Visions of Mary? What Are You Talking About, Woman?

In yesterday’s post about the way I have come to understand the connections between Christmas and the Winter Solstice, I mentioned that I have been having visions of Mary lately.

There was no simpler way to talk about how, while I am in meditation, I see images of an every changing woman who is named Mary and who gave birth to the child we have come to call Christ.dsc00983

Who do I think I am and when did I start having visions?

If I were better schooled in mysticism, I might have a better vocabulary for these exchanges that take place within my heart and head. Anything I have read has always applied to spiritual masters like Teresa Avila who levitated and could say without hesitation that they had been touched by the Divine. I am certainly not to be counted amongst such company.

In my healing artists’ classes we have talked about the images one receives when working on a client or just walking down the street. They seem unbidden these colors and pictures and emotions. They are bits of consciousness so foreign to our own way of knowing the world and so seem like they must come from an external source. Our intuitive centers must be so open that we are receiving messages from new sources all the time.

Or, these visions seem like such intimate extensions of our own souls that we are ecstatic to realize we are stepping deeper into our true selves. Such breakthroughs seem Heaven sent, such understanding a gift from God.

Either way, my classmates and I wondered about where these ideas came from. We worried that while in guided meditation we were just inventing our experiences, walking through the heady terrain our imagination rather than through the secret vaults of the soul. We were concerned that any guidance we received during a healing session was just judgment twisted into a therapeutic shape.

“I don’t have any intuitive power. I just make this stuff up!” we all feared.

And then our teacher offered a revolutionary idea: it doesn’t matter where any thing that dances through our minds actually comes from. If it was put into our heads, we must have been meant to notice it and experience it.

I see lots of holes in this theory. There are entire sections of the Vatican dedicated to determining whether people have had authentic experiences of the Virgin or whether they are charlatans with a crafty streak. The entire realm of faith is a dangerous dance between true relationship with God and the clouds of overactive cerebral cortices. Seers and liars – I think the two have become inextricably tangled in all too many ways.

dsc00637And yet, this explanation is most comforting to me as I try to describe my new understanding of the intimate relationship between the rhythm of nature and the traditions of Christianity. I am not begging for attention by talking about this new way that I see Mary. I am not hoping to be canonized and make New Paltz the next Lourdes.

I have been envisioning Mary and gaining new wisdom from these phenomenal moments. Am I placing a sacred face on recycled bits of knowledge I have gathered along my way? Perhaps. But, if in this dialog between Self and Soul one of the players is going to wear a beautiful mask, I couldn’t ask for more than to have her wear the sweet, complicated face of the Great Mother gliding across my inner landscape in shining blue robes.

What would it be like if we took our intuition and the images that appear to us a little more seriously? What if we stopped denigrating these experiences as mere trifles of the overindulged imagination?

How much could we learn – from ourselves, from the world around us, and, yes, even from God – if we close our eyes and allow ourselves to have a dialog with whichever wisdom bearers come to call?

Winter Solstice: Mary, Mother Earth, and the Stories that We Tell

In the end, all we have is nature.

My teacher offered this wisdom during my healing class a few weeks ago, and only by going in the opposite direction, by dipping into myth and stories and ideas have I begun to understand the profundity of this statement.

I was blessed with the most incredible, nourishing Winter Solstice I could have possibly prayed for. The snow continued to fall while the Christmas lights glowed all day in the cozy house. I had the luxury of spending hours in my sacred little room: lighting my Advent candles, meditating, drawing, writing, discovering new territory in the realm of spirit.

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This December has offered me previously unimagined insight into the power of both the Solstice and Christmas.

For some time now, I have been experiencing visions of Mary. In them, she tells me that she is not just that silent, blue veiled vessel with the alabaster brow. She is the Mother who carried the weight of the world between her hips and who gave birth to a God. She is not some distant creature to be locked up in churches. She is a vital ally, a friend to all life. Mary is the supreme realization of the Divine Feminine.

Never before would I allow myself to get close to Jesus’s mom. A girl who got tangled up in all that Biblical stuff just because she was passively filled with angel dust? Not my style. Instead, I sought the Goddess in myth and legend, rock formations and prehistoric art. The statues of the blessed virgin that graced the churches I passed were just dull marble decorations that helped other kinds of people through their day.

