Remember us? You haven’t heard from Each Holy Hour in awhile, but here we are, back again in your inbox. The reason for EHH’s prolonged silence rests with me. This past year, I said “yes” to too many things. In addition to our family’s full time business, parenting three kids, and writing, I took a position as a middle school teacher and, shortly after that – as if life were not full enough already – my husband and a business partner opened a gym. In their own right, each of these commitments has merit. As additions to a family life already running near capacity, the extra time, energy, and stress, these added were far more than anticipated. By February, my husband and I were both working with no margin, every waking moment accounted for with some obligation, each night dropping, spent, into scant sleep. The refrigerator kept running out of food. The dog rued her change of fortune with deep, exasperated sighs. Slag piles of laundry accumulated at the bottom of the clothes chute. More times than I care to remember, my husband and I ran out of patience with one another.
Though I knew I was running on empty, when my church asked me to speak on the topic of seeking God’s presence for a Lenten program, I agreed. I prepared my talk, clipped on the mic, and began confidently. Halfway into my presentation, I repeated the question upon which I’d been asked to reflect: What does it look like for me to intentionally seek deeper intimacy with God?Suddenly my eyes began to smart. I could feel my mouth pull out of shape. I choked out the next sentences in a voice that hardly sounded like my own.
“Seeking deeper intimacy with God looks like all the things I’m notdoing. It looks like being outside. It looks like a device turned off. It looks like writing my way into a deeper and more nuanced experience of my life. It looks like cultivating real relationships beyond my comfort zone. It looks like ennobling my life by keeping my mind full of the beautiful language, imagery, and ideas of our sacred stories. It looks like asking hard questions of my life and seeking to align myself with their answers, however challenging that may be. I know all these things. And yet, here I am telling you I’m notdoing them.”
There’s a peculiar malady I’m affected by, perhaps its symptoms are familiar to you, in which I resist admitting I’m in over my head. Though my hair may be visibly graying, though I’m slugging down coffee by the liter, though I’m touchy at the slightest suggestion that the milk is getting low and I should have thought to pick up another gallon, to acknowledge how thin I’m stretched is to admit personal deficiency. At the Lenten talk, this confession came out sideways, quick hot tears that spoke far louder than my carefully crafted speech.
Today is the first day of the school year being finished, and with it my job. In a steady June rain, I took the dog for a run. Eager to be out, she galloped down the trail, sniffing clumps of yarrow and rooting at the base of cottonwood stumps. The rain beat evenly on the mosses, the fallen logs, the heifers in the field. It dripped off ponderosa needles and wild roses. It worked its way through my clothes and shoes, soaking me thoroughly. The dog tore through a puddle in the trail, displacing the pollen collected on its top. Dashed to the puddle’s edge, the pollen encircled it like an aureole, a halo as sure as any that shimmers around a saint’s head. It reminded me that rain or shine, the world is filled with holy things. I don’t have to prove my worth, or earn my way to this grace. It just is.
Recently, I came across a quote from Buddhist writer Jack Kornfield. “In the end these things matter: how greatly you loved, how gently you lived, how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.” It turns out that, though I loved teaching, and though the opportunity to extend my time at the school presented itself, I had to let it go. At this season, it isn’t meant for me. I don’t know that I let it go gracefully – rather fitfully and with considerable consternation. But, if I’ve learned one thing this year, it’s that I can’t hustle my way into loving greatly and living gently. I can’t say “yes” to every opportunity, even good ones, without losing things I treasure along the way – like you and the community we’ve built at Each Holy Hour. So, here we are. As the Benedictines say about any contemplative journey, “Always we begin again.”
P.S. As always, we love your comments and interaction!
On Wednesday, as students straggled into school, hungover from Halloween candy and the revelries of parading late in their costumes, the STEM teacher and I aired the documentary, “The Last Man on the Moon.” This documentary chronicles the life of Eugene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17, the last of America’s lunar landing expeditions.
