Coming Back to Earth


You shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our journeying
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
~ T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” Four Quartets (1942)

To hear the song of the reed everything you have ever known must be left behind.  ~ Rumi

I always come to a point in the winter when I feel like I’m floating. Long weeks of silence and days muffled by snowfall, or the fatigue felt from hours spent wrestling with words and staring at a landscape drained of color leave me unmoored. There’s no anchor and I’m about to let go and drift away on whatever clouds offer me a ride.

And then Lent sails into port, calls me home, and grounds me once more.

 “Lent” is derived from the Old English word for springtime and refers to the lengthening hours of light now accorded us as our earth and spirits lean more profoundly towards the sun. It can be a lovely time of awakening and adjusting our orientation to Love, having metaphorically spent the winter in our spiritual hibernacula, gestating new meaning from the past year’s insights and experiences.

I’ve always treasured the season for its simplicity and compassionate length of almost seven weeks. “Take more time; cover less ground,” said Thomas Merton, and Lent’s gentle allotment of long weeks for re-awakening and renewing our connections to our Source, self, and others more deeply and authentically feels both kind and necessary. It’s like the soft voice of someone who loves us and treats us as the precious beings we are, allowing us to waken gradually and purposefully choose our new position in the ongoing dance with Love, the one relationship that dictates the health of all others in which we engage.

Lent is, therefore, a time for reassessment: we can acknowledge former choices that did not serve this relationship; we can sift, discard, and settle on a new version (“turning”) of this relationship, and so be reconciled and transformed; and of course, we can do anything else or nothing. We’re given time to decide, but the invitation comes with the implicit responsibility on our part to do the work, expend the energy, and evolve.

And certainly, Lent is a time for reassessing our image of the Holy. “Your image of God creates you,” writes Richard Rohr. What images of the Transcendent do we retain that no longer serve our growth, or are no longer congruent with our definition of Love? As Rumi says, we may need to subtract everything we’ve known to finally “hear the song of the reed.”

In many Christian churches, Lent is inaugurated with a ritual of ashes as a way of symbolically bringing followers “back to earth” after winter’s dreamy isolation, and reminding them that spiritual growth is best grounded in humility (“humus/earth”). The invitation is to set down our egos and proceed plainly and honestly.

Nothing magnificent is required on the Lenten journey; in fact, stripping away the grandiose elements of our spiritual wardrobe helps us reveal the elemental truth at its core: we are, already and always, essentially unique shards of Love/God, and asked only to translate this truth—uniquely—throughout our lives. Lent is an invitation to come home to this truth, this self that reflects the Sacred so singularly and well.

Humility is a vital companion and filter to help us recognize that this is also essentially true of everyone and everything; without humility, our egos reject our connection to all, deny Love as our Source, and assign relative values to the gifts others have come to share. A lack of humility leads to hierarchies, enslavement, us/them thinking, misuse of the earth’s resources, and a devaluation of life’s inherent sacredness.

Ashes are a beautiful symbol of our interconnection with the web of creation. In the end, we are of the earth as we are of Love; we are composed of its elements and minerals, as is all creation, and return to it when our lives have ended. Humility is our nature, and anytime we can remind ourselves of this, we come home again.

Phillip’s mother cared for her husband at the end of his life, and this loss seemed to accelerate her own dance with the gradual erasure and evaporation granted to those whom Alzheimer’s disease chooses as partners. When she was yet able, she stayed with us at times to give his sister a break from the emotional toll of caretaking.

I must clarify that the sadness experienced by this measured loss was ours. We who loved and witnessed Virginia’s “emptying” mourned it; however, Virginia retained her sweet smile and ability to endear herself to others to the end of her life. As her history and memories were subtracted, it seemed she heard the song of the reed with increasing clarity.

I have a photograph I treasure of Phillip’s mother standing near him in the garden during one of her visits. She did not know our home when she stayed with us, but she recognized Phillip as someone dimly recalled and safe, and seemed to find such peace when they touched the earth and plants together. It was clear she found a home within this experience that steadied her spirit. And every day, often several times, the conversation would repeat. “Where are we? This is your garden? You live here? Isn’t this nice!”

 Stripped of her sense of self and place, she knew she was home when she touched the earth and smelled the garden, and could sense the reassurance of Phillip’s presence and love. She was a perfect combination of dignity and humility, her austere and undiminished spirit shone purely from eyes that did not know us but rested on the earth and knew home.

That photograph—of Phillip, his mother, the garden, and our beloved dog, Idgi, off to the side—has become one of my most beloved images of God.

