Enabling holy encounter for lost and weary pilgrims
Author: Keren Dibbens-Wyatt
Keren Dibbens-Wyatt is a chronically ill writer and artist with a passion for prayer, story and colour. Her writing features regularly on spiritual blogs and in literary journals. Her latest book is Recital of Love (Paraclete Press 2020).Keren suffers from M.E. which keeps her largely out of the trouble she would doubtless get into otherwise.
Come to the manger all you sweet wanderers with disconnected memories and synapses that do not quite link up any more, like frayed cables lashing blindly in the wind. Come and worship the one newly born from and to wholeness. Where your ends do not meet he will find you, somewhere in the middle. All will come flooding back to your heart, if not your mind. Remembering is now done in the stillness of your soul and the integrity of ideas does not matter here.
Come and sit by the crib, all you dear and desperate ones, clinging to difficult pasts or fragments of yourself because it is all you have to go on in the jigsaw of life. The unknowing and the heart-breaking urgency to belong somewhere, anywhere, will come to rest here. This place is your storm harbour, and your safety. Find your identity here, sat on sacred ground, be it cold and stony. He knows who you are, even when you do not.
Come, blessed hearts, to the stable, all you anxious and traumatised, troubled and sobbing. Here is the Prince of your Peace, bring him all you have, the flashbacks and the anger, the deep desire to forgive and forget the terrible. The longing to have a future free from angst. Come weeping and gnashing and find your soothing lullaby here in a cradle of heaven’s heart.
Come near, you beloved, to the soft golden straw, you unsure of your own senses, hearing the voices and the commands of harm and horror. The fog of uncertainty surrounds and taints all things and the promptings are powerful, but here in the love-light you will see the mist clearly dissipate, hear the dark declarations silenced this quiet night. For the Good Shepherd sleeps and softly gurgles here, and you will know his voice as it quells those other tides.
Come now, the cherished, drawn to the light of the candles, you claimed forgotten, clenched and exhausted, abandoned by sleep and joy, left dwelling in dark clouds and unable to feel your way to any happy thought. Despair and disappointment have long been your companions, their constancy too strong to fight and too hard to bear. This is the home of hope, this small and perfect beginning. The glow can start again for us all, the flame rekindled.
Come all you treasured edge-dwellers, to Bethlehem, you precious peerers around corners, you unworthy ones who cringe and cower if someone notices your difference, your bare brokenness. Do not cover your eyes here or hide your shape that appears so unseemly to your skewed vision. Here is the reflection of your true self that is able to look at its image and smile. This tiny form contains you as beloved and acceptance is yours to receive.
We all come, we scarred and smashed, we broken and battered, we weary and wounded. We adored. There is miraculously room for all to gaze and know, in one awestruck moment of seeing, that this baby boy is our centre, the middle of all things, the stone dropped in the centre of the ocean of the universe, rippling out in waves of wonder that will captivate us and draw us in to love.
Here in the UK the next two weeks are when the bluebells are at their best. Before my chronic illness made me housebound, I used to make an annual pilgrimage with a carer and wheelchair to a little copse a few miles away. It meant the world to me to see such beauty, and to breathe in the delicate perfume of the flowers.
It’s been a few years since I was well enough to go, and it makes me very sad. But this year, there are lots more people who are sad that they can’t get to visit woodlands to see one of Britain’s natural wonders.
Moved by that and the Holy Spirit’s prompting, I decided to write an immersive piece to help us all go and see the bluebells. I would love it if you would read and share it, and also, if you would take up my Honeycomb Hermit’s challenge: to fill social media this week with bluebells; paintings, photos, videos and poems. Whatever melts your heart about these wonderful flowers, let’s all celebrate them and their amazing creator together! Please use the hashtag #BluebellChallenge and tag me @HoneycombHermit
You stand for a few moments by the barbed wire on the verge. Little strands of wool have caught here and there and are tugged gently by the fresh spring breeze.
“Come and play,” it seems to be saying, echoing the sentiments of the lambs in the field. Now and then it’s a little chilly, but mostly the sunshine is warm and it makes you feel strangely hopeful for the future.
There is a large oak tree in the middle of the field and most of the sheep are lazing in its shade. A few newborns bound about, chasing one another, calling to their mothers,
“Maaaaaa…maaa” when they turn around sharply and forget in their joy where they are. She anchors them with a lower sound, letting them know she is watching. There are quite a few twins, as always, and some of the braver ones see you, and look wide-eyed in wonder at the strange new creature. The ewes eye you with suspicion, protective of their little ones. They are all well looked after, bales of hay straggling in corners, lush green grass, troughs of rainwater.
