A Light in the Dark

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I am an aspiring caver.  Which is to say I love to get all dirty crawling around tiny, tight spaces and wiggling my way up and down sheer, underground cliffs and fissures–in the near dark.

Deep into a cave system (and not-so-deep), if one is to turn off one’s light, one finds themselves experiencing complete darkness.  There is no light here that you did not bring yourself and, no matter how long you wait, your eyes will not gradually adjust and start making out the forms in front of you.

A recent NY Times article by Sam Anderson, accurately describes the intrigue of caves in beautiful language and imagery:

The appeal of caves is, obviously, primal. They offer, in their darkness, both an instant physical reward — shelter — and something more metaphysical. For as many millenniums as there have been humans, caves seem to have been considered a contact zone with the magical, the otherworldly, the irrational, the unconscious. Prehistoric people used them as burial grounds and ritualistic art galleries. The Greeks built shrines and oracles in them and populated them with fictional monsters. (Odysseus’s Cyclops lived, with his flock of giant sheep, in a cave.) Ancient Buddhists dug out caves everywhere — 30 at the base of an Indian waterfall, 500 in a mountain at the edge of the Gobi desert — and stuffed them with their most elaborate art. Christ was entombed in, and then resurrected from, a cave. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found buried in 11 different caves. It’s no accident that walking into a great cathedral or mosque feels like entering a giant aboveground cavern.

But it doesn’t take religion to sanctify a cave. In fact, caves challenge any common-sensical division between secular and sacred. A cave is a paradox: a place defined by its absence. It operates on a time scale that we can’t even begin to comprehend — a time scale that is, in fact, obscene to any species that cares about life and tends to measure things in minutes and years and decades. The formation of a cave is appallingly incremental. Most often it happens when water, trickling down through the air and the ground, picks up carbon dioxide, creating a very weak acid. This acid finds its way into the tiniest of cracks in the rock and begins, very weakly, to dissolve it. After a million years or so, this nibbling forms a nice-size cave. Stalactites and stalagmites, created by minuscule mineral deposits left by single drops of water, form at a rate of roughly one cubic inch per 100 years.

The tallest known stalagmite is 220 feet high.

A cave, in other words, is time showing off. Most geological features form slowly, of course, but caves seem extramiraculous because of the intricacy, the beauty and the delicacy of the structures — all created not by plate tectonics or giant rivers but by individual drops of water. It’s like painting the Sistine Chapel with an eyelash.

Today, in the omnipresent data storm of the 21st century, the primal appeal of caves takes on a new dimension. The earth, including the ocean floor, is now comprehensively mapped. Caves are not. Google’s camera cars have yet to drive inside them. They remain blank spaces. In a world of instant access, caves are the very definition of slow. In a world of constant presence, caves are aggressively absent. In a world of superficiality, they are profound — literally profound, in the original sense of “deep.” (Latin profundus: “before the bottom.”) This means that we’re even more drawn to them because they preserve something precious that’s becoming hard to find: ignorance, blankness, the integrity of total silence. Today, given that we can know just about anything, a cave is even more of a cave.

It is exactly the darkness that draws us into the underground, just as it is the unknown that sends us in search of the Divine, and neither can be fully experienced without the illumination of a light.

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Schooled–by sacred word

I have had some good teachers, I have had some bad teachers, and I have had some mediocre teachers.  But my best teachers have always fallen into one of two categories, there were those who encouraged me to ask questions and find my own answers, and there were those who wrote lovely words that — encouraged me to ask questions and find my own answers!

Many of the latter category were spiritual leaders and mystics who shared their divine insights through beautiful prose and poetry.  These wise thinkers continue to be my guides and companions as I seek truth in my spirit and in my days.

St. Catherine of Siena is one such teacher.  The 23rd (that’s right, no typo there!) child of a wool dyer and without formal education, she became one of the greatest theologians of the 14th century.  A visionary from the age of 6, she is now one of the patron saints of Italy and was designated the first female Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI on October 4, 1970.

Being a “respected figure for her spiritual writings, and political boldness to “speak truth to power”, St. Catherine seems a logical teacher for one who wants to understand better her Catholic faith history and what that means to her as a woman.  And so I have not only read numerous of her writings, but flip regularly through some of her selected poems for learning.

Today, in flipping open one such book of poetry, my eyes read the following poem:

CONSECRATED

All has been consecrated.

The creatures in the forest know this,

the earth does, the seas do, the clouds know

as does the heart full of

love.

Strange a priest would rob us of this

knowledge

and then empower himself

with the ability

to make holy what

already was.

Strange…

How Good the Light was!

The Feast of the Epiphany , January 6, the last day of Christmas, has always been my favorite holiday.

Church Window in Belgium (Gent)

As a young child, I somehow associated it with lights and delights.  We would camp out in our living room on that night, wrapped up in warm sleeping bags, hot chocolate garnished with marshmallow cream, and the Christmas lights burning bright and joyfully for one more night.

