Sunday, December 30, 2007

Sixth Day, Pissarro

We went to see the Pissarro exhibit at the Brooks Museum. Though I didn't think the exhibit was displayed very well, the paintings were wonderful, and learning more about the artist adds so much. As always, I leave wanting to take painting lessons! Someday....

This was one of my favorites. The House in the Woods. The other, the Farm on the Grounds of the Chateau de Marly, seems not to be anywhere on the Internet; or perhaps it goes by a different name. But I did find this, a quote from Cezanne: “We learned everything we do from Pissarro. … It’s he who was really the first Impressionist…He had the good luck to be born in the Antilles where he taught himself to paint without a teacher.”

So perhaps I should just start painting, without lessons? But that would still require a space to paint, which is also a problem at the moment. Anyway, it was a lovely afternoon. And this house in the woods most certainly has six geese a-laying somewhere about, don't you think?

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Five Golden Rings

. . . Plus one—and the other one hidden underneath!

There is something to that color wheel we learned in elementary art class. Could this fruit look any better in a bowl of another color? I don't think so. I'm a little sad to keep eating these things, but I suppose keeping them indefinitely as a still life would ultimately result in a much less pretty arrangement.

Friday, December 28, 2007

For Calling Birds

(Nota bene: these are not my photos....)
Today I drove back from a visit in Arkansas. While there I visited friends and heard from each a story of struggle, of pain, of things gone wrong. I can’t say that it weighed me down, but it made me more aware than usual of the truth that we rarely know what is really going on in the lives of people around us, and that life is hard.

As I drove home, I was listening to a CD of Celtic Christmas music. It was the first time I had heard all the verses to “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” And I heard all the words, and it was beautiful, and I was thinking about angels and finding hope in a hard world. Verse three especially stayed on my mind.

And then, just as the sun was setting, I was giving up on seeing any Canadian geese, as I had (I thought) passed all the watery areas. But to my left I thought I saw some fluttering. I looked more closely, and there were geese out in the field. It was a field of stubble, with water between the rows of golden stalky rice remains, so they were hard to see.

I kept looking (as best one can while driving) and realized that there were lots of geese out there. I was going too fast to stop, but I pulled over at the first place I could find, turned around, and went back to a side road where I could pull off the main road and park.

I got out of the car and watched in wonder as hundreds and hundreds of geese fluttered about in the field, and hundreds and hundreds more came in to land. V-formation after V-formation approached in the sky, and they circled and slowly joined those in the field. A host of geese, ascending and descending upon this field of mud in the middle of nowhere.

And the sound! I had never heard anything like it. Honking, squawking, whatever you want to call it. It all combined to create such a sound that at first I wasn’t sure what I was hearing. I wasn’t even that close to them, and it filled the air and filled my ears and filled my mind with amazement. Like trumpets, but they were voices. They were calling, singing the song that, I suppose, brought them all together to a safe place, helped them sort themselves out.

And the sun set, and the geese decorated the golden-pink and gray sky with their outstretched wings, and car after car drove by, and people didn’t even notice.

As darkness came, I finally got back in my car, turned the music back on, and drove on.

And I wondered how many times we go down the road and don't even hear the angels sing.

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, goodwill to men
From heaven’s all-gracious King!”
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.

Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled;
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world:
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.

O ye beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow;
Look now, for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
Oh, rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing.

For lo! The days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
When the new heaven and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace, their King,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


The third week of Advent....I didn't write that after the Service of Lessons and Carols, my throat felt like fire. I lost my voice completely and was home sick most of the week. Poor timing for shopping, decorating, and sending Christmas cards. I didn't feel up to driving to get stamps, even, until near the end of the week. But it was a good time for resting and reading, and I was just so glad it had held off until after the singing.
Here is a clearer view of the tiny little wreath that I like so much. We had a larger wreath, but last year we left it unattended for just a few minutes, and it suffered damage in the fire that consumed the greenery and part of our tablecloth. Quite a Christmas morning celebration!

Back to the recent present: I did get better, and then Drazen came down with a cold. He was a trooper, though. I don't know if it was love of family, concern for me, or looking forward to the food (or all three)--but he chose to make the drive to Searcy for dinner with some of my family on Christmas Eve.

