Into the Light: Summer Spirituality for the Longest Days
Specially-commissioned weekly reflections by Brian Draper for June 2020.
When I Consider the Heavens
At a time when fixed bearings seem a relic of a bygone world, I’ve been so grateful for a few ‘true’ points in God’s Creation, from which to gain direction.
I’ve regularly watched the sun rise, through these strange days. It’s helped sustain my mental health, and reminds me spiritually of the constancy of God’s mercies, new every morning. Sometimes it’s instinctive to turn your face to the light; sometimes, it takes spiritual practice.
At mid-day, I’ve tried to look up. The sun’s at its highest at noon, and always due south: a chance, then, to check bearings, to reorientate and reconnect with God. I’ve learned a new word - ‘interfulgent’ - which means ‘to shine through’, like sunlight through leaves; or like God’s light and love within the fear and flux…
And at night, Polaris, the north star, pulses with the light of life’s ‘true north’, and whispers of the blessing that my own constancy might yet be, to others, when times get dark. Jesus did say, after all, that “You are the light of the world.” Which does not mean holding up a Bible after you’ve cleared a crowd with teargas, but surely radiating love, and a burning passion for justice and peace.
In the meantime, I’ve been so grateful for the church’s ages-old liturgical rhythms, which have offered deeper meaning to this year of turbulence. We’ve journeyed through the ultimate stripped back Lent (and to think that all we might have wanted to give up was chocolate!), through the pain and promise of Easter and on (through so much cleaner air and birdsong) to Pentecost’s in-breaking world. “Thy kingdom come”, indeed, indeed.
But now, as we enter the liturgical lull of ‘ordinary time’, Creation sings of deeper time for us, again. How apt that we flow from Pentecost’s flames into flaming June! “Let there be light,” God spoke, electrically, back in the beginning; and the longest day offers such a brilliant, unchanging point in the year for us to anticipate, not dismiss, as we seek to walk - run, stumble, dance? - in the light, and savour it.
Even then, of course, it’s easy enough to feel pangs of sadness at the prospect of our salad days drawing in, after June 21st, or as the sun starts to set gradually upon our very lives. So let’s remember how, in Jewish thinking, day follows night: “There was evening, and there was morning, the first day.” We can reach through darkness to light, in God’s grace, overturning the order of death and life, dark and light, exquisitely, as we go.
And this weekend, the gift of a full moon, too - a luminescent presence which bathes us in the gentlest loving glow within the darkness. You can’t look straight at the sun, but you can wonder at the moon all you like, just as King David did.
“When I consider your heavens, the moon and the stars,” he marvelled, looking up: “What are human beings, that you care for them?” God cares, truly enough - and to this we can be true, as surely as day follows night.
This week, why not ...
- Observe a sun rise or a sun set.
- Set your alarm to pause at mid-day, to orientate yourself, and to pray for a few moments.
- Step outside in the evening, to watch for the moon, and wonder!
- Look for Polaris. (Join the two dots of the farthest edge of ‘the Plough’, then keep going until you get to the next star! While it looks small, Polaris is 50 times bigger than our own sun, and is roughly 400 light years away. Reflect on what your own ’North Star’ is, and how you can be 'the light of the world’ (Matthew 5.14-16)
On Holy Ground
‘Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes - including you,’ writes Anne Lamott.
That’s not to be flippant, in a pandemic; but her words remind me that, far from finding lockdown restful, it’s been hard to unplug mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and I expect it has for you.
And so, as restrictions ease, let’s not assume we should be automatically primed for action. The Bible speaks of finding ‘rest for the soul’ for good reason, and thankfully the summer now offers restorative opportunities, even if we can’t go on holiday.
The trick, I’ve found, is to keep it simple. On the summer retreats I lead, we take a few steps barefoot, for example, to feel the grass beneath our feet. It can earth us, in a most heavenly way. Often, this evokes childhood memories, too; as if the child in us knew, all along, that here we stand on holy ground.
Summer touches the soul through the senses, doesn’t it? The Victorian nature writer Richard Jefferies describes a saunter which, for him, became spiritually immersive: ‘The grasshoppers called and leaped, the greenfinches sang, the blackbirds happily fluted, all the air hummed with life. I was plunged deep in existence,’ he writes, ‘and with all that existence I prayed.’
How wonderful! At a time when we still can’t quite get into church, he reminds me that Creation offers a uniquely worshipful space with all God’s creatures, of which, and with which, we’re one.
