Monthly Archives: January 2010

Speak what we feel

This might get kinda long. Sorry. Something about conference season and the sudden upending of schedule and home life often catapults me into epiphanies. Being away from home makes one vulnerable to prolonged thought. I love, and dread this season. It comes every year, this round of travel and speaking, trips in hotels, trips in cars… a riotous wrangle of adventure, exhaustion, friendship, ministry, and probably, madness. This year, however, was remarkable for starting with a bang. Actually, it was more of a pop. And it came from the general direction of my knee.

I was in the house all alone just as dusk poured darkness in through all the windows on the eve of the conference. Upstairs, in my room, I was whirling about to very loud music, attempting to turn the exercise of packing my suitcase into an aerobic dance. To the blood-quickening uillean pipes of Rock Island, 1931, I put my foot down for a vigorous pirouette, but to my unbounded surprise felt my leg buckle and my knee give an astounding pop. Next thing I knew, I was on the floor, back against my blue wall, legs at odd angles, my right ankle twitching. It was ten minutes before I could move. I was stunned. I rubbed my knee. I tried to calm my ankle. I rocked back and forth as feeling came back and everything went sore. Finally, I decided that whatever popped out must have popped back in.

I also cried. I think the shock of it (and I hate to admit this, I hate to cry) brought the tears. The pain was low grade, but I was shaking, scared at what I might have done, and as I sat there, trying to straighten my leg and stand, watching my toes twitch, I almost wept. Big, babyish tears. I asked myself if I was two years old and my brain very calmly answered no. I asked myself if I intended to let a little knee drama cow me in future from daring rescues, hikes across the English moors, or relief work in a war-torn country (all of which I plan to do). Of course not. I gingerly hobbled my way to my red chair and sat there. I took deep, decisive breaths. But each strong, calming suck of air into my lungs came out shredded into a sob. I couldn’t stop.

I thought I was just being irrational. For whatever reason, physical pain is the hurt I am least able to philosophically bear. I feel slapped across the face by it. I am more of a wimp at being sick than I like to admit. I mentally rolled my eyes at my weakness and let the tears come. But then the worst pain died down, and I was pretty sure nothing was broken. I kept on crying. Harder. I couldn’t stop. My throat ached, but so did my heart and I was bewildered as to why. It took me ten more minutes to suddenly realize I wasn’t crying about the pain. I wasn’t even crying over the shock or the scare. I was crying about things that had happened two weeks ago.

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Filed under Contemplations, Outrageous Occurences

Cloisters

It has been one of those quiet, hidden days,
Like the wind brushing past dark cypresses as they sway;
Or the murmur of a shell, pressed close to the ear,
Which only the keenest perception can hear.
(“It is I, do not fear.”)
I have flitted through this dusk of a day,
A moth in dim air,
Or as shadows of leaves tapping at my windowpane.
Known only to him who has passed it with me.
Traversing the cloisters alone,
“It is Myself, how can you be afraid?”

-Sister Mary Agnes, Order of Poor Clares

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Filed under Poetry

Perpetua

St. Perpetua of Carthage, at Notre Dame.

I have been reading about a martyr today. She rivets me. A young, vibrant noblewoman, married, and with a tiny, nursing baby, she was condemned to death for her faith in Christ. She lived in Carthage, right in the earliest centuries of Christianity. My reading today was marked by humble curiosity. Perpetua was one of those martyrs who seemed to have had the light of the sun in her eyes, who, for the most part, faced death, loss, and rejection with an almost Spartan refusal of grief. I don’t feel I am quite so brave. By all accounts, she was a determined young woman, who would not recant her faith before the Roman ruler even as her father grovelled before her, her newborn child in his arms, begging her to yield. Condemned to the die in the arena by the attack of a mad cow, she was so stunningly joyful, so full of song and this hope like laughter,  she apparently didn’t realize she’d been thrown by the animal. She was brought back in to be kept for a later death by sword and had to be convinced that she was wounded.

I must admit. For awhile today, she stymied me. I have been sitting in my chair this morning, yearning to know how, how, she was so full of joy. I’ve read stories like hers before. I always thought that her sort of joy, her steel-faced faith was a teeth-clenched willing. She must have had willpower on a marathon scale to smile like that. I thought that she was simply stronger than me. Only way I could ever be like her was to gut up my sorrow and quit feeling sad about the world. That will never happen. Down came the guilt.

And yet, wait. I know without doubt that joy like that cannot be gutted out or gritted through. A hope like that cannot be scratched out from the the gravel of a frail, human self. Not one of us, even sun-faced martyrs, has that kind of strength on our own. If there is anything I have learned this year, it is that left to themselves, humans, all humans, are pitiful. We are so fallen. Hope and joy and beauty have to come to us from a source beyond ourselves. Like a spring of water, or the rising of the sun on darkened land, joy must come to us. Perpetua’s brand of strength had to be one that lived outside of herself. Abruptly, I understood that Perpetua was not stronger than me. She was more in love.