But Mary has been insistent, and I realize how foolish I have been to refuse her. I now allow myself to drink deep her story.

Two phenomenal posts that I came across today, both based on today’s Gospel reading about the Annunciation, opened new doors of understanding for me: Christine at Abbey of the Arts and a blog that’s new to me, Magdalene’s Musings.

The more deeply I fall into the stories of the Annunciation and Jesus’s birth, the more overcome I am by their power. Suddenly it makes sense that these events would form the basis of a faith that endures 2,000 years later.

At the same time, my understanding of these miraculous moments is colored by the new “relationship” that I have with Mary herself. As she becomes something other than an iconic character for me, and instead emerges as a face of the feminine aspect of God, I realize how the stories that bind her to history are just that: stories.dsc01518

The time I spent soaking in Paganism and Celtic magic left me with a strong understanding of the way the Church strategically scheduled Christmas to coincide with a holiday as old as the earth itself: the celebration of sun’s return around December 21. The overlapping events and the connections between them are becoming increasingly clear to me:

The earth is tilting back on its axis so that the sun shines longer in the sky each day.

Mother Earth is offering up her Child, the Sun.

The Feminine Divine is making way in order to give us the Divine in human form.

Mary gives birth to the infant Jesus in a manger.

When I fully realize that the nativity story is not about shepherds and stars, but is instead a beautiful allegory for the cycles of the seasons, I arrive on a new plane of respect for Christianity and for all of nature. The interconnectedness of humanity’s stories with the basic laws of this earth make me stop and allow tears to fill my eyes for the incredible beauty we are all permitted to be a part of.

Did those events in Bethlehem really happen? I would not deny it. And if they did, I believe it was because God knew humanity needed to watch the power of his love enacted in human form. The passing of the seasons and the miracle of the earth’s rebirth of the seasons is too abstract a miracle for us to understand. What genius and power, to give us these holy beings, Mary and Jesus, to guide our story-loving souls.

solstice sun setI stood outside as the sun set on this shortest day, and I understood completely that the only sure thing is the natural world. The ideas, the living beings, the manufactured things, they will all fade away. Only the mountains and the seas, the sun and the moon will remain.

But still, I know I feel more connected to God and to the rest of this beautiful world better by holding in my heart these stories that we tell.

Can Somebody Please Get This Man a Priest?

My husband almost refused to sit with me to watch the movie we’d Netflixed last night. It wasn’t so much that he feared the dreaded “chick flick” (I am blessed with a man who wears his heart on his sleeve just enough to find his way through such films with no problem), it was just that he jokingly refused to watch me swoon over two of the tastiest men in movies – Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell.

cassandras_dream_1Cassandra’s Dream wasn’t exactly a great film, nor was it particularly uplifting. The men were pretty, but that didn’t really counterbalance the claustrophobic feel of the movie. I suppose the film was effective in that I was squirming along with the characters at the nearly impossible situations they created for themselves through greed and misplaced loyalties and a refusal to heed their own morals or instincts.

Basically, two brothers from London agree to murder a man who threatens their uncle’s reputation and fortune. Colin Farrell plays the brother crippled by conscience, the one who turns to drink and drugs to numb the pain, all to no avail. He is coming apart at the seams. His fragility threatens the entire wicked scheme.

In spite of myself, I wanted these guys to get away with their crime, but at the same time, I wanted Farrell’s character to do the impossible, to become whole again.

The only answer I could come up with, as we watched the story unfold on our comfortable couch bathed in the glow of the Christmas tree, was that this guy needed to find a priest. The only thing I could think of that might make his soul clean again was some time in a confession booth and as many Acts of Contrition and Hail Marys as he could muster.

I have mentioned previously that I dance with my Catholic heritage, holding dear to the pieces that speak to me directly – my own vision of Mary, the mystics, the commitment to service – and yet, I definitely shy away from other aspects – Original Sin, patriarchy, the idea that it is the “One True Faith.”

Still, Catholicism seems to flow in my blood as surely as the prayers have been etched into my brain.

createsimaEven when I was furthest from my Christian roots, when I had run out of options, I found myself beseeching Jesus that I would do whatever he might ask, if only he could get me out of the mess I had made. I was twenty years old, alone in a Galway dorm room, trying to live through a case of alcohol poisoning so intense I would have been in an American emergency room in a heartbeat. A man I had been foolish enough to love decided to break my heart only after he had bought me one of everything they had behind the bar. Young, stupid, and scared out of my mind, I clung to my pillow and just repeated the Lord’s Prayer as my body shook and my head swam.

