My dear mentor Francis Weller often paraphrases William Blake to say that spiritual maturity consists of having both hands full: one filled with gratitude, the other filled with the sorrows of the world. It has been quite a year for both for me-- perhaps for all of us.
I’ve had magnificent adventures leading soulful pilgrims in Chartres, Provence and Italy; I've savored the surprise, honor and joy of lecturing with Sir John Eliot Gardiner and meeting Prince Charles in Wales, and I had my own personal pilgrimage in England to Cambridge, Oxford and Little Gidding. I’ve delighted in my growing connections with the Santa Rosa Symphony , the Petaluma HIstorical Library and Museum, Humanities West in San Francisco. I’ve witnessed the birth of the new Labyrinth at St. John’s Episcopal and had a powerful experience of connecting to an online community of artists through my collaboration with Shiloh Sophia McCloud on the Black Madonnas. I’ve been thrilled to join the faculty of the Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, where I’ve felt a keen bond with beautiful and brilliant students, and I’ve cherished my time at the Red Shoes in Baton Rouge, the Women of Spirit and Faith Magdalene workshop in Orange County and leading an international gathering of Episcopalian deans for three days in Santa Fe.
I’ve also witnessed many beloved ones suffering in the grip of cancer, depression and dementia, and watched with a feeling of utter helplessness as homes and communities I care about were devastated by fire, flood and hurricanes in Santa Rosa, Houston, Louisiana and Florida. All of this has made me feel, in the words of a song by Sting, “How fragile we are”.
And yet I am also keenly aware that tragedy and loss often is the alchemical catalyst for deeper layers of beauty. If Beethoven’s hearing had remained intact and he had his amorous advanced welcomed, I am certain we would have no 5th symphony, no Ode to Joy, no great Piano Sonatas. If Dante Alighieri had not been horrifically betrayed , with a death sentence placed on his head, all his fortune confiscated and fated to remain in exile for the rest of his life from his native Florence, there would be no Divine Comedy. If TS Eliot had married wisely and lived his days in peacetime, there certainly would not have been either The Wasteland nor the Four Quartets.
I have seen over and over—in the lives of the great artists I revere across the centuries and in the lives of those nearest to me as well- that the fires of loss often ignite not just destruction, but also the seeds of profound new awareness, and are often the necessary prerequisite for a beauty far deeper than surface elegance.
I think of this every time I listen to Beethoven’s String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132.
Written by Beethoven after a life-threatening illness when he was utterly deaf, the middle movement bears the unwieldy title, "Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart" (A Holy Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode ) In it, we hear both the tenderness that comes from complete surrender in the midst of illness, and the joyous stirrings of new life and the vision of the possibilities of transcendent joy
It is a piece which inspired my own humble offering for Thanksgiving last year. I offer it to you in this season of gratitude, with love for your own deepest unfolding, whatever the fires of loss in your life may be.
A Blessing for Thanksgiving, written after Beethoven
by Kayleen Asbo
May I have the eyes to see
The sacred ordinary miracles that weave their web of light
Around each darkening day:
The dappled dew-dropped leaves that decorate each dawn,
The shimmering sunrise on the glistening grass,
The symphony of birdsong that greets each new morn
And the owl's lament as the moon rises and sets.
May I be mindful of all the graces I did not deserve
and yet fell upon my thirsty soul:
For the beauty that ran to embrace my hurried, harried eyes and ears,
For the kindness of strangers that softened the shadows of sorrow,
For the loyalty of friends who saw my need and wordlessly offered
their tender touch,
For the courage that Beethoven kindles across the centuries
As he shows us the way
To compose a life of hope in the midst of despair,
Joy in the midst of sorrow,
Love in the midst of loneliness.
No matter what may come,
May my soul, too, remember
To sing a song of Thanksgiving
Until my last, grateful breath.
Click here to listen to Beethoven's song-- perfect for this season of gratitude.