A summer’s day certainly aids the spiritual act of contemplation, which we tend not to do, usually, in a hurry. Walt Whitman admits, unashamedly: “I loafe and invite my soul, I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” It takes courage to permit one’s self to be at ease; though the psalmist urges us, too: “Be still and know that I am God.”
Not that ‘rest for the soul’ means everlasting idleness, of course. I led a retreat for St Paul’s a couple of years ago, and we spent time in Green Park, one of London’s most verdant spaces. I encouraged us, in the spirit of Psalm 23, to lie down in its green pastures, to ‘be’.
In our group was an exhausted psychotherapist, who’d been working with children in war-torn areas. We went actively to some delightful spiritual ‘places’ that day, but he reported that for him, these few minutes, of taking rest in God’s Creation, are what energised him most fully, for the work that lay ahead. We’re restored, no doubt, for good reason.
That day, we also tried the simplest form of ‘one-breath meditation’. The head photographer of National Geographic, Dewitt Jones, developed this practice on location, to help him take in the beauty and wonder of Creation, in order - beautifully, wonderfully - to pass it on.
On the in-breath, he’d whisper, ‘We take it all in’, and on the out-breath, ‘To give it all back.’
The gift we receive, perhaps, is the gift we become. Ready, to work again.
Try one of these, this week
- Try the ‘one-breath’ meditation, now (and each day). Breathe slowly, deeply, and remember the words: “We take it all in … To give it all back.” Be conscious of receiving God’s love, as you breathe, in order to give that back to the world around you, beautifully, wonderfully.
- Take a few steps on grass with bare feet. Savour the sensation. Find restoration in the physical touch which reaches to the soul.
- Pray, not just with words, but with your whole being, as you spend some time outside, Be conscious of the life around you: the creatures, the trees, the earth. Offer your prayer from within that unique, worshipful space. (And why not remember, while you’re there, to pray for the community of St Paul’s Cathedral, as it gets ready to re-open its own space partially; or for your own local church.)
- Spend a few minutes contemplating one specific part of nature - a blade of grass, a leaf, a stretch of water, a flower … Let nature teach you stillness. Just observe it. Nothing more, but nothing less.
- Lie down (if you can!) on the grass, and give yourself permission to be ‘at ease’ for a few minutes each day.
- Take your Bible outside, and read Psalm 23. Meditate on what it means for your soul to be restored.
Let There Be Light
It’s felt dark, at times, hasn’t it? So many challenges layering up, from the personal to the global… And in the midst, the challenge to savour the simplicity of what’s lovely, what’s good, when so much isn’t. How can I be happy, if you’re not, after all?
One maturing skill we’ve had to learn recently is to hold seemingly conflicting emotions together, in closer confinement; and 'the practice of gratitude' helps with this, according to the Benedictine writer David Steindl-Rast. Which is not about dismissing sadness. ‘Rather,’ he says, 'it offers us the opportunity to welcome joy into the same places we hold grief.’ Light and shade are part of the whole, and wholeness is a healthier way to think of things, right now.
It also helps to remember - as the celebrated courage and vulnerability writer and researcher Brené Brown says - that you can’t fight on behalf of others for something that’s not already in your heart. That means ensuring we draw from what’s good, even (or especially) if we’re focused on a struggle against that which is not. It means, in the battle for climate justice, say, stopping … to delight in butterflies, to learn bird songs, to ‘consider the lilies’, as Jesus said. To let the light in.
The nature poet Mary Oliver described her work as ‘mostly standing still and learning to be astonished’, which I know irks some activists, but that’s what’s makes her contribution rich; she helps us to savour the process and detail of life, not the rush to its utilitarian conclusion.
I’m also reminded of William Tyndale, the Bible translator who, 500 years or so ago, was up against the deadliest of deadlines: his imminent capture and execution. He also had the clearest of goals, to put the words of the Bible on the lips of all, including the illiterate plough-boy.
And yet: with every word and syllable, he wrought artistry. The myriad phrases he minted - ‘land of milk and honey’, ‘apple of my eye’, ‘let there be light’ … lent poetry to the stuff of life, with a language that moves hearts still, and can, at times, move mountains. African-American people who were enslaved took songs and sentences from Tyndale - such as ‘Let my people go’ - around which they formed their campaign for freedom, for example.
I love to recall, around the longest day, Tyndale’s willingness to savour the poetic detail, in the face of mortal danger. I shall imagine, afresh, him sitting to begin his translation of those opening words of Genesis, his pen hovering over the Hebrew as the Spirit hovered over the waters.
