Letters to Peregrinus #48 - On Getting the Right Season

This photo from France Today website, in an article by Caroline Harrap, 20 April 2020. The fire burned the Cathedral in early morning of 16 April 2019 in Paris. See: https://www.francetoday.com/culture/a-year-after-the-devastating-fire-at-notre-dame-de-paris/
Psalm 127 –

Unless the Lord build the house,
    they labor in vain who build.
Unless the Lord guard the city,
    in vain does the guard keep watch.
It is vain for you to rise early
    and put off your rest at night,
To eat bread earned by hard toil—
    all this God gives to his beloved in sleep.a [1]

Dear Peregrinus (Wednesday, 13 May 2020):

I am happy to be writing to you on the anniversary of the second of the two days in May of 1373 CE when Julian of Norwich had an extended, profound experience of God, the sixteenth “shewing” to complete the fifteen “shewings” given her on the previous day (see the footnote).[2] I know of no greater Theologian than Julian,[3] and, interestingly, the publication of her Shewings is the first book by a woman ever published in English.[4]

This revelation was made to a simple, unletteredcreature, living in this mortal flesh, the year of our Lord one thousand, three hundred and seventy-three, on the thirteenth day of May; and before this the creature had desired three graces by the gift of God.[5]


The Church long ago coordinated its Liturgical Calendar[6] with the naturally recurring seasons of the year – Advent with Winter; Spring with Lent[7] and Eastertide; Summer and Autumn with what is called “Ordinary Time”. Already we are passing through the fifth of the seven weeks of Eastertide.
Happy Easter season to you, old friend.
Soon enough, we will have arrived at the “fiftieth day” (aka Pentecost)[8], which this year lands on Sunday, May 31st. Then, on the day after Pentecost, Monday, June 1st, we return – nay, we go forward into, “Ordinary Time” – not a “special” season, but a season to do with the practice of a new “ordinary”, or into a daily practice of living by a new “normal.”[9]

I have pondered this year how each natural season has the same name – Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall.[10] Yet, each year those seasons, each one, has never seen before aspects.[11] The names work as generalities, but, as a result, they overlook what is most interesting, and emergent, in each season. The high art of the poets of Nature, such as Mary Oliver, prove over and over again how constantly renewed, and fresh, is Nature. By diligent training they make themselves notice it.

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.[12]
Two thoughts are at work in me, Peregrinus, that are still inchoate,[13] but which are enough “there” for me to articulate them to you, so that you might write back to me your thoughts about them. My first thought concerns the connection between our national experience of the COVID 19 calamity and the particular burden that the “ordinary” or “normal” poses to human beings whom God designed to stay awake. My second thought concerns the metaphor of “season” in relation to this.


Some weeks ago, a trusted friend of mine and of the Faber Institute, Tracy Hooper (husband, Henry), said to a group of us, and feelingly said it, “When all of this is over [i.e., the COVID calamity and its longer-term effects], I really do not want simply to go back to the way we were before it all happened. I know that I have learned important things because of all of this, and I want to live now according to those new understandings.”[14] Now, if I may frame what she said according to Catholic sensibilities and training (Tracy and Henry are Catholics), then I would say that Tracy expressed perfectly the kind of sensibility that is trained in those brought up in the rhythms of the Liturgical Year – the growing (green), the changing (purple), the dying (black), the rising (white)[15], and how God works at us, and through us, within those rhythms.

What do I mean? I mean that the special seasons of the Liturgical Calendar – Advent-Christmastide, and Lent-Eastertide – are “special” because of what we recall about two of the divine Trinity’s most profound interventions within human history. But they are also “special” because they significantly challenge the lives that we have “fallen into” (our “rote”[16] lives), shaking us awake to what really is going forward[17] around us. “Special” times are not “ordinary” times, which is why they are special.

Tracy’s soulful remark that night – her eyes revealed from what depth her beseeching came – was a demonstration of her capacity to do something that the Liturgical Year trains in persons who live by it, within its rhythms and “seasons.” For someone like Tracy, the prospect of losing what is “ordinary” or “normal” is unsettling, but it is not terrifying, because such a person is well acquainted with accepting the recalibrating, twice a year, of what had been “ordinary” or “normal”.

COVID 19 compelled, vastly, the whole world into a “special” time, which, if we let it, will change significantly what many of us have gotten used to.

I say, let us not seek to go back to work (!). Instead, let us choose to go forward into a new way of being ourselves together, while working, while being family, while being helpers of the common good, while being Americans, and as children of God who are not afraid to be shaken awake. For us to reject the challenge of this “special” time, actively fighting against it, fighting to go back to the way things were… well, that would be as foolish as people resisting and fighting against the coming of Autumn!


