Under the Ash Moon

In Celtic tradition, the month of March is associated with the great ash tree. The ash tree is one of three trees that the pre-Christian Celts held sacred (ash, oak, and thorn), and according to tradition, Yggdrasil, the “world tree” was an ash tree from which all life was birthed.

Because ash trees are so tall, they were seen as the connection between the heavens and the earth, and therefore were understood to be powerful symbols of good in the world. In fact, it was rumored in ancient times that snakes were so afraid of the ash tree that they wouldn’t even slither over its shadow.

Snakes are an interesting evil symbol, too, until you remember that in the ancient world the snake was very scary: quiet and often venomous. It would attack you in your sleep, often looking for warmth in the bed of a person. Or it might strike you in the field, shaded by the grass.

Our modern zoological minds may wonder at this ancient symbol of evil, but our pre-modern ancestors just knew “stay away!” This, and its unusual form, is why it’s often a representation of evil in the ancient world. After all, snakes are not bad creatures, just misunderstood by humans who think they have to understand everything.

Celts would often carry ash leaves in their pockets to ward off evil, and would sometimes put ash leaves in their shoes to help with foot problems.

Beyond the magical and practical, though, the metaphorical can speak to our lives today. The ash tree can be a reminder for all of us to tap into our strengths in this month of March, trying to balance our lives a bit, bridging the heavens (ideals) and the earth (reality) of our being.

Saint of Birders

Today the church remembers a visionary 7th Century Celtic saint who vacillated between solitude and society: Saint Cuthbert, Bishop, Bird -Watcher, and Shepherd.

Saint Cuthbert was born in the year 625 somewhere in Northubmria (modernly you’d call that North England/Southern Scotland, right where the British accent gets super wonky). He was a shepherd in his first life, and according to the Venerable Bede had a vision while tending sheep that angels were ushering a soul into heaven. It just so happened that Saint Aiden had died that same night, and good Saint Cuthbert took that as a sign that he should replace the monastic roles now empty of that one memorable member.

Saint Cuthbert became a monk at Melrose soon after, and he was known as a kind and dedicated monastic. He eventually became abbot of that monastery just as the plague spread across Briton, and Saint Cuthbert took to the streets, making visits and cheering spirits at great personal risk.

In 664 he became prior of Lindisfarne (also called Holy Island) in North East England, but eventually felt the call to a solitary life and settled on a nearby island to live as a hermit for nine years.

In 684 he was once again called back into society as the Bishop of Northumbria, a seat he reluctantly took. Shortly after accepting the miter, though, he felt death coming toward him and withdrew back to his small hermitage to die in peace on this date in 687.

Fun fact: his bones were found a century later in 1827. His remains had been removed from Farne due to Viking raids and he was put to rest in Durham cathedral. An excavation that year uncovered his bones beneath the site of a medieval shrine dedicated to him.

Saint Cuthbert was not only known for his kindness to humans, but he was also known as an avid birder, being quite observant of the beasts of the air (and feeling a kinship with them). Even monks need a hobby, right?

Saint Cuthbert is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that sometimes we’re called to be and do different things in this life. Cuthbert was a shepherd, then a monk, then a hermit, then a bishop, and then retreated back into solitude…all were holy callings.

Different things at different times: all holy. Kind of makes you rethink that whole “mid-life crisis” thing, right? Perhaps it’s less a crisis and just a new calling.

Let those with ears to hear, hear.

-historical bits from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations

-icon written by the dear saints at Mull Monastery (www.mullmonastery.com). I found fascinating and engaging icons written here that will delight and inspire!

For Balance

Today is the Vernal Equinox, and we find nature yelling “balance!” as March oscillates between warm and cool, trying to decide how it will birth April.

Today the sun and the moon will show the weather by example how to find equilibrium.

On the Equinox my Celtic Christian ancestors would bless the brief balance seen in the sky. Even the ancients knew that balance is rare in life.

So here’s a blessing for balance by Celtic poet John O’Donohue:

For Equilibrium

Like the joy of the sea coming home to shore,
May the relief of laughter rinse through your soul.

As the wind loves to call things to dance,
May your gravity be lightened by grace.