On the way there we saw thousands of Candian geese, sitting quietly on the flooded fields of Arkansas between Fair Oaks and Augusta. How does the sight of migrating Canadian geese bring tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat? I am not quite sure, but it did, and I thought that might be my favorite Christmas present for the year.

But then there was the full moon. My dad and I had gone for a walk around the Harding campus, to see the Christmas lights. Which were lovely and even in a way enchanting. But then that moon, just over the horizon, still goldish from whatever it is that makes it that way, and huge, huge, and so beautifully round and quiet. That was entrancing. I wish I'd had a camera with me. The memory will have to suffice. We drove home that night under that glorious moon.
After a too-short nap (Drazen went on to bed), I went with a friend to an Orthodox nativity service. An experience I won't forget. This friend didn't tell me until we were on the way there, that they stand for the entire hour and a half, except for about five minutes of the service! I actually appreciate the reverence it implies, but my foot is still hurting from the long time spent in shoes that weren't meant for such an experience.

Christmas Day, we were both exhausted. Drazen from his cold, I from being up late and recovering from my own bout of illness; and both from the interrupted sleep that comes with one or more people blowing their nose throughout the night. I woke up with not a host of heavenly angels singing, but a host of depressing thoughts. I feel awful, I'm exhausted, this day is going to be impossible. Why did we invite someone over for dinner? How am I going to get it done? What if Drazen doesn't like the gift I got for him? etc.

But we got up, I put cinnamon rolls in the oven and coffee on the stove. And Drazen found the channel 3 airing of our Lessons and Carols service, which infused my spirit with joy and refocused me on heavenly hosts, and shortly I was smiling and laughing again. We opened presents, tried our new coffee, enjoyed the morning.

By afternoon, it was a different matter. I was tired. I took a nap while Drazen spent two hours on skype with a long-winded friend in Croatia. I woke from the nap feeling tired, sad, lonely. Wishing for things that I always thought would be a part of Christmas and are not, and may never be. Doing the crazy comparing thing, which always means comparing ourselves to those who have the things we wish we had, rather than comparing ourselves to those who do not even have what we have. I missed Grandmother, and extended family being together, and children being a part of the picture.

Just in time, Drazen got off the phone and we went for a walk. Which clears the mind and invigorates the body, and gave me the energy and good will I needed to come home and do the cooking and cleaning before our guest arrived.

Justin came over. And we celebrated Christmas together, with scripture and prayer and food and life-sharing and dog-petting and laughter. At one point Justin and I somehow got into a laugh that wouldn't end, and we both wound up in pain from it! It gave new meaning to "side-splitting" laughter.

Later, Drazen and I watched the movie First Knight, a gift from my sister's family. By the end of it I was again exhausted, with a headache starting, and having those thoughts again. Why did I want to stay up late watching a movie? Now I won’t be able to sleep. Tomorrow’s going to be awful. Etc.

I had seen the movie before, but this time was struck by a line I didn't remember from before. It seemed appropriate to the day. Guinevere, trying to explain herself and her love to Arthur, says something like, “Feelings come and go like the wind. But my will is what sustains me, what keeps me true to my course, and it is with my will that I love you.”

Christmas Day my feelings came and went like the wind! But the day wasn’t about my feelings, and at the end of the day, body and mind and soul sat at the table with the wreath and the candles and thought once more about Light coming into the world and how blessed we are to have something more hopeful and sustaining that our own feelings and even our own thoughts.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And the Light is real, and full of Grace and Truth. Even when I'm not.
Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 20, 2007


The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shined.

And we have the prophetic word made more sure.
You will do well to pay attention to this
as to a lamp shining in a dark place,
until the day dawns
and the morning star rises
in your hearts.

-from recent Advent readings in Isaiah and II Peter

This is the view from the window above my prayer desk. I have the bottom covered with (sigh of embarrassment) tissue paper, which was a quick fix when we moved in some years ago and did not yet have curtains. You can’t tell from this photo, but it actually looks nice, lets light through but blocks my view of the neighbors backyard, so I haven’t changed it all these years.

But the top of the window is best. Here I see the leaves come out green, turn colors, and fall. Here I see the birds flutter about, the squirrels run through the trees. And just Tuesday (the day I took the photos) saw a hawk soar up from a branch, just as I looked up.

