A Tale of Two Buildings

Let’s be up front: this isn’t really a tale of two buildings. It’s more what they represent. They are buildings, but also emblems. The cabin and the church.

The Cabin

It is so easy for me to be a hermit. An active, outdoor hermit, mind you–wrangling sunrises with coffee, running, paddleboarding, looking for birds. I like to hermit in the John Muir, Edward Abbey, Thoreau style.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to daydream about finding a cabin like this one from Cabin Folk and holing up for a good stretch with books, notebook, trail running shoes, binoculars, backpack, you get the idea. And I would enjoy that and likely recharge a bit.

Solitude is a necessary condition for me. But I’ve come to realize it’s not enough. It’s just a beginning point, albeit one to return to. If you are one to ask life’s biggest questions and take the walk to find answers, there is a good chance that you are going to struggle at times. You are going to suffer, you are going to come up short, and sooner or later, you are going to need help. That can be a humbling experience. For me, being humbled is also a necessary condition.

It’s being humbled and needing help that sets us up for needing other people. Needing a community of sorts. Needing people who we can relate to; who understand our struggles; and who we can in turn help with theirs. In my experience, helping someone–whether it is moving furniture, listening, laughing, accomplishing a goal, or just being there–creates a feeling in me that I can’t replicate on my own, cabin in the woods or not.

The Church

The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone who thinks and feels with us, and who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“Someone who thinks and feels with us,” Goethe is perhaps describing the beginning or foundation of community. In his sermon at Christ Church Easton on Sunday, Fr. Scott Albergate posited that “The reason to go to church is to be in the company of others,” and that while in a worship service, “Hopefully it will sink into your soul–through the sacraments, songs, Scripture–that life is beyond our control.”

If you spend time in nature, or if you are at all mindful of the passing of time, disease, death, the notion that life is beyond our control is almost self evident. And it can be a heavy truth to bear. As we try to carry that with us, it can weigh us down.

Fr. Scott also pointed out that the majority of what we know of Jesus through the Gospel, he is concerned with healing and transformation. Healing and transformation, through Christ, happen through love and grace. Love happens in the world, through people. We can’t experience it alone. And when we come together, a funny thing happens:

God brings his presence ‘into the house,’ and we are called to release it back out into the world. – Pete Greig, “Red Moon Rising”

Grace is only grace because God gives it to us, He shares it. We know it as a gift and show it by sharing it with each other and others. We know love and grace in the company of others.

Two Buildings

The cabin is the place to find ourselves in solitude. The church building is the place to come together with those “close to us in spirit.” We come together to know, to experience God’s grace through each other and to take it out into the world.

I need both buildings and what they represent. I think Thomas Merton gets it right when he says:

We do not exist for ourselves alone, and it only when we are fully convinced of this fact that we begin to love ourselves properly and thus also love others.

Making Moments

The world is rough. It is full of death, sickness, sadness, and anger. The adage is that life is suffering. You can’t dispute that. There is so much we can’t understand, that doesn’t make sense to us. Granted we can’t see the big picture, but there are times when our limited view can seem absurd.

But then there are moments. Moments when our hearts expand, connect to our minds, guide our actions, and we can see and feel something bigger than ourselves. Life is also full of these moments, but it is up to us to see them. To find them. And to help make them, for ourselves and for others. Especially for others, because that is how we experience them for ourselves.

Spirituality is not learned by flight from the world, or by running away from things, or by turning solitary and going apart from the world. Rather, we must learn an inner solitude wherever or with whomsoever we may be. We must learn to penetrate things and find God there. – Meister Eckhart

In his sermon yesterday, Father Bill Ortt described a mystic as “someone who is hypersensitive to God around them.” He talked about Meister Eckhart, who is a favorite of mine. I think we do well to have people around us who are hypersensitive to God’s presence in the world and in our hearts. They help us to see, they help us to not miss our moments.

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For me those moments can happen anywhere. They happen watching my daughters play field hockey. They happen in an interview that turns into a two-hour conversation on spirituality and life. They happen sitting with Anna, Ava, and a friend of theirs at Rise Up Coffee, eating and laughing and telling stories. They happen catching a sunset on the water. I felt a transcendent moment in church yesterday as the choir and congregation were singing, clapping hands, and the girls started clapping along.

Experiencing those moments can be about being plugged in. If we close our eyes, we won’t see them.

The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one, one seeing, one knowing, one love. – Meister Eckhart

Yesterday afternoon was beautiful. As fall settles in, you don’t know how many of those weekend days we will have. So Ava and I opted out of watching football or TV, grabbed Harper and went hiking around Pickering Creek Audubon Center.