Like the dignity of moonlight restoring the earth,
May your thoughts incline with reverence and respect.

As water takes whatever shape it is in,
So free may you be about who you become.

As silence smiles on the other side of what’s said,
May your sense of irony bring perspective.

As time remains free of all that it frames,
May your mind stay clear of all it names.

May your prayer of listening deepen enough
To hear in the depths the laughter of God.

(from To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings)

On Ritual

Today the church remembers the church father who, in all likelihood, instituted the feast days of Palm Sunday and the observance of Holy Week: St. Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem and First (unofficial) Sunday School Teacher of the Church.

St. Cyril was born in Jerusalem sometime around the early 4th Century. At a young age he was ordained a priest and, despite his youth, was entrusted with catechizing those preparing for baptism. This work was traditionally reserved only for the Bishop, but Cyril’s skill in teaching and relaying the doctrine of the church was impeccable.

The catechesis that St. Cyril created, known as the Catechetical Lectures are the clearest surviving notes that we have on the catechetical process of the early church for the Rite of Initiation which leads to the Rite of Holy Baptism (at least for adults…for children the process is reversed).

Cyril became Bishop of Jerusalem around the year 349, and remained in that holy seat until his death on this day in 386. Yet, during his bishopric he led in exile more than a few times, as that early church fought over doctrine and dogma (seems like a pattern, no?).

St. Cyril was Bishop over the Holy Land, the site of holy pilgrimage for many early Christians, especially around Easter. It is quite likely that St. Cyril, in all of his catechetical acumen, instituted the Feast of Palm Sunday and the events of Holy Week as a way to teach Christians about the Passion of the Christ. In many ways you can thank St. Cyril for what are, I believe, the best parts of Christian ritual.

St. Cyril is a reminder for me, and can be for the whole church, that rites and rituals are not “hoops we jump through,” but formative experiences that create a rhythm in our being that can be supremely meaningful in the right hands.

-historical bits from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations

-icon written by Brother Simeon Davis of Monastery Icons

Erin Go Bragh

Today the church remembers St. Patrick, the 5th Century missionary to Ireland.

He was not religious as a child, and as an early teen was seized by Irish raiders and sold as a slave in Ireland. In his bondage and loneliness, he began to pray every day.

He eventually managed to escape in his late teens and returned to Roman-Britain, now spiritual and convinced that he was called to serve the Irish people not as a slave, but as a shepherd.

He studied for the priesthood, and became Bishop of Ireland in the 430’s.

Lore is legion for this Irish saint, and he became known for standing up for the Irish, even against the will and decrees of his native Roman-British. He was known for leading a vigorous and historic life. He died in 461 in County Down.

Prayer of St. Patrick (updated by me):

Christ with me,
Christ before me, leading to stand between my neighbor and those who would harm them, shoot them, slur them,
Christ behind me, pulling me back from being the harmer, the shooter, the slanderer.
Me in Christ.
Christ beneath me, showing me how to care for those trod under the feet of a system that favors the already-favored,
Christ above me, pulling me out of the pit of depression and all the personal hells we all find ourselves in,
Christ on the right of me, teaching me to love those more conservative than me,
Christ on the left of me, teaching me to love those more liberal than me,
Christ when I lie down, making my bed in the many and various agreements I find myself in that I am proud, and not so proud, of…agreements that betray my values, and also ones that speak to the kind of human I want to be,
Christ when I sit down with the protesters…(Christ make me sit down, that should say), and when I sit down and keep quiet because I’ve seen my privilege and they don’t need another voice like mine in the mix,
Christ when I arise like a phoenix from the fires that almost take my life,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks, fondly or unfondly, of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks, kindly or unkindly, of me,
Christ in the eye of all who see me at my best and worst,
Christ in the ear of everyone who hears me, at my best and at my worst.

St. Patrick is a testament to how, when we fall in love with a people, we also fall in line with them against the powers of the world that threaten them. He was an ally for the abused Irish, and is now one of their patron saints.

Patron Saint of Social Workers

Today the church remembers the yang to St. Vincent de Paul’s yin: St. Louise de Marillac, Patron Saint of Social Workers and Friend of Those With Depression.

