October 22, 2017

The Good Land

Only recently did I discover that the monastic vows of Saint Benedict included the vow of stability:  poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability — staying in one place.

There is a virtue to staying where you are.  There is a virtue to being where you are.  Too many of us are never where we are.  We live with our windows closed, shades drawn, televisions on.  Our feet never feel the ground, and our skin never feels the air.  While our bodies occupy a vague, in-between world, our minds are editing the past or worrying about the future.

But “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1) — to those who go outside and look.  God reveals himself through the place that he’s given us:  “a good land — a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil, and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; . . .When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.” (Deuteronomy 8:6-10)

This place where we are now is the only place we can meet God.  God will never be in the imaginary places, the greener grass springing from our discontent, and neither will we.  This place, whether it’s a mobile home, a crowded apartment, a small suburban yard, or a struggling farm, is the doorway to the kingdom of heaven.

I invite all of you to send in praise of the place that God has given you.  No comparisons, no deprecation, no competition.  All places are beautiful.  What intimacies has the land around you revealed to your loving attention?  What do you see of God through the piece of creation you know best?

I’m including a love poem I wrote to my place.  Simple comments are fine, but poetry is also welcome!  Just remember Wendell Berry’s advice in Window Poems:

The world is greater than its words.
To speak of it the mind must bend.

A Californian Visits Indiana
• Damaris Zehner

“Indiana,” my brother said, “is nice . . .”
A tactful pause.

“I would miss the ocean,” he went on,
Looking across the waving meadows
Toward the islands of trees.
Rabbits, diving from a harrier’s shadow,
plunged through the grassy shallows.
In the depths of the forest deer
Hovered; leaves and branches swayed
in the currents of the air.

“I’d miss the beach,” he said, “the dunes,
The glittering expanse — ”
Here, where soon snow, whipped by wind,
Will drift against each dry stalk,
Sparkling to the horizon.

“And of course I’d miss the mountains,” he panted.
We clambered up limestone bluffs
Through knotted roots of firs.
Far beneath us a stream glinted.
A kestrel swooped; crows argued in the oaks.

“So tell me,” he said.  “Why do you like it here?”

Comments

  1. Denise Spencer says:

    Damaris, Love the poem!

    When we moved to south central Kentucky 18 years ago, I quickly came to love the “mountains” — tame foothills, actually, but they serve the purpose. In the springtime they’re adorned with redbud and dogwood blossoms, while in the autumn they blaze with color. We also have frequent morning fog that appears sometimes as a white blanket over the mountains, and other times as a gray mist in the valleys. My back porch overlooks Goose Creek, and the name does not disappoint. The ducks paddle down the creek as the geese take wing overhead. I love it in all seasons.

  2. Boethius says:

    I have lived on the same street my entire life. My parents live four houses away. I know every living tree and every tree that has died. I know the streams and the bank of the river. I have known the land as a child, skating, sledding, walking, climbing. I have known the land as a parent of young children, watching them do the very things I did when I was their age. Now, I know the land as a middle-aged person, watching the sunsets and seeing it in a whole new way.

    The Lord has truly blessed me with this place in NH.

  3. David Cornwell says:

    The thoughts expressed in the above comments are very beautiful and express a kind of stability most of us miss these days. Thank you. Damaris thank you for bringing this to mind, calling it to our attention.

    Stability and contentment go hand-in-hand, or so it seems to me. I’ve had to struggle with this all my life, this idea of being content where I am. My wife has commented on it, so has God in his own way. Part of the lack of stability goes with being a Methodist minister for many years and being uprooted from church and community several times. However I fear that the biggest part of it is just me. It’s interesting that a Methodist minister, Robert Robinson, wrote the words to “Come Thou Fount of “Every Blessing” where some of the words say:

    “Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
    Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
    Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
    Prone to leave the God I love;
    Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
    Seal it for Thy courts above.”

    He and I are of the same heart on this, prone to wonder. I wrote my own prayer a little bit ago, in not so wonderful verse.

    Early on before the light breaks free
    Bedroom windows up to let in breeze
    Happy sounds of bird song in Maple tree
    Break into dream with greatest ease
    Not yet, I say, wait a few
    However now a day is born
    And light appears below on dew
    Then this old house the Lord has given me
    Will stir again with life and breath and light
    This temple gift where spirit sings of thee
    When not cast down with dread or flight or fight
    When I survey your wondrous gifts I pray
    When I look in that face of love
    Make me content in heart and place this day
    Like bird in yonder tree above.

  4. dumb ox says:

    In the book, “The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View” by Walsh and Middleton, a comparison is made between the way native Americans view land versus a secular-western view. In the secular-western view, land is a frontier, an adversary to be conquered and exploited; to the Inuit, it is home. I wonder if because we tend to think of “home” as heaven that we adopt the secular-western view (this world is not my home, I’m just drill, drill, drillin’ on through). I think it leaves us restless, anxious, restless, and estranged. We have become a transient, isolated, lonely, homeless people.

  5. I take great comfort in reflecting that God promises us a new heaven AND a new earth. The scene at the end of “The Last Battle” suggests that Lewis had hope that the places we love will be redeemed just as we will. I think he’s right.