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One part of experiencing those moments, is that sometimes you have to go make them. Our conversations, watching Harper cover ground, being in the woods and fields, smelling fall smells; it just as easily could have not happened.

Frederick Buechner wrote a book called, “The Alphabet of Grace,” where he tries to captures all the blessings and moments he experiences in a single day, just by looking more deeply into life.

Today, my moments and blessings are grateful ones: Ava having a good neurology appointment and good news on her MRI results; time spent with the girls and watching Anna discern and decide how/whether to spend money she earned babysitting; having a job I enjoy and that allows me to take time to go to a doctor’s appointment; coming home to a roof over our heads and a dog eager to share the evening; grilling dinner for the girls on a crisp, autumn night; taking time to be deeply and humbly grateful for the time we have together.

Open Our Hearts, Open Our Lives

I’m learning to get out of the way. Sometimes that means to move over to let what’s coming through get where it’s going. Sometimes I realize it’s because I’m what’s standing in the way of me getting to where I need to be.

When I pray (someone cue MC Hammer), I get out of the way. When I am quiet, when I listen, I get out of the way. It’s a matter of clearing out my ego, clearing out uncertainty, and trusting God, allowing bigger things to work.

Lately I’ve been moving in a certain direction. I’ve listened, written things down, made a gameplan. I’ve been looking for ways to help put things in motion, ways to serve, and at the same time, still having those pangs of doubt. A friend/mentor came across a quote from Henri Nouwen and sent it along:

When all is said and done, what we must learn above all is to offer ourselves–imperfections and all–to God. If we keep waiting until we are ‘worthy’ of God, we will move farther rather than closer to Him. It is through our broken, vulnerable, mortal ways of being that the healing power of the eternal God becomes visible to us.

We are called each day to present to the Lord the whole of our lives–our joys as well as our sorrows, our successes as well as our failures, our hopes as well as fears. We are called to do so with our limited means, our stuttering words and halting expressions. In this way we will come to know in mind and heart the unceasing prayer of God’s Spirit in us. Our many prayers are in fact confessions of our inability to pray. But they are confessions that enable us to perceive the merciful presence of God. – Henri Nouwen, “A Cry for Mercy”

Sometimes I’m good with cliff diving. Sometimes I can use a shove off the ledge. Sometimes it can be just a nod. That’s where having others to encourage us along the way, fellow pilgrims on their own journeys, makes the walk easier, lighter, more certain. It can be a hard road alone.

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Pride is a funny thing. We think we need it to accomplish things. We naturally feel proud if we do something well and it turns out better than we hoped. But riding pride’s high horse can be a dangerous trip. It grows our egos and prevents us from getting out of our own way. Today’s Gospel in church was from Luke (18:9-14). It’s the parable of the proud Pharisee and the repentant tax collector. Jesus closes with:

…all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Jesus digs parables. He’d rather make us think than tell us straight. But that one is pretty clear. Be humble, you’ll find the reward in it.

Getting out of my own way means opening myself up to possibilities. Opening my heart to the flow of what’s coming through. Whatever we choose to call it, we’ve all had those moments, whether playing sports, or fishing, hiking, playing music, running, writing, where we have felt we were in the zone, in the flow, something bigger than ourselves took over. Getting out of our own way opens us up to what God is sending through. In the Trinity notion, it’s the Holy Spirit.

And when we open our hearts, we open our lives to let things happen. To let God work. To do things, move in directions, I wouldn’t have come up with on my own.

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Opening our hearts and lives to something bigger than us, is to serve. To offer ourselves to and for a bigger purpose. The contemporary choir this morning, with a soloist, belted an inspired version of Matthew West’s “Do Something.” The lyrics pretty well sum up the notion of God/Jesus at work in the world. Working through people. The singer is fed up with all the terrible things that happen in the world and asks God to do something:

He said, “I did, I created you.”

That’s how I think about how God works in the world: through us:

But it’s easier to say than to be
Live like angels of apathy who tell ourselves
It’s alright, “somebody else will do something”
Well, I don’t know about you
But I’m sick and tired of life with no desire
I don’t want a flame, I want a fire
I wanna be the one who stands up and says,
“I’m gonna do something”

It’s not a song I would have listened to on the radio or downloaded. But if I could have the version that was performed in church–choir, band, soloist, live, inspired, moving an entire congregation–I would play it on a loop. It’s the kind of message that always hits me hardest. God works through people. God works through you. If you see a problem, it’s on you to fix it. To do something.

I’m learning to get out of the way. I’m learning to let bigger things work. To let God work. I’m learning to open my heart, to open my life. To serve. To do something, those things that I can do differently than anybody else could. Even me, flawed, imperfect, with my “limited means, (my) stuttering words, (my) halting expressions.”

