Friday, September 22, 2006

Cranberries: A Meditation on Exodus 34:29-35 and Revelation 22:1-5

As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.
—Exodus 34:29 (NRSV)

Cranberries: low-bush cranberries, to be specific. Easily overlooked, trodden underfoot, they spring back from their bed of Labrador tea, unbruised and unhurt. Growing with blueberries and crowberries, they provide some of the loveliest patterns of colour in nature.

Seeming to prefer southwest and west-southwest slopes, when they are half-ripe their brilliant scarlet against the blue-silver of new spruce growth, the autumn hues of bearberry, or the grey of reindeer lichen, they remind you of—well—Christmas, of the silent land waiting for the blanket of snow to come. As they ripen, and their scarlet transmutes into a darker purple-red, they become harder to find. Once made brilliant by bright sun, their subdued colour is now made visible by the more subtle light of high clouds or the sheen of mist and rain.

Cranberries. I’ve been living with cranberries for a week, now, gallons of them. To be out in the tundra amidst their prodigal abundance makes me glad that I have to pick them on my knees. I go out with my backpack, some gallon jugs and the berry rake. When I find patches where I can use it, I feel rather like a small bear, clawing with my wooden paw through the vegetation, putting the harvest into containers instead of my mouth.

Slowly the jars fill, and slowly my backpack gets heavier. Late one sunny afternoon, I brought my haul back to camp to clean them, rolling them down an inclined frame on which a piece of blanket is stretched, whose rough wool catches the bits of leaf and lichen that inevitably have been picked with the berries. They rolled down onto a flat tray, the scarlet punctuated by the odd blue or crow berry.

When the tray was full I looked at it, as if for the first time, and caught my breath. A phrase from Psalm 34 leapt to mind: “Look on Me and be radiant...” I picked up the tray of radiance and set it on the bench outside the cache where the slanting light made them glow ever more deeply from within.

One of the most wonderful things about working at Camp, no matter what the weather, is to see people come in day after day with this same radiance shining from their faces. They arrive at Camp tired, stressed out, travel-weary, even a little suspicious, perhaps, if it is their first visit, not knowing quite what they will find here, what the people or the experience will be like. But quickly the quiet magic of the tundra takes hold: a caribou against the horizon, a bear cavorting amongst the willow, a wolf at its kill, tiny spring flowers still to be found among lingering snow patches, a pair of ravens soaring overhead, calling, calling, the cloudy drape drawing back from the mountain to reveal its glory.

There is a humility that attends on greatness, the greatness of opera singer Marian Anderson who, amid all her triumphs and honours, said that the best moment of her life was when she was able to go home and tell her mother that she no longer had to take in washing. Humility is the ability to recognise the real priorities, to see clearly through all the clamour and power games, the glamour and the sycophants.

But humility under a more subtle aspect is the gift that cranberries and the wilderness give us, in the radiance that captures us, and which is reflected in our faces. It is most present when we are least self-conscious, when our awareness is focused outside ourselves. And it is, above all, a gift, as the cranberries are themselves a gift.

The invisible trace of the divine love that creates and sustains lingers in all things, and becomes manifest through this radiance, no matter how muted it may be. The ability to see it depends on the gift of humility, which is contemplation, purity of heart, poverty of heart, peace, all rolled into one, the single virtue of which the paradoxes of the Beatitudes speak, though we may, and even perhaps should, not call what is so simple and natural by such exalted names. Yet it is precisely because the deep content of our faith has been detached from this simplicity that it often seems so irrelevant.

It is precisely these sorts of commonplace cranberry events that underlie the wisdom of the Judeo-Christian heritage. The psalms are full of such references. And not only to the natural world, but also to the profound effect that the natural world has on us and what it reveals of our psychology and character. The phrase from Psalm 34 is an example. The complete line reads, “Look on Me and be radiant, and let not your faces be ashamed.”

For in the light of this radiance, all else is forgotten, all that preoccupies and troubles us, all our pain and dismay. It is not that they are cut off or taken away but, as the contemporary philosopher Erazim Kohàk has remarked of such landscapes as this, our pain becomes part of something larger than ourselves, and is transfigured.

In this way, we realise concretely what the ancients knew perhaps better than we do, an insight preserved more in Eastern Christianity than the West, and that is our participation in the divine nature. This participation is exemplified by Moses, whose experience on the mountain and its effects is one of the biblical passages most frequently cited by mystical authors; and this same transfiguration has been promised to all of us, as summed up by the sublime vision of John's revelation.

Or, put more simply: only love can recognise Love. It is only because we bear, each one of us, each fragment of creation, the trace of the divine, that we can speak of love, that we can want to love and receive love, that we dimly can recognise that the hunger that cries out from every human heart can be fed by this radiance alone. In his book An Evil Cradling, which is a modern Dark Night of the Soul, the former hostage, Brian Keenan, describes the moment when in the despair of his solitary confinement he was given an orange. Starved as he was for fresh fruit, he could not eat it but only contemplate the wonder of its colour, its form, its radiance in the dark.

Thus our growth into God is not a matter of rejecting the things of creation but rather plunging into their deepest heart, allowing them wholly to draw our attention. Amor meus, pondus meum said St. Augustine. Love draws everything to itself, and this radiant love is the source of all true fruitfulness.

Weavings, May/June 2003


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