Sacred pauses

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Crisis is always a purification if we understand it correctly. The very word ‘crisis’ comes from a root that means sifting out. Crisis is a separation, a sifting out of that which is viable and can go on from that which is dead and has to be left behind.”David Steindl-Rast, Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey Through the Hours of the Day   Photo (Rochester, NY) by A. Hallinan.

 

I’ve been wondering how to render my long, isolating, pandemic days so they are meaningful, enjoyable, and conducive to doing the deep writing and other work I’ve been wanting to do.

It just so happens that a friend of mine recently published an essay about her practice of observing sacred pauses throughout the day based on the Benedictine practice of marking the hours. She does so not for religious purposes, but to structure and inspire her days and to be in touch with the cycles of the natural world.

Her essay motivated me to see if this approach might be helpful. Plus, I’ve long been interested in books of hours which, originally, were personalized medieval Christian prayer books that marked the sacred hours of the day.

I tracked down a used copy of a book Louisa recommended by Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day. 

Macrina led me to David Steindl-Rast’s book, Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey Through the Hours of the Day.

Both books are rich and motivating, a pleasure to read in small bits. You don’t have to be religious to structure your day around these sacred pauses; you can make the practice your own, and I think you’ll find many unexpected benefits.

I’ve been delving into these books of hours and taking sacred pauses while also renewing my mindfulness meditation practice (with the help of an online class offered by the teacher who originally got me into meditation over a dozen years ago.) Mindfulness mediation and marking the sacred hours are both concerned with consciously embracing the present moment. The two pursuits complement each other.

Here are some of my favorite passages from David Steindl-Rast’s book:

“….the hours of their days and nights have turned into couriers for them, each with a distinctive dispatch.” “…each hour had a character and presence infinitely richer and more complex than our sterile clock time.”   “The hours are the inner structure of living consciously and responsively through the stages of the day.”

“The original notion of hour is something quite different from a unit of time composed of sixty minutes. It is not a numerical measure; it is a soul measure.”

“…time is not conceived as running out, but as rising like water in a well, rising to that fullness of time that is now. It is to that centered, present living in the now that chant calls us.”

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“The paced hours teach us how to pace our lives.” David Steindl-Rast, Music of Silence

 

And these from Macrina’s book:

“God’s angels companion you on your pilgrimage through the day. You are never alone. Pausing to remember such truths changes the hours to gold.”

“Even if you have a lot of work to do, if you think of it as wonderful, and if you feel it as wonderful, it will transform into the energy of joy and fire, instead of becoming a burden.” – Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, as quoted in Seven Sacred Pauses.

 

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A still from the video installation “Visitation” by Bill Viola, in Uppsala Cathedral, Sweden. I took this photo on my trip to Sweden last year. “Visitation” is an extraordinary silent work that held me for 20 minutes like it was just twenty seconds. Viola’s subjects are birth, death, transformation and liberation. In this baptism by water, the subject goes from “a life of obscurity to another life where light and color envelop her, perhaps like an inner birth giving her the strength to move on.”  (Quoted from the installation commentary) Some people view our difficult times as a sweeping and necessary transformation. This still photo, a sacred, single moment from the video, seems relevant to me.

 

The sacred pauses:

Matins or Vigils (The Night Watch) “Vigils is a time of exquisite beauty. It is a time for waiting and watching under the mantle of mystery.” DS-R

Lauds or Morning Prayer (Daybreak, The Awakening Hour) “Dawn is like medicine, and morning is a healing drink that I have to brew in my heart just as I brew my coffee.” MW

Prime (About 6 am, Deliberate Beginning)  “…the monastic attitude is to begin deliberately and to do anything we do with an even, stately pace and with whole-hearted attention. This is how master artisans, weavers, experienced farmers, and other sage laborers work. That way even difficult tasks can be done leisurely and with joy, for their own sake. And then they become life-giving.” DS-R

Terce (9 am, The Blessing Hour) “Imagine you are sitting at the dawn of your workday watching your creativity blossom. Rather than trying to grab the first blossom you seek, spend time beholding that blossom and looking at it from all angles. Prayerfully reflecting on the first blossom of your day will awaken other ideas that are in the budding stage.” MW

The Sixth Hour (Noon, The Hour of Illumination; Fervor and Commitment) “The hour is rousing us to summon the courage to stay the course, to remain true to our ideals through the rest of the day.” DS-R