Far from my finest hour, and certainly one that I must cherish as a lesson and a warning. Only years later, when I have made my peace with Christianity, can I look back to that moment and understand the depths of my belief in the power of heavenly salvation and aid. It is definitely not something that springs from an intellectual place within me. It is from a visceral place, a spiritual place beyond words that makes me understand why people need faith and a religion upon which to hang those convictions.

What would a priest do for a guy who had committed such a horrific sin? My mind says, not much. My soul seems to think that he might be able to do something more.

I still pursue a path guided by the wisdom of many traditions, but it seems that when things are really dire my survival instinct takes me back to what I learned first.

Our Father, who art in Heaven…

Advent, Christmas, Consciousness

Creeping around in the early evening gloom. Fumbling for cords. Flipping antique switches.

Bringing light to the darkness. Filling the house with the glow of hope.dsc01481

This is one of those epiphanies so obvious, I cannot believe I never realized its significance before.

It’s got to the be combination of a new house of our own and my own expanding awareness. I have fallen in love with the ritual of switching on these Christmas sparkles when I get home each night.

So pedestrian, the twinkling of colorful bulbs each December, and yet stringing these lights connects us to an amazing deeper consciousness. This tradition of decking the halls can be so much more than doing what’s expected and decorating as soon as Thanksgiving has passed.

Isn’t one of the best ways to really integrate changes into your life to introduce new habits? This habit, formed when there are a few extra, lovely tasks to do every day as we cast our homes in a precious, brief kaleidoscope of color can be the sort of thing that changes our whole outlook.

Spending those moments to consciously fill my house with beauty reminds me that it can be so simple to let a similar glow fall upon the rest of my life.

We light the Advent candles to prepare for a coming birth. We bring trees and boughs into our homes to spin some sympathetic magic, in hopes that the green will return once again to the earth. We fill our lives with all this light, both secular and holy, because we need it to guide us through this darkest time of year.

I have created my own sacred circle of candles to further help me remember that the sun will own the sky once more and that there is always promise on the bleakest of nights. I gaze into each flame and ask that I may always remember the sacredness of fire, the divinity of inspiration, the blessings that dance around my well lit path.

Oh, and check out a wonderful piece on the Winter Solstice at the Huffington Post by Judith Rich!

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Life, A Constant Process of Remembering

Going through my notes from my healing class from a week ago, I came across another little sip of wisdom that is opening up a new universe of thought for me:

Life is a constant process of remembering.

Anna's shot, the lawn

Either you look at this idea with a belief in reincarnation – that we gathered this wisdom in past lives and are trying to re-collect our thoughts in this next spin through life. Or, it has nothing to do with how many times you might have walked the earth. If we all came from the Great Source, then we once sat beside God and had access to all transcendence. To live is to try to get back to that place of Oneness.

Striking out on a spiritual path can be frightening. We are shaken from our slumber when we leave behind the malaise of daily life and look at the world with wide, fresh eyes that seek the sacred in everything.

It may have been a restless sleep, full of nightmares and cold sweats, but the bad dream of an unexamined life is at least a familiar one. To abandon those chilly, but accustomed nights can be nearly impossible when the alternative is a lonely walk into the undiscovered country of the spirit.

We know that leaving behind our ties to the pedestrian and the limiting have to be dissolved, however, if we want to free ourselves an experience a new way of being. The routines that bind us to stunted dreams and unrealized potential have to be dissolved.

How might we open ourselves to the possibilities of a journey into consciousness if we think of it not as a rush of brand new spiritual revelation, but as a process of recalling that which our souls already know? What if it is not a leap into the unknown, but a gentle process of sinking gently into the loving embrace of the Mother?

Suddenly, a thought strikes me:

We go through the process of being human so that we can learn to be more divine.

Gospels and Advent and Oneness, Oh My

The Universe was pushing me along today, and I tried my best to let her take the wheel.

Maybe it was the hush of a Sunday morning, but I happened upon two blogs, Barefoot Toward the Light and Abbey of the Arts. Both offered wisdom about the Gospel reading of the day and reminded me that it is the first day of Advent.