Born in France at the tail end of the 16th Century, Louise encountered many challenges in life. She was born out of wedlock to a mother she would never know and a father who died when she was twelve. Despite the early hardships, she had received an exemplary education, and her uncle was part of the Queen’s Court, which gave her allies in high places…that is until the civil unrest of the time forced his untimely demise.

When her father died, St. Louise went to live with a kindly spinster in town her taught her herbal medicine (Louise was perpetually sick), and from a young age she felt the call to cloistered life.

Unfortunately, cloistered life did not feel the same about her. She was denied entry as a Capuchin, and had to pivot to a plan B for her life. Her family encouraged her to get married, and she stumbled upon Antoine, an ambitious young man whom she would, in time, grow to sort of love.

From their union one child was born, Michel, whom she loved dearly.

But in these days St. Louise still felt much inner turmoil. She had wanted to follow a life of devotion to God, and yet here she was with a husband and child. She felt like she had abandoned her call in life which, along with the failing health of her husband, led her into a deep depression.

Yet, like so many in life, she lived with the depression, tending her ailing husband and doting on her son. I think we would all be surprised to know the number of functioning people living with depression, doing what they must for those they love, even as their insides feel empty…

One day in prayer, St. Louise felt an overwhelming sense of calm. She realized that she must stay with her husband, though she felt a strong call to the cloister still, and should she outlive him, she would refuse to marry and then accept her vows. In this same clarity of purpose, she also said she felt a Divine assurance that a new spiritual director would enter her life.

Soon after she met St. Vincent de Paul, and that, as they say, is that.

Despite her excellent care, Antoine died in 1625. As a widow with a son and without income, she moved into a more modest home, and lobbied for St. Vincent to become her confessor. He eventually agreed, though he was already very busy giving his life away to the sick and infirm in France.

Over the next few years, under St. Vincent’s spiritual care, St. Louise came to see her life attain more balance. She joined St. Vincent in his care for the needy and sick in France, and found both joy and success in the work. At the age of forty-two she went on retreat and received a new vision for her life: she must lean into her vows and start the Daughters of Charity.

Part of the vision was a realization that social class and stigma prevented the upper class from aiding the lower class. Yeah, sure, they sent meals and provided some minor medical care, but the tension between the classes remained and made everyone hesitant to give, and to receive, care.

Plus, St. Louise realized the aristocracy didn’t like the work of caring for the needy…and they were kind of lousy at it, honestly.

So, St. Louise set up a system of care that leaned upon the aristocracy to raise funds, but left the practical hands-on work to a group of sisters who not only identified with those they were caring for, but were trusted by them, too. These women who would come to care for the sick and infirm were usually from rural areas of France, and their unique upbringing made them supremely capable of the task in a way that elite city-dwellers were not.

St. Louise organized these women into formational homes, teaching them practical care and spirituality. Being savvy with governmental regulations, St. Louise began organizing her work to have centralized places of care throughout the city where the medical and social needs of the poor could be handled. She enlisted the help of doctors, nurses, and politicians to have sites set up in hotels, hospitals, prisons, the battle field, and eventually orphanages and mental institutions.

In concert with those doctors and nurses, she created nimble teams of care-givers to provide comprehensive services to those in need.

She, in effect, created a modern-day social worker network.

At the age of 68, St. Louise breathed her last, having set up over 40 places of care throughout France.

St. Louise is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that sometimes being in touch with the difficulties in your own life make you supremely qualified to walk with others through their own difficulties. And yet, it is often those people the church…like St. Louise…rejects at first.

Let those with ears to hear, hear.

In Like a Lion…

March is often a wet and blustery month. In primary school we learned that March comes, “In like a lion, and out like a lamb.”

Though that school was a very strict kind of Christianity, the deep truth that teacher (much beloved by me still) remains: March to the ancient Celts was known as a temperamental month. In fact, those born in March were known to be ones of swings in mood (and their mirror companions born in October are the same).

But with all the drenching wetness of March came a realization that all bodies of water, no matter how big or small, are of a sacred nature.

Water is life, Beloved. The ancient Celts knew this, and often named their waters after the godesses and gods they found gave life. There are still tons of rivers on those ancient islands named after Brigid (the feminine yang to Patrick’s yin) and others.

