I call this blog "conversations around the fire" for two reasons. First, I love the way conversations bubble up around a campfire, tapping into deep reservoirs of story that tie us to older ways of being human. Second, we live on a planet that increasingly feels “engulfed in flames”, and learning to live with the rising heat is a big part of our contemporary assignment. I think we need both old and new ways of working with fire.
As we move "deeper into uncelebrated winter", as Nancy Hiles called this time of year, a good fire in the hearth is always welcome. John Howard Griffin wrote of these mid-winter days that, "Everything waits, suspended in calm, and underneath - a profound ravishment of the senses. . . You don't go rushing after what is already there. You wait, give it time, give it time gradually to reveal itself in you. Nothing is lost. No time is wasted."
That is how to celebrate "uncelebrated winter." Make of it a flow of daily sacraments built out of the most ordinary moments. Too often obsessed by my own blinder of lists, by all that I have to do on the conveyor belt that I construct out of my days, I lose myself in distraction, and the moments of grace flow by unnoticed, unacknowledged, unseen.
Yesterday something happened that threw me headlong back into that current of grace. A good friend, whose wife died of cancer a few years back, recently found new love. My wife Sally and I had a serendipitous role in bringing him together with his fiance, both friends from different parts of our lives. We have taken a special pleasure in watching their happiness unfold at the delight of finding each other. Their wedding was planned for this spring.
When I saw my friend at Christmas he looked tired, and that is when I learned of his illness. I was concerned, but I soon got busy, and another month passed before I saw him again. When I did, I was stunned by how quickly his illness had progressed. By yesterday he barely had the strength to sit up in bed. His hopes of recovery were clearly receding, and my friend spoke openly of the nearness of death. Excruciating choices needed to be made, and made quickly.
At the urging of Michael, a hospice friend, we pulled together a spur-of-the-moment wedding, with me officiating. Sally, Michael and I gathered around the bed with the luminous couple as they spoke spontaneous vows of unabashed love and devotion. I did my best to offer a blessing that could begin to touch the scale of joy and sorrow that this moment had brought together. Tears flowed, and unexpected laughter also, as the faces of bride and groom glowed with gratitude and relief that they had seized this moment to do what they most longed to do, to become husband and wife.
Rarely have I witnessed such a potent and courageous expression of love. Michael invoked the healing power of love to sometimes work miracles, even when the medical prospects are grim. He has seen the unexpected in his hospice work many times.
Yet come what may, I have never seen love triumph over loss and pain more powerfully than yesterday, or felt so honored to be in its presence. The joy in this wedding was focused with laser intensity on the "fierce urgency of now", amplified by the knowledge that their shared life may be counted in days or weeks rather than years. The rapture on their faces carried a full awareness of this truth.
It was a moment of grace, in the depth of "uncelebrated winter", that Sally and I will never forget.