On Weasels and Calling


"We could, you know. We can live any way we want. People take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience--even of silence--by choice. The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting. A weasel doesn't 'attack' anything; a weasel lives as he's meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity."

--"Living Like Weasels," in Teaching a Stone to Talk


February 11, 2009

Hello, David.

This may sound strange, but I doubt it could do any harm. And it just might be the Spirit…..

Monday night you made your annual appearance in my dreams. This dream was set in a unique building which I suspected might be your art center. More about that later. You were walking down a hall talking about weasels – they had something to do with a talk you had just given. I asked if you had ever read Annie Dillard’s essay, “Living Like Weasels.” You replied that you were familiar with Annie Dillard, but couldn’t recall that essay. I was excited as I always am when I have opportunity to introduce that essay to someone who might appreciate it.

By this time our conversation had moved to a sitting room. As we were talking, I found myself distracted by the carpet. There was a swirling green pattern which seemed to be moving. As I looked more closely I saw that the carpet was not really carpet. We were sitting on a clear acrylic surface which was directly over a tidal pool. The movement was caused by waves washing in and out over little sea plants. (Why is my mind so colorful and creative when I’m asleep?)

Anyway, if you haven’t read “Living Like Weasels,” I do recommend it – it is a great metaphor for the pursuit of God. It is included in Teaching a Stone to Talk which also has her most famous essay, “Expedition to the Poles.” I first read “Expedition” when I was in my twenties. There were some memorable images and a few great lines, but I really didn’t get the essay. I read it again when I was 30 and God was turning my spiritual world upside down. I thought it was brilliant!

Blessings to you and Phaedra!



They say the spiritual life is like gardening. But how do you hold prayers in your hand like you hold clods of dirt?

This fall we planted baby lettuce, wild kale and purple-crowned broccoli. We planted seeds. We plunged our fingers, slender probing shovels, into dark glistening dirt. We patted the earth as if it were the belly of a baby. We looked. We waited. We waited some more. We poured water from a yellow-green hose over the 4'X8' square that is our suburban garden.

But how do you hold your prayers like you hold your clods of dirt?

With gardening there is waiting. There is attending. There is listening and nursing and pruning and protecting. And more waiting. And all the vocabulary of Wendell Berry. And Jesus. And it works. You persevere in the daily work of visitations. You visit your garden and look. Here you pluck a worm. Here you loose a truculent weed. There you grapple tomato vines to chicken wire that rises to heaven like an oblation, like an inverted obelisk of prayer: Here, Lord, take our humble offering of tomato vines and cause it to bear fruit. Please.

But gardening is not like prayer. Gardening is material. You can touch it, you can taste it. Our bodies are material and we are at home and strong in our ability to live as a material, physical, skin, bone, joints, movable-appendages creature. Using the muscles of our body to walk to the garden requires no mental effort.

The physical effort expended to traverse the twenty yards from back door to boxed garden is kinetic pocket change we can afford to throw away.

But prayer is hard work and living in our spiritual bodies is hard work. These things fight against us like strangers that frighten us if we look at them too closely. Prayer is frightening because we really have no control over it.

We cannot see prayer with our physical eyes. We cannot hold it and feel safe with it and not threatened by it like we feel unthreatened by a clod of dirt. We know what to do with bad dirt. We know what to do with dirt that is full of worms. But we do not know what to do with prayers that do not get answered. We do not know what to do with prayers that have been prayed a thousand times and turn into irritating, distasteful cliches.

We understand what the preacher means when he talks about a calling that God has upon our lives. But it is not easy to live into it. It is easier to close our ears to that calling. "It is impossible." We prefer to do things that we know we are good at and that we can control: laundry (whites only), utility bills, lesson plans, blog entries, chocolate and cold cereal, our Netflix cue, computer code, getting the kids to school on time, lunch appointments, reading our Bible. But it's not easy to read our Bible and to incline our ears to listen to God. Just read the Bible and get on with your day. Just read. But don't let your heart ache again to sense--spiritually? actually?--the nearness of God

A calling is a wild and frightful thing. And powerful, very powerful. It entails dominion over the earth. God offers us real, powerful, earth-altering dominion. That is why it scares us so often. That is why it's not given to us, en toto, without a humility that suffuses and governs every molecule of our body and soul. It would destroy us otherwise. A calling comes into being one day at a time. It unfolds through the baptismal cycle of death and resurrection: we die with Christ, we rise with Christ, day after day after day. A day that is not given over to God in humble, listening dependence is a day that will not open up to us the fruit and power of our calling. It cannot.