Yes, and about that season, Autumn.

Recently, a circle of worthy thinkers at PRAXIS[18] has written about American society[19] as having entered a Winter season, or even a little Ice Age, catalyzed (if not caused) by COVID 19 (a natural process[20]) and the ensuing economic calamities (a mechanical process). These authors are well worth reading, and they get at things that I myself have been trying to understand, and which here I have tried to convey to you, Peregrinus.

Yet, there is in one way that I disagree with them. It is their choice of metaphor: Winter (blizzard, Ice Age). They write:

In this essay we will explain why we think that for most organizations —businesses, nonprofits, and even churches — this is a time to urgently redesign our work in light of what we believe is not just a weeks-long “blizzard,” not even just a months-long “winter,” but something closer to the beginning of a 12–18 month “ice age” in which many assumptions and approaches must change for good.[21]

I think that they chose the wrong season.

Winter is about life hidden (e.g., trees look boney and dead, though they are not; grass when not covered with snow and ice appears dead, though it is just dormant; many animals hibernate out of sight). We cannot see life and what Life is doing. We are in the long waiting of Winter. In Winter we live off what we stored away in preparation for it. We move slowly. But most importantly, we cannot do much until the coming of Spring. We strive to survive, but mostly we wait.[22] Winter, at least in the northern hemisphere, seemed designed to humble us human beings, reminding us that we do not control Life; that death is a part of life; that life has its natural order, and that we must learn to accept with grace the Waiting.

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.[23]

Peregrinus, you could with good reason upbraid[24] me for quibbling about a metaphor, especially when those authors nicely develop what they mean by using Winter as their metaphor. However, Winter, in my view, has left out too much of what I see actually happening at this time, in this COVID “season” through which we are passing as a nation. Things (not to mention people) are dying, and we need to learn about how to learn from those people and institutions who do it well.


And now, let me finally get back to the photograph at the top of this essay. It was made on that early April morning in 2019 when the Cathedral of Notre Dame had caught fire and was burning fiercely at the center of Paris. One thing that one could say about Her[25] is that she knew how to die beautifully. Even as we knew the destruction, possibly terminal, that the fire was causing, still (meant in both meanings), we all saw something beautiful blazing in the early light. It was as if what that astonishing monument of Faith had meant from the beginning[26] – a home of the divine Fire – had for too long been forgotten, disregarded, and finally reduced in the judgment of contemporary French culture to being just another Museum. But that morning she was again alive, Herself, blazing! To take a riff from the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, we might say: “That Cathedral is not a tame cathedral!”

Luke 12 49 “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! 50 There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished! 51 Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.[27]

That morning She was not tame; She burned brightly at the heart of the chief city of what was once a noble national culture, which long ago formally rejected (by legislation!) its sacred, Christian roots, trunk, and branches. But that morning Her beautiful windows were ablaze with fiercest light. “God is not tame,” she roared, “And I am giving my life, in order to show you what happens when we let God have us. We are alive!”

And, that morning by the tens of thousands, Parisians, and visitors, nobles and servants alike, did stream to Her side to behold her awakening. Perhaps something was awakened in those people too. She knew how to die beautifully. We learn profound truths that we need from such people or institutions who know how to die well.

It is my sense that the metaphor we need to frame our experience during this time of COVID 19, and in order for us to accept what now will result from our economic and social and political and even religious reactions to it, is Autumn, not Winter.

In the northern parts of our country, Autumn is the season that teaches us how to die beautifully, how to let go. It is especially the leaves, what they become in Autumn, that teach us how beautifully to reveal what has lain hidden in us. Let it appear! Autumn shows us how to let go, to make our dying beautiful that others seeing us might recall how to give completely their lives, taking a risk to “let it go” (quoting the most famous song in the movie Frozen), all in an extravagant act of freedom and joy.

Since March, I have seen such beauty happening in individuals, so self-sacrificing, willing to give themselves to their utmost ability to help others who need them. This is a beautiful dying to self. And I have seen families discovering, as if for the first time, what it can mean to be together, a lot, and to find together a strength and joy as family that they never knew was possible. This is a beautiful letting go of bad habits. I have prayed that we Americans might learn to die gracefully, dying to countless horrible habits of our common life together, and of us within the natural world. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins might have said it, “May He Autumn in us.”
Peregrinus, I have missed hearing from you. Of course, all of us have been knocked around by all that has been happening. But I need your insights. Please write to me. Without them, and the friendship they demonstrate, I feel unsteady, as if lacking a foundation upon which to stand.

I am your old friend in Christ, who believes in you,



Eccl 2:24.

