Easter in Mondays

I remember, some years ago reading a very fine book by Nicolas Lash entitled “Easter in Ordinary,” which referenced “heaven in ordinary” from a poem by George Herbert (entitled “Prayer (I)”). The point of the book and poem both was that Easter shaped experiences of grace sometimes surprise us in the seasons named “ordinary.” For those not conversant in church-speak, those are the times of the year not dedicated to seasons such as Christmas, Easter, Lent etc. Seasons ordinary are exactly that, and so the poet points to the surprising character of Easter insights in ordinary time.

I have always been a fan of ordinary time, but even more so a fan of ambiguous time. “Ambiguous time” is not a liturgical designation, and as far as I am aware, is a term I have invented. I will happily hear of evidence to the contrary. At any rate, ambiguous time points to those days not quite ordinary, but neither extra-ordinary. I think, in particular, of Boxing Day, or Easter Monday. These are days that live in the shadow of the big days, and so seem even less ordinary than ordinary time, which has taken some distance from High, Holy Days. In a way, Easter Monday, is exceptionally ordinary to the extent that it stands back so that Easter might have its full sway.

But for foragers of the divine in the rough, Mondays such as this – and in fact all Mondays as the day after Sundays, which are known liturgically as a little Easters – are rich in retrospect and relief. Retrospect because such days are days set aside to mull over what occurred the day before, and relief (as in rest but also in the artistic sense of the word, that is something cut away so that something else comes to the fore) because these are days that step back so that Sundays shine, and Easter Sunday in particular.

What was this Easter Monday for me? This Easter Sunday gave me the second opportunity in a two years to spend the Easter weekend with one of my daughters in their towns: last year in Halifax and this year in Ottawa. Easter was doubly out of the ordinary, then, giving me occasion to experience worship in a different church, meals at different tables, and yet a familiar joy at the narrative of new life and the hymnody of deep and abiding hope.

Easter Monday, by contrast, was spent back at home and doubly ordinary – allowing me to recall that the gift of being outside my familiar surroundings long enough to appreciate them, and short enough to pine for these days away to return. Easter Monday was not quite sorrowful, yet wistful in a good way; that is, it announced a longing for such days to return in times ordinary as well. Easter Monday, it seems, gave me and gives us just enough distance from Easter Sunday to remember that it was gift, and yet there is an equally profound gift in Mondays themselves, in that they serve as a bridge to the week by providing a little distance, a little space, a little bit of ordinary mixed in with their holy to make it possible to be in awe that the Word made flesh can be heard well in the vernacular and in ambiguous times.

Something in the Empty

Boxes everywhere, and
all emptied save for
air, now a cypher
for hopes both
disappointed,
and fulfilled.

“The day after,” too,
is sacred with rattled
bows unleashing oceans of
questions asking after
what we will.

These empty boxes
hold a potent
absence and are a
mirror of
sorts inviting us
to peer
into the void where
we finally
glimpse our desire.

Amidst this disarray of
Boxing Day, order may
well evade us, but meaning
presses hard against the
dis/content; there
is something in
the empty.

Hope is Where the Heart Is

Winter arrived while we were away last weekend. We left Kitchener while the grass was yet green, but came back to 10 cm or so of snow on the lawn. This was doubled yesterday, and weather reports advise more of the same over the next few days. It’s looking like this year will be rather unlike the last, which was devoid of snow. I am happy for this, a thought discussed by my wife and I the other night on our drive home after curling. We both like our winters here. We grew up in Alberta, where the cold can be quite a bit more severe. Here there is more snow, less cold and a shorter winter. This seems amiable to us. We like four season, but are happy to avoid extremes. It is likely that our distant ancestors, from Scandinavia and environs, knew weather more like ours than that of our childhood.

We wondered what those first winters must have been like for our families – more accustomed to Danish, Western European and coastal Norwegian winters – arriving on the prairies with its sharp winters. Still, they survived and even thrived. Humans are resilient creatures, and hope for a better life pulls us through situations of all sorts. Hope is a hardy virtue.

During our last week in class, we had occasion to talk of the nature of hope, and its relation to doubt. I spoke of Paul Tillich’s insistence that certainty, not doubt, is the opposite of faith. This seed feel solidly in a few souls in class, and so I began to see some fruit here and there in term papers. Some students spoke, quite eloquently I might add, of their liberation in hearing this concept – new to them. One, in particular, wrote of how it helped her feel at home in her skin and make sense of scripture that was once obtuse to her. Giving a little room for not-knowing was freeing for her. I spoke recently to another student, of Rahner’s “Faith in a Wintry Season,” that speaks to the surprising persistence of faith in times that one might imagine capable of extinguishing it. Winter, was for him, a metaphor for those occasions that test faith true. Maybe that is why I am so warm on winter.

On the other hand, I am not so fond of the certainty I see in some adherents of faith. I am all for confidence, but confidence is located in the Divine while certainty, it seems, lands on the doorstep of the self. Winter is a season that points us to the Other and others. The other day, to illustrate, while snow-blowing our drive way, and the sidewalk on our half of the block, I saw many of my neighbours out assisting theirs in this way or that. Winter presses us to the necessity of looking out for the other. It is a season that announces our need, and nothing is as friendly for faith as need.

Shakespeare’s “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York” points us to summer’s reprieve, but while we travel still in this winter season, we do well to let our eyes follow the soft contours of snow on snow on snow, on branches ever green. Under this wintry blanket we find that hope that does not disappoint. Hatred may rage, but hope stills us; spite alienates but faith enfolds. And in our wintry faith we find time for being , for being still, and for still being hopeful.