To say I have even casual interest in space science would be a generous stretch. While I’m awed when the occasional Hubble Telescope photo crosses my path, I usually glaze over when reading sentences like the one at the bottom of the previous paragraph. As a writer of realistic fiction, my imagination is decidedly terrestrial. I’m lit up by human stories and expeditions to that vastest of interiors: the human heart.
So I was ready to pass a sleepy morning in the company of pacified 7th and 8th graders and if I gleaned some space science knowledge, so much the better. What I got instead was a fascinating exploration of the paradoxes and emotional minefields which no rocket shot can shake from the human heart. Perhaps it was the extremis of being an astronaut — literally out of one’s element, suspended above the world — that dialed up the volume on the constant human scuffle between loneliness and connection. “I felt that all of humanity was with me on that mission,” Cernan says of his first spaceflight with Gemini IX. And yet later, when looking back at his three days on the moon during the Apollo 17 mission, the Earth rising like a blue pearl in the distance, he spoke of incredible loneliness. Accompanied by all humanity and yet, at once, all alone: Isn’t this a striking picture of our perennial condition?
On the lunar surface, Cernan traced his daughter’s initials in moondust. This heartfelt act of bestowing what he cherished most to that distant surface struck me. It was as if marking her initials there made them timeless, delivering them to a place where moth and rust cannot destroy. And yet, his relationship with his daughter and wife were fraught; sabotaged by the intense singular focus of his career, marked by his absence. “You think going to the moon is hard, try staying home,” his wife reflected on watching the broadcast of her husband out there on the spearpoint of human technology. Eugene Cernan made it back, but ultimately his marriage didn’t survive. Some frontiers are too vast to cross. Some journeys end with loss.
I’ve been thinking about Gene Cernan and the moon a lot over these past few days. In what ways does loneliness and deep human connection nudge shoulders in my life? How much I want what I most love to be lifted above time, to be kept safe from the world’s corrosive effects. But even now, while I have breath and life, am I giving the earth-bound, time-bound things I love my full presence?
On August 25, 2012, Gene Cernan climbed the steps to the pulpit at Washington National Cathedral to eulogize his friend and fellow astronaut, Neil Armstrong. “Neil, wherever you are up there, almost a half century later, you have now shown once again the pathway to the stars…You can now finally put out your hand and touch the face of God.”
I, for one, don’t know much about pathways to the stars. I’m the type who firmly stands with Robert Frost when he says, “Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” But Cernan’s words over his friend’s casket resonate all the same. I hear in them a rich longing for the infinite resolution to all our finite journeys. No rocket can lift us there–yet daily, we are invited on this most daring expedition.
P.S. You can watch the entirety of Cernan’s moving eulogy for Neil Armstrong here.
As a writer, I care passionately about words. As my church’s artist-in-residence, I share prayers and mediations with congregants, choosing words with painstaking care, knowing that what comes out of my mouth has the power to comfort and deepen or distract and harm. As a mother of three girls from elementary to high school, I am a vigilant moderator of words. Just yesterday, I took my eleven-year old aside for the umpeenth time, locked my eyes with hers, and said, “You may not say hate anymore.”
In this cynical time when public insult is only one tweet away, I found it encouraging when my husband came home from a conference and told me that the facilitator had closed with a blessing. The facilitator, who is from an Indian-Kenyan heritage where benedictions are an integral part of life, read a blessing that invited its listeners to move from self-protection to vulnerability and love for others.
In a country where our right to free speech is protected by law, I often feel as though words feel cheap, bandied about thoughtlessly. But what we say flows from who we are, and that makes each word pregnant with meaning. Words start wars, end relationships, rip through families. As I endlessly tell my children, we are responsible for every word, however thoughtless, that leaves our lips.
But what about words chosen intentionally with love? Why are we so often dismissive and cynical of gentleness? In our preference for biting satire and one-liners, have we created a desert devoid of genuine kindness? Have we as a culture forgotten how to bless one another?