You smile at their antics and look further on, gazing at the mauve hills and acres of sweet chestnut woodland behind them, so many colours and curves, so many new leaves. A feast of abundant life.
And for the first time in a long while, you are able to stand and look at the sky. It is always a shock, after a long time indoors, to remember it is there, this great ocean of pale blue, heaven’s canopy, stretching too far for mere human vision to follow. You feel stunned by its grandeur and that it is, like everything holy, just too much to look at for long. You close your eyes and take a deep breath of fresh ozone. You cannot help but smile at the idea that you now have lungs full of sky. The beauty and crispness of it seem to pass into your whole being, as though you too, might be glowing with light.
You stretch, and turn, a little reluctantly, but then remember why you are here. There is another natural wonder waiting for you. You cross the small country lane and head along the dirt path that leads into the copse. Even those first few steps, where the world changes from grass to woodland, are a beautiful transition. The ground ivy and delicate purple violets look up at you, starry-eyed, wondering what you are about, so large and clumsy. And the buttery celandines shimmer seemingly just for you.
The edges of the path are littered with last year’s dead leaves, dried and crunchy, brittle-boned reminders of a season long over. Life is here now, and the tiny buds and green leaves poke out everywhere from stems and stalks that have shot up in joyous abandon. You start, as you see a quick movement off to your right, deeper into the trees. A rabbit perhaps, or a fox? Your heart beats a little faster and you breathe deeply, savouring the moment. There is a magical sense of wonder at being so near God’s creatures. You feel, just for a moment, overwhelmed with gratitude. That you are here, that all is well, that things past are done with.
As if to affirm your delight, a holly blue alights on a wood anemone, a piece of sky that came loose and zig-zagged its way down to earth on spring wings. It looks so perfect as it sups on the nectar of the white flowers. Your instinct is to reach for your phone, to take a photo. But you stop yourself. This is a sacred time and instead you commit the whole thing to memory. A few pictures as you leave perhaps, but not now. The butterfly soars upwards, having shared your life for mere moments, and brightened it immensely. Some people are like that, you think, dazzling with their loving presence. And prayer most certainly is. Entering the woods feels like a pilgrimage you have put off for too long.
And then you turn the corner, and you see them. You cannot help yourself, and gasp.
All about you, at every side, is a carpet of bluebells. A cobalt cloud of witnesses, purpling every inch of ground. The perfume, sweet and mesmerizing, does not cloy, but refreshes more than just your senses. The perfection of the scene is almost too much to bear, after such a long time. No wonder nature only makes this display for one fortnight a year. No-one could take more of this. A few tears fall. You had been holding them in. Maybe they were saved for today.
“Thank you,” you mouth, afraid to break the quiet. And then, heaven, a robin’s song, one chorister in this cathedral of trees, singing out praises you can only dream of articulating. How such a tiny creature can belt out such arias is a mystery. But the woodland is full of the sound, and you can almost hear it sigh, like a hungry belly rounded with delicious food. You look around as the sound gets nearer, and suddenly there it is, sat on the large branch of a fallen tree, right before you, staring at you, and it is as if, for one glorious moment, you are the only two creatures in the world. It stops singing a moment, to consider you better, cocking its head once to either side, and then flies up to a better viewpoint on the next tree along, bursting into a flame of song again, as if to encourage you onwards and give you its approval.
There is no-one else here, and you instinctively take off your shoes and socks, putting them carefully to one side of the nave, walking slowly and purposefully down the path, through the middle of the blooms. It feels so good to connect with God’s earth. The soil is a little dusty, there has not been much rain this year yet. You can feel every tree root and bump in the ground, and it is like coming home.
Everywhere you look, the thin green blades have shot up their fireworks. The blue heads bow, a cavalcade of priests, ringing out their prayers on their campanulae, writing their illuminations on non-scripted hyacinth petals, shaking out more and more incense with every gust of wind. This is truly sacred ground, and you are glad to be here, glad to be present at this service in this chapel of light and shade.
You walk or wheel a little further, go around or over a stile, and then sit smiling on the ground. There is nowhere else you need to be, and for now, you can simply take it all in.
What you experience today you can carry with you to sustain you in difficult times. A rescue kit of memory, the sights and sounds of woodland beauty sink deep into your heart; imprinting themselves on your mind, travelling deep into the refuge of your soul. This is one of those times that exists outside of normality, in some kind of eternal space. You will be able to come back here time and time again by just closing your eyes. The robin sits silent now, having sung his heart out for today, and listens with you to the chanting bluebells, and the soft sighing of the wind. You lean up against a silver birch, and run your hand along its peeling metal. Such treasures all around us. You smile, and breathe deeply, and stay exactly as long as you would like.