And I’ll take his words with me, as I find a place from which to receive, gratefully, the goodness of tomorrow’s rising solstice sun; and the joy it might represent, which we can hold within our places of present grief:
‘In the begynnynge God created heaven and erth. The erth was voyde and emptie and darcknesse was vpon the depe and the spirite of god moved vpon the water. Than God sayd: let there be lyghte and there was lyghte. And God sawe the lyghte that it was good.’
Try one of these!
- Write a list of simple things you are grateful for. Especially anything you’re tempted to take for granted.
- Stand still, somewhere, and let yourself be astonished.
- Ask yourself: what is my goal? And how might you focus more upon the process of its completion, rather than simply on the completion itself?
- Considering the sacrifice that scholars such as William Tyndale made, why not reflect on one particular piece of scripture that has especially shaped or moved you. Return to it, today, with gratitude, and read each word with a renewed sense of wonder.
- Try to get outside tomorrow, to savour the light of the longest day. You might even like to join me, wherever you are, to observe the sun rise, and to read Tyndale’s opening to Genesis 1 as you wait and watch.
Air, Water, Fire, Earth.
For something - Someone - so indescribable, I love how God’s Spirit is expressed so elementally in the Bible.
Spirit is wind. I walked my lockdown route with my daughter this week, along a field of barley, all golden like mid-summer; and when the breeze picked up it swayed the crop like waves on the sea; we felt its whisper in the leaves, and watched it hurry the clouds, above.
‘We don’t live beneath the sky,’ the founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society once said, ‘we live within this vast ocean of air’ - which reminds me, when I remember to pause and breathe in fresh lungfuls gratefully, that I’m as much within the Spirit, as the Spirit is within me.
Wind is the invisible element, perhaps for good reason. God’s ways are not our ways, and the Spirit blows where it wishes. If we wish to be inspired, then, we must also yield to its creative direction. The poet Steve Turner writes:
‘I used to think of you
as a symphony
neatly structured …
Now I see you as
a saxophone solo
blowing wildly into the night …’
Spirit is water, too. This week it was St John’s Day, which overlays the ancient mid-summer festivals; a reminder that John precedes his cousin Jesus by six months, baptising, as he did, with water. When the waters of the Jordan broke at Jesus’ baptism, it signalled the second great birth of Creation, the first being when God’s Spirit hovered over the surface of the deep, in the beginning …
Water overflows with meaning, of course; but for me it’s channelled most refreshingly in the image of the well-spring. Jesus offered living water, which he promised would become a spring welling up in us. If you’ve never sat beside a spring on a summer’s day, or traced a river to its source, try it: you become part of Creation’s flow.
And Spirit is fire, yielding (as ‘flaming’ June finally ignites!) the radiance of mid-summer, the warmth of fruits maturing on the branch… Consider the brilliance of the burning bush, which reminds us that the world is indeed ‘charged with the grandeur of God’ as Hopkins wrote, and will ‘flame out like shining from shook foil’.
How liberating, that while God’s light shines upon all that we try to hide of ourselves, God knows, and loves us still. It will shine through us, too, if we allow. Jesus says (in the Message paraphrase), ‘You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colours in the world’ (Matthew 5.14). What an invitation.
Air, Water, Fire.
As Malcolm Guite describes in his sonnet ‘Pentecost’, the fourth element, earth, is not attributed to the Spirit, but to us. We are Adama, soil, and the Spirit brings us to life, even as we bring form to God’s unique creativity through our very being.
And somehow, the spirit of a summer’s day seems to express this loveliness, like little else: that God is earthed in us, as we are filled with heaven.
Try one of these:
- Breathe the air. Watch the clouds. Listen to some jazz.
- Trace a river to its source, or look for a spring, or simply find some running water. Spend some time prayerfully tracing the inner Source of living water.
- Look for a ‘burning bush’ - something in nature that reminds you, ‘This is holy ground!’ Spend time simply contemplating it. When you’re tempted to move on, spend a little more time …
- The farmer-poet Wendell Berry writes of ‘resting in the Maker’s Joy’. Take some summertime rest, this week, and savour God’s joy in you, as part of the Creation.
Brian Draper works as a speaker, retreat guide, labyrinth curator and creative consultant, seeking to help people of all faiths and none to see the world from a creative and engaging spiritual perspective. His books include Soulfulness: Deepening the Mindful Life (2016) and Soulful Nature (2020). He is a regular contributor to BBC R4’s Thought for the Day. http://briandraper.org/