None (3 pm, The Wisdom Hour) “Our doing flows out of our being, and that is why it is necessary for us to learn to pause.”  MW

Vespers or Evensong (Early evening, The Twilight Hour) “The way that we can actively bring the spirit of Vespers into everyday life is to light whatever lights we can in this dark world.” DS-R

Compline: (Just before retiring, Entering the Great Silence)  “Preparing for the night, for going into the realm of dreams, we pray for good dreams: nourishing dreams, teaching dreams.”  DS-R

 

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As we explored Uppsala Cathedral, the organist was practicing, and we were lucky to hear Toccata and Fugue in D minor by Bach several times. The chandeliers (ljuskrona, or “light crown” in Swedish) are common in Swedish churches. Delving into the sacred hours and reading Kristin Lavransdatter reminded me of my visit to this 13th century cathedral.

 

Christ Church in Rochester, NY, which draws upon many fine musicians, singers and composers from the Eastman School of Music, has been streaming great music during the pandemic. I like the description of this short Bach piece and its moods by organist David Higgs almost as much as I like the piece itself:

 

A Letter from the virus

The powerful, poignant video letter from the coronavirus at the link below is pure poetry. Please listen: our troubled times could be viewed as one gigantic pause imposed on us by the virus for the most sacred of purposes. This version is narrated in beautiful Italian with English subtitles – as the poet I’m linking to suggests, the Italian version has more urgency and poetry than the English version:

https://www.jhwriter.com/a-letter-from-the-virus-italian-with-english-subtitles/

“We have a right to feel at home here in the universe.” David Steindl-Rast

Coming up on Books Can Save a Life: A luscious, luscious newly published book. (Think: flowers; floral masterpieces; color; design; creativity; art; literature; deep ecology; learning how to see; things of the spirit.)

Pandemic Reading: Kristin Lavransdatter

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“An older woman sitting by me on the subway, or waiting beside me in a line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, or having lunch at a nearby table, would cross the boundary separating strangers in order to volunteer that she, too, had once read Kristin Lavransdatter – a remark accompanied by that special glow which comes at the recollection of a distant but enduring pleasure.”  – Brad Leithauser, from the Introduction to Kristin Lavransdatter.

 

“He was well, but had cast himself into a wild life, just as many young people, out of despair, had done. They said that whoever was afraid would be sure to die, and so they blunted their fear with carousing and drinking, playing cards, dancing, and carrying on with women.” – Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset

 

Historical fiction is what I’ve been immersed in lately, what with watching the Outlander series and reading the remarkable 14th century Norwegian trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter.  I first read The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross by Sigrid Undset when I was in my twenties, thanks to my college roommate, Kathy, (of Norwegian descent) who highly recommended it. I vowed to read it again someday from the perspective of a good portion of life lived. A few weeks ago I ordered it; the time was right, I thought, especially because the Black Plague has a part to play in Kristin’s story and we’re living through our own time’s pandemic.

The story centers around the life of Kristin from childhood to elderhood, and her sexual, emotional, familial and spiritual pilgrimage across the span of life. I see many similarities between Kristin and Claire Fraser, the protagonist of Outlander.

Published in 1920, 1921, and 1922, Kristin Lavransdatter was a worldwide literary sensation. Sigrid Undset won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928.

Here is something about Sigrid’s singular protagonist from the Introduction to the edition I’m reading:

IMG_2179“In the annals of literary ‘fallen women,’ Kristin Lavransdatter, the twentieth-century/fourteenth-century literary figure, occupies a curious and fascinating place. After they fell, a number of Kristin’s nineteenth-century counterparts were whisked offstage, often to meet a premature end. In the latter part of the twentieth century, many of Kristin’s successors were sexual adventuresses whose exploits were pure and liberated triumphs. Writing in the first quarter of the twentieth century, Undset chose a middle path for her heroine. Kristin never doubts that she has covertly sinned, and the pain of her deceptions remains a lifelong affliction. Even so, her unshakable guilt in no way paralyzes her and she carries on with her life. Throughout the trilogy, Kristin is an indomitable presence in every role she undertakes….”

