Monday, February 25, 2008

Lunar Eclipse Sequence

Sequence of shots showing the total lunar eclipse on the 20th of February, 2008 from Spokane, Washington. The first shot was taken at 6:13pm and the last eclipse shot (2nd to last) was taken at 8:59pm. The full moon was captured an hour after that.


Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong. ~Ecclesiastes 5:1
High above the altar in the Vatican Sistine Chapel, Jonah leans back in awe, staring dumbstruck at the scene spread out before his eyes, mimicking hundreds of faces below. Visitors to the Sistine Chapel enter through a door sixty feet below Jonah. People’s faces usually look like Jonah’s. We’re amazed at the wonder of that ceiling. No colorplate reproduction or tourist guidebook can prepare you for Michelangelo’s marvel.

After a few minutes of open mouthed staring most people have the same response. We want to talk, to tell someone, to try to explain it. Talk, talk and talk some more. We hunt around for words that express our amazement and wonder. We launch into mouthfuls of words. Friends and strangers alike exchange tidbits of knowledge we’ve gathered from reading Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King, or from seeing The Agony and the Ecstasy. We want to inform people that Charlton Heston got it all wrong in the movie. Michelangelo didn’t lay on his back to paint his marvel, but stood on scaffolding he designed himself. In that place of worship, people love to assert opinions on the church, politics, culture, history. All this talking is in a dozen or more languages. Italian, Spanish, German, French, Korean, Russian, English, Japanese, just to name a few I heard in the hour I stood in that place. Add all these conversations together and visitors quickly turn the Sistine Chapel into the Tower of Babel.

In the hour I stood in that place, the decibels inched their way up the frescoed walls, gradually filling the room, building with a slow but perceptible crescendo of increasing noise.The Vatican officials post signs in a dozen languages as well as in pictograms outside the Sistine Chapel asking for silence in the Chapel as you enter. This is not merely a museum for gawkers. Everyone knows this upon entrance. We have no excuse except our common excuse: we are all human. We love to talk about transcendence, even if it is only sixty feet above our heads. We easily forget that we have entered a sacred space designed for worship of God.

Whatever is out of our reach fascinates us. After the first ten seconds of stupefied silence, we fill up the next hour with verbiage. We love pouring forth our words in an attempt to explain what lies beyond words. To curb our verbal excesses, the Vatican hires ‘silence police’ to serve in the Sistine Chapel. Their main job is to usher talkers back into silence. They have a variety of techniques for controlling the noise of onlookers. The first and most frequent technique is the “parent to child” method of shushing. When that fails, they move on to hand clapping. These rapid fire outbursts get the crowd’s attention but are only effective for a few minutes. The third stage in silencing the talkers is human shouting. SILENCIO! As this sound breaks suddenly into the room it seems so out of place that people really to stop talking for a few moments. Finally, when all else fails, they play a recorded message on a public address system, politely but loudly asking all of us to shut up in about five languages.

The odd thing about each of these methods is they make noise, a lot of noise. Oxymoronic! Yelling at people to be silent has always seemed slightly odd to me. The shushing feels like we’ve all returned to first grade, which is not far from the truth if you compare the stick figure artistic abilities of most of us talkers compared with the genius soaring overhead. Maybe a return to childhood is not such a bad idea. As I stood in silence for the better part of an hour beneath Michelangelo’s creation, I tried to kept out of range of silly adult diatribe, seeking to avoid empty words of cynicism, unbelief and critical analysis. Every time the silence police hushed these voices, I felt a wave of relief to have such empty adult speech silenced.

When we cross the threshold into a sacred space canopied with brilliance and wonder, we find we’ve returned to a place from our childhood, a place of wonder, imagination and silent delight. In that place, words are no longer required, only childlike delight at beauty, imagination and creativity. Thank God for the ‘shushers’. The silence keeps calling us back from our banality, back from our grown up pedestrian world, back into the world of Jonah-like wonder at the sublime vision soaring high overhead.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Saturday, February 16, 2008


God's greatest gifts fall into hearts that are empty of self. ~St. John of the Cross

Jews celebrate Passover. Christians experience Lent. Muslims practice Ramadan. Why do these faith communities affirm these spiritual practices? Call it springtime for the soul. For Christians, the 40-day season of Lent is an annual time of renewal, a springtime for the soul. The Latin word “Lent” means renewal or springtime. Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the three monotheistic religions all believe that our soul springs to life when we join in annual communal spiritual disciplines.

Many people in the west today have been immersed in a value system that elevates the individual higher than the community, raising self-fulfillment above responsibility to our others, and choosing pleasure before discipline. Gardeners of the soul know better. Like it or not, we are part of a larger human family. As part of that community, Christians have celebrated the annual springtime for the soul for centuries. Fifteen hundred years ago, in the early 6th century, St. Benedict wrote about the springtime practice of Lent.

