its first root:
No risk is more terrifying than that taken by the first root. A lucky root will eventually find water, but its first job is to anchor – to anchor an embryo and forever end its mobile phase, however passive that mobility was. Once the first root is extended, the plant will never again enjoy any hope (however feeble) of relocating to a place less cold, less dry, less dangerous. Indeed, it will face frost, drought, and greedy jaws without any possibility of flight. The tiny rootlet has only one chance to guess what the future years, decades – even centuries – will bring to the patch of soil where it sits. It asses the light and humidity of the moment, refers to its programming, and quite literally takes the plunge.
Everything is risked in that one moment when the first cells (the ‘hypocotyl’) advance from the seed coat. The root grows down before the shoot grows up, and so there is no possibility for green tissue to make new food for several days or even weeks. Rooting exhausts the very last reserves of the seed. The gamble is everything, and losing means death. The odds are more than a million to one against success.
I took this photo a year ago, on my last Sunday at the church I’d served for five years. I wanted to remember it as I saw it, and that view and that moment came back to me as I’ve thought about why I’m finding most of the online church services I’ve seen lately to be so unsatisfying. It’s because they’re all about the clergy.
Sometimes you get them appearing self-conscious and poorly lit in front of a smartphone camera which has been set at a tilt, and sometimes the high (read expensive) production values make them look like angels or saints on temporary loan from heaven. Most of the time it’s somewhere in the middle, but the bottom line is that what you get is just the clergy and what you don’t get is the people, without whom it isn’t really church.
I know my view on this isn’t the norm. I’ve got the clerical title and the collar that goes with it, but what I’m realizing so clearly just lately is that for years I went to church every Sunday and never saw a clergyperson there. What I saw was those dear faces and what I heard was their voices, all of them, and that’s how I knew that God was present. Lifting up bread and wine was important, but really it was a confirmation of what was already happening when we came together on Sunday morning.
What does Resurrection look like now? Join the Easter challenge of posting a picture that shows hope in action. The goal is to flood social media with these positive images.
The whole world needs to hear the Easter message of hope right now, our joyful proclamation of faith that in the end love will triumph and goodness will prevail. And all the little resurrections we witness in our own lives are a participation in that promise.
So what does resurrection look like for you now? A spring flower bursting into bloom? The face of a newborn? A mother’s embrace? Courageous healthcare workers and first responders doing their daily work? The hand of a caregiver reaching out to comfort someone who is ill?
Get creative – share an image of hope as you experience it in your own life. Take a photo with a camera or your cell phone, or a picture of a written message of hope. If you’re an artist working in another medium, take a picture of that. Copy and paste this explanation and add a sentence or two, if you like, explaining what it means to you.
** Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” (John 20-18)
From yesterday’s late-afternoon walk along the abandoned railroad tracks in Lambertville. I love the way that fern is so full of potential: everything it will become is already there, all tightly coiled and ready to burst into life. I didn’t know there was a graffiti train along the overgrown tracks. NJ is a little weird right now? Never so true.
I didn’t used to spend much time in the woods, but lately we’ve been seeking out parks with trails because it’s too hard to keep your distance from everyone else who’s walking closer to home. So I’m not a nature girl, and one thing that’s stood out for me on our little hikes is just how many fallen trees there are, and how often they seem to fall across the trails.
Most of the parks chain saw and move just enough of the fallen tree to keep the trail open. We didn’t see much of that at Washington Crossing, though, and the thing that really struck me was just how quickly passing feet were able to move the trail to go around the fallen tree.
I have to hope that we will find a way around this, too.
Yesterday’s walk took us on a big loop past our iconic train station, across the road that connects Bridge Street and Route 202, past the barn I love to see in the golden light of late afternoon, and on to the canal for the home stretch back to our place. I hadn’t been hoping for much more than a chance to stretch my legs, but it turned out to be surprisingly lovely.
We wore our masks; none of those few folks we passed did. And along the way we shared some serious conversation.
I read a sobering article in the NY Times yesterday about what it’s actually like for a COVID-19 patient on a respirator. You can read it here https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/04/opinion/coronavirus-ventilators.html if you want, but I’ll summarize it for you: you’re sedated and alone, your body is devastated, and your family must make medical decisions for you and perhaps find a way to say their goodbyes from a distance.
As a pastor I encouraged people to consider it a kindness to make their end-of-life wishes known to their families, and that was the gist of this article. Think about it and talk about it with your loved ones in advance, and allow them what peace they may be able to take from knowing what you would have wanted.
We do have our advanced directives in place, but they were contemplated in a different time, a time when it was possible to imagine that “a good death” might include ending my life at home, surrounded by loving family, with peaceful music playing in the background. But the reality of this plague is nothing like that.
I know. It sounds like a real downer for a late afternoon walk on a spring day. But it wasn’t. It was an opportunity to reflect in gratitude for the gift of this life I’ve lived, and to give my family the gift of knowing what I’d want them to do if it came to that.
Who could ever have imagined these times we’re living now. Not me, for sure.