What can bring the sort of joy that makes a violent death and the loss of your child something to laugh through? Only an absolute belief that you are irrevocably loved. Loved by a Father whose mercy and power insure that all of you, body and soul and mind and heart, will never be abandoned, but healed in the end. Only by knowing the love with which you are loved to be the one true fact of the universe, a truth that will burgeon into a new heaven and earth of beauty even when all else fades away. A love in which all lost things are kept safe for a future redemption.

I realized that Perpetua was glad, downright drunk with joy so as to be oblivious to pain, because her eyes saw only the God who loved her. The fact of his affection was so real and true to her that in the prison and arena, in the dark hours of the night before she died, in the moment when she kissed her baby goodbye, she saw the good that would come instead of the bad that was happening. It was love that gave her Herculean strength. It was God’s face fixed in her mind that she saw instead of the leering arena crowd. It was his presence growing closer as her life flowed out that she felt instead of her broken body. I think in those agonizing moments of death, her trust in God’s love enabled her to glimpse the end of the story, the redemption that would come. And so, she had no reason to be afraid.

I want to be in love like Perpetua.

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Filed under Contemplations

All… the way… home…

Good mornin’ Oklahoma. Ain’t you lookin’ bright and chipper today. Thanks o’ lovely Lord for a clear sky drive. Thirteen hours to go. May the road rise up to meet us. Coffee anyone?

Say hello to the sun, brother. It’s gonna be a ride of a day. What do ya say I slather us up a couple pieces of that baguette we got, cut some Gouda, munch those nuts (no fastfood for us), and we’ll pop in a Poirot. I wonder who did the rich man in? Nine more hours. Sure glad we’re together.

Peekaboo star? One grand, gold eye with a lash of trees? A face so good it’s gaze can’t been seen? Whatever you are, fare you well you bright, bold thing. We’ll follow you down the horizon. Day and storybook end together. The doctor was guilty. We knew it. Five more hours. Time to break out the Trader Joe’s chocolate. Stay open my poor old eyes!

Say goodnight to the sun, my Joel. Funny the way the sky weeps color when the light is ripped away. Funny, the way your soul wants to answer. Do you think our lives are like the bolt of those lights? Dash of a flicker, blinded by flight, while a sky of fire sings overhead and longs to take our light into its own?

Yes. I’ve been driving too long. Three more hours. I’m glad I’m not alone.

And, oh, oh my. Home.

Hello red chair. Hello new Irish calendar. Hello little note from Mom, and cup of tea, and art book open on the table, and lamp blazing away. Hello pillow. Hello bed. Hello…

Goodnight.

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Filed under Travel

One of my favorites

When in Nashville on a Sunday, I fly like a homing pigeon to a church I used to attend in the ancient days when I had my abode in Tennessee. At the time, I lived way out in the hilly green countryside so the flavor of my visits to this church were somewhat that of a long-awaited event. It was a day in the town and a visit to a spiritual home all at once. The long drive in on a clear, early morning. Highways grey like a clear river, birds (there are always birds singing if you listen) chanting their own hymn, coffee on the way down, and then, the sanctuary. High wooden walls in an arcing curve that put me in mind of the bow of a ship in which my sailing would be strong and smoothe. Slim brick pillars and slim stained glass windows, the faces of saints and elders and legends vying for my eyes. Then, worship.

I loved that church. Headed there yesterday and had the grand treat of hearing one of my favorite hymns, a song I don’t think gets near enough play sung by the choir during the Eucharist. The hymn is Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent (I’ve copied the words below) and to me, there is a quiet behind the words of this song that is like a vast night sky seen from the window of a lit home at night. Every time I hear this song, I am aware of eternity behind it, looming up in the windows of my mind. I always sing it with a bit of a sudden stillness in me. The rendition yesterday was exactly how I’ve always wished to hear it sung- a few, mystic, uncanny little bells at start and then the bare bones voices, first of a woman with a high, clear voice, then the choir in a simple mesh of harmonies. The words themselves and the grandeur behind them bearing down on our unsuspecting heads. I couldn’t record it, but maybe the sound of it, even in imagination, will kindle your soul as it did mine. Hope your day is a graced one.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six wingèd seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

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Filed under Music, Musings

Snow Day on the way to TN

Twas a chill and stormy sky as we drove into a brooding, plainsong dawn.

Eighteen hours, one poor little car whose windows refused to unfog, four Starbucks stops, and one Agatha Christie Poirot audiobook later, we arrived to shelter. Home. Primal comfort. 15-bean soup and Ezekiel bread.

And today, sleep. Coffee. More soup. And a walk.

Gnarled old sidewalks with lace draped over their wrinkles. Crunch, crunch, crunch…

Dark, bare branches, silent, writing a song into the sky.

Snowlight, the first sun of the day to break through, fragile as a child with all of its brisk, young laughter.

Home for P.G. Tipps and oven-warmed shortbread. A last bit of sun.

And candlelight. Dinner. Sleep. And a new snow-day morning tomorrow.

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Filed under Contemplations