[1] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Ps 127:1–2. Concerning this Psalm: “One of the most telling features of this short poem is that it singles out three of our most universal preoccupations—building, security, raising a family—and makes us ask what they all amount to, and to whom we owe them.” [Derek Kidner, Psalms 73–150: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 16, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1975), 476.]

[2] “Acc. to her own account, in May 1373 she received a revelation, consisting of 15 ‘showings’ (and one more ‘showing’ the day after). Her book, commonly known in modern times as Showings or Revelation(s) of Divine Love, survives in two recensions. The first draft (the Short Text) was prob. written soon after 1373, but it was not until 1393 at the earliest that she completed the Long Text, in which she expounds an original and competent theological vision of life, on the basis of the revelation and her reflections upon it.” [F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 916.]
[3] She has a few equals, though her few equals are not “greatest” in the same way that Julian is. And the historical fact that we have no confidence that Julian was her real name symbolizes her particular greatness even more: this woman and theologian IS what she has written of God. Her namelessness is for the sake of the Name.

[4] I believe that this also was the judgment about her by Thomas Merton.

*1 Whatever ‘unlettered’ may mean here, it cannot be ‘illiterate’. See Showings, I, 43–52, for the editors’ reasons for interpreting it as ‘lacking in literary skills’.

[5] Julian of Norwich, Julian of Norwich: Showings, ed. Richard J. Payne, trans. Edmund Colledge and James Walsh, The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), 177.

[6] For a visual expression of the Catholic Liturgical Calendar of “seasons” see, for example: https://www.catholicextension.org/sites/default/files/media/Year-Liturgical.pdf.

[7] Originally the noun “Lent” and the adjective “Lenten” meant Spring (the season), both of which referred very early on in Europe (Old English, 500 CE to 1100 CE) to the month of March (named after the Roman god Mars), which was the month of the Vernal Equinox in the northern hemisphere, as well as the month when soldiers and nations could go back to warring (thus the connection, not solely, with Mars).

[8] The Oxford English Dictionary notes concerning “Pentecost” – “A festival observed on the seventh Sunday after Easter, in commemoration of events described in Acts 2 when the Holy Spirit is reported to have descended upon the disciples during the Jewish festival of Pentecost (sense 1); the day (Whit Sunday) or season (Whitsuntide) of this festival. The Resurrection of Christ is recorded as having taken place on the second day of the [Jewish] Passover, being that year the first day of the week. Seven weeks after that (and so again on the first day of the week) was the [Jewish] Feast of Weeks or Pentecost. Hence these two Christian festivals are always held on the first day of the week (Sunday), and so in most cases do not coincide with the Jewish festivals.”

[9] Sometimes, perhaps often, I hear Catholics speak about the return to Ordinary Time (the longest season of the Church’s Liturgical Calendar). But this completely misunderstands the spiritual effects the two “special” seasons, Advent-Christmastide and Lent-Eastertide, are meant to have on what we call “ordinary”, or “normal”. If we understand “Ordinary Time” rightly, then it should be impossible to return to it. Why? Because the “special” seasons are supposed to reconstitute, or to re-calibrate, the “ordinary” or “normal” by which we have been living our lives. If we in fact return to Ordinary Time, then this must mean that the “special” season from which we have emerged had no real effect on how we ordinarily live! We should instead go forward into a new “ordinary” or into a new “normal.”

[10] I love the poetic power of the use of the name “Fall” (as in when the leaves so beautifully drop through the chilly air to the ground) rather than using the word “Autumn”. In Old English and Middle English time in the northern hemisphere, the season was called “Harvest” – a description of the most important activity happening from September through November.

[11] The Oxford English Dictionary concerning the late-14th century noun “aspect” originally meant: “The action of looking at anything; beholding, contemplation; gaze, view.” And so, we should not overlook how we, each one of us, is a different person each year as we pass through each season. What is observed as unique each year in each season is also related to the fact that we each are different from last year.

[12] Oliver, Mary. Devotions, page 105 – from her collection Red Bird (2008), and in the poem “Sometimes”. Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[13] The Latin verb, first conjugation, incoho -are, means “to begin”. The Oxford English Dictionary at the adjective “inchoate” – “Just begun, incipient; in an initial or early stage; hence elementary, imperfect, undeveloped, immature.” Thoughts that are “inchoate” ones are enough present to be able to be an object of thought, but they are ones that the one thinking them knows that there is more in them to grasp than he or she presently has been able to find. In this regard, inchoate thoughts are also heuristic.

[14] Forgive me, Tracy, if I have misquoted you. But I am certain that I have captured the gist of what you meant that night when you spoke.

