A Prayer of Attention

March 2, 2010

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As winter in Chicago starts to wind down, we should give thanks for its mildness so far. But mild or not, writer Tom Montgomery-Fate will be sorry to see it go.

For whether he's in the Windy City or a snow-covered wood, he finds a certain solace in this season. Tom Montgomery-Fate is the author of the book
Steady and Trembling: Art, Faith, and Family in an Uncertain World.

It's cold when I arrive: 20 degrees outside the cabin, thirty inside. So I lay some kindling in the iron stove, light it, close the door, and go out to the wood pile to split some logs. The weight and rhythm of the maul swinging in my hands feels good, like a pendulum, like I have become some sort of organic clock. I rip open time with the THRUCK of the heavy iron wedge, dividing a pine log into halves, and then THRUCK, and THRUCK–– into quarters. The hard dull sound and sweet bitter scent of that moment, of the newly split wood, drifts and diffuses through the air—marks time and then lets it go.

When I grab another log from the pile I see a fuzzy knot of orange beneath it. It's a woolly bear—one of those fat, furry two inch long black and orange caterpillars you always see in September eating themselves silly. He looks dead, but is in a kind of suspended animation called diapause. These creatures have adapted to the winters by shutting themselves down until conditions are more favorable for growth. Lowered temperatures and shortened days in October trigger the “pause,” the burrowing in. Their bodies even make a kind of natural anti-freeze (glycerol) which allows them to survive the subzero temperatures. But then in May, when the temperature rises and the days lengthen, they will awaken, eat, spin their cocoon and emerge as a tiger moth, and flutter off into the meadow! A week or two later they will lay their eggs and die. And the eggs will hatch into caterpillars and the cycle continues.

As I put Mr. Woolly Bear back in his dark, dry crack and recover him, I can't help but wonder how insects experience time. I know that unlike with mammals there is no evidence that insects really “think.” They just perform their biological duties. Yet the relativity of such a life—of time itself, and of the great clock of creation—is startling. An adult mayfly may be born at 6:00 a.m., lay its eggs at noon, and die at 3:30. And though their past and future seem unimaginably brief, their present is the same as ours—now, unending and fleeting. Mayflies live a complete and full life. As do giant tortoises, who can live for 150 years. Time is relative. It relates all life—to the slow wheel of the sun, the cycle of creation, of light and darkness.

The sappy pine pops and sizzles in the stove. It takes an hour for the cabin to warm up to where I can take off my coat and stocking cap. As I sit entranced by the flickering box of light, watching the fire inside, it strikes me: windows on wood stoves are a modern indulgence and completely unnecessary. They didn't used to have them. The flames were not for entertainment or inspiration, but for heat—for survival.

Thirty minutes later the fire in the stove is blazing and radiating enough heat that I pull off my sweater. I pull out Walden, Henry David's Thoreau's 19th century account of his life in a cabin in the woods. I've been rereading it this year. I find a passage I've underlined, one that always comforts me:

“God culminates in the present,” Thoreau writes. “And will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages. And we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality which surrounds us.”

I close down the damper in the flue to cut the oxygen and slow the burn. The riotous twists and curls of flame magically diminish, both in height and velocity, as if they are suddenly moving in slow motion, as if the world has shifted into a different rhythm. I watch the fire thankfully, thinking of how my solitude here does the same thing––slows the burn of time, preserves the glow of the heart's fire, sustains its light and heat.

Soon I am completely lost in the burning wood, in the prayers of ash and smoke, of darkness and light. And it is then, for just a little while, that one of those prayers is answered. Amid the flame and flicker, I ride the orange and red river of time, until I can see.

What I see has no words. It is not an idea. If I had to reduce it to language I might use Thoreau's. He would call it “the gospel of this moment”––the good news that the forever is also fleeting–– that the eternal lives in the temporal––that the caterpillar and the pine tree and the human being all live forever––that we are all part of one timeless Belonging––which starts and ends today, right now, right here, amid the freezing tomb of winter.