Exquisite Ordinary Time

Here we are in the middle of Ordinary Time, that period of the year, about half a year or more that spreads out from Pentecost in late May and early June and goes to the end of the Church year in November. After all the extraordinary events of Incarnation and the life, death/cross and resurrection of Jesus, the Risen Lord lingers a short while, leaves and sends the Spirit/the Paraclete/the Advocate to us. And we hear the echo of Jesus’ words in John: “As the Father has sent me, so now, I send you.” (Jn 20) And off we go into the world to be the Good News of God, the Bread of Peace with abiding Justice, in the company of the friends of God. And we practice all those marvelous things that we learned in the first half of the year of the Lord 2005 for the rest of the days. We sometimes forget, I think, that we’re supposed to be practicing—putting into practice all the grace, the passion and life that has been shared out to us during these months of ordinary time. And more so, we forget what ordinary might mean when all is redeemed and suffused with glory because of incarnation and resurrection: God made human dwelling among us and now, no death can ever actually kill us forever. Listen to what Albert Camus has to say about this kind of living.

On certain mornings, as we turn a corner, an exquisite dew falls on our hearts and then vanishes, but the freshness lingers, and this, always, is what the heart needs. The earth must have risen in just such a light the morning the world was made.

And this is a man who is speaking about the birth of the world. Imagine how to describe it after resurrection! This is the life we walk through, are drawn through, and offer as gift along the way. There is an ancient Pilgrimage Prayer from the French that reminds us somewhat of how we are to walk in this world made so fresh and full of hope. “May I walk toward you with all my life, with all my brothers and sisters, with all creation, with audacity and adoration.” I especially am drawn to the ‘audacity and adoration’. It seems such a vibrant and holy attitude that walks hand in hand.

Both audacity and adoration are better expressed in the language of poetry and of praise. Strange as it appears to be, or paradoxical, the experience of ordinary time is more truly expressed in these other languages. So, some poetry and praise to take us through an ordinary day, from morning to dusk and night fall. We begin with the audacity of the day’s beginning light. This is call “Crimson Morning”.

What is reflected in a dragonfly’s wings?
What stories whisper in the bird’s feathers as it flies?
What steadfast strength sleeps at the base of the Sandias? (mountains to the east of my house)
What secrets of conversion lie in the clouded sky?
What brightness does the moon absorb?
What reverence dances in the quince’s blossoms?
What truths do the hollyhocks proclaim?
And it’s only seven in the morning—
How can an empty bowl keep filling up?

Perhaps one of the disciplines of ordinary time is to keep tabs on the litany of loveliness and simple wonders/pleasures that are given to accompany us throughout just a day, like any other. Every hour or two, take a few moments and just stand or sit still and gather them all together, like a child collecting stones to fill a pocket. And then as children often do, leaving them in a pile for someone else to find, breathe out the goodness of what has been discovered and seek to leave piles and stacks of small treasures for others to stumble over on their way.

This piece will appear in August, as summer turns and the heat seems most intense. We used to call them ‘the dog days of summer’ partly because you felt like laying around the house like a dog, doing nothing but the heat was so intense that sometimes all you wanted was water and more water. You know firsthand what a dog felt like when its tongue was hanging out and he was panting all the time. And this August on the same day we celebrate the glory of ordinary time in the feast of the Transfiguration, August 6 and on the same day we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the bombing and incineration of Hiroshima, Japan (to be followed three days later with the attack on Nagasaki). These certainly are the extremes of what ordinary time can bring upon the world, and what ordinary people are capable of doing everyday. It all hinges on whether we remember incarnation and resurrection or whether we live devoid of the connective tissue that makes us all the beloved children of God in Jesus, the Spirit and the Father of us all.