I’m learning to get out of the way.

“Awakening to New Wonder”

God is bigger than church. Church isn’t the only place you’ll find Him. For a long stretch, church was one of the last places I looked. Nothing against it, but I felt like I connected with God better in nature than in a building.

I still talk to God more outside than I do inside. My most prayerful places are by the water. I treasure those times and those places. Yesterday, Harper and I took our dog walkabout to Wye Island, a place where I have run close to 30 miles at once, have run at night, have lost keys, hiked, reflected, prayed. Our walk didn’t disappoint, following trails, sitting, listening, reading and praying by the river; and Harper would have liked to have chased down her first buck, though I’m not sure what she’d have done with it if I had let her go.

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I’m a slow learner, and have never been one to take anyone’s word for anything. I have to find things out for myself, experientially, even though it frequently means falling on my face and dusting myself off, eventually coming to the same realization that was suggested at the beginning.

If we only look for God in church, we are selling ourselves, and Him, way short. But I realized I was selling myself, and Him, short by choosing to only look for Him outside a church. And part of what that comes down to is misconceiving “church,” as being just a building, or a set of beliefs. And not seeing it as a people, coming together to worship, quite literally to be the body of Christ, alive in the world. I like the way Richard Rohr looks at the Trinity:

God for us, we call you “Father.”
God alongside us, we call you “Jesus.”
God within us, we call you, “Holy Spirit.”
Together, you are the Eternal Mystery
That enables, enfolds, and enlivens all things,
Even us, and even me.

It’s that understanding, of having God alongside us, and working through other people, and finding that, feeling it, knowing it much deeper when I started to find other people walking their own walk, struggling with their own questions, coming together to worship and to pray and to help one another. Finding church.

Yesterday sitting along the Wye River and this morning in church, I felt grateful; an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Thomas Merton explained what I felt better than I can explain it:

To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything… Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise the goodness of God. – Thomas Merton, “Thoughts in Solitude”

I’m a work in progress. That’s all I will ever be, trying to put one foot in front of another along the path and not be distracted chasing every other SQUIRREL! life throws at me. But gratitude and prayer are pretty good at helping sustain and focus me when I pay attention.

This morning’s sermon was about praying. Can I pray? Can I pray always? Can I pray proactively? Can I be persistent, not just praying when I am troubled, but also when and because I am grateful. The sermon closed with a prayer from Archbishop Desmond Tutu (which he adapted from Sir Francis Drake), which I felt in my bones:

desmond-tutu

Disturb us, O Lord

when we are too well pleased with ourselves
when our dreams have come true because we dreamed too little,
because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, O Lord

when with the abundance of things we possess,
we have lost our thirst for the abundance of life
when, having fallen in love with time,
we have ceased to dream of eternity
and in our efforts to build a new earth
we have allowed our vision of Heaven to grow dim.

Stir us, O Lord

to dare more boldly, to venture into wider seas
where storms show Thy mastery,
where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars.

In the name of Him who pushed back the horizons of our hopes
and invited the brave to follow.

Amen.

A Journey with Fire

There are a few times in life where I have felt my heart and soul consumed by fire. It’s an incredible feeling. One that I am starting to feel again. It is wholly overwhelming. It’s a stirring of the soul, a call to action.

I am laid back, I tend to go with the flow and enjoy where the ride goes. That’s a tendency I like about myself, but it’s also one I can let get taken to the extreme. It’s a good thing until it becomes passive. Then it can lead to complacency. I am not a fan of complacency.

I’ve come to recognize that my whole being needs challenges; needs adventures; I need to be roused. Woken up. I’ve been feeling that in crazy ways of late. Fire is the best metaphor I can offer. It feels like flames.

Thursday was bookended by soaring thoughts. In the morning, it was from reading John Eldredge’s “Wild at Heart.” Eldredge flies in the face of the notion of Christian men and women as simply “nice” and “good” people; he sees the church today as being too full of bored (and thereby boring) people and points us more toward living a life with passion, adventure, not playing it safe, and finding our true name, our calling.

The history of a man’s relationship with God is the story of how God calls him out, takes him on a journey and gives him his true name.

It strikes me that it different key points in my life, books have found me that bring up and work through the warrior spirit. The year Anna was born it was Chogyam Trungpa’s “Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior,” from which I have a tattoo on my upper back, and now it’s Eldredge calling me back to that energy with God. It has stoked more inner fire, seeded more prayer, and roused a renewed energy at a time when I need it.

