Mandatum Novum

winter wheat

Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos ut et vos diligatis invicem.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.
—John 13:34

It is Good Friday, and the weather is enticingly warm. From underneath their shrinking blanket of snow, I can hear the plants calling to me. Without boots I trace the narrow strips of snowless earth, and find myself at the edge of the bed of winter wheat we planted in September. “Can these dry bones live?” I ask myself. I ruffle the half-grown sprouts with my hand and they feel alive, despite their worse for wear appearance. Fragile, but alive nonetheless.

Before I know it, I am fluffing up more patches of wheat, pulling out dead and decaying leaves that fell in the fall. I run and dig my rake out of a pile of bits and bobs in the garage, and scrape it gently across the surface until the whole bed shines from within with the green light of life. With each passing moment, I feel more alive myself.

In the distance I hear geese, and as they get closer I look up to watch them pass. Suddenly I am overwhelmed. I feel my throat tighten—sometimes spring does this to me. The geese are so beautiful, and seeing them return reassures me that renewal is possible in this world where it sometimes feels like everything is passing away. I feel warmth and light pouring out from me toward the geese, toward the spring, toward the plants slowly greening beneath the snow. It is laughably, joyously easy to love all of these things.

It is not so easy to love humankind—I have been painfully aware of that this week. As I prune the raspberries and claw the dead leaves from around their canes, I think about the Lord’s new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you. “But,” I protest, “I am not You. I do not know how.” I sit with that thought for awhile and then, in the stillness, the small voice says, “Love them like you love the geese.” Perhaps that is a good place to start.

Holy Week, Embroidery, and Bank Mergers

pascha basket cover

It is Holy Week and I am desperately trying to finish embroidering a Pascha basket cover in time for Easter Sunday. This is my first embroidery project, and it shows. Still, I believe the final piece will be a bit like God’s creation: Individual stitches may be crooked and ugly, but when you take a step back you can see that the whole image is good and beautiful. Working on this project stitch by stitch has helped me to engage with Lent in a way that I haven’t before. It has also given my mind respite from a situation that has been troubling my family for the past three months, namely that our town’s small community bank is being merged into a large mutual savings bank headquartered elsewhere.

Before you think I’m being unnecessarily dramatic, I should disclose that the bank’s death may be more powerful and meaningful for my family because of our close connection to it: My husband has worked there for ten years, and his father before him poured twenty-five years of his life into it. My sister-in-law also worked there for a period of time. Altogether, members of my family have worked at this wonderful little bank for more years than I have been alive, and the bank is the reason we moved to the beautiful town we now call home. I grieve for what my family and my community has lost.

It is perhaps fitting that the bell should toll for our bank during Holy Week. Just as the narrative of Christ’s Passion shows us the nadir of human behavior, this merger has also illuminated a host of sins: Avarice, deception, and fear come readily to mind. This merger has brought out the whole cast of characters, from the Judases who rationalize their financial gains, to the Pilates who recognize injustice, and have the power to stop it, but fear to do so. This merger has brought out the worst in me, too. It has caused me to think less of people I genuinely like and respect. Again and again I’ve had to restrain my sinful impulse to judge harshly; to remind myself that He makes his sun rise on the just and the unjust. We have been, all of us, wandering in our wildernesses.

This merger has also impelled extraordinary virtue. It has been so moving to witness the few brave souls willing to stand up, publicly, and to risk the consequences of speaking the truth as they saw it. They are the heroes of this story, though I’m sure they don’t think of themselves that way, and we should all aspire to that level of personal integrity when facing the challenges our lives bring to us.

Some people say the Bible is just a collection of myths; I say it’s a mirror. If we look carefully, we will see both our great capacity for goodness and our great capacity for evil reflected back from every page. We might all be Judas or Pilate at one point or another.

