Apothecary of the soul

Today, the first Thursday of the month, my Spiritual Journey gathering writes around the theme of “Nurturing Our Summer Souls.” Deepest thanks to my friend, teacher-poet-artist Carol Varsalona, for hosting.

Summer itself is about journeys, is it not

In my previous post, A walk back in time, I told of a long-awaited trip to the Country Doctor Museum in the small town of Bailey, NC. I expected to learn about rural physicians and their practices in the 19th to early 20th centuries. I didn’t expect to be mesmerized by the first exhibit, a reproduction apothecary shop replete with show globes (which became the official symbol for pharmacies), exquisite leech jars, real live leeches, rows of dried herbs and powders displayed in large glass jars bearing labels of names so poetic and compelling I itched to look them all up right there on the spot, and black pills made in the shape of tiny coffins because they contain a measure of poisons like mercury, so an illiterate population would be mindful not to overdose.

I certainly wasn’t expecting the large painting on the wall behind the counter…

Apothecary of the soul painting, circa 1700-1750. Artist unknown.
Image: Joyner Library, East Carolina University.

It dominated the wall—the whole room.

“These ‘apothecary of the soul’ paintings are rare,” the docent told our tiny tour group of four, one other couple plus my husband and I. “Most come from Germany. You can see here that Christ is the apothecary. He’s holding the scales, weighing his Crucifixion against the weight of a man’s soul… behind them, jars are labeled with the virtues…we’ve had visitors who are fluent in German and they tell us that this is an old form of the language, much of it is complicated to translate…”

I can make out two Bible references, though. Here’s the King James translation:

Matthew 11:28:

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Isaiah 55:1:

Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.

My tour group moved on too soon. I couldn’t linger to study the work at length, to grasp more of its symbolism, so I’ve since visited the Museum’s website for more information. There I learned that an apothecary may have commissioned the painting. Apothecaries wanted to draw people to their shops; they sought to be alluring, to the point of extravagance (hence the elaborate show globe towers and gilded leech jars). But imagine the effect on the ordinary townsperson, in need of help, relief, comfort, entering the shop to find Christ adorning the wall. If customers weren’t able to read the verses (from Luther’s 1545 translation of the Bible, I wonder?), they could see that Christ’s right hand holds the scales and that his sacrifice outweighs the man’s sins, represented by a horned beast. The man holds a banner reading My sins are heavy and overwhelming and grieve me from the heart.* Christ’s left hand rests on what appears to be crosswort, a plant often used to treat wounds, headaches, and other ailments, possibly representing a cure-all from the hands of the Great Physician (or Apothecary) himself: the dispensation of spiritual healing as well as physical, “without money and without price.”

I left the shop thinking about the level of trust one must have in the apothecary, and feeling as if I’d been on a pilgrimage versus a museum tour. This happened to be my first journey of summer, which has come at last, bright and beckoning, as the world strives to heal from the COVID-19 pandemic…

Here is to rest, ongoing spiritual journeys, and nurturing the soul.

*******

*Source: Apothecary of the Soul video, ECU Digital Collections, via the Country Doctor Museum website (see Learning). The Museum belongs to the Medical Foundation of East Carolina University, under the management of the Laupus Health Sciences Library.

Other Apothecary of the Soul paintings can be found online; they contain much of the same symbolism.

Out of the tomb pantoum

In honor of Easter, on Day Four of National Poetry Month

Like Christ we also can live a new life
Out of darkness into light
Offering forgiveness amid strife
As sunrise conquers longest night

Out of darkness into light
Eyes blinking, faith made sight
As sunrise conquers longest night
On the wings of morning, take flight

Eyes blinking, faith made sight
Releasing what is past
On the wings of morning, take flight
Heart’s stone removed at last

Releasing what is past
Offering forgiveness amid strife
Heart’s stone removed at last
Like Christ we also can live a new life

*******

Note: A pantoum doesn’t have to rhyme, although mine does. It is a form comprised of repeating lines in this pattern:

  1. Begin by writing four original lines.
    1 2 3 4
  2. REPEAT lines 2 and 4 and expand ideas in lines 5 and 6:
    2 5 4 6
  3. REPEAT lines 5 and 6, expand ideas in lines 7 and 8:
    5 7 6 8
  4. FINALLY, repeat lines 1, 3, 7 and 8 in the following order:
    7 3 8 1

All things new: Spiritual Journey

An offering for the Spiritual Journey group, comprised of faithful friends who gather on the first Thursday of each month. Today’s theme is “all things new.”

