To me, Winter is a time of rest and quiet reflection. The weather is cold (usually!) and we stay indoors. I joke that I am part bear. In January, I hibernate; I refuse to leave the house if I don’t have to.
A sleep prayer is good for anytime of the year, but it seems all the more appropriate when the nights come early and last long.
May Thy holy angels, O Christ, son of living God,
Guard our sleep, our rest, our shining bed.
Let them reveal true visions to us in our sleep,
O high-prince of the universe, O great king of the mysteries!
May no demons, no ill, no calamity or terrifying dreams
Disturb our rest, our willing, prompt repose.
May our watch be holy, our work, our task,
Our sleep, our rest without let, without break.
I saw this sign when I was out running errands:
My heart got a little squishy. I have zero interest in joining a gym, but I reached out toward that advertisement with longing: I want to go to a judgment-free zone.
It reminded me of that time when as a children’s librarian I was reading Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are to a preschool group. Usually I pre-read the books in advance, but this was a classic, and I figured I knew it well. I turned the page and got to the line, “And Max, the king of all wild things, was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.” And my heart scrunched and my eyes watered up in front of all those three and four year olds. Me too, I’d thought.
Despite my disinterest in joining a gym—[I’m overweight; I probably should, but that’s a topic for another day]—I give props to that advertisement campaign. Brilliant. Isn’t that what we all want? Acceptance. In particular, my own childhood was excessively strict and punitive. Nearly everything I did was wrong. To this day I have a hard time trusting—even my friends. I’ve been looking thirty years for a judgment-free zone.
It got me thinking about the places and spaces in my life.
I’m fortunate that my church is a judgment-free zone. It’s one of the few judgment-free zones in my life. That and my therapist’s office. Too many people find only judgment in church.
My relationships? Well, perhaps some of the perceived judgment is my own worries and not reality.
Still, that one gym advertisement prompted me to consider:
Am I making my home a judgment-free zone?
How do I make my workplace judgment-free?
As a supervisor, I need to require proper employee behavior, but do I encourage or discourage?
How would the world look if every place was a judgment free zone?
Join with me and commit to making your world a judgment-free zone today.
Despite the advertising poster, “judgment” in the preferred American spelling. Judgement (with an e) is sometimes considered acceptable in British English.
I went to morning prayers yesterday and my priest commemorated, among others, St. Colman of Ireland. A Celtic saint I didn’t know! I was pleased and flummoxed. Flummoxed because I would now have to go and research him . . .
A perusal of Butler’s Lives of the Saints and a Google consultation soon followed (not necessarily in that order). Butler concisely informs that St. Colman was a bishop and hermit in Western Ireland who escaped to the barren Burren “because he had been made a bishop against his will.” (There’s been a few of those, no? Perhaps a topic for another day.) Apparently burren (boireann) means “great rock” in Irish—not a very habitable place. During my 2003 trip to Ireland, we traveled through the Burren. It’s an inhospitable mound of rocks about which one of Oliver Cromwell’s officers famously stated had “not wood enough to hang a man, water enough to drown him, nor earth enough to bury him.”
Tradition says St. Colman retreated to the Burren ‘forests’—had the forest had been cut down by the time of Cromwell a thousand years later? The St. Colman Mac Duagh Burren Forest page has pictures of the dense brush today; I’m not sure I would call those scrawny trees a ‘forest’ but landforms change over the course of a millennium. At any rate, it is a place far more austere than St. Kevin’s lush Glendalough. Not a place I would want to live.
St. Colman later founded a monastery at Kilmacduagh, near Galway. I can piece together the Irish meaning: Kil-mac-duagh, church (kil) of the son (mac) of Duagh. Butler eludes to the legends of St. Colman’s friendships with a mouse, fly, and cock without recounting them, and you’ll have to visit the Russian Orthodox Christianity page on St. Colman to read them yourself.
Once, I may have wanted to be a hermit . . .
In therapy, I talk quite a bit about my introversion and social anxiety—(although it’s not social anxiety as we normally think of it, it’s still a helpful if imprecise term). My therapist’s advice ranges from the self acceptance of embracing my introversion to cognitive-behavioral promises not to be the first person to leave a party. I attended a family event last weekend—a pleasant, wonderful visit which nonetheless left me utterly exhausted.
In my therapist’s office on the eve of St. Colman’s feast, I lamented adult-ing. I wanted to go back to my high school self and sit in a corner reading a science fiction paperback for the entire duration of a party. I entertained what I call my “Unabomber” fantasy [sans bombs] in which I daydream about living off-the-grid in a cabin in Wyoming and walking into town once a week to buy my groceries and check my email through the public library computers.
I am more functional than I was twenty years ago; I make the effort; I force myself to attend dreadful odious baby showers because it’s the right thing to do. I’m probably less lonely. I’m not sure if I’m significantly happier. People exhaust me.
Knowing of my faith, my therapist spontaneously asked me if there were any hermetic examples or outlets I could explore or learn from. Doubtful, I told him glumly. A good number of hermits are only temporary hermits; eventually, after many years of solitude, they end up getting dragged (against their will!) back into the community and end up abbot of a monastery or something. The solitude teaches them the fortitude they will need for their future endeavors. It happened to St. Colman, and many others. We had a good laugh.
