Acutely Awake

Such a peculiar beauty – winter, a
crystal white world wedding
the dream of sleep and
soft light affording
luxurious insight.
Winter’s wisdom is
generous. It sees
beyond fault – sharp
edges softened by snow;
hard surfaces now
dancing under the
play of sun’s illumining rays –
now from this angle
now from that.
This season of sleep is a
time of grace; of being
acutely awake to
other worlds.

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Animal Tracks at Christmas

Christmas is lovely for many reasons, but one of the finest is that our three daughters come and spend more time with us. Our middlest daughter doesn’t come alone but brings along her dog and cat, Hazel and Willow.

Yesterday I decided to take Hazel for a walk. It was one of those magical winter days, with a mixture of ice crystals and jumbo snowflakes plating trees and bushes with an ivory hue – the sun bringing the softest of light to illumine this day on just the other side of the season’s shortest. The weather wasn’t quite warm, but close enough to it that it was surprisingly comfortable.

Hazel travelled a little faster than I generally would on a late morning walk: not quite a brisk stroll, but certainly not a leisurely saunter. I am not accustomed to walking dogs, and so was constantly reminded of that when our pace was interrupted by this tree or that post marked by another dog’s journey. Hazel is not a huge dog, but my arm’s socket now knows well that dogs encounter the world nasally. At one point, I imagined that Hazel was acquiring data for future encounters. She had been particularly insistent on scoping out the tracks of some fellow of hers alongside the road. Each footprint had to be sniffed out as she made her way to the jackpot: a tree marked by a future friend, or foe, I suppose. And then it was time to move on.

She moved nose first, as we humans do although with a different kind of attention and intention. Humans lean heavily on our eyes, it seems. Theologians have noted that the Christianity of the Middle Ages was especially devoted to the eyes, until the time of the Reformation made the Protestant church, after Luther, into a Mundhaus – a kind of place of speech. Of course history, nor theology for that matter, is never so neat and Lutherans have never left the eyes behind even while their ears have been soothed by sermons and Bach; by with words of promise in “given for you, shed for you.” No, our eyes have not been left behind even while our noses, in the main, no longer know of the incense marking a Roman Mass or an Orthodox Eucharist.

I am not sure that this will change. “Scent-free” directives mark much of our public (and ecclesial) space, even while “scent free” is no real possibility in the literal sense of these words. Humans smell, in both the transitive and intransitive modes of the verb: we know the world by our smell and the world knows us by our smell. Hazel and Willow both sniff us out, and know us nasally. So, have we Protestants successfully left behind our sense of the significance of smell? I think not, in that the directives themselves remind us that smell matters. Moreover, God’s incarnation as Jesus was a sensual event in the fullest sense of the word made flesh in a stable.

I grew up on a farm, and so have no romantic notions about stables, or pets for that matter. Stables stink and dogs and cats were and are meant to keep coyotes and rodents, and mice at bay, in turn. That was their job, but they also entertained us and we them; and barns were more than holding pens for pigs and new borne calves. When we entered such places on a crisp winter morn, the steam of a stable relieved this once young boy of the sharp cold of an Alberta winter and reminded me that we are not only care-takers of God’s creatures, but we are one of God’s creatures. I can still remember the sting of winter being relieved in the barn just as surely as I recall Hazel’s insistent investigation of the ground beneath her paws, forcing a pause on me so that I might recall that God’s so loving the world did not and does not stop with homo sapiens; both Hazel and Willow preach that matter, too, matters – including the matter that I am. And that makes me glad, very glad indeed.

Merry Christmas all!

Steeling for Snow

I shoveled the walk
yesterday, leaving my snow
blower to rest, warming
up to its summer
hibernation. I settled
on the old fashioned scrape
of metal against concrete –
content with the push and pull
of these two, their force
felt in the vibration of
the wooden handle,
occupying my hands.