    Thank all of you who have written so far. This is beautiful, both prose and poetry. I agree, David, that contentment is necessary for stability — a lesson it’s taken me a while and four continents to start learning.

  6. So many places. Vermont, with its wild seesaw between the seasons. Arkansas, boasting redbuds and dogwood and a slower, rural pace of life. Ohio and Steubenville, where the beauty was to be found not in the shuttered factories and industrial-strength pollution but rather in studies; in a campus gathered in praise and worship of Christ; in nighttime visits to the Adoration chapel. (After 9-11, Adoration was moved from the little Port chapel to the lawn outside the student center. An oasis of prayer we all needed that day.) Our university campus in a 13th century Carthusian monastery in Austria…the Alps, the crisp, pine-scented air and the sound of the village brook at night. The centuries of prayer and grace that lingered in the place. Yantai, China, with its glowing sunrises and fog over the Yellow Sea – and just a mile in the other direction, mountains that secluded a Buddhist monastery, a haven of silence. Las Vegas, with its stark, barren beauty, all the more striking for being alien to my East Coast eyes.

    Now Maryland – Mary’s land indeed, not only for the Shrine at Emmitsburg but also for it’s simple quiet loveliness. Never spectacular, save in the spring with the cherries and every other tree in blossom. Just peaceful. A place to lat down one’s burden and rest content. Even here, though, I’ve moved four times in as many years. In two weeks I move again, to a small room in a creaky old house, overlooking a Quaker cemetery from the 1800s. In a year I’ll probably be somewhere else again. I don’t expect I’ll ever be truly settled. But in every place, I know wherein my stability lies, I know Who is calling me onwards and to what purpose He is calling me.

  7. Lisa Dye says:

    Thank you for sharing your beautiful poetry Damaris and David. Reading this post makes me think of some advice I once heard — “Never leave a place of blessing.” I’m sorry I can’t give it proper attribution.

  8. Jonathan Blake says:

    Growing up on the Gulf Coast I used to love going to the beach and looking out at the open expanse and being reminded how small I am compared to this gulf and how much smaller I am compared to the world and God.

    Now living in the lakes region of Missouri I love the mountains, caves, rivers, streams and mountain lakes which cover this area. An adventure is always close at hand if you venture out. You never know what natural treasure or new beauty you’ll come upon. Like this land God is an adventure who is infinitely deep and wide and his mercies are new every morning. His mind, heart and Spirit are there for whoever would dare to try and probe their depths and get lost in Him.

    I just realized that I sounded like a modern mystic; I’m exhausted right now so any inhibitions are gone and maybe they need to stay that way.

  9. I’d be happy to take a vow to stay in one place. Lived here all my life and haven’t yet made the acquaintance of all our birds, insects and plants.

    Florida’s seasons.
    Some say we only have two.
    Yet I count seven.

  10. Thanks. I’ve moved from 20 years of exploring the wiles of Utah and have moved to Texas this past year. I’ve been reluctantly saying every place has it’s own beauty and we need to enter and enjoy it but it has been a challenge.

  11. Isaac Rehberg (the poster formerly known as Obed) says:

    I’ve mentioned the book here before, but my grandparents’ priest, Fr. Brian Taylor, wrote a neat little book on adapting Benedictine monastic spirituality for regular non-monastic folk titled Spirituality for Everyday Living. I highly recommend it. I’ve actually been thinking and praying about affiliating with an Anglican Benedictine order.

  12. Iowa. Simple, neighborly, trails, fields, awesome schools, barns, cities, silos, small towns, state fair, county fairs, sweet corn, Hawkeyes, Cyclones, Panthers, four bold seasons – my favorite: Fall. Thank you, Lord, for Iowa. And thank you for places beyond Iowa’s borders that are different, so that I can visit them and love their differences and wish I could live there too.

  13. All these thoughts and places are very beautiful, but where is Christ and His shed blood for us. We enter the door through Him. He is the door.

  14. Rolling ground, not hills or mountains, exactly, but so different from the central Ohio flatness that I grew up with. In town, the busy street right outside my apartment, the little historic downtown a block a half away. The tiny corner garden with a bench and a little path. My own little plot with tomatoes and flowers in it. The gorgeous bridge over the river and the monument with its park. The coffee shop that I can walk to. My apartment with its tall windows, old school gold carpet, and dated paneled walls.
    In the country at my in-laws, the fields going through the cycles of the seasons, converting the nourishment of the earth into a form that we can digest. The small towns with their small houses. Their beautiful farm, with it’s garden, it’s flowers, and the fruit from the orchard that costs them so much labor, and provides their living.
    The snow in the winter and the oppressive heat in the summer and the too swiftly moving glorious perfection of autumn and spring.
    I’m moving soon, and I’ll miss it all.

  15. Thanks, Damaris, for the reminder of Wendell Berry. Most anything he has to say about the land is worth hearing.

    Your place in Indiana sounds very peaceful. Here in Oklahoma, it’s just hot. But everyone has to be somewhere, right?