On Tuesday the light struck me. It was cloudy much of time I was sitting there, and then suddenly came the light, and here it is. Light in darkness. Much like prayer, sometimes.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Second Week of Advent (and a Half)

The little advent wreath is so sweet I took pictures of it last week, but obviously haven’t written anything until now.

Today I saw yet another article in some publication about “surviving the holidays.” I read it, and it was a good article with some practical advice. But my main response was sadness and mild frustration.

We have become by choice fairly low-key about “the holidays.” This is probably made easier by our not having children, but I would like to think that even if we had children, we would consider honoring God with a sane life more important than whatever all the things are that make “the holidays” such an unholy time for many people.

I just think it’s sad that so many people look at this as a time they have to “survive,” which has the connotation of just getting by, enduring, hanging on till better times come.

In Italian the word for “survive” is “sopravivere,” which more clearly than the English gives the meaning of “to live above.” (Only because most of us don't realize that "sur" here means "above," same as in surcharge, surplus, etc.) I think that’s what we have to do when a culture gets so crazy. We have to live above the craziness, the materialism, the secularism, the unrealistic expectations that the media and even our friends might set for us. Not indulge in it all and barely come through alive, but choose to live in a way that lets us live above it.

Part of that is the practical stuff. Schedule carefully. Eat healthily. Practice saying no both to others and to yourself. Think through what really matters and let go of the rest. Stop trying to impress people.

But the other part, the biggest part for me, is the advent wreath and what it represents. That our focus is on Jesus, his coming as a human into the world, his presence in our lives day in and day out, and his eventual coming to stop the craziness for good, and to bring “joy to the world” for all time.

The choir I sing with did our service of Lessons and Carols this past Sunday evening. It was glorious. One of my favorite pieces is below. It’s a Gregorian chant, with wonderful old sounds, sounds of light and mystery and dissonance and peace, harmonized by one of our choir members. And it’s the sort of thing that, when you go around with it in your mind, makes it not hard at all to “survive the holidays.”
They become, actually, holy days, to be fully lived and treasured.

From lands that see the sun arise,
to earth’s remotest boundaries,
the Virgin-born today we sing,
the Son of Mary, Christ the King.

Blest Author of this earthly frame,
To take a servant’s form he came,
That liberating flesh by flesh,
Those he had made might live afresh.

In that chaste mother’s holy womb,
celestial grace thus found its home:
So God, in ways beyond all thought,
the means of our salvation wrought.

She bowed unto the angel’s word,
accepting what the Father willed,
and suddenly the promised Lord
that pure and holy temple filled.

All praise, eternal Word, to thee,
whose advent set thy people free;
whom, with the Father we adore
and Holy Spirit, evermore. Amen.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Father Stevens' Final Journey

This morning I was blessed to attend the memorial service of precious Father Stevens and to hear the stories of other people whose lives had connected with his. It was a beautiful occasion in honor of one of the most beautiful people I have ever known. For now I will only share the obituary from the newspaper, which was written by one of the men I met today. My own reflections will wait for another time.

FATHER ANTHONY-GERALD "Lee" STEVENS, a member of the Order of the Holy Cross who founded the Mbalotahun Leprosy Relief Program (MLRP) and the first Anglican indigenous religious order for men in Liberia, has died.

Born in Durham, Maine and graduated from Bates College, Father Stevens' early career was in acting. The Rev. Anthony-Gerald “Lee” Stevens, 95, served as a naval chaplain in the Pacific, then entered the Order of the Holy Cross, making his life profession in 1951. From 1952-65, he served primarily at the order’s monastery and school in St. Andrews, Tennessee.

But it was while serving the order’s Liberian mission, and particularly at the leprosy clinic and colony at Mbalotahun, that he “lost his heart forever,” as he was often quoted. He was a supreme example of Christian love and caring in the Holy Spirit to this remote clinic originally founded by his Order of the Holy Cross in the 1920’s. To facilitate his work at the clinic, he trained and was licensed as a paramedic in leprosy. He also studied the Bandi language and developed a leprosy rehabilitation and control program.

The remainder of his years in the order alternated between the time spent in his beloved Liberia and years spent as the resident monk, first at the priory in South Carolina and later at Iona House in the Diocese of West Tennessee. During the recent civil war in Liberia, he lived at Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, N.Y.

