Spiritual journey: Celebrating small things

Today’s spiritual journey theme is celebrating small things (thank you, Ramona, for hosting our group).

What’s been on my mind all week, however, is the brokenness of things.

I wrote a series of poem-posts on it.

In those posts on the brokenness of things I could have mentioned that the incalculable horror, loss, and grief in Uvalde still weigh heavy on my heart each day, that I mourn the state of humanity and the inability to spare children. I could have mentioned that this school year, another chapter in the continuing saga of COVID, has been the hardest yet on staff, students, and families. I could have mentioned my despair over diametrically opposed viewpoints about what’s best for students and how some educators cannot get beyond deficit thinking to see the wealth of creative and artistic gifts in the youngest among us…

I wrote instead about being a child. About breaking my arm on the school playground when I was nine. About fearing my father’s anger and being surprised by his gentleness. In an effort to comfort me he brought one of my dolls along to the orthopedic office. It embarrassed me. I felt too old for the doll. Maybe it was more a matter of not want anyone else to think I still played with dolls. Yet the gesture touched me, even then. To this day the memory of my father holding that doll, shouting at the orthopedist to stop when I screamed during the bone-setting, is one of the most indelible images of my life. There my father stood, unable to spare me more than a moment of the suffering I had to endure. I could see the intensity of his own suffering. It was written all over his pale, fierce-eyed face. His presence and the knowledge of his pain on my behalf somehow breathed a waft of courage into my terrified heart. This little stirring of courage would sustain me through a subsequent hospital stay when the bones in my arm slipped and had to be reset. It would prepare me to visit a five-year-old boy with a crushed foot across the hall as he screamed in pain and terror. It would beget empathy: me there in my wheelchair with a cast halfway to my shoulder and him in a hospital bed with crib rails, his poor damaged foot heavily bandaged and raised on a suspended sling. United in common suffering, we would find a glimmer of overcoming, in the very midst of our brokenness.

That is the thing about children. Before there are even words to express, there are keen understandings. Children are natural ambassadors of healing. They instinctively seek to comfort. Their native language is love.

I realize, now, what I was longing for when I went back to those childhood moments.

The spiritual journey is littered with broken things, broken people, broken self. I remember wondering how that little boy’s crushed foot would ever heal. At nine I imagined the bones in countless pieces and couldn’t conceive of how doctors could repair that much disconnectedness. I wondered if his foot would ever be okay…but I knew, somehow, he would be.

Which leads me, at last, to the Great Physician. Who, like my father, intervened on my behalf to alleviate my suffering, and who, unlike my father, is able to provide more than momentary relief.

I’m not sure yet if I’m done writing about the brokenness of things but here’s where I finally pick up the path of celebration. I celebrate the sustaining gift of faith. I celebrate the memory of my father, gone for twenty years now but so alive and active in my memory. I celebrate that the school year is now ending, that a desperately-awaited respite has arrived. I celebrate children.

It occurs to me that none of these are “small things.”

So, here is one: I celebrate the musicality of children.

For on the most hellish of days, when I hear them singing, I remember heaven.

For the kingdom of God belongs to such as these… Luke 18:16.

Salvador Dalí – Los niños cantores (Children singing) 1968. Cea. CC BY 2.0

I bind unto myself

A Spiritual Journey Thursday offering for April.

Karen Eastlund beckons fellow SJT writers with the phrase “I bind unto myself today…”

It’s the beginning of many prayers compiled by the Northumbria Community in Celtic Daily Prayers. The phrase is also attributed to the Hymn of St. Patrick (see Cantica Sacra). Thank you, Karen, for the inspiration and blessing.

What prayer might I make, what claim might I stake, on these five words? What do I need to bind unto myself today, any day, every day? What do I hold most dear? What holds me?

It comes to me via pieces of Scripture—John 1:1-4, 6:63; Hebrews 12:2.