This steel shovel, so much heavier than its burden,
is a solid reminder of the days before plastic
when we lived a little closer to the earth.

The snow blower was
bought to hedge my
bets against heart attacks
and such. It is much
appreciated and yet some
days the nearly silent to and fro
of shovel sits well with
the serene snow about to go –
even though it only just arrived,
from far too far for me to
put it back from whence
it came.

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.

In the Palm of my Heart

With this first fall of
Snow, I felt You
In the spaces
Between these feathery
Fingered flakes:
No two alike
Each sketching another

Contour of you;

Each etching You into

Me, melting

In the palm of my heart.

You are Between.
You are Before and Behind.
You are Below and Above.
And when the cold comes
I cannot but be – by
Grace – as crystal,
As liquid iced
Like lace.

Pining for a Little Snow

I am hoping to change the background photograph on stillvoicing. I try to bring in a new image for each season, something I have shot recently. Often the photograph is from our neighbourhood, or an image from my walk home from work. I especially aim to reflect the season, which has been a bit vexing this year. Winter has been coming in fits and starts. There has been a bit of snow, but not enough has stuck around for long enough to get a decent photo. We have been slipping, too frequently, into that kind of weather one expects in March, my least favourite month. But during my walk to church this morning, the skies opened for a time, and down floated opulent feather like flakes. I was able to make out single snowflakes a few paces in front of me, and so in a strange sort of way, they drew attention to the space between them. For a time, I wasn’t walking down the street so much as through air punctuated with miniature clouds. It was nice to feel winter.

And even though the snow hasn’t consistently abetted my sense of the season, the sun has been of aid. We still have rather short days, although I am already able to note their gradual lengthening. All the same, it is dark enough after supper to light some candles around the house. I find this to be a ritual that reframes the evening, allowing it to proceed under that gentle illumination that speaks a particular kind of hope: soft, quiet, and calming. This, it seems to me, can be the gift of winter: an invitation to be away even while at home.

Last Friday, my wife and I went out for a movie, and upon returning our eldest and her friend popped by for coffee, wondering whether the power had been out earlier that evening in our part of town. We did not return to any flashing lights, so it seems that this was not the case. They reported that it went out where they were and it was dark long enough to break out the candles. They, too, noted something acutely beautiful about a time without power. A candled evening, rather like a snow day, unravels our overly calendared agendas; these forced sabbaticals settle our souls into the realization that we are not in charge.

In the midst of a course I co-taught with a Jewish scholar last semester, on the book of Exodus, we spoke about the Sabbath. While he referenced his regular observance of a day at rest, I relayed my utter failure. He noted that keeping Sabbath is difficult without communal support. It is hard work not to work without spiritual and cultural infrastructures. That struck me as true, and one of our students spoke of her commitment to 24 hours without home-work, etc. over the last few years, noting what I knew to be true: working less sometimes allows us to get more done. So Sabbath is something I have been working toward over the last little while. It is challenging – especially when deadlines loom and I am tempted to do just a little more – but every now and then the power’s failure shuts down computers, or the snow slows the commute, and I am reminded that I need to slow down, we all need to slow down: for the good of our bodies and souls, our planet, and simply to make some time for joy.

I am well aware that many people are quite happy with our relatively snow-free winter. Some would rather be rid of winter altogether, but I am reminded of how my parents and their generation used to speak of winter in terms that brought hibernation to mind. And while we cannot recreate their culture, which made possible something of a Sabbath season, perhaps there is another way into the best of that that mindset. It just might be that a weekly 24 hour break is a good start. Wish me luck.

Winter’s Reach

Not far from here,
sequestered in
forgotten cracks of
hidden boards below
decks scattered across
this city, winter
awaits. At just the
right moment
reaching out with
a tentacle of frost –
slipping across graying
once green grass – it will
Midas in silver and we will
awaken in a diamond.
And then, with purity, it will pounce
and pronounce us its subjects –
for a time,
for a time.