Well, late fall has well and truly crept up -- a couple of days of rain, a night with a hard freeze (last night), and this morning I could literally hear the leaves falling in the thick mountain fog. Today became beautiful, though -- crisp, cool, and sunny -- like a golden delicious apple. My front yard looks like this:
and the big oak tree in front of the church has never looked so stunning:
It looks like something caught fire beside my garage:
but no, it's just the burning bush that a parishioner gave me when it was just a little stick, and that I planted the year I came here. Now the leaves on the tall trees look more like lace than a heavy golden canopy:
We've still got some color left, though, and this evening I took the dogs on a long walk to check out the woods and the pond (yes, Clementine still wanted a wade, at least, if not a full swim), and to walk back through the nearby development where Sophie and Goldie, the two golden retrievers I call "The Fan Club," barked us all the way down the street. They're such good dogs, though -- they stay right inside their electronic fence, the way they're supposed to. Here's a bit of what's left of the colors behind my house:
Ah, fall is beautiful here, and I love that it's so long -- actually all our seasons are just about equal in length, which makes for the great luxury of enjoying every one of them, and being happy to see the next one when it comes along. The nip in the air tells me that winter is on its way, and I've still got plants to bring in or move to the potting shed, and the veggie garden to clean up and put to bed. There are still a few bell peppers out there, and I'm thinking of bringing in one of the parsley plants so I'll have fresh parsley this winter.
A good friend has told me that it's time to blog again -- okay, it was Jack, my 2nd ex and one of my very best friends. He's great at inspiring me and prompting me, and a good writer, too. He wants to hear more about the black madonna, and she'll sneak her way in here, as you can tell from the title of this post.
Last weekend I was at a clergy conference in Gatlinburg. I loved it -- the weather was beautiful, and the scenery in and around Gatlinburg was very nice this time of year, as you can imagine. We got to spend some extended time with our new Bishop, George Young, and the more time I spend with him, the better I like him. And I love getting to see my colleagues! As much as I love my little spot up here on the Plateau, it means that I'm at least an hour's drive away from most of my Episcopal clergy colleagues, and I feel pretty isolated sometimes. If I drive to Knoxville, it's basically a half-day out of my schedule -- an hour each way and whatever time I spend there. I haven't had a lot of half-days to spare out of my week lately -- it's not like I can just ring someone up on the spur of the moment and say, "Are you free for lunch?" So being with them, sharing meals, catching up, soaking up compliments about my weight loss (up to 69 pounds now), and handing out lots of compliments and congratulations myself was pure pleasure for me. We also had some directed table conversation during our time together; funny how I used to hate it when we were basically told to "chat among yourselves and I (whoever the facilitator was) will give you a topic..." But the older (or more extroverted?) I get, the more I like it.
It wasn't until I received quizzical looks when I told the group I've been doing a lot of "black madonna work" that I realized how much I keep this passion of mine under wraps. One of my friends did ask, "So what do you mean when you say 'black madonna work'?" I told my group, and now I'm going to tell you. The black madonna is, for me, the embodiment of the dark sacred feminine -- that one who walks alongside us through the darkness, and helps us through the darkness that accompanies some of our most painful life transitions and transformations. She sits with the dying, she comforts the bereaved (because she knows what that's like). She is a protective, healing presence, but while not death-dealing herself (that's God's domain), she is familiar with and even comfortable with the ways of death, and can be fearlessly present in the valley of the shadow of death. The black madonna can stand beside a woman who receives news that her husband's condition is imminently terminal, and she is there when I anoint his forehead and palms and heart and say the Litany for the Dying. She is there when I give communion to someone so stooped with their illness that they cannot sit up straight in a chair, and she is there when I write their funeral homily. She is there at the funerals when I process up the aisle behind the cross, speaking the now all-too-familiar words, "I am resurrection and I am life, says the Lord...." She is there as I watch a stroke victim nod off to sleep while his wife tells me how it all happened. She is there when, as I did this morning, I express love and sorrow and support to a parishioner whose adult daughter was found dead yesterday.
The black madonna is much, much more than all that, much more than just sickness and death and dying -- but she is deeply and truly present for me as I do that work that has partly made up my last three weeks. I feel grateful to have her companionship and her strength. I'm pretty tired, and grab my rest where I can. But I feel really, really privileged. And I feel guided and supported by this presence that walks with me in the dark places where I walk with my parishioners, who are now also my friends and my beloved family in Christ.
When I told my mother nearly 20 years ago that I felt called to the priesthood, she looked very thoughtful for a time and said, Betsy (Betsy is my family nickname, for my middle name, Elizabeth), I think your whole life has been getting you ready for this." It was one of the wisest things I've ever heard. During these recent weeks I truly feel that I've been doing the work that my whole life has been getting me ready to do.
Now I've got short ribs and veggies just out of the oven, and I'm going to dine with delight. After all, I may be abstinent, eating weighed and measured meals -- but I'm still a food addict, and I love my dinner!