Faith at Niagara Falls

The week before last I spent three days in Niagara Falls. I wasn’t there to see the falls, visit the casino, or frequent the various and sundry quirky stops on Clifton Hill. I was there for a meeting of the Joint Anglican Lutheran Commission. The purpose of the Commission is to monitor the Waterloo Declaration, outlining the intention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada and the Anglican Church of Canada to live in full communion.

This is a committee whose members regularly comment on the deep satisfaction they get from this work. I have been a member for some 8 years. It is a great group and our twice annual meetings are rich indeed. For the last few years we have met in Niagara Falls, chosen for its economic efficiency vis-à-vis travel. In many ways it is an odd choice, with its crass commercialization around one of the most beautiful of nature’s wonders. Yet I regularly find these meetings spiritually enriching, in part because of the group and in part because we meet at the Mt. Carmel Spiritual Centre, a monastery of Carmelite order, which serves as an ecumenical retreat centre. The folk there are so very hospitable, and the food is to die for.

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I learned, this time around, that the Centre is in the midst of developing vineyards: the one seen above and another 7 acres vineyard elsewhere. In due course wine will be available for purchase. This is, of course, a longstanding tradition for monastic communities and a part of its plan for long term sustainability. Yet, learning about it buoyed me in a way. We hear much about the demise of the church in North America in general, and in Canada in particular. But the Carmelites are committed to their vision of setting aside space for sacred contemplation, giving the kind of physical room for spiritual discernment within a stone’s throw of Canada’s version of Las Vegas. I find this most amazing and hopeful.

People in my circles are generally rather jaded about Niagara Falls. I understand this, but whenever I am there, I take leave from the Centre most evenings for a walk down to the falls. The City really is commercial in the worst sense of the word. But whenever I get to the falls proper, I am awed by the majesty of water reminding me of my impermanence. I am always intrigued, as well, by the wall to wall wealth of ethnic diversity chronicling their visit to this otherworldly place: orthodox Jews alongside hijabbed women, followed by busloads of Japanese tourists.

During this last visit, the weather was rather miserable and so my walk along the Niagara Parkway was untypically quiet. Against the dull roar of the water and the patter of the rain the absence of jostling was marked. In some ways it was dull, but differently so in that hope settled as the hype of capitalism receded. The rain washed the excess away for a bit, and I had opportunity to see the falls anew. Hope emerged, perhaps hastened in part, by the realization that spiritual renewal can happen alongside of our most desperate efforts to improve upon nature – a lesson learned from the Carmelites.

The Carmelites know well that hope feeds prayer, and prayer grows hope. They are resolutely committed to this vision in the midst of one of North America’s most desperate attempts to sell the beauty that is freely given. These have been days in which heartening and hope is sorely needed. It has been good for me, this last week, to remember Mt. Carmel, and to know that God’s reign surely comes.

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A Little Empathy

It has been a hard week in the news for Canadians, Albertans and especially residents of Fort McMurray. The forest fire in this northern Alberta town of 90, 000+ has brought untold devastation to a community already suffering a downturn in the economy. The fire is reminiscent of that experienced in Slave Lake five years back and unsurprisingly comparisons are made.

I lived in both cities some years ago: Fort McMurray in the early eighties and Slave Lake in the early nineties. Both were youthful cities, with young and somewhat transient populations. People from across Canada, and indeed the world, came to both centres looking to make a start in their careers. That was certainly the case for me, and so I know a little of their context.

Canadians are looking at Fort McMurray in a new light. It has long been loved and hated for its economy based on the tar sands and bitumen extraction. But even those who have loathed the city for its ties to what has been called “dirty oil” have newly found sympathy, and perhaps even empathy for its residents. I have been thinking about empathy as of late, mindful that many think that the condition for its possibility is a willingness to put ourselves in the shoes of others, and so in the present case to imagine fleeing house and home with a carful, or less, of hastily grabbed items. But I cannot imagine what this horror is. It simply is beyond the pale of my experience, but I don’t think that this precludes my being empathetic.

Empathy, it seems to me, is not so much about putting myself in the shoes of others, as recognizing that I cannot do this. I cannot pretend to know what others go through and so when I am truly empathetic my first job is to listen: to quiet my need to know, and to let my not-knowing still my tongue and open my ears. A friend from my Slave Lake days wrote a blog of what not to say to the people awaiting news of the state of their property and life in Fort McMurray (you can read it here, just scroll down a little). It holds wise counsel, and invites us all to remember that ours is a tenuous existence.

We are called to walk lightly on this earth and to pray strenuously, seeking from the Creator wisdom for each day, peace among peoples, and healing for the earth. Empathy pours forth in such prayer, I think, and demands from us first a presence that does not pretend to know the answers before we are even aware of the questions.

In the news reports from Fort McMurray and the locales its residents now inhabit, they express anxiety and fear, but also a resilience that envisions their community rising Phoenix-like in the future. I have no doubt that it will, as Slave Lake has done and continues to do. We are all more than we first imagine, and we are a deep gift to each other as we open ourselves to receiving the experiences of others empathetically.

Not Far from Night’s Silence

Not far from night’s silence
is a horizon where
darkness weeps
for joy at
dawn’s
birth.

So delighted is eve at day’s
break that she gladly
dies in nativity
but even as
labour’s pains
become acute, death
is denied its sting because
day promises to die
in turn: daughter
to mother when
dusk in
silence
nears.