Through the ninety-something days of Lent and Easter this year I set myself the discipline of taking a photo each day and posting it with a spiritual reflection. It was an enormous task and one that I often regretted setting for myself. But it began to do something in me that has continued now that Easter season is over: it introduced me to a practice that I’m calling “devotional seeing”. It taught my eyes to look each day for the signs of God in the small and ordinary things of my day. And, as the church year moves into the long ordinary of Ordinary Time I’m feeling that it’s something I need to continue. In fact, as my city puts its masks back on and returns, after months of zero cases, to watch the case numbers rise again, I want all the more to remind myself of God’s graces in the small and ordinary. So I’m going to keep up my devotional seeing, by sharing a weekly thought – each Wednesday – accompanied by an image from the day. Feel free to join me if it’s something you’re after too. Let’s go hunting for the open heart of God wherever it can be found.
The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.Jonah 3:5-6
One thing that has stood out to me throughout this year is how little we as a society know how to have periods of collective lament. Much as we have often been united by shared grief, there has been little public expression of this: collective frustration, perhaps, but often not collective grief. Memes comparing 2020 to grotesque flavours of chips or combusting portaloos have been more common than lament. And while there’s value in this kind of shared gallows humour, it seems we might be the poorer for not sitting in shared lament.
In particular, we do not really know how to collectively repent. Often we turn instead to laying political blame or defending our treasured positions. We are unwilling to recognise where we as a society have to share the blame – not for the pandemic, but for the greed and selfishness that was often revealed when the pandemic came, or for the failure to love our neighbours as ourselves that lay at the heart of so many tragedies and conflicts in our year.
Here, in Jonah 3, we see all of Nineveh, “from the least to the greatest”, united in lament and repentance. When does that happen in our world today? We either unite in blaming our leaders or blaming someone else – another people group, another philosophy, another country, another creed. When do we sit together in sackcloth and say that we as a society have done wrong?
It won’t cure the virus. It won’t answer every grief or fix every wrong. But who knows what it might accomplish, if people from either side of the political spectrum, from different classes and post-codes could be united in recognising that our world is not as it should be and that we must share some of the blame?
But we venture on. Newness at least is in
the air, on Capitol Hill, in the fruit
jumping out of trees. We cannot slow this
if we wanted to. Shopping aisles charge on
towards Christmas, while my heart craves Advent.
I could use the dark, the waiting, to bend
soul's joints back into shape, could use the long
silence to learn again to wait, to wish.
We have not yet traced the evil to the root,
nor will we. But our hearts may learn to sing
a purer song if they remember this:
the days we could not sing or hug or kiss,
the days we passed at home craving our home
where we are not apart and not alone.
On this day
I still wrestled my children
into their clothes,
still raced out the door
too late for comfort,
still pricked my finger with a rose thorn,
still feared that all my labour's in vain,
and found the evening slump
a little close to despair
everything changed, while nothing changed
and mustard seeds of life were at work
whether we noticed
Pregnant with its own hopeful future,
Bursting with change and the newness of experience…
The year stands,
A heaving monument to grace.“The Swelling Year”, 2019
I would not have written those words this year. I almost cannot imagine the world in which I did write them. Though I first wrote them in 2012, they seemed an apt way to describe the year that lay ahead – 2020 – when I released The Swelling Year this time last year. But have the words proven false, now that we know how 2020 has turned out? I don’t believe so. Though I would use different language to describe the longing for, and prospect of, grace to come in the COVID world, God’s goodness and providence are no less real now than they were 12 months ago. Each year stands as a living, breathing monument to grace. We may not yet know the ways that grace will have proven to have been at work in 2020, but we have glimpses. And so I will rejoice, sometimes feebly, sometimes confidently, in the truth of those glimpses.
The Swelling Year (1st Anniversary Edition) is available from Lulu.com now.
The scent was masked as we walked, though
hints of pollen pushed their way through cloth to me,
and on return
as I parked the pram and set
excited new walkers free to roam, I soaked
my senses in the radiance
of fruit trees delighting
in new white-pink growth, and the hope
that if not now, soon at least,
signs are sure, sure to be
Deprived of the ordinary markings of days -
drives to work, birthdays, people to celebrate -
more fervently to organic signs,
the constant shifts in the garden,
which trees have blossomed,
which ones have leaves,
how tall the pea plant has grown,
how white its petals.
These and the aphids signal time:
those and the snails migrating,
the worms beneath the compost,
the dead bird by the granny flat,
rising and falling daily tallies,
who died youngest, who's all clear
and how long until - we cannot say -
only greet other pilgrims on the way, and pray.
Bins at the curb, I pause
in a night of deep quiet
the thought that no-one else is here.
Sleepy suburban street rarely parties;
nights are seldom wild around here.
Yet silence catches with surprise:
no-one walking home from shops,
no night-time joggers,
no cars coming home.
No feet sharing this curb with mine.
And this weekly domestic act becomes
a moment of strange resistance,
a heartbeat-long yearning
to see other neighbours lugging their bins,
to duck down the street to No.16 and say,
"This package is yours. The postie
dropped it here by mistake."
But it's after 8 and I've no mask;
the edge of this block is the wall for my feet.
To love my neighbour tonight is to go
back inside and pray.
Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation…2 Corinthians 6:2
We did not choose you, would not repeat you.
Grief has built upon grief: ash and smoke first,
Then this, a time we can only call
"Unprecedented". And how it goes on,
How quickly "normal" becomes a word
Stripped of all meaning. How quickly "Stay safe"
Replaces "See you later." We saw none
Of this coming. Jetpacks and life on Mars
Were my childhood predictions, not this.
Yet future creeps up unannounced, and we,
Had we heard her coming, would
have moved to
Iceland, or bought shares in hand sanitizer.
Neither would we have chosen growth, or grace
Bulldozing our plans and saving us instead.
"Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created."
St Ignatius of Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises
Even this, Ignatius?
When all are in retreat in their homes,
when consoling and desolating spirits
vy for the attention of every moment,
when truth is in short supply
and what truth we have is despair,
can we catch divine movement behind a face mask,
hear the Spirit call beyond garden walls,
see will and purpose despite ailing hope,
even now can we notice
Christ animate the soul
though it flags and fails?