Although the life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lenten observance, yet since few have strength enough for this, we exhort all, at least during the days of Lent, to keep themselves in all purity of life, and to wash away during that holy season the negligences of other times…. so that everyone of his or her own will may offer to God with joy of the Holy Spirit, something beyond that measure appointed him…awaiting holy Easter with the joy of spiritual longing.[i]

Benedict invites us into the annual season of Lent by calling us to “offer our lives to God with joy”, to take delight in giving yourself away to others and to God. That’s the heart of Lent, the “joy of spiritual longing” as we await the coming of Easter. Even if you are not into Easter, most people in the northern hemisphere have known that inner exhilaration in the months of March and April as we see the earth springing back to life. Benedict offers two paths for the spiritual gardener, the Path of Emptying and the Path of Filling. Take a few minutes and walk along these two garden paths.

The Path of Emptying

Discover ways to simplify your life by removing fruitless ways of living. Every garden has sections where weeds have overtaken the flowering plants. Springtime for the soul comes from the willingness to withhold from our lives even normal delights of food, drink and sleep to evaluate what is fruitful and what is fruitless. The specific soul disciplines along this Path of Emptying involve fasting, abstinence, and restraint. Ask yourself, “What am I willing to give up?” Choose any normal, regular activity. Cut short your night sleep by thirty minutes, waking up half an hour earlier to sit in the stillness of the morning and journal or pray. Give up lunch at restaurants, and giving that cash to an orphanage. Zip your lips when tempted to criticize your neighbor or co-worker. Try spending five minutes a day sitting in silence. These are steps along the Path of Emptying. Along this path we prune back the deadwood, pull weeds and get our yard ready for spring.

The Path of Filling

Along with the spiritual work of emptying comes the delight of planting new growth in the interior of your soul. Benedict offers several suggestions. Add personal prayer to your interior garden. Try praying for others as you go walking along the pathways of your soul. Bring people to your awareness, lifting their lives before the face of God, and seeing the sunlight and the beauty of God shine in their lives. Or, fill your garden with sacred reading. Take fifteen minutes each morning to sit in a comfortable chair. Get a good book, one that nurtures your soul. A wise ancient book, a collection of poetry, a good novel, or the Bible. Slowly read through several pages, allowing your soul to take time as you read, to delight in the beauty you discover. If one phrase stands out, read it over several times to soak in the goodness of what you see there. Allow yourself a few minutes to think more deeply about places in your life that need renewal.

Benedict mentions “compunction of heart”, that is, allowing our heart to feel the pain of brokenness, our own as well as the brokenness of others. Perhaps you’ve let someone else down or neglected someone recently. Springtime of the soul comes from dealing with these places of hurt, no longer avoiding them, but bringing them to the front of your awareness, being willing to experience the sorrow or pain of brokenness for those arenas in your life which are less than you had hoped them to be.

All this becomes a way of spiritual growth, the giving of our lives with joy through self-emptying and self-offering. What will I withhold today from my body, mind or soul to better focus my limited energies upon that which will bring springtime joy? What will I offer to myself, to my neighbor or to God as an act of joyful self-giving? Every year, the physical world calls us to celebrate the renewing and regenerating force of nature. The season of Spring also invites us to enter that deeper work of spiritual renewal, the springtime of the soul.

[i] RB 1980, Chapter 49, 71.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Upper Falls


I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. I do not think they will sing to me. I have seen them riding seaward on the waves Combing the white hair of the waves blown back When the wind blows the water white and black.[i]

Winterseas. I love the beach in winter. These past fifteen years, we’ve lived on the north coast of Oregon. Our coastal village of fifteen-hundred year round residents is home to two dozen art galleries. That may be the highest art gallery per capita of any town in the whole nation, amounting to one gallery for every sixty residents. In reality, there are more pieces of art for sale in Cannon Beach than people who live there. Every summer, our sleepy coastal village swells with high tides of tourists. Day trippers from Portland, weekenders from Seattle, second home-owners, beachcombers, treasure hunters, surfers, newlyweds, family vacationers. All these out-of-town folks, ten thousand strong on a sunny day in August, fill a thin ribbon of a town three blocks wide and three miles long.

By the time the late Autumn storms roll in off the Pacific, locals breathe a collective sigh of relief. Most of the migrating flocks of tourists, vacationers, and out-of-towners have flown away. It's not that we don't like people or want out of town guests to visit. Not at all. Our local economy depends heavily upon welcoming guests, what is formally called, "the hospitality industry". But come late October into early November, there is something sweet about being a local among locals. Those of us resident gulls and crows who remain through the coastal winter hunker down to wait out the long rains. Many of us take delight in the gift of winterseas.

Winterseas. I love the beach in mid-winter. Winterseas kick up sea foam as though some oversized washing machine overflowed sending suds up and down the coastline. The sky hangs heavy, staying close to land, draping the coastline with lacy rains and wisps of fog clinging to the evergreens marching up from the shore.
We put on a wool sweater, a light-weight rain jacket, preferable made of gore-tex, and head down over the dunes to the wind blown shore, following pathways of gull prints in the sand, tracing the undulating line of flotsam at high tide. The wind bites, finding the cracks and gaps in your clothing, sneaking in past your skin to chill your bones. The foggy air collects on the rainproof hood on your rain jacket, runs off the visor dripping onto your face, moistening your lips with the tang of saltwater.

Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) wrote eloquently on prayer as God’s way of watering the garden of the soul.[ii] The first and most difficult way of prayer is drawing water from a well. In this method, prayer is by the bucketful, with the heavy lifting work of ropes, pulleys and sheer muscle power to get the water out of the well and carried to the garden of the soul. The second approach to prayer is through a waterwheel system of irrigation. The initial labor of developing the structures of prayer is labor intensive. Once in place, the wheel is powered by the flow of God’s presence past the waterwheel, bringing refreshment to the soul along the piping of our structured prayer life. According to Teresa, the third way of prayer comes only to those who have been matured through the first two means. A spring bubbles forth within the soul’s garden, bringing spiritual grace into the heart of the garden. Teresa admits this to be “an even better way, because the ground is more fully soaked and it is much less work”. But, it is Teresa’s fourth way of prayer which most moves my soul. Rain. Every blade of grass in our innermost being is touched by the life giving goodness of God. In this way of prayer, God does most of the work. We merely receive. Rain falls upon our lives, like waking on the beach in the winter.

Winterseas invite us out to withdraw from noisy crowds in search of solitude. This winter season, choose a rainy day. Put on your raingear. Head out into the wind. Walk alone. Let go of tensions. Shout into the gale, as King Lear cried out on the heath: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout, till you have drench'd our steeples”.[iii] Clinch your rain-drenched fists, gathering up all pent up anger, frustrations, irritations and let them be cast upon these wind swept shores like flotsam and jetsam at high tide. Then release those clinched fists, opening your hands to the grey skies, as if to say, life is a gift, a sheer gift of God’s grace. Open your hands wide to the sky, letting rain fall on your open palms, open to receive the gift of life, like rain falling upon the winterseas of your soul, awaiting the return of the sun.

[i] T.S.Eliot, from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

[ii] Teresa of Avila, The Life of Teresa of Jesus (New York, NY: Image Books, 1991); pp. 127-128.

[iii] William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act III, Scene 2.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Foam and Sun


In distant lands they will remember me.
They and their children will survive
and they will return.
~Zechariah 10:9

We arrived on the Isle of Iona, Scotland in the morning fog with silver mist hanging on the white beaches as the ferry made its landing. Heading northward towards the abbey, we stepped along cobblestones through the little island village, past the ruined convent, along the ancient cemetery. It was there next to those gravestones when I saw the bench inviting us to sit and reflect. The wood back was carved with the simple inscription: Rest and Remember: an invitation to the weary traveler’s soul. Sit for a while. Catch your breath. Take a short break. Look out across the silver sea. Watch the day emerge as the sun sparkles in the dew-heavy grass. Rest. Listen as the abbey bells call us to return. Rest and remember.

Remember the year 563, the year Columcille (a.k.a. Columba) arrived from Ireland upon the shores of Iona, cast away from the emerald isle for killing fellow Irishmen in battle. Columcille was no soldier. He was a monk. Sentenced to life exile from Ireland, he arrived at Iona with twelve other men, founding the first monastery in the land we now know as Scotland. Within his lifetime, the people of Scotland embraced this new faith, a way of forgiveness, even for our enemies; a faith inspiring the unruly highland clans to love their neighbors in ways which were as radical for that time as they are in our own day.

Remember. Think of the thousands upon ten thousands of travelers coming across oceans, over mountains, by boat, by land, by sea, through the centuries, coming to this island to rest and renew. They keep coming. The day we departed from Iona, hundreds of pilgrims poured out of the ferry like schools of herring in the saltwater surrounding the isle. What are they coming to find? What do they seek on this rugged, barren rock island, just two miles wide by three miles long? Rest. Remember.

Return to the bench called Remember. Sit here and rest. Watch. Listen. Reflect. Hear the rhythmic song of the sea upon the shores of Iona. These singing sands have known the incoming and outgoing tides of humanity for the past fifteen hundred years. They were witness to the murderous raids of the Vikings in 806, killing 68 monks of Iona at the bay just south of the ferry landing. To this day, the place is called Martyr’s Bay. The restaurant overlooking that bay is also named after that terrible day, Martyr’s Bay Restaurant. Remember.

Rest and remember. Trace the shoreline northward to the abbey church, rebuilt in the 11th century by the Benedictines after two hundred years of Viking raids had decimated the island population. Walk visually along the path leading from the abbey church to the graveyard, a path known locally as “the Road of the Dead”. Pause for a moment to ponder St. Martin’s high cross, one of the few remaining of the Celtic high crosses on Iona, a fifteen foot high stone, carved with interwoven patterns of Celtic design. Once, hundreds of these Celtic crosses marked this landscape. Reflect upon the passing years. See the thousands of mourners as they have processed, year after year, from the abbey church to the graveyard in honor of a fallen saint, monk, priest or king. Watch the crows hunt for grubs among the tombstones at Reilig Odhrain, the sacred burial ground, holding the earthly remains of 48 Scottish kings, including Macbeth’s victim, King Duncan.

We travel to distant lands, partly to sit on a bench called Remember. We traverse among the ancient stones, along the paths of the dead, to think about those who walked this path before us. In this is we discover how to live and survive. In this is our soul’s rest and return.