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    Brown snakes, gastropods, and the very present darkness


    WE MOVED INTO our present house in mid-2015. Whoever landscaped the place really had a thing for rocks. There may be excellent reasons to have rocks everywhere but sometimes they get in the way, especially during the annual mowing of the monkey grass. We have one bed that contains about a dozen rocks, each the size of a small shoebox. At the time of mowing they’re completely hidden by the grass so I need to raise my mower blade and progress super carefully.

    The weekend before last I was performing this task and, with no particular purpose in mind, looked under a rock near the edge of the bed. And lo! There rested a pair of North American brown snakes, each no more than six inches long, and a fine little land snail. The creatures were hibernating. I picked up one of the snakes. It was rigid and sluggish and stupefied. It never did the normal snakey crawley thing. It just sat in my hand and occasionally smelled the air with its tiny black forked tongue.

    For days now I have taken great pleasure in this photo. It has been an antidote to the deadly flow of news, fake news, and juiced-up opinion on the Internet, which, these days, I navigate with trepidation. I have tried to trim my sources of information while maintaining a range of perspectives, but even the Wall Street Journal and the Atlantic and the Washington Post give me plenty to worry about, even as I call my senators and donate to environmental organizations for the first time in my life. And I am looking for new ways to engage with the world, to do my part in righting this listing ship called America.

    In my view the Christian life is a balance of contemplation and action (as Pope Francis said, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. This is how prayer works”). To be effective, action must be principled, focused, deliberate, persistent, and hopeful. I myself cannot maintain this attitude without a strong dose of contemplation. So I am thankful for the snakes and the snails for helping to settle my frenzied soul over the last couple of weeks.

    It is a strange world where such beauty and complexity and organization can be found under rocks. “There is no accounting for a single second of it,” wrote Annie Dillard.

    It’s a world worth fighting for. May we all find new ways to do that today.

    Comment Pages

    There are 3 Comments to "Brown snakes, gastropods, and the very present darkness"

    • don salmon says:

      Hi Paul: poetic, inspiring and poignant thoughts.

      I wonder if you could say more about the integration of contemplation and activism in Christianity. Jan (my wife) and I are helping develop a “contemplative practices” group in East Asheville, NC, and the focus of it will be contemplative activism. It is part of a larger project getting off the ground, associated with Bethesda Methodist church and the “Haw Creek Commons.” (HCC)

      The HCC group had a meeting last night about what they want to do. They are associated with the Missional Wisdom group in Texas, and still have a rather vague sense of what it means to provide a “commons’ for the local Haw Creek community, but one with a Christian focus, yet open to the very flexible Ashevillian spirit.

      I have been trying to put across what it means to have a contemplative focus, but except of the pastor, most of the folks don’t quite get what that means. I thought maybe of inviting them to a workshop of centering prayer and lectio divina, but beyond that don’t quite know how to get it across.


      • Paul Paul says:

        Hi Don. Thanks for the note and for the good word.

        The tension between action and contemplation has been a theme in Christian writing since the patristic period (at least). The Mary & Martha story from Luke 10 has provided a narrative frame for the issue, with authors defending both women’s positions throughout the centuries.

        I have done centering prayer and lectio divina but walks in the woods are most effective for calming me and reminding me of who I am and how I’m to live.

        I have never tried to move action-contemplation beyond my own personal practice. I would not know how to do that (but Richard Rohr does–do you know who he is?). Speaking for myself, there is no love in action without meditation and prayer. If I eschew contemplation, my life unfocuses and devolves into busy-ness and mindless motion. Without contemplation I assimilate into the general frenzy that takes me nowhere and wastes my time and energy. This is true whether I’m going through my daily cycle of work and family, which often threatens to drown me, or I’m working to “right this listing ship.”

        Anyhoo, look up Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation.

        As far as the balancing the Christian focus with Asheville’s open spiritual soul, I think it can be done, but a lot will depend on folks being willing to consider Christianity’s deeper currents without being shut down by the God talk. Best to you in your work.


    • Shelia Skinner says:




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