To everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time to every purpose under heaven.
— Words (most of them) from Ecclesiastes 3:1
Music and some additional words by Pete Seeger, b. 1919, American singer-songwriter
“You are here because you responded to an impulse to register for this program.” So began Father Gillespie, a Jesuit priest about to lead a day of prayer and reflection for Advent at the Jesuit Spiritual Center in Wernersville, Pennsylvania. It’s a place I have been visiting for twenty-nine years, most recently for extended time in April of 2007, when I spent eight days there, attending two programs and staying over for a private retreat on the two days between. That experience is chronicled in several pieces beginning with Son of a Nun, the story of how I met the wise and delightful Father Henry, whose counsel about prayer still guides me.
That was almost five years ago. I have visited the grounds of the facility briefly but not often since then. In 2008 I attended a Sunday Mass and saw Father Henry again. Hain’s Cemetery, where my stalled (but not yet abandoned) historical novel was born, adjoins the Jesuit property. Last year when I prepared a lecture on cemetery architecture, I took pictures and gathered information both in Hain’s and in the Jesuit cemetery. But my Gallivants in these five years have not found me spending extended time there.
The new program catalogue arrives in late August, and I can’t say now what impulse I had then, just back from Bread Loaf, to register for the program. What made me think then that I would have the time and the inclination in the busy busy days before Christmas to come away apart?
As it happened, some emotional upheaval began to color my days as fall deepened, and as time neared for the event, I knew that I needed more than the five hours that the day affords. I registered to stay the night and then sojourn in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s Christmas city, about 60 miles north. Not only is The Moravian Book Shop an essential December gallivant, there is also a unique bath and body store up the street that I knew had the very thing to place under Lynn’s tree. And of course, it’s fun to say at this time of year that you are going up to Bethlehem.
There is a certain, palpable sense of homecoming when I enter the Jesuit Center building, no matter how long I’ve been away. I went there for the first time in November of 1982, for a daylong retreat arranged by the first spiritual teacher I ever studied with. I was in the middle of a divorce (something I did not know I would be contending with when the pastor suggested the event), and that day helped me clarify my feelings and find direction for the road ahead. Yesterday, after I registered and took my bag up to my room, I found myself walking past the room where my group had met. I stepped into it for a moment, knowing that something of the energy I had then still exists there, in the fabric of the chair I used that day, at the piano where I found the score of Amahl and the Night Visitors, and spent a few minutes picking out the melodies of my favorite parts.
Father Gillespie began the morning session with a discussion of John the Baptist and his place in the Christmas story. He is the herald, the voice crying out Prepare Ye! and Repent! Turn away from the profane, and turn toward the holy! Turn! Turn!
It was the cadence of that call to Turn! Turn! that formed my internal soundtrack as I left the auditorium and went off to ponder and pray. Turn! Turn! and suddenly there were The Byrds, singing in my head.
Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8 is so familiar to so many people that it becomes a trope, a cliché, almost, like the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony #5. As it was rendered by Pete Seeger and, later, The Byrds, it is the first scripture that I really took as my own, that really spoke to me. It’s not that I hadn’t heard scripture all my life. Back before the revised lectionary, we had the same 52 gospel passages every year, and as a Catholic schoolgirl I had a rich background in the liturgy and the rules. But we didn’t really study scripture, and we weren’t taught to pray from the heart until Father Haney arrived in our lives in the fall of 1964 and required us to offer spontaneous prayers.
Seeger wrote the song in 1959 and recorded it in 1962. The Byrds’ rendition, I have learned from Wikipedia, was released in the fall of 1965, and though that is the version I know best, the memories that came to me are definitely from 1964. The landscape my mind was traversing was definitely the Christmas season of 1964. I kept hearing the song, and seeing myself 17 years old and writing in a white leatherette notebook about 6 by 9 inches that had gilt-edged pages. The pages had lines that were too far apart to suit me, so I wrote small and squeezed two lines of text into each space. My best friends then were Joanne and Linda and Dennee, my cousin Jim, and Michael. I was trying to figure out who I was and what my place in this world was. I had come to believe that I was not “college material.” Fortunately, Sr. Kilian didn’t believe that, and I owe my higher education to her intervention.
The lyrics of the song impose “turn, turn, turn” into the scripture, and at the end adds a whole line after “a time for peace”: I swear it’s not too late. The song rose in popularity as the war in Vietnam was escalating, and it became an anti-war anthem. As I pondered the words and tried to figure out why they had come to me (or had been sent to me), I recalled something I picked up in a fiction writing class. When bringing memories of your own experience into your work, ask yourself, what of that long-ago time still exists today? What about a 17-year-old naif has relevance for a woman on the cusp of 65?
The afternoon session was devoted to an examination of the women in the Christmas story: Mary the mother of Jesus and her kinswoman, Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, who, like Sarah the wife of Abraham, found herself pregnant in her old age. The prayer guide said, “Elizabeth and Sarah deemed themselves too old for their deepest desires to materialize. Does your view of aging allow for possibilities to open, or is there a spiritual sclerosis in your outlook on life?”
And that’s when I knew why I was hearing a song that had me recalling the girl I was 47 years ago, why I had a dream as I woke to go to Wernersville in which I was standing in front of a mirror, and what I saw was a younger version of myself – a woman standing straighter, slimmer, with better hair than I have, smiling at me.
Five years ago I saw myself as standing at the door of an annus mirabilis. This time, I think, it will be a lustrum mirabilis.
I swear it’s not too late.