Somehow, after his parents’ respective memorial services, Phillip and I became the keepers of their ashes until all the siblings could gather to honor these two lives more intimately and create a ritual for peacefully taking leave of the ashes.

One August, we were all in one place, in a town with a beautiful river. Some of us went exploring and located a simple and abandoned property with a peaceful spot to gather and sit together along the river’s bank. A spontaneous and communal decision was made to finally hold our “farewell service” and everyone went off to create his or her contribution.

The next day we met at the secluded riverbank. One sister shared a verse from her Bible; another shared a poem, Phillip sang and then led us in songs his parents loved; his brother shared a poem about Queen Anne’s lace, a plant he connected with his mother. I shared a poem I’d written about ashes and love. Stories were shared, and laughter, and song…all in simple and genuine gratitude for parents whose lives were marked by humility and guided by Love.

We set small candles in the little cardboard boats we’d fashioned, and sprinkled some of the ashes within, lighting the candles, then sending the boats gently off into the flowing embrace of the river, and scattering the remaining ashes along the riverbank, with a blessing and farewell.

Every Lent in all the years since, I recall this “Ash Tuesday,” our meeting and parting at the river, this sweet goodbye, and the deep bond of love I felt for those gathered and for the two spirits sailing off and, at the end of all their journeying, returning home.

May your Lenten journey grace you with humility, ground your spirit, and lead you home. 

On Saying Goodbye at the River in August

The weary world turns

And burns away life

To ash.

The flame that remains

Is love.

The wild world winds

And grinds away life

To ash.

The song that goes on

Is love.

Blessed lives seed goodness.

A garden of grace, a family, a world,

Love’s unending genesis

Passed on…

Passed on

To death, to life,

To ashes, to life,

To dust returned and life renewed,

Spirits free of matter,

Sloughing off the stuff of stars,

Life revolving, love’s revolution,

Wild, turning, whirling world

By love alone survived.

And we, the fruits of your love,

Plant you as fruit for the earth,

Again and again

Resurrected

And ground to ash.

We consecrate the grinding,

Life to ashes,

Yet not wholly:

Holy lives

Make holy ground,

Life at rest,

But love unbound.

 


10 thoughts on “Coming Back to Earth

  1. This is a touching description of leave taking from those whom you loved. And it was interesting too, to read your attitude towards lent. Wishing you joy and renewal in the months ahead.

    • Oh, thank you, Shimon. About 90% of my hospice patients suffered form dementia and most from Alzheimer’s; it is an improvisation for all involved and never easy, but, like all of life, not without the thread of blessing woven through the journey…and yes, I think dying to the ego and sacrificing our time and gifts (“lives”) for others, only to discover we’re reborn and deeper in Love are always accessible paths, no? Lent is a fine time, though, for seeing where we’ve said yes to these invitations or declined, and then re-aligning our spirits…it is so seasonally congruent for me, if that makes any sense.

  2. What a thoughtful, beautiful, and well-written piece, Catherine. Thanks for posting it. I hope it will be more widely disseminated, as it deserves to be.

    The first thing that caught my attention was the quotation from T.S. Eliot with which you began. I originally encountered those lines in The Magus, that great novel of redemption by John Fowles that I read in a British paperback edition when I lived in Central America in 1968. I, too, have quoted the T.S. Eliot lines several times since then.

    As for Alzheimer’s, when my mother approached the age of 70 she began to repeat things without knowing she’d just said them, but she died before her mind faded further away. Her younger sister wasn’t so fortunate, and she later spent a whole decade fading away. I remember talking on the phone to her once, and it seemed a normal enough conversation, but then as she was ending the call I heard her say to my uncle, “Who was that?”

    A meditative Lent to you. (And you may be interested to know that the OId English forms of the word were lencten and lengten, in which you can see the resemblance to our related modern word lengthen. Lent originally got its name from the fact that it was the time of year when winter was nearing its end and the amount of daylight was lengthening.)

  3. Thank you, Steve, and thanks, too, for sharing the story of your aunt. Overhearing such statements can pierce the heart. I’m sorry for your loss of both of these women.

    Love my Eliot; read a great deal of him in college and have only come to love him more as I’ve actually lived through transitions and responses he addressed…

  4. I have nominated you the Sunshine Award. I know you are very busy. But, I truly hope you can accept this Award. The details are in my latest post. Congratulations and Best Regards. !!!

  5. I was expecting this to be a reflection on New York versus southern central Wisconsin, and feel awash with memories reading your astute observations on loss, Alzheimers, ceremony, those days.
    Blessings, and thank you.

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