Lab Work

November is the Month of All Souls, when we lift up our beloved deceased. Today I am remembering Sister Maureen Michael, IHM–a former chemistry teacher at Archbishop Prendergast High School. Although I did not know Sister well enough to call her “beloved” (nor would most students have chosen that particular adjective), our one encounter made a sufficient impression on me to become a chapter in my forthcoming book, Finding God Abiding.

That encounter happened exactly forty years ago this week (most likely November 13, 1981), so it seems worth sharing in advance of publication.

Enjoy the sneak peek!

Christine

Finding God in the Chemistry Lab

I had never cut class before. Technically, I wasn’t cutting class; I was hiding in the lavatory trying to recover from a crying jag on my way to lunch. Nevertheless, in my Catholic, all-girls, nun-run high school, being anyplace other than where you were supposed to be was a dangerous business.

A perfect storm of woe had descended on me. The next day was the first anniversary of my grandfather’s death in a terrible accident, and my Algebra II teacher had just returned a test with a big “77” on the front. It was official: My fall semester math grade would not be high enough for Mom to let me try out for the spring musical. Could this day get any worse?

As I struggled to return my face to its normal color with a cool, wet paper towel, suddenly I found myself caught in the icy stare of Sister Maureen Michael, the gaunt, unsmiling chemistry teacher. Where had she come from? More importantly, Why couldn’t it have been a teacher who knew me?

“Come this way,” she said, and marched down the hall to an empty chem lab with me in mute, miserable tow. Unaccustomed to reprimand, I wondered if I might actually pass out. Then something unexpected happened.

Once in her lab, Sister Michael’s face softened. Her eyes grew sympathetic, and she asked, “What’s wrong, dear?”

This unexpected kindness unhinged me. It all came pouring out: my grandfather’s anniversary, the bad grade, the dashed plans. I wept through the whole story, uncertain what was going to happen next.

“I don’t think you need to go to the cafeteria if you don’t want to,” Sister said thoughtfully. “I’m sure you have homework to do. You’re welcome to stay here until the bell rings.” And that is exactly what I did; for the rest of the period, I read a book while Sister Michael graded papers. She didn’t effuse; she didn’t advise. She just gave me what I needed: a safe place to collect myself.

Decades later, I gave a talk on the very stage where I had indeed not performed in the spring musical. I told the students about my crying jag and Sister’s kindhearted rescue. Afterwards, a teacher who had been there forever told me something I had not known at the time: That year, Sister Michael had been fighting a losing battle with cancer. Throughout treatment, she had taught her classes, monitored the halls, and observed her girls. Seeing past the looming specter of her terminal illness, she had looked with compassion on my transient grief, and offered comfort from what must have been a limited store.

That brief encounter was a profound experience of what spiritual writers call “disinterested love.” Disinterested is not the same as uninterested; indeed, it is quite the opposite: passionate interest in another person, in the absence of any self-interest.

As a campus minister, educator, and human being, I have had countless opportunities to “pay forward” the disinterested love I received in my moment of adolescent despair. Some I’ve caught, and some I’ve missed, but I know this: Each new day offers a new chance to practice.

Throw It Aside

During last Sunday’s homily, Fr. Tim Lyons drew my attention to something in Mark’s Gospel that I’d never noticed before.

The healing of Bartimaeus is a deeply familiar tale–despite my having misspelled the man’s name in the manuscript of Finding God Abiding. (Thank God for copy editors!) Until now, however, I’ve always focused more on Jesus than on the man in need of healing.

I love the Lord’s courtesy in this story–asking the blind beggar, “What do you want me to do for you?” as if it’s not obvious. Jesus acknowledges that there could be something Bartimaeus wants more than sight. Maybe his mother is ill and he needs money for her care. Maybe he longs for a special someone to see him and return his affections. Why should we assume we know the deepest desire of his heart, if even Jesus politely asks? For that matter, why should we be so sure we know what anyone needs or wants, if we haven’t bothered to inquire?