The first time I visited for a few days in Hiroshima, I was the honored guest in the house of a Buddhist family. The couple was elderly and the house tiny, on a winding lane with more houses than I thought you could squeeze into a space that size. They had once been very well off but since the war they had lost everything, including more of their family than they could talk about to anyone. They had slowly put a life together but it was a simpler one. We ate in the main room on the floor, with a large altar off to the side with Buddha and Kuan Yin (the Goddess of Mercy), candles, joss sticks and pictures of the many people they loved and had lost—all on an ordinary day in August much like today, as you read this article. I did not speak any Japanese besides a handful of phrases: Please, thank you, I am grateful, this is lovely…and they spoke no English at all. Our go-between was Filipino and he’d lived there for decades teaching. We ate shabu shabu, one pot that was continually refilled with vegetables, fish, shrimp, meat and each of us had many small dishes of rice, pickles, sauces: hot, cold, sweet, sour, tart to dip the food in as we transferred it with our chopsticks from the main pot to our bowls.

But it is the conversation that I remember the most. They would drag out great old books of temples, gardens and Buddhas—the way the city was before August 6 and they would look at the photographs and then they would read pieces of haiku to me in Japanese. And then my three friends who spoke Japanese would begin the art of translating what they meant. The one that they all spent the longest time on they finally decided had to be translated the old traditional way and then in a more contemporary form. This is the ancient one.

summer grasses…
traces of dreams
of the ancient warriors. Basho

They were intent on my understanding the old ways: photographs of open plains and the great samurai: warriors that upheld the traditions of the past, obeyed the Emperor and the rural clan leaders and especially protected the poor, the widow and the orphan when this was the order of the land. I would answer/nod after the translations and respond back to them, with my friend Rudi as the bridge, the one who was interpreting not only our words but our feelings and sense of understanding. And then, at time for tea and sweets they finally decided on the second translation. This is the contemporary one.

summer grasses bend
all that is left
of warriors’ plans. Basho

There was great sadness but they wanted me to know that the ancient one left traces even after war, of life but the newer one left nothing. We sat sipping our tea and they spoke about another war, the Iraqi war, because it was August 6, 1991. And we ended the meal with a chant and the vow for compassion for all beings, bowing towards Kuan Yin. We were in need of the presence of Mercy among us in the world.

In our tradition August 6 is the feast of the Transfiguration. The word is made of two pieces: the first trans, a preposition that means across, a bridge, or through and the other figure—the human body. Together it means the act of, or the experience of passing through, crossing over through a human body. In this case, the disciples and all of us pass through or cross over through the body of Jesus to the presence of the Holy. It was a moment of seeing through reality, clearly for the disciples. They saw but they did not understand. Listen.

After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John his brother and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became while as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jeus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone. (Matthew 17:1-8)

This account by Matthew has two pieces of information that personalize his account: the add on the words: Listen to him! The revelation of who Jesus actually is—“This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” if in all of the texts, but this one is followed by an order/a command: “Listen to him!” It is as though God is pleading with us: don’t listen to your own fears and trembling souls; don’t listen to the cry of nations or the hatred of countries; don’t listen to the media’s hype in preparation for war and pre-emptive strikes; don’t listen to those who will benefit from the ravages of war and the rebuilding that will fill the coffers of the already rich; don’t listen to any religious leader who stirs the people to kill in the name of self-righteousness, declaring the other to be evil. LISTEN only to the Word made flesh and see through all flesh now to the presence of the Holy.

The second detail is just that: touching flesh. Jesus touches them when they are terrified and incoherent and says: “Rise! Get up and don’t be afraid.” But it is this touch of the divine in the flesh of Jesus that stills the terror and gives comfort. And it is in touching one another: especially those we are loathe to touch, or our enemies, or those we think will harm us that we learn to get past our fears. One of the things we learned in extraordinary time was that because of/through the resurrection all flesh is holy and we touch God in the flesh of other human beings and they touch God in ours. It is a stupendous belief, a stunning revelation that definitely takes years of ordinary time to put into practice and to pinch ourselves over and over again to remind ourselves and one another that it is true. How to remember? How to stir one another’s hearts so that this mystery becomes second-nature to us?