At age seven Kristin gazes at the view from her home:

“There were forest-clad mountain slopes below her in all directions; her valley was no more than a hollow between the enormous mountains, and the neighboring valleys were even smaller hollows; there were many of them, and yet there were fewer valleys than there were mountains. On all sides gray domes, golden-flamed with lichen, loomed above the carpet of forest; and far off in the distance, toward the horizon, stood blue peaks with white glints of snow, seeming to merge with the grayish-blue and dazzling white summer clouds. But to the northeast, close by – just beyond the pasture woods – stood a cluster of magnificent stone-blue mountains with streaks of new snow on their slopes…

She knew that wolves and bears reigned in the forest, and under every rock lived trolls and goblins and elves, and she was suddenly afraid, for no one knew how many there were, but there were certainly many more of them than of Christian people.”  

Kristian Lavransdatter seemed to fall out of favor for a time, but it is having something of a resurgence. My son and his girlfriend are waiting eagerly in line to read it once I’m finished. (My son lives in the heart of the US Covid outbreak in Brooklyn, and we were glad when he was able to stay temporarily near to us. Yesterday was a fine, warm day, and he and his girlfriend came for a socially distanced visit. They brought a blanket and sat on the grass while I picked weeds. We talked about the books we’re reading.)

 

 

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At over 1100 pages, the trilogy I have is the beautifully produced, deckle edged Penguin Classics Deluxe edition, with smooth, cream-colored paper, translated by Tiina Nunnally. Helpful footnotes – not too many – explain aspects of medieval Norwegian life.

 

This line in particular, which refers to the time of the Black Death, spoke to me as something that could be said about our current pandemic:

“Now it almost seemed as if all people were equally close and distant to each other at this time of great need.”

Kristin was skilled in herbal and healing remedies:

“They now had to do the milking and chores in the cowshed themselves; they cooked their own food, and they brought back juniper and fresh evergreen branches for the cleansing smoke. Everyone did whatever task needed doing. They nursed the sick as best they could and handed out healing remedies: their supplies of theriac and calamus root were gone, but they doled out ginger, pepper, saffron, and vinegar against the sickness, along with milk and food. When the bread ran out, they baked at night; when the spices were gone, people had to chew on juniper berries and pine needles against the sickness.” 

 

 

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One of the murals in Älekulla Church, Sweden, where my great, great, great grandfather lived. Christian morality and the medieval church have central roles in the life of Kristin Lavransdatter. Reading it, I’ve been reminded of the rural churches I visited last spring in the Swedish towns where my grandparents lived.

 

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In a distant century, my ancestor donated this Bible to his church in Älekulla. (In his handwritten dedication, he calls the Bible “his greatest treasure.”) I’d hoped to return to Sweden to do more family research this summer, but I won’t be getting on a plane anytime soon.

 

My dear friend Kathy of Blueberry Hills Art first introduced me to Kristin Lavransdatter. Please follow the link and check out her gorgeous website, which just made its debut. She’s on Instagram, too. Here is one of her woodcut prints, which reminds me of the nature that infuses Kristin’s world:

 

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Fritsla Church, Sweden

 

Kristin Lavransdatter is wonderful reading, especially if you’re spending hours at home. Have you read it? What are you reading these days? I have some special books to share with you in my next post; they are making my pandemic days richer.

A Paradise Built in Hell, Redux

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I thought this would be a good time to repost my thoughts on Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster as we take on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reading this post, and Rebecca’s Paradise, which highlights how strong, healing communities spontaneously arise in disaster, is mind-boggling, because now we are challenged to build community in isolation.

Can this be done? Will disaster utopias arise even as we remain apart?

I haven’t begun to unpack these questions, but I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. What do you think about community in this time of pandemic? Do Solnit’s thoughts and research hold true now?

(I will say one thing: listening to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily press briefings has been extraordinarily bolstering. This growing community of virtual listeners has quickly come to extend well beyond the boundaries of New York State.)

Here is what I wrote a year ago:

The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster

“Imagine a society where money plays little or no role, where people rescue each other and then care for each other, where food is given away, where life is mostly out of doors in public, where the old divides between people seem to have fallen away, and the fate that faces them, no matter how grim, is far less so for being shared, where much once considered impossible, both good and bad, is now possible or present, and where the moment is so pressing that old complaints and worries fall away, where people feel important, purposeful, at the center of the world.”  A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, by Rebecca Solnit

An upside to disaster is that it can create community out of the ashes. Utopia, even, temporary though that might be. And among individuals, a clarified, reinvigorated sense of life purpose.