That’s not where Fr. Tim went, however. Instead, he focused on the action of Bartimaeus, who “threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus.” Taking off his chasuble, Fr. Tim threw it to the ground several feet away, then asked: If you’re a blind man and you throw your cloak aside, how are you going to find it? What are you betting on?

What are you betting on; I love that! When Jesus says, at the end of the story, “Go your way; your faith has saved you,” maybe he’s not just talking about Bartimaeus’ persistent (and, to the crowd, annoying) cries for the Son of David’s attention. Maybe he’s not just praising the man’s willingness to voice his deepest desire and ask the impossible. Instead, maybe Jesus recognizes Bartimaeus’ saving faith in the very moment he throws aside his cloak–betting a true daily double on being given the sight to find it again.

“Master, I want to see,” Bartimaeus exclaims.

Do we? Want to see?

How clear do we want our vision to be? And what are we willing to throw aside to get it?

Right now, I’m reading Pope Francis’ pandemic-inspired book Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future. He divides the book into three sections: A Time to See ~ A Time to Choose ~ A Time to Act. In the first section, Francis suggests that there is something we need to do, if we want to see clearly. “You have to go to the edges of existence if you want to see the world as it is,” he insists. “I’ve always thought that the world looks clearer from the periphery, but in these last seven years as Pope, it has really hit home. You have to make for the margins if you want to find a new future” (p. 11).

This echoes something I recently read in Henri Nouwen’s Sabbatical Journey, in which he muses about the “new mysticism” of astronauts witnessing the big blue marble of Earth. “The observations made from outer space seem very similar to those made from ‘inner space.’ They both reveal the precariousness of life, the unity of the human family, and the responsibility of the ‘seer’” (p. 22).

So, how do we make for the margins, the periphery, the edges of existence–assuming we don’t have a spare million in the bank and Jeff Bezos on speed dial?

One way to do it is to peek through windows opened for us by writers, photographers, and journalists–anyone who can bring into clearer focus the reality of life beyond our personal bubble. They, too, can show us the precariousness of life, the unity of the human family, and the responsibility of those with eyes to see.

In just the first chapter of Let Us Dream, for example, Pope Francis takes us to a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh and a shanty town in Argentina, to an island in the South Pacific being slowly obliterated by the rising seas of climate change and a small Italian village where fishermen are pulling tons of plastic refuse from the sea. Reading these stories and anticipating more in subsequent chapters I realized that, because Francis is Pope of the whole world, he doesn’t have the luxury of turning a blind eye anywhere. (How does he bear it?)

Where do we find such windows for ourselves? It could be as simple as being mindful about what we read and watch. With a little intentionality, we can resist the “click bait” of stories designed only to intensify our own echo chamber, pausing instead to absorb something that our initial impulse had nudged us to bypass.

Of course, we also make for the margins any time we create space for genuine encounter with someone whose life experience is significantly different from our own. In order to do that, however, we may need to throw some things aside. Preconceived notions. Assumptions of superiority. Any hope of remaining unmoved, unchallenged, unchanged. As I say in Finding God Abiding, “Sight requires proximity, but proximity is not enough. We need insight, and insight requires vulnerability.”

It’s not comfortable. Throw aside the protective cloak of privilege, and we may never find it again.

Or maybe, if we ask God for the grace to see clearly, we won’t need to.

Words that Abide

I spent last week with my nose buried in the manuscript of Finding God Abiding, going over corrections suggested by my copy editor. I read the whole thing every day–often twice a day–alternating between “track changes” in Word and the old-fashioned printed copy. As a writer friend commiserated, there is no such thing as being finished with editing; you just call time-of-death on the process, praying that no lingering, mortifying errors lurk in plain sight.

Today I thought I’d take a step back and look at the words differently, using a word cloud generator. Based on frequency of usage (and dropping proper names, articles, conjunctions, etc.), what were my go-to words for this book? Here are the results, which I invite you to ponder.


What catches your eye? What stirs your curiosity about the story behind the words? Do you find yourself combining any words, whimsically or meaningfully? What opens the door to a story or memory of your own? Which word might God invite you to sit with in prayer? (Or, simply pick one and pray with it; what comes to you?)