Prayer is a good place to start—not necessarily rote prayers, but the ones that rise unbidden out of stillness and depth that sears our lives when we are faced with the aches and sorrows of the world and our own get swallowed up in ones that are massively smothering whole parts of the world. And because of resurrection’s power asleep in the world waiting to be awakened, even out of horror can come redemption, forgiveness and a sense of power that transfigures. I have a dear friend, Catherine de Vinck. She came to this country as the war was ending (the war to end all wars they called World War II) and has lived in New Jersey in the same house for more than forty years, learning English from magazines and conversations in the neighborhood. She raised six children and she and Jose (in his nineties, she is in her eighties) still read/write/translate/weave rugs/and simply passionately declare the world to be holy. Catherine is a poet beyond compare. Here she speaks with audacity and adoration of what holds the universe and our myriad singular lives together within grace even as history sometimes bludgeons us with its callousness and evil. The images are layered: the graceful and the alluring and the destructive and repulsive traces of fire on this day of Transfiguration of the Holy and the conflagration of people and cities.

“By means of all created things, without exception the divine assails us, penetrates us, molds us. We imagine it as distant, inaccessible whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers.”
Teilhard de Chardin

Dark afternoon; beyond the window
the rain weaves its long grey shawl.
Indoors, in order of ascendance
from chair legs to vase of tulips
each object appears solid, still
but invisibly, each one shimmers
within the tremulous dance of atoms.
The solar clock slides another notch
and we, hardly feeling its turning
come a minute closer to the end.

All we can imagine is defeated
unraveling like a knitted coat
the threads pulled, row by row
until we are left naked, cold
in the sharpness of spring weather.
What we take in our arms, dreams
plump as pigeons, leave our embrace
fly away. Accidents happen
tragedies occur, absence/presence:
the pain sears the soul.

Over the fields of disaster
the burning voice, the flaming mouth
speaks forth syllables of fire.
No other sound
but this unknown language
this immense blazing chant.

One of the things that ordinary time seeks to teach us, that the Spirit wants to make us remember is that the world: every human being, blade of grass, gesture of reverence, scrap of language, glimpse of glory and knowledge—even the hard, gritty and inhuman we are capable of doing to one another, the garbage and slime, the injustice and injury reveals. One of the paradoxes of what reveals is that it also conceals until the time when it is needed or can be absorbed, contemplated and understood. The world is the sacrament of the Spirit and so the Holy is always flaring up in our faces, flickering off to the side, a flash of aurora borealis lingering and drawing us to adore—audaciously. And it is this belief and practice—and probably only this worship and work of transfiguring that will hold us fast in the face of ordinary days erased forever on a day like August 6, 1949.

The only terror and awe we are ever supposed to know and experience in our bones and souls is what we sense before God and the mysteries of the universe. We are not to instill terror and horror in others, nor are we allowed to let death run rampant through the world claiming others’ lives. How? The words of God in the gospel are devastatingly to the point: “Listen to him!” Listen only to the words of Jesus and those that speak the many languages that are words of forgiveness, reconciliation, amnesty, the terms of peace that abides through justice, and always at the end, mercy echoing down the darkest hours and stilling our fears. Catherine both reminds us of what we must do, and questions us on whether we are learning, whether we are practicing these days of August 2005.

…Who will come down the road with words of healing? Who will multiply the bread that good loaf of compassion offered on the table of the world? Who will lead us to the gates of mercy? From “Who will lead us to the gates of mercy?” by Catherine de Vinck (unpublished)

Throughout the days of ordinary time, it is the Paraclete that accompanies us (the word means one who is beside us closely) and the Advocate compels us to be on the side of justice and truth and the Comfort comes most often in the touch of others all around us. The Spirit in ancient times was called “the shadow of Jesus bent over the bodies of his friends” and living in that shadow we live also in the bright glare of God’s glance upon us all. Ordinary time is for living like Jesus, with Jesus so that we all hear those words at the end of a day: “You are my beloved child, my beloved children in whom I am well pleased.” This August, may we pray and live making sure that all who gaze upon us, or pass us by, let alone all those we touch, know only that mercy has brushed past them on the way to glory. Amen

NOTE: Catherine de Vinck is the author of many books of poetry. They are available on line at my website http://www.MeganMcKenna.org under the section marked: other resources.

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