40 days of prayer: week 1, day 1

Ten people in our congregation are doing a 40 day prayer journal as we read through “Unbinding the Gospel” by Martha Grace Reese.

Week 1, day 1 invites us to read Psalm 103 which starts: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits….” At first reading I was struck with how I usually have a number of complaints and concerns that distract me from really blessing God with all that is within me! I focus way too much on myself. I suppose, though, on days where there simply isn’t much within me to give, any tiny mite of blessing that I can offer is a good thing. On those days it is “bless the Lord with anything I’ve got.”

Meanwhile the journal asked the question: Do you remember a specific time in your life when you blessed God with all that is in you? Do I?

Well, what came to mind happened 4 years ago. I remember it because for a whole hour I totally lost track of myself except for my amazement at being present. I remember it because it felt like all creation was blessing God and I, small human that I am, was witnessing something much bigger than myself. I remember it because it was so incredibly beautiful. I remember it because my daughter was there with me. Tonight the journal’s question made the connection that what I had experienced that evening was “blessing the Lord with all that is within me.” Truly. Now, if I could only practice blessing the Lord that joyfully on more ordinary days.

I wrote about it at the time:

Evening Prayer on the Rio Grande

We had come to the day of silence on our Epiphany pilgrimage to New Mexico. After enchiladas in the pueblo, experiments with pottery making, studying ancient Indian carvings on volcanic rock, learning new songs to sing, and absorbing the story of the magi who followed a star in search of the Christ child, our group would have a time to rest from human words. Yes, no talking for a day. We would have space to be still, listen and reflect on our week’s journey.

A day of silence was new to my daughter who had accompanied me on this pilgrimage, so I invited her, silently of course, to join me for a walk. We put on our thickest socks, our walking shoes (we wished for snow boots), grabbed packs with journals, and we two pilgrims trudged out into the cold, maturing afternoon.

Shadows stretched blue across the white snow. I led the way to the place I had discovered in the morning. One pilgrim behind the other, our feet crunched in the path of earlier seekers of the day’s sun and sky. If I lost my daughter’s shadow hovering around my feet, I knew to slow my pace and honor her city gait, less familiar with nature’s slippery pavement. Finally we branched off the snow-tramped way of other walkers and headed into the Basque, an area of aging cottonwood trees along the Rio Grande. This is where the four-legged ones make their home and playground. Our feet plowed snow past a fallen tree with white bark weathered smooth and through reddish stems standing bare from a former season of flourish. Our footprints mingled with those of swifter, lighter jackrabbits. Beyond stumps that served fishermen as campfire seats, the river reached from left to right, horizon to horizon, moving, breathing, faintly singing if one listened closely enough. Its glassy, turquoise reflection slipped through the ribbons of snow bank on either side.

Without needing to talk, we dug out comfortable hollows in the snow and placed our cushions on the frozen ground. We strangers had apparently arrived in time for evening prayer. A few others had gotten there before us, such as the family of Canadian geese who moved farther out into the water to give us plenty of room to watch the Sandia mountain. Sandia means watermelon, and this mountain imposingly rose above the land beyond the river, absorbing the remaining yellow warmth of the afternoon sun. The mountain was said to change colors at sunset. One or two at a time, ducks flew in and took their seat on the calm water. Some had black plumes on their heads, others a white streak and rusty chests. They chatted, fussed and laughed with one another over matters beyond my comprehension.

More geese in a variety of species and formations circled the sky. Occasional ducks had joined these geese lines, filling in the gaps within the flying V-patterns, a remarkable cooperation of diversity. As they glided in for a landing, their whir of wings whipped air only a few feet over our heads and fanned prayers of awe from deep within me. The birds were, in fact, so close I could look up and see individual feathers on their bellies. The sun drew nearer to the distant mesa behind us, and the crowds flying in intensified. Sand Hill cranes coasted from a nearby nesting site, their legs draping like long sticks behind gray bodies. They added their distinctive quawking harmony to the river’s rising prayer of honkings, quackings, chirpings, flutterings, and splashings. The congregation had assembled and the liturgy was underway.

The temperature dropped quickly in this desert land while the praise of the winged ones swelled and the mountain’s yellow folds opened into the rose, watermelon glow for which it was named. We watched and listened, transfixed and shivering, for a long while. Amid all this noisy prayer, the sun slipped silently away from the congregation’s worship. For a brief moment the reddened mountain and the translucent, pale river each held onto the sun’s parting gift of illumination. It was as if the two of them, mountain and river, had together swallowed the last bits of sunlight whole and then, internally radiant, had turned to bless the creatures with their own version of hillside and watery light. Their blessing pulled me to my feet in gratitude: I felt tears ice on my cold face.

But we mindful pilgrims needed to retrace the unfamiliar path before dark. The chorus of river folk continued in full voice as we wistfully left this place of prayer early. Even while we re-crossed the Basque, late cranes continued flying into the gathering. We heard lively songs echo off the river waters while we once again were slipping our way back along the frozen ruts pounded into the snow by human feet. The sharp wind rustled the cottonwoods, shook lingering leaves that hung black against the twilight. We sank deeper into our coats and hoods and even deeper down into our souls, full of what we had witnessed.

Our now hurried presence startled a lone goose dallying in the irrigation ditch along the path. He must have had his reason for missing the river prayer, but he rose wearily at our passing and, in the encroaching darkness, veered east toward the river to join his brothers and sisters as the night’s great silence began.

January 7, 2007