At most, I can be described as a reluctant Catholic who takes small sips from the cup of her childhood religion. Googling the Mass readings is not something I ever thought I would do, but here I was today trying to track down this bit from Mark in which Jesus declares “Be watchful! Be alert!”

Both of the bloggers I mention above do more justice to these words that I can, especially Christine at Abbey of the Arts who gives us meaning of this short piece of scripture beyond its immediate warning to keep an eye out for the approach of God. She says:

In the invitation of Advent to prepare for the birth of God into the world, we are invited to awaken to the sacred possibilities deep within us, to shake off our slumber, open our eyes wide and discover the sacredness of everything we encounter.

I know that I have expressed similar sentiments many times, though not necessarily in the context of the birth of Christ.  Only by staying open to many masters, but never tying myself to any particular religious path have I felt the freedom to talk about how I have encountered the sacred.

In this same post, Christine at Abbey of the Arts also talks about the way that the perspective of Eastern religions inform the West, and vice versa and the power of inter-religious dialog to enrich all faiths. It is the same nurturing message I found in reading Joan Chittister’s words yesterday and that I have come to know as my own truth.

Again, I am stumbling across whispers of Oneness. The religion that was the foundation of my spirituality mixes with the explorations that have marked my adulthood and I learn once more that all roads to a great divine harmony – if only we keep our eyes open to see it.

* * *

I created a makeshift Advent wreath and placed it before my altar tonight. All of my hopes for light in this darkening time before the sun returns at the solstice suddenly had a focus in a single flickering flame.

Always we seek relief from the darkness, and ever we find the light. Where will you find the light to guide your way?

The Spiritual Mix: Oneness Across Faiths

Two and a half years ago my perspective on spirituality shifted dramatically to encompass a new world of faiths and possibilities. Unknowingly, I had been working the soil for this new flowering for some time, but it was at the Omega Institute’s Being Fearless Conference that I heard Caroline Myss and Andrew Harvey speak and everything changed.

Caroline Myss gave me a new window on my own Christian heritage as she introduced a full ballroom of people to their interior castles. Through her lecture I found the courage to to find solace in the wisdom of a saint for the first time. For all that I internalized my Catholicism, there were major aspects – namely the bits I now find most compelling, the saints and mystics – that were largely absent in the sanitized “Spread the good news: Jesus is love” catechism of the 1980s. I knew Myss’s work as a healer (The Anatomy of the Spirit had long been a bible of mine), and I was so thrilled to follow her on this new path back into my own history.

Andrew Harvey’s sessions interested me because the titles of his seminars mentioned the divine feminine. For all my goddess worship over the last decade, I was pretty sure that I had heard it all, but I could use a refresher. Hearing that familiar message from the mouth of a man would be an interesting new twist. Man, was I wrong! The world was turned upside down when the words of a Catholic saint offered comfort and the Great Mother, for all her power to nurture, was also the avenging Kali telling us that we had gone too far as we destroyed the planet and each other. Harvey helped pull my adoration of the sacred feminine into adulthood, stripping it of the girl power pablum I had needed when I first began to understand womanhood and instead offering a mature realization of the mothering nature of God and its essential relationship with the masculine principle.

Harvey is a scholar of the great world religions, and he also introduced me to the undiscovered territory of mystical Islam, Sufism, and the spiritual power of the poet Rumi. At an extended weekend workshop I attended shortly after that first conference, he gave the group Rumi’s own chant and offered it as something to “use at the core of our lives.” Having never found a Sanskrit mantra that really “stuck” in my yoga practice, I was amazed to realize that this little line in Arabic became a gentle, perfect hum in the back of my mind that I could call upon whenever I needed solace.

Reading Sister Joan Chittister’s blog today, I was immediately drawn in by the title of her post “A Glimpse of Oneness for a Change.” “Oneness” is such an important yet amorphous term – to me it means the understanding that every person who speaks to a higher energy with a pure heart is in fact communing with the same basic, omnipotent entity that can be called God or or Goddess or Spirit or Universe. “Oneness” is what gives me hope that there truly is a unifying principle in this world and that a greater, more compassionate global consciousness is within our grasp.

