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A poem for Ordinary Time

August 1, 2014

Sometimes you need someone else to remind you of the beauty and wonder of the world. Even at this balmy time of year, attention can grow tired. I find this especially true in matters of the spirit.

One Sunday a couple of weeks ago, sitting in morning mass at church, I was dully contemplating the long slog from Pentecost (in May) to Advent (December). This period is what is known in the Catholic and Anglican traditions as Ordinary Time, when there is – or rather, it can feel like there is – nothing special going on. Easter is done and dusted, Advent and Christmas are months and months away. It often feels to me a bit like trudging back to the office or the housework the day after a marvellous party.

Far from being the end of the excitement, Pentecost is, of course, only the beginning. This feast, celebrating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples, signifies the moment when the disciples of Christ changed from being followers to leaders. Fired with the Holy Spirit, they began to spread the good news and thus to start building the foundations of the Church as we know it today. The book of the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible is full of a sense of the exciting dynamism of this time.

Somehow, however, I so often seem to feel that Pentecost is an ending. It’s the last half-hearted hurrah after the spiritual high of Easter. After that, as the weather warms up and holidays come and go and school terms end and begin again, it’s just a case of dragging the children and oneself along to church, week after week, through all the disruptions and spiritual torpor of the season.

I’ve only ever been to Rome once, and it was for a single day. I was making my roundabout way home after a summer job in Italy, and had one day to spare between trains. My Scottish-Polish boyfriend had lugged his kilt across Europe specifically to wear it while paying his respects to the Pope, then a fellow Pole. Without a map, we found our way on foot across the hot and busy city to St. Peter’s…and discovered that the Pope was out. It was mid-August, the eve of the Feast of the Assumption, and he was sensibly on holiday at his cooler summer residence in the hills.

That is what Ordinary Time often feels like to me. It is as if the Holy Spirit is on his summer vacation: still in charge, but not making any personal appearances on the balcony to hand out blessings.

 

St. Peter's Square, August 1990: nobody's home

St. Peter’s Square, August 1990: seems like nobody’s home

 

Thinking about this feeling, a far wiser writer than me has pointed out that ‘to the new-born baby or the dying man there is no such thing as ordinary time: everything is shot through with wonder.’ I know this, and I too am constantly surprised by the wonder of the world – so why can’t I carry that feeling into my worship? Sitting in church a couple of weeks ago, I thought I must make more of an effort. Dutifully, I started trying to pray. But the old phrases that rose to my mind felt formulaic and stale.

‘This is getting us nowhere,’ I realised, ‘neither the Holy Spirit nor me.’

And I began to wonder: when I ponder what especially prompts praise and thanks at this time of year, what is it I really think of? Outside the stuffy church building, it was another glorious summer day. Beech and oak trees threw green shadows across the sunny windows; in quiet moments I could hear the chaffinches and bluetits chirping in the branches just beyond the door. And it came to me: summer woods, tall feathery grasses, calves growing strong in the meadow; hot sunny days, blue sea lochs, pebbly beaches. This is where I find love and wonder and praise. This is where I find prayer. Suddenly the Holy Spirit didn’t seem so far away after all.

 

Beaching the boat on a tiny island in the Linn of Lorne, Argyll, July 2014

Beaching the boat on a tiny island in the Linn of Lorne, Argyll, July 2014

 

Speaking of wiser writers, I have only recently begun to discover the work of Mary Oliver. (Isn’t it thrilling when you find a writer who can articulate your own heart? I feel so lucky to be embarking on a voyage through her poetry.) In many of her poems she writes about attentiveness, the importance of noticing the small details of the world. She writes movingly, too, about the soul’s instinctive awareness of grace. These two themes come together in her much-loved poem, ‘The Summer Day’. Reading it, I found that my own thoughts had echoed her words, as this little extract shows.

 

‘…I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?’

 

You can read the full poem here, reproduced with permission.

 

Bee alighting on a wildflower on the riverbank, July 2014

Bee alighting on a wildflower on the riverbank, July 2014

 

You might enjoy Spring song and Summer’s noisiest trees.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. Kate Fischer permalink
    August 2, 2014 2:36 am

    Mary Oliver is one of my absolute favorite poets. As to Ordinary time, I find it restful after all the excitement of Christmas, Easter, Pentecost. . . It helps me quiet to relocate my center. This is one of your best blogs ever.

  2. August 2, 2014 11:00 pm

    Hi Kate, how nice to hear from you! Thank you for your kind words.

    Somehow it comes as no surprise to hear that Mary Oliver is a favourite poet of yours. And I am very taken by your attitude to Ordinary Time: I will remember that and try to change the way I look at this period.

  3. August 4, 2014 7:47 pm

    When we are open-hearted and living lives of devotion, it becomes easier to have a sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit – to listen and to respond. Quiet times, with little more than God’s creation around me, are are some of the best times to align myself with His will. When I am in the place of truly being quiet, I am in a much better place to truly listen. Holy days can be very impactful in our lives, but it is in this “ordinary time” that we have the opportunity to get to know our creator, to be real, and to have relationship with him.