Although I look forward to the day when I can put this whole book in your hands, the publication date (June 7) is still almost nine months away. Until then, may your ordinary days be extraordinarily blessed by the God who abides.

Christine

Cover Reveal

Saturday is the Feast of St. Ignatius Loyola—two years from the day that I stepped down from a twenty-six-year campus ministry career to pursue a freelance existence.  As the second anniversary of my “third act” approaches, I’m delighted to announce that my next book, Finding God Abiding, will be coming into the world on June 7, 2022, courtesy of Woodhall Press.  Here’s the cover, designed by the very talented Asha Hossain.

Cover of Finding God Abiding: An image of two poppies and the book title

So much thought and work go into cover design; that’s what the rest of this post is about.  If you’re intrigued, read on! 

Asha had an unenviable task: design a cover that would be “just like the first book, only different.”  In other words, make it clear that this is a companion volume to Finding God in Ordinary Time, yet offering fresh bread.  Here’s a peek at the thought process (to which many of you contributed via Facebook and Instagram this week):

The Background

Did you even notice the background?  It’s not just white; it’s a woven texture, alluding to one of my overarching themes: life as a tapestry.  In “A God Who Abides,” I wrote:

“The stories in this book are organized around four actions that run like threads through the tapestry of our lives: perceiving, becoming, embracing, and releasing. We awaken to the world around us, discover and rediscover our path, practice love in its many forms, and grieve the loss of much that we hold dear. These movements are neither sequential nor singular; we go back and forth like a weaver, creating a unique tapestry on the loom that is our life.”

The woven background is such a subtle detail; it may never register in the reader’s conscious mind, but it adds to the overall impression.

The Poppies

On the cover of Finding God in Ordinary Time, the hummingbird is what people really remember.  For this book, we wanted something equally memorable.  I shared with Asha a paragraph from my chapter “Finding God in a Fire Siren” and suggested she might find inspiration there.  A few days later, I emailed her back to say, “Or poppies!  I love poppies!  If you find good image, I can always change the language.”  And that’s what happened. Since then, I have given a lot of thought to the significance of poppies, and have a whole pastoral reflection to share, but that will keep for another day.

The Colors

The red and the green were obvious, to match the poppy flowers and stems. But red + green = Christmas, and red + green + white = the Italian flag. Not that I don’t love Christmas and Italy, but neither is what I was going for. When Asha introduced purple for the way it balanced the other colors, my mind went straight to the liturgical year: green for Ordinary Time, purple for Advent and Lent, white for Christmas and Easter, and red for Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and all those martyrs’ feast days. My book traces God’s abiding presence through the joys and travails of our life; how appropriate to have a nod to the whole sweep of the liturgical year–birth, death, resurrection, and everything in between–right there on the cover.

The Fonts 

Oh, my goodness.  Most of it was easy; “Finding God” and “Daily Meditations” are in the same fonts as we used for Ordinary Time (Trajan Pro and Minion Pro, for the curious).  To convey a sense of freshness, Asha presented a choice of fun script fonts for the word Abiding.  I wasn’t crazy about either one, but they arrived as I was about to take a walk with my friend Rose—who can always be counted on for an opinion—so I printed out the samples and headed out the door.  After much discussion (and a three-mile hoof, and some wine), Rose said “You have nice handwriting.  Why don’t you write it yourself?”  This was SUCH an Enneagram One thing to say, and to agree to—one of the many reasons Rose and I get along. Three sharpies and almost two hundred attempts later, we had a winner.

But still, I wasn’t sure.  I asked Asha to show me what the cover would look like if the whole title was in the same typed font, and it looked BEAUTIFUL.  Elegant.  Dignified.  What if I used my own handwriting, then regretted the decision?  What if I put that little bit of myself out there, and it made me cringe every time I saw the book?

Can you see where this is headed? 

If I’m worried about putting too much of myself out there . . . if I’m afraid of letting people see my messy edges and imperfections . . . well then, frankly, I should be writing some other sort of books.  Science fiction, perhaps.  A Brief History of Mathematics. Bicycle manuals.

