summer

Summertime Invitations

Summer: It’s a little word, like many, that conveys a great deal.  I have had an affinity for this season for as long as I can remember (which more than likely stems from celebrating a July birthday). Summer has signified a break from school, a trip to the lake, sunflowers in my wedding bouquet, camp songs, garden produce, thunderstorms, cook-outs, sleeping in tents, long days and warm nights.  This season is a sensory experience. What’s not to love?!

It has taken on a new look while the academic calendar does not define our days, and I am being offered a new invitation in this season of my life. Sometimes I crave those stretching, long days that lingered on and on. Sometimes I feel the nostalgic pull of the school year. But recently, I find myself rising with the sun and quietly making my way onto my back stoop, hot coffee in one hand, cool of the morning on my skin.

From my stoop, I am struck by the smell of dill in our garden, the cold dew on the grass, the chipper songs of birds in my ears, the pale light of the morning, the color of the flowers in bloom. And I feel myself breathing deeply in gratitude. This is summer.

Before I sat down to compose this post, I was on a walk on a favorite path. There is a point on this trail that rises over a bridge and then dips low. In the evening, cold air and the scent of fragrant branches collect there and stop me in my tracks. Every time.

The invitation that I am receiving with new ears is not only a response to the fragrance, or the coolness that gives me pause, but an out and out collision with the glory of the Creator--a glimpse of artistry as manifested in the beauty of the flourishing life around me.

Saints and Theologians dating back to the third century have referenced the ‘two books of revelation,’ suggesting that human reason is so perfectly created by God that we are able to learn about God through experiencing creation itself. This was particularly important to communicating revelation and wisdom to communities that historically were highly illiterate, and remains so for a variety of reasons. Certainly the ‘book of nature’ has been read in light of revelation through Scripture, but the two are seen as complementary.

How poetic that our souls are attuned to beauty in such a way, that we can catch a glimpse of God’s glory in a garden patch, the power of a summer storm, in the feel of the sun on our back and water rushing over toes. I love the way Elizabeth Barrett Browning notices the prevalence of God’s invitation and self-revelation:

Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes - The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”
— Elizabeth Barrett Browning

This is not to say that ducking out of church for the summer and heading to the mountains will provide everything necessary for spiritual growth. Nor is it to say that this invitation beckons only in these long days. It is to say that our senses are alive with the palpable beauty of creation and it seems to me that any time God means to communicate by way of reaching out to all of my senses, then the invitation therein is likely one to which I should be attentive.

Mount Carmel in the City

Of all the places to be in late June, I do not recommend Phoenix, AZ. The temperature the past few days had been topping off at 120°, so hot and dry that you did not notice your sweat because it boiled off your epidermis upon contact. But as much as the heat forced its presence upon my mind, the sight of Camelback Mountain in the midst of the city all the more assaulted my imagination as my Uber drove me from the airport to our conference.

We lodged in the valley of its presence. But great as my desire to climb its height, I learned to turn my eyes away from that vision cutting into the blue above me. I had only packed my swim trunks in addition to my dress clothes. And without a proper pair of hiking boots, I had resigned myself to a week of swimming between discussions of Josef Pieper, Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, the Church Fathers and Bl. Newman, St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

Fortunately, a couple undergraduate conference aides and a younger group of teachers were more ambitious than this aging professor. And near the end of our week, I found myself at 6am––before the sun begins to empty his quiver on the trespassers of the day––waiting for a quick ride to the trailhead. So I found myself in t-shirt, running shorts, brown dress shoes, and khaki dress socks ready to ascend Camelback.

It was the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. As we ascended higher, the little vegetation grew scarcer. Already at 6:30am, we saw more descending than joining us in our ascent. The shadows grew smaller. A mockingbird. Then some insects. “And the same John had his garment of camels’ hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins: and his meat was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4).

One of the young teachers, a missionary in Belize, was amazed at the phenomenon of so many Americans obviously hiking the mountain as part of their daily exercise routine. No one in Belize, except soccer players, subjected the body to such toils outside work. I thought of our reading in Pieper. They know no leisure. They have made work out of their spare time. A middle aged man called out the number of times he had passed someone as he ran up and down the trail. Another man in green camou subjected us to the pop-rap blasting from the speakers attached to his hips as he billy-goated up the mountain. “The voice of one crying in the desert: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the wilderness the paths of our God” (Isaiah 40:3).

As we rose higher, the vegetation gave way to dirt, the dirt to rock. The trail turned to the north, we found groups huddled under the eaves of boulders recovering their strength. We too stopped and worried about how low our water was. There were few still on the ascent above us. Some groups began to turn back, abandoning the quest even in the shadow of the summit. I wanted to turn back. My dress shoes were ruined with dust and sweat. My arches rebelled from the irregular rhythms of the rocks. My calves seized tight and whispered dreams of descent. My companions, all a decade younger, were a hundred meters ahead of me. I could turn around. The city yawned below me. All around, to north, south, east, west, the city sprawled. Patches of smog like whispers of fog on the lake, but otherwise a clear view of the city. A mosaic floor with their geometric patterns of roads and houses surrounded by the wall of mountains. This mountain, cut off from the others, stood like an altar in the center of this basilica under the baldacchino of the heavens. What view could the summit afford me better than what I already had? “What went you out into the desert to see? A reed shaken with the wind?” (Matthew 11:7).