    • August 10, 2014 11:29 pm

      Thank you for this thoughtful observation: you speak so much good sense. I completely agree that it is easier to ‘listen’ in quiet times (and in the woods!). Perhaps this is partly why I find it difficult in the summer: with the long school holidays, trips away from home and visitors coming and going, peace and quiet can be pretty hard to come by! I need to work on being able to hear that still small voice through the distractions.

  4. August 6, 2014 9:30 pm

    I often find summer drags after the excitement of spring and before the onset of autumn – I’m now very ready for autumn after these hot summer days. But as in the church, to me this is a more restful time – a time to re-energise before the planning and new beginnings starting in the autumn.

    • August 10, 2014 11:31 pm

      Oh dear, I think the summer holidays is my least restful time of the year in many ways! Perhaps that’s the trouble. Like you, I am now looking forward to the beginning of autumn, and the sense of fresh beginnings that the cooler mornings bring with them.

  5. August 6, 2014 10:49 pm

    What an interesting post. Made me think about ordinary time. Looking at the rythm of summer, as it progresses in “our” small valley in Tirol, it appears to me, that it is working time. On the fields, in the woods, on the houses. The days are filled with haying, harvesting, building and repairing, and there is little time for anything else. The religious calender shows one celebration in August, dedicated to Mary. Then the spiritual time starts again in September with the harvest festival. It almost seems to me there is a relation between the pure need to get things done during a short summer, and the time available for some peace and quiet, giving spirituality the dedication it deserves….In our modern lives, with our modern jobs of course this works differently….

    • August 10, 2014 11:35 pm

      Certainly I find it hard to be contemplative in the busy days of summer. Time for reflection comes more naturally in the winter months, when the energies of the natural world turn inwards.
      How beautiful your small Tirolean valley must be, with the golden harvest sunshine!

  6. August 6, 2014 10:57 pm

    PS: Who is that pretty lady in the white, elegant summer dress? 😉

    • August 10, 2014 11:37 pm

      Haha, she was a very young woman a quarter of a century ago – and sadly she can no longer fit into that summer dress! 🙂

  7. August 10, 2014 7:04 pm

    Such a thought-provoking post, thank you. Recently our family was wishing Christmas would come, and at the same time thinking how ridiculous we were being, and also saying how much we love Christmas when it does come. It is a challenge to live through the less razzle-dazzle periods of life, sometimes. I love Mary Oliver’s poetry very much too.

    • August 10, 2014 11:42 pm

      Oh well, I am glad I am not the only one who finds it a challenge sometimes! The irony is that on the whole I am not one for parties and high days: I much prefer the quiet rhythm of ordinary days. At this time of year, however, I find that there is not much rhythm at all in our home life, and I often feel distracted and unsettled by that. I am finding it very helpful to read the responses here of people who see the best in Ordinary Time. (My family loves Christmas too, though!)

  8. August 10, 2014 7:13 pm

    A very thoughtful and thought-provoking post, DB. I think of Ordinary Time as the time we get to know Jesus better as we follow him through his ministry of teaching and healing and challenging those he met and those who accompanied him.

    When I was preaching every week I used to welcome the arrival of Ordinary Time, with the wide variety of readings it gave me to think through and preach from. After many years of ministry it can sometimes be hard to find something different and worthwhile to offer the congregation at the big festivals, so the breadth of Ordinary Time often came as a relief, a quiet exploration after the big highs.

    I too am just discovering Mary Oliver, thanks to an American blogger I follow and I loved this excerpt.

    • August 10, 2014 11:56 pm

      Certainly the breadth of readings in Ordinary Time is, as you say, an opportunity to delve deeper into the life of Christ and the early Church. And I do enjoy the way that, each year, one can be struck by a new angle on an old story (all sorts of thoughts on today’s reading about Peter’s attempt to walk on water, for example).

      I think perhaps my difficulty is that I am not very good at being able to switch into receptive, contemplative mode in the middle of busy times like the school holidays. A constant, daily awareness of grace at work in one’s life can be dulled by distractions. However, just hearing the thoughtful viewpoints of yours and of others here has been immensely helpful, and has given me much food for thought. Grace is at work even in the blogosphere!

  9. Caroline Waterlow permalink
    September 15, 2014 5:03 pm

    Such a lovely poem. I found and bought a copy of Mary Oliver’s poems in Mr B’s. ( I think you might like the connection!) I remember Ordinary Time in my convent school days, the flatness of it all, with days dedicated to obscure saints, mentioned in my missal with the briefest of biographies. At least the summer holidays came with promise of home. All best wishes to you, and hope the summer has lifted your energy and spirits. And I guess a time of transition as your younger son starts boarding school? So best wishes for this too.

    • September 16, 2014 7:23 pm

      Thanks for your kind thoughts, Caroline, and I hope that the summer has been kind to you and yours too.

  10. Mundi permalink
    October 1, 2014 10:51 pm

    I too love Mary Oliver’s poetry. Perhaps you would enjoy the poetry of Maxine Kumin. She died recently and left behind some wonderful poems and essays.

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