Summer I and Summer II
Summer seems to be two seasons in one. One really should distinguish between Summer I and Summer II, for they are vastly different, both in the weather of the world and the weather of the soul.
Beginning on Memorial Day weekend and ending around the Fourth of July (or that great midsummer American tradition, the Major League All-Star Game), Summer I gives no few occasions to find joy in God’s beautiful world.
The perennials I planted in April are behaving just as I planned. Foxgloves and delphinium bloom and brighten our garden, transforming winter’s drabness into early summer’s pastel warmth. It is a pleasure to be outside in these early summer days. The oppressive allergens have waned a bit after spring’s rainfall. Goodbye Flonase, hello evening walks. Fireflies appear for the first time in the year in these cool summer evenings. Cicadas announce their return, too, but their hum only seems a faint echo.
When Summer II comes, all has changed. Or all seems lost.
In these late July days, I resent the incessant thrumming of these obnoxious cicadas. I now wish them a swift death so I can sleep. My plants have gone to seed or burnt to crispy ends, fireflies are in retreat, and I have no desire to be outside after 8 a.m. My lawn and garden beds are evidence that creation truly is cursed with thorns and thistles—and privet, crabgrass, and Virginia creeper. Summer evenings can only be enjoyed outdoors in spurts of 20-30 minutes thanks to the ubiquity of mosquitoes. The praise, joy, and thanksgiving of Summer I have collapsed into curmudgeonly grumbling and listlessness of Summer II.
With a long stretch until Summer II ends around Labor Day, it seems the goal of these dog days of summer is simply to survive the heat. These dog days are truly a no man’s land in our calendar.
The No Man’s Land of Ordinary Time
It can be difficult to maintain spiritual focus this time of year. The weather of the world, not to mention vacations, change our rhythms and routines in this summer season. The dog days of summer can be dog days in one’s spiritual life as well.
New Year’s Resolutions are probably a distant memory. The spiritual disciplines of Lent, which give so much focus and space for spiritual growth, concluded with Easter Sunday and the Great Fifty Days. But the dog days of summer are some 100 days or more removed from those Lenten days of devotion.
The longest season of the church year—Ordinary Time—coincides with summer. Without a major feast day or focus for the season, Ordinary Time can feel like a no man’s land in the Christian calendar.
But Ordinary Time and the dog days of summer need not be a season of listlessness. In fact, this time of year can be a season for spiritual renewal, even with the limitations we sense in the weather of the heart and the world. Ordinary Time and the dog days of summer can be a season of embracing our limits and practicing the wisdom of small beginnings.
Embracing Limits as a Way of Spiritual Renewal
When I look at my garden beds in these summer days, I’m tempted to despair. I see the potential of what could be—garden spaces that are well-planted, well-maintained, and ‘pleasing to the eye. But all I see this time of year are weeds. And vines. And stumps. And unfinished projects from my springtime plans and resolutions.
I still have a vision for transforming this small landscape, yet I don’t acknowledge my limits of time, energy, and the weather patterns around me. Ironically, it’s not the limits themselves that delay my progress. It’s the illusion that I have limitless resources to transform these garden spaces.
Gardening, especially in the dog days of summer, reveals my naiveté, my impatience, and my resistance of limits. Few things in this world reveal my hubris like God’s humus (Latin for “earth, ground”).
In late July and the scorching days of August, I’m confronted by my humanity when I look upon weedy gardens and sprawling vines. And this point I have two options:
- sulk in discouragement from the overwhelming amount of unfinished work or
- find a small space and start weeding.
As with the landscape of the home, so also with the landscape of the heart. There is always work to be done in one’s inner life to conform our lives into the likeness of Christ. But our vision for spiritual growth or healing usually encompasses more work than we can handle.
Even still Christ promised us his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Yet when we seek to renew our spiritual lives, we often take on heavy burdens by setting unrealistic goals, ignoring the limitations within our lives—our time, energy, and the variable weather of heart and life.
Instead, we would be wise to accept our limits and renew our spiritual life with one or two spiritual disciplines—such as the Daily Office, praying the psalms, or practicing solitude.
The Wisdom of Small Beginnings
Taking the first step in spiritual renewal is always difficult. But one real action is better than a dozen resolutions.
Making resolutions, plans, and lofty goals for renewing our spiritual life don’t matter unless we take the concrete steps in doing the discipline themselves. It is reading the Bible that actually stirs my hunger to read more of God’s Word. It is the experience of Christ in solitude that reveals my hunger for his presence. I simply have to begin.
In the tradition of Desert Fathers and Mothers, we have examples and stories of saints who understood the wisdom and power of small beginnings, practiced in the arid and stifling landscapes of the desert wilderness.
In one example, a distressed monk sought to renew his spiritual life, but couldn’t begin because he was depressed by the amount of interior work he needed to do. He was advised to visit an elder monk who told him the following story:
There was a man who had a plot of land; but it got neglected and turned into waste ground, full of weeds and brambles. So he said to his son, ‘Go and weed the ground.’ The son went off to weed it, saw all the brambles and despaired. He said to himself, ‘How long will it take before I have uprooted and reclaimed all that?’ So he lay down and went to sleep for several days. His (spiritual) father came to see how he was getting on and found he had done nothing at all. ‘Why have you done nothing?’ he said. The son replied, ‘Father, when I started to look at this and saw how many weeds and brambles there were, I was so depressed that I could do nothing but lie down on the ground.’ His father said, ‘Child, just go over the surface of the plot every day and you will make some progress.’ So he did, and before long the whole plot was weeded. The same is true for you, brother: work just a little bit without getting discouraged and God by his grace will re-establish you.’1
Such is the paradox of the spiritual life. The more I accept my limits, the more promptly I begin good spiritual work, God blesses my small beginnings with the help of his Holy Spirit. “Always we begin again” St. Benedict said in his Holy Rule. And these dog days of summer might just be the ideal time to begin again with the God who sustains us in all seasons.
- Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert, 88. ↩︎