Sunday, January 25, 2009

Can We Learn How to Live?

I must be drawn to Wendell Berry these days, because I discovered a poem he has written that speaks to me as I enter the year of my 50th birthday:

The question before me, now that I
am old, is not how to be dead,
which I know from enough practice,
but how to be alive, as these worn
hills still tell, and some paintings
of Paul Cézanne, and this mere
singing wren, who thinks he's alive
forever, this instant, and may be.

Not that the birds in these photos are all wrens, but redwing blackbirds and sparrows sing too, perhaps more regularly and, thus, less surprisingly than wrens.

It's easy to give up and die. I do it every day--actually, many times each day. But living? I haven't even begun to learn how to do that!

The song of the sparrow is so amazing, so stirring, so memorable. If I could only put one tenth of the living into my many years that the sparrow puts into its minute-long song!
(The poem by Wendell Berry is from Given: New Poems, copyright 2005 by Wendell Berry, published by Shoemaker & Hoard.)

In the deep midwinter ...

... we look to the spring with longing. Here is a poem by Wendell Berry that speaks to me of this midwinter anticipation:

Can I see the buds that are swelling
in the woods on the slopes
on the far side of the valley? I can't,
of course, nor can I see
the twinleafs and anemones
that are blooming over there
bright-scattered above the dead
leaves. But the swelling buds
and little blossoms make
a new softness in the light
that is visible all the way here.
The trees, the hills that were stark
in the old cold become now
tender, and the light changes.

I think Mr. Berry got it just right!

(These are photos from Victoria Glade, a small preserve maintained by The Nature Conservancy, outside of St. Louis, Missouri. The poem by Wendell Berry is from Given: New Poems, copyright 2005 by Wendell Berry, published by Shoemaker Hoard.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Blessings and Prayers for Pets

Have you seen the movie Marley and Me yet? If you have, or if you've read the book, you realize that at the end of the film there's a very touching graveside ceremony where the Grogans bid farewell to their longtime companion. It's a wonderful scene, with the three children each reading something they wrote and putting something into the grave with their beloved pet.

As the Grogans realized, and as we who have mourned the death of a companion animal know, the passing of a pet is not an event to be ignored or trivialized. A memorial ceremony is a sacred event, whether for dogs or cats or even lizards and snakes, because the love we have for our pets is itself sacred.
Here are a few prayers that you might use for a pet memorial:

Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things.
Every single creature is full of God
and is a book about God.
Every creature is a word of God.
--Meister Eckhart

They that love beyond the world cannot be separated by it. Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still.
--William Penn
The grave itself is but a
covered bridge
Leading from light to light,
through a brief darkness.
--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I am the self abiding
in the heart of all creatures;
I am their beginning,
their middle and their end.
Know that my brilliance,
flaming in the sun,
in the moon, and in fire,
illumines this whole universe.

There is not a beast on earth, nor fowl that flieth on two wings, but they are a people like unto you, and to God they shall return.
--The Koran

We should understand well that all things are the work of the Great Spirit. We should know the Great Spirit is within all things: the trees, the grasses, the rivers, the mountains, and the four-legged and winged peoples; and even more important, we should understand that the Great Spirit is also above all these things and peoples. When we do understand all this deeply in our hearts, then we will fear, and love, and know the Great Spirit, and then we will be and act and live as the Spirit intends.
--Black Elk

For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upwards and the spirit of animals goes downwards to the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot; who can bring them to see what will be after them?
--Ecclesiastes 3:19-22

Set me as a seal upon your heart,

as a seal upon your arm;

for love is strong as death,

passion fierce as the grave.

Its flashes are flashes of fire,

a raging flame.

Many waters cannot quench love,

neither can floods drown it.

--Song of Songs 8:6-7

Death is nothing at all
I have only slipped away into the next room
I am I and you are you
Whatever we were to each other
That we are still
Call me by my old familiar name
Speak to me in the easy way you always used
Put no difference into your tone
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow
Laugh as we always laughed
At the little jokes we always enjoyed together
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was
Let it be spoken without effort
Without the ghost of a shadow in it
Life means all that it ever meant
It is the same as it ever was
There is absolute unbroken continuity
What is death but a negligible accident?
Why should I be out of mind
Because I am out of sight?
I am waiting for you for an interval
Somewhere very near
Just around the corner
All is well.
Nothing is past; nothing is lost
One brief moment and all will be as it was before
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!
--Canon Henry Scott-Holland

For more quotations as well as descriptions of memorial and blessing ceremonies, you may find the following book useful: We Thank You, God, for These: Blessings and Prayers for Family Pets.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Missy's Song

Those who have read The Shack by Wm. Paul Young know that Missy is the daughter of the book's main character, Mack. In the course of the story, Mack hears Sarayu, the personification of the Holy Spirit, sing Missy's song:

"And she began to sing, with a voice like an autumn wind; a sound of turning leaves and forests slowly slumbering, the tones of oncoming night and a promise of new days dawning. ..."

Breathe in me ... deep
That I might breathe ... and live
And hold me close that I might sleep
Soft held by all you give

Come kiss me wind and take my breath
Till you and I are one
And we will dance among the tombs
Until all death is gone

And no one knows that we exist
Wrapped in each other's arms
Except the One who blew the breath
That hides me safe from harm

Come kiss me wind and take my breath
Till you and I are one
And we will dance among the tombs
Until all death is gone

For me, this was the most beautiful passage in the entire book, words so moving that they are able to push aside my fear of death, at least momentarily, with the hint of an experience that is more than this life, and much more than I can begin to imagine.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Our Home

It's been too long since my last post, but I thought I'd start the year off by quoting one of my favorite poems, "For Instance" by Denise Levertov. Somehow, she was able to capture what is, for me, the essence of our relationship with Creation.

"For Instance"

Often, it's nowhere special: maybe
a train rattling not fast or slow
from Melbourne to Sydney, and the light's fading,
we've passed that wide river remembered
from a tale about boyhood and fatal love, written
in vodka prose, clear and burning--
the light's fading and then
beside the tracks this particular
straggle of eucalyptus, an inconsequential
bit of a wood, a coppice, looks your way,
not at you, through you, through the train,
over it--gazes with branches and rags of bark
to something beyond your passing. It's not,
this shred of seeing, more beautiful
than a million others, less so than many;
you have no past here, no memories,
and you'll never set foot among these shadowy
tentative presences. Perhaps when you've left this continent
you'll never return; but it stays with you:
years later, whenever
its blurry image flicks on in your head,
it wrenches from you the old cry:
O Earth, belovéd Earth!
--like many another faint
constellation of landscape does, or fragment
of lichened stone, or some old shed
where you took refuge once from pelting rain
in Essex, leaning on wheel or shafts
of a dusty cart, and came out when you heard
a thrush return to song, though the rain
was not quite over; and, as you thought there'd be,
there was, in the dark quarter where frowning clouds
were still clustered, a hesitant trace
of rainbow; and across from that the expected
gleam of East Anglian afternoon light, and leaves
dripping and shining. Puddles, and the roadside weeds
washed of their dust. Earth,
that inward cry again--
Erde, du liebe ...

If, just once, every person could have an experience such as Ms. Levertov describes, I think we'd be moved to treat Mother Earth with tenderness and care, with the same lovingkindness that we'd enjoy receiving from the universe.

As we embark on a year of new beginnings and new opportunities, I pray that we can open our hearts to the beauty of our fragile planet, and that we will be moved to nurse our Mother back to health.