Tuesday, January 23, 2024

In the midst of death, we are in life

    There is a Gregorian chant for the Office of the Dead that starts out "media vita, in morte sumus" (or, "in the midst of life, we are in death"). Very often, walking in the woods in Winter, the opposite line pops into my head. In the midst of death, we are in life

    The other day I was walking along, in a bit of a pissy mood, when I was struck by the sight of a dead tree trunk covered with multi-colored lichens, mushrooms, mosses, and no doubt hosting legions of bugs and microbes, and I thought, "there is so much life in decay!" 

    And at that, trees are very hard to kill! If you love the woods like I do, you will often have seen a tree broken in half, struck by lightning, or even cut down with a chainsaw -- and fiercely sprouting new branches, covered with fresh leaves, full of unquenchable life. And the healthy trees, the ones that appear at a glance to be dead in Winter when their leaves are gone, have twigs full of swelling buds, while out of sight their roots take advantage of the slow season to spread and deepen.

Beech stump, fully alive

    In the midst of death, we are in life. Dead things, decaying, return their livelihood to the soil for the nurturing of newborn things. A big, spreading tree falls in the forest, and in the sunlight that it used to block, a crowd of new seedlings springs up. As the green shoot sprouts, the seed it came from disintegrates into the earth. The fertilized flower falls to make way for the fruit, the fruit rots once its seeds are mature enough to start the cycle again. Life in death, death in life, life and death intermingled until sometimes, it's hard to see where the line is between them. If there is such a line. 

    And within myself, I think: what, in me, is dying? What is ready to be let go of, to be shed like last year's dry leaves? What is it that looks, on the surface, like damage, like disease, like grief or pain or heartbreak, that might instead be recognized as the next inevitable stage in the cycle of change? What buds are swelling, what is ready to grow? What is to be conceived in me, what blossoms will be pollinated, what new fruit might I be preparing to bear this year? 

    Change often hurts. It's also often exciting. It can be frightening. It can be brimming with joy or aching with tears. Often, change brings a bewildering alternation or commingling of seemingly contradictory intense emotions. Being in the midst of change is unsettling, disconcerting, it challenges our understanding of ourselves and of our lives. I want to clamp down, revert to the old, even when I can clearly see the much better new, just to escape from the wobbly transition. A crab, when it outgrows its hard shell each year, must shed it and live in vulnerable nakedness while the new shell grows up and hardens. I want to take the risk, shed my tight old shell, and grow free and true. 

    My only real, fertile stability is in my faith. It is in my Creator, the ground of all being, who transcends time and space, who holds all my shaky vulnerability, who never changes and yet contains all changeable creation. In love with my God, I am willing to let go of illusion, to live in unstable reality, in all its hope, its pleasure, its anxiety and its pain. I'm willing to close my eyes, stretch out my hands, and be led through the darkness to somewhere, something, some way, I could not have dreamed up on my own. Through the tears and the fears. Through every season's little death into the next new green day of my life. 

    And I wish you, too, in this new year, the courage to slough off the old and open up to the new, to let grief co-exist with joy, to accept dying as inextricable from living. To be reborn. Amen.

🍂🍂🍂  PEACE 🍂🍂🍂

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