    Thanks for reminding me that wherever that somewhere is at the moment is where I will find Jesus.

  16. Sorry, Damaris, but I have to be with the Californian in your poem.

    I lived inland once for six months and it almost killed me. Have to be beside the sea!

    😉

    • Damaris says:

      Well, in Ireland you can’t be very far from it! The sea is beautiful, and any time I indulge myself with grass-is-greener thinking I dream of the sea — I grew up in Greece, and my family is all from along the Atlantic shore. But here is lovely, too.

  17. I’m an expat nomad. My stability is rooted in my mobility.

  18. Damaris says:

    Hey, come on, guys. We get to over 140 comments when the post is about acrimony and 21 when you’re asked to celebrate? Don’t make me reach back there . . .

  19. Interesting, because I have found that in many varieties of evangelicalism nowadays, Pentecostal/charismatic and otherwise, it seems to be a virtue to live life with your bags packed (so to speak), ready to go at the drop of a hat to wherever God may lead you.

    • Damaris says:

      I think that arises from two things, Joe. First, there’s the heavy emphasis on overt evangelism that you find in those groups. You better be ready to go where you’re sent, the attitude is. Not a bad thing, in itself. Second, and I think more important, is the tendency to dichotomize. Spirit is good, flesh is bad. Heaven is good, earth is bad. This almost gnostic tendency in modern evangelical circles leads to a disdain for the physical aspects of God’s creation. Much evangelicalism emphasizes thinking over doing, ideas over sacraments. I think that’s a mistake, arising from a misunderstanding about the nature(s) of God. I wanted in this blog to remind people of God’s revelation of himself through the physical.

      Actually, there’s a third aspect, and that’s the footloose character of Americans. All of our ancestors, except those who were brought as slaves and had no choice, got here because they were willing to pack up and go. We are still doing that. And that too is not necessarily a bad thing. We have avoided the bloody wars over particular patches of land that have racked much of the old world. But it does mean that we tend to forget the value of the world around us. It becomes a resource, not a home.

  20. I love the idea of Benedictine stability, I just wish that my life could have had more, But then, I wouldn’t be the same person that I am now, so I just smile and don’t think too much about it.

    For me, I’ve bounced around the country, not really willingly, (other than liking to be employed), but I have enjoyed it. AND I’m glad to be back in the Midwest. (and hopefully at my last job before retirement).

    • Damaris says:

      Anna, there’s the physical stability of staying in one place, but there’s also the — maybe groundedness would be a better word — of really being present where we are. I imagine that St. Benedict meant both. We are always called to achieve the second, even if, like St. Paul, we’re not called to the first.

      Hang on to that job! I hope your retirement plans and timing work out for you.

  21. Lukas db says:

    I just sailed across Lake Michigan. The great waves of our sweet water, the breath of our snows. We left at dawn, and the sun rose over the dunes behind us as we cut through the first breakers. The wind was rattling in the dune grass, but I could not hear it. Everything was the rush of water, the spray of wind over wave.

    Hours later, the spires of Chicago cut through the mists. We docked just as a great thunderstorm materialized over us, and the rain fell on us in sheets and howled through the rigging of nearby masts, and then the storm was gone. My brother and I left that evening for Michigan again. I like Chicago, but I cannot stay long in a place without trees. It exhausts me; I feel on edge, naked below the dome of the skies.

    Now I am home, and trees surround me Atop this sandy hill. I like saying the names of the trees as I see them. Pinus resinosa. Bark-like-scales. Pinus alba, wintery, with craggy branches. Quercus rubrum, the ancient. There is a constant soughing when the air breathes. And here, a bit farther away, is the place where lily-of-the-valley bloomed not two months past. Legend says they first sprouted when Eve wept on the ground, cast out of Eden. You could smell them at night a quarter mile away, the tears of one who had seen paradise.

    Here there is a field. Hawks-eye grows there, and plantain covers the ground under feathery red clumps of grass. Little blue-stem and others I don’t know the names of yet. Grapes slither underfoot. Above golden and indigo birds might wing. If you look closely, you may be drawn into the strange and alien world of mosses and lichens in sand and on rock. Above an eagle cries.

    I haven’t spoken yet about the river. Or of the small lakes and ponds, the smell of rain. They are a work unto themselves. And in the autumn all that is Michigan grows stronger, more poignant, and sadder and more joyful. I could never tire of it. But the winter is my favorite. I shouldn’t try, perhaps, to write about it here; I am writing a book about it, that hardly allows me to start.

    Let me leave you, then, in this summer field. You won’t grow hungry, if you know where to look. There are wild strawberries and raspberries underfoot, and yonder is sorrel, dandelion, burdock, grape, carrot. Daucus carrota. Look up! the sun is shining through the juniper, and all its needles are lit up like threads of fire.

    • Damaris says:

      Lukas — I confess I wrote this post partly for my own refreshment — which you have provided beautifully. Thank you for the descriptions, so vivid I could almost smell the flowers and feel the storm. I would very much like to read your book when it’s at that stage.

      And thank you to you others who wrote. I’m encouraged about the state of mankind and the world, that there are people who see and love where they are.