Then later, as an adolescent living in French Breton, I was reminded of the connection to the Magi, foreign kings come to honor the baby Jesus.  Baking and eating gallete des rois (king’s cake), first hiding the Christ figure in the soft braided dough, and then hoping and searching for it on my own plate.

As an adult, the day continued to excite and inspire as I learned to understand the deep significance of epiphanies** and other wondrous revelations of self and life and spirit.

It could seem confusing and that transformation of this feast into so many different  significances was but the folly of my own youth and ignorance.  However, my view of the Epiphany as a gem with many facets is, in fact, reflective of the history of the celebration itself.

Originating in the Eastern Church, and not celebrated by the Roman Church until the latter sixth century, Epiphany was initially the celebration of Christ’s Baptism by the Holy Spirit as an adult, and then of the Nativity (the birth of Christ), and variably the Wedding of Cana (occasion of the first miracle performed by Christ).  The current importance of the Magi to the event was a much more gradual attachment (a wonderful reflection of the greater meaning of the Magi to the Church is given by NateAddington).

What was never in dispute, however, was that this blessed day was intended to commemorate the glorious manifestation of the Divine in the world, in the many ways in which Grandeur was revealed.

The extraordinary nature of this celebration was one that could neither escape my child’s eye nor that of the young Church.  And its greatness has warranted continued reflection and evolution throughout both of our maturing.

So, as always, I welcome this day with wide eyes and open heart,

Feast of the Epiphany

Celebration of Light and Wonder and Understanding and Illumination

reminder to continued growth and reflection and grace.  And I start with a meditation on Radiance, on how good is the light…

**epiphany(1) : a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something (2) : an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking (3) : an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure

I Have in my Hands…

“I have in my hands the standard manual of human birth defects.”

It is hard to believe that anyone could successfully begin a book in this way, and yet it is exactly thus that Annie Dillard begins her beautiful book, For the Time Being.  She eventually explains her reasoning saying, “For the world is as glorious as ever, and exalting, but for credibility’s sake let’s start with the bad news.”  And with her sublime prose she combines joy and heartbreak, sand and cloud, quest and discovery… in an inquiry into spirit.

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I have in my hands my heart, as they hover over these keys.  And it would be wishful thinking that I would be able to express to you the beauty of a heart’s pain and bliss as offered by Dillard, for I cannot, but the intention remains just the same.

My intention to use this medium as a way to continue to seek and offer understanding of life and love and spirit, for as she also writes, “The more we wake to holiness, the more of it we give birth to, the more we introduce, expand, and multiply it in the world“.

I have in my hands a hope of harmony and discourse, both within my soul and within the community of seekers, thinkers and believers gathered here, “for the world is as glorious as ever, and exulting”.

Resolved… still?

© Bsilvia  Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos 820096To the question and thought of resolutions, it is a little difficult to speak right now.

I did mention that I am not especially a maker of New Year’s Resolutions.  However, I most certainly have made promises and commitments, both to myself and to others, throughout my brief journey here.

And have I kept them?  This is not always a one word answer either.

I believe strongly in upholding promises and commitments.

I was taught that it is a good rule of thumb to not make promises that you cannot keep.  This is why, as a parent, I rely heavily on the term “maybe” when asked about something by my son. (Imagine my consternation when he figured out before I did that my “maybe” almost always means “yes.” – Almost.  But not always, I must often defend.)

I was also taught that it is a matter of integrity to keep the promises that you have made.  And yet, there have been times when I have poorly judged where the bounds of the commitment really were.  And others when my unshakable dedication has kept me in situations much longer than was good for me, and perhaps, for those around me.Twirling in the wind

It is this balancing act, trying to always be true to my word and knowing that I must also recognize when promises are best broken, that can leave my twirling in the wind.

I am at such a place with my faith.  I have, up until this point, been true to the promises made first by my Godparents on my behalf at my Baptism, and then by myself through Confirmation.

Yet, I am re-evaluating the semantics of some of those promises now.  Does my affirmation of commitment to a universal, all-embracing community of God (a catholic church) necessitate the blind acquiescence to the dictates of an earthly organization (the Catholic Church)? **

Unfortunately, I am seeing less and less universality and embrace in those dictates… A sometimes heartbreaking thing to recognize.

However, there is one thing that I have resolved and that I can continue to espouse — a commitment to love the Divine Creator, and love all of Creation in the way that (s)he has loved.

** For those others asking this question, please read Reinkat‘s very sincere, thoughtful and generous response below and the very kindly offered insights of dwinger.

“She heard the clock strike eleven and three-quarters…”

And having recalled that her godmother, above all things, had commanded her not to stay past midnight, she was, thus, already nestled all snug in her bed, with visions of (?) meteors stuck in her head?

