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Joy, Simplicity, Compassion: Climbing These Coming Crests

It is the first week of August, and the high summer heat of treaty 6 territory in northern Alberta is beaming through my window.  I am thinking about the fall.  I work with university students, and I am wondering how my students and I can think together about all that has happened since we’ve last been together, in March: a global pandemic that has thrown everyone’s lives – and particularly the lives of those on the margins – off-kilter, an inspiring movement for racial justice that prompted many difficult and potentially transformative conversations, record-breaking temperatures that reminded us of the urgent need to address the roots of our changing climate.  In what ways have we changed since March, and in what ways do we still need to change?  How do we seek wisdom in this particular time and place, and what are the spiritual and communal resources available to us as we do so? 

In what ways do we still need to change? 

As I ask myself these questions, three pieces of writing look back at me and prompt me toward the beginnings of an answer.  A poem, a prayer, and a quote, all posted to my bulletin board long ago, when the words ‘corona’ and ‘virus’ seemed as incompatible to me as ‘beets’ and ‘ice cream’.  

The poem is ‘For the Children’ by Gary Snyder. 

The rising hills, the slopes, 

of statistics 

lie before us. 

The steep climb of everything, going up, 

up, as we all 

go down. 

In the next century 

or the one beyond that, 

they say, 

are valley, pastures, 

we can meet there in peace 

if we make it. 


To climb these coming crests 

one word to you, to 

you and your children: 


stay together 

learn the flowers 

go light


The poet reminds us that despite our illusions of ‘progress’ (the ‘steep climb of everything, going up, up’), we are all moving toward an eventual end.  There very well may be ‘valleys, pastures’ in our future, seasons of peace and human flourishing . . . but the poet reminds us that the challenges before us are real and that we may not necessarily rise to meet them (‘if we make it’). The COVID-19 pandemic, global climate change, recent demonstrations for racial justice: all serve as reminders us that we have not ‘progressed’ as much as we thought.  #BLM organizers remind us that deep fractures and fissures persist, creation’s groaning exposes our cultural optimism as naïve, and the pandemic reveals deep disparities in our communities.

“Fear of radical changes leads many citizens to betray their minds and hearts.”

What, then, shall we do?  The poet’s words offer a starting place: stay together//learn the flowers//go light.  Cultivate strong communities.  Attend to the given world around us.  Hold on to the essentials.  

But don’t stop there.  A quote from bell hooks reads, “Fear of radical changes leads many citizens to betray their minds and hearts.”    hooks insists that the radical changes required to build a more human world – to begin the ‘steep climb’ that Snyder alludes to - are not impossible or beyond us, so long as we do not betray our best inclinations out of fear.  The world may feel off-kilter, and we do not know what will come next, but the gift of the risen Jesus’ life-giving Spirit can prompt us to live with integrity and commit to changes for the sake of our neighbour and the creation.  

‘May the Lord keep you in the joy, the simplicity, and the compassion of the holy Gospel.’

Finally, I see in front of me a prayer from the Taizé community.

‘May the Lord keep you in the joy, the simplicity, and the compassion of the holy Gospel.’  Joy.  Simplicity.  Compassion.  What better gifts to pray for, as we make our first steps toward wisdom in this extraordinary time?   What better practices to cultivate but joy, simplicity, and compassion?  There is much that is outside of our control, and the world we long for – the ‘valleys and pastures’ of peace and justice that lie somewhere ahead – may exist only in our prayers and our dreams for the foreseeable future.  But in the meantime, we may pray for and practice Christ’s joy, simplicity, and compassion as we ‘climb the coming crests’ before us.  

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

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