The amniotic fluid of birth, the well of life, the river of eternal life in scriptures: water was known by those ancestors, and still known today, as the thing that sustains.

This is why the atrocities in Jackson, Mississippi, and still in Flint, Michigan (and yes, Engineers, I realize you say their water meets standards, but the hell they had to go through to get there is still HELL…and it’s not yet all cleaned up), and Palestine, Ohio is just terrible.

Water is life.

It’s why we don’t baptize in whiskey or Coke.

The ancients knew this, and March is the season to embrace the truth.

The world needs to catch up to the ancient wisdom.

On Literalism

“So you’re not a literalist?” he asked me, a smirk on his face. He closed his Bible.

“I’m not,” I said, “and not a fundamentalist by any means.”

“Don’t have enough faith to trust the word of God?” he quipped. “Takes a lot of faith.”

“Actually,” I said, “I think I have too much faith to be a literalist or a fundamentalist. It takes no faith at all to believe something that is right in front of you. That’s easy. You’ll end up thinking nonsensical things, but it’s easy.”

He frowned.

“What’s not easy is trusting that, despite the flaws of the text, the history, and the context, it still has a Divine word stuck in there. What’s not easy is holding that the scriptures say something and that our intellect also has a part to play. What’s not easy is realizing that imperfect people wrote an imperfect document, and yet God stIll speaks through it…”

“But…” he said.

“That takes faith,” I interjected. “Literalism and fundamentalism are the least faith-filled expression of any religious tradition.”

On Dreams

“It’s just like I told you,” she said. “I feel like I’m behind in everything. I’m not where I thought I’d be at this age, at this stage, at this point in my life.”

“I see,” he nodded. “Well, sometimes dreams aren’t realized not because you did something wrong, but because the dream was just that: a figment of your imagination.”

“But it feels like I messed up. Like others are realizing their dreams, and I’m deficient.” She put her head down.

“The great thing about dreams,” he said, “is they’re new every night. Dream a new dream. That other one has grown stale. You’re not the same person who dreamed it long ago. You’ve changed.”

She sighed.

“It’s ok to dream a new dream,” he said, as he put his arm around her. “The important thing is to keep dreaming.”

O, The Lord is Good to Me…

Today we remember a legendary (literally) character in Americana: Johnny Appleseed, Evangelist and Erstwhile Ecologist.

Born John Chapman in the late 18th Century, Johnny’s mother died at a young age leaving him and his infant sister in the care of their father, a Minuteman who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

At the turn of the 19th Century a young adult Johnny shows up in Pennsylvania, tossing around apple and pear seeds like they’re confetti at a ticker-tape parade, espousing the philosophical and religious teachings of a certain Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish spiritual teacher.

Yeah. All you forgot about that, didn’t you?

Because he carried around these seeds and threw them everywhere, wanting to “provide shade for all travelers,” Chapman became known as Johnny Appleseed. But chiefly he was a religious fanatic (not in a bad way, just was), preaching the Swedeborgian philosophical beliefs as he went along. With a pack of apple seeds you also got a free religious pamphlet, as if to say, “Please, throw this away for me.”

As unusual as his journey was, his dress was just as odd for the times. Like a mirror of John the Baptizer, Johnny traveled barefoot with a broad-rimmed hat, to keep the sun out of his eyes. He traveled largely by horseback or canoe, and lived off of the extreme kindness of strangers who found a place for the young evangelist at their supper tables.

Though Johnny’s birthday falls in September (and some heretics honor him in that month), the sane Americana-lovers like myself prefer this March date because now is the time of planting.

Do yourself a favor and check out Swedeborgian churches. There are some still in the United States, though it’s a quickly-shrinking religion.

One final note, and this is worth remembering: though Johnny Appleseed dressed funny and espoused an unusual religious creed, most every legend or personal account of him notes his pure kindness.

Honestly: despite all our quirks, if we’re remembered just for that…that’s a pretty good life.

“Oh, the Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord,
for giving me the things I need: the sun, and the rain,
and the apple seed.
The Lord is good to me. Amen!”