My other Thursday bookend came from watching “The Shawshank Redemption” at the Oxford Community Center’s movie night.

shawshank-bus

I find I’m so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope. – Red

The team of Andy Dufresne and Red stir my soul every time. But here we are with the journey again, at it’s beginning.

I fractured my skull during Sunday School at church when I was three years old. That should have been all the indication I needed that my journey was not going to be easy, or boring, or safe. Our walk with God is a full contact sport.

This morning’s sermon ended with a prayer from Thomas Merton, which the minister found during college. He claimed that Merton helped save his life. I feel the same way and have written plenty, and will continue to write, contemplate, and quote Merton.

thomas-merton-train-tracks

This morning’s prayer came from the book, “Thoughts in Solitude:”

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not know the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Our journey, our road is ours. It’s not like anyone else’s. It’s wired into our unique DNA, and we have the Holy Spirit in that same DNA, a compass to help us find our way. The Holy Spirit, is also that fire in our hearts, which gets stoked in each of us after our own passion, our own calling. The closer we get, the more it gets stoked, the higher and brighter it burns. We have to find what stokes us, and how to sustain it. We are given maybe a spark, which we have to help grow and light us up.

I’ve got all this dancing around in my head, walking up to communion with the girls together for the first time in our lives. I’ve got deep joy welling up, as the closing hymn begins playing.

The song? “Light the Fire in My Heart Again.”

Amen.

“Increase Our Faith:” Thoughts After a Sermon

I try to listen. Every chance I get. I am a visual learner, so being quiet, taking in sounds, words, wind, birds, a conversation, is something I work at. It’s a funny thing, but I find it’s amazing how much I hear when I listen.

“Increase our faith,” Luke has the apostles saying in his part of the Gospel (Luke 17:5). It’s during the trying times that we ask for something like that. When we know we’re working through something. It’s never when things are going well and life is good. Those aren’t the times made for faith.

When I sit in church, I try to make my posture silent and open, so I can take everything in. It’s those moments where hymns, songs, scripture, sermons, feel directed to my ears.

Am I being the person I am supposed to be? Am I doing the things I am supposed to be doing?

Those are the crossroads questions. Livelihood, being a good father, relationships, life, spiritual path, faith… those questions come up, sometimes we have an answer we are happy with, sometimes not, sometimes we don’t know. Those are times for faith. Leaning away from worry and leaning into faith.

Even when we can’t do it, God moving through us can make great things happen.

When we face doubt, struggle, our limitations, if we get out of the way, if we make room, God can work through us.

Being mindful not of who we are, but “Whose” we are…

What a difference a letter or two can make. When I am thinking through questions about living my life, remembering that life is a gift and should be treated accordingly, with gratitude.

I rode my bike down Boone Creek Rd., and looked up the creek. There was a deep silence, a stillness, the same as I felt in church earlier.

…silence to open a path… experiencing the stillness of God’s comforting grace.

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There are times when I dig the hermit on the mountain idea. Cultivate that silence and rest in it. But I know at the bottom of that savored solitude, something is missing for me.

This great capacity we have as human beings to love, makes us better.

Ah yes, there it is. Maybe we’ve got this grain of mustard seed in us (sticking with Luke) that can grow into something beyond what we even thought it could.

In stillness, it can come to us. God can come to us. When we are still. And listening. But don’t expect a road map. Don’t expect answers. If it were easy, if it were clear, it wouldn’t require faith, this walk.

Not all things in life are unscarred, pure, and perfect.

Amen. It’s our scars, our particular brokenness and how we are put back together, that defines us.

Increase our faith.

[italics are words taken/quoted from a sermon on Oct. 2, 2016, Christ Church, Easton, Md.]

Living Stones

Sometimes I would like to be rock, stone, standing impermeable against the elements, against the world.

But neither rock nor stone win in the end; they get taken down; eaten away, cracked, eroded over time.

Wind and water abide. Their persistence and patience are too much for stone.

People have always sought meaning, wisdom, and strength in rocks, it seems. From building tools and weapons, to palming and rubbing a stone smooth in our hands.

I am drawn to stones.

assateague stones

Carl Jung knew something about why:

Many people cannot refrain from picking up stones of a slightly unusual color or shape and keeping them… without knowing why they do. It is as if the stone held a mystery in it that fascinates them. Men have collected stones since the beginning of time and have apparently assumed that certain ones were containers of the spirit of the life force with all its mystery. – Carl Jung, “Man and His Symbols”

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The church I grew up going to is built of stone. It has the feel of something ancient, something permanent. I have to go back to Jung:

The stone symbolized something that can never be lost or dissolved, something eternal that some have compared to the mystical experience of God within one’s own soul. It symbolizes what is perhaps the simplest and deepest experience of something eternal that man can have in those moments when he feels immortal and unalterable. – Carl Jung, “Man and His Symbols”

Ah, but the hubris of man. Our audacity. We want something permanent. We want something to build on; to be that which is built on. The cool, vastness of a mountain. Let me be that. To stand like stone.