“In the parched deserts of postmodernity a blessing can be like the discovery of a fresh well. It would be lovely if we could rediscover our power to bless one another. . .It is ironic that so often we continue to live like paupers though our inheritance of spirit is so vast,” Celtic mystic and priest John O’Donohue writes in his book, To Bless the Space Between Us.
I have found nothing more powerful than words carefully crafted in love and imagination. No matter what your spiritual background, this is a heritage we can all share, a common language of blessing. You don’t have to be a writer or a poet or a priest. Beginning to bless another person can be as simple as pausing in the midst of a hectic day to say to a friend or colleague, “You do good work;” “You are a delightful person, and may you find delight today;” “May you find courage in this hard situation.” These are profoundly powerful to hear. We are parched for authentic, attentive words.
So often I neglect to bless others because I am weary; I feel I deserve to receive and have nothing left to give. But in the act of blessing others, we create streams of grace that flow over the giver and the receiver: “The quiet eternal that dwells in our souls is silent and subtle; in the activity of blessing it emerges to embrace and nurture us,” John O’Donohue writes. “Whenever you give a blessing, a blessing returns to enfold you.”
This week, though I am at turns blinded by cynicism and wearied by life, I hope to open my eyes to see whom I can bless. Authentic, simple love: it is the center of who we are. Let us not forget that we are made to find beauty in others, to name it, and celebrate it.
So this week, may you be enfolded by transforming goodness, and may you have the courage to open your arms to others and to speak in wonder and love.
P.S. This week, I highly recommend:
—this interview between Krista Tippett and John O’Donohue (one of my all-time favorites on On Being).
—this reflection by Parker Palmer– “The Gift of Presence, the Perils of Advice” which includes this amazing quote from Mary Oliver: “This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.”
—this lovely blogpost I serendipitously stumbled upon by farmer and family physician Emily Polis Gibson, which reminds me that blessing others is also (and should often be) a silent gift, a benediction of attentive listening. Check out the quotes to the right of the post–there’s a beautiful one by T.S. Eliot included.
P.S.S. We are profoundly thankful for all of you. As always, we are excited to expand our wonder by hearing your comments and recommended reading! Please share either in a comment on our blog or on Facebook, or contact us here.
Yesterday, my husband and I took a walk through a beautiful fall afternoon. Our dog nosed at animal trails and loped through a stand of golden aspens. The afternoon, in all respects, was gorgeous, the sort of full-color fall afternoon you know will soon be memory. My husband looked up. “Do you know what the weather is going to be tomorrow?”
I stopped in the middle of the trail and automatically reached toward my phone. Some part of my mind halted. “Don’t do it!” I said to myself. I pulled an empty hand back and picked a spear of grass instead, twirling it between my fingers. “No idea,” I answered my husband, “we can look when we get back.”
Sustained attention, we all know, is under assault. I recently listened to an interview about “the arms race for human attention” with former Google design ethicist, Tristan Harris. This interview was darkly illuminating about the persuasive psychology upon which internet content and smartphone applications are built. Far from neutral, the technology which frames our lives is engineered to maximize habit-formation and addiction. I feel moderately aware that my attention is being hijacked, and yet I still tune in to the ever-ready supply of constantly refreshed newsfeed, headlines, and emails.
We each have an inner garden to cultivate. Our hearts and minds, our brain space, our attention, are ours to tend. This work is our birthright. And everyday, I sell some portion of this birthright for meager return. Today I sold it for one trip to Facebook, nine or ten worthless checks on my email, and several swipes on national headlines.
I want my attention back. I want my inner garden to be rich with rare and exotic flowers cultivated over years of patience, effort, and considered attention. In this era where statistics show the average attention span has dropped below that of the common goldfish, I can’t assume that reclaiming my attention will come easily. Literally billions of dollars are arrayed against it.