The comment that gave me enough courage to move forward with the handwritten Abiding was from my friend Emilie, who wrote this beautiful observation: “The handwriting provides a suggestion of something personal within.”  Indeed, it should.  Finding God Abiding includes chapters on everything from body image to the clergy scandal, from feeling broke to not being able to stop crying. (Also nicer stuff.)

If I can be brave about all that, surely, I can write my own name on the cover.

Now, back to editing the manuscript . . . deadline, September 1st!

How Do We Say Goodbye?

The Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in Wernersville, PA is closing its doors next month. For those of us who have been formed and sustained by this holy place, the closure is cause for weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Can there also be peace, gratitude and acceptance?

Many thanks to the Wernersville staff for graciously sharing my reflection on their website.

Photo of a rocking chair at sunrise.
My favorite chair in my favorite spot at my favorite time of day: the east cloister walk at sunrise.

A Hidden Thriving

I saw an Instagram post this week that I just can’t stop thinking about.

A maple tree had been leaning alarmingly close to power lines, so the utility company took it down. The tree wasn’t in good shape; termites had been hollowing it out for years. But still, it takes a long time to grow something that majestic, and it’s sad to see it on the ground.

This particular tree was on the campus of our local Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Unbeknownst to them, the maple’s gradual dying had created a space for life to thrive. A colony of bees had moved in, becoming fruitful and multiplying for years–until the chainsaws arrived. The felling of the tree didn’t bother the bees; they were in their winter cluster, with the queen at the center and her worker bee ladies shivering around her to generate warmth. It wasn’t until spring, when rising temperatures and blossoming flowers brought the bees outside in search of pollen, that the College discovered their bee problem.

I don’t know their initial reaction to this discovery–if it were me, there would have been a lot of hyperbolic shrieking–but their response was amazing. They called our neighbors, Rachel and Ofer Yehezkel, who operate Spring Honeybees from their back yard. The Yehezkels suited up, bringing a smoke pot and a contraption that looks like a strong-but-gentle shop vac. Over the course of three hours, they carefully cut apart the downed trunk, vacuumed out the entire colony–over 40,000 bees, including the precious queen–and relocated them to a hive in their own back yard. Once the colony is well-established, Rachel and Ofer will move the hive back to the Rabbinical College. There, the bees will continue pollinating trees, flowers, and vegetable gardens in a two-mile radius, making some pretty delicious honey while they’re at it.

Happy New Home

When I first glanced at Spring Honeybees’ Instagram post, it looked horrifying; seeing all those bees inside the open tree trunk gave me the willies. As I pondered the story, though, I realized what an amazing image of hope and perseverance it is for our times. It’s a tale of how many things that looked like tragedy and disaster actually worked for good, because of the ingenuity and resourcefulness of both bees and human beings. Literally, a swarm of life had emerged where it looked like there was only death. How fitting that this happened around both Passover and Easter–the holy days that remind us of God’s power to change our mourning into dancing.

Literally, a swarm of life had emerged where it looked like there was only death

Collectively, we have had our fill of mourning, as COVID-19 has been the source of so much devastation. There’s been literal death, of course–561,000 souls in the US and 31.2 million worldwide, as of this writing–but we’ve also experienced the “death” of our usual way of doing almost everything. Much of this has been tragic. But buried in all this loss and disorientation has been a hidden thriving. We discovered that business-as-usual isn’t always for the best, and that there is more than one way to do almost anything.

If you’d asked me in 2019 if I had ever considered giving a Zoom retreat, I would have responded with a blank stare. My pivot to virtual retreats in 2020 was made out of expediency–a way to keep working and offer spiritual nourishment to people who could no longer come out to my programs. In these gatherings, however, I encountered so many people who never could have come out to my programs. The mother trying to get her six-month-old daughter to sleep, for example, could not have attended my Lenten evening of reflection even if I’d held it just a few miles from her home. Neither could the woman viewing it from a hospital bed in her living room. And the best two-hour retreat in the world would not have drawn participants from both California and Northern Ireland, as one of my early offerings did. This means that the need was always there, but I couldn’t see it until the pandemic forced me to do things differently.