LONDON - BIG BEN - NIGHT

In truth, I don’t have many recollections of New Year’s Eve, and not for the reasons one may think.  I do remember Y2K, laying on a futon and cradling my infant child.  And there was the one with family and fireworks and he-who-could-have-been-Prince-Charming.  And another playing board games with he-who-wanted-to-be-PC…

But, in general, the place I most want to be at midnight on any given date is in bed, warm and peaceful,rejuvenating for whatever may come next.  It is true, that presently I am wishing that I were geographically closer to some of those I love, but I would have felt the same way whether it were December 31 or August 31 or…

ancient sundial on the yellow stucco wallFor the first day of the Gregorian Calendar — which was adopted by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 and which has a way more interesting history than you would think (he actually ordered the world to skip 10 days that year!  True story.) — just has never been a very important milestone in my life.  I’ve never really celebrated it, I haven’t really celebrated the night before and I haven’t ever made new year’s resolutions.

Upon consideration, I think the reasons are threefold.  First, the kinds of resolutions that are most bandied about this time of year are not very applicable or meaningful to me.  I don’t need to quit smoking or lose weight or give up caffeine or alcohol.  I couldn’t be a shopaholic if it appealed to me and I no longer leave the dishes in the sink more than overnight.

Sure, I can eat more refined sugar than necessary, put off my laundry too long, and too easily talk myself out of yoga in the morning…  But are these the things that I would waste serious resolutions on?  No, I have deeper issues to deal with.  Ones that would require resolve and effort and energy — and ones whose failure to work out because of any lack of dedication on my part could devastate me.

Also, I am a summer baby.  That’s right, born near the Summer Solstice, my year starts six months from now.  A perception reinforced by the fact that most of my life I have been entrenched in some kind of academia.  Thus, all of my memories are cataloged according to school year, either mine (as student and educator) or my son’s.  And most of my life transitions, personal and professional, can be tracked on an academic calendar much better than on our standard one.  Summer is when my life shifts, when I would be more likely to celebrate and commemorate achievements and most likely to plan for change and new goals.

Finally, I was a Catholic baby as well.  And in spite of PG13 (see above) having approved the current solar almanac, the Church operates according to its own time schedule.  In the Roman Liturgical Calendar, January 1 is simply the 8th day of Christmas.  Neither the start nor the end of any particularly significant event.  No, the Church won’t mandate resolutions or personal transformation for several more weeks, not until Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.


And I, for one, have always enjoyed Lent.  Of course, as a child, no-one really wants to give up candy or soda for 40 days, but it wasn’t like my mom allowed much of those things anyway.  Instead, she nurtured an excitement about giving to others through such things as Operation Rice Bowl.  And later, she taught me that Lent was not necessarily about giving up, but about doing what was needed to be better.  This may just as easily mean doing something extra or cultivating a good habit or behavior, rather than the opposite.  The time leading up to Lent became an important time of self-reflection and decision for me.

This year, Lent doesn’t begin until February 13.  It seems to have both good and bad timing. We won’t be able to chomp down on those delicious Valentine’s chocolates until they are becoming a little stale.  On the other hand, the Chinese New Year celebration begins on February 10, and will still be in full swing on the 12th, Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras as it is most commonly known), the last day for Catholics to glut and gorge and groove before the austerity of Lent sets in.

However, the Lenten season will not end until Saturday, March 30 which means that if Doompocalypse hasn’t happened before then, we will all be fried up, hungry and hollow, by a raging meteor on Easter Sunday.  Hmmm.  Appears a little more likely now that I think about the Second Coming and the Christian Apocalypse, etc…

Meteor in the sunset

And so it seems that I must be resolute in resolving any resolutions earlier than thought this year.

As mentioned, I am not as much for giving up things as I am for getting my self in order, and there is certainly more than a bit of disarray going on.  It is primarily my history that I am concerned with if my future is in any way in doubt.  (Lover of the Wild captures perfectly this sentiment here.)

I wish to be at peace with the people in my life.  Those I love, those I resent, those I’ve hurt and those who’ve hurt me.  I want to offer tenderness to each of us that we may better understand the other.  This will mean no longer being afraid to reach out to some and to admit wrong to others.  It will mean a willingness to give and accept forgiveness and to brave rejection.  It will mean generosity and vulnerability.

I wish to imbue my child with the depth of my love for him.  To wrap him close to my heart so he can feel that I will always keep him safe and warm and gently.  As he is a new-teenager, this will mean not being distracted and being, not just present, but engaged.  It will mean restraint and it will mean compromise.  It will mean patience and trust.

I wish to cultivate a harmony of spirit.  To reconcile the various dictates and instructions.  This will mean time spent in self-examination and in seeking out those voices of wisdom.  It will mean letting-go and it will mean taking-up.  It will mean courage and faith.

~ And so now it’s done.  Written and thrown out into the Universe.  Upon re-reading I recognize that I am always overly-ambitious and that my own perfectionism may be my greatest barrier to success.  But no time to waste on that debate!  With only three months to go, there are some things I’d best start doing if I’m to have my happily-ever-after…