Recently I came across this quote from Marcus Aurelius: “Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains… But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul…Constantly then give to thyself this retreat, and renew thyself.”
As I read this quote, something stirred inside. My modern mind feels abuzz with lists and worries, with reminders and to-dos. It couldn’t feel further from Aurelius’ trouble-free retreat. Yet it is within my power to retire into my own soul, to journey deep into that wilderness. Though billions of dollars clamor otherwise, each and every moment, the choice to make such a journey is mine.
P.S. What is your answer for leaving the constant buzz and “retiring into your soul?” We really want to know! Leave a comment here or (ironically) on EHH’s Facebook page, or send us a message.
Recent events have wound me tightly. I’ve been worrying over my middle school daughter’s ineptitude with homework, fretting over a new lump in my breast, mourning the passing of our neighbor’s dog, and opening my newsfeed with a pit in my stomach. On Monday morning, standing in front of the bathroom mirror, reflecting on nuclear war, undone English assignments and mammograms, my heart began to pound.
“I am battling the approach of a panic attack,” I realized. I’m not alone. In her article, We Can’t Survive in a State of Constant Agitation, Sharon Salzburg tells the story of Jeanine, who wakes in dread to the news on her phone. Fearful that she will miss anything, she lives her day agitatedly glued to a screen:
“She would not respect herself if she turned a blind eye to the painful truths of the world, but the world breaks her heart. This habit does not do anything to help her change the things she is so concerned about. In many ways, it substitutes for action.”
I found Salzburg’s article right after reading about the devastation in California. Okay, I thought, time to shut my computer. Time to act. But how?
My vocation lends itself to contemplation more than action, which is often a source of much consternation for me. Growing up in a family of do-gooders (in the best sense), I struggled with my identity. I felt as though I was put on earth to find beauty, to listen to it, to write it. Such work is so often unquantifiable (hundreds of pages scrapped, hours of quiet seeing and being that seem to help exactly no one). And though my work takes me right into the middle of suffering, my actual output can feel ineffectual and insignificant.
But this work–writing and being–is what I have been given to do. So this week, I took action. I met with people and laughed, prayed, talked and listened. I went for long walks in the woods. I knelt down next to my dog to see the world from her eyes. I stopped to wonder at the way the sun lit golden oak leaves. I made an appointment for a mammogram. I helped my daughter with her homework. I said goodbye to my neighbor’s dog and then I picked a bouquet of flowers from my fading garden for their family. I did laundry and made dinner and wrote.
And I tried to love it all, like so many people have before me. I take strength in the odd, unquantifiably wonderful lives of people like Van Gogh. He never knew that his work would amount to much but understood that living in this world is a complicated, messy thing that has less to do with productivity and more to do with the immeasurable. “It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength,” he wrote to his brother Theo, “And whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done.”
At the beginning, and middle, and end of all things, this is my sacramental work, and your work too. So if the world ends in a blinding flash while I am sitting next to my daughter at the kitchen table; if I am standing in a glade of young alders with my dog; if I am here, at my window, writing; I want to be loving fiercely all the while. For I have found that living well in the mundanity of the day-to-day requires great courage and audacious love.
So wherever you are this week, whatever you are doing, may you have the strength to turn from fear to love. May you choose to hope. May you seek wisdom to do your work well. And may you find joy in this good, infused world.
P.S. What is the good work you have been given? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment on our blog, Facebook, or send us a note . If you’re on Instagram, use hashtag #thisgoodwork. You can find our daily Instagram posts, with quotes from inspiring people and photos of daily wonder, at each_holy_hour.
P.P.S. For further reading to help you in your journey this week, I recommend these articles:
We Can’t Survive in a State of Constant Agitation by Sharon Salzberg;
Vincent Van Gogh on Art and the Power of Love. . . by Maria Popova;
The Hollowness of Autumn Leaves Space for Light, by one of my favorites, Parker Palmer.