I keep hearing stories like this. Ask almost anyone how their year has been, and after a legit litany of woe they will reveal a few hidden gems–the obligation it was a relief to put down, the surprising joy discovered in quarantine, the novel experiment they’re glad they tried. Like bees in a fallen tree trunk, life emerged where it looked like there was only death.

After an unthinkable year, the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine has given us hope of a return to normal at last. LIke many of you, I am longing to resume travel, choral singing, and raucous family gatherings. In other ways, though, I hope we never return to normal–by which I mean “the way it’s always been done.”  If we’ve learned anything from the coronavirus—besides the fragility of life and the importance of social responsibility—it is this: there is always a different way to do a thing.  And different–as my friend Lauren DuCharme says when speaking about diversity–is not another word for bad.

Whatever your new normal is, may your ordinary (and far-from-ordinary) days be extraordinarily blessed.

Call to mind again that image of honeybees thriving in the rotting tree trunk. How has the “death” of your pre-pandemic routines created space for life to thrive? What do you want to hold on to, even when this whole wretched mess is behind us? I’d love to hear about it. Kindly share in the comment section below!

Finding God in a Fire Siren

I’ve been telling this story a lot lately, encouraging people to notice God’s invitations to prayer this Lent. I hope it will appear in my next book, Finding God Abiding. Here’s a sneak peek at the first draft!

“There’s no reason for them to blow that siren anymore,” my neighbor insisted.  “Everyone has pagers now.”

The volunteer fire station is less than 100 yards from our bedroom windows.  At all times of the day and night, its powerful siren cranks up to a sustained, nerve-jangling pitch.  It wakes babies, sets dogs howling, and generally shatters the peace.  Why should we put up with this blasted racket, he went on, when there was a non-disruptive alternative?  Would I join him at the upcoming township meeting to help make his case?

I should mention that this was not just any neighbor, but the one we called “The Mayor of the Block.”  Retired yet busy, The Mayor kept tabs on everyone.  He was also incredibly helpful.  The morning after any winter storm, there he would be, using his snow blower to clear the sidewalk on both sides of the block, and once—in the cold, without gloves—he took a saw to a tree that had fallen across our driveway, so I could get to work.  He was full of generous energy—a person on whom I had come to rely.  Now, he was asking me for something.  And I was going to have to refuse.

It’s funny, the things that push us to take a stand.  Despite being in The Mayor’s debt . . . despite his civic-mindedness and genuine concern for the jangled nerves and wakened babies of our block . . . there was no way I could oppose the fire siren.  I couldn’t even give the sort of non-committal response that would allow him to think that I agreed, but—alas—just couldn’t make the meeting.  

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I can’t.  My mother always told me that, when I hear a siren, it means someone is in trouble, and someone is going to help, and since neither of those people is me, the least I can do is stop and pray for them.”  To this, The Mayor of the Block had no response (though he may have added “religious nut” to his mental file on me).

“Teach us to pray,” the disciples implored Jesus.  Although my siren-prompted Hail Marys are not profound prayers, they are part of my prayer life—my ongoing conversation with God.  It’s the spiritual equivalent of spotting something funny and texting my brother a photo of it; that’s far from the whole of our communion, but it is a shared connection, briefly drawing us together in the midst of our separate busyness.

 Each day contains countless opportunities to raise our minds and hearts to God, especially once we decide to notice a thing:  the whistle of a train or the roar of an airplane; the sight of a cardinal or the sound of a woodpecker; a rainbow in the sky or one at our feet in sidewalk chalk.  Anything that invites us to pause can be as sacred as a cathedral door.

“Pray for me!” we often say in times of trouble.  I like to think of the fire siren as just that—our first responders’ dashed-off plea as they race to someone’s assistance.  I’m glad the siren continues to disrupt my peace, so I can pray for theirs.  Perhaps my fellow neighbors are doing just that—encircling those brave first responders in prayers for their protection, despite our occasional grumbles about the noise.  

Are We There Yet?