We use stones as offerings. We build. Standing stones were built, formations, as offerings to God. A temple.

But God prefers people.

You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house  
– 1 Peter 2:5

People build with stone. God builds his greatest work, love, with people.

Living stones. Being built into something. Maybe I can build with words. If not my own, then Gary Snyder’s as an incantation:

Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks.

Snyder’s words are riprap. Pick mine up like a stone to rub in your hand and carry with you. Pocket them and pull them out when you need them.

What will they say to you?

Uncovering the Path

* This was first posted at The 4-1-Run. I wanted to re-post it here, as it is an ongoing exploration/discovery, and I want to have all the various thoughts along the way collected in one place.

I pack a small backpack: water, fruit and nut trail mix, binoculars, a birding book, a notebook and pen, rain coat, pocket knife, a slim book–maybe John Muir, or Wordsworth, or Thomas Merton, or Gary Snyder’s “Turtle Island.”

I think about the movie “Empire Strikes Back,” where Luke Skywalker looks into the cave that is his test and asks, “What’s in there?” And Yoda’s response, “Only what you take with you.” Be light and free. Be open. I start up the mountain with Muir in my head:

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn. – John Muir

Hold on, who said that, Muir or Yoda? Maybe Muir is the Yoda of the mountains.

For 20 years or more, I have used, lived, and contemplated the metaphor of life, and the life of the spirit/soul, being a journey up the mountain. I think that too many of us–speaking for myself–wear a path back and forth or around the base of the mountain and think (or tell ourselves) we are making progress upwards; that we are getting somewhere.

And that’s where Yoda comes in, we find only what we take with us. And what we take with us are our habits, our worries, our fears, our doubt, and in some cases our stuff–our material things. And those things either weigh us down so heavily that we can’t climb, or we have to wrestle with them before we get anywhere.

This past Sunday, at church our pastor put Henri Nouwen’s “The Spiritual Life,” in my hands, a tome of eight of his books brought into one. We were talking favorite spiritual writers while on a mulching expedition during the week and he couldn’t recall Nouwen’s name as we threw around Merton, Bonhoeffer, and Buechner.

“This is for you,” he said, with his best Yoda smile. What he had first mentioned about Nouwen was that he walked away from prestigious academic positions to focus on helping men and women with intellectual disabilities. I’ve been spending my morning coffee with Nouwen this week. Books and writers have a tendency to find me at the right time.

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Nouwen talks about how our time and schedules are filled, how we are always busy, because being busy is a status symbol–look at how busy and productive I am–nd yet our spirit is unfulfilled because we are not filling our lives or schedules with the right things.

Only having the girls half the time, I spend a lot of time alone. That can be both good and bad for an overthinker. The only times I can really turn my brain off, or allow my thoughts to slough off are when I am running or in prayer/meditation, which can be sitting with coffee, watching the sunrise or sunset, staring at the stars, but it has to be intentional time.

For all my alone time over the past couple years, when I looked closely, I found myself circling the bottom of the mountain; pacing back and forth in a rut of my own footprints. My habits, my lack of clarity, my inertia, nothing was helping me push up. And yet, climbing the spiritual mountain, carpe’ing the diem, asking the big questions and looking for answers, and being on the move rather than one place–these are all things that make me, me.

My time alone somehow wasn’t solitude, or at least not enough of it.

Once the solitude of time and space have become a solitude of the heart, we will never have to leave that solitude. We will be able to live the spiritual life in any place and at any time. Thus the discipline of solitude enables us to live active lives in the world, while remaining always in the presence of the living God. – Henri Nouwen

There are times when it feels like you’ve just unloaded rocks out of your pockets or backpack and feel lighter and ready to climb.

I have much more to say about the mountain–maps, compasses, the virtue of discerning your true path vs. switching paths at every pass, the people you meet along the way, whose paths overlap with yours and who you walk with for a time–but let’s call this part one. Beginning again. Or uncovering a path I had let get overgrown.

As I swill some water, smile at the sunrise, and keep on up the mountain, I look into Wordsworth’s lines that are among the favorite I have ever read:

…And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of the setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of thought,
And rolls through all things. I heretofore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains, and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye and ear, both what they half-create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
In nature and in the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the muse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my mortal being.
– William Wordsworth, from Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey

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