songs of ascent

As I sit down to begin this post, it is not quite sunset. So it is still, just barely, the 15th of Shevat -- Tu B'shvat -- which is the date of a Jewish holiday called the New Year for Trees. Being a lunar calendar, the beginning of the month is always the new moon, and the 15th is the full moon. The full moon this month marks a traditionally minor agricultural festival whose esoteric meaning is not minor at all: it is the day in the very dead of winter when the Tree of Life begins to reawaken. In modern times it has become a popular time for tree-planting and remembering the importance of wise ecological stewardship and for celebration of the wood beings.

Psalms 120-134 are known as the "songs of ascent," (shirot ha'maalot) and are traditionally chanted on Tu B'shvat, or on the fifteen days between the beginning and middle of the month. Rabbi Jill Hammer teaches that the ascending nature of this practice echoes the rising of the sap in the trees at this time of year (in the mid-east countries, anyway!) It's also thought that these 15 songs of praise might have been sung by pilgrims ascending the great steps up to the massive Temple in Jerusalem.

Last night, with a misty full moon glowing through the floor-to-ceiling windows of Bastyr's darkened cafeteria, the student-organized Mystery School hosted a circle gathering in memory and mourning and celebration of their beloved mentor and professor, Dr. Bill Mitchell. Circle participants were asked to bring something that reminded them of Bill, for a small altar set up in the center of the room. Bill's long-time companion Joanie brought Bill's amazing beaded
wooden rattle, the top made of a twisted tree branch that looked vaguely like the skull of a goat, and which we got to use as a talking stick. Many people brought special plants and poems and music, and everyone had a story. Just as during his memorial service, the abundant stories last night revealed again and again Bill's extraordinary capacity for infusing all of his relationships and even brief encounters with presence and kindness and joy. How amazing it is to realize that every one of us who considered ourselves his friend is correctly certain that our relationship with him was a particularly treasured, and intimate, and loving connection -- and I think that, without exaggeration, "us" equals thousands of people -- family and friends, patients and colleagues and especially current students.

For the circle, I brought one of those songs of ascent, Psalm 121, as translated/interpreted by Stephen Mitchell.

I look deep into my heart,
to the core where wisdom arises.
Wisdom comes from the Unnamable
and unifies heaven and earth.
The Unnamable is always with you,
shining from the depths of your heart.
His peace will keep you untroubled
even in the greatest pain.
When you find him present within you,
you find truth at every moment.
He will guard you from all wrongdoing;
he will guide your feet on his path.
He will temper your youth with patience;
he will crown your old age with fulfillment.
And dying, you will leave your body
as effortlessly as a sigh.

(This illluminated text is a fragment of the Psalm by Jerusalem scribe Avraham Borshevsky)

I also brought to the circle the Hebrew words set to music, which I learned from the gorgeous Israeli group Sheva (I can't figure out how to access the direct link, so if you go to their site, choose English, click on Discography, and then on the second CD from the top -- "Day and Night" -- then on the first song, and you can hear a tiny tiny snip)

Their translation for what Stephen Mitchell calls "the Unnamable" is "the Pure Being".

Now, it really is dark, the moon is on the wane, and so it's become the 16th of Shevat.

The Tree of Life continues to surge with the juices of new vitality.

And in our basement office, with its plant-friendly compact fluorescent lights, a descendant of the Tree of the Consciousness is already bearing leaves and fruit (Rabbi Ted like to point out that in the Hebrew version of the Eden story, it does not say "apple," it says "fruit," though afterwards the incarnating beings did sew fig leaves together for long as we're pretty sure it couldn't have been a mango, then can't you imagine the luscious fig in that role of the sweet irresistible temptation luring the new humans onto the path of awakening incarnation?)