My front window reaches from ceiling to a half metre from the floor. The road beyond my mini garden is narrow and quiet; on the opposite side there is an ancient towering Chinese Elm. Its dark triple-trunk and spreading branches are there in front of me whenever I look to the light. At night the elm disappears into the blackness.
When dawn dabs smears of colour in the sky, the mammoth tree emerges in silhouette while the world continues to tilt in slow motion. Because of that tilt and spin the first beams of sun, though not yet visible to me, light the topmost branches of ‘my tree’ and, ever so slowly, the light from the still-invisible sun begins to touch lower branches. It sparkles on the greenness of fresh leaves. I lift my head to watch and wonder until the world tilts far enough to show me, here at ground level, the first slither of the rising sun.
At a measured pace the world tilts further ’til the sun beams through my window, lighting the living room and the kitchen behind. October is my month. Libra. Some call September and early October time ‘The Season of Creation’, the greening.
I transcribe words into my journal.
‘Contemplate … gazing at the sun that rises … the trees that deck themselves out in spring green …’
Twice in my earlier life I chose to experience what is called a Thirty Day Retreat. This is not to be taken lightly; each time it tilted my personal world. It required that I put my ordinary life aside and speak to nobody except to a skilled mentor who was there to listen to me when needed. I stayed in a monastery where a guest could elect to pray and reflect undisturbed. The first time I did this was when I was about to accept a serious leadership role; the second when I was returning from Cambodia. Both times I planned carefully, choosing the season as winter moved towards summer. Thirty days of solitude is not easy. There was, both times, deep peace; there was also questioning and struggle. I was looking for God in a quest that is ever changing. My personal world was tilting. Some who read this will have had such an experience one way or another. It was, for me, a rite of passage, a transition.
In late August this year I had that experience again, though this time quite unplanned. In an accident lasting a fraction of a second, I suffered deep burns and was plunged into a time with no resemblance to my ordinary daily life. This thirty or so days was equally a rite of passage, a transition. My personal world tilted once more.
There were two bouts in hospital; times when the dressings on my wounded legs were so heavy that I could not move. There was nothing to do other than to wait and hope. After my discharge my medical needs were taken care of through the St Vincent’s Hospital in the Home. Every day a nurse, mostly a woman, sometimes a man, came to change the dressings: skilful, methodical, causing the least hurt possible. That never varied.
My neighbour came to the door bringing me milk, bread and ice-cream. Friends and family sent or brought casseroles, soup, flowers or ‘take-away flat white’. Kindness nourished me in every way.
The contemplative hour at dawn, my usual start of the day, became even more important. The slow ‘world tilt’ became a powerful symbol. I eventually faced the challenge of the pain and the weakness in my body. This was a serious tipping point and I tried our usual Healy family responses. ‘Crack hardy’. ‘Get a wriggle on’. ‘Know for certain that many, many people in this world suffer much more than this all the time with no support at all’. Eventually I faced it. ‘You are vulnerable. So what? Take things gently and accept it’.
Perhaps because I have two nieces touring in Germany I read the story of a woman, Hildegarde of Bingen. I had previously given Hildegarde no attention, but now could imagine her standing on the banks of the Rhine, contemplating the fresh green of the season. She is cherishing the new life and growth as coming from the Creator God. She calls it ‘the greening’. Born in 1098, she lived until she was 82 years of age.
Hildegard asked, ‘Is it possible to know God?’ Her answer was simple, profound and accessible. This woman could recognise God the Creator in the wonder and beauty of creativity everywhere. She spoke to the hearts of listeners. Her image of God was liberating. It still is, even one thousand years later.
Close to the end of the thirty days skin grafts on both thighs, donated from another part of me, were judged to have ‘taken well’. Now there is fresh soft flesh building across the burns so that only scars will remain. I can walk cautiously and soon will walk freely. This unconventional Thirty Day Retreat has led me to recognise beauty everywhere and be grateful. This is indeed a new stage of my life. I am starting to feel like a 1935 Chev, the chassis still there, but depending on modern new parts! I accept it.
I transcribe more words into my journal.
Contemplate by listening to music or to the sounds of the birds, reading a book, gazing at a work of art or at that masterpiece that is the human face.
I know that those jottings in my journal are a message for my life as I hope to live it now. They are recorded words of Pope Francis from an ‘Audience’ he gave in 2021. He and I are around the same age, though he seems frailer than I am now. Perhaps his world has tilted too!
My spirituality has become very simple, my life gentle. My praying is of love and gratitude. My world has tilted. I have time for noticing each small loveliness that warrants to be noticed. There is time for the people I love, and they are many.