March is my least favorite month of the year. Winter is winding down, but rarely leaves quietly. It’s often cold, but also wet and windy—the worst weather conditions—and even as it warms, the white snow turns dingy gray and black, uncovering a winter’s worth of dirt and debris:
Fat Tuesday Why should the robin be the harbinger of Spring? Why watch for flowers? The tulip and the thrush borrow beauty from the sun; tug their strength up from the dark earth. Stronger still, and darker, is the crow. Songbirds ride the North Wind south; flowers hang their heads and retreat beneath the snow. The crow remains. Feathers ruffed, dark eye glaring sidelong, he stoops; picks bits of hide and hair from the cold pavement. A lean meal this Christmas, but Easter comes, and Nature’s bounty blooming black from the snow. A stiffened ear; the rack and ripe entrails— the crow consumes all, makes ready the house for the Master’s arrival.
He waits, black as the cloth, preaching his monosyllable, fasting.
As a general rule, I don’t shovel after March 1.* Invariably we get snow in March (and even April), which means that while our neighbors’ driveways still have nice straight edges and clear entry points, ours is a lumpy and treacherous mix of snow, slush, and refreeze.
When the blustery weather finally breaks (temporarily, of course), we see our first serious warm-up and venture out for a walk around the neighborhood. The curbs and gutters run with miniature rivers and rapids; last autumn’s soggy leaves and twigs form dams creating shallow pools for passing cars to splash through, and the storm sewers roar and rumble. The plowed snow along the road melts from the bottom up, creating shelves of ice that crunch and give way beneath our boots. With no talls weeds to hide it, litter appears — the soggy remains of last fall’s lunch someone tossed out the car window before the first snow. And then, after a couple days and maybe a good, hard rain, the mud forms.
Last weekend, Fr. Park preached on the importance of rest. The Lord calls His followers to come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest awhile (Mark 6:31). We do well to rest with the Lord by keeping holy the Sabbath—attending Mass and resting from activities that do not renew us in body and spirit—and by regularly withdrawing from the world to spend time with Jesus on retreat.
First, I want to second Father’s retreat recommendation. I’ve been blessed to make a personal retreat almost every year since I left the University of Minnesota and came to work for the Church. The first was a hermitage retreat at Pacem in Terris in Isanti, during which I spent a few days and nights in a comfortable one-room cabin in the woods; a basket of simple foods and water were left on my doorstep each morning, and I was encouraged to read scripture, reflect and pray in silence, on my own. A couple years ago I did something similar at Holy Hill in Wisconsin, renting a room in the old monastery and enjoying a self-imposed silence and reflection at an otherwise bustling shrine.
The rest have been three-day silent retreats at Demontreville in Lake Elmo, with a Jesuit retreat master leading us through the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, simple rooms, great food and quiet consistency from one year to the next. All have been fruitful, and when I re-enter the silence of retreat, I find God waiting for me, right where we left off.
I was blessed, on my trip to Michigan and back in the past few weeks, to listen to The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis in its entirety. The version available on Audible, narrated by Geoffrey Howard, is approximately 24 hours of continuous listening, and worth every minute. The three books of The Space Trilogy were certainly inspired by classic science fiction of the last century, but combine these influences with fantasy, mythology, horror and Christian theology.
The first book, Out of the Silent Planet, is the most sci-fi of the three, delving into interplanetary space flight and exploration, extraterrestrial life-forms and more. A British linguist named Ransom is shanghaied onto a spaceship bound for a nearby planet known by its native inhabitants as Malacandra. He escapes his captors to discover multiple rational animals with very different appearances, skills and abilities, and cultures, who nevertheless live together in good-humored and mutually beneficial peace. Slowly Ransom abandons his earthly notions of power, control, and desire and strives to help the natives against the other Earthlings who seek to exploit them.
The second book, Perelandra, is a science-fantasy tale also involving interplanetary travel and extraterrestrial life to frame a retelling of the temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden. Ransom agrees to travel to the planet Perelandra on an urgent mission, but with no idea what that mission is. He encounters a lone humanoid woman who lives in harmony with the world and creatures around her and is searching for her man. An old adversary arrives from Earth to tempt the woman into disobeying the higher powers she knows on Perelandra, and Ransom must again fight against his fellow man as well as demonic activity to save a pristine world from importing Earth’s sin.
The final book, That Hideous Strength, is as long as the first two books combined and takes place entirely on Earth, specifically, in England. It continues Ransom’s tale in a story combining dystopian fiction, Arthurian legend and horror to critique materialism, modernism, politics, education and contemporary ideas of gender and marriage. It follows a young sociologist striving to get ahead in his career by joining a new and increasingly powerful national scientific insitute, while his wife, who is struggling with bad dreams that appear to predict the future, falls in with a small band of local resistance led by an eccentric old linguist who is rumored to be contact with powerful extraterrestrials who are pure spirit and are preparing for a final battle over the fate of the Earth.
Note: This post appeared as a column in the Sunday, January 17, bulletins for the St. Michael and St. Albert parishes.
Despite what you may have heard growing up, curiosity is not a virtue. It’s natural for children to be curious: everything is new and wondrous, and developing brains absorb it all like a sponge. Parents are naturally excited to see their children explore the world around them and encourage them to take it all in—but at a certain point, our desire to know outstrips our need.
[T]he snake said to the woman: “You certainly will not die! God knows well that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil.”
It is not insignificant that the tree at the center of Man’s fall from grace into sin is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam and Eve had all they needed. They walked in perfect love and justice with each other and with God. But they grasped at more and fell—and all of us with them.
The solitary serpent that tempted our first parents seems to have the entire world in its coils today, and I find myself increasingly drawn to try to make sense of the chaos. On some level this makes sense: I have a family to care for and protect, and a responsibility to build God’s kingdom even in the ruins around me.
I dropped Trevor at Holy Spirit yesterday morning and took the scenic route home, past Pelican Lake. The sun was a blaze of yellow-gold in an ice blue sky, the snow was a hard gleam of white over the fields, and the shadows cast by bough, branch or blade cut dark blue gashes on the ground. The dawn was a study in brightness and contrast—the colors washed out or deepened until the world almost appeared black and white, the lines sharpened, the darkness more stark in the light…
…until a new perspective set the wild lands ablaze. I followed a sweeping curve, and the sunrise ignited the landscape. Woods and weeds, willows and reeds, glowed with a golden halo of hoarfrost—what looked as bitter and biting as last week’s election now softened and warmed in the golden light.
Isn’t it strange what perspective can do? Hard lines and shadows dissolve in the divine light, beauty blazes up, and with it goodness and truth. The night ends, the day breaks, the winter is long but finite; the Lord still pours out His life and love, still looks upon all the work of His hands and, smiling, says, Behold, it is very good.
We dare not hold that gaze too long, that look of love in His eyes. We feel ourselves a waving weed in a windblown winter field, exposed, insignificant, starved for His attention. Do we not see that, bathed in His light, each of us is beautiful, unique and necessary? We are ablaze with divine life, and the world is ours to warm.