This Advent we share with you a verdant reflection by Paula Pryce, who writes from the Yasodhara Ashram on the shores of Kootenay Lake in the interior of British Columbia, Canada. Paula takes us on a journey to an apple orchard nestled deep in the mossy rainforest. She considers stars and caves, apple seeds and birthing, trees and song, and she invites us to listen deeply and to attend to the advent of spirit and fullness of being amidst the darkness of this time…
Star at the Centre:
A Reflection on Apples and Advent
by Paula Pryce
Keep me as the apple of your eye.
Hide me under the shadow of your wings. [i]
Outside, Douglas fir and larch are dancing in a brisk wind, ruffling themselves like chickadees in winter. The dark seam of water known as Kootenay Lake opens before a maze of heavily forested mountains. I have been in semi-solitude for six weeks here in my little cabin above Yasodhara Ashram. From time to time I walk down through ancient halls of Western red cedar and angel-hair lichen to attend teachings and Satsang ceremonies, or to help with the apple harvest.
A century ago, the old Walker family carved a space from the dripping temperate rainforest to plant an orchard. Gravenstein, MacIntosh, Spartan – those craggy, decrepit moss-covered trees now cheerfully offer up their treasure to the ashram community. I’ve been giving a hand peeling and slicing box after box of fruit to preserve for the winter stores.
My work brings up memories of a tree from childhood, a grand dame with vast open arms. We loved her calico shade and often climbed up to find rest in the crook of her branches, like the lap of a caring old grandmother. But wasn’t I glad she gave her apples only every second year, for when she did, the fruit fell like a hail storm. It was all hands on deck: every day out with our baskets for the windfall, stepping around the swarms of wasps that were after her riches, just like us. Then into the kitchen for sorting, peeling, chopping, saucing, juicing, baking, freezing, drying.
My siblings and I used to play a game in the midst of our labours: we’d try to peel the apple skins in a single strip without breaking them. It wasn’t easy! Take a sharp paring knife, work with steadiness and attention, and maybe, just maybe, you’d come up with a springy spiral at the end.
A spiral, like the nautilus, that follows a path to the centre. I didn’t learn until I had my own children where that apple-spiral path led.
Here in the ashram’s preserving kitchen, I rediscovered the delight of the beautiful secret: when one cuts the apple crosswise, at its heart is a perfect five-point star. The hidden light that promises to grow if allowed to rest in the depths of earth. A beacon of hope and wonder.
Could there be a better symbol for Advent’s call to the cave of the heart?
I have come to this cave of the heart for Advent. She invites me into a darkness that is about depth and unknowing; there is no lack of light. Even as clouds thicken and snow begins to drift down like apple blossoms, the mossy boulders beside my cliffside cabin are incandescent: chartreuse dappled with gold and evergreen, brought into relief by rising giants of the green-black rainforest. The lake below is winged with feathery sunlight and flying mist.
I have learned more about the cave of the heart here at the ashram. Swami Radha, the woman who founded this place nearly sixty years ago on the unceded land of Sinixt and Ktunaxa peoples in southeastern British Columbia, knew something about caves. Swami Radha wrote:
“While I was in India an old yogi offered me the opportunity to meditate in his cave. Later he asked me how it was. I answered rather wistfully that it was enchanting, particularly because of the sweet song of the birds. He pointed out that the cave has a long, very narrow entrance and birds would not fly into the darkness. The rocks were so polished that no bats lived in this cave. ‘Are you sure you heard something?’ ‘Oh yes.’ I could almost imitate the sound, like young birds chirping in the early morning. He smiled and said, “Did it never occur to you that rocks can sing?’ ” [ii]
Two thousand years earlier, Mary certainly knew something about caves and singing heard from mouths that did not belong to people. Did she not withdraw to a cave to give birth while celestial voices and the murmur of livestock surrounded and heartened her?
The deepest of Mary’s experience may have come before her birthing cave, however: the cave within, where the Divine light grew stronger day by day with her waiting and watching. Eastern Orthodox icons show that light within Mary, where the baby, surrounded by stars, rests in an amulet of gold, awaiting fruition. The star grows ever brighter at Mary’s centre.
My children found such wonder in the star hidden away in the apple. It is no surprise then that the apple tree is a symbol of life, as expressed in Elizabeth Poston’s beautiful Advent carol:
The apple, like the womb of light at Mary’s centre, is fertile soil that will nourish the star of seeds. The star that, against all reason, will grow to generosity of spirit and fullness of being, if first buried in the watchful, silent attentiveness of our own hearts.
I sit in my cabin in the woods with Advent candles alight, listening for the singing of the land and of the heavens.
This Advent, I invite you also to ponder the new life of the star at the centre.
Paula Pryce, Advent 2021
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What a wonderful reflection, Paula. It never ocurred to me to contemplate Mary in the way you suggest– with the notion of the cave of the heart. My own journey into what many call “Christian Vedanta” began with a three month residency at Shantivanam, the ashram founded by the late Father Bede Griffiths. I am touched and deeply moved by your thoughts here and send you many thanks.
Thank you, Tom. Perhaps it is no coincidence that I have spent time at Shantivanam too. The cave of the heart is powerful there.