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Easter Renewal: Merci, Mercy in a Climate of Change (Spring Pt2)

Updated: Apr 29


Early April is a time when I often experience the return of great blue heron to my home waters on the north shore of Lake Ontario. This year was different as heron returned during the unseasonable warmth of early February and remained during the short cold spells that followed. For the first time I witnessed those long legs walk on ice that edged out from the pond’s shoreline. The last heron only left this marsh at the end of November, a short two-month absence that is not the norm. Everything is changing. We are living in an uncertain climate that is becoming more unpredictable with each year. These non-linear changes will continue for at least the next century; though the length of time is filled with as much mystery as the exact nature of those shifting relations.

Our climate of change is challenging us to renew ways of being responsive to the shifting Earth relations around us. Raised catholic, I engage the Easter season as a time for contemplating the natural spirit of renewal. Easter’s exact date changes each year as it follows the first full moon after the spring equinox, meaning Easter can occur from late March to the third week of April. Recognizing this moon and equinox connection helps me to remember how we are always surrounded by natural teachers on the cyclical spirit of change and renewal. As Trappist hermit monk Thomas Merton relates, the preceding winter season of Lent fasting is meant to foster our participation in spring renewal. “If we want to share the life of that Vine”, he writes, “we must grow on the same trellis and must suffer the same pruning.”

Reflecting on Merton’s writing as the Lent season gave way to Easter and spring, I can feel him grappling with how to balance renewal in times of significant changes between people and with creation. I can read about his relation with a heron near his forest hermitage who, he writes in No Man is an Island, “started up from the water… where all the blackberry bushes are, and flew up into the willows.” Something in its solitary patient countenance led him to these words a few pages later: “Solitude has its own special work… A struggle against alienation. True solitude is deeply aware of the world’s needs. It does not hold the world at arm’s length.” Spending time with heron taught Merton about how a solitary hermit practice can simultaneously renew one’s relations with the world. This played out in his 1960s social justice writing and active interfaith dialogues that humbled his Catholic faith, made it more relational with the gifts of other traditions.

Did heron have a role in Merton’s renewal as so many social and environmental calls for change were arising? Cultural traditions Indigenous to Turtle Island and beyond have long honoured heron’s patient boundary-crossing gifts, as reflected in how their wings gracefully fly through the air, long legs stand still in water, and feet firmly plant them in the mud below. Their crossing of elemental boundaries reflects a capacity to connect earth and spirit. In many traditional stories, wetlands are the origin place where spirit dropped into this life, and heron sometimes plays a mediating role in that birthing of life. In our modern context, the adaptive flexibility of the great blue heron to colonial and urban encroachments of wetlands has led conservation biologists to describe them as “environmental sentinels,” a being who has flourished amidst many ecological impacts and is now responding to our climate of change.

When I contemplate the unique boundary-crossing gifts of heron, I am drawn to reflect back on a decade of learning with Cayuga elder Gae Ho Hwako Norma Jacobs. In our work she regularly offered the Thanksgiving Address as an offering to all relations that honoured them as spiritual beings who have come to manifest their unique gift on this Earth-walk. As she writes in her book Ǫ da gaho dḛ:s

 

Where do our beginnings come from? How did we get here? What are we doing here? It is such an honour to be able to reflect back and say, “This is who I am, and this is my journey.” We should be appreciative of being on this journey.

 

Reflecting on the renewal of Easter, Merton offers a similar teaching in his symbolic language:

 

Our soul is irreplaceable until we have given to Him that secret and unique answer which no one can pronounce in our place, until we have thus found ourselves in Him, we cannot fully realize what it means to be a “person” in the deepest sense of the word.

 

There are differences in these teachings for sure, but they also hold something in common. Each of us has chosen our place on this Earth, from the lands we call home to our family, culture, passions and even the temporal changes we struggle amidst. We have something to learn here, and our spiritual challenge is to embody an offering of who we are learning to be. Such a grounded quality of gratitude is what needs renewal during the spring season after winter’s opening of space. And this is partly what I am witnessing as heron shifts the timing of their annual migration to these waters through a kind of renewed spirit of their boundary-crossing gift.

