In the Christian journey’s four seasons, “All Shall be Well”

For a year of my life, I lived in Northern California, where the seasons felt all out of order, the rhythm of nature a mess.

In the winter, everything was bright and green from the cool rains and in the summer the grasses were golden and dry. Yet, spring bloomed with newness and fall was vibrant with colored leaves. This wasn’t a mess, of course. It was natural for that part of the world, but it felt backward and messed up to me because of my midwestern roots. I spent my childhood in Iowa where all four seasons were distinct, and winter was snowy white or drab with gray and death. Spring bloomed, and summer was brighter with life and darker greens and growth. Fall was colorful, chilly and full of feasting on squashes and pumpkins.

My year in California helped me learn that the four-season motif of seasons as I knew it was not the experience of many, and probably most. Although my spirituality and faith had been informed by the arc of four-season multicolored life found in the heartland, it would be unfair for me to suggest that such a perspective ought to be shared (or even understood) by others. It would be a narrow view.

I hadn’t thought about all this in a while, but it came back to mind as I read All Shall Be Well: Awakening to God’s Presence in His Messy, Abundant World by Catherine McNiel.

I was curious about the book because “all shall be well” echoes a mystic I am fond of,  Julian of Norwich. I thought the book might be good to review on Messy Jesus Business because of its subtitle — particularly the messy part. (It turned out that the book had nearly nothing to do with Julian of Norwich or her words, and the explorations of the messiness of Gospel living felt lacking.)

The contrast of the four seasons I knew in Iowa from how I experienced the seasons in California came to mind as I read All Shall Be Well because the book is structured around the flow of the seasons in the midwest. McNiel starts her explorations with a description of God as a gardener, with prose that reminds us of Genesis and God naming all creation good. From there, she takes us on a journey through the four seasons as I knew them in Iowa.

Along the way, McNiel pairs elements of the seasons with a call for the Christian journey (thawing with hope, heavens with wonder, harvest with gratitude, leaves with surrender, snow with rest), provides personal narrative about her family life, briefly introduces theological concepts (such as teleos, and kenosis) and offers invitation to pay attention to the wild and natural world of which we all are part. The tone of the book got me daydreaming about colorful bouquets of wildflowers upon hand-stitched doilies in sunny farmhouses. Bright. Pretty. Cheery. Said another way, much of what’s in All Shall Be Well is hearty like the heartland I know and love.

Aspects of the book didn’t satisfy my craving for deep contemplation about living out the messy Gospel, though. I may understand the Gospel more radically than McNiel. While some scenes groaned for expansion, other sections were unessential. (I could have done without the “life is hard” litany.) While complex theological concepts were introduced, they sometimes felt glossed over. I had similar struggles when I read about human concepts as well. McNiel writes, “Caring for people I consider enemies takes a great deal of effort, as does being generous with those I find undeserving, choosing my words carefully, moving outside my comfort zone, setting aside my privilege, giving sacrificially — to name just a few.” In one spot, much felt troublesome and I was frustrated I couldn’t enter into a dialogue with the author and unpack why she finds some are undeserving of care (I believe that no one is), and tell her that I don’t believe privilege can ever be set aside; it is our duty to share. Plus, the prose jostled me with vex because I am no longer used to exclusively masculine pronouns for God.

Yet, much of the book was beautiful and profound. McNiel’s description of her family experiencing the 2018 solar eclipse brought tears to my eyes. I wanted to shout “Amen, Preach it Sister!” when I read: “We often consider nature apart from ourselves, other. A destination. A tourist attraction. We go out to see nature like we go to the store or to the movies. Yet we are nature. We were formed from the dust, and to dust each of us returns.” My fondness for the book grew when the prose turned toward winter, and the Christian calls became rest, dependence, endurance and resurrection. In these sections, the insights expanded in dimension while I felt challenged to strip my life down, to gaze on God alone.

It’s been many years since I’ve read anything like All Shall Be Well; it didn’t fit my tastes. (My most recent spiritual reading was Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ and then anonymous’ The Cloud of Unknowing so that could be why.) Even so, in All Shall Be Well, I found a book that I could recommend to someone who is seeking an introduction to the Christian life, who is hoping to integrate their faith into their family and be more attentive to God’s goodness surrounding them. If this is you, then I suggest you dive into All Shall Be Well, right along with the wild wonders of God’s creation.

Learning to abide in care

“I have a home here because I know people care for me.” These are the words of my friend and housemate, Tikelah, also known as Miss T. Miss T had a home with her grandma as a young child. Since the age of 10, she has been jumping around from temporary house to life on the streets of Durham to a whole slew of group homes, desperately searching for a place of care to call home.