Last year, when the political situation calmed, he returned at the age of 94 to establish at the request of the bishop of Liberia an indigenous religious order for men, the Community of Love in Jesus (CLJ). This was a very fitting name for this order as this dearly loved man left many such communities throughout his life wherever he went, especially here in the Diocese of West Tennessee.

Father died on September 22, 2007 at 4:45 p.m. local time in Bolahun, Liberia (11:45 a.m. CST) in his little cell at the St. Francis monastery where he was surrounded by his primary caregiver and first ordained priest of the CLJ, two novices and two aspirants plus an American doctor summoned from a nearby village. A single candle was burning as the monsoon rains poured down outside the monastery and Father Stevens peacefully passed into God’s hands as he breathed his last breath. His body was buried at his request in the cemetery of the leper colony at Mbalotahun.

A memorial service celebrating Father Stevens’s life will be held on Thursday, December 6 at 11 a.m. at St. Columba Episcopal Conference and Retreat Center (901-377-9284), http://, 4577 Billy Maher Road, Memphis, TN 38135. A celebration luncheon will be held afterwards and reservations are requested.

Father Stevens’ vision was the support of all children of the leprosy patients in this area through a full tuition program for education aimed at freeing “the poorest of God’s poor” from the circumstances of poverty and disease, the care of leprosy patients in Mbalotahun, and the continued development of the Community of Love in Jesus as a Missionary Order whose purpose is to reclaim Liberia for Jesus.

Father's constancy of praying for numerous people and his affable, gentle, and loving personality and his shining example of being a follower of Jesus Christ are the qualities he impressed on all those who knew him. One of his most heartfelt spiritual directions given to those seeking it was that, “the Will of God will never lead you where His Grace will not sustain you.”

All memorials are requested to be made to The Father Stevens Liberian Leprosy Trust Fund through the Episcopal Diocese of West Tennessee.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Waking Up

This is what it looks like to wake up in the bed where I spent the past two nights.

(Well, not exactly, because unbeknownst to me the camera battery was on its last leg and didn’t flash, so the light/dark contrast wasn’t quite as dramatic as this appears.)

Essentially, though, this is what I woke up to yesterday morning and the day before that.

It is definitely a room with a view, with six ceiling-to-floor windows and long horizontal windows where full-length either would not fit or would not be appropriate.

Surrounded by woods, the cabin is made of cedar wood. To me it feels more natural than anything. Maybe a canvas tent would rival it, but all the tents these days are made of synthetics, it seems, often with bright unnatural colors.

Have I written before about St. Columba? I know I wrote about discovering the deer that were illegally killed there. But have I written about how much I love this place? Possibly not, because it’s impossible to put into words.

This retreat center north of Memphis has blessed my life so deeply that I can say I would not be the person I am without it. Almost ten years ago I went for the first time, and I’ve been going back ever since.

It was here I reclaimed sanity after the stressful last weeks of my graduate program and began in earnest the search for what my life would be about once school was finished.

It was here I met Father Stevens, whom I have written about (February 13, 2006)--and who left this life a little over two months ago. I will write about him again.

It was here I first encountered the rhythm and discipline of the daily office and the beauty and power of the Book of Common Prayer.

It is here that time and again I am renewed, refreshed, and sustained in ways that go deeper than I can understand or explain.
It is here that I connect with the peace that surpasses understanding.

I came to the woods for my recent stay after one of the most stressful situations to occur in my years as a counselor. Because of the situation I kept my cell phone on, and I was called late at night and stayed on the phone until midnight, and had to go back into town the next day to deal with things.

Even so, my sense of the past few days is one of peace. Images of trees, geese, ducks, deer, a blue heron, an owl in flight, falling leaves, and still water fill my mind and promise to remind me in the days to come that there is a reality beyond my daily tasks.

As I was driving out to St. Columba after the second very stressful day at my office, I looked up over the lanes of traffic and saw a rainbow. A long, lovely rainbow just before sunset, looking as if it ended right above the retreat center. Another promise, another reminder not to get too caught up in the things that are so messed up, but to focus on the One who is eternal and is more merciful than we can imagine.

For me there is no better way to do that than to spend time in the woods. We go way back, the woods and I, and they take me places I can get to no other way.

Hopkins’ words come to mind, “the dearest freshness deep down things.” And come to think of it, his poem speaks to morning time as well, so here it is (with apologies that I cannot get the indentions to work) to end this post that began with a picture of the dark-scattering sun:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; Bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.