I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

And in despair I bowed my head;

”There is no peace on earth,” I said;

For hate is strong, and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

As he penned the poem that would become a beloved carol, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had good reason to despair. His wife had died in a freak fire; in seeking to save her, Longfellow was so badly burned he could not attend her funeral. The resultant scar tissue made shaving impossible; Longfellow wore a beard for the rest of his life. The grieving widower and father of six then watched his nation turn against itself. His son, a Union Army soldier, now lay at home, wounded: doctors warned that, due to the path the bullet took, paralysis was a real possibility. On Independence Day the July prior, over 4000 soldiers lay dead following the Battle of Gettysburg. Their families would meet Christmas Day wearing mourning.

So on that Christmas day in 1863, Longfellow sat down and bled his soul into a poem. Later, John Baptiste Calkin gave melody to the words. The alchemy of lyric and melody resounds through our bodies like the deep sounding of bells. The tune feels weighty, austere: a cold winter beauty that shocks the heart.

Knowing Longfellow’s story lends potency to his final verse. Here is faith forged in the fires of harsh reality. No fair-haired cutesy angels or quippy platitudes here. Rather a resolute belief in Something larger than a single life, or even of a single lifetime.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;

“God is not dead, not doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good will to men.”*

 

I don’t know about you, but this Advent season I could easily bow my head in despair. In addition to personal concerns with job loss, health issues, and a tax “reform” that sinks our grad-school daughters already drowning in student loans further into debt, the global and national picture looks bleak. Mass murderers wage war on anyone not like them. No canons this time: its planes and cars and backpacks. This Christmas Day families across the globe mourn.

In addition, the threat of nuclear war has reemerged. And we’ve seen, yet again, the powerful prey on those less powerful. Cutesy angels and quippy truisms just won’t cut it.

But Longfellow’s poem? That’s my challenge. I am grieved that a man with such a heart had such a life. And I am deeply grateful he put his pain—and his hope—onto a page. For those who know something about despair.

And who yearn for a reason to hope.

*Check out Longfellow’s poem in its entirety. It’s well worth a Christmas read.

 

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Housing Grief

In our neighborhood sits a fire-gutted house. For months it sat, its yard weed ridden and rodent infected, its shattered windows like eyes into a dead soul. How long would it be left in that state? Why not just tear it down and rebuild?

Then in came the troops. First, the lawn was mown. Then, inside, fresh wood transformed the space from empty into potential. Outside, the crew built additions onto the existing structure. The house was, at its soul, what it had been, but also something new. A resurrection house.

The house reminds me that fires come. They destroy what has been. And we grieve. Grief takes the time it takes. Slowly, we’re opened to hope—not for what was, but for what might be. A resurrection. A soul house transformed.

This Eastertide season finds our family in loss. Last month, my husband’s job was outsourced. The life we’d known, the life we’d counted on, is gone. At 60+, we look out at the world through broken windows. Around us, as we wait and watch for what will be, we see resurrection. In nature. In the lives of others. In fire-gutted houses.

Whatever you are grieving, I hope for you clear evidence of resurrection. And with it, anticipation of fresh, new life.

Holy Week Spiritual Practice: A Brilliant Darkness

When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion

When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion

Each day of Holy Week, I will post spiritual practices from my book, When God Walks Away. The book (pictured) likens the dark-night journey to the events of Holy Week. Since engaging with art can be a spiritual practice, you will notice references to music, films, and visual artworks in addition to more traditional forms of spiritual discipline.

I hope these practices provide nourishing soul food as you make your way toward Easter.

 

Books:

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkein: It’s Tolkein—what can I say! I confess that I found the books wordy until I read them aloud to my daughter. Speaking the words, hearing them in the air—that’s what they deserve. I recommend reading Tolkein’s trilogy aloud at least once (though not in one sitting!). In both story and language, Tolkein’s epic washes our souls in majestic beauty.

Film:

The Lord of the Rings directed by Peter Jackson: Can anyone watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy and doubt that film is art? Can we view these movies without wondering to what impossible but vital quest God might commission us—and who would be our faithful Sam? And could we, Gandalf-like, find ourselves one day transformed?

Endurance Exercises:

Silent Night Walk: While walking, open your soul and all your senses to the majesty and mystery of darkness.

Negative Space: In the spirit of Dionysius’s “ray of darkness,” create a drawing using negative space. Negative space simply means drawing the empty spaces around an object, rather than the object itself. Don’t worry about “being an artist.” Simply view the world in a new way.

Music:

“Not by Sight” by Petra: It has enough rock drive to push me along my daily walks and enough confident faith to challenge me to endure, for one more minute, this darkness. The beat grounds me, and the words stick around for the day.

“Nights in White Satin” by the Moody Blues: Is this great stuff, or what? Lush with imagery of darkness and light, the smooth and the rough, this music feels like the mysterious night.

~excerpted from When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion

From the Margins: Mary Magdalene

Soul Thirst

They hammered in my head day and night, year upon year, until I did not know waking from nightmare. They screamed at me to destroy myself and gnawed me until I tore at my hair to rid myself of their teeth.

Then, in a flash of rational thought, I’d know the demons had me, that they played sordid games with my mind, and that I could not stop them. Those rare moments of sanity were nearly as bad as the demon times, so enraged did I become at my powerlessness against my attackers. A fit was on me when I first heard his voice; like soothing balm, it bathed my ravaged mind.

He laid calm hands upon my matted, sweaty hair. Again I heard his voice and looked up into his eyes. I read in them sorrow; I’d seen that look and knew what would follow, what always followed—first the shock of horror and then the embarrassed dismissal.

Not so this time. His eyes sharpened and focused, a piercing power. I was now the fearful one, the one who wanted to turn away.

“If I let him, he may heal me; but if I yield, I could die.”

“Then die,” I told myself. “For what life is this.

I relaxed my will against his ministrations. A screaming began—one voice, then another, another, another…

Was I screaming? I never knew.

I woke to a reasoning mind. For the first time, my eyes looked on a world both sharp and clear. For the first time, I knew who I was, free of the voices that ate at my mind. So I followed the one who gave me life; I listened to his wisdom, watched him heal others, served as I could. Though Peter first named him the Christ, I had known from the beginning the kingly potency of his eyes and voice. He had come for some great purpose, that I knew. I could not wait to see his power unleashed against the Romans as it had been against the demons of my mind.

But now he is arrested. Tried. Sentenced. Crucified. He is gone, forever gone. Tomorrow is beyond bearing; I live for today alone. I remain with him in this hour though my heart aches with grief. My presence is a small gift, for I can change nothing. I cannot rescue him from his tormenters as he delivered me from mine.

I lift my eyes to the cross, its bulk creaking wildly in the wind. I can barely see his face, disfigured by blood, sweat, and pain. Life pours down the naked wood, pooling red at its base. I bear the horror of it only out of a love that takes me past myself.

The sky goes black; he screams against the darkness. Terror sends my heart racing. What now? Will the world—will my world—return to madness? Yes, for we are surely mad already. We are killing my Lord.

In the darkness, his voice rings with wild power: “It is finished!”

He is dead.

I stand there, forgotten, as they disentangle his limbs from the nails, as they wrap his body and bear it away. Far behind the sorrowing procession, I follow, lost in solitary grief. At Sabbath’s end I will come to his tomb—a final tribute—and do what I can. It will not be enough. But in a world gone mad, it will be, at least, something.

~excerpted from my book, When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion