I Must Decrease (And Why That’s Good News)

Seattle Midsummer twilight (10:05 p.m., June 22, 2017)

The 24th of June is, in the Christian calendar, the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist. In Europe, it’s also known as Midsummer Day, marking the critical moment when the longest days begin the six-month journey toward the longest nights. Even though we still have months before us of warm weather and brilliant sunshine, the light is now (imperceptibly at first) beginning to slip away minute by minute. Thus in the old days, on the night before Midsummer––called Midsummer Eve or Midsummer Night––bonfires were lit to encourage the waning sun, and people were on their guard against any supernatural mischief. As we know from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s a good night just to stay home. Whatever you do, don’t go into that magic forest!

The ancient traditions may seem obsolete, but are we free of the anxiety they represent? This turning point in the sun’s journey is a metaphor for our own mortality. We are temporal beings––creatures of time. For us, nothing lasts forever. The very moment that we reach the peak of the Summer Solstice, savoring what the poet Wallace Stevens called “arrested peace, / Joy of such permanence, right ignorance / Of change…”, the sense of having all the time in the world starts to seep away––imperceptibly at first, as we enjoy our fun in the sun and the long unhurried twilights. As Stevens goes on to say in his great Solstice poem, “Credences of Summer”: “This is the barrenness / Of the fertile thing that can attain no more.” After the perfect moment, then what?

In a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, Calvin is running around in a frenzy, shouting, “It’s July already! Oh no! Oh no! What happened to June? Summer vacation is slipping through our fingers like grains of sand! It’s going too fast! We’ve got to hoard our freedom and have more fun! Time rushes on! Help! Help!”

Meanwhile, his friend Hobbes the tiger is watching Calvin’s panic with studious detachment. Then he says to himself, “I don’t think I want to be here at the end of August.”

My Minnesota relatives still have the summer house my grandfather built on a bluff above Lake Pepin, a scenic stretch of the Mississippi River that becomes a lake two miles wide and thirty miles long. About fifteen years ago, in late June, I walked down to the beach from the house, passing through a grove of maple trees and birdsong. When I emerged from the woods onto the sandy lakeshore, I saw one of the great spectacles of Midwest summer: a storm of mayflies.

Thick black clouds of insects with transparent wings whirled in the air above me. Millions more covered the willows and cottonwoods, darkening the summer greenery with their densely packed masses. It was an explosion of pure fecundity: “The feast and fairy dance of life,” as one naturalist has described it.

But this dance is oh so brief. After incubating for two long years in the mud of the lake bottom, the mayflies grow wings, float up to the surface and rise into the air to mate. Within 24 hours of this eruption into ecstasy, they fall lifeless back to earth. Roads and bridges covered with their greasy remains are too slick for driving, and must be closed until a cleanup crew arrives.

Is this not a sped-up version of the human condition––here today, gone tomorrow? As they sang in medieval England, “Merry it is while summer lasts; but now draws near the wind’s cold blast.” The Bible was equally frank about our radically transient status: “All flesh is grass . . . The grass withers, the flower fades.”

Contemporary poet Mary Oliver delivers the same message, lightened by a dose of whimsey:

For years and years I struggled
just to love my life. And then

the butterfly
rose, weightless, in the wind.
“Don’t love your life
too much,” it said,

and vanished
into the world.[i]

For me, this mortal life is like the fireworks on the Fourth of July. So glorious and wondrous––and so quickly over. Every year my wife and I walk a mile down to the local harbor to watch the display, and when it’s done, as we make our way home in the darkness, I always feel the melancholy of endings. The pyrotechnics of July 4––the American version of Midsummer Night––have come and gone. Only two weeks old, summer is already beginning to slip through our fingers! This is the barrenness of the fertile thing that can attain no more.

John the Baptist knew how the story goes. He knew that his given moment on the stage was coming to an end. Remember what he said about Jesus? He must increase, I must decrease. My time is passing, but Jesus’ time is coming. Thus at the Nativity of John the Baptist the days start to decrease, while at the Nativity of Jesus the days start to increase.

John the Baptist is rightly remembered as the voice in the wilderness, announcing that the Lord is come (let every heart prepare him room!) As his father Zechariah foretold when John was only eight days old, the Baptist was born to be “the prophet of the Most High…. to give knowledge of salvation to [God’s] people by the forgiveness of their sins.” In paintings, John is often seen pointing away from himself, toward Jesus, the “dawn from on high” who gives “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

Leonardo da Vinci, John the Baptist (1513-16)

John gave us expectant hearts. But he offered us another great gift as well. He taught us the art of letting go. Jesus must increase, I must decrease. That’s what he said, and what he did. It’s what we all do. As the old shape note hymn says with such brutal honesy, “Passing away, we are passing away.”