In the next few days, the world will celebrate New Year’s Eve/Day–a flip of the calendar page more eagerly awaited this year than most–and the Church will celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany–the arrival of those mysterious Magi with their impractical gifts. Although they are always proximate, these two celebrations feel especially connected right now.

I’ve long been a fan of Jan Richardson: artist, minister, preacher, poet, and writer of blessings. One of my favorites is her Epiphany blessing, “For Those Who Have Far to Travel.” You can read it in its entirety at her Painted Prayerbook website, but here’s how it begins:

If you could see
the journey whole
you might never
undertake it;
might never dare
the first step
that propels you
from the place
you have known
toward the place
you know not.

Call it
one of the mercies
of the road:
that we see it
only by stages
as it opens
before us,
as it comes into
our keeping
step by
single step.

If you could see the journey whole, you might never undertake it. Isn’t that the truth? Human beings are capable of astonishing endurance when something meaningful must be done–carrying and birthing babies, caring for dying loved ones, and doing all the demanding jobs we now deem essential–but perhaps it’s just as well that those endeavors don’t come with a crystal ball. On March 13, for example, what on earth would we have done if the text alerts had said “Okay, folks; pack it in for at least the next year”? Call it one of the mercies of the road: that we see it only by stages . . .

What’s going to happen in 2021? We are filled with questions, most of which begin with the word “when.” The past nine months have made us wary of plan-making, yet still we wonder about everything from the return of in-person instruction and the simple joys of dinner in someone else’s home to summer weddings and foreign travel. What is going to happen?!?

Here’s the truth: we’ve never known. Any certainty we may have felt in years past about what the future held was always, at best, a lucky guess. Each new day has always been a swing around a blind corner; these long months of pandemic simply have helped us grasp that more clearly.

My prayer for you in 2021, therefore, is that you may take each day as it comes, “step by single step.” Whatever you encounter, may you find God there. And may that finding transform you, inspiring you to follow the footsteps of the Magi and discover a new way home.

Blessed New Year and Happy Epiphany,
Christine

P.S. Next week, I’ll be offering my New Year’s retreat, Take Nothing for the Journey? Packing for the Year Ahead, on Tuesday (January 5th) from 9:30 – 11:30 Eastern and on Thursday (January 7th) from 7:00 – 9:00 p.m. Eastern. Here’s a little preview video–obviously recorded in warmer weather–that perhaps doesn’t sufficiently explain that I’m using “packing” as a metaphor, but gives you a fun taste of where we’re going nonetheless.

A Different Kind of King

I’m working on a new dramatic monologue, re-telling the “Martha/Mary” incident (Luke 10:38-42) from Mary’s perspective. (I’ve spent the last twenty years channeling Martha; in the second half of life, it’s time to hang out with her sister for a while.) At one point, sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to him speak, Mary exclaims, “Jesus, I’d love to live in the Kingdom of God!”

Her point is that the kingdom Jesus is describing sounds so much better than the Roman Empire under which they are living. I remember my Scripture professor Hal Taussig explaining that a better translation for “Kingdom” or “Reign” of God would be “God’s Imperial Rule.” In other words, Jesus was being as pointed (and political) as if he showed up in DC talking about “the United States of God.”

Thinking of it that way helps me stop tripping over Jesus’ use of a term both too male and too antiquated for a modern democracy in which kings–and queens–appear mostly as fairy tales or figureheads (or compelling Netflix characters).

This weekend, the Catholic Church celebrated the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, more commonly known as the Feast of Christ the King. This feast was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI in response to what he saw as two worrisome trends: secularism and nationalism.

Ninety-five years later, that still feels spot-on. What better feast to celebrate in the wake of this divisive election season?  The “kingship” of Christ reminds us that, although we must strive to elect leaders who will advance the common good, our buck does not stop at the Oval Office. God’s law of love must reign in our hearts, because our real citizenship is as members of God’s one human family.  As Scripture says, we are “fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19), a household which knows no borders or political parties. 

In my monologue, when Mary exclaims that she wants to live in the Kingdom of God, Jesus takes the conversation in an unnerving new direction by responding: “But you do! We all do. Just look around you; the Kingdom of God is in your midst.  You just have to believe it exists . . . then start acting like one of its very good citizens.”

