So look forward with hope to the twelvemonth a-coming,
And away with this festering boil of a year;
But the fire is still burning, and the world is still turning,
And despite all its efforts, we’re still bloody here!
— GreenMatthews, “Virtual Wassail,” YouTube, Dec. 2020
Here’s something Debi does every year on *her blog Seriously Seeking Answers, in order to stay focused: On her birthday, she takes stock of the past year and sets priorities for her next year. It’s kind of like the Daily Examen, but for the whole year.
Welp, Sunday’s my birthday. And if there’s anything I need at the moment, it’s focus. So I’ll try to follow Debi’s lead and take stock too.
‘This festering boil of a year’
I had been doing that, pre-pandemic, by learning the Daily Examen of St. Ignatius Loyola. Trouble is, I haven’t been praying the Examen very much since the COVID-19 pandemic got under way. Or taking stock of much of anything, for that matter. I’ve sort of drifted into a spiritual dry spell.
As I understand it, the Examen is about sensing the presence of God from day to day; reviewing our day, where we did right and where we fell short; and, finally, resolving to do better in the coming day. But for a variety of reasons — some good, some bad and none of them worth going into here — I’ve found that difficult in this time of self-quarantine and isolation. And the days run together, so it’s like we went into Lent in February 2020 and now, here we are 20 months later, still stuck somewhere, by my calculation, around the 100th Sunday in Lent.
So my attitude is less spiritual than St. Ignatius would recommend and more like a novelty song by GreenMatthews, an English folk duo featuring Chris Green and Sophie Matthews, that I found online at the end of 2020. Locked down away from their usual concert venues, they ran a series of promos for a virtual concert on the “12 Days of Christmas” available on social media. The last, a “virtual wassail,” looks back over the pandemic — “this festering boil of a year” — and notes, with satisfaction, “we’re still bloody here.” (It’s embedded at the top of the post.) Not exactly spiritual, but it pretty well sums up my attitude. In spite of everything, I’m still bloody here — and, as the song also says, looking “forward to the twelvemonth a-coming.”
Spirituality: ‘Finally, you act’
That said, my spiritual LED display is flashing “low battery” messages at me lately. Before my spiritual director died, about this time last year — about six months into the pandemic — we had worked out a system whereby I would:
- read a passage of scripture — often one of the pericopes or readings from the common lectionary;
- read up on the relevant textual criticism and any theological issues it raised;
- reflect on the passage, often following the steps of lectio divina; and
- journal on how it might apply to my spiritual life and what I want to do with it.
This system works beautifully because it allows me to intellectualize to my heart’s content (a lifelong temptation), but with the sure and certain knowledge that I have to come back down to earth once I’ve indulged the urge.
I follow a “four-easy-steps” article by Fr. James Martin that summarizes lectio divina like this: (1) Read; (2) Think; (3) Pray, and (4) Act. Other summaries I’ve consulted are more contemplative. But no doubt reflecting a Jesuit charism, Martin’s leads up to this: “What do I want to do, based on my prayer? Finally, you act. Prayer should move us to action, even if it simply makes us want to be more compassionate and faithful. …”
Well, it works for me. But I think we can safely say the pandemic has limited our opportunities for action.
It began for me on Feb. 29, 2020, when I went in the hospital for treatment of pneumonia (probably a COPD flareup). I was released a couple of days later, and I was still in home health care — which is for homebound patients only — when the pandemic hit Illinois in full force and Gov. Pritzker issued his first stay-at-home order on March 20. That’s pretty much where I’ve stayed ever since.
So it’s been kinda like the movie Groundhog Day, and every day is Feb. 29, 2020. I go to bed and wake up the next morning, and it’s like Feb. 29 again. So where do I go from here?
Is noodling on the dulcimer a spiritual discipline?
Turns out I’ve been over some of this territory already.
At the very end of 2020, I journaled about it on Hogfiddle, my trad music blog. The headline captured my overall mood: “Is noodling on the dulcimer a spiritual discipline? English folksingers nudge me to try it after this ‘festering boil of a year’.” Taking stock of the calendar year just ending, I wrote:
I’m making music again in the last few weeks. After a long time away from it. Way too long. A lot of this gets pretty arcane, involving different tunings on the Appalachian dulcimer; the differences between jam tunes and the ballads and folk hymns I prefer to play; and, of course, the damn pandemic. That one cuts both ways. On the one hand, our jam sessions have been on hiatus until there’s a safe, available vaccine. But I’ve been calling up more and more folk music on YouTube. And I’m playing the dulcimer at home in a different, and more congenial, style than chording along at jam sessions.
Only mixed success to report, but it’s been a festering boil of a year. (Have I mentioned that?) I’m still making music, but it looks like my jamming days are still in the indefinite future. Debi and I went to exactly one jam session this summer, just before the delta variant came swooping up out of Missouri and made social gatherings too risky again.
But I’m still making music in front of the fireplace at home in the evening. I’ve even found a dulcimer tuning that should work in jam sessions and give me the sound I like at home. (Without wanting to get too arcane and music-geeky about it, I can say it’s DAdd on four equidistant strings.) Staying home is definitely a Plan B — but as Plan B’s go, it’s better than most.
And, yes, noodling on the dulcimer is a spiritual discipline.
‘All manner of thing shall be well’
So what about next year? Welp, again, I have a couple of ideas, but I think I need to let them simmer a while. One is from T.S. Eliot. I’m certainly not the first person ever to go through a spiritual dry spell, and this isn’t the first dry spell I’ve been through. His later poetry has helped ground me in the past, and I remember this passage from “East Coker” in the Four Quartets:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
And this passage from “Little Gidding,” the fourth and final Quartet. It’s actually a quote, or close paraphrase, from Dame Julian of Norwich, a 13th- and 14th-century anchoress who cloistered herself in St. Julian’s Church in that city:
Sin is Behovely [necessary], but
All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well.
And this, which comes at the end of “Little Gidding” and serves as kind of a coda to all four of the Quartets. I don’t propose to go off on an extended disquisition here about Eliot’s Four Quartets, which Wikipedia aptly describes as “four interlinked meditations with the common theme being man’s relationship with time, the universe, and the divine.”
Sufficient to say there’s a lot there to chew on, it’s helped me in the past
In the meantime, especially considering this last festering boil of a … year? it’s been 19 months now … I’ll just take each day as it comes. Feb. 29. Feb. 29. Feb. 29. Feb. 29 … and trust that one day the calendar will finally turn.
- Link HERE for Debi’s birthday inventory and HERE for the portal to her blog. While you’re there, it’s worth taking a look around. She posts spiritual content to feed the soul; low-fat, low-carb recipes to feed the body; and photos of cute critters (including our cats), birds, flowers, landscapes and anything else she can fit under her heading “God’s Other Book.”
[Published Sept. 29, 2021]