At the summit, I found my younger companions were sprawled on the rocks. I rested my legs. One of the men read from the life of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati. But my thoughts were not on modern saints. In the last moments up the mountain, as the slick soles of my dress shoes negotiated whatever cracks I found in the rocks, my thoughts turned to John, Elijah, and the angels. Here, this supposedly domesticated mountain in the midst of modern America became my Carmel. “And he said to him: Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord: and behold the Lord passeth, and a great and strong wind before the Lord over throwing the mountains, and breaking the rocks in pieces: the Lord is not in the wind, and after the wind an earthquake: the Lord is not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire: the Lord is not in the fire, and after the fire a whistling of a gentle air.” (1 Kings 19:11-12)

I was supposed to finish reading Fr. Danielou’s “The Angels and Their Mission” for our morning discussion. How little we think of them. As we descended, my mind turned to them as I negotiated the rocks, conscious of the peril I faced. The light grew in intensity and, descending, my mind was pierced more by its brilliance than its heat. How bright and terrible they must be. Upon Carmel, we have no Renaissance putti, no Hallmark card cherubs. Seraph means “the burning one”. How little thought I had given to the light. “But what went you out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Behold they that are clothed in soft garments, are in the houses of kings. But what went you out to see? A prophet? Yea I tell you, and more than a prophet. For this is he of whom it is written: Behold I send my angel before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.” (Matthew 11:8-10).

Back in the valley: How long shall I carry this illuminating vision? Still, my mind wrestles with the image of this mountain in the midst of urban sprawl. There is no distant mountain obscured by mist. There is no “tomorrow, perhaps”. There is no feeling of safety or comfort. And that is good. I often wondered at the fearful reaction of Zechariah’s neighbors to his song. A song so important that it is said every day in the Liturgy of the Hours. It was is the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. On this day, the ears of man first heard this song that broke Zechariah’s long silence. Music and silence. Neither of these exist in Hell. I look at the text again. Now I see it. Per viscera misericordiae Dei nostri, in quibus visitabit nos oriens ex alto. “Through the bowels of the mercy of our God, in which the Orient from on high hath visited us.” (Luke 1:78). It is the same in the Greek. What imp had led us to say, “because of the tender mercy of our God”? Viscera. Bowels. The entrails of God’s mercy. A scandalizing thought. “But one of the soldiers with a spear opened his side, and immediately there came out blood and water” (John 19:34).

Is Summer About Escape?

Well it’s finally here. Summertime! Days of waiting for that last school bell, the last carpool line, the last exam, and the last whatever else, and now we are here! It is officially summer and Americans across the country rejoice in the wonder and excitement of no school, vacations, and weeks of leisure! I was blessed to spend a week at the Outer Banks in North Caroline the last weekend in May, before summer crowds descended in droves on the sandy paradise. There isn't anything else like feeling the sand between your toes, hearing the waves rolling in, when, in the words of Jimmy Buffet, "the only worry int he world is if the tide's gonna reach my chair."

I have always had an affinity for summertime, the relaxation, and the time to unwind, to leave behind the stresses of everyday. However, recently I've noticed that I often find myself looking to vacation for fulfillment, which leads to a disappointment when the time of relaxation is over. In the midst of the season of summer, it has been important for me to enter into vacation with an attitude of thanksgiving and looking for opportunities to give of myself during my time away.

It is important that we take time to relax and unwind, but it is also imperative that we do so well. Joseph Pieper has written a great book, Leisure, the Basis of Culture, in which he expounds on our modern understanding of leisure, and how it has been distorted. Many of us see leisure as a time of consumption, entertainment, and self-indulgence; binge-watching Netflix, eating and drinking a little too much, spending extravagantly, indulging our appetites, laziness, and selfishness. 

Of course, as Christians we realize that none of these are healthy ways to spend our leisure, but nevertheless, it is easy for these attitudes that surround us to creep into out hearts. Leisure in the truest sense of the word is an opportunity to reflect, to be rejuvenated, and should be the apex of our existence, rather than a small break from the daily routine, merely to recharge and re-enter that routine without having changed.

 

Through times of leisure (which Pieper would describe as much more than vacation) we ought to have time to reflect on what we've received and experienced and to wonder at the life we life. Leisure is an opportuity for us to adjust out attitudes! it is so much more than 'getting away from it all'. I hope that this summer you have a chance to sit in wonder at the amazing things that God has gifted you. Even through the difficult times we can always find something to be thankful for it we just take the time. Let's make this summer a time of transformation instead of simply a time to escape.