“If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” Romans 14:8 NIV
The world seems fearful right now. Things feel out of our control (because they are). We don’t have any training except in media-hyped panic and we are falling foul of the invitations to hoard and make sure we are marked safe in the war on contagion. Death is fine if we can keep it “over there” somehow, at a distance, like an old woman who lives at the end of the road. We nod at her sometimes, we see her out of the corner of our eye as we run to the next errand, the next appointment, the next job, but we don’t really look, just in case she has something to say. The last thing we want is to be neighbourly with the one whom St Francis called Sister Death.
We Christians have, in the west, been guilty for many years of thinking Jesus is like a kind of spiritual Domestos, that he will kill all the germs and keep us safe and that it is only the poor people abroad in those other, far-flung, not-remotely-like-ours places who will die, hopefully quietly and off camera.
But those of us who have been living in various states of isolation for a long time, those of us who are chronically sick and who have asked Jesus for help and have found him, rarely healing us, but more often climbing down into the plague pit with us, those of us who are well-used to looking death in the face, and finding only a sweet smile, we have some things to say to our fellow disciples who are scared.
You know all those poems you have heard at funerals that tell you your beloved dead are only in the next room? Though they are steeped in metaphor, they are not wrong. You know all those hymns that sing of heaven as a real and glorious place full of praise and light? They are not selling you a lie.
“He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” Luke 20:38 NIV
Death is a part of life just as Winter is one of the seasons. And Resurrection, just like Spring, is a real and certain living hope.
We all want to carry on living our earthly lives. Though if you are comfortable, you might be surprised at how many of the sick and poor are quite keen on passing through into something better. Death might sometimes be called a doorway or a rebirth, and so it is. But we spend so long avoiding the very thought of it, that such sentiments seem silly and twee, even to some brought up as Christians. We don’t really believe all that hokum, do we, about heaven and that? Somehow, it’s become a bit like believing in Father Christmas, a nice idea but we all know that’s not how things are.
Well, maybe now is a good time to sit with the idea that it’s all true. That this is part of the Good News. Maybe now we might quieten ourselves down and decide whether we really believe what Jesus told us, that we might, if we die, be that very day in Paradise with him. Maybe now is a time to sit and ponder how we might want to live now, if we really believe that we are going home to God when our earthly time is done.
Perhaps then we might be less afraid of dying and more concerned about not having lived for Christ. We all have an opportunity to make this pandemic a turning point in our faith and in our relationship with the Lord at the same time as taking necessary precautions. Maybe we have a little extra time that could be turned to prayer, or to loving our fellow humans and any creatures in need. Maybe we could be a witness to the love of God and the eternal nature of his kingdom by standing firm and sure in our hope of “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” that we profess to believe in each time we recite the Apostles’ Creed.
We may have less to lose, and more to gain, than we think.
Image from Pixabay
Keren Dibbens-Wyattis a chronically ill writer and artist with a passion for poetry, mysticism, story and colour. Her writing features regularly on spiritual blogs and in literary journals. Her full-length publications include Garden of God’s Heart and Whale Song: Choosing Life with Jonah. She has a new book, Recital of Love, coming out with Paraclete Press in June 2020. Keren lives in South East England and is mainly housebound by her illness.
We see meaning everywhere, even where there is none intended, making shapes and stories that suit our thoughts or temperaments. Faces in sliced tomatoes, angels in shadows, the machinations of pareidolia are endless. Even on seeing a bright star, we wonder what it wants to tell us and we will follow it to the ends of the earth, or play cosmic dot-to-dot until we imagine we have forged a Greek hero from a constellation.
Sometimes following the signs is wise, and sometimes, pointless. How are we to know the difference? The star that shines over Bethlehem pulls on our dreams whilst we sleep. It occupies our mind in prayer. It sits, gently fidgeting in our hearts, until we cannot help but dust off our telescopes, bring out our star charts, and speak of it to our learned friends.
Sages know not to name or number stars, but only to bask in their silver glow, as their servants check saddle straps on camels, and pack precious cargo into leather bags, new wineskins that will jostle with supplies, bearing the strangeness of specialised spice and fragrance, along with the clink of gold coins.
No, we do not always know when a star needs following, but if we wait, and listen, pay attention to its shining cries, we too may journey in readiness to meet our King, gifts that have cost the earth bruising our ankles in swaying gilded boxes as we ride towards a far off manger.