[15] The Catholic Church still retains the practice of the Great Church (all of those centuries it existed before it broke in two, East and West, and then, centuries later, again broke into many forms or “denominations” in the West). It deploys colors (of priestly vesture, and of decorations in the churches each season) to express the nature of different spiritual “moments”.

[16] The Oxford English Dictionary concerning the 20th century meaning of the adjective “rote” – “Occurring in a mechanical and repetitious manner; routine.”

[17] I believe that I go this idea of “going forward” from Bernard Lonergan, SJ, who describes the discipline of History as concerned with discovering what in fact was “going forward” (i.e., genuine advance, rather than the mere repetition that evil in the world causes). And what is always a “going forward” in Time is what Love (divine and human love in collaboration) brings out, brings forward, and brings into view of the works of the children of God (those who know and serve what God is up to here, in His world).

[18] See the valuable work of PRAXIS, specifically see: https://journal.praxislabs.org/leading-beyond-the-blizzard-why-every-organization-is-now-a-startup-b7f32fb278ff. The authors explain what they mean by these metaphors: blizzard, Winter, and Ice Age, and why they like them as metaphors for the sake of their argument.

[19] By “society” here I mean what a particular, self-defined group of people (e.g., the Society of Friends (Quakers) or the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), or the Society for the Prevention Cruelty to Animals, or, in this case, American society), who commit to work together for their common good. A society is what a group of people do together, and specifically to secure the vital values of family, health, sustenance, safety, protection, etc. A healthy society is one in which these recurring patterns of activity are habitual – we can count on them - for the sake of ensuring what we all need to be alive and healthy and protected and aware of the worth of each person’s contributions to the common good. An unhealthy society is one in which, for example, only some of those within that society have full access to what they need to be alive and healthy and protected, whose lifestyles benefit from the work of unseen and unappreciated fellow citizens. How often it is the case that when the recurring patterns of activity cease to function justly, for the good of all, Christians, following their ancient commitment to people on the margins, found and activate non-profits to try to make up where society is actively failing significant numbers of people in the society. So, surprisingly, the proliferation of non-profits in a society is an indicator of an unhealthy society!

[20] Let us assume, for now, that this virus was not engineered in a Bio-weapons facility, which somehow “got loose.” Knowing the truth about this is actually of great importance. If this virus was in fact “engineered,” then we might be compelled to find out who is to blame (wasting more precious time). If this virus is part of a natural process on this planet, then there is no moral aspect to the virus. It is simply Nature and its processes unfolding through Time, and we human beings, are organisms fully housed within the natural world. The moral content would come into play if such a virus existing in the first place became much more likely because of our human habits of despoiling the natural world for our use rather than to live in tune with its unsurpassed gift to us.

[21] Again, see: https://journal.praxislabs.org/leading-beyond-the-blizzard-why-every-organization-is-now-a-startup-b7f32fb278ff. Later in the same article: “The metaphor is obvious. Just as winter is more chronic and long-lasting than a blizzard, and requires different sorts of adaptation, which are in many ways more far-reaching than merely hunkering down for a few days or weeks — so there are even larger-scale events that reshape the climate through countless successive seasons.”

[22] I am speaking metaphorically of Winter, but so are those distinguished scholars at Praxis. In modern urban societies, we have fortified our cities against the effects of the seasons, so that we proceed apace with our break-neck lives no matter what season of the natural world is passing by outside of our insulated buildings. If I, and the authors at Praxis, look at things this way, then the seasons as metaphors simply do not work anymore. Seasons do not matter to those who live indoors for most of their lives, who long ago could defy the Sun’s setting by simply turning on artificial lights and then proceeding as if it were daylight.

[23] Christina Rossetti, in 1872, wrote these words in response to a request from the magazine Scribner’s Monthly for a Christmas poem. This is the first stanza of her poem.

[24] The Oxford English Dictionary at the verb “upbraid” – “To bring forward, adduce, or allege (a matter), as a ground for censure or reproach.”

[25] Because “Notre Dame” means “Our Lady”; that is, Mary, the Mother of God, they call the Cathedral “She” or “the grand Lady”.

[26] Britannica Online – “Notre-Dame lies at the eastern end of the Île de la Cité and was built on the ruins of two earlier churches, which were themselves predated by a Gallo-Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter. The cathedral was initiated by Maurice de Sully, bishop of Paris, who about 1160 conceived the idea of converting into a single building, on a larger scale, the ruins of the two earlier basilicas. The foundation stone was laid by Pope Alexander III in 1163, and the high altar was consecrated in 1189. The choir, the western facade, and the nave were completed by 1250, and porches, chapels, and other embellishments were added over the next 100 years.”

[27] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Lk 12:49–51.

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