In sixth-grade English, we were tasked with finding a poem that “spoke to us.” It was a two-part assignment. We were to recite it in front of the class along with our interpretation. I remember one student chose a Shel Silverstein poem; another picked Mr. Mister’s ’80s pop ballad “Kyrie.” I went in a different direction. I chose Confucius’ ode to mortality, “You Will Die.” The poem ends as follows:
“You have wine and food.
Why not play daily on your lute,
That you may enjoy yourself now
And lengthen your days?
By and by you will die,
And another will take your place.”
I launched into my deconstruction of the poem: In short, life is cyclical and impermanent; enjoy the days before you are replaced. I can remember my teacher’s ashen face when I finished. Was it too dark for a child? Was my choice in assignment masking some preteen angst? (The answers are probably yes and no, not really.) I love the poem still because, far from being cryptic, it encourages us to live in the moment, to appreciate the song before it’s over. It has more to say about living than dying.
Lent is the time to think about the polarities of life. Endings and beginnings. Christ died; Christ returned. Our faith tradition hinges on his conquering death so that we may have life. But death and rebirth play out daily in far less significant ways. Seasonally, winter hugs the landscape, but as it starts to yield to the warmth of an encroaching spring, new life is in full bloom. And spring is a fertile time for prayer.
I think we are closest to the beauty and promise of life when we have kids. Full disclosure: With a few exceptions, I am not fond of children and have none of my own. I can only relate to this miracle through my nieces. They are little women now but when they were young, I will admit, I was powerless. When my oldest niece, Rory, was placed in my arms a week or so after she came home, I can remember looking into her face and seeing someone unburdened by a cynical world. I envied this little person with a clean slate.
The world—even an uncertain one—was made for her, and she was at the very beginning of the journey. Her sister, Cameron, came a couple years later, and one of my great joys as an uncle was watching them discover the world with fresh eyes.
When we pray, I like to think that is when we are at our most childlike. When we extract ourselves from the noise of the world and quiet our minds for a conversation with God, that is when our hearts should be purest. Now that spring is starting to show her face, I see a purity in nature. The buds on the trees, the flowers poking through the chilled earth, the birds readying their nests for new life: All of it bears God’s signature.
Sometimes the greatest “amen” we can offer is simply going outside to explore a world made for us.
A Walking Devotion
I am a walker—that’s how I investigate the world around me. It’s the one time I remove myself from all distractions and focus only on the steps ahead of me. I used to run for exercise, but the onset of middle age sidelined me from that activity. It’s for the best, really. Walking is more meditative. But I have grown to rely on this almost daily outlet. For me, walking is part exercise, part exorcism: Stretching my legs casts out my demons.
Because I’m something of a masochist, I prefer urban hikes with stairs to climb, but I’m just as comfortable in nature on a crisp morning. When I look around, I like that I am dwarfed by a sea of trees. I appreciate that I am outnumbered by animals and insects who see me when I cannot see them. It puts us clumsy humans in our rightful place.
When I walk in the woods, I often think of my favorite quote from poet Rabindranath Tagore: “Trees are earth’s endless effort to speak to a listening heaven.” My prayers have a similar trajectory: They start out as saplings and grow skyward. I come to God as a child would. That’s the way it should be.
Perhaps my greatest prayers happen when I’m on foot. Perhaps it is where I feel most comfortable opening my heart to a listening heaven.
The leaves on the trees sway
to the rhythm of your song.
The birds are singing your chorus,
while the breeze holds the melody.
Let me stop and appreciate your symphony.
And let me add my own notes.
Because I, too, am an instrument—
and together we are an interconnected part of
your majesty, your gifts, this world, our home.