When I was ordained deacon in Southwark Cathedral in 1988, the reading for the service was from the Book of Revelation and the sermon took a verse aimed at the Church of Laodicea, where the people were accused of being ‘neither hot nor cold’, resulting in being spat from the mouth of God. Thirty-three years later, I’m no longer in that milieu but that warning has stayed with me. We get what Mary Oliver called ‘this one precious life’, far too precious to be feel ambivalent about, far too miraculous to let it become and insipid and lukewarm thing.
because life is sacred
As writers we care, passionately, about what animates and motivates other people, about the conditions of our planet, about life in all its colours and nuances. It’s zest for life itself that is one of the things that keeps us writing.
As we make our way through the darkest time of the year, straining towards the light that will come again; as we meet with or reach out to family and friends over this season of festivals of light, it’s zest for life itself that makes us connect. We care. As writers and as humans, we love, have passion and know that this tiny scrap of life may be scarcely a microscopic dot on the face of time, yet it is everything.
And whatever our particular faith, or none, celebrating life itself seems deeply apt in a season when the story of an obscure birth in an obscure place and moment of history is told as a way of underscoring that every birth, ever life is sacred.
it roots us in presence
Abundance comes in those moments when we are truly alive to the present and in how we connect with all life. Zest is a way of living that embodies hope. It’s the opposite of living from fear and helps us to get out of our own way so that we can be more outward-looking, grateful and generous.
This sense of presence from living in zest isn’t about busily spinning from one activity to the next, chalking up peak experiences at break-neck speed. Rather, it’s about deeply savouring the small moments. Writing in My Belief, essays on life and art, Hermann Hesse says:
The high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.
He talks about how it’s all too easy to live in dull and loveless stupor:
I believe what we lack is joy. The ardor that a heightened awareness imparts to life, the conception of life as a happy thing, as a festival…
Distinguishing between the pursuit of enjoyment and true joy, for Hesse ‘ardor’ is found not by cramming life with endless experiences, but by savouring small joys and having the courage to say no to a plethora of experience in order to deeply immerse in a few. Go to an exhibition and stay with one image for an hour or two, he advises.
Moderation may seem an unlikely way to live in zest but what he is suggesting is that small joys, often those that aren’t advertised or costly, are what fill us with the sense that life is rich. Joys like smelling a flower, tasting fruit, standing under hot water in a shower. He ends:
My advice to the person suffering from lack of time and from apathy is this: Seek out each day as many as possible of the small joys, and thriftily save up the larger, more demanding pleasures for holidays and appropriate hours. It is the small joys first of all that are granted us for recreation, for daily relief and disburdenment, not the great ones.
and grounds us in love
A couple of months ago I watched a short series with my son. The Midnight Gospel is an animation about a young man who is adrift, living in a trailer on an alien planet with hostile neighbours and a dying computer that is able to propel him temporarily into other dying worlds where, amidst scenes that are bizarre and chaotic and often threatening of apocalypticrelate to joy and bodifulness, the protagonist, Clancy, interviews someone for his ‘spacecast’. This then becomes a podcast of people exploring a broad range of spiritual positions embedded within unlikely contexts from a zombie-ravaged earth to a prison where the inmates, suffering from existential dread, play out the myth of Sisyphus.
The people interviewed for the podcast were not actors, but people discussing their own views and in the final episode, the interviewee is the protagonist’s real-life mum, a retired psychologist.
As they talk she calls him by his real name, not that of his animated protagonist, and it’s clear this is a real conversation. She teaches him a meditation technique to find a sense of presence, getting him out of his mind and into his body, into a sense of flow. And then she talks with extraordinary grace about how during dark times, those times when your house gets knocked down by unstoppable tornado, what we control is our response and this can be transformative. And it’s at this point that the listeners learn that she has metastatic breast cancer and has already lived longer than any doctor predicted. But more importantly, she sees death as a great teacher:
And meditation is one spiritual practice that prepares us for death. But also, you know, if you look at the world, what you see is things appearing and disappearing, and humans are a part of the whole of that, and humans appear and they disappear. […] We are a part of the whole and everything in the whole transforms all the time. … Transfigures.
It’s heart-breaking. Mother and son acknowledge this heart break, but also that, in breaking the heart open, this unbearable grief makes us truly know what it is to experience love, what it is to value life. ‘There is so much aliveness building in me,’ his mother, Deneen Fendig, comments.
Zest, what Hermann Hesse refers to as ‘ardor’, is this sense of aliveness. It’s the certainty that savouring the small joys, finding stablitity within ourselves and our connections, rather than searching for it in the constant changes of life, and prioritsing presence and love, are what matter.
that celebrates being alive
Whatever winter festival we celebrate this season, as writers we know that it’s passion for life that keeps our creativity alive and alert. This passion, the determination to celebrate life, only strengthens in the face of loss that breaks our hearts open. Zest for life is a deep, inherent joy in life itself
However you may or may not be celebrating, may you feel zest for life so that you know it as sacred, can be rooted in presence, grounded in love and celebrate being alive. And in the deep joy of this zest may you find the space to slow down, listen and connect, knowing it is enough.