The loss of the bank and what it represented is a tragedy, largely because it didn’t have to happen. At the same time, it seems that it was inevitable. To believe that somehow we are evolving into better versions of ourselves is to deny what any historian or theologian could tell you: Human nature doesn’t change. Wealth and ambition will always tempt us. When we feel fear we tend to let it guide us. For every new virtue we manage to establish, a new vice comes with it. If we put our faith in created beings, we will always be disappointed.

The last thing I will embroider this week are the words at the top of design: Christ is Risen. The pattern calls for satin stitch, a simple stitch used for filling in larger shapes. Yet even in its humility, the satin stitch is very much like Christ’s love, which enters the barren places in our lives and fills them with beauty. It is good to remember that our human institutions—no matter how beloved—come and go, but God’s Word supersedes them all. Christ is Risen, Christ is King, world without end.

And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed, nor shall its sovereignty be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand for ever . . . (Daniel 2:44)

in the woods // quadragesima

There are things you can’t reach. But you can reach out to them, and all day long.
Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around as though with your arms open.
And thinking: maybe something will come, some shining coil of wind, or a few leaves from any old tree—
And now I will tell you the truth. Everything in the world comes. At least, closer.

—from “Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End?” by Mary Oliver

It is February. It is Lent. We walk through the white woods, and the winter does not bite. The snow sags and melts, forming clear pools ringed with ice. A vole, running low, slips between two worlds and descends. Remnants of beech leaves curl inward and turn slightly in the breeze, resembling tiny wings when they meet. The bones of the world are heaped around us. The skeleton trees stretch up and out, hatching the gray sky with their dark branches as their roots tangle and sink deeper . . . into the dust from whence all creatures come.

And, yet, a voice on the wind is singing: Behold, I make all things new.

in the woods quadragesima 1
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in the woods quadragesima 3
in the woods quadragesima 4
in the woods quadragesima collage 2
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in the woods quadragesima 8
in the woods quadragesima collage
in the woods quadragesima 7

the mystery of seeds

Another year gone, leaving everywhere its rich spiced residues:
Vines, leaves, the uneaten fruits crumbling damply in the shadows . . .
moldering in that black subterranean castle of unobservable mysteries –
roots and sealed seeds and the wanderings of water.

—from “Fall Song” by Mary Oliver

Even as this summer’s growing season was winding down, and despite putting up almost more beans than the freezer could hold, our bean plants continued to flower and produce pods. Given that our vegetable gardens are quite humble in size and scope, I had never attempted to save the seeds from anything we grew, but something had to be done with those beans. So, I pulled up the plants, tied them together with twine, and left them to hang in the garage for awhile. When the pods were satisfactorily dry, and the hard beans rattled around inside, we brought the lot into the house and carefully extracted the smooth, hard little seeds. Now they will sleep through the cold, dark winter and perhaps—if we are lucky—they will bring forth next summer’s harvest.

the mystery of seeds 1
the mystery of seeds collage
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the mystery of seeds 5

the advent wreath

Dank fens of cedar; hemlock-branches gray
With trees and trail of mosses, wringing-wet;
Beds of the black pitchpine in dead leaves set
Whose wasted red has wasted to white away;

Why hold ye so my heart, nor dimly let
Through your deep leaves the light of yesterday . . .
Is it that in your darkness, shut from strife,
The bread of tears becomes the bread of life?

—from Sonnets, First Series (Sonnet VI) by Frederick Goddard Tuckerman

Northern white-cedar, eastern hemlock, soft white pine . . . I gather them in the quiet afternoon hours of the first Sunday in Advent. In early December the sun rests low in the sky, mostly hidden behind the leaves and needles of the conifers that half-ring our yard. Not one of these trees belongs to me—they sit just outside what I might call my own—but I do not think these stolid natives of the eastern lands much mind the quick snips of my shears, or my pilfering just a few sprigs from their still-lush beauty. The trees are who they have always been and I do what we have always done, as the wheel of the year turns and the darkness descends. The evergreens bear on, and we fragile creatures of the earth gather their boughs and wait for the Light.

the advent wreath 1
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