All flesh is grass––a melancholy thought at the dawn of summer. But wait; there’s more, and it’s good news. Though the grass withers and the flower fades, Isaiah tells us, the word of God will stand forever (Isaiah 40:8). And what is this “word?” Jesus is the word, the speaking of divine reality in human be-ing. And that divine reality, which we are made to mirror, is all about self-diffusive, self-forgetting love. God is a Trinity of persons, giving themselves over to one another in an eternal circulation of gifts offered and gifts received.

So the great secret at the heart of existence, the word that stands forever, is that it’s all about letting go instead of holding on. Jesus made that perfectly clear in his death and resurrection. And John the Baptist, who was martyred before he could see that first Easter Day, intuited this truth even before it was fully revealed.

He must increase, I must decrease. Less of me, more of Christ. More of God. And the Christian life is all about making that truth our daily practice, as individuals and as communities of faith. We learn to let go of things which are passing away––and of the stories which are no longer true for us––and to remain open and grateful for the new gifts we are about to receive. Welcome every gift, but hold on to nothing but God, who is not only the Giver of every gift, but is also the only gift worth having.

God is not a thing, an object, a commodity to be possessed. God is a dance we do. We become most truly ourselves only to the degree by which we participate in, and surrender to, the choreography of that dance: the eternal giving and receiving of self-diffusive love. Letting go, not holding on, is what completes us.

As Mary Oliver reminds us,

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.[ii]

 

 

Related post:

Sacraments of Summer

 

[i] Mary Oliver, “One or Two Things,” New and Collected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 122.

[ii] ibid., 178

Merry it is while summer lasts

August Sunflower by Jim Friedrich

August Sunflower by Jim Friedrich

Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

— Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”

Mirie it is while somer y-last. “Merry it is while summer lasts.” So goes the 13th-century lyric, one of the earliest known secular English songs (the other being Summer is icumen in). But while such praise of summer lacks the explicit theological or liturgical character of its pious predecessors, is not the idealized notion of a happy summer a plausible echo of the joys of Paradise? History takes a vacation. Ambition is deposed. The temporal flow slows its onward rush, deepening into a placid pool of unhurried being. The poet’s longing for “world enough, and time” is fulfilled at last in a sabbath of playful ease. Children romp in the sea, lovers stroll bright gardens, readers open their books, friends converse at evening. Mirie it is.

It should always be so in August, that we might agree with Emerson: “this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life.” But of course Thoreau did a better job than his bookish friend at getting outside to see what summer was actually doing day by day. Summer in fact is not a general idea, but an aggregate of particulars.

On this date in 1856, Thoreau wandered the fields and woods of Concord, Massachusetts. His Journal tells us that “Ambrosia pollen now begins to yellow my clothes.” He was surprised to find the cassia “so obvious and abundant.” In an old garden gone wild from British days, he became “intoxicated with the fragrance” of spearmint, hounds-tongue, and bergamot. He named those plants he could, while each new discovery filled him with curiosity and wonder. He bathed in the river, registering how strong the current seemed for mid-August. And he lamented the recent dampness of the weather, causing his pressed plant specimens to mildew. “Give me the dry heat of July,” he wrote.

Reading Thoreau’s Journal entry prompted me to look up August 16 in my own yearly journals. It turns out that I honored the spirit of August by playing more than writing, but I did find one entry for this date in 1989, when I hiked at sunset to the top of Mt. Tallac, a 10,000’ peak above Lake Tahoe in California’s Sierra range, to watch the rise of a full moon in total eclipse. I carefully noted the changes as the reddish lunar disc slipped slowly out of the earth’s shadow to flood the mountain with intense milky light. Then I descended through a ghostly forest of moonlit junipers, grateful to have been present to see and to know. If I had not been there, that night would not have become part of me, nor I of it.

So now I must leave my desk to see what this summer day wants to offer the senses. I will linger in the shade of the peach tree with a book, keeping my eye on the finches, chickadees, juncos and hummingbirds who shelter and sing in its branches. I will praise the sunflowers, each a miniature daystar, towering above the flower garden, and hear the soft music of quivering aspens. I will taste blackberries ripening beyond the drying lawn, plus whatever strawberries the squirrels have spared. My skin will feel the reddish warmth of the late sun as it drops between the Douglas-firs. And when night comes, I will stroll among the lilies and dahlias, so white—and fragrant!—beneath the gibbous moon. Mirie it is.