Spring arrives, clad in rich new vestments of green. Every day, more of the color ripples across the landscape. Here in the central part of North Carolina the Bradford pears have already exchanged their ethereal veil-clouds of wedding lace blossoms for something more matronly and verdant. A whirlwind ceremony, that five-minute flowering of pear.

The birds began preparing back in winter. Flashes of electric blue on my back deck; a brilliant bluebird, dropping by like a friendly neighbor. Darts of fiery red across the road while I’m driving; cardinals, making me stress over potentially ensnaring them in the grille (why DO they fly so low?). Today, a darling brown Carolina wren on my back deck—clearly doing Deacon of the Week rotation with the bluebird—singing its heart out, full-throated, unrestrained, magnificent. How can such a small bird have such a big voice? Bocelli can’t hold a candle to you, Little Wren. From the pines and budding hardwoods, bird choirs swell, as in the song “The King is Coming”:

Regal robes are now unfolding,
Heaven’s grandstand’s all in place,
Heaven’s choir now assembled,
Start to sing “Amazing Grace!”

All in earthly bird language, naturally… but no less celestial.

All but the finches, that is.

For several consecutive years a finch family has built a nest on my from door wreath and raised generations of little broods. I’d find a total of three baby-blue eggs in the nest, sometimes four, laid precisely between seven and eight o’clock every morning. My family has been treated to an insider’s view of the whole process, from nest-building to egg-laying to the hatching of tiny pink things so frail and helpless that a person might think they can’t possibly manage to stay alive; yet in no time they’re fledglings working on flying lessons. We’ve even had a batch of babies in the spring and another in summer; that makes for a long time of roping off my front-door bird sanctuary.

Then, with the advent of COVID-19 last March, a curious thing occurred. As the human world reeled, and became strapped in the strange straitjacket of pandemic, as businesses shut down, as hospitals and mortuaries overflowed, spring came anyway. Nature, in fact, outdid herself with resplendent finery. The finches came to build their nest as always and this little act of constancy lifted my flagging spirits: At least there will be baby birds to watch while we are all under stay-at-home orders.

But there were no eggs last spring. The nest remained empty all season. The finches… they vanished. No warning, just—poof!—gone. I didn’t see when, how, or why.

After a while, bereft, I quit looking for them.

I didn’t take the wreath down until late fall.

I saved the little unused nest.

I didn’t have the heart to throw away such a labor of love (you can say instinct all you want but the perfect craftsmanship of nests amazes me).

With the return of March, I waited for the finches to join the rest of the avian throng having revival beyond my windows. Every day I looked.

Nothing.

Nothing.

Nothing.

Then, day before yesterday…on the top of the wreath, one lone strand of grass, lying in a telltale curve…could it be, could it be…?

And yesterday…

“THEY’RE BACK! THEY’RE BACK! COME SEE!”

My family humored me with only a slight rolling of eyes…my granddaughter, at least, seemed interested. She made my son hold her up high for a better, bird’s-eye view.

I marveled at the greenness of the nest. Is it just me, or is this how they always look? This green, this fresh? I do not think so. No, they have never been so green before.

And today…

Almost complete. Look at that leafy lining, so carefully placed.

By Easter—dare I hope?—we might have an egg.

A tiny, age-old symbol of rebirth and resurrection.

I marvel at this fresh greenery, this new grass, this preparation for new life, the hope that’s in it. If not for the birds, then for me. Especially after the year that’s passed, marked by so much bleakness and loss, down to the former little nest that contained no life.

I recall the promise of Christ: one day there will be no more death, mourning, crying, or pain. Behold, I am making all things new (Revelation 21:4-5, ESV).

Every spring hints at it. My personal winged messengers, harbingers of blessed assurance.

A little foretaste of glory divine.

Hymns of the heart. I step outside, away from the constraints of the house, watching the two finches take flight, zigzagging skyward, sunlight gleaming on their sandy backs, calling, calling, calling, how sweet the sound.

I come to the sanctuary in the cool of the day to behold
these moments of Earth’s remembering, an altar call where I
respond, walking the greening aisle just as I am
to a fanfare of wingbeats and music-making.
Holy holy holy, I surrender all
in wordless doxology on the returning. Let all things
their Creator bless, with ancient morningsong, yet ever new
.

*******

Update, Thursday evening… first egg!
Holy Week blessings to all.

*******

with thanks to Karen Eastlund for hosting today’s Spiritual Journey

and also shared with the writing community on SOS – Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog, in response to the open invitation to write around the many meanings of “spring.”