I have the gift of making a home at the Corner House along with Miss T and six others. We are a strange sort of family, rooted in our belonging in Jesus, committed to learning how to love and care for one another. Our ages range from 2 to 67. Some of us live with developmental disabilities, and some of us do not. All of us are bearers of Christ to one another and gift-givers in our little shared life.

What does it mean to be a community of care? How can we deepen in our care for one another in a world so caught up in efficiency and the self-protection of individualism? These are the current questions of my heart.

It is significant to me that the origin of the word “care” comes from Germanic and Old English words for “grieve” and “lament.” To be in a community of care has something to do with bearing one another’s burdens and crying out alongside one another. A community of care shares a togetherness in suffering. This is the kind of community to which Paul gestures when he says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn,” (Romans 12:15) and “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” (Galatians 6:2).

I used to live in a Catholic Worker hospitality home committed to sharing daily life with some folks living on the streets in Durham. We would often repeat to one another, “abide, don’t fix.” I know well the impulse to see a problem or pain and immediately yearn to fix it, eliminate it or somehow make it better. We live in a world that is quick to celebrate cures and explanations, so often abstracted from the solidarity of relational care. This leads to all sorts of depersonalized policies and “solutions” for injustices that separate us, including such things as race, disability and poverty. A community of care is one in which being together is paramount. Something happens when that commitment to “be together” journeys through pain. The communion is transfigured and a new horizon of love opens up.

In our home, we have three residents who have lost their mothers and other close family members in the last several years. The sadness of these losses remains strong. Almost every single day, the grief bubbles up. We are learning the surprising gift of abiding. Even with the intimacy and intensity of our life together, the lurking traps of trying to avoid the pain or say something to make it all better (which isn’t actually possible) are present. We so badly want to take away the pain of those we love. There is such a temptation in the midst of relational care and responsibility to think we control the quality of life together through doing or saying the right thing. Praise God we aren’t in control. We are learning the beauty of releasement as we sit together and discover our own capacities to listen to one another. We are uncovering the vast depths of love and knowing that emerge from open-handed, steadfast presence with one another. It can actually be quite surprising what we learn of each other and ourselves and God when we stop trying to fix the hurt we see.

I wonder how contemplative practice might orient us to abide, rather than fix, in our care for one another? As we discover our own depths and become more aware of God’s direct, loving, active presence in our lives, we come face to face with our own wounds. In silent practice, in particular, we are confronted with our personal loneliness, fears and anxieties. Through a commitment to showing up to some form of contemplation–resting in the God who is the ground of our being–our relationship with these deep wounds shifts. Perhaps the control they once wielded over our patterns of behavior and thought life softens and we can see them for what they are. We can receive Jesus’ invitation into freedom.

“Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, wounds, failure, disgrace, death itself all have a hidden potential for revealing our deepest ground in God. Our wounds bear the perfumed trace of divine presence.” – Martin Laird, “Into the Silent Land”

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Art by Janice Little.

As we come to recognize in our our pain the “perfumed trace” of God’s transformative presence, our relationship with others and their own pains is changed. We begin to see the nonsense in fixing, and the beauty of abiding. And within abiding, there is room for deepening, always closer and closer, drawn into the merciful heart of Jesus. Whatever the journey of becoming more freely and fully who we are created to be entails, we are invited into it together, as a community that enters into pain before trying to do something about it. This is the slow, patient work of care.

The root of our care is God’s care for us. In the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection, God reveals the mysterious depths of care. In Jesus, God became a human being and identified with our human woundedness. God cried out with us and entered into our pain and loneliness and fear. God doesn’t know what it is to “fix” from a distance or to be absent from our pains. God is too simple for that. In Christ, we discover care in God’s steadfast, abiding nearness, transforming the blockages of sin into doorways for new life.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Greg Little

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Greg Little is a husband to Janice and father to JoyAna, and he has a home at Corner House in Durham, North Carolina. He has learned from various schools, including several Christian communities seeking justice and peace (a Catholic Worker home inspired by St. Francis, Durham’s Friendship House, and Haiti’s Wings of Hope), and is committed to a life ordered by daily communal prayer and littleness. He works at Reality Ministries, a place proclaiming that we all belong to God in Jesus through fostering friendship among people with and without developmental disabilities. Greg and Sister Julia recently met in the wonder of an interfaith dialogue about monasticism and the contemplative life at Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina.