A Spirituality of Summer

A wise Greek wrote that all is one yet everything comes in season.

And despite the fact that summer does not officially begin until June 21, we all know that it really starts Memorial Day Weekend. That’s when you can wear white shoes with fashion confidence and when the Sunday circulars start advertising sales on oversized gas grills and Fourth of July decorations.

This year the first orange alert for unhealthy smog day was May 8th. It’s true. I wrote it down and groaned. No matter that the week following was almost as cold and fog in Atlanta as July in San Francisco, the coldest winter Mark Twain ever spent. I knew that was just an aberration, a trick. It was only a matter of a few hours or days before the heat would set in, the humidity would rise, and whatever cold I would feel between then and sometime in September would be the frigid temperatures inside every building, especially movie theaters.

The summer season has come.

For some of us, writing Haiku is a spiritual practice, by my definition spirituality being that which makes us feel individually whole, authentic, and connected to the source of life. The simple five syllable, seven syllable, five syllable form of poetry capturing a snapshot of nature or momentary experience can do that.

Poet Veronica Ann Cech  has written a Haiku about seasons, celebrating  spring with new life bursting forth, refreshed from winter’s slumbers, then moving on to summer with noticeably less lyricism:

Sun toasted tourists (five)

Fully oiled and close to done  ( seven)

Sweating out summer.     (five)

A woman after my own heart, my own seasonal biases, because as much as I love the spring here in Georgia: the usual magical unfurling of bulbs and bushes: the crocuses, the daffodils, the tulips, the Bradford Pears, the dogwoods, then the azaleas, I ironically watch the order of their blooming with increasing dread because this is evidence that we are that much closer to summer. Thus the Haiku I penned this year  when it was not just my imagination that despite one of the most severe winters here ever ( how quickly we forget),  spring flowers came two weeks earlier than usual and would leave two weeks earlier. And so it was. It was May and what I saw around me was a Haiku waiting to be composed:

Roses near bloomed out  ( five)

Already geraniums  ( seven)

impersonate Spring. (five)

The calendar may have read still spring, there indeed were flowers abounding, but they didn’t fool me. Judging by the cunning switching out of flora—those magnolia blossoms, the begonias in planters, it might as well have been July. Not my favorite month in my least favorite season.

Too hot, sluggish, unfettered. I was, you see, the kind of kid who pretended to look forward to the end of school and then eagerly registered for the very first summer school session, the kind of kid whose scary Aunt Doris had to order to go outside in the fresh air and sunshine when I had spent an entire week holed up in her guest bedroom reading, unappreciative she scolded me, of the rare good  August weather in her corner of New England. The kind of kid, the kind of adult who has little or no use for sand, which always comes with beaches.

I am, by the way, not alone in not preferring summer: in fact I am in rather good literary company. Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of our Unitarian heroes, wrote that do what we can, summer will have its flies. Samuel Taylor Coleridge reported that summer has set in with its usual severity. Sydney Smith in Lady Holland’s Memoir declared “Heat Ma’m! It’s so dreadful here that I found there was nothing left for it but to take off my flesh and sit on my bones.”

When the Rapture and the countdown to Judgment Day did not come off as predicted by a minister in Oakland, California last weekend, I was said to have muttered that this didn’t mean we had been saved from the hellishness of summer here. One columnist observed that while Somebody led us to believe we wouldn’t be here another week , that there would be no more ribs and moon pies, no more Peachtree road races to train for,  the end of the world has been at the very least delayed. Leaving us with something, she wrote, much much worse. Nothing’s changed.

We are still here and here’s what lies ahead she noted—beastly humidity and months of seasonal traffic snarling highway work.

All is one, yet everything comes in season.

For every one of us for whom summer is more a trial than a gift, there are also those among us who await it and relish it. Poet William Carlos Williams wrote that in summer, the song sings itself and Ada Louise Huxtable that summer is the time when one shed’s ones tension with one’s clothes, and the right kind of day is jeweled balm for the battered spirit. A few of those days and you can become drunk with the belief that all’s right with the world.

As far as seasons go, Lay Minister Dr. Tony Stringer prefers summer. Despite loving school from the time he hit kindergarten to the moment he emerged 24 years later with doctorate in hand, there is no time when he has not relished the months when he was out of school. Despite needing a schedule to order his life, he says, because otherwise he would succumb to indolent breakfasts that lasted until noon.

He equally needed the months of the year, he says, when he had no schedule to follow other than one of his own choosing.  His love affair with summer began and continues because it represents a kind of freedom that is absent from every other season of the year.

I like spring, he says, but spring is a flirtation, a sort of presaging glance across a crowded room. It’s a not so innocent first kiss pleasant enough but far short of fully realized passion. Summer’s the real deal. The full flowering of a passionate relationship. It is the heat of the kitchen which you’re supposed to flee if you can’t stand it.

With summer, he believes, you know you’re in a relationship. You’re either going to plunge in and have the best time of the year, or you’re going to waste it and possibly regret having missed a golden opportunity.

That’s the summer that Tony Stringer prefers over fall and spring and certainly over winter, either in Detroit where he grew up, or even here where it ordinarily so much milder.

Caitlin Matthews, writing in Summer Solstice: Celebrating the Journey of the Sun from May Day to Harvest, argues for the particular pleasures and gifts each season, with summer being  a time of reverence for the sun—-not the blond, bikinied sun worshippers of modern Madison Avenue creation– but the ancient tradition of giving thanks for the light that warms and promotes growth in all light.

From the beginning of recorded history, the sun has symbolized glory, power and brilliance.  In all the formally recorded mythologies and spiritualities of the world, the sun is portrayed as god or goddess: in Egypt, Greece, Rome, and even Christianity,  with some descriptions of Christ as the sun driving his chariot across the sky.

For our ancestors, we are told, the coming and goings of the sun were a constant sacred reminder of the cycle of life itself, the triumph of light over dark, life over death, with festivals of the sun being celebrated in Eastern religious traditions, at celestial temples such as Ankar Wat in Cambodia, in Hindu culture where nearly all the major Hindu deities are associated with the sun, including Vishna and the solar diety Krishna, divine protector of cows, identified with the sun’s rays.

In our own hemisphere, rituals from earliest human times centered around the sun, among the Zuni native peoples whose sun priests  enacted spirit dances, the steps of which were handed down for generations. In these dances, the spirit people or Kachinas returned from the lower world, where it was still winter, passing through the earth on a journey up into the mountains where they would commune with the dead. Dark to light, death to life, winter to summer.

While many of these rituals took place and still take place around the actual summer solstice in June,

Other rituals of summer took place and still take place long before Memorial Day Weekend, with May Day celebrations in Northern Europe acknowledged as the first day of summer. A time to invoke the sun and its new energy, to turn cattle out to pasture again, move the sheep from home fields to rougher land, to prepare the soil for planting.

A time to bring flowers in  from outdoors, decorating the house for the dawning of summer, replanting bushes to protect homes, festooned with bright scraps of material or garlands of egg shells. We are asked to imagine the landscape of rural Ireland, for example, and its Celtic culture, how magical it must have looked as May marked the turning of the seasons.

In Anam Cara, a Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O’ Donahue, the source of our reading this morning, he  describes the fascination the Celts had for the circle, one of the most universal and ancient shapes in the universe, with time understood as an inclusive, all embracing circle, the circular, cyclical of the year.

For the Celts, the metaphor for human creation is that of being shaped from clay, and as we are formed from clay, the rhythm of the seasons outside nature is also active within our own hearts There are four seasons within the clay heart, O’Donahue tells us. Each of them provide different  fodder,  with different challenges and gifts for the soul.

He writes that when it is winter in the world of nature, all colors have vanished and nature withdraws. When it is winter in your life, he believes, you are going through pain, difficulty or turbulence.  You have to lie low and shelter until this bleak, emptying time passes on.

Spring is the quivering of life about to burst forth, a time of great exuberance and hope, a youthful season, a time of great inner longing. A wonderful time to undertake a new adventure, a new project, make some important changes in your life. Springtime in the soul is a time when you can make difficult transitions very naturally in an unforced and spontaneous way.

Spring blossoms and grows into summertime, he tells us, with a great lushness everywhere, a richness and depth of texture. A time of light, growth, and arrival. It is a time of great balance. You are in the flow of your own nature. You can take as many risks as you like, he tells us, and always land on your feet.  There is enough shelter and depth of texture around you to balance, ground, and mind you.

Summer as a time to take risks. What does that look like?

One among us just had his first sky diving experience. That’s certainly taking a kind of hopefully protected risk, but exhilarating just the same. One possibility is the new Dare Devil Dive ride just opened at Six Flags, described by one reporter who tried it out as coming pretty to close to what it might be like to drive a car straight down off the edge of a cliff. He says that the coaster mimics the aerial acrobatics of a stunt plane instead of taking you over lots of hills, and when you go upside down, the motion is more of a rollover than a loop-the-loop.

Too much of a risk? Or this is normal risk taking for you? ( my twin brother has never seen a roller coaster he hasn’t immediately wanted to ride). For my husband, physical risk taking might be walking across the Brooklyn Bridge later this summer when we travel to New York. He has a fear of suspended heights that makes this a challenge—and a risk. For me, swimming in water where I can’t feel the bottom fits this bill.

Taking food risks is another possibility—not of course eating anything that would trigger severe allergic or dietary reactions—but is perhaps something you  would not ordinarily consider, such as traveling to Corinth, Mississippi, Mississippi in July for their Slugburger Festival, a deep-fried beef and soy-meal patty served on a bun, or the West Virginia Road Kill Cook-Off. Or staying closer to home, crossing over to Buford Highway and its dozens of ethinc eateries and grocery stores, and the possibilities there.

For me it might be breaking down and buying a ticket to a summer film in a genre I usually detest, say the fourth installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, or a movie with lots of high tech special effects like the  3-d Transformers: Dark of the Moon. After all, it’s just a couple of  hours out of my entire  life.

I’m just saying.

For a real walk on the wild side away from public television and radio culture, I am seriously considering an evening at the Great American Trailer Park Musical here in Atlanta, or, God forbid, a visit to the NASCAR museum when we are in Charlotte for this year’s General Assembly. If I could love Graceland—which I did– who knows?

Beyond or in addition to physical or cultural risk-taking, there’s theological risk-taking. Consider re-reading or reading Huston’s Smith’s book on World Religions and visit or re-visit  the religions  or aspect of a religion that is the most difficult for or puzzling to you. Or explore—from a place of curiosity– a belief that you absolutely don’t get.

For me, it might be picking up a book on past lives or at least leafing through the pages of a Left Behind novel. Or the notion of a real heaven.  What would it be for you?

And then there’s spiritual risk-taking in the summer season, for the sake of balance deliberately switching out one form of practice, of getting whole and connected, for another.

Rev. Peter Tufts Richardson, a UU minister, developed a few years back what has been lauded as an ingenious way of using a combination of Jungian psychology and personality types to delineate four types of spiritual journeys, in some ways parallel to the four seasons. What he  has called The Four Ways: meditation, intellect, devotion or love, and works. His theory is that  we can use  the Myers-Briggs personality types  to sort for these four native spiritualities: the Journey of Unity, the Journey of Devotion, The Journey of Harmony and the Journey of Works.

While we begin with strong and basic  or native spiritual preferences and practices that attach to them, he is convinced that each one of us can develop what he describes as considerable spiritual poise, coming from a place of creative understanding of the three other spiritualities that are not primarily our own, moving around a circle, like a mandala, like the seasons of the year.

The summer season then may be the best time, as we are supported and grounded, to deliberately try out opposite practices. For me, whose native, comfortable spirituality is a Journey of Unity, with reading and silent meditation, or reflection on a single word or picture adding the most clarity , balance and symmetry to my life, the practices of a Journey of Devotion, with hands on, direct experiences- music, dancing, exultant singing, even the swinging of incense would be a risk and an enrichment. Washing feet, serving soup.

For some, whose primary practice is action, whether swimming laps, or walking meditation, or protesting injustice, a quieter reflective time of silence, yoga, or devotional reading would be that kind of summer risk we are being encouraged to take.

Take this season as it is given us: hot and humid, indolent and fertile, lushness everywhere, and a depth of texture. A time of light, growth, and renewal in the cycle of life.

In the words of T.S. Eliot:

We shall not cease from exploration, and at the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.