I always find this time to year to be particularly fruitful for turning inward to tend the garden of the heart. It’s the start of a new calendar year; we’ve just had Christmas; and the weather generally encourages indoor pursuits and quiet reflection. My birthday is at the end of January, a month and a day after Christmas, which has the effect of doubling the feeling of newness and rebirth that mid-winter brings me.
As I look back on the last twelve months, I find myself struck with the enormity of the year that has passed and less certain than ever about what the new year will bring. I end 2016 much more aware of the fragmentation of our world. My year began by reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brilliant and moving memoir Between the World and Me. Much of my experience of the year flowed from that point: from the ravages of racism and slavery on communities and people of color to the slaughter and exile of countless Syrians to the efforts, yet again, to steal land from the Native Americans at Standing Rock to the shattering of our illusion of political and social progress with the election of Donald Trump. Politically, at least, it has a been a painful year.
And yet, rather than feeling depressed, I actually feel energized for action. I’m reminded of a very painful relationship I had with a drug addict when I first moved to New York. When we finally broke up, I felt as lonely and ashamed as I ever had. One afternoon, I ran into one of the old-timers from an Al-Anon meeting I was going to. When I told her how lonely I’d been feeling all day, she said “well, did it kill you?” I had to laugh. Of course my feelings, as painful and intense as they were, had not killed me. In fact, from the vantage point of today, the painful and disillusioning experience of that relationship and its aftermath was a powerful spiritual awakening, one of the most important of my life.
In God’s economy, nothing is lost. Suffering, pain, despair, and disillusionment are as much tools of growth and awakening and life as are much pleasanter experiences. There is a Buddhist saying that I often remember: on the withered limb, a flower blooms. And in the dead of winter, when the world seems bleak and lifeless, the tulips underground are preparing their spring unfurling. The one experience does not take away from the other. On the contrary–if we can learn to see with the eyes of faith, this broken world and our messy, painful lives are dazzlingly beautiful for their complexity and their humanity.
I don’t know what the next year will bring. None of us does. But I wish for us all life, depth, and vision for the work ahead. Happy New Year.
You may notice that this post is a few days earlier than it should be. That’s because from Tuesday, January 3 until Wednesday, January 11 the monastic community will be taking our annual long retreat. I’ll return to the blog after our retreat. Thank you all for your support this year. I’ve so loved writing these reflections.
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