What really amazed me was that she invoked my own sacred mantra in the first paragraph of her post. Sister Joan talks about witnessing a zikr, the remembrance of God, not as a purely Sufi ritual but as a celebration of divine unity as “Buddhist monks, Jewish rabbis, Hindu swamis, Christian monks, Muslim imams, Indian Sun Dancers and lay practitioners of all the world’s great contemplative traditions” joined together to praise the Sacred. She was at a summit that happened in Aspen a few weeks ago, “Gathering Spiritual Voices of America,” organized by the Global Peace Initiative of Women.

As I move along my own spiritual path, still a magpie pulling wisdom from every tradition that will open its heart to me, I take great comfort in knowing that this desire to bring the kaleidoscope of religious perspectives together endures on a great scale. I seem to be a person who will never be tied wholly to a single creed, but I can pray to all of the names of God that I know that we can find a true place of Oneness.

Saint Anthony’s Priorities

Rustling through my closet, both trying to organize things and avoid the chores in the kitchen in advance of the beautiful family invasion due in on Thursday, I marveled at the odd assortment of life’s detritus that has traveled with me. Expired student IDs from Galway, Halloween greeting cards, cryptic notes from my grandfather that were once attached to long forgotten newspaper clippings about libraries or the Hudson Valley. Memories, lovely and otherwise, enmeshed in it all.

I’ve made the prayer to Saint Anthony my new mantra as I casually riffle through closets too new to have dark, concealing corners. That August morning we move in I know I made sure I put my hands on my grandmother’s jewelry. Now, the nice flat white box is somewhere quite safe, I’m sure. If we leave the house unlocked no thieves with a penchant for houses on winding country roads will be able to find this stuff. Of course, neither will I…

At any rate, I am a new but fervent believer in what seems like little more than a children’s nursery rhyme “Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony, please come around. Something is lost that cannot be found.” I just love the way the reciter abdicates all responsibility for losing the treasured object in question and sort of indicates that a certain something wandered off like a naughty child on a busy train platform.

Once I lost a handwritten letter my grandfather had sent while he was on an Ignatian retreat. It was one of those letters that seem to have been written in a mythical bygone age when one could pour out his soul in scrawling script and theological discussions were the topic of the day. Foolishly tucked in a paperback, it vanished during a lunch hour I spent walking across most of campus. (Please note, I did not lose said missive, it obviously jumped from its place.) Two days later after ransacking house and car and office, I chanced a trip to the College lost and found. When the girl at the desk said, “oh, this letter?” I began to weep and blubber with gratitude and became more than convinced that only a being with some seriously divine status could have inspired someone to save this gem from the ubiquitous recycling bins and send it on its way back to me.

It seems that Saint Anthony sometimes makes his own decisions about what needs to be found, however. Tonight, in this box of mementos and junk I found two things that I never would have realized I needed to find: a rose quartz heart and a bit of tortured poetry.

I had received the heart at a ritual years ago and given it to my Nanna when she was battling cancer. Funny how my buddy Tony seems to think that I need to find the guidance of my other grandmother right now – not the one with the jewels, but the one whose heart I knew the best. I am thinking that Nanna is trying to tell me that I need to pass this stone on to my sister as she tries to heal her own heart from the loss of yet another loved one to that wicked, voracious disease.

The lines of poetry are written in blue ink on an index card, and I can only guess that I scribbled them down while sitting at a job that seem bent on destroying me, body and soul. One good thing about a job as a medical receptionist before everyone had internet on their office computers: I would spit language onto scrap paper rather than numb my addled brain with gossip sites and Daily Show clips. I cannot say much for the quality of the little rant, but it amazes me how much my life has changed in the last six years yet how some things have become so much more true than a lost twenty-three year old could have ever imagined.

—–
Spools of integrated soul
aching for reprieve, expression, air
[…]
Buried in verse, believing in my own mountaintop
even as I am entombed in these feet of clay
—–

I know I was given that crystal for a reason, so I think I must set about why I was sent a telegram from this younger voice of my soul…

Oh, and Saint Anthony, thanks for also helping me find something to write about tonight (the writer’s block had been killing me all evening!).


The Exploitation of Mining for Inspiration

During a long ride this weekend I came across a new Public Radio International program, To the Best of Our Knowledge. They were doing an entire show about sadness and depression. The final segment was dedicated to a San Antonio artist, Michale Nye, who created photographic and audio portraits of sixty homeless individuals troubled by mental illness.