What does it mean to act like a very good citizen of the Kingdom / Reign / Imperial Rule / United States of God? At a minimum, in this fraught, ongoing election season, it means setting aside partisan bitterness and refusing to label or demonize the other side. And it means going beyond ourselves in practical care for those with whom Jesus identified in today’s Gospel. Can we see and respond to Jesus, for example, in those whose lives are threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic and/or the plague of white supremacy?

Our liturgical year comes to a close this week, as Ordinary Time gives way to Advent. However exhausted this far-from-ordinary season has left you, I pray that you will be able to move gently into the days ahead, drawing solace and strength from the One to whom we owe our first and final allegiance.

May your Advent days be extraordinarily blessed.

Christine

The Fruits of Autumn

I’ve just returned from a week of silent retreat at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in beautiful Wernersville, PA.  For all the years I worked in higher ed, my retreats had to be in the summer, so this was my first opportunity to soak in the fall foliage of the rolling hills around God’s country house.  It felt fitting, pondering the autumn of my life (early autumn, one hopes) during the autumn of the year, as the fruits of both are similar.

First is the most obvious:  the stunning and particular beauty of this season.  On retreat, I spent hours outside, gazing at the gratuitous blaze of colors all around me, the leaves spiraling down like fiery snowflakes, the kind angle of sunlight turning the afternoons golden.  From the west cloister in the hour before dinner, I could bask in surprising warmth at the end of a clear, brisk day. 

It makes me conscious of the beauty of later life, for those who can embrace it gracefully.  I call to mind the white-haired women I know, the lines in their faces etched by a lifetime of smiles.  I think of the older Jesuits at Wernersville—men I’ve known for decades—joints stiff, shoulders a bit stooped, but their whole being still aflame with a well-tended fire that the Jesuit novices on retreat could only envy. 

Next are the literal fruits (and vegetables) of autumn.  Gone are the tender peaches and snap peas, the bumper crop of fast-growing zucchini; farm stands are full of apples, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes now.  This is the time for hearty produce:  the kind that has taken all season to ripen, that packs in the nutrients, and that can withstand the coming cold.

This is the wisdom of the autumn of life.  There are lessons that only come through time, reflection, and loss.  Certain spiritual insights are visible only from this vantage point, as we look back on our own personal salvation history.  The wisdom of autumn knows there is frost in the forecast, but has the power to nourish us through the dark days ahead.

And finally, there is the gleaning.  During my long walks on retreat, I saw the ground littered with corn cobs, acorns, and fallen apples.  The harvest is over, but there is so much still available to feed the sweet chipmunks, frisky squirrels, and roaming deer.  It reminds me of the Biblical mandate to leave the corners of one’s field unharvested, and not go back to pick any overlooked produce, so that those who are in need may find some sustenance.

Gleaning is all about availability.  We may not have a field to leave unplowed, but the autumn of life may give us a unique opportunity to make ourselves available.  With calendars no longer scheduled to the very edges, we are more free to respond to those in need, whether in our families, neighborhoods, or faith communities.  “Where do you need me today?” we can ask God, and listen for the answer.

And speaking of availability . . . If you can spare two hours on Tuesday, I’m offering a Zoom retreat through St. Placid Priory on the topic “Finding God in Ordinary (and Far-from-Ordinary) Time.”  We’ll explore nature as a way of connecting with God in any season, and consider the wisdom of St. Ignatius Loyola’s First Principle and Foundation.  The retreat will feature mostly presentation, with time for reflection and two brief breakouts.  That’s this Tuesday, October 27, from 12:30 – 2:30 p.m. EASTERN.  Click here to register ($25).

Though we live in fraught times (understatement!), I hope this autumn finds you able to appreciate the beauty, wisdom, and availability that the season evokes in these waning weeks of Ordinary Time.

May your ordinary (and far-from-ordinary) days be extraordinarily blessed!

Christine

P.S. I am offering several Advent retreats in both live and Zoom formats; stay tuned for a newsletter with details in early November, or visit my Speaker page.