Beauty Even in the Fading

Beauty Even in the Fading

It’s funny how we have certain expectations of life, from the biggest events to the smallest details, and we are quick to label the results: good, bad, lucky, sad. Too often we judge the quality of our life by where the tally falls, but we know all too well that this journey is filled with too many highs and lows to ever be able to keep count. Over the course of a lifetime, we each experience a cascade of little deaths and resurrections, those moments when something must give way to make room for a new lesson, an untraveled path, a chance to grow, whether we like it or not.

At no time is that inevitable cycle more obvious than during the autumn season, when we can look out our window and see the unbelievable beauty of trees on fire with reds and yellows and oranges. We stare in awe, knowing that this magnificence is only temporary and will be followed by a dying away, the starkness of barren limbs against a winter sky.

When I finished leading a retreat in the Adirondacks last month, I decided to end the weekend by squeezing in a paddle across the lake with a good friend. We have been spoiled in past years with herons taking off in flight before our eyes, loons floating alongside us, their calls beautiful and haunting, and even once an eagle soaring across the sky so fast we weren’t sure what we’d seen until after it was gone. Not to be outdone by the spectacular sights are the frogs hiding among the lilies, the tree that grows up out of a deep crack in a boulder or the dragonflies that dart by and every now and then pause on the point of a kayak like a prayer with wings.

This last time, however, the one loon we saw was skittish, diving under the water and moving away from us. Eventually we saw splashing and heard a cry unlike any other. We paddled closer and saw the loon was in some sort of distress. We thought maybe he had something caught around his neck and headed back to land to find help.

What we learned was that this loon’s sibling had been found dead that morning. This was distress, indeed, just not the physical kind. My friend asked if I thought it was a bad sign, and I quickly said, No! Maybe too quickly, as though I didn’t want to consider it, because it was in the back of my mind. As I drove home, I found myself thinking about the Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, written by St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast we celebrate this month.

“Praised be You my Lord with all Your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, who is the day through whom You give us light,” the prayer begins, working its way through all the glories of our amazing world, from wind and water to fire and flowers. By the end we get to “Sister Death, from whom no-one living can escape.”

Our world makes us think if we try hard enough, worry enough, we can keep the tally of “bad” things in our life on the low side, but we are not in control. There will always be seasons to mourn, just as there will always follow seasons to dance. Our job is not to look for ways to ward it off but to learn to surrender to what is rather than what we think should be.

When I paddled across that lake, I thought I should get something that would make my heart leap, a sight that would somehow seal the weekend as a success in a spectacular way. Instead, I was met by a mournful cry and the primitive ache of loss, reminding me that there is beauty even in the fading. Just look out the window, and watch the leaves let go.

This column originally appeared in the Oct. 5, 2022, issue of Catholic New York.

St. Francis: a saint for all seasons

St. Francis: a saint for all seasons

On this Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, I thought I would pull this column from years ago out of the archives. St. Francis, pray for us!

Out in my perennial garden, nestled among the stonecrop and candytuft, stands a well-worn clay statue of St. Francis of Assisi made by an artisan in Mexico. The unusual characteristics of the statue make it a conversation piece as well as a spiritual touchstone that helps keep me centered as I dig and weed and plant.

Of course, I’m not alone. Drive down any street and you’re likely to find St. Francis peeking out from both well-manicured lawns and wildflower gardens run amuck. He is just as likely to share a garden with a statue of Buddha as he is to share one with a statue of the Blessed Mother. He is a saint of the people – all people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. His broad appeal is fascinating, but at the same time it begs the question: Do those of us who plant St. Francis in our gardens really know what the medieval saint was all about?

Today Francis’ concerns are often compartmentalized by well-meaning folks who want to claim him for their own. And who can blame them? He is certainly a challenging but endearing saint for the ages.

Environmentalists tune into Francis’ love for creation, his “Canticle of Brother Sun,” his diligence in protecting trees and even “brother” fire, and find in him a kindred spirit. Animal lovers hear stories of him preaching to birds and taming a wolf and see in Francis the kind of saint who has rightly earned his status as patron of animals. His popularity comes into full view every year at this time, when adults and children alike line up outside churches with everything from goldfish swimming in glass bowls to German shepherds straining at leather leashes just for a chance to get their pets a blessing on Francis’ feast day.

Peace activists, interreligious leaders, social justice organizers — the St. Francis fan club goes on and on. It seems everyone can find a piece of Francis to suit their cause. But, if you put all of those individual causes into the Gospel context that was at the heart of Francis’ rule and spirituality, you come away with a very different picture of our lovable saint, one that is not so easily shaped and molded by the latest trends or causes.

Would those St. Francis lawn statues be as popular if we really stopped to reflect on what they stand for? Francis’ life was one centered on his love of Christ, his commitment to a radical living out of the Gospel, and his “marriage” to the bride he dubbed “Lady Poverty”? The path that St. Francis chose was not an easy one. He was ridiculed and mocked as a madman during his own lifetime for what appeared to be an extreme response to his conversion experience.

He renounced his family’s fortune, fasted for days on end, heard the Lord speak to him from a cross in San Damiano, bore the stigmata. He lived and died for Christ. It would be a disservice to him and all he stood for to try to slip a politically correct mask over the spiritually devout saint who did not do anything halfway.

Sometimes I wonder how I can possibly weave Francis’ difficult and often uncomfortable lessons into my exceedingly comfortable existence. How do those of us with warm homes and busy jobs and nice clothes make St. Francis into something more than a decoration or a mascot? It’s not easy, but maybe, just maybe, seeing St. Francis from the kitchen window as we wash dishes or raking leaves from around his feet as we clean the yard will call us back to our spiritual center and remind us that what we do here on this earth cannot be separated from what we long for in heaven.

If you’d like to read my post from a pilgrimage to Assisi back in 2014, click HERE.

Close encounters of the saintly kind

Close encounters of the saintly kind

On this Feast of St. Thèrése of Lisieux, I thought I’d share my close encounter with this beloved saint. I was never a big fan of St. Thèrése. I didn’t have anything against her; I just didn’t connect with the Little Flower in a special way. That all changed one January day in 2015. I was going to Christ the King Retreat House in Syracuse to lead a women’s retreat, and as I got in the car to drive two hours west, I said a prayer to St. Thèrése almost out of desperation. I was in a bad place and needed some help. Pronto. I still don’t know why I settled on this particular saint that day, when I had never prayed to her before. For some reason, she popped into my head. I asked for a sign that she’d taken up my intention and, as we all know, roses are the typical sign people report receiving after praying to the Little Flower.
A few hours later, I set down my bags in my room at the retreat house. I was tired, I was cranky, and I needed to unpack and get ready to be “on” for the group. I opened the closet door to hang up my clothes. There I was greeted by four enormous bouquets of red velvet roses. (You can see two of them in the photo here.) She works fast, and is pretty showy for a Little Flower. I often forget that she did this for me. So today, on her feast, I’ll send a message of gratitude to her for that long-ago gift and ask for nothing in return. How refreshing and unusual for me! Have you had a close encounter with this saint?

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