A pantoum:

I bind unto myself today
love of words
the Word, in the beginning
the Creator of all things    

Love of words
I bind unto myself today
the Creator of all things
speaking life

I bind unto myself today
the Word made flesh, who dwelt among us
speaking life
the Author and Finisher of my faith

The Word made flesh, who dwelt among us
the Word, in the beginning
the Author and Finisher of my faith
I bind unto myself today

Heart healing

“Heart” is the Spiritual Journey prompt for this first Thursday in February.
Thanks to Linda Mitchell for hosting our group of writers.

On a Sunday afternoon at the end of July, 2019, my husband had a massive heart attack and cardiac arrest. He was resuscitated by EMTs and went straight into surgery after arriving at the hospital. He got four stents and spent several days in induced hypothermia to reduce trauma to his brain, which can happen when blood flow has ceased and is suddenly restored. He recuperated slowly, painfully; his sternum had been broken by the CPR which saved his life. He came home. One morning in September he woke to jolts in his chest and tingling down his arm. I took him back to the hospital. More heart attacks. This time he had four bypasses. The surgeon mended his sternum with a little metal plate.

He is doing well now. In fact, up until winter settled in, he was doing eight-mile hikes in the park a couple of times a week and feeling as good as he ever has.

As this first Thursday in February drew near with Valentine’s Day and “heart” as the Spiritual Journey prompt for the month, I thought of a couple of things I might like to explore. I had chosen one, in fact, when I saw the heart-shaped hospital pillow that remains in our bedroom. This pillow was given to my husband after the bypass surgery. His attending nurse wrote on it with a Sharpie: “Keep hugging your heart!”

I thought, this is it. This is what I need to write about.

These pillows are given to all patients recuperating from open-heart surgery. The patients hug them when they have to cough or sneeze, lessening the severity of the jolt. The pillow protects the incision site whenever the patients move and when they practice the necessary deep-breathing exercises for their lungs.

It just so happens that the hospital where my husband’s surgery and recuperation has the lowest mortality rate in the country for heart bypass patients (according to reports from 2017-2019). It also just so happens that the county’s resuscitation rate is the highest in the nation. So, if you’re going to have cardiac arrest and need cardiac surgery, it’s the best place to be.

My husband is evidence of this.

I think about the surgeon who held my husband’s heart in his hands, who grafted those bypasses. He told us that as soon as the first graft was done, my husband’s heart immediately began beating stronger; it was hungry for the blood. It wanted to live.

Now. Where’s the spiritual element in all this, you ask?

Beyond the miracle that one human can cut open another and repair his heart, and that this repaired person can heal and live life awhile longer, is the Great Physician who is able to transform hearts and lives. When I was young, I attended a Bible study group in which a couple of guys could play guitars and we’d often sing this version of Psalm 51:10-12:

Create in me a clean heart, O God
and renew a right spirit in me

Create in me a clean heart, O God
and renew a right spirit in me

And cast me not away from thy presence, O Lord,
take not thy Holy Spirit from me.
Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation
and renew a right spirit in me.

Godly heart-grafting, I would say. Cleansing, taking away the bad parts, restoring. The heart must be transformed before the spirit can be renewed. Sometimes a great deal of work must be done…but the Lord is able. If we let Him work. If we are hungry for it. We often think of letting Him into our hearts but it’s really more a matter of offering our hearts—battered, damaged, tangled, sick as they may be—to Him. He knows exactly what is needed. Psalm 51 is the cry of David’s heart after Nathan the prophet confronted him with his adultery and murder. It can be the cry of any of our hearts as we place them in the healing hands of Almighty God, craving His mercy.

I rejoice that my husband lives, that he was made well, that the hospital and the EMTs are the best around.

I rejoice more that the Lord forgives and heals hearts and spirits. He works on my own, daily. He is the physician and the pillow, the healer and the comforter. The ultimate heart-hugger. He is the best place to be.

Not to mention that His own mortality record is unsurpassable.

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.”