Gardens grow from one day to the next. Our mustard greens grow continuously. They do not grow capriciously. They do not grow when they feel like it. Growing is demanding work. Our calling is demanding work.

Prayer is demanding work.

But our mustard greens do not grow on their own. They have help: the earthly community of the faithful: sun, rain, dirt, air, an occasional grace of all-natural fertilizer, and God. All working together. All working, in their own way, daily. So too our calling and prayer, it is daily work. It is the daily work of the spiritual community of the faithful: family, a friend, a pastor, books, beauty, the occasional grace of a really good day brimming with really happy news, and God.

I told Phaedra last night that I'm struggling to put the worth of my identity on the right things. So much of what I am doing feels intangible. Some days I restlessly and recklessly crave more: more affirmation, more achievement, more attention, more and better than. It embarrasses me. It is a dark thing that tempts me to assert my worth over against God. My terms. My rights. Over against the way of Jesus in a way that excuses me from being wholly dependent on him. It is diabolical and it is nothing new.

So I have to pray for deliverance. "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." Today. And again tomorrow. And I hope, Lord, you do not tire of hearing us say these same words over and over as much as we sometimes tire of saying them. The spiritual life is a confessional life, lived confessionally day after day after day. Like our daily bread.

The worst thing that could happen to us is if we had to figure out our calling on our own. The weight of that work is too great and we will give up before long. We will give up hope. That is the worst thing to lose: hope.

The spiritual life, they say, is like gardening.

You cannot hold prayers in your hand like you can clods of dirt.

But you can choose to let others help you. You can choose, day after day after plodding day, to give yourself to living, breathing, mutually dependent relationship with others who walk the pilgrimage with you.

You are not alone. There is hope. Juntos podemos.


"There is no such thing as a solitary polar explorer, fine as the conception is."


Unknown said…

"Living Like Weasels" has to be near the top, if not on the top, of my all time favorite essays. Thanks so much for your timely words as they resonate deeply with me. I'm not a gardener but I did grow up on a farm...and I do know about dirt...and I'm learning about prayer. It is good to know that we are not alone as we search for that "one thing".

Brian, we shouldn't live so far away from each other. Why don't I move to Vancouver? Phaedra and I can settle on one of the islands.

Thanks for your note. Dirt, prayer, one thing, shooee, why is this Christian life so hard sometimes. Why can't it be easier, like dirt. Why do we have to be fallen.

I'm re-reading David Maine's book *Fallen*. I find it such a powerful story that he re-tells of our primeval family--Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel. He tells the story in reverse, starting with Cain as an old man and going back to the moment that our Ur parents "fell" out of the Garden.

It's such a beautiful, painful story. I do highly recommend the novel.
erin said…

I'm not sure if you remember me. I was at the symposium last year, and I came to your garage sale with the Foxes in the summer. I am a pastor and photographer, and the words you wrote here so echo the page that I am on right now.

It feels like such a struggle, such pulling teeth... And yet the sure thing is God has called, and that call is an invitation, and that invitation isn't always easy, and this run-on sentence is a thank you... for putting some vocabulary and thoughts to a page so many of us will wrestle time and again.

You are blessed with wisdom and perspective. It is heard if not felt. That, I think, is faith.
Thank you, Erin. I do remember you.

It's funny. So much bad news comes our way unbidden, yes? A physical illness, loss of job, a fracture in a relationship, cockroaches in the pantry, a global economic kraft cheese meltdown. We don't ask for bad news. It just comes on its merry own.

But so much good news comes unbidden too. My friend Amy has a dream. The dream is given to her by the hinterlands of the subconscious. She writes me an email. I write her back. I go to the library and pull Dillard off the shelf. I read about Weasels. The Weasels stir my emotions. By the end of the day I discover, once again, how much I need to depend--and indeed ask for help--from the people closest to me. That's good news.

Did I know that good news would come to me on Wednesday? Nope. But it's good all the same.

And now I'm off to the library again to clean up a paper I wrote about Eastern Orthodoxy a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away so I can submit it as a writing sample to Cambridge, my last grad app to go.

Good news, bad news, my PG Tips tea is treating me right.

I've read this a couple times without comment. I think because it hurts (and I mean that in the beautiful sense of the word).

Thank you.
Thank you, Tamara.

And happy Valentines to all from the Younger Taylor house.
smkyqtzxtl said…
I too read this, must have been providential. I am struggling with the invitation, with the calling. Wondering if I will ever slog it out of the wilderness and cross into Canaan.I will have to re-read what you wrote, i will be copying and sending this to another who is wondering in the desert as well also pondering, calling....
Thank you, Pamela. Hang in there. It'll be worth it.

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