Spring is a season when all of life works together to bring more life and gratitude into the depths of our heart, and we can feel the pull to participate as we put our hands in the dirt, plant gardens and walk along the awakening shores of marshes like the one I frequent with heron. I am reminded that the French word merci, gratitude, arises from the same root as mercy. The old Etruscan merc is about relational exchange, the reciprocity of giving, receiving and giving again. And there is much mystery in this, as Merton relates while describing mercy as a translation for the Hebrew term chesed, a strength and fidelity that binds us together. Chesed, mercy is that which brings us “nearer to the mystery into which we enter when all concepts darken and evade us.” While Merton’s ecological Catholicism is central to my renewed seasonal practice, it was through Jacobs’ Thanksgiving Address that I felt in my heart how merci for life’s many gifts is intertwined with a recognition of the mercy we receive from creation and the mysterious spirit underlying it all.

What does it mean to approach this life as a spiritual choice we made to be here during a climate of change? Today’s disturbances are, for Jacobs, very much connected to the Thanksgiving Address. Each relation is being impacted in a diversity of ways, from forest fires to floods to changing migrations and ecological relations. “Although E tinoha ongwesidage’dra gwe’ is compassionate and healing,” Jacobs writes, “our mother has limits, and she will defend herself in ways that society has not and will not be able to comprehend. She has lost her patience with the people who have not changed their attitudes and behaviours.” The modern expectation that the world is simply a store of resources, from products to consume to recreation, is fueling feedbacks of an ever-growing scale.

Our confused mirror image of Thanksgiving’s interconnectivity is, in this view, an inevitable response of life to gratitude’s neglect, and this is what heron’s early return affirms. When I contemplate this challenge of renewing gratitude in the midst of such change, I often return to Jacobs’ related Two Row Wampum teaching and its root in the reciprocity of gratitude. In this relational agreement between Indigenous canoe and European, Canadian, ship to whom it was offered four centuries ago, the river of life that we are commonly navigating is the life-blood of Mother Earth. The call to not interfere in each other’s ways teaches about the importance of cultural diversity and respectful relationality across human communities as an affirmation of how life shares diverse gifts while recognizing boundaries.

While there are many truths in this teaching, the extensive relational changes of the colonial and modern period brings another challenge also highlighted by Jacobs. The Two Row, she says, “warns us that if we choose to straddle the space between the ship and the canoe, it will bring difficulties. We are taught that if we do so, there will come a time in our life when it will be difficult to maintain a clear mind about where we want to belong, especially when a big storm arises and disturbs the waters that we are journeying upon.” At the dawn of the colonial period, this meant that those from the canoe would find solid ground in their cultural ways and the same would be true for the ship or any other culture. Our current issue is that many have been so displaced from such cultural roots that we have forgotten what such teachings are pointing towards.

As with heron’s changes over the colonial period and into the present, the global, continental and regional movements of people have brought into creation new relations despite the systemic violence. As I stated in the first part of this spring blog, “a sense of clear racial, cultural or national identity is increasingly a fraught concept, as can be seen in my Canadian context where about 35.5% of the population indicates multiple ethnic origins. Similar stats can be found in countries like the United States and much of Western Europe.” In relation to my French Canadien roots, it is estimated that 50 to 75% have at least one line of Indigenous ancestry. Looking at this issue from an Indigenous grounding, Jacobs states: “I know lots of people who struggle with wanting to be in the canoe but are on the ship. It is hard for them to decide where they stand on the river of life be­cause of this confusion. The waters around them are always dark and deep.”

How do people find a cultural place to stand in rough and changing waters? How do we ground ourselves in such shifting mud? In trying to more fully ground his Catholic tradition in the Earth, Merton over the last decade of his life began renewing relations with early Celtic Christian wayfaring practices. This was important to him not only because of how they honoured the transcendent spirit’s creative incarnation in their island hermitages of the north Atlantic, but also because of his own Celtic Welsh ancestry. He chose to nurture these roots because of the stability they offered his emerging nature practice, and this despite the fact that his Welsh bloodline was limited to his paternal grandmother. Through fostering a biologically tenuous Celtic Christian identity, he deepened his Catholic roots for living on this planet amidst diverse beings, habitats and cultural faiths.

“I myself,” Merton writes, “am part of the weather and part of the climate and part of the place and a day in which I have not shared truly in all this is no day at all. It is certainly part of my life prayer.” The climate of who we are and where we live is like the feel of our family home, a unique spirit that makes us feel like family with our immediate Earth relations. In the Celtic language of Merton’s ancestors, heron is known as corr réisc, a bog crane whose ways of water-standing and graceful flight linked them to the spirit world and death. To spend time with heron is to learn about the gift of patiently crossing boundaries, something they are teaching us again in our climate of change. Once more, merci and mercy.