 

Related Posts

Paying Attention

The Summer’s Final Mass

Summer Knowledge

Sacraments of Summer

Charles Courtney Curran, Afternoon in the Cluny Garden, Paris (1889)

Charles Courtney Curran, Afternoon in the Cluny Garden, Paris (1889)

Now in midsummer come and all fools slaughtered
And spring’s infuriations over and a long way
To the first autumnal inhalations, young broods
Are in the grass, the roses are heavy with a weight
Of fragrance and the mind lays by its trouble.

– Wallace Stevens, “Credences of Summer”

In a short while, at 3:34 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time, the sun will reach its apogee of 23 degrees 27 minutes above the equator. When that moment comes, I will go outside to give Summer a proper welcome.

Every June Solstice I open Summer like a fresh novel, anticipating adventurous plots, alluring characters, and a world of fascinations presenting itself to my senses without hurry, as if both reader and text had all the time in the world. Summer is one of our sweetest fictions, suffused with a youthful happiness in a shadowless earthly paradise.

Of course, the livin’ isn’t always easy. Agonies and heartbreak may yet interrupt our revels, along with the heat waves, mosquitoes, sunburn, and poison oak. Summer is when my father died, and a dear friend committed suicide. Et in arcadia ego. In timeless Arcadia, death is still around

Even so, when summer smiles, I remember happiness once more:

Firefly nights and swimming hole days,
cold lemonade on a screened porch,
bare feet on warm ground, grass between my toes,
air-conditioned movies on a hot afternoon,
stack of summer reading by the hammock,
the holy calm of nothing to do,
cottonwoods whispering leafy poems to a quiet river,
the pleasurable sublime of high country thunderstorms,
campfire sparks rising to meet the Milky Way,
Springsteen singing us down some lost highway,
windows rolled down in the warm night air,
stars falling into a hayfield after midnight,
moonlight croquet (a candle at each wicket),
swapping songs around red Sonoma wine,
dancing till dawn on Gatsby’s lawn,
those kisses beneath the stars . . .

Do such moments only defer the inevitable erosion of temporal existence, or are they sacramental foretastes of eternal blessedness? Either way, as Michael Cunningham makes clear in The Hours, the Perfect Moment, like Summer itself, is not a gift to be wasted:

It had seemed like the beginning of happiness, and Clarissa is still somewhat shocked, more than thirty years later, to realize that it was happiness…What lives undimmed in Clarissa’s mind more than three decades later is a kiss at dusk on a patch of dead grass, and a walk around a pond as mosquitoes droned in the darkening air. There is still that singular perfection, and it’s perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more. Now she knows: That was the moment, right then. There has been no other.

 

Related posts

That Summer Feeling

Now Welcome Summer

 

 

Paying attention

Summer day, Deschutes River, eastern Oregon.

Summer day, Deschutes River, eastern Oregon.

Day creeps after day, each full of facts … And presently the aroused intellect finds … that a fact is an epiphany of God, that on every fact of his life he should rear a temple of wonder and joy.     – Ralph Waldo Emerson

One of today’s first facts was a blackberry that called to me as I ran by at dawn. Blackberries normally ripen in August, but here was one, dark and soft to the touch, ready for harvest in mid-July. Like Moses turning aside from his path to investigate a revelatory shrub, I interrupted my run to taste that precocious berry. How delicious! Sweet sacrament of summer.

This is the day I was born, long ago in another century, and I am celebrating by setting aside tasks and plans to slow down and take time, giving over the hours to what poet Mary Oliver calls “noticing and cherishing.” There are birds to watch, poetry to read, music to play, water to swim in, trails to explore. Or maybe, like Thoreau in his cabin’s sunny doorway, I will just sit among the trees, rapt in reverie, “in undisturbed solitude and stillness.”

After the blackberry, what else will offer itself to my attention?

Never in eternity the same sound –
a small stone falling on a red leaf.

So wrote Jane Kenyon in her poem, “Things,” which shares Emerson’s awareness of facts as epiphanies. But Kenyon, whose own time on earth was all too brief, was keenly aware that such joys are always on the verge of disappearance.

Things: simply lasting, then
failing to last: water, a blue heron’s
eye, and the light passing
between them: into light all things
must fall, glad at last to have fallen.

So much beauty, so many epiphanies. Do we have enough time? Robert Louis Stevenson said that “you have no idea, unless you have tried it, how endlessly long is a summer day.” So today I will try it. I will make an experiment in attentiveness and wonder, gratitude and joy. It is, I know, a luxurious waste of time. But it seems “meet and right so to do.” As photographer and writer Walker Evans reminds us, paying attention is what we were made for:

Stare. Educate the eye.
Die knowing something.
You are not here long.