In light of my last post about David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth, it occurred to me that Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell can be an antidote to despair, because it arms us with a deeply optimistic view of human nature. When it was published in 2009, it was named best book of the year by The Washington Post, The New York Times, the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, The New Yorker, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Two hundred years from now, when people want to know what it was like to be alive early in the 21st century, they’ll read Rebecca Solnit: journalist, scholar, historian, and immensely gifted storyteller. Solnit’s prose is a joy to read, because she so seamlessly blends deep research with exquisite portrayals of the humans involved in whatever stranger-than-fiction story she happens to be telling.

Solnit is a soulful activist with a decidedly liberal bent, so she may not appeal if you have more conservative leanings. On the other hand, her books are not partisan diatribes, but suspenseful, exquisitely-researched works often drawing surprising conclusions that transcend our tired, inaccurate political and cultural divides. She does so in A Paradise Built in Hell.

We see a handful of disasters: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, the 1917 Halifax explosion, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina, among others – and how the government, other well-established institutions, and ordinary citizens responded. Mostly, citizens rose to the occasion magnificently. But, often, the government, the military, and officially designated emergency responders – not so much. Solnit interviews disaster studies experts (it never occurred to me that disaster studies is a well established and growing academic discipline) and other specialists and draws upon what she learned to posit theories as to why might be so.

We also see, up close and personal, overwhelmed individuals who mustered inner resources they didn’t know they had, permanently transformed by the utopian-like goodwill and community that, in the right circumstances, can arise in the days after disaster.

Here’s a passage written by a survivor of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire:

“….everybody was your friend and you in turn everybody’s friend. The individual, the isolated self was dead. The social self was regnant. Never even when the four walls of ones own room in a new city shall close around us again shall we sense the old lonesomeness shutting us off from our neighbors. Never again shall we feel singled out by fate for the hardships and ill luck that’s going. And that is the sweetness and the gladness of the earthquake and the fire. Not of bravery, not of strength, nor of a new city, but of a new inclusiveness.”

Here are the memories of a young woman who survived the London Blitz:

“A bomb fell two streets away. Another landed nearer as they raced inside, came near enough to buffet her with waves, ‘like bathing in a rough sea.’ She found herself clutching the floor as if to keep from falling while dust was everywhere, her mouth was full of plaster….She was taken in by a neighbor who plied her with blankets and a hot-water bottle ‘for the shock’ and when she said she wasn’t in shock her hostess ‘referred darkly to ‘delayed shock.’ And when she was left alone: ‘I lay there feeling indescribably happy and triumphant. ‘I’ve been bombed!’ I kept saying to myself, over and over again – trying the phrase on, like a new dress, to see how it fitted.’ She concluded, ‘It seems a terrible thing to say, when many people must have been killed and injured last night; but never in my whole life have I ever experience such pure and flawless happiness.’

She was young, she’d survived with her love by her side, and she had fifty-five more nights of bombing to endure…..but time and war did not change her memory. Thirty-five years later Harrison….followed up on her story. She had recently become a grandmother, and she looked back on her night of being bombed as a ‘peak experience – a sense of triumph and happiness’ that she compared to the ‘experience of having a baby.’

All is not roses and optimism in Solnit’s book, however. For example, she takes a good, hard look at what went wrong in New Orleans after Katrina. I found the chapters on New Orleans especially moving, a nuanced portrait of a city and its citizens in a years-long recovery, permanently changed. (It would be fascinating to see what Solnit might make of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.)

In the epilogue of A Paradise Built in Hell, Solnit writes:

“The paradises built in hell are improvisational; we make them up as we go along, and in so doing they call on all our strength and creativity and leave us free to invent even as we find ourselves enmeshed in community. These paradises built in hell show us both what we want and what we can be….

In the 1906 earthquake, a mansion burned down but its stone portals remained standing. A photograph shows that suddenly, rather than framing the entrance to a private interior, they framed the whole city beyond the hill where the ruins stood. Disaster sometimes knocks down institutions and structures and suspends private life, leaving a broader view of what lies beyond. The task before us is to recognize the possibilities visible through that gateway and endeavor to bring them into the realm of the everyday.”

So what do you think? Does this hold true even as we stay home, communicating not face to face, but via screens and smartphones? Tell us what you think in the comments.

If you are looking for a new nonfiction author to read during the pandemic’s long hours, I highly recommend Rebecca Solnit. Her other titles include:

Wanderlust: A History of Walking

A Field Guide to Getting Lost

The Faraway Nearby

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities

 

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