Spiritual Journey: Holy

Why is it that, as I began to think of a November theme for my Spiritual Journey writer-friends, that the word holy came to mind?

I suppose it was connected with the start of the holiday season…holiday, from the original Old English, hāligdæg, means holy day.

I am writing this on a holy day to many around the world, All Soul’s Day. Following All Saint’s Day. Following All Hallow’s Eve…a holy triduum for remembering the dead, collectively known as Allhallowtide. On Halloween morning I saw a mystical fiery rainbow in the clouds, a colorful band of light joining earth to heaven. Genesis 9:13 played in my mind: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. A promise from God. There’s also a rainbow around the throne of God (Revelation 4:3).

Holy. As in hallowed.

I think of votive candles lit in memory of deceased loved ones, the bright flames driving the dark away, the way that hope does in the despairing soul. So many holy-day observances involve the lighting of candles.

My little granddaughter had her first birthday at the end of October. A solitary candle burned on her cake, representing her one year of life.

Holy.

It also means blessed.

For me, holy is closely linked to my life-word, awe, in that they encompass the divine and a reverence for it. Even a shadowing of fear. When I was a small child attending church with my grandparents, I sensed all of this on entering the sanctuary, long before I had words to convey it. I did not know, then, about the ancient Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle where God’s presence dwelt, that only the High Priest could enter it once a year to make atonement for the Israelites, and that anyone else trying to do so would die. Even the High Priest had to prepare with great care.

Holy. It means sacred, consecrated, set apart.

The ancient Jews considered the Holy of Holies the spiritual junction of heaven and earth.

I looked at all the white-rail decor in that long-ago Methodist church and could not understand, describe, or convey…but I sensed holy and trembled.

My other granddaughter, age six, was baptized recently. I watched her, robed in white, descending into the baptismal pool where the preacher—her stepfather, my son—held out his hand to her. Her little face was aglow with the faith of a child (the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these), looking up at her dad with absolute trust. My son was overcome with emotion.

Holy. Pure.

My spirit clings to the word. Although it seems like life is often consumed by an ever-raging sea of unholiness, the holy is always there, like a luminous lifeline. It shines in faces of children. It swells in birdsong, in music so beautifully composed that it draws tears. It lives in extraordinary, self-sacrificial acts of love. It manifests itself in healing. In forgiveness. I see it often in nature, obeying its patterns, displaying such breathtaking glory and wonders that one forgets the brokenness of things. Yes, when the slant of light is just right, one gets a shot of awe, a glimpse above and beyond, a perceiving of holy. Of the presence of God. Like a fiery rainbow on Halloween morning.

In the end, it is all a matter of opening the soul to seeing.

Here’s to finding the holy in every day of the journey.

I wrote a poem about the rainbow on All Hallow’s Eve; people forget the Christian connections to the day.

Spiritual Journey Friends, please share your links in the comments below – blessings to you all!

Craftsmanship

When I was growing up, the dessert everyone wanted at holiday gatherings was my mother’s carrot cake.

I used to sit at the table watching her make it, hoping for scrapings of the batter bowl or to sneak a fingerful of icing. The process took forever. Finally the two layer pans went into the oven, and as the cake baked, the fragrance of cinnamon filled the house—an indescribably delicious smell.

Now I make the cake. Over time I’ve come to think mine is almost—almost—as good as hers.

But as much as I love the cake and want to make it, and as much as it stirs the ghost of my childhood self on holidays past, I find myself sighing and almost reluctant as I prepare for it.

Making this cake is a lot of work.

I make it the way my mother did. Peeling the carrots, grating them on the finest side of the grater so that they become a smooth orange pulp, for no carrot bits should be discernible in the cake batter. I know people who use processors or even baby food carrots, and that may work for them . . . but this is where I appreciate the craftsmanship of my mother’s cake.

That word has been in my mind since a recent meeting when facilitators asked fellow educators a guiding question: “What makes high-quality work?” The answers were plentiful: originality or authenticity, clarity of expression or thought, meeting or exceeding a standard or learning goal . . . and craftsmanship.

It takes time to produce something high-quality. There aren’t shortcuts. I think about writing (because I always think about writing). As with making mother’s carrot cake, writing well is a lot of work, hard work. Refining, refining, grating those danged carrots to a pulp so that they’re not even evident in the outcome, yet they’re the foundation of it. Words worked and reworked and restrung until they finally blend into a seamless, cohesive whole. Without hunks of stuff that trips up readers. To become skilled at anything is to work and work and keep working, all the while knowing how these parts and pieces should come together and that in the end, the effort pays off. Craftsmanship means a serious investment of time, effort, and patience.

There’s an aesthetic feature to craftsmanship. The artist labors long for the effect and beauty of the work. The aesthetics of my mother’s carrot cake are its exceptional flavors and textures, the sensory experience of eating it, for on the surface it looks pretty humble. In middle school I had a French teacher native to Greece (another story for another day, trust me) who told the class that Greek desserts look very plain but are incredibly rich and sweet; when she first came to America and saw our wedding cakes, she couldn’t even imagine what such gorgeous things would taste like. “Then I tried one,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “Bah! Like cardboard!” Aesthetics can be somewhat subjective, then, allowing for personal preference, but I can say this after having read hundreds of student papers across grade levels: When I find one of high quality, from the first sentence all the way through, it “sings.” It stands out. Not perfect, but flowing, clear, and beautiful. I know time and effort have gone into it, and that the author cared about the work.

And this, I believe, lies at the heart of craftsmanship. Caring. With every carrot I grate, I think about how my family will enjoy this cake, the same way I always have. Their enjoyment, more than my own, keeps me at the task. I even make the frosting like my mother did, blending cream cheese, Blue Bonnet margarine, and powdered sugar. That’s tedious, too. Like with writing, I get tired of it all long before I’m through. But I keep at it, not just to be done, but to do as well as I can, because it’s not only for me. It’s something deeply meaningful to me that I am sharing; I need for it to be as good as I can make it. The only concession I allow myself with the cake is buying chopped pecans for the frosting. When I was a child, I helped my mother crack, shell, and chop the pecans. They came from Granddaddy’s pecan tree.

But that tree is gone, as are so many people I loved long ago. The holidays come round and round again with their particular darkness—less and less daylight, the shadows of memory—but there’s a strength gained in expending strength on behalf of others. Caring means giving. Love means sacrifice. There’s a holiness in such work, a healing . . .

My son walks through the kitchen, puts his empty plate in the sink. He sighs. “That is the best cake.”

—Every carrot worth it.