Oh, yes, and this one: You’ll Never Be Famous, and That’s Okay by Emily Esfahani Smith
Well, it’s happened early this year. The view from my window, normally a crisp mountain scene, is full of deep orange haze. Smoke casts a pall on everything. Even the lavender just beyond my office window and the bees doddering around its blooms have a burnished look.
Even though fire season is a regular part of life here in Montana, I still felt disappointed last week when I spotted a feathery plume rising on the far side of Lolo Peak. Though many miles away, Lolo Peak feels like a neighbor. Whether I’m washing dishes or sipping tea at my table, this mountain, with its changing show of light and shadow, is a constant companion. I depend on its solidity and beauty like a boat depends on its mooring.
In the past few days, that thin line of smoke grew into a substantial cloud. This morning I woke to find the valley completely inundated. Lolo Peak is totally obscured. And my own horizon feels hemmed in.
Always, at the point when summer turns this corner, I reacquaint myself with Robert Frost’s poem The Oven Bird. The ovenbird, a warbler, is one of the few birds who trills his song in midday heat. Thus, Frost associates the ovenbird’s signature tea-cher tea-cher tea-cher with the idea that summer is passing away. The “he” of this poem, is the ovenbird whose song calls up these realities:
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says that highway dust is over all.
Like the chime of a clock, Frost’s ovenbird measures time. Like smoke pluming up, it tells us summer isn’t here to stay. As Frost’s bird chirps and warbles out these tokens of summer’s passage, Frost funnels the reader to a final haunting question:
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
Phew. It’s bracing, isn’t it? What to make of a diminished thing? This question rattles around with me, not just as smoke season presses in, but in a way that ramifies into other areas in my life. It’s an essential midlife question. It’s a question for times when a relationship has stung. Or when your body and health betray you. The world’s sleight-of-hand constantly delivers us beautiful things, then bruises them. We are forever having to ask ourselves what to do with diminishments. What will you do today, as the ovenbird warbles its song?
For me, I am going out among the lavender and the doddering bees to weed my garden. Later I will walk through smoky woods to the creek. I will hold my breath and plunge in the crazy cold water. When I come up, there will still be wildfires burning in Montana. Another day will soon pass away. But, as with all diminished things, I want to experience the things before me with joy and depth and love.
Here’s to cultivating wonder,
This week, I took my journal and Rilke book with me to the Oregon coast. The wide swath of sand — broken by the ethereal, craggy rocks and the endless Pacific sea–gathered my attention to itself, and despite my intentions, both book and journal stayed in my bag.
There is something about wide open spaces that is good for the soul, that offers rest to an over-hectic mind.
Our minds are often cacophonous places. Our spirits are cluttered with what we must do, where we have failed, and who we must protect. We cling to these thoughts. Or they cling to us. But to be as open and expansive as the sea — who dares to ask for such a gift?
“Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you,” St. Augustine wrote to God. What a simple, lovely reminder to step into healing rest. And what a hard thing to do. Ironically, we so often work long and hard trying to find rest! But rest does not need to be earned- it is a divine gift and a relational beckon from Unconditional Love.
I wrote this blessing for a friend of mine at a desperate time in her life. In this mid-summer moment of busyness, I offer it to you.
When you have given all you can
and your spirit is drained
and your body worn,
may you find rest.
May you forget about deserve,
earn, and not enough.
Instead, may you find grace,
May you step under this waterfall
and hold up your hands,
drinking your fill.
May the sweat and dirt and tears
from your good labors be washed away;
may every anxious muscle unknot,
and may Peace minister to you.
May you have the wisdom
to put away all that can wait until tomorrow;
may you find a silent space and stay there.
For all that is vital is here now, in this place,
waiting for you.
Open your hands and receive.
May everything in your body
may you hear the words you long to hear:
Well done, good and faithful one!
May the roots of your longing
Here’s to cultivating wonder,