White lily sepalled in blue linen, the moon and stars swaddled by sky, you sing to us of innocence and grace, of fierce obedience and the greatest “Yes,” ever given. May it be as you have said. Let the lowly come crowding in, hailing your sweet fragrance, and the rich and mighty leave with nothing. First holy host, round and glowing, we await the birthing of God’s son from you, even as we wait upon our own mustard seeds of faith to grow to fullness. May you always be wrapped in the majestic colour of lapis lazuli that adorns the throne room floor, and be fitted as the Queen of Heaven.
Your sacred heart emblazoned in scarlet feathers, a bib of tomato-soup brightness where the embers of the Christ-child’s fire were brushed just in time from your chest. Caught light inside though, where the chambers of love beat loudly, bursting into song that lifts us higher than we know how to be. Beauty given breath from beauty, catching us up into the heavenly realms, a foretaste of flight and joyful worship we can only approach in wonder, sidling towards an understanding like an opera fan listening at the stage door or Moses peeking at God’s glory from a cleft in the rock.
A golden amphitheatre, a cloud of witnesses to the movement of the sun, charioting its way across the heavens.
Such an eye, and what seeing, beholding with your compound vision, the wonders of the above, and then folding in on yourself once the light fades, to contemplate all that has passed before you, storing the treasure up for later.
As you age, you learn that facing the right way is just one aspect of life, and you may safely receive whilst gazing even at the ground. Everything is, after all, soaked in the sacredness of sky. Countenance shining from holy transference, glowing with God, a Mosaic face, blessed by glory.
Spiralling seeds begun here will feed us, and flocks of birds, with concentrated wisdom. The sun’s sagacity caught and held, the wisdom of a blooming marvel. All of this within a head that knows when to adore and when to bow, how to let inner green and beauty go, thence to shrivel into ingredients for angel seed cake, still captivating every painter’s heart.
Speckled rainbow breathing water and knowing better than we do how to let it flow, gills gently moving in and out. Skin that reminds me of the surface of puddles settled under cars, driven off and leaving swathes of oily colour. Did God paint you to remind us of his promises, made to all life, no exceptions? Or have you just absorbed so much of the spectrum in your swim, bathing in pools kissed by sunlight, that it cannot help but ooze out?
Gliding in places we cannot find, secret eddies and glittering ponds fringed with the long tears of the willow that tinge and tickle your spotted hide with olive green, you spend your days gilded by mystery. You flick your fronded tail at disgruntled anglers, speeding past them with your raspberry stripes, making me glad we are now fishers of people, and can let you wend your rivery way onwards, supple and gleaming.
Soft light brushing against tall, tender stalks, brittle with age. Time now, as they let go of youth, to seek out Rumpelstiltskin and learn how to spin this dry straw into gold. How does that happen except by heavenly alchemy; the way we tell one another our stories? Just as we turn to silver and start to fade into starlight, so the grasses of the field take on the flaxen wonder of pale auric shine, and we find it harder to bend, our voices becoming reedy and our roots less anxious to hold on.
We are all preparing for the journey onward, and in the mean time we will stand on the edges, border sea and sand, keep sentinel on cliffs and along byways, teaching the young the value of boundaries and tides, leaning arthritically into the sighing of the wind, which will soon carry us home.
I was not going to write a post this week. Honouring the dead with silence seemed more in keeping with the centenary of the end of WW1. Having recently completed a novel about that conflict, the horrors of it are all too fresh in my heart and mind. But, I felt moved to write this. Lest we forget.
I stand on the battlefield, careworn and weary with my own soldiering, sheltering my palmful of treasure. I cannot know the horrors that drench this earth, but I will still stand here with you, shifting the weight of my ignorance from foot to foot, my hand curling around the black dots, waiting for the right moment to release them.
I will keep silence for just this little while, when you have kept it a hundred years. And when I am soaked in the greyness of the clouded sky, and the countless white crosses have floored my heart, I will close my eyes and feel the solidity of the sadness in this land. It rises up through my soles, it tugs childlike at my humanity, it wrenches my gut, it bayonets my heart.
And when that song of your untimely end has pained its way along my living sinews, and shuddered my synapses, and made me remember you, only then will I say, “Lord have mercy,” and throw my poppy seeds into the harsh November wind, that they might be carried like you by chilly winds of chance, and thrown into the mangled mud of no-man’s land, the possibility of red resurrection always there, bright flowers on unmarked graves and trampled terror.