After profiling many of his subjects, the interviewer asked “If you could wipe out mental illness tomorrow would you? … Is there a function for this sort of sadness and pain? Do we need these people in our culture?”

He replied,

I see them as teachers, not as people with mental illness. They are helping us, there is a function. They are helping us understand more about ourselves and humanity. We need them for understanding, for insight, for courage. I found myself being inspired over and over. We need to listen to people challenged in their lives. I remember Virginia Woolf in her diaries said that we need to look at the landscapes of our lives and see that pain and sorrow reveal some truths.

Since Woolf published the descriptions of her suffering and they became part of the literary canon, it seems completely ethical to draw those sorts of lessons from the difficulties she had with being human. I am not so sure that it is fair to speak from a place of mental health and say that people’s whose lives have been ripped apart by unstoppable inner turmoil are necessary to teach the rest of us courage and offer inspiration. Isn’t this the height of solipsism, of deepest egocentrism that maintains that the rest of the world exists purely for our own edification?  Is the artist seeing his subjects as inspirational opportunities rather than real people caught in tragic circumstances?  Is their suffering being justified since it can be made into a chance for us to contemplate the nature of pain and sorrow?

I listened to this story through the filter of a conversation I had with my sister last week. I was trying to comfort her as her childhood friend lay dying of melanoma, but I was failing miserably since there are no words when a twenty-six year old’s life is being stolen away by cancer. Trying to help, I offered the possibility that she had touched countless lives in a special way with her early passing by teaching us life can be woefully brief and that we must revel in each moment we are granted on this beautiful earth. My sister reacted bitterly to this statement by declaring that there was no way that her friend was dying to show a bunch of stupid people that life was precious. She was finding solace in the belief that her friend was blessed to have spread all the love she needed to in a quarter of a decade, that she was a perfect enough soul that she didn’t need as much time on the planet as the rest of us.

Clearly, my sister was looking at the situation with a much finer wisdom than I could summon. Now, I am beginning to recognize the degrees of selfishness that are involved in everything from coping with death to creating art to thanking our lucky stars that we have clear, obedient minds. The stories of others can certainly color our perspective and enrich our own experiences, but we must never reduce another’s truth to a simplistic cautionary tale.

How can we learn to understand the deepest realities of the lives of the women and men who share this journey with us? How do we begin to recognize the fullness of others’ experiences so that we never keep those who suffer from illness or poverty as distanced figures, there only to teach a little something about the treacherous road of life?

My sister’s friend passed away on Thursday. I want to remind everyone to worship the sun at dawn and dusk, but respect its fiery, deadly glory at noontime. But I also ask that you think on a sweet Cape Cod girl who left this world too soon and realize the hole left in the fabric of an entire tapestry of lives.

November Chill

In a post looking back at an unobserved All Hallow’s Eve, I thought about the madness of the encroaching holiday season and the need to find sacredness in all of the other days on the calendar. As I recognize this odd in-between time that spreads from Samhain (the final harvest and the start of the Celtic New Year) to the return of the sun on the Winter Solstice, I think it is even more essential to find the touchstones that connect to our vitality and to the Divine.

I am watching several people I love experience a sense of dissolution in their lives. Illusions are stripped away and they are confronted by resurgent realities that they had once been able to escape. There is solace to be found in the belief that this too shall pass, that God offers nothing more than one can bear, and that it is only possible to be truly alive when all of the veils that lay between you and the true presence have been ripped away. And yet, the desire to just keep driving away from all the problems is so strong and the need to ask “why” is so persistent. It is so hard not to shiver in the brutal winds of our fate as the bitter chill of November settles into our bones.

To stand as naked as the trees is to be living in direct contact with nature, and though it may threaten to turn you to coldest stone, it is nothing more than the Earth herself is going through at these moments. Cold comfort, that, but perhaps it is just the Universe’s way of reminding us we are alive. She cannot wake us with the calls of birds and the warmth of a July sun, but she can remind us that she is always there with us by allowing us to feel the rattling of her bare branches and her sorrow of another summer passed.

The world will keep turning, the secrets will be uncovered, and the globe will tilt back to the sun again so that light may return. We just need to find the faith to witness its sweet, slow progression.