What does all of this mean in relation to honouring the gift of one’s unique shifting position on the Two Row? As I stand with heron in the ice-cold mud of early spring and contemplate these questions and related teachings of Merton and Jacobs, a story arises from the depths of my place on this river of life.

            “You little potlicker!” I had almost forgotten these words from my childhood that my father often called me and my brothers. It was on the anniversary of my father’s death that my oldest nephew reminded us of this saying that he also heard as a child. The term seems to originate in the early 1800s in relation to mongrel or mixed-breed dogs, particularly the runts of a litter. Potlickers were characterized as timid, lacking spirit or a backbone, having little fight, and generally not worth much. Such dogs only deserved to lick what remained at the bottom of the pot or dish. The slur was then also applied to classes of people who were often mixed-race, without pride of cultural roots and seen as bottom-feeders.

“You little potlicker!”, my dad’s intonation always had something like the beginning of laughter in it. He reserved those words for times when we did something naughty and yet which he appreciated. Perhaps its use is connected to the stories my paternal grandparents about pre-twentieth century familial relations to Indigenous mission communities, stories also reflected in their genealogy. As I write in Ǫ da gaho dḛ:s, we “are quite likely mixed into this history of white squat­ters, adoptions like those that Gae Ho Hwako teaches of, and marriage. Such people were also often used to extend Canada’s colonial appropriation of land, and over time they accepted the privileges that came with hiding these relations. There are good reasons that Indigenous communities are suspi­cious of people with such ancestral roots.” Bringing these ancestral patterns into the present are immediate familial relations who are Mohawk.

Recognizing these relations does not lead me to step onto the Indigenous canoe, though I honour and support Indigenous values and the cultures that uphold them as a vital compass in the cultural renewal that is broadly needed today. When writing about this, I clarify that “I do not identify as Indigenous or Metis.” At the same time, this complex history is connected to why my father’s side does not speak French and why I do not consider myself Quebecois, French Canadian or Catholic. All these ship-based traditions interest me in a relational way rather than as colonial or modern institutions that define me. Ultimately, the cultural stories that make my heartbeat are about people at the origin moment of what it means to be a small “c” canadien and catholic, a potlicker; from coureur de bois who lived with Indigenous communities like my son’s namesake Etienne Brûlé (1592-1633) and the first of my surname Antoine Leduc (1656-1687) to a more contemporary spiritual teacher on interfaith dialogue like Merton.

Potlickers inevitably muddy the waters where they stand. Reflecting back on my dad’s tone, I can almost sense the slow transformation of this slur across the generations as an internalized put-down gradually became a familial term of affection. Often my father also called us mutts, adding that those dogs were the smartest, most adaptable and loyal. We were mutts and potlickers, and something about that still feels good. It is a way that necessarily disturbs long-established categories of a colonial and modern mind that is resistant to change in the past and present. As with Merton’s tenuous Welsh roots, I want to honour our familial relations with Indigenous communities not so that I or other French Canadiens can say they are Indigenous, but rather so that we can reflect on our relational responsibilities in a familial way. In a global context of cross-cultural and cross-ecological migrations, such a potlicker approach may be vital to renewing colonial and modern ways that are clearly not viable, not Earth-attuned

The roughening waters we are navigating together is the life blood of this creation, and through this we are kin with all our Earth relations. The animal clan systems found across Indigenous cultures, from Haudenosaunee to Celtic and beyond, have long recognized the value of practicing familial relations beyond the human community. Genetic research is further highlighting the fact that we are kin with the world around us, though cultural understandings offer a more feeling connection to that knowledge. Here is how Jacobs evokes this familial sensibility in gratitude for each year’s seasonal change:

 

Our Mother Earth is happy as the changes mean new life – a new energy and vision – and with it comes respon­sibilities and preparation… Each day, she awakens with the excitement of a new movement, and through it all, she is supported by extended family: her Grandmother Moon, her Aunties and Ancestors the Stars, her Grandfathers the Thunder Storms, and the ever-changing winds that embrace her with their soothing messages.

 

On my catholic side of the Two Row, I can similarly read St. Francis’ Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon wherein all the waters and creatures are given thanks as our brothers and sisters. Then there is Merton’s beautiful poem of gratitude to Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom:

 

This mysterious Unity [of all relations] and Integrity is Wisdom, the Mother of all, Natura naturans… This is at once my own being, my own nature, and the Gift of my Creator’s Thought and Art within me, speaking as Hagia Sophia, speaking as my sister, Wisdom.

 

A felt experiential understanding of familial relation to each other and creation may be part of the transformative wisdom, sacred Sophia (Mother Earth), our climate of change is asking us to renew.

Perhaps this is a different way of understanding heron’s February return to the marsh. Rather than a cause-and-effect behavioural response to the signs of an early spring, those same signs can be seen as evoking a felt boundary-crossing response to changes that are also being experienced by their familial relations of their marsh home; relations that include me. At times their early return felt lonely, isolated, grey and, for a few days, icy cold. While the ways of marsh living will continue for heron, the timing and array of their relations are transforming. Just as their ancestors did in the face of colonial changes to land and marsh, these herons are seeding something new with their boundary-crossing and weaving gift in the face of our climate of change. That is all they can do for now. The challenge we are experiencing is not all that different, and the nature of spring can help us further contemplate how uncomfortable a renewal of gratitude for life will feel in times of unpredictable change.

 

Merci & Mercy in Climates of Change: Guiding Points

  • Fast from modern ways so as to create space to move with the changes (see Table in Part I)

  • Stand in the shifting mud of our climate of change

  • Offer Merci for our relations as recognition for what we are given in this life

  • Offer Merci for the gifts of our unique life and cultural grounding, and work with those stories

  • Ask for Mercy as recognition of life's sacred mystery and our dependence on the gifts of so many Earth relations

  • Respond to the changes put in front of us through our unique gift in relation with the gifts of others


  Merci and Mercy are the energetic nature of this life, and to be misaligned from that reality is to evoke an earthly climate of disturbance and injustice. Perhaps I have only learned to renew a potlicker appreciation of merci and mercy through my disconnection from the French language and those cultural roots. There is a potential gift in that destabilization, that is if you can stay with your muddy stories in relation to these changes. That is how, like heron, I can find some solid ground to plant myself in the depths of this earthen pot and draw whatever nutrients I can from what is left. Here is a conservation spirit that reminds me to honour all that is given with respect, humility and gratitude, and this is what I need to renew in my lifeways and work as I learn to stand in the shifting mud of our time.

The boundary-crossing gift of heron is not for the sake of violating elemental or Two Row boundaries, but rather is an original impulse to relationally weave the realms of air, water and earth. Their patient stance in the mud is an act that honours the spirit of the Two Row while holding space for change, whether it be climatic, ecological, cultural, spiritual or, as is more often the case, their interweaving. Such relational attentiveness is the way of spring’s new life, even in times of unpredictable extremes. This weaving, this bridge-making, is also one potential spiritual gift of those who want to affirm a potlicker’s cultural way, and so for me heron is a vital teacher.

We are in a dance with the seasons of this life, and if our intention is spring-like renewal then the best we can do is find a way to actively partake in the changing beat. Both Jacobs and Merton remind us that spring’s renewal is a feature of each day’s cycle. “It is necessary for me,” Merton prays, “to see the first point of light which begins to be dawn. It is necessary to be present alone at the resurrection of the Day, in the solemn silence at which the sun appears, for at this moment all the affairs of cities, of governments, or war departments, are seen to be the bickerings of mice. I receive from the Eastern woods, the tall oaks, the one word DAY, which is never the same. It is always in a totally new language.”

And so, in my potlicker catholic and canadien way, I offer Merci and Mercy each climatically changing day to heron, Merton, Jacobs, Mother Earth, Holy Sophia and my familial relations!

 

  

Some Books that Inspired these Spring Reflections

Jacobs, Norma Gaehowako, edite by Leduc, T. B. (2022). Ǫ da gaho dḛ:s: Reflecting on our Journeys. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press. https://www.odagahodhes.com/


Merton, Thomas, edited by Deignan, Kathleen (2003). When the Trees Say Nothing: Writings on Nature. Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books.


Merton, Thomas (1967). Mystics and Zen Masters. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


Merton, Thomas (1955/1978). No Man is an Island. New York: Harcourt.


Weis, Monica (2016). Thomas Merton and the Celts. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.

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