The next morning I learned it was St. Colman’s feast day. Later in the afternoon I discovered it was also National Hermit Day—a day dedicated to stepping away from the frenzy of our lives and the tyranny of our electronic devices. We are encouraged to “retreat to someplace quiet.” The National Day Calendar tips their hats to St. Colman, their inspiration for this nouveau holiday.
Three hermit references within twenty-four-hours. Once upon a time, I would have considered it a message from the Universe.
I am proud to report that I finished my Rosemont College Creative Writing MFA graduate coursework in August, with my diploma to be conferred in January 2016.
My thesis project is a novel with the working title “The Stolen Child” about faeries in America.
I’ve got one more draft to go and then I start shopping it to agents and editors.
In other news, I just passed my one-year anniversary for starting to blog for “The Sounding” blog on Orthodox Christian Network. You can follow these posts on OCN or on my Facebook author page, Cynthia Long, Writer.
All across America, people can’t stop talking about Pope Francis’s recent speech to Congress. And although he’s not my Pope, I still admit to being inspired by him. His historic speech to Congress is notable for many reasons, and I especially appreciate his references to Thomas Merton, the monk-poet. Merton’s autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain was an instant bestseller and has sold over one million copies and been translated into fifteen languages. Thomas Merton, perhaps better than anyone else in American popular culture, brought the notion of contemplative prayer into a somewhat widespread awareness and conversation. The Poetry Foundation website credits him “with introducing the mysticism of Eastern spirituality to Western Christians.”
I myself confess a certain fondness for a poet who conjures the image of the dim “light of early Lent.” Those of us who keep Lent know what he means.
Winter’s Night (1946)
When, in the dark, the frost cracks on the window
The children awaken, and whisper.
One says the moonlight grated like a skate
Across the freezing river.
Another hears the starlight breaking like a knifeblade
Upon the silent, steelbright pond.
They say the trees are stiller than the frozen water
From waiting for a shouting light, a heavenly message.
Yet it is far from Christmas, when a star
Sang in the pane, as brittle as their innocence!
For now the light of early Lent
Glitters upon the icy step –
“We have wept letters to our patron saints,
(The children say) yet slept before they ended.”
Oh, is there in this night no sound of strings, of singers!
None coming from the wedding, no, nor
(The sleepy virgins stir, and trim their lamps.)
The moonlight rings upon the ice as sudden as a
Starlight clinks upon the dooryard stone, too like a
And the children are again, awake,
And all call out in whispers to their guardian angels.
In the first stanza, the internal rhyme and harsh assonance of awaken, grated, skate, and breaking call to mind the cracking of ice on the frozen river. This poem is sad and hopeful both because it is the innocence of children who have wept letters to their patron saints, the faith of children whispering to their guardian angels, tentative faith balancing in the dark nights between Christmas and Easter. I am chagrined to realize that I do not cry out to the saints with such weeping pleas nor do I whisper secrets to my guardian angel. I am reminded that Christ called us all to become like little children. So too the poet conveys a patient, doubting, desperate hope—hope in the midst of despair—hope awaiting the far-off Bridegroom. The children awake to this hope. However dark and cold the winter, they have not lost faith; they still whisper to their guardian angels.
Merton’s poem reminds me to latch tightly to hope in a world hovering in bleak midwinter. It may be a seasonal poem, and perhaps I’ll return to it again in February. But for now, every day may I cry out to my saints and angels as I await the heavenly Bridegroom.
“Merton was above all a man of prayer . . .” Pope Francis said. As much as I respect Merton’s poetic career and social consciousness, I wonder if he best appreciates being remembered as a man of prayer. I hope that at the end of my career, I will be remembered as being a person of prayer.
Thank you, Pope Francis, for calling to remembrance God’s servant Thomas Merton, for publicly lauding a poet, and for reminding us that poetry and writing can be a calling from God.
“Thomas James Merton.” [Biography]. N.Y.: Poetry Foundation. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/thomas-james-merton. Web.
“Thomas Merton’s Life and Work.” Louisville, KY. The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. http://merton.org/chrono.aspx. Web. [Check out their website for some great photos of Merton.]
Pope Francis. Address to Congress. September 24, 2015. “Pope Francis Addresses Congress: Read the Full Remarks.” Vox Media, Inc. http://www.vox.com/2015/9/24/9391549/pope-remarks-full-text. Web.
“Winter’s Night.” Index of Thomas Merton’s Marian Poetry. Dayton, OH: The Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute. http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/resources/poetry/merton.html#toc. Web.
In honor of National Tell a Fairy Tale Day, I am sharing the work of one of my favorite fairy tale illustrators: John D. Batten.
John Dickson Batten was an English illustrator and painter most known for collaborating with English fairy tale anthologist Joseph Jacobs. His illustrations populate Jacobs’ books: English Fairy Tales (1890), Celtic Fairy Tales (1892 anthology), More Celtic Fairy Tales (1894), More English Fairy Tales (1894), Indian Fairy Tales (1912), European Folk and Fairy Tales (also known as Europa’s Fairy Book). He also illustrated a version of Dante’s Inferno and wrote two books of poetry!
Here are some of my favorite John D. Batten illustrations: